Why Expat Kids Should Dine with Maps

Map above, world history timeline below.
My eight-year-old knows where Moldova is. I don’t say that to brag. Because, let’s be honest at the risk of offending all the Moldovans out there—bits of knowledge like this are only trivia on their own. But when you stack bits upon bits of knowledge and then you tie them together with understanding, you end up with something substantial. Substance is what I’m shooting for in my kids’ education.

I’m learning that a lot of the success in education is just presenting one gimmick after another until you find something that catches your kids’ attention. So I bought this world map for my kids for Christmas a year ago, hoping to spark an interest in geography (and also because my husband is a map nerd). I wasn’t really sure whether the map would be received as an “underwear and socks” gift or a “holy cow, this is the greatest thing ever!” gift. To avoid punishing you with the same suspense I faced on Christmas morning, I’ll tell it straight: the gift was just okay.

But then I hung the map on the wall next to the kitchen table. . . . And it was ignored.

Then a week later, over lunch, the map had a Rudolph moment. Without warning the kids became inexplicably entranced with the thing. Forgetting their steamy bowls of tomato soup, they pushed their chairs against the wall, climbed up, and started thinking aloud about the distance between Saudi Arabia and Grandma’s house. They started pointing out the countries they had flown to and through and over. They started asking questions like how to say “R-w-a-n-d-a” and “C-z-e-c-h,” questions about land-locked countries, and questions about the staggering breadth of Russia.

Over a different meal, a map game evolved from our “I’m Thinking of an Animal” game. It went like this: “I’m thinking of a country that starts with an S.” Everybody exhausted all of the S country names they could think of. They went to the map and threw out five more countries that they could see. No dice. Another clue was given: “It’s in the northern hemisphere.” (The kids soon learned that most of the world’s countries are in the northern hemisphere, so this is a paltry clue.) Another clue: “It’s on the African continent.” Bam: South Sudan.

We’ve learned about a lot of countries this way. The game can also be played with major cities, but this causes lots of fights for some reason, so we try to discourage it.

Aside from entertainment value, world maps can provide psychological grounding, especially to third-culture kids like ours: maps give them a visual of where they’ve been, where they are, and where their loved ones are. Instead of psychologically grounding themselves in a state or a town like I did when I was a kid, they ground themselves on the planet itself. That grounding will hopefully make the idea of moving to yet another country a little less daunting—more like relocating to a different part of their homeland.

Because I’m a genealogy nut, we’ve also mapped out our ancestral roots. We stuck notes with dates on the places where our immediate family members were born. Then we labeled and dated birthplaces for several more generations, surprising ourselves (okay, so in reality I was the only one who gasped) to find that although our ancestry reached across the Atlantic, almost all of it ends in the British Isles! As far back as the 14th century, no less! Our only outliers are in Spain and Nicaragua. Olé!

So much for building an identity of multinational heritage in our children. Still, it’s the truth, and it’s something to help the kids build their identity. Third-culture kids often flounder when they don’t have a firm grasp on who they are, where they come from, and what they value. To meet those needs, I’m more than willing to decorate my dining room with a not-so-elegant map. I’m feeding minds here.

Oh Cold Snap! No. You. Did. Not! (or "Waiting to Die")

The same storm that dumped snow on Jerusalem and Amman and even skiffed the Pyramids of Giza with a layer of white also affected us on the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia, bringing a deep freeze. Stepping outside at 5 a.m. for a run in shorts and a tank top gave me goosebumps. I saw a kid wearing a fleece vest to school over his t-shirt. Another kid had his hands in his pockets, he was so cold. Dogs were barking -- some folks told me, hey, dogs bark all the time, but I was like, no clearly they're barking because they're cold. Several leaves fell off some trees, I think maybe, I can't prove it because I didn't see them but my gut tells me there are fewer leaves on some trees around town.

This is what it felt like last week in Jeddah. Except 65 degrees warmer.
It's been pretty crazy, but it hasn't phased me. I'm no stranger to adverse weather. You could safely call me Familiar With Adverse Weather, or FWAW, or, if you want to give it a colloquial twist, just F-Wow. Once, I drove a huge white Buick 500 miles through the night on black ice. Whilst telling jokes over a walkie-talkie. Driving the massive automotive that night was like sailing tranquilly over a dark gloss of glassy sea that wanted to kill you. The Buick wasn't mine. It was Sarita's. I think she slept most of the night in the back seat. Thomas also seemed to be sleeping in the back seat, but later he confessed that he was simply closing his eyes, waiting to die.

Later, I got my very own Buick, but it wasn't as cool as Sarita's, plus I had to share it with my wife. Sometimes the whole "twain become one flesh" thing is a challenge.

Pete Yorn Should Look Both Ways Before Crossing the Street (or "That Fat Guy is a Cannibal")

I used to go to concerts sometimes. Like super cool ones. Like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who aren't really heartbreakers anymore, since a lot of girls who thought they were cute back in the day have now got really old and died. Me and Thomas camped out all night in a strip mall parking lot for tickets. This was before the World Wide Webs, back when you had to sleep in Honda Civics all night if you wanted crappy concert tickets way off to the side of the stage where you got tired of viewing Tom Petty's tiny profile. Anyway, we went and Petty played "You Don't Know How It Feels" and everyone sang along to the part about smoking another joint (but not us, because all we smoked was ham). But I think we got slightly high from all the second hand pot smoke. Good times. Maybe. I don't remember it all that well.

How I would look if I were Pete Yorn.
Me and Thomas also saw Smashing Pumpkins. Once, years later, me and Shannon were driving and I put on Smashing Pumpkins and Shannon listened for a minute and then said, "This singer is really, really bad." And I was like, "Yes, but... the passion!" And she was like, "No, he just sucks." And I was like, "Well, pretty much. Yes." But Billy Corgan is still my hero for being so ugly and not being able to sing but still rocking like he just don't care.

At the concert I stood behind a fat guy who was a cannibal. I could tell because the people around him didn't want to touch him. It may also have been because he was smelly, or because he never made a sound, he just held his right hand aloft making the sign for "rock on." For the whole concert. But I highly doubt those more benign possibilities. It seems pretty obvious he was a cannibal. My favorite part of the concert was when Billy Corgan said "Hello Portland! Portland ROCK CITY!!!" I suppose he was probably drunk.

When I got married I thought concerts were all over, because maybe you don't know Shannon but she doesn't really come across as a rocker. But if you thought that you'd be only slightly WRONG. Our first Christmas together Shannon got me a Ramones t-shirt AND a Huey Lewis & the News CD. I may be the only person to have ever worn a Ramones t-shirt while listening to Huey Lewis sing "Stuck With You." Also, me and Shannon went to some concerts together. Like super cool ones. Like Pete Yorn, who I almost ran over with my minivan.

It was more Pete Yorn's fault than mine. Me and Shannon got tickets to an acoustic Pete Yorn show at a small venue in northern Virginia that seats about 200. We got there too early. So after staking out good seats about 10 feet from the stage, we thought we'd go grab some food. So we were cruising out of the parking lot and maybe I was playing some killer air guitar for Shannon -- cuz chicks dig that kind of stuff -- when I should've been watching the road. But Pete Yorn was more in the wrong than me, because he didn't look both ways before crossing the street. So Pete Yorn an
d his three bandmates stepped out from between two cars and I had to decelerate to not run them over.

It was all fine in the end. Pete Yorn and his friends waved nicely as me and Shannon drove by. Later, he put on a pretty good show. Shannon liked Pete Yorn better than me for a couple weeks after that, because he's "ruggedly handsome" and I'm more "cute in a way similar to how a hyena is cute," but she came back around to me when she realized Pete Yorn wasn't going to call her thrice per day like I did.

So the moral of this story is if you like a girl you should call her thrice per day. Also, you should be careful in parking lots because Pete Yorn might be walking there.

Compound Life: Expat Housing in Saudi Arabia

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always associated the word “compound” with religious fundamentalists, prison-type edifices surrounded by razor wire, and floor-length skirts. That and fly eyes. Ick. So when I learned that we’d be living in a compound in Saudi Arabia, I was a bit nervous.

It turned out that some of my preconceived notions were correct: the compound that I live on is heavily guarded, and its walls are rimmed with razor wire. Polygamists are occasionally seen here. And when women wear their floor-length overclothing, they make bonnet-wearing Christians look like brazen hussies.

Living on a compound in Saudi Arabia is rather like living in a cultural bubble. But not the kind of cultural bubble that ultra-right-wingers would favor: instead of guarding against the evils of worldliness, our compound guards the freedom to be worldly. The most visible evidence of this is that women here dress however they please. So, for example, I don’t have to bother donning an abaya to fetch my kids from school. I can walk from my front door to the school without leaving the compound. The convenience store is an easy walk from home, as are several playgrounds and outdoor pools.

Thanks to a small army of foreign workers from the Philippines, India, and Bangladesh, our compound is clean and beautiful. It’s an expanded embodiment of the traditional Arab garden: crusty on the outside and lush on the inside. The pools sparkle. Flowering shrubs and trees line sidewalks that are constantly swept of pebbles and fallen leaves. The workers do their darndest to keep tropical plants alive in weather that’s miserably hot and humid for most of the year.

Although the surroundings are pleasant, driving is still off limits to me as a woman. Even if the compound were large enough to bother jumping in the car to go from one edge of it to the other, I would risk losing the privilege to park our vehicle inside the compound if I were caught driving. Only men are allowed that privilege in this kingdom, even on a Western compound.

When first I pictured myself living here more than a year ago, I was sure it would be a “make the most of it” kind of experience. To be sure, for many women, that’s exactly what it is—they feel repressed, restricted, and often resentful. But for a variety of reasons, I find it pretty much ideal. My kids have loads of friends from numerous countries. Between the pools, playgrounds, and recreation center, they have plenty to keep them occupied (as long as the weather’s not sweltering). And I do too: lots of diverse people to meet, a good gym, great workout classes, tennis, occasional live bands, holiday celebrations, a good restaurant, a childcare center, internet access. I honestly don’t know how you could get bored here.

But that’s a downside in its own way. This cultural bubble is so efficient that it reduces my incentive to explore the country and work to get to know the locals (and it really does take work to get to know them if you don’t happen to be related). This bubble is a barrier between me and a more authentic Saudi Arabia experience. I tell myself that’s okay, because we all have to specialize in life, and right now this little compound-bubble is in line with my needs and my priorities—the greatest of which is my family. Deeper cultural experiences will have to wait until I have a little more time and flexibility.

But that’s not to say my family doesn’t have cultural experiences. On the contrary, most days are a cultural experience—just not an Arab one. Our neighbors are from Spain, France, Lebanon, Morocco, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Singapore, The Netherlands, Ukraine, Italy, Greece, and dozens of other countries.

At first I was really excited for my kids to associate with peers from so many other countries. I’ve been a little surprised that although they’ve built a lot of bridges, they’ve also formulated some racial stereotyping on their own. It turns out that diversity can actually increase stereotyping because cultural differences are so evident and impossible to overlook. The kids’ conclusions about other cultures aren’t always bad, but they’re something to keep on the rotation of dinner conversations.

Aside from the social aspects, there are other downsides to living in a compound. Infectious disease is one of them. In the last month, almost everyone I know has contracted a wicked, energy-sapping cold. I’m still getting over mine.

And then there are the threats of terrorism here in the lion’s maw of Islam—or maybe it would be more sensitive to say the crescent’s cradle of Islam. On one hand, living behind razor wire and having guards posted at the compound’s entrance are reassuring. On the other hand, all the security is a reminder that Westerners are at risk in Saudi Arabia. Compounds such as this make a lovely target for a terrorist. I try to keep my faith in statistical probability, reassuring myself that death by a traffic accident is vastly more likely than death by terrorism.

No matter where we live in the world, whether inside a compound or outside one, we find dangers . . . and protections. We find beauty, ugliness, advantages, and disadvantages. We find cultural bubbles, diversity, and stereotyping. So really, living on a compound isn’t really that much different from living in any other community. Its just a new spin—one that I really like!

Zoom Out (or "A Zen Lozenge") (or "That is a Lot of Zeds")

I'm down at Shahada Circle late on a muggy afternoon. I call it Shahada Circle because in the middle is a mildly tacky statue of the Islamic shahada in blocky Arabic calligraphy, surrounded by half-hearted little fountains that gurgle the scummy water more than they spit it.

There's a guy on the sidewalk that rings the circle. He's wearing a thobe and a skullcap and sitting on a folding stool, staring at the sea while the breeze fills up the loose fabric at the bottom of his thobe like it's a windsock. He looks like he's sucking on a zen lozenge, all at one with the motion of the ocean and the drone of the traffic and the creeping shadows.

I want a zen lozenge too. They taste like a childhood-and-retirement swirly cone, or maybe a Hakuna Matata shake, minus the meerkat hair.

A long time ago me and Thomas sat on a bridge overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the dying sunlight of a breezy evening in May. The air was salty and the waves were reaching up the beach with their foamy fingers and we were spitting sunflower seeds and watching them flutter off the bridge to land somewhere we couldn't see. I don't remember what we talked about while we hunched in our hoodies in the burnt yellow hue of a dwindling day. We were 16 and we were sucking on zen lozenges, and it tasted like possibility and big blue sky and open highways.

I guess I photographed the guy in the skullcap on the stool because, just by sitting there and watching the sun skate across the sky, he made me feel a little younger and a little freer, or maybe a little older and a little more content. I'm not sure which. My camera zoomed in and I zoomed out, sort of pulling away from the moment and glimpsing for a second or two the panorama of existence from a height where the cares that consume us from one day to the next just look like tiny sunflower seed shells flitting on the wind way up above the big, broad, sparkling sea.

What Expat First Graders Think about America; or, Drove the Chevy to the Levee but the Levee Was Dry

Four faces of G.

Over lunch this afternoon we were discussing what we were grateful for about America. When it was time for my six-year-old to respond, she remarked that she is grateful that there are no bad guys in America. S was quick to shoot down that answer, explaining that there are indeed plenty of bad guys in America.

“Okay then,” G replied, “I’m grateful that there are only nice people in America.”

“Weeeelll,” I intoned, “it’s true that there are a lot of nice people in America. But not everyone there is nice, unfortunately. Try again, G.”

“Hmmm. Then I guess that I’m grateful that in American movies, everybody dresses modestly.”

I’m grateful that G has such high perceptions of her home country. Perhaps we’ll just live the rest of our lives abroad so as not to spoil her paradigms.

Good Juju (or "How to Set Goals But Settle Instead for Dumb Luck")

In a little town in Arkansas there is a Days Inn on a rise overlooking McDonald's. And it's run by a rude man who charges you for ice, and it's frequented by construction workers who slather tar on the twisty Ozark highways all day and dangle their booted feet off the ends of their truck beds in the motel parking lot in the evening. At least that's how it was the night I stayed there, which I admit is a fairly small sample size, statistically speaking. But let's not speak statistically, because if we do people will think we are esoteric dweebs and no one will like us and we'll never marry and we'll spend our golden years playing bridge.

But this is not a story about bridge, although I should really put together a story sometime about when I was an 11-year-old pinochle shark. Man, those were the days. The Soviet Union was crumbling and I was spending my evenings after school playing pinochle with the retirees up the street instead of lighting kittens on fire like the other boys my age.

No, this is a story about luck and beauty. About searching across the piney spine of the Ozarks for magnificence but finding it under a bridge in a flea of a town with a Main Street and blank billboards that no one seems to want to rent.

I awake just before sunrise and the cracks in the blinds of my single room at Days Inn are turning navy. I am theoretically driving across America to start a new job on the East Coast, but I'm taking the small roads and my camera is riding shotgun so I can attempt to capture America through snapshots, despite the fact that I'm only vaguely proficient with photography. And only vaguely proficient with America, for that matter. I read somewhere that if you want good pictures you need to get up early, so that's why I'm up with the construction workers. Their diesel trucks are growling in the parking lot and they are swinging their lunch pails like big, muscular kids who curse a lot.

Good juju. July 2012. Arkansas.
Yesterday I rolled through Tulsa, Springdale, Harrison, Yellville, Mountain Home, Henderson, Salem, the cities petering into towns and villages. I saw a lot of pretty things and I snapped a lot of photos but none of them turned out how my brain had sketched them. So at dinner time I sulked in the shade outside a Sonic Drive-Thru and had a shake while a guy in an idling old Taurus ate his hamburger and listened to Journey's Greatest Hits on cassette.

Now, as I pull away from Days Inn in the predawn, I think how there's nothing in this town that the soft light of sunrise will turn beautiful, not the McDonald's or the church or the park with a rusted see-saw, so I grab my complimentary continental breakfast -- which consists only of bananas -- and ease out of the parking lot. But on a whim I turn west instead of east, back the way I came yesterday, just to see if I missed anything on my way into town.

There's a bridge spanning a river a hundred yards down the street where last night I stood and photographed some guys in a canoe drifting by below, and they waved in the fading sunlight. But my shutter speed was too slow and it turned them into ugly blurs, and by the time I'd fixed my settings they were gone, and so was the sun. This morning I cross the river, see nothing, and pull onto a side street to turn around. It loops back beneath the bridge, and I indulge another odd whim, parking on the shoulder and stepping out to see the fun graffiti sprayed all over the bridge supports.

And in this unassuming moment in which I am perusing spray painted declarations of teen love under a bridge in the silence of a small town predawn, the sun breaches the horizon and its fingers flare, wrapping themselves around the world and coloring the placid river and the summer-greened trees. I watch it all dumbly, admiring the way the burnt yellow sunlight is slowly pushing skyward through the heavy, wet air, the way the water is suddenly a deep blue mirror for a deep blue sky. And suddenly I notice my camera and tripod are dangling from my shoulders. Right place, right time. Dumb luck.

Sometimes photography is like that -- you study the path of the sun, you scout your angle days or weeks beforehand, but then it rains when you're all set up to take your shot, or it's windy or cloudy, or the picture just doesn't end up looking like it did in your mind. And other times you point and you shoot and you're not thinking, and it's a thing of beauty.

And sometimes life is like that. You plan the day and you plan the week and you set your goals, because you want to make good things happen. And sometimes they do, but sometimes they don't. I don't know why that is. I suppose we should plan things out, that we should try to create good juju. But I don't think there's anything wrong with just appreciating good juju when it materializes without your careful preparation, when it falls with the rain or flashes on the face of a stranger, or when it rises in an ugly little town and finds you beneath an ugly little bridge. Good juju makes beauty out of ugly things.

Home Schooling, Two Months On

It has been a little more than two months since S and I started home school. I worried about a lot of things before I started—whether I’d have the time or patience for one-on-one instruction, whether S would have the patience or attention span for it, whether she’d end up being imbalanced by not learning in a classroom of kids her own age, whether she’d be miserable without other kids around her, whether I’d be miserable not having my own personal time during the day, and so on. So I have to say I’m genuinely astonished at how well these last two months have gone.

Before I go into all of the good that has come from home schooling, let me fill out the background a little so that you’re aware of some factors that have probably played a large part in all the goodness.

First, I stopped taking on copyediting projects. This is a hard one for me. I love freelancing. It’s really part of who I am. So consciously setting it aside to focus on a child who has actually managed pretty well in an assembly-line educational setting was painful. But recognizing that the assembly-line format wasn’t allowing her to develop into her best self made my sacrifice feel worth it.

"I'm not imbalanced. I'm balanced."
Factor three is that S is not a typical ten-year-old girl. She has an incredible attention span for anything that interests her, and most academic things interest her. And she has shown herself to be more mature, cooperative, and helpful than I had expected. That was a happy discovery that came after I took this leap of faith.
The second factor that probably contributes to much of our success is that we live on a compound, which is basically a gigantic multicultural neighborhood where kids are free to roam and explore as if this were the 1950s. S has lots of non-family social opportunities after school and on weekends. 

At any rate, I’ve independently confirmed what her teachers have been telling me for years: S is a wonderful student. Far from seeming imbalanced because she is not in a classroom every day, she actually seems more balanced and happier than I’ve ever seen her.

She’s more confident too. That may be because she gets hours and hours of attention from me during the school day. Undoubtedly, it also helps that she’s no longer surrounded by people who are always telling her how shy or quiet or sad she seems. Nor does she waste time wondering if everybody is whispering about her because of a thorough answer she gave in class or because she’s reading in the corner while everyone else is talking.

Her new confidence seems to make socializing a little easier. She’s more comfortable with who she is. She still doesn’t go out of her way to meet new people, but she’s excited when friends come over, and she plays with them enthusiastically and with great imagination. S is now even brave enough to attend her dance classes without requiring me or her little sister to stay in the room with her. (That was a milestone accomplishment.)

Because I’m a chronically task-driven kind of mother, sitting and watching my child complete assignments from start to finish has always been hard for me. But home schooling is schooling me. Taking time to understand the learning process helps me better understand not only S but also my other children.

Although I obviously have less time for my routine tasks, slowing down enough to watch my daughter work has been revelatory. I recognized how much time she must have been wasting on material that comes very easily to her. Although we’re only a couple of months into the school year, for example, S has finished more than four months’ worth of her spelling course. Conversely, within the first few weeks of math, it was evident that she didn’t even understand how to do the prerequisite long division. (And I’m guessing that had she covered this material in a regular classroom, she wouldn’t have been assertive enough to get the help she needed to understand the process. She would have been left behind.)

She has also discovered that she actually enjoys playing the piano. She plays it whenever she feels tired of studying; it’s a great way to reignite her mind and body when she has lost her focus. What a great realization!

Truth be told, these last few weeks have been some of the happiest both of us have ever lived. Home school has definitely disrupted my life, but overall the disruption has been pretty great. My daughter is thriving like never before, and I am becoming a better mom. 

Stupid Gibbous Moon (or "Decomposing Sheep Make It Hard to Sleep")

I thought only full moons were bright, but it turns out waxing gibbous moons are really bright too. We've pulled off a lonely ribbon of highway and followed a track of packed sand into the desert, where we pitched our tent in the shade of a wiry acacia tree. We're 55 miles east of Jeddah in the dark, rocky hills -- me and Savannah and Halen and Grace. We came to see the stars splashed across the navy sky, but the stupid gibbous moon is afire with pale, ghostly light that drowns out the soft glow of far off suns and brown dwarves and supernovas and planets and comets.

Our campsite. Good riddance, sun.
I'm staring out the screened tent window at the rocks and the acacia trees, at the surprisingly hard shadows they're throwing against the sallow sand in the fierce moonlight. Three little bodies are slumped around me. Their breathing is even. They're sleeping like babies -- like slightly elongated babies that can talk and frequently exhibit reasoning skills superior to my own.

We told each other scary stories an hour ago. Grace's was probably the worst ghost story I've ever heard. Something about these two brothers making a scarecrow named Gerald and smearing food all over its face (to repel crows?), and then they throw Gerald on the roof but later Gerald jumps off the roof (I guess Gerald came to life?) and kills one of the brothers. I guess that was supposed to be the scary part, but I laughed when I pictured a limp, stuffed scarecrow with yogurt all over its face, falling off a roof and smothering an unsuspecting guy who happened to be walking by. Grace indignantly demanded what was so funny about her scary story, and I lied that I had rolled over onto the flashlight and it had tickled me. My scary story about skinwalkers didn't really phase the kids, who fell asleep as I told it, but I kind of scared myself and that's probably why I'm sitting, hugging my knees, staring off at the Saudi Arabian desert, making sure no native American warlocks come and eat my children. What can I say. I'm a good dad.

The day was scorching and the darkness is slow to bring relief. We spent a few hours in the shade of the tent, just talking, waiting for the sun to go away behind the curve of the earth. I had hoped that the conversation would turn to the spiritual, that something about the silence would awaken within my children their sense of the profound. But all we got was yogurt-faced Gerald and an argument over pretzels and a monologue from Halen about monster trucks.

I listen to their breathing and I wonder what they'll remember about their youth. And I wonder if the small sacrifices that dads make -- like sleeping on a weird Coleman sleeping pad that blows up like a huge tube of toothpaste instead of a soft, sleek, oversized stick of gum (no, seriously, imagine trying to sleep on top of a big, rolley-poley tube of Aquafresh and then tell me with a straight face I'm not hecka-rad) -- mean anything thirty years later.

But memories are funny things, they way we remember the smallest gestures. Once my dad took me camping at Lost Lake. He wasn't much of a camper, and he wasn't a big talker either -- I think Mom made him take me. I was 11 or 12 and she probably thought if I didn't get some good male role-modeling I was going to start listening to Motley Crue and snorting Pixie Stix like the other boys at school. I remember rolling away in Dad's Dodge Omni, Mom on the curb smiling broadly and waving, and I looked over at Dad and he had this painted on grin, like he was driving somewhere to have his fingernails peeled off but Mom told him he better have fun or else. And I don't blame him -- now that I'm a grownup the thought of spending 24 hours alone with an 11 year-old kid sounds really, really bad. But I didn't comprehend his pained smile back then. All I knew was me and Dad were going camping, and it was this high point of my pre-adolescence for me, along with those torchy ballads Michael Bolton used to bust out.

So I lay back on my giant tube of toothpaste and I try to keep from rolling off, and the moonlight burns through the nylon above and it bathes me and my sleeping kids in pallid halos. And I hope the children won't remember setting up the tent in triple-digit temperatures, and I hope they won't remember that when they excitedly asked "So can we roast hot dogs?"that I answered, "No, I don't know how to start a fire. But here is an apple and a juice box and that's all you're getting till we get home tomorrow." And I hope they won't remember that we pitched our tent downwind of an animal carcass dump full of dead goats in various stages of decomposition. I hope their little brains only remember the silent night and the cool breeze and Dad's undivided -- if slightly reluctant -- attention. And my big muscles.

Saudi Arabia Travel Log: Squatty Potties

“The only bad thing about road trips,” S declared from the backseat of the car, “is the squatty potties.”

After shouting out an amen, I turned to Abu Halen to muse on how remarkable it was that S had nothing bad to say about the incessant heat, the greasy food, the dull scenery, or the mothball-stinking hotel rooms. I do believe that S is becoming an optimist!

Pyramid perchers.
You can’t blame the child for dreading urination on road trips. We had just taken a late lunch, and the girls had done all they could to delay a bathroom trip. When it became apparent that delay was no longer feasible, I asked the waiter where we could find a bathroom. Gesturing apologetically at his sweltering cafe, he said there was no place for women here, but I could find a bathroom in the mosque.

The mosque was a long, hot walk from the restaurant. At the back was a sign that indicated the women’s entrance. Here we found the bathrooms. Although I took it as a good sign that a woman was just finishing cleaning the stalls when we arrived, my girls thought otherwise. Suddenly the two older ones insisted that they miraculously had no need to pee. Although she couldn’t actually articulate as much, T was doubtlessly saying a silent prayer of gratitude for her diaper.

Peeing in a hole is a daunting task for girls. That is, it’s daunting for girls who have spent a charmed life on a pedestal toilet. For them, a squatty potty is little more than a crapshoot. Their protests were to be expected.

Not in the mood for resistance, however, I snarled, “We are not leaving this bathroom until you have both peed!” G, predictably, was the first to bend to my will. The two of us squeezed into a stall, and after several awkward minutes of verbal coaching, threatening, and maneuvering, she ultimately succeeded in peeing in the hole without peeing on herself. But although I used the same strategy for S, holding her hands as she leaned back over the hole, her pants ended up soaked.

I was just about to put on my “well, life sometimes sucks” expression and hustle S out of the stall when her face crumbled in shame. Compassion got the best of me and I agreed to get her a change of clothes. Wet pants could be gotten away with when she was five, but at age ten the game was different. So I left my youngest three kids in the care of a cat sleeping in the doorway with her sickly kittens.

Striding across the parking lot, I struggled to keep my abaya from unsnapping at my knees. It whipped at
my ankles angrily, and sweat trickled between my shoulder blades. Avoiding the gazes of men who were no doubt wondering where my guardian was, I pressed on to the car.

Climbing inelegantly into the back of the Suburban and not caring much about displaying my bum to bystanders, I rifled through the luggage until I located S’s bag. Predictably, it was at the very bottom of the trunk. But it contained what I was looking for: a blessed change of clothes.

I would not have gone through all that trouble for anyone I didn’t love. But I also wouldn’t have wanted to be S at that moment, waiting patiently in a strange, hot, smelly bathroom in wet pants. The fact that she waited patiently is one of the reasons I love her. And when I handed her the dry change of clothes, she knew that I love her.

Half an hour later, we reemerged into the cafe where Abu Halen was (still) chatting up the waiter. After gulping down a bottle of water, I announced, “You have to do all of the hard stuff for the rest of the day, honey. I am on vacation now.”

Vacations got a lot easier for us girls as soon as I spotted (and snapped up) one of these babies at our local grocery store. Except, ours doesn't have a bag underneath it. Sand is a much better receptacle. :)

Hero Dad (or "Mogwai Fear Caesar")

There is a place where the Saudi highway leaves street lamps and garish city lights far behind. Where it streaks through the sand and the rocks, hurtling into the puny circle of your headlights and under your blurry tires, then dissolves into inky oblivion in the blackness you leave behind. Where the only light dribbles from the dashboard and the night is a veil, and you wear it like a widow.

It's alright. He moves in mysterious ways.
This is where Grace announces to everyone in the speeding car, "Let's play 'I Spy'!"

"Okay!" Savannah squeals. "Cool!" says Halen.

"I spy with my little eye..." Grace sings slowly, "... somethinnnnnnggggggg... black." Shannon and I glance at each other with arched eyebrows, glances that, for the intense darkness, you sense more than you see.

"The sky!" Savannah shouts.

"Dang," Grace sighs. "You got it."


I've never been to this town that clings to the lip of mountain walls that plunge thousands of feet to narrow valleys below, but I'm driving the strange, winding streets in the dark looking for a Little Caesar's. My kids have been eating limp french fries and iffy chicken since yesterday morning, so when they saw a flyer covered with Arabic script that nonetheless showed the little Roman pizza-eating munchkin, they focused like little lasers on their sudden hankering for Pizza! Pizza!

And I secretly sort of want to be a hero dad. You know, the kind that will strike out into the night in a strange, lumpy town strewn over sharp hills and sudden troughs, with meandering, serpentine roads, searching for American pizza for his children who are stuck in a sketchy motel in a city full of people who don't dress or talk like them.

It's 8:30 when the kid at the front desk of the motel gives me directions to Little Caesar's. He points and draws loops in the air, incomprehensible Arabic words dripping from his mouth. I catch "right" and "left" a few times. He also says "U-turn" and, I think, "international conference." It could also have been "chaotic intersection." It's hard to be sure in the heat of the moment.

Saudi dudes.
The air is un-Saudi-like here at 6,000 feet, dry and cool. I roll down the car windows for the first time since arriving in the Kingdom a year ago. I weave through the traffic. I pop on some Mogwai. I realize I am quite possibly the first person to ever listen to Mogwai in this town, especially at a stoplight with the windows rolled down. This realization fills me with an irrational and overinflated sense of pioneer-ness.

I circle town a few times before I happen upon Little Caesar's, quite by accident. It's a busy weekend night and the lobby is full of thobes. I wait for my pizza for 45 minutes. The satellite signal on the lobby television is poor, so the news anchor keeps freezing and his face keeps pixelating. Bearded men carelessly cut in front of one another in line, angling for the counter. The South Asian cashier serves whomever is most in his face at any given time.

Two hours later I return back to the motel for a hero's welcome. Everyone is asleep. Except Savannah. So me and Savannah sit cross-legged on the hard tile floor, eating pizza and chugging the Pepsi straight from the bottle. We don't say much. She doesn't have to tell me how amazing I am -- I can tell how she feels about me by the way she tosses the crust in the pizza box and gives me a little grin before rolling over to go to sleep. It's the little things.


Saudi chicks.
We're still two hours east of Jeddah atop the gnarled mountains that mark the eastern rim of the Great Rift Valley. It's noontime in Taif, a town high above the sweltering seaside plains, where men in suits and ties and thobes and shmaghs ended Lebanon's civil war in the early-1990s over tea and coffee. We stop for juice boxes and cookies in a gas station on the outskirts of town. Halen says he has to go to the bathroom.

So we amble through the candy wrapper-strewn parking lot toward a dirty little mosque in a grimy corner of the parking lot. I've lived in Saudi Arabia long enough now that I know that the muddy bathrooms are always near the mosques. The call to prayer crackles from its squat old minaret, slightly grating, as if the muezzin is leaning too close to the mike. We're a long way from the smooth, haunting prayer song recordings of the upscale neighborhoods of Jeddah, and I think for some reason of the contrast between the biblical Pharisee, well-dressed and prayerfully boasting of the size of his offerings, and the publican who stares at his shoes, smites his breast, and mumbles a plea for mercy. This is the kind of parking lot -- the kind of tumbledown house of worship -- where I can picture the publican with his hands in his pockets, kicking at the dust, hoping for salvation to come from somewhere more likely.

Halen and I cross a tiny alcove on the way to the bathroom and the door to the little mosque is wide open. The prayer call has long since ceased and I expect to see the room full of all the men who 10 minutes ago were milling about the parking lot, meandering the aisles of the mini market, all the men who scattered and disappeared at the first notes of the prayer call. But they're not here. There's only one man near the front of the room, prostrate, forehead buried in the faded and torn carpet.

He's alone in the empty mosque and he doesn't know anyone is watching. And I suppose it's these two facts that make me figure, as me and Halen quietly move away, that today this mosque is a pretty likely place to find some kind of salvation.

Saudi Arabia Travel Log: Dhee Ein or Thee Ain or The Ayn

Last weekend's trip took us several hours’ drive south of Jeddah, to some hot springs near Al Leeth, on to Dhee Ayn and Al Baha, and then back through Ta’if on the return trip. Dhee Ayn was the star of the trip. Set in the mountains, this village is about 400 years old, was built on a marble escarpment, and was abandoned only about 40 years ago.

Dhee Ein, 2013
The village’s setting is dramatic. With forbidding mountains all around, this cluster of houses towers above an oasis that owes its surprising greenness to a spring at the base of the escarpment. The spring supplies water for carefully tended fields of palm trees, banana trees, and herbs. The fields would have been the source of the village’s wealth as well as the bait for raiders in the region.

The ancients would have chosen this particular location not only for the oasis but also for the escarpment’s view of the surrounding countryside. From the rooftops of the ruins, we could hear the raucous screams of baboons and see them fighting near the spring below. From this view, the people would also have been able to spot enemies and sound the alarm for workers to hurry in from the fields. I’ve read that mountaintop villages such as this are evidence of societies with weak or nonexistent central governments and a high degree of fragmentation and lawlessness: although living on the plains would be much more convenient for agricultural populations, height provides a critical defensive advantage.

The village’s multistory houses are marvelous. Apparently constructed with little or no mortar or mud, they are simply slate stones laid one atop another. Roughly hewn timbers run crossways to form floor beams and lend some stability to the stone structures. On these the ancient builders laid floors of flagstone. The houses often have three such levels as well as a serviceable rooftop.

To the modern eye the village looks thrillingly precarious, which makes it all the more amazing that these houses have survived so many centuries. Even more marvelous for a site this old is that many of the wooden doors and shutters are still intact—not yet carried away by archaeological poachers or museums. Much of the wood is carved, but very little of the stone is engraved, evidencing the unsophisticated (but no less fascinating!) nature of this village’s culture.

Dhee Ein, 2013
Despite temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, numerous Saudi tourists were exploring Dhee Ayn on the afternoon we visited. I had to continually warn the kids, however, to watch their step, to stay away from the precipices, and to keep out of the bat-infested houses. Although the government has obviously invested a great deal to renovate the ruins, they’re still very dangerous for the unwary. Tourism is still a fledgling industry in Saudi Arabia.

The kids loved exploring the place as much as I did. They’re starting to get really good at noticing exciting little details about ruins that tell us about the people who lived there. S pointed out a painted carving in some floor beams. H called out the things he could see from progressively higher levels of the village.

My kids, indefatigable, wanted to go to the very top. We were among the few tourists who ventured that high, and everyone stared at me when I passed them—perhaps because my “guardian” was not with me (he had taken one of our girls back to the car to rest) or because I was a woman who appeared to be enjoying physical exertion or because I was wearing both a camera and a babycarrier with a 2-year-old in it or because I was looked a little scandalous for wearing only an abaya and a headscarf but no face covering. By the time we all arrived at the top of the mountain, the kids and I had the view to ourselves, and I was completely soaked in sweat. . . . So I guess I can cross that off my bucket list.

You See Your Gypsy (or "Second Post in Three Months With a Stevie Nicks-themed Title")

We arrived in Jeddah about a year ago. Then, we were visitors, living out of suitcases and taking in oddities of Arabia with "Oh wow!"s or "Look at that!"s. Now, we live here. The things that were fresh and novel and sometimes disturbing have become commonplace and routine. Sweltering 5 a.m. jogs. Invisible women. Associating the term "restaurant" with a tiny entry area, a counter, and a mustached guy who isn't from Saudi Arabia making you a sandwich full of something only vaguely sanitary. Sea breezes. Endless sunshine. Gridlocked traffic at 1 a.m. Invitations to tea from perfect strangers on the small roads in the desert mountains.

"I see your gypsy. Just kidding. I'm blind."
Sometimes it's easy to stop noticing the wonder around us. To slowly go blind, your eyes gouged out by regimen, by the typical. And I guess that's one of the reasons I'm a gypsy passing myself off as a diplomat. I need to reset my surroundings every so often so I don't go blind. I need to scramble the typical until it becomes atypical. Better people than me don't need to uproot and jump a plane to a new country to spot the beauty around them, but what can I say. That's how I am.

My grandpa turned 91 a few weeks ago. He wrote his autobiography a couple years back and when I read it I noticed Grandpa moved around a lot too. Southern Utah. Southern California. Central Washington. Oregon. Idaho. I don't know all the reasons Grandpa moved his family a lot -- mostly it had to do with work, I suppose. But the actual reasons probably mean less than what I pretend Grandpa’s restlessness can teach me about myself. We all want to connect “then” with “now” to try to make some sense of the thicket of hormones and neural signals and electric pulses and supernatural flashes that make us who we are. We all want to understand what makes us tick, and what makes us tic.

My dad couldn’t sit still either. Moved from trucking job to trucking job every few years – rarely because he had to, usually because he was ready for change. New boss. New partners. New trucks. New routes. He doesn't have to articulate why he did it. I understand. Whether I understand his actual motives or motives I've made up and projected onto him, I don't know that it matters.

Maybe I'm restless because of a gene that Grandpa gave to Dad and Dad gave to me. Or maybe I learned it from watching Dad, and Dad picked it up from moving around all the time with Grandpa. Or maybe I'm a gypsy because I just think it's fun to be a gypsy. I don't really know. I stunk at both biology and psychology in college. But I was pretty good at not being able to decide on a major.

Sometimes, when the sun sinks behind the curtain of the Red Sea and hundreds of trillions of tiny water vapors are hanging in just the right places across the wet sky, Jeddah turns pink for three or four minutes. It's as though soft pastel light is reflecting everywhere from every angle, so that the houses and the asphalt and the cars and the palm trees seem to glow.

We were sitting on a park bench eating ice cream bars. Tess is too small to have her own bar, so she was yelling at Grace to give her bites, chasing her in circles around the bench. It was a typical evening, routine. And then the sun disappeared over the horizon and the Maghrib prayer call sounded, and Jeddah gleamed in pink phosphorescence. The atypical interrupted the typical, the commonplace yielded to the extraordinary. And I thought how you don't always need to go adventuring in search of some fresh source of beauty. Maybe sometimes the gypsies are so busy scouring new places for something novel that we forget that home can be pretty wondrous.

Best Saudi Wedding Ever (Shannon's Take)

A few nights before Grace’s birthday party (to which I had invited six families), I had a nightmare. Elbow-deep in a bowl of something-or-other that I was preparing, I realized that my guests were already arriving. In formal attire. To my horror, there was no way I’d be able to serve them anything anytime soon, and I wasn’t even sure I had everything I needed. For that matter, I couldn’t remember what I had planned to make. I woke up in a cold sweat.

It’s a good thing I’m not Arab; I don’t think I have the mental constitution to throw big parties like the wedding we attended recently. The first Arab wedding I attended was in Syria in 2004. I was new to the Middle East back then, fresh out of Utah, where wedding receptions are held in church gyms that have bouquets stuffed into basketball hoops and where the catering is done by burnt-out extended relatives who wish they had smaller families on occasions like this. So I showed up to this Syrian wedding in a denim skirt and t-shirt.

Wedding drums. Not as cool as Zeppelin, but decent.
I’m sure my appearance tested the boundless graciousness of my Syrian hosts, although they never gave any sign of noticing. They wore tailor-made sequined gowns, in colors so bright that I had never thought I’d see them draped over a human being. It was like a ballroom dance convention with quite a few women who were not exactly light of foot anymore . . . and without any men to serve as dancing partners, because mingling of the sexes is against the rules.

So now this little account has gone from my dreams to Syria, and I’m bringing you back to Saudi Arabia, and once again in the middle of the night. This time I’m the one in the sparkling dress, in the car, wondering if we’re ever going to find this promised wedding hall, willing myself not to nod off, trying to decide if it would be rude to give up and go home, thinking it a little strange that we’re going to such lengths to please a host we met casually at a carwash, reminding myself that I’ll probably never get another chance to see what a Saudi wedding is like. 

Abu Halen dropped me off at the women’s party, which was on the opposite side of the building from the men’s party. The women’s doors stood behind a stained-glass privacy wall. When I entered, I removed my veil and abaya, handing it to a Filipina woman behind a counter who guessed that I was American. She whispered it to one of the servers, who then sized me up with an expression that was either awe or pity—I’m still not sure which it was.

I knew no one at the party, but Abu Halen had assured me that these were wealthy Saudis—there were likely to be numerous English speakers in the crowd. There probably were. But I didn’t feel comfortable trying to introduce myself to strangers who might or might not speak English. What would they even do if I approached them? Saudi culture is very closed—in the year that I’ve lived here, this was the first time I had ever seen a Saudi woman without a veil and abaya. Given the warm hospitality I have experienced in other Arab countries, I have found it strange that I don’t know a single Saudi personally here. At least among Saudi women, friendships and kinships allow very little room for inclusion of foreigners.

The women and girls all wore elaborate ball gowns. Even babies sported fancy dresses, like these. Women who sat in the chairs and couches that lined the entrance to the ballroom wore their hair in painstakingly sculpted confections. I slipped through the group quietly as they busied themselves greeting others who were entering the room. They smiled and exchanged cheek kisses, which for an American are a social conundrum, especially when you realize that the number and location of expected kisses differs from country to country—I always fear that I’ll mess it up and accidentally end up kissing someone’s mouth. Gross. Here the women exchanged a time-consuming (but most probably sincere) five kisses on a single cheek! Occasionally I saw them throw in a bonus kiss for the neglected cheek.

I made my way to the back of the ballroom and located a table that was mostly unpopulated. Making a gesture at an empty chair, I asked the women (or perhaps girls—everyone was wearing so much makeup that age was hard to estimate) if I could join them. They kindly obliged but seemed a little confused since they didn’t know me. But they offered me a small glass of coffee, which I accepted and set amicably on the table before me. It took only a couple of exchanges before the women and I realized that communication was just not going to work for us—they spoke no English, and I spoke only a smidgen of rusty Arabic (and nothing of the Saudi dialect).

Although I felt badly that I was probably making them uncomfortable because I had no friends, I truly was happy just to be able to sit quietly and observe the crowd of women interacting. There was a lot of kissing, ululating, and dancing. All but the oldest women were unveiled. The aged women wore transparent lace veils in black or white.

A Filipina servant wandered among the tables carrying a brazier of smoking incense, and soon I was immersed in the scent. The female singer at the front of the room sang traditional Saudi melodies to recorded music dominated by drums and stringed instruments. In the middle of the room was a platform that extended from the stage to the center of the ballroom. Here women—mostly young women—danced to celebrate the day’s wedding, their arms suspended delicately below shoulder level, their hands gesturing or holding delicate poses, their hips swaying and dipping gently when the heaviest drum beat fell in the musical rhythm.

Servants distributed fruit juices while Saudi young women carried around trays of sweet-meat pastries and chocolates. Abu Halen texted me on his phone at this point, saying they had already finished a meal and the men were leaving. Amazed at our good fortune at being able to leave less than an hour after we had arrived, I made my way out of the ballroom, exchanged my wardrobe ticket for my abaya, covered myself again in modest black, and stepped out into the night. It was as perfect a wedding as I’ve ever been to in the Middle East. 

Chimps and Bare-handed Gluttony (or "Best Wedding Ever")

We were late for the Saudi wedding. Reeeeeeeally late. Festivities started at 9:00. I thought we'd be fashionably late, maybe saunter in at 10. I hate being the stupid, prompt American who shows up right on time and sits around for an hour until someone comes to turn the lights on. So instead we were the ultra cool Americans who sauntered in a half hour before everyone went home, about three hours late. What can I say -- this is how we roll at our house. Things don't start hopping for Abu Halen until around midnight. And by "hopping," I mean "entering REM sleep."

We probably would've been on time if my friend -- the host -- had given us decent directions. Or, alternatively, we probably would've been on time if Abu Halen understood Arabic better. It turns out that driving directions are quite challenging to follow in a foreign language, particularly when you don't know the foreign language.

But... ma'alish (rough translation: "nyeh"). We arrived when we arrived. I dropped Shannon off at the ladies entrance. A screen blocked the door, and a guy in a sweaty polo shirt sat on a stool just in front of the screen, ensuring no men entered, or perhaps ensuring no women exited, or perhaps he was just an enterprising passerby dude who had pulled up a chair and just sat there scoping the ladies as they came and went, or, more accurately, scoping lumps of black polyester as they came and went, imagining that somewhere in the folds was a female, maybe. Could be a chimp. Tough to tell for sure.

I entered the men's side at about midnight, right when the meal was starting. In the large dining hall most tables were already filled with chattering men in white thobes. I didn't know anybody, and I realized that this was like 8th grade lunches all over again -- I was going to have to just find a table and sit down and hope that nobody punched me or called me inappropriate names, like "stupid head."

That was when I saw it. A table at the far end of the room with two dudes sitting across from each other, elbows on the table, silently and aggressively digging into the common platter of rice and chicken with their bare hands. I wanted to sit there. No stupid chit chat. No utensils. No nonsense. Just chicken. And rice. So I pulled up a chair and as I rolled up my sleeves one of the dudes grunted at me and nodded toward an unopened can of Pepsi. I nodded back, popped the top, and slammed me some cola to, you know, whet my palette. Then I grabbed a handful of rice and slurped it and sucked it and swallowed it and slopped it all over the table. Then, after twenty minutes of vigorous gluttony, we just kind of got up and quietly went home. Chimps and bare-handed gluttony. Best wedding ever. 

Mutually Horrified or ("Let's Talk About Religion")

Me and Savannah are on a daddy-daughter date to Jeddah's old city, al-Balad. Mostly it is crumbling, dilapidated buildings and very pungent odors, but it's interesting and authentic and probably cheaper than ice cream and I like taking pictures there. Savannah carries my tripod. At the end of the day, daddy-daughter dates are simply good opportunities for me to pursue my hobbies with a servant to carry my stuff.

We pad along a sandy street for about a half-block before a trio of Saudi teens stop to talk. After pleasantries, they invite us to become Muslim, which we politely decline, although I think about it more than I usually do because one of the kids looks like what Don Johnson would've looked like when he was a teenager, if he had been Saudi.

Later, as we edge around a large puddle laced with raw sewage, Savannah notes that we are invited to convert to Islam quite a bit here in Jeddah. Why is that? she asks.

Well, I tell Savannah, I suppose they are happy being Muslim, and they think that maybe we'd be happy being Muslim too. As a Mormon, I feel like I have the least business of anyone in getting annoyed when somebody wants to talk to me about their faith. I spent two years of my life sharing my faith with strangers because I believe it makes both me and others better -- the least I can do is teach my daughter to permit others the same latitude to share their beliefs with us. All this reminds me of my favorite "religious person at your door" story.

"I WILL buy you pop. Do not resist."
I'm a senior in high school and I'm on the staff of the school newspaper. I edit the Opinion section. The editor-in-chief is a wonderful girl, soft-spoken, organized, easy-going, effortlessly and authentically kind. We're good friends. Brandy is her name. One afternoon I'm tooling around with my guitar in the living room after school. The doorbell rings and I pull the door open and there's Brandy standing there on my doorstep in a floral skirt with an armful of Watchtower pamphlets. A horrified expression crosses her face as she recognizes me, and as it dawns on me what she's doing on my doorstep, a horrified expression crosses my face too. So we both just stand there for a few seconds, staring at each other, mutually horrified. And in those few seconds it occurs to me that in a short year or two, I'll be standing in dress clothes with religious tracts on the doorsteps of people who would rather see anyone but me, and I hope they'll treat me like a human and not like an insect. And so I offer Brandy some lemonade, and we have a nice visit in my living room, and she leaves me with a Watchtower that turns out to be a pretty pleasant read, to tell you the truth.

Later, me and Savannah pass by a working class Pakistani man sitting on the bed of a little pickup. He strikes up a conversation with us, and we visit for a time. He must see a bead of sweat trickling through my eyebrow, because he asks if we're thirsty. No, no, I say. We're heading home soon, we're just fine, thanks. He rises and pulls a couple riyals from his pocket. "Wait," he commands, and he strides off down the narrow street. "No! No!" I call after him. I know what he's doing and I wish he'd stop. But you can't defuse Muslim hospitality. You just can't. And so he returns in a few minutes with a plastic bag filled with cold cans of pop and cold bottles of water. I thank him profusely and we visit for awhile longer before parting at the call to sunset prayer.

On our way back home Savannah is sipping her sweet soda in the back seat. She's watching the dusty streets roll past her window, the mustached men on the curb come and go. "Muslims are nice," she says to no one in particular.

Childhood Joy

Our lockdown ended yesterday, but we’re still in the middle of Eid al Fitr (the week of celebration following Ramadan), so Abu Halen has been home anyway. It’s nonstop vacation time here!

This evening we drove to another compound to meet with friends at their swimming pool. Once there, our baby discovered a toy pitcher and spent quite a while pouring water from the pitcher into a bucket. Then she discovered what fun it was to pour water on my arm. Then she tried pouring in on Abu Halen’s head, and she found it absolutely hilarious.

It’s not until you’re a parent that you realize that baby laughter is one of the most delightful sounds that has been presented to human ears. When it’s your own child’s laughter, you can’t get enough of it. Which is why Abu Halen can spend an uninterrupted twenty-five minutes playing one-two-three toss, one-two-three tickle, or one-two-three hug, but he can hardly bear to spend five minutes doing mundane tasks like, say, making a sandwich for lunch. An utterly exhausted parent can manage to stay awake a surprisingly long time to watch his slap-happy baby playing gleefully. Children are precious.

In Jeddah some Sudanese families live on the streets. That is, Sudanese women and children do—I never see fathers. The children sit on the medians of busy streets, waiting for streetlights to turn red. When traffic stops, the children wander among the cars, tapping gently on the windows and holding up a finger that means, “Just one riyal, please.” Now and then, a driver rolls down his window and hands over a few coins.

This money transfer needs to happen at least half a dozen times before the kid has enough to buy a piece of pound cake from the corner store or a schawarma and a coke from a street vendor. This is their daily routine—a routine that beggars follow all over the kingdom.

But today the routine was oddly changed at one semaphore where we stopped: just behind the Sudanese kid on the median was an olive-skinned, chestnut-haired boy carrying a box of chewing gum. “Is that a Syrian kid?” I asked Abu Halen, my jaw slack.

The boy quickly caught me wondering at his Levantine features, and he made his way to my window. Trying futilely to pretend that he hadn’t startled me, I looked the opposite way. But then he held up his box of gum for sale, and instead of giving me a pleading look and extending a mendicant finger into the air as is the routine, he grinned. Hilariously. Like, the way my own kids grin when they’re engaged in fun. 

Two cavities were making headway into the boy’s front teeth, but they didn’t dim the delightfulness of his smile. I smiled back, seeing my own children in his face. I rolled down my window to offer a few riyals, more to recompense him for joy than to offer charity (or to buy gum), to tell you the truth.

The Safety Dance (or "We Can't Dance If We Want To")

For the past week me and my diplomatic colleagues in Saudi Arabia have been on "lockdown" in our residential compounds, and next week will be more of the same. I've been on "lockdown" before, but back then it was called "grounded," usually for "stealing my friend Steve's parents' Ford Escort when we were 14 while they were out for the evening, and joyriding to Safeway." This time around I'm not on "lockdown" because I'm "grounded." Probably. I guess I do owe the Lebanese cook at the Consulate cafeteria several riyal for a small bowl of chocolate mousse that I impulse bought, and then impulse ate, before realizing I was broke. I suppose that could be factoring in to the decision to keep my colleagues and I confined to our compounds. Nobody likes an impulse eater. Especially Jillian Michaels. She only likes impulse LUNGES!

We can't dance if we want to. Waaaaaaah. 2005.
The real reason for the lockdown is safety, which is noble, I suppose. But I will say it's a bit of a drag that this lockdown coincides with Eid al-Fitr, a weeklong holiday that follows Ramadan in the Muslim world. So, unfortunately and ironically, we can't dance (outside our compounds) if we want to, precisely because we're doing the safety dance. This is not how Men Without Hats intended things to go down.

But that's the breaks, and anyhow lockdown isn't so bad. I've done all sorts of interesting things while confined to my house, like straightening lampshades and then making them crooked again; air whittling (similar to air guitar, but makes you sweat less and, when you're done -- voila! You have an air sculpture); winebibbing (but using chocolate milk as a wine substitute); starting at the Wikipedia article for "Elmer Fudd" and seeing if I can get to the article for "Chernobyl" by clicking on fewer than 20 embedded hyperlinks; and searching Google Maps satellite maps of the Pacific Northwest for Bigfoot (my guess is that he is big enough to see from space, but if I don't find him soon, I'll try Google Street View and start looking for him up and down the streets of Spokane, because if I were Bigfoot that's where I would go to hide -- small town, pleasant summers, but still plenty of people to eat).

Double-Duty PJs

Occasionally I realize that Halen has been wearing the same outfit for days. I was commenting on exactly that this evening when I realized that he was also wearing pajamas beneath his shorts. So after the oft-heard question “Didn’t you wear that yesterday?” I followed up (in rapid-fire succession, because that’s just the kind of mom I am) with another question: “Have you been wearing your pajamas all day?”

“In the first place, they’re not pajamas,” he explained. “They’re exercising underwear.”

“Really? And all this time, (including when I bought them for you), I thought they were pajamas!”

“Nope. I can wear them under my soccer clothes all day long. And then, when it’s time for bed, I just take off my shorts, and boom, I’m in my pajamas!”

“Huh. Brilliant. But don’t ever do that again.”

Jolly Misdemeanors (or "Home is Where Baseball Cards Are")

Home is a funny thing. A hometown is not just a place -- it's the content of a place. It's buildings and weather, people and streets, ideas and attitudes and smells and colors. Or, if you are a maggot, it is a porcupine carcass.

I've been thinking a lot about what home means. Three years ago I drove through the town I was born in. My family left for greener pastures in 1992. It's a town on a broad, lazy bend of a big blue river, with little houses and outdated strip malls and a tall red church snuggled into a nook between the river and the steep, dry hills. I pulled off the freeway as I drove through, just because. And I drove the streets I walked when I was a kid, past Jolly's Market, a dim and dingy little store where I used to buy baseball cards but where, in retrospect, I would never let my own children go alone, due primarily to the big greasy guy in overalls named Jim who ran the place and who, with a creepy grin used to tell us kids to "just call me Jolly." I feel like I just committed a misdemeanor by writing that last sentence.

Mosier, Oregon. 2010.
I parked my car in the gravel parking lot above the baseball diamond where I played Little League baseball. The neighborhood was silent and empty on that summer afternoon, and I walked down to the fence and stared over the poofy dandelions in left field where I got sent after coach gave me a chance at shortstop but I threw a routine groundball over the first baseman's head and into the other team's dugout and it hit a kid and made him cry.

And I sat on the playground swings of the elementary school overlooking leafy summer streets below, and I thought about how hometowns change, but how they stay the same too. Mr. Barnhouse, an old man who lived next door when I was a little boy, died somewhere along the line. And the apple tree I used to climb to see into his yard and pester his dog has shrunk over the years, or else I got bigger. Maybe both. But now it's someone else's yard anyway. It looks the same, but it's different.

The playground swing creaked and the warm west wind blew like it does every summer in this town, like it used to when we'd pick raspberries down along the creek bank and I'd watch the water skeeters and scream like a little girl when they got too close to my feet. And maybe, even though everything's different, I thought, even though Mr. Barnhouse is gone and my family moved away and my childhood friends still kicking around town would be doing well to remember that I ever existed, maybe this is still home somehow. Maybe a place can be home even if you're not there.