Home Schooling, Nine Months On

By Shannon

We’re coming up on the end of S’s first year of home school now, so it’s time for a little summary of our experience.

The short summary is that if I had it all to do over again, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment.

Now for the long version. . .

The Socialization Fear

Parents’ greatest fear about home schooling seems to be that their child will not have enough social opportunities to develop normally. I too had this fear, especially for my daughter, who has never really socialized the way her peers do. For five years we sent her to school with the belief that if she were just immersed long enough in a typical elementary school, she’d eventually grow into a gregarious, happy kid. She spent many of those five years trying to convince us that she was not happy and that she would fare better with home school.

To our great surprise, she was right. At home, where she could read or draw as much as she wanted to without being stared at, where she could be as quiet as she pleased without being labeled “the shy girl,” and where she could finish her work as quickly or as carefully as she liked, she was finally happy.

Given the permission to be her authentic self, and given a secure and loving home base, she grew tremendously in confidence. She actually became more outgoing and more willing to take social risks! She learned to look adults in the eye and to smile at them (although, granted, she doesn’t do this consistently quite yet—we’re still working on it). She learned to attend dance or tennis classes without using her little sister or me as a security blanket. And she made more friends and learned what it was like to laugh (hard!) with them.

Home school has ended up being more socially beneficial to our daughter than traditional school ever was.

Time Requirements

I figured that when I started home schooling my daughter, I was finished with my own career. And although it’s true that it did require some significant time in the beginning, here at the end of the year I’m spending only about an hour a day correcting assessments, making sure she has the materials she needs, and seeking out opportunities for enrichment. She does the rest.

Having more spare time than I expected, I’ve been able to continue freelancing at little, manage our rental house, and even start an online group fitness certification course.

S, by contrast, spends a lot of time on home school. This surprised me—many home school families report that their kids finish their schoolwork by around noon or 1:00 each day. But S works from the time her siblings leave for school until the time they return home. However, her school day includes not only her coursework but also things like piano practice, conversation exchange with a Spanish neighbor who is learning English, writing novels, responding to emails from her cousins, making lunch, doing chores, and drawing.

One of S's recent comics.

On the few days that S was just not in the mood to do her schoolwork, she spent more time on these sorts of activities. Even with that, she finished most of her courses weeks before the end of the school year.

Curricula and Resources

There is an astounding, mind-boggling, completely overwhelming amount of resources available to educate your child. With all of these resources, the average child can have the tutor-based style of education formerly available only to the aristocrats of previous generations . . . but on steroids. Have you recently checked out the free learning resources available at

http://khanacademy.org

or

https://www.coursera.org/

or

https://www.duolingo.com/

or

BrainPop.com

or even YouTube or Pinterest? Yes? Great, then you’ve scratched the surface.

Rather than piece together my curriculum from this overwhelming array for my first year of home schooling, I chose to use a full-package fifth-grade curriculum (with teacher support included) called

K-12 iCademy

. In that, I think S got a better education than she would have gotten at our local private school.

With K-12 iCademy, the Spanish and history courses were awesome. Language arts and math were fine. Science and art sucked. Overall I think it was a good curriculum to start with because it took a lot of the stress out of home schooling—it was U.S. accredited, I didn’t have to put much energy into gathering materials, and I had the feedback of certified teachers to help me along.

If I home school next year, I might try

Calvert Education

(they also have a dyslexia home school if you're interested), or I might gather a curriculum from various sources, using recommendations from some home school Facebook groups that I follow.

Why It Worked for Us

I believe that some kids are more suited to home schooling than others—or at minimum, some are easier to home school than others. The kids that seem to do well at self-directed learning (which is my kind of home schooling) share some characteristics:

· Introversion

· Curiosity

· Long attention span

· Well-developed ability to delay gratification

· Responsibility

(Come to think of it, these characteristics are likely the same ones that make a kid a great student in most contexts.) So, S was just an easy kid to start this with. Plus, she was motivated because she knew I was making a sacrifice to do it, and this was also something she had wanted for years.

Another reason home school worked well especially for S is that she is a prototypical humanities student. So even though her science course sucked this year, I didn’t sweat it too much. This girl is going to make her living in publishing or illustrating. All she’s going to need is a respectable foundation in science and math, and she’s good.

My son, however, is a different story, and that’s one reason why I hesitate to home school him. In general, home schoolers tend to be weakest in math and science, which are both critical subjects for a kid who wants to grow up to be an engineer. To support him in his interests, I’m planning to keep him in a traditional school so he can be taught by teachers who are actually (hopefully) passionate about science and math.

If I felt that a traditional school were not adequately serving his needs, I would consider home schooling him. But I’d go about it differently. H fights any unpleasant activity that is not part of a routine, so strict and predictable scheduling would be paramount for him. Also critical would be regular and fulfilling social time with friends after school.

One aspect of home school that would be very beneficial for H would be a huge reduction in distractions (see

this TED talk

for the pitfalls of overcollaboration). If I were able to balance things just right, home school could be good for him academically (except maybe in science; math we could do).

I am less hesitant to home school my daughter G. However, I'd prefer to wait until fourth or fifth grade with her because I am NOT the sort of person who is good at (or interested in) crafty, hands-on, manipulative kinds of activities. At her age, much of the education seems to focus on these things, and so far she has had teachers who are fabulous at it. S, by contrast, is a super book learner, so educating her is much more my speed.

Siblings Attending Traditional School

I’ve had a few people ask me how I dealt with home schooling one child while the others attended traditional school. In the beginning S’s siblings were upset that they wouldn’t be home schooled too. We dealt with that by addressing their underlying assumptions about home school. After assuring them that S would not be allowed “entertainment” screen time during school and that she would be expected to help out more with house work during the day, the other kids didn’t think home school sounded quite so appealing anymore.

Drawbacks and How We Coped

One of the drawbacks of home school is that your kid doesn’t interact with peers as much as other kids do. So, maybe they don’t pickup on the meaning of certain body language or verbal expressions as quickly as their peers. For me this isn’t a deal breaker, but I still feel compelled to mitigate the deficit.

Going into home school, we told S that we would expect her to be more proactive about making friends. We approached socialization as part of her coursework. For example, we required her to spend at least thirty minutes at the playground several times a week. Sometimes she spent this time loafing around and staring at all of the playing children. But occasionally she managed to integrate into a game of tag or soccer or tree climbing. Generally she found it easiest to get involved when one of her siblings was around. She also did better when other kids were on her own turf. During play dates at our house, she learned to really open up and ultimately made a handful of great friends whom she genuinely enjoys. Victory.

Another drawback, at least for us, was that S’s schooling required her to be at the computer almost all day long—researching, completing assessments, doing online lessons, etc. After the school day was over, she felt entitled to noneducational screen time as well. We responded by taking a hard line and outlawing all noneducational screen time during the week and allowing only one hour of it on weekend days and holidays (with occasional exceptions for family movies). So far, I’m still pretty proud of that rule.

Benefits

This year of home schooling my daughter has completely transformed our relationship. She herself will tell you that she didn’t like me before, and she admits that she was “really mean” to me. I’m guessing that her behavior was due in part to the stress of being forced to go to school every day (I was the warden of that effort) and in part to the fact that in her mind I was failing to give her the instruction and tools she felt she needed to measure up to perceived expectations.

Spending all day, every day, with my daughter changed the way I parent. I think I’ve become a better nurturer, and I know I’ve become a better teacher. I certainly have more time for those things than I’ve had with her in previous school years. When we eat lunch together, we talk about things like growing up, economics, history, science, our family, jobs she’d like to do as a teenager, and ideas for her next comic strip. It’s awesome.

In my observation, the kids I meet who are well-rounded and impressive are those whose parents spend lots and lots of time with them. Home school obviously affords you lots and lots of time with your kids. And although by the end of summer vacation that sounds like a terrible idea, somehow spending lots and lots of time with S during the school year wasn't quite the same for me. Maybe it was because of the routine or the fact that we were always working toward well-defined objectives and goals.

For her part, S has become much more helpful around the house, having recognized all the work I do during the day. And she knows how to study—something that not many fifth graders (or eleventh or twelfth graders, for that matter) grasp.

A year ago I was really afraid of how we'd manage the teenage years with a relationship like S and I had. Today we're in a much different place. If home school had provided no other benefit than improving my relationship with my eleven-year-old, it would have been worth it.

Okay, so if you have managed to read all of the foregoing text, you have a reason for it, so let's see your questions and comments below so we can have a good discussion together.

Staying Alive in Wadi Shab, Oman, Part 2 (or, "We Will All Live Through This, Except the Kids")

A Euro family was coming down the trail as we pushed up the trail. "It's too dangerous for kids up there," the dad said, eyeing our little brood and jerking his thumb over his shoulder. The mom nodded, frowning disapprovingly at two-year-old Tess in the baby backpack. "You won't make it with that backpack," she stated.

I was confused. Our friends from Dubai had taken their two little kids up to the top of the trail the year before, and they didn't die. I told Overly Protective Euro Family as much. "Well," said Overly Protective Euro Dad, "our guide said it's too dangerous." I looked at the pudgy Omani guide, sweating in the midday heat, and deduced that Overweight Omani Guide just didn't want to walk to the top of the trail today.

Taking their lives into their hands. Because if they fall, they will get all wet.
Shannon took Overly Protective Euro Family seriously. "It sounds dangerous. I'm not taking the kids up that trail," she hissed in the tone of voice she uses when she's not going to budge unless I temporarily agree to her position AND let her monologue about arcane health and fitness data for twenty minutes AND remind her of the health and fitness benefits the children would accrue by hiking further uphill AND acknowledge and apologize for all my mistakes of the past week AND randomly compliment the meal she prepared yesterday evening AND punch myself in the face. Then, after that, I can usually get my way.

So we stopped for a time, and the kids swam in a large, crystalline swimming hole, and a little crab scampered over Shannon's foot and she did a funny dance, and then I suggested that I go scout ahead on the trail and report back in an objective fashion how scary the trail actually was. Shannon wasn't fully onboard until I punched myself in the face, then she smiled and said, "I like when you do that. Okay, let's sew up your lip and then you go scout the trail for us."

It turned out that Overweight Omani Guy really was just lazy, and Overly Protective Euro Family really were just hapless patsies, because the trail wasn't that bad, apart from a few places where the edge of the trail dropped away into sheer thirty foot drops ending in certain death for unsuspecting, trusting children. I returned and told Shannon, no problem, easy peezy, we will all live through this except the kids.

Unable to remember the several thousand previous times I had mischaracterized or outright lied about how dangerous a thing is, Shannon agreed to trust me and pack things up and continue up the trail. After successfully negotiating the treacherous trail (which wasn't treacherous at all -- I am merely taking literary license to make myself sound like less of a soft-in-the-middle, middle-aged father of four whose only opportunity for adventure is walking up a dirt trail in triple-digit heat and more like a rock-solid, intrepid explorer who takes his life into his hands several times a day for the sake of discovery and reaching the outer limits of the human spirit), we scrambled over large boulders for a time until we reached the end of the hiking trail.

From there, the only way forward is to swim. So we put Tess in her floaty life jacket, and we all waded into the water that filled the narrow wadi between the steep rock walls on either side. Ten minutes later, we'd reached the crown jewel of Wadi Shab, a cave accessible only by swimming through a tight passageway that leaves only enough room for the swimmer's head. It's hard to describe, so, here -- check out someone else's video with super cheesy background music. A video is worth like 12,000 words. All the kids except Tess made it into the cave and received a huge boost to their self-esteem for having done something so awesome. Also, they avoided getting grounded, because I told them whoever doesn't make it into the cave will get grounded for three months, and will be referred to as "Captain Worthless" until they turn sixteen or buy me an ice cream cone, whichever comes first. So that maybe motivated them. Tess was exempt because she gives me wet toddler kisses, which are more valuable than the island of Manhattan.

Afterwards we were super tired, so we laid out in the sun and ate stale cookies next to these two French girls we had followed up the trail. They were stretched out in their bathing suits, reading cheap romance novels. And I thought, these chicks came a long ways to sunbathe and read bad literature. So I named them Weird French Girls Who Traveled Thousands of Miles to Oman and Drove Several Hours Into the Desert and Then Hiked Several Miles Up a Canyon in Order to Sun Tan Which Can in Fact be Done in France. We didn't talk to them because language barrier. And we didn't offer them cookies because our family motto is "Leavitts Don't Share."

Urgent Questions; or, How We Roll at Breakfast

Many urgent questions are stirring here.

By Shannon

Friday breakfasts are my favorite, because everyone is unhurried during this, the best meal of the day. It’s a good time for me to catch up with Abu Halen, especially after a week as busy as this one has been. This morning he and I were talking about mortgages, as Abu Halen is again testing the waters of a particular real estate market and has his eye on another property.

Partway through our conversation, Halen raised his hand, saying, “Ooh, ooh, I have a question!” Pausing ever so briefly, I told Halen he needed to wait until his father and I had finished our conversation. “But it’s urgent!” he protested. Abu Halen and I proceeded with our conversation despite Halen’s squirming in his seat, his hand still stretched above him. He tried hard not to make guttural noises of excitement as he waited for his turn to talk.

Recognizing that we would have no peace in our conversation, Abu Halen turned to his son and asked, “It’s urgent?” Halen nodded. “Okay, Halen, what is it?”

“Um, why did Mao put educated people in torture camps in China?”

“This was your urgent question?”

“Yeah.”

“Buddy, a question is ‘urgent’ when your finger or something is falling off, and you’re not sure what to do about it. Questions about the Chinese Cultural Revolution do not qualify as ‘urgent,’ mmkay?”

“Okay. . . . But why did Mao do that?”

If Halen weren’t so danged cute, I imagine we wouldn’t have put our breakfast conversation about mortgages on hold to discuss the history of Communism. But dangit, he is cute.

Exactly How Bad Is Lying? or, Even Better than the Real Thing

By Shannon

Last week Halen came home with a note from his Arabic teacher that was written at the bottom of a note he had written to her. It read,

“Dear Miss Haifa,

“One day when I came home from school I saw my baby sister tearing my notebook apart. I tried to pull it away but that just tore the notebook into smithereens. So I threw it away.

“Signed, Halen.”
I’m not sure that Miss Haifa knows what “smithereens” are, but she seemed to get the gist of the idea: that Halen had lost his notebook and didn’t want to take the blame for it. When I confronted Halen about the note, he insisted that the story was true. “Halen,” I sighed, “Tess has never ripped anything to smithereens. Ever.”

“Reeeeeeeeeally?” Halen asked, in his best skeptical tone.

“Really.” I answered, in my best staunch tone.

He rolled his eyes.

“Buddy,” I continued, “why did you lie to Miss Haifa about this?”

Halen was silent for a minute as he mulled over his options. Finally he came clean: “Because I just wanted to tell Miss Haifa what happened in a more dramatic way. It’s so boring to say that I just can’t find it anymore.”

“In the future, Halen, I expect you to tell the boring old truth. No more drama like this, okay?”

“Ohhhhkay, Mom.”
This dog demonstrates that drama does not necessarily imply truth, because he didn't end up ripping the baby to smithereens.
The lecture was nearly over but for a final parting statement. I nodded, “Remember, Leavitts don’t lie.” But then, glancing at Halen's dad and realizing that my boy might see through this moral, I added a quick “—to their teachers. . . . Or their parents.”

The truth is that the truth is complicated—especially when you live in a place where rules are often inconsistent, short sighted, inadequate, and unenforced (are they actually rules if no one follows or enforces them?). So there are times when we are out in the hinterlands when we lie, right in front of our kids.

There, now you know.

When we’re out in the wilderness in Saudi Arabia, for instance, we tell the kids to claim Canada as their home country if strangers express curiosity. Everybody loves Canadians, but not everybody loves Americans. No need to ignite irrational violence in the odd political extremist, eh?

Father Abraham seemed to have understood this principle. He had no qualms about deceiving his neighbors about his true relationship to his wife. No need to ignite lust-born violence in the odd libidinous tyrant, right? Abraham was a good man of good character even though not all his statements were strictly truthful.

When I was a kid, our church group spent an entire year on the theme "I Believe in Being Honest." I don't remember discussing any of the contradictory Old Testament stories that year. Things were framed in black and white, which left a lot of scenarios out of the picture. But honestly (really), I think that's a good tactic with young children. To make sense of their world and to set themselves up for a respectably lived life, they need to perceive appropriate behavior as being defined by clear boundaries. It's easier to construct a good life when you've consciously accepted an honor code than to live a good life in the absence of an honor code.

But as the kids gain a little life experience and sophistication they can start to make appropriate sense of ambiguity. They can learn that being honest is a general principle of morality rather than an unbending one.

Recently we read the story of Jacob and Esau. At the part where Rebecca tells her son Jacob he needs to take Esau’s blessing for his own, my kids gasped (I know that sounds totally 19th-century, but I'm not even exaggerating; they were completely invested in the story for once). When Isaac suspiciously told Jacob that his voice didn’t sound like Esau’s, my six-year-old hid under her blanket. Then, when Jacob boldly declared himself to be Esau, my eleven-year-old protested: “But that’s a lie!”

I smiled, pleased that she had picked up on the anachronism. Then it was her turn to smile when I explained the irony that Jacob indeed did something bad (he lied) to bring about something good (receiving the blessing that Esau did not deserve). The concept blew the kids’ minds—that you actually should sometimes do something “bad” if it brings about a greater good. I gave them numerous other examples in scripture, history, and our own family where this principle has played out. I hope it was enough to clarify a principle that can be very difficult to understand.

They dug it.

But the teaching won't end there, of course. A principle like this needs guidelines, or it leaves a kid exposed to slippery slopes of all descriptions. It's not difficult to tell an innocent or socially expected lie that snowballs into a very difficult situation. That's where good character and regular self-reflection come in. Robust religious practices and a strong family culture should foster both of those pursuits. These two elements are critical to a society that cannot afford to lose its members to life's slippery slopes.

Stay, Mommy

Heat and desolation may have played into Tess's nightmare.
By Shannon

Tess woke up crying last night. It doesn’t happen often, so I came to her quickly to see what she needed. I think it was a nightmare because she immediately calmed down when I picked her up. I sat with her curled in my lap for a few minutes and then moved to put her back in bed until she moaned, “Hug!” I smiled and sat back down with her for a while. Soon I rose again to put her in bed and she cried, “Stay, Mommy!” So I did for a little while longer.

Although nighttime soothings like this are not easy, nor are they even done in full consciousness, there’s something glorious in them—something sweet that you don’t want to abandon quickly. It’s maybe the wonder of being what a child wants and needs most in the night. It’s a moment whose fleetingness makes it all the more splendid. It’s the aching goodness of being Mommy—of having a name that is among the dearest your child’s mouth ever forms.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of the blessed mothers out there.

Staying Alive in Wadi Shab, Oman, Part 1 (or, "Bully Goat's Gruff")

A goat tried to maul my daughter in the parking lot. So I guess you could say it was an inauspicious start to our hike up Wadi Shab, a glorious, watery canyon a couple hours southeast of Muscat. The goat had wandered up to us, hoping to get a little hit of the sunscreen Shannon was applying to the kids. It was one of those junkie goats you see eating grass sometimes out behind the barn. Tess got excited, because, wow, goat. So she tried to pet it. So it tried to gore her. Don't worry though. After a cool-down period, the two parties reconciled. And by "reconciled" I mean the goat left to see if it could bum a cigarette from the Europeans in the Fiat three parking spots down.

Ye olde swimming hole. Wadi Shab, Oman.
Everyone was nearly sunscreened when Shannon instructed Savannah to fetch from the car the backpack containing all the food. You know, the backpack Shannon had asked Savannah to load into the car two hours and 100 miles ago. You know, the backpack that Savannah left sitting inside the front door to the house.

Savannah defended herself, ably employing the classic 11 year-old rhetorical tactic "Vocalize Unpersuasive Arguments Loudly and Defensively Because That Makes Them Seem Compelling": "You didn't tell me I was supposed to bring that backpack!" she said, as if one needs to be told to bring food and water with them when hiking into desert wastelands under the triple-digit heat of the harsh and unyielding Arabian sun. I said, "I think you need to repeat fourth grade. Also, third grade and second grade. Also, do you have a concussion you never told us about." So I drove 10 miles back up the highway until I found a dingy little town where I bought several bags of dusty pre-popped popcorn and a few sleeves of stale cookies from a grocery store with no electricity.

So we had our food, we were sunscreened, and the bully goat gruff was over taking drags beside the men's room. It was time to start the hike. But first we had to get across the lake separating the parking lot from the trailhead. A few Omani guys had rickety boats, and you could pay them a couple bucks to ferry you across. But me and Shannon looked at each other, and we're like, "No way. We're not paying no one to give us a ride across a knee-deep river/lake thingy." So we made for the near shore and had gone maybe 80 steps, and Shannon goes, "Oh, I think I forgot my sandals," which are important because this hike is like two miles over rocks and sand and through a lot of water. And I go, "No problem, we're only like 80 steps from the car. I'll go back and get them." And she goes, "No, I mean I think I left them at the house." And I go, "That's like a half million steps." And she cheerfully says in her indominable way, "It's okay, I'll be fine just hiking with my expensive running shoes." And I reply in my abominable way, "Great. Fine. Nice. Did you remember both kidneys."

So we went ahead and forded the little river thing, and Shannon took off her expensive shoes, which was fortunate because the bottom was really mucky and sticky. So there we are, 10 minutes into the hike, on the far side of the river/lake thingy, and Shannon is cramming her feet -- which are caked with sticky poopy-looking mud -- into her expensive running shoes, and I'm thinking, "This royally sucks."

And that is my cliffhanger ending: my wife putting her poopy-looking feet into expensive running shoes on the bank of a little river thingy in the wilderness of Oman. Next time, I will tell you how hiking Wadi Shab got way better once we left Devil Goat and Poopy River Crossing behind us, particularly thanks to an exciting cast of characters, including Weird French Girls Who Traveled Thousand of Miles to Oman and Drove Several Hours Into the Desert and Then Hiked Several Miles Up a Canyon in Order to Sun Tan Which Can in Fact be Done in France, and Overly Protective Euro Parents Who Were Unreasonably Afraid of Sheer Cliff Dropoffs and Sasquatch.

Dubai Took All My Money (or "I Got Ravaged By a Mythological Figure")

They wanted $250 to swim with dolphins at the waterpark in Dubai. I was like, "Okay, so like 40 bucks per person, that seems reasonable." And the guy's like, "No, $250 per person." And I'm all, "But the baby is free, right?" And he goes, "No, she's $250." And I'm like, "So, for that price, we get to keep the dolphin, right?" You know, call it Hermy and have it blow water out its blow hole to the beat of "Cotton-Eyed Joe."

So we didn't swim with the dolphins. For $250 per person, I can fly to Egypt and throw moltov cocktails with the kids down at Al-Azhar. Swim with dolphins, throw moltov cocktails at riot police (imagine me holding out both hands, palms up, making balancing motions, then deciding moltov cocktails are better than dolphins and punching my left hand in the air and saying, "Arooga!"). Protesting sounds cooler, but we probably won't do that, since I'm pretty sure it's against U.S. policy for its diplomats to participate in revolutions in foreign countries.

Observation Deck of Burj al-Khalifa, world's tallest building. Tess is about to chuck that plush puppy at Shannon's face. Funny every time.
Instead of selling the farm to swim with the dolphins, we just bought a normal old entry pass to the waterpark. I think the full name of the waterpark bears repeating -- how is this for ostentatious: Aquaventure Waterpark at Atlantis Paradise Island. The park isn't quite as cool as the name makes it sound; with a name like that, you would expect to swashbuckle with pirates, roast up a bird of paradise for lunch, and beat up an arrogant merman before bed. But there was none of that, just some waterslides and overpriced food. In fact, if you wanted Dubai summed up in one word, that word would be: overpriced.

Unfortunately, Grace was too short to ride any of the slides. Also unfortunately, Savannah was too skittish to ride any of the slides. Also unfortunately, after riding exactly one of the slides with me, Halen became too terrified to ride any more of the slides. At that point, I was feeling really good about having dished out two hundred and fifty dollars so that we could all come to this waterpark and observe all the European dudes bursting out of their speedos.

I was unwilling to let such wicked slides go completely to waste, as well as the fact that there were no lines, so I told the kids to wait for me at the splashdown pool and not talk to anyone wearing Speedos, and I went up to the highest slide they had. It was called Poseidon's Revenge, which sounded super manly, which naturally attracted manly people like me. No one else manly must've been at the waterpark that day, because I was all by me onesie at the tiptop of the waterslide tower. Just me and the Filipino dude attending the slide. I'm all, "Where's the slide?" And he goes, "Right here." And he points to this slab of clear plastic covering a hole in the floor, and he says, "Stand on it." So I stand on it, and I lean against an upright piece of fiberglass, and the guy goes, "Cross your arms and legs." And I'm like, "What are you doing to me? I want to ride a waterslide."

And then this clear plastic lid starts closing over me, and this robot lady's voice starts counting down, "Three, two, one..." and I'm thinking, "Creepy, man." And then, whoosh! The clear plastic slab I was standing on drops away and I fall through the floor! And I'm all, "I've been had/hoodwinked by Filipino Guy at the Top of the Tower!" Now I'm in this tube, falling, falling, falling, and then the tube violently arcs back upward, and water is spraying in my face, and I'm flailing, and sputtering, and the tube is snaking all over the place, and I start wondering how badly it will traumatize my children when my lifeless body shoots into the splashdown pool, and they're like, "That was awesome Dad! Dad? Really? You gave up the ghost on a waterslide? Ha ha ha ha!" But then, just when I'm sure I am going to die, I hit the splashdown pool, coughing, thrashing, hyperventilating. Everyone stops to watch the sissy American in unfashionably loose swim trunks slowly claw his flabby American way out of the pool. (Actually, nobody stopped to watch, I just had that thing where when you look stupid you think everyone is staring at you, when in reality nobody cares one lick about you. At all.) Halen, however, was watching me, and he was like, "You okay Dad?" And I go, "Poseidon had his way with me." And Halen says, "Poseidon did what to you?" And I'm all, "You'll understand when you get older."

After that, I became too scared to ride any more of the slides.

It turned out that the waterpark was pretty killer, even if you're too wussy to ride any of the slides, largely because it has the world's coolest kiddie park. We spent two hours there, and I didn't get bored once. And I am 34 years old. There is this giant scaffold that rises upward out of a huge pool of 12-18 inch deep water into several open-air towers, with little kid-sized water slides of all shapes and colors and sizes sprouting outward, some twisting, some spiralling, some roller coaster-ing. There are stairs and nets leading upward, and the best part is, water is spraying everywhere, all the time. So it is a bad place to be if you want to be dry. Pipes spit water. Shower nozzles spray water. Hoses stream water. And there are numerous little buckets continuously filling up with water, and when they get too heavy, they tip over and dump their contents on whomever happens to be walking below. Aaaaaaand, there are a few gigantic buckets also continuously filling up with water, and when fill up they dump hundreds of gallons of water all over the whole kiddie park. Best. Thing. Ever. Even if it costs, like, all my money.

What Little Boys Are Made Of (or, Justice and Mercy in a Bottle)

By Shannon

Before I even got out of bed the morning after our twelve-day road trip, Halen was breakfasted and in his school uniform. It was all we could do to keep him from leaving for school an hour and a half early. He had missed his friends sorely and could think of little else.

He is like a very, very low-flying quail.
It was good that he had a full day with his friends before he came down with a fever. Although he wanly insisted that he was not ill, Abu Halen and I ruined the day’s social prospects by keeping him home from school. In the afternoon we wouldn’t even let him go out to play soccer, which made us “the worst parents ever.” Even sadder, he also missed a critical birthday party later that evening. It was cruel timing for sickness.

Fortunately, Halen’s fever broke during the night, and this morning he knocked brightly on the bathroom door as I was getting ready for church. I opened the door to find him standing in his school uniform, questioning whether I had wrapped his friend’s present yet. It was with reluctance that I broke the news that today, in fact, was not a school day. Halen’s smile fell, and he bashfully pulled off his uniform shirt.


It’s when this boy’s guard is down that I love him the most. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, I can see right into his heart.


On our way out of the U.A.E. a few days ago, we stopped at a gas station and let each of the kids choose a snack for the road. Halen chose a grown-up-looking drink in a glass bottle and stood patiently near the cashier’s counter. And when I say “stood patiently,” I mean that he swayed from side to side while making wordless boy sounds with his mouth while scanning the ceiling for water stains while shuffling his feet while swinging his arms.

Meanwhile, a man making his way from the restroom to the exit came too close to Halen’s patient standing and bumped the loosely held bottle from the boy's hand. To everyone’s horror, the bottle exploded in a fizzy pink disaster all over the floor.

I immediately flagged down a clerk and apologized for the mess. Abu Halen fumed. The girls put on the faces that best fit their world views: for Tess, excitement; for Grace, compassion; for Savannah, vindication. We were all playing our parts, so Halen tried to play his by arguing that—somehow—this had not been his fault. But the argument apparently sounded so lame that even he wasn’t buying it, so he broke off short and hid his face against my hip.

The worst of it was that we had no more U.A.E. riyals left to pay for another soda for him, so he made his way to the car empty-handed, buckled himself into his seat, covered his face, and wept quietly. Abu Halen arrived moments later, having paid for the goods. At first he made to start a “that’s what you get” lecture, but then seeing Halen’s condition, he muttered that the store clerk had told him he could pay with Saudi riyals if necessary.

Halen didn’t even look up but moaned pitifully, “I don’t deserve another one.” I think it was the first time Halen had ever considered that he might not deserve something. The thought was apparently soul-wrenching.

Abu Halen rolled his eyes.

There are a lot of things that Abu Halen is good at. One of them is serving up justice piping hot so that long after you’ve drunk your cup, your tender tongue remembers it. Mercy is a bit more difficult for him. Quietly, I suggested that Halen had learned his lesson—that he had already wished for the mountains to cover him and the heavens to strike out his name. 

Abu Halen stared at me for a moment, and then silently he stepped back out of the car, returned to the store where Halen’s fizzy pink soda was still being mopped up, and bought his son another bottle of the stuff.


I didn’t drink any of the soda, but even from the front seat, I knew how it tasted: like sweetness after a bitter draught.

I Hate Myself For Loving Cookie (or, "Dude, Where's My Larynx?")

Yesterday, suddenly, we sort of had a cat. It started lounging around our doorstep. Like we'd been old friends since grade school or something. Just chilling in the shade, all, "Oh, hey bro, how's it? Haven't seen you since, you know, never. Love your digs."

The neighbors were out by the pool, celebrating Easter with chlorine and SPF 50. Me and Shannon walked over, and the cat followed. What's the deal with this cat, that's what we said. And the neighbors said, oh, that's Cookie. Turns out the French family that moved to Australia a month or two ago owns Cookie, and Australia disallows pets from entering the country until six months have elapsed since the owner's entry. So, you move to Australia, and your pet cools its heels in wherever you used to live for six months, then, no problem, c'mon over Cookie. I have never understood Australia, ever since the whole penal colony thing, because the word "penal" makes me uncomfortable. And now this cat thing. Thanks, Australia.
Cookie waiting for the situation on the ground to change.

The neighbors said the people who moved into French Family's old villa told French Family they'd take care of Cookie for six months, then ship her to Perth. Only when they said they would "take care" of Cookie, I think what they meant was "not let Cookie into our house but sometimes wave at her when we walk by."

It's no surprise then that Cookie has had enough. She is putting her paw down. So she ran away, like Joan Jett, except Cookie doesn't hate herself, for loving me or for any other reason. And now Cookie hangs around my porch.

I'd like to take Cookie in, you know, to be there for her since Australia is being all obstructionist. But I have kids that are allergic to cats. Also, Cookie sounds weird. She tries to meow, but I think maybe she had her larynx removed? Some families declaw, maybe French Family de-larynxes? Nothing really comes out when Cookie talks. And we're like, "What was that Cookie? Cat got your tongue?" And Cookie is like, "I am considering swimming to Australia rather than listen to this drivel."

But in spite of our best efforts to keep Cookie outside, Cookie has breached our fortifications on more than one occasion over the past couple days. This is because we have a weak link in our family -- a Benedict Arnold, if you will -- and the turncoat's name is Tess. She knows Cookie is on the porch, and she knows how to open the front door. So, sometimes Cookie gets inside. Savannah found Cookie patiently sitting outside the bathroom when she finished up and opened the door. There is something mildly creepy about that, even for cats. So Cookie got thrown out.

I have tried reasoning with Cookie, since I am the cat person in the family. "Cookie," I tell her, "you are not part of our family." "----," says Cookie unblinkingly, unable to actually make noise. I think maybe she doesn't understand, so I say, "Cookie you are nice, but it's just not working out. It's not you, it's us." Cookie just brushes up against my legs. Sigh. I guess we'll just have to tie up Tess and starting using the back door. I see no other viable alternatives that don't include artillery.

Becoming Bosom Friends with Your Vehicle (or, Secrets of a GMC)

By Shannon

Twelve days out makes our just-finished road trip the longest our family has ever taken. In that time we’ve driven the north-south length of Saudi Arabia and skirted the Persian Gulf through the United Arab Emirates and half of Oman. Long live our GMC Yukon!

It was the first time since we purchased the vehicle that it had returned to Riyadh, where it had lived before it was ours. It was only by chance that we came into possession of the Yukon—weeks after we first arrived in Jeddah I had mentioned to one of my neighbors that we were struggling to find a vehicle that would meet our needs. She had accompanied her husband on a trip to Riyadh later that week and saw a flier advertising the sale of our destined Yukon. She jotted down the info and passed it off to us when she returned to Jeddah, and the vehicle was ours within a week.

A schweet panorama from the coast of Oman. The gallant Yukon waits patiently for the kids to finish going potty (kids not pictured).
Our family has driven all over Saudi Arabia in this beast of a GMC. It has braved the bone-rattling non-Muslim detour around Mecca, spirited us across the Empty Quarter, tried not to look puny among the towering sandstone plateaus of the northwest of the Kingdom, and gripped the safe side of the suicidal switchback road that climbs into Al-Baha.

And all this time and all this distance, we didn’t even know that our Yukon is a Mormon lover. That revelation didn’t come until our recent trip when I reached into one of the passenger pockets to fish out a barf bag for one of the kids, and I retrieved a Young Women’s activity agenda from 2011.


Last week I pulled out that agenda again when we were sand-surfing with a group of LDS friends in Riyadh, just to prove that I was telling the truth. And wouldn’t you know it, that agenda found its way into the hands of the woman who had printed it three years earlier. “This activity took place in my house!” she laughed. 

The Yukon also laughed (inwardly, of course). We felt privileged that the Yukon saw fit to confide some of its history to us. That's a rare event. 

Dune Surfing in Saudi: How to Keep Sand Out of Your Car

I think my dad's least favorite thing when I was growing up was getting sand in his car. He also disliked Californians, which is ironic because he is one. It is also ironic that Dad had 10,000 spoons when all he needed was a knife. Who would've thought? It figures. But this is not a story about my dad disliking people from California. This is a story about sand. It will probably be as boring as it sounds.

"I don't have enough sand on my back. I can fix that."
So Dad has always hated getting sand in his car. When we would go to the beach, Dad wouldn't let me get in the car afterward unless I had been properly de-sanded. I remember him essentially giving me a spanking in the beach parking lots, trying to get all the loose sand off my pants. Once my butt was sufficiently de-sanded, I could sit on the bumper and he would remove my shoes and wipe off my feet. When my feet were de-sanded, I was no longer permitted to put them on the ground; I had to climb through the car to my seat. Dad would also scour each crevice of my face, scraping sand out of my nostrils, out from the folds in my ears, from around the hair roots in my eyebrows, and from the gooey corners of my eyes. I hated it. "DA-aaaaaddd!!" I would whine. If I whined too much, he would find a zit somewhere on my face and pop it to remind me who was boss.

I vowed that things would be different when I was a dad. I am a dad now. Things are not different.

Stop 1 on our trans-Arabian road trip was dune surfing near Riyadh. Dune surfing is where you basically just go to sand dunes and stuff sand down your pants and smear it around in your hair. Also, you eat mouthfuls of it and swish it over your tongue, then spit the product into your shoes and run around for several hours.

The kids had a lot of fun. After a couple hours of sand sledding (with this type of thing), the children were unhappy because some of their body crevices did not have sand in them, so they began burying each other in the sand. Grace said, "I want to get buried too!" I didn't say anything, because I didn't want to be Sand Nazi, Jr. Halen also wanted to be buried. I sort of whimpered a little. Then Savannah also thought having sand dumped all over one's body seemed delightful. And I was defeated. There was definitely going to be sand in my car.

When it was time to go, I essentially spanked each of my children, trying to get all the loose sand off their pants. Once their butts were sufficiently de-sanded, they could sit on the bumper and I would remove their shoes and wipe off their feet. When their feet were de-sanded, they were no longer permitted to put them on the ground; they had to climb through the car to their seats. I scoured each crevice of their faces, scraping sand out of their nostrils, out from the folds in their ears, from around the hair roots in their eyebrows, and from the gooey corners of their eyes. They hated it.

Thanks Dad. You could've just used baby powder to get the sand off. Duh.

Intro to "Trip in a Car Through the Desert" (or, "Driving Across the Arabian Peninsula Like a Merriwether")

When you are a diplomat and your are posted in "hard" countries (i.e. no Wal-Marts or JoAnne's Fabric stores), you are supposed to get "R&Rs," or "rest & relaxation/recooperation/Rummy." An R&R is a some-expenses-paid vacation to somewhere where they have JoAnne's Fabric stores, so that you can go inside and inhale the smell of old American ladies and cinnamon sticks. But you don't have to go somewhere nice and civilized. If you are so inclined, you may use the airfare to go somewhere with angry naked people with body piercings running around everywhere, like Paris.

2007: "Aw yeah, suckah. I'm gonna drive across Arabia in seven years."
As an aside, while I was making fun of JoAnne's Fabric, I was reminded of when I got my first job. I was 16, and I worked at Craft Warehouse. It was all a horrible misunderstanding. When I applied I believed it was Kraft Warehouse, and I pictured myself pushing swaying stacks of Kraft dinner boxes around and, oops, accidentally dropping and damaging some boxes and taking them home, or else, oops, just cutting to the chase and accidentally cooking me up a pot of macaroni right there on the warehouse floor. Instead, I worked at the counter beside Flo, this really wrinkly lady who must've used to eat cigarettes way back when she was in her 60s, because she rasped like Kim Carnes and sometimes when she was just talking a little smoke would waft out between her lips, and I was like, "Flo, I think your uvula might have somehow ignited." And she'd say something like, "Hon," (except not in a southern-type voice; it was more like how Catherine the Great would sound if you dug her up and she called you "Hon"), "don't you worry about my uvula." She also wore neon pink lipstick, which I frankly quite liked because it drew attention away from her smoldering uvula.

Back to R&Rs. We are preparing to use one of our R&Rs to drive across the Arabian Peninsula, because I like to transect things, and also because it's not very often that you're on the Arabian Peninsula, so you might as well scope it out while you're there, much like Lewis & Clark, who thought that if you live in North America you might as well scope it out, although they were weaker than I am, because they had to hire people to help them scope, while the only aid I need in my scoping is my phone -- just that and me monocular.

As I consider Lewis & Clark, I feel that if I could only have two more sons, I would name them Merriwether and Perriwinkle. They probably wouldn't be very popular in high school, but they would be good at drama.

All great voyages need a name, and this voyage -- 1,500 miles across sand and rock with four children and one wife (who hates to "just sit") in an aged Suburban with an iffy transmission -- is truly great, like a dane, but without those weird jowels. So I will call our voyage "Trip in a Car Through the Desert," and I will blog about it when we get back.

How to Become a Runner, Part 2 (or, "Poop Sandwich on the Dead 2 Red Relay Race")

There is a thing called Dead 2 Red. It sounds like it would be a duet with Prince and Slayer, but it's not. It's a race from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea. Teams of ten runners and two or three chase car drivers get together, slam a bunch of Red Bull, and then run 150 miles through the Jordanian desert. This year I got together with three friends and 10 complete strangers, and we all ran the race like cheetahs, and the other teams ran like gazelles, and we overtook them and ate their innards and left their carcasses on the side of the highway. Just kidding. We didn't do any of those things.

"Did you say poop sandwich? Thumbs up."
I had never run in a real race before, at least not since fifth grade when I raced the cool kids across the playground from one fence to the other, but when we all reached the finish-line-fence I couldn't stop fast enough so I just plowed into the fence like a crash test dummy. I remember laying on the ground and my friend Danny standing above me saying, "Don't cry, Joe! Don't cry!" So I huffed and I puffed and sniffled and I growled and I rolled on the ground rubbing my throbbing knees and elbows. And then I cried a whole bunch there on the blacktop with everyone watching. And after that I didn't get invited to very many slumber parties, and things just kind of spiralled down until I got depantsed in seventh grade in the hallway outside the lunchroom. Don't worry, I was wearing Loony Toons briefs so it wasn't embarrassing at all.

I didn't actually know all of my Dead 2 Red team members. We didn't have enough people from Jeddah who were interested in running, so we asked a friend at Embassy Amman to hang up an advertisement in the embassy hallway that said something like, "Email Keegan if you want to join our Dead 2 Red team." Well, I guess there is more than one Keegan on the planet, because these two guys at the embassy were like, "Oh, cool, let's join our friend Keegan's team," except their friend Keegan and the Keegan they actually emailed were two different people. After we all started exchanging emails in preparation for the race, these two guys were like, "Wait, who are these people?" But by then it was too late. Our team rule was, "If you email us, you are one of us," or "Emailing us is like marrying us," or something like that.

The first two or three hours of the race were a bit chaotic, to be honest. There were more than 40 teams, each with 10 runners and two chase cars. And the "course" was just the Dead Sea Highway, which is two lanes. And they didn't shut down the highway. And there's no requirement on how long each leg has to be -- each team can choose. And history has shown that sprinting short legs is the key to being competitive. So you have to picture 80 vans all bunched up, with runners sprinting like 100 meters at a time, and cars picking up the guy who just finished sprinting, and then trying to pull out into the traffic created by the other 79 cars, which are all doing the same thing, and each van is trying to hustle down the highway another couple hundred meters to pick up the guy who is currently sprinting, and the van has to get there before the sprinter finishes, so there's a lot of urgent driving, and there aren't really "traffic laws," per se, in Jordan, and we've only got two lanes, and don't forget regular traffic, including semi trucks loaded with produce and water and goats, is also trying to get by. For my first several miles I'd say I was less "running" and more "not quite getting hit by a car or colliding with other runners or getting pushed into the Dead Sea."

One guy on our team kept saying, "Look guys. This race is a big poop sandwich, and we all have to take a bite." I thought that was funny, partly because I think eating a big poop sandwich is a funny mental image, but mostly because the guy who kept saying that was the only guy who was actually eating the figurative poop sandwich. First, he got stuck running the opening leg, which race organizers mandated had to be at least two kilometers. I don't think Poop Sandwich Man paced himself very well, because when he rounded the last bend in the road, he was in real danger of exploding into a nasty ball of I-Just-Ran-Faster-Than-I-Am-Able-For-Longer-And-Further-Than-I-Am-Able-And-Now-BLAM-I-Have-Died." He survived, and I was like, "How does that poop sandwich taste." And he was all, "Like poop."

Later, when it got dark, we kind of lost him. He was running a short leg (in exchange for the long initial leg he had run), and he somehow got in front of the van that was ostensibly waiting for him. After sitting on the side of the dark road for like 15 minutes, we looked at each other and were like, "How long do you think it takes Poop Sandwich Man to run half a kilometer?" Then, after doing some complex long division and employing the Pythagorean Theorem, we figured it is strange for anyone, particularly Poop Sandwich Man, who is actually quite fleet of foot, to take 15 minutes to run 500 meters. So we drove down the road for awhile, and eventually we found Poop Sandwich Man limping along, having run several miles alone in the dark, and we were like, "You are hogging the poop sandwich." I do not know if he thought this was funny. I'm thinking no.

How to Become a Runner, Part 1 (or "Battle Axe Issues Prepping for the Dead 2 Red Relay Race")

For about the past four years, I've been a runner. I faked being a runner before that, because chicks dig runners. At least Shannon did. And I needed Shannon to like me, and I didn't really have that much going for me in the I-Do-Stuff-That-Shannon-Digs category. Shannon read the classics: Wordsworth, Hemingway, Hawthorne, Emerson. I read the little booklets that come inside CDs: Jewel, Zeppelin, Weezer, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jewel. Shannon cooked. I sat in the stairwells of the apartment complex woefully playing my guitar until a girl felt sorry for me and threw me some leftovers. And Shannon liked to exercise. So I pretended I liked to exercise.

Back when Shannon thought I jogged. Sucker.
When me and Shannon met, she told me she jogged to stay fit. I was like, "Really? Me TOO! I jog TOO!" Then I went and signed up for a jogging class, because I didn't actually jog, and I needed to start so I wouldn't be the type of guy who would lie to make a cute girl think she has something in common with him, even though I was kind of the type of guy who would lie to make a cute girl think she has something in common with him.

A few weeks later Shannon suggested we go jogging together. It was her worst idea ever, but I pretended that I liked it, because when you want a girl to like you, you shouldn't ever say she has bad ideas. Unless her idea is to kick you in the jimmy and steal your Moto Guzzi. When we met up and started jogging, I said we should jog slow so we could talk better, but what I meant was we should jog slow so I wouldn't get a cramp and vomit. That was the only time I jogged that whole semester, which normally wouldn't be a problem, except my grade in my jogging class was based on how much faster I could run 1.5 miles at the end of the semester than I did at the beginning. I had unthinkingly posted a pretty decent time at the beginning of the semester, so I no choice but to just go all out during the "final exam" despite having jogged exactly one time since high school. I ended up beating everyone else in my class, but it came at a price. While the professor gave us our final lecture as we sat on the bleachers after the run, I just sat byself and dry heaved the whole time, then I was sick for like two months after that.

Later, me and Shannon got married, and on our honeymoon she was like, "Let's go for a jog together," not realizing that I did not, in fact, actually like to run at all. I had successfully dodged all of her invitations to jog with her after that initial jog, with excuses like, "Sorry, I just ran like eight miles yesterday so I'm kind of bushed -- want to just scratch my back instead?" and "Sounds fun but my workout clothes are in the wash and I don't actually own any workout clothes because I have never really worked out," and "Just ate an entire pizza less than 45 minutes ago, sorry," and -- after Shannon called back to ask again a couple hours later if I felt better and wanted to jog then -- "Dang, just ate another entire pizza, so, dang."

So Shannon invited me jogging on our honeymoon, and I was like, "I don't know how to tell you this, but I'm not who you think I am." And she was like, oh no he's going to cleave me with a battle axe, but then I just said, "I don't really like to run that much," and she was like, "Thank GOODNESS you don't have issues with the battle axe; I don't even care that you have lied all this time about liking to run."

So things worked out pretty well for me on that one. Until I got to be about 30, and my buddy Spencer was like, "You should come running with me, because you are portly." So I did, and Spencer ran outdoors on fun dirt trails, and I liked that. So I finally became the runner that I had hoodwinked Shannon into believing I was a decade before. And then I squished a disc between my vertabrae and had to get surgery, but that's a different story.

I was going to tell you about the sweet action Dead 2 Red relay race that I ran in Jordan from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea, but I got a little carried away with the backstory there, what with the dry heaving and the battle axe issues. So I'll cover the race in part two.

Commuting in Saudi Arabia (or, "No Time for Losers")

My commutes are usually pretty good. When I graduated from college and got my first job, I lived close enough to work that I could walk. I would walk through the verdant grounds of an apartment complex, then link up with a paved walking trail. Sometimes while I walked a cyclist would whir by and ring his sissy little bicycle bell all pansy-like, and I'd be like, "You're a girl!" Except without actually saying it, because I didn't want to get beat up.

Abu Halen has no time for losers who don't want peace. (2005)
Then, later, after I moved to the Middle East, I lived like a mile or two from work. I couldn't really walk, because maybe I would be mowed down by guys with machine guns in Nissan coups. I could've taken a taxi every day, but all the taxi drivers smoked all the time, and if I wanted to smell like smoke every day I'd start smoking, you know? But I didn't want to start smoking, because the Surgeon General and stuff, and I didn't want to take taxis, because then my wife would be like, "You smell like smoke. Did you stop listening to the Surgeon General?", and I couldn't walk, because machine guns, so I had to buy a car to drive the 1.5 miles to work. I actually tried to buy a moped, but I couldn't, because in Jordan no foreigners can ride mopeds, because of Mossad.

Now, here in Saudi Arabia, I have a real commute. It is both sucky and way cooler than yours, both at the same time. This is a streamlined account of my heckacool commute today. But first, here are the ground rules for commuting in Saudi Arabia:

1) You are the champion.
2) Everyone else are losers.
3) No time for losers, cuz you are the champion.

I ease out of the compound, past the Saudi dudes in pickup trucks with machine gun nests in the back. Usually the guys are sleeping, but still. I feel like driving past these guys always get my day off to a good start.

About a kilometer down the street, there's a gnarly traffic jam where the street funnels traffic down to one lane and shunts it into a 90 degree turn. I dart onto an empty side street to miss the backup, because I am very cunning, and also I am the champion. As soon as I turn the corner, there is a large van that is parked sideways across the narrow street, its front tires against one curb, its rear ones nearly touching the other. I do not know why this guy parked that way, but I know one thing: he is a loser. I lay on the horn, throw my driver's side tires on the sidewalk, and rumble -- mostly on the sidewalk -- past the loser in the van blocking the street. +1 for me. +0 for dumb losers.

I blow down the main highway toward work until like a thousand losers in their cars make another big traffic jam. There's no time for losers, so I bail down another side street like a champion. I buzz down this smaller road, swerving to avoid loser taxis that stop and throw it in reverse in the middle of the road, then I turn right at the Corner-That-Always-And-Inexplicably-Smells-Of-Poo. I expertly negotiate two roundabouts without slowing -- slowing down is a sign of weakness that other drivers will ruthlessly exploit -- and I find myself approaching the Awkward-Intersection-Where-If-You-Use-the-Right-Lane-Maybe-You-Will-Be-Stuck-Forever-Behind-Cars-Backed-Up-To-Use-the-Gas-Station (I am working on a shorter name for this intersection, but nothing else is quite as catchy). So I use the second-to-the-right-lane, but -- bad luck -- no one in the unbroken line of cars in the right lane is turning into the gas station, so I'm stuck approaching the intersection, needing to turn right, but being in the wrong lane to do so and being unable to merge into the correct lane. But I'm the champion, and everyone else are losers, so at the intersection, I turn right anyway, even though I'm in the wrong lane. The loser in the wimpy old Chevy Caprice that I totally cut off lays on his horn like he's all indignant or something. He may be indignant, but he's behind me. +1 for me. +0 for girly losers.

I'm steaking down a new street. Homeboy in front of me unexpectedly turns left, and I bob right onto the shoulder without slowing. Bust past him in a cloud of dust. I'm Muhammad Ali. He's Sonny Liston. I'm almost to work. It's just a few blocks south. Then, CONSTRUCTION! Bogus. I detour east, looking for a way to turn back south. There's a tiny street hidden in a clump of leafy trees. There's a "Do Not Enter -- One Way" sign at the entrance. I almost turn away. But no. I am the champion. There's no time for loser signs. So I throw my Yukon XL the wrong way down the one way street like a total bro. An insignificant Japanese car is coming my direction. I flash my brights, the international signal for "Regardless of what is lawful and what is not at this juncture in time, my vehicle will annihalate yours if it comes to a head-on, so be a chap and get out of my way." Insignificant Japanese Car moves over and I fly by like a glorious bald eagle soaring past a wet rat. +1 for me. + 0 for weak cheese losers.

I burst out of the alleyway onto the east-west main thoroughfare that leads straight to the Consulate, and an oncoming car swerves a little in surprise at my ostentatious and bodacious entry, probably because the driver is so moved by my audacious driving tactics that he simply has to let go of his steering wheel to clap loudly for me. +1 for me. +0 for outclassed, humbled losers.

I zoom past the Hospital-Where-People-Stand-And-Smoke-Outside. A couple of nurses are walking across the street like they own it. But they don't. I do. I lay on my horn and they glance up at the huge "GMC" grill bearing down on them and they contemplate death, and they fear it, so they get out of the way and I'm past them in a blur. +1 for me. +0 for intimidated pedestrian losers. And then I'm suddenly cruising through security at the Consulate and all the guards are cheering for me, throwing their hats in the air, along with fistfuls of confetti. I open the sunroof and emerge from it with my arms raised in a "V" for Victory.

And that's how I commuted to work today. It's all true, up until the part where the guards cheered for me. Everything after that is a lie. Really all the guards did was not close my rear driver's side door all the way after they checked the inside of my car, so all the way to my parking spot the "Door is Ajar" warning sound was beeping, and it was super annoying. But I'm still the champion.

Abu Halen Don't Play That (or "The System is the System")

I'd been waiting for several minutes at the counter while a flock of shoppers jostled and elbowed for position. I angled my cart toward the counter so the Yemeni guy could weigh my vegetables. A big lady in a black shroud edged the corner of her cart in front of mine. I could only see her eyes behind her hood and mask. She began plopping her bags of vegetables on the counter.

Dried onions and lamplight. Abu Halen plays that.
This used to bother me. I would silently command the uncivilized masses around me: Queue, people! Line up! Order! But it doesn't bother me anymore. The slapdash rush, the blocking out the competition, the avoiding eye contact while you totally blitz in front of everyone who has been waiting in line, it's the order of things. This is the system.

We were passing through a little stain of a town in the desert several months ago, hours from any real population center, me and a couple friends. The low concrete buildings were old and sad and dusty and the road was pocked and the air smelled like diesel. It was breakfast time. We pulled up to a gritty little corner shop and tromped inside. "Sorry, no women allowed," said the guy behind the counter, pointing at Rebecca, who, despite being appropriately cloaked to the point of being invisible, was nonetheless still guilty of being female. Lee pleasantly asked why not, even though he knew why, just to see what the guy would say. "Is it against the law?" Lee wondered. The guy behind the counter wasn't sure. Finally, he shrugged. "It's just the system. The system is the system," he said.

I have lived in Saudi Arabia for a mere blink of an eye. I understand the system at only the most superficial level. But what was shocking and fascinating 18 months ago is now commonplace, normal, the way of things. It's just the system.

I'm not proud of my vagabond impulse. About the time I become familiar with my surroundings to the point that life settles into a ho-hum routine, I'm ready to move on. It would be nice if I were different, because there is much of virtue and value in routines and putting down roots, in familiarity. But vagrancy, transience, they are my order of things. This is my system.

I didn't bat an eyelash when the lady in a shroud cut in front of me at the vegetable counter. I punched the corner of my cart in front of hers, body bumped a bald guy in a thobe out of my way, and hoisted my bag of bananas onto the counter, followed by my bag of lettuce, my tomatoes. I brushed Shroud Lady's stuff out of the way. Yemeni Vegetable Weigher Guy glanced at me and then started dropping my vegetables on the scale. In his glance, I thought maybe I detected just a hint of respect. I bet he was thinking, "Homeboy foreigner knows the system, man. And, also, sweet beard." Shroud Lady had thought Abu Halen was a rookie. She'd thought Abu Halen didn't know the system. She'd thought she could take advantage of Abu Halen's western politeness. Nuh-uh. Abu Halen don't play that.

Dads Can Solve Anything (or "Roadtrippin' to Mada'in Saleh")

By Abu Halen

Sometimes when you're a stranger in a foreign land, you experience curious, surreal moments of the outlandish. Here's one: Grace's six year old eyes are wide in alarm, and she's crouched behind a fire engine in a fleck of a town somewhere in the Arabian desert. Her dad is engaged in a shouting match in Arabic with a young firefighter. Dad pauses, turns to Grace in the shadows behind the truck, and yells, "Go ahead! Just pee! It's fine!" She starts to unbutton her pants. Then the firefighter yells something in Arabic at her, clearly intended to dissuade her from peeing, so she buttons her pants back up. Dad turns back to the firefighter and resumes yelling in Arabic, gesturing wildly, and the fireman yells back, and while he's yelling, Dad jerks his head back to Grace, "I said pee! Just do it!" So she nervously starts to unbutton her pants again, but then the fireman points and fires off another menacing Arabic tirade in her direction, so she buttons her pants back up. Dad furiously takes up again with the fireman in Arabic. Grace walks back toward the car, calling back over her shoulder to the two fighting men, "I don't have to go potty anymore." See? Dads can solve anything.

We were on a roadtrip to Mada'in Saleh, one of only two UNESCO world heritage sites in Saudi Arabia, which we've visited before and which I wrote about here and Shannon wrote about here. Read Shannon's version if you want to actually learn about Mada'in Saleh. Read mine if you love Cheap Trick and Uno.

I (heart) acacia trees.
Also on this trip, the kids had their first exposure to Janis Joplin. "Who is this screaming lady?" Savannah called from the back seat. "Janis Joplin," I said. "Planet Chocolate?" she said. "I like this song."

Since we scoured Mada'in Saleh pretty thoroughly last time we visited, this time we focused on other sites in the area. There's an old mud city a half hour south, which was built back to the 13th century and occupied up until the 1980s. The kids enjoyed exploring the labyrinthian hallways and former homes of the city. Halen discovered that the roofs made of flimsy palm fronds can support a small eight-year old boy, which is good because if they didn't, he would've discovered that gravity supports no one, and also that there are no decent hospitals in this desolate corner of the Saudi Kingdom.

Elephant Rock is a hulking monolith in the desert southeast of Mada'in Saleh. I snapped photos of the boulder for awhile. Grace made mounds of sand in the dust. After twenty minutes, I went to collect Savannah and Halen. They were just pinpricks of color climbing a distant mountain of sandstone. I trudged across the dirt and rock, the cold wind snapping at my jeans, the weak sun gamely shining but warming little. The only sound was the wind and my crunchy footfalls, and I gazed around myself at the harsh, dazzling expanse of dust, rock, and blazing blue sky. Saudi Arabia. Curious and surreal. 

Saudi Arabia Travel Log: Al Tayibat Museum (Jeddah)


By Shannon

Abu Halen took me to a museum today, which is a big thing because it doesn’t happen very often. He’s not a fan of museums, but as he ages he seems to have become more persuadable about things like this. Museums, and onions. Frankly, the onions are a bigger victory than the museum visits, because I use them constantly, and they make food so much tastier.

This museum we visited is called Al Tayibat. I’d say it’s housed in a mansion, but I think it’s too big for that descriptor. So instead I’ll say it’s housed in a really fancy, old-fashioned Arab complex. Only part of the complex belongs to the museum. The other part is for a Koranic school. Al Tayibat’s exterior woodwork is impressive and deserves a decent half hour of admiration. The interior is divided into about 300 rooms that are crammed with stuff, in a way that makes you wonder whether the curator is one of those people who has lots of wildly creative and sometimes promising ideas but lacks follow-through. So walls are covered in anachronistic collages of modern art mixed with traditional art mixed with bright flower wall stencils mixed with photos from the early 20th century. The old Bedouin attire—even men’s clothing—is displayed on headless female mannequin bodies (sometimes with scant wigs sticking out from under the head coverings).

This museum is not just a glimpse into the past, it’s a glimpse into someone’s really eclectic mind. So it’s fascinating on a few levels. Some of the rooms, like the Koran room, are well designed. So is the room that displays embroidered textiles that once adorned the Kaaba. The hall of ancient vessels is also remarkable, with pieces from across the Middle East that range in age from the 800s AD to the 1950s (and those two pieces, of course, are displayed next to each other, at the shadowy bottom of a display case).

My favorite floor groups artifacts by region—there’s a room for Riyadh, where you feel like you’re walking into a tent where a bunch of headless and lethargic Beduin are having tea. The Jeddah room is laid out like a simple mud home, with one side for the headless men and another for the headless women. (Honestly, I preferred headlessness: tooling around the simulated homes would have been much creepier if mannequins had been staring me down.) The best rooms are those for the southern Hijaz, around Abha. This is the most colorful region in Saudi Arabia. For that reason, it’s perhaps the most attractive to Westerners. The homes are colorful too, their interiors painted in bright and intricate designs. It was in the Abha rooms that Abu Halen snapped a shot of garlic and onion braids in the light. . . . Which brings us back to our oniony beginning to close this blog post with a bit of random poetics.

What the Media Doesn't Show; or, Kimchi Is Not Actually Bad

Syria, 2003. No signs of fear--bad media day.
At a Korean luncheon for international women last week, I sat with a Singaporean and a Hungarian. Madam Hungary (who has sweated out a coup in Kenya and two Gulf wars in Saudi Arabia) had been musing on how the media skews our perception of peril. That, of course, brought up my standby story about how I first learned the power of the media:

We lived in Syria a dozen years ago. When we first set out for Damascus, my dad had grown uncharacteristically emotional, and I don’t think it was just because he was going to miss us. I think he was genuinely afraid that we were going to have our throats slit or fall victim to a suicide bomber.

To be honest, I didn’t think those scenarios were entirely unlikely. But for both of us the biggest fear was not so much for my husband and me but for the seven-month-old baby we were bringing along. She was 50 percent of my dad’s grandbabies back then.

Our experience in Syria was unforgettable, in good ways and bad. On the good days we spent time with friends and explored the country. On the bad days we holed up in our sweltering apartment and watched Al-Jazeera on television, trying (usually ineffectively) to follow the Arabic but getting the gist of world news mostly from the images.

After months passed and the time for our departure approached, our Syrian friends expressed their dismay at our decision to return to the U.S. “Why don’t you stay here?” they asked. “You have a baby to consider, after all. . . . Aren’t you afraid to raise her in a dangerous country like the U.S.?”

If this question had been posed to me at the beginning of our time in Syria, I would have laughed. Or, if I were in a more polite mood, I’d have logged it in my mental list of party stories—right next to the one where I describe my home state of Idaho as being “near California.”

But I didn’t laugh. Instead, my stomach spun. They were right, I worried. I did have a baby to consider. Syria was eerily safe (that's the upside of repressive dictatorships), and the U.S. honestly was so full of guns and fighting, immorality, law breaking, and deceit. Hadn’t I seen dozens of news spots showing real footage—indisputable evidence—of the hazards inherent in living in the U.S.? The thought of taking my baby there honestly did make me think twice about leaving Syria.

This is the part in my story where I stop and laugh incredulously, because of course the U.S. isn’t as dangerous as Al-Jazeera made it appear. Although news footage of America's dangers abound, as an American I have never seen such dangers. It’s only certain places that are dangerous, and certain activities that are fraught with peril. Obviously! But I had been completely taken in by what the media had portrayed as day-to-day life in the States, even as an American whose experience had proved that U.S. can indeed be a very safe place to grow up.

I realized at that moment, while sucking the kimchi from my teeth, that I’ve told this story only to Americans before. Otherwise, I would have been prepared for Madam Singapore’s sober response: “But the U.S. is dangerous! Everyone has guns. I would NOT want to live there.” I coughed.

Okay, so, cultural miscommunication on my part. My story obviously didn’t convey my intent. Madam Hungary stepped in graciously here to reaffirm that the media really does play tricks on our perceptions. The truth is that the places that the media makes out to be dangerous are often more regular than irregular. Outside of the pockets of unrest or disaster, people are getting on with their lives—buying groceries, having birthday parties, attending college classes, going to work. The media doesn’t show us the stuff that would give us a balanced view of reality; it shows us the stuff that will keep us tuned in.

I'd never eaten kimchi before that Korean luncheon, perhaps partially because whenever I'd heard the word it was always wrapped up in the phrase "bad kimchi." But you know what? It wasn't bad at all.