Life Happening, Part 1 (or, "Sleeping Man & Sleeping Cat")

I have lived in Saudi Arabia for nearly two years now. A mere eyeblink, really. An airplane will take me away in a few weeks. So I find myself pausing more often, looking closer, listening harder, talking less, trying to absorb as much as I can in the time I have left. The heat and the water vapor, the car horns and garish storefront lights, the harsh, pungent smells of gasoline and sewage and salt water and sweat. The everyday rhythm and motion of humanity. It's low and earthy and raw and human. It's ugly and beautiful -- and to me that's the best kind of beautiful. Because it's real.

Old City, Jeddah. 2014.
I've met a few princes and princesses and fabulously wealthy barons of industry during my time in Jeddah. I have shaken their bejeweled hands, visited their opulent palaces, lounged in their plush offices, dined at their sprawling seafront homes. Without exception, they are pleasant people. But they're not real, at least not to me. I cannot relate to the way the universe revolves around them, and they cannot relate to paying bills, shopping for groceries, or having others tell them no. So, to me, they are surreal, even unreal. They are caricatures. I can't siphon any meaning from that. There is no life in it.

It is in the unguarded, often unexpected, moments that life happens. I often miss them because I'm not paying attention. Too busy being busy. So I try to ease up, watch, hear, think.

African men with blank, bored expressions operate the mechanical barriers that control access to my housing compound. They typically slouch in white plastic chairs beside the button that raises the drop arm, absently seeing us approach in our large, expensive cars. Then they press the button, and the drop arm goes up, and we drive through and go home, and they stay there.

One day I slowly approached a barrier, checking my email on my phone, thinking of schedules and places besides where I was. I rolled to a stop in front of the drop arm, glanced up from my phone. The drop arm didn't rise. I looked around for the attendant. In the shade of his guard shack I spotted him, asleep in his plastic white chair, a stray kitten curled up in this lap. His dark hand rested on the kitten's dirty white fur. They were real. Unposed. Candid. Caught in the act of life. I paused and watched, content. And my car idled.

Abu Halen Meets Franz Beckenbauer (or, "Godzilla Loves Cher")

I don't really have a topic meaty enough to expand into a full post. In reality, I probably could drag one of the following snippets out into 750 word missive -- one of my talents is using a lot of words to say very little. Sometimes in law school I would raise my hand to make a comment, and afterward the person next to me would lean over and say something like, "You just monologued for four minutes and I'm not sure what you said." And I would respond with something like, "That is because you are stupid." Then, when grades came out a few months later, and mine were really mediocre, the person sitting next to me would lean over and say, "You just went to law school for a whole semester, and it seems from your grades as though you're not sure what anyone said." It's funny how life can be circular like that. Not the "ha ha" kind of funny, but more the "let's get depressed and eat a whole block of cheese in one sitting" kind of funny.

Here are a couple snippets.

None of these guys (the lady excepted) knows much of anything. (Syria, 2003)
-- I have a pet gecko. I named him Geico, which I think is kind of an ironic, hipster name, because I don't actually use Geico insurance, so that makes it ironic that I named my gecko Geico. I think. I don't in reality fully understand the meaning of the word "ironic." Neither do hipsters, but at least I can admit it. I think this makes me a post-hipster, because I'm so uncool, and I concede that I'm uncool, and that ultimately makes me really, really cool. I am pretty sure that's how post-hipster-ism works.

My pet gecko lives in my house, but I'm never really sure where I'll find him. Usually he's on the wall in my bedroom by the air conditioner. I think he likes the music I play when I'm getting ready for bed (usually Cher, despite the fact that her voice gives me nightmares). One time though when I was drying off after a shower, I looked down and Geico was hanging out right next to my little toe. I freaked out, because the first thing that comes to mind when I see a lizard is Godzilla, and Geico scurried away. I don't see him as much anymore. Maybe I'm not playing Cher loudly enough.

-- The Ambassador called me on the phone the other day. I said, "Hello," and he said, "Hi, this is Franz Beckenbauer." And I said, "This sounds a lot like the Ambassador," and he said, "No, this is Franz Beckenbauer," and I said, "I don't know a Franz Beckenbauer." So he said, "You don't?" And I said, "I don't think so. Are you sure this isn't the Ambassador?" And he said, "Yeah, this is the Ambassador. How do you not know who Franz Beckenbauer is?" And I said, "I don't really watch a lot of reality TV dealing with food," because I thought Franz Beckenbauer sounds like someone who would be a chef. The Ambassador explained that Franz Beckenbauer is a famous former German soccer player, kind of like Germany's Pele. I could not possibly have known this, because I don't follow soccer. But the Ambassador was under the impression that I do in fact follower soccer, because earlier in the day I had printed out a copy of the week's World Cup schedule for him. I tried to patch things up by saying, "I do follow Pearl Jam quite religiously," but I don't think that helped things very much. Now I'm going to forever be known in the U.S. diplomatic community as "The Guy Who Doesn't Even Know Who Franz Beckenbauer Is."

Crossing Off the Days (or, "Stuff Edward Scissorhands Cannot Do")

My daughter is super talented. She made a calendar a few months ago. Out of paper and markers. It's harder than it sounds, what with all the drawing straight lines and counting the right number of days of the week and making sure the numbering is correct. Not just anyone can do it. Edward Scissorhands, for instance, cannot do it.

My daughter hung her calendar up on the wall and faithfully crossed off each day as it passed, counting down the boxes until she was going to get to leave Saudi Arabia. For, like, evah. Not because Saudi Arabia isn't a great place to live, because it is, if you like heat and dudes with nightsticks policing your behavior. Unfortunately, my daughter doesn't like those things -- don't worry she is starting therapy this week -- so she was pretty excited to leave, for, like, evah.

On the calendar box containing her departure date, she wrote in big capital letters, "WE LEAVE!!" I was less excited for her departure date than she was, because I didn't get to go back home with the family. Evidently the government requires its employees to work at least two out of every three months? So I had to stay behind and work for two more months before Uncle Sam will loosen the pursestrings and pay for my plane ticket home.

There they go. There they go again.
Finally, my little girl had crossed off all the days up to her big departure day. I threw nine bags, one wife, and four kids into the back of our Suburban at 8:30 p.m. -- the children are still small enough that they think it's normal to be thrown in the car, but my wife sometimes protests and calls me "brute" or "scoundrel" when I chuck her in the car. I rather like those labels. They make me feel like an English dockman. Or a member of the Sex Pistols (maybe just a roadie for the Sex Pistols).

When we arrive, the Jeddah airport is a zoo of humanity, the way it always is. There is no order. There are no parking spaces. Cars park anywhere. Everywhere. Dudes are leaning up against their idling cars, smoking. Their cars are idling in the middle of most lanes of the drop off zone. Guys honk and drive in reverse. Pilgrims are pushing carts stacked with Zamzam water -- water from the sacred Zamzam well in Mecca. They're taking the water home with them, a souvenir. Shannon comments that water is a funny thing for Saudi Arabia to export. She's so witty, that Shannon. I want to hug her, but we are in Saudi Arabia, so I just look at her fondly, but not too fondly, because, Saudi Arabia.

The guy at the check-in counter checks our bags and hands us five boarding passes. There are six of us, I silently and sadly note, but I don't get a boarding pass because I'm not leaving. I think the guy at the check-in counter did his job far too quickly and efficiently. Why couldn't he take 45 minutes to figure out our e-tickets, like they did last year when we were trying to leave on vacation? Then I could hang out with my family for an extra hour.

I can't go past the gate to the passport check lines. So I stand and watch until Shannon and her four little ducklings get lost in the swirl of people, and they're gone. It's one of those moments where you're in the middle of a cacophonous crush of thousands of people, amid furious noise and motion, but you're still all alone somehow.

The house is empty and quiet when I get back from the airport. I stand in the dark for a minute, thinking how everything is where I left it, how no curious little hands will be misplacing my stuff for the next two months, how no little voices will disturb me for the next two months. The thought makes me blue.

I flip on the light and I notice my daughter's calendar, hanging just a little crookedly on the wall behind the front door where she left it, dangling by a single strip of badly cut tape. She crossed off all the days, except today. She forgot to cross off today before she left, to draw a big, happy X through her "WE LEAVE!!" announcement.

I read something once in the Dad Handbook about how you're supposed to share in your children's happiness, even if they're happy about something that makes you kind of sad. So I swallow the lump in my throat and I find a big, fat marker, and I cross off her last box for her. Done. Good job, Susu!

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.

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.  

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.

On Moving On


A couple of evenings ago we visited friends who live in the compound where we stayed for a month when we first arrived in Jeddah. It’s a lovely cluster of villas—very green, quiet, and bright with the song of birds exulting in their discovery of this oasis in a brown-baked, desiccated, tumbling-down city. Like a true Arab garden, it’s an escape from the reality beyond its walls, with a central area that feels more like a luxury resort than the community pool.

Our temporary home there was just as lovely as you’d expect. But despite that, and although I really like our friends at that compound, I can’t say that I miss living there.

There was, for instance, the smell of cat urine in one of the kitchen cabinets. I was not sad at all to move away from that. And there were the hobbit-size washer and dryer whose buttons and knobs were marked with obscure hieroglyphics. And there was the roof-mounted water tank that made scalding-hot showers even when you had turned on only the cold water.

These sorts of challenges make moving seem very appealing. In our current house, it’s the ants that will blunt the sorrow of moving. I will not miss examining my clothes every time I pull them from the drawer, knowing that I’ve overlooked the one who’s going to bite me soon after I’ve dressed. In a way, I guess I can be thankful for how the challenges emotionally prepare me to move on.

Sometimes when I’m balancing my baby on my hip so that I can tickle every last giggle out of her, I’m struck with the thought that she is likely my last baby. But then there are the not-so-good things about having a baby. For instance, the way that any pencil she finds is quickly put to use on the nearest flat surface—that annoyance will make it easier to watch my baby grow up. And the way she refuses to sleep anywhere but in her own bed, so that long airplane rides are a nightmare? Yeah, that too.

It all makes me wonder whether God is rather pleased with Himself for having thought up the ailments of old age. Or the angst of the teenage years. Or the complete exhaustion that you feel at the end of your mission or the end of your university experience. Or the way you feel tired even at the end of the most wonderful days. It all makes moving on so much easier.
 

"What an Adventure!" and Other Euphemisms

Happy Bangladeshi guy


When we first announced that we would be serving our first Foreign Service tour in Saudi Arabia, people would invariably respond, “What an adventure!” That, of course was a euphemism for “Wow, that’s really going to suck!” Most people don’t want to tell you that the next couple of years life are going to be crappy; they want to spare your feelings. And bless their hearts for that.

I do the same. Just before we last left the States, I met a couple that was bound for Abuja, Nigeria. Abuja had also been on our bid list, so Joey and I had researched it extensively. And you know I responded, “Wow, what an adventure, huh?”

That “huh?” was strategic. Unless you’re talking to someone who has Asperger’s, a “huh?” turns the conversation back over to the other person so that you have time to gather some positive thoughts that will temporarily allay their misgivings about their bad luck.

Euphemisms are important social tools. We hear them all the time, although I find that they differ somewhat by region and culture.

Old City, Jeddah
For example, when we moved from Utah to Virginia, every time I went out in public with my four children, complete strangers would say (with this exact phrasing!): “You have your hands full, don’t you?” And that of course meant, “You have reproduced more times than our society deems is normal. It’s only fair that you’re being publicly humiliated and/or exasperated by your children right now.”

But I knew they meant well, of course, because they tagged that “don’t you?” to the end of their question so that I would nod and we’d both feel solidarity in our mutual agreement. Then I’d at least have that cheery feeling of camaraderie to get me through the next few minutes of hell with my kids. . . . And that’s thoughtful in it’s own way, you know?

In all honesty, I’m not offended by any of these euphemisms. Yes, they’re easily deconstructed in an “I’m Eeyore the Postmodernist” kind of way, but they reveal a good heart.

Eeyore was not a healthy donkey although he was surrounded with wonderful friends (one of whom showed commendable resilience despite being named “Pooh”). It’s much better—and much healthier for everyone—to laugh than to take offense. One of the really wonderful things about human existence is that we get to choose our responses to life, wherever it happens to take us.

What's Behind Door Number 1--wait for iiiit . . . wait for iiiit!


Just before we turned out the lights last night, Abu Halen's inbox lit up with the email hehad been waiting for. It was the message that would reveal our future, prognosticating, two years in advance, where we will move in 2015. For two people who have spent so much of their married life flying by the seat of our pants, two years’ lead time on a new post is more than a little amazing.

When Abu Halen asked whether I wanted to wait until the morning to open it, I shook my head at his silly question. No way, Jose.

Scrolling down the email message to the punch line, I marveled at how much this moment felt as though we were opening a mission call. And when we saw the destination, we were no less thrilled than we had been as young adults on the brink of a dramatic life change. It was just what we had hoped for: our number one pick! And thank heavens we have two years to prepare--we're going to need it! 

Stay tuned to find out the exciting conclusion to this story. . . .

Bidding in the Foreign Service; or, Girl Scout Cookies Can't Come Fast Enough

From the many . . .
New officers in the Foreign Service start bidding on their next post a couple of years before they actually arrive there. The bid list is like a menu of Girl Scout cookies that you've never tasted but have only heard of. And because you want to spend your calories and money wisely, you are determined to choose only the best. You spend two weeks poring over your options; asking friends if they’ve ever been to X, Y, or Z; emailing strangers who have actually been to X, Y, or Z; and researching the smithereens out of your options.

From a bid list of 50 to 100 viable options, you are required to bid on 30 posts, listed in order of preference. Your first glance over the list is like grocery shopping while pregnant: some options are thrillingly tantalizing, and some options make you dry heave.

You start circling the really awesome-sounding posts and crossing off the lame ones. Once you make your first pass through the list, you realize that beyond coolness versus lameness, you must consider other factors, such as
  • Do you have time to learn a new language between the end of your current job and the start of the advertised job?
  • Do you want to take it easy at a posh post where you get no R&Rs, you’ll spend more than you can earn, and you won’t be able to find a vehicle large enough for your family?
  • Are the high-danger (but cool) posts really as dangerous as they say, and if so, are you prepared to deal with that?
  • Will schools be adequate for your children, and if they are, are their classmates more likely to accept them or to bully them?

After these considerations, you must also ask a host of questions about the job responsibilities, the size of the embassy or consulate, the special challenges and advantages of living in this foreign culture, whether you’ll have access to necessities (eggs, milk, safe meat, etc.) and wants (the internet, a pouch system that ships your orders from the U.S., comfort foods, a church group), and so on.

The decision is extremely complex, so in addition to considerable prayer, you have to start to develop a strategy by deciding what’s most important to you: learning a certain language, living in a place that’s safe for a family, choosing a country with great schools, freedom of religion, climate and environment, being in the same time zone as your extended family, yummy ethnic food. You know—the essentials.

Finally you construct a list of 30 options. You think about it for a day, and then you take options off, put new ones on, and rearrange the order. After another day, you do the same thing. Then you reread the bidding rules, you realize you messed up, and you start again from scratch.

. . . to the one
The day before the final bid list is due, you’re having serious conversations with your spouse. You’re tweaking the order of your bids and making sure they all align with your strategy. You’re a little dizzy at the realization that one of the posts that made you dry-heave two weeks ago is now at the tippy-top of your list.
You simultaneously fear and hope that you’ll be awarded this post. And if not, you fear and hope that you’ll be awarded number two on your list. All the while, you remind yourself that you could very well be assigned to number 9 or number 16 or any other number on your list (but hopefully not, even though each could be awesome in its own way).

Finally, you submit your bid list. And you wait and wait and wait until you forget that you’re waiting. After that, I don’t really know what happens, but I’ll keep you posted.



The Art of the Shrug

We Americans, we want things our way. We want the waiter to read our minds and fill up my empty glass of Coke but don't come around when I'm in the middle of a sentence but why did you bring me A1 when I clearly want Heinz 57 but go away but come back oh the waiter sucked so hard so, bad dog, no tip. And we want the stoplight to be green, and if it's not sometimes we cuss at it, because that makes it turn green. And we want products to be high quality and low price, except the products we sell, which we want to be low quality and high price, and if it's not my way, then you are an idiot and where is your manager I want to talk to her.

"I see you shrugging, and I think it's awesome."
We Americans really ought to learn the art of the shrug. Especially abroad, where our culture and values and economics are not part and parcel of the rules people play by. The art of the shrug is simple and can be summarized in three easy steps:

1. Other person acts in way I do not want them to OR other society operates in way I do not want it to.
2. I want to swear or berate someone or stomp my feet or otherwise demand adherence to my cultural norms
3. Instead, I shrug and move on with life.

There are plenty of oddities to shrug at when you're overseas, and if you don't shrug enough, you could find yourself making a scene in a shop or restaurant, yelling in English at someone who doesn't speak English, surrounded by other horrified people who don't speak English, and guess who looks stupid in that scenario? You. Don't lose your gasket. Keep it on tight. Practice the shrug.

I walk into an internet provider shop in a big mall. The dude behind the counter is messing with his phone. I ask about internet packages, and after he's listed them off I say they're all pretty expensive. He points at a competitor's shop across the way. "They're way cheaper," he says. "Better deals too." Wha-?  This is what no commission sounds like, I guess.

After I've filled out the paperwork, the sales guy hands me my router and sim card. I hand him my credit card. "Cash only," he says. Wha-? What year is it again? Am I not in the biggest mall I've ever seen, anywhere? I head to the ATM. Broken. A quarter-mile down the corridor another ATM is out of service as well. I walk another half-mile through the mall and find two more broken ATMs. Wha-? Where do you get cash in this cash-only economy?

I look around absently like a guy who has no cash and who really needs some to buy a stupid internet package so he can use VOIP to call the lady in Washington who says he owes a thousand bucks for a health insurance policy from back in 2009 that he didn't know he had.

A plain-clothes Filipino guy ambles up and announces he can fix the ATM. I'm like, Okay guy. Let's see it. He produces a key, unlocks the machine, and pulls it open. I'm impressed. He reaches inside and starts fiddling with stuff, then he jerks his hand out like a reverse lightning strike and shouts in pain. This is what getting electrocuted looks and sounds like. Another guy standing around laughs and says, "Good for your heart!" The Filipino guy smiles and sticks his hands back in the machine for another few hundred volts. I'm okay with this. His lack of neurological dexterity is really none of my concern so long as he makes cash start flowing pretty soon.

Ten minutes later I'm back in the internet provider shop, paying for my internet service just before the shop closes at noon for prayer. The guy takes my money, passes me my router and sim, and says, "Next time you're around, stop in for your receipt." Wha-? And for a final wha-?, as I'm leaving he's like, "God willing, your internet will turn on in six hours. As soon as I'm back after prayers I'll turn it on, God willing."

God willing, I won't punch you in the face, internet guy. God willing, I'll just shrug and smile at how weird it was that it took me three hours to buy a router.

When Life Gives You Nasty Hose Water

I was at a church picnic last summer where everybody chipped in to put it on. The conversation was comforting, burgers were juicy, the salads were savory, and the lemonade tasted like hose water—like really old hose water, actually. The kind of hose water that has been sitting inside an old rubber tube all day long, in the blazing sun. 

The woman who had made the lemonade was a dear friend, so we all sipped politely and tried to not to think about the drink's nastiness. We would have continued this way all evening if it weren't for Sister Harvey, who was far too old to bother with tact. She turned to the lemonade maker, placed a kind hand on her shoulder, and suggested, "Sweet thing,” (she calls everybody “sweet thing,” because she’s also too old to remember new-fangled names) “You've got to let that hose run for a while before you make your lemonade! Just let it run on out!" All of us had a good laugh. We poured out the nasty lemonade and started over again.

It occurred to me that life is sometimes like that hose water—sometimes it just takes some patience before it gets good enough to swallow.

Moving to a new country can be that way, especially when you don't have your network of friends and family near. It’s not until then that we realize how much we count on them to remind us of why we're lovable or interesting or funny or responsible or whatever it is that makes us feel good. With time, though, those kinds of relationships form again in new ways with new people. And life is sweet again.

Across the Atlantic



Last week I held my baby in my arms all the way across the Atlantic. To my delight (and that of our fellow passengers), she slept for most of the flight. Violet’s siblings were also remarkably well behaved, and many travelers complimented them.

Idea of the day: bucket carry-on--you never know when baby'll need a bath.
But those were the travelers who probably failed to overhear Halen loudly declare, “I’m glad I’m not bald!” as we were settling into our seats. Smiling at his perennial randomness, I commented, “Me too!” And then I bit my tongue when I realized that in the seat in front of us, a bald passenger was stowing his bags. It was he, I realized too late, who must have been the inspiration for Halen’s observation. Shoot.


We passed through a lot of turbulence on our longest flight. I thought the baby was enjoying the rocking, but I was wrong. Just as we were preparing to land, she threw up all over herself and me, despite my efforts to catch the vomit in a blanket (my apologies to any United flight attendants out there!). Although I had an extra change of baby clothes handy, I was not so prepared with my own clothing, and so I wore baby's vomit all the way to Saudi Arabia. 

We deplaned into a wall of sauna-like air in Jeddah. The children followed us like ducks, and Abu Halen and I followed security guards like ducks as we traversed the airport from one desk to another until somebody finally realized what to do with our passports. Eventually, however, we emerged back into the hot night, and our little crew of welcomers packed us into vans. Easy peasy. 

 

On Moving and Kids and Truckers (or "Live Long and Prosper")

We've moved from our rental house in Arlington to a too-ritzy-for-our-pocketbook-were-it-not-for-per-diem hotel closer to the airport. In a day or two a big jet will whisk us over the ocean and chapter one will begin.

I say chapter one, but the truth is we're somewhere in the middle of this book. Chapter one was probably when Shannon and I sat in front of a videographer scant minutes after being married and he filmed us answering hackneyed questions about where we saw ourselves in the future. We told the guy we were travelers. But of course it was bunk. We weren't travelers. I'd taken a couple Arabic classes and Shannon had studied abroad, but lots of students with those credentials go on to manage old peoples' mutual funds and process insurance claims in offices in strip malls in St. Louis. We weren't travelers. We were a couple of kids in wedding atire fidgeting awkwardly on camera and articulating cliches in snippets that would later be set to awful elevator music and presented to us in VHS format.

But pages have turned and it turns out that cars and airplanes have indeed carried us a lot of places I didn't expect to go as a kid on a bike on my childhood dead-end street. Sometimes I'd ride four houses down to where the pavement met the cherry orchards and I'd gaze at Mt. Hood, an 11,000 foot behemoth that rose thirty miles to the west. The dead-end street seemed like a mistake, like the street used to just keep on going all the way to the mountain's snow-capped peak, but that someone who hated little kids and didn't want them riding their bikes to awesome places had severed the road right there so I couldn't get more than four houses from home and wouldn't be late for dinner. But I was pretty content on the dead-end street. I wasn't born a traveler.

We moved away from my safe little street when I was six to a dirty highway junction where Interstate 84 crosses Highway 97. It wasn't a city, wasn't a town, just a junction. Two motels, a couple gas stations, and a pretty decent restaurant with french fries that I think tasted better than anything I've had since. My parents managed one of the motels. We lived in quarters behind the front desk. I attended a little school five miles down the highway where they combined first and second grades to make a class big enough to warrant hiring a teacher. 

I guess my parents might've been nervous to move me from the cozy dead-end to a motel in a place that was little more than a big truck stop. But I thought it was great. I had my own pool. The restaurant across the highway had Centipede and Frogger, and the waitresses thought I was cute when I stood on my tippy toes to play the arcade games, so they'd give me free ice cream. I discovered sunflower seeds at the gas station minimart next door. I explored the rocky slope behind the motel where with every inch you climbed grasshoppers leapt like brown and yellow sparks from the crags between the rocks.

Sometimes I worry that changing my kids' surroundings all the time will stunt them somehow. Turn them into maladjusted, psychotic villans that laugh whilst they swing cats by the tail or, worse, that they'll mistakenly believe that it's cool to listen to Katy Perry. We moved them from a cozy old house with a backyard and a rope swing to a temporary rental where they slept in the basement with cave crickets, and we sent them to a new school for a mere three weeks and then pulled them out to move to a hotel, and then, a few days later, to another foreign country, where they'll merge with a new school in midstream. And sometimes I feel nervous about it .


But then I remember the motel on the highway all those years ago, rubbing shoulders with the tobacco-chewing truckers at the minimart. I never said to my parents, "Listen, Mom, Dad, this whole living in a motel thing is fantastic. Really. I have my own swimming pool." But the truth is I was a happy kid. Children are flexible. They bend and they roll, and it's usually all okay. So I try not to worry too much my cute little nomads. They'll live -- hopefully long -- and prosper.

What's A-100 Like? (or "Taking a Bath in a Suit and Tie")

Everyone wants to know what A-100 is like. I use the term "everyone" loosely here, seeing as how nobody has asked me what A-100 is like. But, as someone who once had a passing thought about considering a career in hard-hitting journalism, I answer the unasked questions, just like tarot card readers and schizophrenics. So I'll tell you what A-100 is like. It's fine, thanks.

Ducks just wanna know what A-100 is like (and have fun).
We had a field trip to Capitol Hill last week. I emerged from the Union Station metro stop just as the rain-heavy clouds exploded all over Washington DC. I wasn't quite sure which direction was which, and whipping out my phone for directions in the frantic rain would've been akin to throwing it in a goldfish pond. So I struck out in a random direction and hoped I was right, but I wasn't. Ten minutes later I was still meandering aimlessly, my suited and tied self completely drenched. It may be true that not all who wander are lost, but some who wander are lost. I soon bumped into a colleague with an umbrella and I was like, "Wherever you are going, I am going with you. You are my Moses." And my Moses led me to the Senate building, where I holed up in the men's bathroom for 20 minutes with the warm hand dryer so when the congressional staffers came to talk to us I wouldn't look like I just took a bath in my suit.

One of my favorite things about suburban Northern Virginia is the paved running/biking trails. There are so many of them that they need lanes, road signs, and intersections. I went running a couple Saturdays ago at about eight in the morning and I swear there was more traffic on the trails than on Interstate 66. I kept getting passed by guys in spandex on bikes and sweaty runners in expensive running clothes. And I kept passing people with dogs so huge that they'd have a fighting chance in a cage match with a Howitzer. 

I confess I felt a bit like a hobo in my thrift store running outfit. My running shirt advertises dental services and has a smiley sunshine on the front beneath the slogan "Wake Up to a Brand New Smile." Maybe I was hyper sensitive, but it sure seemed like people -- and their dogs -- were doing an awful lot of double-taking at my shirt. I think I need to go get myself a respectable running shirt like everyone else, one that siphons moisture away from your body and converts hydrocarbons into nitro that you can use for speed boosts, just like Prefontaine.

Happy Hour Neophytes (or "Slamming Coke With Few New Bros")

I'd never been to a happy hour, mostly because I don't drink but also because I'm only truly happy when someone's playing Color Me Badd really loud, which has happened only rarely at happy hours in the past twenty years. But I really want to be a "team player" with my new colleagues, so I sycophantically followed a large cadre to a bar in DC after work one Friday.

I tried to look cool, like I do this kind of stuff all the time. Tried not to look confused at the variety of hoses snaking from nozzles to deep wells of beer in the dark bowels beneath the counter. Tried not to get distracted by the subtitled golf tournament on the big flat screen behind the bar. No one else was watching the aristocratic men in silly white trousers or reading the subtitles -- must not be cool to do that at happy hours. Tried not to feel dismayed and panicky that no one was sitting at those perfectly good tables and booths. We have to stand for the whole hour?

A watched a couple veterans go before me. Belly up to the bar. Order a drink. Throw down your credit card. Sign the curly receipt. Take one immediate drink. If you quickly strike up a conversation, wait several minutes before taking another drink. If no one wants to talk to you, look cool, take another quick drink, and casually watch golf. Check. This is easy.

So I bellied up to the bar. Ordered a Coke. Bartender guy with edgy tattoos up and down his forearm expertly pointed a nozzle down my glass and filled it. I undid the wrist buttons on my dress shirt and rolled it up to display the edgy moles up and down my forearm, so just so bartender guy knew he wasn't the only edgy one around. I slammed a shot of my Coke and looked around for other edgy diplomats with whom I could discuss edgy topics, like do you think Japanese is harder than Mandarin and what's up with Snoop Lion?

I decided I'd go ahead and order dinner as long as I'm here. Burger and fries, please. I got all the trimmings on the burger because I don't need my new colleagues making fun of me for eating plain hamburgers. But this is where I blew it on the whole happy hour etiquette thing -- I don't think you're supposed to order entrees at happy hours.

A waiter brought me my massive plate with a pile of fries and a yurt of a hamburger while I was acting cool with a few new bros, nursing my Coke, you know? The waiter left and I was standing there holding a huge plate, and a curtain of silence sort of fell on the circle of few new bros. "So, you gonna eat that?" one of them said. "Yeah, I guess," I said as casually as I could. I plucked a fry from the pile like it was a Jenga piece and munched it. My new bros seemed to figure I was cool standing there holding a big entree instead of a drink, so conversation resumed.

But I ran into trouble when I finished my fries and started sizing up my burger. How am I going to eat this massive burger yurt one-handed? I thought. Like any good juris doctor I analyzed the problem from every angle. There was no solution. It couldn't be done. I had no choice. I excused myself from the circle of few new bros, parked it at the empty bar, and ate my burger alone while watching golf. That's how awesome I am.