Saturday, December 29, 2007


Here are three things that I recently found out about the human race. I wish I hadn’t.

1. On our driving trip from Tucson up to Idaho, we stopped at the Tempe IKEA for lunch. We parked in the family-friendly parking section up front, and went inside to grab some food from the bistro. We ate it outside on the grass next to the family-friendly parking section so that Miriam could have maximum opportunity to stretch her legs. While we were there, we saw no fewer than three vehicles pull up and park in the family-friendly section – and then a lone adult with no child inside got out and walked into the store.

It’s possible that, in some corner of my mind, I knew, or at least suspected, that such people existed. But I certainly never thought they’d be the kind of person who would shop at IKEA.

2. While in Idaho, we took advantage of free grandparental babysitting to go see I Am Legend. It’s rated PG-13, and for good reason – it is a freaky movie about zombies. So you can imagine how disappointed I was that a mom and dad near the front of the theater thought it was a good idea to bring their 3-year-old with them to see the movie. At one point, the poor kid was crying (probably from terror), and his mom actually told him to shut up.

If your toddler is crying in a dark theater while watching a really scary movie, it’s not his problem, it’s yours.

3. At the same movie, the girl next to me talked through almost the entire show. She wasn’t on her cell phone, or even having an unrelated conversation with her date. She was giving all of us a running commentary on the events of the movie. “Is he going crazy?” “Ooh, he’s hanging upside-down.” “So the puppy grew up to be that dog.” I finally had to lean over and tell her to be quiet. I’ve never had to do that before.

I hope someday I can recover from my newfound knowledge and life can go on as normal.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Book review: In the Presence of My Enemies

I can't even remember where I heard about this book. I think some website must have recommended it to me after I enjoyed Terry Waite's Taken on Trust so much.

In any case, it was a good recommendation. In the Presence of My Enemies is not nearly so cerebral as Taken on Trust, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. It was written by Gracia Burnham, the only hostage (of Abu Sayyaf) who survived the botched rescue attempt by the Philippine army. She had managed to survive sixteen previous such rescue attempts until that day, and the intense gun battles that inevitably ensued.

The book is made special by the fact that she and her husband were missionaries at the time of their capture. So the question this book answers is not so much, "How do two people survive a year of captivity in the Philippine jungle?" but "How do two people, whose lives are focused on service, self-sacrifice, and worship, survive and even thrive during a year of captivity in the Philippine jungle?"

My only damage with the book was its sometimes callous treatment of Islam. However, I also realize that spending a year as a hostage to an Islamic extremist could definitely color one's view of that religion. I only wish she had taken more care to frame the "doctrinal" remarks made by her captors in the proper context - as the beliefs of a radical offshoot rather than the mainstream. Then again, perhaps I am just extra sensitive to this topic because I am a Mormon, and we Mormons always seem to be getting similar treatment in amazing stories like this one. I only ask for others what I wish I received myself.

(Speaking of Mormons, one of the native Filipina hostages who was later forced to convert to Islam and marry one of her captors is briefly mentioned as being Mormon. I wish I knew more of her story!)

The strengths of the book are myriad: Mrs. Burnham tells a fascinating story in a spellbinding way. She gets the autobiographical background out of the way early in the book (admit it, we all wish books like this would do that more often) and even then, includes only what is generally relevant to the story to come.

Having read them in such close proximity to each other, it's inevitable that I would feel tempted to compare Taken on Trust and In the Presence of My Enemies. And while they are both hostage experiences, they are very, very different stories and very, very different books. Fortunately, each author chose a style and presentation that best suited his or her story.

With Taken on Trust, I found myself asking what book I would take with me into solitary confinement.

With In the Presence of My Enemies, I am now considering what one toiletry item I couldn't do without if I had to live in the jungle for a year. I'm still working on whittling down my long list...

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A special toy from a special store

In preparation for the "big trip" we've been warning Miriam about for the last few days ("warning," because it involves many hours of driving), I decided to buy her a special toy to use for the first time in the car. This toy, whatever it ended up being, would need to meet four requirements.

1. no small pieces or other attachments that could come apart and litter the car during the trip;

2. no potential for problems that would require parental intervention from the front seat;

3. no annoying voices; and

4. something exciting that we wouldn't usually get for Miriam.

I had pretty much decided to get her one of those storybooks that reads itself to you. Generally, I am against that kind of toy, but in this case, it would fulfill requirement #4.

So we went to Toys R Us, of all places, because I had seen an ad for a good sale on such items there. Otherwise, we avoid that place like the den of iniquity that it is.

I found the talking storybook aisle (yes, there is one) without too much difficulty, but I realized very quickly that I would not be making any purchases from it. You see, every single book was a "branded" item, meaning it featured Dora, Nemo, a Disney Princess, Thomas the Train, Elmo, etc., ad nauseam. I would have had no problem buying any of these books if they were about a young, explorer-type girl, or a fish, or a princess, or a choo-choo train, or a lovable (?) stuffed animal. But I refuse to buy into the brandification of my kid (except when it comes to Hello Kitty band-aids, because Miriam won't accept any other kind, and that was started by Grandma, anyway). Besides, the Elmo one at least would have been in flagrant violation of rule #3.

In the end, we bought one of those magic color pads. There were Nemo coloring pads and Disney Princess coloring pads, but I chose the one that was just normal. It met all the requirements (except for the pesky marker cap and rule #1) and Miriam had a grand old time with it in the car.

Monday, December 17, 2007

20 Questions, Toddler-style

Miriam came into our room at 1 o'clock this morning, asking for a story. As usual, for the short trip from her room to our room, she had brought with her her blankie, teddy, and other sleepytime lovies.

"Sleepytime lovey," in Miriam's case, does not always mean something soft and cuddly. She often insists on taking her sunglasses to bed, or a few matchbox cars.

So early this morning, when Jeremy got up and put Miriam back in her own bed, Miriam started crying and saying she needed something. Apparently, she had left one of her special bedtime objects in our room.

But we couldn't understand what she was asking for. Jeremy decided to narrow it down a little bit.

"Do you want your car?"


(Repeat with several other objects)

"OK, is it big or small?"


"What color is it?"


"Where did you leave it?"

"On the floor!"

Jeremy came back in our room and told me that Miriam was crying for something small and red, that was probably on the floor. Immediately, I realized that she wanted the Christmas matryoshka doll that she had taken with her to bed that night. Jeremy found it on the floor almost underneath our bed, and once he gave it to Miriam, she was able to calm down.

These kinds of toddler mysteries are hard to solve, especially in the middle of the night.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The king of cheese

Miriam attended her first American birthday party on Saturday. She was previously a guest at Natalie's birthday party in Amman, and then later in the summer, Natalie's sister Tina's party.

But the neighborhood-kids-in-the-kitchen birthday parties she attended in Jordan could not compare with what she experienced on Saturday. That's because this party (for a 3-year-old friend) was at Chuck E. Cheese.

I'll admit that I was nervous when I received the invitation. The boy's mother is a good, trusted friend of mine, so it's not that I felt the need to question her judgment. But I haven't been inside of a Chuck E. Cheese "restaurant" in at least 17 years, maybe longer. I had all these flashbacks of animatronic animals who were missing major portions of their bodies lurching around unnaturally while singing "Happy Birthday Boy or Girl." Then I remembered that that was from an episode of The Simpsons, and so there was probably nothing to worry about.

But it turns out that I wasn't that far off. There were animatronic animals lurching about on a stage positioned uncomfortably close to the dining area. And the animatronic Chuck E. Cheese himself was missing the back of his head (though he didn't catch on fire like he did on The Simpsons).

The toys were also pretty much as I remembered them, complete with abrasive sound effects and lots of flashing lights. There was no ball pit, though - have those been outlawed in America?

In the end, I think Miriam had a great, if occasionally overstimulating, time. I was the one who had a problem overcoming the unwholesome juxtaposition of "playing on germy toys" with "eating pizza immediately afterward."

And it was definitely worth it for this picture we took at Chuck E. Cheese's Sketch Booth:

My friends, you will never see a worse picture of Miriam Damascus. The saddest part is that you can tell she's trying so hard. (In case you're wondering, I'm looking up at the screen to see if the camera had taken the picture yet. Apparently, it hadn't. I don't know how I missed the beep amid all the chaotic background noise.)

After all the games she played, Miriam had a whopping 12 tickets. She traded them in for a cheap plastic ring. It is currently her favorite possession.

Thank you, Chuck E. Cheese.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Which is worse...

...having your wallet stolen, or having the contents of your wallet announced to the world?

From the December 7 edition of the BYU Police Beat:

A 26-year-old male reported his wallet stolen after using it at the Creamery on Ninth East. His driver's license, an American Express card, two debit cards, two credit cards and two Victoria's Secret gift cards were in the wallet when it was stolen.

(Emphasis mine.)

I've been thinking about this for a couple of days now, and I still haven't come up with a good reason why a male BYU student would have two Victoria's Secret gift cards in his wallet. If he's married, maybe he would have one and it would be for his wife. But what kind of a guy, at BYU at least, has two female friends who he buys lingerie for?

Does anyone else have a better idea of what could be going on here?

(Also, just FYI, the BYU Police Beat section is reliably entertaining reading. In fact, it's almost as good as the Letters to the Editor.)

Friday, December 07, 2007

A clever title, but not much more

Remember Birth, the book that changed (and bettered) my life?

Well, I just finished reading its antithesis, a book called Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood, by Naomi Wolf.

Birth was an uplifting, unbiased, informative look at historical and modern birthing experiences and methods in America. Misconceptions is a nagging, negative, judgmental book that would have me believe that the entire obstetrical world, city planners, and my husband himself have banded together in a mission to keep me from achieving my potential.

Her main theme seems to be, "Why didn't anyone tell me it would be this difficult/soul-sucking/painful/life-changing/tiring/career-ending/, marriage-ruining?" I have heard women voice this complaint before, mostly on Oprah (I only watch it when I'm in the Middle East, I promise). And let's face it, there are times when I feel elements of this question creeping up in my own life. But to make it your battle cry, as the author of this book has done, seems disingenuous.

The obstetrical profession in particular gets scathing treatment from Ms. Wolf. I don't doubt that there are bad OBs out there, but she would have us believe that 99% of them are evil and intent on ruining our birth experiences. And even though it is clear that several years have passed between the publishing of her book and the experience of being pregnant with her first child that she relates in the first few chapters, her conversations with her OB were apparently tape-recorded. Surely that's the only way she could have used full, quoted conversations throughout the book -- complete with facial expressions.

City planners also get blasted for not providing us mothers with fenced-in play structures, complete with snack bars and heated out-buildings for the cold season. If only this world were perfect in other ways, too...

Husbands get an especially bad treatment in this book. They are portrayed as being nothing but lazy, unsympathetic career-squashers. Then again, maybe that is an accurate representation of the author's circle of friends.

Within all of these areas, Ms. Wolf makes several good points. Why are some OBs so terrified of home births, and why aren't hospitals more forthcoming with C-section and maternal/infant mortality rates? Why are other countries so far ahead of us, in many ways, when it comes to making life in a city more child-friendly? She also accurately describes the "Solomon's Sword" hanging over women forced to choose between raising their child and maintaining any semblance of a career outside the home.

So you see, I did finish the book. Sprinkled among the histrionics were some very interesting anecdotes about birthing and mothering in America. But the author's tone and defensive, judgmental stance was, for me, extremely off-putting.

If you're interested in reading a whiny book about everything that's wrong with the pregnancy and birthing process in America today, Misconceptions is the book for you. If, however, you are looking to reaffirm your belief in woman's ability to overcome many challenges in giving birth to babies and raising families, skip it. Birth is much better.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Fit for solitary confinement

I recently finished reading Taken on Trust, Terry Waite's self-written account of being held hostage by Islamic Jihad for nearly five years in civil-war torn Beirut.

Waite, a hostage negotiator who had experienced success in Libya, Iran, and Lebanon itself, was kidnapped after a meeting with hostage-takers in Beirut in January 1987. For four years, he was kept in solitary confinement and forced to wear a blindfold whenever any of his hostage-takers entered his room. During that time, he was chained to a radiator for 23 hours. For 50 minutes, he was allowed to walk "freely" around his room. The remaining ten minutes were for a single, supervised bathroom visit.

I give you this information because it provides the background for what was, to me, the most interesting part of the book. The descriptions of how he was taken, the ingenious methods his captors used to move him from location to location, his daily diet, and health troubles were all fascinating. But I was absolutely intrigued by his description of what it was like to, alternately, have no reading material at all, and when he did have some, what it was and what it was like to read in solitary confinement.

Have you ever thought about what books you would choose to read (if you could) if you were on a deserted island or, like Mr. Waite, in solitary confinement? I confess I haven't given it much thought - until now.

Mr. Waite describes his schedule after some time in captivity:

"Now that I have books, I can find a little more balance to the day. I plan it. After exercise I will say my prayers, then I will meditate for a while. Afterwards I will allow myself time to read until lunchtime - that should give me four or five uninterrupted hours, providing I have light, of course. [His room had no natural light and the power went out quite often in Beirut.] After lunch I will think about what I have read and then spend an hour or so on my own mental writing. [He claims to have written much of Taken on Trust in his mind while being held hostage.] Then I will say my evening prayers and perhaps do some further reading until it is time to sleep. It sounds good."

His thoughts on reading:

"What would I want to say to [a writer of one of the books he is reading in solitary confinement] if I could meet him today? I would say, keep a space in your mind for the man or woman in prison; the individual who will read your book with the same sort of relish with which a starving peasant seizes a loaf of bread. This is the individual who will penetrate to the heart of your writing. He is your critic, your disciple. He will sit with you for hour after hour, and will hear your own soul speaking through your words. Be aware of this lonely man or woman as you write."

Some of the books Mr. Waite had access to include two random volumes of a multi-volume encyclopedia set (M to Mexico City was one volume; another was earlier in the alphabet), a travel book by Freya Stark, The Brothers Karamazov (but only the first volume. How frustrating!), and unnamed books by William Styron, Dorothy Sayers, and others. He also had a Bible (but in a modern translation, which he lamented since it meant he wouldn't be able to enjoy the richness of the King James language) and, amazingly, a small prayer book that he himself had managed to give to other hostages before he himself was taken.

If I had to choose only a few books, I think they would include the following:
Les Miserables
The Count of Monte Cristo
Anything in a foreign language that I know, but especially a work that I was already familiar with (The Book of Mormon comes to mind)
A world atlas, preferably by DK

When you think about it, you realize that you can't just choose your "favorite" books. It has to be something that is long or wordy to begin with and can withstand multiple readings. The foreign-language books would be especially rewarding in that regard, and I think my reading skills in whatever language it was would be pretty amazing after it was all over.

Surprisingly (or maybe not), there is a lot more I could say on this subject. This book really made me think.

How about your books? What would you choose to take with you if you knew it was the only reading material you'd have for months or even years?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The truest thing she's ever said

Two-month-old Miriam at her first IKEA trip.

Miriam and I had to be at our church for an activity at 8.15 this morning. Of course, on the one day when her normal early wake-up schedule would have worked out just right, she chose to sleep in. So I had no other choice than to wake her up, which every parent understands is a crime against nature.

The first thing she said when she opened her sleepy eyes was:

"IKEA is too far away!"

I couldn't agree more, Miriam. I couldn't agree more.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Postponing the inevitable

A few weeks ago, I made a decision that relieved a lot of stress and helped me feel more excited about life in general and the Christmas season specifically: we're going to wait until after the holidays are over to potty train Miriam.

I sat down and thought about it and realized that all the pressure I was feeling to potty train Miriam was external: she turned 2 in September, so time is "running out"; a few of my friends' kids were trained before then; comments from (well meaning?) relatives, etc.

All this night not have been a big deal except that Miriam has zero interest in the potty and actually has a rather strong aversion to it. Also, I am basically without a husband (to help do the job) until December 12th (the day after his oral examinations), and I am just barely feeling better from having my tonsils removed.

Are these excuses? Certainly. But they are valid ones nonetheless.

It seems like we're always having to schedule these important milestones around other life events. First, there was her birth: Syria or America? Should we move her to a crib before or after we go to or come home from Jordan (the first time)? How about weaning (going to or coming home from Jordan, the second time)? And the list goes on.

Potty training: before or after Christmas? The answer looks like it's going to be: after!


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