Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Just call me Commando Coalfire Palin

Back in August, when Sarah Palin was announced as John McCain's running mate, my mom sent me an email with a link to her Wikipedia entry. I read through it quickly and noticed a lot of remarkable things about the woman. In a gutsy move, McCain had chosen for his VP candidate someone who was not only a woman, but a woman with children. And not only children, but FIVE of them. Young, still-at-home children. Still-at-home children, one of whom has Down Syndrome. Wow.

And yet, in all honesty, the piece of information in the article that jumped out at me the most was the names of her children.

I wrote back to my mom and said, "I don't know if I can, in good conscience, vote for a woman whose children are named Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper, and Trig, even if she IS from Alaska."

I thought I might have been the only one to notice the kids' names, because I'm a nerd like that, but I was wrong. As I'm sure you all know, that bit of trivia earned plenty of attention in the press in the weeks leading up to the election. The Baby Name Wizard even chose it as one of her top baby name moments of 2008. It also inspired a Sarah Palin Baby Name Generator - just call me Commando Coalfire Palin from now on.

Now there's another Palin baby name that is sure to be in the news in coming days, albiet on a smaller scale: Tripp. Yep, that's what Bristol Palin reportedly named her baby boy. He'll fit right in with his uncles and aunts.

The funny thing is that in some of the intelligent analysis on this pressing issue, these wacky names from Alaska have been grouped in with some of the naming trends seen in Utah. I lived for a few years in Utah and it's true, there are some frontier-bending first names being forged there these days. It is, after all, the place where a man named Bronco has three young sons named Cutter, Breaker, and Raeder.

I guess my time spent in Utah among the cutting-edge namers has affected me more than I think. It didn't take very long for Sarah Palin's kids' names to not seem so strange to me anymore. The girls' names, at least, have even grown on me a little.

Just don't look for a little baby Loin Falcon anytime soon (that's Magdalena in the name generator).

Christmas Eve in Tucson

What do you do when you're in Tucson for Christmas all on your own? No family nearby, no one came to visit, and you didn't go to visit anyone, either?

Our little family was in that situation this year, so we did our best to find out.

In the weeks before Christmas, I had been thinking about attending some kind of midnight mass service. Mormons are strange in that the one day they don't have church is on Christmas, even though basically every other Christian denomination does. If Christmas happens to fall on a Sunday, we get out of 2 of the 3 hours of church. In other words, we attend less church, not more.

So we were free to explore the range of neighborhood Christmas Eve services available. In the middle of my pondering, we received a mailing from the local Presbyterian church, advertising their Christmas Eve programs. Specifically, there was a 7pm "Carols, candle-lighting, and a lively drama" event. It sounded perfect (assuming "lively drama" meant "some kind of Nativity re-enactment"), so we went.

I don't know how many of you attend church, or if you do attend church, how often you visit the services of another denomination, but it's kind of a scary thing to do. We didn't know how to dress, or where to park, or which door to go in, or if small children would be smiled/frowned upon, etc. All those unwritten rules take time to learn and in our own congregation, it's something we don't even need to think about.

Once we figured it all out - well enough, anyway - we settled down in the beautiful chapel and shook hands with our Presbyterian pew-neighbors. The service was great at first. We sang songs, said a few prayers, and followed along in Luke 2 as some scriptures were read over the pulpit. Nothing too out of the ordinary.

Then one of the ministers got up and gave a substantial speech about offerings. It was a little out of the ordinary, at least for us Mormons, and certainly for a Christmas Eve service, but whatever. I was still really enjoying myself in a beautiful church on a wonderful Christmas Eve, glad to be focusing some time on the story of the Nativity.

Then came the "lively drama" mentioned on the invitation. I don't know exactly what I was expecting, but it surely wasn't a rowdy production put on by the youth of the congregation mimicking the format of a late-night talk show. At that point, we kind of wanted to leave because that wasn't why we were there, but we didn't know if leaving early was allowed, or incredibly rude, or if the talk show was going to end in a minute and we should just stick it out, or what. We ended up staying for at least 15 minutes of the talk show and no end was in sight. So Jeremy slipped out with Magdalena and then I left with Miriam a few minutes later.

I was sad to have to leave early. As we walked out to the car, I realized that if we wanted a nice, traditional Christmas Eve service, we should have picked a stolid old Catholic church to go to. The Presbyterian church was wonderful, it's just that its focus was more "pop-y" and modern, meant more to entertain rather than to inspire worship.

But by then it was already past 8 o'clock, so we took our candles home and lit them there while reading the Christmas story out of Luke 2 by ourselves.

I'm still glad we went to some kind of Christmas Eve church service, even if it didn't quite meet my expectations. It's good to venture out into the unknown every once in a while and appreciate the way other churches do things.

(Are people back to reading blogs again? I feel like everyone is just taking a break, if not from commenting, at least from posting.)

Friday, December 26, 2008

Flashback Friday: The Gifts of Christmas Past

I can't remember the exact circumstances of when I heard this, or who said it, or in what context it was (nice start for a Flashback Friday, huh), but I think it was a Mormon, either in General Conference, at church, or just one of our friends, and here's the gist of what this person said: We all look forward to receiving gifts at Christmas, but as the years go by, do we even remember what presents we got?

The point was that we should spend more time during the Christmas season celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ and less time on the commercial aspect of the holiday. But embedded within that wonderful sentiment is a challenge I just can't pass up, at least not when it's Flashback Friday.

So - cast your minds back with me to Christmases past. Do you remember what presents you received? Here are a few of mine, recalled without the help of any photos or "wasn't there something that one year?" prompts. I remember all these things as Christmas gifts on their own merits.

A boxed set of all nine Little House on the Prairie books. I have a distinct memory of lovingly taking these books down to my room and then settling down to a long, snug Christmas break from school (second grade, probably) snugly reading these snug stories about the snug family living snugly in their snug cabin.

An Always Comfort sweatshirt from Japan. While I was growing up, my family hosted a few sets of Japanese exchange students over the summers. One year, a student sent our family a Christmas package and my sister and I each got a sweatshirt/sweatpants outfit emblazoned with the inexplicable words, "Always Comfort."

A thesaurus (not a dinosaur). I still remember what the cover of this book looked like. "Thesaurus" was one of those words I pronounced wrong for many years (see also: crayon) and to this day, I have to check myself before I say it like it's some kind of dinosaur - thee-uh-SOAR-us.

A scottie dog dress. I don't know exactly how old I was when I got this gift, but in any case, I was young enough to be wearing a black and red drop-waisted, pleated-skirt dress with scottie dogs on it. This gift gets an unfair memory advantage because it had the dubious distinction of having been discovered behind the tree a week after Christmas.

A Feder Decke/feather blanket. I remember opening it on Christmas Eve. This remains one of my more prized posessions. If you do not own a feather blanket, consider acquiring one by any means possible. Neither Jeremy nor I can hardly sleep without one, so much so, in fact, that we took one to Russia and Syria (it took up its own carry-on suitcase).

A shiny silver IKEA cup. Every time we went to IKEA in Moscow, I coveted this cup. It was around 240 rubles ($8ish) and it was one of those things that I just wanted, but I could never drum up enough reason to make it a necessity. Lucky for me, Jeremy bought it for me and gave it to me for Christmas.

How about you? Can you take the challenge?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

My Christmas gift to you

Sometimes it's hard to declare absolute favorites. Favorite movie, favorite book, favorite food - I'd really have to give you several different answers within separate sub-genres.

Until a week or two ago, I would also have given you three or four different songs as my favorite Christmas song. But now I have a hands-down winner, my absolute favorite Christmas song, ever, with no distinction of category: O Holy Night, by a small, little-known group you might have heard of called The Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

This particular rendition of O Holy Night was arranged by Mack Wilberg, my personal musical arrangement hero. Forget everything you ever thought about MoTab being bland and overly grandiose with an obtuse sound. With the direction they've had in recent years, their music is surprisingly subtle and nuanced.

I wish I could embed this video for you, but I can only give you the link. Please click on it and give it a few listens. It takes more than one to see the genius, but all the best songs need multiple exposures to be fully appreciated. The really good part starts at about 3:47. My second-favorite moment is at 5:08ish and my absolute favorite is at 5:28ish.

Here is the video. Buy it on iTunes if you like it enough so you can listen to a better-quality version.

Merry Christmas!

It finally happened

Today, for the first time, I had to call Poison Control.

Miriam came out of her room after "rest time" as soon as the clock said two. Ah, the joys of having a child old enough to read the time on a digital clock. She came up to me and I immediately smelled something sweet on her breath. I couldn't quite place it - I thought maybe she'd gotten into the extra refill packs of Pez I had stashed on a high shelf. Or perhaps there was a stray piece of candy on the floor or under her bed from whenever. It's the holidays; there's a lot of candy around.

I went into her room to investigate and found...an almost-empty bottle of infant ibuprofen, cherry flavor.

"Did you drink this???" I asked her frantically.


"How much?"


Realizing that that line of questioning wasn't going to get me anywhere, I went ahead and called Poison Control. I knew that infant ibuprofen couldn't do her much harm, especially since it was a small bottle, but better safe than sorry, right? The Poison Control lady told me the same thing, that Miriam would have had to drink four bottles of the stuff to even start to cause damage. The only side effect from the amount Miriam drank was that she "might be a little drowsy," according to Poison Control.

After a lecture on the non-eating of medicines (and self-chastisement for leaving them where she could reach them, though how she got through the child-proof cap, I'll never know), we went running. "A little drowsy" turned out to mean "asleep in five minutes flat."

The true test of sleepiness is whether a child will stay asleep in the transfer from car/stroller to house. Miriam passed with flying colors.

Almost two hours later, she's up and awake like normal. I'm glad our first experience with Poison Control was not too scary. Has anyone else gone this long without having to call that number? Or, like some of you I know (Shannan), is it on your speed-dial?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Book Review: Lone Survivor

First, let's get two things out in the open:

1. I do not generally go for books that have two authors, one of whose names is preceded by "with." However, I've made a couple of exceptions this year and I haven't been sorry, so I decided to overlook that, just this once, again.

2. Another thing I do not generally go for are heavy military-type books. An intellectual discussion that treats military-related topics broadly? Fine. But a first-hand account of an intense Navy SEAL mission carried out in the heart of Taliban country? Again, I wouldn't normally have given this book a second glance.

So why did I end up reading - nay, devouring - Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10? For the simple reason that it came highly recommended, by both my husband and my husband's brother (the one who escaped from a Russian hospital).

In case the subtitle of the book isn't detailed enough for you, Lone Survivor is the story of a Navy SEAL mission gone horribly wrong, retold by the disaster's, well, lone survivor. He is Marcus Luttrell, a God-fearing Texan who had been a SEAL for several years before the events of the book, which took place in the summer of 2005 and whose casualties remain the greatest loss of life in Navy SEAL history. In short, Luttrell's team of four SEALs was sent into the remote mountains of northeast Afghanistan and ended up greatly outnumbered in a battle against Taliban fighters. An additional team of SEALs was sent in by helicopter to help when things started to go bad.

The book jacket tells you more than that, but I think the fewer details you know going into reading it, the better. Suffice it to say that Luttrell is the only one who survives, and the story of how that happened and how he did it is both spellbinding and amazing. Stories like this are always compelling for me, because as I read, I find myself reaching points in the narrative where I decide that there is no possible way the author could have lived through this. But obviously he did, because he wrote the book.

Amazing as it is, the book is not without its weaknesses. I can't quite figure out why no one in the publishing process ever suggested to Mr. Luttrell that it might not be a good idea to alienate two major audiences in the retelling of his story, namely the media and those of a liberal political persuasion. (Valerie Plame Wilson could have used the same advice when writing her book, but for being kinder to Republicans.) It's as if he thinks no one from those population groups will pick up his book, and perhaps they won't, if they know they're about to be referred to by some choice expletives.

Another swath of the population that is maligned in the book (but not one that was likely to read the book in the first place) is Arabs. I was expecting this one. I would never presume to tell Mr. Luttrell what to think - he has had his experiences in the Middle East, and I have had mine. And they have surely been very, very different. I have never had to kick down people's doors in the middle of the night and fear that someone upstairs is about to throw a hand grenade at me. He has never chatted with Arab female neighbors over yansoon while the kids play. Perhaps we can just agree to disagree.

But the strengths of the book, oh, the strengths. Lone Survivor should be held up as an example of all the virtues of finding the right voice for a story. At first, I was put off by the in-your-face, "butch" (for lack of a better word) tone of the book. When talking about the Pashtun, he writes:

"Their warriors form the backbone of the Taliban forces, and their families grant those forces shelter in high mountain villages, protecting them and providing refuge in places that would appear almost inaccessible to the Western eye. That, by the way, does not include U.S. Navy SEALs, who do have Western eyes but who don't do inaccessible. We can get in anywhere."

There are much better examples but this is the first one I found when I flipped open the book (p. 70). Eventually, the voice in my mind while I was reading the book started to sound a lot like Christian Bale's Batman: gravelly, tough, and over-the-top dramatic. And it did wonders for the immediacy of the story. Without that unique tone, the writing of the book could seem overly casual, abrupt, and self-absorbed. With it, you feel like you're a SEAL, too.

Not that I'd want to be, because yikes. Mr. Luttrell takes the story all the way back to his training as a SEAL, which I was already familiar with on account of having watched the Discovery Channel's Navy SEALs training DVD series a few months ago. I would recommend watching that if you want to see the incredibly difficult mental and physical challenges Mr. Luttrell went through, instead of just reading about them in his own words.

If Lone Survivor is a brutish, violent story, it is also a thoughtful one. What I consider to be the pivotal scene of the book takes place on an Afghani mountainside in summer when the days are unbearably hot and the nights are bitterly cold. Mr. Luttrell and his team have ensconced themselves in a secure observation spot and are slowly but surely moving toward the successful completion of their mission without having encountered any major problems. Then, suddenly, they are literally walked in on - and walked upon, they are so well camoflauged - by four goatherders and their dozens of goats. Everything in the book leads up to that moment; everything that follows is a consequence of it.

At that moment of the book, it becomes apparent why Mr. Lattrell has spent large portions of previous chapters talking about the Rules of Enagement, and how they mean vastly different things to the lawmaker in a suit in DC, the suburban family watching CNN in their living room, and a bearded Navy SEAL lying in wait on a hillside. The SEALs on the hillside did not seek out this immensely important decision; it came to them, unbidden. And in that scene, once the goatherders come upon them, everything changes. The dillemma is, should the SEALs kill them, or should they let them go?

Mr. Luttrell wisely spends a great deal of time explaining both his individual thought processes and the expressed opinions of his team members. He walks us through the ramifications of each possible decision. He shows us the very real fear many SEALs have about returning to their beloved home country after a mission only to be branded murderers or war criminals for decisions they made based on everything they had been taught in years of intense training and a thorough grasp of the facts on the ground.

I don't want to reveal too much about this particular situation, or the decision he made. Heartbreaking though it is, I think Mr. Luttrell made the right choice. I'm sure there are many who disagree with me, and him. I wonder if the widows of the dead SEALs are among that number. If they are, I don't blame them for it.

In the end, I was left with more than just a sense of awe for the individual SEAL, Marcus Luttrell. Instead, I felt a new awareness of and gratitude toward all those members of our society (both military and civilian) (but mostly military) who go to great lengths to protect the things they believe in. The measure of such devotion, such sacrifice, and such effort expended on behalf of the rest of us is really the takeaway message at the heart of Lone Survivor.

Before you pick up this book, I feel it is my duty to tell you that it contains a fair amount of swearing. I found it distracting, but in the end, it obviously wasn't enough to keep me from reading the book. Maybe it's a double standard, but profanity in a casual book meant solely for entertainment is not OK with me. Profanity uttered in the process of defending the country in which I live - I guess I can deal with that. You'll have to decide for yourself if you can, too.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Flashback Friday: A Very Special Christmas Edition

We spent Christmas 2004 in Damascus, Syria. Jeremy's brother and sister were in town visiting for a couple of weeks and we had been traveling together in Turkey and northern Syria just before Christmas, and would leave for Jordan and Egypt just after Christmas. Christmas Eve, however, we spent in Damascus. It was a Friday, so we had the day off from work and school. We went to church with our tiny (six total people on a good day) congregation at the humanitarian volunteers' apartment. The volunteers, called missionaries in most other countries where they're actually allowed to preach, were a retired couple who always did their best to bring the comforts of home to a country as foreign as Syria. Part of that effort included constructing a makeshift Christmas tree out of colored lights and a bedsheet. The star on top was cut out of the packaging for Ferrero Rocher chocolates.

After church, we headed into the Christian Quarter of the Old City to enjoy some Christmas festivity. There were lights and decorations up on the buildings and homes just like any other part of the Christian world. In the Souq al-Hamadiyye, there was even Christmas-themed lingerie on sale. The most ostentatious outfit featured a jolly Santa face with flashing lights on each cup of a bra. (Though now that I think about it, that particular piece of underwear was available all year long.)

A friend of ours had told us about a good nativity scene to go see that was put on by the Syrian equivalent of the Boy Scouts. We went to the sponsoring church to take a look and it was unlike anything I'd ever seen before. To this day, the best way I can think of to describe it is that it was pretty much a Christmas haunted house. We entered an elaborate reconstruction of a 1st-century stable, which was more like a cave than a wooden structure. The path through the cave was dark and winding, and each turn featured a sudden display of some part of the nativity story. Besides being surprised at every curve in the path by artful reconstructions of wise men and barnyard animals, the most alarming part about the Christmas haunted house was that the walls of the cave were made out of wrinkled, heavy, brown paper. That wouldn't have been a problem, of course, except that the lighting inside the cave was entirely by candle. Yes, nothing says Christmas in Syria like the fire hazard of open flame inside a structure made out of paper.

After narrowly escaping a fiery death, we went and visited a family in the Christian Quarter. Jeremy had stayed with them as a BYU student in the spring of 2001 and we still visited them from time to time. Even though we gave them no advance notice of our coming to pay a call, they received us with grace and sat down with us for a while to sing songs and serve us alcohol-filled chocolates.

I've put together a video for your viewing pleasure, showing you just a few minutes of Christmas Eve in Damascus. Some parts are muted, either because Jeremy is saying something ridiculous or because I didn't want to tell the whole world the names of the people we visited.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Gross, grosser, grossest

Today we went to playgroup at the park. There are always lots of pigeons frolicking about on the playground, but today, to my great delight, they were nowhere to be seen. I actually did end up seeing one, but it was on the ground, and it was just a stripped pigeon carcass with a few red stringy pieces of gut still clinging to the bones, so I don't think it counts.

On any other day, that would have been the most unsettling thing I've ever seen at the park. And I include in that assessment both 1) the time one kid stepped, with bare feet, right smack in a fresh pile of dog poo as the dog's negligent owner looked on; and 2) the three-week period when there was a homeless guy sleeping on a bench near the play area.

But today was special, and there was something even grosser just waiting to be encountered this morning. When we arrived at the park, I opened the car door, got out, and stepped right on to a used condom lying on the street.

Let's hope I never trump that one.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Water and celebrities

1. I'm tending a friend's little girl while she (the mom) has her baby today. Also today, we don't have water (again). They're doing construction down the road and we received a notice saying that our water would be cut off from 9am until 6pm. Last night, we filled up many bowls, buckets, and pitchers of water to get us through the day. I'll have to remember to explain to my friend what happened so that she's not puzzled when her daughter tells her we washed our hands using running water from a pitcher. And refilled the toilet tank with a bucket. Because that would be awkward.

2. I've been meaning to do this forever, but my friend Kristen reminded me. I'm sure most of you have done this before (including myself), but it's always fun to do again. Which celebrity do you most resemble, at least according to this legitimate geneaology resource turned party-trick My Heritage website?

Here's mine. I was honest and used the absolute most recent photo showing my face well enough. I narrowed it to fit on my blog, but you get the idea.

Ooh, Katherine Heigl. Not a big fan, but she and I do have something in common besides 97% of our faces: she's a Mormon, too. Or was, at least.

Renee Zellweger has some precedent. People always tell me I look like her, but only when I'm pregnant. Sorry, Renee.

If you haven't done this before, take a look and tell us who you look like.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Flashback Friday: Never badmouth Hezbollah

Today, for the first time in the history of Flashback Friday, you're getting a story straight out of Arabia. There are so many of these, I hesitate to dive into a big pile of them, so let's just leave it at this week for now. Next week, we might go back to awkward high school pictures. Now, without further ado, I bring you an account of the one and only time I was concerned for my bodily safety in the Middle East.

We were living in Damascus at the time. It was late fall of 2004 and Ramadan had just come to an end. Ramadan is an oddly festive yet stressful time of year, what with the businesses closing early, people fasting all day, socializing (and maybe working) into the night, waking up before dawn to get in a good meal, and doing it all over again the next day. At the end of it all, there is a three-day holiday called Eid al-Fitr. Everything in the city shuts down so that people can celebrate the conclusion of the month of fasting.

Jeremy and I both had a few days off of school and work, respectively, so we decided to take a trip to northern Lebanon to visit the ruins of Baalbek. In addition to being a modern-day town that serves as the seat of the Hezbollah political party (or terrorist organization, depending on your point of view), it is also the location of some spectacular ruins that we had been looking forward to exploring.

We spent the night in Beirut at a friend's house and left semi-early the next morning for Baalbek. We shared the taxi ride with an elderly Lebanese woman who was going to a small town 20km short of Baalbek. She was happy to engage in light conversation with us during the ride, but after Jeremy made a teensy-tiny joke about Hezbollah, all the lightness in her mood disappeared. She immediately launched into a stern lecture on the importance of not saying anything bad about Hezbollah while we were in the area. We reached her village just as she was winding down with her important advice, and she got out of the taxi, wishing us good luck on our visit.

In order to get back to the main highway, the taxi had to wind through the small town with we two Americans being the only remaining passengers.
The mood in the taxi was pleasant again, until I took a look outside the window at our surroundings and realized I was the only unveiled woman in the town, on top of being the only foreigner. This really only happened a couple of times during all the time I spent in the Middle East - once in a friend's neighborhood in Aleppo where every girl above the age of 7 or 8 was veiled, and another time or two in various remote areas. I was glad to at least be inside of the taxi and not walking around outside on the streets where I might have attracted a lot of attention.

That circumstance put me on edge, and I had already been fighting back minor feelings of nervousness because we were heading into the depths of Hezbollah territory. I hadn't thought too much about it until the old lady in the taxi had put the fear of the Party of God into us. As I looked around and saw all the party's posters, flags (above), banners, billboards, large Dome-of-the-Rock replicas, and brightly colored arches over the roadways featuring pictures of Nasrallah and others brandishing heavy weaponry, the nervousness turned into all-out fear. Although their days of kidnapping Americans appeared to be over (they have since moved on to Israeli soldiers), Hezbollah's relationship with America has never been a good one.

So it was in an on-edge, no-Roman-ruins-are-worth-being-kidnapped-for, no-matter-how-spectacular kind of mindset with which we continued driving through the town in the taxi.

Then came the part that actually scared me. I looked out the windows some more and realized that every kid in town had a gun and they were engaging in mini-guerilla warfare right there in the streets! They were toy guns, sure, but they appeared to actually be able to shoot pellets or something out of them, and the kids were having lots of fun shooting at each other and at a few passers-by. It was extremely unsettling. What kind of place was this?? I was sure at any moment that a kid would spot us in the taxi and decide that it would be fun to take a shot at the foreigners, and who knew what kind of trouble that would start with the local political party? We rolled up the car windows and tried not to make eye contact as the kids continued their war games. I slunk down as far as possible in my seat in a futile attempt to become invisible.

Somehow, we made it back to the highway unscathed, and continued to Baalbek. Within the site itself, you can almost forget about Hezbollah and kids trying to kill you with their toy guns, the ruins are that amazing.

To finish the story, on the minibus from Baalbek to Chtoura (where we could get a ride back to Damascus), we met some nice Lebanese guys who struck up a conversation with Jeremy. Somehow, the subject of all the kids in Hezbollah territory playing with toy guns came up and it turns out that it was just for the holiday, Eid. In other words, young children in that area don't generally play war games in the streets with pellet guns. The other passengers on the minibus laughed at us stupid foreigners when they realized that's what we had thought. I made sure not to tell them about how I had slunk down in my seat and feared for my safety.

And sure enough, when we got back home to Damascus, our landlady's son was busy taking shots with his new toy gun at his friends in the alley by our apartment.

And that's the story of the only time I ever felt scared in the Middle East.

Postscript: a few months after our trip to Baalbek, Rafiq Hariri was assassinated in Beirut and tensions between Syria and Lebanon flared. After that, it really was too dangerous for Americans to visit the area. Then, a year and a half later, there was a(nother) war between Israel and Lebanon. Baalbek was in the middle of it all during a skirmish in August. So while I joke about being afraid while we were there, I don't mean to be insensitive to the actual bad things that have happened in Baalbek, both before and since our visit.

Before we finish up, take a look at this picture of Jeremy and me at Baalbek. These are the biggest columns anywhere in the world, or something like that. It might be the biggest ancient columns, or the biggest still-standing columns, but whatever the qualification, they are dang big. This picture illustrates that, because let me tell you why Jeremy is standing tens of meters closer to the camera than I am (I'm the black speck in the back). He set up the camera far enough away to get the entire columns in the shot, but the self-timer didn't give him enough time to run all the way back to where I am standing. Thus the strange staggering.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The true meaning of Christmas: shameless advertising?

Something has been puzzling me the last few days and I've decided to bring it to you, dear readers, to help me sort it out.

A Christmas card came in the mail last week. I opened it and immediately assumed that it was sent by mistake since I had no idea who these people were. I checked the envelope, though, and my name and address were exactly correct. In other words, the card had reached its intended recipient: me.

But there was still the troubling issue of who these people were and why they were sending me their Christmas card. I kept trying to pass it off as a mistake. Maybe there was another person with my name in Tucson, or maybe they had my address for some reason but didn't mean to print a card for me. The more I thought about it, unfortunately, the less these theories made sense. There just isn't anyone else with my name in Tucson, and the second theory would still require that they know me somehow in order to have my address in the first place.

I even asked a friend to double-check and see if she somehow knew these people, in case they were from some wider social circle that I obviously hadn't paid attention to well enough (this family is Mormon but their address is not in our stake/larger congregational boundaries). Still no luck.

So I took a closer look at the message inside the card. And I slowly came to the sickening realization that I hope you can prove wrong: this is an advertisement. The people are real, the information in the card is real, but it is an advertisement veiled as a Christmas card. Take a look (I've removed the several paragraphs about their kids, though if this is an advertisement they don't deserve that consideration from a stranger):

The evidence in support of my theory:
1. Mentioning the husband's job change is one thing. Mentioning his job change, PLUS the name of the new partner, PLUS the name of the business is quite another.
2. Same goes for the wife. It's not just "her business expanded nationally," but "her business expanded nationally and is now known as blah blah blah." Very fishy.
3. Also fishy? The way she mentions celebrating the opening of an online business. I can't quite put my finger on why, but it just doesn't sound genuine to me.

The rest of the letter is about their kids. And that's what bothers me the most. Send out your pseudo-Christmas letter indiscriminately to strangers if you will, but leave your kids out of it.

As you can see, I think I've figured it out. But I wouldn't mind being proved wrong, or offered alternative theories. The question of how they got my address still remains. Jeremy has his own Mormon conspiracy theory, but I'll leave that to him to explain in the comments if he chooses. I refuse to ascribe a sinister motive to anyone without just cause. A stupid or careless motive, maybe, but not sinister.

What I will feel really, really bad about is if I do know these people and have somehow just completely forgotten them and then torn apart their Christmas card on the internet for all to see. I wouldn't put it past my sleep-deprived mind. Oh, how I hope that is not the case.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Snot nose, and my worst motherhood moments

I came home from the grocery store today, looked in the mirror, and realized that I had a clump of dried, crusted-on baby snot on the end of my nose. It's a shame, too, because I had actually put a little thought into my appearance before I left the house. That is to say, I put on a sweater over my shirt, which was stained with spit-up and additional globules of infant boogers. Magdalena had her shots yesterday and so she's been a little goopy-nosed and clingy today. I spent a lot of time holding her in close proximity to my face, which explains how the snot that was not my own got on my nose.

Also today, standing in line at JC Penney (before I had dried baby snot on my nose) (at least I think so), the grandma lady behind us was commenting how cute my girls are. She asked Miriam about her baby sister and to my complete shock and surprise, Miriam answered her. Miriam almost never talks to grown-ups she knows, much less complete strangers. What was even more unsettling was what she chose to tell this stranger: "Yesterday, baby sister fell off the bed."

Well, it wasn't yesterday - to Miriam, anything that happened before the last period of sleep (be it nighttime or a nap) is "yesterday" - but it did happen. It was about two months ago and it was one of those things that just happened and I still feel terribly guilty about it. The grandma lady was very nice about hearing this strange confession from a 3-year-old and told me about a time back in the day when her own baby fell off the bed at about the same age. The way she talked about it, I could tell she still felt bad about it.

So far, that's been my worst motherhood moment with Magdalena, allowing the circumstance to occur that she could fall off the bed. With Miriam, it was the time when I bit her in the head. Yes, you read that correctly. She slept in our bed for most of her first year and one morning, very early, I was having an extremely vivid, realistic dream that there was a small monster right next to me. I must have been in very deep sleep (at least that's my excuse) because when the monster moved and startled me, I woke up, but not quite enough to realize that it was my daughter and not a monster in my bed. And then I bit her on the head. It was as bizarre an experience as it sounds.

So there you have it. My worst mothering moments. What are yours?

Also, have you ever gone to the store with baby snot on your nose?

Monday, December 08, 2008

Running against the odds

In the days before kids, if we had to leave the house, it went something like this:

"Hey, let's go to [wherever]."
"OK. Just let me grab my coat/brush my teeth/go to the bathroom/get a drink. I'll be right there."

Now, of course, it's more like:
"Hey, let's go to [wherever]"
"OK. Just let me-
  • make sure all children are dressed appropriately for the weather,
  • put shoes on children,
  • change a diaper or encourage a bathroom trip, or both,
  • pack snacks and drinks,
  • bring along all the baby hud, and
  • have the kids pick out a toy to bring in the car.
I'll be there in 30 minutes."

Did I miss anything? I'm sure I did.

The worst time for this to happen is when I'm trying to get out the door to go running. It's not always easy to work up the motivation to go exercise, and even the smallest obstacle can turn into a good enough excuse to just stay home. When I could decide to go running and be able to leave the house within two minutes, it was so easy. Now, each workout is a major ordeal involving three people.

First, I have to make sure Magdalena has been fed recently enough that she won't freak out once she's in the jogging stroller. Miriam can take along a snack and a drink, but I have to go pack it for her. If I forget, it will cause major drama once we're on the road. These days, I need to make sure they have a blanket in the stroller, too. Miriam needs her sunglasses. I need keys, my phone, and my Shuffle. Hopefully, Magdalena hasn't been fussing the whole time I'm getting all the above ready. Then it's time to load up.

There's still no guarantee that everything will go smoothly once we're out the door. Most days, one or the other (or, heaven forbid, BOTH) of the girls will fuss for one reason or another. Magdalena hates it when the sun gets in her eyes. Miriam gets upset if I go a different route than the one she has in mind. Life sure gets harder when kids start to form opinions.

Sometimes I feel bad because to the casual observer, I'm sure it looks like I'm running with earphones in, oblivious to my crying kids. The truth is that there's nothing I can do about it except run really fast to try to get home sooner.

Once we do get home, the entire process gets repeated in reverse, with the added complication of trying to keep Magdalena asleep if she's dozing. It's also nice if I can get a few minutes of stretching in, but that almost never happens immediately. Some days, a couple of hours pass and I look down and realize I'm still wearing my workout clothes.

All things considered, it's a miracle I ever go on a successful run. And yet I do manage it, most of the time. Despite the girls' best efforts at sabotage.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Perceived vs. actual pain

Every once in a while in one of the myraid pregnancy/childbirth books I read, a woman or expert is interviewed who claims that childbirth is actually not painful. It's just that we, as women, are conditioned to believe it's painful, and the prophecy self-fulfills.

Anyone who has actually given birth knows that this is a lie. But I do wonder about the underlying principle there. Especially since my recent experience taking Miriam in to get some blood drawn.

I've never met a bloodwork lab in Tucson that I liked. I hadn't been to this particular one before, but true to form, it was vaguely grimy, staffed by smoky-voiced technicians in scrubs, and plastered with signs about drug test policies.

Still, it had to be done, so I decided to just get it over with. Before we were called in, I explained to Miriam what was going to happen. One of her favorite books these days is all about the various systems in the human body (cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, etc.), so I used that as a background to describe the blood-drawing process. After I was done explaining, I hesitated to tell her that it was going to hurt. I knew it would, but I didn't want to freak her out ahead of time and cause a scene in the waiting room. Instead, I told her it "might" hurt "a little bit." She was OK with that and when it was her turn, she walked with me back to the room without a fight.

We got situated in the chair (she was on my lap) and I held her arm down as the technician got ready for the first poke. Miriam was watching her the whole time. I tensed for her to flinch or squirm once the needle actually entered her skin, but to my surprise, she didn't even blink. She observed calmly as the technician put the needle in her arm, wiggled it around to find a vein, and then she saw how the blood slowly traveled through the tube into the container.

I couldn't believe it. She wasn't even tearing up. But the blood wasn't coming fast enough so they had to poke her again in the other arm. Still no fussing. The blood still wasn't coming out.

Then another technician came in and tried again on the first arm. Miriam was still fascinated by the whole process. She wasn't smiling or laughing or anything, but she still didn't seem to be upset or in pain at all.

On the third poke, they were able to get the blood they needed. If I hadn't been so amazed by Miriam's coping skills, I think I would have complained about them giving us the less experienced (or just less talented) technician first. On myself, I don't care if they have to poke me multiple times to get blood - and they almost always do - but it seems like with kids, they should get out their best blood-drawer right away.

When she was all done, Miriam got two stickers and walked out of there happy and smiling.

Later, I asked her if it hurt. She said it did, but she didn't seem too concerned about it. I don't know if her calm reaction was necessarily because of how I described the process to her ahead of time, but I have to wonder. The other possibility is that she was so excited to see her own blood come out of her vein - just like we'd read about in her book - that she didn't worry about it hurting.

Either way is fine with me.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Flashback Friday: Photos with friends from The Summer of Tennis

I managed to catch up with a few old friends while I was visiting Oregon last week, and talking with one of them reminded me of a certain stash of photos I've been hanging on to for almost ten years now. Thus, today's Flashback Friday will not be a grand narrative, but rather a collection of photographs. Some of you have been begging for more photos anyway, so consider this your lucky day.

There was one season of Seinfeld where George lost his job and declared the next few months to be "The Summer of George." Sometimes, for whatever reason, months of my life seem to take on a similar theme. The summer after my senior year of high school, 1999, was "The Summer of Tennis." A few friends and I played tennis together all summer long, all the time.

I don't know why we did. Before you get any illusions about my ability, let me tell you that there is a reason that I only ever did cross-country and track in high school: I have little to no coordination. Still, I managed to play tennis decently, I guess. Well enough that it was fun, anyway.

Two of my tennis cronies that summer were Mike and Kirk. We all went to the same high school, but Kirk and I had graduated and were both headed to the BYU in the fall. Mike had another year of high school left (even though he's two days older than me). One night, after one of those decisions that only really makes sense if you were there at the time and also 17 or 18 years old, we took the MAX train to downtown Portland with a couple of cameras and took pictures. Later, Kirk added titles to some of them. Here they are for your viewing and mocking enjoyment.

"Urban Ballet" - on the pedestrian bridge leading to the MAX station (the Sunset Transit Center for those of you in the know).

"Progression" - still on the pedestrian bridge.

"The City Mourns" - it was totally unintentional, but take a look at how the colors of our shirts actually coordinate with the lights on the bridge in the background.

"Terror Le Nocturne" - getting attacked by the statue of Mr. Portland.

"Anything but Regular" - there was some kind of festival going on down by the waterfront and there was a random Revlon promotion booth. Maybe we were just being juvenile, but you have to admit that the expression on Salma's face is a little strange.

Also in the Revlon booth, they had makeup tester samples. Take a look at that mangled mess of lipstick. Don't worry, I didn't actually touch my lips with it.

"Asymmetry" - somewhere in downtown Portland.

"Evolution, brought to you by GAP" - this was during the time when GAP had all those quirky commercials featuring songs like "I'm Just Mad About Saffron" and "Just Can't Get Enough." Remember those? We fit right in. This was in the MAX station underneath the Oregon Zoo (and the cemetery).

"Abbey Road M" - the lady in front was just a random fellow MAX passenger. What a good sport. I have no idea what the M stands for.

I have no idea if either Kirk or Mike reads this blog, or remembers these photos, or ever thought I would have the guts to actually display them publicly. When I started doing Flashback Friday, I said that I might post embarrassing or awkward photos without permission, so they can't say they weren't warned.

I think my favorite photo is "Progression." I left for college a few days after this photo extravaganza and it just gets me thinking about the whole process. The one that makes me laugh the most, though, is definitely "Anything but Regular." I guess I'm still juvenile. What are your favorites?

Friday, December 05, 2008

We kid because we love

Did anyone else get a look at what Kristin Stewart wore to one of the Twilight premieres? Anyone?

I really don't remember where I saw it. I didn't go looking for it, if that's what you're thinking. But I did see it, and I'll show you what it looked like in a moment.

But first, when I saw it, I wondered if the ladies from GFY would get a hold of it, and they did. And what they said about it is pretty much the funniest Twilight parody I've read yet, and I include Eric D. Snider's version in that assessment.

"So, after careful consideration of approximately three minutes, I've decided Twilight would work a lot better for me on ice. Think about it: Pairs figure skating, much like the book itself, is all about melodrama, separation and reunion, and invading each others' personal space in a sexually unsatisfying way. All of Edward's condescending yearning and stalking would be way more fun if he were doing it while flitting about the rink in puffy shirts and tight trousers, tossing off triple Axels of romantic angst and throwing Bella into the air before catching her with one hand (subtext: "You must not love me BUT I LOVE YOU but stay away BUT NOT TOO FAR AWAY let me stare at you NO I MUSTN'T but I will LET ME TOE-LOOP MY FEELINGS don't look at me EXCEPT DO I am dangerous TIME TO SPARKLE"). Meanwhile, boring Bella, who in the text generally just repeats herself ad nauseum about how Edward's face/chest/voice/muscles/eyes/lips/piano talent/strength/secret macrame projects are more beautiful and perfect than anything in the human realm, could spend the rest of the time enacting a metaphor for her inner monologue by spinning over and over again until Edward rescues her from herself. Throw in some multicolored spotlights and the whole thing is practically begging for an Olympic ice-skating duo to reinterpret it at the Vancouver 2010 games.

Apparently Kristen Stewart is way ahead of me on this."
They also made fun of some of the Twilight movie posters a while back. Somewhere in one of those posts, they (I think it's two women, and I don't know which one it was) confessed that they actually did like the books, but still felt compelled to mock them. That's a phenomenon I've seen time and time again with the Twilight series: even people who profess to hate them still read them all, sometimes compulsively. There's something unusual in that, and I hope that someday, someone other than me does some research to substantiate my casual observation.

Anyway, this is just another example of how it's OK to make fun of something you love, as long as you're accurate and hilarious about it.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

A matter of life and death

I've been thinking about death a lot lately. Liz got me started when she wrote about what she wants written in her obituary. I'm not an obituary reader myself, but my mom is, so I take a glance at the death page every once in a while when I'm visiting their house. Just like Liz, I'm bothered when the text of the obituary makes no reference to the cause of death, especially if the person died at a young age.

Besides having the cause of death listed, I don't really have a lot of strong feelings about what is included in my own obituary. Instead, I really, really care about what kind of coffin I have. I don't know that I've ever heard anything more ridiculous, in my personal opinion, than spending thousands of dollars on an ornate casket. If that's what the person wanted, that's one thing, but I am going to leave specific instructions (note to self: make wishes on this matter known somewhere other than just my blog) for my casket to be something simple like this:

I used to have my exact casket picked out at amishcaskets.com, but that site appears to have gone out of business. But you get the idea. Just a plain, simple box. And with the money they saved on my coffin, I want my family to go do something fun. That way, everybody wins.

I've also recently formed an opinion on what kind of grave marker I want. This summer, in Middlebury, Miriam and I used to go on walks in St. Mary's Cemetery near campus. I was hugely pregnant and while I enjoyed the quiet, peaceful atmosphere of the cemetery, more than anything I just wanted to SIT DOWN somewhere. But I figured that standing up for long periods of time was just one of those things you have to put up with when you're visiting a cemetery.

Friends, I was wrong. Jen commented on Liz's post that she wants a bench in place of a headstone at her eventual gravesite. Brilliant! That is definitely what I want - to be useful even after I die, just like Jen.

The final issue to deal with when thinking about death is where I want to be buried. This is a tricky one. There is no one cemetery where all my relatives, on either side, have been buried. We're all kind of spread out. I was born in Idaho, grew up in Oregon, and have lived in Utah, Japan, Russia, Syria, Jordan, Tucson, and Middlebury. Even though we've been married for seven years now, Jeremy and I really haven't put down any roots anywhere yet. So this question is still up in the air.

How about you? What kind of coffin do you want? How about a headstone? And where do you want to be buried? I'm especially interested to hear anyone's arguments for an elaborate coffin, or how you have come to a decision about where you will be buried.

(I'm really not trying to be flippant in this post. If any of you have had to deal with these issues recently for a beloved family member, I'm sorry for the timing. But these are honest questions that I've been trying to answer and I'm sure whoever has to deal with my funeral arrangements will be glad I made some specific wishes known. On my blog.)

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

NaBloPoMo Roundup

Must...blog! Can't...miss...a day...

Just kidding. NaBloPoMo is over and I did it! A post a day, for 30 days. I ended up posting twice on two days, so my total NaBloPoMo post count is 32. I know a couple of you who were trying to go 30/30 fell one or two posts short, so feel free to consider those extra posts as having evened out the blogging universe.

Here's a quick rundown of the NaBloPoMo programming found here on My Adventures in Tucson:

We had two book reviews (The Hunger Games and Pushed) and two movie reviews (Twilight and Touching the Void).

My trip to Oregon yielded five posts, two of which dealt with weird childhood stuff, two about traveling, and one about Thanksgiving.

Five posts invited collective reminiscing, about food and gas prices (thereby exposing a shocking Cadbury Egg conspiracy), politics, elections through the years, candy preferences, and smell/taste/sound associations.

Sadly, there was only one nastygram during NaBloPoMo.

Aside from the posts already mentioned, the antics of Miriam and Magdalena were featured in no fewer than four posts. Miriam surfed the 'Net for pressure washers and inherited two dozen My Little Ponies, even as her beloved fish went to the big ocean in the sky. Both girls had fun keeping me up at night.

Then there was the time the Baby Name Wizard wrote about me writing about her. And then I wrote about her writing about me writing about her.

The mundane became anything but when I voted, misplaced a sock, failed to send back a misaddressed package in a timely manner, installed a garbage disposal, and suffered through spousal sickness for a month.

NaBloPoMo encompassed four Flashback Fridays. There was the time my sister left a stranger exposed on a toilet, some freaky semi-substantiated memories involving a gas station straight out of Gotham City, my brother the gambler, and a close encounter with a bear while camping.

Last but not least, there was one tag and one random post about Tupac.

I have to say, I really enjoyed NaBloPoMo. It tested my creativity and my ability to see past boring, everyday life and find some blogging gems. Some posts were more successful than others. The most commented (but not necessarily most viewed) entry for NaBloPoMo was this one about my status as an undecided voter. A close second was the one about all the weird stuff in my childhood home that I've always taken for granted. The least commented entry, garnering absolutely no comments at all, was my first NaBloPoMo post, about Touching the Void.

Well then, until next year. Thanks for making NaBloPoMo so much fun!

Monday, December 01, 2008

Sounds like morning sickness

Christmas music is officially legal here at the Palmer house. There's just one problem: certain songs are making me feel physically ill.

Let me explain. For some reason, I've always formed strong associations between sounds and smells and certain potent memories. For example, the smell of strong petrol always reminds me of Russia. Listening to Guster takes me back to living in Utah. I even remember the smell of the cologne of one of the photographers when I modeled for Nike and thinking of it brings back all the nervousness and excitement of that day. And apparently, the sound of any Christmas music we bought last year reminds me of having pregnancy sickness and puking in the sink. Lovely.

At least I'm lucky the gross feeling doesn't extend to all our Christmas music. Unfortunately, though, it applies to some of the best. We bought a Sarah MacLachan Christmas album last year and listened to it extensively. This year, she hardly gets one verse into "The First Noel" and I'm already feeling queasy.

I think it will wear off eventually. At least I hope so. Do any of you have such strong associations between memories and your sense of taste, smell, or hearing? Here are a few more for me:

  • Banana-flavored popsicles remind me of childhood in general.
  • Root beer (well, Coke) floats remind me of the summer of 2007 in Jordan.
  • The smell of freshly cut grass reminds me of cross-country and track meets.
  • Lemon drops - or, more specifically, how sore they made my mouth after I ate a few dozen of them - remind me of checking out books from the library when I was a kid.
  • No matter how many times I've used it since, the smell of liquid Softsoap will always remind me of my freshman year of college.
  • The smell of jasmine reminds me of a lot of places in the Middle East, but especially Damascus, and especially the neighborhood of East Mezze.

How about you?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The neverending sickness

Did you know that Newsweek embedded reporters with the McCain and Obama campaigns for a year? Both campaigns agreed to it, but the catch was that Newsweek couldn't publish anything about it until after the election was over. The resulting 7-part report was released a couple of weeks ago. You can find it here.

I'm reminded of those embedded reporters because for the last month, Jeremy has been very ill. I kept trying to write a post about it but it was just too much. I'm often able to cope with these kinds of situations by finding the humor in them, so the fact that I wasn't able to write about Jeremy being sick while it was going on should tell you how difficult it was for us all. I decided not to write anything until it was all over, just like the Newsweek reporters did. Don't worry, it will only take me one post - not seven - to tell you about it.

It started out innocuously enough when, by some freak of germ exposure, Jeremy came down with hand-foot-mouth disease. HFMD is a common enough disease among children, but is extremely rare in adults. It is also moderately contagious, which meant that Jeremy went into a quasi-quarantine in our own house and spent as little time as possible with the girls and me.

As if the sickness - fever, chills, head and body aches, and sores on his hands, feet, and mouth - wasn't bad enough, there was the fact that it was so awkward to tell anyone what Jeremy was suffering from. Why do they have to give diseases names like hand-foot-mouth? It just sounds so slovenly. It doesn't help that there is an entirely different disease called hoof-and-mouth that affects cows, sheep, and pigs.

Then, just as he was getting better from HFMD - and I mean literally, there was one day where the clouds broke for a few hours and he spent some time with us (I think it was election day) - pneumonia set in. Friends, if HFMD was bad, pneumonia was ten times worse. Meanwhile, I was still playing the single parent, taking care of the girls and Jeremy while trying not to pass germs from the latter to the former (or myself).

Things reached a peak one morning when the girls and I were trying to get out the door to playgroup and also give Jeremy a ride to the doctor for an appointment. Right when it was time to go, Jeremy started bleeding out through his nose. Aside from childbirth, I have never personally seen that much blood in my life. Without going into too much detail, let me just say that if I had walked into our bathroom later, not knowing what had really happened, I would have assumed that someone had been murdered there. It was gross. Also? This was the same morning that our garbage disposal broke. Yeah.

Fast-forward to last night, when the girls and I got home from our trip to Oregon. Jeremy is finally feeling better, but he's not 100% yet. His face actually has some color in it instead of being ash gray, and his hands don't look so leprous anymore from the HFMD sores.

Through all the emotional and physical clouds, there were a few silver linings. The major one was that if he had to be confined to a sickbed (or couch, as it were) for three weeks this year, he chose the right three weeks. The day before he got sick, he finished off a big batch of job applications. He was able to lie low for a few weeks and then get mobile again just in time to head off to Washington, DC to present at a conference and have some job interviews, though it was really, really close.

The other silver lining seems insignificant, but it meant the world to me. Remember the pony invasion? That was right smack in the middle of the worst of the whole sickness extravaganza. The beautiful thing was that Miriam played with those ponies all day, every day, and so for a while I only had to intensively take care of Magdalena and Jeremy.

I know some people don't like blogs because they often only show off the best of us. It's fun to highlight all the awesome things we do, the cutest pictures of our kids, the most fantastic and best experiences. But of course there's always other stuff going on behind the scenes - people just don't always have the energy or perspective to write about it all.

For now, I'm so glad that Jeremy is on the mend. And for all you critics who say that all we bloggers write about are sunshine and roses, now you know why. Who wants to put up with posts like this every day?

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Flashback Friday: A close encounter with a bear

Ah, Girls' Camp. For as much as I didn't enjoy my time there, it sure is a good source of Flashback Friday stories. (I'm not the only one who thinks so, either - my friend Kristen wrote about Girls' Camp and the Cootie Ghetto a few weeks ago.)

Today I'm going to tell you about the time I was at Girls' Camp and got chased by a bear. It was the summer of 1997, and it was the year my friends and I had all been waiting for - we were finally counselors. No more mandatory craft activities, classes, or scheduled time for showering. Instead, we were paired up and put in charge of half a dozen 12- and 13-year-old girls, and they had to do all the required stuff. My fellow counselors and I spent our time decorating our cabins, sleeping when the girls were gone, and raiding the cafeteria kitchen for snacks after the girls were in bed.

Ready to rule camp as counselors, at last!

The week of camp progressed with little incident (other than the Cootie Ghetto affair linked to above), except that something - I forget what - happened to the bathrooms, and we all had to hike up the hill to a row of Andy Gumps (port-a-potties) whenever the need arose.

My sister Teresa at Girls' Camp in 1997. Looks like she's having fun!

The other thing that happened during the week to put a little excitement in the air was that one morning, the adult camp leaders discovered evidence of a bear having come down to camp in the middle of the night. Apparently, it had disturbed the trash cans outside the cafeteria. From then on, we weren't supposed to go anywhere at any time by ourselves - we always had to be with at least one other person, though really, I think that was a rule anyway.

Still, we lived it up as much as we could as counselors. The highlight really was that we could go to the kitchen whenever we wanted and help ourselves to leftovers from that day's meals. All the cafeteria staff asked was that we turn off the lights when we were done.

One night, after all our young charges were asleep in our cabins, a group of us counselors headed up in the dark to the cafeteria for some late-night snacking. The lights were off, as expected, but we turned them on and helped ourselves to some leftover desserts. The mood was light, the food was good, and we were having a great time laughing and joking with each other.

Then we heard a loud noise. It sounded like something very large was rustling around just outside the kitchen. And then we realized that it was coming from just about where the kitchen trash cans were. Then we remembered the warning about the bear.

I don't remember if we made a conscious, communal decision to flee, or if we all reached the same conclusion at the same time. Either way, it took just a few moments for all of us counselors to high-tail it out of that cafeteria. The banging and rustling coming from the dumpster continued as we ran as fast as we could down the path back to the cabins.

By the time we got there, I think we were all laughing a little bit, but it was that nervous, terrified laughter that sometimes strikes at a moment like the one we had just experienced. If I recall correctly, we reported what had happened to the people in charge and from then on, nobody was allowed to go up to the kitchens at night. It seems to me that would have been a sensible prohibition to make before we had such a close call, especially considering that that's exactly where the bear had appeared the first time, but there it is.

Maybe they made that rule just because they were mad that we counselors, in all our collective terror, had - gasp! - forgotten to turn off the kitchen light when we were running from the bear. Who knows?

Friday, November 28, 2008

Thanksgiving sans Turkey

Thanksgiving was great today. The last time I spent Thanksgiving day with my family was in 1998, so it's been nice to be able to enjoy eating all the comfortable old family favorites instead of choking down some kind of cranberry or walnut stuffing aberration.

One thing I didn't get to enjoy, however, was the turkey. I've always had an on-again, off-again relationship with meat. It just grosses me out, especially if I have to deal with it in its uncooked state. For a full year or two in high school, I was an absolute vegetarian. Gradually, I started eating meat again once in a while, but I still don't eat ground beef. It just gives me the heebie-jeebies for some reason. This means that I haven't had a proper hamburger in over 11 years.

I was looking forward to the turkey today, though. Then something killed - nay, slaughtered - my appetite: my mom had me prepare the raw turkey for roasting. Nobody else was home and it had to be done right then in order to be ready in time. So I was the one who had to take it out, pick it up in all its raw, gross disgustingness, rinse it off, take out the little sack of innards, etc.

Even though almost a whole day had passed by the time it came out of the oven, ready to eat, I still had the image and feel of the raw turkey in my mind and I just couldn't stomach it. Even typing this is almost making me gag.

I don't know what my problem with meat is. Oh well. At least I got to eat tons of delicious stuffing and turn down a serving of yams (which I hate) without having to worry about hurting anyone's feelings. How was your Thanksgiving?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Weird stuff in my bathroom

My parents recently re-did the downstairs bathroom in their house. Growing up, we always called it the "blue bathroom" because it had blue tile and blue (shudder) wallpaper. It was the bathroom we kids always used, which means that it was in a sorry state by the time my parents got around to fixing it up.

Re-done, it looks much better. I did my part by putting in a new faucet. That's what happens when you brag about your skillz on the internet - your parents put you to work when you come visit. As part of installing the faucet, my sister and I cleaned out the cupboards in the vanity and discovered a veritable gold mine of forgotten adolescent toiletry treasures.

There was all the normal stuff like old nail polish and eye shadow in garish shades only a pre-teen would try, but there were some gems as well.

First, there was the collection of hair clips from when I was around 10 or 11 years old (I'm trying not to remember too hard because if I do, I might realize that I was older). I went through a phase where the only hairstyle I would do was a "ponytail with some hair out," also known as a half-ponytail. These were my favorite clips to use:

I think the ugliest ones are the third one from the left (it reminds me of sparkly golden dog poo for some reason) and the cast iron metalwork one right next to it. That thing is so heavy that I remember having trouble getting it to stay in my hair.

Actually, the last two items in that picture are the second treasure we found. Those two little dollies are actual earrings that I actually wore in sixth grade. How my earlobes didn't get all stretched out, I have no idea. I thought they were the cutest thing at the time, but now I'm simply mortified that I ever wore them. Last night, I gave them to Miriam to play with, but they will never again be used as earrings, I promise.

Then my sister and I stumbled upon something really mysterious:

Do any of you know what this is? Teresa and I didn't, at least not immediately. And it turns out that that is not even the most pressing question. The real question is not what it is, but rather why it was preserved for posterity in our bathroom cabinet.

Also, who is Sally J.? While searching for clues as to the item's purpose, I discovered that written on the bulb in childish handwriting was the name "Sally J." Who she is and why she left her...thing...here is anyone's guess.

In case you haven't figured it out, the mystery item is an old-school breast pump. Its design doesn't seem that effective to me, but my mom says that's what they used back in the day. That still doesn't really answer the question of why it was hanging out in our bathroom cabinet, but that issue will have to wait. I'm still working on figuring out Sally J.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Weird stuff in my house

Growing up, I think you just get used to all the weird stuff your family has in their house. It's only when you come back for a visit years later that you notice that maybe some things aren't...quite...normal.

Is it just me, or do everyone's parents have a vintage sewing machine in their front hall?

I think it wasn't until I had my very own silverware after getting married that I realized that it's not normal for every single spoon to be bent back to a certain degree. I think that's why I hated emptying the dishwasher so much - the spoons never spooned properly.

Wooden ducks on the fireplace? Normal? Anyone? This thing has been there for as long as I can remember.

Here's a two-in-one: a large pile of almost-rotting fruit and vegetable waste waiting to go out to the compost pile (complete with buzzing fruit flies); and a picture of an old, dead ancestor. Those things are everywhere in this house.

Liquid soap OR soap dish, mom. I don't think you can have it both ways.

Some of you may remember the diarrhea box. What I failed to notice at the time was that pasted to the door of the medicine cabinet is a newspaper article describing a home remedy for - you guessed it - diarrhea. What is going on here??

Does anyone else go home rarely enough that the kind of idiosyncrasies we grew up with suddenly become apparent?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Traveling essentials for a 3-year-old

The night before we left on our trip, I told Miriam to pack any toys she wanted to bring in her little backpack. After she went to sleep, I checked to see what she had packed. Here's what I found:

One crinkly-page book from the bouncy chair toy bar
  • Three big ponies
  • One little pony
  • One pony bed
  • One cow from the IKEA farm animal set
  • Two clothespin dolls
  • The remote control to a space heater we returned to Costco over a year ago (oops)

I cleaned out everything but the clothespin dolls and the ponies (and their bed). She played with them on the plane, but she hasn't touched them since we've been in Oregon. Who needs toys when there is an industrial-sized bin of Legos (lego bricks?) around?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Leaving on a jet plane

The girls and I are in Oregon visiting with my family. Traveling by airplane when outnumbered by my kids was not as terrible as it could have been, but it was certainly overwhelming. I got a lot of help in the security screening line from a fellow passenger (a grandma), and that made all the difference.

On the airplane, Miriam had the window seat and Magdalena and I had the center seat. I was hoping to get at least a woman in the aisle seat; if I was lucky, maybe I would even get a woman who had children herself. A grandma would have also been acceptable.

Instead, the person who got the seat right next to me was a large man. A large young man, unmarried and without children. In other words, just about the opposite of what I was hoping for.

We got to talking during the flight and it turns out that he's a bounty hunter. A real, live person who hunts down criminals who have skipped out on bail. Yikes. Other items of interest that I discovered about my seatmate during the course of the flight included that he has a gay brother, that said gay brother recently got married (in Canada) to an ex-Mormon, that he believes in aliens, and that the ancient Sumerians had close dealings with aliens. Also, giants used to inhabit the earth. They were eight feet tall and had three rows of teeth.

When the plane finally touched down in Portland, my new friend and I encountered that awkward stage of airplane acquaintance where you close the conversation even though you know you have to stay seated next to that person while the plane taxis to the gate. So he said something like, "enjoy your visit with your family!" and I said, "I hope your business deal goes well!" and then we just sat there in awkward silence for another 10 minutes before we could get off the plane.

And then when we did get off the plane, he and I reached the second-most awkward stage of airplane acquaintance - where you say goodbye again, realizing that you may very well see that person again down in baggage claim in five minutes. Still, we said goodbye and good luck one more time. Luckily, I did not see him in baggage claim, so we were spared that most uncomfortable third sheepish farewell.

Once, when saying goodbye to an airplane friend for the second time, I actually said, "Goodbye, but maybe I'll see you in baggage claim," as if that would reduce the awkwardness. Instead, the lady looked at me funny, like I'd broken some kind of unwritten rule in the airplane acquaintance code.

Anyhow, we're here now and having a great time. I'm just not looking forward to the flight back to Tucson. But maybe I'll get lucky and get someone who isn't a bounty hunter for a neighbor this time.


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