Thursday, April 30, 2009

I hate my cell phone bill

Out of all the bills we have to pay every month, there is only one that Jeremy and I grumble about on a regular basis: our cell phone bill. We are paying way too much money for something that does not give us nearly enough value. Sending so much of our hard-earned money to T-Mobile each month just seems like such a waste!

The worst part is that we're locked into a contract so we can't seek out other, more cost-effective options. Until August, that is, which is why I'm asking for your help. When we get out of our contract, I think we'll look into some combination of a regular cell phone, a prepaid cell phone, and a land line to match our needs better and hopefully bring down our bill quite a bit.

Here are the facts on the ground as they are right now. We have the cheapest available Family Plan from T-Mobile which includes two cell phones sharing 700 daytime minutes, with free evenings and weekends. The plan, which doesn't include text messaging, is $60/month. With taxes, of course, it ends up being a few dollars more.

My main damages with this plan are as follows:
-We never, ever come close to using 700 daytime minutes. Cell phone bills are (purposely?) really difficult to decipher as far as usage patterns, but as best as I can tell, we are using around 300 total daytime minutes per month, max. That's less than half of our allotted time.

-Why the sam hill do text messages cost four times as much as they did five years ago? Time was, they were 5 cents each to send and receive. Now the same service costs 20 cents. Rubbish, I say.

-Anyway, I wish we had text messaging, or at least that we had a pricing structure that treated a text message the same as a minute of talking (like in many other places in the world). In Syria and Jordan, in fact, a text message was cheaper than a minute on the phone, which makes so much more sense to me. It's just how I would prefer to use my phone. (Also in Syria and Jordan: incoming calls are free, which also makes sense.)

-Another way I would prefer to use my phone is by utilizing "Missed Calls" more often, but that's another story.

-By far, the most common calls Jeremy and I make are to each other. With our T-Mobile plan, those minutes are free, which is great except then what are we paying $60/month for?

-We don't have a land line. We opted out of a regular phone to save money, but I have to wonder if that is really happening.

Based on the above information, my ideal phone plan would have fewer daytime minutes, include text messaging, and be a lot cheaper than $60/month. Ideally, both Jeremy and I would have a cell phone (but one or both could be prepaid). Do you think that such a thing exists, somewhere out there, in some combination?

Have any of you had these same problems? What have you done to solve them? Do any of you have experience with prepaid phones? If so, which ones? How much IS a land line these days?

Please solve my problem. Thanks.

Beauty & iGoogle

Ah, the internet. There's just nothing quite like it for stirring up controversy out of nothing. Just today, I was thinking I'd like to change my iGoogle homepage theme. I did a theme search for 'Moscow,' hoping to get a nice picture of St. Basil's or something else equally generically Russian.

What I found was a theme promising panoramic views of Moscow that alternated with time. The picture the designer chose to represent the theme was this one:

And below it, where users could write in comments to the designer, was a mini-firestorm about one thing. Or perhaps I should say one person. She's the one I've circled in red, below (this is as big as I could get the images to go on my blog, sorry):

Here is a sampling of the comments people wrote in as they got themselves all worked up about an iGoogle theme, of all things.

"Exceptionally boring but...a nice idea. Just poorly executed, particularly having to look at an unfortunately rotund woman dead center. Not a good thing."

"'unfortunately rotund woman'? First of all she's of "average" size. If you want Baywatch, then make your own."

"haha. You've gotta be kidding me- If that's "average" size then I hate to see your definition of a fatso."

"i agree, the woman is average size... realistic and beautiful in her own right! delightful theme!"


"womyn rock - no matter the size. remember size and perception of size is socially constructed. If you want to really get the low down on the crap we perpetuate about womyn then read 'Beauty and Mysogyny' by Sheila Jeffreys. And while you are at it try and do something about the slave trade that is run in the main by men."

"It's spelled "women"..."

[This one is my favorite comment.] "her size is okay it doesn't matter the size she will always b pretty in someones eyes nice theme"

"fat womyn rock! nonfat womyn rock! everyone rocks!"

"nice, alexisgambles is right she'll be pretty in someones eyes"

"ewww sick :P"

"why the fat woman? who would want a fat woman greeting on there interenet access that they have to use every morning?..............not me!!!"

"Love it! This is what Moscow looks like and I am glad to use this panorama. I recognize all locations and I don't mind the fat lady one bit. Real life is quirky and a fat lady or two never hurt anybody. Great design! Keep it up! How about more Moscow or Russia panoramas?"

"interesting...i think she's kinda refreshing...and the fact that there is so much emphasis on her and not the fact that people are laying around, packed together like sardines kind of makes me fat sister, be fat"

"this is such a great theme- amazing "discussion" about the woman in her bathers located at centre of the theme. Looks like we need a rubenesque revolution."

"Life is real - not models from tv/movies! I would like to request a 360 cities of Vienna, Austria - my favorite city in Europe. Thanks"

"I see fat women...and I see another fat women rubbing her eye on the left there....hope shes ok...."

"With regards to the curvy woman, There's more than just that unfortunate photo. Moscow is gorgeous. This theme is great."

I hope you enjoyed reading those as much as I did. I think I'll choose a different theme after all.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Happy day

You know, I wasn't sure that it was possible for IKEA to get any more awesome, but folks, it just did:

They are dang strict about their height rule at IKEA, and it took two employees crouching to be eye-level with the line to confirm that Miriam was tall enough. But in the end, she was, and it was the best hour of my life in recent memory when I sent her in there to play so I could roam IKEA with only one kid in tow instead of two. Ah, bliss.

Discussion question: Why is there a height rule, anyway? The potty-trained rule I can understand, but height? What kind of arbitrary restriction is that? It just punishes the little ones.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


A few items of business:

-You'll notice that I finally converted my blogroll sidebar to a live blog view. It's expandable, so that my visitors aren't subjected to three dozen linked names entirely devoid of context.

-The links are sorted by most recent update, and only non-private blogs show updates. So if your blog is private, I still link to you, you're just hidden under the Show All button. And your name has an asterisk by it.

-I've given each category of blogs five displayed links, except for Tucson, which got 10. There are just more blogs from Tucson, so I felt bad limiting them to only five. Maybe I'll change my mind.

-I shuffled all family members' blogs into the "People I grew up with" category for simplicity's sake. I just didn't feel like it warranted its own category. Again, maybe I'll change my mind.

-If I don't link to your blog, and you want me to, let me know. I'm sure it's just an inadvertent oversight.

-If I do link to you and you don't want me to, let me know.

-For now, the blogs are titled as their owner named them. I'm not sure this is how I will keep them. What do you think? Should I keep it as you have named it, because it's your blog I'm linking to? Or should I change it to what I want it to be, since it's my blog it's appearing on? I can see it both ways. What I'm not sure of is if I can handle seeing "because" misspelled as "becasue" in a blog title even if it's on purpose. Etc.

-As for Google Followers, here is my policy (yes, I have one). The underlying principle is that I consider Google Followers to be a social blog-finding tool. So if you have a private blog, I don't follow you, because people who are looking for new blogs to enjoy will not be able to view yours. Similarly, if your blog is completely or almost completely family-centered, I probably don't follow you, so as not to drive random stranger traffic to stories about your small children. If you are offended that I don't follow your blog, maybe you could say something to me about it. It's possible that I've forgotten to do so, or that I've erroneously categorized your blog as a family blog when it actually has a different purpose. Just so we're clear. Does this make sense?

Did I miss anything? Speak now or forever hold your peace.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Flashback Friday: Biking in Syria

I was going through some old photos from Syria and I came across this gem:

Why yes, that is me with three friends on a four-person bike posing next to a stork on the road from Shaati al-Azraq to Ras Shamra, birthplace of the modern alphabet, on the Mediterranean coast of Syria. How ever did you know?

Here's the story. It involves Jeremy, me, and various friends and family members getting burned by some bike vendors in Lattakia not once but twice.

The first time, it was mid-March, 2005. The Mediterranean coast of Syria is refreshing any time of year, but in the spring, the orange groves that spread across the countryside are just beginning to bloom and so the air, cooled by sea breezes, smells heavily of orange blossoms. Heavenly. Jeremy and I, along with three friends (two Italians and an American) were enjoying the off-season rates of a nice hotel on Shaati al-Azraq, the "blue beach" of the Mediterranean Sea.

One day, we decided it would be fun to rent a bike from the vendors at the main traffic circle and ride our bikes to Ras Shamra a few miles down a flat country road. Back in 1500 BC, Ras Shamra was known as Ugarit, and it is the site of some great ruins. For reasons which I don't exactly recall, the five of us chose to rent ourselves a four-person bike for a few dollars and set off on our excursion.

At first, everything was going great. The weather was cool, birds were chirping in the trees, the countryside was gorgeous, and we were on our way to explore some ruins. Life was good. We were all a little giddy from the novelty of pedalling along in our bike contraption, and there was lots of chatting and laughing going on. I had the best deal of all - since there were five of us but only four seats with pedals, I just scrunched in the back seat and did my best to weigh as little as possible (no small feat when you're pregnant).

After a few miles, however, our jovial mood began to wear off and reality set in: the bike was a piece of junk. The tires were low on air and the gears did not turn smoothly. What's more, whatever kind of metal it was made out of was really, really heavy, which made it difficult to propel by pedaling, even with four of us working at it.

We took a breather by the stork, as you see above, and then made the decision to scrap our plans for an idyllic bike ride and hitch a more practical ride on a service (microbus) instead. A little ways down the road from the stork, we saw an abandoned concrete building. We pedaled over, hid the bike inside, and walked back out to the road to catch a ride to the ruins.

They were great, as usual. In its prime, Ras Shamra/Ugarit was located right on the coast of the Mediterranean, but the coastline has since receded.

We were not the only ones enjoying the ruins that day. This cow was just hanging out, feasting on the grass growing over centuries of civilization.

When we were done, we hopped on another service to the abandoned concrete building, and then pedaled back to the bike vendors, who were none the wiser.

You'd think we would have learned our lesson from this little experience, but a month later, we were back in Lattakia and got burned for the second time.

We were with my parents and little brother this time, and perhaps we had learned something after all, because this time we decided to rent single bikes for everyone to ride to Ugarit. Surely we'd be successful this time, right?

Well, almost. At the time of renting the bikes, Jeremy had expressed his concern to the vendor that the tires on his bike looked bald and cracked. They waved away his worries and said he wouldn't have any trouble.

And he didn't, until he had made it all the way to Ugarit and was pedaling into the entrance of the ruins. There was a loud CRACK! and one of his tires popped completely open. So on the way back, he had to flag down a passing motorist driving a truck to give him and his busted bike a ride back to Lattakia. He even got some money back from the bike vendors.

Riding a bike from Shaati al-Azraq to Ugarit may have worked out better in theory than it did in real life - both times - but it was still a lot of fun. I think I'd do it again...or maybe not.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Reverse SAD

The other day we were at Costco, walking down one of the aisles with seasonal merchandise. In Tucson, that means outdoor patio sets, huge bags of pool chemicals, crates of alcohol, and large pull-down sun shades, as you see here:

On this particular mid-April day, it was something like 90 degrees outside, blazingly sunny without a cloud in the sky, with a steady lukewarm wind that made it feel like someone was just constantly breathing on you. I turned to Jeremy and I said, "I need one of those sun shades to just follow me around outside, at all times."

That's how I know I have Reverse Seasonal Affectiveness Disorder.

I grew up in Oregon where regular SAD is so common that we have lessons in church about recognizing the symptoms of it. So I know it when I see it. Except here in Tucson, with Reverse SAD, I find myself dreading the inevitable onslaught of summer even when it's only February and "only" 80 degrees outside. I seriously cannot enjoy the mild winters here because all I can think about is, "If it's this hot in December, just think about what it will be like in May..." and it's all I can do not to throw up.

This, despite having never spent an actual entire summer in Tucson since we've been here. But I've experienced a few snippets of August and a couple of weeks in May, and that's been bad enough for me.

I realize that some people love the desert and its accompanying summers of death. But I am not one of those people. Opinion aside, however, let's get some of our facts straight. These are some things I hear all the time from people who don't live here, telling me how great I have it.

Myth: You are sooooooo lucky not to have to freeze all winter and pay ridiculously high heating bills!
Rebuttal: Talk to me in May (or heck, APRIL), and ask me how much I'm paying for AC.

Myth: Yeah, but at least you can play with your kids out of doors!
Rebuttal: Except when I can't, for example from June to September when it's 115 degrees outside.

Myth: The desert may not be green, but it is beautiful!
Rebuttal: Only if you go north of River Rd or all the way over to Saguaro National Park. Otherwise, the "desert landscape" consists of dirt, rocks, and weeds. What I would give for some grass for my baby to sit on at the park so she can eat healthy greens instead of sand, twigs, and pigeon poo.

Myth: Don't you just feel so connected to the land, though, all natural and earthy, living in the desert?
Rebuttal: Not really. I don't know that there is anything more artificial than going from air-conditioned house to air-conditioned car to air-conditioned business, and then back again. Even with all the AC, I can't forget that it's more than 100 degrees outside because the car steering wheel remains too hot to touch for five full minutes, and the buckles on my kids' carseats give them 2nd-degree burns.

Myth: But I knew someone from Tucson, and they showed me pictures of their house, and it was beautiful, and they loved it!
Rebuttal: This person, whoever they are, did not live in Tucson. They lived in Marana, Oro Valley, the Foothills, or Sahuarita. That is not the same thing as Tucson, and if you try to tell me that it is, I will smack you. A good rule of thumb for trying to determine if someone actually lives in Tucson is to ask yourself the following questions: Is there an artificial lake? Sidewalks? A complete absence of registered sex offenders? In public places, is the chatter of those around you primarily in English? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then it's not Tucson.

Myth: But at least you can go swimming all the time.
Rebuttal: Well, there is that.

The good thing is that, much like a SAD-afflicted person fleeing Oregon for sunnier skies in California, I will be removing my Reverse SAD self to a land with four seasons soon enough. Upstate New York, here I come!

It's going to be cold. It's going to be gray. And I'm going to love it.

PS - If you thought this was bitter, read this (PG for language) and you'll see that I'm actually restraining myself quite a bit in this blog post.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A disturbing trend

OK, maybe it's not an actual trend since I've only noticed it in two places so far, but it is still disturbing.

Two books that I read recently featured a very large picture of the authoress on the back cover. I was reading The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner and every time I closed the book I was startled by a huge portrait that looked like this:

I'm not necessarily trying to make any comment on her appearance. I'm just saying that it was hard to lose myself in the story when every time I took a break from the book I was reminded that it was all made up by a human being, and she looked like THIS. It was just so distracting.

Then today, I finished reading The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory. Now, this book I was already feeling self-conscious about reading because the cover looks like this:

Ugh. Maybe there is an audience out there that is attracted by this cover style, but I am not a member of it. When I read Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl in Middlebury, I was glad that the library's copy was so worn and tattered that it no longer had a front cover (and had split in half). That way, I didn't feel so awkward about being seen reading it in public (and it was easier to carry around). I wasn't so lucky with this one.

The strange thing is the picture of the author they chose to grace the back cover with. I've seen tastefully sized photos of Ms. Gregory on the inside dust jacket flap of her other books before and she looks like this:

In other words, a legitimate, intelligent-looking authoress.

On the back of The Other Queen, however, she has transformed into this (I wish I could size the graphic larger just to alarm you the way it alarms me every time I close the book, but this is the best I could find online):

In other words, an aged cat-lady who is a part-time fortune teller. I did not feel confident reading a book written by the above-pictured lady. If any humongous photo had to be pasted on the back cover of the book, I wish it could have been the first one, but oh well.

Has anyone else noticed this disturbing trend? And are you ever embarrassed by the cover art of a book you're reading?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Adventures in house-selling

In theory, allowing viewings of your house in order for it to be sold seems so straightforward. It goes something like this:

-Keep your house perfectly clean all the time so it is always ready for potential buyers to admire on a moment's notice.

-The viewer's realtor will call ahead and give you plenty of advance warning that they're coming so you can vacate the premises in a timely and relaxed manner.

-When they're done looking, the realtor will give you a call to let you know that you can go home.

In real life, though, we have ended up experiencing the following:

-We got locked out of our own house. This happened on our very first viewing. Luckily, Jeremy was able to break in through our sliding glass door. Now all the doors are labeled with helpful sticky notes telling people which doors they may and may not lock.

-The viewer's realtor forgot to call us to tell us when they left so we hung out around the corner awkwardly, in the blazing hot sun, longer than we needed to until we gathered the courage to look and see if their car was gone.

-We had to wake poor Magdalena up from a nap twice in one day.

Keeping the house mother-in-law-clean has been its own challenge, especially since Magdalena crawls now and likes leaving little messes in her wake. I do my best to have the house at most 15 minutes away from viewing-ready, hopefully less. It's sometimes a frantic 15 minutes, but it's doable.

Today we had an awkward adventure. A realtor called and said he'd come by with some potential buyers in 15-20 minutes. No problem! I did a sweep of the house - flushing toilets (Miriam has a weird aversion to flushing), wiping off counters, etc. Jeremy went into bathroom to take care of some business. I left Magdalena sleeping in her crib so that I could just grab her and go at the last moment to allow for nap maximization.

No more than seven minutes had passed when I looked out the window and saw the realtor pulling up next to our house. Yikes! Jeremy was still in the bathroom, Magdalena was fast asleep, Miriam was shoeless and, unbeknownst to me, had gone #2 in the toilet in the five minutes since I'd checked. And she hadn't flushed.

I yelled back to Jeremy that they were here, right NOW, and swept a startled Magdalena out of her crib. Jeremy finished up as fast as he could, Miriam threw on some flip-flops, and we were out the back door even as the realtor walked in the front. Phew!

As we went on a little walk, there was ample opportunity to panic. In our haste to leave the house, had we overlooked some essential tidying task? Specifically, I asked Jeremy if he had flushed the toilet and, horror of horrors, he couldn't remember. If there's anything more off-putting about a house to a potential buyer than a full toilet, I don't know what it is.

Jeremy did, however, flush Miriam's little toilet mess, which I had missed, so there was that consolation.

It was a tense moment when we got back home and checked the toilet. To our great relief, Jeremy had flushed it after all.

I hope we don't have any more close calls quite like that. These are the things realtors don't tell you about when they're prepping you to sell your home. But they should. They really, really should.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Flashback Friday: Earthquakes and embarrassments, Japanese style

How the heck have I not told any stories about Japan for Flashback Friday yet? I spent a summer in Kyoto on a BYU study abroad program in 2000. Japanese was my minor at the BYU, and almost a second major (I was two classes short of the major when I graduated). Now, the fact that I speak Japanese is more of a parlor trick than a real asset in my day-to-day life, but you never know when it might come in handy again. Someday.

Today's story is about embarrassing church moments, as well as earthquakes. Sometimes these two things overlapped.

I loved, loved, LOVED my time in Japan, and I think if I had spent any longer there, I would have gone completely native. Even given just a summer, I was well on my way:

There were only ten of us students on the program, all living with Mormon host families - 2000 was the first year the administrators at the BYU were able to pull that off - and I happened to get assigned to an amazingly awesome Japanese family who I remain in contact with to this day.

They really embraced me as a member of their family. They had three daughters, aged 9, 13, and 15, and I ran/biked around town with one or two or all of them throughout the summer. I even crashed the middle daughter's bike once and decimated her handlebar bell, as well as my knee.

But, church. There were a few wards in Kyoto and a couple of actual Mormon chapels, but the ward I attended with my host family met in a rented space above a car-repair garage (still one step above lime green velvet curtains, though). To designate the space as a church, they printed out "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" on pieces of paper and hung it in the windows on Sundays, as you see below (slightly garbled because the windows are open).

Inside, we met in partitioned areas for our various meetings. I got to be the piano (well, keyboard) accompianist for the Primary children, which remains my favorite calling ever. I loved the kids, the kids loved me, and they were always touching my hair. They called it "golden."

One embarrassing moment I had was at the very end of the program, on our final Sunday in Japan. There were one or two other BYU students who also attended that ward, and that day, I happened to be playing the piano during the worship services. The closing hymn was, fittingly, "God Be With You Till We Meet Again." We Mormons, Japanese and American, all sang together and felt so friendly and warm toward one another. The song ended, and the leader conducting the meeting went up to the microphone and said something that I thought meant, "And now Sister Bridget will continue to play the piano."

I couldn't quite figure out why they wanted me to do that, but I just turned the page to the next hymn and kept playing. No one was singing. They were all just listening to the music.

About halfway through the song, I realized that what he had meant was for me to play "God Be With You Till We Meet Again," one more time, so we could all continue to reminisce. And in the English hymnbook, maybe it wouldn't have been so bad: the next song in that book is "Lord, We Ask Thee Ere We Part." Not the most well known tune ever, but still appropriate for the situation.

But in the Japanese hymnbook, I ended up turning the page and playing "As the Dew From Heaven Distilling." I'm not even sure what that hymn is about, and there I was playing it, completely solo, to a group of Japanese people. By the time I realized what they had intended for me to do, it was too late to do anything about it.

I finished the song and the leader graciously pretended like I hadn't just made a puzzling spectacle of myself. To this day, I can't sing "God Be With You" without doing a mental facepalm.

The earthquake debacle was less interesting than it sounds. It was about halfway through the summer and we were all sitting in church, listening quietly to the speaker. Suddenly, there was an earthquake. I've been in a few small earthquakes before, but being in Kyoto, I had heard plenty of stories about the 1995 Kobe earthquake that was 6.8 on the Richter scale. That was the first thing that came into my mind when the ground started shaking. I confess I actually cried out, out loud, in a not-so-quiet voice. If everyone in the congregation had done the same, maybe it wouldn't have been so embarrassing. But no - all the Japanese people just sat there calmly and waited for the earthquake to finish in polite silence, and then the speaker carried on with her talk like nothing had even happened. I'm sure they were all laughing at the cowardly American for the rest of the day.

And they were right to do so.

Ah, memories. I don't know if I have many more stories from Japan, but I'll see what I can dig up. There's something about first-world countries that doesn't lend itself so well to crazy adventures, but I'll do my best.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Keep this, not that

A few times a year, I instigate a clutter inquisition of sorts that I lovingly refer to as a D.I. Purge. D.I. (Deseret Industries) is like Goodwill, but run by Mormons: a place where you can take your old, usable stuff and donate it for them to re-sell. Cleaning junk and clutter out of my house gives me great satisfaction and it's nice to contribute to charity, too.

I've also found that I can let go of sentimental things a little easier if I give them a little send-off on my blog. I know we just had one of these last week, but bear with me as I go through two things that ended up being purged and two things that are safe for now - at least until the next round.

This green ruffle-trim skirt has been tossed into the D.I. "maybe" pile for several rounds now, but each time, I have rescued it at the last minute. Not today.

I bought this skirt for $3 from an Indian at a festival booth in Jordan in 2006. I wore it a couple of times, but it just never fit right. I sometimes suspected that it was made for little girls and I just happened to buy size XXXL or something, because it doesn't really allow for the wearer to have hips. I've kept it until now because I couldn't get over the fact that it cost $3, and it was cute, and I thought maybe it would fit me someday (because having kids only makes you skinnier, don't you know?), but no more. It's gone.

The other item of clothing that succumbed to the wrath of my D.I. purge was this pair of running shorts from INsport, purchased in 1995. Do the math: that was fourteen years ago.

The elastic waistband had been gradually losing its stretchiness over the last few years, and recently, it finally gave out entirely. It happened in the middle of a run, actually, so I ended up using my iPod Shuffle (which I usually clip on my waistband) in a more functional way than I'm used to, if you catch my drift. Goodbye, favorite purple running shorts!

Two items of clothing got a reprieve, at least for now, and they're both old t-shirts. What is it about old t-shirts that is so sentimental? I find it very hard to let go of t-shirts, especially if they were free (and I'm not the only one). These two are no exception.

First, my beloved Girl Scouts Troop 106 shirt. I wore this shirt in public recently and a friend asked me if I was, like, actively involved in Girl Scouts as an adult, or...? She didn't hide her relief very well when I told her not to worry, this shirt is from 2nd grade.

This shirt was a collaborative effort by us 7-year-olds, and we each got to design our own decal for the silk-screen print. Here's a closeup of mine:


This last shirt is another holdout from elementary school: Oak Hills Honor Choir.

The Honor Choir was an after-school activity for 4th-, 5th-, and 6th-graders. I like neither the color of this shirt nor the picture on the front. And yet it seems I cannot part with it.

What ancient items of clothing are you still hanging on to?

Monday, April 13, 2009

My little existentialist

Before I had kids, I always harbored a certain amount of disdain for those parents who just brushed off the "Why?" questions of their children. What is so hard about explaining why it has to be cold for it to snow, or why babies can't talk, or any other number of simple "why" questions? I thought these parents were just lazy, or didn't care about teaching their children how the world works.

Now my harsh judgment of others is coming back to haunt me, because these days, Miriam is chock full of questions that begin with the dreaded "why." The easy ones I can handle pretty well, even on autopilot. It's the existential ones that really have me begging for relief. And I finally understand why sometimes, parents just want to say - nay, SCREAM - three simple words: I. DON'T. KNOW. And just have it be accepted by the child as a satisfactory answer.

These are the kinds of questions I'm dealing with:

-Why is it Sunday?

-Why is tomorrow not Sunday?

-Is that our water bottle? -No. -Why isn't that our water bottle?

-You can hold this [container of cinnamon], but don't drop it. - Why can't I drop it? -Because it might break. -Why? -Because if it falls on the floor, the packaging might burst open and get cinnamon everywhere. -Why? (You see how I try my best and it's still not good enough??)

-Mama, can I watch a movie? -No, (and then, anticipating what was coming) because you woke up and got out of bed during the night. -Why did I get out of bed? -YOU TELL ME. (I didn't say that but I really wanted to.)

-Why is this toilet [at the park] silver?

And so on. This constant barrage of WHY is so incredibly fatiguing that my brain actually seems to cringe when I hear her say that word.

Miriam is also a fan of follow-up questions like, "Or else what?" or "Otherwise what?" in order to ascertain the consequences of any given action. So if I tell her to go in her room for quiet time, she has to confirm the situation with an "or else what?" and then we get into a big why-centered discussion on the merits of me taking a break from my children.

Do your kids have questions like this? If so, WHY?

Friday, April 10, 2009

Flashback Friday: Eurovision

This episode of Flashback Friday is kind of a stretch, but darnit, I want to talk about Eurovision today and it’s my blog so I’m finding a way to make it work.

Do you know what Eurovision is? If you don’t, you are as I once was, back in 2002. Then Jeremy and I moved to Moscow, Russia, and Eurovision was suddenly a relevant part of our lives and the lives of those around us. It became even more relevant when we took a weekend vacation in May to Tallinn, Estonia, where Eurovision was actually going to take place later that same month.

My thoughts at the time could be summed up thusly: What is this “Eurovision” of which everyone is speaking? That question can be answered in two ways.

On paper, said with a straight face, it is a musical Olympics of sorts, where the best music act from each of 50-some European countries converges on one European capital to duke it out on the stage. The winner of Eurovision earns bragging rights for their home country for the entire year, as well as...well, that's pretty much it.

In reality, of course, it is a pants-wettingly funny display of the cheesiest, most obnoxiously performed, poorly written music EVER, all the more hilarious because it is all done entirely in earnest. It’s like the auditions for American Idol on a global (well, European) scale, except that the bad acts have supposedly already been culled from the competition, since each country only sends one representative.

Eurovision, much like the Olympics, has had its occasional scandals. In 1978, Jordan broadcast the contest on national television but cut out Israel’s act (no, Israel is not in Europe, but whatever). Then, when Israel won the contest, Jordan simply ignored that fact and proclaimed the runner-up - Belgium - as winner. Classy.

Eurovision is such a festival of cheesiness that some singers have been able to represent their country even when singing songs in made-up languages. And a couple of years ago, these guys (the group Lordi, from Finland) won:

Aye caramba.

Then there was last year’s contest, which brings me back to the beginning of my post, and Russia. Russia has been a part of Eurovision since 1994, but it had never won the contest. Even in 2002, when we were there, this was a sore spot in the national psyche. Each year that passed and Russia didn’t win again, it was always because of some voting conspiracy, or prejudice among the politically based voting system, or whatever. But all that changed last year. In 2008, Dima Bilan brought home to Russia the ultimate glory from Eurovision with his song, “Believe.”

Here is the video. Please watch it. If you knew nothing about Eurovision before reading this post, you will understand everything after watching the video. The winning song from 2008 is a vaguely catchy, vanilla pop-ballad with generic, quasi-inspiring English lyrics, sung by a wholesomely handsome artist.

But that’s not enough to win Eurovision.

To win Eurovision, you have to have a guy bust onto the stage from NOWHERE and start figure-skating around you as you sing (I am not making this up – skip to 2:24 to see it happen). I don’t care if it IS Yevgeny Plushenko. It’s still shockingly corny.

I wish we could be in Moscow at the end of May to see Eurovision in person. Instead, I'll be doing the next-best thing: culling YouTube for the "best" acts after the contest is over. Admit it - after reading this (and this article from the NYT blog), so will you.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Installing a thermostat

Next on our list of things to fix up in the house before we sell it and move away forever: installing a new thermostat.

The old thermostat was one of those ugly ones from the 1980s. You've all seen this one before, or perhaps one of its circular dial cousins:

It was the kind of thermostat whose temperature gauge was so obliquely designed that at any given moment, you could really only tell the temperature to the nearest 10th degree. Knowing that the temperature was "in the 60s" or "in the 70s" wasn't very helpful when trying to put the thermostat on an efficient setting.

Also, it had real mercury inside of it, which I found out when I took it off the wall. Seeing the mercury brought back a childhood memory of a broken thermometer and playing with the spilled mercury on the counter. Hmm.

I think this was my favorite household repair project so far. It wasn't quite as hands-on or manly as installing the bathroom faucets, nor was it as wet and disgusting as putting in a new garbage disposal. Maybe that's why I liked it: it was a household project for the thinking man. It required intense concentration, delicate fingerwork, and the labeling with stickers of tiny colored wires, rather than wrenches, screwdrivers, and brute strength.

Warning: photographs taken on my camera's micro setting, accompanied by instructional commentary, follow below.

Here was one of my helpers. I eventually put her down in the hallway and scattered the floor with Cheerios so she would keep herself busy by scavenging. It really worked!

This is the inside of the old thermostat. The premise of taking out the old and putting in the new was so simple, I'm surprised the instructions didn't just say so: all you have to do is de-wire the old one, label the wires, and then re-wire the new one to the matching terminals. The only tricky part is figuring out which letter is equivalent to which, since different kinds of thermostats use different names. Nothing a quick Google search couldn't handle, which verifies my recent theory that Googling instructions is often more useful and straightforward than following the directions in the pamphlet that came with the product.

After I labeled the wires, I took off the remaining piece of thermostat and was left with this lovely bunch of wires sticking out of the wall.

I put the new thermostat cover on the wall, pulled through the wires, and set about making the new connections. I really felt like I was making a bomb. I was even doing it under pressure, since Magdalena was starting to get fussy and I knew my time was running short. Isn't it pretty? My favorite part is the middle red wire, which I learned is called a jumper, and I had to put it in myself. And althought it looks complicated, the concept here is very simple. Each lettered wire tells the thermostat to do a specific thing. You just have to put the wires in the correct terminals.

The finished product. This particular thermostat has a touch screen, which is kind of nifty. I only wish we were going to be around longer so we could, you know, use it.

Although we are getting into AC season here in Tucson, which reminds me of a post I've been meaning to write since February about the fact that I appear to have reverse Seasonal Affectiveness Disorder. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

What Idahoans name their babies

In case you haven't realized it already, I'm kind of a baby name nerd/snob. It's just the way I am. So when I was in Idaho Falls a few weeks ago, and saw a newspaper insert of all the baby announcements from the local hospital from 2008 lying around, I just couldn't resist taking a look at it. I even wanted to write a blog post about all the interesting names I found, but decided against it because I didn't want to come across as a jerk. About half of my friends are pregnant right now and the risk of mocking one of their secret favorite names seemed to be too great.

Fortunately, someone else has written my blog post for me. You can find it here. Please read it and if you think it's funny, just know that I literally had the exact same thoughts. If you are offended, or if she mocks one of your favorite names, then we can pretend that I am offended right along with you.


(OK, I can't resist poking fun at one of them: Konnur. Really! It took me days to get over that one.)

(One more, but I'm not really making fun of it, just noting that it appears to be the most popular name ever for baby boys in the Idaho Falls area: Ryker. Doesn't anyone watch Law & Order anymore?)

Farewell, papa-san

Tonight we said farewell to a very beloved piece of furniture: the papa-san chair. In order to give it a proper send-off, I'd like to review a few key moments in our shared history.

We inherited the papa-san chair from Jeremy's parents when we moved to Tucson in August of 2005. They gave it to us for free, and at the time, it was the only piece of furniture we owned that provided seating.

In our first tiny apartment deep in the ghetto of Tucson, the papa-san served us well from the very beginning. We pulled the cushion onto the floor each night and slept on it for those first few weeks until we bought a real mattress. I was 8 months pregnant with Miriam at the time, and I did my best to pretend that it was comfortable, but I'll be honest: it wasn't. Still, we were grateful.

Eventually we bought a kitchen table and chairs so that when guests came over to visit newborn Miriam, they weren't faced with the awkward choice of the papa-san or the floor.

Even after we moved into our house and inherited an additional item of seating, namely the couch left behind by the previous owner, the papa-san retained its usefulness. We even used it as a highchair for Miriam's first few feedings of solid food.

As Miriam grew older, the papa-san became her favorite spot in the house... well as the favorite spot of her friends, who affectionately dubbed it a "boat."

When Magdalena was a newborn, Miriam shared the papa-san with her for the occasional late afternoon viewing of Jeopardy!.

But today, it was time to say goodbye. As much as we loved it, the papa-san was undeniably a supremely awkward piece of furniture. It took up a lot of space in a less than graceful manner, and it wasn't the kind of chair that you could sit in half-heartedly. Instead, it required a full seating commitment - you really had to dive in and get comfortable. A lot of people would come over and, unfamiliar with our strange chair, try to perch neatly on the edge of the cushion, but that never lasted very long. With the papa-san, it was all or nothing.

Perhaps, if we had a large house with one room set aside for lounging, the papa-san could have had its place. But we don't, so we sold it on Craigslist this afternoon.

Miriam's eyes actually welled up with tears when we told her to say goodbye to the papa-san before the lady came over to pick it up. Her only consolation is that it is going to a good home - the lady bought it for her 12-year-old granddaughter to put in her room.

And thus it is that the papa-san joins the ranks of such beloved discarded items as Old Yellow and Big Blue, who also earned a requiem on this blog after being sent away from our household. We may not physically own the papa-san anymore, but we are grateful to have enjoyed it for as long as we did.

For those of you who have personally experienced the awkwardness of coming over to my house and having to sit in the papa-san, please feel free to vent your frustration in the comments section. The papa-san is beyond all offense now.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Sabino Canyon Sunset Run

I inherited the strange trait - I think from my dad - of involving myself in athletic events that I am not necessarily prepared for. Then I do them, and I do fine, but it all would have been easier and more fun if I had actually trained for them. See, for example, the 15-kilometer Columbia Classic Moonlight Run I did three years in a row, without ever training for it. Brilliant.

And then yesterday, I did the Sabino Canyon Sunset Run, all 7.4 miles of it, without having run more than 4 miles at a time on any given day in the last several years.

I guess I just don't have the patience for true long-distance running anymore. Or maybe Miriam and Magdalena don't, since they always have to come with me. It makes me sad, too, because 7 miles used to be no big deal for me.

But that's how I knew I could do it, last night in the canyon. I knew my body would remember how to run more than 4 miles at once, because it used to do it all the time, ten years ago.

That said, I was so very excited for this run. I haven't done any kind of race or run since having kids, so I was really looking forward to a gorgeous run at sunset in a beautiful canyon with hundreds of other people.

Here I am at the starting line with Miriam. She and Magdalena and Jeremy got to play while I ran. The course was a 7.4-mile out-and-back, with gently rolling hills turning into a very steep uphill for the last 1.75 miles out.

This was the setup for the girls to watch for me about 100 meters before the finish line. I didn't really notice them there as I approached until I heard Miriam's little voice saying "Go, Mama!" So encouraging! I could have used the help way back on the huge hill.

This is not me. This is the lady behind me. Jeremy got all set up to take a picture but since it was getting dark, the camera didn't actually take the picture until I had already passed. Oh well. Just take my word for it - I finished.

Even though I wasn't as prepared as I should have been for this run, and even though it almost killed me, I still really enjoyed it. Thanks for telling me about this race, Camille!

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Flashback Friday: Russian mini flashbacks

Sometimes when I'm thinking about which story to tell for Flashback Friday, I come up with little mini flashbacks that aren't enough to be a whole post all on their own, but are still interesting little tidbits. Today I'm lumping a few of those together for a Russian edition of mini flashbacks. Enjoy!

The Mormon Church with the gold balls on the wall.
While we were living in Moscow, we attended a Russian branch. Halfway through our time there, the Church acquired a rented apartment to use as a meetinghouse. Until that time, however, we were stuck meeting in a community cultural center and the main room looked like this:

Ah, yes. Nothing is more conducive to reverent Sunday worship than lime green velvet curtains (with matching piano cover) and shiny gold balls on the wall. I think the worst part of this arrangement was actually the risque photos of previous entertainment events that were hanging all over the foyer. Which is also where the youth meetings were held. Awkward.

Another interesting fact about the Mormon congregations in Moscow is that they were organized not by strict geographical area but by metro line. Everyone who lived along a spoke of the metro line (you can see a map of it here) belonged to the same congregation. It actually worked quite well.

Thrillers are scarier when you watch them in incomprehensible Russian.

We had been in Moscow for only a week or two when we went to see The Others at a local movie theater. I don't know if we knew ahead of time that it was dubbed over in Russian, but it was, and I spoke hardly a word of it at that time. But with a movie like The Others, it actually just made the experience even creepier for me. This movie is also where I learned how to say "What happened?!?" in Russian, as well as "Sooner or later, they will find you." Useful stuff.

My Russian factory worker self.
We already know what I would have looked like as a member of the Young Pioneers of the Soviet Union. Now I bring you Jeremy and myself as Russian factory workers:

We went on an embassy-sponsored excursion to a local sweet-making factory and they made us wear these ridiculous getups for the whole tour. Maybe it was their chance to laugh at the Americans, or maybe it was actual protocol, since all the factory employees were wearing them, too. Regardless, we came home from the tour with two bags full of free cookies and cakes - enough to make me never want to eat vanilla wafer cookies ever again.

You may remember Moscow from such movies as The Saint.

If that building in the background looks familiar, it's because you were paying attention while watching The Saint. I think in that movie it's the headquarters of the bad guys' oil company. In real life, it's a hotel called Ukraina, and it was right across the river from where we lived. Also in real life, as opposed to in The Saint, you could never get into the US Embassy in Moscow just by running toward the gates while screaming "I'm an American!" even if you're Elizabeth Shue, and even if bad guys are chasing you. It just wouldn't happen - you have to have badges and things.

I hope these mini flashbacks are sufficient to fill your Flashback Friday quota for today. I have more of them, but I'll save them for another time. Until then!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Book Review: Moscow Stories, by Loren R. Graham

Here's a great book: Moscow Stories, by Loren R. Graham. I saw this one sitting on a featured shelf at the library and decided to take it home, even though I had never heard of it before and didn't know anything about it.

It turns out that if I were more with it, I probably would have already known who Mr. Graham is. As it was, I thought he was just some random guy who had lived in Russia for a while and decided to write a book about it. Not so. He is one of the premiere (if not the premiere) historians of Soviet science in the world and in Moscow Stories, he has written an insightful, unique, and widely encompassing account of the mundane and the extraordinary in both Soviet and post-Soviet Moscow.

There are several features of Moscow Stories that set it apart from the rank and file memoir. First and foremost, it is not a memoir of the author's experiences in his specific field. So if you're not interested in the history of Soviet science, it's not a problem here. (If you are interested in Soviet science, however, I believe that Mr. Graham has written plenty of books in that field, too.) Rather, Moscow Stories is a collection of anecdotes about the everyday and amazing experiences of the author during his time in that city - in other words, it's about the things that happened to him while he was carrying out the work and research that brought him there in the first place.

Another unique aspect of Moscow Stories is its tone. Mr. Graham writes concisely and in an unassuming way; he tells stories of meetings with Soviet leaders in the same matter-of-fact manner as when writing about being a spectator at a parade. For this reason, the book seemed slightly dry to me at first. However, once I was into it, I appreciated the clarity and straightforwardness of his writing style.

Finally, Moscow Stories is exceptional on the basis of its content alone. I have only vague childhood memories of the existence of the USSR, which is why I find watching movies like Dr. Zhivago to be so instructive in learning about America's perception of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Having lived in Moscow after the fall of the Soviet Union, I find the Soviet days of that city to be something of a mysterious black box: I could see reminders and hints of it everywhere, but there seemed to be no way for me to put all the pieces together into a cohesive picture of the whole. Moscow Stories is a brilliantly illuminating account of exactly what I was looking for all that time. It is not a story of grand historic happenings with far-reaching consequences; rather, it is the story of the people who happened to be living in Russia while those events took place. Sometimes, those people were instrumental in bringing about those historic changes. However, that is not Mr. Graham's point in telling us about them.

For example, rather than tell us all the finer details of the circumstances and people that engineered the collapse of the Soviet Union, information that could be found in many other (interesting) books that have already been written, Mr. Graham tells us about how during that exact period of time, he fell deathly ill in Moscow and had to be rushed to the hospital to be saved by Soviet doctors. In doing so, he ended up being the first private patient of the Kremlin Hospital, and his experiences throughout that ordeal illustrate the effects of the breakdown of Communism.

Even though I think most anyone with even a cursory interest in travel, foreign cultures, or Soviet issues would really enjoy reading this book, I'll allow for the possibility that I loved it so much just for having lived in Moscow. So I'll recommend it to you on the basis of your interest in the following, in ascending order. I think you'll like Moscow Stories if you are interested in foreign countries, especially countries very different from America, stories of foreigners living abroad, stories about the Soviet Union, and finally, stories that take place specifically in Moscow. A bonus is if you're interested in the Russian language at all - Mr. Graham throws in a few Russian language phrase equivalents here and there, which I found to be a neat little bonus feature.

Whatever your interests are, Moscow Stories is a good read. It is often funny, sometimes sad, but always a fascinating and instructive account of both Soviet and post-Soviet Moscow.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Army Tough...

...and only 7 months old!

Re: Lindsay's comment on the previous post:

What do you think?

(Jeremy doesn't remember the "Army of One" slogan but it's the first one that came to mind when I thought of Army advertising campaigns. Apparently they've since moved on to "Army Tough.")


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