Wednesday, September 30, 2009

While I was showering

Let me tell you what Magdalena did this morning while I was in the shower. This, despite the fact that I put the trash can (her usual mischief target, yes, GROSS) on top of the sink before getting in the shower. I should have known my preventative measures are useless against her.

My sweet little Magdalena:

-ran off with the conditioner bottle and deposited it in an area of the house viewable from outside through windows. So not only did I have to leave the warm, steamy shower and venture into the freezing living room to retrieve it, I had to do so at the peril of being seen naked.

-stuffed her special blankie (the one she cuddles next to her face) behind the toilet. I don't care how often you clean back there. That's just disgusting.

-took off those little half-dome caps that sit on the toilet bolts and played with them.

-found the box of soft wipes (the only thing I will say about those is that once you've used a bidet, you can't go back to regular TP by itself ever again) and spread them, individually as well as in large, wadded chunks, all over the house.

-and finally, shredded TP into very fine, jagged strips and then put them in the bathtub.

I was aware she was doing most of this but the question I kept asking myself was, was the shower worth it vs. the time I would spend cleaning it up?

In the end, the answer was yes.

PS - I put on a Baby Einstein video (via YouTube) for her just now so I could write this and it didn't interest her at all. So I sifted through what we had saved on the computer and found West Bank Story. She is watching it right now and is riveted. RIVETED, I tell you.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Autumn in Ithaca

Autumn is my favorite season. I had forgotten about it since Tucson doesn't really have autumn. We went to a pumpkin patch last year the day before Halloween and it was 95 degrees outside. Beyond the pumpkin patch stretched miles and miles of brown, scrubby hills. All the vendors were selling frozen lemonade, not hot cider. I think that was the beginning of the end for Tucson and me.

Now, autumn in Ithaca, in pictures:

This picture is hanging in the window of a pizza place on The Commons. Take a closer look:

In case that isn't enough evidence for you that we are now in hippie town, check this out:
A composting bin, at a public event (the Apple Festival). I'm used to recycling bins in public areas because I grew up with it. But composting? Wow. Most of the food vendors had signs hanging near their menus that said "Everything you get from me can be composted." Impressive.

This little guy is hanging out at one end of The Commons. I need to find the explanatory plaque or something so I know what the heck he is doing there.

At the Apple Festival, there were a few performances by local belly dancers, some of whom were aged white ladies. My two main competing feelings were 1) embarrassment on the dancers' behalf, and 2) absolute awe of their skills and bravery. I think the latter feeling eventually won out.

These are the leaves we collected on a walk in the forest today.

Autumn, I've missed you. It's good to have you back again.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Adventures with Picasa face-recognition

Picasa 3 now has face-recognition functionality. Not only is this new feature extremely useful, it also is good for a few laughs. There's the way it mistakes one child for another, like mixing up pictures of Miriam when she was younger with current pictures of Magdalena. Or how it has an uncanny ability to group families together, like when it sorted an entire branch of Miriam's cousins under one name.

Then there's the way it sneaks in über-freaky photos of complete strangers into your daughter's photo group:

Take a closer look. Notice anything amiss? I'll give you a hint: ONE OF THESE THINGS IS NOT LIKE THE OTHERS.

I don't know who that woman is, or why she is lurking creepily in the background of one of my photos, but she is not Miriam.

It turns out she was in the background of this picture:
Phew! Mystery solved.

Picasa's ability to sift out every face from every picture background can be unsettlingly impressive at times. Here's what it pulled from a photo I took yesterday at the Ithaca Apple Festival (blog post to come):
I never would have taken a second glance at those people. I didn't even notice them in the background of the picture I took. But there they are, foisted upon me, forever immortalized in my Picasa photo album (except I can delete them if I want to).

I ended up adding the matryoshka doll that sits on our piano as its own person because Picasa kept identifying its face in the background and asking who it was.

As you can see, the good times to be had are endless. Has anyone else had a chance to play with this function yet?

Friday, September 25, 2009

Flashback Friday: Home Sweet Syrian Home

I could fill up a good pile of Flashback Friday entries with stories about the apartment we had in Damascus. It had so many quirks, most of which are only ha-ha funny to me now that we don't live there anymore. Where shall I begin?

How about the front door? Here is a picture of ours. We lived in a two-bedroom apartment on the fourth (and top) floor of an apartment building in the Sheikh Saad area of the Mezze neighborhood of Damascus. The easiest way to describe where we lived to people who know the city are that we lived in Mezze - but not the nice Mezze. I loved the round doorknob in the middle of the door. It made me feel like a hobbit every time I went home.

Our apartment was pretty nice by some standards, not so nice by others. I went to plenty of Syrian homes that were better than ours. I also went to some that made ours look like a palace, though the ostentatious Louis XIV decoration scheme certainly helped a little with that. The more gilded, ruffly, and chandelier-y, the better. Check out our living room, below - and this was after we had cleared out a few of the more egregiously fancy decorations (and I hope we took down that doilied fake flower contraption on the TV very soon after taking this picture).

The chandeliers were fun. The one in the picture had many candle-flame-shaped lightbulbs in it, but I don't think more than half a dozen worked at any given time. If the draw on power for our building was especially strong, several of the bulbs would go out and then come on again when the power surged.

Some of the apartment's less endearing quirks included the following:

-The mattress on our bed was supported not by a box spring, or indeed any kind of structure integral to the bed frame itself, but by flimsy pieces of masonite board, which were in turn propped up by an awkward rigging of cinderblocks and 2x4s. This arrangement was so precarious that the bed sometimes shifted and squeaked loudly if you happened to even flex a muscle while lying down on it.

-Then again, one of the mattresses in the guest bedroom was actually a Frankenstein-type conglomeration of different pieces of foam rubber welded together to make a reasonably sized sleeping surface, so we considered ourselves lucky to have what we did (and our guests not so lucky).

-But the joke was on us after all when we ended up dragging that mattress out into the living room every night to sleep in our one air-conditioned room when I was pregnant with Miriam in the summer.

-Speaking of sleep, guess when we didn't get any? During the whole holy month of Ramadan, that's when. Here's the deal: the first floor of our building was occupied by businesses, one of which was a tailor shop equipped with large, industrial-strength sewing machines (can you see where this is going?). During Ramadan, many people adjusted their schedules to accommodate the all-day fasting ritual, sleeping during the day and working/socializing at night. So the tailors in our building worked all night long until dawn. The industrial-strength sewing machines made the whole building vibrate. It was so bad that we couldn't sleep - and we were on the fourth floor! We might have had some recourse with the building's owner except that the owner of the building and the owner of the tailor shop were the same person. Let's just say that during Ramadan, I read a lot of books during the wee hours of the night, including the entire Chronicles of Narnia series and a good chunk of the Harry Potters, too. Sorry to have to be the one to show you the ugly side of Ramadan, but there it is.

Still to come in some future installment of Home Sweet Syrian Home: cold showers, our Turkish toilet, and our downstairs neighbor takes to forging armor in the middle of the night.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Book Review: Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

Not to review two books in the same week or anything, but I thought this one would be especially pertinent since it was released so recently.

Catching Fire is the sequel to The Hunger Games (my review here), since apparently no book can stand on its own these days. It's all about the series. Don't get me wrong: I love a good series, mostly because it guarantees me another great book to read every year or so. What I don't appreciate is when an author (or publisher) stretches out a story to force it into multiple books.

That said, I don't think that's entirely what's going on with The Hunger Games. I'm not sure how many books are planned to be in the series, but I'm guessing it's a trilogy, with books 1 and 2 now released. Not having read the unreleased third and assumed final book in the series, I can't say for sure, but my impression is that this is a story that could have fit into two books, which has instead been stretched into three to DRIVE ALL OF US FANS ABSOLUTELY RABID WITH IMPATIENCE.

All of that is perhaps a discussion for another day. The point here is that Catching Fire is one of those lovely, delicious books that sucks you into its world and makes you want to ignore every other responsibility in your life, every other engagement, commitment, or member of your family, even the tiny helpless ones, and just READ. As much as I love reading, this particular kind of book doesn't come around very often (the Twilight series and some of the Shannon Hale books come to mind as other examples, though I don't think it's a phenomenon necessarily limited to YA lit).

When I was reading Catching Fire, I was in that world. When I went to bed right after reading it, I had dreams of being in that world. When I reluctantly put down the book to attend to the dinner needs of myself and my family, I thought I was still in that world and had to remember that food was not scarce and the pangs of hunger we were all experiencing were because dinner was late, not because we were actually starving and oppressed like the characters in the book.

So, yes, it is a good book and a thoroughly engrossing read. I really enjoyed seeing some of the themes I appreciated in The Hunger Games fleshed out and expanded in Catching Fire. There were some crazy plot twists that I didn't see coming, and one that I did. The last third of the book is where you can just put your bookmark away because you won't be needing it. Be sure to save that part for when you have an uninterrupted stretch of reading time available.

Of course, the end kind of runs right off a cliff, right into Book 3 territory, which was frustrating. I didn't think it was quite as bad as the blunt ending of The Hunger Games, but it was maddening nonetheless. The weaknesses in Catching Fire were mostly issues that seem to relate to this two-book story being held over into three (if that is the total number of books, anyway). I thought parts of the book were a little slow, and while I understood that the heroine (Katniss) was necessarily torn between two paths of action, I thought she bordered on wishy-washy at times. Also, I ended up liking this book slightly less than The Hunger Games, mostly because of the shift in focus from, well, the actual Hunger Games to wider social rebellion. But those are my only reservations, and I'm giving the books the benefit of the doubt until I see the series finished.

One final bonus - the book cover is so gorgeous. You can see the picture at the beginning of this post, but I hope the copy you buy/borrow includes the dust jacket because it is so much shinier and prettier in person. I couldn't stop admiring it as I read. I even stroked it a few times. That's how much I loved this book, I guess.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The girl who didn't come back

Elizabeth Smart (left) & Brooke Wilberger (right)

Speaking of flashbulb memories, I can remember exactly where I was when I heard that Elizabeth Smart had been kidnapped, and exactly where I was when she was found. I wept when I heard both pieces of news, of course for different reasons. We were living in American Fork when she was recovered and it took them a few months to take down the MISSING billboard on I-15 with her picture on it. Every time I drove past that billboard in the meantime, it was all I could do to keep from busting into a huge smile.

I've always been intrigued by kidnapping cases. Perhaps it's because I grew up in the shadow of the Polly Klaas kidnapping. She was the same age as me and for what felt like years after her case had been resolved, I still saw her missing child posters at rest stops along I-5 on family vacations to California.

A little more than a year after Elizabeth Smart was found so miraculously in 2003, a BYU student named Brooke Wilberger was abducted in Corvallis, Oregon. After an initial media frenzy as everyone did their best to find the girl, things died down. I always remembered the case, though, and thought about Brooke from time to time.

Now, we know what happened. And unlike Elizabeth Smart, Brooke Wilberger will not be coming home. I wept for her and her family last night. I wish they could have been happy tears, like they were for Elizabeth Smart. But they're not.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Book Review: Skeletons on the Zahara, by Dean King

Skeletons on the Zahara, by Dean King: here's another book where an early 19th-century ship out of New England is lost at sea, and that's only the beginning of the story (see also In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick). In this case, it's a merchant vessel that wrecks off the coast of Africa, in what is now Western Sahara. Just as with In the Heart of the Sea, you'd think the story of the wreck and how it came about would be interesting enough, and it is. But as I said, it's only the beginning.

You see, after the shipwreck, the crew of the boat Commerce were kidnapped into slavery by local tribes. The slavery didn't happen right away - the sailors made an initial attempt for shore as their boat was sinking but were rebuffed (quite violently) by the very hostile natives. After drifting off the coast for many days, as their food supply dwindled and their boat slowly fell apart, they finally decided to make for land again and take their chances with the natives. That's when they were sold into slavery and taken into the interior of Africa, vanishing in the vast Sahara desert.

Obviously, some of the men made it out of the ordeal alive, or we wouldn't be reading a book about their experiences. I won't tell you how many made it, or exactly how, but it is an amazing story that is actually quite incredible at times. I find that happens a lot with survival adventure stories - there always comes a point in the book/movie where I think, "OK, now surely, there is no way they lived through THIS." But they DID survive, and the story of how they did so is nothing short of fascinating.

A fun exercise is to read this book soon after reading In the Heart of the Sea, along with a friend or spouse, and then discuss which set of sailors had it worse. Their stories are very comparable, after all: early 19th-century American men who made their living at sea, thrown into unbelievably hostile conditions after suffering the loss of their ship at sea, both experiencing extremes in weather, inhospitable terrain, hunger, and thirst. Jeremy and I read both books and we can't seem to reach a consensus. I think we are both leaning toward In the Heart of the Sea being the more harrowing ordeal, but Skeletons on the Zahara certainly has plenty going for it, as well.

So: adrift at sea for months with nothing to eat but your fellow shipmates, or sold into slavery for a much longer period in one of the most inhospitable regions of the planet. What do you think?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Flashback Friday: More Russian Mini Flashbacks

I did some of these a while back and it's time for two more anecdotes that deserve to be told but don't merit their own post.

I also almost froze to death this one other time
So it turns out that when I wrote this post, I had completely forgotten about this other time I almost froze to death.

It was January 2002. We'd been in Russia for a few weeks and I hadn't found a job yet (though I did so very soon after this story). In the meantime, I put myself on the substitute teacher list for the Anglo-American School of Moscow. It was good work, if slightly sporadic, and it paid well - I remember getting $100 for each day of subbing.

Well, early one morning they called me up to sub and I said sure, no problem. So I got myself way the heck out to the school. In case you hadn't guessed, it was really cold (January + Moscow = BRUTAL). And although I was warmly dressed, on my way to the school, out and about, I was shivering from the cold. No big deal, I thought. I'd be inside a nice, toasty school all day teaching third graders.

Then I got to the school and it was freaking School Olympics Day (which fact the secretary had failed to mention. And why do they do Olympics day in January anyway? Who are these people?!?). I ended up spending the whole day refereeing random sports. Outdoors. In the snow and wind. Wearing my inadequately warm clothes. In Moscow. In JANUARY.

What I would have given on that day in January to have had this warm woolen skirt that I bought later in Siberia. That skirt, plus thick leggings underneath and warm boots were typical church attire. Fashionable: not really, but all the ladies wore them. Functional: absolutely.

My memories of that day are a little foggy - rightfully so, since I'm sure my body had started to divert blood flow away from my brain and toward my heart and other more vital organs. I got paid my $100 but I still can't decide if it was worth it.
When you work for the government, there are different levels of security clearance available. In Moscow, higher levels of clearance got you into more restricted areas of the embassy. Areas like the cafeteria, commissary, and gym were open to anyone with an embassy ID. But getting past one particular set of doors was extremely difficult. First of all, you had to have a certain color badge, which I did. That was not my problem. The problem was that the door was physically almost impossible to open. I don't know what kind of security or locking devices it could possibly have had in it, but they weighed a ton. To get that door open, I had to take a deep breath beforehand and throw all my weight and effort into it.

That would have been bad enough, except that this set of doors was located right in front of one of the Marine Guard stations. Anyone going in or out of those doors had to first show an ID to the guards (who manned their stations behind a plexiglass wall), who would then press a button to remotely unlock the door. You had to open it and enter the restricted area as they looked on.

Jeremy and I in front of the ambassador's residence (Spaso House) in Moscow in December.

Oh, how I dreaded having to go through that door. It was one of those situations (much like riding your bike up the JSB ramp at the BYU) where even though it was really hard to do, to be cool, you had to make it look like it was easy. I did my best, but I don't think I ever convinced those marine guards that I was anything other than a wimp when it came to that door. Maybe they weighed it down on purpose so they could laugh at all the weaklings. If so, I'm sure they got some good laughs out of watching me.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Piano helpers

...and Jeremy wonders why I don't play the piano more often.

Sitting down on that bench - even when I've been careful to previously engage the girls in another self-sustaining activity - seems to somehow broadcast a signal throughout the house, loud and clear, saying, "BOTHER ME." Of course I give the girls time to play the piano and explore it for themselves. But sometimes, I just want to play a song, by myself, without a helping hand adding an extra harmony, or switching the keyboard instrument, or starting a bossa nova rhythm in the middle of Brahms. Is that too much to ask?!?!

Yes. Yes it is.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

School cut-off date woes

When we lived in Tucson, the cut-off date for entering kindergarten was September 1st. Even though I knew all along we'd most likely be moving away from Tucson before Miriam started school, it made me a little uneasy. Her birthday is September 4th, putting her juuuust this side of the line. In other words, she'd turn six right around the same time she started kindergarten. Alternatively, we'd have to jump through lots of hoops and make a lot of phone calls (shudder) to get her started a year early, in which case she'd turn five right when starting kindergarten. Either way, it was not an ideal situation.

I breathed a sigh of relief when we came to Ithaca and found out that the cut-off date here is December 10th, putting Miriam solidly in the kindergarten class starting in 2010. I was glad to have the difficult choice of whether or not to start her in school next year (what would have been early in Tucson) quickly and decisively removed from my hands. I had been gearing myself up to fight for her to start "early" in 2010 anyway, so to have the school district here tell me that that's where she belonged was fantastic, and took all of the controversy out of the situation.

Except actually, it doesn't. As I talk to more and more parents around here, I am realizing that the decision of when to start your child in school is far from cut-and-dried. Just as you can petition to have your child start school early (as I was considering doing with Miriam if the deadline had been September 1st), you can also choose to hold your child back.

So now I don't know what to do. It seems like this is one of those topics like childhood immunizations - I do what's best for my kid, you do what's best for yours, and we smile nicely and tiptoe around the other's opinions because we know we don't agree. But just as with immunizations, I believe that the seemingly personal decision to hold your child back in school actually affects everyone's children, and not always for the better.

The fact that so many parents want to hold their child back in school is alarming to me, because in some ways, it punishes those of us who follow the rules (wow, this subject really is similar to immunizations). The reasons for delaying the start of school for a child that I so often hear citedItalic - we want him to be physically as big as his classmates, we want her to have a developmental edge in the classroom, we want him to have a better chance of success in sports because he'll have an extra year of maturation under his belt - only make things worse for those of us who follow the school district's guidelines. And cheating in this way makes the perceived problem (that all the other kids in the grade are bigger, smarter, and better at sports than your child) worse. So then parents have even more evidence to point to when they're considering holding their child back.

Meanwhile, here's me, playing by the rules, putting Miriam in school with what I naively assume to be her peers, when in fact they are kids a year older than her.

It seems to me that if we all just put our kids in school according to the district rules (making exceptions, either way, when necessary), it might not be perfect, but at least it would be fair. What I think would help would be if schools set the cut-off date at December 31st. That way, all the kids in a given grade would have been born in the same calendar year, which seems to take the arbitrariness out of the system and lend a certain sense of cohesiveness to a class. It would also help if all schools, across the nation, had the same cut-off date so that parents don't have to take future moves into consideration when figuring out school schedules.

Of course I realize that there are exceptions, and some children really do need to start kindergarten later (or earlier) than others, and the parent is probably the best judge of that, and blah blah blah, but if the great majority of us don't do things by the rule, then there really isn't a rule, is there?

Two final notes:

1. Yes, I know I need to read Outliers.
2. My own personal experience is unusual in that I was the oldest in my grade through seventh grade (I have an early October birthday so I was legitimately after the cut-off). Then I skipped the eighth grade and ended up being the very youngest in my grade, graduating from high school and going to college when I was 17. Honestly, I preferred being the youngest. So please don't be too hard on me for feeling so strongly about erring on the side of sending kids to school who are slightly young, rather than much older. I lived through it myself and liked being younger better, even though I recognized that I was giving up a few advantages.

Did you have to deal with the finicky school cut-off dates as a child, or are you dealing with it now for one of your own children? What is your honest opinion? Obviously I haven't tried too hard to avoid stepping on anyone's toes in this post, so don't be afraid to tell me how wrong I am.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Book Review: Alphabet Juice, by Roy Blount Jr.

Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, ... With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory
If you are a language nerd like me, or simply enjoy learning interesting things about words, speech, and grammar, I think you'd like Alphabet Juice, by Roy Blount Jr. If you don't care to read about the quirks of the English language, however, stay far away from this book.

I heard about this book from my friend Amanda, and I was interested in reading it because I am a fan of Roy Blount Jr. as heard on NPR's WWDTM podcast. He is consistently one of my favorite panelists. His speaking style reminds me a little of the late Joseph B. Wirthlin's in that he often doesn't seem to be making a lot of sense - maybe he's even rambling a bit - and then he delivers the punchline (or spiritual message) and it's the cleverest/most insightful thing you've ever heard.

So it was fun for me to read the book and hear Roy Blount Jr.'s voice in my mind. I loved reading it, even though it is just a book with 26 chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet. It's basically like going through the dictionary with a witty friend (who happens to be a member of the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary) and picking out the best parts. Here are some of my favorites.

On the recommended pronounciation of artisanal being the annoying "AR-tis-an-al" instead of the more natural "ar-TIS-an-al" (p. 28, and see also Ken Jennings' musings on the same topic):

Try singing this:
Shop ar-TIS-an-al and you'll be glad!
Now try singing this:
Shop AR-tis-an-al and blehhh...

On the word "consonant" being defined succinctly and superbly by a certain dictionary (p. 65):

[Dictionary entry quoted.] Can you imagine how sweaty but proud the lexicographer was when that was done? The punctuation alone must have involved hours of meticulous stitching. "People," that lexicographer's supervisor must have announced over the intercom, "we are knocking off for champagne. Loretta has nailed consonant."

On folksy figures of speech (p. 99, and I think he made these up himself):

I feel like a hog starin' at a wristwatch.

So ugly he looks like a homemade child.

On "headlinese," the quirky language of headlines that must convey maximum meaning while taking up minimum space (p. 131, these are actual headlines):



On the proper use of if vs. whether (p. 148):

But here's something I heard on NPR: "The agreement did not address if detainees or their lawyers would be able to see any classified evidence."

That if sticks out like a sore conjunction. "D**n it," that if cries, "this is not my job."

On neologisms (p. 210):

The only word I can think of that I've coined on purpose is antepenultimatum. I've never had occasion to use it till now. It's when, for instance, you're absorbed in something outdoors, and you hear your mother calling, "For the last time, come in for supper," and you know from the tone of her voice that you really will absolutely have to come in, not this time, and not the next time she calls you, but the time after that.

On the word polyurethane foam (p. 234):

Why do I derive so much pleasure from saying, to myself or out loud, "polyurethane foam"? No one seems to get anything out of hearing me say it. From my perspective, feeling it running around in my mind's ear and mouth is like watching otters play in the water.

On writing poetry, specifically a triolet (p. 331):

Slightly Irregular Triolet Occasioned by an Official Explanation in an Airport of Chicago
"We have to seize your toiletries
If liquids/gels exceed three ounces."
For your sake (your security's),
They have to seize your toiletries.
You didn't weigh your Crest and squeeze...?
There! The keen-eyed sentry pounces.
He has to seize your toiletries
If liquids/gels exceed three ounces.

Reading this book is probably the most fun with words I've ever had, certainly since I worked as a lexicographer editing the dictionary. If that sounds like a good time to you, you should read it. If not, you probably shouldn't.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Flashback Friday: 9/11/01

I saw this sticker on the rear window of a car the other day. I can't decide whether it's spectacularly inappropriate or acceptable in a vigilante justice kind of way.

Today is September 11th. I've written about my memories of that day before, but it's been a couple of years so I'm going to do it again.

I've always been intrigued by flashbulb memories. When I was learning about them in high school psychology class (in 1998), the example that was always given was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Obviously, none of us in that classroom, except maybe (maybe) the teacher had been alive at that time. So we students understood the concept, but I don't think we really had much to compare it to. There was the Challenger disaster, of course, which I actually do remember. There was also the fall of the Berlin Wall and the death of Princess Diana (the latter having happened so recently, however, that it hadn't really evolved into a flashbulb memory yet).

But from now on, I think the classic, textbook example of a flashbulb memory will be September 11th. I know a common response to these kinds of tales is often, "I don't care where you or anyone else was when you found out about what had happened." So if you don't care, don't read on. If you do care, please know that I care, too, and I'd like to hear your story.

In the fall semester of 2001, I was living in that most awesome of places, the BYU FLSR (Foreign Language Student Residence - basically a nerdy place full of nerds who live with other nerds and nerdily speak foreign languages to each other all day) Japanese House. I woke up early on that Tuesday morning, got a bowl of cereal, and sat down to check my email while I ate. The page (which I have since searched for - unsuccessfully - on internet archives) that came up had only one sentence of news, something cryptic like, "World Trade Center incident kills 9." I thought it must be a mistaken reprint of a headline from when the WTC was bombed in 1993 and went on eating and checking email.

Around that time Jeremy, who lived a few doors down in the Arabic house, called me. He had just talked with a Palestinian friend on the phone, who had told him the news (but with slightly more detail than Yahoo! had at the moment). I then broke a major rule in the FLSR and turned on an English-language news channel. At almost that exact moment, the first tower collapsed. I watched it happen live on TV.

The rest of that day still feels hurried and stressed, even in memory. I went to class as usual and remember seeing hordes of BYU students gathered around the few television monitors in the bookstore, watching the events unfold. There was the Devotional, which was changed to a prayer meeting of sorts. But most of all, on that day and even more in the days to come, there was a sudden sense of importance attached to the fact that for two years now, Jeremy had been studying this obscure, strange language called Arabic. It seemed as though the pieces for his - soon to be our - future were falling into place.

In many ways, I think September 11th acted as a catalyst in our relationship. In the week before the attack, we were at that awkward "so, are we getting married or what?" phase of a long-term dating relationship. I'm not saying we wouldn't have gotten married had the attacks
not happened - just that those events seemed to allow us to see our plans more clearly. We got engaged in October, had to deal with sending out wedding invitations during the anthrax-in-the-mail scare soon afterwards, and were married in November after having our flight to Portland annoyingly delayed by that idiot who ran back through the newly beefed-up security screening area so he wouldn't miss a football game.

Other random things I remember about that day: hearing that Julie Stoffer (of recent '
The Real World' fame) was supposed to be on one of the doomed flights - this turned out to be true; hearing that a Mormon missionary conference was supposed to be held at the WTC that morning, but everyone through individual miraculous events managed to be absent - this, of course, was false. I also remember everything being called "the NYC and DC attacks," which at some point - I don't know exactly when - changed to simply "September 11th." Off the top of my head, I can't think of another world event that is known simply by its date.

What does your flashbulb memory illuminate?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

500 Days of Summer

Last week, in one of our biannual outings to the movie theater, Jeremy and I saw 500 Days of Summer. It was very good. Not great, but very, very good, and I would recommend seeing it. There were parts of it that I LOVED, in capital letters, and I write this post to share one of them with you. It takes place kind of toward the middle of the movie and it's the scene set the day after the hero and heroine have defined the relationship (in other words - and I hope this isn't spoiling anything - he gets the girl):

Isn't that just how it feels? I love it!

While I was searching for that video, I found this one, a sort of companion to the movie even though it technically doesn't have anything to do with it. And although she doesn't say it in her intro, Zooey Deschanel herself is the vocalist on this cute song:
I hope you enjoy these as much as I have! And if you see the movie, or have already seen it, remember that I did the "oops, no paper so we'll have to write on your hand" thing first.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Two things language-y from Taughannock Falls

The setting: we were at Taughannock Falls on Saturday, hiking with relatives on a visit from out of town.

1. I've mentioned before how Nigel the GPS mispronounces names around here, but he's not the only one. There are some that trouble me, too, like Taughannock. So I looked it up and asked a friend who grew up here and it turns out it's pronounced "tuh-GANN-uck," with A as in Apple, but flatter and more nasal-y somehow. I don't feel confident enough in Ithaca to say it like a native yet, so for now I'm pronouncing it "tuh-GAWN-uck."

2. The other language moment that occurred at Taughannock Falls was when we came upon two ladies setting up for a wedding at the falls overlook. They were busily tying purple sashes onto white lawn chairs and setting them up in rows in a spot with a good view of the falls. While we were admiring the view, I casually asked one of them who was getting married.

She answered: "My daughter and her son."

Did your mind just do a double-take? Because mine sure did when I heard that. And while the dictates of politeness might have required a simple smile and a nod, I wasn't about to let that go. So I asked her to clarify - "wait, who?"

"MY daughter, and HER [gesturing over at the other lady setting up] son."

OOOOOOOOOkay. Big difference, lady.

I think everyone standing in earshot heaved a collective sigh of relief. It's not that I wanted to believe it was what it initially sounded like - in fact, as my mind looped back on the statement over and over again to salvage some acceptable meaning, it discovered the possibility that perhaps she meant it was a double wedding, at which both the daughter and her son were marrying individuals besides the other. But my mind rejected that as too unlikely so it was good to hear what she actually meant, when the proper emphasis was placed on the proper words. Why she didn't say it like that in the first place is beyond me.

Monday, September 07, 2009


All the warning signs were there: my aversion to phone calls, my love for solitary reading, my disinclination toward meaningless chit-chat (and by extension, the entire institution of Visiting Teaching).

And yet I have always been hesitant to self-identify as an introvert. After all, I really don't mind being around other people, especially people who I am friends with. I am not afraid of speaking in public, even in front of large groups. I do consider myself to be socially awkward in general, but I am not incapable of making friends or enjoying myself at a party. Surely the label "introvert" was best applied to people other than me, people who are completely dysfunctional in polite company. Maybe I was just shy. Except shy didn't seem to fit me, either.

So what am I? Antisocial? Timid? Awkward? Taciturn? A loner? Nothing described me adequately.

And then I read this article: "Caring For Your Introvert," by Jonathan Rauch, from The Atlantic (thanks for the heads-up, Bryce). My life will never be the same. Now I know: I AM AN INTROVERT.

Everything makes sense now. As an introvert, I am

not necessarily shy. Shy people are anxious or frightened or self-excoriating in social settings; introverts generally are not. Introverts are also not misanthropic, though some of us do go along with Sartre as far as to say "Hell is other people at breakfast." Rather, introverts are people who find other people tiring.

Extroverts are energized by people, and wilt or fade when alone. They often seem bored by themselves, in both senses of the expression. Leave an extrovert alone for two minutes and he will reach for his cell phone. In contrast, after an hour or two of being socially "on," we introverts need to turn off and recharge. My own formula is roughly two hours alone for every hour of socializing. This isn't antisocial. It isn't a sign of depression. It does not call for medication. For introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating. Our motto: "I'm okay, you're okay—in small doses."

Now, before I start getting angry comments from (people who thought they were my?) friends, let me explain. Just because I'm an introvert doesn't mean I am incapable of enjoying good company. But it does explain a few things, doesn't it? Now you all know why I was incapable of scheduling simple play dates, or returning your calls, or inviting you over for dinner or games. The introvert part of me could only ever see all the awkwardness involved or mistakes I would make or social effort I would have to expend. Now I understand that an extrovert, on the other hand, would see only the pleasure of other people's company while trusting that all the other details would fall into place. It all makes so much sense now!

I specifically remember attending a party a few months ago for a good friend's one-year-old daughter. The setting was gorgeous. The food was varied and delicious. There were cute decorations and lots of fun activities. The party was so good and such a success that as an introvert, I was exhausted just by attending. I enjoyed myself thoroughly, but I was worn out from all the quality socializing. And all I had to do was show up! I remember seeing the host and hostess - you know, the people who actually put on the party, cooked the food, decorated the venue, etc. - smiling and mingling and having a good time along with their guests, seeming to do so effortlessly. If it had been my responsibility to throw a party like that, I would have long since locked myself in the bathroom to cry.

I confess I feel liberated by at last discovering - or perhaps just finally being willing to admit - that I am an introvert.

What say you? Are you an introvert or an extrovert? I wonder if I'll be surprised about anyone I know. I think I kept my introversion under wraps pretty well. I'm guessing that most people who knew me probably just thought I was a very unskilled extrovert. I think there are probably introverts out there who have become very good at mimicking extrovert behavior, but I am not one of them.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Flashback Friday: Damascus baby

To anyone who hasn't gone through it for herself, it's difficult to describe the roller coaster of emotions you experience when you're trying to get pregnant. It's a wild ride even if you succeed right away, but it can be cruel and difficult if you fail month after month after month. As soon as you know you should be starting to feel the symptoms of pregnancy - or even days and days before - it is tempting to read volumes into every tiny stomach cramp, every twinge of nausea, every whisper of a hunch. Before you know it, you're sure you're pregnant, even though it's still too early for any test to tell you so. That's when it gets brutal, though, because just when you've talked yourself into being sure, you are suddenly presented with incontrovertible evidence that in fact, there is no tiny life growing inside of you.

It's cruel. It's brutal. It's hard on the woman, hard on the man, hard on the marriage. And yet, you have to rev yourself up for going through it all over again, next month, and maybe the one after that, too. Anyone who's been there knows exactly what I'm talking about.

In October of 2004, just days before my birthday, I was sure I was pregnant. I had already discussed my symptoms with a friend and she agreed that it sounded like I was pregnant. I had called around to find a good doctor. For good measure, I had even picked out the first maternity outfit I would buy, from a store down the street. It had been in their display window for months and I wanted to be sure to buy it before they put it away. All that was left was to take a pregnancy test. We were living in Damascus, Syria at the time, and I was still working up the courage (and necessary vocabulary) to walk into a pharmacy and ask for a test.

I can't remember if I made Jeremy do it or if I did it myself, but I somehow procured a pregnancy test and was all set to take it the night before my birthday. We were out with friends at a local cafe and sometime during the meal, I slipped away from the table and went to the restroom.

I took the test. It was negative. In an instant, I went from a secret, full happiness, to complete devastation. It was all I could do to go back to the table and carry on as usual.

I wasn't so successful the next day when we had some friends over to celebrate my birthday with an ice cream cake. As Jeremy brought the cake into the room and everyone was singing, I burst into tears.

Also on my birthday, I passed the clothing shop on my way home from work and saw that my precious maternity outfit had been removed from the window display. It was as if they knew I wasn't pregnant, as surely as I did.

Months later, one early morning in the minutes before dawn, I was awoken by the call to prayer echoing out over our neighborhood. I was usually able to go back to sleep after it ended, but for some reason that day I got out of bed. And I took a pregnancy test. I spent the requisite three minutes of waiting for the result alone in the living room, watching the sky brighten with the rising sun as the call to prayer ended.

When I finally looked at the test, even in the dim light I could tell it was positive, at last. The first words out of my mouth were, "elhamdulillah," thanks be to God.

Many weeks later, I finally got to go inside the clothing shop down the street and look through their maternity clothes. Buried in the middle of a huge rack of shirts, I found the very one that had been on display in the front window for many of the months I had been waiting and hoping to be pregnant. It fit me perfectly, and in a moment of sweet resolution, I bought it and took it home that day. For the rest of my pregnancy, it remained my favorite shirt. It seemed to heal me somehow from the bitter disappointment of months before.

Why do I tell you this story? Because today, Miriam Damascus Palmer turns four years old.

Happy birthday, little one.

pregnant at the pillar of St. Simeon the stylite in northern Syria

age zero

age one

age two

age three

age four

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

I'm a big girl now...or not

Yesterday I blogged about being such a big girl in our new grown-up, real-job world. One of the responsibilities of living in the real world is having a daughter go to preschool for the first time. That's when you know you've entered grown-up-dom: when your kids are doing things that you remember doing yourself.

The in-home teacher visit was yesterday. I'd had a pretty bad night of sleep. I was woken up during the night once by Miriam, once by Jeremy, and twice by Magdalena. Still, I was determined to put on a classy, responsible show for the preschool teachers so they would know that I was fully capable of being a grown-up and sending my daughter to their school.

They came over, we chatted, Miriam showed them her room and some favorite books and toys, and then I dazzled them by asking a few thoughtful questions that I'd researched ahead of time. Everything went great. After they left, I smugly congratulated myself on being such a with-it parent.

Then I looked down and realized that I had put on my shirt inside-out and had been wearing it that way during the whole visit.

So much for being a grown-up.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Crossing the finish line

Months and months ago, when we were living in Tucson but knew we were going to move to Ithaca soon, I was feeling so overwhelmed. I told my friend that I wasn't sure it was really going to happen, that I was afraid that at any moment, the rug would be pulled out from underneath us and life would laugh and say, "just kidding!" I couldn't see how it was all going to come together: finishing/defending Jeremy's dissertation, keeping the house clean while it was on the market, tying up all the loose ends in Tucson and starting them back up temporarily in Provo, and then again more permanently in Ithaca, packing up our stuff, driving to Provo, and then driving across the country to New York to unpack and re-establish our lives.

Uh-uh. Not gonna happen, I told her. It wasn't possible.

She is a good friend, though, and she told me it would happen, somehow. She said to just concentrate on the moment that would surely come, when we were settled in and happy in our new lives in Ithaca. She said even to imagine the particulars: everything unpacked, a New York license plate on our car, Jeremy going to work, a paycheck coming in. It was my own personal finish line.

I think it's only now I've finally reached that moment that I believe her. I'm not claiming to have everything unpacked, or at least everything unpacked in the right place, but we've finished most of the dreaded "moving in" tasks that take so much effort and money (and so many terrible phone calls!). There are a lot of places that want money from you when you're establishing a household in a new place, that's what I've learned. And I still have the occasional nightmare that Jeremy didn't show up to his dissertation defense (until I remember that wait, that was me). But on the whole, we're settled in. License plates and everything.

It's nice to be that future version of myself I looked forward to becoming all those months ago. I'm glad my friend gave me the advice to look ahead and visualize the finish line, and it's one I would pass on to anyone going through a major life change. Time will always keep moving, and most everything that needs to get done is accomplished, somehow. I'm still not sure how we did it, but here we are in Ithaca, walking to the ornithology lab in a tutu and rainboots like nobody's business.

It feels good.


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