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One of my regular reads that has yet to make it into my woefully meager blogroll is Nothing But Bonfires. I started reading Holly when she and her boyfriend Sean were on a trip through Asia. I voted on whether a mango was “yellow” and “orange” and laughed at her description of riding elephants with poncy Frenchman while wearing pink flip-flops, and I’ve kept reading her hilarious takes on life in San Francisco, shopping at Trader Joes and fending off Crack Whores. She’s a fantastic writer.

She recently announced a writing contest that she’s helping judge. It’s the Surprisingly Essential First Page Challenge (SEFPC). You enter the first page of your book (!) and maybe you’ll win a literary agent. Pretty cool, eh? (Ok, technically you win a query review, but still. You never know)

Of course I’m entering. I think I’m number 584 or something like that. My book (a narrative description of what it’s like for an American family to move to/live in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania—and why wouldn’t the Oregonian want to publish a series of essays on that, I ask you? But they didn’t even RESPOND to my query) may not be coming along as quickly as I had hoped, mostly because of a curious and recently discovered reluctance on my part to actually work on it. But I do have several chapters finished and I hope to work on it more soon. Maybe even today. Well not today, but maybe tomorrow.

(Life has gotten in the way of art once again, and my week has consisted of helping deal with a crisis in the life of a friend, not to mention CNED stuff. AUGH! Will we ever be caught up in Music, Art and Spanish at the same time? Unlikely)

What a horrible post this is—full of parenthetical comments. I’m going to post in haste and repent at leisure, however, because I need to go give a music exam. It’s all about the ostinato rhythm, which I’m a little confused about (Meredith? any ideas?), so it’s questionable how they will do on the exam.

If you have a book you’re writing, join the contest!! Here’s the info. You have about 4 hours to meet the deadline, so if you haven’t started writing, it might be too late. On the other hand, you never know.

It’s after noon, and the boys are still in their pyjamas. Today we woke to cloudy skies and icy rain. “The grey bars of my prison fall around me,” groans Donn dramatically, who is not dealing well with a lack of sunshine. (Oh right–like he’d actually go out and do something if it was sunny and warm? Whatever) The kids and I roll our eyes at him. We got up late, had French toast and blackberry sauce made from frozen berries. I’m about ready for more coffee.
In my last post, I was griping about my life’s lack of bloggable material. After all, who wants to read about what I had for breakfast, and I’ve got a post or two on the Decline of Western Civilization as Evidenced by Waiters and Verizon kicking around in my head, but I haven’t had the energy to get it out just yet.
But I forgot that I’ve got a post nearly ready to go! I started it in early December, to help you with your Christmas shopping, and then I nearly finished it in late December, to help you spend your Amazon gift certificates (assuming any of you were that lucky). Now I present it to you to help you find good reading material to fight the January doldrums.
Note: The following is a list of books I read and enjoyed between Sept and Dec 2007. To make this list, it had to be a book I read for the first time between those months, and be a book I loved. I’ve divided the list into 3 genres:
Kid’s Books:
First of all, for those of you with kids, grandkids, nieces/nephews, neighbour kids, or who ever were children once (as Berkeley Breathed once said, it’s never too late to have a happy childhood), I highly recommend The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Daring Book for Girls. These are fantastic books that I wish I’d had as a child, but at least I–that is, the twins–have got them now. I know, you can’t enter a store without tripping over large stacks of them, but seriously, if you’re one of the 2 or 3 homes without a copy yet, now’s your chance to get them. They are lots of fun.
Here are testimonials from actual live children:
“It tells you how to juggle and how to hunt and skin a rabbit. It tells you how to do a lot of things you’re not sure you’re going to need in your life.” Elliot, 12.
“I love it! I like it that it showed how to put my hair up with a pencil even though I didn’t succeed. It talked about girl pirates and girl heroes and girl spies. I love girl spies! But I‘m going to be an actor who acts like a spy instead of a real spy, because if you‘re a real spy it can be dangerous, but if you‘re an actor you still get all the cool gadgets.” Ilsa, 10.
“I like that it tells you all about arrows, and it’s got some interesting history about the brothers who built the first plane, and it’s really interesting. It’s got some atlas stuff and it’s got coin tricks.” Abel, 10
Non-fiction:
Angels of a Lower Flight: One Womans Mission to Save a Country . . . One Child at a Time. This is the autobiographical story of Susan Scott Krabacher, beginning with her abusive childhood, and including her time as a playboy playmate. The bulk of the story, however, has to do with her work with Haitian orphans, and it is inspiring. One thing I really appreciated was how she dealt with the corruption. Here she is, working hard to save children from starvation and neglect on the shattered streets, and those she employs to help her, to whom she pays a good salary, are stealing her blind. She deals with this frustration with determination and good grace, not giving up where I think I would have washed my hands in disgust of the whole affair.
It’s not for the faint of stomach. This is a book that will take your emotions for a roller-coaster ride. From the opening scene of the death of an emaciated Haitian baby through the terrors of her childhood and the ups and downs of her charity work, she does not shrink back from sharing her reality with her readers. But it is an inspiring story, in the true sense of the word, not the Hallmark-movie-of-the-week weak pablum sense of the word. You will be moved.
The Glass Castle: A Memoir. This is an unusual memoir, a fascinating story that I just couldn’t put down. Raised by parents who were loving, creative, impulsive, alcoholic, paranoid and delusional, Jeannette Walls’ story is named for her father’s wild plan to build a glass castle, but the title implies much more about this fragile yet resiliant family. It will have you thinking in a new way about what constitutes healthy families and mental well-being.
Fiction:
All of the following manage to combine good writing with a good story line, something that is often rare.
Peace Like a River: This is a great read. The story is intriguing, and the writing is fantastic. I have read many reviews on it lately, so I won’t add much–just that Debbie recommended it to me for years and I don‘t know why I didn‘t read it sooner. The story of a faithful, loving father, a poetry-writing younger sister, an older brother who does what it takes to defend his family–or was there more to it?; the book is written from the point of view (narrateur interne–the twins just had a test on this in their French books yesterday) of a middle son growing up with asthma, adoring his family unconditionally and yet recording all their quirks, leaving you wondering just a tiny bit about the truth before the end. It’s gorgeous writing.
Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story I actually want to quote long sections from the beginning of this book. I loved it! She takes the old Tolstoy quote from Anna Karenina; “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I just want to state that I have always hated that quote. I remember all my friends at Portland State going on about it, but I always resented the implication that to be happy was to be boring and static. If anything, I feel even more strongly about this now. I‘ve seen many more unhappy families and I find a depressing sameness about them. Ok, just one long quote from the first chapter of the book:
“If Tolstoy is to be taken at his word, a person must be unhappy in order to be interesting. If this is true, then certain other things must follow. Happy people have no stories you might possibly want to hear. In order to be happy, you must whitewash your personality; stream roll your curiosities, your irritations, your honesty and indignation…Happiness, according to this witticism of Tolstoy’s, is not a plant with spikes and gnarled roots; it is a daisy in a field of a thousand daisies. It is for lovers of kitsch and those with sub par intelligence.
Yolanda would say I’m taking this far too personally. Yolanda thinks any idea that keeps a person home working on a Saturday night is hideous. Also, that I need to start wearing tighter clothing if I want my weekends to headline something more exciting than collating.”

It’s a great read. I was a little disappointed in later parts, because I thought from the opening section that the book was going to be about love after the wedding rather than ending with a wedding, but it’s still a great read.
Those Who Save Us: Another fantastic read. This story deals powerfully with the idea of family secrets, and what it took to survive everyday life in Nazi Germany. I almost don’t want to tell you anything about the plot so that you can just enjoy it developing before your eyes! The narrative goes back and forth between modern-day Trudy, born in Germany and now conducting a series of interviews on German survivors of the war, and her mother Anna, who lived in Weimar near Buchenwald and who refuses to discuss her past with her daughter. Trudy remembers a man from her childhood…no I’m not going to tell you. Just read it. One thing I really appreciated about it was that the characters are nuanced; even the Nazi commandant (I forget his title and my mother-in-law has the book now), thoroughly evil, has his human side, and comes across as a real person not a caricature.
So go. Read.
I am thoroughly enjoying being in this land of plentiful reading material, especially with the icy rain (this is Donn’s problem, obviously. He needs to read more). Libby dropped two new books off for me a week or two ago and I haven’t even started looking at them yet because I have to finish my library books, plus I‘m reading the ones Janean loaned me. My in-laws bought me a subscription to the New Yorker for Christmas. I get the daily paper. Who has time to read blogs, much less parent? Yes, I’m wallowing in reading material here, and yet I still yearn towards bookstores and am Not to be Trusted in Powells. Basically, when it comes to reading, I’m a greedy pig.
What books have you enjoyed lately?

I guess I’m having a brain freeze, considering that for Portland, not to mention for the Sahara, it’s been really really really cold all week. It’s actually been incredible: gorgeous blue sky; winter sunsets in lavender and primrose against a tracery of branches; slanting January sunlight, thin and clear; 200-foot waterfalls freezing in the Columbia River Gorge. Donn spent a day photographing at the Japanese gardens and got stunning photographs of ice patterns, bamboo shadows, and peaceful, vivid green lawns.
The only problem is that Portland in winter can be a little like Narnia–always winter, but never snow. Ilsa, who prayed for snow every year in the Sahara Desert, is understandably disappointed. We did get snow on Christmas Day, it did stick, but only for a few hours–and that’s been it so far.
I’m also having a hard time coming up with blog posts. Life is not boring–we continue to have turmoil in home schooling (HOW could it take us all day? Why?), close friends are dealing with an in-house crisis (joys of teenagers), I had to do a skit with a friend in front of a group of women (who laughed gratifyingly but still), my duplex neighbours are apparently rearranging furniture, but only at 1 a.m.; but nothing has seemed blogworthy, worth wasting your time.
So, lucky for me I got tagged with a meme by Suburban Correspondent. Now before I go any further, I would like to acknowledge those who have tagged with memes that I have never done and who are now saying, “Hey! What’s up with her doing someone else’s meme?” Sorry. Feel free to retag, and maybe this time, desperate for writing material, I’ll do it. Maybe. My muse is fickle.
I did this meme (6 random, inconsequential things about me) once before. I nattered on for hours about how inconsequential I am, then used the actual meme space to announce we were leaving Mauritania. I can’t be anywhere near that dramatic this time. Also I refuse to tag people and you can’t make me. You’re not the boss of me.

  1. I like cold weather. Donn doesn’t, vocally.
  2. I like to make my kids do the dishes. Works for me!
  3. I will never home school again. (blah blah correspondence school whatever blah blah teachers in France blah )
  4. I think Ilsa is going to be one of those women who sing words when they’re excited. It’s actually really funny, considering her snide, I have two brothers, side.
  5. It does too count to have a random thing be about my daughter. We are like twins.
  6. I haven’t worn a skirt since we left Mauritania. Isn’t that fun? I wore one there most of the time, because I am sensitive to others’ culture like that. I have some fun linen Old Navy skirts (brown, black, tan), and a teal pouffy one (sounds strange; looks cute with white t-shirt and brown kitten-heeled sandals from Nordstrom Rack), all ankle length. I still have them, hanging forgotten in my closet. I do not miss them.

Donn wants to watch a movie, so I’m going to go now. Watch this space for more exciting yet inconsequential thoughts, coming soon. Feel free to leave topic suggestions in comments, should you not be suffering from brain freeze yourself.
I can’t believe I’m posting this either.

I have never taken a Spanish class or studied it. When I realized I would be teaching it to the twins this year I figured I might pick up a little myself along the way. And I have! What I didn’t realize is what musical careers it would open up to me.
I understood every word of this. Which isn’t remarkable, considering I’ve had about the equivalent of one semester myself, but it did make me happy.
Truly, language opens up a whole new world.

I did write Starbucks, and complain. So far, no response. I’ll let you know what happens.

And, for those of you who wrote that I looked nothing like how you’d pictured me, don’t feel bad. I don’t look like how I would picture myself either. Thin, dark, angular face–that is how I feel. But my blonde Dutch-German father and love of chocolate pretty much took care of that.

Coffee, for me, is more than just a simple physical need, or a basic addiction. Like heroin or crack cocaine, it goes much deeper. Like water, air, and decently-written and stimulating reading material, I need coffee. Anyone who has spent time with me in real life can attest to this. I love my coffee. And this is how I like it: strong (very strong) and black. I do not ruin my coffee with weird little froufrou things, with caramel or strawberries or chocolate. These things go NEXT to coffee, not in it. (Just a little trouble with prepositions, people, work on it.)
I also do not share my coffee. If we are drinking coffee together, just leave mine alone. Ok? I want you to keep both your arms.
I remember when Starbucks started. I remember going to their very first store, in Pike’s Place Market in Seattle. I remember when they opened their first two Portland stores simutaneously. They were nice. They were fine. They joined Coffee People and Allann Brothers and others as a place to go on a rainy day to get a good cup of strong coffee. Starbucks wasn’t so special.
Then, they began to spread like a cold virus at a playgroup. And we mocked them, here in Portland, but I at least still liked them. I liked the drive-thru. I liked the dark roast. I liked the comfy chairs and I liked the espresso. I liked the Java Chip ice-cream.
They got silly. They lost sight of their utopian coffee dream, and their coffee got a little weaker, and a lot foufier. They got greedy, opening location after location after location, often within mere blocks of each other and sometimes even opening a Starbucks inside another Starbucks, hopelessly overcrowding areas already rich in good coffee options (like the Pacific NW) while cruelly neglecting areas of real need (like Nouakchott, where they sadly think Nescafe Instant is coffee, a cry for help if I’ve ever heard one).
Still, I couldn’t actively dislike them. Donn and I started dating 20 years ago now, and we’ve made that long drive between Portland and LA many times in those years. I well remember the wasteland it used to be, where your only coffee options were Denney’s, McDonald’s, and gas-station “espresso,” made from real Nescafe with tepid water forced through it.
(Total aside: You have to go to Italy, where the gas-station coffee is super-strong espresso served in little porcelain cups. Really really good coffee. Even churches serve strong coffee in Europe.)
Now, there are several Starbucks dotting the thousand miles of I-5; not as many as in the 3-block radius at the heart of downtown Portland, but it’s much better than it was all those many years ago. When you see one, you can go in, order a double espresso for here, or if you’re feeling flush, a grande cappuccino dry for here, and relax with the policemen. And that is a good thing. So, although most Northwesterners decry the commercialization and heartlessness that the Starbucks corporation represents, I don’t join their ranks. I go to Ava Coffee House or Coffee Monkey here, but I still like Starbucks and I’m always happy to meet someone there (especially if they’re paying).
Also I like their merchandise. I have some fun Starbucks mugs. And Tazo Tea is a good thing.
Last Sunday was a gorgeous day–crisp and clear. The sky was blue; Mt. Rainer was glorious. (I’ve decided it’s my favorite Cascade) We went to see my mother, and decided to take her out to Starbucks for a treat. We settled in a quiet corner, chatted, enjoyed ourselves. The light was beautiful. So I got out my camera and began to snap some photos. I took a picture of Donn in his beret with his coffee cup, looking trés trés à la mode. I took a picture of Abel drinking his hot chocolate.

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I took some pictures of my mother.

mum-and-abel.jpg
Abel took a picture of me.

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Then the barista came round the corner and noticed us. “You can’t take pictures in here–it’s against company policy,” he said.
I had a feeling of disconnect: was I back in Africa, where authorities are sensitive to photography in areas where they‘re worried they might not be living up to their international obligations? Do Starbucks employees not wash their hands after using the bathroom? Are employees not smiling? Or perhaps Starbucks has interrogation techniques they‘re not acknowledging. Coffeeboarding?
“What was that, comrade?” we said. “I‘m sorry,” he replied. “I think they’re worried about trade secrets.” Which begs the question: is there a designer or interior decorator anywhere on the planet that hasn’t been in a Starbucks?
(Sample conversation: “I’m thinking, maybe it could look like a Starbucks.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Do you have a picture?”)
Maybe they’re worried we might be spies from Tully’s or Seattle’s Best, come to see what colours are trendy at Starbucks and, at a loss for words (it was sort of a coffee-colored chair and the table had a checkerboard pattern), having to take pictures to show our own soulless corporate bosses what mere words could not describe.
He said we could write and get permission. “Yes hello, if I happen to be in Seattle and have managed to carry off my 84-year-old mother from her assisted living complex and if the light happens to be slanting perfectly, could I please please oh pretty please take a snapshot of her and her grandson? Please?” He said a couple who met at Starbucks got permission to film a tiny snippet of their wedding video at the café. (They’re so lucky!)
Whatever, bean-smoker.
At least they didn’t grab my camera and empty out the film, like they did in communist countries when you took pictures of the protests.
I don’t want to hate them. They really have revolutionized coffee. They have made it so that Americans in France can hold their heads up high and say, “Yes American coffee USED to be horrible but now, we’ve changed. Good coffee exists and isn’t too hard to find in America.”
But along the way, I think the constant caffeine buzz did some permanent damage.
And I’m sad about that.
Not just for them, but for what it might say about my future.

I’ve been trying to write about my weekend for days now. I’m determined that you shall know, because it was an eventful weekend, full of things good, bad, and all-American–the whole spectrum, one might say.
We’ll start with the all-American. On Friday night, I went to a high school basketball game. A daughter of a friend is on the dance team at her jr hi, and they were performing at half time, so I went to support and cheer and be a presence in the bleachers.
Jeanni, my friend, and I arrived early and went downstairs where the girls were getting ready in the girls’ locker room. Rock music blared; girls stared superciliously at each other; that curious aura of junior high, a blend of insecurity and over confidence mixed with just a spoonful of camaraderie, was palpable. We helped C apply layer after layer of make-up. Cover Girl foundation, blue eye shadow–it took me right back to 14. Seriously, try this; open up a bottle of Cover Girl and smell it. Voila! The 1980s live.
Then, Jeanni and I sat on the bleachers and watched boys race up and down the court, and girls jump up and down in unison and say the same cheers from when I was in high school. All the students who had come to watch the game stood up the entire time. Is that normal? I thought that was strange. I would get tired, doing that.
The dance team did fine. C was exceptional, of course. We left immediately afterwards and went to their house to eat copious amounts of food and stay up way too late.
We had planned to leave for Seattle at about 9 or 10, but somehow it was noon when we left. That’s because Friday afternoon, I opened a good-sized box labeled “pictures.” Surprise! In it, I found many many many pictures, mostly of the kids’ babyhoods. (Aside: we are sporadically going through boxes we left in storage, which have multiplied alarmingly in the past 6 years.)
Did you know it takes time to look at all these pictures, to relive all those memories? I will have to scan some to share because I know nothing could be more fascinating to you than baby pictures of my children. Because trust me, they are cute. They will make you want to eat them.
So, we were late. We left around noon because we had to pick up all the pictures; we couldn’t just leave them all over the floor.
Seattle contained a huge treat this time round. I got to meet Denise from Wisdom Has Two Parts. It was so fun! She is just as nice in person as I was expecting from her blog. Today Nancy asked me what it was like. It didn’t feel like meeting a new friend, but like spending time with an old friend and getting to meet her husband and kids.

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She was very patient with my flakiness (actual phone conversation… Denise: You’re just now leaving Portland? Me: Uh, yeah.) and willing to drag her family a long way to meet us for pizza. In other words, she’s awesome. We talked lots (I talked more. I always do.) and it wasn’t nearly long enough.
Plus, our kids hit it off! She has two adorable kids who roughly correspond in age to mine. (Ok I’m sure her 14 year old son would be APPALLED to be described as adorable. He was cool. She has two cool kids. Much better) The girls drew pictures of horses and treasure maps and the boys discussed legos and took gross pictures of each other’s eyes and the freaky way they can bend their thumbs. The four adults talked and laughed, much pizza was consumed, and it was a great time.

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Denise and her husband. Don’t hate me because I have the sense to live in the NW when I’m in America, where I can meet cool people like this.

It is getting late. I am half-watching a movie with Donn, half-blogging, half-chatting online with my sister in law. Truly I am large–150% to be exact. I will have to finish this tomorrow. I will leave my original title to entice you.

Speaking of Donn and his beret and his faux-French accent (why do you think he has this outRRRageous accent?), I have bad news: the accent is contagious. People, especially males between about 35 and 60, (ok, only males) see the beret and they just go off. “Ah, oui!” they shout at him. It’s getting a bit old.

But yesterday morning, he ran into a friend of ours, an older woman, and she said, “Now Donn, you’re looking very French. Maybe a little too French.”
We love this. We’ve been saying that to each other ever since. “Maybe a little too French,” he says when I ask if a certain outfit looks good, or I say when he asks my opinion on his new business card. But she was serious. And it got me thinking about the propensity of older women to be, well, frank with those younger than themselves about what might be considered personal choices.
This reminded me, inevitably, of our time in France. French older women are unstoppable. They wear black, of course, and high-heeled boots, and they have immaculate silver hair and lipstick and tiny dogs on long leashes, and they have no qualms about approaching complete strangers and telling them what they’re doing wrong with their lives. This happened to us. One Saturday, on the way home from school (children go to school on Saturday in France. That just ended the romance for you right there, didn’t it?) we stopped in at our favorite coffee shop to pick up some freshly-roasted beans (still warm) and the proprietor of the shop gave each child a sucette, a lollipop, as a treat. They wandered happily down the cobblestone alleys, eating their candy , and an older woman stopped Donn and I to tell us off. “It will ruin their teeth!” she told us firmly. “They should not eat hard candy.”
Of course we didn’t think of the good answers till several blocks later. “It helps them quit smoking,” Donn muttered. “It’s just their baby teeth!“ I riposted. But it was too late. She was gone from our lives, leaving us just a little bit flabbergasted.
Another time, we were stopped in the park and reprimanded because Abel’s coat was not zipped. It was a raw March day and he was wearing a t-shirt, sweater, and coat, and running at full steam, since we were (once again) late for school. This was not the same woman, but another one who took it upon herself to help us raise our children, since presumably hers were in prison or living on the streets.
But I was also a tiny bit envious. I want to be like this. I want to be able to tell complete strangers how to live their lives, and do it with such imperviousness, such command, such confidence. I’m just not there. I’m too nice.
My theory is that you are comfortable telling people the age of your kids what to do. I could never be bossy to a 20 year old, for example, but when the kids next door lost their house key and came to hang out till their mum came home from work, I had no problem telling them they could eat oranges but not candy and not to jump on the furniture. Carry that out 20 years, and I could see myself stopping people on the street and telling them that pajamas are actually meant only for sleeping in and look comic and wrong when worn in public.
So when I’m an old woman, I’m not going to wear purple. I shall wear a long black coat and burgundy lipstick, get a small dog, and sail the streets, telling people what to do.
Looking forward to this might make the aging process a little easier to bear.
Because right now, it really sucks. Elliot has been exercising for 4 days now and is already noticeably trimmer and sailing up the hill, leaving me gasping in his wake. It almost makes me want to be 12 again.
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almost too French, non? 

I have a pet theory about geography and it is this:  if you travel to a place, you will always be able to find it on a map. Geography can seem abstract and difficult, but once you’ve actually sat in a plane or a car and crossed a border, seen buildings and people and eaten food of a particular place, it will be seared in your memory.
This worked great for me. Any place that I have gone in cognitive memory I can find on a map. (I went to 7 countries before I was 2 but I only remember the ones visited later, or grown up in. However I can find all 7 on a map, so my theory still holds.) It seemed to be working great with Elliot, too. When he was 3 he went to a little Montessori-style preschool, and they were heavy on learning geography in a really fun way. They also had puzzles that taught algebraic concepts, which were frankly beyond me. By the time he was 5 he knew all the continents and oceans and could find quite a few countries, especially the larger, easier ones.
The twins blew my theory out of the water, as they have done with pretty much everything else. To be totally honest, I’m still not sure they could quickly find Mauritania on a world map. I think they could, but I wouldn’t swear to it–and this is where they grew up! They have been to Senegal and Morocco, the countries that border Mauritania to south and north, but in spite of several very memorable border crossings, they’re still pretty shaky on location.
When Abel was in CE1 (Grade 2), his teacher decided to take advantage of the fact that she had a population representing major areas of the globe in her very international school, so she asked parents to come in with their children and present something about their countries of origin, followed by a question and answer time.
I presented Thanksgiving, since it was November. I talked about the Pilgrims coming, traced the basic route of the Mayflower, pointed out New England on a map, then opened it up to questions. A little girl raised her hand. “How many states are there?” she asked.
I prompted Abel to go ahead, since this was such an easy one. “25,” he replied confidently. Uh, yeah. That’s my boy. I was appalled and hurried to correct him, although in retrospect I should have protected his dignity. Like they would have known enough to catch us out!  Although that would be an awfully easy fact to check up on, so maybe it’s just as well.
Then, another girl asked who was the first president. Abel knew that one too. “George Bush,” he told them.
I was highly embarrassed and realized the need to teach my kids something about American history and geography.
Then they asked me  some questions about the population and size of my country, and I didn’t know. I remembered learning in school that the population of New York was 8 million so I told them that, and that the population of LA was 5 million, and they were all very impressed. When I got home and told Donn, he choked with laughter. Apparently I was right to remember learning that–the population of New York was probably about that when I was 13, but now it’s over 19 million. Yeah.
So you can see that growing up (mostly) in a country does not indicate later knowledge of certain basic facts.
But I really do find geography a fascinating subject, and I’m glad that my kids can confidently identify all the major regions of France, along with what each region is famous for (cider, sausage, a type of wine, etc). And just what exactly did you expect them to study in a French school?
I’m enjoying a new blog that celebrates geography. It’s connected to National Geographic but it’s aimed at parents who want to help their kids go beyond being to identify all 32 states. (Or was it 42?) Since I know that many of you are parents out there, I thought I’d mention this. If you can convince your kids it’s fun to play geography games on the computer, maybe you won’t have to learn the hard way, like I did, that travel alone does not teach to geography to everyone.

The King is dead. Long live the King.
Not that I’m actually an Elvis fan, but I had the misfortune fortune to marry one. And today, he would have been 73. (It’s also Audra’s birthday, but she never reads my blog so I don’t need to say anything about that)

EDITED TO ADD: Donn would like me to point out that Elvis would have been 73, not Donn.

When I was in college, I actually wrote a deep and meaningful short story about a young man named Elvis Smith, whose mother was one of those girls kissed by Elvis at a concert. It was the highlight of her life and nothing else ever measured up and she named her unfortunate son after the star and he grew up fat and depressed, living a meaningless life (and who can be more cruel on the subject of the meaningless middle-aged than an idealistic early-20s-something?), crushed under the weight of this event. It was packed with symbolism.
Sadly, I lost it ages ago. I didn’t have the sense to see the future humour inherent in my life at the time. Instead, I would reread things months or years later and be filled with deep shame and then throw them out, or occasionally burn them.
Now I read Bub & Pie and Lifenut, who occasionally reprint their jr high diaries, and I’m filled with regret that I burned my old journals from jr high. They were both melodramatic and snide, which can be a hard combination to pull off. Back then, every few months I would reread old entries about my great sorrows and add comments in the margin that were both sarcastic and overemotional AT THE SAME TIME.
I reread these gems when I was about 25 and was depressed about it for weeks. I’d had no idea that I was such an idiot! So, in my deep shame, I burned them, not knowing at the time that everyone is melodramatic and snide and sorrowful, all at the same time, in their teens. Too bad. Although I still don’t think I’d have the guts to share them with the whole internet.

The topic at the table tonight turned to the twins’ birthday, which is March 1. This is actually still a forbidden topic. I do not allow discussions of birthday plans until a month before the actual day, although I have been known to break down at 6 weeks before the blessed date. And we’re close; it‘s about 7 weeks now, right? This is to avoid having to discuss birthday plans for 363 days out of the year. Believe me, there was a need for this rule.
It turns out that the twins, while they LIKE being twins, wish they didn’t share the same birthday. “We never get to have sleepover parties,” said Ilsa, opening her eyes wide. “You did last year!” I protested, privately contemplating my “never again” vow that I made to myself at the time, when they celebrated separately for the first time ever, which meant TWO weekends spoilt endeared to memory by loud ceaseless merriment.
They discussed the hard issues of being twins, including the terrible fact that there are only 3 meals to be eaten on their birthday. I don’t make them compromise but I do encourage agreement whenever possible; it makes my life simpler. I remember when they turned 4 and Abel wanted Pad Thai and Ilsa wanted pepperoni pizza so we got both; easy enough in Portland (where we were at the time), but a bit more difficult when in Nouakchott, where the choices are basically shwarmas or shwarmas. I usually have to cook, and I prefer to only do that once a day if that, so I don’t like it when Abel wants burritos and Ilsa wants roast chicken and mashed potatoes. And for some reason, he didn’t want chicken and potatoes rolled up in Arabic bread (which we used for tortillas–you tear it in half and it works great).
This year, Abel had an idea to make it easier. “We’ll start with breakfast and then we’ll have second breakfasts,” he said. “Then we’ll have lunch. Then tea. Then dinner, and then supper! We’ll choose 3 meals each!”
Sigh.
The pressure is building already. But I’m determined–no more separate parties. Life is too short, and after all they need things to tell their therapist later in life.
The topic changed to how many chips Elliot could eat at one time. Ilsa made faces at him; he protested the making of faces. Ilsa ate one of her own chips. “Ilsa ate a chip reproachfully,” said Elliot.
They do this all the time–describe themselves and each other in the third person. Do your kids do this? Half the time after I say anything, Ilsa adds, “…she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.” Another popular one is “…she said pointedly.” I feel like I’m a bit player in the novel playing out in their warped little minds, she wrote pointedly.
And I would like to state, for the record, that my voice does not “drip with sarcasm.” I have a dry sense of sarcasm.
If it’s at all possible, I will save all their writings for their future selves to laugh at. Because I foresee a lot of melodramatic suffering followed by snide sideline comments in their future.
I leave you with this moment: Elliot is sitting next to me on the couch, and he showed me the back of his book. “An exciting tale which is sure to leave readers clamoring for more,” he read, then chanted, “I want more! I want more!”
That’s how I feel right now.

Wow. That is the most comments I have EVER gotten, including when I shamelessly begged for some. I have obviously struck a chord. I’m planning to follow up with questions about the flu, headaches, diarrhea, and more! Anything to get comments!
THANK YOU THANK YOU for your kind advice. I am much better. On Friday I took nasty generic Nyquil (slimy, poison-green; it took me 10 minutes to work up the nerve to gulp down the entire two-tablespoonful-for-adults) and slept well; on Saturday I spent most of the day in bed and managed to finish all my library books plus The New Yorker. I also drank copious amounts of tea and juice, and ate zinc lozenges by the handful. By Sunday I was nearly all better, and today I’m fine except for a certain lingering tiredness and the occasional sneeze. I am also feeling much better prepared for any further colds/flus. Thanks again.
I’ve been wracking my brains to come up with another question so that I could get more comments, but today was Official Back-to-Work-and-School Day. I woke to my clock radio giving news of school closures due to snow all over the state, but outside our house, all was its usual green and grey. So I dragged (literally; he landed with a big thump!) Elliot out of bed and made him go walking with me. I tell you, this home schooling is not for wimps! We need to get EPS (Education physique-sportive) in there somehow. And nothing makes a brisk walk through the freezing air (my face hurt again!) more fun than dragging a foul-mooded 12 year-old along with you. He makes it stimulating and informative.
I have to say the rentree (back to school) went well. I type that with fear and trepidation, knowing that tomorrow will no doubt disappoint. But we even did Spanish AND music, and then went to the library where we checked out a gajillion new books. They were hard to carry out to the car! You can also see why Donn usually does the math section for me. In real life, I think we only got 44. Or so.
Last night, the kids were all groaning about the End of Vacation and comparing it to the End of Life as We Know It and a Nuclear Holocaust and all sorts of other things. I was a little surprised. That is, I know none of them actually like school, and it’s not like we’re dancing about strewing roses with our love for CNED. But for his entire time in school, Elliot has practically cried at the end of vacations because he hates how the teachers yell at the class, and how the other kids act up so much. It’s been like this since Kindergarten for him. So, in my naïveté, I thought that at least this year he wouldn’t have to worry about those things. I don’t yell THAT much, and the twins, other than their penchant for writing questions on paper airplanes and flinging them at me, are fairly calm. So why the histrionics?
Because that’s who he is. Elliot is never one to keep perspective, to stay calm when faced with a crisis, although he is developing the driest, most sarcastic sense of humour to go with his new-and-improved octave-lower voice. He’s cheered up now, seeing that once again it really wasn’t that bad.
In other news, Donn got a beret!  It has the side effect of making him speak in an outrageous faux-French accent, but at least it keeps the kids amused. And in case you were wondering, I heard from a friend, who read it in an old (not THAT old) copy of the LA Times, that berets are still “in.” Phew!

January 2008
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