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I am reading a fascinating book which posits that we would all be better off if we had hookworms in our guts. Somehow, this would help prevent, or at least reduce the occurrence of, such diseases as diabetes, allergies, and Crohn’s Disease. In The Wild Life of Our Bodies, author Rob Dunn looks at how we’ve gotten rid of bacteria both harmful and helpful without distinction, and makes the case for some people who have introduced worms into their super-clean and sterilized American intestines, often with good results.

I am thinking about this as I watch Leah, an Iraqi girl, make a salad. Her mother has already cut lettuce in strips and added finely-cut cucumber and tomato, then drizzled it with olive oil, lemon juice and plenty of salt. Leah plunges her unwashed hands into the salad bowl to mix it. Then she touches a bit of lettuce to her tongue to taste the dressing. It’s okay, so she drops the lettuce back in to the bowl with the rest of the salad.

When I invited M and W over to try Mexican food for the first time, they ate guacamole with the serving spoon then put it back in the bowl. Their daughter takes the sugar spoon, takes a big bite, and puts it back in the sugar. I don’t throw it away later.

This is far beyond the double-dipping which is so decried at American parties. And it happens at every meal. Dishes are served in medium sized bowls, placed every 2 or 3 people, and you just take your spoon and dip it in the nearest bowl of yogurt or lamb/okra stew or hummous, take a bite, and then use the same spoon to take a bite of something else. No problems!

Fortunately I have lived overseas so this amuses me more than bothers me. In Mauritania, meals were served in a large common platter, and we all gathered round and scooped up the rice and meat with our hands or a bit of bread. When tea was served, you always had to have three rounds. It was the height of rudeness to leave after having had only one or two cups. The cups were always rinsed in between rounds, but the same water might be used between all 3 rounds, and certainly there was no soap involved.

I have written before on my view that America has become too regulated, in our attempt to control anything bad that could possibly happen to any of us, ever. (Click on these links; I really liked those posts) It’s strange to watch people fussing over small things like their kids (gasp!) sharing a coke, between a brother and sister; it feels false, like a silly thing to worry about when some people have real problems.

So, you are thinking, I am probably in total agreement with The Wild Life of Our Bodies? Um, no. Not entirely, although I should mention I am barely halfway through the book yet. (Do you read nonfiction more slowly than fiction? I do.) The problem is that I have had worms, and giardia, and other intestinal visitors, and they did not make me healthier. They made me miserable, albeit a bit thinner. And while it is true that none of us have allergies or Crohn’s, I have a friend who raised her son in the dirt-laden sands of Nouakchott and he nonetheless developed severe nut allergies.

The thing is, there will always be something. We have beat the odds overall as a civilization has developed; we are safer and live longer, in general, than at any other time in history. But this world is still broken, imperfect. We are not going to win. We’re still mortal, and just because we’ve beaten the flu and the measles, it’s not surprising that we are now at higher risk from allergies or autism. Even if we ingest hook-worms and that helps, we’re still at risk of a car accident, or random freak tsunami. The world is ultimately not controllable.

So I’m all for not fearing a few germs. I enjoy eating with my Iraqi friends and sharing all our colds and coughs with each other. I would even posit that I’m healthier than a lot of people, in spite of not currently having any parasites that I’m aware of. But I’m under no illusions. We’re not the ones in control.

Don’t hate me because I live in Oregon, where we’ve been having a cool rainy summer and griping about it. I know many of you can’t say the same. But we did plan a hike with our guests, only to have it rained out. What to do? Donn covered himself with glory by setting up his lights and backgrounds, handing the three 14-year-olds his camera, and letting them do a photo shoot.

They had a total blast. Ilsa in particular, who practices her pout for hours on end and views dramatic make-up as “painting” and “creative,” was in her element.

The outfits were most dramatic.

This one is supposed to be black and white. Ilsa did her lips in eye shadow. Ew.

The actual pictures came out much better. These were taken with my little point-and-shoot. Plus Donn taught Ilsa the basics of photoshop, and she had a blast adding in layers and layers of special effects.

Think my kids are dramatic enough? 

A thoroughly good time was had by all, especially me as the observer. They were very, very  funny. If I get around to it, I will post some of the real pictures. Ilsa has had to add “fashion photographer and designer” to her list of career plans, along with artist and writer and, maybe, rocker chick and dancer. She’s come a long way since she was 4 and her career plan was “princess surfer.”

First, there was the night that Haley dared Abel to lick a big dollop of Dave’s Insanity Sauce off a plate. She offered him $10. Now Abel detests hot sauce with such passion that he won’t even touch the bottle. But $10 is $10.

He wasn’t even allowed to drink for 5 full minutes!

(sorry it’s blurry but if you sort of squint I think it helps you feel his pain. I mean, this is HOT sauce! I put a single drop in an entire pot of spaghetti sauce and it imparts a sort of warm glow that you can taste.)

He said it hurt his ears, no doubt from the flames shooting out.

For those of us watching, the 5 minutes passed quickly!

Monday: Day One of class. I have invited 8 women and only one shows up.

Tuesday: I sit in Nadia’s apartment and stare at the table. On it are two huge platters of home made pizza, hummous, tabouli, yogurt, schwarmas, kefta meat with grilled vegetables, rice, and a huge bowl of stew made with lamb and okra. Leslie and I plow our way through it. Afterwards we have Arabic coffee, then enormous mugs filled with ice-cream and topped with chocolate syrup, coconut, and nuts. Leslie and I roll away. I stop by Suzi’s and she tries to feed me cake, which I refuse to even touch. She sends me home with a big plateful. Monday was Elliot’s birthday, but we end up doing the food celebration on Tuesday, so I go home and make him a big birthday dinner which I don’t eat.

Wednesday: Day Two of class. 3 women! 8 kids! It feels busy and happy. Leslie takes her first turn at teaching and does well. This is my first time ever being on the other side—the one watching, giving guidance. I don’t do so well. I talk a little too much, give advice during instead of after. I’m learning too.

Jordan and Haley arrive. They are part of a family we knew in Mauritania, who now live in Tennessee, and we have not seen them in 4 years. In the intervening time, they have developed some thick Southern accents. Jordan is Elliot’s good friend and Haley is Ilsa’s. So we are rocking 5 teens in the house, and I must admit that they drink a lot of milk between them. (Why milk? I don’t know. I don’t like it myself, and when I was a teen I certainly didn’t down it by the gallon. But they do, all of them.) We take them out for pizza. It’s fun. The level of giggling and punching going on is nothing short of amazing.

Thursday: Donn and I are busy all day, but we manage to drop the teens off at Oaks Park, Portland’s very own, very small amusement park. It works. They are amused.

In the evening, Ilsa and Haley dye their hair with Kool-Aid. The kitchen and bathroom end up with smears of red paste everywhere, and the house reeks of cherry. I wrap their heads in plastic wrap and they top it off with towel turbans. They are planning to sleep like that. I worry a bit about my carpet, since they’re sleeping downstairs.In the morning, sure enough their hair is red, but not as startling as I was anticipating. I tell them, “Try lime green next!” cuz I am a cool mom like that.

Friday: All plans are off! I get called in to sub and Donn has previous commitments, but the kids seem to survive just fine. A friend, someone who also works with Iraqis, stops by and stays for dinner, and we get talking till midnight. The kids are in the other room, giggling (girls) and punching (boys) and, apparently, absorbing milk through their pores or something. Around 10 or 11, they start a Lord of the Rings marathon in memory of when they did that for Elliot’s 10th birthday. They watch all 3 extended versions, so this takes about 12 hours. Donn and I go to bed about 1 to the distant sound of swords and spears and haunting music. At 7 the power goes out, and Elliot comes to tell us about it. “I suppose it’s touching that he has such belief in you,” I groan to Donn. We don’t go back to sleep. The power comes back on, all by itself, about half an hour later, and the booming noise of battles once again echoes through our uneasy dozing.

Saturday: The kids go to the Avalon theater for an extravaganza of movie-watching and arcade-game-playing. They love it and ask for more time when we go to pick them up. (They can’t hear or feel their cell phones ringing in that dimly-lit place of flashing bulbs and bleeping noises!) We agree reluctantly—while we were out enjoying a coffee, we got a phone call and an Iraqi family is coming for dinner. This actually makes me really happy, because I feel honoured that they would treat me like this, like one of their own. It is a bit stressful though. I am ridiculously proud of myself when I manage to pull off my best Arab-style hospitality yet! Lamb korma, chicken drumsticks, rice, bread, yogurt, salad, hummous, pizza, olives, pickles… the table is practically groaning! Best of all, the husband has a 2nd cup of my tea for the first time EVER! I feel very proud. They leave around midnight.

How was your week?

I’m trying to get back into the rhythm of blogging. I have several planned posts rattling round in my mind, and I’m hoping to get to them soon before they are hopelessly outdated. In the meantime, how was your 4th, for those of you who are in the US? I have to admit that I wondered if any of my Iraqi friends were having flashbacks. It’s a long time since we spent a 4th of July in an American neighbourhood. 3 years ago we were in the US, but we were invited by friends to celebrate way out in the country.

It seemed that everybody around me had huge fireworks, the kind you used to only see in public places. 10 years ago, I’m really sure it was different. Right? Or is my memory even worse than I realized?

Where did they get them? Why? Aren’t they expensive? Aren’t they scary? Aren’t they gorgeous? Isn’t it nice that I can now stay home and watch great fireworks for free without fighting the crowds? These and other questions ran through my mind as I watched oranges and reds and greens and whites bloom and blossom in the sky around me, while the walls were rocked by explosion after explosion. It was great fun!


I spent yesterday afternoon being shown all the costume jewelry owned by an Iraqi friend who loves costume jewelry, which she calls “joory.” Leslie and I were careful not to show too much enthusiasm, so that we didn’t end up taking it all home. “How lovely that is on you!” I kept saying. “How nice that you have that!” “Congratulations!” It worked; we managed to leave with nothing more than we came with (except that we each brought cookies home).

We were also shown her boxful of gold chains and pendants. I showed appropriate enthusiasm and wondered again what they think of me. I do not have much gold jewelry, but by now, in their minds, I really should—married a long time, a mother, obviously rich since I’m American. I should have a box full of chains and pendents and be covered wrist to elbow in clinking bangles. They are disappointed with my paltry silver bangles, even though I am very fond of them.

It reminded me of a hilarious scene from Guests of the Sheik, Elizabeth Warnlock Fernea’s account of her 2-year stay (as a newlywed no less) in a rural village in the south of Iraq. She described her white gold wedding ring being passed round by a group of women, who don’t believe it’s really gold and tell her kindly, “Even if it is gold, it’s not very much gold.”

My wedding ring has 3 diamonds, one each for my children. (No it’s not my original ring. I kind of, um, lose wedding rings.) It’s beautiful and I never tire of looking at it. My silver bangles are from Mauritania, and my thick silver bracelet is from Morocco, and was bought for me by Abel when he was on his desert camping trip. I also wear a bead bracelet made by Ilsa. I don’t mind if my Arab friends don’t appreciate them; to me they have meaning.


Our ESL class starts Monday. I have managed to find other people to do a kids’ program, and to make and serve tea and refreshments. Books have been ordered; Leslie has been prepped and mentored to within an inch of her life! (I don’t even know what that means. It’s just that we spend a lot of time together) My house is a wreck. I have this idea wherein I go off to visit and work, and my 3 teens, on their own initiative, do their own dishes, wipe down the bathroom, sweep floors, and I come home to sparkling countertops and crumb-free floors. So far, this isn’t working exactly as planned. Anyone have any ideas?

A blank page. I always compose offline, probably because when I started this blog, we were living in Mauritania and the internet connection was far from reliable. I can’t break the habit, and I don’t even try.

However, I do keep all my blog posts in one word document. Or I did anyway, before my computer crashed last week.

It was quite the week. We learned that our car is basically done for—it is repairable but old, and so we have decided it’s not worth the price of the repairs. In home news my computer crashed on Thursday. We reinstalled Windows and got it running, just. We bought our copy of Office (including Outlook and Word) in England and lost it in Morocco, so I am currently using free versions—Mozilla Thunderbird and something called Open Office, which is pretty much identical to Word and claims to be thoroughly compatible. So far so good. I have been having lots of “fun” reinstalling pdf readers and flash players and printer drivers and all the things that you don’t want to have to take the time to deal with.

I also have a new file for my blog posts. Hence the temporarily-blank page. What font do you prefer when using word, or in this case Open Office, documents? I’m using Calibri at 11. I also like Trebuchet. (after much trial and error, I think I have managed to make it readable. I’m now using Cambria at 14. Sigh)

Last Saturday, to make up for the disappointment of our lack of a California vacation, we got up around noon (we had gotten in about 3) and took the kids for a big breakfast in NW Portland. In order to show you pics, I have had to download a whole new program and learn how to use it. Yes, I am angling for sympathy, thank you.

I don’t remember what everyone else had, but I had a bacon, asparagus, and herbed chevre omelette. Insert blissful sigh here. Our waiter thought we were tourists. It was kind of fun. In fact, we totally played tourists for the day, wandering round our own city, me taking pictures.

Then we went downtown. It was a gorgeous day.

I spotted a signpost for Casablanca in Pioneer Square in downtown Portland, and sighed again for what I’d lost. Elliot and I also had a discussion about how much we hated Casa, and shouldn’t there be a sign for Rabat or Meknes instead? And what about Nouakchott?

Afterwards, to complete our tour of Portland, we went for frozen yogurt on Hawthorne Street. I love Hawthorne. There you will see people old and young, tourist and native, hipsters wearing outfits and the generic middle-aged in black t-shirts and jeans. On a bright sunny day, I saw a young woman with 50s-style hair, makeup (including bright red lipstick!), and cats-eye glasses. Her summery dress was also straight out of the 1950s. And her bare arms, legs and neck were covered in tattoos! It was a most distinctive look, and I admired it greatly. “It’s like a gift she gives the world,” I told Donn.

I didn’t get a pic of her but I did photograph this individual playing a hammered dulcimer, which it turns out I don’t know how to spell. (I mean, I do now, thanks. You don’t need to tell me.)

And we ended up at Powells. I was pleased to find that even though I have a stack of books awaiting me, there’s still more I want. That’s good, right?

What’s Ilsa been up to lately?
Babysitting. At my house, it seems, which means I get roped into holding babies.

Picking strawberries for me.

And painting. Yes, that is my dining room table. No, we don’t use it much these days. And no, we don’t have any other table. Things have been a mite casual this week round here. She’s painting this.

July 2011

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