You are currently browsing the monthly archive for September 2011.

The weather has turned cool and rainy here in Portland. My house guests are gone, my schedule isn’t quite as hectic, but mostly I’m longing for a day to do nothing to read. While we all know that’s not going to happen anytime soon, I have been using my time in the car to get some reading done. This month, among others, I read:

EDITED TO ADD: I forgot to mention another great book I read this month so I’m adding it in here at the top. In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom was absolutely fascinating. Go get it and read it. I’ve read lots of books written by Westerners going to live in Muslim countries, and of course I have been a Westerner living in a Muslim country. I have read books by Muslims about living in Muslim country (example: Dreams Of Trespass: Tales Of A Harem Girlhood, which I recently reread and highly recommend) But In the Land of Invisible Women is written by a Western, secular Muslim (from London, with a Pakistani background) who lived and worked in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for 2 years. She had a unique view of the place and people. She’s a doctor, working in a place where women are viewed as second-class citizens. Her experiences sometimes shocked me–the reaction of the Saudis to the events of 9/11/2001 had my mouth literally hanging open, unfortunately while I was on public transport. I didn’t get too many weird looks though. I highly recommend this one too.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand: Many of you told me I’d love this book and you are right. This is the best book I’ve read in a very long time (and you know I read a lot of books). I felt it was pitch-perfect. Too often, books try to write about non-mainstream characters in small villages, who are perhaps somewhat quirky, and they quickly deteriorate into sentimental, overdone, even mawkish characters. (I’m looking at you, Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, and also to a lesser degree The Help). Major Pettigrew was not only delightful, but everyone in that book had dignity. I don’t know if I’m describing this well, but it’s something that often ruins a book for me—this caricaturing of people that is so common, so hard to avoid. I loved this book. Read it if you haven’t yet.

A Rather Remarkable Homecoming: This book was not pitch-perfect. Its characters were a bit too “colourful” and things were a bit too neat. However, it was innocuous and enjoyable enough. The sort of book my mother would have loved. If you like Mitford and books like that, you’ll prob like this series. It’s not bad, a good book if you are laid up with a bad cold, for example, and can’t concentrate on much.

Telling Lies: I enjoyed this book, but there are a few too many loose ends that aren’t tied up. HOW did the man manage to escape the Twin Towers and reinvent himself, leaving his family to think he was dead. He couldn’t have planned this. Read my review to know what I’m talking about.

The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: I’m in the middle of this one. Author and cook Kathleen Flinn was intrigued, one day in a supermarket, as she watched a woman fill her cart entirely with processed food—frozen meals, dinners in a box, etc. She started talking to her and realized the woman was completely intimidated by her kitchen, and didn’t trust herself to know how to roast a whole chicken or prepare a sauce for pasta. Kathryn had the idea of cooking classes to teach the basics. She found 9 volunteers who let her into their homes to see how they shopped, and then attended classes with her to learn such basics as how to chop vegetables or choose spices. It’s actually a really fun book. I am alternating between feeling smug (I make most things from scratch) and feeling like I would probably benefit from some of her classes myself.

Finding Aster: Our Ethiopian Adoption Story
I was a little disappointed with this book. Although it purports to be a memoir about Ethiopian adoption, and it is, it is also very much a personal memoir, about the author’s sex life and abortion and hysterectomy and all. Also, I cringed a bit at how ignorant she was of life overseas. Fair play that’s one of her points, and I agree that their adoption agency should have done a much better job of informing them of the realities on the ground. I also wonder if I’m guilty of assuming other people know more than I did before I lived overseas, in other words of holding others to a different standard than I would have held myself to at the time. It’s possible. However, when she told off the Ethiopian employee and let him know how disappointed they were with certain aspects of their hostel and their stay in Addis, I just groaned inwardly and rolled my eyes. It was so very stereotypical American! I’ve been there, I admit. I once told off a young man at a photocopy place, in poor French, for overcharging me. (My goal was to help him learn customer service, but I am pretty sure I failed) I don’t know. It wasn’t a bad book. I do think if you’re interested in international adoption I’d recommend it. Their agency seems to have made the process more painful by not explaining things very well, things it would be helpful to know going in. However, anything involving more than one government is always going to take longer than you think. Doesn’t everyone know this?

To Read:

All Men of Genius. Ilsa and I are both excited about this one, a YA (I think; I need to read it first to make sure) romp through Victorian-era London combining elements of 12th Night (Ilsa loves boy/girl twins where the girl has spunk…it fits her mental image of herself) and The Importance of Being Earnest, while being steampunk and having something called “strange squid creatures.” Should be fun!

The Woman Who Heard Color: lately it seems I’ve had a spate of Nazi-era art crime books, but this one looks to be really intriguing.

I’d Listen to My Parents If They’d Just Shut Up: My kids are anxious for me to read this one. I love the title. I haven’t read his previous book, but I love the title too: Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall?

When Michelle and I knew each other in Mauritania, we both went to the beach pretty much every single Saturday. We all did (we being a large-ish group of expats). There wasn’t a lot to do otherwise, and it was a fun family and friend day. Here is a sample story of a fairly average week, except for the shark and the car being on fire. Although honestly, it was a fairly average day since that level of “excitement” wasn’t unusual. (edited to add: i just added in the link. Sheesh. Why didn’t someone tell me?)

Michelle now lives in Kansas. (I need more coffee since I wrote “Michelle know lives.” Be right back) For those of you a bit vague on your American geography, Kansas is right smack in the middle of this vast, continent-wide country, big on amber waves of grain but low on shining seas. She hadn’t been to the beach in 3 years, and she had never seen the Oregon coast. Naturally, we had to take her.

We also took Eve and her artist husband. I have been very worried about Eve lately. I think she’s been quite depressed. She won’t leave her tiny dark apartment, even when we invite her places. She sleeps a lot, and doesn’t get up even when we come to visit. So I was very happy when she allowed herself to be persuaded to come with us. Her husband deals with past horrors through painting beautiful pictures, but Eve doesn’t have that outlet.

We drove to the middle of the State in order to visit my favorite beach, Fogarty. We went here last month with the kids and it was gorgeous and sunny. Yesterday was foggy and overcast, but warm and not raining. For the Oregon Coast it was enough.

Fogarty has lots of driftwood and kelp.  There are enormous tangles of kelp, like ropes or intestines.

Sometimes the kelp is stinky, but always, it is interesting.

It lies in swirls and loops; it attaches itself to rocks and wood.

heap o’ kelp

Fogarty also features lots of driftwood, offering places to sit and relax and enjoy the view.

Aside: Those steps did not used to be there. (what horrible syntax) I am a horrible cantankerous grouch when it comes to beachside development. This would ONLY be good if I lived there!

I call this one “dragon driftwood.” It has been there for years and years, lying there through storms and sun while I was off gallivanting round the globe and living in the desert where the beach has no such logs. (It looks more like a dragon from the other end, but I liked this angle. Squint a bit and use your imagination.)

We explored the bottom of the cliffs and got our feet soaked in the process.

We looked at strange protrusions in the rock face.

We took lots of pictures, even Michelle, who still has pictures from 3 years ago on her memory card.

looking north

I love how the incessant wind shapes the trees.

Even though it wasn’t sunny, it was pleasantly warm. After a while we left the coarse sand and kelp

and drove further south, stopping to look for whales. All that kelp bobbing about in the waves does make the Oregon Coast a good spot for whale watching. In fact, when we came down with the kids for the day last month, we spotted 3 whales! Yesterday we had no luck though.

We went as far as Depoe Bay, where we bought enormous ice-cream cones and coffee, then we drove home. Eve was the happiest I have ever seen her. “I am so happy,” she kept saying, as if amazed at herself. “This is Paradise,” she said at one point. Who cared if the sun actually shone, rather than merely peeping through the fog? Who cared if the whales spouted and showed themselves? It was another perfect day.

This morning, while I did get up with the kids and sort of wave goodbye (have I mentioned how much I love school buses?), I went back to bed for an hour and a half. This was a brilliant idea and has made a new woman out of me. Of course, it meant that we were an hour and a half late leaving for our own event, but that was okay.

It was a perfect day, the kind of day that makes you glad to be in Oregon in September. The sun was warm but there was a depth of coolness to the shade, and by afternoon the light had that autumnal heaviness, like honey. The leaves were just beginning to crisp into yellow and orange.

We drove down the Columbia River Gorge until we got to Hood River, and then we turned right and headed up towards Mt. Hood to visit the apple and pear orchards. There are many of them, and you can drive a 35-mile loop and visit orchards, berry patches, lavender farms, and wineries. We visited about 4 orchards, including a place that sold pear dumplings (an entire Bartlett pear cored, stuffed with brown sugar, and baked in a pie crust. We did not get one because Donn is worried about his weight and my resistance was low from having sampled way too many types of jams and jellies on little crackers. And also, when your husband is resisting, you will feel like a total pig if you don’t. Darn his willpower!).

Some orchards were prettily decorated, with gardens and antiques.

Others were more basic.

Regardless, there was bountiful produce, along with such attractions as corn mazes, hay rides, and many many samples.

I had never seen purple peppers before. Have you?


Prices and variety were incredible, even this early in the season. The apples pictured below are called Tokyo Rose, and they are sweet and crunchy and really really good. They were also 60 cents/pound. I bought an enormous bag of them.

We bought a kind of green apple called Ginger Gold that might be my new favorite–it does have the merest hint of a gingery crisp to it. 50 cents/ pound. We bought peaches and blueberries and zuccini and a kind of smooth deep red pear called Star Crimson. We came home with pounds and pounds and pounds of produce.

At one farm, the lady working there offered to sample each kind of fruit. It was like wine tasting. We started with sweet and went through 10 varieties of apples to tart. Then we did pears (only 3 kinds are ripe right now, but in October there will be 12 varieties, not to mention 13 kinds of Asian pears!), then 6 kinds of peaches! I am now a minor expert, for at least a few more days until I forget, on the difference between Stenza and Buckeye Gala and Ginger Gold and Gravenstein.


Everyone said to come back in October, as the season is late this year. And we will. We are going to take Iraqi friends one weekend, so their kids can do the corn maze and the tractor ride and the house with all the pumpkins painted and dressed up like ghosts.  But Michelle is only here one week, and they don’t have this in Kansas.

We drove the scenic highway, by the waterfalls, on the way home. We stopped at only a couple of waterfalls.

We are very thankful to Michelle for being considerate enough to visit us! Because otherwise, we would have been working, and we would have missed a perfect fall day.

I get up with the kids (well, after they’ve showered. Why should I be up while they are showering?) at 6:30, which is far too early. I make our usual pot of coffee and inadvertently drink the whole thing myself. I am so tired. I’m supposed to be cleaning, but instead I sit and vegetate in front of the dim glow of my computer screen. I tell myself I am learning what’s going on in the world. And I am.

8:00. I finally get going. I eat, shower, and manage to clean the bathrooms and do dishes. Michelle has lived with me before–she can handle the fact that I haven’t made her bed (aka Elliot’s bed) yet. (Sheets are in dryer)

10:15. We pick her up at the airport and head home, where I make another pot of coffee and drink most of it. We have muffins and talk and talk and talk. It’s 3 years since we’ve seen each other, which actually sounds longer than it feels in some ways.

2:00. I take her to meet Suzi. It’s ages since I’ve seen her, but we have fun talking about different things, most of which have slipped my mind now. She serves us Tang and triple-chocolate cake.

3:30. We go to visit Nadia. I am running out of pseudonyms for my Iraqi friends. We have a great time. She serves us pepsi and cookies.

6:00. Home. The kids are excited to see her (she used to babysit them in Mauritania) and give hugs. I make dinner, we sit outside, Donn decides to make Mauritanian tea on the charcoal. We sit under the stars and talk some more.

8:30. We are trying to come up with the final poster for Abel’s campaign. Donn has a brilliant idea. What do you think? It cracks me up. But will the freshman a. get it and b. respond well to it?

P.S. My apologies to Donn for messing up his beautiful poster by trying to smudge out the last name. The kid already has an unusual name; thought it’d be smart to not put his whole name up. Although, does it matter?

P.S. 2 This picture of Abel cracks me up! The combination of the look on his face, his hair, and the bomb behind him… I figure that even if the other students don’t like/get it, it’s sort of a gift for the teachers and staff.

10:30. Michelle is tired from traveling all night and goes to bed. Elliot goes to bed on the futon. I ignore him and continue typing, and also giggling at Abel’s poster. Also, after the sheer volume of caffeine consumed today, impressive even for me, will I be able to sleep? I’ll let you know tomorrow.

All summer I planned to write my thoughts after our first full year in the American system. All summer I didn’t do so. And now they’ve already been back for nearly two weeks, and we’ve dealt with our second American-style rentree.

All sorts of things are happening. The twins signed up for Drama Club and stayed late every single day last week, which sort of got old quite quickly. When you pull up to pick them up, they will never be in the first or even second group of kids to come out. No, they are always, always last ones out, calling back to their friends cheerfully at the top of their lungs. The Drama Club is finished and try-outs will be soon. Ilsa wants to sing and dance, but a small part—she wants to design sets and costumes too. Abel refuses to be in a musical but would like to be in a play. They are both extremely dramatic, so I think this is a very good fit for them.

Abel has also decided to run for freshman class president. I sort of hope he doesn’t win, as he will be very very busy. I like my kids just the right amount of busy, which mostly involves me not having to drive them anywhere. Right now, the twins and Donn are doing his posters. So far we have “Ready Willing and Abel!” for one poster, and another with a pic of him in a beret against a red background with the saying “Join the Revolution.” They are very cool posters. Donn and I have come up with all sorts of other ideas (Him crying as a baby: “This man knows how you feel.” Him on a camel: “PETF—People for the Ethical Treatment of Freshman.”) that have been rejected by the twins as Not Cool for freshman.

I have been subbing every single day at an ESL center downtown. In between I have had house guests and henna parties. I am very very tired, but my friend Michelle is coming tomorrow so I need to clean up so that I can pretend I keep the place like this all the time. I am looking forward to seeing her very much. Last time I saw her was when she visited us 3 years ago and we took her hiking down the Columbia River Gorge. To commemorate how often she’s shown up on my blog (here, for example), I am planning to live blog her visit and post almost every day! No really. We’ll see how I do.

And what do I think of the American school system? Perhaps some day I will tell you, if I ever get around to it.

Today, as you may have noticed if you went on the internet at all, is the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. I have written before of what it was like to experience that as an American living in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. I also remember a student at the university in 2002 referring to the “accidents” of 9/11. That made me angry, until I learned that he was simply transliterating Arabic, and that’s how they refer to wrongs done and sins committed. (Which would make for an awfully interesting side-trail…) Also, this week I read a fascinating book called In the Land of Invisible Women I got it from the library and it was great. I want to own it. It’s a memoir by a British-Pakistani secularized Muslim doctor who lives in Saudi Arabia for 2 years. Her description of experiencing 9/11 in Saudi had my jaw literally dropping open, while on public transportation. (Which got me a few looks but not many) I experienced nothing like that in Mauritania or Morocco.

Today, President Obama said to do what we normally would do. I sort of listened, sort of didn’t. While it’s true that many of days include visiting Iraqi friends, normal days do not include henna parties. This one did. It had nothing to do with the date—in fact as far as I know, I was the only one who noticed. We planned this party weeks ago, and today was simply the first day that all of us were free. And yet, I thought, were it not for this date’s horrible events, my Iraqi friends would not be in my country, and I would not have met the others. (Aside: I’m not at all trying to belittle my Iraqi friends’ journeys, which involve terrors and bombs and insurrections and loss of children, in some cases, and of husbands in others. I was just thinking of the way things have turned out)

So we all showed up at Mona’s about 3—Leslie and I from America, W and Mona from Iraq, Bea from Lebanon and Sophie from Egypt. Head coverings came off, and low-cut, form-fitting clothing covered in sequins and dangling gold “coins” appeared. Arab pop music blared from the stereo. Ilsa disappeared with Mona’s daughters into the bedroom where they danced for a while before joining us for hennas.

We decorated each other’s arms, legs, and necklines. We talked and ate and spent time together, beginning new friendships and deepening existing ones. Tonight my hands are beautiful but they stink slightly, as henna does. Mona scattered glitter liberally after each application, and my clothes are full of it but my arms twinkle in the light of the computer screen as I type.

It wasn’t a bad way at all to remember the day’s tragedy, meant to divide but instead, in some weird way, uniting us with people with whom we share neither language nor culture nor religion.

Gretchen at Lifenut ran a list today of some of the jobs she’s had over the years. She’s had some strange ones, but I think most of us have by now. I won’t bore you with all my tales, but at various times I have:

babysat: Every girl’s first job. But I remember being 12 and meeting a family who left me in charge of a 5 and 3 year old and a baby. They lived down the street and only met me once before they entrusted me with their kids. And they said I could spank if I needed to. I look back and shake my head in amazement. This was also my introduction to cloth diapers.

cleaned houses: this was one of my many college jobs. I worked my way through college. This was a great job because it paid quite well–$12-15/hour back when minimum wage was about $6. The people I worked for were wonderful too; friendly and older, they would feed me elaborate lunches and crack old-fashioned jokes. They were a glimpse into a totally different world than I’d known before. They came to my wedding and bought us a generous present. Their house had an entire wall of windows with an incredible view of downtown Portland and across the river to the mountains beyond.

worked in a day-care: Another college job. This enabled me to not want to have my own children for quite some time. I also remember, in my naivety, sharing with a parent that his child had used a racial epithet to another child, who had responded in kind. The dad actually went and yelled at the other kid! I was so shocked that I couldn’t say a word at first. Yes, pretty pitiful, I know, but I honestly believed that another adult would be on the right side. I never stopped to think about where the child might have learned racism. I was very very young then, and that was quite an eye-opener.

read unpublished manuscripts: “What is my ideal job?” I asked myself after college graduation, and I wondered if anyone would pay me to lie on the couch and read books. I called every literary agent in the yellow pages (yes this was a while ago) and one agreed to give me a try. He sent me the worst-written bilge I’ve ever read. It was painfully bad, a sort of faux-Gothic, faux-Celtic fantasy with every cliché in the book, including the heroine’s unruly curls and how we discovered them when she looked in the mirror. (It was prob an early draft of Twilight, if only I’d known. Just kidding. This was the early 90s) I met the agent at a cafe and I was honest about my opinion and he was surprised. Looking back, I suspect a friend of his was the author. I’m sure it was never published. We didn’t get very far; after that one meeting, I never heard from him again. I still remember that cafe, and their excellent marionberry muffins. It’s an Indian restaurant now.

proofread: after the twins were born, I quit my job as a managing editor, but I continued to write for my publication—one article a month and I proofread the whole thing. I still remember the new editor, a friend of mine, dropping by with print-outs, and me sitting at my dining room table proofing while she kept the twins amused and the morning sun slanting through the windows onto bowls half-filled with cheerios and scattered toys.

taught English: You already knew this, but did you know I taught writing to 4th-year university students without a syllabus or knowing what kind of writing my class was supposed to encompass? I have written elsewhere of the advice I received from a retired American woman who’d taught there before me: “If a student tells you a goat ate his homework, believe him.” She didn’t warn me that these homework-eating goats might come into my classroom, or that my lectures would be interrupted by beggars. I will never forget that first year. I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up your soul. Seriously. Which poses a fun question: What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten on starting a new job?

taught English without books: when we first arrived in Morocco and all our stuff was still in storage, I got a job teaching English to everyone in an office run by a Korean man (because they’d get calls from Korea, and it was easier to teach them English than Korean.) I managed to do this by downloading lesson plans, worksheets, etc from the internet. It was okay, but not ideal.

There are many other jobs I’ve had but I won’t bore you with details. What are some odd or interesting jobs you’ve had?

September 2011

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