You are currently browsing the monthly archive for March 2012.

During our time at the beach, I mostly took a break from the news, although I did hear about the Iraqi woman bludgeoned to death in California, which had me worried about all my Iraqi friends worrying about it. It was nice, though, to take a few days off from photos of starving people (Mauritania et al) and tanks rolling through neighbourhoods and indiscriminately killing all (Syria). I do realize how blessed I am that I can opt out of these horrors; for those living in such a world, no such breaks are possible.

However, as I read the Hunger Games books (I’ve finished the second one, Catching Fire, and am now reading the 3rd, Mockingjay. Yaay, I’m on my computer again and can do links), pictures from the news kept appearing in my head, as I read of  bombs destroying buildings and targeting hospitals, and the desperate poverty of the districts. I recently read an interview with author Susanne Collins, and she said the idea for the trilogy came to her as she switched TV channels and saw images of the Iraq war just after watching reality TV. As I read, I can’t help making comparisons to actual war, actual starvation, and actual privilege. It’s sobering. I read about the  decadence of the Capitol, where at parties, people drink ipecac so that they can vomit and eat more.  I couldn’t help but compare life in America, where people spend billions on their pets every year, to the family that lived opposite our house in Mauritania, in a tent, and took my kids’ torn and stained clothes and broken toys and were not just gracious, but thrilled.

When we moved, we gave them our faded cushions and broken water heater (they wanted it for a table) and basically doubled their possessions. They used to knock on our door and ask for a bucket of water–their allotment for the day.

The Hunger Games are also a reflection on reality TV, and how it can desensitize viewers. I have a memory nagging at me, from a comic strip. I think it was Bloom County, back in the 80s, and they’re watching TV and can’t figure out if it’s a movie or the news, and someone says, “Please tell me if I should be enjoying this!” At the movie the other night, the mostly-teen audience applauded one of the killings, and I could understand it–the girl was horrible, about to kill Katniss and mocking her too. But still. Elliot started to join in the applause and I stopped him.

One thing I loved about the books is they show the toll that participating in something like that would have on you, even if you won, if you survived and were “the victor.” I actually ended up loving the books, which I didn’t anticipate. But they leave you thinking about them, about implications, about how reality TV and violent movies affect how we view the world, about how we’re all connected as people, about violence in general and the different justifications used to allow it.

So Elliot wrote a short essay. He’s entered to win some sort of scholarship, and the first round is basically a popularity contest. It doesn’t make sense to me. If I was going to give $5000 to help some kid go to college, and I assigned them an essay topic of “The Most Important Lesson I’ve Learned in my Life,” I wouldn’t make winning dependent on getting other people to “like” your essay. But what do I know? I don’t give away $5000 scholarships either.

His essay isn’t really all that connected to the topic of this post, but it is, a bit, in a way. Anyway, it’s short, only one paragraph. There are a few typos, but give him a break. Please go vote for him. Just click this link.


So it’s Spring Break here in Oregon, and we are spending 3 days with our friends at the beach. Naturally it’s raining but I don’t mind. We’re hanging out, watching tv, talking. It’s good.

I brought several books, of course, but my hostess brought all the Hunger Games trilogy for her kids so instead I’m reading that.

Let’s keep this short and sweet–I’m off to visit a beach town. Also, I’m typing this on someone’s iPad. I don’t think these tablets will ever take off.


Portrait of a Spy. I didn’t like this one all that much. It’s the sort of book people read on airplanes and it’s well-written for its genre. But I felt I could discern the author’s politics a little too easily for my taste. Read my review if you’re curious, although I was very mild-mannered.

Hunger Games. I already wrote my thoughts on the character of Katniss. I found the book memorable; I can’t get it out of my mind.

Before the Poison. Did I mention I’m at the beach? I really liked this one. Go read my review if you want to know more.

A Good American.

Duty to the Dead. The first of the Bess Crawford series. Very enjoyable. I will write up my thoughts later.


What to Look for in Winter.  Fascinating, beautifully crafted, memoir of author Candia McWilliam’s life and recent blindness.

Catching Fire. The second of the Hunger Games trilogy, for those of you that live in a box.  Really good so far, although Elliot says its not as good as the first.


I can’t remember. I have a huge stack at home. Sorry to be lame, but this iPad is annoying to type on. I haven’t even tried to put in links yet. Wish me luck!

So, what are you reading? And have you tried typing on an iPad? If so, what did you think? And do you think they’ll ever catch on?

Long-time readers already know that Ilsa, my daughter, is what’s known as an avid reader. She devours books, gulps them down whole, like a puppy being fed chunks of steak. I can’t remember when she first read “The Hunger Games” trilogy but I think it was when we first came back to the US from Morocco, when she was 13.

Ilsa’s version of packing for a two-day trip

I didn’t read them. I realized early on that the only way to keep up with her was to read a lot of kids’ books, and just between you and me, I don’t want to read a lot of kids’ books. Some kids’ books, sure. But I have neither time nor inclination to read “Twilight,” for example, although I read the first one, so that I could warn her off modeling herself on a young woman with an unhealthy boy-crazy obsession, and also so that I, too, could count my favorite vampire as purple and sparkling.

Although I already did…

When Ilsa knew that they were making a movie of the Hunger Games, she obsessed, along with most other people who share her age, gender and nationality. She showed me the trailer umpteen times. She showed me pictures of the actors. She realized that the movie would release a mere 3 weeks after her birthday and early on began begging to go on opening night, as a birthday present.

A couple of weeks ago, she said if we were going we had to buy tickets right then. Shows were selling out. I was skeptical, but I agreed. We’d already had the dread “you’re not coming with me are you mom?” discussion. I had pointed out that if I didn’t go, she couldn’t go, unless she could find another adult that I knew and trusted to drive her home at 3 a.m. I offered to not sit with her, instead to sit behind her and enjoy the movie in the manner in which I chose, which may or may not include making kissy noises, and saying “I love you Ilsa” in the quiet moments.

But I couldn’t go to the movie without having read the book, my kids told me. They sat me down and handed me the book. Like I said, I’d avoided reading it. I knew the basic premise, and I found that really depressing. I really do not get the current fascination for dystopian fiction. How is bathing their minds in it going to affect the future of these kids? Will they be more open to totalitarianism, viewing it as inevitable or more alert and guarded against it?

So I finally read it. It’s good. I can see why it’s garnered all the fuss. I found the violence as disturbing as I’d expected to, true, but I kind of fell for the character of Katniss, the protagonist. She’s this scrappy, tough girl, who’s been solely responsible for feeding and caring for her mother and younger sister since her father died. This is a poor family in a poor district. She’s been so wounded that she’s closed herself up tight, and she’s so busy just surviving that she never stops to notice what other people think of her. When Peeta, her fellow “tribute,” expresses his feelings for her, she doesn’t believe him, but assumes he’s only doing it to gain the crowd’s favor. Her life has had so little genuine kindness that she has a hard time recognizing it.

We had tickets for the 12:30 a.m. showing last night. We left at 11, picked up Ilsa’s friend Sarah and arrived at the theatre at 11:30, an entire hour before the film was supposed to start. I felt this was far too early but as it turned out, the kids were right. The lines were already down the block. Even though we had our tickets, we had to wait to get in. Portland is having the wackiest March ever–we’ve had more snow this month than the previous two winters put together. The kids had their first and only snow day (well, two-hour delay) on March 22nd, that morning. So temperatures were in the 30s as we joined the end of a very long line, where we stood for an hour.

I have never done this before. I miss cultural phenomena; I don’t line up for iPads or text American Idol. I don’t even twitter. So this was kind of fun for me. It was mostly a drag though. I was actually sick yesterday, spent the day in bed, was rocking a really good headache as we stood there in the cold, slowly losing the feeling in our extremities. They kept us out there until 12:20, when they finally let us in. The show was supposed to be sold out, but there were only a few people sitting in the front section, and although the back 2/3rds was crowded, we had no problem finding seats.

So I’ve never gone to a movie with a crowd of teens before. It was pretty fun. Everyone came to this movie with an opinion. There were cheers for Peeta’s first appearance and for Gale’s. Everyone clapped and cheered at the first kiss. People yelled and applauded and it was alternately fun and annoying. The movie was intense and well done, although I felt they lost some of the nuances that made me like Katniss so much in the book. I didn’t hate it though; in fact, there was a part I thought was better than the book. I’m not saying in case you don’t want it spoiled, although frankly I doubt I have any readers that care all that much.  Seriously, it’s a good movie. Intense.

Elliot and I left the theatre immediately afterwards then waited just outside for seemingly hours for everyone else to come out–they waited till the end of the credits. I saw a lot of home made Hunger Games t-shirts, including some boys who were on Team Katniss. I’m glad she has her own team! By the time we took Sarah home and got ourselves home, made coffee for the morning, and got to bed, it was 4 a.m. I made the teens go to school the following day. Elliot claims to feel good about his IB Chemistry exam but we’ll see.

While I was sitting in the theatre at 12:30 waiting for the movie to start, my friend texted me: “You’re such a cool mom!” I wrote back: “There’s a slim line between cool and stupid.” “Slim is good,” she replied.

Although it’s commonly believed that newly-arrived immigrants or refugees will cluster together, this doesn’t always bear out. Take Harold and Maude, for instance. When they arrived, their caseworker put them in an enormous apartment complex where there were several other Iraqi families. Overall this was not just fine, but downright positive. They made some good friends. But one family in particular had a boy about the same age as their oldest. The two quickly, naturally, became friends, but Harold and Maude were not happy with the boy’s influence on their son, especially after he managed to get them both in trouble.  They decided to move as soon as their lease was up.  They found an apartment complex with few children and no other Iraqis, signed a new lease, and gave notice to the first apartment complex. We helped them move one rainy Saturday at the end of January, and I went back the following week to help them clean the old place.

“You know you won’t get your deposit back,” I told them. “No one does.” It’s actually quite common for families to move to a new apartment after their lease is up, usually either 6 months or a year. Their reasons differ; usually they are looking for cheaper rent, or they want to be closer to friends, or they have finally been given section 8 (subsidized housing). None of these families have ever gotten their deposits back; in fact, a few have accrued extra charges. One family got sent a bill for another $1000 after their child spilled tumeric on the carpet on moving day.

But I have never seen anyone clean like Maude. They moved the fridge, the washing machine, the stove, and scoured underneath them. They washed all the walls. They steam-cleaned the carpet. We picked up every single tiny piece of trash. The place was sparkling when we left that day, after a picnic lunch of fried chicken and jo-jos from Winco, proudly produced by Harold from the trunk of his car, bought several hours earlier. (No I didn’t get sick. People worry too much)

That particular apartment was a fine apartment, not like some I’ve seen refugees put into. (One friend recently lost heat for days, and her landlord never returned her calls. They finally fixed the heat themselves) But even though it was perfectly adequate, it’s obvious that the builders didn’t choose to use quality materials. The blind slats, the paint, the era of stove and washing machine made it clear. But that was okay, since they have to know that, right? You can’t put a family in an apartment for a year and not have some wear and tear. That’s why they charge $850/month for a two-bedroom apartment, to cover any damages.

But apparently the owners don’t want to have to spend even a penny of their gains. Because Maude didn’t get any of her deposit back. I went with her to the office, where a platinum blonde with dark eyebrows said defensively, “I walked through that one myself. There were stains on the counter so we had to spray, I remember.” I explained “stains” to Maude, but she was not impressed. “This is false, this is lies,” she said bitterly, reading the list of repairs, which conveniently happened to total the amount of the deposit.

I kind of agree with her. I’m sure they had to paint a couple of walls, maybe spray the counters like the woman said. But I am also sure that the large corporation which owns the complex could afford to do that with the money they made off the rent. Certainly they could afford it a lot better than a refugee family. The woman promised to look into it again and call back, but she didn’t.

It’s a small injustice in the larger scheme of things. Call it a moving-out fee instead of a deposit, and maybe that makes it easier. But it still makes me mad, because I saw the tears in the corner of Maude’s eyes that she tried to hide, and I know how badly that family needs the money. I see how hard her husband works at a job that only gives him 39 hours a week so they don’t have to pay benefits. I see how much they worry about their kids, how important things like education and good manners are to them. And I don’t see why even small injustices in the name of greed are acceptable, why we all shrug and say, “That’s just how it is in this imperfect world.”

Live blogging the Star Wars marathon…

Not really. I doubt any of us would enjoy that, and if you think I’m staying up all night for the dubious pleasure of watching these movies yet again, you are wrong. I’m just hoping I manage to sleep.


They are quoting the movies, all the lines, word for word. How is it that these boys, who don’t do their homework and have a hard time remember basic math facts, can recite line for line for line?

Also, it’s pretty funny watching a group of 14 year old boys (and one just-turned 15) watch the love scenes. They no longer mock, but they squirm.


This is Abel’s party this year; 3 friends, 6 movies, one very long night. We had a  discussion in the car earlier today.

Me: Do you want cake or Welsh cakes or cupcakes or what? What kind of cake?

Abel: Do we have two bags of chocolate chips? You could make a double batch of chocolate chip cookie dough and we could just eat that.

Ilsa: Yeah! Awesome!

Donn and I: (in unison) Ewwww! Yuck. Really?

Me: also probably people are expecting cake and ice-cream.

Abel: I didn’t tell them we were having cake and ice-cream. I didn’t say it was a birthday party. I just said, “It’s my birthday and we’re going to stay up all night and watch all the Star Wars.” So no one’s expecting cake.



Me: Abel, you don’t have to mention it. EVERYBODY, at least in America, has cake and ice-cream at their birthday, or something equivalent.

Ilsa: It’s like if you say to someone, “Do you want to hang out?” you don’t have to tell them to wear clothes.

Me: exactly. Um. ???

Donn: We are going to breathe air!

So I made a lot of pizza, some of which is sitting out for them to eat at 3 a.m. I made a cake, which I don’t think is that good. I pleaded with the boys to eat it all during the night, and I have high hopes they will. We have microwave popcorn and coke.

It’s nearly midnight. I think I am going to go to bed.


Thoughts on Modern Blogs

I hate this new anti-spam software. Sometimes I try to leave comments on your blogs, and I type in those darn random letters, and I am sure I get it right but still blogger rejects me. And sometimes I can’t read the squirmy letters at all. So if I no longer comment, it may be your fault–or at least your over-vigilant anti-spam software. I just tried to leave a comment on another blog, and I gave up after 10 attempts.

Sometimes, you wish you had stayed out of the kitchen so you could eat in blissful ignorance.

I thought this Wednesday. After class, Bea announced that we were all staying for lunch at her place–that would be me, the teacher/driver, Maude and her 4 year old daughter, and Fiona. We were in the car when Bea announced it, and I realized that I had foolishly said “next time” on Monday, when she’d also invited me in.

I don’t know why, but I am always exhausted after class. It takes about an hour to pick up everybody, and then I teach for 2 hours, then everyone chats in the hall for at least half an hour, then another hour of driving. Total: 4 1/2 hours, and that’s not counting extra things that often come up. Not that long. But by that point, I just want to come home and chill for half an hour or so before I get going on something else.

But I had said, “Next time,” not meaning it, meaning “at some vague undetermined time when I have more energy.” And Bea had made dolma, which takes a while…I know because I have helped others make it. You mix rice and ground lamb and parsley and tomato paste and spices, and you roll and stuff grape leaves and onions and zucchini and peppers and tomatoes and put them all in a large pot and boil them for a while. So I looked around the car. Everyone agreed; we would eat at Bea’s. We stopped at a grocery store for her to run in and get a few items (i.e. 3 bags of stuff) and then went to her house. I was pushed onto a couch with Fiona, not allowed in the kitchen to help, which is unfair. Fiona is the oldest so she is supposed to sit and watch, but I am younger than Bea. I think it’s my status as teacher and giver of rides, not to mention American, that relegates me to the couch. Fiona prays; I watch Iraqi satellite TV. They are advertising a sort of American Idol type show that looks delightful! The 3 contestants, all young males, are hilarious to me. One has caterpillar eyebrows that move alarmingly; my favorite is heavy-set and wearing a grey and black suit and wailing away as he contorts his face. They flash the number and I’m tempted to vote, although I resist because I know it would be expensive.

After a while, though, I wander back to the kitchen. This is about 4 steps. Their apartment is small–two bedrooms, 3 adult children, I’m not quite sure how they do it. Bea and Maude are making salads. Maude is making one that I usually love–plain yogurt, grated cucumber, garlic, dried mint. (It’s like that Greek one called something that starts with T, and like the Indian riata or riada or whatever it is). I watch in dismay as she makes the salad using sour cream, full fat, instead of yogurt. Ouch! That is going to be rather hard on the waistline.

Bea is proudly showing off the panini-maker she found for $5 at Goodwill. My Iraqi friends love thrift stores, and are constantly parading before me a collection of candle-holders, figurines, and chunky china they have found. They are avidly looking forward to the start of garage sale season!

Bea has found that the panini-maker means her 17 year-old daughter, her youngest, finally has something she’ll eat after school. She cooks up lamb and parsley and onion and freezes it in small portions. Then she thaws a bit, spreads it on the bread, adds olives and cheese and spicy peppers, and melts it into a sandwich. She makes several for us to try and they are tasty. I mention that Elliot would also like it if I made him sandwiches after school and so later, I leave with a plateful of sandwiches for him to try. (And I am right. He eats the entire plateful after school that day, and still manages a hearty supper about 2 hours later.)

The salad, sadly, is delicious. Who knew straight sour cream could taste so good? I try to not eat too much. I fill up on the other salads, a little bread, and of course dolma and sandwiches. Everything is great. Afterwards, Maude suddenly remembers she has to be home by 2:36, when her kids get off the bus. It’s 2:10. “We need to leave right now then,” I say, but we haven’t had tea yet. We have tea. She and I drink quickly, casting agonizing looks at Fiona, who’s oblivious to the need for hurry and is chatting away, sipping her hot tea. We leave at 2:25 and I drive like the wind, which worries Maude a bit. We get back to her place only about 5 minutes late, and wave happily to her boys, who are waiting outside her apartment. She wants me to run more errands with her at that point, adding her boys to the mix, but I decline without regrets.

March 2012

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