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It’s Ramadan. I’m not Muslim, but I spend most of my time with Muslims, and Ramadan always kicks my butt. I spend my day doing normal things–helping a young woman get registered at college, taking my kids places–and then I go over to a family’s house at about 7:30, eat about 10, drink Turkish coffee, get home about 1. So here it is, 10 a.m., and I’m rocking a good headache and drinking coffee and I missed my gym class and I haven’t written my post yet. Unfortunately, since I’m not fasting, Ramadan is NOT a good time for me to miss the gym. Tonight promises to be more of the same.

But enough about me. Let’s talk about books.

This month, I read:

The Voluntourist: After the sudden death of his father, writer Ken Budd decides he’s wasting his life and he wants to give something back. He decides to participate in “volunteer tourism,” which is when you pay to go volunteer somewhere. He ends up going six different places, from helping autistic children in China to working in a Palestinian refugee camp, or working at an ecological camp in Ecuador.

Year Zero: This one was really fun, you guys. Apparently aliens LOVE Earth’s rock music, and they’ve been listening to and downloading our music since 1977, the year they date their calendars from now (i.e. year zero). They also have a law that they must respect the laws of whatever (primitive) society produced the artwork they enjoy. Now they’ve suddenly realized they owe every man, woman and child on Earth (except North Korea) billions of dollars. What are they going to do? Year Zero is a clever send-up of the music industry, science-fiction, and more. The bit about Microsoft had me in stitches. A fun, quick read.

Where We Belong: Marian got pregnant the summer after high school, deferred college for a year and gave the child up for adoption, and told no one–not even her own father. Now, 18 years later, the child is standing on her doorstep. How does keeping secrets change the kind of people we become, and how does it affect our relationships with others? This book about keeping secrets is told from both Marian’s and the daughter’s points-of-view. Enter to win a copy yourself here and read my interview with author Emily Giffin here.

Bullying Decoded: A most unorthodox take on how to deal with bullying. His writing style made me laugh as he dealt with this serious subject.

The Soldier’s Wife: I really like Joanna Trollope’s writing–she writes of ordinary people dealing with ordinary things, and she does it really well. The Soldier’s Wife deals with the impact of war on an ordinary family. Dan has just returned, physically at least, from a 6-month tour in Afghanistan. His wife Alexa is dealing with the fact that while he’s gone, she makes all decisions unilaterally, but when he returns they need to discuss things. Their marriage is in trouble and their friends and family gather round to try to help, or in some cases hinder. But it’s ultimately up to Alexa to figure out how far she’s willing to let duty carry her.

Shadows of the Workhouse: This was an incredible book that you should go read right now. Author Jennifer Worth worked as a midwife in East London in the  50s, and although the workhouses had officially been closed, she met many people whose lives were irrevocably shaped by them. Worth writes their stories almost as fiction, in the sense that she includes lots of descriptions and motives, and she brings these people to life on the page. I feel richer for having met them, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious. The stories are heart-breaking (I totally cried) but Worth is a very balanced writer, presenting a little of the history of the workhouse and the good motives behind them initially. An incredible book, one that stands out in the myriad of books I read.

I’m currently reading:

Double Time: How I Survived—and Mostly Thrived—Through the First Three Years of Mothering Twins: I’m enjoying Jane Roper’s account of her twins’ early lives, because it reminds me of my twins’ early years. Although I have to admit, just to you and no one else, that I privately think she’s a wimp because I had twins AND a 20-month-old AND I didn’t get the occasional nights and weekends off that she does, thanks to generous in-laws. I took all 3 to the store and playground all the time! But I really am enjoying the book, mostly because it’s reminding me of the joy of twin toddlers. And yes, they are a joy–especially in hindsight. They were so cute! I miss their chubby little cheeks and sweet hugs. Sigh.

Immigration and Adaptation: How Immigrant Families Excel in North America: This is turning out to be a book written for immigant families, to walk them through various aspects of adjusting and provide them practical tools to help them. I’m hoping to incorporate some ideas into my day job.

Skios: a Greek island, a big foundation which sponsors  a huge, boring lecture every year. This year, when demure, discrete Nikki is picking up the lecturer at the airport, instead she mistakenly takes home a grifter who thinks she’s cute. That’s how far I’ve gotten. It’s a farce and so far is shaping up just fine.

To Read:

The Jane Austen Guide to Life: Thoughtful Lessons for the Modern Woman: I’ve got to have the review posted in 4 days so I guess I should get going on this one 😉 It’s about how all you need to know in life you can learn from reading Austen. I’m hoping to get Ilsa to read it too, since she’s just starting out and all.

What You Wish For: a novel about those who become parents in non-conventional ways–IVF, adoption, etc.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale: another one where I read the first chapter and was totally hooked. A family is confronted by their daughter who disappeared in the woods 20 years ago. She claims to have been in fairy land. Was she? Or not? (I’m hoping she was, personally, but I’ll let you know next month).

So, what about you? What have you been reading? And are you affected by Ramadan at all?

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Elliot’s birthday was last week. He’s 17 now, so I suppose I should update my “about” page. On the day of his birthday, I made tacos, his current fav. (We deep-fry corn tortillas and grill meat (usually chicken) and I make guacamole and we put out tons of fresh toppings and they’re actually really, really good). I made cupcakes, a half-recipe of his favorite cake (recipe here although I never move beyond the ganache to whatever that white frosting stuff is), since it was only our family that evening. He was pretty happy with them anyway, esp since I forgot to halve the chocolate, so they were quite decadent.

At 10:30 p.m., we left for the airport. We have an Iraqi friend I’ll call Abou. He’s kind and generous, and is the one who first gave Elliot the name by which he’s known throughout the Iraqi community–Abu Kafashir, which means “father of too much hair.” Abou also gave Elliot a leather jacket, which Elliot adores.

Sometimes when I’m writing about my friends, I’m unsure how much of their stories to tell. After all, their lives are their own. Is it right to tell too much? I change names, hide details. Abou’s story in particular is really dramatic–full of tragedy and woe. His family has had to bear a lot, suffered many losses, but their story is not mine to tell on the internet. From the first time I met them, I could see this was a family shaped around grief and loss, and I will say that they stand out even in a community bearing scars of experiences far beyond the experience of a typical American.

Many of our Iraqi friends here worked with the US military or US companies, and as a result become targets themselves of the insurgents. One family had their house bombed and lost children; another’s small boys bear scars on their heads from a car bomb left just outside their place that threw them and their mother against the wall but mercifully didn’t kill them; another’s teenage boy was kidnapped and tortured, although he was later able to escape using his wits. If a family is targeted, that means the whole family–extended family as well–is targeted, and sometimes extended family resents this. Such was the case with Abou and his oldest daughter, whose husband was badly and permanently injured. She refused to speak to her father for several years.

So when Abou told Donn and I that this daughter, now wanting to reconcile and move here, would be arriving late on the night of Elliot’s birthday, and he invited us to join him in welcoming her at the airport, there was no hesitation–we would be honoured, and we said so.

But how would Abu Kafashir himself feel? After all, it was his birthday, and at first we didn’t know when they’d arrive. We talked to Elliot, and he was unequivocal in his response–of course we would go to the airport. He knew enough of Abou’s story to get why this was particularly important and meaningful. Also, I know I’m his mother but no grain of salt is needed–he’s really a great kid. I don’t even take credit; I’ve made tons of mistakes and dragged him all over the world and I spend far too much time reading or on my computer. I wasn’t anything like him at 17. It’s grace.

There was quite a crowd at the airport–Abou’s family is well-known in the community. Coincidently, all the women were wearing black and purple. We lined up to watch the airplane empty out. Hundreds of people streamed past us as we all watched eagerly. The crowd slowed to a trickle; still no sign. The airline personnel began to appear, dragging their small cases behind them. This was a very bad sign. “Excuse me; is anyone still left on the plane?” one of the men asked the pilot. “Yes, there’s still a family back there. They don’t speak English. They have small children who are crying,” he responded.

That’s them! We all smiled at each other. Small children crying–no wonder, after a 2 day journey and a handicapped dad who probably couldn’t help much. (I often feel like crying after 2 days on a plane/in airports myself!) We couldn’t go past where we were, but soon we heard the unmistakable sound of wailing and suddenly, they appeared.

Abou’s wife is someone who is always polite but never joyful. Like I said, this family is shaped by loss. So it was incredible to watch her sweep her grandson into her arms, to see her fully engaged, fully in the moment, and full of joy. I started crying. I certainly wasn’t the only one wiping away tears; Abou himself was openly weeping. It was a wonderful time.

Elliot thought his birthday was actually pretty special. And we celebrated even more this week, when I once again made tacos, this time for a multitude, and made an entire birthday cake, and we all went to the opening of the new Batman movie. I loved the movie, which I didn’t expect to, and I loved again being part of a cultural phenomenon, seeing people in costume, listening to the cheers and boos, watching the people around me. At one point a woman came in and yelled at some guy who was smoking: “If you do that again, we will have to evacuate the theatre and you will not see the movie.” A group of guys stood up and pointed at the one who’d been smoking. People yelled random things at random times. It wasn’t till the following morning that I saw the news of the shooting at the same movie opening in Colorado.

I don’t know how to end this post, how to pull together tragedy and joy in Abou’s family, and joy in ours (celebrating Elliot) and tragedy in others, those in Colorado. Maybe there’s some symmetry in this post, but real life is messy; such things seem to be disproportionate from one family to another. It’s wonderful to see, in the life of my friends, sorrow turned to joy, and mourning to dancing. I pray the same for those affected by the events in Colorado; I know it will take years, but I believe it can happen.

As promised in my last post, I did have car trouble. It could have been so much worse. Elliot was driving, and Donn was standing on the sidewalk and happened to notice that one of the tires was about to blow. There was a huge gap in the rubber, through which a metal sort of mesh could be seen. This wasn’t good. We’d all just been visiting an Iraqi family, and had stopped at Fred Meyer’s to pick up a few items since we had friends coming for home-made pizza. Luckily Donn noticed it–you know I wouldn’t have.

We called our guests and told them we’d be late. Then we embarked on an exciting time of buying a jack and one of those funky four-part wrenches (lug? possibly), returning the jack because it was too big, buying a new jack, discovering the spare was shredded, basically, putting the old scary tire back on, and returning the second jack because it didn’t work on my car. I called Les Schwab (are they universal or just in OR?) and they stayed open a few extra minutes till we got there, and then even longer to get us two new tires.

We ate at 9 p.m. Par for the course round here.

And then of course the clutch started to go out. Which is why you shouldn’t let your teen learn to drive in your 25-year-old car, I guess.

***

This all happened last week, but who has time to update the blog? My own computer is still out of commission, although Donn continues to feel confident that he can fix it. We’ll see. In the meantime I am doing a poor job of modeling selflessness for my children, and instead pulling rank whenever I want to check my mail. Yes, we’re back to sharing a laptop between the 4 of us, although at least they don’t have homework these days.

This week was Mona’s baby shower, for her adorable little newborn. The concept of a baby shower was new to her and to the other Iraqis. Mona asked me about 5 months ago what a baby shower was, and then announced, “Ok. I will have one.” She intended to throw the party herself. No, no, I’ll do it, I told her.

There was another mix-up. Maude thought it was at her house. This cracked me up. In May, Maude’s daughter turned 5. The child loves icing, so I decided to have a small party (mostly the girls from 2 families) at my house. I made heart-shaped sugar cookies and several bowls of pastel-coloured icings (pink, purple, turquoise) and put out tons of sprinkles. I’d asked Mona to bring Maude and her daughter to my house, along with her twin daughters.

I explained this all to Maude over the phone, and thought we were clear. But some things got crossed. She thought I had planned a party for her daughter at HER house, and invited some friends. She was cool with this. She made briyani. When they finally all showed up at my place, she brought me a large platter of it. This made me happy. She makes the best briyani. I put it in the fridge and we all decorated cookies. I meant to blog this and post pictures at the time. Consider it done! (The pics are on my old computer…)

Obviously, she thought I was up to my old tricks. Invite a lot of people to her house and make her do all the work! But she figured it out pretty quickly, and showed up with a present for Mona instead of the platters of food I was half-expecting.Truly this crossing cultures thing is not for the faint of heart.

The shower was a success. A friend of mine (an American) hosted it and made cupcakes and pink-frosted flower-shaped shortbread cookies and lots of coffee, most of which I managed to down because my need was the greatest. There was other food–bruschetta (possibly; what does this word mean to you? It was some sort of tomato thingy and you ate it on bread and it was delish), humous plate with real cornichons, etc. Compared to an Arab gathering, there was basically nothing to eat, but we managed to hold body and soul together for a few hours.

I’d had a hectic morning, sleeping in because we were at the airport till 1 the night before and I didn’t go to bed till 2 and then I couldn’t sleep, because I’d foolishly had two shots of espresso at midnight. (Oh but it was worth it. There’s a Jim & Patty’s Coffee People at the airport. Did you know? Their coffee is sooooo good, and it’s years since I’d had it.) Then we had to pick my car up from the mechanic, but thanks to construction that took an extra hour. I still had some shopping to do. Long story short–I was nearly on time, my car full of Iraqi women bearing gifts, but I’d had neither breakfast or lunch and only one small cup of coffee. So I ate a lot of shower food, drank a lot of coffee, and was delightful all evening with my nearest and dearest. Or something like that.

And in other exciting news, Elliot sort of won a scholarship! I have so many thoughts about scholarships and colleges and things that I will have to write a different post, but he only sort of won because the scholarship, it turns out, is only for certain specific schools, none of which he was interested in. Still. Encouraging!

Mona is very pregnant. (I know, one is either pregnant or not, but she is right at the end and it’s the first thing you notice about her) She called me the other night with exciting news. “I am feeling pleasure in my tummy,” she told me.

“Uh, good. I guess,” I said. I thought about it. “Do you mean contractions?”

“Yes,” she said.

But it wasn’t quite contractions, since she wasn’t in labour. Donn was the one who figured it out. She meant pressure.

Nonetheless, I am calling contractions “pleasures” from now on.

***

That was last week. She had a c-section scheduled for Sunday morning at 8 a.m. at a hospital clear across town. She had to be there by 5, and she asked me if I’d bring her mother and her 12 y/o twins to the hospital a little before 8. So I did. We were there all day, till after 7.

Mona told me about her previous c-sections, in Baghdad, where they made her “sleepover”–in other words, gave her a full anesthesia. She was scared to experience the American version, where they only knock you out from the waist down and put up a curtain to block your view. But, she told me later, relieved and happy, that the American version was “too much better, too much easier.” (Her English is excellent, overall, and her few mistakes charming)

The baby is adorable. She has a cleft chin, a dimple, and enormous black eyes like her father’s and older sisters’. She has a lovely round head and tons of silky black hair. I got to hold her a lot in the afternoon, and she gave me lots of those squinty suspicious looks newborns give you, where they squinch their eyes barely open and look at you sideways, obviously thinking, “Who are you and where are we?” I love babies, especially when I don’t have to sleep in the same room as they’re in.

At one point they shooed us all out of the room. Mona’s mum is elderly and has knee pain and a hard time walking and getting out of chairs. I carried a bunch of stuff and herded us all down the hall. We spent some time in a family waiting area before heading down to the cafeteria for some coffee. Again, between the elevator and several long hallways, this took some time. And then I realized I’d inadvertently left my purse in the waiting area.

I called security and they told me they had it, brought it to me. It didn’t take me long to realize my iTouch was gone. It took me longer to realize my camera was gone (I thought I’d left it in the room). It took me till the next morning to realize that the tickets to the midnight opening of the new Batman movie, Elliot’s birthday present, were also gone.

I called security and reported these things missing. I called the police and made a report. I described my things, both to the security guard and the policewoman. “My  iTouch is silver, no case, and it has an inscription,” I told them. “What does it say?” they both asked.

Why do husbands always seem to enjoy doing things that will embarrass their wives? You can’t tell me men ever really grow up! I’m sure many of us have our own stories, which I’m looking forward to reading in comments. Just tonight, I was telling a friend of mine, who is an elementary school principal, about this. She told me what her iTouch says. “TW is HOT!” (Her initials are TW. Although it has her full name, which I don’t feel like sharing with all of you. Nothing personal.)

My  (former) iTouch says, on the back, “Wild Thing.” We can’t remember if it goes on to say “I love you” or “You move me.” I told this to the security guard. “Uh, let’s just assume that’s from Maurice Sendak’s children’s book,” she said drily. When I told the policewoman, I was better prepared. “Husband’s a Hendrix fan,” I muttered shame-facedly. “Ah,” she said noncommittally.

Mona’s family was very sorry about my loss (as am I!). Donn went ahead and cancelled all our credit cards anyway, even though they weren’t missing, since each item taken was in a different area of the purse and the thief obviously took his/her time going through it, deciding what was of interest. Maybe s/he wrote down the numbers and left the actual card, hoping to surprise us later, Donn thought. (He’s naturally suspicious and often right) So we have no credit or debit cards for 10 days.

That was Sunday. On Monday, my computer went out. Donn’s hopeful that he can fix it, but it won’t even give me the tiniest little blue light to show me it’s trying. I’m typing on the kids’ laptop, which someone recently gave us. He built it himself. It runs Linix. I am not complaining in any way; I am very thankful for it, although if I was going to complain I would point out that the mouse pad is very squirrelly and I am recomposing this post, after it lost it even though I had saved it. But I miss my laptop. No I hadn’t done a back-up recently. Even more photos will be gone.

I am expecting my car to break down tomorrow or possibly the day after. I’ll let you know.

Although I don’t expect to replace these things anytime soon, I am doing okay. After all, in the larger scheme of things, these are infinitesimal. The iTouch was already, in this strange world we live in, practically obsolete, although I liked it just fine. The camera had pictures on it that I’m sad to lose, but I’ve lost pictures before and I know I’ll forget about them soon. The baby is healthy and lovely, and her mother was back in full hostess mode by Monday afternoon, telling ME to sit down when I first walked into the room. (Me: No, you sit down. You’re the one recovering from major abdominal surgery!)

They come home tomorrow. Today I took grape leaves to Fiona, who lives in the same apartment complex, so that she could cook them dolma to celebrate their first day home, to give Mona a break. “You come here at 1 to pick up your dolma,” she told me. I don’t know why I’m getting dolma too, but I do know it will be a great addition to the all-American hot dogs and hamburgers we’ll be eating with friends tomorrow evening.

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