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It’s been so long since I posted that I had to reset my password!

Years and years ago, I was an undergrad at Portland State University. I lived in a small apartment with a wild kitten named Oscar, and on weekday mornings I would fly down the stairs, run 2 blocks, and catch a rumbling Tri-Met bus across the Hawthorne Bridge to downtown, where I’d usually catch a second bus up the hill to the university, because I was pretty much always late. But coming home was different. I’d meander down through the Park Blocks under the enormous elms, kicking at the falling leaves. The most brilliant leaves would be collected and pressed into whatever books I had with me that day; Victorian Prose and Poetry, or Anna Karenina, or Norse Mythology. (Yes I was a Lit major, in case you couldn’t tell from the cat’s name) In spring, I would skip class on sunny days to sit under the bright new growth fuzzing the branches, and I would justify it because Romantic poetry should be read outside, and also anyone who studies Hemingway and Raymond Carver should skip class sometimes.

fall

I like how this hipstamatic filter makes it look blurry and wet, which is was. Another change: taking pictures with my cell phone. 

Life moved on and so did I. Until this year. This year, I’m back and once again an undergrad at PSU, scurrying up that hill two afternoons a week, and strolling down afterwards. Some things have changed this time round though.

For example, email. I was supposed to get it automatically, and I kept getting an error message. I could tell when I called the bright young thing at the IT help desk that she, enormously patient and supportive, thought I didn’t know how to set up email. That wasn’t the problem though, we found. The problem was that I have already graduated! I pointed out that I graduated  before email was really a thing, but the system was adamant. We did eventually work it out, so I could have another inbox telling me how to get health insurance, how to handle temptations of being on my own, how to avoid phishing schemes, where to get a flu shot.

Also, when I went to PSU last, I applied by writing my name in blue or black ink in a series of little boxes. One of the areas to fill out was gender, M or F, and I was expected to check just one. Now, of course, it’s all online, and I can’t even remember how many gender options I had, but I think there were at least 8, including the “prefer not to answer.” In addition to gender, I had to choose sexuality; again there were a lot of options.

Donn and I are taking Arabic 101. We don’t sit together in class for reasons (I am a confirmed back-row dweller and that has not changed) but the class is not big and we arrive and leave together, plus we are partners for the oral presentation (Hello! Hello! How are you? I am fine!), so I thought it was obvious. But the other day, one of the other students said, “Wait! Are you guys married?” We said yes, and she gushed, “That is just so cute! You taking a class together! So cute!” So I guess we’re cute.

I expected to be the oldest in the class, and to stand out amongst a group of fellow undergrads, all of whom would be the ages of our kids, but I was wrong. PSU is an urban campus and has always had a healthy percentage of older students. Our class has 4 senior citizens who are auditing the class for free, which seems a really painful way to spend your golden years.

I also expected to be the best and brightest for the first 2 weeks, because we know a fair amount of Arabic, although we’re finally learning to read and write. But no. Our class has a lot of “heritage” students; kids from Arabic-speaking families who need to improve, learn their letters, etc. We are very average in all ways (except for being so cute!).

Arabic is painful, as I knew it would be, but it is also more manageable than I expected. That’s because much is review, dragging out of my brain things learned in the past and relearning them, pinning them down, finally having a place to slot them into and remember them. I go to the library and check out baby books in Arabic, learning words for colors and animals. I check my pronunciation with my friends. It’s kind of fun. When the insomnia inherent to my age and gender tries to strike, I now have a new weapon–I just go through the Arabic alphabet slowly, picturing each way to write each letter, and I am asleep by the time I get to jeem.

Donn and I drive down together, so we’re always on time–even early. One day I came down on my own and managed to be 15 minutes late to class…plus ça change, I suppose. We can afford cups of coffee from the local Starbucks, and on-street parking. I need that 16 oz cup of dark roast to stay awake in the afternoons, and I recall a teacher of Contemporary lit from long ago, reading Charles Bukowski to us, and I think of how I understand the frustrations and weariness of age so much better now than I did at 19. Arabic 101 is not as stimulating as literature, but I am much older, and much tireder, and I realize this as I climb the 4 flights of stairs to my classroom.

 

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I teach ESL to adult learners, pretty much all of whom are refugees, although our classes are open to everyone. This week, I introduced the concept of Show & Tell. Sure it’s a kindergarten concept, but I knew my students would not bring in stuffed animals. It was supposed to get them to speak English uninterrupted, express their thoughts, use idioms and practice fluency. And I think it was a success. I was careful to explain the things didn’t have to be emotionally weighty, because I didn’t want my students to feel coerced. I used as an example a ticket stub from a play we went to with friends a few weeks ago* But everyone brought in things from their original home. And to see what things refugees have carried with them on their long journeys to safety is, I think, a privilege.

Student #1: H slowly unfolded a scarf and held it up for everyone to see. It rippled in many colors–shades of brown and pink arranged geometrically. “This scarf belonged to my mother,” she said, and kissed it. “She used to wear it when she lived in the village.” H draped it around her own black hair. Then she took it off and held it up to her face. She has never washed it, she told the class, and it still smells of her mother. Everyone passed it around reverentially. Mothers are highly esteemed in Arab culture, and of course the bond between older mother and adult daughter is universal. At the next class, she brought in a picture of her mother, her hair tied back in a scarf. H is from a Christian background, so her mother wore the scarf differently than Muslim women do and I had had a hard time picturing it. She also brought in baby pictures of herself with her sisters. Again, she kissed their faces.

Student #2: S took out of her purse a plain brown envelope, the kind that official documents come in, but it was empty and held no interesting marks. “This envelope changed my life!” she announced dramatically, waving it in the air. S is from Iran, and 5 years ago her husband won the lottery for a green card, and brought her and her youngest daughter to America. The announcement arrived in this very plain brown envelope.

They first lived in Texas, she told us. A fellow immigrant told them they needed to go to the Social Security office, so they looked the address up online but ended up at a building that looked like a house to them, but was flying a big American flag. That confused them. Many people from other countries don’t understand Americans’ propensity to fly flags at all times from all types of buildings, not to mention turn them into jewelry, t-shirts, hats, bumperstickers. etc. The flag, plus the fact that the address on the house matched that of Google maps…this had to be the place, right? So they went up to the door. They were greeted with the sound of a deep, throaty barking. Why would Social Security have a large dog? They stepped back in alarm. The door opened, and a woman appeared. They showed her the piece of paper on which they had scribbled the address and tried to explain what they were looking for, but it was too late–she had already called the police, alarmed by the mere presence of a middle-aged couple on her front walkway.

S started to cry when the policeman questioned her. He was very gentle, she tells us now, but he told her not to walk up to private people’s houses. I think this is terrible advice. What kind of world do we live in? When I lived overseas, I only had to look sort of lost and people would help me find my way. (Sure they might expect payment, but they didn’t threaten me) I told her that I was glad she had found her way to Oregon, and to my class in particular.

Student #3: A brings his marriage license, showing he’s been married to his wife for 37 years. We talk a little bit about marriages. I’ve been to a few Iraqi weddings now, here in the US, and they can be summed up best in one word: LOUD. So loud. We compare Iraqi wedding customs to Mauritanian ones. As always, I’m amazed at how many similarities there are between the 2, separated by thousands of miles and in many ways very different.

*in part because I forgot to bring anything even though it was on my lesson plans, and I found that stub in my purse. The best teachers are good at improv, right?

Ok I am going to finish my year. It wasn’t all that eventful, really, just that I am verbose. Very very verbose. How did I handle not blogging?

October: or possibly late September. Finally it cools down. It even rains a little bit. We take newly-arrived family to Hood River to visit the orchards. There are tons of them—growing myriad varieties of apples, pears, pumpkins, fantastically-shaped gourds. It’s very beautiful, and they love it. I mean, who wouldn’t?

IMG_5857

We all bought some and decorated our houses.

 

IMG_5871

This pumpkin shell is like lace, isn’t it?

We did other things. ESL classes started up again. Every year we get more organized. This is only impressive when you realize that I started the program and that I have no organizational skills whatsoever. I know six year olds who are more organized than I am! However, we have muddled along and now have 4 levels and around 40 students, plus about 30 volunteers driving our students to and from class, watching their children so they can study, greeting them with coffee, teaching or tutoring them. Our students include a group of women in their 50s and 60s who have never really gone to school before. They grew up in the countryside, in villages where education was for boys, and they married young and raised children and grandchildren. Now they are students themselves with notebooks and pens, and very proud of themselves! Their progress is slow, as one would expect, but they view each incremental gain with great satisfaction and never tire of practicing their short sentences on me, and bringing me large platters of dolma and briyani. (I don’t teach their level but they all know me) Last summer, Donn and I ran into an Iraqi man at Fred Meyer’s who told me that my class is “number one for women with PTSD.” I don’t know if he’s right, but I do know that our little school has a very homey atmosphere, and these students are thriving, each in her own way. On the other end, we have lawyers and professors and pharmacists who come to our classes as well.

October: Donn and I went to Thailand. I’ll pause and let you imagine all the exclamation points. Thailand has been a place I’ve wanted to go for years and years and years now. We had to go to an international conference and since we were there, we stayed an extra week. It was blissful.

Thailand was therrific! (What is wrong with me?) Just as cool as you think it’s going to be. I consciously decided not to blog it, because I have a bad habit of going into way too much detail and saving the best stories for last and then never finishing the series. Seriously, our last two trips to Mauritania have included many cool things that I never got around to recording.

I was just glancing through my pictures and it’s evident I’m going to stretch this out even further. So let’s take a few moments and just enjoy some of the amusing signs. And this isn’t all. I never did manage to get a picture of the restaurant called “Egg Slut.”

IMG_6069I know I agree, and so far my cholesterol isn’t bad…

We didn’t eat here, but it was sort of a McDonald’s knock-off, featuring (among other items) the MookMuffin.

IMG_6115Donn had a great avocado bubble tea here. I was tempted to try a “white mall” smoothie but just wasn’t sure. Would it contain actual grit from a Nordstrom’s floor? 

IMG_6137Frankly, Satan’s coffee seemed a better bet.

IMG_6095Who are they calling drunk? 

IMG_6094Saw a lot of ads for this whitening cream. I understand the concept, but feel the marketing really fell down on this one. A friend told me the tv ads for this feature an actual snail crawling across a woman’s face, leaving it sparkly (slimy) white!

Sadly, all these pictures are of places (or items) I didn’t try. Which would you go for? Tell us in comments.

I really wanted to post more in December, because I love how wordpress makes the blog snow the entire month and I wanted to have readers come see it. But the problem with December is that it’s busy. I don’t have a lot of concerts and parties, which is too bad since I like concerts and parties. (Except for small shrill children. I can skip those) We did go to two white elephant parties, both of which we won. What? Of course someone wins. Whoever brings the present that causes the entire room to erupt into gales of laughter, that makes that one woman with the great sense of humour and the really loud laugh actually cry with joy and hold her head, is the winner.

I probably need to be careful here. Let’s just say that part of what made our gifts so great is caused by a difference between cultures in what is considered beautiful and what is considered seriously over the top. We have been gifted throughout the year with some things that were seriously over the top–a large shiny gold plastic crucifix (a. we’re protestants b. where would you ever find something like that?), a clock/lamp shaped like a galleon in full sail, complete with sea gulls and frolicking dolphins, also of impressive size, a 3-D picture of Jesus that was actually 3 pictures, which you could spot as you moved it. See? Don’t you wish you could go to white elephant parties with us?

In other party news, we reprised our party for our Iraqi friends. Last year, we had a party to which the entire community was invited, which meant 250 in our church’s foyer and a lot of chaos. We broke the record for largest gathering of Iraqis in Oregon and also the largest amount of cigarettes ever smoked at our church. (Our church let us hold it there because they are nice and they like us. They also provided high school boys to help clean up, which is terrific when you need to vacuum an enormous floor or stack chairs.) But it was too loud and chaotic. So this year, we invited a much smaller number of people (i.e. 100)and it was great fun, although still an awful lot of work.

In family news, Elliot is home for the holidays, which is making me grateful that he’s at a state school only a few hours away. He got his summer job back and has had only 2 days off so far, the day of the Iraqi party, and Christmas Day. Poor kid. They really really like him, because he’s a good worker, and he really really hates this job, because they don’t treat him with respect and instead keep a skeleton staff on even at the busiest times, so everyone’s overworked. Oh well. It’s a starter job for a college student and it’s fine for that, although a. I would hate to work it as an adult, and am thankful I don’t have to, and b. there’s no excuse not to treat employees with respect, even if they are 18 and only there for 3 weeks. Ok. Done ranting now.

We had a lovely quiet Christmas en famille. We kept it mellow this year, and had lots of really good food and some time with good friends. And it’s not over yet! I’ve rehung the stockings because they look so pretty, there’s lots of leftovers still to eat, and I have a stack of books to read. We finally got our hot little hands on Season 7 of Dr. Who (the one season not on Netflix; borrowed from friends) when the DVD player went out but that’s okay–Amazon was late with a Christmas delivery and sent us a $20 gift card as an apology, which was awesome of them, so we’re getting a new one. Hope this Christmas season was as delightful for you and yours. Merry Christmas!

I’m sitting on a park bench in the shade with a new friend, A, while our kids play on the play structure. (Yes, I know my kids are 16, but they are good sports and join her younger kids on swings and slides with rare abandon) We have just shown them Portland’s Rose Garden. It’s blazing hot. Not far away, our husbands chat, and other young parents gather their broods and assorted diaper bags, sippy cups, stuffed animals, and bags of snacks. A watches one group, consisting of one man and two women with assorted offspring, and leans over to me. “In our religion a man is permitted to have four wives–four at the same time!” she whispers. “Don’t tell Donn!”

Um, he already knew that, I assure her, but I can’t stop from laughing. If i was going to worry, it would have been in Mauritania, where the women were flinging themselves at him because of his golden American passport. I tell her it’s illegal here, but I’m not sure how much she understands.

***

I’m driving the 3 kids to some event, I forget which one. Elliot and Ilsa are in the back seat and Elliot is acting like a big brother, poking and teasing and annoying. I needn’t worry though–Ilsa gives as good as she gets.

Elliot: “You’re cute when you’re mad.”

Ilsa: “I’m about to get adorable!”

***

A wants a bike. “It’s okay?” she asks me. “I see here women riding bikes.” Yes of course, I assure her. It’s America–you’re free to do what you want. I don’t add that, here in Portland, you can ride a bike naked, or ride one while wearing a Darth Vader costume and playing bagpipes. I feel that might just be too much information.

She says when she was a little girl, she asked for a bike but her father told her girls don’t ride bikes. “I learned to ride my brother’s bikes,” she says, but she hasn’t ridden in years. “You’ll fall down,” I warn her, but she’s not fazed. “I will be bloody-faced and black-eyed,” she agrees proudly. I’m looking for a bike for her; I really want to support her in this.

***

I get a text from M. “Bought a coffee maker at garage sale. Can you teach me how to use it?” This amuses me. M makes the best Turkish coffee. I really don’t want her to start making American coffee.  I hope she only makes it in the morning, before her classes at the local community college.

***

Every day, more bombs go off in Baghdad. Everyone says the situation is horrible, spiraling downward once again to a sectarian civil war. Neither side is right; both commit atrocities, although of course my friends tend to side one way or the other while agreeing it’s all horrible. “Before, we lived in harmony–Sunna, Shi’a, Christian–side by side,” I have been told many times by different people.

I ask about families. Sometimes the news is not good. One man’s uncle was gunned down on the street. Another’s nephew was badly injured in a car bomb while at a cafe. Another bomb, another friend’s nephew, aged about 6, was far enough away not to be hurt, but watched as the body of another small boy landed near him. “He doesn’t talk anymore, just sits on his mother’s lap,” his aunt told me.

***

In my backyard, tomatoes ripen, and the zucchini (why did I plant it when I’m the only one who likes it, ask my children) sends forth glorious orange blossoms, a promise of harvest. In the front, the roses are overblown and need trimming back. The neighbour’s grape vines spill over the fence, and every Iraqi woman who visits my house asks if she can take some leaves to make dolma with.

***

A friend has a new baby, gorgeous and plump for a newborn, with deep blue eyes really alert. She stares at me. The parents try out names on us. “Sukeina,” says the dad. No they will call her Zucchini, we say. “Horah.” No. Nonononono. No, we say. They name her Rahma which means Mercy, a beautiful name for a beautiful child.

The Sunday before graduation was Elliot’s party. Here is a copy of the invitation with our address whited out, since I’m the one writing this blog not Abel. (Sigh. I don’t mind having these conversations about internet safety with my children; what I mind is how often I have them)

Grad announce 2

I invited everyone I could think of, and managed to forget several important people I’ve thought of since. My problem is that the people I know and love are scattered, not all gathered about around one location (for example, a home town or a home church), but here and there from our nomadic existence.

I spent the weeks ahead of time stressing. I imagined people judging me for my back yard (with some excuse, I will admit) or for the fact that you can sort of tell at a glance that although I can clean my house, I own far too many books to be a really good housekeeper.

The nice thing about moving every 2 years or so is that you never have to reorganize closets or move the fridge on a regular basis. We’ve been in this house nearly 3 years, and our housekeeping habits are starting to show. In short, we did need to move the fridge. It was disgusting back there. I mean, really nasty. (I suspect I need to clean out my cupboards too. Darn it.) I scrubbed it clean, and I also scrubbed floors and counter-tops and made dozens of Welsh cakes which didn’t turn out well at all, due to my using baking soda instead of baking powder, like an idiot.

We were finally ready. The house looked fantastic, the yard looked almost as good as the day we moved in, and we were ready. I woke up Sunday morning and showered, and was making the bed when suddenly my lower back seized up with excruciating pain. I hobbled downstairs and sat down, only to find I couldn’t stand up again.

This was a problem. I still had things to do. Two of my Iraqi friends had gone far beyond ordinary friendship and spent their Saturdays cooking up a storm–I had 80 chicken schwarmas (I cut them into 3 pieces each), and mounds of homemade falafel and dolma, not to mention about a gallon of homemade humus. I needed to cut up Arabic bread to go with the humus and heat things and stuff like that. But I could barely move. I swallowed ridiculous amounts of ibuprofen and texted my friend to pray for me, forgetting that her husband is a doctor. He came to the party and talked to me and prescribed muscle relaxants. I found that as long as I didn’t sit down, I could function. But I dropped something on the ground, and it took me 5 minutes to pick it up. Not exaggerating! (well maybe a little. But not much)

The party was a huge success none-the-less, thanks mostly to other people. Ilsa did the fruit platters and Donn and Elliot took care of putting ice in the cooler, putting pop cans in the ice, carrying the large water thing with ice and lime and mint, and all those sort of things. Friends carried large platters to the table and took care of refilling things.

The party was supposed to go 3-5, but it was 10:30 before everyone had gone. By that point, I’d taken scary amounts of ibuprofen and was still pretty miserable. I took a muscle relaxant and went to sleep. In the morning, it took me about 5 minutes (not an exaggeration) to get out of bed. I’ve never had anything like this before. Of course Donn’s parents were arriving about noon.

I had about 3 days of excruciating pain, and then we settled into a routine of 4 ibuprofen every 4 hours, which isn’t so good for the liver but made life possible. All Donn’s family were here, which meant cooking for 11 people. It really wasn’t an ideal time but we managed. I wondered a lot about the all-extended-family camping trip planned for that Friday though. How on earth was I going to handle camping?

Oh you want to hear about camping? All right. Next post.

1. I am better! Yaay! Except still coughing and a bit croaky at times.

2. This is not the promised Sandwich Nazi post. To do that one, I have to find the cord to plug my phone into my computer to remove pictures. OR I could email them to myself. I will. Someday.

3. I was visiting an elderly Iraqi woman, who was very concerned that I’m still croaky. She had some advice for me. “Heat some milk up at night and put a large spoonful of butter in it and drink it.”

4. Um, no?

5. I pointed out that milk was supposed to increase the phlegm, but she was adamant. She said I could alternately heat lemon and honey and drink that. I said I was drinking lots of hot tea, but she was not impressed and said milk was better for my throat, especially with butter melted into it. I just wanted to share this because I’m hoping someone out there will try this for me and tell me if it’s as nasty as it sounds. Let us know!

It’s interesting to me to look at folk wisdom from different cultures. In Mauritania, they believed that sitting under cool air (i.e. fans or AC) would make you cold which would cause you to catch cold! This drove me crazy as it was usually over 100 degrees there, and I needed all the cooling I could get. Although Iraqis like cool breezes and AC, they seem to blame the weather for every single illness. No matter your sickness, no matter if it’s unusually cold or unusually hot or surprisingly pleasant and sunny–well, the weather has been different, and that’s why you’re sick. When I had the flu, it was because the weather was too hot. When I was still croaking, it was because the weather had turned cool and rainy. When my friend’s son had trouble breathing and his lips turned blue, yes that was asthma, but it was caused by the weather, which was its normal grey and temperate self that day.

6. We have had some torrential rain here in Portland this week. First we had an unusually dry (for us!) winter and spring, including an unheard of two-week-long spate of 80 degree days! Then we got all our normal rain in 2 weeks. We were supposed to have a picnic/barbecue with an Iraqi family yesterday, but I came up with a cheap rainy-day plan–we would go to the nickel arcade, let the kids play games to their hearts’ contents, and then go see a movie. Of course the actual day was sunny, but I can’t control the weather, people.

I’ve mentioned the Avalon Theatre before, but I’m sure you’ve long forgotten. Movies (second-run) are now $3, and all arcade games are a nickel. We watched the new Oz, in spite of their 10 year old choosing the R-rated movie from the “now showing” posters as his choice for all of us, including his 6 year old sister. It wasn’t bad and I think everyone enjoyed it. Do people actually like all that CGI? I don’t, but I thought James Franco was inspired in his role as Oz the Magnificent. That cheesy grin he would get when he was getting his bluff called!

Whether you are invited to a 16 year-old’s birthday, or the shared mother-daughter party for a 30 year old and a 6o year old, or a baby’s first party, you never know what to expect.

You could be offered:

  • full-sugar Mountain Dew (it says so on the label) in wine glasses, large slices of very sweet bakery cake, and a trip to the Hometown Buffet, where your hosts will be surprised you don’t want more dessert.
  • you and your family will sit down first and eat a four-course meal–stuffed meat pastries, bean and tomato soup, chicken and rice, salads, yogurt. Then, replete, you will move to sit on the couches, while the next group is fed. Later, you will eat bakery cake and nuts and drink Pepsi. The boys will go off to sit in a small room and play video games. We will stay in the small living room and dance, whirling around to Arab pop music.
  • you will see the Pizza Hut delivery guy when you pull up outside the apt. building. Inside, you will be served coffee, then juice and cake, then pizza, bread rolls, and wings.
  • you will meet at another woman’s house. “Just follow me,” your hostess will say, then take off at full speed while you are still buckling a small child into your back seat. You’ll eventually find her house in spite of all that. The party will last 5 hours and involve more food and dancing than one would have thought possible.
  • the mother will serve all the guests reheated chicken sandwiches from McDonalds, along with homemade falafel and salad. And, of course, really large pieces of bakery cake.
  • when I say bakery cake, I am talking Safeway/Fred Meyer/etc. In other words, super sweet and lots of icing. Just wanted you to be picturing this with me.
  • what do all these parties have in common besides bakery cake? youtube will be put on the TV, and we’ll listen to several versions of Happy Birthday. Like this one. Enjoy. And, of course, the fact that these parties are all lots of fun.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfa6xjAds_s

(PS Sorry it won’t let me upload the actual video so you’ll have to click the link. As a little perspective, remember that some people have real problems. )

…because seriously, who has time to write or read an entire year in review? Let’s just do a month, shall we? That’ll be plenty.

This month I:

* Got a Christmas tree, along with most Americans and a surprising number of Iraqis. They tend to decorate rooms with coloured lights year-round, so it makes sense they’d enjoy hanging even more lights, not to mention stockings. I got given a music box Santa that plays “Silent Night” at a demonic speed–seriously, faster even than the Chipmunks. But I digress.

We live in Oregon, near to the edge of the Urban Growth Boundary (which I adore. Cuts down on sprawl). I’ve mentioned how I’m 10 minutes away from fresh berries in the summer; that also equals 10 minutes away from a plethora of Christmas tree farms. We were on our way to one, where a friend’s son was working, when we saw the sign for $10 Nobles. “Let’s check it out,” we said, so we drove over hill and dale to a very large farm where they apparently haven’t quite worked out the whole economy thing yet, although they’ve  been open since the 50s at least. A very charming 8-year-old explained it all to us. “Welcome folks!” he started out, and Ilsa and I exchanged glances of pure joy. He was so cute!

Our choice was simple. We could select our own Noble, cut it down ourselves, and let them shake it and bind it. This would cost, for an 8-10 foot tree, about $100. Or, we could go over to where some trees they’d cut themselves just an hour ago were lying on the ground, and pay $10. But, they cautioned, they wouldn’t shake it for us. We were on our own.

The choice seemed simple to me. So we got ourselves a large, 10 foot or so, Noble tree for $10. I love Oregon.

e and tree

Here it is on the car. I haven’t mentioned that a friend backed into my car recently. It’ll be fixed soon.

tree on car

In addition to very reasonably-priced trees, this farm also had free hot chocolate, some very fat goats and donkeys in a petting zoo (Abel at the top of his lungs: “I wish Mauritanians could see how fat these animals are!”), and Santa. I forced my children to sit with Santa for a picture. Forced is the word, yes. But I will be kind to them and not post the picture I took. Instead, here is one of Abel decorating:

photo (5)

And one of the angel on the top.

photo (6)

* Hosted a party for over 250 Iraqi refugees and yes, it was totally crazy. This is what happened. Donn and I said, “Let’s have a Christmas party for our friends.” Then one of his friends said, “Can we invite the whole community? We’ll help do the food.” And we said yes, and asked our church to loan us a room, since our house is ample for a family of 5 but not really for 50 times that.

Planning this party took some time. I enlisted a lot of people to help. A friend went shopping with me, others helped me put goody bags for the kids together. Others donated funds, and one lady offered a ham, which we turned down since most Iraqis are Muslim. A group of high-schoolers volunteered to do crafts with the kids, and another group volunteered to help with clean up afterwards. It was still totally crazy.

Donn and a friend read the Christmas story while in the back, people discoursed happily at full volume and the kids ran in circles around the tables for sheer joy. It was chaotic, but I pictured a time when Jesus walked the earth, and I imagine that the crowds who listened to him weren’t all in rows like Sunday morning. Instead, I picture kids running wild, shouting and chasing each other, and the mothers in the back leaning in to each other for a comfortable gossip, while only those close to him could actually hear what he said. And everyone had a fantastic time, and there was food for all, and presents for most. I was most impressed with the high-schoolers who gave up their Friday evening to help, just to be kind–especially the ones who vacuumed. I was really happy I didn’t have to vacuum. It was a huge success. Not only was it the largest gathering of Iraqis in Portland, several told me,  but we also set the record for most cigarettes smoked at our church!

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* The day after the party, I woke up feeling rather as if a cement truck had run over me. But it wasn’t to be a day of rest–the inlaws were  coming for Christmas, and arriving that evening, and thanks to the party I’d had no time for prep. So instead it was a day of shopping and cooking and cleaning. They were supposed to arrive at 11:30 but instead their flight came in at 2 a.m. They showed up at my house around 3:30 and it was after 4 before we were in bed. Next day was busy though, as was the next and the next. They were here a week and left on Saturday, and I’m still tired. My goal for 2013 is more sleep.

We had a lovely Christmas though. The day itself was mellow. We ate breakfast around noon and supper around 7, and in between we opened presents and listened to music and relaxed.

One day we took them down the Columbia River Gorge. It’s ages since I’ve gone there in winter, and I’d forgotten how much I love it when the trees are bare and the air is frigid, and the pastel light speaks of sunset throughout the day.

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The inlaws enjoyed it, although they didn’t neglect to let me know how cold they were. They were always cold, poor things, their blood thinned from years of living in Southern California. In vain did I point out that the temperature was actually lower in their desert town than in our damp and windy city.

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I apologize for the poor quality of these pictures and remind you that I took them with my phone.

How was your month? Year? And what are you most looking forward to in 2013? Me, I’m hoping to figure out this whole life/work/family/rest balance thing, and get more sleep. Wish me luck!

HAPPY 2013!!

I cooked all day and at the end, realized that I’d really only produced what would be an average amount of food for an Arab household, inviting us over on any given Saturday. In fact, less. That’s a discouraging thought.

We invited an Iraqi family over. I’ve mentioned them before–Harold and Maude, the people we went camping with, the people who showed us home movies both of their child’s circumcision and their time at an Egyptian resort, Maude pretty much fully covered head to toe, Harold in Speedos. They arrived pretty much exactly on time. Usually, they’re an hour or more late when they come to us, but if we’re more than 15 minutes late going to them, they call to see where we are. Today, we said come at 3 and they came at 3:15.

Things were going swimmingly in the kitchen. An hour earlier, we’d gotten a phone call that another friend was stopping by. I took it in stride. There was a time this would have thrown me for a loop, but I’ve been in strict training for a couple of years now. Someone stopping by, who will expect to be served something to eat and drink, an hour before another family is coming for Thanksgiving when things are at their height in the kitchen? No problem! I ran upstairs to apply my make-up, talking to my brother on the phone, and then pulled appetizers from Trader Joe’s from the freezer and popped them into the oven, underneath the turkey. These frozen appetizers are a lifesaver. I recommend the Mushroom Turnovers and whatever else you can find that looks good that doesn’t have pork or alcohol in it. Keep in your freezer, practice continually saying “No you can’t have those” to your kids (they love those mushroom things, and they won’t even eat mushrooms) and you, too, can react calmly to unexpected guests. The house was even already clean! We were way ahead of the game.

I served out cranberry-pomegranate juice and the mushroom things and these sort of Indian things that came with coconut chutney, frozen in a little packet. Our friend ate and drank a little, and gave us gifts. That’s why he’d come. His wife recently traveled, and she brought us dates, and large  jewelry for Ilsa and I, but she was too tired to come in person. He didn’t stay long, which was good as I wanted to set the table before they arrived. He left a small mound of salt on the couch, from all the nuts he ate.

I had a fresh turkey that dry-brined for 3 days in the fridge (well, 2 1/2) with fresh herbs. I had massive amounts of mashed potatoes since I usually don’t have enough, given that the twins adore mashed potatoes and I hardly ever make them. I had 3 veg and gravy and home-made cranberry and dressing and all that good stuff, just like you. I made fancy-schmancy individual salads with fresh mozzarella and home-made smoky tomato vinaigrette, and turkey bacon, just because.  We got out the china that Donn’s great-aunt bought in Japan during WW2, when she was there with General MacArthur. We were ready.

Maude walked in carrying an enormous dish of food for me. “You don’t need to bring food on Thanksgiving!” I told her, but she said, “No, no! Just a little something, because you invite me to your house.” Sigh. I squeezed things aside in the fridge to make room. Later I check, and she’s brought me turkey and rice! A LOT of turkey and rice! She’s an excellent cook, so I know it will be delicious. But in addition to my own Thanksgiving leftovers and Maude’s offerings, I also have leftovers from last night, when another Iraqi friend sent us an enormous amount of food, just because. My fridge is so full right now, you guys. Please come over and want leftovers instead of Trader Joe’s appetizers.

I really wondered if people would like the food. On the one hand, I didn’t care. We’d invited them for an American Thanksgiving, and that’s what they were going to experience, like it or not! But I also didn’t want to waste food, especially when everything turned out so well. I needn’t have worried. The kids didn’t really like much, but Harold and Maude managed to find plenty of things they liked, from the brussel sprouts cooked with turkey bacon and onion, to the butternut squash roasted with butter and brown sugar. They were very unsure about cranberry sauce–sweet sauce with meat? Was I sure?–but ended up liking it, or at least liking it okay. But it was a very strange moment when I looked at my table, groaning with food, and realized I had probably made less food than Maude had made last time we were over there.

We had dessert. Their daughter felt comfortable eating the whipped cream straight from the bowl with her finger, but that’s the beautiful thing about being 5. Most people liked the pumpkin pie, and the American coffee (decaf) served in china cups. We had coconut pies too (really tarts), and chocolate-filled pralines.  There was a lot of food. At one point, Harold said, “I feel I gained 5 pounds!” We assured him that was the proper American thing to do.

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