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Abel ready to go! 

This summer, Donn’s mother broke her hip. They live in the Southern California desert, and she went outside barefoot in the blazing sun to get the mail, and fell. We rearranged our lives and spent nearly a month total with her after she got out of rehab, and she was stubborn and determined and did really well. Then, in November, her heart stopped. Happily she happened to be at a concert held at a retirement center, and a nurse stepped in. But that fire and determination were lacking the second time around. She just wasn’t fighting as hard. And so we put our heads together and decided to drive down the 1200 miles and surprise her for Christmas.

Every year, we hold a Christmas party for our Iraqi refugee friends, and every year, it just gets bigger and bigger. It’s always held the Friday before Christmas, which was of course the 22nd. This year, we had about 250 guests, mostly from Iraq, with a good representation from Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Iran as well. It was a huge success. The food was fantastic! We had it catered by a local Iraqi restaurant which does great dishes, and we went all out…kabobs, chicken skewers, falafel, hummus, bread. For dessert we had baklava and then a friend made hundreds of orange-fig shortbread cookies and coconut lime shortbread cookies that were amazing. We had an awesome program for the kids, run by talented people who run our church’s all-day summer camps, fantastic live music, and SnapBar donated their services!

We had tons of help but it was still exhausting. And so, it was with no great joy that we dragged ourselves out of bed the following morning, loaded the car, and headed south. Abel, who is still youthful and energetic, was the only one excited at that point. Donn and I were just trying to make sure we’d packed everything–the air mattresses, the presents, the snacks, the plates of food that Iraqi friends had made up for us to bring. Because yes, that was a feature. We had a plate of leftover kabobs, plus an ENORMOUS platter of fresh falafel and 2 plates of hummus from another friend, and a plate of quba from someone else. It was, frankly, a bit much. We drove to Eugene and Elliot’s house, where we ate lunch and left some falafel and hummus for his roommates to enjoy.


I suck at selfies

We drove down through the forests of Oregon, which don’t seem like much until you leave them behind. Of course it was dark shortly after 4. We wound our way through the foothills of Mt Shasta, then hurtled down I-5 to Sacramento, where Ilsa lives.


Blue winter’s sunset, somewhere at the bottom of Oregon

We picked up Ilsa and saw her new apartment and met her puppy, who wiggled out of her arms with joy at meeting new people. We went for pizza, crowding round a small table in a noisy bar because the restaurant end of things was already closed at 10 p.m. on a Saturday. One thing I did not expect to find in Sacramento was the best Starbucks I’ve ever been to, serving juniper lattes and affragatos and all done in cool blonde wood and stainless steel, huge and beautiful and open till midnight.

After that, we settled into the dreary part of the trip. Because we hadn’t been able to leave till December 23rd and because we needed to get to Hemet in time for me to do some shopping on Christmas Eve before the shops closed and because we were now 5 and that meant 2 hotel rooms, we’d decided to drive the night through. We’d rented a car–our Volvo sedans don’t really have room for 5 adults, 4 air mattresses, presents, luggage, etc–but the kids were still too young to be able to drive. Donn and I spelled each other, the passenger trying desperately to sleep while the driver played music to stay awake. Amazingly enough, no one got grumpy. We were all too happy to be together again, excited to surprise Grandma, tearing through the night which stayed dry and bright.


These photos are from my snapchat

We stopped in a rest area for a while, where Elliot and Donn made fun of my desire for an eyeshade to help me sleep under the glare of the street lamps. “Something to cover your eyes? What about eyelids?” they quipped while I glared at them. Then we drove on again, into a terribly bright sunrise where all was certainly bright, and mostly calm too.

We stopped at Starbucks time and time again. I know all the arguments against this store but I don’t care. You can get decent coffee all the way to the inlaws now, and that’s always a good thing. We stopped for breakfast at one point, playing for time as we were in danger of arriving before my mother in law was up.

Finally we arrived. Abel knocked on the door. “Come in!” we heard her yell. We all trooped in, holding our phones like shields in front of our faces as we filmed her. “Merry Christmas!” we yelled! She just sat there, in shock. My father in law appeared with tears in his eyes. We’d made it, we’d surprised her, and, as they’ve told me approximately 1000 times a day, we were the best Christmas present ever! All together now, “Awww….” Also, I am, as always, their favorite (and only) daughter-in-law. So there’s that.



Christmas in the desert. I personally think they’re trying too hard… 


Happy New Year to you all! Any plans for 2018?

…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:

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And one of the angel on the top.

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* 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!


* 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!!

Hemet is an interesting town. It feels caught in a time-warp, a slice of Americana vintage late 70s/early 80s. The signs, the people, all contribute to this impression. Let me put it this way: In Hemet, you can wear an ugly Christmas sweater without irony. In fact, a lot of people are, and they all want to hug you. Their earrings match their sweaters.

It’s a small town tucked into the hills and mountains that make up California’s eastern desert. It’s very hot and dry there–my skin is in recovery mode now that I’m back in Oregon. The days are very bright; the nights frigid, often below freezing. This results in you shivering in your cardigan because it was too silly to bring your big coat out earlier, when it was 70 degrees and hot in the sun.

People have decorated though. In yards filled with cacti and decorative white gravel, there are plastic trees and inflatable snowman. There was a deflated Santa nailed to a palm tree wound with bright lights; presumably he looked a bit less disturbing at night. The lights shine brightly in the desert night.

We spent Christmas Eve out and about. We went to a small Saturday market, where we sampled a local avocado/lime oil that was divine, and bought last-minute stocking stuffers for Donn’s mum and sister. (Cheap but cute earrings! Some for me too…it was cheaper to buy 3 pairs!) I took lots of pictures. Come with me, on a magical mystery tour…

We walked through the “Harvard district,” which is about a block long…

and is guarded by six skinny palms…

the only snow is painted on

but there are lots of decorations

Those are silk poinsettias. This does not make sense to me, since poinsettias grow out here.

one wonders how stiff the competition is…

We stopped by the theatre, which, sadly, is going out of business

and selling all their posters and old reels.


…in which I answer the question of where I’ve been lately.

Where to begin? I am really tempted to whine about how busy I’ve been—and you would be impressed, trust me, because I have been really, really, impressively busy—but I feel that might be boring. I do want to mention the 8-night period in which I had guests 6 times, although in fairness I should tell you that I missed Ilsa’s choir concert on one of the free nights, as I was too tired to do anything more strenuous than cook dinner for the family and stare at the wall for a while. Who needs TV?

You will grasp my level of busyness when I tell you that I am turning down free books.

It’s long been a dream of mine to have a secretary. I don’t want to work in an office, I just want someone to organize my life and bring me coffee. This remains a distant dream, but I have managed to get an intern for the summer. I’ve never had one before and I’m feeling very grown-up. Her name is Leslie and she is enthusiastic, energetic, and pretty much perfect. The Iraqis love her. We are putting on an ESL clinic for Iraqi women and children and she’s going to teach it. I’m her mentor (don’t laugh!), which so far involves me talking a lot and sharing all my opinions on life. I can see how this could be very bad for me. She also made me coffee once.

In addition to planning out our ESL clinic and curriculum and doing lots of visiting so I can introduce her to everyone, I have been picking up some hours at a couple of different English centers, since working with refugees doesn’t pay as well as one might think. Last week, I subbed every day at a center downtown, which ended up being a lot more fun than it sounds. For example, Wednesday was a day of private lessons, one after the other, and half of my students didn’t show and then we had an international potluck! And I got paid for it.

I would take the MAX train downtown every morning, teach all day, have Leslie meet me at the MAX station, and go visiting. Then I’d go home and work on getting ready to leave. The plan was that I would leave important things in piles near the front door, and on Friday, while I was at work, my family would clean the house, empty the garbage and the fridge, unplug the stove and coffee maker, put ALL the important piles in the car, no really, ALL of them, no judgement calls required, and then pack themselves into the car and pick me up from work. From there we would hop onto the freeway and make our way to Southern California, to spend two weeks lazing by my in-laws pool and hopefully getting over these daily tension headaches.

All went as planned. They met me downtown and off we went. We made good time and it was a gorgeous day, the distant mountains a deeper blue than the sky and the sun differentiating between all the many shades and textures of greens. We stopped for a quick light supper and kept going into the mountains.

And suddenly, on the pass between Oregon and Washington, the car started to die. We couldn’t get it to go any higher than 20-30 miles an hour. The enormous trucks were passing US. It was bad. We limped to the top and thankfully began whizzing down the steep downgrade on the other side. We stopped at the first rest area and could tell something was seriously wrong. The car shook like a washing machine on spin cycle, and we jostled uncomfortably inside.

A random guy at the rest area said it was our lifters. This made sense to Donn (but not to me). Just a couple of weeks ago, on my way home, the oil light flickered and went off. I stopped quite soon but not right away, and the car spent several days at the mechanic’s. This might be connected? Or not? I don’t know.

I don’t want to go into too much detail, which involved a LOT of phone calls and some wild ideas on the part of my father-in-law, who didn’t want their annual housecleaning to be for nothing. Basically we put some additive (?) in with some more oil and turned around and drove home, arriving at 3 a.m. totally fried.

I was really proud of my family. We were all bitterly disappointed, but we all made the best of it, even though it was very late and people could have legitimately been grumpy. We may often be curmudgeonly and not at our best in everyday situations, but we do well when faced with life’s disappointments. When life gives us lemons, we get sarcastic and laugh a lot. The atmosphere in the car, as we sped home through the black Oregon night liberally besprinkled with stars (and my does Donn get tense when I lean out to look at them! I knew that curve was coming!), was warm and loving.

I wasn’t too surprised to note, next morning/afternoon when I got up, that the garbage had not been taken out, nor had the fridge been emptied. Carpets had been vacuumed though, and I guess one can’t ask for more. Also, everything made it into the car, which was the main thing.

So we’re home. Maybe we’ll make it down later; maybe not. Regardless, my goal is keep my life simpler. As Nancy Reagan used to say, “Just say no!” I’m working on it.

Well I’ve learned some Spanish this year in spite of myself. Tonto means idiot. Silencio means PLEASE BE QUIET RIGHT NOW. Hasta la vista means hurry the view, I believe.
On our summer vacation, we did the following:
More Spanish.
A whole lotta Spanish.
We did Spanish till our eyes crossed. We learned the names for many animals and colours; we practiced rolling our rrrrrrs. About the best thing about it was that, since we’re out in the California desert, it was good to stay inside during the day, dropping our h’ s and hiding out from the brutal, baking sun. And when we’d finished, in the cool of the day, we’d go swimming, plunging into the turquoise water and letting the conjugations of the verb hacer just float right away, which, yes, meant we had to learn them again the next day. At night when I lay in bed, I would hear Spanish words and intonations floating through my mind, without understanding them. (Don’t panic: this happened to me when I was first learning French too.)
On Wednesday, we finished the last exam. We posted it to France. And then we went straight on to see the new Indiana Jones movie, then took the kids out for ice-cream. We’re on vacation! (blah blah except for Arabic blah blah mutter)
Last night, I had the first of what I’m sure will be many CNED nightmares, but at least on waking I knew it was but the stuff of which dreams are made–all in my head.

So, you want to know, what did I think of the new Indy movie? It rather reminded me of the newer 3 Star Wars movie–more emphasis on special effects than on plot. The acting was sometimes stilted. Parts of it were downright silly and made absolutely no sense, such as why the red ants were eating some people but then just magically vanished when it was time to move on to something else. Also, I wondered how present-day South Americans would feel to learn that their great architectural past was provided by aliens, not by their ancestors. Teensy bit racist, anyone? But in spite of its flaws, it was still a fun movie. I’d give it a C, if I still gave out grades, which I don’t since I’m on vacation now (see above).

Yesterday, the grandparents took us all to the San Diego Zoo, which would like you to know that it is world-famous and more than just a zoo, also a research and breeding facility. It was a great, but exhausting, day. The weather was perfect; sunny but not too hot, with a refreshing breeze. We tramped all over, saw lots of animals, and took lots of pictures. Including some of camels! These were a different kind of camel though; they had 2 humps and hanks of hair hanging off them.

I’m not going to post any more of Donn’s until I figure out how to add a watermark, as I’m tired of finding pictures stolen from my blog popping up unattributed on other people’s sites. In an attempt to show you some of mine, I have spent over an hour now deleting and reloading software and sizing pictures and trying to upload them, but wordpress is apparently having issues. I will try again tomorrow.
Today, we are preparing for tomorrow, which is the family celebration of my in-law’s 50th Wedding Anniversary. It’s low-key, a fun family barbecue and swimming party (how red can we get? Any guesses?), and then for their actual anniversary, in August, we’re sending them on a little cruise, just the two of them. It’s what they wanted: no big parties, nothing too formal. Ok by me, although I’ve already let Donn and the kids know that if we make it that far, I want the big party and I want to get a new dress and shoes out of it.

My good-but-busy friend Nancy tagged me for a meme. I tend to not like memes, since I harbour a secret conviction that no one else likes to read them, even though I am quite happy to read them when other people do them.
But right now is a perfect time for me to do a meme, and if you really don’t care to learn anymore about ME! you can skip this post. Best of all, I won’t even know. How’s that for guilt-free?
I’m sitting in the in-laws’ living room, playing an extract from the opera Carmen on my laptop. The twins are supposed to decide what instrument the voices of the women are imitating. Yes, we are finally taking that last music exam for CNED, and since I’m stuck sitting here playing them extracts off their music CD, I might as well type rather than just stare at the flowing colours of the Windows Media Player. My in-laws are sitting in their two stuffed armchairs, between them a marble-topped table with a lit lamp now cluttered with today’s paper, which they are sharing between themselves. They are discussing Dobie Gillis, a TV show that aired before I was born and starred Gilligan, only before he was Gilligan. I don’t know what prompted this, but it makes for an interesting time; the CD playing, the twins asking questions and writing industriously, the in-laws discussing 60s TV shows and then telling each other which comic strips are good today.
So, on to the meme.
Here are the rules:
1. Each player answers questions about themselves.
2. At the end of the post, tag 5 people by posting their names.
3. Go to their site/blog and leave a comment telling them they’ve been tagged. Invite them to your site/blog so they can read the tagged post.
4. Let the person who tagged you know when you’ve completed your tagged post.

Right, I think I can handle that! Onward and upward! (Kids are reading Narnia again; NOT going to see the movie if I can help it!)

1. What were you doing 10 years ago?
Let’s see, it’s 2008 now. So 1998. Um…the twins were one so that wasn’t the year we took them to Hawaii when they were only 4 months old to meet the in-laws, who used to live there before they moved to Hemet (pronounce Hemet with proper disgust tinged with amazement…they left a tropical island paradise for a small dusty town in the California desert? Yeah).
1998 is pretty much just a blur, to be honest. Elliot turned 3 that year and the twins were one. All 3 were in diapers. Do you mean 10 years ago to the day? Cuz I have no idea.
2. What are 5 things on your “To Do” list?
Finish CNED; celebrate in some way
Go swimming
Pack up my house (after returning to it). Have AWESOME garage sale. Want to come?
Spend significant time with my mother
Move to Morocco (which has a whole subset of things underneath it, including finding a house, getting the kids into school there, learning Darija, meeting the neighbours and making new friends, etc)
3. What are 5 snacks you enjoy? (In no specific order)

Chips and salsa (esp. Kettle Tias and Emerald Valley med salsa)
Kettle chips, especially salt and vinegar or Spicy Thai
Dark, dark chocolate, sometimes with orange peel or coffee beans in it
Handfuls of Honey-Nut Cheerios snuck shamefully from the box
4. Name some things you would do if you were a millionaire.
Hire a really good Arabic tutor for Elliot, a professional. Fly them in from Lebanon or someplace like that. Find a better situation for my mother and pay for it. Go shopping. Move to Morocco by cruise ship instead of cramped airplane. Stockpile rice and give it to poor people.
5. Name some places where you’ve lived.
Nouakchott (Mauritania), Chambery (France), Swansea (Wales), Three Hills (Alberta, Canada), Alturas (California, US), Bonney Lake (Washington, US), Tacoma, West Seattle, SE Portland, Tigard. (you should know where Seattle and Portland are)
6. Name some bad habits you have.
I am terminally disorganized and flaky. I have good intentions but then I forget to carry them out. I am hopeless at thank-you notes, follow-up phone calls, and other forms of adulthood. I spend too much time reading/on the computer.
7. Name some jobs you’ve had.
I worked at a Hallmark store in the Tacoma Mall during Christmas breaks from college, during which I was forced against my will to wear an apron that said “Santa’s Helper.” (Woman: Do you work here? Me: Would I be wearing this apron if I didn’t?) That was the only year I sent Christmas cards, so it wasn’t a complete loss (see number 6)
I cleaned houses in college–it paid well and the people I worked for were really nice. I also was a nanny for a while; pay was room, board, and use of a sweet little blue pick-up. Also, I loved the family I worked for.
8. Name those whom you are tagging.
You know, it’s gotten kind of hot here. Some time has passed since I started this; my sister-in-law is doing Spanish with the twins, who are going crazy because it’s 4 now, the time I said they could venture outside into the hot, hot sun. (They inherited my fair skin and light hair yet I could not convince them or my darker husband that even with sunscreen, people that look like us will burn if they go swimming at noon two days in a row) So I want to go swimming now and I don’t feel like tagging anyone. And, quite frankly, even though it means I’ve broken about 3 of the 4 rules, I can’t see what anyone is going to do to enforce it. Not tag me again? Ooooh. I’m quaking in my flip-flops here.

At midnight, I was at the library returning the books they wouldn’t let me renew, since they CLAIMED we had already renewed them 3 times. Whatever, Library. I’m sure it was only twice. And couldn’t they have made an exception for us, since we were leaving?
At 1 a.m., I was online registering Ilsa for summer camp. Ilsa decided in January that she wanted to go to summer camp for the very first time this year, with her best-friend-in-America Mariah. Ilsa gives a stereotypical Jewish mother a run for her money, being an A-class Number-One Nag. I had to forbid her to mention it to me again, under pain of Not getting to go to camp, because otherwise I might have gone insane. She nattered on and on and on about camp and could she go to camp and she’d better save money to buy candy at camp and could she ride horses at camp and Mariah said that at camp this happened and this other thing happened too and was I sure she could go to camp and Mariah wanted to know what week worked best and was I sure that she could go to camp? Cuz she needed to know.
This was January, so I got a little impatient. But we’ve had lots of conversations about it since, and eventually I promised her she could go.
But what with one thing and another, plus my extreme flakiness, I forgot to register her. And it was getting a wee bit late in the year, and I could not even imagine the repercussions if, through my own forgetfulness, she didn’t get to go to camp, ever, in her whole entire childhood. So, at 1 a.m. I got her registered.
At 2 a.m. I finished getting all the CNED stuff ready to mail. On Friday, all 3 kids took 5 tests. But Saturday and Sunday were jam-pack booked; Elliot had no shorts or sandals, for one, and Ilsa had no swimsuit, for another, and I still had only one tshirt, and there’s no sales tax in Oregon but there is in California. Plus we had to be at several social events, including one in which I had to clean my house. So I got all the tests ready to mail and packed them in a bag. I will mail them soon. They are still in the van, outside.
I was mostly packed, so after I had done all these things, I just had to fold one last load of laundry and then I was snug in my bed by 2:30 a.m.
They wanted me to get up at 6:00 a.m. but I didn’t want to. So I didn’t. I was up soon afterwards, eyes sore, head aching, to gulp down some coffee and load up the suitcases.
We only forgot one thing (CD for Elliot’s final music exam, which is missing the piece he is supposed to listen to and write his emotions), but we were finally on the road by 8:30.
Some of you might remember that we usually don’t leave till 10:00, but Monday was different. We had to make it Santa Cruz, a 13 hour drive, by nightfall, where we were to reunite with a friend of ours that we hadn’t seen for 10 years or so.
This was Monday; now it’s Thursday. We spent Tuesday in Santa Cruz, hanging out and getting caught up with Bud. Wednesday we headed down Hwy 1 on our way to Hwy 101, but we missed Salinas, we let it get away (just for you Janis Joplin fans out there, presuming you’re there), and we ended up spending an extra 3 hours on the curves and swerves of that cliff-hugging ribbon of asphalt, the one with the spectacular drop-offs that freaked out my younger son. “I can’t believe they don’t have walls!” he kept exclaiming. “If I was doing it, I’d make a tunnel.”
Sure, why not? One of the most beautiful stretches of highway in the nation, and he’d just hide it away.
The extra time on the slow road meant that we hit LA at rush hour, which is exactly like you would imagine it being. So instead of Wednesday being a day with 6-7 hours in the car, it was a day of 12 hours in the car. Eventually, though, we did arrive. We’re here, in Hemet. We have a suitcase full of CNED stuff to mail, and we still need to finish up a couple of things, but we’re here.

The trip to California went well. We didn’t actually lose any of our curriculum at the in-laws, which was a great relief, and we had a good time visiting with family we hadn’t seen in years.

On Thanksgiving Day, in the early afternoon (after a big breakfast), we washed all the china. My mother-in-law’s aunt was secretary to Gen. MacArthur in Japan during WWII, and she bought an entire set of Noritake china with gold rims. It’s beautiful stuff. My in-laws got it as a wedding present. They used it a few times, then packed it up–over 30 years ago! They hadn’t used it since. I suggested they follow my philosophy, which is simple. Stuff is fun, but it’s just stuff. What is the good of having something just to have it? They dug it out of storage and Donn and his dad spent a day unpacking it.
When I moved overseas, I had two choices: I could pack my china (Doulton) and leave it in my brother’s garage, where it would be “safe” unless there was a fire, flood, or earthquake, or even a theft. Or I could take it and use it. It might get broken, sure, but then, it might get broken in storage too.
What’s the good of having stuff if you never enjoy it? I took it.

Cooking a big dinner for 16 was divided between me, my mother-in-law, and my brother-in-law. It worked out perfectly; no one felt they had too much to do. Everyone was there; from grandma and grandpa, aunts and uncles from all over the US, cousins and nieces and nephews, and even the newest, our 10-month-old great-niece. We set the tables, made fresh cranberry sauce and spinach salad, etc. There was an incredible variety of food. I really enjoyed it; it’s been 7 years since I ate a proper Thanksgiving meal. So I was thankful.

How was yours?

Today my friend Sheri and I went to Starbucks. We decided to go to the farther Starbucks because it has more cushy chairs, and we’re all about sitting in overstuffed chairs with our feet up and talking for hours. We don’t see each other all that often. But I forgot that the further Starbucks is right next to the mall. It’s a small mall, but I don’t go anywhere near anything even remotely retail (coffee is different) on the appropriately named Black Friday. Neither does Sheri. So we drove back to the closer Starbucks, because we are in America, where it seems logical to the Powers That Be to put Starbucks upon Starbucks upon Starbucks, so that you never have to go more than 3 blocks without having access to a double shot of espresso or a froufrou faux-coffee sugary drink. I hate Starbucks marketing but I just can’t hate Starbucks–it smells so good in there, like espresso. You might be getting the idea that I like coffee. I do, a bit. (I don’t mainline it though–that is just rumor)
We had fun driving around this small town in the California desert, mocking the names of various stores. Like Smart & Final! What would this store sell? Presumably, no returns either.
Another one is called Big Lots! I can hear the marketing strategy now…Americans like things big, and they like lots of ‘em! Let’s call it Big Lots! Uh, yeah.
There’s also Fresh & Easy. I’m not even going to start.
I just want to take a moment to whine about America, and I’ll begin by telling you a little story.
When I was in college, I got a job at a Hallmark store in Tacoma Mall. I worked there summers and holidays, including Christmas break.
I hated working in a mall over Christmas. I can imagine no quicker way to squelch whatever joie d’espirit might have existed. I remember two women fighting over a place in line. “Where’s your holiday spirit?“ one shot at the other. “Well, where’s yours?“ the other shot back. I was glad neither was armed–it could have gotten really ugly. Plus, I had to wear an apron that said, “Santa’s Helper.” Once, a woman asked me if I worked there, and I said, “Would I be wearing this apron if I didn’t?” I refused to wear the hat.
The worst of all was December 26th. I begged not to have to work, but didn’t have a choice. On December 26th, all Hallmark Christmas merchandise goes on sale for 50% off. Why? Because Hallmark doesn’t want to have to store all that clutter for a whole entire year. Soulless corporation they may be, but at least they have some sense.
I was never so ashamed to be a woman as I was at 8 a.m. on those Boxing Days. There, lined up in the mall outside the store, would be hundreds of women, all women, no men. (The men were home asleep. Sorry to say it, but the men had some sense) These women would be crowding each other, pushing up against the metal barrier, clutching enormous black garbage bags. I would think, “Go home. Be with your families. Enjoy watching the kids play with their toys, make a big breakfast. Relax.” But no. With crazed eyes roaming back and forth, sizing each other up, they would wait till the metal barrier began to creak up, then they would duck under it and run to the Christmas section, elbows out, pushing the hapless out of the way.
I would hide behind the counter till the manager saw me and made me come out and ring up sales.
It seems to have only gotten worse since those long-ago days. I understand the thinking behind Black Friday. It’s the official opening of the Christmas shopping season. I get it. But what I don’t get is things like Midnight Madness, or the Come at 5 a.m. For Special Deals. It seems really sadistic on the part of the store owners, who presumably are home in bed dreaming of money. The poor workers don’t want to be there. The shoppers don’t really, deep down, want to be there. Why not just have the same sales from, for example, 10 a.m. to noon? Or, catch people off guard, from 1:45 to 2:57?
I was also mystified by all those stores now open on Thanksgiving. Ok, food stores being open for a couple of hours makes sense, but more and more stores are beginning to stay open for the holiday, in order to…you got it…start on the Christmas shopping season. Again, it doesn’t really make sense. Why not just wait a day? Who is going to go Christmas shopping on Thanksgiving Day?
I know you all agree with me, and yet I’m wondering…if we all agree, why does it keep getting worse? How can we stop this madness?
Me, I’m going back to Africa, but what can you do? Tell me if you’ve got any ideas.

Note: I wrote this last month but didn’t have a chance to publish it till now.

“YOU went to Disneyland?” said my friend Debbie, her disbelief evident in her voice. “However did they talk you into that?”

I was a little surprised. My mental self-image tends to be subtle, someone that keeps her opinions to herself because they are so nuanced and well-thought-out that I can’t just blurt them out at random. (I have other delusions too) And while it’s true that I haven’t been what you’d call a big fan of Disneyland, I still end up going there all the time because I am completely outnumbered by my kids, my husband and my in-laws.

But I’ve made my peace with the Big Mouse. And I’m going to tell you about it. But first, my issues.

I didn’t grow up with Disney. 8 ½ years younger than my next sibling, I grew up in a small town on the Canadian prairies. We didn’t have a TV. I spent most of my time lying on my bed reading reading reading. I grew up on A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, and Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows. I read and re-read the Grimm brothers and the Little House books. And so I was unprepared for life in our current American culture.

I did not respond well to my first introduction to “adapted” books. I remember visiting a friend’s house and watching Little House on TV. I was shocked. “That wasn’t in the book! That’s not right!” I kept saying, until they finally sent me home. I reacted similarly to Disney’s movies; their Pooh was bumbly and dorky, their dwarves in Snow White without dignity.

I also have not reacted well to Disney’s usurpation of other people’s perfectly good tales. They take other people’s creative impulses and squeeze them into yet another one-size-fits-all bumbly, dorky, talking-animal, curvy heroine, oversized-chest male, happy ending movie. They messed up Little Mermaid, Hans Christian Anderson’s dark moralistic tale.  In the original, the prince marries the other girl, and the little mermaid dies of a broken heart—but is rewarded with a soul, so she gets to go to heaven, which is about as happy as Anderson gets. And whatever possessed them to decide to make The Hunchback of Notre Dame into a children’s movie? It’s not like Disney is hurting for money. Why can’t they hire people to come up with original stories? Ok I’ll stop now; I could go on for pages. (Maybe it’s not surprising Debbie knew my real feelings?)

Donn, of course, grew up in Southern California. They had a TV in every room. His parents love Disney and Disneyland, and took him to the park all the time. One time he went on Space Mountain 11 times in the same day. That’s the kind of legendary figure he forms in our family.

3 years ago, my inlaws took all of us to Disneyland. I went under protest. I find the whole enterprise amazingly cynical. It costs $63 to get in if you are over 10. A Belle dress, for your 4 year old to play dress up in, costs $60. Yet they bill themselves as “the happiest place on earth.” For who? Just people with disposable income? Just people who speak English? Just people who LIKE Disney? It’s so cynical.

“It’s just an advertising slogan,” groaned Donn, rolling his eyes at me. “Get over it.”

My mother-in-law’s favorite “ride” is that one which in kindness to your mental processes I will not name; the one in which animated figures shriek that same annoying song over and over at you, until it’s stuck in your head for days. Far from promoting world peace, that “ride” seems to ignite hatred and homicidal tendencies.

At least I think so.

Last year, we went again. Donn’s parents had a harder time keeping up with us, but at least Ilsa was finally tall enough to go on all the rides—that was a sore spot during her first visit, when her twin was deemed tall enough but she wasn’t.

But I’ve made my peace with the House of the Mouse. This year, the in-laws couldn’t come, said they just don’t have the stamina anymore, but they sent us. Everyone else was excited, so I put on my happy face (sarcasm) and off we went.

And while I still wouldn’t call it the happiest place on earth, even grumpy cantankerous moi had a great day. (Wouldn’t this make a heart-warming family movie?)

Going with older kids makes a difference. We didn’t even see any giant cartoon characters. Instead, we rushed from ride to ride; Space Mountain, Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain, the Matterhorn. (Do you think Disney’s in a rut?) We would get our Fast Passes for the future, then hang out in those long lines—the happiest lines on earth!—until we could experience our 2 minutes of pure joy. Fortunately we all love roller coasters.

We went on most rides twice, but we went on Thunder Mountain four times! That’s because we went on rides instead of joining the enormous claustrophobia-inducing crowd watching the light-and-smoke show about the history of Disney. We would stagger off the roller coaster, run round, and ride again. It was awesome. We discovered that for this ride, which has a long train, it’s best to sit in the very back, where you get whipped around. For Space Mountain and Splash Mountain, you should sit in the very front row.

I like sitting next to Ilsa on rides. She’s so tiny, and she shrieks and puts her arms up and has so much fun that it intensifies the experience for me. Even the biggest rides that Disney can offer hold no fear for her.

We haven’t been back in the States all that long, so we’re still getting our cues about ways things have changed since our last time home by watching our fellow-Americans. It was interesting to see that, even in this affluent nation of ours, many people apparently can’t afford full-length mirrors. It’s sad.

Last year, we couldn’t go on the Pirates of the Caribbean because it was closed for remodeling, so we were excited to try it this year. We tend to view Pirates 2 & 3 as basically theme-ride movies anyway, considering their serious lack of a comprehensible plot. We patiently waited in the long line, excitedly boarded the boat, and then sat, bored, for the next few minutes. It’s the exact same ride as before, except they have changed the dialogue to add in a few ‘Capt. Jack Sparrow’s’ and ‘Davy Jones’.” Pitiful. We all hated it.

We endured those terrible animated animals on Splash Mountain for those few microseconds of pure, unadulterated terror when you come out on top of the mountain, get that breathtaking view of the park, and plunge down, down, down that 50-foot drop. It’s so cool. It’s worth it. I love that ride. (except for those annoying animals, which no one likes.)

The fireworks show was incredible; it turned night into day. We went on Thunder Mountain one last time while craning our necks upward; the booms and sparkles were a fitting expression of our own exuberance.

By the end, we were limping in exhaustion, beyond hungry. (We had cleverly outwitted the infamous Disney greed by eating RIGHT before coming in and bringing enough snacks to keep us all going all day; we hate paying $30 for a pizza worth about $5) It was after 11 p.m. We staggered towards the gate, foregoing one last time the joys of Space Mountain when we saw the after-fireworks crowd all standing in line. We drove around Anaheim, looking for an open restaurant, ended up eating cheap tacos from Jack in the Box in the car. Ilsa fell asleep between each and every bite.

I’m still not what you’d call a Disney fan, but Disneyland’s all right. If you like all that happiness, that is.

November 2022

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