Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Umm Qais

The weather finally thawed enough to get out of town. We drove two hours north to the town of Umm Qais, to explore the ruins of the ancient town of Gadara.

Gadara was a center of Greek culture in the region before being placed under Roman control in the first century B.C. An ancient Roman amphitheater is one of the highlights of the ruins, as are the ancient stone roads, many still showing the ruts of chariot and wagon wheels.  

The winter had brought a surprising amount of rain. There were many points over the summer when I was convinced it would never rain in Amman, but not only did it rain, it even sleeted two weekends in a row (much to my consternation...the weekend Elise was in India, it sleeted the entire weekend, forcing me to remain inside with three rambunctious kids. On Friday, I was relegated to allowing them free reign over the den. They took the pillows off every couch and bed and lined the room, then proceeded to wrestle for the better part of several hours. My only guidance being if someone starts to cry, stop. After a couple hours of board games, I knew they were going to have to let out some steam one way or another). 

The rain had turned the hills to the north of Amman green, much greener than the last time we drove to the north. I've never been to Ireland, but the rolling green hills and stone brought it to mind. 

The weather was perfect. From the archaeological site at Umm Qais, you can see the Sea of Galilee in Israel, the Golan Heights, down into southern Syria, and even the snow-capped peak of Mt. Hermon on the Syrian-Lebanese border in the distance.

After exploring the site on foot, we had lunch at the Umm Qais Rest House, with fantastic views of the surrounding valleys, not to mention good mezze and mixed grill, and cold Karakale -- the local Jordanian microbrew -- and local white wine. Elise even tried sheesha for the first time!

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Elise and I don't really do New Years. Even before we had kids, neither of us were really interested in staying up that late and didn't feel as though we were really missing out on anything anyway.

Most times, when I come to the end of a year, I don't feel anything momentous. I don't feel as though I am closing a book or starting a new chapter. Most years, the year ends on a Tuesday, and the new year starts on a Wednesday. That's about as much of a milestone as I am willing to acknowledge. I don't feel any great sense of achievement in completing a year. As I don't feel any sense of open possibilities or fresh starts in the beginning of a year.

But 2017 was different.

What immediately comes to mind is the first line in Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

The sentence goes on for a full paragraph, ending with the less famous, but more elegant phrase, "the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

I won't pretend to know what all of that means. I don't think of come much further in understanding Dickens than I did when I first read this book in middle school. But if you read it over and over again, a glimmer of comprehension might start to shine from between the words, like a small animals peeking their heads out of burrows in the springtime.

It should be painfully evident why I would think 2017 was the worst of times. My mother's passing notwithstanding.

What may be more elusive to understand is why I would think of 2017 as the best of times. Because -- let's face it -- it was a rough year by any yardstick. But despite everything that happened in 2017, I came out the other end feeling...


...and happy.

Some emotions come and go quickly. You can experience several emotions acutely in the span of any given day. You burn the eggs. You're pissed. You spill coffee on your shirt and you're disappointed. The Seahawks win. You're pumped. These spikes and dips can tug you like the tides, ebbing and flowing.

But to be content is not something I think you ever consciously feel. You may know it is there like a sweater that itches or a feeling you get from too much sun, but don't know quite what -- if anything -- you should do about it.

It hit me walking home from work the other day. My commute is all of a ten minute walk. I have never had a commute this good before. Nor, is it likely, I will ever have a commute this good again. There's not a pub on the way home, but there is the best Indian restaurant in town. So, there is that. I was struck with the realization that -- through everything we had come through in the last year -- I was happy.

It's not always rainbows and sunbeams. Those are the spikes. The ebbs and flows. This is the glacial tracking of a floe, moving with the surety of time.

And I have no preconceptions that 2018 will be all rainbows and sunbeams. More likely than nought -- and perhaps, one hopes -- it will be just another year. Not the best of times or the worst of times or the season of light or the season of darkness, but just another year. That ends on a Tuesday.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Volcano Book

Elise's First Climb

This past weekend, we headed to the local climbing gym, Climbat, in Amman for Peter's birthday. While the boys and I had climbed before, this was Elise and Clementine's first climbs ever!

Peter had made huge strides since the last time he climbed. Which hadn't been since we left D.C. He made it to the top on all but one of this three times up the wall!

Clementine with her kindergarten classmate and BFF, Avy. 

Elise making sure her harness is on right.

She made it!!

Her hard work in the gym paid off and she had no problems making it up the wall on all but one of her climbs, too. On the last climb, she hit a tricky spot and had to come down. I went up behind her and can attest that it was a real tough patch of wall. Otherwise, she was a champ and can't wait for her next climb. Next up: we're going to sign up for the belay class, so we can belay each other. I told Elise that I believe her life insurance becomes null and void if I let her fall off the wall! :) 

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Three Days of Rage

It started with a town hall meeting at work with all the employees, both Americans and Jordanian staff, in attendance.

The President was planning to announce he was moving the U.S. Embassy in neighboring Israel to Jerusalem. The reasons this is controversial are too numerous and politically-charged to mention here. Suffice it to say, the news would not go over well in Jordan.

Most of the town hall meeting was spent fielding questions on authorized departure...read: evacuation. Elise had stayed up late the night before, wrapping duck tape around a water bottle, begging the question of which eventuality she was actually preparing for. She was going to strap the babies to her back and crawl across the desert if events warranted. I write this tongue firmly planted in cheek now, but had a meteor fallen from the sky and landed in our living room, we could hardly have been more prepared. I have Elise to thank for filling the bottom of my closet with chewy granola bars, fruit roll-ups, and beef jerky.

We equated the whole experience to preparing to weather a hurricane. We knew it was coming and we had a pretty good idea of when it would blow ashore. Elise and I had been through our share of hurricanes together. We just had to make sure we were safely home with the hatches battened when the first winds started to howl.

In all seriousness, we didn't know what to expect. We are Middle East newbies. It was impossible for me to reconcile the reality of the Amman we have come to know over the past several months with the scenarios being constructed by the security personnel in my office. Everyone we have met has been incredibly welcoming and kind. Everywhere we have gone, we have gone without compunction or second thought. I wasn't afraid. Far from it. If anything, I was mostly sad. We had a really good thing going here, and to think that might change after only a few months left me feeling, selfishly, down. If I was feeling disappointed and sad, I couldn't imagine how the Jordanians must be feeling.

The town hall left everyone with a feeling of unease. The head of my office here in Amman said he kept his remarks purposefully sober, so sober is how we all felt. That night the kids had their winter concert at school. They had all been practicing for months and were super-excited. Earlier that day, they had a three-hour joint rehearsal, the first time all elementary grades who would be performing together were all in the same room for their final run-thru. But right before the performance, emails and text messages were bouncing back and forth: parents asking each other if they thought it was safe enough to go.

I left work early, so Elise and I could get the kids into their nice clothes, expecting a struggle. 'Struggle' is an understatement. It was all-out war. Peter -- perhaps overwhelmed with anticipation -- had a complete and total meltdown when he pulled on his nice khaki slacks only to discover they were two inches too short. Add to that a heaping scoop of having to wear loafers instead of sneakers, and the kid was done for. Fortunately, he was able to compose himself after Elise told him he could wear jeans, sneakers, and a hoodie. Perhaps, in light of current events, she decided to go soft on him. Either way, Peter was at the front door, wondering what was taking us so long and if we were going to be late. Never mind the fact it was his 25 minute tantrum that threw us behind schedule in the first place.

Inside the school gym, the superintendent of the school gave welcoming remarks. When he pointed out the emergency exits in all four corners of the room, Elise and I glanced at each other uneasily.

The performance was cute and, fortunately, without incident. My blackberry rang several times, and I spent nearly half of it texting my staff, instructing them the office would be closed tomorrow and to stay home. We made it home a little after 8:00. The President was set to begin making his remarks any minute. We lowered the black-out shades on our windows. A nice feature to have during the hot summer months, they also serve to dampen noise from the outside; we live directly across the street from a small grocery store and a coffee shop which is more like a nightclub emptying out when it closes at eight or nine, with caffeine-filled young men and women revving their motorcycles and tearing up and down the street outside our apartment, tires squealing. Elise and I wrestled the kids into the pajamas when we heard a crash. I thought it came from the front of apartment and didn't think much of it. Elise thought it might be a dish falling from the stack in the sink. Neither of us were going to open the shades to investigate further. And at that moment, neither of us had any idea what to expect. Perhaps, at that moment, I felt the slightest pang of fear. The Middle East is an incredibly complex and intimidating place, steeped in beauty, mystery, and wonder, but also filled to the rim with layer upon layer of history and conflict. Who was I to think I could wonder naively into this bog? Moreover, what did I get my wife and children in to, who trust me implicitly and follow me mostly without question?

Fear, if it were there, would not be tolerated and would be tempered with a sense of practicality and not just a little whiskey. We put the kids to bed. They, fortunately, had no idea what was transpiring around us; We wouldn't tell them until the next morning when my office asked they not be sent to school; though they have always had an uncanny knack of feeding off our -- Elise and I's -- anxieties, whether spoken or not. I dropped in a giant cube of ice into two highballs and filled them to the top.

In the morning, we tentatively raised the black-out shades. That was when Elise discovered something or -- more likely -- someone had shattered the glass table top on our back patio table. It was tempered glass, to boot. No mean feat. Though it was Thursday, the office was closed, and the kids would not be going to school. Elise and I were faced with the reality of keeping three rambunctious kids cooped inside all day. They did watch TV on three separate occasions, but we tried to start the day, at any rate, with some calisthenics.

When we were in India, we used to do this thing on Saturdays called "Dad School". It was basically a way to get them excited about spending prolonged stretches of time indoors, but hopefully knocking out a few lessons, as well. In what has been a very short span, the kids have become much less malleable than they once were, and now even I can't make math exciting. There was initial resistance to "Dad School", and if it entailed arithmetic, forget about it. Dad School in India incorporated P.E. (running on the treadmill), reading (learning letters on the dry erase board), math (doing long addition problems), art (Play-Doh), and, of course, snack time. This time around, I was only able to get through P.E., about fifteen minutes of jumping jacks, running in place, and burpies, before they started to revolt and beg for the TV.

We also played backgammon and Dungeons & Dragons as Elise and I followed current events from our iPhones. We squatted in the kitchen, squinting at a live feed on Elise's iPhone; we could see the name of the place where the live feed was coming from in Arabic in the corner of the screen, and we were using the five Arabic letters we had learned to try and decipher where the feed was coming from. There were demonstrations outside my office on Thursday, but the first real test would come when Friday prayers let out in the afternoon of the following day. Fearing a bout of cabin fever would set in if we didn't run the kids, we set out in the morning to meet friends for breakfast and to go to the park before morning prayer ended. To continue the hurricane metaphor, it felt a little like sneaking out in the eye of the storm, that short moment when the winds quiet and the rain stops and you can see blue sky as the eye of the storm passes directly over you. At the park, the kids played tag as the ladies talked. I pretended to have the "cat touch" from petting a feral (though very friendly) tabby in the park, then chasing the kids around in an attempt to infect them with the "cat touch". A grandmother pushing a sleeping toddler in a stroller admonished me in an unfamiliar dialect I didn't think was Arabic. Russian, perhaps. All with the singular goal of making them as tired as possible before going back indoors. Some have to walk their dogs. We have to run the kids.

After Friday prayers a demonstration in downtown Amman drew 20,000. The crowd outside my office was smaller, about 2,000. Both protests were peaceful. Jordan is a special place, and I believe Jordanians take a lot of pride in being a place of stability in an otherwise volatile region, despite their close ties with Palestine.

By Saturday morning, I had to go for a run. Afterwards, we took the kids to the winter bazaar at the school. We probably wouldn't had otherwise gone, but we needed an excuse to get out of the house, and the school as safe a place as any. The kids mostly played on the playground, but there was also a free breakfast which was nice. Saturday evening was quiet. Local religious and political leaders had called for 'three days of rage' following the announcement. I know the protests weren't all peaceful across the region. Personally, I don't think one life (as was taken in Gaza) or one dollar of property damage could be worth what may have been gained by making such an announcement. But I am thankful the protests in Jordan have been peaceful.

A sense of calm has started to settle. I don't think things can ever go back to "normal", but they can be calm again, if not "different". I don't want to take for granted the worst is behind us. As I said, the Middle East is a complex place, and we still have a lot to learn.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Wherever You Go, There You Are

It was nice to return home to Amman after our recent trip to Dubai. Don't get me wrong...Dubai was nice, but it made me appreciate Jordan. Everything in Dubai is shiny and new, if not a little artificial. If nothing else, Jordan is authentic. It is dusty and a little dirty. Its sidewalks are crooked and its streets meander. Nothing is too easy in Jordan, and therein lies what makes it real...and comfortable, like a home. Sometimes, it takes getting out of a place to make you appreciate where you are, and that was how I felt about coming back to Amman.

The trip to Dubai was short, four days and three nights, but seemed to last a lifetime. Elise and I found it exhausting. And I would be lying if I said I wasn't more than a little disappointed with the trip when it was all said and done.

It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime and cost about as much, to boot, but as I walked to work the day after we returned, I couldn't help fighting this feeling of being unfulfilled. I didn't want to fully acknowledge it, and felt guilty for feeling let down at all, and yet it crept up on me, and as much as I wanted to deny feeling disappointed, there was no mistaking something wasn't quite right. I wanted to remember Dubai in all its magnificent and elaborate golden, sultan glory, but I knew assigning those memories to this particular trip would be as artificial as the place itself, a Disney World-like artifice, a wooden backdrop, just facade with nothing behind it but two-by-fours.

In the end, I would tell myself, the kids had fun. In the end, that's all that mattered. We spent four days in Dubai and went to the water park every single day. That -- in and of itself -- should be a feat to be proud of. Weeks following our return, they still ask each other which slide was their favorite, and even yesterday, at the school's winter bazaar, they played on the playground, pretending to slide down the completely vertical water slide, Leap of Faith.

I spent the first few days following our return from Dubai dissecting my emotions. Why was I feeling this why? Why was I disappointed?

I would come to realize I had built up the trip in my own mind as much as the kids had. When Elise and I were dating...long before we had kids or were even married...we spent a couple of magical days at the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas. We drifted down the lazy river on our inner tubes, played ping pong on a table beside the massive aquarium tanks, had impromptu lunches of conch fritters and Kaliks, ate dinner at Nobu (salmon skin sushi rolls we didn't finish and took back to the room with us). There was no way this trip to Atlantis could ever come close to replicating that one. Perhaps, on some level, I expected it to. As though the place itself, as magical as it is, held special powers.

But wherever you go, there you are, and as I was checking into the hotel, in the shadow of a four-story Chihuly glass-blown masterpiece, the kids are fighting over the map of the water park the front desk clerk gave us.

More fighting ensued over the course of the next three days. Thursday night, Thanksgiving, Clementine had one of her patented meltdowns as we tried to convince three utterly exhausted kids to go out dinner by the pool when all they wanted to do was order room service and watch cartoons on the hotel TV. Elise's ear and sinuses were clogged most of the time we were there. By the second day, my contact had irritated my eye to the point I could barely keep it open and was desperately sensitive to light. By the morning of the last day, we finally had a relaxing breakfast at the resort's Starbucks and a fun morning at the water park. Elise captured it best when she said, "We were so spun up from the preceding week, it took us three days to unwind."

It wasn't all bad by any stretch of the imagination. We did meet up with friends from India who had traveled from Dushanbe, Tajikistan to meet us. And ate dosas at Sangeetha's, a South Indian favorite from Chennai with a couple of outlets in Dubai. On our last night, we had burgers and fries at the resort's food court, an unremarkable meal in and of itself, but Jeff had brought the last of his Woodford Reserve bourbon from Dubai duty-free and shared it in paper cups, and a relaxing warmth finally washed over me after three very long days in the sun.

When we told the kids we were moving to the Middle East, I promised them all we would go to Atlantis. It was on my list of places we definitely had to go while we were here (along with Petra, Egypt, and Jerusalem), and I don't at all regret going. I just don't see us going back anytime soon.