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. 

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Dubai, Part Two - Atlantis

Definitely one of the highlights of our trip to Dubai was where we stayed, Atlantis, the Palm. The kids had been looking forward to going to the waterpark at Atlantis before we even arrived in Amman, and it definitely did not disappoint.

We managed to go at least for an hour or so every day, even the day we arrived and the day we left. By the time we finally flew into DBX, took a taxi from the airport to the resort (which sits at the very end/top? of the largest of the two artificial, man-made islands that looks like a palm tree when viewed from a great height or space), changed, grabbed a quick bite of lunch, it was almost 3:00. We had gotten up at 4:30 to make it to the airport in Amman on time and catch our flight, but that didn't stop the kids.

On our second day at Atlantis, we were joined by friends from Chennai who are now living in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and their two kids. We were able to sneak them into Atlantis and all take advantage of the beach together. 

Unfortunately, we don't have more photos of the kids going down the waterslides. One of the slides follows a glass tube through a shark tank so you can see sharks swimming around you as you go down the slide. 

Pete was super excited to go, but was literally two millimeters too short, and the guards wouldn't let him go. He was super-disappointed, but I encouraged him to try again the next day, hoping a sympathetic lifeguard would measure him by the size of his heart and not the size of his body. 

It worked. Pete swelled enough to make up at least one of the two millimeters he was short, and the lifeguard waved him through. He bragged about how quick of a grower he was to have grown that much in one day as we walked up the stairs to the slide. 

Monday, November 27, 2017

Dubai, Part One - Burj Khalifa

We just returned from a long Thanksgiving trip to Dubai, our first big trip out of the country. Dubai -- and Atlantis, specifically -- were at the top of the kids' bucket list since learning we were headed to the Middle East. One of the sights we definitely wanted to check off was a trip to the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa. 

You had to buy tickets in advance online and pick them up at the ticket counter in the Dubai Mall. We signed up for the 4:00 time slot. The line was long, and it took us about 45 minutes to get to the the observation deck on the 125 floor. Though the elevator ride up took less than a minute!

The tower casts a long shadow late in the day.

We timed our arrival to coincide with the sun setting over the Persian Gulf.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Compassion Week

Evidently, the week before Thanksgiving is Compassion Week at the kids' school. I won't say there hasn't been a lot of communication from the school regarding the activities of Compassion Week, but -- as is often the case -- there is so many emails and flyers from the school, it's hard to figure out which ones are important.

Each grade had to wear a different color t-shirt on Sunday so they could make a rainbow on the school field. We successfully got them in their respective colors, and Elise was largely successful (after Plans A and B fell through) of sending Sam to school with a dish for his Thanksgiving brunch (even though he left it on the kitchen counter the morning of and Elise had to drive to school to bring it to him.

Unbeknownst to us, the next day the kids gathered on the field for a song and dance (photo above). I wasn't aware this was even taking place until I received the email with the attached photo. It made me happy to see Peter and Sam together on the field. Even though they are in different grades and surrounded by their respective friends and peers, they managed to find one another in the crowd and it meant enough for them to hang out together. Maybe it is a coincidence they stood together. Maybe, even, they didn't even see each other, but I like to think at least they are keeping an eye on one another.  

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Fall of Jerash

On Friday, we decided to drive 45 minutes north of Amman to Jerash, the site of an ancient Roman city, widely considered one of the largest and most well-preserved sites of Ancient Roman architecture in the world outside Italy.

The site is incredible, because the entire city has been preserved and you get a real feel for the size and expanse of the city, how the city was laid out, and how people lived. 

The first stop was the ancient hippodrone where chariot races and gladiator contest were held. It was one of the smaller hippodrones in the Roman Empire, but also one of the best preserved. It smelled like a hippodrone, too, with some of the stalls still in use today by local vendors offering horseback rides. The kids said it reminded them of the Cheney Rodeo :)

The kids checking out an old olive oil press. They actually had a decent appreciation for the press after seeing a modern-day press in use on a recent olive harvest trip. 

One of the coolest parts of the city was the Colonnade. It served as an open-air forum at the intersection of the Cardo, the main boulevard running along the axis of the town and roads leading to the Ampitheatre and the Temple of Zeus. 

Here is a picture of Peter running the perimeter of the Colonnade, a precursor of things to come. 

From the Colonnade, we took the Cardo. Along the way, we saw a cathedral and the Nymphaeum, the place where the city's inhabitants got their water. It was a giant stone reservoir which emptied into a smaller basin fed by fountains which trickled from the mouth's of carved lions. 

We walked on the city's original road in which you could still see the grooves made by passing chariots. 

By this time, it was about 12:30. The kids were getting hot, tired, and hungry. After stopping for snack of carrots, cucumbers, and Z bars, we decided since we had almost reached the Temple of Artemis, we would go that far and work our way back. Since you enter the city, at the south gate, marked by Hadrian's arch. The arch was built during an aspirational time when there were plans to expand the city to the south passed the old walls. There was little development, however, between the old walls of the city and the arch, with the notable exception of the hippodrone, so one does have to walk a ways to get from the parking lot and entrance to the Colannade. 

We had plans to stop at the Lebanese House in Jerash afterwards for lunch, the place we had stopped for lunch during our first couple of days in Jordan, on the way back from Ajloun. We didn't make a reservation, so didn't want to be too late, because we knew it would get busier later in the afternoon. 

The Temple of Artemis sits atop several sets of stairways, 108 steps in all (the kids counted them). 

Elise photographing the modern city on the way to the Temple of Artemis. 

At the top of the stairs, I ran with the kids to the base of the Temple of Artemis. I took Clementine's hand as we ran. The ground was even, cluttered with stones and gravel. I recalled an incident a few years ago when we were vacationing in Pondicherry. Elise and I were enjoying cold beers at the hotel. 

It was May in India, incredibly, rudely hot, and we had spent the day sightseeing in the heat. the children played around us. There were uneven pavers on the patio. Water from a nearby fountain ran through a sort of channel beside the patio. Sam chased Clementine, and she fell, cutting her eyelid on the concrete. The gash was deep and required stitches. 

We hailed a tuk-tuk and tried to call the nurse back in Chennai. We made it to a hospital, but after one quick look at the sanitation, I turned around. I wasn't taking my daughter in there. Whatever was lurking there was worse than the cut over her eyelid. 

When we reached the Temple of Artemis, we were greeted by four men, one was selling coffee out of giant tin urns, dropping charcoal briquettes into the top to keep it hot. Two were pedaling various wares, one, an older gentleman, gym-worked biceps in a tight black t-shirt, tight blue jeans with a giant metal belt buckle, sunglasses, salt and pepper hair slicked back, smoking, was just hanging out with the other three. 

Elise and I accepted coffee. With three cardamom pods dropped into each boiling cup, the Turkish coffee was strong, aromatic, and welcome. It wasn't a long hike, but there was definitely a sense of having reached a destination when we arrived at the Temple. There, too, was a sense of peace and calm, of hospitality. I took of my backpack and sipped the coffee. Elise looked at bracelets to buy (Peter showed an affinity for the moonstones, even putting a moonstone necklace in his hair to take on the appearance of a Greek youth of Hermes, perhaps). 

The men told me Peter and Clementine looked like me, but wandered who Sam belonged to. They also told him he looked Middle-Eastern, like a Jordanian boy. They asked me how many camels I would accept for Elise. Their father had many camels, I was told. Of course, I replied I could accept no number of camels for my wife. The older man and I inexplicably exchanged phone numbers. He invited us to his house for dinner, and we took a photo together in front of the temple. Elise tried to get a deal on three bracelets, making use of negotiating skills sharpened on the streets of India. 

And then Peter vanished. 

When he reappeared, it was with tears on his cheeks and distress stretching his face from the clear blue sky to the ground. 

The first few moments after one of your children hurts themselves are the most harrowing. For five to ten seconds you have no idea what is wrong or how severe it might be. Any attempt to ask them where they are hurt only illicits louder howls. There was blood. Pete's eyes went to his knees first, but he was only directing my attention to what he could see. His legs were dusty, but his knees were only scrapped. Elise and I forced him to sit down between us. The vendors gathered around us, concerned, but crowding us when what we may have really needed then was space. I lifted Peter's shirt up, he had scrapped his chest, but, again, nothing major. The blood came from a gash on his chin.

"Peter lift up your head," I told him. 

The cut was not an inch from where he had cut his chin in Falls Church when he slipped in the bath tub. That cut may not have required stitches, but hey, we were in America, why not get stitches when you could? 

I was having trouble telling how big the cut was for the blood when I hard another voice....

"I'm a doctor."

I glanced up. 

A young Jordanian man in t-shirt and hiking pants pressed his head through the crowd of vendors.

It was a doctor. At the Temple of Artemis. It was as though someone had called, "Is there a doctor in the house?" and the call roiled across the tumbling hills. And a doctor miraculously appeared. 

He addressed Peter, "Hey, buddy..."

Peter was hysterical and wouldn't calm down, though by this point, it was apparent he was more startled than actually injured. He had cut his chin pretty bad, but he would survive, though he had yet to understand this fact for himself. He instantly diagnosed the cut would not need stitches and called for plaster (Peter never would get the plaster, and I'm still a little confused to this day what exactly they were going to put on my son's face or where they were going to get plaster at the top of the Temple of Artemis). He asked Peter to grip his hands and raise his arms, but it quickly became apparent--despite those first panicked five to ten seconds when you have no idea what is going on--that Peter was going to be just fine despite the fact Peter had stepped off a pile of rocks and slipped in between two boulders.

We thanked the doctor profusely (he had gone to school in San Diego and recently completed a residency in Pittsburgh)...and his lady friend who had watched him, superhero-like, spring into action. 

We gathered up a battered Peter and started to make our way down from the Temple of Artemis, as our Superman had disappeared, Clark Kent-esque back into the ruins. We wished out vendor friends goodbye, 20 dinars lighter. 

Peter muttered the entire way back down to the car. None of this would have happened, he insisted, if he had just stayed home like he wanted to (it is a Herculean challenge just to get the kids out of the house on a Friday morning). And maybe we are the worst parents in the world, letting Clementine cut her head on a rock in India, and allow Peter to fall from the top of the Temple of Artemis in Jordan, but neither Elise nor I believe in living our lives to be safe. 

There is more good in the world than otherwise. I've learned that if we put our trust in the world, that trust will be rewarded. More often than not, there is a Clark Kent out there somewhere, waiting to swoop in and save us. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Monday, November 13, 2017

Dungeons & Dragons

Children pick up hobbies and interests from a variety of sources. Parents pass their hobbies and interests off to their children. Sometimes, parents look forward to sharing their hobbies or love of something--a favorite movie, band, or book--with their children. Other times, it is a more passive right of passage; children pick up an interest in something simply by being around, accompanying their parents as they go about their daily routine. My dad took us fishing. Other kids' dads work with them in their woodshops, take them hunting, build box-car racers, or share their stamp collections. I ran with a guy in Florida who ran with his high-school age daughter, and you could tell her interest in running had been ingrained in her at a young age by her father.

I was never very handy as a kid or an adult. I brew beer now, and the kids are often around when I do. It will be interesting to see if brewing beer is something they will still be interested in when they are old enough to drink beer. (Hopefully, it is not something they become interested in before they are old enough to drink.) They wash and sanitize bottles for me, stir buckets of wort, and help fill and cap bottles like elves in Santa's workshop were his workshop a brewery.

I spent my childhood drawing and writing stories. Like my kids, I was more cerebral by nature. I played outside, buried Star Wars action figures in the dirt, and climbed trees, pulling the air plants off the oak trees and pitching them like arboreal grenades on the unsuspecting below. But what really engaged me and captured my attention for hours on end were realms of science-fiction and fantasy. I read voraciously. As Sam does now. Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, The Dragonriders of Pern, Dune, Elric of Melnibone. I devoured comic books, The Uncanny X-men, New Teen Titans, Swamp Thing, amassing dozens of long boxes filled with hundreds, nay, thousands of issues. I drew my own comic books, creating entire multi-verses of characters and villains. I was into role-playing games, mostly Dungeons & Dragons. I had a bag of dice, graph paper, and die-cast metal miniature figurines of centaurs, minotaurs, griffins, and, of course, dragons. I made up our own adventures and campaigns. I wrote our own monster manuals and spellbooks. Since, Sam has gained a love of reading, and Peter a love of drawing.

Not all the things I loved as a kid translate well to the present day. Fortunately, my favorite cartoon, "Super Friends", did. I bought the kids two "Super Friends" DVDs when we were in India and they watched them almost every day. While others, such as "Space Ghost"? Not so much.

Before we left India, I bought the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game Starter Set with plans to play with the kids during our two-month leave before we moved to Washington, D.C. When I bought it, I was little surprised the game still existed at all. I have since learned the game is enjoying a revival of sorts.

In a recent article in the New Yorker, titled, "The Uncanny Resurrection of Dungeons & Dragons", Neima Jahromi describes the revival of the classic game. The name is ubiquitous, but I surmise the true nature of the game escapes many.

Jahomi writes, "When mainstream American culture was largely about standing in a factory line, or crowding into smoke-stained boardrooms for meetings, or even dropping acid and collapsing in a field for your hundred-person “be-in,” the idea of retiring to a dimly lit table to make up stories with three or four friends seemed fruitless and antisocial. Now that being American often means being alone or interacting distantly—fidgeting with Instagram in a crosswalk, or lying prone beneath the heat of a laptop with Netflix streaming over you—three or four people gathering in the flesh to look each other in the eye and sketch out a world without pixels can feel slightly rebellious, or at least pleasantly out of place."

I thought this juxtaposition between social norms from the late-70's to today especially interesting. Then, three or four friends getting together at someone's house to play a game was socially isolating. Today--when most tweeners and teens spend free time alone in their rooms on their phones--three or four friends getting together at someone's house to play a game is forging a community.

I became discouraged when the box came in the mail and said the game was for kids ages 14+. When I flipped through the rule book, it was way more complicated than I remembered it. There are rules governing everything, and a dice roll decides all. Perhaps, that is why it is so engaging. There is a barrier to entry created by the daunting complexity of the game. The learning curve is so incredibly steep, it keeps out the casual gamer. Knowing how to play D&D is a status in itself.

I kept the box on a high shelf in my closet for months. There it sat, intriguing interest in the kids. They knew I had the game. I told them they weren't old enough to play. The fact that it was forbidden perhaps made it all that much more interesting to them. When we moved into our house in Falls Church, the game moved to the drawer of my bedside table. There it stayed for the entire year and a half of our stay there. When we moved to Jordan, the box came with us. Sometime during the move, Sam and Peter got their hands on it. They started begging me to play. Every weekend would begin with them pleading with me to play D&D.

I was reluctant, because it felt like an impossibly daunting task to distill all those rules and dice rolls into something that kids Sam, Peter, and Clementine's age could digest.

For example, this is how combat works in D&D (paraphased): players have to roll a dice to see who has the initiative (i.e. who goes first), then they have to roll dice to see how their morale is (their morale will subsequently affect the effectiveness in combat), they will move, then either perform a missile attack (shoot an arrow, for instance), cast a spell, or engage in hand-to-hand combat, then they have to roll a dice to see if their attack hits, if it does, a dice is rolled to see how much damage it does modified by the victim's armor class, etc.

But one morning, when Elise was working, I gave in.

"Okay," I said, "We'll play."

The kids couldn't believe their good fortune. After nearly two years of anticipation, we were finally going to play Dungeons & Dragons.

They picked their characters. Sam was a swordsman. Peter was a rogue with a bow and arrow. Clementine was an elfin queen, the sorceress of the group.

I decided the only way we were ever going to be able to play is if I ignored all the rules in the box and made up the rules as we went along. In D&D, there are more than six-sided dice. There are four-sided, ten-sided, even twenty-sided dice. Seven, in all. I read the adventure to them as if I were reading a story to them, only in this story, they would decide how the characters acted. When it came to a point in the story where we needed to see if an action they decided to take was successful or not, we rolled a dice. Any dice. I made it up as we went along. They loved it.

The role of Dungeon Master--the person who guides the other players in the adventure through narrative--is the heaviest lift in the game. Perhaps, slightly more so when your players are all under the age of 10. The game needs to move quickly. One of the biggest challenges I found was to get the kids away from facing every problem by attacking it. If they encountered a group of goblins on a trail, I wanted them to understand that attacking them was only one of many possible actions they could take.

Another--similar--challenge was getting them move off an unsuccessful action and think of trying something else. Last weekend, Sam was trying to climb a 30 foot pile of rocks to enter the next cavern. Peter and Clementine rolled the dice and climbed up. Sam couldn't. After the third attempt, with hungry wolves barking at his heels, I tried to get him to come up with another course of action. It wasn't easy. Role-playing means problem-solving, too.

We've played twice, and they keep asking to play. I think it is good for their imaginations. Not that they are lacking in that area.

Dead to Red Cycle Relay

This past weekend, I got talked into participating on a three-man relay team to cycle from the Dead Sea to the Aqaba on the Red Sea. I was initially very reluctant, as I had not been on a bike other than commuting to and from work since shortly after Sam was born. But I guess what they say is true...it's just like riding a bike. You never forget.

I had to get up at 2:30 in the morning on Friday in order to make it to the start of the race past the south end of the Dead Sea by 5:00. Check-in started at 4:00 a.m. and the race started with the solo riders taking off at 6:00. The distance was 200 km-- of about 120 miles.

We ended up deciding to break it up into 10 mile legs. Since I no longer have a road bike, I had to share a bike with one of my teammates. We had two bikes between the three of us, so when we were transitioning between one bike and the other, the car would drive about four miles ahead of the rider, so the next rider had time to get the bike off the rack and could go as soon as the rider on the road pedaled up.

What I thought would be a long morning, wasn't. I couldn't believe how fast the miles went. Since we were only doing ten mile segments, I rode them hard. When I got off the bike, I crawled into the back seat of the car and spread my legs out over the center console to try and keep my hamstrings from tightening up.

After the first ten miles, my rear was already sore. I rode the second ten miles especially hard, as I tried to bridge a gap to five solo riders riding in a pace line. I was hoping to sit on their rear wheel for a few miles before my leg was up. It was a good thing I caught them, too. I ended up going a little longer than ten that leg, because the support car had to pull over for a pit stop.

The third leg was by far the hardest, due in part to my increasingly sore tooshie and the fact that I rode the second segment as hard as I did. The fourth segment was easier. As we got closer to the Red Sea and the finish, a tail wind picked up and there were more downhills.

All-in-all, we rode the 120 miles in 6 hours 20 minutes. The other car accompanying us brought beer, champagne, chips, and nuts for a tailgate which was unfortunately cut short due to a sandstorm kicked up by the stiff winds.

A few shots from the start of the race. The sun came up quick, however. The bulk of the race was, very much, through the heart of the desert. There were signs warning of drivers of sheep crossings and camels, and it was more-than-slightly surreal to be pushing the bike down the highway, quads resisting, and seeing camels standing watching you go past. 

As you can see, crowds were thin. But the few who did come out to cheer were very enthusiastic!

After spending a few minutes at the finish line, it was time to make the long drive home. It is about four hours from Aqaba to Amman. On a recommendation, I decided to take the Dead Sea highway back as opposed to the Desert Road, because the road is in better condition. It ended up being a beautiful drive that I was not expecting with the sun setting over the Dead Sea on my left, and the pink and purple-tinged cliffs on my right. 

I wound through a couple of small towns. Elise would have wanted to stop and take photographs. One image that sticks out in my mind is that of a small boy and girl playing on a small farm. Their home was a traditional bedouin tent pitched on a cliff on a small plot of land. There was an old Mercedes parked outside the tent, and the boy was giving the girl a piggy-back ride. 

It was Friday afternoon. "Jumea" in Arabic which also means "gathering", because Fridays are the day the family gathers after morning prayers, and families who had driven down to the Dead Sea from Amman and Madaba parked there cars in dust lots overlooking the water. They lit fires. Some cooked on small grills they brought with them. the children played in the dust around them while the parents sat on the hoods of cars or in folding lawn chairs.