Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Everything is Not Okay

It will soon be a month I have been working without pay.  We have kept new purchases to a minimum, but did spring for a new needle for the record player which arrived in the mail on Sunday. 

We spent the rest of the evening listening to my old records from high school and college.  Sam has taken an affinity to They Might Be Giants, and it strikes me as more than a little ironic in this day and age, the kids may have memories of listening to old records instead of playing Fortnight on the XBox.

We set up a craft table in the corner of the living room, an inexpensive Ikea table we bought in D.C. when we didn't have any furniture and needed a dining room table.  We decided to bring it with us to Jordan, and I'm glad we did. Peter and Clementine dressed mermaids and faeries in stickers and colored quietly while Sam played DJ, moving effortlessly from the Housemartins to Tom Petty to the Dire Straits.  Peter would admit the next morning at breakfast he wished he had a mermaid's tail.  Elise and I sat on the couch, absorbed in the scene, she drinking a glass a wine, myself with a beer.   

The next evening, Peter would read us a book about sloths.  He has recently taken a penchant for sloths since Santa brought him a stuffed sloth he named Sovie for Christmas.  He is also diligently practicing his recorder.  He brought home a book "Recorder Karate"; each time he learns a new song on the recorder, he receives a different color belt as though he were working his way up to Bruce Lee black belt proficiency on the recorder.  He recently received his yellow belt for learning "Hot Cross Buns".

This morning, Sam was practicing a song on the keyboard. The house has become quite musical the last few days. All three of the kids are interested in taking formal music lessons, and I have reached out to a local guitar teacher, but the lessons do not come cheap and I am hesitating signing the kids up until I have reconciled their attestations they will practice between weekly lessons with the probable reality. 

Last night when I got home from work, the kids were splayed out in front of the TV watching reruns of "Full House" on Netflix.  Though 40 years separates their childhood from mine (or 30 years from Elise's) they are surprisingly more alike than they are different.  When the TV went off, roasted sweet potatoes came out of the oven, and four NY strips went into a frying pan with butter and thyme.  Elise openly questioned if we would really eat four NY strip steaks, but a half hour later, the only thing that remained on five plates were four slabs of inedible gristle and sweet potato skins. 

Today, the weather promises more wind and cold.  The app on my phone teases snow around dinner time, continuing into the overnight hours.  January will soon give way to February, then, eventually, some day, spring.  Inshallah. Did I say everything is not okay?  Sorry that was a typo. Everything is just fine. 

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Return to Jerash

As you may recall, the last time we went to Jerash (post here), Peter fell off a rock he shouldn’t have been climbing and busted his chin open.

We tried to go back when Elise's parents were in town, but found the park was closed because recent rains had caused flash flooding at other historic sites in Jordan, including Petra.  We wanted to close out the winter break with a bang, but mostly we needed another excuse to have lunch at the Lebanese House (more about our most recent trip to Jerash here).


The climb up to the Temple of Jupiter. 



View of the Colonnade from the Temple of Jupiter. 




Sam striking his God of Thunder pose. 


Paul with the bagpiper. 



The bagpiper took our 360 degree portrait with the wrap-around feature on Elise's phone. 


Pete contemplating his fall from the last visit to the Temple of Artemis.  He thinks he sees a spot of his blood on the ground.  


Sam with his emergency kit. 


"Oh no she d'int."








Friday, January 11, 2019

Love Me Tender

A few days ago, the forecast was for snow. So Clementine’s teacher told her that if she flushed two ice cubes down the toilet, wore her pajamas backwards, and put a spoon under her pillow, it would snow.

Clementine did all these things, but, alas, it did not snow. The kids may have seemed somewhat mystified that we made them go to school. Evidently, all their friends were going to stay home anyway, based on the mere promise of snow. 

Sam is looking forward to band starting. He doesn’t know what instrument he will get to play, but is digging the ukulele he got for Christmas and is teaching himself to play “Yellow Submarine”. It’s Peter’s turn with the recorder and he can belt out a mean version of “Hot Cross Buns”. It’s time to get them all into some more formal music instruction. 

Despite being furloughed, my office hosted a big visit this past week, the highlight of which was standing on the tarmac in 35 degree weather and getting to see a C-130 land. I took pictures for the kids. A picture is worth a thousand words but even a picture can’t capture how loud one of those things are. In the wake of the visit, I started using Sensodyne and had the tip of my ear cut off for a biopsy. The combination of the two made me feel much older than my 46 years. Which only steels my resolve and makes me want to run even faster and even further than ever. 

Elise got up early this morning and cycled 60 kilometers up and down the Dead Sea Road. I was more than a little jealou, but am glad she got to go and not surprised at all that she totally slayed it. 

A couple of nights ago, Elise and I were sitting in the play room relaxing after dinner when we were unexpectedly serranaded by our three children.



Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Bumblebee Movie

There have been a long string of movies the kids have wanted to go see but couldn't because they were rated PG-13.  It started back in India when the first installment of the new Star Wars trilogy was released "Force Awakens" (not-so-affectionately dubbed "Professor Rankins" by Elise).  The kids were dying to see it, and all our friends were taking their under-13 year-old children to see it, but for Elise and I, it was a hard "no".

I distinctly remember being under 13 and wanting to go see "Dune", also rated PG-13.  But from my mom, it was also a hard "no." We can't protect our kids from a lot in life, but we can shield them from the intensity and gratuitous violence inherent in these movies. There are plenty of good PG movies to see. There was no reason to rush them in to see something industry experts acknowledged should only be seen by children with the emotional maturity level of a 13 year-old. 

When I heard they were going to make a PG Transformers movie, we were all excited.  The kids love Transformers as much as my brothers and I loved Transformers when we were kids.  (Probably more so, because Transformers came a little late for me.)  The PG Transformers movie was "Bumblebee", and Peter, especially, couldn't wait to go see it.

Peter is our "pew-pew" kid.  He can often be found pacing or, more likely, running back and forth in the living room or play room, from one side of the room to the other, acting out an action sequence only he can see in his head.  Spittle flies as he acts out explosions and detonations, laser fire and dragons roaring.  Elise swears she ends some days with PTSD due to the number of imaginary rounds and ordinance going off inside the house or in Peter's head on any given day.  I know exactly where he gets it. I was the same way. 

For months, he was asking me when the Bumblebee movie was coming out (Bumblebee is the name of one of the Autobot Transformers that turns into a yellow VW beetle).  He would ask me to show him the trailer on YouTube. I read reports the movie was going to be less intense than the other Transformers movies, geared toward a younger audience, and more in the spirit of the 80's cartoon than the loud, over-the-top Michael Bay CGI-fest of the previous five Transformers movies, all rated PG-13.

When the movie finally came out in Jordan this Christmas, we saw it was rated PG and rejoiced. Peter was ecstatic and couldn't wait to see it.  I told him I would take him before winter break was out. Just to be on the safe side, I read the parental guidance on Common Sense Media, a website which helps parents decide which movies are age-appropriate for children and explains why they may not be, i.e. violence, language, sexual content, etc. When I went on Common Sense Media to read the reviews, they were what I expected and described a much more light-hearted movie with themes of friendship and an actual plot. Something, evidently, the other Transformer movies lacked. 

But it was rated PG-13.

Evidently, the Jordanian film ratings were a little less stringent than the American ratings.  Perhaps, Jordan has a higher tolerance for violence. I don’t mean to be coy or disparaging, but given the region’s propensity for war, it may not be surprising a movie with some violence would get a lower rating here than it would somewhere else in the world. Who knows. In any case, we thought it was rated PG only to find this movie, too, was rated PG-13. 

I was encouraged by the parental rating on Common Sense Media. Elise told me she didn’t really care if I took him to see it, almost encouraging me to do so. The worst of the sci-fi violence, according to the website, was a Transformer blasted a human to an amorphous splatter of liquified goo. At least we knew what to be on the look-out for. 

I took Pete to the 3:45 showing. We bought our tickets and popcorn and settled into our seats...in the back row. As the opening credits rolled, Pete splurted out, “This is so exciting!”

The movie opened with a pretty loud fight scene set on Cybertron. It wasted no time getting right into it. At least I would no early on whether or not Peter was up for this. 

He made it through and most of the rest of the movie was funny, lighthearted, and super cute. A little “E.T.” A little 80’s coming of age. The two scenes when the Decepticons reduced a human to a pile of snot were well telegraphed and Pete covered his eyes in plenty of time. 

With about 30 minutes left though and the plot picking up, the cuteness factor was going way down and the intensity level was cranking up. Pete would never admit as much, but I could tell he wasn’t really into it any more. The Decepticons were really scary and just plain nasty. I leaned over and told him we didn’t have to stay; we could always watch it again sometime soon when he was ready. He quickly agreed and we left the theater, hand in hand. 

He had fun, nonetheless. When he got home he unleashed a major (and much needed) information dump for Sam and Clementine. It was the therapy he needed to get it all out. 

Later in the evening, he and Sam accompanied each other for showers in the back of the house, Peter sitting on the toilet while Sam took a shower, telling him more about the movie, Sam returning the favor when it was Pete’s turn, playing his new ukulele for him while he showered. I stood in the hallway for awhile, unbeknownst to them, listening to them go back and forth, thinking maybe I had done something right when all previous indications were I had made a bad decision. 

Saturday, January 5, 2019

The Back Nine

It’s hard to believe but we have only five months left in Jordan. It’s not an easy thing to say about any of our overseas postings, but this time I think we’re ready.

This is in stark contrast to how we felt as we neared the end of our time in both Brazil and India. We had to be pulled kicking and screaming from those two posts. Brazil had truly become home. Clementine was born there. Our house — for all its fault, roofs leaks and all — was our first and best home to our family of five. I still remember Elise and I sitting in lawn chairs in our carport — all the cars sold and the carport now empty — holding hands, Clementine beside us in the car seat bucket, Peter and Sam already in their pajamas for the redeye back to the States, playing in the front yard, hanging on the driveway gate, waiting for the van from my office to pick us up and whisk us off to the airport. 

In India, we actually tried to extend our stay by two months, but was turned down by my office who said they needed my visa for my successor. We would have had to move into a hotel if we had stayed, so a confluence if events forced out handsaws forced us to leave which actually proved fortuitous as devastating rains and floods which followed tore through the entire first floor of our house as the Adyar river broke its banks and rushed through our yard. It actually would have been nothing shy of a disaster had we stayed; our next door neighbor had to commandeer the use of a box truck to extract his family from their home, carrying them all from the house piggyback through the flood waters. 

Sadly, we don’t feel the same sense of lost — at least not yet — knowing we will soon be leaving Jordan. Perhaps, those sentiments will change over the next five months. The kids still do have a whole half year of school left. But I think it is safe to say we never were allowed to feel wholly at home here. It is a deeply complicated region, and there are likely deeply complicated reasons Elise and I feel the way we do. Is there ever really an easy time to be an American in the Middle East. Probably not. But these two years seems harder than most. 

At some point during our two year stint in Jordan, my work decided it necessary to install a point of entry water filter into our apartment. I was never completely convinced the water in Jordan was ever unsafe. I mean...this wasn’t India, after all. But the decision was made to install the filter, nonetheless, and who was I to disagree. But the water pressure in our building wasn’t sufficient to force water through the filter, so they installed a pump to force water through the filter. Since we are on the ground level, we can hear everything going on in the basement through our floor, including the noise generated by — not only this pump — but everyone else’s. (In Amman, there are no water mains or towers. All water is delivered by truck to reservoirs in the basements of all the buildings. Each apartment has its own water tank in the basement of the building, but in order to obtain water pressure the water has to be pumped from the basement to a storage tank on the roof, so each apartment also has a pump in the basement below our apartment to achieve this.) 

At first, I either didn’t notice the noise of the pumps or it didn’t bother me, but gradually, every time I ran the water...washing dishes...washing my hands...turning on the shower doe he kids...I would hear the pump. But once I started noticing the noise from the pump, I couldn’t unnotice it. It was similar to when I strarted to learn how to read Arabic. 

For the last year and a half, I’ve been taking an Arabic class at work two hours a week. Eventually, I learned the alphabet and began deciphering everything I saw. I remember driving out to the airport from downtown Amman blissfully ignorant of what the highway signs said, but once I learned the Arabic alphabet, I couldn’t stop trying to translate every sign. Even if I couldn’t read the sign, that didn’t stop me from trying to identify the letters. I wouldn’t be able to see a sign written in Arabic again without trying to read it. The same thing happens when we go to the movies here and I see the Arabic subtitles. I can never again see them as meaningless scrawl; I must try to read them. 

It’s also similar to how I became aware of politics. I don’t exactly remember when it happened. But I do distinctly remember a time in my life where I didn’t think about politics or political parties; they had no bearing on my life...and, again, I went about my day blissfully ignorant of the partisan struggle going on in Washington. But once you gain an awareness of the struggle and an appreciation of what is at stake (or at least the perception as promoted in the media and on social media as to what may he at stake), you can never go back to a place where you just don’t give a shit. Unless you abscond yourself to a cabin in the woods in the Alaskan wilderness. Even then. 

We have a very nice apartment. Don’t get me wrong. Even if only half of it seems useable at any given time. Or, at least, according to the kids. Who refuse to go “back there” without escort.

The back half of the apartment holds the four bedrooms. The kids REFUSE to enter that part of the house alone and I have no idea why. 

No one has ever given name or reason that their completely unreasonable reluctance to “back there” without parental escort. You can only imagine how exhausting and frustrating this might be. 

Elise or I: “Clementine, go get your socks.”

Clementine: “Will you come with me?”

Elise or I: “Peter, go brush your teeth.”

Peter: “Will you come with me?”

Elise or I: “Sam, go get in the shower.”

Sam: “Will you come sit with me.”

You get the picture.

I hate to think that somehow I contributed to this condition that would persist through the entirety of our two years here.

Early on, Sam’s friend from school, Isam, came over for a play date.  Sam, Isam, Peter, and Clem were playing together in their room (they were all in the same room at the time). I don’t exactly know what I was thinking and likely didn’t think anything it or give it much forethought at all, but I remember finding myself on the patio outside the open window of their room and hearing them talking together, so I made few ghostly sounds through the open window.

I don’t think I actually scared anyone. As I recall, they hardly registered I was there at all. But it does seem that ever since that event, they’ve been disinclined to go “back there” by themselves at all. 

It could just be my imagination the two events are linked at all: that afternoon when Isam came over for a play date and the kids reluctance to go to the back part of the house without parental escort. I hope so anyway. 

Yes, things aren’t perfect in our apartment, but there is more right with it than there is wrong with it. And the reasons we may be ready to move on go beyond our living accommodations. 

For me, work in the Middle East is hard. Work takes on a tenor of urgency I didn’t even experience working in Washington. Even something as seemingly routine and quotidian as replacing a refrigerator must be done NOW!! It is an EMERGENCY!! When everything is an emergency, nothing becomes truly an emergency, but nonetheless become trying and draining over a two year period. Not to say anything about the visits, work furloughs, embassy moves, etc etc.

I know Elise has her own reasons, too, but part of it is we could just all be looking forward to this summer in the Pacific Northwest and our next assignment in Sri Lanka. 

I’ve said it before here. The best thing about the kids is they keep us in the moment. There is no burying our heads in the said for the next five months until we leave. We will be forced to live and experience every minute of it. For better and for worse. Sam will still play tennis. Peter may still try out for the lead in a huge school production and not tell us about it. Clementine may start ballet again. Life goes on. That’s the best part of being ready to leave. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

A Christmas Tradition

This holiday season we formally accepted as fact what had been a suspicion for a long time. That our Christmas tradition was we had no Christmas traditions.

And that’s okay.

When you never know where you are going to be or who you are going to be with from one holiday season to the next, no two Christmases can be the same, and there can be no reasonable expectation something you are able to do during the holiday season one year will be possible the next.

The best Thanksgiving we have had in recent memory was the Thanksgiving we spent in Brazil when we went to the churrascaria Porcao and were all given playing cards that read “Sim” on one side in green to indicate “Yes! Bring us more meat!” And “Nao” on the other side in red to signal “Oh my lord Mother Mary in heaven I couldn’t eat another bite!”  This Christmas even we went out for sushi.  The next day, for Christmas dinner, Elise made bo-sam, a Korean pork dish served in iceberg lettuce cups.  The only thing constant from one Christmas to the next is that we are all together. That may, some day, change, as well.  We don’t know where we will spend Christmas next year.  It may be in our new home in Sri Lanka.  We may decide to go on a trip.  Or fly back to the States and spend the holidays with family.  We just don’t know.  And that’s okay.  

In other news, Sam has his own room.  He lobbied hard for his own space, and after a few modifications the guest room became his.  The winter break has been profoundly lazy.  Largely in part to how cold, wet, and grey this winter has been.  The kids have taken to mostly quietly playing with new toys acquired on Christmas (we have for the time being banned TV first thing in the morning, and the difference has been stark.  They had made a habit of turning on the TV as soon as they crawled out of bed on Fridays and Saturdays....usually because I would be gone running...and watching cartoons for an hour, but as soon as the TV snapped off they turned into raving maniacs. Without their morning visual hyperstimulation, they’ve been much more mellow).  This is all to say that, in his new room, Sam has taken to cranking the split-pack heater unit to 30 degrees Celsius and just lying in bed reading most of the day.  You can then leap forward in time and imagine what bed time is like.  Sam is like a giant, loping, tongue-lolling-out-of-the-side-of-his-mouth golden retriever who — if not run — will park itself at your feet, wide eyes trained up at you, leash in mouth, waiting for attention. 

It is at the end of these days when he comes into our room at night, trying to convince us he wants to sleep, but he doesn’t know how.

It started when Elise was in India, and Sam slept in bed with me four nights in a row.  I didn’t think much of it. We all missed her.  But then whatever was keeping him up continued after her return, and we dealt with two weeks straight of Sam and his strange sleep anxiety born from what I’m not exactly sure.  Restlessness? Anxiety?  His new room?  Lack of exercise?  Even on Christmas Eve he didn’t finally go to sleep to almost 11:00.  You can imagine how that went over. 

Though the situation has been slowly improving since then.  The local park behind the grocery store and the sushi burrito place across the street from our house has been closed since October for renovations I fear will never end (the entire park is literally torn apart as though some subterranean super-villain drove their burrowing machine through.  All the earth has been turned over with giant earth-moving equipment that then just disappeared; I have no idea how they will put it all back where it was). It’s made getting outside and running the kids more challenging.  In an effort to make sure everyone gets enough fresh air to sleep at night we’ve been heading over to my work and playing on the new rec field that just opened. Most days we have the field to ourselves and can play American football or soccer.  Me and Clem vs Pete and Sam.  

On New Year's Day, we drove north to Jerash.  We had recently tried to visit Jerash with Elise's parents, but unfortunately the park was closed to recent rains ripping open wadis with flash floods.  At the time, we hadn't realized there was a wadi that ran through the ruins, separating the ancient city of Jerash with its modern-day equivalent.  Now we understand...kind of...that in the extremely unlikely event we were caught off guard by torrential rains, we may have been in danger of being swept away by a flash flood.

This trip to Jerash, revealed new treasures as yet unexplored since our last visit was preempted by Peter falling from a rock at the Temple of Artemis and splitting his chin open.  We were able to visit the Temple of Jupiter this time around and the amphitheater where we were able to delight in the impromptu entertainment provided by a Jordanian bagpiper and a chorus of Italian tourists serenading one another. Peter was experiencing some weird leg pain mid-quadricep, so after carrying him piggyback through most of the ruins over uneven cobblestones, we stopped at our favorite lunch spot, the Lebanese House for lunch where we proceeded to order just the right amount, then second-guessed ourselves when the kids tore through the first mixed grill in record time and ordered a second mixed grill, only to end up with way too much food.  I was uncomfortable most of the rest of the day, yet it was still a wonderful way to ring in the new year. 

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Fuheis

On the outskirts of Amman lies a small, predominantly Christian community called Fuheis.  One of the most interesting phenomena I have encountered while living overseas are how people of similar religions cluster together.  It may not seem like something that should spark much wonder.  But it is something I've never really experienced before living overseas.  We first encountered it in India; I remember driving through Chennai with Mr. Sundar who didn't hesitate to note when we were driving through a "Muslim part of town" or a "Christian part of town". Being Hindu, there was an unmistakable hint of contempt in his tone each time.

In the United States, the ultimate mixing pot, a country which prides itself on its diversity, I had grown up thinking that it was something other than race or religion that defined communities.  I know during the immigration "boom" between 1880 and 1930, many new arrivals to the United States clustered in ethnic enclaves in New York City, some staying, many venturing further afoot. It makes sense to gather with those who speak a similar language, have similar beliefs and value systems, eat the same food, smoke and drink the same things, have the same vices.  In a new and foreign place, anything familiar is sought out, then clutched close.  We find ourselves doing the same now living overseas.

But gradually, some of these ethnic enclaves dissolved and the boundaries between communities blurred, an osmosis of sorts, like drops of cream into a cup of coffee, it stay together for a while, creating a milky swirl, before turning the coffee from black to brown, one uniform color.  I had grown up thinking it was something other than race or religion that defined communities, but I don't know what those common bonds may have been.  (Certainly, in South Florida in the early and mid-80s, there were communities of blacks, mostly separate from where we lived.  It wasn't until I moved to the city, to Baltimore for college, that I thought about that difference.) I couldn't tell you now what common denominators a community in South Florida possessed that a community in, say, Minnesota or Iowa did not.

We had heard there was a giant Christmas tree in Fuheis and so we went in search of it, on an exploration, of sorts, our second big holiday outing in as many days.  For a family that is mostly content to stay home, warm and cozy though we don't have a fire or fireplace to gather around, this was a big deal.  Especially for Peter who most days doesn't want to go anywhere.

After driving mostly aimlessly through the small town, Elise finally spotted the tree over a hill, a sparkling oasis.




If they look really cold, they were.  We tried to convince them to grab their puffy winter coats, but like with most things we try to tell them, our advice went unheeded. 



This vendor had -- inarguably -- the creepiest selection of Christmas-themed trinkets for sale I have ever seen.  

It's difficult to make out in the photo above, but the red rod laying on its side is a battery-operated Spiderman "microphone" which shoots multicolored sparkling lights from the disco ball top and emits the most bizarre, music box like tune.  Aside from the masquerade ball masks on the bottom shelf, the devil-eyed purple bunny (which reminded me of a B-movie horror film "Bunnicula" about a bunny vampire) was by far the scariest!