Tuesday, November 30, 2010

give me give you

The other day I came home and told Justin that a new mom we knew got an iPad for a push present.

"A what?" he said.

"A push present. You know, because she gave birth."

You know, because after spending almost ten months of her life growing another human being (which might entail not sleeping despite insane exhaustion, throwing up at the whiff of a french fry, and watching stretch marks map her belly) - after all of that, she then has to push that human being into this world.

And some celebrity dads thought that deserved a bonus, and then regular dads picked up on the idea.

"So where is my push present?" I said.

Justin stared at me. Finally, he said, "You got a baby."

Indeed. Two.

We are a couple who fails at gifts. I bought Justin a French press to celebrate a Friday morning, and that was at least a year ago. I cannot remember what I bought him for Christmas (if anything) last year, and I usually mark his birthday with a sweet letter but no surprise. The last gift gift - like, it was purchased to celebrate an occasion and was actually purchased before the arrival date of that occasion - the last gift I remember Justin giving me was a hand held Kitchen Aid mixer that I picked out for Christmas and begged to open early because I had dozens of cookies to bake. That was six years ago.

But I want gifts. We decided to "do birthday gifts" and I assumed that because we decided this before my birthday, I'd get a gift. Surprise me! Instead, I spent my birthday half-waiting but fully knowing that there was no surprise. Still, at the end of the day, I asked. Justin apologized. I pretended it was okay.

The next day he brought home a few groceries and handed me a plastic bag. "This is for you," he said. Inside were a bag of parmesan Goldfish crackers, a box of golden raisens, and a small tube of M&M Minis.

"Happy birthday?" I said.

"Yeah."

Which means I'd better think of a good gift for his birthday or we'll continue this sad, sorry cycle of lousy post-birthday gifts.

We aren't alone. I know other couples who skip out on gifts. And we aren't lacking for things we just want. Last year in India I bought some beautiful silver bangles and a pair of green amber earrings. Anytime Justin goes through an airport, he stocks up on books. We buy things for ourselves, but don't often buy things for each other. A friend of mine mentioned the effort it takes to get a gift: just a little bit of sneaking around to get the gift, the secrecy of hiding it. It is easier to just slap a gift card or cash into an envelope, or to say "Honey, why don't you pick something up for yourself in Jordan?"

But I want the fun of that effort. Christmas is coming.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

the glamour of it all

Sometimes I think that would be interesting to post to my blog. An entire post devoted to Kuwait highway signs that read "Speed = Death" and "Be Aware of Drugs" among others. Or the latest Claire anecdote. Or my mamaland musings. Maybe a link to some recipes I've been trying or a list of the books I've been reading.

But then life happens. You can count on this post being short and random. It's bedtime for one thing. I've just bathed Grant and he's sitting next to me sucking his fists. I don't want him to fall asleep before I nurse him and put him to bed. Claire is finishing up her bath. She loves all things bath, except getting her hair rinsed. We've yet to convince her that looking up really works.

It isn't a sudden realization and it isn't a new one to me, but life is mundane and fast. I want mine to count. I want mine to be one of joy and peace.

I've been learning to listen instead of just firing my requests in prayer. I want this and this and this. Quiet, I tell myself. Be still. Learning to be still is agonizing. I am much better at listing everything that God needs to do by tomorrow and then wrapping it up with a quick thank you for all He already has done. I don't always give Him much time to talk. So I'm trying to learn to empty my mind of me so that I can really meditate on things above. I hope He honors the fact that I am actually trying very hard to be still.

This is not spiritual or insightful at all, but: I'd like to fit into my skinny jeans again one day. My body has changed with both pregnancies and breastfeeding. I have a greater respect for my body and treat it much, much better than I did even five years ago. But I'd still like to fit my pants from five years ago. Vanity. I'll let you know if it happens. Or if I just throw out the skinny jeans.

Well, now Claire is on the toilet. And Grant has given up on getting milk from his fist, and I have a haphazard blog post. All done.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

what he does do: a lot

So the last post was about one thing Justin doesn't do: wake up at night. He has stepped in a couple of times since Grant's birth to change a midnight diaper or see to firstborn if I was busy nursing in the night. And a couple of times when Grant was inconsolable, Justin got up to calm him and let me take a break. But yeah, night is mostly my job.

Oh well.

If it were all my job, then we would have a problem. Instead, Justin is very "on" when he arrives home from work. That impresses me. I get to four in the afternoon, five o'clock and I want to be done. He gets home and knows he has a wife waiting to be done, and he steps in to take Claire for a walk, or out to play, or holds Grant while I get dinner together.

Someday the kids' bedtime will really feel like our downtime. Right now, Claire is in bed at seven but Grant is usually still getting his last evening meal and neither Justin nor I are always able or willing to put our stray coherent thoughts into words. Sometimes we park in front of the latest episode of The Office and eat Baskin Robbins ice cream out of the tub. Or we just read. On our more let's-be-couple-ish nights, we play gin rummy or Sequence.

Then we pass out. Around eight-thirty. Yeah, eight-thirty.

So it's a tired time for us both. I keep thinking a five and three year old will surely be less exhausting. But what energy I might gain in nighttime sleep, I'm sure will be burned chasing them. And I doubt I'll mind too much. Most days.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A: pretty much all. the. time.

Q: What is, "When is Sarah tired?"

Claire was sleeping through the night by six or seven weeks. She still woke up at four-thirty or five in the morning, but I could count on a nice seven hour stretch. Grant is not sleeping through the night. He might wake up once or three times. I cluster feed him in the evening, hoping he'll be stuffed enough to give me a good night's rest. The longest chunk of sleep I've had since he was born is five hours - and even then I woke up once to make sure he was still breathing.

I know he is only two months old.

But I am still tired.

In the morning, Justin might ask if Grant woke. In my weaker moments, I've fantasized blowing an air horn each time Grant wakes.

With Claire, and now again with Grant, I've excused Justin's sleeping while I fumble to get the baby to my breast. I've said, "Well, he has to get up and go to work." But a few weeks ago, a friend told me that she and her husband took turns with the night feedings too, even though she is also a stay at home mom. "I mean, I have to get up too," she explained. Since then, in my tired-er moments, I consider this: I have to get up in the morning too.

And while I'm not teaching algebra or grading quizzes or keeping teenage boys from sneaking into the bathroom for a cigarette, I am teaching a two year old to stay in her bedroom until the more reasonable hour of seven (instead of wandering out at five o'clock asking for juice), and I am feeding an infant every two to three hours, and I am preparing lunch and dinner (not always very involved or creative, but we are eating, aren't we?), and I am doing all of this on interrupted sleep.

Love isn't about keeping score though, contrary to the short list I just started above. I don't want to trade my days with Justin - although I miss lunch break with colleagues and mid-morning coffee orders. I just want to sleep. I want to start my days rested. But none of that makes me special as a mom of two. I still remember our friend Phil - after congratulating us on our first pregnancy with Claire - adding that our sleep would never be the same. And I look at my nervous, just pregnant self half-laughing at Phil's quiet comment and want to tell her: No, really, it will never be the same.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

worry

Well it's been a week since my last post. Not sure how that happened. My mom wants me to post pictures, but this isn't that post. That post will come soon. Promise.

Today's post is brought to you by Worry. Oh, I worry. I worry about getting it right. I worry about saying the wrong thing. I worry about saying the right thing and it being taken the wrong way. I worry about tone of voice. I worry about miscommunication. I worry about a lot of really petty things. I worry about things I said or did a week ago, a year ago, five years ago. I worry because those words and actions still seem too alive to me. A little too present. I worry when there are bumps in my relationships, when things feel off. Sometimes I worry about what others think of me, as they know me. I worry about sudden death, but not as often as I could. I worry about being good. I worry about intentions. I worry that I am not transparent enough. I worry about terrorist attacks very little. Instead I worry about the terrible drivers here. I rarely worry about money, but I do worry about the quality of our life experiences. I worry that dinner will burn. I worry because you didn't email me back. Something must be wrong. I worry that halfway around the world, life is unraveling and I won't hear about it until tomorrow.

So today I was writing in my writing notebook (getting back into the regular practice of writing), and worrying about a situation that has worried me for months. And I got to a point in my writing when I thought: I have worried this all before. Telling the same old story.

And then I thought: I just want to be done. I have thought this before - I just want to be done - about different blocks or hurdles or mountains in my life. I have thought this before about Worry. I. Just. Want. To. Be. Done. So then I spent a good page writing about why I just want to be done with Worry, free. Replacing worry with peace or confidence. I thought about what God says about worry - essentially: don't bother with it - and wonder still:

Why is it easier to worry than not? Oh, I am a Work In Progress.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

homesick

First, let me tell you I will be more bloggy. At least one post a week. I think I can manage that. Now: homesick.

My friend is heading home for a month, very soon. The other night we were talking with her and her husband about the break they'd get from Kuwait. She is planning to go for nice, long, slow runs. Outside. In beautiful country. Run one for me, I think.

And this morning on the treadmill, I thought about Wisconsin running and my favorite routes - some of which I may never run again, but still replay, still miss.

Sometimes I think about moving back to the States, but like my friend and her husband - and many of our friends abroad - we still aren't ready. The odd thing is that when I think of returning to the States, when I feel homesick for the States, I am missing something different from what I left behind.

I don't want to return to where we lived before. We joke about how much we like our college town, except that it's also Justin's hometown and we don't want to live next door to parents. (Now, watch that happen in ten years). Instead, I idealize places I've driven through or read about, states my abroad friends are from. When my brother was in college, Justin and I visited him in Minneapolis and those few weekend trips are the entire basis of my thinking that the Cities would be a great place to live. A book of gorgeous pictures showing Maine through her seasons - a book I picked up at the library maybe ten years ago - still has me thinking coastal Maine would be the perfect spot to live. Mountainous Colorado or drizzly Portland sound nice. An  international school in Boston told us to keep them in mind when we were ready to return to the States: we'd be broke, but living in Cambridge. And I once drafted a letter to the Canton, New York school district to inquire about teaching jobs for Justin and me because I saw enough of the town on a long, rainy morning run while on our honeymoon, heading for Canada - I saw enough of the town to think we could live there, happily. Maybe we will yet.

The thing is, I can close my eyes and picture myself in too many places for one life.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

running during second pregnancy

I posted periodic running updates during my second pregnancy, but here is a quick recap:

Running through my second pregnancy was different from running through my first pregnancy. I was very pleased with my running during my first pregnancy and surprised that I was able to continue as long as did, stopping a week and a half before Claire was born. This time, I ran through the end and actually managed a five mile run the day my labor began. Running through my second pregnancy felt smoother than with my first: I had way fewer aches or pains and no injuries. I think there are two main reasons for this:

First, I didn't immediately drop my pace or miles when I became pregnant. I continued with my regular running of forty to fifty miles a week, averaging mile times in the low eights or high sevens. I kept my running comfortable and didn't push too much beyond. When I began teaching and had to get up early, I became too tired to manage a daily run in the morning and too drained to do much in the afternoon; that's when I began cutting miles to about thirty or so a week. After the first trimester, I added a few of those miles back and spent most of my pregnancy maintaining forty miles a week, sometimes just under and sometimes just over. During the last two months of pregnancy, I ran around thirty or thirty-five miles a week.

I did see my "feel good" daily run drop from nine to seven miles. I was fine with that. Near the end, I found it much easier physically and psychologically to run one day long (seven or eight miles) and one short (five miles), resting every two days.

With my first pregnancy, I ended with pace in the ten minute mile range. This time, I was able to keep my mile times just under nine minutes. I decided to run what felt best. Sometimes going slower feels more difficult.

During the second trimester especially, my running felt unencumbered. I loved feeling my body move in a familiar, energetic way. This is partly due to the second reason why I found running through this pregnancy to be smoother: I ditched the maternity support belt.

Near week thirty during my first pregnancy, I began wearing a support belt while running. This time I had the belt, but thought I'd wait until my belly felt too heavy. And then I decided to not bother at all. Not wearing the belt forced me to be attuned to my posture and stride while running, and to check in with my lower ab muscles. At no point did I feel like my belly was too heavy to run.

Though I did feel ridiculous sometimes, stepping on the treadmill with my moon of a belly, running when I couldn't see my shoes. Every runner has to talk themselves into getting out there at some point. What I knew (still know) is that running feels good. Give me an endorphin kick. Give me an hour alone.

I did become a little concerned about the effect running might be having on my weight gain. I only gained fifteen and a half pounds this pregnancy, about four pounds less than with Claire - though I delivered Grant two weeks early, while Claire was a week late. During the last month with Grant, I gained almost nothing despite cutting some miles. I am not sure that it was primarily running that affected my weight gain. I continued to eat well (a lot), but also had a toddler to chase. During my first pregnancy, I had the luxury of laying around more. Still, Grant's ultrasounds showed that he was gaining weight even if I was not.

Postpartum Weight and Running (So Far)

I am not sure what I weigh. I have my six week checkup soon and I'll find out then. I do know that my body did exactly what it did after Claire: dropped a lot of weight in the first two or three days, and then puffed out. My body is holding fat reserves for nursing - in fact, my body gained fat that wasn't there during pregnancy. Which means I cannot button my favorite pants yet. Maybe in another month or two or three.

Oh well.

I am back to running. I waited two weeks before beginning and then began slowly. Peed my pants through the first two kilometers I ran (oh, those pesky stretched out pelvic floor muscles!). I am now five weeks postpartum and running five or eight miles five times a week. My pace remains just under nine minute miles and though I am tempted to pick it up, I have no reason to, and do not want to risk injury. Now that the weather here is cooling, I am looking forward to getting outside for more runs. Until then: my treadmill, my friend.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

thus far

I celebrated my due date yesterday by nursing a very hungry baby boy, saying thank you thank you thank you for already being here.

On Thursday evening we headed to Fahaheel to walk around and pick up a few groceries. It was the first family outing, all four of us. We ate a small dinner at Paul, the French cafe we usually visit for fruit salad and croissants. The wait staff were happy to see Grant. Later in the evening we saw a woman who works at a Caribou Coffee near us - she knows me as "milk chocolate iced mocha" - and she was excited to meet Grant too.

So before Grant was born, I asked other moms with two what it was like. Kind of like I'd ask what Toronto was like, very casual: So, what's it like to have two little ones? And then, nearer the end of pregnancy, I began sounding a bit more desperate. More like: what is Toronto like when you arrive with only a toothbrush and five thousand pesos? Another mom at a play group Claire and I attended is due with her second one in December; we both wondered why you can find loads of parenting books for babies and toddlers and teenagers, but so little is written about managing two little ones at once. Maybe a chapter here or there, but not a definitive volume that says: This is how you do it. (And not go nuts).

That would sell.

What moms of two told me was (bear with the paraphrase, mashed from a few mouths): It is difficult for (two weeks to three months), but you figure it out.

Thanks. I neared the end of my pregnancy feeling very prepared to just keep both Claire and Grant alive until three months out when (hopefully), we'd all be sleeping through the night again. A few days after Grant arrived, I began thinking that it'd be at least three years before the volume of parenting (read: diapers, nursing, diapers, messes, food throwing, diapers, laundry, potty training, laundry, diapers, potty training) eased enough to think a third baby might be nice to have around.

But it is true, what these moms said, and I am starting to figure it out. Right now I need to not make my list of Onces: once my body is fully healed, once Grant is sleeping through the night, once I am able to get my usual runs in the morning, once I fit into my pants again, once I have time and energy to commit to potty training Claire. All those onces deprive me of my here and now. And the here and now isn't so wildly difficult as I'd imagined. I have energy reserves I dredge up from somewhere. And when I don't have the energy, a good cry settles me. I nurse my baby. I read books with my toddler. I understand that this is a short time in my life and that soon my two kids will be pouring their own milk on their cereal and whispering secrets or bickering at the breakfast table.

And that leads to a bit of advice from a mom of two that I am trying to heed: Be nice to yourself, she said. Be patient with yourself. Especially right now, I gather, while I am figuring it out.

Friday, September 10, 2010

grant nael

Look who joined our family on September first! Grant Nael, surprising me by arriving two weeks early. He weighed just under six and a half pounds and measured nineteen and a half inches. Such a sweet boy!
We've been enjoying quiet days, getting to know Grant and settling into a new normal for our family.

Friday, August 27, 2010

staying for the summer

Most of our friends said we were crazy to stay in Kuwait for the summer. We may have been, just a bit. But honestly, it wasn't bad. Staying put was good for us this year. When most expats are hot (ha ha) to leave, staying seems ridiculous. There is a mass exodus of Westerners heading west when schools let out for break, and then at the beginning of Ramadan, more people (Westerners and Kuwaitis alike) board planes to escape. So at the beginning of summer, while Justin was busy teaching remedial math and I was learning how to stay home with Claire, I was lonely.

I felt left out. I felt a little stranded and unsure what to do in this sandy land. And I quickly realized I had to stop wondering what I was missing in the States and just figure out how to enjoy what was before me in Kuwait.

Through a friend, I met two other women who were staying for the summer. And you know how it works when you meet someone and they introduce you to another and soon enough I was busy taking Claire to morning play groups or enjoying an afternoon coffee with a new friend. I took a step and began going to a play group hosted at a nearby Montessori school and through that group I met two other moms and we make up a weekly play group with a fourth mom and her son and baby daughter.

And then I decided to do something about wanting to understand and deepen my faith and so joined a moms' Bible study. The moms' part just means that no one faults you for bringing your toddler to romp about while you share and listen to different perspectives about the text you're studying. Because their toddlers and kids are also romping about.

Soon enough, I wasn't feeling left out at all. Instead I was seeing the shape my year at home with Claire and the new little one will take. My days won't be empty or listless. I have new friends outside of the school community. We have a weekly play group. I have a Bible study to attend. It's been a busy summer, learning new routines and meeting so many new friends. And that has made staying put in Kuwait worthwhile. Nevermind the one hundred and twenty degree heat. Or humidity.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

food from where?

I just saw this NY Times article, "For Some Foods, You Just Had to Be There," and immediately thought about all the foods from different places I've visited - foods that are linked in my mind to a particular trip or time.

On our honeymoon, we drove through Pennsylvania and New York to get to Quebec before heading on to Ottawa. I think I ate a croissant with Nutella each morning while in Quebec. I might have eaten two croissants each morning. Right now I have dough for a dozen croissants waiting to be rolled and folded before baking tomorrow morning. Perhaps I'll go buy Nutella too.

Gather two or more Wisconsinites and we'll talk cheese. A couple of weeks ago I went shopping with a friend and bought about forty dollars worth of cheese at Dean & DeLuca. Later I joked that I'm not a shoe girl or a bag girl - I'm a cheese girl. I am already looking forward to a couple of trips to local dairies next summer for squeaky cheese curds and cave aged Marisa.

And sometimes I find myself standing in the middle of the kitchen wanting a food that was in my fridge in Colombia. Avena drink. Or I wouldn't mind a walk to Carulla for a guayaba pastry. I'd like a jar of uchuva jam for my toast. And just to snack on lime Choclitos again. Mmm.

Since our visit to India at Christmas, I've been asking around for Indian restaurant recommendations here. I want paneer and naan bread. A whole pile of naan to sop up a curry.

Makes me wonder what tastes I'll take from our time here in the Middle East. And what tastes I've yet to meet elsewhere. Actually makes me quite grateful to enjoy eating and taste, the privilege of eating a variety of foods.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

tantrums & toddler-ese

Whenever I imagined being a mom, I imagined having kids. Not babies or toddlers. Kids. I glossed over the ragged days spent keeping an infant alive after a night of no sleep. I skipped the potty-training age entirely. I jumped right into having four or five year olds, taking trips to the zoo and having mini-adult conversations. But babies, toddlers, kids: none of them are mini-adults.

I may sometimes be an adult-toddler though.

So I've been reading online about toddler discipline (I even cut and paste the best ideas and highlighted key phrases so I can quickly remind myself: When they test the limits they are asking you to show them how dependable you and your limits are. Okay. Gives an understanding to why Claire looks at me and then runs in the opposite direction when I say, "Come here, please.") Anyway. Then a friend loaned me "The Happiest Toddler on the Block" dvd, hosted by Harvey Karp, M.D., an energetic pediatrician who has great advice about handling todddlers. I am going to start playing it on a loop.

Karp offers a strategy for speaking with toddlers. Toddler-ese. Speak their language. Keep it short, use repitition. Make sure that your child knows you understand what he or she is communicating. For example, Claire wants hot cocoa and she needs to eat her oatmeal first. I say, "Claire wants cocoa. She wants cocoa. She wants, she wants, she wants cocoa. I know you want cocoa, Claire. But first, you need to eat your oatmeal." The other part of toddler-ese is about showing your toddler that you really do understand what they are feeling. So if they are angry, you don't dismiss that anger entirely by speaking in a quiet voice. Instead, I use my face and voice to show Claire, "Claire is angry. She is upset. She is upset," and from there, bring the emotion down to a calmer level, "I know Claire is upset. You are not happy. You can calm down now. We can calm down."

I'm typing this and realizing I sound like a nut. But sometimes this toddler-ese works. Claire stops and realizes: Oh, Mama gets it. I'll point out that while my success with toddler-ese remains "sometimes," it always works in Harvey Karp, M.D.'s dvd.

In my non-Harvey-Karp-M.D.-dvd-life, there are times when Claire is hysterical and struggling and we're both sweating and tired and my instinct tells me to just hold on to her tightly so she doesn't smash her head against the floor or tear my hair out. Keep her safe. And if we're out in public, it's just horrifying. In public, my instinct is to yell to passersby that EVERYTHING REALLY IS OKAY. KIND OF. CARRY ON. My instinct is not to toddler-ese my way through her hysteria.

Still, I'm going to stick with toddler-ese. See how it goes. I count it a blessing that Claire isn't given to frequent tantrums. But when she throws herself into a fit, it's a grand fit. And I guess it's my grand job to sort out how to be mama to her when she unglues.

Advice, ideas, suggestions, encouragement welcome.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

new due date

I am keeping track of weeks: currently thirty-three weeks, five days. Early on in the pregnancy, my doctor said I was due September 10. So that stuck in  my mind. I didn't sit down with the calendar and count my weeks. I just held September 10 as the due date.

Guess what?

By weeks, I'm actually due September 17. Had I figured this out, oh, I don't know, FIVE MONTHS AGO, it wouldn't seem like a big deal. Now, though. Hm. One week. One week. Just a change of date, not weeks. I know I've got six weeks (and two days) left, but that takes me to September 17, not the tenth as I'd kept in mind for months.

This baby has a chance at being born on his big sister's due date, the twenty-fifth of September. Or maybe he'll come a week early. Wouldn't that be sweet.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

our "all at once, and nothing first" pajero

Today the AC quit working in our car. Today was also the first really sticky humid day in awhile, so we all arrived at the grocery store pink-faced and damp. The Pajero is at the dealership being dealt with and once we get an estimate, Justin and I will decide how much we want to continue dealing with our new decade-old SUV.

I didn't mind not owning a car in Colombia because taxis were easy, relatively cheap. Here, taxis are more expensive and I'm picky about who is driving. We have a driver we really like - Badur - but the prospect of loading a toddler and an infant in a taxi anytime we wanted to shop or go for a walk outside of our own sandy neighborhood was enough to make us just go buy a car. When you just go buy a car - a used car, because you figure you want to save more than you'd pay for a lease, and you aren't willing to commit to monthly payments knowing you'll eventually have to resell when you move; a used Pajero because you see loads of old Pajeros with gas tanks strapped on their backs, boxy bodies on the roads; a used Pajero that happens to fit the cash you're willing to immediately part with - well, when you just go buy a car, you just don't know what

might

happen

next.

We say: Let it live for two years. We get two years out of the beast, we'll be happy.

And if we'd bought a shiney new SUV, we'd probably have immediately wrecked the paint job in a parking lot anyway. Driving an old Pajero makes me super aware of all the young, pert BMWs Saabs Volvos Porsches BENTLEYs (!) haphazardly lounging in the lots, straddling lines on the diagonal, daring you to look too close. Needless to say, parking lots make me sweat. I find myself taking deep yoga breaths and telling Justin to just stop talking leave me alone I've got it. In five maneuvers or less.

So there we are, thinking we were making a smart decision a few months ago when we bought a car that has, since then: blown its head gasket, had a flat tire, begged for a new tie rod (I don't even know what that is), and now pooped out on the AC. Oh, and the radio doesn't work. None of that could have happened in the three months before we took ownership. Our very own One-Hoss Shay.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

one more from beirut

Justin read my last blog post and wanted to know why I didn't mention the military police we saw. Or the tanks. I had to think about why for a minute. The omission wasn't to spare my parents or in-laws (look where your grandbaby has been!) or to make Beirut seem a safer city than it is. We felt very safe in Hamra, the area we stayed, and in the Downtown, where we walked. Parts of the city are a bit dicey for Westerners - so I've been told - but every city has those streets that you're told to avoid. And not all regions of Lebanon are open or friendly toward Westerners. So as with travel in any new country, we were cautious.

While we were in Lebanon, a friend of mine traveled with her family to Athens. She'd campaigned for a trip to Lebanon, but her husband hesitated, believing it wasn't the safest option. (And really, it probably isn't. The safest option might be Sweden, unless you've been reading Stieg Larsson. But that's just me idealizing those Scandanavian countries). Anyway, they arrived in Greece to riots protesting government taxes, while wanting government aid.

So riots happen. My friend and her family were fine. They loved Athens. I think we'll love it too, when we get there. No enforced sales tax (one catalyst for the riots).

But back to why I didn't say anything about the military police or the random tanks parked off the side of a road. Well, because they didn't register as anything unusual to me. They seemed to belong. Perhaps that says something of how I've changed in the past couple of years, to not blink at a young man in camoflauge holding a gun and gaurding a street in the Downtown.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

beirut

Paris of the Middle East. We arrived in the early afternoon and driving north from the airport to our hotel in Hamra, I saw stacks of apartment buildings, their balconies waving flags of laundry. Another cramped, dirty city with cranes and dump trucks, men on motorbikes weaving between cars. I didn't see anything that said Paris. That didn't bother me. The name was given to Beirut long before her civil wars. Still, I have yet to meet a Lebanese person who does not praise their country. And after just four days there, we will return for more.

We loved the weather. Hot and a little humid, but not Kuwait Oven Hot. So we walked everywhere during our time in Beirut. One morning we walked down Bliss Street and visited the American University of Beirut. Beautiful campus, lots of green. It was the green - all over the city - that we enjoyed most. We saw some of the same flowering trees we knew from Colombia, and stopped a couple of times to just inhale the smell of living, green things.
More living green things.
This is a church in the Downtown area, pockmarked with bullet holes.
Roman ruins, also in the Downtown area. The Downtown pictures to follow show the success of at least part of this city's rebuilding process. The area was gorgeous, expensive, and spoiled pedestrians with several streets closed to traffic.
Place De L'Etoile.
On our walks, Claire would say, "Give me flower" and Justin usually obliged, picking a flower from a tree overhead. Here she finds her own. (And check out my belly. My head is the less attraction, I guess).

The entry to a mosque in the Downtown.
In the evenings, we went for a walk on the Corniche, along the Mediterranean Sea - a nice stretch of path to enjoy the cooler evening breeze. In Kuwait, there are enough Western expats that a blond haired kid isn't too much of a curiousity, but in Beirut, it was similar to being in Colombia or India. People stared, smiled, snapped their fingers in her face, wanted to touch her, kissed her, fawned, and pointed. She takes it in stride. When she feels like it, she smiles back and graces with a, "Hi-low."
The Rouche Sea Rock. You can see Beirut stretching further along the coast.
We do hope to return to Lebanon, the next time to drive around the country. But this short trip was a gift in the middle of our hot summer.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

back from beirut

We just spent four short days in Lebanon. Loved it. I dreaded the travel - just have not felt like going anywhere lately and was not excited about packing up for four days in a city.

"It'll still be hot," I grumbled.
"The plane ride," I complained.
"I'm pregnant," I whined.

And then I had to go anyway. We kept our itenerary (oh, let's just pretend we ever have one!) open, but had each picked a couple of things we wanted to do or see. Me: the Mediterranean, eat lots of Lebanese food (sort of fattouch-ed out after a couple days), walk, sleep, read. Yeah, I really didn't have much I was dying to do or see. Justin did a much better job of preparing for his trip and had a short list of culturally relevant places to see (which meant I got to see a few culturally relevant places too); he also wanted to find a pair of Birkenstocks (the last pair he bought in Ottawa and I think he wants to start a World City Birkenstock collection), and a Lebanese flag for his classroom.

The Lebanese flag has a tree on it, which beats Kuwait's variation of the Middle East redgreenblack theme. The old Kuwait flag is prettier, I think, but I guess leaders don't pick flags for pretty.

This trip coincided with my reading Muhajababes: Meet the New Middle East - Young, Sexy, and Devout by British author Allegra Stratton. The first part of the book covers her time in Beirut, so I learned a little about the city and brushed up on a short history of Lebanon while there. Always a little fun to read about a place and know you just ate lunch in that same area.

I'll post pictures in the next couple of days.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

on deciding not to lick this shoe

In high school, a friend of mine put together a jokey email he sent out to friends once a week or so. Think The Onion covering high school gossip. I did something - probably something small - to annoy him and I was off the list.

"Please, please, please," I begged, "Put me back on."

"Okay," Ian said, "If you lick my shoe." He stuck out his leg, rolled his ankle, his chunky skate shoe taunting me. "Go ahead. Lick it."

I don't remember if I licked his shoe or not. I probably did. And that only illustrates the grovelling-approval-seeking-wimp part of my personality. A kind of trait most people hope they leave behind with the freeing toss of mortarboards on graduation. (Here is where I admit: I didn't toss mine that high because I didn't want to lose it; at the time, that square cap seemed like something I should hold on to forever). Anyway, no one wants to be a shoe-licker and while I manage to be fairly-confident-pretty-content-mostly-pleased with my life decisions, sometimes I imagine a row of dirty sneakers, scuffed heels, worn flip-flops, and I feel compelled to lick them all.

Exhibit A: The insane urge to contact every person I have intentionally or unintentionally wronged/hurt/angered, with or without their knowing, and apologize. (I had a couple of stellar years during my early twenties when I thought I knew what I was doing). Truth: most of those forty-seven (rough estimate) people would probably ask, "Sarah who? And what did you say you did? Oh. I don't remember that." Lick, lick, lick.

Exhibit B: This whole overthinking living abroad business.

Three years abroad. All my family is grilling out and playing Bananagrams in Wisconsin. I am pregnant with my second child who will not meet grandparents until nine or ten months old. And I was unnerved to realize we really don't know what comes after Kuwait. So all of that together made me want to lick shoes to get back on the list. (The list our parents are keeping, an imagined list titled Good Sons and Daughters Who Do as We Hope, Like Live Next Door*).

Reality: Our departure from Wisconsin, and then from Colombia, did not leave gaping holes in either place. At schools, we were easily replaced by other teachers. In neighborhoods, someone else began paying rent. And after the first year of missing Gurnee weekend with Justin's family or Thanksgiving with mine - well, it became normal. Running partners and  bike buddies still head out on loops and trails. The little normals we were part of seal up, replaced by new little normals. And meanwhile, we are doing the same thing: making our new normals.

It is rather self-important of me to think that our living abroad so greatly affects the friends and family we still miss. I know our families would enjoy weekend visits and our friends would start potluck Wednesday again, but their lives are not incomplete because we live in another time zone. Perhaps most of us (me!) wish our absence will be daily noted, mourned a little. Like: life just isn't the same without Sarah Marslender to keep me company.

Oh, but it probably isn't that much different either.

Realizing that, I don't think I need to lick any shoes about living abroad. Our choice isn't devestating. It isn't a wound. And if not always optimal, living abroad does not need to be a barrier to keeping home relationships.

I'd love to meet Georgia or Stetson for a run; grab a coffee with Kate or Nira; enjoy dinner with Jason and Michelle or Scott and Sonia; have tea with my mom or Rollene. But I can't right now. And that is okay. Right here in Kuwait I have friendships to enjoy and new normals to embrace.

And no shoes to lick.


* I don't think this list really exists. If it does, they should burn it before they die and we have to go through their stuff.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

overthinking living abroad summer slump travel plans

This past week I have been thinking a lot about living abroad. I had a conversation with my friend Kate not too long ago and she wondered whether the United States would ever feel like it wasn't our home anymore. Will we get so used to being overseas that returning seems undesirable? I have been turning that idea over in my mind and Justin and I talked about it too. Our standard response to living abroad is, of course we'll return to the States (eventually, sometime, someday). But after Kate and I talked and I said the same thing to her - of course we'll return to the States - I realized: we really cannot say that with certainty.

When we decided to move abroad, even then, we didn't know how long we would be away. Five years seemed reasonable. But then we went to the job fair and at the welcome-orientation-go-get-'em speech, an overseas school administrator stood behind his podium and said, "When I first moved abroad, I thought I'd be gone for a year. Twenty-three years later..."

And Justin nudged me and we glanced at each other, silly grins. Moving abroad had been my idea - a non-negotiable when we started talking about our future together - but that weekend at the job fair, he said to me, "I can see doing this for a long time." Granted, we were heady with a few successful interviews and offers, and energized by all the conversations we had with other expats (soon we would be expats too!), but still, that was the weekend when we began to think maybe ten years? twenty? why not twenty-three years abroad?

So I've been thinking about our reasons for moving abroad, and reasons for staying abroad, and reasons for returning to the States. And in the middle of all this thinking, I hit a summer slump.

International teachers travel. Oh, give them a long weekend and they will go find a bus to board. Winter and spring breaks are made to add stamps to passports. Someone usually knows someone who has been to Bulgaria and if you need a Lonely Planet Egypt, just whisper it at a barbeque.

Well, we are international teachers, but we are not traveling much right now. So with most of the staff gone for summer holiday, and the few remaining summer school teachers getting ready to board planes within the next week, I am feeling slumpy. I don't even really want to travel because I am close to uncomfortably pregnant, and I have a toddler, and it's an expensive season. But still. If I wasn't pregnant, we'd be standing in a customs line, thumbing a Lonely Planet.

Since we aren't off on a long summer away - a short trip to Lebanon will have to keep us happy - we've been talking about where we want to go next. Justin and I were sketching travel plans over the next two or three years, and I pointed out that if we were still in Wisconsin we wouldn't be taking big fat yearly vacations on our teachers' salaries. So why feel compelled to take big fat vacations now? So scrapping the big fat vacations, what do we really, really want to see while we are in this region of the world?

Oman. Jordan. The pyramids, because we'd kick ourselves if we didn't. And Turkey, because everyone raves about Turkey. Oh, and Greece. Maybe Malta.

Anyway. There was a subtle shift in how we talked about our loose travel plans. It became okay to feel less urgent about seeing this or that, because we have also started to be realistic about how long we may actually be abroad. There is no rush to hop over to Paris or spend a week in Irish countryside. We'll likely get there. We might be taking our teenagers along, but we'll likely get there.

Even writing that here makes me want to rush to assure Stateside family and friends: of course we'll return to the States. Eventually, sometime, someday.


Edited to add, so I don't panic the folks back home.

Talking about what may happen in the next decade is what it is: talking about what may happen in the next decade. Another friend of mine, Christine, and I were discussing this whole messy thing about living abroad - what to say when friends and family ask about your return. Truth is, it's much easier to just say what we've been saying, someday we'll head back to the States.

I'll likely blog about this more later, but the prospect and process of returning to the States sometimes seems more difficult than the decision to leave was. Justin and I are not opposed to returning and settling. We aren't opposed to living in the States for awhile only to go abroad again. But that's just it: we aren't opposed to too much right now. We simply cannot say what our Big Life Plan is yet. (How many of those Big Life Plans go your way, anyhow?) So moving back to the States at this point presents way more issues - personal, location, financial, lifestyle - than any resolution or relief.

I make more of this than it is. Mostly, whenever I think about why we aren't ready to return to the States yet, I think of what our parents and my siblings might want. Then I think about what I want. I think they should all move abroad, so we could get more passport stamps on holiday.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

running into third trimester

Running during this pregnancy is going well. During my first pregnancy, I made myself get out and run, keeping close to my pre-pregnancy miles through the first trimester but dropping my speed significantly. This time, I cut miles and maintained speed during the first trimester and picked up a few more miles during second trimester while slowing the pace just a bit.

I kept to eight minute (or just under) miles for most of first trimester, sometimes throwing in a few fast days. Second trimester saw 8:20s become 8:30s, and I'm still most comfortable running around an 8:35 mile. I am hoping to finish running through pregnancy without going too far over a ten minute mile.

Weekly mileage is still thirty to forty miles. I actually keep track of my runs in kilometers since that's the measure on my treadmill. A regular daily run is 13k, which converts to just a smidge over eight miles. Once a week I aim for a 14.5k run, or nine miles. I am learning to be okay with shorter distances - I don't know why I have an issue running under seven miles, but today I ran 10k. I was tempted to tack on an extra one and a half kilometers to round out a seven mile run, but decided: let's be rational. 10k felt good, leave it at that.

In fact, running feels good! During my first pregnancy, I experienced much more pain in my hips and groin during a run, with general achiness after. Perhaps by not suddenly dropping my speed this time, I kept an efficient stride. I had some hip and groin aches early in the second trimester, but I haven't had much discomfort since - even my lower abs are still feeling strong.

Because I usually feel good during a run, it is just a matter of talking myself onto the treadmill. Really, somedays it seems ridiculous that I'm still running. I look at my belly where I used to see feet, I feel the baby shift his weight, I know I will only get slower and heavier. But when I'm in the middle of a run, breathing even, and my feet are landing right: I am coordinated and strong, content to check in with the parts of my body, pleased that I am still able to run.

Sometimes while I am running, I do not feel the limits of pregnancy at all. I remind myself to run tall. My baby belly which makes eating, sitting and bending over to help Claire with her shoes a challenge; my baby belly which makes rolling over in bed a sport - that belly doesn't yet bother me on a run.

I know it will. I am twenty-eight weeks pregnant and in a few short weeks, this boy will be packing on his weight, getting ready to be born. And I'll be slowing down, growing heavy and talking myself onto the treadmill.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

it isn't me, honey, it's kuwait

Parts of Kuwait literally stink. Eau de Oil Refinery. Sometimes, driving toward the refineries, you can see great flames shimmering orange against the white sky. When I first saw that, I thought an apartment building was burning. It was just the gas.

Gas. (Segue here).

We'll be driving around and the air will suddenly stink. "Justin, did you just -" I'll say and before I can finish he says, "No, I didn't fart."

So I've quit asking.

That's what Kuwait smells like sometimes. Like a big fart. And then you'll be through the bad air. I still do not understand exactly why Kuwait smells like this, pockets of noxious gas that make you think of guys sitting around in hunting cabins after a supper of beans and beer.

The one advantage I can think of to living in such a spontaneously stinky country is that you could fart in a closed car and blame it on Kuwait. No one would know.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

pt chronicles: part two

Potty training woes no more. I just hid the underwear from Claire. She gets up, she sits on the toilet reading and chatting, and we head to breakfast. She continues to talk about the potty, mostly saying "Poop! Poop!" and even though I explain wet and pee, it's all poop right now.

Important thing is that I am not going nuts, and that she and I are leaving the apartment. The bathroom is like this background music in our lives right now - it's there and sometimes we stop to hum along. (Terrible analogy perhaps. But it's better than the bathroom being the gong that rings every half hour). I am not watching the clock. Claire comes to me if she needs a change and she is beginning to realize when she has to go before she goes.

Like tonight during bathtime, she stands up and pats her bottom and says, "Poop?" so I set her on the toilet and we read and chat. She gets tired of waiting and returns to the tub only to pause in her splashing to again sit on the toilet. And she pooped! Then she leaned waaay too far into the toilet bowl to look at what Mama was so happy about. Later she was running around - naked time - stopped, announced "Poop" with some authority this time and so we walked fast back to the bathroom and she almost made it! Peed at the door. I set her down on the toilet to finish and we got all excited about that.

So we'll see what happens next. Thank you thank you thank you for telling me to relax about all of this. Claire might be potty trained in a couple of weeks or it might be another month or so before she's dry during the day. Either way, I'm fine.

Think she'll mind that I blogged this? I don't think I've said poop so much in my life as in these past couple of weeks.

Monday, June 21, 2010

pt chronicles: part one

PT, as in Potty Training. As in, I could have titled this particular post: The Mom Who Thought She Was the Toddler. As in, I label it "part one" knowing that an unknown number of parts will finish out these particular chronicles.

Let me start by saying that I didn't prepare for Claire by reading gobs of books about how to parent. I read about birth and breastfeeding and then counted my experience as the oldest of eight as good enough reason to assume I would intuit any parenting situation. But I didn't actually raise any of my siblings and I was in college or on my own when most of the little ones were born. So any really relevant baby and toddler raising experience I gleaned was from weekend visits home; and even then, Justin was usually the bigger hit because he let them climb all over him and knew about things like Legos.

But I did - and still do, for the most part - assume that most parents are given an instinct to understand what their child needs. I think it helps to watch others parent and to ask questions of those who've been there, but I didn't think much about devouring expert advice. I just figured that I'd get it.

And then God gave me a very willful independent busy social little girl who moved quickly from walking to raising ruling ambitions. And about this same time, I thought: well, we should probably begin potty training.

I borrowed Toddlerwise from a friend and read it in two days, reread parts even. It was full of helpful ideas about creating a schedule and how to discipline, and it included a chapter on potty training with suggestions about letting your toddler pick out her underwear and buying loads of juice and treats to ensure that her bladder was full to bursting at each visit to the bathroom. I read this book while teaching and thought: Can't wait until summer when I'll have time to do this! and I returned the book.

Then I started getting really serious about the upcoming potty training. Claire followed me into the bathroom and learned pee and toilet paper and wipe and flush and wash hands. She wanted to sit on the potty. I thought: Awesome. So we spent a couple of weeks casually sitting around the bathroom, Claire on the throne. That was fine, I learned, when another friend of mine emailed me a scanned copy of the potty training chapter from the Toddler Whisperer.

What I really like about Tracy Hogg's approach is that she thinks of potty training as a process rather than an event. She points out that learning to walk takes longer than the first toddling steps; walking begins with the baby pulling himself to standing and finding strength to balance. That's the start of walking, but most of us don't recognize standing as a walking milestone. So she was encouraging to me, essentially saying: Take your time, relax. But be consistent.

Okay. I can do that.

First week of summer vacation: Claire gets up and we go to the potty. She eats breakfast and twenty minutes, thirty minutes, or forty minutes we go to the potty again. We tried all those times, a range from a variety of sources. Her diaper might be wet or dry, but we sit on the potty. Raggedy Ann joins us in the bathroom and we sing songs and read Peter Rabbit and talk about the illustrations. Claire dribbles and I am ecstatic. Overboard, just like the book says. She beams.

It doesn't happen again for me.

The Toddler Whisperer chapter advocates early potty training but assures me that Hogg's "second favorite time" to potty train is the eighteen to twenty-three month window when toddlers are still fairly interested in pleasing their parents. That window is the same window when toddlers are beginning to rehearse for actually turning  two, so it's still a little dicey. The advantage to beginning in this stage is that Claire can understand most of what I say (I am not sure that is always an advantage). So you begin by just putting her in panties.

Which I did at the start of our second week of summer vacation. On day one of Panty Potty Training, Claire was thrilled with her underwear, pointing to them and saying "Pant-tees, pant-tees" and pulling her waistband lower to see Dora the Explorer. We marched to the bathroom every half hour and sat, chatted, sang, read. But didn't pee. She did tell me when she was peeing though, on the floor, standing on the stool, in the middle of the kitchen. We spent day one missing the opportunity to have a Potty Dance by minutes. We would be on our way to the the bathroom, or she would have just hopped down announcing "Aw done!" and Claire would pee and I would wash her panties, give her dry ones and we'd return to coloring or blocks.

Me, just waiting to get it right. That is what it began to feel like: I had to get it right. Something I was doing was not working. I kept missing the cues to shuttle Claire off to the bathroom. I just wanted Claire to make the connection: Peeing on (not next to, or within ten feet of) the potty is GREAT! So when Claire peed in her room (our fourth or fifth almost-made-it-on-the-potty) - "Pee-ing, pee-ing" - I got up and went to my room and cried.

I hated my life in general and potty training in particular. Really, really hated potty training. I thought: Who cares if the majority of kids outside the U.S. are potty trained before age two? And what kind of nut sits their infant on a toilet? Is it really scarring to waddle around in diapers until you're three or four? And if Claire gets potty trained within the next week or two, it just means we'll spend our upcoming vacation to Lebanon searching for public restrooms (which, wait a minute, I'm pregnant: we'll be doing that anyway). Okay, I'll give day two a try.

Today is day two. So yesterday, Claire's bladder was a clock and today it was a time bomb. I kept waiting for her to poop. I thought it'd be terrific for Claire to hit jackpot and poop on the toilet. Claire thought it'd be terrific to say "Poop, poop" and send us running to the toilet, just to sit and flip through Peter Rabbit. I kept trying to summon patience. Claire wanted to live in the bathroom this morning, even if she didn't want to actaully use the toilet. We had two misses, just after nice congenial potty chats and on the second miss, I set Claire to washing her hands and left to cry. I went to the kitchen and cried.

What do I need to do!? Surely the Catholics have a patron saint for this. Perhaps I should convert and light candles for a few weeks. I am standing at the counter, raging at myself for not getting this right! and so upset I think I might toss the dishes out the window. I felt the need to be dramatic. And in the middle of this, I realize: I understand Claire's tantrums! I'm having one myself! Revelation! But still: what do I need to do!? First: get a grip. Breathe. Go make sure the bathroom isn't flooded. And second: just relax.

In the bathroom, Claire is having a grand time at the sink. "Poop, poop," she says, and I empty her panties into the toilet - "See, this is where poop goes!" - and plunk her in the tub for a quick wash. I don't cry, and I count that as success enough.

The measure of my mamahood is not whether Claire goes pee and poop on the potty. I have just spent two days obsessing about potty training and Claire's liquid intake and timing trips to the bathroom. And it's just made me cry and want to smash my dishes.

I was looking forward to hanging out with Claire once I was finished teaching. She's a neat little girl and I enjoy her company, but I've turned our last two days together into something more about me than her. And I've forgotten that potty training is a process: I just wanted it done. Now.

So if having Claire wear panties just means I'm washing out panties (new bathroom decor) and mopping up pee (yea for tile!) and feeling failure at each miss, then I need to give this a rest. When Claire gets up from her nap this afternoon, I'll take her diaper off and we'll go do our bathroom chat with Kitty or Froggy or whoever is joining us today, and then I'll put her back in a cloth diaper. I'll keep an eye on the clock after meals and hope we get a few successful trips to the toilet, but I need to let go the frustration.

I'll call it Potty Training Lite.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

in the heat

Today's BBC forecast for Kuwait is 51degrees Celsius. That is 124 degrees Fahrenheit. I hesitated before deciding to go ahead and make that conversion. Knowledge is not always power. Right now it sounds nicer to say fifty-one and think Wow, that's hot without knowing just how hot.

Yesterday Claire and I went grocery shopping. We get out into the morning heat and she pinks up, tugs at her shirt and looks at me, "Hot. Hot." Once at the Sultan Center, we stand in front of the cool cool air conditioned meat counter and drink water. Claire is a champion water drinker. Back from our errand, her head is damp with sweat and her hair dries in curls.

I am seeing swollen ankles in my future.

Inside, our apartment is comfortable. We get morning sun and keep our drapes closed until midmorning. Our air conditioners can keep up. The other side of the building isn't so fortunate. The afternoon sun is hotter, merciless, and their air conditioners struggle to keep the indoor temperatures in the low thirties (in the 80 or 90 degree Fahrenheit range). There are men securing themselves with ropes tied to our stairway banisters, hanging out hallway windows, fixing AC units all day long.

Since we cannot walk comfortably in the heat, Justin and I will probably start our Mall Routine today or tomorrow. Just heading to a mall - any mall - and walking around in the ice air. Claire has a baby doll stroller she likes to push, drag, or carry. The alternative to wandering a mall is laying on a couch. Somedays that will be the better alternative.

I think of this summer as my Wisconsin winter. Winters keep people inside. In Wisconsin, the winter days are short; the dark and the bitter cold and the wind and the crummy roads say: Watch Oprah. Skip your run. Here, you look outside at a blinding sun, the Gulf a beautiful silver and it looks like it should be perfect summer, but it is just hot hot hot. And we're here for it. Our hot winter.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

out for summer!

I am waiting for my first period students to pick up their report cards and go home.

But this semester was good for me. Not always ideal, but good. I learned a few things as a teacher and I'll carry them to my next job, whether here in another year or two, or at another school.

1. Grading was incredibly manageable this year. I usually balk at the stacks of paper and when I finally sit down to actually read and grade essays, I waver over minute points. Not this year. I did put off grading the research paper - a beast that I was tired of by the time it was due - but when I did sit to grade, I just graded. Rubrics help. But more so, it helps to not second guess every point deducted. Seven years into reading student work and I am finally getting the hang of recognizing an A paper compared to a B paper.

I sometimes lack confidence in my ability or knowledge to grade. I question whether this thesis really is strong enough: maybe it is? is it? hmm. That just adds piles of time to grading. Perhaps I've met an unnamed threshold in essay grading and I finally just know what I'm encountering. I am a much more accurate grader for the experience of just grading - all that practice adds up to understanding how to grade. And I think that makes me more fair.

My attitude toward grading - particularly toward doling out poor grades where deserved - has shifted over the years. Starting out, I would frequently award credit just for completing the assignment and while I still have a few of those grades on my books, I realized it was unfair to give equal points to two students who obviously invested radically different amounts of time and thought in a project. It was also just lazy on my part, and not doing my poorer students any service by feeding them the illusion that garbage work was acceptable. I think that one reason I hesitated to be more demanding in my grading was a. For the first four years of my teaching, I counted it an accomplishment if most of my students even turned in an assignment. Out of a class of twenty, getting twelve or thirteen assignments was good. And b. Aren't we all a little indoctrinated by the You are so special speeches? Giving a failing grade seemed like saying You are not so special. How discouraging.

I haven't sorted out all of my grading qualms, but I definitely felt much much more at ease with my grading this semester. And part of that might be owing to

2. Time management! When I accepted the semester job, I was terrified at how much of my time would now be eaten by stacks of essays and unit planning and rereading novels. I would be teaching several works I hadn't taught previously - so I would need to learn how to teach Their Eyes Were Watching God  and Death of a Salesman among others.

Then I decided: Just don't bring work home. Go to school, work work work at school, come home and be home. I compromised and decided that reading or rereading at home was fine, but no grading or planning. Leave the business at school. It worked. It helped that I was very motivated to keep work at work and home at home. I still carried worries home - student issues, parent meetings that I needed to prepare for - but I'm that kind of person: an overthinker.

Showing myself that I could keep most of my work at work was good. I needed to know that. Unfortunately, while my teaching time management was strong, my personal time management faltered. I still think that full-time is too busy for me as a mom; I would frequently get frustrated that I was so tired at the end of the day - too tired to really enjoy Claire, too tired to fix dinner, too tired to want to invite friends over for a visit. I was not happy that the bulk of my creative energy was geared to teaching well, and that my Book Project became That Thing I Think About and Feel Stupid For Trying. I am looking forward to a couple of months' recovery: cooking regularly, writing consistently, enjoying my time with Justin and Claire.

3. If You Enjoy It, They Might Too. With the exception of a few grammar lessons and some of the SAT prep, I really really liked the works we read and the discussions we had. I found that when I felt an interest or joy in what we were learning, that same energy was returned by my students. (Not all, but enough).

I also sensed a camaraderie in my teaching team. This is the first year I have consistently collaborated with other teachers teaching the same class as me. Previously, I was the ninth grade teacher or the grade twelve teacher, so this semester was a treat to work with three other grade eleven literature and language teachers. They had ideas, I had ideas and we put together some good work for ourselves and our students. I appreciated their collective knowledge and insight and never felt awkward about having stepped in mid-year. Also helped that we could all joke together - humor on the job oughta be a law.

So overall: A good semester. I needed one of those.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

in defense of boredom

The past couple of years, I've had my students read The Boston Globe article "The Joy of Boredom" by Carolyn Y. Johnson. I love this article. If she'd been speaking from a pulpit, I would have been waving my hand and shouting "Amen, Sister!" (And I am not a hand-waving-"Amen, Sister"- shouting kind of gal).

What I began realizing was that many of my students had a different childhood than mine. We didn't have a television for years and when we got one, I watched "Little House on the Prairie" with my mom after school. Consequently, I know nothing about most of the old 80s and 90s sitcoms my husband references: small price. And then I began realizing that my students are enjoying an adolescence that is very very different than mine. While I had access to a home computer and Internet through high school, I didn't own a cell phone until I was twenty-three (I know!). And I wasn't interested in an iPod until I realized treadmill running sans NPR meant counting steps minutes laps, and imagining whirrs and thumps in my treadmill motor that weren't there. But today, the majority of my juniors have mobiles, Blackberries, iPods - and sometimes all three tucked in their pockets. Constantly plugged in, sucking down text messages and song bites from the sky.

So I make my students read Johnson's article, partly because I want to know what they think of her ideas. I don't think they were all waving their hands and shouting "Amen, Sister!" And that's okay.

Last week, as part of our unit on technology - specifically, our personal use of and daily relationship with technology - we had a Break Up Day. If students wanted to participate, they did so by spending one whole day without _____. They sacrificed Blackberries, iPods, Internet, television, their laptops. I gave up Internet and didn't feel too much of a pinch, except that I compulsively troll news websites and Break Up Day meant I had no non-news to chew on.

I didn't find myself bored without Internet, but I have continued to think about the ideas in Johnson's article and what I want my time and mind to look like. Granted, I am not so dependent on a mobile or Internet that my day is defined by constant texting or FB updates. Granted, I spend more downtime reading books than computer screens. But still. I could stand to quiet my mind further.

Elizabeth Gilbert talks about learning to meditate in Eat Pray Love. She talked about how the practice of stilling and focusing your mind and spirit isn't limited to one religion. When I pray, it is often in short breaths, little sentences winged toward God. When I pray, I often forget to practice being still so I can also listen. In "The Joy of Boredom" Johnson clearly illustrates all the ways our minutes are taken from us: we give our time away to short bursts of distraction. Perhaps it is a leap to say that limiting our distractions and embracing a bit of boredom may actually lead to a more meditative state. But at the very least, letting our minds be bored for awhile may open the way for new ideas and insights.

One of my favorite quotes from Johnson's article: There is a strong argument that boredom -- so often parodied as a glassy-eyed drooling state of nothingness -- is an essential human emotion that underlies art, literature, philosophy, science, and even love.

Isn't it though?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

book club selections

Thanks for the suggestions! Here are the choices for next school year, beginning in September.

Island of the Sequined Love Nun by Christopher Moore. I hadn't heard of this author before but that's part of being in a book club: reading something new. This guy sounds nuts, and I hope his humor delivers.

Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert. I just read Eat Pray Love not too long ago and spent the first third of the book wanting to hop on a plane to Naples for pizza. I've heard that Committed - being nonfiction - is much less confessional than her memoir so the style is either more or less appealing depending on what you thought of Eat Pray Love. (Quick aside: I went to Gilbert's site shortly after finishing Eat Pray Love and read that she didn't expect the memoir to be so widely read. I wonder if that expectation - a small audience - freed her to write more for herself than for the book clubs. If you write, you think about things like audience and honesty; the memoir is a slippery and beautiful form. Her Thoughts on Writing is worth reading - glean what you may).

Cooking Dirty by Jason Sheehan. A chef memoir! I might never want to eat at a restaurant again!

The Peep Diaries: How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors by Hal Niedzviecki. I found this book on Oprah's recommendation list and read the first chapter online. I was going to have my juniors read it as part of our unit on technology (too much? not enough? such a personal relationship we have with our cell phones!), but much of the content was an echo of criticism we'd already read. Essentially, Niedzviecki is calling us out for being self-absorbed and thinking that other people are (or should!) be interested in what we are doing or saying. One chapter in and I'm already wondering why I really blog.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. I didn't start reading Kingsolver until a couple of years ago and my favorite book of hers remains the first that I read, The Poisonwood Bible. This year's book club read Animal Dreams, one of her older novels, and now we're going for more recent Kingsolver.

Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology by Eric Brende. I actually read all but the last ten or twenty pages of this memoir a year ago, forgot the book in Colombia, and have yet to finish it. I liked the book a lot and look forward to a reread. It's about a young couple who purposefully spend a year living without modern technologies; an Amish-like community allows them to live within their norms while the couple sorts out what they want and don't want from the modern world. I'm going to hunt around for an update on the couple and their children - I'd like to know what their lifestyle is like now.

Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner. I know very little about this Canadian author but am glad to meet another one, eh. He'll be joined by two other Canadian authors I read occasionally, Margaret Atwood and Timothy Findley.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Recommended by several people. I know little about the book or the author but am looking forward to the story.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. Another book about India to add to my list. One person I know highly recommended the book as an insight into modern Indian culture; since there are many Indians living and working in Kuwait (including our nanny), some understanding of their country and culture is relevent. But another person I know could not even finish the novel. So. I am not sure what to expect.

There you have it: our book club selections. So looking forward to placing a book order soon!

Friday, May 21, 2010

hanging on

So Claire is a lovely girl. She really is.

But last weekend a friend of mine was talking about her little girl, also a toddler, and how emotional this age is. Think about it: in the course of an afternoon, Claire might cry once or twice or five times. How exhausting that must be, to confront frustration and "no"s and bumping your head. She doesn't have the vocabulary or emotional understanding to articulate or explain why she feels what she feels, so she cries.

Right now we are learning to obey. We have been learning to obey Mama and Papa for a little while now and usually all goes well and I say, "Thank you, Claire" and "Good girl, Claire!" Sometimes, like this afternoon, learning to obey looks more like tears and snot and heaving sobs because putting the book back on the shelf is just too much to bear. Sometimes learning to obey looks like me checking my watch and thinking of bedtime.

I am not always emotionally rational myself (re: Spanglish Stove Meltdown, Paperwork Couscous Coup), but I keep thinking that if I continue to speak in a calm, even voice, Claire will be a calm, even toddler. I really don't know why I expect this.

At dinner Claire was still in fit mode. Back arching, angry that we wouldn't let her stand in her high chair. She got worked up. Hysterical. I tried ignoring. I couldn't. Snot and spit all over the tray. So I leaned over and gently took her shoulders in my hands. "Claire," I said firmly, our faces inches apart, "Calm down. Be calm. Stop." She looked at me and then I bent over, let her head rest on my shoulder and we stayed like that, she holding onto my shirt and arm, me rubbing her shoulder with my thumb. She ate her apple slices like that, and a couple of grapes. Just hanging on.

So I've had days like that, when I just needed a day-long hug. When eating dinner or picking up my socks seemed impossible to do all by myself. I read about parenting and I ask about parenting and I watch others parent. Today at dinner part of me thought: well, that book said to let her calm herself down and then she may finish eating. But my instinct said, just let her hang on. She'll finish a lot of dinners on her own.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

maybe we'll move to scandinavia next

Where the good mothering is. I just read this short (short) article delivering the news that Norway is the best place to be a mom and Afghanistan was "at the bottom of the 160 countries listed." The U.S. is near the top at number 28 but "below Greece, Portugal and virtually all of Western Europe," ranking "just above Poland and most of the former Soviet bloc."

The rankings don't surprise me - the healthcare and maternity leave in many European countries is generally more equally generous for women of different socio-economic statuses than what you'll find in the States, and the article points that out - but what did surprise me was the photograph chosen to banner the article.

It's a photograph of a group of presumably Afghan women wearing abayas and veils, standing in a stark mountainous region, organizing great big bags of food or other supplies. No kids in sight. I'm wondering why the Times didn't post a photo of a pale, rosy cheeked Norwegian mom luxuriating in her extended maternity leave, two fat little babies on either side.

There's a book called Material World: A Global Family Portrait that came out several years ago. It's definitely worth checking out from your library to see a quick comparison of average households the world over. I read it shortly before moving abroad and was fascinated by the different normals.

Perhaps a book about mothering around the world would be interesting to read. See what it's like to be a mom in Argentina, or in Los Angeles. See what it's like to be a mom who stays home or a mom that is the breadwinner. What does the day look like for a mom in Kenya as compared to the "to do" list of a mom in Slovakia?

Monday, May 17, 2010

book recommendations wanted

Our book club is choosing next year's book selections. I've gone through a few "best of" lists and found some new titles I'm interested in reading, but I'll bet you have some good suggestions too. Please post fiction or nonfiction titles or authors that you enjoy. I'll let you know what we choose.

Super excited about getting a new list of books to read! A Kindle is on my current Want List, and Justin just might be convinced after we tally an overseas shipping order. Let me know if you have a different online reader to recommend too - I know there is Sony's eReader (?); I've also heard that Google might be introducing a product you can use with iTunes books (coming soon?), Amazon, or Barnes & Noble. I haven't done much research on Kindle alternatives, but if you've got insight, do tell. Thanks!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

what i need

I was listening to a 60 Minutes broadcast during my run this morning and Andy Rooney started his weekly rant. I usually skip him because I can only take so much rant about the postal service or unemployment or whatever. But he said something about how we eat even though we aren't hungry and we buy even though we don't need and so I listened. He wondered if we could create a pill that would deaden want want want.

Lately, I've found myself if situations where I stop: want or need? A friend of mine is leaving Kuwait and selling an armchair and ottoman and I want that furniture because it's fat and comfortable. But it's also expensive and I don't need it. With the school year ending and teachers moving, there is a scramble to buy and sell and I am trying not to get too caught up in the want want want.

Today I started running through a list of my recent wants: new Birkenstocks, half the stuff still packed in my parents' basement, M&Ms and Reece's Peanut Butter Cups (here but expensive and gone too quickly from my cupboard); new running shoes, more color on the apartment walls, new dishes, a pizza cutter, a French rolling pin and a pastry board, a nice dining set, more plants for our space.

And yet, I live. I'm learning to wait for the first want impulse to pass. Then I decide.

Monday, May 10, 2010

shout out

To my sister-in-law Joie who has finished recording her first album. Joie has a beautiful spirit and the voice and musical talent to share her insights through song. I haven't listened to all of her songs yet, but last year she emailed me the track to "Walk in My Light" and I was grateful that she was given words that also spoke to me.

Here is her music page on her blog. I encourage you to take a look and listen.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

cat's cradle in a religious society

Last week I was called in to the assistant principal's office to talk about a writing assignment I gave my students. We're reading Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut and in the book there is an invented religion, a forbidden religion that is all the more attractive because it's forbidden. Bokononism is a joke. It's full of silly little proverbs and senseless parables and the satire is on any religion itself.

So I asked my students to write about why people may be skeptical of organized religion and why people may choose to follow a religion. We talked about the difference between organized religion and personal faith. A separate writing prompt asked them to invent a religion - with no worries about it actually catching on - and I made clear that this prompt was given because in the book, a man invents a religion.

Anyway, after twenty or twenty-five minutes of focused writing, we discussed what we'd written. Most students chose the religion prompts to write about (there were three other prompts on the list), so our discussion centered on opinions about religion and faith. The discussions were honest and thoughtful. The list of reasons why people are skeptical of organized religion were typical: conflicting passages in a holy book, hypocrisy close to home or seen in religious leaders. And as for why people choose a religion: family tradition, a sense of community or belonging, insurance for the afterlife. But then they also delved into faith: that leap we make to believe what we cannot fully comprehend. Most discussion was thoughtful and respectful, though there are arguments - always points of disagreement when you talk about religion or faith.

I learned  a lot. The majority of my students are Muslim and while we never branched into a comparison and contrast of major world religions, I did see an everyday-ness to their religion that I don't think I'd find in an average North American classroom. Granted, not all of my Muslim students are strict. There is a spectrum to most religions: how closely you choose to adhere to texts and tenets, whether or not you intrepret scriptures literally or account for historical and cultural factors. Just how ______ are you? Can you pick and choose? Can you be Muslim and not pause at each call to prayer?

(I'll admit that I expected the society to shut down during prayer times, especially since there are mosques scattered conveniently and most malls have prayer rooms for men and women. The first time we were out shopping and heard a call to prayer, I was shocked to see all Muslim men and women continue eating their meals, buying their clothes, chatting on their cell phones).

Anyway. During one class period, a student mentioned that you might doubt parts of your religion if you line up verses that seem contradictory. Another student immediately argued that nothing - nothing - could be contradictory in the Qur'an. The argument went nowhere. I tend to think there are always questions believers of any religion have about their scriptures. I stepped in to say that, and that I don't think asking a question is always wrong: that questioning can lead to searching for an answer, which can lead to a strengthened faith. If the questions pile up, then a person might begin to look at other beliefs. A few students agreed. But the one repeated that you could not doubt a word of the Qur'an.

At the end of the day, I checked my school email and saw there was concern about the writing prompts I'd assigned. I went to the office. I knew that you could not say anything against Islam or the Emir of Kuwait, but I hadn't thought that the phrasing of my prompts was inflammatory. In fact, Islam wasn't the only religion discussed.

What I learned is that in Islam, you cannot ask questions. That's an uncomplicated way of putting it, a short answer later given by a Muslim friend. Asking questions - for example, pointing out contradictions between different verses - is not allowed. You follow because you follow. Okay, so this clearly is not how all Muslims live and believe. But since not questioning is a religious expectation, my prompt asking students to think about why people might be skeptical of organized religion was inappropriate. You are simply not supposed to be skeptical. And asking students to "create a religion" just as Bokonon did in the novel is probably close to sacrilegeous. Or, as our Arabic principal put it when I apologized to him the next day, "It is very dangerous."

So I wasn't in trouble, exactly. The issue is an issue because, as my assistant principal kindly reminded me, "This is a religious society." There is evidence of Islamic practices everywhere in this country, from the absence of pork and the presence of abayas to laws allowing men multiple wives. But I'd never sat around and thought: I'm smack in the middle of a religious society. Afterall, I can still practice my own different faith, even attend a Christian church. But as a teacher, I need to remember that the Ministry of Education isn't informed by current Western curriculum, but by respecting Islam. I honestly did not know that the prompts might offend. I told my students that the next day, when I un-assigned the religious prompts. And I assured them that my intent was not to offend or to suggest that they create a religion to replace Islam. Most students were understanding.

But now I am still wondering: Is questioning or doubting my own Christian faith also wrong? Am I to take the view of my Muslim student who repeated that you cannot ask a question if you believe? Or is God patient with my questions and doubts - and is it okay if some of my questions are never completely answered, if some of my doubts are not satisfied by assurance? Can I still claim my faith then?

Friday, April 30, 2010

six weeks

Until the semester is finished.

When I was a CA (Community Advisor) in college, I remember my Hall Director telling me that you are remembered for how you finish a job. I think she was speaking that as a warning. Middle of the night lock-outs and roommate disputes and puke on the stairs gets old fast. And when a job gets old, it becomes difficult to be gracious.

Last year when I decided to stay home with Claire this year, part of my decision was based on my fear of burning out. Teaching is a sucky job sometimes. I was beginning to wonder if it was my profession or just my job. Was it okay if teaching was just a job? Could I be a good teacher if I didn't martyr myself with loads of nightly grading? In college I took an English methods class with a woman who equated teaching with becoming a nun: both require total devotion. I remember a couple of the other students nodding in agreement. I wondered what I'd gotten into.

The first couple of years teaching were terrible. Every day is trial and error. At my first district, I taught a student in my junior/senior class who was only two years younger than me; the freshmen were near intolerable and the only reason I didn't hang myself was because my eighth grade students were still kid enough to not be too snotty. I hated it. Not all the time, but a great deal of the time. Most veteran teachers say that the second year is better (it usually cannot get too much worse), so I spent the first month of my summer off talking myself into returning the next year. Then Justin's new district called me for an interview and I was hired there instead.

I learned a lot at that district. About teaching, about myself, about parents, about politics. I had good classes and bad classes. I had moments of inspiration and moments of frustration (oh, I'll just say it: I wanted to bang my head against the cinderblock wall). I figured a few things out. I wanted to figure out a lot more. The thing is, it can take a lot of time to gain confidence in the classroom. When we moved abroad, I felt like a first year teacher again, trying to figure out what to do with a classroom of students and not enough books. I taught some great classes and some muddling classes. I began to read more about how to teach, and to revisit advice given by past teaching colleagues. Last year, I think I was a better teacher. Not brilliant, but better.

And last year, I was also ready to be done for awhile. My friend Karla once told me about an English teacher friend of hers. This English teacher friend did not stay an English teacher for long. He began to hate English - the literature, the writing - because his students seemed to hate it. He was trying to share something he loved, and they weren't interested. So he quit. A lot of teachers quit.

They probably become engineers and business managers to replace the ones who idealistically leave their careers to give back to the community by starting charter schools. (That's meant jokingly, but could also be true).

So this year - the year that I was going to stay home, learn to plan a weekly meal menu and grocery budget; the year I was going to write my book (still have until July 31!) and think about what might come next for me teaching-wise - this year, I stepped back into the classroom for second semester and realized: I'm actually getting the hang of teaching. This is my seventh year in the classroom and it is finally clicking. I'm not as incompetent as I sometimes fear. I do have enthusiasm for what I teach (except straight up grammar instruction: gag). I continue to learn from my colleagues and my students. And I enjoy teaching.

What happened? I'm counting down to a relaxed summer schedule and looking forward to staying home next year, but I am not rabidly anxious to be out of the classroom yet. And that is a good feeling: to realize that this job I have isn't that bad. I rather like it.

Now I need to rather like it for six more weeks. Graciously.