Friday, January 21, 2011

Kindly Cooperate

I live in a strange place.
This sign is posted over a toilet in the ladies room on the 16th floor of a downtown office building.

  • Please don't splash water on the ground. (starts reasonably enough)
  • Bad treatment to environment always bounce us. (hunh?)
  • We ladies should be ashamed to keep the toilet dirty. (whoever came up with that one should be ashamed!)
  • We should be ideal to both men and children. (setting the bar high)
  • Kindly cooperate. It's everyone's. (This one I get)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Note to self:

Close eyes.

Inhale deeply.

Exhale slowly.


Conjure up cottage waaaaaay back home.

Stand by deck and look at the lake.

Feel a breeze.

Smell the rain.

Look up and see an eagle coasting, coasting, coasting way up overhead.

Imagine the sounds: kids playing in the park below. A motorboat off in the distance.

Smell the smoke from the neighbor's wood burning stove.

Do not wake up.


Damn it. I woke up

Saturday, January 15, 2011

An Echo on the Sad Sound

I have had some interesting feedback on my post on the sadness of the call to prayer. One of my dear friends and faithful blog readers had the following insight (btw, she's Kelley, married to Ken, and they are both incredibly musically talented):

Reading your Call to Prayer post has me pondering about the sadness. I agree, when I hear that chant in a vacuum, it sounds very sad – Ken would have all kinds of words to say musically about the scale tone that is used, and whether that scale tone is “familiar” to that region in sacred vs. secular music, and all that stuff… Middle Eastern music almost always sounds sad to me because of the minor scale tone and the more nasal vocal sounds I generally associate with it. But when you read the translation of what the call is, it’s pretty amazing – and I’m glad it was on the link you sent us to… though the sounds may seem sad, the text is rather uplifiting:

God is most great. God is most great.
God is most great. God is most great.
I testify that there is no God except God.
I testify that there is no God except God.
I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of God.
I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of God.
Come to prayer! Come to prayer!
Come to success! Come to success!
God is most great. God is most great.
There is none worthy of worship except God.

Other than the Muhammad bit, this is like the first two movements of our Christian mass… though Presbyterians don’t do the whole liturgical deal outright like Lutherans do, the general mass structure is still the same. The first two parts are:

Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy)

Gloria (Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of goodwill. We worship you, we bless you, we adore you, we magnify your holy name… the full Gloria goes on to incorporate the Apostle’s Creed)

I’ve sung some pretty sad sounding Kyries, and I’ve also sung some pretty lilting ones… Gloria is always joyful… but Ken always reminds us with a Kyrie, that we’re asking for God’s mercy and peace – in whatever is happening to us at that time, sometimes good, sometimes difficult. And though we don’t deserve it, He gives it to us… which is pretty awesome stuff.

So, listening to it again, there are times when I think it might be sad – when the singer or the hearer is pleading for mercy and peace through a difficult time. But it could also sound purely in awe – the “I can only imagine” kind of awe that God grants me mercy and peace each and every day, no matter whether I’ve been a faithful servant that day or a less-than-stellar one. God is most great.

What I told Kelley:
When I knew I was moving here I was actually looking forward to the daily prayer calls. Though many people complain about them I told myself I would use them as a reminder to intentionally aknowledge God where I was. I guess it still works that way, only I have to say, many times it turns into a question "God, where are you???" The chanting uses the word Allah, and the Muslims have such a differenct concept of, and relationship to God, that it feels more like He's "their God" and not mine, though I know there is only one God. It's a very hard thing to get my head wrapped around. Then when I went to India and experienced an even stranger belief system, one with Gods (as in many of them) I really got confused. Their faith is just as strong (seemingly even stronger) than mine. They don't question.

I love your (Kelley's)musical interpretation and seeing the paralels to what we believe. What a really, wonderful message. Thank you!


I think over this last week I've been pre-occupied with death more than I am consciously aware of. I guess that's what happens when someone you know dies. It slaps us in the face with the inevitability of death: no-one escapes it. And no mortal knows with certainty, except those who plan their own escape, when it will claim us. But when it happens to someone close or a family friend, and sometimes to someone you don't even know but occurs in a shocking way, it makes an etching in your head and on your heart and colors the way you see things whether you are aware of it or not. Or at least it does for me. This week it's the reminder I get during the calls to prayer. Here occurring five times a day, the first before the sun comes up. The last as I close out my day. It's just very draining. I love what Kelley said about it. Now I need to bring it to a more intentional listening than just a sad echo running throughout my day. Thanks friend!

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Sad Sound

The call to prayer is exactly as it is every day five times a day. Why does it sound so very, very sad today? Sometimes it sounds so very, very sad I can hardly stand it, Today is one of those days. To listen to what it sounds like go here. Make sure when you play the "Listen: call to prayer" buton you hang in there through the long pauses.

Now it is Friday afternoon, about 1:00. It is the big prayer of the week. Outside of my window at the Mosque accross the street (and fifteen floors down) I see hundreds (maybe even a thousand) men, mostly in white, kneeling together towards Meccah. They were all summoned here by this haunting, mournful chant. The stairs are littered with the shoes they have removed. I wonder how they all find the right shoes when it is done.

And now it is done and in about two and a half hours from now I will hear the call again. And then again at 6:00 and 7:30. And then tomorrow morning before 5:00. Will it sound so sad each time? I'm running out of tears here.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


A message came via Facebook today with bad news about a mutual friend. My dear friend had a bad fall and is on life support system which is scheduled to be shut off soon. I feel so very far away. Not totally isolated as that is what the world of Facebook and e-mail and Skype has eliminated. I am not isolated from what goes on. Just so very far removed and feeling helpless to help and alone in my grief. When you are close and able to do things like care for the family and comfort each other it is a very different experience. My heart goes out to Mary's family, especially her two young daughters and her sister. I cannot even imagine...

Friday, January 7, 2011

Movie Break

Yesterday Melissa and I escaped to Dubai. It's amazing what a little road trip every once in a while will do for the mental state. After an ill-fated start where we were literally in no-man's land, stuck in a series of off-ramps and sideroads, trying to get to a gas station to purchase a auto toll antenna for the car (we were unsuccessful :( , we managed to get to Dubai mall. I've typed about this place before: the largest mall in the world. Next to the tallest building in the world, the Burg Khalifa.

We opted for good sushi at a belted place and then walked around and tried on clothes and got depressed (there are no clothes for "curvy" women here. The curvier ones can just throw on an Abaya and not worry about tigher fitting things) we opted to take in a movie at the theater at the mall. We chose a good chick flick "Life as We Know It" or something like that with Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel. There were several groups of abaya clad women out for a night with the girls and it reminded me so fondly of Lincoln Square Theater at home (minus the black toilet fixtures...I hate those things at LS). Squeezing the mini into the painted out parking spaces and meeting with my girlfriends for a chickflick.

When buying tickets for the movies here you also pick out your seat assignments so though there were empty areas Melissa and I were plopped down between two groups of abaya clad women who greeted us with friendly smiling eyes from behind their veils. The movie was in English with Arabic subtitles. Good for us. Maybe not as much for them but I think they are used to it. At one time there was a slightly steamy scene between the couple on screen. It seemed like everyone in the theater except Melissa and I were giggling and whispering. So then I got to thinking about the image of America that must be commonly shared here by those who have never been. Especially during the backyard barbeque birthday party scene where everything just looks so, I don't know, "perfect." Families of beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes eating beautiful cake in beautiful weather. No wonder when I say I am from American their eyes twinkle and they say "very nice."

At one point I go to put my cup of pop in the cupholder between me and my abaya clad rowmate beside me. It wasn't settline into the holder just right and fortunately I grabbed it back just before the woman next to me moved her arm. The wide flowing sleeve of her abaya, designed to also cover her hands, had settled over the cupholder. Disaster averted. I carefully removed her sleeve from the holder from then on before placing my cup.

The other thing about watching a movie here, or going to a meeting for that matter, people do not turn off their cellphones and do not hesitate to pick up a call no matter where or when it happens. Nobody has voicemail (well maybe a few do but it's not common)so they pick up a call even if it comes in the middle of a movie. Something I don't think I'll ever get used to.

The drive back was uneventful and we even found a decent spot to park when we got back around midnight. It was a good break. What are you all doing this weekend?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

'Ears to Spain

Our last evening together after 13 wonderful days in Spain will be the most memorable. “The ear incident” will go down in history as one of our most bonding moments.

Throughout our trip, this man child of mine, 22 years old now, impressed me with his sense of adventure, flexibility, tolerance and open mindedness. It surprises me to write any of these adjectives in describing my son, as a few years ago these words probably would not have been on my list to describe Andy. He has been away at college for almost four years now. While he usually stayed with me during holiday and summer breaks, like most kids (or men? Or what term do you use?) his age, our together time was often a meal or trip to the store together, squeezed between our mutually separate social engagements with friends. Since I have been living in the United Arab Emerites for the last six months our contact has gotten even sparser. Coordinating a call by Skype or check in by email requires intentional action on both of our parts, and frankly, life, and a twelve hour difference in time zone plus difference in the days each of our resident countries considers weekends, tends to make communication less spontaneous or frequent. So I was delighted to experience, over a prolonged period of close interaction, the man he is becoming.

Our days together in Spain were a wonderful chance to reconnect. The start was slightly off balance as Andy, fresh out of finals at college, fell asleep during his connection time in Philadelphia and missed his connecting flight. But once there, he dusted off his elementary school Spanish lessons, opened up those not recently used mental files from his World history and humanities classes, dug into his dusty knowledge of ethnic cuisine and showed me what a well rounded, interesting human being he is. We stood side by side rubbing our chins in front of great masterpieces by French and Spanish Impressionist artists. Muttered under the radar “they call this art?” standing in front of huge canvases with a dot or stripe that passed for great “modern art.” We shuffled through huge cathedrals, looking up at the spires and frescos and collectively gasped in awe. We strolled through parks, taking in incredible building architecture and turned together towards statues and street lamps and remarked how impressive it all was. We hopped on trains, he helping his mother lift luggage to upper racks. I watched with pride as he offered his strong back to other ladies on the train travelling alone to help them lift their luggage as well. The locals appreciated his awkward attempts at Spanish. He told of the interesting people he had talked to in the airports and in the bars he went out to a few evenings without his mother, until he got all his money stolen in Barcelona by a pick pocket at night and decided staying in was maybe better for now. He was tolerant (but maybe not gracious) about my snoring which can be problematic for a light sleeper like him, especially when sharing a hotel room or small apartment flat. I was sleeping lightly too (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree) especially because I was trying not to disturb him, but I guess when I did fall asleep it wasn’t quietly!

Our last few days in Madrid I was feeling the dread of saying goodbye looming ahead. We also were running low on cash. You already know what happened to Andy’s. And I had lost my ATM card in Seville. We found that Andy’s ATM card was not forwarned of his trip to Spain and so was not forthcoming at the machines. I gave up trying to get hold of an international operator as it seemed impossible to get any operator that would try to understand my poor Spanish or pretend to speak English to get me the help we needed to call the bank collect. So we counted our Euros, used Visa as much as possible and stressed a little on that front rather than having our thoughts around the pending separation.

After checking out of our Madrid flat and spending several hours at the Rene Sofia Museum of Modern Art, we used our squandered Euros to catch a bus to the airport and another bus to the hotel in Barajas, a short ride from the airport. Because of the cash shortage I had not been able to buy the ham and other pork products I wanted to bring back to the UAE so we found the local supermarket with a “We take Visa” sign in the window and filled our basket with the hams and sausages, Spanish sweets for Andy to take home, and snack items for me to send him with on the plane, because despite the years and independence, he is still my little boy and I want him to have food with him when he travels. When we got to the counter at the grocery store the checker ran the Visa card “Ee sais declinnnneded.” I had just used the card at the hotel so know it was working just fine. But she tried again. No luck. Andy stayed with the stuff while I ran back to the hotel to get my back up Visa card. Alas it was also “ee sais declinnneded” as well. Nothing to make you feel like an irresponsible adult than that message….even when you know it is not your doing. At this point Andy was hungry and we were still hours from being able to show up at a respectable hour at a Spanish restaurant (they eat out late like most of the world). We went to the hotel room and with quite a bit of further surfing on the internet and false starts I found a way to get an international operator who would call my credit card company. On the line with them she confirmed there was no problem with the card and deduced it was the store’s problem. So she helped me figure out my pin number for the Visa to get cash from the ATM (and a disgustingly high interest rate) and we got enough cash for the groceries and to pay for dinner out as well. After returning triumphantly from the store, with our regathered items, we headed out for dinner.

The tapas bar/taverna/restaurant was the same place I had gone the night I stayed in the same hotel when I had waited for Andy’s arrival two weeks earlier. It sits in the corner of the town square, just a block from the hotel. It is a place where the locals hang out, and the only English we hear spoken is our own. The waiters few words they know enables them to serve their occasional English speaking patrons. I was happy to see that the Christmas decorations I had seen on my first visit were still there, now, a few days after Christmas, as I had told Andy about the cute little Santa’s hats they had on assorted booze bottles on the shelves behind the bar.

This was our last evening together and we decided, especially with cash now in hand, that we should share good food together and drink as much as we needed to get through one last loud snoring night together. The waiter had brought a nice plate of delicious bright green olives to go along with our first beers. I love that in most taverns in Spain the waiter will provide a small dish of something extra. “Complimentario” they say, as they place a dish of olives, or cheese croquettes, or creamy garlicy boiled potatoes in front of you. Andy and I started through the menu. We decided to go one dish at a time, in order to string out the evening and give us more chance to visit and drink together for our last supper.

First we shared lightly breaded and fried wild mushrooms with a camembert cream on the side. “Champinones” con crema camembert. That one wasn’t too hard. Then a salad of tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. Maybe not the best season to order it but it’s something Andy and I often made at home so it was good to eat that together. On our third glass of beer now and contemplating the main course, where our Spanish is really struggling, another waiter nearby looks at us, sweeps in and takes our Spanish menu and gives us one that has been translated into English. We thought that would take the fun out of it, but then start to read through and laugh at the mistakes in the translation. They have consistently typed “wiht” for with. There are tenderloins of kangaroo. Really? There are “baby somethings” and other miscellaneous misspellings and descriptions that even in English make no sense. In the main courses list we find “griddled ear” and laugh about what must have been lost in the translation there. It’s probably rabbit (hare) or boar, either of which we are game to try. When I ask the waiter about it he says “ah yes, griddled ‘air (rhymes with hare). Very good.” And so we place an order for one.

Soon he arrives with our fourth beers and a plate piled high of what looks and smells like chunks of fried pork with a cut fresh lemon on the side.

Andy pops a bite into his mouth. “Hot” he muffles out. Then he starts to chew. “Weird. Fatty. Crunchy.” He gets a funny look on his face and takes his fork to the platter and starts poking around. I’ve also popped a piece into my mouth. It is indeed fatty and crunchy. Though tasty. Good pork tasty. But as I am chewing it dawns on me what I have done. Upon close inspection we see that it is indeed ears. Pigs ears. There are tips, and cross sections, and even the parts that swirl around where it goes into the head. I feel sick. We spit our mouthfuls into our napkins simultaneously. And chug on our beers. We are looking at each other. And then we laugh. A good falling off our chairs laugh. A sick, un unh we did not do that laugh.

But then we are contemplative. What do we do now? We have this huge pile of pig ear that we must get rid of. In retrospect I don’t understand why we felt this way, but at the time the mission was to get rid of it instead of leaving it untouched. I think we didn’t want to admit that we didn’t understand what we were doing. We did ask for “griddled ear” after all. And I’m sure it was very good griddled ear. For someone who eats ear. But not for us.

We both take our napkins (paper thank goodness) and scoop large quantities into them, leaving a respectably small layer of leftover bits swimming in the fat on the platter. But then what? I take the tail of the scarf I have wrapped around my neck and wrap it around my hand with the ball of ear bits enclosed. I excuse myself and walk through the restaurant, past the waiters who are hanging at the top of the stairs, down the stairs where thankfully there are no people waiting for the ladies. Outside the ladies room is a small wastebasket. I drop my ear bomb, go in wash up and return to the table.

Now it is Andy’s turn. He has no scarf or purse to hide his ear bomb in. The waiters are standing near the top of the stairs and so I am surprised when he stands up like he is going to head to the bathroom. Instead, he looks around; takes three steps over to the fireplace by my side; and stuffs the ear bomb into one of the stockings innocently hung from the mantle as decoration.

I am stunned.


“Oh no you didn’t” I say. Oh yes he did.

“Now we have to pay in cash.” And so we did. We wrapped up the evening with conversations about how we could not return to this restaurant and probably this town ever again. Whether he would run out and ditch me if we got caught (he assures me he would, the bastard). I nearly fall off the chair when he innocently makes the comment, after thinking about how we haven’t been very nice “we should leave a big tip.” That gets us going on a whole round of sayings about our trip. “We traveled the lobe together.” “Ears to us.” “We should have a glass of swine. White swine.” We are quite entertained with ourselves.

We have to order tiramisu and coffee. Must get the taste of pork ears out of our mouth. And then we have to call it a night. Our adventure is coming to an end. Planes to catch early in the morning. And we need to leave before we give ourselves away. You know. Just in case they do a stocking inspection or something.