Monthly Archives: February 2011

Great books I’ve been reading (but not writing)

Happy Monday. I’m still pretty busy with consulting work at the moment, and it’s usually very interesting stuff. Today, however, not so much. I’ve spent most of the day going through facilitator handbooks, slides, and handouts, checking and synchronizing reference numbers for a series of workshops on stress and resilience. O holy tedium.

Part of the problem is that I’ve combed through this material so many times during the last month that I’ve been helping content edit this course. Now, whenever I open the project files the peanut gallery that lives at the back of my mind starts yelling things like, “boringboringboringboringboringboring!!!….” And they throw things – not nice things, either. And sometime they spit.

It’s remarkably similar to the reaction I get whenever I venture to open the draft of my next book, actually.

I like to tell people that I’ve been letting my book sit a while, getting creative distance, so that I can come back to it with fresh eyes for the next (hopefully last) edit before I send it to my agent later this year. Sounds good, huh? Just between you and me, though, I suspect that the following two facts have at least as much to do with my recent dallying on the memoir:

(1) I have not committed to other people to meet certain deadlines.

(2) No one is paying me quite nicely to tell the peanut gallery where to stick all their shrieking and mocking, grit my teeth, and plow forward.

As my husband frequently remarks, I can be bought, so if anyone wants to remedy point 2 let me know.  The currency Mike typically uses is white wine and massages. As one of these bribes, however is currently unavailable to me (thanks a lot, baby), and the other I can source myself with a bike ride and 5 dollars, any offers will therefore have to up the ante a bit.

So, speaking of books, here’s a look at several I’ve read since we arrived in Laos that have provoked an entirely different reaction from the aforementioned peanut gallery – cheers and claps and showers of caramel popcorn.

Twenty Chickens for a Saddle: The Story of an African Childhood (Robyn Scott): I just finished this last night and loved it – a wonderful, often funny, very well-written and thoughtful memoir of the author’s unstructured childhood in rural Botswana.

What Is the What (Vintage) (Dave Eggers) This fictionalized memoir of Valentino Achak Deng – a refugee from the Sudanese civil war – packs a real punch. It’s interestingly structured for a memoir-esque book, poignant, soul-stirring, and thought-provoking.

A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana (Haven Kimmel) This memoir is a great example of how a talented storyteller can turn the most prosaic of raw material into a compelling narrative. I don’t know how Haven Kimmel managed to turn a childhood in Indiana into one of the funniest books I’ve read in ages, but she did.

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned to Live a Better Story (Donald Miller) Part memoir, part meditation on story itself as well as the sorts of stories we are all writing with our lives, I read this book with a pen in my hand. Lots to reflect deeply on in here, and lots of wonderful gems on the writing process (My great author friend, Nicole Baart, loved this book so much she did an entire blog series on it, starting here).

Found Art: Discovering Beauty in Foreign Places (Leanna Tankersley) This memoir of meeting, marrying, and then leaving immediately to spend a year overseas, was a perfect book for me to read at a perfect time. It was wonderful to read someone else’s honest, lyrical, reflections upon transition and marriage. I immediately looked Leanna up and subscribed to her blog.

Water for Elephants: A Novel (Sara Gruen) Really enjoyed this novel. Set in the colourful world of a traveling circus it’s an escapist read that is really fun but is also laced with plenty of depth and poignancy.

Belong to Me: A Novel (Marisa De Los Santos) De Los Santos is also a poet, and her novels are lush, dense with insightful gems on relationships and life, but also compulsively readable. This book helped me pass several hot afternoons inside a guesthouse just after we arrived in Laos.

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (James H. Silberman Books)(Normal Doige) This is an utterly fascinating look at brain plasticity. Highly recommended for people interested in understanding learning and combating learning disorders, brain damage, and aging. I found chapter four on Acquiring tastes and loves: What neural plasticity teaches us about sexual attraction and love particularly intriguing. There’s a very interesting discussion in there on how pornography changes neural wiring around attraction pathways.

I think that’s enough from me today about other people’s amazing books. What about you? What books have you read recently that caused your peanut gallery to whistle, stamp their feet, and give two thumbs up?

Puppy lessons in parenthood (2)

It’s lunchtime in the McWolfe household of (temporarily) seven. Chaos is reigning. The three and six year old are loudly demanding their lunch, Mike is trying to finish his before he has to go back to the office. The baby’s been strapped in his stroller. Zulu is meandering around hopefully.

Mike and I watch as Zulu wanders over to the baby in the stroller.

“Awww…” we say fondly as our little dog sniffs nicely at the baby’s toes, then moves upwards to the baby’s hands – exploring ever so gently and sweetly.

“Good dog, good boy, nice gentle licking, good kissing of the baby,” we both praise him proudly, then pause as Zulu turns to trot away, tail wagging, and with something long and yellow hanging from his snout.

“What’s that in his…” Mike and I say in unison, just as the baby’s mother – from the kitchen – calls out, “the baby has banana!”

Zulu flicks his head back and the banana disappears.

“Awwww, Zulu!” we say in an entirely different tone, staring at our unrepentant puppy. “You stealer of baby food! You furry little thief! You should be ashamed of yourself – we are ashamed of you!”

“Welcome to parenthood,” says the mother in the kitchen.

Zulu playing nicely with another baby – the puppy next door

…And playing less nicely with the puppy next door

…And playing less nicely still

…And this was the end of that particular play session

Lessons learned about Laos, parenting, and development work, in Phonxai

On Monday, Mike and I plus the friends we have in town at the moment (Mum, Dad, and three little boys aged six, three, and 8 months) traveled up to Phonxai so that Mike could inspect a school in progress. This was an all day endeavor that involved renting a landrover and spending more than six hours traveling – about five of them on dirt roads.

As always when I travel up to the villages here in Laos, it was illuminating. In no particular order, here is a summary of things I learned or relearned on Monday.

1. Northern Laos is lush with mountains and winding dirt roads dug into the side of steep slopes.

2. Water is life – the rivers paint the valleys a vivid green, even when the hills are a dusty and parched brown.

3. In Lao, X is pronounced S (Phonxai is pronounced “Ponsigh”)

4. If you spend five hours in a landrover on dirt roads when you are four months pregnant you’ll end up feeling well frothed on the inside. Also, you should not drink a great deal in advance of this trip, and you should definitely wear a sports bra.

5. British kids will find even the cool season here in Laos uncomfortably hot.

6. Boys who are three and six years old have an incredible capacity to repeat the same observation or question numerous times (e.g., “gosh, it’s very bumpy, isn’t it?” and “are we nearly there yet?” and “why not?”)

7. If you let these same two little boys sit in the back-bench seats of the landrover together (even with two adults back there as well) trouble will erupt roughly every thirty seconds as long as they are both awake. You will find yourself repeatedly saying things like:

  • “I said, bottom on the seat! If you can’t stay sitting down you’ll have to come sit in the middle seat with mum.”
  • “Leave your brother alone! Don’t touch him! Not even one finger!”
  • “Stop singing that song! I mean it, you have until the count of five!”
  • “Try not to throw up, OK? Take deep breaths, look out the front window, and here’s a plastic bag just in case.”

8. If you want to make little boys deliriously happy, all you have to do is get in a landrover and drive back and forth across rivers – stopping every so often to let them walk across a bamboo bridge adjacent to the crossing.

9. Little boys will be quite enamored with squat, bucket rinse, toilets and very probably decide that they’d really rather have this type of toilet in their own home.

10. People all over the world are fascinated by each other’s babies. If you are a mother carrying a baby, you don’t need a word of the local language to effectively communicate on this subject.

11. Lao children in the classroom are remarkably well behaved, despite being packed onto backless benches. If a strange adult walks into the classroom they will leap to their feet and greet you with a polite sabaidee in unison.

12. It is a lot easier for non-profits to raise money to build schools than it is to fund teacher-training programs, but many rural schools suffer from a shortage of good teachers.

13. Rice banks (a village-run storehouse of rice that village families can borrow from during the hungry months and then repay the loan plus five percent interest after harvest) do great things in helping to reduce food insecurity. In one village we visited, of the 93 families in the village more than 60 borrowed from the rice bank every year. The rice bank had been started with an initial, donated, “fund” of two tons of rice and now had a total fund of about six tons of rice.

    Mountains in Northern Laos

    Water is Life

    Bamboo bridge across river in Northern Laos

    Fun at river crossings

    An old school building in Laos

    Children in a new school building in Laos

    Even Lao children find it too hot sometimes

    Learning about the village rice bank

    Inside the rice bank

    A busy weekend

    On Friday afternoon good friends from London arrived… with their three small boys in tow (six, three, and 8 months). They are staying a week, and Mike and I have been having a blast showing them all over town this weekend. We’ve been out at Kuong See waterfall, which the six year old says, “is like the sort of dream place you want to think about when you’re trying to go to sleep.”

    And we’ve been dining by the Mekong, checking out the boats:

    And we’ve been trekking around Paper Village learning about how they make elephant dung into paper…

    And how they weave silk into scarves…

    In short, we’ve been having a grand, hot, fun-filled weekend (though, I must say, one that’s made me grateful that Mike and I are not having triplets in five months – one will be plenty to start with). Tomorrow we’re up at six to head up to the villages for a day. Back with you later this week when things calm down around here. Hope you all had a great weekend!

    Finding out you are pregnant, in slow motion

    I’d always thought that you would find out you were pregnant for the first time in this sudden, formative, instant.

    Here’s how I imagined it went: You show outstanding restraint and take a pregnancy test on the day after your period is due. If you are, indeed, pregnant, the line on the little stick that you have just managed to pee on in one graceful controlled stream that doesn’t go anywhere except on the stick and in the toilet, turns pink (or blue, or whatever colour it’s supposed to turn). Bright pink. Bright, neon, practically flashing-like-a-Las-Vegas-show-sign, pink (and well within the two minutes that the test is supposed to need to work). Then you know. You know within the span of a single heartbeat that your life is about to change forever and you rush out of the bathroom and find your husband and have a moment. A once in a lifetime, tender, unique, set to the music of violin-playing-angels, moment.

    Yeah. That’s so not how it happened for me.

    I took the first test the Saturday my period was due – the morning I was to leave Mike behind in Laos for two more weeks while I headed to Australia early for Christmas holidays. I will not comment on where, exactly, pee went during this process. I’ll just tell you that the result was negative.

    Later that night I started to feel sick in Bangkok airport. Very sick. I began to wonder whether the test had been wrong – maybe this was morning sickness? By the time I was throwing up violently in the bathroom of the boarding gate right before I got on the plane I was desperately hoping it was not morning sickness.

    It was not morning sickness. It was food poisoning.

    In Australia my period still didn’t come. Perhaps the food poisoning had thrown my system out of wack? Perhaps I was pregnant? I took a test on Tuesday, then one on Thursday. Negative. Not pregnant, then. I celebrated/mourned these results with a glass full of sauvignon blanc from New Zealand.

    “I don’t understand,” I said to Mike on Friday night when my period still hadn’t appeared. “Most of those things promise “early response” and claim to be able to tell you up to five days before your period is due. The tests say 99% accurate.”

    “Isn’t that the false positive rate?” Mike said. “It’s probably not the false negative rate.”

    Oh, right. Duh. Five years of statistics classes at university serving me well yet again.

    I did some research on Dr. Google. The false negative rate for pregnancy tests is significantly higher than 1%.

    While we were out and about on Saturday I bought another test. I was appalled to find out how much they cost in Australia and set the expensive little sucker aside to use first thing in the morning on Sunday, as per instructions.

    On Sunday I woke up at 5:30 in the morning needing the loo. With this test you had to pee in a cup and then float the stick, firmly anchored in a rubber ring.

    I peed. I floated. I watched. Two minutes passed. Nothing. I consulted the instructions again. It said that results would almost certainly appear within two minutes, but if they appeared within two to ten minutes it was still a valid result.

    I went back to bed and lay there staring at the ceiling.

    After eight minutes I got up and checked again.

    There was the very faintest of pink lines, almost a shadow really, where the positive result should have been popping up.

    I checked the box. The picture on the box showed the positive line as fainter than the control line (a sturdy, vivid, purple) but surely the line should be brighter than that??

    Back to Dr Google. Had anyone else gotten faint lines with this test and wondered if they were pregnant? Were they? Half an hour of research later the answers to those questions appeared to be yes and yes.

    So I was very likely pregnant.

    I lay back down on the bed to think this over and fell asleep.

    When I woke up two hours later I called my mother upstairs.

    “What do you think?” I asked, showing her the stick and the box.

    “Maybe I need my glasses,” she said slowly, “but I’d say that’s positive. Yes. Well. There you go!”

    Then she walked out to continue getting ready for church.

    Luckily Mike was up, Mike was on skype, and skype was working. We even had video.

    (Pause here to insert melodious Ode To Skype).

    “What are you doing?” I asked.

    “Taking care of our baby puppy,” Mike said, still sleepy. “He woke me up at five, whining.”

    “Well,” I said, “while you’re taking care of our baby over there I’m taking care of our baby over here.”

    I held the stick – not that he had a hope of seeing that faint shadow of a line, but it felt like a useful dramatic prop for our big moment.

    “Oh, that’s great, honey!!” Mike said, smiling. Then he said, “I knew you were pregnant yesterday. After all you are a week late now, and you’re never a week late – but I thought I’d just wait until you figured it out yourself.”

    “What?” I said.

    “History suggests you need time to process these things,” Mike said serenely.

    “That is not…” I said, then stopped. I sighed.

    “Hey,” I said conspiratorially, “can you go down to the corner chemist and buy me another pregnancy test and bring it out with you next weekend?”

    “What?” Mike said.

    “They only cost sixty cents over there, and they cost twelve bucks here!”

    “But that one’s positive!” Mike said.

    “It’s very probably positive,” I said, looking at it again. “But I just want to be sure.”

    “OK,” Mike said. “You’re pregnant, but OK.”

    Mike did not bring me my backup test from Laos (he said he thought I was kidding when I demanded he produce it the following Saturday – husband fail) but I’m not sure it would have convinced me. Frankly, there was a part of me that still couldn’t grasp it until we had an absurdly early ultrasound (since we were headed back to the land of few doctors) and I saw the heartbeat on the screen. Contrary to everything I’d expected, the whole process of finding out that I was pregnant was much more of a slow reveal than a single, life-transforming, moment. I wonder what other expectations will get turned on their head during the next couple of years?

    What about you? When’s the last time you had a “moment” not go at all as you’d expected?

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    Battling acedia through energetic engagement

    I’m happy to report that the weekend was acedia free and full instead of life admin like grocery shopping (hooray for cheese imported from New Zealand and ground beef from the German butcher, let me say), and seeing friends here, and dining out at a new restaurant, and eggs on toast and ginger tea for breakfast.

    Oh, and chocolate and coconut ice cream from the German guy down the street. I plan to con/beg/plead/command/cajole until we walk down there this evening and have some more. It’s getting warmer here again and those two little scoops of ice cream served in a frosty glass goblet… luscious.

    Sorry, I seem to spend 50% of my time at the moment thinking about food. There is plenty of perfectly lovely food here in Laos, so no one need feel the slightest bit sorry for me, but there are certain things that are just not the same. Do not even get me started on how much I miss really good hamburgers and bbq sauce and sweet potato fries. Or ribs. Or (and I blush to admit this) Panda Express orange chicken and chow mein…

    I must stop. Therein lies the road to madness. And 15 extra pounds.

    So I’m not at all sure I did a decent job of explaining the concept of acedia last week. Here are a few more summary points that might help clarify things before I get to what Norris says about fighting it.

    Who? “Acedia can strike anyone whose work requires self-motivation and solitude, anyone who remains married ‘for better, for worse,’ anyone who is determined to stay true to a commitment that is sorely tested in everyday life.”

    When? In the middle of the journey. The monks used to talk about it striking when the day was already halfway through but evening seemed a long way away (I wonder what the monks here in Laos would have to say about the whole concept?). Norris takes that and stretches it out like this:

    “Acedia, it seems, is not only the demon that lobs an assault at midday but also the bad thought that afflicts us in the middle of life, when it seems impossible to care about so many things that used to matter. Do I have to care, if it means having to acknowledge the contradictions and dissonances by which I survive?”

    Acedia verus depression: Norris tries hard to differentiate the concept of acedia from depression, and I’m not sure she always succeeds. As she herself says, “the boundaries between the two are notoriously fluid… acedia operates on the border between the physical and spiritual life.” At risk of oversimplifying, Norris suggests that depression is an illness treatable by counseling and medication and that it’s causes are often easier to discern, while acedia is a temptation or a vice that is best countered by effortful engagement in life, spiritual practices, and the discipline of prayer.

    The power of routine to help us fight acedia: “What is it about repetitive acts,” Norris asks, “that make us feel we are wasting our time?… Everyday life [which can numb and weary us] also holds the seeds of salvation.”

    I don’t think Norris is saying that we should find cooking dinner every night or scrubbing the toilet regularly so meaningful that we are inherently fulfilled by the activity and set other dreams and aspirations aside. But she does believe that these sort of routine activities – when done mindfully, inhabiting the moment with acceptance rather than resenting it as a chore – can help provide the scaffolding of a more peaceful and centered life. These and other spiritual disciplines – practices that connect us to something larger than ourselves and help grant us perspective – can return us to “essential understandings that we can discover in no other way.”

    Food for thought: “Disdaining ordinary mundane chores that come to nothing can lead to my discounting personal relationships as well.”

    What to do about it? Norris describes the opposite of acedia as energetic devotion, and the monk Evagrius had this to say about fighting it; “What heals acedia is staunch persistence. Decide upon a set amount for yourself in every work and do not turn aside from it before you complete it.”

    Norris’ remedies for acedia are simple: Start something. Go for a walk. Memorize Scripture. Read the Psalms and monastic writings. Seek community. Worship. Shovel manure. Dust a bookshelf. Wash dishes. Write. Be kind to one another.

    Do this all deliberately, with thankfulness for the moment, with self-awareness, and without haste.

    Food for thought: “Do you devour each moment distractedly, hurling yourself into the future?”

    For writers: Even as she discovered her vocation as a writer, Norris says, she had to struggle to maintain the boring work habits and routines necessary for nourishing it. In discussing what she’s learned about weathering dry spells as a writer she says:

    “It helps considerably if one has developed writerly habits. People often remark that they would write, or paint, or sculpt, if only they had the time. But this is pure fantasy: the artist does whatever is necessary to arrange her life so that she will have time to make her art. Even as I fret over juggling responsibilities to my ageing mother, my disabled sister, my friends, and my art, I have to admit that it is not obligation I fear, but my distressing eagerness to squander the precious time I do have in running from the emotional demands that writing will make of me.”

    Anything jump out at you from this post? Anything that rubs you the wrong way or that you still wonder about? For me, many of her words on the writing process resonate. It is usually when I am spending a lot of time alone and I’m in between projects (or avoiding starting a new writing project that I know will be difficult) that acedia is likely to take hold.

    I hope you’ve had a great weekend, wherever you are placed around the world – a weekend free of acedia and full of ice cream.

    Acedia and Me

    It’s Thursday morning and I’m at the kitchen table in my pajamas, eating cereal and trying to ignore Zulu, who is sitting silently by my side and staring up at me with big brown eyes. Occasionally he’ll lie down without being asked and wag his tail, just to show me what a good boy he is and how much he deserves a treat.

    I told Mike last night that I sometimes feel guilty when I eat in front of Zulu without sharing because he so obviously longs for what’s in my bowl and I know I could make him so happy (for at least the half second it took him to gulp it down) by giving him some. Mike told me I had boundary issues.

    So this morning I’ve read the letters in all four email accounts, perused my google reader, checked facebook, skimmed the news, glanced at Twitter, and now I’m stuck.

    What I should be doing is going upstairs, taking a shower, and then getting down to work on the trauma chapter I’m slated to be writing this week for a university in London. Or writing a thought-provoking blog, or even a fun and frothy blog along the lines of, “ten ways owning a puppy has helped prepare me for motherhood”. Or doing one of any number of other productive things, like pregnancy yoga, with my pajama-clad self.

    But I’m in one of those moods. The only thing I really want to do right now is bake giant ginger molasses cookies. Except there are a couple of large red stop signs standing between me and executing this want – most notably the fact that there is probably no molasses within a 500 mile radius of me, closely followed by the fact that we do not have an oven.

    Given that, I just want to go back to bed and keep reading the book I started last night. But even that plan is not sounding all that enticing.

    “Maybe you have acedia,” Mike said last night after I’d kept him up past his bedtime, tossing and turning and sighing and admitting that I was in a woeful mood and had no idea why.

    “Maybe I have pregnancy,” I huffed. “Maybe I’ve been waking up half a dozen times a night because my bladder is now the size of a lima bean, and there are mosquitoes in here, and someone snores.”

    “That too,” Mike said, clearly hopeful that if he appeased me I would let him go to sleep before midnight.

    But I’ve been thinking about this issue of acedia again this morning, and of a book I read a couple of years ago – Acedia and Me, by Kathleen Norris.

    I heard Kathleen speak several years ago at a writer’s conference and immediately put this book on my “to be bought” list. When it arrived I read it with highlighter in hand, and today when I flipped through it again the book was full of colour. Acedia is definitely something I’ve struggled with at times, and even if the root cause of my problems at the moment are primarily pregnancy hormones and disrupted sleep, the mood it’s engendering certainly looks something like acedia.

    So what is acedia?

    Acedia was originally a monastic term, one of the “eight bad thoughts” that plagued monks. The monks often referred to acedia as the noonday demon – a great lethargy, restlessness, and animosity that beset the monks during their afternoon prayers. Over the centuries, however, some of the subtlety of the monk’s conception of these eight bad thoughts as temptations that an individual may identify and resist before they turned into harmful actions was lost. The eight bad thoughts became the seven deadly sins, and acedia was subsumed within sloth.

    At its Greek root the word means “absence of care.” Someone afflicted by acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. Norris puts it this way. “I suspect that much of the restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair that plague us today are the ancient demon of acedia in modern dress. When we look at acedia’s root meaning, as not caring, we can see it as a social problem, and perceive that the sloth it engenders is anything but an insignificant physical laziness. It may even manifest as hyper-activity, but it is more like the activity of a hamster on a treadmill than action that will enhance the common good.”

    Norris writes that, for her, acedia manifests first as a series of thoughts that tempt her from her work. These thoughts tell her it’s not worth it, or too much effort, or to take a break and do something more fun. If she indulges that voice for too long, she says, she can then start to grow weary with the repetition involved in daily routines of life such as showering, shopping, and cooking. She slips into states she calls “both anxious and lethargic” in which she can trudge through several paperback novels a day for days on end – not so much reading the books as consuming them. She complains of having so many leisure choices that she grows indifferent to them, even as she hungers for still more novelty.

    Does this ring a bell for anyone but me?

    Next time we’ll look at Norris’ thoughts on battling acedia.

    Have you ever heard the word acedia before? Do you ever struggle with it? What do you tend to do when it strikes? And what do you think of the quote below?

    “If the church has made too much of the sin of pride, which seduces us into thinking too highly of ourselves, it has not made enough of the sin of sloth, which allows us to settle for being less than we can be, both as individuals and as society.”

    Monkeys, puppies, and pregnancy yoga

    So much has been happening that I’m not sure where to start. Perhaps with the bad, sad, news. I have been informed that Abu, the monkey, has escaped from his abode and has now been missing for ten days. This means no more monkey play time for me in the near future, and no more monkey photos for you. Mike said that Abu probably ended up in a perfectly lovely soup somewhere. I told him that no one likes him (Mike, that is, not Abu. Everyone liked Abu.)

    Well, everyone liked Abu except the person who actually had to live with him when he squeaked like a wind-up toy for hours on end, or leaped up onto the bench and took a single bite out of twenty different bananas, or tormented the puppy to distraction.

    Abu, may you rest in peace. I’ll miss you, anyway.

    To continue with the less than great news, Zulu’s not himself. Last week he threw up all over the house in the middle of the night. Poor Mike, who got up first and cleaned most of it up, reported that he hit three of the four corners of the rug in the study, and deposited one offering right in the middle.

    Post puppy-vomiting Zulu went right off his food, and has refused to eat anything but rice soaked in chicken soup for most of the last week.

    Yesterday I came downstairs at lunch to find Zulu galloping around and foaming at the mouth. It looked as if he’d swallowed a whole container of bubble bath. Foam was just dripping from his little jaws and flying around in big, white, bubbly clumps every time he shook his head. He shook his head a lot. This was when I said a small prayer of thanks that I do not have to mop our floors (right before I said a small prayer that went something like, “please don’t let our dog have rabies.”)

    We took Zulu outside and poured buckets of cold water over his head to wash away all the foam and then tried to take a look in his mouth to see if anything was in there. He wasn’t a fan of this plan, but as far as we can tell he didn’t get into any of our cleaning products, and we still have no idea what caused the bubble mouth. After an hour it just stopped.

    The vet doesn’t think he has rabies (plus, she pointed out, he’s been vaccinated). She thinks he’s been eating geckos or toads. I don’t think so, as he has a lovely habit of bringing whatever he values into the house and dropping it on the floor (this includes large rocks, dead sparrows, big clumps of dirt, and bones) and I haven’t seen any mangled geckos or toads among his treasures.

    “Living with Zulu is good training for not needing to have the house neat and clean all the time,” I said the other day, as I stepped over a pile of dirt and shredded newspaper that had been lovingly constructed in the middle of our living room over the weekend.

    “So is living with you,” Mike said.

    My guess is that Zulu has been sharing a virus with his new five-week-old friend next door, as that puppy has the same symptoms. I did learn something new from the vet yesterday, though. Zulu will take three injections without even a whimper as long as someone is feeding him a steady stream of tiny cheese pieces and/or buffalo meat. I wonder if that will work with babies?

    Speaking of babies, I’m at week 14 now and I’ve had more than a week of feeling so much better, but nausea’s back today. What’s up with THAT? I definitely have not been eating geckos or toads (though I was vastly entertained last night to see our local vegetable seller just down the street is now also selling dead rats and toads by the bunch, right alongside the Japanese eggplants and beans).

    If only humans hatched babies so I could let someone else sit on the nest for a while. I wouldn’t let Zulu do it – he’d doubtless eat the egg. But Mike’s pretty responsible, I’d let him take the egg to work with him and he could sit on it there.

    Given that I can’t palm this off onto Mike, however, I feel I’ve been doing my part to keep the little egg healthy. We regularly walk around town, and I’ve been doing prenatal yoga three times a week. I don’t have a yoga blanket, but I’ve found that the couch cushions work quite well. I don’t have a yoga strap, but one of Mike’s belts is an adequate substitute. And I don’t have a yoga block, but finally I have found a use that my beloved mother will wholeheartedly approve of for the item in the following photograph.

    What unusual uses have you been putting household items to lately? And any ideas on puppy bubble mouth? And while I’m asking questions, has anyone seen Abu?

    Until next time, thanks for dropping by.

    Terrible mother

    Last night as we got into bed:

    Me: “I’ve been reading a couple of pregnancy books, and a lot of them talk about women crying over diaper commercials, and not being able to think about anything but the baby, and totally freaking out right around this stage about whether or not they’ll be a good mother.”

    Mike: “Are you worried about that?”

    Me: “No! I mean, the baby’s six months away. That’s ages. Why would I worry about that now? I have too much other stuff to do. Who has time to worry about the baby six months before it’s due?”

    Mike (carefully): “Well, past experience suggests that you’re not always the world’s fastest processor. So I’m just saying that if you start to worry about that next week, or next month, that’s OK. I’ll tell you now that you’re absolutely not going to be a terrible mother.”

    This morning, after Mike had delivered tea and fruit to me in bed, and was getting dressed for work:

    Me: “I had a dream last night that we had the baby, and then I went out to dinner with my parents. And my Dad asked halfway through dinner where the baby was, and I’d forgotten and left it at home. I also hadn’t fed it all day, because it never cried and reminded me.”

    Mike: “What happened then?”

    Me: “Dad sighed and rolled his eyes and picked up his mobile and said he’d call Michelle (because the baby was sleeping in her room anyway, not ours)…”

    Mike: “Of course it was.”

    Me: “… and Michelle would take care of it.”

    Mike: “Did she?”

    Me: “I don’t know. Because I got lost driving home, and then I woke up.”

    Mike: “Where was I?”

    Me: “Oh, you weren’t there.”

    Mike: “Don’t worry, you’re not going to forget our baby.”

    Me: “It would be sort of nice if I could – I mean, if it never cried and it was actually possible to forget about the baby for an entire day. That would be fine with me.”

    Mike (laughing): “I take it back. You are going to be a terrible mother.”

    Stories we tell our grandchildren

    It’s been a busy week on this side of the world. I’m juggling two consulting projects from the kitchen table here in Laos, both for clients in London. One of the projects is reviewing training material for workshops running in Sudan and Chad next week. Sudan, incidentally, is where my father headed off to for two months yesterday on his own consulting project. The world seems very small sometimes. Well, except when you’re flying across the Pacific – then it seems enormous. Or when you stop and think about the fact that your immediate family is once again scattered over four continents.

    OK, the world is not that small come to think of it. But thank God for the internet, and for skype. One of these days I will write an Ode to Skype. I will.

    Did you know that when I first went to University in Sydney (way back in 1995) I wrote weekly letters back to my parents – who were about as far away as they could get, in Washington DC – and received weekly letters back? I sometimes also used to receive cartoons that my mother had clipped from the Washington Post and stuck in an envelope and posted with nary a note inside. Not even a scrawled, “Thinking of you. Love you”. This practice invariably made me roll my eyes. We didn’t even have our own individual phones in our dorm rooms. Nine of us that lived in the same group shared a phone in the common room that could only receive incoming calls. So on Sunday mornings I used to hang around the dorm waiting for my parents to call in. Sometimes we connected, sometimes we didn’t.

    Mike and I were talking the other day about the stories that we might tell our grandkids. My grandparents tell stories about not finishing high school. Or getting married at twenty and then having him go off to fight in WWII two weeks later and not coming back for two years. Or owning and working a sugar cane farm, and the year that there was a huge flood and the barn burned down. My father talks about growing up on a dairy farm, and how it was a special treat to have chicken on Christmas day, and how he had to milk all the cows before and after school. My mother talks about going to school in a three-room schoolhouse down the road with 40 other kids.

    These stories fascinate me. I can remember this sugar cane farm – my mother’s parents didn’t move off it until I was about thirteen – and I briefly attended this tiny school in between the time we lived in Bangladesh and the first time we moved to Washington DC. I’ve glimpsed these lives, but they haven’t really been mine. I feel that way a lot, actually – that I’ve glimpsed many, many different lives, but most of them haven’t really been mine. This process of figuring out what sort of life has been and is mine remains an ongoing one.

    Mike and I decided the stories that would probably seem as foreign to our grandkids as stories of two-year separations during World War II seem to us, would be the stories about LBTI – Life Before The Internet. It will probably be inconceivable to our children, not to mention our grandchildren, that this time existed before computers in homes, before email, skype, and mobile phones, before the bone deep assurance that you can reach almost anyone, almost anywhere, as quickly as you want and need to.

    I reckon these stories – the ones about handwriting school assignments in eleventh grade, researching papers using only our set of encyclopedias, penning letters home in University, scheduled weekly phone calls that sometimes didn’t happen, and years spent in overseas countries when my parents could only call their parents very infrequently (and it cost the moon) – these are the stories that will smack of science fiction. They will force these children to imagine a world very different from the one that they know.

    What do you think? And what sorts of stories have your parents and grandparents told you? Does the world that they grow up in seem foreign or familiar?