The Word “Gullible” Doesn’t Actually Appear in the Dictionary

Teddy said it was a hat, So I put it on. Now dad is saying, ‘where the heck’s the toilet plunger gone?’

–Shel Silverstein

In Northern Minnesota, winter is long and spring capricious. By April, residents’ moods correlate to the thermometer. 

That’s why, on a rare, glorious, sun-drenched Saturday when I was out for a run, I decided to pull off at the beach and sit for a spell on a driftwood log. 

And by “sit for a spell” I mean “people watch,” and by “on a driftwood log,” I mean “and eavesdrop.”

To my right was a mother with her two young sons. Languidly lying on the warm sand, the mother kept one eye open, watching her boys make ruts in the sand with the tires of their big plastic truck. As is the way with preschoolers, their chatter and energy were ceaseless; Mom had more than earned a few horizontal minutes. 

Increasing my delight with this family scene was the fact that the younger boy had a dream, a fervent wish expressed when he ran to the edge of the lake and yelled, ten times in succession, “I weally want to go potty in da wake! Mom, I weally want to go potty in da wake! I weally want to go potty in da wake! I weally want to go potty in da wake, Mom! Mom, I weally want to go potty in da wake! I WEALLY WANT TO GO POTTY IN DA WAKE! Mom. Maaaawm. I weally want to to potty in da wake! I weally want to go potty in da wake! Mom, Mom, Mom: I weally want to go potty in da wake! Hey, wake, I weally want to go potty in you!”

As he yelled, amused because he wasn’t my problem, I snapped a quick photo of his earnest posture and posted it online, using his words as the text.

Later, when I got home, Allegra asked me, smiling but not completely certain, “Did that really happen? Did that little boy actually yell ‘I weally want to go potty in da wake’ like you posted?”

Heck, yeah, he did. Why would you need to ask, daughter o’ mine?

“Well, I never know with you. Sometimes stuff seems like it could be real, and then it isn’t. Sometimes stuff isn’t real, but then it seems like it is.”

Fair enough. I’m nothing if not a steadily spewing font of bunk. However, I would have thought by now the 17-year-old would have learned an attitude of healthy skepticism. Ah, but life has given us a great gift: she’s still beautifully gullible.

Years ago in a quiet seaside town, my younger brother and I were paddling in the sea, and a thing that looked like a giant plug floated past us, so my brother took it to my mom and dad. My dad proceeded to shout “Quick, put the plug back in; the water will drain away!” I’d never seen my brother run so fast — to get this ‘plug’ back in to nothing.

I have a wicked big sister. Who told me that vermicelli (sprinkles) on top of fairy cakes was actually vermin jelly and was really disgusting and made of rolled up rat jelly and since she was my kind big sister she would eat it for me. So for years I scraped off the topping off fairy cakes (cupcakes) and gave it to her.

My mom convinced me that if you don’t leap off the end of the escalator, you get sucked in and have to go round again.

My sister used to work with a really gullible girl in a kitchen. There was a block of ice in the sink one day from where they’d been cleaning out the freezers. When she asked what it was there for, the head chef told her he needed it cleaning. Poor girl scrubbed it for ages and kept getting upset that it was getting smaller.

We took our South African friends to watch Greyhound racing at the famous “Walthamstow Dogs” (or “to the digs” as we all fondly called it, thereafter). I told my friend that greyhounds ran, but that if you were lucky you might get to see a “freestyle” race, where any breed of dog can run, where they have poodles and chihuahuas racing against corgis and Alsatians and Labradors and everything. She was disappointed that in the several visits we had there, not one of the races was the Freestyle one.

My two older brothers and I convinced our younger brother that tornadoes happened spontaneously anywhere, anytime. So every time we wanted to distract him, we’d just point and shout, “Tornado!” He’d drop whatever he was holding and fall into the crash position. It was really handy, actually. Also, I may or may not have convinced him that speed bumps were where they buried dead policemen.

When my oldest was riding in the back seat of the car on a long trip, he started bothering one of his siblings. I told him to stop bugging them. He couldn’t figure out how I knew what he was doing behind me. I told him that I had “eyes in the back of my head.” Later I found him searching my head, trying to find them. I told him that they were very small so that they could be covered by my hair, but still see. He believed it for a while. The backseat was much calmer for the rest of the trip.

On holiday with my Other Half, walking along in my flip flops, I stumble, and he says, “Well what do you expect, as you’ve got one of those defective pairs.” So I ask what he means, and he says, “Well obviously, they’re called flip flops, as that’s the sound they make when you walk in them, but the defective pairs aren’t made properly, and they are the flip flips or flop flops, depending on the sound. And they trip you up.” So, I spend the next hour or so telling him to be quiet so I can figure out which ones I’ve got.

Last summer I convinced my brother (whom I hadn’t seen in a long time and was quite lit from moonshine) that my friend Kristine — who had traveled with me to visit — was my sister. We called her Ophelia. We look similar in appearance. My cousin and other brother took it up with, “Your dad was a player.” We kept it up the entire visit and never told him the truth. He still thinks he has a half sister and wonders if there are more.

My all-time favorite story of Allegra’s gullibility involved, fittingly for the girl who adores office supplies and organizational tools, a whiteboard.

For years, we’ve kept an easel in our bathroom, one side of which is a whiteboard. The presence of that equipment in the bathroom has been an ongoing source of familial fun — we pose questions, draw pictures, send good-luck wishes, make to-do lists, always using the space as a place for play and interaction.

One time, Allegra wrote a prompt at the top of the board:

“Illustrate your favorite song.”

In response, I drew:

Next to my drawing, I wrote:

No, it’s not ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’ Yeah, maybe that rain there is purple. But, actually, my favorite song, as illustrated here, is a little-known ditty called ‘I Like an Umbrella I Could Hide a Dead Horse in, if the Occasion Ever Came Up.’ It was a huge hit in 1948 when Bing Crosby first crooned it.

In my mind, that song title was so nonsensical that no one could mistake it for real.

No one has never met Allegra.

That night, she accused, “Your song on the whiteboard isn’t real.”

Well of course not, silly. Who could possibly have thought it was?

She continued, her eyes lit with humor as she shook her head, “Well, I wasn’t sure. I mean, at first, I just though it was ‘Purple Rain’ because PRINCE, but then you threw me with the part about Bing Crosby; I felt like I’d heard of him, so it seemed possible.”

There is a kind of laughter I occasionally fall into. It’s deep and barking, and I can’t control it — a sort of joyful hysteria — the kind of hooting that would get someone sent to the principal’s office for disrupting history class. When this laughter sets in, I can’t stop it until I’m crying, wiping away tears as my belly continues to pip with giggles. As Allegra continued her confession, that laughter started, and I had to grab at the desk for support.

“Anyhow, I googled Bing Crosby + 1948 + umbrella + song. And it was really confusing because he did have an umbrella song recorded in 1948, but it was called ‘A Fella with an Umbrella,’ so then I thought ‘Oh, so that’s the song Mom likes. She just got the title wrong.’ But it still didn’t seem right. I mean, you drew a woman, not a guy. And there was nothing about a dead horse in it when I listened to it. So then I decided you might have made it up. Your favorite song isn’t really ‘I Like an Umbrella I Could Hide a Dead Horse in, if the Occasion Ever Came Up,’ right?”

No, sweetheart. You dear, open-hearted love bug. My favorite song is not “I Like an Umbrella I Could Hide a Dead Horse in, if the Occasion Ever Came Up.”

My oldest brother made me swear off Chinese food for years by telling me that the slimy bean sprouts in Chun King’s canned chow mein were actually tiny penises taken from Chinese boys.

My dad convinced me that a small bump on the side of his face was actually where a spider had crawled up his face really, really slowly, and his skin had grown over it.

When my older brother and I told my little brother his head was too fat to fit in between the bars on the teeter-totter-swing-thingy, he plunged in. And got stuck. Totally stuck. Screaming his head almost off stuck. Almost. Our parents arrived. All the situation did was enrage my father, who tried pulling the bars apart, getting angrier every minute. Our little brother was hysterical. Mom, enabler of father’s rage, rubbed a stick of margarine on the side of my brother’s face so he might be slippery enough to be yanked out. A few feet away, my older brother and I were almost dying of laughter, so glad it wasn’t us there in the chaos.

I believed for years elbow grease was something you brought from shops and looked for it in stores everywhere until I finally asked a woman in Woolworth’s where I’d find it. Everyone laughed for hours. I felt so dumb as I was 24.

When I was eight and my middle brother was almost three, I told him if he put Red Hots up his nose he’d be able to fly. He believed me, at least long enough to try it. Fortunately we did not have to go to the emergency room to get the Red Hots out, but I still got in big trouble.

I convinced my children when they were small that McDonald’s was ONLY for travelers. You could only eat at McDonald’s if you were away from home. They didn’t ever even ask if we could go there, they were so convinced. Until my oldest was about 8 and spotted some friends pulling out of the drive-thru. “Wait, Mom! How can they be at McDonald’s? They just live down the street! They’re not allowed to go there!” That ruse lasted so much longer than I ever dreamed it could, and I laughed so hard at her outrage, I shot coffee out my nose. I had to pull over. I was weeping. The children were, remarkably, not amused.

My husband convinced my best friend that the castle was in ruins because it was the place the first elephant was kept, and it got angry and knocked down the walls. He then went on to say that that is how the pub called the Elephant & Castle was named. She was so convinced it was the truth that she went and asked in the gift shop if they had any books about the elephant that destroyed the castle!

I would tell my best friend’s daughter that I determined her sex by tapping her mother’s stomach over and over again while saying the word “girl.” Somehow she believed this long after she knew about sex.

Later on the same day when I had seen the boy who weally wanted to go potty in da wake, Allegra and Paco and I were laughing about how Allegra is so smart and such a practical person, yet she has this charming purity that allows her to believe whatever people tell her.

As we reviewed her best moments, Paco and I were in the kitchen while she sat on the couch on the back porch — communicating through a screen, with me the priest and her the sinner. At one point, laughter and body converged in Paco, and he emitted a long string of bubbles from his nethers. 

“Oh, crap!” I said, mock-despair in my voice. “There’s a gas leak in the kitchen.” Paco and I smirked at each other. When are fart jokes not funny?

On the porch, immediately alarmed, Allegra fretted, “WHAT? We have a gas leak?”

A tribal elder was telling me about the kinds of animals they trapped and ate when he was a kid. I asked him if they trapped and ate muskrat. “Yup,” he grunted, as he was a man of few words. I asked him if they trapped and ate beaver. “Yup.” After a long silence – several minutes – he asked me, “Did you ever eat crow?” I said, “No, I’ve never eaten crow.” Two days later, I got the joke.

My husband used to tell his sister she was adopted. She’s nearly 40 years old and can to this day recount the way he’d take her by the shoulders, point her toward the mirror and say “Look at you.. You don’t look like EITHER of them.” She entertained nagging doubts for years.

I have a scar on my forehead from my first chicken pock. I used to tell my new friends that my brother tried to pierce me with a one hole punch.

My brother convinced me that I had the sled (our trusty Flexible Flyer) twice as long as he did because I got it on the way up, and he got it on the way down.

My mum had this pretty necklace and convinced me that it was filled with sleeping gas, so I had to be very careful not to touch it, or I might release the sleeping gas. She also had me convinced that she used it to rob banks on occasion. And that she was an alien and had been born from an egg. And that all the people and images in magazines and commercials weren’t actually real, just computer generated representations of something that miiiight be made someday.

Whilst on holiday, we went on a boat trip past this giant rock that mountain goats live on. My boyfriend told me that the goat’s legs are shorter on one side to make it easier for them to walk round the mountain, so they don’t fall off slopes. About a year later we were randomly having a conversation about goats at work – I thought I was being super-intelligent telling everyone my ‘fact’ about mountain goats…..but they all burst out laughing, and someone said how do they go the other way round the mountain?! I was like “Well, I guess they just walk in one direction.”

I believed it when my older brothers told me that you MUST wave hello to a police officer whenever you see one or that they can arrest you on the spot. For years I’d panic if I forgot to wave, so I’d turn around and wave frantically so that they knew I was a law-abiding good boy.

My sister and I fought pretty much every day of our life. No one really liked being around us. We had a beach house about five hours away, and all parents can attest to long car rides with kids saying, “She touched me,” “She’s looking at me,” etc. They put a cooler and other stuff between us. When we were young, maybe about 8-9, my father nonchalantly said he needed us to count the telephone poles silently, so we spent a majority of the ride counting telephone poles.

A few weeks ago on my way down to the Twin Cities, I stopped at some outlet stores, thinking I’d take a wander around The Gap. One can never stay too much on top of cargo-pocket-based fashion, after all.

45 minutes later, a heap of clothes in my arm, I headed towards the check-out. Ever the magpie, I noticed a bottle of lovely purple nail polish on a shelf by the cash registers. Whispering, it told me it would wike to come home wif me.

Back at home a few days later, I put the bottle onto the shelf of polishes that Allegra and I share. Not too long after that, I noticed she had pulled that new polish and set it on her dresser in the spot where she stages her “soon-to-use” bottles. 

Semi-predictably, because some teenagers lead with awkward coltishness, gangling their way through their days, it didn’t take long before a CRASH followed by an “Uh-oh” emerged from her room.

I didn’t need to ask. I knew exactly what had just happened. “So I’m guessing that sound was the new nail polish breaking?” I called as I skittered down the hall.

Wow. Nice. It looked as though a steam-roller had done gear-shifting practice all over Barney the Dinosaur. 

Allegra was already on the floor, picking up pieces of glass. “I’ll grab tissues ’cause that stuff is going to dry quickly,” I offered. 

“Yeah, it’s already drying,” she added. Within minutes, we were wiping her floor and our hands with nail polish remover. Soon, the crisis was over, and the ribbing could begin.

For the next few days, I’d periodically drop some guilt on her — “We hadn’t even used that new polish yet. It was so pretty. I drove two hours to find exactly that shade, and now we’ll never get to enjoy it.”

Eventually, I realized that Allegra and her team had an upcoming track meet in the town where the outlet stores are located, so I was able to add to the teasing: “That’s going to be so awesome on Friday when you ask the bus driver to pull over at The Gap for a quick minute so you can dash in and buy a replacement bottle. I’m sure your teammates won’t protest.”

The day of the track meet came. On such days, Byron and I usually text her to check in on how her races went, to see what they’re having for dinner, to find out if there is an ETA and if she’d like someone to head to the high school to meet the bus and walk home with her.

That Friday, I also texted:

It seemed clear to me I was joking.


The next afternoon, the guileless girl checked. “Did you really think I asked the bus driver to go to the outlet stores? I feel like you actually thought I was bringing home a new bottle of nail polish — I mean, you were so serious with what you wrote in that text.”

No, sweetpea. Yer old ma was just joshing you.

“Oh. Well, I couldn’t tell. I thought you were going to be disappointed.”

Staff at camp convinced me that fish don’t have babies but, rather, they divide in half down the middle and grow their respective missing parts. They convinced another that the first thing you do when building a fire is make sure their aren’t any rocks in the fire that could explode from the heat.

Our little sister was making chocolate-covered raisins one evening. Lib convinced her to make some chocolate-covered dog food and took it to school the next day to feed to her friends. To this day she swears some of them loved it.

When he sprained his thumb, I told my son they may have to amputate it and give him a hook. Later, when concerned mothers from the PTA were calling about his “upcoming surgery,” I realized it’d gone too far.

My brother’s father-in-law convinced my now-wife at Thanksgiving that John Madden’s six-legged turkey was a real turkey that they created with a mix of breeding and nuclear mutation. She believed us for half a football game.

I bought Catholicism hook, line and sinker. Eating and drinking blood and body of Christ. Devil potentially inhabiting every person I met, just trying to trip me up. Saying prayers in succession would earn me forgiveness for pouting when my mom made me brush my teeth. Brimstone and fire for those who didn’t attend church.

My kids (probably until they were 12 or so) thought that time ran wonky on New Year’s Eve. I think they assumed that because it was the end of the year the flow of time was unpredictable, or something like that. In reality, hubby and I were setting all the house clocks back by two hours so the kids could celebrate at midnight but we could still go to bed at a decent hour.

From Santa Cruz, California, it’s possible to see Monterey across the bay, and when the fog is in it looks like an island. The family joke is to tell people new to the view that it’s Hawaii and then try to keep a straight face while they ooh over how close it looks. My husband fell for it (years ago), and we’re still teasing him…

My roommates put raisins in my toothpaste, and I thought it was bat shit (which they encouraged). They egged me on to call the Crest hotline. Then they sat in the other room laughing while I was on the phone freaking out asking if the people who stirred the batch were eating Oreos.

I love Allegra’s innocence so much, and while I want her to develop a nose for hogwash, I also hope, in the soft corners of my heart, that she is allowed a life so fortunate her defenses never have to be raised higher than an arched eyebrow.

Fervently, I wish for her continued artlessness — mostly so I can tell her:

“That means you are a person with an appreciation for art but who doesn’t own any pieces of significance.”

I can’t wait to watch her face as she nods, absorbing a new word into her vocabulary.

Tip of the hat to contributors on Facebook and from the forum who shared tales of gullibility.

If you care to share, click a square:

No Shit

It’s almost midnight when I notice the hummock of wet tissue resting in the bottom of the hotel toilet.

Two quick thoughts careen through my brain: “Where did all the water go?” and “Why would the Michelin Man come here to die?”

My brain isn’t functioning at its peak; twenty minutes ago, I took a half-dose of a sleep aid, hoping it would help me nod off before my usual 2 a.m. bedtime. I need to get up in the morning, push past my hatred of speaking words out of my mouth before noon, and interact with colleagues. The faculty union is holding its annual delegate assembly, and if I have any hope of tracking the amendments to the amendments to the resolutions tomorrow, I need my brain to reboot overnight.

Achieving a turned-off brain while staying in a hotel is remarkably difficult, in truth. A chronic night owl, I am also someone who doesn’t have cable, someone who loses her mind when she sounds out the letters H-G-T-V because H-G-T-V stands for “Somebody with a limited budget wants to buy a tiny home!”

Even more, my brain is zinging because I’ve had dinner with friends from the college where I used to teach. I’ve had a steak avec pommes frites. I’ve had a couple of drinks. I’ve had my friend Kirsten hanging out in my room for late-night snacks and giggles.

Even even more as I rattle restlessly around my room, natural nocturnal energy pushing against dissolving sleep aid, I’ve discovered a new program on the Discovery Channel, and every time I think I’m going to shut down and try to zzzzz, a new episode starts. 

You guys. Guys. You. Guys. Hey, guy. YOU. Have you ever heard of a show called Naked and AfraidHave you?


Comforts stripped, the modern-day ratings-driven Adam and Eve are each allowed one thing: a woven bag, ostensibly to hold the video cameras they will need for filming daily grubby, gaunt-faced confessionals in front of sandstone backdrops, but more to cover their genitalia so that the entire show isn’t merely an extended shot of blurred-out testicles. Additionally, each competitor may bring along a single helpful item, usually a knife, a fire starter, or a pair of Fluevogs. But outside of those things — oh, and the accompanying crew of individuals filming the show and calling in the EMTs in case of radical dehydration or heart failure — our Adam and Eve are entirely on their own, left to swat mosquitoes for three weeks while tossing covert glances at each other’s taint.

The premise is seductive; the reality is stomach-growling tedium edited to interest. There in my hotel room, enjoying a previously unrealized opportunity to watch naked people crab at each other and poke sticks into the mud while alligators lurk in the murk, I. am. riveted. To my detriment, every time one episode ends, a new one begins. On the clock with commercial breaks, I tear into the bathroom, empty my bladder, and rush back to press my face against the massive screen.

Essentially a toddler, I am easily overstimulated. By this point in the evening, what with food and friends and tv shows, my brain has grabbed a handful of markers and started scrawling all over the white walls, one hand tucked into the back of its Pull-Up. 

Ideally, my actual body should be wearing a Pull-Up. That way, I could urinate in front of the television, alleviating the bathroom race, a slapdash trip that keeps me from noticing — until the third back-to-back episode starts — that there is very little water in the toilet yet a goodly amount of toilet paper. Huh.

Perhaps, in my haste, I’ve been hitting the flusher too quickly? Maybe it needs a holding. 

Crikey. That water level sure gets high when I hold down the handle. 

But also, out in the other room the Mormon guy who has promised his new wife he won’t hook up with the naked lady with whom he is starving for 21 days is about to start his morning prayer, which goes something like, “Dear Father, I have done no cuddling, so please help me kill a snake today. But first, may your bounty allow us to find the right kindling to make sparks.”

A toddler-woman can hardly be expected to stand in front of the toilet, idling away the minutes watching water levels, when there’s Mormon prayer for snake happening in the next room.

Thus begins a late-night session of interval training. Every twelve minutes, I bang into the bathroom, notice the water level has subsided while all the toilet paper remains, and flush again, my heart as full of hope as a Latter Day Saint snatching at the back leg of a scampering lizard.

To be honest, the toilet holds me in thrall as much as Naked and Afraid does; it’s a game of chance, isn’t it, repeatedly tempting a cranky toilet to overflow and then watching it fail? Persisting through six or seven flush cycles, the natatory toilet paper is mesmerizing: like Tibetan prayer flags lining the trail of an Everest ascent. Every flush is a gamble, a heart-rate elevating pull of the lever. Because I am both simple and an optimist, part of me believes that enough flushes will clear the obstruction, and Adam, Eve, and Jocelyn will live to begat another day. 

It’s almost 1 a.m. when actual reality and not just reality-show reality floods my sleep-aided consciousness. Finally feeling like I can turn in, having had a firm talk with myself about how Big Girls turn off the television sometimes, I head once again into the bathroom. As I brush my teeth and apply ineffective anti-aging night cream, I admire the red wine stain rorschaching across the front of my green shirt and contemplate 21 grim days without wine or shirts. NAH. 

Naturally, as my last act of the evening, I visit the toilet. Over my tinkling, I hear words: Mormon Adam is shocked by how fully yoga-loving peacenik Eve has committed to burning a colony of black widow eggs in the cave where they have been sleeping. Frantically wiping, I slam a quick flush and torpedo back to the screen, vowing I’ll turn the thing off the second all spiders are confirmed dead. 

Within five seconds, I am confused. If I’m still watching tv, how come I can hear the babbling brook sound that I stream from a white noise app on my phone when sleeping in hotels? 

Casting about for my phone — because I do not need the brook to babble until the spiders die — I look towards the bathroom.

Well now.

Eventually, every gambler loses, and my hand has gone bust. Water is streaming over the top of the toilet, waterfalling from all sides. Momentarily, I consider recording the sound because I’m pretty sure I can sell the recording to White Noise App, Inc. and rake in a hot $4 over the course of the next few years. In the next moment, however, I realize I’d best step into some shoes and hustle my underwear-free, wine-stained self down to the front desk — which, fortunately, is mere feet away. 

Breathlessly, I reach the front desk. In short order, the clerk tells me the problem can’t be fixed until morning, as there is no engineer on duty over night, and then he issues a key to a new room and asks if I could turn off the valve on the wall, should the toilet still be running.

It’s 1 a.m. My boobs set to flappin’ as I truck down the corridor. The sleep aid has fully kicked in. I am not looking forward to packing up the random explosions of crap that populate my room. But, hell, it’s not like I’m naked or afraid, just bra-less and woozy.

Suddenly, though, I am very afraid. Ten feet from the door of my room, I become afraid like a peacenik yoga lover who hears a rustling in the back of the cave, and it ain’t Brigham Young skinning a snake.

I become afraid because there’s a two-foot semi-circle of water-stained carpet outside the door of my hotel room. 

Which means probably that. Uh. If that much water is outside my hotel room door. Um. Do I really want to open that door?

However, although I play the toddler when it comes to tv, I have my Big Girl Pull-Ups on, so I can do anything Big Girls do.

Like open a door, behind which might be black widow spiders, Tibetan flags, or,

as it turns out,

a biblical flood. 

Slogging across swampy carpet, I wade into the inch of water standing on the bathroom floor; I turn off the valve; I swim into the bedroom; I slop across the bog of a floor; I catch my breath when I see that the water has seeped under the first bed, leeched out the other side, and made way towards the second bed. Briskly, I grab the remote and turn off the television (let’s presume Adam and Eve make it out alive, and humanity prospers) before I start hefting my clothes and bags off the floor, packing in a wild-yet-efficient scramble.

Exasperatingly, as I hit my flow, there’s a knock on the door. Arghghgh. I pause packing, snap on my snorkel, and dive across the ocean of carpet. It helps that the scruffy-faced, concerned hotel employee standing outside my room could well have been an extra on EastEnders. His accent buys him a full cup of patience.

Yes, I realize the carpet outside my room is wet.

Yes, I have turned off the valve so that the toilet stopped spewing buckets of water for which a certain thirsty Mormon in Madagascar would thank his Heavenly Father. 

Yes, I am vacating the room.

Yes, this is a problem that must be tended to tonight even though there is no engineer on duty.

Yes. Thank you. Yes.

Letting the door slam on his departing figure, I sidestroke across the room towards my belongings. Just as I am zipping the fifth bag, there is another knock. 

Being stranded in arid Madagascar isn’t looking so bad right now. JEEZUS. Give a Big Girl five minutes, wouldya?

It’s the same extra from EastEnders, and this time he’s brought a friend. Hi. Yes. Still wet. Still packing. Out in three minutes. Yes, water under one of the beds. Yes, water across half the room. Yes, so much water in the bathroom that it’s running into the bedroom.

They are wonderfully solicitous, but it turns out I rather like to be left alone when preparing a hasty exit from somebody else’s problem. Dudes. My dudes. THREE MINUTES AND A LITTLE SPACE, and then you can throw down all the towels. Still, they are kind. EastEnder asks, “Can we help you move your bags to your new room?”

Without thinking, I shuck off their offer, announcing, “Thanks anyhow. I’m good. I have very few gifts in life, but I’m a born mule.”

As soon as the words are out, the three of us are suspended in one of those bizarre life moments when individual brains derail simultaneously, in the same direction, yet, because we are strangers, no one can acknowledge it. 

No, I don’t mean I am gifted when it comes to swallowing condoms bulging with heroin.

But we all thought it.

A literal three minutes after the lads depart, I am mulish with bags, ready to splash and trudge to my new room.

It is 1 a.m. I am hauling wine and unworn bras and a laptop and Starburst gummies and a bottle of sleeping pills. As I plod, I smile.  

There is a lesson imparted by Naked and Afraid. It has something to do with how people react to stress, how we change when our circumstances control our behaviors, how we push past irritations into the grace of acceptance. It has something to do with tender mercies. 

For ratings-driven Adam and Eve, that process means they are first awkward, then resentful, ultimately grateful.

As it turns out, even though I am wearing a wine-stained t-shirt and have seven pounds of snacks tugging at my scapulae, I too am experiencing tender mercies. 

I don’t have to deal with the aftermath of a clogged toilet.

I am walking towards a room that is clean and welcoming.

I am safe, warm, well fed, embarrassingly coddled. My smallest needs are indulged. 


As I leave behind one mess before creating the next, as I watch kind hotel workers scurry around my now-empty room, as I watch fans blow both inside and outside it for the next two days, as I witness a harried, defeated-looking manager with a clipboard enter standing in the doorway, as I wave brightly at the clerks behind the front desk,

I am living the tenderest of mercies:

when that toilet overflowed, it vomited only toilet paper and urine.

But for a world of tender mercies, it could have been worse.

I could have been a drug mule who’d just used the porcelain for offloading.

Or I could have been a regular English teacher lady at a union meeting, merely needing to void her bowels before bedtime. 

All I can think as I walk down the hall at 1 a.m., as I feel bags thumping against my buttocks, their drape saving my show from being nothing more than blurred-out genitalia, is that I should get up early to pray outside the cave (Room 103) and thank The Goddess for lack of public feces.

Indeed, life at its best is a series of back-to-back episodes of tender mercies — strung together, one rolling into the next, each reminding us to keep our noses pressed against the screen. 

Of course, I already knew that, even before the toilet overflowed, so my sunrise prayer will be brief. A few doors down from my original room, dropping to my knees on the faintly moist carpet outside Room 103, I will murmur — with gratitude in my heart — two short, heartfelt words:

“No shit.”

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The Week I Turned Fifty

Saturday: The Orientalist paintings of Ottoman artist Osman Hamdi Bey are my absolute favorites when it comes to puzzlin’. Each image conveys a snapshot of life from an era that now seems ancient but which, technically, only ended a hundred years ago — when my maternal grandfather was in his twenties. While some argue Osman Hamdi Bey’s paintings are revisionist, his perspective imperialist with regards to the outlying regions of Turkey, what matters to me is that his work is striking and captures very specific moments. I do love me a specific moment well captured. For the past few weeks, I’ve been working the edges and closing the gaps in my puzzle of Kahve Ocagi (loosely: coffee hearth), a puzzle I paid a nice man named Petr in the Czech Republic to send, thus putting temporarily to rest my anxiety about having completed all the Osman Hamdi Bey puzzles available for purchase in the United States. As the puzzle progresses, so does my obsession with its eleven shades of beige, its detailed tile work, its nuanced kilims. It’s good I don’t have a newborn, as that hungry babe would have to howl through the equivalent of “Bohemian Rhapsody” before I’d lift my head from this jigsaw.

Cup of coffee, you lazy bastard?


Sunday: My absorption in the puzzle is causing back pain, and my feet hurt, too, since I alternate between standhunching and squishing my tush onto a step-stool. The same way a masseuse or a hair dresser needs to be aware of body mechanics if he wants his career to last, I am finding that I need to develop new puzzling postures if I hope to be connecting pieces into my 90s, and what the hell else am I going to do in my 90s if not work on jigsaw puzzles and take up drumming?

Fortunately, Paco’s fencing class in the afternoon pulls me away from the lure of the flowered tiles. The kid isn’t feeling well, but he decides — in a noble decision doweseehownobleheisbeing? that emerges from the mist of a days’-long dramatic health sulk — to attend class. Incubating whatever crap laid his sister low a few weeks ago, he lacks energy, his throat hurts, and he thinks he might be getting a fever. None of this is obvious as he thrusts, parries, and bouts, his attention to detail apparent even as his system swoons. Front toe leading, knees bent, he glides across the wooden floor, back, forth, quick stepping with his partner in the give and take of the sport. As he sweats under his mask, assuring he’ll have a home-from-school fever by morning, Byron and I run and walk on the track that circles the class. Sometimes we stop and lift weights or stress our abdominals. Mostly, I spend the hour with one eye on my kid and the other on the crazy quilt of humanity that shows up on Sunday afternoons to use the track. For sixty whole minutes, my puzzle obsession recedes, only to rear again once we get home. I have to make myself take breaks to grade student work, to feign conversation, to watch an episode of The Great Pottery Throw Down (think The Great British Baking Show but with ceramics). Fortunately, Kiln Boy Rich is particularly charming on today’s episode, and Judge Keith pleases me by having a quick cry when he sees a contestant’s exemplary final product, so I manage to turn my back to the puzzle table. Later, much later, once the week’s grading is wrapped and everyone in the house has gone to sleep, I find homes for another ten puzzle pieces before heading upstairs to my other current obsession: The Turner House by Angela Flournoy


Monday: My phone has been broken for a month + a day, and the duo in charge of fixing it is proving so epically poor at communication and running a business that I’m happy to leave my Nexus 5x in their hands for as long as it takes for them to implode. In an alternate scenario, it could turn out that they hand the phone carcass back to me in a few more weeks along with a hefty bill and an apology that it’s still nonfunctional. Either way, these boys have me completely

Home sick, Paco enjoys the recounting of my latest conversation with the owner of the phone repair shop. Uncharacteristically, Owner Boy has reached out to give me an update on the status of my phone. His bowl of Fruity Pebbles must have been particularly satisfying this morning. What I enjoy most, as he details the new issues they’ve just unearthed with regards to the phone I zapped dead with boob sweat, is when he says, “And so we cleaned up the corrosion on the board. The whole process should have started with a moisture recovery.” Because I am the very soul of discretion, save for when I’m recounting stories to my family and on my blog, I do not tell Owner Boy that the day I dropped off my phone and explained the problem to Pony Tail Tech, he told me, “The first thing we’ll do is a moisture recovery.”

I do not tell this to Owner Boy because, a week ago, a few days after he’d hollered at me for calling the company to ask about my phone, he called to let me know he was tightening the screws on my replacement screen and that it could be picked up any time…except then he called me back again to ask if I could bring my charger cord when I came in since the phone was dead…except I had left my charger cord with them when I initially dropped off my phone…except Owner Boy couldn’t find it anywhere, but he was sure he had a cord at home that would work…except when I came the next day to pick up my repaired, charged phone, it wasn’t charged, and it was only when Pony Tail Tech came out to my car with me and plugged my phone into the cigarette lighter that he discovered it wasn’t fixed at all…and so that’s when they ordered another replacement screen…after which they discovered the screen wasn’t really the whole problem…because they should have started with a moisture recovery.

I do not tell Owner Boy he is the star of a narrative that opens and closes with the line “We should start with a moisture recovery.”


Tuesday: The day alternates between sitting and moving. Hell, they all do. But the shifts are dramatic, with Paco still home sick — a wan Victorian heroine on the chaise longue, his stays loosened, smelling salts on the feather-inlay hand-carved side table — contrasting with my commitment to a weekly long run. Glacially, I scratch out 11.36 miles (The .36 is important as it’s the part where I make deals with myself like “Just keep going until you get to the flag pole, girl, and then, if you really need to stop, you can”) before grabbing a shower and flinching at the red half-blisters left by my running bra, despite having applied a liberal swath of Vaseline along the underboob before heading out. Not incidentally, never, ever ask my phone about the traumas of Booblandia.

Legs tired, torso sore, I kick back during a global education committee meeting, particularly enjoying the part where I work in a three-minute summary of a novel I just read, The Association of Small Bombs, pushing it as pertinent to faculty who discuss terrorism with students. After the meeting, I dash to the optical store, pick up Allegra’s new glasses, stop at the grocery store for more of that delicious new Angie’s BOOMCHICKAPOP Real Butter Popcorn, and run into a friend in the parking lot. I know she’s a true friend, not mere acquaintance, because it takes no time before I’ve announced “women are exhausting” and she’s countered with “melatonin” and “moody.”

An hour later, during that rare window when we four in our family are all in the kitchen, hanging, debriefing, snacking, Allegra stands in front of me, as she sometimes does, angling for an extended hug. She will have to live another three decades before she has any inkling how much such embraces mean to me. After the release, we hook fingers and hold hands during a discussion about that evening’s band concert. She will be 17 next week — “You had me when you were 33, and now you’re almost 50, which means I’m almost 20, and none of that seems right!” — and already we know she will finish out her high school requirements next fall at the University of Minnesota-Duluth before graduating early. Already we know she will work and save money so that she can travel for a few months before college, wherever college ends up being. I am indeed almost 50, caught in the maternal half-held breath of “Every event feels like a ‘last’ at the same time everything feels possible.” Whenever I use the word “melancholy,” Allegra says, “At the end of our year in Turkey, when people asked how you felt about returning to the States, you always told them you were ‘melancholy.’ So even now, whenever I hear that word, I think of Turkey.” Whenever I hear the word “melancholy,” I think of my kids getting ready to fly.

At 7 p.m., the band concert starts. It is nearly one of her ‘last,’ yet I bend my head. Instead of staring at the far-away stage where my girl’s shining hair is barely discernible, I use a dim book light to read for an hour and a half, trying not to cackle out loud at Paul Beatty’s observational satire in The Sellout.


Wednesday: We drop Paco off at school a tidge late, confederates and compromisers in his desire to avoid riding the bus when he’s been oh-so-sick-hack-hack-cough-cough, and I have to clench fists to thighs to keep my arms from embracing the secretary in the school office who greets him with, “Oh, Paco, it’s so good to see you back. Are you feeling a little better, then?” There are 536 students who attend Paco’s school. PAY HER MORE.

Clicking our heels with kid-free abandon, Byron and I attend a boot camp class together, an hour that taxes and elevates in equal measure, an hour that rewards the peasant DNA which gifts me with the ability to hoist heavy things while being shouted at by an overlord, an hour where my husband and I literally yoke ourselves together with a strap and run a Spouse Yank around the track.

Yes, the Spouse Yank jokes are writing themselves, smutheads, and you’re very clever, aren’t you? 

After boot camp, as we drive to the bike shop to drop off Byron’s new tires for “truing,” the hero of my Every Spouse Yank drops an anecdote that makes me question if we know each other at all. How can he claim to love me and yet have kept this story to himself?


One time, some half long time ago but maybe more like two years, Byron was in the locker room at the gym. And there was this guy. About 70 years old. Naked. Chatting.

As he held forth about, say, catching a particularly large walleye with his grandson, he casually lifted his foot onto a nearby stool, allowing his personal walleye a good dangle. It turns out he was propping his foot so as to improve air flow.


He fluffed. He chatted.



I may be pushing the years, but still: I’m full of wonder. 


Thursday: Mike Birbiglia is this season’s “token white male” on an episode of the Sooo Many White Guys podcast. As I listen to him talk with host Phoebe Robinson about Don’t Think Twice — his film in which an improv troupe cracks apart — I consider the implications of striving and failing in front of witnesses.

I am walking, stepping over cracks, up curbs, over puddles; the cadence of my feet propels thoughts about the control that “fear of making a public misstep” exerts over so many people’s lives. Living guardedly certainly assures a person never appears stupid. If one doesn’t put anything out there, one can never be wrong. Yet. There is power in the willingness to look a fool. To be vulnerable in front of others requires trust — that the audience will be kind. Often, they are not. But when they are, the payoff is incomparable. As I walk, still listening, I think back to the try-hard wrecks that some of my writings, classes, and comments have been over the years and decide I’m glad to continue making public mistakes — because at least it means I’m working from courage, exposing vulnerability, trusting strangers, learning where and with whom I am safe. 


Friday: It’s a great week for logistics: Byron and I manage a second gym date, this one a “circuit” class of high-intensity activities that leave participants regretting that banana they ate an hour before. Himself is cramming the class into his lunch break, so I arrive early to set up our equipment and stay after to deconstruct our stations of risers, Bosus, weights, medicine balls, and mats. Dealing with props alone feels like plentiful workout to me, but I soldier through the actual class, as well, keeping my gaze carefully focused on the teacher, not my charming mate. Dude can run thirty miles and get stronger with each passing hour, but when he’s asked to raise his right knee to a steady beat, well,

he works from a place of courage, exposing vulnerability, trusting strangers, learning where and with whom he is safe.

He is safe with me. 

Some hours later, I snatch Paco out of school a bit early so that he and I can get to Allegra’s first track meet of the season. She runs a relay early on and then the mile quite some time later, which means Paco and I stand at a balcony railing for a total of three hours, looking down on the track, shifting from foot to foot, chatting with a neighbor about the tough crop of sixth graders at his school this year. It is during Hour Two that Paco announces, woefully, “I can tell my medicine has worn off.” Despite his fatigue and low-level pain, he makes it to the end because “I want to see Leggy run.”


Saturday: I am standing downtown, waiting to cross the main street, when a blue car screeches up next to me. It’s a sometimes-colleague, the mother of one of Allegra’s classmates, a woman with whom I’ve sat at big, round tables during sports banquets. “Where are you going?” she asks after rolling down the window. 

The answer is never easy. Where am I going? Well, in the next 25 minutes, I am going into that parking ramp down there, dropping my bag, grabbing my computer, walking to the library, doing a quick bit of work and saying hi to my staffing-the-checkout-counter husband, hoofing back to the car, jigging up to the gaming store where Paco has been playing Dungeons & Dragons with his friends, grabbing him, shopping for six things at the grocery store, getting a freebie birthday coffee drink, and driving home. “Where I’m going” is never brief.

In return, in a beautiful twist, she then asks me where she’s going. 

That is, she doesn’t know where exactly to find the school where her daughter has been attending an ACT prep course, and do I know? For once, I actually know where something is, and when I give her directions, it becomes clear we’re both interested in covering the same 100 yards in the next two minutes. “Get in!” she commands. “I’ll drive you down a block.”

The second my rump hits the seat, I am glad to be there. Cruising the downtown streets, this friend has been in high snack mode; Wasabi almonds and dried mango cover the gear shifter, and a container of peanut butter pretzels is open on her lap. “Have some!” she exclaims, gesturing to the front-seat buffet. And I do.

Previous to this random encounter, to this impulsive moment, to this intersection of “Hey there, you,” I have often enjoyed Wasabi almonds and dried mango, but my experience with peanut butter pretzels has been limited, perhaps non-existent. Deep inside me, something protective has always whispered, “You have enough issues, girl. These things could be dangerous for you. Maybe don’t open this particular Pandora’s box of temptations, ‘k?”

It is my birthday, and I am 50 which feels like 26, and I am doing 12 things in the next half hour, yet suddenly I am in a car, engaged in rapid-fire exchanges with a lanky blonde, eating my first peanut butter pretzel —

it is my birthday, a day of reckoning with past voices, winking away protective whispers, walking within and outside my skin, laughing at a full and changeable agenda, giving over to quicksilver trust, collecting colorful stories, embracing fancies, puzzling my way from edge to center —

and every last bit of it couldn’t be more wonderful.


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A Lion, a Giraffe, and a Picnic by a Lake

Introduction from Diane

First, a bit about me. I was born in Boston and spent my teenage years wrestling with an urge to get out and see the world. For almost 20 years, I’ve taught linguistics at the University of Leeds in England. In 2004, I took a career break to go backpacking and met a Turkish man. We got married, had two children, and then the marriage came to an end. Along the way I learned to speak basic Turkish and met a collection of friends, both Turkish and foreign, who are still an important part of my life. I love Turkey and go there once or twice a year so that the children can spend time with their father and his family in their village. Some of my friends there are now involved in the efforts to help the Syrian refugees living in Turkey. There are an estimated 3 million Syrians in Turkey (probably more, since many are still undocumented). Only about 10% live in the UN-funded refugee camps near the Syrian border. The rest are distributed throughout Turkey. They’re not entitled to any housing or financial support directly from the Turkish government but can get support from charities and NGOs working in the country. Most Syrian adults speak little or no Turkish, and a lot of their children aren’t enrolled in schools. This year I spent my Christmas vacation talking to people who are running projects to help the refugees. I wanted to tell their stories, the stories about what happens after the newspaper headlines die down, the stories about lives passed  in years of limbo, waiting to go home or to feel at home in a place that is not home.

I first met Léonie in April 2016. Months later, we met at her house for a long chat about her work and her life. She is one of the most inspiring women I’ve ever met. The house she shares with her husband Zaki is modest and dim, and it suffers from the chronic power cuts and water shortages common in Turkish villages, but she’s transformed it into a beautifully white, ethereal, gauzy space. Talking to Léonie lowers my blood pressure. I asked her to tell me her story.

Léonie grew up in France, travelling back and forth to Greece to spend time with her Greek father. She studied Fine Arts in Paris. In art school her professors told her that her work wasn’t “arty” enough; instead of focusing on aesthetics, she was preoccupied with social issues and activism, driven by an urge to do something more meaningful. At 18, Léonie started volunteering with disabled adults, and she later went to Lausanne in Switzerland to study art therapy for 4 years. Her first professional experience was in a psychiatric hospital in France, but the civil system, with its emphasis on pills over therapy, started to kill her passion, so she left.

Léonie set off for Turkey and travelled around for a while. Eventually she encountered Mehmet, a local businessman in a village in central Turkey who had a son with Down Syndrome. She helped him set up the Shining Star Center for children with autism, Down Syndrome, and other learning and behavioral difficulties. Léonie took an alternative approach to education for these children. Using art and hippotherapy (with horses), she was able to spend a lot of individual time with the kids, and she invited other local children to the center to integrate them through play and art. It worked. In a part of the world without much support for kids with special needs, they blossomed.

During her travels around Turkey, Léonie had fallen in love with a Syrian named Zaki. An aspiring filmmaker from Aleppo, Zaki left Syria when the atmosphere became “poisoned.” He left Syria for Istanbul in 2013. His family are in Turkey (in Mersin) and have been able to support him. Zaki had studied economics in Syria, but without the right paperwork, he couldn’t transfer his credits to Turkey, and it took two years for him to be able to start over again at university. He started studying English, but he struggled with the new country, the new language and the new system. After a year, he met Léonie, “stuff happened,” and he decided to head for the village in central Turkey where Léonie was running the Shining Star Center so he could help out sometimes.

Léonie quickly realized that her work there had come to its limits, and she wouldn’t be able to achieve her goals at Shining Star. She and Mehmet fell out, and Léonie left the center to work on developing new projects with Zaki, on a smaller scale but more faithful to their values and vision. In the meantime, they found out that several hundred Syrians were living in the area, and, wanting to support and empower these displaced refugees, started running art therapy sessions with the Syrians.

I watched Léonie in action when we went to visit the center for refugees run by Open Arms in Kayseri in April 2016. The plan was to help the children create their own movie. When we arrived at the center, the place was full of people, and children were running around noisily. Our Syrian friend Ahmet acted as Arabic interpreter for the day. Léonie started by commandeering a room for the art project and building a table for a work space. She spent a lot of time creating a calm, safe space for the group of 7 boys and girls, using a minimal amount of materials. She used her quiet voice to settle the children down from the noisy chaos. When they were ready, Léonie opened the cans of Play-doh and explained that they were going to make a movie telling a story, and the story would be theirs. The children chose their characters: a lion, a giraffe, and some fish. She told them to play together with the animals for a few minutes to create a narrative. They decided to set the story next to a lake.

Meanwhile, Narjice, the director of OAK, took Léonie aside, pointing out one of the children in the group, a silent, beautiful dark-eyed 4-year old girl named Shahed. Narjice had been contacted in late 2015 about a cold, hungry family who had just escaped from Aleppo with nothing but the clothes on their backs. A Russian bombing next to her family’s house had left Shahed in shock, too traumatized and afraid to speak or make eye contact. OAK helped the family settle in to their new house with food, bedding and heating, but several months later Shahed still wouldn’t speak or interact with other children, and she screamed and cried if she was separated from her mother.

Léonie was trained to deal with children like Shahed. She didn’t bring attention to her, and she let the dynamic of the group create connections between the children. The more outgoing kids, like one bespectacled boy, helped the shyer ones to open up. Léonie didn’t expect Shahed to talk that day, but she decided to try to communicate with her using art. Shahed was playing with Play-doh. Léonie sat down next to her and started to copy the shapes she was making. Shahed started to smile, and Léonie knew they had a connection. Léonie went back to the rest of the group, and they started to work on the story for the film together. The kids were shouting and jostling to get their ideas in. Shahed sat in silence, watching them, clearly frustrated. In the end, the kids couldn’t learn the script by heart, so Ahmet read out the lines one by one, and Léonie recorded the kids repeating each line in unison. While this was going on, Léonie saw Shahed’s lips moving. Then the words came out of her mouth, and she was saying the lines with the others.

Léonie says that in one-to-one therapy it would normally take months for a child to make this much progress, but the group dynamic is much more powerful. While the kids waited for their parents to collect them, they played with Play-doh together. Shahed started to speak Arabic to Léonie. She talked about how she was making cookies and she wanted Léonie to copy her. (Almost a year later, Shahed is the happy, confident alpha child at the OAK play sessions, fluent in Turkish, and always smiling.)

When she’d finished editing and animating the movie, Léonie posted it on social media. The boy with the glasses annoyed his mother by watching it over and over again. In the story, a lion and a giraffe are walking by a lake. They’re tired and bored, so they decide to have a picnic with some fish. Then a bus arrives and takes them to Istanbul. Léonie says that first workshop couldn’t have been more perfect; the kids told their own story, the tale of a journey with a happy ending.

Léonie and Zaki have big plans. They’ve set up their own small-scale NGO called Handic’Happy, a mobile art therapy center that will travel to refugee camps and wherever there’s a need. With Zaki’s filmmaking skills, they’ll keep making movies, retro style, low-tech animated films with sets and props made from trash and found materials, like backgrounds painted onto rolls of paper that move across the screen as the narrative unfolds. (The movies are hilarious, surreal brightly-colored creations, well worth watching.) Léonie points out that making a movie is a perfect therapeutic tool for working with these kids because visual media is such a strong part of their lives. And her experience with disabled children shows how successful this approach can be.

On a recent trip back to France, Léonie did a hippotherapy film project with kids with learning disabilities using a green screen and costumes. Each wrote a different story and came up with a character. One boy with autism was clumsy and shy. He was passionate about video games, so they made a hat for him and drew on a moustache with a pen. From the moment he put his costume, he wore the character of Mario. His whole body language changed as he went completely into character, totally confident. Another boy, one with Aspbergers, didn’t like to be touched. He chose to be a robot and built a huge costume like a protective box around him. In the movie, his robot was an architect and went into the future to build eco-houses. He loved being a robot and talked about it constantly with his mother. The third boy had Down Syndrome. Obsessed with mayors, he was desperate to meet them and get their autographs. The other boys – who were autistic – struggled to work with him, but he was the powerful one in the story, a wizard. He told his mother he was a hero, and she saw him blossom into a confident child. Léonie sees her role as helping children find their voices by telling their own stories. Being stars in a movie makes them feel valuable because someone is listening to their story. They’ll remember the experience for the rest of their lives.

The way Léonie sees it, most NGOs working with refugees focus on basic needs, but therapy is also essential. She and Zaki want Handic’Happy to be itinerant and mobile so they can reach as many kids as possible. As with other similar projects, they’ll act as a service provider to get contracts with bigger NGOs. Léonie wants to run different kinds of workshops in the field to make these movies, with puppets, Play-Doh, and live action, using whatever materials she can get, with the kids choosing the characters, storyline and scenery. The plan is also to upload the movies to a YouTube channel, where the families can watch any time. For the Syrian kids, it’ll be a really important way for them to keep contact with relatives still in Syria. The refugee project will be called Nomadic Heroes. Léonie wants the kids to see themselves not just as refugees trying to survive, but as heroes of their own stories (on tv!). They’ve already overcome obstacles through creativity and resilience. Léonie sees creativity as one of the best tools in life; Nomadic Heroes will remind children that in life they’ll have challenges, but they already have the tools to meet them.

Léonie’s ultimate aim is to collect materials for a book project, a book to be written and illustrated by these kids to give them a real voice. She says, “We never sit next to these kids and ask, what happened, how do you feel about it? They might feel like puppets, and maybe their parents don’t explain to them what really happened. There’s so much emphasis on surviving, they never process the events.” For the book, she wants to work with the children to ask the questions, What is war? How would you illustrate war? Not with guns, but with something totally imaginary. Zaki comments, “The regime is about stripping people of their dignity. Their parents have been humiliated in Syria and then again in Turkey. The kids will grow up, but with what kind of model? This generation is growing up scared, without a sense of justice.” Léonie wants the kids to make this book to give them a sense of control and to give value and meaning to the journeys they’ve made. She’s looking for a publisher already and plans to distribute the book in schools to help Turkish kids understand the background of their Syrian classmates.

Back in the village, Léonie and Zaki have tried outaseries of new projects with the Syrian children. They’ve done drawing workshops about animals making a journey, and they’ve had puppet workshops with painted hands and shadow puppets. For the Cuddles for Syria project, Léonie and Zaki collected a donated pile of soft fabrics. The children were asked to choose their favorite textiles to design a toy, an imaginary friend, a best buddy who they wanted to comfort them when they felt upset. Léonie used the drawings as a pattern and constructed cuddly stuffed “buddies” for each child. One drawing workshop with two sisters was particularly difficult. The girls were painfully shy and too nervous to make much eye contact. A week later, Léonie gave the sisters the cuddly toys that they had designed. And a small smile appeared on their faces.

They are heroes. They have crossed to this place, and they are still alive. Soon, Léonie and Zaki will say goodbye to these children and take their project on the road.

Handic’Happy is a non-profit organization run by a volunteer team and relies entirely on private donations to carry out its work with children. They need your support. All the donations will be used efficiently and effectively towards pursuing their goals and to sustain and develop new programs that will directly benefit their participants.

You can follow Handic’Happy on Facebook and YouTube and make a donation at :

Website :



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Introduction from Diane

First, a bit about me. I was born in Boston and spent my teenage years wrestling with an urge to get out and see the world. For almost 20 years, I’ve taught linguistics at the University of Leeds in England. In 2004, I took a career break to go backpacking and met a Turkish man. We got married, had two children, and then the marriage came to an end. Along the way I learned to speak basic Turkish and met a collection of friends, both Turkish and foreign, who are still an important part of my life. I love Turkey and go there once or twice a year so that the children can spend time with their father and his family in their village. Some of my friends there are now involved in the efforts to help the Syrian refugees living in Turkey. There are an estimated 3 million Syrians in Turkey (probably more, since many are still undocumented). Only about 10% live in the UN-funded refugee camps near the Syrian border. The rest are distributed throughout Turkey. They’re not entitled to any housing or financial support directly from the Turkish government but can get support from charities and NGOs working in the country. Most Syrian adults speak little or no Turkish, and a lot of their children aren’t enrolled in schools. This year I spent my Christmas vacation talking to people who are running projects to help the refugees. I wanted to tell their stories, the stories about what happens after the newspaper headlines die down, the stories about lives passed  in years of limbo, waiting to go home or to feel at home in a place that is not home.


The village sits on the high plateau in the center of Turkey. Until recently a conservative and insular agricultural town, its 2500 residents now rely heavily on tourism. A few foreigners live there, drawn to the beautiful landscape and the slow pace of life. For the past three years, a steady stream of Syrian refugees has quietly arrived in the village. Early in 2016, some local residents got together to set up a small-scale organization to help the refugees settle into their new lives in Turkey. One of the residents provided most of the funding, and a lot of advice and help came from Narjice from Open Arms in Kayseri, another charity in the area. The day-to-day organizing is done by a Syrian named Ahmet, who came to the area because his friend Juju grew up there, along with Juju’s mother, Nell, and other friends in the village. These grassroots projects are springing up all over Turkey to help the roughly 3 million Syrian refugees living there, and they all face the same kinds of challenges. Our news headlines are about dramatic raft landings on Mediterranean beaches or evacuations into UN camps, but for the refugees, getting out of Syria is only the beginning, the first step in a much longer process. I spent some time in the village in December 2016. Nell is an old friend of mine, and I spent long hours in Nell’s cozy kitchen while the snow fell outside, talking to Juju (who works for a refugee NGO in Ankara), Ahmet, and Nell herself. I wanted to hear all about their project.

Before starting work in the village, my friends tried to get official permission from the kaymakam, the governor of the provincial district. They sent in a project proposal in Turkish, and then another one in English. The kaymakam replied to their request in a terse email. The answer was no, with no reason given for his decision. The mukhtar, the elected local leader of the village, was just as unhelpful. Ahmet was demoralized, but the others gave him a pep talk, and they decided to start work anyway. The first stage was setting up a database of the Syrian families in the village, to count them and assess their needs. In the beginning, it was hard to find them, as it is in the refugees’ best interests to avoid attention. As is the way of grassroots organizers, Ahmet walked around the narrow streets with a paper questionnaire, but abandoned that system when he realized that the forms made most of the refugees uncomfortable; a lot of them are illiterate, and they’re wary of visits from officials. To gain their trust, Ahmet stopped using paper forms and broke the ice by telling them about his own experiences in the war. Once he had talked to a few families, he tracked down the others through word of mouth, until he had made contact with all of the Syrians living in the village.

In the space of 3 months, Ahmet found 37 families (around 340 people) for his database. Another 7 families completely refused to talk to him and are still off the register. In order to get a sense of each family’s real situation, Ahmet made a point of going inside their homes and counting their children. Some families had enough money to live pretty comfortably. Other families were destitute, living in absolute poverty in substandard housing. Most families were large, some with 7-8 children, and he found 7 orphans being raised by relatives among them.

It turned out that most of the Syrians had been in the village for around 3 years and were from the same area in eastern Aleppo (the part now being flattened in the war). The first families came to find work in the village, the men in construction and the women in agricultural jobs, attracted by cheap rents and a low cost of living compared to other areas of Turkey. Once safely in the village, they had contacted neighbors, friends, and relatives back in Aleppo, who followed them to settle.

Turkey is famous for its hospitality to outsiders, and the Islamic faith strongly emphasizes the importance of helping the needy. When the Syrians started to arrive in the village 3 years ago, the local belediye (town council) gave them free coal to heat their houses in winter, their usual policy to help any struggling family. Villagers brought food to the Syrians, gave them jobs, and helped them set up their homes. The belediye also started out by giving them a living allowance of 300TL/month (about $85). But things started to change. However, the monthly payments were quickly stopped by the hostile mukhtar. In the past couple of years, as perceptions and portrayals of Muslim countries have become increasingly negative in Western countries, the Turkish economy has gone downhill, tourists have stopped coming, and local people have started to struggle financially. The Syrians still need to pay their rent, but there aren’t enough jobs to go around. In this tight-knit village, where most people are related to each other, life is far from luxurious. The Turkish villagers see the Syrian children hanging around in the street, and they see the adults who still only speak Arabic taking charity, and they feel like their own needs are being overlooked. Thus, anyone working with the refugees in the village needs to keep a very low profile to avoid stirring up even more resentment.

Once Ahmet had finished counting up the families, the obvious next step for the project organizers was to think about education and schooling for the children. Most of Syrian kids in the village were not in school, but everyone working with refugees in Turkey sees school as vital for social and language integration into the community, and groups of Syrian kids playing in the streets is not good for PR. This turned out to be a tricky problem. The local elementary school at first refused to take the children, arguing that they had full enrollment and no extra support for refugees. But, legally, schools aren’t allowed to turn children away, and in other parts of Turkey schools are splitting the school day into two sessions to create class time for the influx of extra children. More pressure was put on the school, and eventually they agreed to accept the Syrians. Yet at the same time, it became clear that the Syrian parents were not pushing very hard to enroll their kids. In Aleppo, most of them had worked as casual laborers selling vegetables, in restaurants, or at construction sites. They have little education themselves and are illiterate. As a result, getting their kids into school isn’t high on their priority list, especially for girls. At the time of this writing, only about 17 of the 93 Syrian kids in the village are enrolled in school.

The project organizers considered trying to run Turkish lessons for the kids but decided to wait until their more basic needs had been met. They collected second-hand clothes and distributed them to the families. Then they heard about ASAM (the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants), a charity that gives out monthly food cards to each family and hires lawyers for refugees who need legal representation. Ahmet managed to register all of the families with ASAM. As winter set in, he visited each house, and if the family seemed to be in bad shape, he gave them food parcels. Winters are bitterly cold in the village, and when the weather turned last fall, most of the children had no winter clothes. Nell and her friends took up a collection. They bought new winter coats for 93 children and shoes for 69.

A few of the Syrians also need extra medical care. One 21-year-old man came to Turkey maimed in the war. His leg is badly fractured; he needs surgery, and maybe amputation, but his leg has developed a chronic infection, so he needs to wait. He is in constant agony, but his family can’t afford strong enough painkillers or regular trips to the hospital for treatment. Another family had been living for three years in substandard housing: 15 people in two rooms. While a contractor was working in the development above their house, the roof collapsed on them in the middle of the night. The neighbors dug them all out alive, but they suffered terrible injuries: the grandmother had 3 broken vertebrae and broken hips, and the 33-year-old uncle injured his groin and can no longer have children. The worst victim of the roof collapse was an orphan boy of 10 years old; he lost his foot, suffered smashed buttocks and internal injuries and now lives with a colostomy bag.

This has been a hard year. With work drying up, most of the Syrians in the village are destitute. At first, landlords were gracious about tenants who had fallen into debt, but as the local economy nosedives, more landlords have started evicting families. The atmosphere in the village is tense. Last summer there was a drunken squabble between a group of local men and two Syrian teenagers. One of the Syrians pulled a knife and stabbed one of the Turks in the neck. The boys were chased into a nearby hotel while a lynch mob formed outside. Someone called the jandarma [the local Turkish army] and they managed to discreetly put the boys on a bus to another town. Soon afterwards, in July 2016, there was an attempted military coup in Turkey. The coup failed, but President Erdogan embarked on a brutal purge of suspected plotters and whipped up nationalist feelings against perceived enemies of the state. For a few weeks after the coup, he asked his supporters to take to the streets to demonstrate their loyalty. Every night in the village, men roamed the streets banging drums to intimidate anyone not quite patriotically Turkish enough. The mukhtar and his supporters drew up a petition to evict all of the Syrians from their homes and throw them out of the village. Several of the local landlords stood up to him and refused to evict their tenants. Meanwhile, Ahmet contacted a friend at the UN. Someone high up contacted someone higher up than the mukhtar, and he was forced to back down. The Syrians stayed.

So I spent 2 weeks in the village, listening to these stories and more (and I take responsibility for any mistakes in my retelling). I did what I could to help, which seemed like a drop in the ocean, but at least a tangible drop. With some donations from work colleagues, I helped give out warm gloves and hats, bought food to give to the families whose food cards still hadn’t arrived, helped with some medical bills, and bought some more winter coats. I met a series of small children as they turned up asking Ahmet for mittens and shoes and groceries. I wished that I could speak Arabic so that I could ask about their lives. The good news is that these children’s stories have been heard and drawn and painted: just after I left, I heard that Léonie, an art therapist who works with refugee children, was about to start running art therapy workshops with them.

In his own way, Ahmet has become the mukhtar for the Syrians in the village, the fixer, guy who can solve everyone’s problems. I could see how hard this role was. His phone never stopped ringing, always with a human drama at the other end of the line. As tempting as it was to give candy to Samar (an especially cute little girl) when she turned up at his house, he couldn’t do it; playing favorites would make the other kids feel bad and would make him seem less impartial. Ahmet doesn’t know how long he’ll be able to stay in the village or who will be able to take over from him if he leaves.

I left the village feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the refugee crisis. I’d seen a tiny sample, 350 out of millions of displaced people. Nobody has counted up how many Syrians are living in places like this, out of sight of most tourists and aid agencies, and experiencing a mixture of kindness and unkindness from the Turkish people who took them in while the West looked away. There’s no end to the war in sight, and there is every chance that these families will still be here in 20 years.

The more I think about it, the more I’m sickened by the waste of this war: the waste of so many adult lives and of so many children who are missing out on a childhood. Most of all I’m sickened by all of the profiting-from-human-misery going on. Turkey has used its Syrian refugees as a bargaining chip to negotiate deals with the EU, which doesn’t want to take any of them. The weapons manufacturers, like the ones based in the rich Western country where I live, are making billions. Further billions are pouring into Turkey for humanitarian aid, only for big chunks of it to get siphoned off by corrupt NGOs and politicians. And just like in Iraq, private contractors in Turkey and Russia have already sealed deals worth further billions to reconstruct Syria when the war eventually ends. Interested parties are profiting from a longer, more destructive war. Someone is making money from every apartment building in Aleppo that gets flattened. In the middle of this maelstrom of cash and favors are the Syrians, disconnected from their homes and their livelihoods, not knowing if they’ll ever find sanctuary.


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The Second Day of Spring Break in 30 Messages to My Husband

1) I had Zinema popcorn for lunch. NOW THAT’S A HARDCORE SPRING BREAK MOVE.
2) I called to check on my stupid broken phone and was greeted by a bewildering “NOOO” shouted into the receiver when Ponytail Guy answered. After the shout, he hung up. So I called back, and he answered again, but this time he yelled with angry and clipped snottiness that he was on his way into an appointment for the MS that makes it difficult for him to walk, and he’s only 19, and he was walking through the parking lot, and so if it wasn’t too much of a hardship for me since he is 19 and has MS, he would check into the status of my phone later and get back to me.
3) I was using the company phone number listed on the web.
4) To be 19 is to be young.
5) The movie, I Am Not Your Negro, was great. So was the popcorn. Less impressive were the dumbass old white women a few rows behind me who had no sense that other people were in the theater with them. If they had said two more words, I was going to get up, walk back to them, and hiss, “Could you maybe go out for coffee after the movie and use that time together to discuss immigration issues and how Janice at the office is so hard to get along with?
6) There was a message from 19-year-old Ponytail Guy when I got home. Bravely, I called him back. His voicemail is still full. Just when I despaired I might have to haul my cookies to the shop to speak to him in person, he called back. Turns out he had no way of knowing what work my phone needed because there was no sheet written up about it, and it’s impossible to know what to do without a sheet written up, so my phone has been sitting in a drawer since I dropped it off seven days ago.
7) 99% sure Ponytail Guy is the person who took my phone last week and filled out a form on the computer about it and ran my credit card for a deposit.
8 ) Age 19 is very young.
9) So Ponytail Guy told me I could come get my phone and get my money back and take it somewhere else, no hard feelings.
10) When you’re 19, you don’t realize the hard feelings might actually run towards you, not just from you.
11) Because I’m lazy and his shop is the only one in town that doesn’t require 25 minutes of driving each way, I told him to keep the deposit, ORDER THE PART he said he’d order seven days ago, and give me a call when it was ready.
12) Ponytail Guy responded well to his having been an ass and my being willing to move past the unwarranted transference of his emotion onto a paying customer.
13) He’s lucky I teach 19-year-olds.
14) Side question: how come I know for a fact our 14-year-old would NEVER speak to anyone the way Ponytail Guy did to me this morning, even if he were pinned under a car tire?
15) At the end of our conversation, Ponytail Guy apologized for his ill humor earlier today. He did not use the words “ill humor.” Our 14-year-old would have.
16) Ponytail Guy also told me he’s having a hard time lately and that it’s really difficult to be 19 with MS, trying to run a business three days a week.
17) Four times, I told Ponytail Guy I was sorry for everything he was dealing with. Simultaneously, I wondered if it’s 90% or 92% of the conversations in my life that end with me telling the other participant I’m sorry for the hard time he/she is having.
18) Between seeing an amazing movie about racial injustice and being the recipient of Ponytail Guy’s misplaced anger, I’m now having a quick moment of remembering that I HAVE A GREAT LIFE.
19) Even though it’s so windy outside that I’m pretty sure you’ll either never get home on your bike tonight, or else you’ll get home in two minutes, depending if the wind is fer you or agin’ you, I am now readying for a run.
20) The first part of my run will involve stretching and warming up as I deal with the recycling and garbage bins, which have been blown over by the gustiness.
21) The second part of my run will involve me walking all of it.
22) If the online check-in tells me there isn’t a long wait, I may get my hair trimmed before picking up the 14-year-old who would never present a stranger with ill humor, even if he was pinned down by a car tire.
23) You know what’s next door to a hair cutting place? Smoked butterscotch lattes.
24) I hope your meeting tonight is painless and fruitful.
25) As though meetings are ever painless and fruitful.
26) You poor sucker.
27) I love you.
28) See you for lentils and sausages and yeasty products.
29) That last does not include me. ME NO YEASTY.
30) I think I might have just written a blog post.
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Framed by a Madman

“This is fricking insane!” I yelled at the paint on the walls periodically as I spent half an hour trying to place a single piece into my new puzzle.

Jeezus, that paint wasn’t wearing well.

Cracks everywhere.

The slate color had always seemed appealing; mentally, I had complimented the previous owners for choosing a tone that managed to be simultaneously neutral and interesting.

But now.

SLATE? Who in the holy Chip and Joanna chooses slate-colored paint? Did they not realize every eventual crack, when future owners failed to update it, would jut in stark relief?

Diverting puzzle frustration into paint diatribe, I waved my hand wildly in the air, a protest against the evils of cracks. As I gestured, the puzzle piece went flying from my agitated fingers. A blip followed by a plink.

For the love of shitgibbons. Where did it go?

The thing had landed somewhere. Was it in one of the baskets by my feet? Was it under an unused Wii remote? Had it flown across the room? Was it resting in the slats of the rocking chair?

Dropping to my knees, I crawled around, lifting the edges of each of the six kilims in the room as the tv droned in the background about the new president’s cabinet picks, every last one of them anathematic to my values. Ahh, there it was. Picking up the wayward piece, I hoisted myself up, in the process clonking my head on the edge of the table.

A few days into it, one thing was already clear: this puzzle just might kill me.

Puzzling has long been an escape for me, a hobby offering retreat and replenishment, particularly during the winter months when the gardens are dormant.

Until I tackled Convergence, 1952, the puzzle table was my safe place.

Until Convergence.

In 1964, the Springbok company released a 340-piece version of Pollock’s painting, promoting it as “the world’s most difficult puzzle.” On my table were 1,000 pieces. 

Assembling the frame for the picture — a hundred or more indistinct white pieces, unrelenting in their sameness — was the easy part. Cardboard Nazis, they easily fell into lockstep with each other. But the colors? Oh, the colors! Complex, vivid, unpredictable, rich, they created a story I couldn’t control. Each time I sat down at the table, I would grab a bright piece and try to group it with its ostensible mates; each time I sat down at the table, I learned that like didn’t necessarily go with like in this modern classic, a painting channeling rebellion and protest.

One of the first things I did, upon starting it and being stymied by the layers of turmoil, was to google “Jackson Pollock mental health.” The person who created such vigorous, unchecked chaos must have struggled. I was sure of it. As it turns out, Pollock did suffer from clinical depression, but I had expected a strong history of mania, as well, to help explain the energy that churns throughout Convergence 1952.

Ah, but as is always the case, I knew nothing. Spinning exhaustedly inside a heavily partisan news cycle, I’d forgotten that not everyone who hurts my feelings necessarily runs high and hot.

And Pollock, like a madman tweeting in all caps, was hurting me. 

I would sit at the table, then stand when my rear end fell asleep, then sit again. Up and down, bending and leaning, deliberately, carefully, with thought and organization, I tried to unlock Pollock’s vision. Selecting a single spot, I would glass slipper a succession of pieces into it. Initially, I’d look for pieces that made sense, given the context — say, light beige with streaks of black. After seventy of those failed, I’d stop looking at colors and pay attention only to shape. After another seventy fails, a heap of misses filling the open space more effectively than did supporters on the Mall at the Inauguration, I yowled at the stupid cracked slate walls while a preacher of prosperity gospel administered the oath of office to a self-aggrandizing Brand.

This damn puzzle was so different from anything in my previous experience, so far from making any kind of sense, so resistant to my attempts to crack its logic. It was defeating me. My safe place was hosting my nemesis.

If I was going to beat this thing — and NO WAY was I giving over — I was going to need help. This beast threw me into a panic every time I thought about it; I needed to pull my people close, marshal our collective energies into tackling the challenge.

Attempting to be a good capitalist, I struck a deal: I would pay $3 per properly placed piece to the fourteen-year-old, he who had mentioned he was saving up to buy a new game. Although the new administration refuses to release the Brand’s tax returns because the election results proved “people didn’t care,” and although the new administration froze many federal agencies’ ability to report the results of their work publicly, I — in charge of my own self for the time being — made a loud and proud announcement to the cracked slate walls after Paco spent a focused half hour successfully finding homes for the ones with the wide wings and the ones with the narrow points:

“The pup got five pieces in. He wants a game that costs $15. I am buying the kid that game.”

Despite inhabiting this queer world of mind-bogging puzzles and politics, a place where a presidential counselor urges the public to “go buy Ivanka Trump stuff,” the eighth grader countered my paint-shouted pronouncement with exemplary graciousness: “No, Mom, I don’t want you to pay me. I just wanted to help you.”

One weekend, our friend Kirsten came to visit. Before her arrival, I set the terms of her visit.

“I’m going to need you to get 14 pieces into the puzzle before you can leave.”

Within minutes of surveying the chaos, her empathy was boundless. She felt the pain of all those random swirls and splattered drips; she ground her teeth with frustration at reds and blues that shared space uneasily. She understood the weeks of strangled pleas @AltJoce had been sending out to the world.

A warrior, she did her best to relieve my feelings of loneliness in a difficult land.

Nevertheless, on Sunday, when I turned my head for a quick second, she tossed her bags into her car and tore off, screeching down the alley.

She left the puzzle seven pieces the better.


There was a tipping point where I. just. couldn’t. take. it. any. more.

One late night, while Seth Myers highlighted the ludicrous reality of a country governed by someone whose idea of nuance consists of jabbing stubby fingers into his opponents’ chests — “BAD!” yells the tired toddler when his teddy bear tips over — I realized I’d been pretending to attack the Pollock puzzle when in actuality I’d been sidling up to it fairly passively.

Until that moment, I’d approached Convergence the same way I approached all puzzles: I put together the border, I grouped related colors, I looked for clear connections, I alternated between attaching pieces to the existing lines and tacking together floating islands of neighbors. As though I was in charge, I’d been nation building. But. The nation was already built. 

To be effective, I needed to change my tactics and observe — to snatch at every white snarl, every disappearing blood trail, every burst of sunshine. Instead of allowing myself to be ruled by despair, I needed to calm my innards down and ask, “What did he do?” and “How can I track what he did?”

To answer these questions, I had to do two things: 1) Clear out the noise; 2) Pay attention to the patterns.

It took me twenty minutes to move all the random pieces out of the frame and create clarity. It took me two more weeks — the lid of the box on my lap, a pair of cheaters on my face, a helpful husband in the kitchen — to decipher the master plan, comprising a thousand irregular pieces, and beat that fucker. 

At no point did it make sense.

At no point did it get easier.

To the end, the vision was chaos. To the end, my brain whirled, often ineffectively, in the tornado of so many ideas layered so densely. For Pollock, the technique of laying down hard and vivid lines on top of a receding backdrop was purposeful. He conjured a tumult where attention can land anywhere, is demanded everywhere. Overwhelmed, the audience is left breathless.

It’s a cunning technique, the business of foreground dominating background, of drawing the eye to predetermined points while craziness hovers behind.

The audience needs to learn to pace itself. To look below the hard surface. To discern the overarching plan. 

On the day a woman with more disdain for public schools than guns in their hallways was confirmed as the Secretary of Education, I finished the Pollock puzzle.

Fittingly, three pieces were missing.

Unable to scout them out on my own, I called in my most reliable reinforcement.

Converging on the kilims, Byron and I crawled around, pulling up the edges of the rugs bought in the Muslim country that had embraced our dazed family. We peeked into baskets.

Aha! He found one, placed it on the table, and stepped back, “You get the honor, of course.”

Still short by two, we moved Wii remotes, looked between the slats of the rocking chair, rubbed our heads against cracks in the paint.

We crouched. We stood. We lifted. We ducked. Eventually, we conceded.

Maybe part of the problem all along had been that we were trying to solve something that came out of the factory a few pieces short.

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A War Story

This post is the second in a series of four guest essays written by my friend Diane, whom I met during our family’s year in Turkey:

First, a bit about me. I was born in Boston and spent my teenage years wrestling with an urge to escape from the suburbs and get out into the world. For almost 20 years, I’ve taught linguistics at the University of Leeds in England. In 2004, I took a career break to go backpacking and met a Turkish man. We got married, had two children, and then the marriage came to an end. Along the way I learned to speak basic Turkish and met a collection of friends, both Turkish and foreign, who are still an important part of my life. I love Turkey and go there once or twice a year so that the children can spend time with their father and his family in their village. Some of my friends there are now involved in the efforts to help the Syrian refugees living in Turkey. There are an estimated 3 million Syrians in Turkey (probably more, since many are still undocumented). Only about 10% live in the UN-funded refugee camps near the Syrian border. The rest are distributed throughout Turkey. They’re not entitled to any housing or financial support directly from the Turkish government but can get support from charities and NGOs working in the country. Most Syrian adults speak little or no Turkish, and a lot of their children aren’t enrolled in schools. This year I spent my Christmas vacation talking to people who are running projects to help the refugees. I wanted to tell their stories, the stories about what happens after the newspaper headlines die down, the stories about lives passed  in years of limbo, waiting to go home or to feel at home in a place that is not home.


Ahmet now lives in a small village in central Turkey, where he is running a project linked with Open Arms in Kayseri (OAK) to help other Syrian refugees. He was born in Raqqa, one of 8 brothers. His father owned several factories, and he grew up in privilege, playing football, driving around, buying clothes, clubbing, and chasing girls with his friends. He moved to Aleppo at 17, studied law in Beirut for a year, and then at the start of the revolution in 2011 went back to Aleppo to continue law school. That year his brother Brahim started organizing anti-Assad protests and later formed a cell of the Free Syrian Army. Because of his brother, Ahmet’s name was on Assad’s list as an insurgent, so he was forced to leave college. Ahmet moved back to Raqqa.

Brahim’s life was in danger, so his father sent him to Saudi Arabia to protect him from Assad’s police. Then he went off the radar for 4 months. The first news of Brahim came when a family friend called to say that he had been badly wounded in a battle nearby with Assad’s forces. He had come back into Syria quietly, via Turkey, to lead his Free Syrian Army unit. The family waited until 11 p.m. when the coast was clear to pick him up off the battlefield. Brahim had been shot twice in the stomach and once in the hip. Raqqa was too dangerous, so the family took him across the border to Turkey. Ahmet spent the next 6 months living in a hospital with his brother in the city of Urfa, changing his dressings, feeding, and bathing him. (In Turkey, as in many countries, hospitals are short-staffed, so family members are expected to do most of the nursing care.) His brother had had a colostomy and needed more surgery, but the doctors said he needed to wait another two months for the next operation, so the family brought him back to back to Raqqa for the holy month of Ramadan. Raqqa felt like a safe place at the time because Assad’s forces had failed to take control of the city.

As soon as the family returned home, ISIS launched itself in Syria with Raqqa as its base and started to take over the city. (ISIS originated in Iraq but draws its aim of creating an Islamic state from a section of the Koran which forsees the final war between Muslims and unbelievers as taking place in Sham, an ancient kingdom in what is now Syria.) Ahmet says he had a lot of conversations with guys in ISIS, who started in Syria as a small group of around only 70 people. Most of them were from outside Syria, from Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, and the Gulf, and had spent 3 months in intense indoctrination. Many ISIS members were intelligent and creative, but they spoke with brainwashed certainty about their mission and had absolutely no concern for the lives of the Syrians. It was also clear that even though some may have had their doubts about the killing and torture that had become their everyday lives, they were locked into the organization. ISIS fighters didn’t fear death, and that made them very frightening opponents.   

Most of Ahmet’s cousins and brothers were fighting in the Free Syrian Army against both Assad and ISIS. At one point, the FSA captured 3 tanks from Assad’s army and then managed to capture the local ISIS leader. A street fight started for possession of the tanks. After 20 days of fighting, ISIS detonated a car bomb in the train station that served as the FSA base. Three of Ahmet’s cousins were blown to pieces, including the unit leader. Ahmet, who had stayed out of the fighting, got a text message from his brother inside the train station saying that he and others were trapped inside, surrounded by ISIS. Ahmet dithered. He didn’t have a gun or other weapon and wasn’t sure what to do. He went to tell his family the news, then left to see another brother at a friend’s house. In shock, Ahmet made the decision to save his brother. Somehow – he doesn’t remember how – he managed to slip past the ISIS watchmen and get into the train station.

The building was still on fire, with bodies littering the ground. He found his brothers hiding inside, safe because when the car bomb went off they were somewhere else eating their evening meal to break the Ramadan fast. Later an ambulance managed to reach them, so Ahmet helped load the burned bodies and body parts of his cousins into it. Ahmet found a rifle and called his brother to find out what to do. ISIS still surrounded the building. His brother told him wait for a while. At 1 a.m. the order came from the main FSA base telling all of them to leave Raqqa. Their leader, Ahmet’s cousin, was dead, and they needed to rest and regroup outside the city. Ahmet watched as 65 men loaded up their weapons and started to leave, but he didn’t want to abandon his family. At 2 a.m. the remaining FSA in the train station fired huge anti-aircraft guns into the air to create a diversion so that they could escape. Ahmet and two of his brothers and two cousins didn’t follow; they took their guns and 150 bullets each and ran off behind the train station to the Kurdish FSA base where they asked for protection until morning.

Ahmet stayed awake all night keeping watch while the others slept, not knowing how far to trust his Kurdish protectors, but they were kind to him. At 5 a.m. he looked across at the empty train station and saw ISIS fighters streaming in. They put up flags and shouted “Allahu akbar!” over and over. At 7 a.m. Ahmet and his group left their guns with the Kurds and took a taxi to a friend’s house. The taxi driver was a Kurdish friend of his brother’s, and he brought his children in the taxi as a cover for Ahmet’s group. They laid low for a while.

Ahmet had another brother, Tarek, who lived in Saudi and had no involvement in the war. He had come back to Raqqa for his wedding and lived with his new wife in a different neighborhood, away from the fighting. One day he was coming home with some test results from his mother’s doctor. ISIS kidnapped him. The family searched everywhere, fearing the worst. 10 days later, a friend who worked at a local hospital called Ahmet to say that an unidentified body had come in. In accordance with Muslim tradition he had been buried the next day, but hospital staff had made a video of the body so that it could be identified. Ahmet watched the video and recognized his dead brother, horrifically tortured. Ahmet took the video home to show his family. He broke the news to Tarek’s wife and to his father. Everyone was crying and screaming. Tarek had lived a peaceful life, and he and Ahmet had been very close. Ahmet spent the next few days consoling his distraught family. It’s God’s will, he told them. You have to accept this. He struggled to be strong for everyone else when he felt destroyed by grief.

Ahmet took his injured brother back across the border to Urfa and left him in the care of friends. He went to Mersin, also in Turkey, with his friend to search for a job and to start a new life. His parents left Raqqa five months later and settled in Mersin. After 20 days in Mersin, he got a Facebook message from another Syrian he had met in the hospital in Urfa while he was looking after his brother. Yusuf was in Istanbul, paralyzed by a sniper bullet. His brother had been taking care of him but left him after they had an argument. Ahmet went to Istanbul and nursed Yusuf for 6 months, taking him to the hospital for physiotherapy every week. Eventually Yusuf was well enough to travel, so Ahmet traveled with him back to the Syrian border, where his family collected him. (A few months later, Yusuf died in Syria, emaciated and neglected.) 

Ahmet again got ready to join his parents in Mersin, but was approached by a man who was involved in setting up the interim Syrian government in Turkey. Political opposition groups (bankrolled by Qatar) were optimistic that they would defeat Assad, and the man said they needed trustworthy people to work for them as bodyguards. Ahmet worked for two years in the Turkish city of Gaziantep. Eventually, plans for the interim Syrian government fizzled. Ahmet tried to figure out what to do. He had a passport and could have gone to Europe, but he wanted to stay in Turkey to help other refugees.

In Gaziantep, Ahmet’s friend Memo was going out with a young woman named Juju, who worked for an NGO. The three became good friends. Juju invited Ahmet home to central Turkey, where he met Juju’s mother and her friends and learned that there were several hundred Syrians in the village who were struggling to survive. Ahmet, Juju and Memo wrote a proposal with help from a friend and worked out a budget for a project to help the Syrians in the village. Ahmet moved there in the spring of 2016. He lives a modest life and hates the label “refugee” because he feels it puts him in a box and limits what he can do.

While living in Istanbul, Ahmet says he felt destroyed inside but didn’t talk about his loss anyone. One event changed his perspective completely. He was in Istanbul taking care of his paralyzed friend Yusuf. One day Yusuf told him that his barber, Abu Mohammed, would arrive soon to give him a shave. Ahmet put him in his chair in the lounge and got him ready. A few minutes later the barber arrived with a young boy standing next to him, so Ahmet went back to his room. Then Yusuf called him into the tv room, asking for towels. The barber’s son was sitting on the floor with his legs straight out in front of him, the towel behind his back. “Ammu,” he asked the boy, “can you please sit on the sofa so that I can get the towel?” The boy just stared at him helplessly.

From the next room, Abu Mohammed said in a loud voice, “You put him on the couch.” Ahmet bent down to pick up Mohammed. He put one hand behind his back, and as he went to put his hand under the boy’s thigh, he was shocked to feel not warm flesh but something felt cold and hard – both legs were made of plastic. He put the boy on the couch, gave the towel to Yusuf, and then went back to the tv room, sitting next to the boy and wondering how bad the story was. He asked his friend what had happened.

The family were from Aleppo. Abu Mohammed, the father, went out to work one morning and then heard an explosion. He ran back to find his house bombed. There was no trace of his wife, his mother, or his two other children. Five-year-old Mohammed was on floor, his legs mutilated. Ahmet says was haunted by this story for a month afterwards. He came to understand that the father survived because his child survived. For Abu Mohammed, there was hope: taking care of his disabled child was a reason to continue with his life. If his entire family had died, Abu Mohammed would have allowed himself to die, too. After that day, Ahmet says, he “stopped feeling like shit.” He had lost a brother and three cousins, but he realized that he had lost nothing compared to others in this war. “This is the thing about the Syrian situation”, he says. “It doesn’t make you feel good, but it makes you feel stronger. If you lost a brother, someone else lost two brothers. If you lost two brothers, someone else lost their entire family. This is what makes us continue with our lives. I am so thankful and grateful that I still have something, when so many other people have nothing.”

Ahmet is now 29; if the war hadn’t happened, he would probably be practicing law in Syria. When he was growing up, he says, Syria felt completely stable. War seemed unimaginable. Everything unraveled so quickly. He feels that the war has made him stronger, and working to help other Syrians is a catharsis, the only thing that makes him feel happy. “The hardest thing in life,” he says, “is not breaking up with your girlfriend or losing your money. It’s seeing someone that you love get suddenly taken from in front of you when they’re young, before it’s their time, and you can’t do anything to save them.” Ahmet has keep his sense of humor, though he says his jokes have turned from “white” to “black.”  He desperately misses city life and playing football.

And he is kept awake by terrible nightmares.


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Open Arms: Syrians in Turkey

This post is the first in a series of four guest essays written by my friend Diane, whom I met during our year in Turkey:

First, a bit about me. I was born in Boston and spent my teenage years wrestling with an urge to escape from the suburbs and get out into the world. For almost 20 years, I’ve taught linguistics at the University of Leeds in England. In 2004, I took a career break to go backpacking and met a Turkish man. We got married, had two children, and then the marriage came to an end. Along the way I learned to speak basic Turkish and met a collection of friends, both Turkish and foreign, who are still an important part of my life. I love Turkey and go there once or twice a year so that the children can spend time with their father and his family in their village. Some of my friends there are now involved in the efforts to help the Syrian refugees living in Turkey. There are an estimated 3 million Syrians in Turkey (probably more, since many are still undocumented). Only about 10% live in the UN-funded refugee camps near the Syrian border. The rest are distributed throughout Turkey. They’re not entitled to any housing or financial support directly from the Turkish government but can get support from charities and NGOs working in the country. Most Syrian adults speak little or no Turkish, and a lot of their children aren’t enrolled in schools. This year I spent my Christmas vacation talking to people who are running projects to help the refugees. I wanted to tell their stories, the stories about what happens after the newspaper headlines die down, the stories about lives passed  in years of limbo, waiting to go home or to feel at home in a place that is not home.


While visiting Turkey April 2016, I heard about a grassroots charity called Open Arms in Kayseri (OAK) set up to work with refugees. A sprawling, industrial city a few hours’ drive roughly due north of the Syrian border, Kayseri has been a magnet for Syrian families for several years. Some friends and I arranged to visit OAK’s new premises in the Danisment neighborhood, where a community of Syrians has sprung up. We filled a van with food and household provisions and set off for the center.

OAK’s director, Narjice Basaran, greeted us at the door. I have never met anyone quite like Narjice. A British-Iraqi consultant from North London who married a Turk, Narjice is a whirlwind of energy in her fashionable headscarf, talking a mile a minute, zig-zagging around Kayseri while taking calls in English and Arabic. She started food deliveries to around 10 Christian and Muslim families in Kayseri in 2012 after meeting Iraqi and Syrian refugees who had settled there. As the war intensified and more and more Syrian families turned up in the city with no housing, food or medical care, Narjice dedicated more of her time to OAK. She joined forces with Nilgun, a soft-spoken Canadian accountant who gave up a lucrative salary to work with her. OAK now has about 150 families on its register, and more arrive every week.

After a huge bureaucratic struggle, OAK was able to legally acquire a 3-story house and was registered as a charity in May 2016. The center is a distribution point for food and clothes, and children’s groups staffed by volunteers meet there for play, crafts and language classes. Narjice showed us the basement full of racks of donated clothes, the ground floor level with children’s activity rooms and a kitchen, and the upper floor, set aside for women. The center is bright, warm, and welcoming. The aim, Narjice explained, is not charity but social enterprise: OAK provides a safe space where women can learn knitting, crochet and beadwork and then use their skills to generate an income for their families. OAK wants to help Syrian families become self-sufficient, to help themselves instead of taking handouts.

Schooling, specifically integrating Syrian kids into Turkish schools, is a big priority. OAK volunteers provide Turkish language classes to prepare them for entry, and school attendance is a requirement for registration at the center. All of the children from all 150 OAK families go to school. As is the case in a lot of towns in Turkey where Syrians have settled, the local schools in Kayseri have come up with creative ways to handle the influx of extra children: from second grade to high school, the school splits into two sessions, running classes for Turks in the mornings and Syrians in the afternoon. OAK also invites local Turkish children to the center to help with the integration process.

Listening to Narjice, I was in awe of her passion and dynamism, and she and Nilgun quickly became personal heroes of mine. They’re not people who read about the refugee crisis in the newspaper while wringing their hands and wishing they could do more to help, like I do most of the time. Narjice and Nilgun simply put in the work to do what is needed, often at the expense of sleep and time with their families, and by all accounts, OAK is a huge success. But the obstacles are huge, and both women are starting to feel exhausted. While dozens of “humanitarian” NGOs in Turkey are creaming off aid money to pad salaries and find ever more creative ways of embezzling funds, Narjice and Nilgun don’t get a salary or even enough money cover their expenses; they work very long hours for free, and their money and energy are starting to run out. They need more full-time staff to help them cope with the expanding scale of the project. Last year Narjice worked for OAK full time for nine months without taking any paid work, so she recently went back to London to recoup her losses and continue to fundraise for the families. The center has a grant from Concern Worldwide to pay for the Turkish classes, but the red tape is overwhelming.

Most irksome for Narjice and Nilgun is the bureaucracy and administration they face. Despite being a licensed charity, as Narjice explains it, the Turkish system has no room for an organization which is neither charity nor business, but social enterprise helping generate an income for the families through their own work. Having grown up in vibrant, multicultural London and being British Iraqi, she sees the roots of the problem in Turkish attitudes toward outsiders. Turkey’s century-long suspicion of foreign powers and intense focus on ethnic, linguistic and religious national “unity” seems to have damaged its ability to deal with diversity and this massive influx within its borders. The three million Syrians in the country are now suffering from this legacy, and it can be a struggle to help them integrate.

On the day we visited OAK, two of our group stayed in the center to do a movie project with a group of children. Léonie, a French art therapist who works with children with special needs and trauma, worked with Ahmet, a Syrian, to help them write a screenplay, make play-doh animals and create sets for their movie. She uses art to try to give the kids a voice, and give them a chance to tell their story.They were soon completely engrossed in the project.

While the children were making their film, the rest of us went to distribute food and clothes in the van. Narjice had heard about a family of recent arrivals living in a run-down neighborhood in another part of the city, so we joined her while she did her assessment of needs. The family lived in a tiny concrete house with a small dirt yard. About a dozen children flocked around us as we got out of the van. They ranged in age from about 3 to 8, and it wasn’t clear how they were related to each other. Some were barefoot, and they eagerly snapped up the lollipops we brought for them.

Inside the house, six or seven men and women wearing drab clothes sat on foam cushions on the floor. One of the women was severely disabled and lay on the floor on a filthy mattress. As I looked around the house, I wondered how the family had managed to get her this far out of Syria. Another bare room was a makeshift bedroom with half dozen foam mats on the floor. The kitchen of the house was grim, bare concrete, with a sink and a single cooking hob but no other furniture. A few dishes were stacked on the floor, but I couldn’t see any food.

Narjice spoke to them in Arabic, gathering as much information as she could about their circumstances. A man arrived waving a piece of paper, and the room erupted. He had just come back from the hospital with test results confirming that he and his wife both had Hepatitis B and would need treatment. The rest of the household, including all the children, would have to be tested too. We went back out to the van and handed out second-hand clothes from a huge bag, trying to be discreet to avoid stoking tensions with the Turkish residents of the slum neighborhood. More kids emerged from the surrounding houses, pulling faces for photos and asking for more candy. They had no toys and only the streets to play in, so the arrival of foreigners with lollipops was the most exciting thing to happen to them in a long time. Narjice went back later to help with medical care and deliver food, housewares and other supplies.

In the car she told us about some of the other refugees on OAK’s register. There were a few Romani Gypsy families who lived in the same squalid conditions they had lived in in Syria. Then there was the was blind family, whose story was, as Narjice put it, “like something out of a horror movie.”  All five members of the family are blind because of an inherited condition. Narjice first encountered them along with their extended family – 32 people were stuffed into two rooms, in some of the worst conditions she had ever seen – living in filth with no shower and wet from the snow leaking in through cracks in the windows and doors. They had paid traffickers to get them out of Syria in small groups when ISIS took over their village and had endured unimaginable hardship and danger on the way. Narjice organized housing, food, and clothes for the entire extended family. She tried to arrange cornea transplants for the blind children, but Turkey has a law that donated corneas can only be used for Turkish citizens, so their vision may never be restored. More pockets of the family continue to escape to Turkey, but only some have made it, others having been shot at the border. 

On our way back to the OAK center we stopped off at a small house in another suburb of Kayseri. Narjice asked us to wait while she took a shopping bag of food and went to speak to the woman inside. She came out a few minutes later, rolling her eyes. “She told me she’s pregnant again!” she said, waving her hands in exasperation. “I told her, what the f**k are you doing? You have six kids already; you’re like one of those cats on the street!” I asked Narjice why people so destitute would want to have more children when they couldn’t feed the ones they had. “Arabs like big families,” she said. “And they want to build up their country again. But I really lose my patience with them sometimes.” 

We returned to OAK to see the children finishing up their film project. Their faces were glowing with pride as they showed us their drawings, their play-doh animals, and the set they had created. The story was about a lion and giraffe walking by a lake. In the story, the animals are tired and bored, so they decide to have a picnic. Then a bus arrives and takes them to that glittering destination for Syrian refugee children: Istanbul.

We walked into the kitchen, where volunteers were sorting the food we had brought into plastic shopping bags. Some of the Syrian mothers helped too. One woman looked thin, pale, and exhausted. Not knowing any Arabic, I tried to catch her eye over the piles of food to smile at her, anxious to convey that I cared, that the world cared and was trying to do something to help. Her eyes stayed glued to the floor. The surge of self-congratulatory pleasure in me ebbed away. She is too tired and traumatized to share in this happy moment, I told myself. Only later did I understand that her response came out of deep shame. Syrians are proud people, and their instinctive response to visiting strangers is to spoil them with Arab hospitality and feed them delicious things until their bellies explode. She had nothing to give. For her, taking charity was the ultimate humiliation. She accepted it to keep her children alive, but she hated having to take it at all. And so we stood in that kitchen in a deadlock, on one side the American with a burning liberal do-gooder’s urge to help and to have that help acknowledged because it would make me feel good, and on the other side a Syrian mother, unable to meet my eye because it would mean a loss of her pride, her face, her honor. 

This crisis is not about me. It’s about her, and millions of others like her, who don’t want to be where they are.


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Navigationally Challenged

A couple of nights ago, we sat in a “preparing your child for high school” meeting at the middle school.

Several times, the speaker referred to the date of an open house “which was in the email we sent out last week.”

Leaning towards Byron, I whispered, “Did you see a date in that email?” No, he did not recall seeing a date. “We should stop and tell her on the way out, then, that they didn’t include the date, so they should send out a follow-up email.”

Before we did that, however, Byron whipped out his phone and scrolled through past emails. Ah, the date for the open house HAD been in the original message — in an attachment that neither of us had opened. 


It seems to peak around the tenth day of class.

I log in, and both the email and the “Ask Jocelyn” folders within my online classes are peppered with messages from students. Although the wording and nuances vary, the essence of each message is the same: “How do I know what I’m supposed to be doing?”

In response, although the wording and nuances vary, the essence of all my replies is the same: “Take a look around the class. Maybe start with the announcement that greets you on the homepage.”


In November of 2016, Outside magazine published an article by David Kushner about an American man, Noel Santillan, who decided to take a much-needed vacation in Iceland. After landing at the Keflavik airport at sunrise, he hopped into his rental car, input the address of his hotel in Reykjavik into the car’s GPS system, and began driving the forty kilometers towards the city.

After about an hour, Santillan started to worry; he didn’t see anything that looked like a city. However, he was committed to this adventure, so on he drove, following the directions given to him by the GPS.

By mid-afternoon, jet-lagged, understanding that he was off course — “There was no one else on the road, but at that point there wasn’t much else to do but follow the line on the screen to its mysterious end. ‘I knew I was going to get somewhere,’ he says. ‘I didn’t know where else to go.'” — Santillan pulled over in a small village and walked into a hotel. After he handed the receptionist his reservation, she burst into laughter.

Santillan was standing in a village on the coast of Iceland, 380 kilometers north of Reykjavik.



Good evening, I was just curious as to when you are going to give out information on the topics for the papers.

If it is a choose your own thing, or you assign the topic. That is all.


All the dates for everything in the whole class are on the Semester Calendar on the Content page (under Introductory Information); I have suggested everyone print it out. Also, you can click through the weeks of the class on the Content page and see all the assignments for the rest of the class. It’s all there…including the Research Paper Assignment sheet (there is only one “big” paper in the class, due at the end).
So click around, and you’ll get a sense of what will be due and when. All the activities build up to the big paper at the end, including shorter “papers” of writing a Brief Summary Report and a Research Proposal.
Thanks for checking!
After the hotel receptionist stopped laughing long enough to post about Noel Santillan on her Facebook account, word of his epic lost-ness spread. In short order, he became a bit of a sensation in Iceland, posing for pictures, doing interviews, eating comped meals, taking free tours of museums. Most exciting of all, the marketing manager of the world-famous Blue Lagoon hot springs and spa offered Santillan a free visit. 
The Blue Lagoon is such a popular attraction that its address comes preloaded in rental cars’ GPSes, After half an hour of following the directions he was given, Santillan reached the address and parked. He was in front of a convention center on an empty road.
Once again, because he turned off his brain and fell victim to automation bias — “the human tendency to trust machines more than ourselves” — Noel Santillan had no idea where he was.


Are we supposed to have done a discussion question prompt this week? Also, would you like us to keep track of the three week rotation, or will you tell us the specific Mondays that we are supposed to post on? Or… I am just thinking… is this on our calendar for the class?


You are not supposed to have done a discussion prompt for this week. And the three-week rotation is and will be laid out in three places:

1) The Semester Calendar (under Introductory Information on the Content page — I asked everyone to print it or transfer all assignment due dates to whatever calendar system you use)

2) Within my instructions for all the assignments that are on the Content page

3) And each week, on the main course homepage, within my weekly announcement, there will be a listing of what you need to do, along with deadlines. So, for example, you can look at the current announcement (this week’s starts with the eulogy my friend Nina gave at her dad’s funeral and ends with the assignments for the week) to see what all is due by this Sunday night at 10 p.m.

I’m glad you asked; I don’t want you to be confused or uncertain!


The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to three scientists who shed light on human beings’ “internal GPSes” by discovering two new types of cells in the brain: place cells in the hippocampus and grid cells in the entorhinal cortex. Both types of cells contribute to spatial problem solving and recognition — to the creation of cognitive mapping systems.

Basically, the more we move through the world tracking where we are, the better we get at “dead reckoning,” taking sightings, recognizing familiar paths, correcting ourselves when our location doesn’t make logical sense given our understanding of where we are in a larger picture. As David Kushner notes of these scientists, “Their work has profound implications — not only for our understanding of how we orient ourselves but for how our increasing reliance on technology might be undercutting the system we carry around in our heads.” 



For each of the free writing exercise that we have to do for each chapter, do we continue to submit these “journals” into the folder called “Reading Journal Annotations?” 


I’m so glad you’re asking! You, in fact, will not be doing each freewriting exercise for each chapter, and you will only be doing journal annotations (mostly to learn that this way of interacting with a text exists and that you might want to use it in the future) next week. So there is only one document you will ever submit to the “Reading Journal Annotations” folder.

If you want a preview of everything you WILL be doing, you can skim the Semester Calendar (or print it and hang it from your ear like a huge earring) and take a gander at everything that will be due, along with the due dates.

Thanks for checking in on this.


When we rely on our own brains to navigate, the challenge activates cells to the point of growth. Literally, the size of the brain increases in those who don’t just stick to known routes, in those who memorize new paths and ways of moving throughout space. 

According to David Kushner:

University College London neuroscientist Eleanor Maguire has used magnetic resonance imaging to study the brains of London taxi drivers, finding that their hippocampi increased in volume and developed more neuron-dense gray matter as they memorized the layout of the city. Navigate purely by GPS and you’re unlikely to receive any such benefits. In 2007, Veronique ­Bohbot, a neuroscientist at McGill ­University and the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, completed a study comparing the brains of spatial navigators, who develop an understanding of the relationships between landmarks, with stimulus-response navigators, who go into a kind of autopilot mode and follow habitual routes or mechan­ical directions, like those coming from a GPS. Only the spatial navigators showed significant activity in their hippocampi ­during a navigation exercise that allowed for different orientation strategies. They also had more gray matter in their hippocampi than the stimulus-response navigators, who don’t build cognitive maps.

Put another way: if we push ourselves to decipher unfamiliar landscapes instead of sticking to the known and the easy, we get smarter.


Student: While reading the (very interesting) assigned text, I simply wrote notes and annotations on a legal pad. My question is this: in what form should this assignment be typed and submitted? Should I simply type out my notes as I wrote them or should I rearrange them into more coherent sentences and paragraphs with a little more finesse? Thanks!

Me: Probably the easiest way to communicate what I’m looking for would be to direct you to Week Two on the Content page; there you can see an example of this assignment as completed by a student in a previous semester! Also, if you’d like another example, there’s the one I refer to in my instructions on pp. 107-112 in your textbook.


Wikipedia has an entry for “Death by GPS,” a phenomenon common enough that the phrase has been coined. Fortunately, more often it’s the case that lost people — individuals with limited experience in creating cognitive maps, whose hippocampi are measurably smaller, who put faith in screens and computerized voices over noting landmarks and sensing their position within a larger context — have near-misses or become the protagonists in sheepishly recounted stories. In the summer of 2016, The Guardian published an article, “Death by GPS: are satnavs changing our brains?”, detailing multiple stories like that of Noel Satillan. There were the Japanese tourists who drove their car into the ocean in Australia; the woman who drove her car into a lake in Bellevue, Washington, because her GPS told her it was a road; the woman who was aiming for Belgium and only realized she was in Croatia when she looked at the language on street signs; the Swedish couple who were certain they’d arrived at the island of Capri but who were, instead, in an industrial town called Carpi, never wondering why they hadn’t crossed a bridge or needed to take a boat to get to the “island.”



I am in the Emu group and I read that there is a three week rotation between: favorite discussion, group discussion, and discussion question posts. But I couldn’t find anything about which weeks I will have to complete which task? Did I just miss or skip over it? Also I was wondering when the presentations are due, I am assuming you will let us know after we have have signed up for a specific book? Sorry to bother you, but please let me know.

Thank you, have a great day!


I’m glad you’re asking!

If you go to the Content page, you can look under Introductory Information for the Semester Calendar. That document tells you what each Wild Animal group will be doing each week for the entire semester. It’s also laid out, week by week, on the Content page in my instructions there. As well, each week’s announcement on the main homepage will tell you. 

As far as presentations go, all the due dates are listed on the Semester Calendar, too, along with being listed in the weekly instructions on the Content page (and they will be in each week’s announcement on the homepage). Your one chance to choose the book you do your presentation on is now — I’m still waiting for a few more volunteers on The Moon Is Low — but after this first book, I’ll be assigning everyone presentation topics on specific books!

Thanks for checking in. In summary: use the documents on the Content page, and read the weekly announcement, and you’ll be golden.


In 2003, a heavy fog suddenly descended on Nantucket Sound. Disoriented, hopelessly lost, two young kayakers died. A half mile away, John Huth, having made note of wind and wave directions as he started out that day, was able to paddle his kayak — blindly but correctly — back to shore. 

After that day, distraught that he lived while others died, Huth found a kind of therapy in immersing himself in traditional orienteering techniques. Even more, he wrote a book, The Lost Art of Finding Our Way, and began teaching a class on ancient navigational methods, both of which, according to writer David Kushner, make “. . . a powerful case for learning how to get where you need to go simply by paying attention to the environment around you.”


In my online classes, it’s difficult to remain upbeat and patient when I’ve already spent hours creating and posting documents intended to provide clarity. For example, the tenth day of class — when confusion seems at a maximum — occurs during the second week of the semester. And yet from day one, the entire class is there for them, already revealed, completely ready for digestion.

For example, during Week Two the announcement on the homepage says:

So, during the second half of week, please complete Assignments #5-7:

#5–Read Chapter 3 in your Veit and Gould textbook. Savor it. Roll around with all that fun prose.

#6–Read “Pressure and Competition: Academic, Extracurricular, and Parental” (pp. 119-125) and write at least five annotations per the “Keeping a Reading Journal” example on pp. 107-112; your five “reading journal” annotations are due to Assignments by Sunday at 10 p.m.

#7–Participate in the whole-class “What Meets the Eye” (pp. 191-198) discussion; this means you should post your own freewriting and then respond to at least two classmates’ freewritings by Sunday at 10 p.m. I urge you to remember that your posts really need to be well developed and well edited. Put some thought and time into your posts, and make sure you proofread them (no text messaging-type writing, either…please: no LOL usages!).

Supplementally, there is this from the Semester Calendar (which, in case you don’t recall, is under Introductory Information on the Content page. I thought you’d be tracking this shit by now, GENTLE READER):

Week Two–(January 16 through January 22)

Assignments #5-7, explained in greater detail on the Content page

Read Chapter 3, “Strategies for Reading”    

Read “Pressure and Competition: Academic, Extracurricular, and Parental” (pp. 119-125) and write at least five annotations per the “Keeping a Reading Journal” example on pp. 107-112; your five “reading journal” annotations are due to Assignments (this was previously called the “Dropbox) by Sunday at 10 p.m. 

Read “What Meets the Eye” (pp. 191-198) and freewrite for fifteen minutes in response to the ideas presented in this essay; then participate in the discussion on these essays (post freewriting and responses to classmates by Sunday at 10 p.m.)

And then there’s the listing of the week’s various instructions, also on the Content page. Students can — in a beautiful dream world where whoopee pies are calorie free, tubes of lipstick are tossed to onlookers at parades, and no one ever needs an alarm clock — click on each link and read my detailed instructions for every last individual assignment:

What’s more, in an initial effort to get students to seek out the helpful documents, I have them take a quiz the first week of class in which they answer questions such as, “You will have a big research paper due towards the end of this course. Referring to the Semester Calendar that is located under the heading Introductory Information on the Content page, look for the date when the rough draft of this paper will be due. What date will the rough draft be due?” 

Within the landscape of the class, students have been given cues, sign posts, lodestars, street signs, constellations, landmarks. Thus, I feel well justified when I have to inhale slowly…one…two…three…four…lungs are filling on five…six…seven…pushing into eight…nine…TEN…before I reply to each “How do I know what I’m supposed to do?”

It should be easy. They need only take some time to stare at the links on the screen in front of them and then do some clicking and reading.

Everything is there, if only they know how to look.


Ancient Norse explorers divided the day into eight sections, each corresponding to a section of the horizon; the spot on the horizon smack in the middle of any of the eight directions was called a daymark (dagmark). In such a way, Scandinavians associated the passing of hours with what they could see in the world around them.

Current online college students are presented with a toolbar across the top of the classroom, a series of five links containing drop-down menus. At eye-line as they sit in front of their computers are these visual “classmarks”: Content, Materials, Communication, Assessments, Resources. The learning curve, for brains used to being told where to go when navigating a new land, requires paying attention to the markers in a way that engages their hippocampi.

Unfortunately, for brains accustomed to instant gratification, navigational confusion is quickly followed by impulse that precludes the engagement of the hippocampus: they send the teacher a message.


Mostly, I am able to remain patient with students because I have empathy for their confusion.

Always, I’ve had a terrible sense of direction, have called myself “spatially challenged.” Reliably, when in a new place — heck, when in a place I’ve been many times before — I get lost. To me, GPS, which I rarely have used, is just another method of landing me in Borneo when all I needed was a dozen eggs from the Super One.

Trust: I will NEVER excel at covering the shortest distance between two points.

A fortunate result of a lifetime of being lost is that I’m relatively comfortable with having no idea where I am. Floating randomly around impossible geographies as darkness falls is just another Tuesday to me. Although my hippocampus is undoubtedly smaller than a single tear of panicked desperation, it has grown enough over the decades that I now know to stop myself and take a few seconds of reckoning when I’m running on a new system of trails. Looking at a map before heading out gives me a broad sense of the route, but stopping at every intersection, turning around to see from another perspective what I’ve just passed, and making note of what letter of the alphabet or celebrity face the tree branches resemble has saved me more than once.


An article in Directions Magazine explains that landmarks have: 

use as organizing features to “anchor” segments of space; use as location identifiers, as to help decide what part of a city or region one is in; and use as choice points, or places where changes in direction are needed when following a route. In the latter cases, on-route landmarks may actually be choice points or may “prime” a decision – such as “turn left after the church.” In an off-route situation, a landmark may provide information about relative location, distance, and direction – as in “if you can see the tower on your left, you’ve made a wrong turn and have gone too far.”

The same article recognizes that some landmarks, the famous ones, are communal while others are person-specific and not necessarily known to others; think “favorite fishing hole” or “the bench where I cried when Idris asked me to move in with him.” This type of landmark is idiosyncratic.


I connect with the world through its idiosyncrasies. Many of us do, including people pursuing college degrees.

However, online learning platforms are deliberately free of idiosyncrasy; in the interests of clarity and logic, their design is standardized and uniform — built around communal landmarks. For students whose brains track idiosyncratic landmarks more readily, the class appears devoid of signposts . . . even though there are all those easy links right in front of their eyes, begging for a good clicking, all those laboriously typed instructions from the teacher, begging for a fair reading. 

For the brains in the class that nod knowingly when they are told “turn right at the huge rock that looks like Richard Nixon’s profile,” the carefully laid out learning space is a maze where all the walls are white and fifteen feet tall. 

It is these students whose messages fill my Inbox. It is these students with whom I remain patient.

I have to. I’m the person whose husband told her of an article in Outside magazine about how our brains are losing their abilities as “wayfarers” due to technology,

the person who then sat in front of the computer for half an hour the next day, typing in every possible search query, 

the person who could not find the article to which her husband had directed her attention,

the person who had to text her husband at work and ask:


Now it’s your turn, Gentle Reader:

Where in my online course can you find the Semester Calendar?


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