Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Rejoining the Workforce

About 4 years ago I got a small inheritance from an uncle I had only met briefly as a child.  I decided to take my husband and son and I on an Alaskan cruise with the money to celebrate my husband's 50th birthday.  It was something he said he'd always wanted to do.  It was the start of something much bigger, because shortly after that more people close to me started getting very sick and eventually dying- my best friend, brother, cousin, next door neighbor, and then my mom.  As they got sick, it occurred to me that those words, "Carpe Diem", were truly useful.  I made a conscious decision to say "YES!" to every opportunity that arose, and to enjoy my life with those I loved.  I had plenty of credit available and vowed to go back to the workforce when the cards were maxed out or when I had enough fun.

The last four years have been incredible.  I've done everything on my bucket list.  I made special memories with family members.  I've taken time to play with my youngest son and grand son.  I traveled to 6 continents, walked on a glacier with my niece in Alaska, cooked in the kitchen of an Egyptian cruise ship with the head chef, spent time in the same room on multiple occasions with 2 presidents & vice presidents and their first ladies, tore out my entire front yard and planted it in flowers, rode camels at Giza pyramids, hot air ballooned with my son over the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, hiked all day around Machu Picchu, did Disney parks several times with my kids, photographed birds on the Galapagos islands, met my pen pal of 35 years in her home country of Japan during cherry blossom season, helicoptered over active lava fields, watched elephants graze on safari in Uganda, enjoyed a show at the Opera House in Sydney, slept in a lighthouse cottage, saw the excitement of the Olympics in London, biked, rollerbladed, sailed, & kayaked, chased Omar at pools and playgrounds across the world, and made many good friends along the way.

In a few weeks, my daughter and I are going to do one of the things on her bucket list- visit Milan during fashion week!  We also plan to stop in Istanbul for 2 nights, and do a couple of day trips to Venice and Lake Como.  I'm so looking forward to spending some time with her while our kids are here with their dads.  After this trip, my credit cards should be irresponsibly, delightfully, completely maxed out.  I don't regret it for a second.

I know lots of people who died with money in their bank accounts and a life full of regret for the things they never got to do.  My next door neighbor's house was recently purchased and is being renovated.  Each day it looks a little better and I think about how he left more than $300,000 behind but never had air conditioning put in.  His house is so much more comfortable now, and he wasn't here to enjoy it.
My son Jake and I at Alexandria, Egypt
Machu Picchu with my husband

Disney is for kids of all ages!
So it is with this anticipation, that I started looking for a job.  It will mean a lot of changes, but I've been out of the work force since 2004, so I feel it's going to be interesting.  I will look forward to adult conversation, and adding benefit to something bigger than my own inspirations.  I already took a couple of civil service exams and passed, so hopefully that will lead to interviews.  I'm not too worried, although someone told me that it's much harder to find a job after 50, and with each successive birthday your odds of finding a job go down by 10%.  I have never had a job I didn't love.  I've always enjoyed learning something new and meeting new people.  

Saturday, August 24, 2013

10 Years of Islamic Marriage

Happy Anniversary to me.  This week marks 10 years since I was at the wedding where I really was an unnecessary participant.  The Islamic Marriage or Nikah is a basic marriage agreement where at least 2 male Muslims participate.  Usually the bride selects a man in her family to represent her in the ceremony.  Since I didn't have any Muslim friends or family, Abdulhamid selected his best friend to represent me.  It was the religious ceremony but wasn't legally binding until we got the marriage contract and went to the courthouse to register the marriage.  That happened several months later, which can often be the case.  I look at the photo (below) from our wedding day and I think how young and naive I was.  So much has changed in the 10 years we've been together.  Lots of ups and downs.  You can imagine with kids from previous marriages and then a child with down syndrome.  Add to that all the cultural differences.

So what would I say to anyone considering the same situation?  I would likely do everything all over again.  I'd just understand a few things better this time around.  Basically, Muslim males realize that they are responsible for providing a home and basic needs for the family.  The wife does absolutely everything else.  Think of it as a business agreement, rather than a romantic relationship.  There are some rules about who's in charge...and it's not going to be the woman.  Once, I asked my husband when we'd be equals in this relationship, and he said that would never happen.  Get used to it in the beginning, ladies.  He is not my BFF.    He's not the type to be my Facebook friend or join in my google circle or linked in.  He's my life partner.  I do count on him to make decisions for our family that benefit US, not ME.  It often leaves me feeling empty, but it seems to work most of the time.

In this marriage I gave up my job, my home in Green Bay, my local friends, and moved into his house near Milwaukee with his kids, while mine went off to college.  Then I had a baby.  This is incredibly normal for nearly every Muslim relationship I know.  Many of the women have PhDs and had promising futures.  They put everything on hold to join their husbands, and do it willingly.  I am always humbled by the sheer genius and kindness of the Muslim women I meet when we gather. When everyone accepts their roles, it makes everything work better.  These are relationships based on respect and deep religious values.

The truth is that Islamic marriages thrive in this topsy turvy economy, because of the way they are created.  Even young Muslims today still rely on family members to arrange marriages for them.  When I was on the outside looking in, I thought it was incredibly medieval, but I've come around to thinking it's a pretty good idea.  Family members and friends who know us well will know what kind of a person would be good for us.  It's great to have others checking out the financial status and family of a partner before you spend the rest of your lives together.  Life is full of surprises, but you benefit when you know all the important stuff upfront.  It takes the emotion out of a decision, and in many cases, that's a good thing.  That doesn't mean that love doesn't come later for many couples.  It often does.
Me and Abdulhamid on our Nikah day 10 years ago

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Summer Road Trip

Every summer I try to take a road trip.  Now a road trip is not the same as a vacation.  Vacations are about the destination, while a road trip is all about the journey.  Detours are welcome.  There is really no absolute timeline.  You can linger.  You are definitely supposed to stop at rest areas and play ball and use lots of change to fill up the car with vending machine snacks.  Omar has come to enjoy these, although if we drive longer than about 3 hours, he wonders if we're ever going to stop.

This time we drove over to Devil's Lake State Park where we met friends who were already camping there.  We spent 2 nights at the adjoining campsite, and Omar loved it.  There's a beautiful lake, carved out by the glaciers that once upon a time came through Wisconsin.  It's very shallow and not too cold this time of year so you can splash for a long time before your hands turn pruny or lips are blue.  There are kayaks and pedal boats, though we really never got around to that.  State parks are definitely going upscale now with espresso machines and wifi at the lodge.  Who knew that roughing it meant all the comforts of home?  Even the mosquitoes weren't bad this time.  We've had problems trying to camp in the past with tornadoes and thunderstorms.  This time, the weather was perfect.  We roasted marshmallows, did some hiking and just played together.  I enjoyed the adult conversation.  Omar had a blast playing with the kids.
Devil's Lake
From the lake, we headed to my aunt & uncle's place.  They used to farm, but now they enjoy life on a large piece of land.  My aunt made sweet corn and baked potatoes with delicious broasted chicken from the nearby tavern, Silver Dollar.  I felt spoiled!  It was great to be there under the stars roasting marshmallows.  You can see so many more stars when you're out in the country.  My uncle put on some classical music and we enjoyed the great outdoors with our gourmet s'mores made with Omar's chocolate bar of choice- Dove.
They have a great fire pit
The next morning we took off on the way to Minneapolis where we'd be meeting my husband for a long weekend of fun with his brother's kids to celebrate the end of Ramadan. You have to imagine that my little red VW car was packed to the brim with tent, sleeping bags, dirty clothes, food, etc.  I had to somehow make enough room for one more passenger for the long ride home again.  We had to eat everything we'd brought with us!

On the way we found a few remarkable places.  I often use www.roadamerica.com to find cool places to stop.  Thorp, WI had cows all painted up.  We found a few and stopped for a photo op.  We also found this cool Ford truck painted in Packers colors.  Then there was the Veteran's memorial complete with marble pieces and loads of flags.  Wisconsin is very patriotic.  There's a website where you can follow a state trunk highway and see all the sites, just in case you're planning your own road trip.  Here's the one we found for Highway 29.  We found a gorgeous old mill at Augusta.  There's a museum there too, but we didn't stop long enough to see it.  Omar took a drink in the lion's mouth at Merillan.  I remember doing that myself when I was a kid.  Certainly this is a replacement after so many years.  What is a road trip without some form of novelty made of fiberglass?  Very Americana if you ask me.

Painted fiberglass cows adorn Thorp's streets this summer

Loved the paint job on this old truck

At Cadott, the veteran's memorial

Dells Mill at Augusta, WI
We arrived at Minneapolis to find some of the kids sick, so we had to revise the plan.  We took the 2 older kids to a unique sculpture mini golf course at Minnetrista, that had been listed on tripadvisor, another of my favorite websites to find attractions.  You don't really need a tour book any longer as there are so many free resources available to you online and to your smart phone.  There were many places where I didn't get internet reception though so we did have a map and some addresses just in case we got stuck.  The next day we did Mall of America's theme park that is now all about Nickelodeon, whereas years ago it started as Snoopy theme.  I suppose kids today don't really know much about Snoopy.  Charles Schulz, the Peanuts cartoonist, had been from Minneapolis.  The dads sat by as the 2 boys and I did the rides.  Some of them were head banging and scary, but the boys didn't seem to be fazed by the experience.  I on the other hand had a few regrets...but I sure don't want the title of 'boring parent', so I went with them on most.  The kids who got to play had fun.  The ones who were sick definitely want a do over weekend. The road trip home was not much fun at all.  I hate to do the driving when it's just 7 hours of highway with no fun stops.  My husband had to get back to work, so I drove and he slept most of the way.  Omar stuck his nose into his ipad for the duration.  Then to make matters worse, we returned to laundry, an empty refrigerator, and all the unpacking still ahead.  Sure makes you want to run away from home again!  Ah, road trips are made for summer fun.  Where will the next one take you?

Mini golf inside of an upside down boat

The Avatar ride definitely is the one ride you only need to do once in your lifetime!

Dare to drink from the lion's mouth

Friday, August 9, 2013

Happy Birthday Agent 809

Today my son, Omar, agent 809 (a memory device I use to remember his birthday- it's tough when there are 6 kids and a husband to remember.  Haha!) turns 8!  Happy Birthday to him!  I try not to define myself as a mom to a kid with down syndrome, yet it is a big part of my life.

Eight years ago today, I was in a hospital giving birth as a 43 year old, and had no idea that there would be anything different about this birth or this child.  My other kids were 18 and 20.  It had been a long time since I'd been in a delivery room.  My other 2 kids had been born in Air Force hospitals, so the big change was that this was a public hospital and I'd have to pay the bill.  Also a lot had changed in 18 years, and now epidurals were safer and more commonplace.  It was an easier delivery on that account. My husband had briefed me about being the mom to a kid with dark skin and an afro, and how I'd have to get used to people asking if he was adopted.  Boy, was he surprised!  Omar had pink skin and not a curl to his hair.  When we left the hospital, my husband noticed he was listed as a caucasian boy, so the birth record had to be corrected to reflect he was African.  He didn't look like a young Somali.

Omar ready to leave the hospital
When he was born, no one said anything was wrong.  I held him and looked at him and just felt that he had down syndrome.  I had been very close to my oldest niece, Erica, when she was a baby.  She was born with down syndrome too.  Somehow there were similarities.  When I asked the doctor and nurses, they said they'd send in a pediatrician to do some tests.  At first glance, no one else but me thought he had down syndrome.  The pediatrician looked him over and said there were a few signs, but a genetic test should be done to be certain.  It was 3 days later that we knew for sure, and my life changed forever.

Kids with down syndrome (or trisomy 21) often have many other problems.  Often the heart, stomach, or other digestive issues are present.  They did a number of additional tests and gave him a clean bill of health, but we didn't know what the future would hold.  He was enrolled in the county birth to 3 program, which afforded us with nearly 3 years of home visit from therapists that taught me how to play with him so he'd develop as much as possible.  He just seemed like a happy child who was delayed.  I decided not to return to work so I could be with him for all the extra therapies, breastfed until he was 3, made sure he had all the advantages that people recommended.

Fast forward to today and he's full of life.  He is much more spontaneous than my other kids were.  It makes for a lot more work.  He often runs off.  He used to climb fences.  He eats stuff that most people wouldn't eat (like bird seed, cat food, and raw flour or sugar), yet he won't try "normal American food" like hot dogs. He lives on goldfish crackers and french fries.  He won't sleep alone, and wakes up many times every night.  He has meltdowns when things don't go his way.  It leaves me exhausted.  I try to plan busy days, so I wear him out.  It usually just results in me becoming worn out!  On the other hand, because of him, my life is richer.  I took up photography so we could communicate better, because his language skills were so delayed.  Now I enjoy the hobby immensely, and he does too.  I have met some of the most extraordinary people because of him- other kids with down syndrome, awesome therapists, inspirational parents.  Overall it's been an amazing experience.  He's a real blessing to me.  He rides a bike.  He is learning to read.  He has a curiosity for life that keeps me going.  I'm so lucky to be celebrating his 8th birthday with him today!

Happy Birthday Omar!

Friday, August 2, 2013

I hate Ramadan

Ramadan is the holy month for all Muslims.  It means that they are fasting and praying and hoping that their prayers to Allah (just another name for God...the very same one that Christians and Jews worship) will receive them.  My husband always reminds me of what a joyful month this is for all practicing Muslims. I don't fast.  For the rest of us who sit by and watch, eh...not so much joy going on here.  OK, maybe hate is too strong a word.  It's mostly just an inconvenience.  Honestly, fasting all day makes a person grumpy and you're not supposed to have any bad thoughts while you're fasting, so I find it better to steer clear of him for an entire month.

He eats breakfast about 3 in the morning.  The middle of the night.  Then there's absolutely no food or water touching his lips until around 8:30 at night.  It's a very long day when you live in the US midwest during the summer.  The date for Ramadan moves back by 10 days every year because it's scheduled by the lunar calendar.  That means that there will be months when the days are shorter, but for the summer months of Ramadan, it can be grueling.  I remember last year I was in New York City for a few days of Ramadan.  Every taxi driver we had was a Muslim, and I was just thinking about how the guy in charge of our car could be dizzy, lightheaded, not focusing on traffic, etc.  We never had an incident, but when you're programmed to drink more water and eat small meals all day, as they do teach us in the USA, it's really difficult to get your head around a practice that involves not eating or drinking all day, in spite of higher temps and longer days.  My husband talked about all the Muslims he knows doing construction work on highway projects, and I can't fathom working a tough job like that all day in the sun.

If you read the Koran, you'll find that the commandment to do the month long fasting came to the people via the prophet Mohamed, peace be upon him, around 600 AD.  He lived in the middle east.  There were no traffic lights or cars.  People didn't mow the grass.  They lived simple, often nomadic lives.  The average life expectancy was around 35.  Now if I have any of this wrong, please feel free to correct me.  I don't claim to be a religious scholar, but I did read the Koran, albeit the English version.  In our modern world, life is very different.  Muslims are living all over the globe now.  It can't be easy to practice your religion when it isn't the main culture of the place you live.  I found that out last year when we spent a week in Dubai during Ramadan.  Everything slowed down there because the entire population was practicing the same Islamic traditions.  For the past few years, Abdul would travel to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for a week or more to pray and practice his religion with others worshipping at the holiest city on the planet.  He and others like him talk about what a life changing experience it is when you're in a city with millions of people praying right next to you.  Praying on your own in Milwaukee, WI can't even compare.

While you have someone in your house fasting, there are still a lot of chores to be done, and the guy fasting probably shouldn't be doing them.  My husband normally goes to the office around 9:30 am and returns about 5 pm.  He goes to bed until dinner time.  If it's a weekend, he sleeps or watches TV all day.  I don't count on him to do anything or be anywhere for an entire month.  Our son who is 7 doesn't really understand this.  He wants to play with his dad and go to the park, and I have to explain that Daddy needs rest or that he's praying.  It's a long month for me too because I'm sleeping with our son, and entertaining him all day.  When was the last time you spent time with an active 7 year old 24/7 for an entire month?  There's one week to go before the ending of Ramadan (Eid), and I'm exhausted.

There's also the food issue.  I mean the Iftar, or breaking the fast.  For those of you who are Christians- think of the great holiday meals you eat, like Christmas dinner.  It just isn't Christmas without ham or turkey and stuffing, pies, salads, and all the trimmings.  Where my husband grew up in Somalia, they broke their fast with family and friends every night and it was a big celebration.  He still wants to eat that way, which makes no sense to me when we usually just have a salad for dinner during the summer.  The ideal dinner for him is dates, crepes with honey, sambusa (fried meat pies), spinach salad, rice with vegetables, and a hearty meat stew with vegetables.  Follow that up with strong tea and a dessert.   To make a meal like that often requires hours in the kitchen, and I can't do it when I have a kid to watch. If I make anything else, he just isn't satisfied, so for the past week, he's started picking up his special dinners at a Mediterranean restaurant on the way home from work.  Often he's eating alone in the kitchen while I'm putting our son to bed.

There's also the exercise routines that go by the wayside.  My husband had been working with a trainer since Fall and got in great shape, lowered his blood pressure, lowered his blood sugar, increased muscle mass, lost a few inches and pounds.  He was running 5 miles a day several days a week.  His doctor was so impressed with the results of his latest blood work.  Now it has been several weeks without doing anything.  I imagine it will be hard to start up again, but my husband has loads more discipline than I do, so I'm hoping he will go back. 

Now you have a picture of what it's like to be a fasting Muslim in a country that doesn't slow down for you.  Maybe when you meet a Muslim, you'll consider his situation and be more compassionate.  It's difficult to understand traditions that you haven't grown up believing or accepting.  I'll be the first to admit that.