Sunday, August 21, 2011

Spring Cleaning

It's not really spring. And I didn't really clean anything. But I decided I needed to freshen up the blog a bit.

I added some new "lurk links" to the right. Check out Crossroads Arabia. This guy is extremely careful not to express his opinion about things but he manages to post about all sorts of rather controversial subjects from Saudi and other Arabic and English news sources. Interesting reading.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Toy Monster

Mimi never does anything by halves. Why walk when you can run? Why wait quietly when you can sproing repeatedly in the air? Everybody knows that makes dinner come faster. And now she has taken the matter of playing with toys to a whole new level.

It really is my fault, of course, for we "get the dog we deserve." Mimi wouldn't do anything more than once unless there was some tiny bit of reinforcement for doing so. When I was working hard to train her to bring a toy back to me, any interaction that she had with a toy, even the slightest glance at it, would result in my starting a toy game with her. And as long as she was interested in playing, I would be too! Over time, I quite successfully shaped her to bring toys to me on command. Of course, I would always stop each game before she got tired of playing, the tried and true "leave them wanting more" method. But I would still begin playing with her whenever she showed interest. The result was inevitable. Predictable.

I created an insatiable toy monster.

At least once, usually twice a day, most often when I am focused on something else like reading, getting ready for work in the morning, or making my own dinner (i.e., not focused on her), Mimi begins raiding her toy box. She pulls out one toy after another until she finds just the right one (she does have favorites but by and large they are all now her favorites so the process of selection is a bit random) then she runs around the room tossing it in the air as close to me and what I am doing as she can get. If it still squeaks or honks or crunches, all the better! Squeak, honk, crunch over and over and over. If that doesn't get my attention, she starts piling toys up around me. I have turned around more than once when making dinner in the kitchen to find three or four toys on the rug by the sink. If I'm on the couch, she actually places the toys on my feet.

Harry is keeping an eye on his favorite bear. Mimi is on her toes, ready for action as soon as I got up to get the camera for this shot.

Mimi is a fine and true terrier, relentless in all things. Her final coup de grace is The Stare, a mixture of pathos and excitement. She will pick up a toy, stare at me, put the toy down, stare at me, pick the toy up, stare, put the toy down a few inches closer to me, stare. She never makes a sound during the entire performance.

Sadly, I give in just about every time. I turn the stove off, put the book down, stop whatever I'm doing, and go have a game of fetch with them. Harry always comes along for the ride but he wisely lets Mimi do all the prep work. Hey, it's hard being an old dog! He just turned 13 at the beginning of August.

I'm quite aware that letting Mimi set the play agenda violates all kinds of dog training rules. But frankly, I don't really care. I'm happy that she now thinks that playing with toys with me is about as much fun as a terrier can have.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Travels: Medieval Church in Aulnay, France

I didn't do much touring outside of La Rochelle (because I spent most of my time in France in bed sick). However, I roused myself one morning to drive to Aulnay to see its 12th century church. One of my travel guides said the fantastical sculptures were not to be missed.

The back side of the church. Medieval churches were shaped like crosses. This view is looking down along the "head" of the cross where the main altar is located.

The church was built between 1120 and 1140, so its claim to medieval fame is well established. I'm always amazed first and foremost when I visit such old structures--think of all of the wars, even modern ones with bombs and such, that they have withstood. The sharp-eyed amongst you may notice quite a few places in the interior where damp and decay have been repaired. Most of the gravestones in the yards around the church date from the 16th through 18th centuries--certainly not the first burial cycles that place has seen. The grounds were mowed and tended and the inside of the church was spotless, obviously still in use for at least special ceremonies.

I presume this is an array of saints, angels, and related figures. The layered arches with dozens and dozens of detailed figures reminds me of a buddhist wat,

Surprisingly, all of the doors were unlocked. Sure, Aulnay is a fair ways off the main roads, but several decent sized villages are located all around it. Such a wonderful treasure, unlocked, free, available to be seen and enjoyed whenever you took the fancy (the mairie's parking lot was even directly across the street)--that just wouldn't, couldn't, happen in the U.S.

Yep, that's what I think it is too: a cow rain spout.

The Oriental influence on the carvings is striking. Elephants? How did unlettered masons of the early 12th century know what elephants looked like?

These elephants capped one of the columns inside.

All of the columns were topped with the most fantastic carvings: plants, faces, shells, animals.

The church is dedicated to St. Peter. According to my guidebook, this is a carving of two Roman soldiers hammering nails into a crucified St. Peter. Note more of the Oriental motifs and layered arches.

A view of the front of the church with the suitably atmospheric, lichen-covered grave markers and monuments.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Readin' and Writin'

To my surprise, I have discovered through continuing this blog that I have become interested in the nature of narrative. What makes a story funny or memorable? How does the language that we choose, even at the level of individual words, shape the stories we tell? Indeed, what is the purpose of telling a story? Education? Bragging? A metaphorical "this didn't work so well, don't try it at home"? I find myself examining events taking place around me differently than I used to, pre-blog.

I sift and reject many stories that may be worthwhile and interesting but that aren't sufficiently blog-worthy (tip o'the fedora to Elaine on Seinfeld who gave us that meme; heck, thanks to Richard Dawkins for giving us meme in the first place). When I finally choose what I will write about, I spend a few days constructing the story in my head. It may then take me a couple of hours to actually turn it into a blog post with pictures and links.

Sure, it's a labor of love, done for my own sanity. Your reading (and enjoyment) of the posts is a happy coincidence. Still, I slave over a hot keyboard to find just the right words to tell each story. Which ones seem to resonate with you readers? The ones about dove-icide or the Step Dominatrix don't seem to make a ripple, even though those types of posts are the ones I spend the most time crafting. But slap up a rant and it is like poking an anthill with a stick.

Of course I follow political events in the US from afar. I have to. The US extracts taxes from my earnings. I pay into Social Security and Medicare. I park my savings in US institutions. I am a US citizen and will eventually return to the US. I would like to buy property there eventually. The ongoing political slap-stick (really, Larry, Moe, and Curly are more sophisticated than the talking heads in Congress, so I guess that I am insulting slap-stick) is an embarrassment, a debacle, a freeway wreck that one must look at, even if only out of the corner of your eye as you pass. Expats, even homeless ones like me, can and do vote. And since this is my soapbox, I do occasionally burst out with a rant.

But I hope that you find the stories about mango madness in Lulu or jaunts in the jebels with the dogs more satisfying to read. They are certainly far more satisfying for me to write.


For the most part, I keep my political opinions to myself. I don't talk about them in social settings and I don't say much about them on this blog. I figure that if you, my readers, are motivated to learn the facts about economics, climate change, health care, religion, et al., you are going to do so regardless of whatever blather I put up here. And if you aren't motivated to learn the facts (preferring instead shrill talking points), then whatever blather I put here doesn't matter anyway.

But I do have political opinions. And two rather different comments posted recently to Charles Blow's op-ed piece "Genuflecting to the Tea Party" in the NY Times have pushed me to say something.

Here is the first one, from Marie Burns of Ft Myers, Florida:

Republicans think representing 90 percent of the wealth is as good as representing 90 percent of the people.

I want that printed on Tshirts, mouse pads, coffee mugs, bill boards, toilet paper. I want to buy advertising time on local TV and radio stations and have this repeated daily. I want it added to the warning labels on cigarette packages. It is perhaps the most succinct summation of the deep hole we (the American people) are in, cavalierly pushed there by the Republican party and their fellow travelers.


Then there is this tidbit from JoJo of Boston, who I'm sure felt that she was drawing a really significant distinction between crazy and crazier:

...I'll have no respect for any of them, except Ron Paul -- he's extreme on some things, but he's the only one who's not a lying pseudo-religious hypocrite. 

I'm sorry to rain on Jojo's parade, but Ron Paul is one of the biggest hypocrites out there. The supposed godfather of Libertarians, he constantly espouses the primacy of individual rights to property, life, speech, action. Yet Mr. Paul, excuse me, Dr. Paul, as he is a medical doctor, is also virulently against a woman's right to have an abortion should she so choose. I've got news for you, Dr. Paul. There is no property right more fundamental than my right to control my OWN BODY!


So in a nutshell, here's my blather. Fact-check everything. Don't rely on a single source for all of your information about the world. Everyone in power has an agenda, primarily one of staying in power, but their motives and results may be much darker than that. Voting is a responsibility, a burden, that we must not take lightly. Participating as a citizen in a democracy is also quite a burden. The burden is education. And that takes time and effort. Please find the time and make the effort.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Lamb With a Cherry on Top

Time for another recipe. This one fell together last night because I was too exhausted from kick boxing class to come up with anything more complicated. It was quite tasty.

A note on the meat (you non-meat-eaters might want to skip this paragraph; well, really, you non-meat-eaters might want to just skip the entire post). I used a cut of lamb available in all of the stores here that is simply labeled "boneless lamb." I am not even sure what part of the lamb is involved. (I did a google search on "boneless lamb" and I can assure you that what we get here looks NOTHING like any of the pictures I could find.) Shanks, shoulders, and necks are pretty tough cuts and require hours of simmering to become edible. I use the word "cut" loosely. The small brown guys that work in the meat departments of the grocery stores don't so much cut up the meat as they hack it apart. All I know is that the "boneless" cut doesn't have a bone in it and it isn't full of tough connective tissue. You can put it in a curry without fussing for hours in the kitchen. This recipe will also work for lamb chops.

I often marinate meat before grilling it and I've been experimenting with fruit marinades for years. One of my memorable efforts was a homemade, fresh plum-garlic chutney marinade for shark (any firm fish would work). Mmm. The dish I'm posting about uses non-sweetened dark cherry preserves, a half-bottle of which I just happened to have in my fridge.

  • Wash, and if needed, trim, the lamb ("boneless" or chops). Pat the meat dry. You want to leave some fat on it because that is what gives meat flavor.
  • Wash your hands! You've been handling raw meat.
  • Drizzle some olive oil in a shallow bowl and drag both sides of the lamb around in that. 
  • Liberally sprinkle salt and garlic powder on both sides.
  • Spread 3-4 oz of natural (unsweetened) cherry preserves on the meat, covering it evenly.
  • Take the dogs for a walk (30 minutes). When you get back, turn the meat over and spread the preserves that smooshed out from under it all over the other side.
  • Heat the grill. 
  • Make a foil pan and put the lamb in it. Scrape all of the preserves out of the bowl and onto the meat. Put the pan on the grill.
  • Grill on low flame to medium rare (smaller cuts of lamb can get dry and tough if you overcook). I'm not going to be more specific here because you should know your own grill, but no matter what cut you are using, the meat should be on the grill no more than 5-6 minutes.
  • Serve with a vegetable of your choice. I chose to gently saute shiitake mushrooms in a bit of butter and olive oil. I would have added parsley if I had some. A green salad with a simple balsamic dressing would be good as well.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

It's All Relative

We expats have been marveling at the great weather we've had for the last four days: afternoon highs of 105F, humidity around 30%, light breeze.

Starting in late July, around the time I returned from repat, afternoon temperatures shot up to 115F (and higher) and the summer humidity (80-95%) dropped over us like a heavy, hot, wet blanket. I stopped walking the dogs because they simply weren't able to cool themselves; the panting system doesn't work so well in those conditions. This is typical summer weather for the Eastern Province, and it can last for 6 or 8 weeks during August and September.

But to our surprise, we woke up this past Saturday morning to what is ironically referred to here as a cold snap. Yes, we are celebrating daily high temperatures of only 105F. Imagine, when I take the dogs out for their first pee at 4am, it is actually below 90F! (It was about 85F this morning.) But it's all relative, right?

Those of us who are here at work during Ramadan are here for a reason: we can get an astonishing amount of work done. Saudis only work half days. They go home at noon and sleep until sunset when they begin the Ramadan overindulgence of food and drink, feasts that last for hours. This half-day rule of course doesn't apply to the army of small brown guys, nearly all of them Muslim, who pick up the trash, take care of the landscaping, clean the buildings, and so on. I deliberately saved up four big projects to work on during this month. With all the Saudis gone and many expats transiting in and out on leave, we can hunker down in our offices and work all day with no interruptions. No meetings. Can't go anywhere for lunch--all the cafeterias and food kiosks and coffee bars are closed for the month (we can eat in our offices or the sin room but not anywhere in public). Productivity shoots through the roof with 60% of the work force gone. Just another fascinating side to life in the Magic Kingdom.

But despite our good intentions to get stuff done at work, this wonderful weather has made us expats feel a bit twitchy. I hear mutterings of plans to play hooky, to spend the morning at home doing some yard work. We're all hoping the weather holds until this weekend.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Doves 0, Harry and Mimi 10 and counting

In this part of Saudi Arabia (the Eastern Province), wildlife diversity is quite low. It's not a surprise, of course, as people couldn't even live here without modern technology and petroleum products.

Birds are more diverse than other types of animals but that isn't saying a lot. Indian mynahs, white-cheeked bulbuls, sparrows, hoopoes, ring-necked doves, and rosy doves pretty much cover the list.

White cheeked bulbul.

The noisy, gregarious indian mynah.

Eurasian hoopoe. They hiss and throw their crest up when the dogs get too close (the crest feathers are normally tucked down). They are not woodpeckers. They eat bugs that they spear out of the ground with their long beaks.

Every couple of months I spot a hawk cruising camp for a snack--the giveaway is always the group of agitated mynahs dive bombing it. There are several indigenous species of hawks, eagles, and falcons in Saudi Arabia but most live in the mountains to the west so a sighting here in the east is special. A very large community of bright green parrots, numbering into the thousands, noisily moves around camp but like the hoopoes, they are migrants that decided to stay for the water and shelter. Out by "Lake Lanhart," the sewage reclamation pond south of camp, you can see dozens of different types of migratory water birds, particularly in the winter. They almost never even fly over camp so unless you make a special trip out there (battling the flies and the smell), the average resident doesn't see them.

The small birds are fully integrated into the housing areas. I often see the mynahs in particular dumpster-diving. And freshly mowed grassy areas with lots of disturbed insects are just heaven for hoopoes and bulbuls.

Although we do have two or three kinds of more or less normal trees with limbs and leaves, most of the small birds seem to prefer to nest in the palm trees, some of which are more than 20 feet tall. (Hoopoes are an exception; they prefer to nest in holes in rocky soil.) I'm always surprised by the carnage of eggs and nestlings after big wind storms, which are common throughout the year (except for July through September when we are desperate for any breath of moving air). Either because they are exceptionally fecund and there is just a lot of them or because they make crummy nests, the doves seem to be the most common windfall species.

And now we turn the conversational corner. Those young doves tossed from their nests? They don't stand a chance with the ever-vigilant Harry and Mimi. I'm of two minds about this, of course. Even though the terriers are hard-wired for this behavior, it seems a bit cruel. On the other hand, if Harry or Mimi don't get them, the feral cats will, so the outcome is fixed no matter who does the actual deed.

Mimi in particular has shown some skill in taking down even adult doves, who of course didn't fall from a nest but were just stupid and careless (she's always on a leash so it isn't like she stalks and chases them). And I do have to admire their efficiency. Thankfully, neither dog has any desire to actually eat these poor birds. Once the dogs kill them, the fun is over. Sure, there is plenty of sniffing, and I usually have to pull some feathers out of their mouths, but that's pretty much it. I leave the carcasses for the feral cats and the ants.