Category Archives: education

thank you, myers-briggs type indicator!

December 21, 2015

I’m not typically in the business of doling out unsolicited relationship advice here on the blog. I just write about my life…and yeah, through that, I probably end up waxing poetic (or actually, let’s be honest–probably not so poetic) about how we’ve made things work in our relationship. And through that, I get a lot of “What do you think about my situation?” emails from different folks (especially women in relationships with Saudis). But aside from a post of advice here or there, with guidance mostly gleaned from my own mistakes, I try to stay away from marketing myself as some sort of relationship expert. Because (and I’m laughing as I type this) I am so not that. But over the past few weeks, I’ve had some experiences that have led me to believe that this one suggestion will be tremendously helpful to anyone in any relationship.

Take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a questionnaire that helps you sort yourself into one of 16 personality types, based on combinations of four different personality traits. (I won’t go into a lot of detail in describing them; folks have already done that elsewhere on the Internet in much more detail than I can provide here. So you can read about them, and then you can find your own personality type, if you wish.) Business types use the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator a lot, and so do educators. And it just seems to be getting more and more popular. I’m guessing that in the next few years, our Facebook newsfeeds will be filled with trendy listicle thinkpieces that dispense advice on how to deal with certain personality types, much the same way we currently see constant discussion about introverts and how to deal with them (or, you know, us…I’m an introvert. Interestingly, introversion/extroversion is one of the four Myers-Briggs personality traits that go into making a personality type). And maybe in 50 years or so, we’ll all see the Myers-Briggs craze as nothing more than pseudoscientific pop psychology, like the way a lot of people feel about psychoanalysis now. But even if that’s the case, I gotta say that so far, I’m totally aboard this hokey train.

Read More


July 29, 2015

Every year, around the end of July, I start to get really nostalgic. Back-to-school time is creeping up on us, and it always makes me miss being a student (not to mention a teacher). I was one of those kids who lived for back-to-school. The new always wore off within a month or so and I was sick of it again (because they made me do math), but I always loved going back to school in August. I would get really excited when school supply lists came out. Going school supply shopping was like Christmas. Those clean notebooks! Those sharp new pencils! Those fresh erasers! Joy!

And with college, it just got even better, because along with buying new school supplies, I also got to–nay, had to–buy new books. Well, some used, of course, because everyone knows that if you take the time to go through the used books, you can often find nearly new ones (i.e., ones that once belonged to slackers who basically never cracked them open and certainly never made any highlighting or anything) for the used price. But still…books! So many books! Every semester, a new set of books!

This year, as I started to wallow in my morose back-to-school nostalgia, I realized it has been ten years since I graduated from college. Ten. Years. I was already feeling old because, much to my irrepressible glee, overalls and Birkenstocks are everywhere again, which means I’m now old enough for my high school closet staples to have gone out of style and come back in again. But to realize that college was officially ten years ago…it was a bit jarring.

College–that is, my four years as an undergrad–is the one period of my life so far that I would totally relive if I could. I recall high school with much more lingering fondness than I would have expected, but I have no desire to relive those days. And it’s not that I would go back and change everything about my college days, mind you–I’m a firm believer in that cheesy platitude that everything happens for a reason, and if I had changed a whole lot about my life trajectory, I wouldn’t have met Mr. Mostafa, and I wouldn’t have Lavender. But I miss so much about college life at the University of Missouri.

I chose to go there because it was the biggest university in my state. Unsurprisingly, coming from a high school graduating class of 29 to an incoming freshman class of over 5,000, my first few semesters knocked me on my ass, academically and otherwise. Encouraged by my mom (who I’m pretty sure just wanted to make sure I was surrounded by people who were obligated to look out for me lest their membership numbers drop), I did sorority rush (or “recruitment,” as it must be called), and I joined a sorority, and I was immediately terrible at being a sorority girl (although, ironically enough, that is where I really picked up my cross-stitching habit as an adult–endless chapter meetings on Monday nights. Cross-stitching was the one part of being a sorority girl that I was good at). I lived in my sorority house for a year and a half. And then when I moved off campus as a junior, I quit the sorority because I didn’t see the point of paying to be a part of a group of girls with whom I had nearly no meaningful connections, anyway.

Needless to say, sorority life is not something I have ever missed about college. Nor have I ever missed the loneliness. Despite being surrounded by people all the time, college was pretty lonely for me, because even though I did have a few wonderful friends at Mizzou, my best friends were in the southern part of the state, at what is now Missouri State University (and where I would end up going for my master’s, and where I would meet Mr. Mostafa), and I didn’t fit in at all. It seemed like I was completely surrounded by affluent kids from St. Louis and Kansas City who all went to private schools (to this day, when I drive through St. Louis and see cars with Lou Fusz emblems on them, I think of all the shiny new cars lining the streets of Greek Town, which belonged to kids whose parents had bought them new cars for their 16th or 18th birthdays).

Add in the reality that I’m really socially awkward in any place I happen to be, and yeah…it’s safe to say that in many ways, I was a square peg in a round hole.

Because of that, I don’t miss football games or basketball games or any other such school spirity things. I hardly ever went to those things; in fact, on weekends when I didn’t head to another part of the state, I usually went grocery shopping and did my laundry during football game times because I knew places wouldn’t be busy then. I don’t miss partying, because I never felt any inclination to do so even when I had the chance. I don’t miss waiting for the weekends, because nearly every weekend, I was gone, either home with my parents (and sometimes my friends, when they were home, too) or in Springfield with my friends.

But looking back…I sure do miss a lot of other things. Some are silly, like York Peppermint Patty Bites, to which I’m pretty sure I would be addicted to this day had they not long since been discontinued, and which I always used to grab from the university bookstore while walking to or from class. And Shakespeare’s Pizza, which, in my mind, is still the greatest pizza in the history of ever (even Mr. Mostafa agrees). And other things, while small, seem more meaningful.

I miss walking around campus, whether to class or work, with my iPod earbuds in my ears, trying to imagine what my life would look like in five years, always envisioning those songs on the soundtrack of my life in that imagined future. I miss all the daydreaming that was involved in this ritual.

Like I said, I miss buying books. I miss registering for the next semester’s classes. Here’s where my nerdery is really going to be on display–I always got really excited on the day that the next semester’s class schedule got released, so I could settle in with hard copies of both the schedule and the university course catalog and plot out my courses for the next semester.

And as I mentioned a few posts ago, I really miss the darkroom.

mizzou columns.

I worked at the Current Periodicals desk in Ellis Library in my senior year, and I miss that a lot. I loved working in the library. It was a pretty simple job, but it gave me tons of time to…you know, read. Not only did I get to study when not helping people, but I also discovered some pretty great media that way, stuff that I probably never would have discovered otherwise.

I miss listening to viewpoints I completely could not ever fathom agreeing with, but listening anyway. When I was at Mizzou, Jed Smock and his family lived in Columbia, which meant that we students were lucky enough to get a large amount of Bro Jed’s hellfire-and-brimstone preaching, because he would frequently set up his folding chair in Speaker’s Circle. Back then, I always enjoyed taking a seat around him on some sunny afternoon and listening to his sermons, even though I disagreed with basically every word he said.

Much more broadly, I miss learning all the time. Not that I’m not still always learning in a different way, but I miss structured book learning. I miss having the opportunity to study things all the time. The other day, a friend of mine on Facebook mentioned that she was going to buy some used textbooks when she was back in the States, so she could feel like she was learning something. I think I’ll put that on my to-do list, as well. I already Google for syllabi of classes that I would like to take, and I save the books in my Amazon cart. But you know what? I think the next time I’m home, I’m going to go to the university bookstore and just cruise through the textbook section and pick out some textbooks on the spot.

I like to live dangerously.

I may not get around to digging into random textbooks for awhile (after all, I am still embroiled in official academic pursuits of my own, like an ant mired in honey), but they’ll be ready for when I am. And that alone will be comforting, I think.

meet my sister-in-law.

July 15, 2015

When I posted my interview with Mr. Mostafa a few months ago, I got several messages indicating interest in more interviews from the people in my Saudi family. And to be honest, I had a really fun time conducting the interview, so it’s something that I was interested in continuing, as well. My lovely sister-in-law, Mr. Mostafa’s younger sister, graciously agreed to be my second interview subject. I asked her a few basic interview questions, and then I moved on to interview questions submitted by readers, the answers to which constitute the bulk of the interview. So, without further ado…meet Ms. Mostafa!

Okay, here we go! Introduce yourself.

Um…my name is Wala’a Mostafa. I’m your sister-in-law. I am Saudi, and I studied preschool education in college. I’ve been teaching for five years; this will be my sixth, and I love it. I’m single. I’m 27. And…that’s all.

Okay, so…what do you think about my blog? Do you even read the blog at all?

I do sometimes! I mean, it’s interesting to me as a reader, not as your sister-in-law. It’s interesting to me because it showed these, you know, exciting stages of your life where you left your country and you married a Saudi guy. It was exciting because…like, okay, you had met us before, but you didn’t know how we lived. We didn’t know how we lived! (Laughs) Because, you know, my parents bought the house right before you came here, so we were still adjusting even before you came. So that’s what’s interesting to me about the blog, and you know, you make it seem so cute! When you talk about your daughter and you talk about your in-laws…it makes me feel special!

Well, you are special! Have you ever had a blog or have you ever considered starting one?

No. And no.

If you could meet any famous person, who would you choose?

Adam Rodriguez…but he’s married! So…Adam Rodriguez. It’s still Adam Rodriguez. (Laughs)

Where is your favorite place that you’ve traveled so far?


And why?

Because…I don’t…I don’t know, wallah. I don’t know. Florida was more exciting, and it was so much fun. You know, Disney World…maybe I should have said that! But Chicago is my favorite. It’s really my favorite city.

Where do you want to travel someday that you haven’t traveled so far?

A lot of places! Mostly Asia. Like, Tokyo, Hong Kong, the Philippines…Tokyo is the place I most want to go, I think.


Alright, reader questions!

(Gasps. Deep breaths.)

Are you ready?


Okay. You already answered this a little bit, but I’m going to ask it anyway: what’s your educational background?

We all studied in private schools, my brothers and me. Mine wasn’t fancy, but alhamdulillah, I graduated from it and went to college. I still don’t know why I chose preschool education, but I did, and I’m glad I did, because I’ve been working with kids ever since and I love it.

And you went to a university here in Riyadh.

Yes. King Saud.

Again, you already answered this, but what do you do for a living?

I work in a Montessori school.

Okay. Next question: Saudi women can be very successful in many aspects. Could you mention some of your female friends who have found success?

All my friends.


I would say all my friends. Well, there’s one I know of…she isn’t working. But my cousins especially, I’m proud of them. Not only my cousins here in Riyadh, who work and have their businesses, but also my cousin Shatha, from Jeddah, she’s a jeweler now. Although she studied French translation in college, but…you know…those women do stuff. So I would say, all of my friends.

Who inspires you?

My mom! Wallah, my mom…and…I’d say my best friend, Sara. Because she helped me through a lot of things in my life…you know, like, problems, girl stuff…and I love the way she thinks. I love the way she solves problems.

Okay. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I have no idea! (Laughs) Can I say that?

Of course you can!

I don’t know. I want to be healthy, happy, still enjoying my job, and enjoying my life, day in and day out.

Can’t ask for more than that! Okay, so what do you think of intercultural marriages? And did your views about intercultural marriages change since Saleh married Nicole?

I’m 100% for it, for so many reasons. But the one reason that I really believe in is…even Prophet Muhammad said to go further than your region to find your partner. And I believe it makes your kids smarter because the genes are totally different. And there is a history of…studies and facts that kids whose parents are married from the same family have disorders and genetic problems. So the closer, the more chances it is for you to get diseases. And what do I think about it after you guys got married? Mashallah, I want to get married the way you guys got married. And that’s all I’m going to say. (Laughs)

Would you consider an intercultural marriage yourself?


Okay, if yes, would you prefer to marry someone whose culture is very different from yours, like American or French or Korean, or would you prefer someone with a culture that’s a bit closer to yours, like Moroccan or Omani or Somali?

It would be easier for me to get married to a person within my same culture…you know, because of the background, and the way we think. But I know that it’s possible for me to find a person in other regions, like the ones you mentioned before, American and such, that I could click with and I can understand, because of the language we have in common. And because I am open-minded. (Laughs)

Okay, this next one is kind of a big question, so get ready.


I mean, it’s kind of a broad question. What do you think about Saudi men? Culturally, as husbands/brothers/citizens, etc.

I have the perfect answer to that! (Laughs) All men around the world are raised in a certain way. But Saudis are raised more into this way, which is the guy is the very important person in the family, and you know, he inherits the family name, and he makes money, and he will get you a house, and whatever…so they worship the guy, until he becomes so spoiled, and then when he gets married, the girl has to deal with all of this BS. Does that make sense? (Laughs)

It makes perfect sense!

I’m not getting married to a Saudi after this interview. (Laughs.)

Okay, next question. Saudis are very different from family to family, and depending on the area as well.

That’s true! I was going to say that I wasn’t raised in a family that’s like this…but I am. Saleh is still special to them, Suleiman is still their baby, and I’m still the middle child who happens to be a girl; that’s why I’m spoiled. (Laughs) Wallah!

Okay, so what kind of differences do you see from family to family?

Some families are so strict. Some families, they try hard not to differentiate between their kids, but they can’t, because again, it’s a natural thing, I guess not only for Saudis. But you know, it depends on the family. Some families are really strict and they worship the boys, and some families are fine. Some families, they care about their daughters more than their boys.

What things do you wish people from outside Saudi Arabia understood about Saudi Arabia and Saudi life?

A lot! So many, I can’t think of one. (Laughs) First of all, we’re not terrorists. And we’re not as closed as they think we are. And we are not as rich as they think we are. And I mean, yes, women can’t drive, but women can do so many things. Oooh, add this! Me, as a Saudi girl…I don’t know why I’m saying this; it doesn’t really have to do with the question, but…even the stuff that I can’t do, I see many of those things as a benefit. Because I don’t want to look for a parking space, and I don’t want to deal with accidents, and I don’t want to deal with a broken car. So to me, this makes me feel…good, that I can sit back, you know, play with my phone, and a driver does all the work. So, even that…I want them to know this. I want them to see that many of us, we don’t feel like that we don’t have rights. As women and as Saudis.

Okay, but what about, like, traveling outside of the country?

What do you mean?

I mean, like, I remember one time, your mom went to get her passport renewed and they told her to come back with her mahram. And she was really angry about it. I would have been angry, too.

That made me feel even more relieved, because I didn’t have to deal with that mess and paperwork! (Laughs) No, seriously, alhamdulillah, my dad is still alive, so he deals with that stuff for me. When I needed a passport, I woke up the next day with a ready passport. I didn’t have to do anything. But I mean, I’m lucky, because I have such a family. But some ladies, they don’t have a loving dad, or a loving husband, or a caring brother, or a helpful guy in the family, you know? So living in Saudi isn’t fair to everyone. It really isn’t fair to everyone, and I know that. But it’s working fine for me. (Laughs) No, what I mean is, it’s working for many of us. There are things we want to change, we know that, but we are okay. That’s what I want people to know…we are living normally like everyone else. Yes, we don’t have cinema theaters, yes, we can’t drive…but I’m fine with that. We still download movies, we still listen to music…you know, even people download P-O-R-N here. (Laughs)

Okay, what do you like the most about life in Saudi Arabia?

I’m safe. Safety, and living here is so easy and cheap. We don’t have to pay taxes, and food is cheap…I’m not sure about water and electricity, but I think it’s reasonable. Like not crazy expensive. So, living here is easy and safe. You can save a lot of money if you work here. Which, I haven’t…(Laughs) But you can if you want to. I should.

What do you like least about life in Saudi Arabia?

I think the fact that we don’t have movie theaters, wallah. Because everything else, we have. But housing costs…buying a house or renting a house here is crazy expensive.

Yeah, it’s hard because you have to have this huge chunk of money up front, whether you want to rent or buy.

Yes, exactly…I know I sound very dumb when I said movie theaters…

No, not at all! To me, it’s something important, too…I really miss movies. Silly, but…it’s true.

Okay, yes. So, movie theaters…and the fact that houses are more expensive here than what they should be, because, I mean…it’s a desert. (Laughs) Wallah!

Yeah, and you have to have a 30% down payment to get a mortgage on a house, no matter what. Like, that’s huge.

Well, I don’t know about that, because alhamdulillah, I’ve never had to buy a house…see, I’m telling you, I’m spoiled. I sound like a spoiled brat! Forget it, it’s just movie theaters. (Laughs)

Okay, you’ve already kind of answered these things, but maybe you have something different to say. So, what do you like and not like about Saudi culture?

A lot of things! I like the…conservativity? Is that a word? (Laughs) But I don’t like the strictness.

Could you explain a little bit more? Because I think, to Americans, if you say conservative/strict, they kind of sound like the same thing. Like, what do you mean by “conservative,” and what do you mean by “strict”?

Conservative, you know, that….hmmm…I have no idea how to explain this. But I’m living it! (Laughs) How can I put that in words? Let’s see…you know the stupid mentality that still exists about people marrying the same tribe? This is what I don’t like about the Saudi culture. That they still believe this…I don’t know how to say it in nice words. These stupid, old ways that make us still think that we have to marry a person within the same tribe, and we can’t just marry anyone. Some guys, even if they’re in love with the girl, they won’t marry her because she’s not from their tribe. And because of the fact that she was talking to them before marrying them. That means, “Oooh, she might do that after I get married to her!” Or, “Who else has she been talking to?” And that’s horrible. But by conservative, I mean, the way I’m living. Because, you know, my parents, they have so many rules that we can’t even break because we don’t want to break them. You know? They gave me their trust, and I don’t want to break it. And this is how people should raise their kids. Show them what’s right and what’s wrong, set some rules and boundaries, and then let them live. Don’t smother them.

Okay, as a teacher, could you describe your school day and the curriculum you teach?

Awwww! Okay, as I told you before, I’ve been teaching for six years, but for the last year I’ve been teaching a Montessori curriculum, and it’s the curriculum I love the most. I work from seven in the morning to two in the afternoon. The kids leave at one-thirty, and they start at eight. I spend four hours with my kids, full-on, and then I have a hour and a half on my own. I teach them English, and I love how Montessori exposes them to every single subject area, in a way that’s not controlling…it’s not, you know, “You have to do this and you have to learn this.” So it’s easy for me and for them. It’s easy for me to teach, and it’s easy for them to learn. And they learn a lot. And I love it. I love the school I work in.

Awesome. Okay, would you ever move to a non-Muslim country?

Yes. But…if I had the choice between a Muslim country and a non-Muslim country to move to, I would choose the Muslim country. Not because I’m, like, closed-minded or anything, but because it would be easier for me to live as a single Muslim girl. And by that, I mean I would love to move to Istanbul. Basically, I just want to move to Istanbul. (Laughs)

As an Arab, do you understand the Qur’an directly, or do you sometimes need to turn to other sources for meaning of words, etc.?

No! I mean, yes, yes, the second one! ‘Cause it’s super fancy words that no one on earth could write or come up with them. But at the same time, they’re easy to be understood. I don’t know how to explain that…because some surahs were sent to Prophet Muhammad when he was in Medina, and some were sent when he was in Mecca. And the people in Mecca were very strict and closed-minded, and were like, “No, we don’t want this religion!” So Allah sent the surahs that are short, you know, with short ayahs and very simple words. And the Medina surahs were more, you know, like Al Baqara, they were these long surahs with a lot of fancy words that you really have to read about to understand them. Plus, in Qur’an, as the way it is with other books, Allah mentioned a lot of stories and miracles that you know, that we should learn from. So yes, I read them from Qur’an, but those specific stories, I try to read them from tafseer or from other explanations. Sometimes I even use Wikipedia to see, you know, how this story was mentioned in Qur’an and the Bible, and other places.

Do you want to get married?

Yeeeee–I don’t know! (Laughs) No, wallah, I don’t know. For this question, you can write yes, no, and I don’t know. (Laughs)

When are you going to get married?

When it’s meant to be.

Good answer. What qualities will you look for in a future husband?

The number one quality is me clicking with him.

Define “click.”

Understanding each other, and…you know sometimes, you don’t click with people. And sometimes you just click with them. You can have love and respect and whatever, but clicking with them is an entirely different thing. I don’t know how to explain “click.” (Laughs)

Define what Lavender means to you.

(Gasps) The biggest love of my life. I love her more than anyone on earth, more than my little brother, who I love more than anyone in this house. Wallah, Suleiman is my favorite…and Mama, too, of course. I can’t live without her. But Lavender…I would take a bullet for her. I would push her out of the way and be hit by a car for her, I would let a lion kill me…(Laughs) Wallah, this is how much I love her. I would die for this girl. Not drama…I love her more than anything in life. I would give up my life for her. I wouldn’t give up my life for you, I’m sorry. (Laughs)

It’s okay! (Laughs)

Or for Suleiman, who I love more than anyone in this house. But your daughter…to me, she is the biggest love story in my life so far. Wallah, and not just because you’re her mom. If this interview was with some random Saudi girl that Saleh married instead, I would say the same. And can you please write that I love that someone asked that because I’m sure the person who asked that question knows that the answer would be that she is so special to me.

Okay, so your answer to the last question is going to make this next question kind of awkward, but here it is. (Laughs) What makes your relationship with Nicole so special?

I have no idea! (Laughs) See, this is the click thing I was talking about! It’s the click! Subhanallah, we think the same, and alhamdulillah, even though I don’t have a sister, Allah sent you to me. I tell you stuff that other people in the house don’t know. The fact that we both are interested in and love the same stuff, such as education, makes it more special, but that doesn’t affect the click. The click is there. It’s the click. And when Saleh told me, “I want to marry Nicole. What do you think of her?”, I said two things. I said, “Nobody can stand you the way she does,” and I said, “That will make it easy for you, Saleh, because your sister and your wife are best friends.”

Awww, I love that. So, on a related note, the next question is, were you the first one in your family to support your brother when he mentioned getting married to Nicole?

Yes, yes, yes! I was, wallah! I was the first one in the family that he told! So yes, a very big yes! He asked me what I thought about marrying you before he even asked our parents. And I told him, “You know what, I’m sure they’re gonna say no, but I’m gonna fight for you, I will help you, because I know her,” and I knew something huge was about to happen. You know, I stepped back a little bit when it was really intense, when they said no at first, but I was there, and I hugged him, and when he cried I was there for him and I told him, “It will happen.”  I didn’t know when, but then one day Mama came into my room and told me, “Tomorrow we’re going to buy Nicole a ring.” I said, “What?” She said, “Your dad said yes.” And I was like, “Alhamdulillah!”

What’s it like having a sister-in-law from a completely different culture?

That’s a very good question. Again, it makes me feel special, and lucky. Because this goes back to the fact that people getting married from different countries is important, because this…I mean, having you as a sister-in-law made me more open, made me proud, and made me believe that…that the good in heart exists in every single country in the world, not just the one I was raised in. Wallah.

You’re gonna make me cry! Okay, well, here’s a chance to rag on me a little bit: what does your sister-in-law do that you sometimes don’t understand because of the cultural differences?



Wallah, nothing. I consider myself open-minded, but I mean, you are more open-minded than me. But I wouldn’t say that I don’t understand this. You know, like the other day when we were talking about the gay marriage thing, and you were like, “No, it’s okay,” and I was like, “No, it’s against God’s laws!” So I guess maybe there’s that, that you’re more open-minded than me, but it’s not a bad thing. I understand that.

What things would you change about those cultural differences if you could?



Really! Every culture has its differences, and beliefs, and I think that everyone should live together happily, respecting and accepting other cultures.

Maybe you should be President of the United States! (Laughs)

No, no no! It wouldn’t work. The first thing I would do is say no to gay marriage. They can keep marijuana! (Laughs) No, I’m joking. But I wouldn’t be a good president.

Last question: what is a beauty secret that you have?

It would be cheesy if I said, “This yogurt mask I use,” or something like that. (Laughs) Well, I’m in this phase of losing weight, and I feel like I’m failing because I’m trying to focus on so many things at the same time. So…just be easy on yourself. Know your limits. Because I put too much pressure on myself, and I failed. I mean, I succeeded, but then I failed. I tried to fix my skin, my hair, lose weight, and build my career, and all of that all at the same time, and I feel like I failed. So…don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Take one thing at a time. That’s my beauty secret. I’m sure people won’t like that, but you know, that advice is so much more than just, like, “Find your angle,” or “Use this mask,” or whatever…this is lifelong beauty. Set high standards for yourself, but don’t put too much pressure. Wait…you know what? I want to change my beauty secret answer. I want to say, love yourself before anyone else. That’s my answer. Love yourself before anyone else.

Thank you for letting me interview you!

No problem. It was so much fun!


taking pictures and writing stuff.

July 2, 2015

Lately, as my mind has been overgrown by certain thoughts, pressures, worries, goals, dreams, and ideas, I’ve been grabbing young adult novels here and there and devouring them like I used to when I was a kid. They give my brain a break, and they remind me of what it was like to be small again.

This new ritual has made me grateful that I never got rid of so many of those old paperbacks that I’ve had for twenty years (some a little bit less, some a little bit more), especially since so many of them are still so goodThe Westing GameStarring Sally J. Freedman As Herself. The GiverAll of them remind me of the universal truth that good young adult novels are just good novels, period. You never outgrow them. No matter what age you are, you still feel your life blur into clarity as you read them, like a photographer focusing a lens.

When I was in middle school, one of my absolute favorite books was The Mozart Season, by Virginia Euwer Wolff. I just finished re-reading it a few minutes ago, and it’s still as good as I remember. It’s one of those young adult novels that are just good novels. And when I closed it, I felt closer to middle school me than I had in a long time.

I first read that book in sixth grade; I think I checked it out of the school library about five times before I finally bought my own copy at the school book fair a couple years later. It’s about a twelve-year-old girl named Allegra. She’s a musician, a violinist. The entire book is about her summer spent preparing to play a Mozart concerto in a prestigious competition. And one way that finishing it now was very different from when I finished it as a kid was that as soon as I was done, I got on YouTube and searched for “Mozart fourth concerto” so I could finally see what this thing Allegra did really looked and sounded like.


I remember that when I finished the book the first time, even having no clue what the concerto sounded like, I went in the hall closet at my house and pulled out the very old violin that used to belong to my aunt, my dad’s sister. It was a wreck; it had no strings, and the bow was reduced to just a few hairs. But I asked my parents take the violin to get fixed, and I started violin lessons.

I was never very good at music. I had taken piano lessons for about five years (starting when I was five years old), and even though I always enjoyed my lessons, I didn’t enjoy practicing. Violin was the same way. I wanted to be good at it. But I didn’t like doing what it took to get better at it.

It took me a long time to realize that what made me want to be like Allegra was not that she was a violinist, but that she had such a singular focus in her life. She was twelve years old, and she could already answer the question, “What are you?” Easy; she would say, “I’m a violinist.” Or, “I’m a musician.” Even while not grasping the exact magnitude of Allegra’s accomplishment, you couldn’t read The Mozart Season and not understand that Allegra was meant to be a violinist, in some capacity, for the rest of her life. I suppose that’s also why I’ve always liked documentaries like First Position; they’re all about kids who have that sort of intense focus on cultivating a skill. I always wanted to have that kind of focus for something. I wanted to be someone who knew what I was destined to be as both the kid version and adult version of myself, because not being that was completely unthinkable. Even though in retrospect my junior high and high school years were okay (I stayed sane thanks to a few wonderful friends, a lot of good music, and tons of books), I was weird, and I’m still weird, and it took me a long time to embrace being weird. I would have loved to be in the company of kids who were also weird, who took things (whatever they may have been) as seriously as I did.

There are two things that I loved to do as a kid and still want to spend basically all my time doing as an adult: taking pictures and writing stuff. I like to bake. I adore working with children. And of course, I read a lot (as people who write a lot tend to do). But basically, I just want to take pictures and write stuff.

Those are interesting skills to have, but in general, they’re not exactly the stuff that overachievers are made of. When I called my dad in my first semester of college and told him I was seriously considering changing my major from political science to photojournalism, he told me gently, “Honey, that’s a hobby.” He wasn’t entirely wrong, and especially considering the state of the photojournalism field these days, I’m grateful that he steered me toward choosing a more reliable Career (that’s career-with-a-capital-C). When I decided that I didn’t want to go to law school after I finished undergrad, I stumbled into education as something I could see myself doing for the rest of my life as a Career. It was a field I found myself surprisingly passionate about once I jumped into it, especially since as a high schooler, I sincerely thought that one of the worst possible outcomes in life was to become a teacher. Especially a teacher of little kids. How boring. 

And telling your parents that maybe you might want to go to school for creative writing, especially if you’re the first person in your family to go to college, is basically the same way. It’s kind of like approaching them and telling them you want to go to clown school–possibly a fun thing to do, and probably personally fulfilling, too, but not at all conducive to a normal, successful, materially comfortable life. (Actually, having friends who did major in creative writing, I now know that parents of first-generation college students are not the only ones to see the major this way. Basically everyone in academia does, except creative writing professors.)

So I didn’t major in photojournalism or creative writing. But I still spent nearly all of my free time in college writing in my Blurty journal (is Blurty still down? It’s been down for months now, and I’m going to be a bit heartbroken if I can never access my collegiate introspections ever again. This was before the term “blog” was a widely known thing, kids) and taking photography classes, processing film, and making prints in the darkroom, and spending a lot of my time smelling like developing chemicals. (Combine all that with my social awkwardness and my innate aversion to drinking, and it’s no wonder I didn’t have boyfriends. My parents were quite concerned about this, although I had no clue until one day, when I was a junior, my mom came to visit me at school and as we were driving home from a trip to Walmart, she took a deep breath and said, “You know, Nikki…if you don’t like men, it’s okay. You can tell me.” I was truly touched by her willingness to accept me no matter what, but I assured her that I liked men just fine.)

And don’t get me wrong; like I said, there are other things I love to do. I love to bake (I’m pretty good at making pies, although the last time I made one, the crust was stubborn as hell for some reason, and my mother-in-law mused that maybe someone here in Riyadh had given my pie-making skills the aynI haven’t tried to make a pie since then, mostly because after Lavender arrived, there was no longer space in our apartment for me to be rolling out pie crusts. But I intend to get back to it once we move into our own place). I like to run when I can (although I’m agonizingly slow, and I haven’t really gotten back into the training routine I had before moving to Riyadh and having Lavender, partly because there’s just hardly anywhere to run in Riyadh, especially as a woman. But Mr. Mostafa has been made well aware that a treadmill is one of the things we will have in our own place when we move. It’s non-negotiable). And I love working with children. Seeing their faces light up in the middle of a lesson is one of the greatest joys I have ever experienced in my life.

Still, if I were never able to do any of these things again, I think I would be okay. Tremendously sad, but okay. As long as I could still take pictures and write stuff.

And even though I’m grateful to have an education and a skill set on which to further build a Career, I’m also grateful that since moving to Riyadh, I’ve been able to spend a lot more time taking pictures and writing stuff. It feels awesome, even if I do feel a bit like a twelve-year-old learning to tap dance in the beginners’ class, surrounded by six-year-olds. Why didn’t I seek out writing classes in high school and college? Why didn’t seek out opportunities to really learn photography before I went to college, so that once I got to college, I could focus on building more advanced skills, instead of learning basics? I took one photojournalism class, as an undergrad elective, and to this day, out of the many, many classes I’ve taken in my academic career, it was my favorite; I didn’t skip it even once. Since I double majored anyway, why didn’t I at least attempt to make photojournalism one of my majors? I could have had one sensible major that I enjoyed and one long-shot major that made me truly happy. These are regrets I have about my life thus far (although as far as regrets go, they are pretty good ones to have. I know there are many people out there who wish they could have had the chance to pick a major at all, even if it turned out to be the wrong one). If I could give one piece of advice to teenagers getting ready to go off to college, it’s that: double major, and pick one that’s practical and one that you love so much that you forget that it’s supposed to be work.

I realize that this is going to make parenting tricky for me. On some level, I’m always going to want Lavender (and any other children I may have, probably) to find that activity that makes her heart full and satisfied, that thing that she wants to be doing even when no one is making her do it. That’s not necessarily bad. It means that I’m going to be intent on introducing her to new activities, new experiences. And that’s awesome. But it also means that I’m going to be constantly stifling my instinct to push, push, push, practice more, get better, be amazing at something! Want what I wanted. But my child is not me. And I’m pretty sure that’s always difficult for parents to remember.

I think the best way to counteract this potentially destructive instinct is to just focus on what has always made my heart full and satisfied: taking pictures and writing stuff. It’s a win-win.

olympus xa2.

toddler app love.

June 11, 2015

Here’s a confession nearly tantamount to literally having a skeleton in a closet: we are not, and never have been, a “no screen time” family. Lavender has been exposed to children’s TV shows since before she was a year old. We’ve never encourage her to just park herself in front of the TV, but when she was smaller and would throw a fit when she had to sit in her car seat, we consistently chose to load an episode of Peppa Pig on an iPhone for her rather than let her cry herself sick. To this day, even as an educator, I’ve never felt bad about that. She also loves Bubble Guppies, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Doc McStuffins, and Super Why! In Arabic, she loves In the Night Garden, Special Agent Oso, and Jake and the Neverland Pirates (which show on Baraem, the Arabic preschool channel…nowadays, they’re also showing Doc McStuffins in Arabic, and she loves it in both languages). Again, we don’t park her in front of the TV for hours at a time, but if she’s playing like a madwoman around bedtime, I’ll put on an episode and sit in the rocking chair with her to wind her down. Or if she is having a fussy day, sometimes a treat and a show and some snuggles are all it takes to calm her down again.

Despite research that suggests that children don’t retain anything from television prior to the age of two, my personal experience has demonstrated otherwise. One time, when Lavender was about 18 months old, we were out and about and we came across a puzzle of farm animals, and as I was pointing to the animals and saying their names, she pointed to the horse and announced, “Neigh! Neigh!” I looked at her, shocked; I hadn’t taught her that. Then she pointed to a cow and said, “Moo! Moo!” And let me tell you, I felt like a failure as a mother. Because Bubble Guppies had taught my child animal sounds.

So, yeah. We watch TV in our house. But beyond TV, we also use apps with Lavender. A lot. Usually not when we’re at home, but when we’re traveling, absolutely. She has her own iPod Touch (which used to belong to me, but got transitioned to toddler use), and let me tell you, it was a godsend when we were traveling to and from the other side of the world. Not to mention on our cross-country road trip. And when she does use apps at home, she’s usually sitting in either my or Mr. Mostafa’s lap, and we’re interacting with her about what she’s doing or watching…and research has shown that such experiences, academically referred to as joint media engagement, can make screen time beneficial for kids.

Again, I don’t care what anyone says…apps are wonderful. “But Nicole,” you might say. “Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids play with iPads!” True. But that doesn’t mean that such tech is necessarily completely bad for little ones.  Steve Jobs was undoubtedly a man of ridiculous genius, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have been a bit shortsighted when it comes to the technology he unleashed on the world. Can you imagine Johannes Gutenberg saying, “Yeah, I invented the printing press, but I don’t let my kids play with books”? He probably would have said that, actually. Because when the printing press was invented, folks were alarmed and worried that civilization was headed on a massive downslide because no one would memorize anything anymore. When the radio was invented, everyone worried that no one would read books anymore. You see how this has historically gone down, right?

So, yeah. This is the world we live in. That being said, apps should never, ever replace books and the experience of reading to your children, and it’s important that parents are involved with their children’s media consumption, rather than just sitting them down with a device for hours on end. (And quite frankly, we adults shouldn’t be sitting in front of devices for hours on end, either.) And because of apps, Lavender can already identify letters (I haven’t sat her down and quizzed her on all of them, but when I’ve asked her to name a letter in a book or on a sign or something, I’ve yet to point to a letter that she can’t name). She can identify numbers, colors, and shapes. She’s working on learning the Arabic alphabet now, as well. Despite my background in education, I didn’t sit her down and teach her these things. All I’ve done is read books to her…and I reviewed apps, loaded them onto her iPod, and handed her iPod to her when she was having a meltdown about having to sit in her car seat or stand in an airport security line. That’s it. I feel confident that her time spent on the apps we’ve chosen for her is not in any way wasted. As I’ve pointed out, research is starting to back that up, as well.

So, if you’re interested, here are the apps we keep on Lavender’s iPod. Especially since it’s summertime and that means lots of traveling, this list may come in handy.

20 learning apps for toddlers.

I think this is a great selection for toddlers on up to around preschool age (Lavender started really interacting with apps at around 18 months or so. It will depend on your child). Of course, as with anything, moderation is key. At home, she’s usually so busy playing with me or her baba or with other toys that she doesn’t think about her iPod much. And I tend to limit heavy use of the iPod to car trips, restaurants, and other times when it can be asking a whole lot of a toddler to expect her to sit still.

First Words Deluxe. There is a free version of this, but it’s well worth the five bucks to buy the full app. This is the first spelling app that Lavender ever used, and I love it because it can grow with her. At first, I had it set to only phonetic, three letter words; now I’ve changed it to the random setting so that she spells words of various lengths. You can also set it so that the child has to place the letters in the order they are spelled in the word; I haven’t done that yet. It’s a great app to start out teaching little ones the concepts of spelling and letter placement, because when the child moves a letter anywhere near the correct spot, it automatically sucks the letter into its place. It’s a great precursor app for…

Endless AlphabetEndless Alphabet is a much cuter, more colorful, more creatively developed app than First Words Deluxe, but it’s also a pretty simple, straightforward app; for each word, you move the letters to their correct place in the word. It’s a bit more difficult than First Words Deluxe, because the words are more complex, and the child has to move the letter to its place and drop it where it’s supposed to go. But Lavender prefers it over First Words Deluxe, because as you move the letters, they yell out either their names or the sounds they make in a very silly way. (To be honest, my mom and Mr. Mostafa both find this entertaining, as well.) Like First Words Deluxe, there is a free version, but it’s totally worth it to spring for the paid version (you get all the words, plus automatic updates as they add new words).

Endless 123. This app is designed with the same aesthetic as Endless Alphabet, but it teaches numbers in various ways. It has kids count in different sequences (twos, threes, tens, etc.), and it also has them complete math problems by moving letters and symbols (plus, minus, etc.) to the correct place in an equation. The free version only goes up to 5; the full version (called the “School Edition”) goes up to 100. Definitely worth it.

Endless Reader. Have you caught on that we love the Endless apps? They’re made by Originator, Inc., and everything they make is worth a download. Not even kidding. They have a free version of all their apps, and although the paid version of their apps can be salty, we’ve found them to be worth it. Endless Reader is the most expensive one (the “School Edition” costs $30, unless you buy it in a bundle with other full versions of their apps). It’s a whole lot like Endless Alphabet, except after the child spells the word, the app then offers a sentence using the word and asks the child to place words in the correct place in the sentence. Lavender has been working through the words and sentences in the free version, so even though it’s a hefty chunk of change (I mean, for an app), we’ll be pulling the trigger on the “School Edition” soon. There’s also an Endless Spanish app that is just like Endless Reader…except, you know, it’s in Spanish. We just downloaded that one a few days ago.

YouTube KidsThis is a version of YouTube that is specifically designed for kids–no ads, no questionable content, which means you can let your little one scroll through the options and choose for themselves without worrying they’ll stumble upon something you’d prefer they not see. It requires wifi, so it’s mostly limited to naptime/bedtime for us.

YouTube. Even though YouTube Kids is much more kid-friendly when it comes to letting your child navigate the app and choose what they want to watch, regular ol’ YouTube is also a really terrific source for children’s videos, and it’s worth a download, as well. If Lavender isn’t watching something on the Super Simple Learning channel, she’s watching something on playlists curated by Mr. Mostafa and me. Mostly, those playlists are full of clips we loved watching as kids and really want her to appreciate, too…especially old Sesame Street sketches (a couple of Mr. Mostafa’s favorites are here and here; if you grew up watching Sesame Street in English, you might recognize them. As for me, I’m really partial to Jelly Man Kelly and A-B-C-Cookie Monster! Luckily, Lavender seems to love them as much as we do). Like YouTube Kids, this app requires a wifi connection.

PBS Kids. Like the YouTube apps, this app also only works when your device is connected to wifi, so it’s mostly a bedtime app. It shows ad-free episodes of some of Lavender’s favorite shows, like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and Super Why.

Fisher Price Storybook Rhymes. There are six different Fisher Price Storybook Rhymes apps, and one in Spanish. We have them all (some are free, some are paid apps). Each app presents two different nursery rhymes in sections where kids can follow along with the words and turn the page on their own. Lavender has loved them for ages. They’re simple, tried, and true.

Little People Player. I hate the title of this app. That being said, it has several little song videos with the Little People characters (you know, Little People is a set of toys from Fisher Price) that Lavender loves, and I don’t mind letting her watch them because the songs are just adorable and have a good message. Like, “It’s great being silly!” And, “You don’t have to be a girl to twirl, twirl, twirl…spin, spin, spin, and do it all again! You don’t have to be a boy to jump for joy…jump, jump, jump, jump in!” Yeah. I like that. Also, even though this app is all videos, you don’t need a wifi connection for it.

Daniel Tiger’s Day & NightLavender loves Daniel Tiger, and I don’t blame her. It’s such a cute, sweet show! (In fact, one time, as we watched it, Mr. Mostafa said, “This show makes me sad that she’s not going to be this little forever.”) In this app, you get to help Daniel go through his morning and bedtime routines. Lavender’s favorite thing to do is help Daniel tie his shoes and help him brush his teeth.

My First Alphabet PhonicsThis is a great, straightforward little app for learning to write both uppercase and lowercase letters.

Little WriterThis is another lovely tracing app, with the same concept as My First Alphabet Phonics, except that kids can trace numbers, shapes, and words, in addition to uppercase and lowercase letters. Even though it has many more things to trace, I actually recommend starting with this one before My First Alphabet Phonics, because it breaks the tracing down into simpler steps that are less overwhelming to little ones.

Don’t Let the Pigeon Run This App! Do you know the Pigeon books, by Mo Willems? If not, go buy them. Now. (In fact, go by anything by Mo Willems.) Because they are wonderful. They’re simple and brilliant and Lavender loves them. And go buy this app, too, because in it, you get to make your own Pigeon stories.

Now, obviously, these are all English apps (and a few Spanish). However, we do have several Arabic apps on Lavender’s iPod, as well. These were vetted by Mr. Mostafa to ensure that they teach at least reasonably native-sounding Arabic (because, well…a lot of Arabic learning apps don’t).

Zee’s AlphabetThis app teaches Arabic letters, in addition to vocabulary words that begin with that letter. I like the music, too. It’s very jaunty.

Learn Arabic Shapes & Colors GamePretty self-explanatory, right? It’s simple and fun!

Learn Arabic Numbers GameMade by the same developers as Learn Arabic Shapes & Colors game, this app follows the same concept. Except this teaches both Arabic and English letters. Pretty great! (Especially for me, because even though my Arabic is getting stronger every day, I still get Arabic numbers mixed up! I think my brain is just not wired for math, in any language.)

Fun Arabic Learning for Kids & Toddlers. This is the Arabic app that Lavender spends the most time with, hands down. She especially loves the Arabic letter puzzles. Some of the sections require you to pay (colors and other vocabulary), but others (letters and shapes) are free. Either way, it’s definitely worth a download!

So, there you have it. These are the apps that are currently on the front home screen of Lavender’s iPod. I’m sure the lineup will change over time, and probably sooner rather than later. But for now, these are the apps that keep her entertained…and learning!