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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Support Staff

I love plants.  It probably comes of growing up in green North Carolina, where life bursts from any available patch of soil.  Green things always mean happiness to me.  I dream of one day being a fabulous gardener.  I've had varying successes and failures - once I managed to kill zucchini plants - but I've planted something in every place we've lived.  I grew vegetable gardens in both places we lived in Utah, bought plants for our balcony in Cairo, and made my friend's driver search all over Baku for garden pots.  Our yard right now is mostly paved courtyard, but there are several areas with grass and dirt.  As soon as we moved in I immediately started planning, imagining my own personal Eden growing out of the first patch of plantable soil I've had in six years.

Gardeners here come pretty cheap - about fifty dollars a month - and when friends asked if I was going to hire one, I insisted that I would be my own gardener.  I like yard work - it's an excuse to be outside and I'll take any excuse to get out of the house.  It's not like our yard is enormous - the actual areas where plants can be grown add up to less square footage than my living room.  I know I'm lazy, but I'm not that lazy.  Besides, I want my yard to look like my yard, not like a Tajik yard.  Everyone has their own idea of beautiful landscaping.

But the yard was the last priority when we moved in.  First I had to unpack the house.  Then I had to arrange the house.  Next came starting school.  And finally, and hardest of all, I had to convince Brandon that spending his cash on something that we'd just leave in two years was really a good idea.  Oh, and taking a Saturday or two to find the plants and materials that we needed to make my yard match the dream in my head.  I couldn't do it on a weekday because Brandon's at work and I don't speak Tajik or Russian.  Miming can only go so far.

In the United States, this would be a reasonably simple affair.  Home Depot is always a pretty good place to start if you're looking for dirt, plants, shovels, hoses, and all of those things that are made for yards.  If you're feeling really creative, there are always garden stores that carry more exotic and exciting plants, enough greenery for any amateur beginning gardener's needs.  Since we have enough children to need a large car, it's just a matter of hauling all of the children down to the store and hauling all of the things back and then getting dirty while keeping the children from trouble long enough to make everything beautiful.  Simple.

But this isn't America.  There are ways to get these things done in Dushanbe, but I don't know what these ways are.  In Cairo plant nurseries and stores lived in unused parcels of land next to train tracks or in the middle of traffic circles.  I just walked over one afternoon, pointed, held up fingers, handed over my address, and I had a balcony full of jasmine, bougainvillea, and gardenias the next afternoon. My Russian neighbor helped me get dirt and showed me where to find plants in Baku.   But I haven't had the time or energy to find out the secret gardener places here in Dushanbe.  I know they exist, but I just don't know where.

And so, Edwin uses my dirt as a makeshift sandbox.

When I was at a friend's house last week, I mentioned that I might like to use her gardener to help me get my yard planted.  We could go to the botanical gardens and pick out plants together - with someone as the translator - and she could get everything set up.  Then I'd take care of it.  But I wanted to go and pick out the plants.  Myself.  My friend said she'd talk to her housekeeper to talk to the gardener (it's always a game of telephone here) and have Anora come over.

A few days later, Zulfiya called me on the phone.  How about this Saturday?  Three o'clock?  Two days later, Zulfiya called back.  Okay, not this Saturday, next Saturday.  Then on Saturday Zulfiya called again.  Okay, so Anora's husband is coming over.  In fifteen minutes.

When I told Brandon of the newest plan - he already wasn't happy about the first plan - he sighed and headed down to the gate.  I often feel that he spends most of his free time being an unwilling part of the newest scheme I've hatched.

I trailed after and welcomed in a man with a mouth full of gold teeth.  He and Brandon chatted and walked around the yard, gesturing.  After all was done and the gate was closed, Brandon turned to me, "He's bringing a cherry tree, peach tree, apricot tree, a rosemary plant, and flowers on Monday.  His wife will come every Thursday to take care of the yard."

And like that, I had a gardener.

One day, I will do my own gardening.  But this is evidently not the day.  I spent ten minutes being disappointed and then admired my three new fruit trees (!!!!!!!) and lovely rosemary bush.  Then I felt relived at not having to find any plants by myself.  It wouldn't be my vision of a lovely garden, but it would be a lovely garden and not two and a half years of bare dirt and patchy grass.

Now I have three members of my Tajik support staff.  Zarifa comes on Monday and Thursday to clean my house.  The milk lady comes on Monday with my twenty liters of milk.  And now Anora comes Thursdays to take care of my yard.  In an ideal world I wouldn't need a cadre of women to help me navigate basic household tasks, but this obviously isn't an ideal world.  I dislike feeling helpless, unable to even know what the stranger ringing my doorbell wants from me.  I much prefer being able to get everything done all on my own and getting them done my way.  But in the end I don't have the time, mental energy, or emotional stamina to figure out new systems each time I move.  So I throw up my hands, shrug my shoulders, and hire one of the many willing hands who can ease my transition.  But still it rankles.

Some days, when one Tajik is working in my yard, one in my kitchen, and two on my bathroom, I hardly feel like this is my house at all.  I do pay (most of) them, but they run the show as I watch helplessly while things get done in whatever way the doer feels like doing them.  I'm sure this sounds wonderful to those who are the one and only doer of all of the things in their life, but it isn't for me.  Maybe if I had grown up in a culture where those who have money have everything done for them it would have been life as normal, but I didn't.  I grew up in America, where there is virtue in doing things yourself.  Just because you can pay someone to wash your car doesn't mean you should.  So instead of enjoying the extra time these hard-working helpers give me, I just feel unsettled and long for the day when nobody will be at my house but family and invited guests.

That day, unfortunately, is many years and lots and lots of money away.  I still have countries to go before I settle down, built a house, paint my walls, and kill grow my own garden.  Until then, I have to rely on the support network I build in each new home.  The gardeners, the housekeepers, the drivers, the babysitters, and the milk ladies.  All working hard to keep my little universe running; without them I'd be a disaster in less than a week.  So of course I am grateful.  How can I be anything but?  I'm a stranger in a strange land and they are my guides, smoothing my path.

But one day, I'll make my own dang path.  And clean it.  And fix it.  And pay for it.  And then I'll probably look back to these days with warm nostalgia.  But until then, I can look forward with cheerful anticipation.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Snow Day

Monday it rained.  Monday was President's Day so Brandon had the day off.  When you're in Dushanbe in winter and it's raining, there are three options for fun: stay home, go to an indoor play gym (shudder), or go to where the rain turns to snow.  We decided to go find some snow.  

I had read (sketchy) accounts of a ski resort forty-five minutes or an hour outside Dushanbe so we decided to go and find it.

I took Tajikistan and the High Pamirs, as it had the most specific directions to the resort.  Turn off around kilometer thirty-three and at some undetermined point, the road forks.  Take one of the forks and two kilometers up you'll find the resort in all of its faded Soviet glory.

We took one fork, and not finding the resort, we took the other fork.  


By that point, the road had degraded from 'poor' to 'not safe for people who are used to paving and guard rails,' and when the car slid sideways as Brandon was navigating the top of the hill in the picture, we gave up and turned around.


Brandon mentioned to the DCM later that week that we had tried to find the resort and had to turn around because of sketchy road conditions.  "Sketchy road conditions!" he exclaimed, "When I went a few weeks ago - with a security escort - our car slid off the road and we had to put on snow chains to get there.  Extremely sketchy, indeed!"  


Eleanor, meanwhile, unaware of her life hanging in the balance, fell asleep.


We eventually found somewhere to pull off and everyone played in the snow, happy to be out of the car.



We had borrowed sleds from friends, so the children made a little sled run and thoroughly enjoyed themselves.



We became quite the attraction for a constant stream of villagers walking by.  Always conscious of being watched, Brandon and I wondered what they thought of the crazy Americans who would willingly go and play in the cold, wet snow.  Brandon worried that they would come and tell us to leave and stop disturbing their peace.

Eventually everyone got tired and the sled run got fast enough to almost dump children in the stream, so we headed home.

On our way back to the car, one of the villagers asked if we had a nice time.  "Just so you know," he told Brandon, "there's better sledding further up the canyon.  This place isn't really any good for it." 

Now we know for next time.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

End of An Era (Again)

Last Saturday I was woken by Joseph's shrieks, an unfortunately regular event on weekends.  Brandon shambled out to break up the fight between the boys and flopped back into bed when he was done.  I rolled over and wiped the sleep out of my eyes.  "Do you want me to get Eleanor?" Brandon yawned into his pillow as he tried to go back to sleep.

For the past nine months our Saturdays have always begun this way.  Sometimes Joseph wakes us up, sometimes Eleanor, sometimes nobody.  But the next step is always fetching Eleanor.  She and I are equally delighted to see each other - Eleanor to eat and me to feed her.  While I feed Eleanor, Brandon and I will chat or try to fall back asleep or plan the day.  Then we cuddle in bed with the baby and ignore the rest of the children.  For a few minutes we are just three - two adoring parents and one adorable baby.  Brandon plays patty-cake with Eleanor who never tires of having her chubby little hands clapped together.  I blow raspberries on her fat belly as she wriggles in delight.  We both coo at her as she shrieks and waves her short arms about.  Inevitably, however, the moment ends when the fights break out in earnest or somebody has to use the bathroom or our conscience gets the better or us and we release the other children, beginning the circus again.

But last Saturday was different.  "Nope," I replied as quietly as possible, pretending to myself that I could fall back asleep too, "I'm down to one feeding a day.  Let's shower.  Then I'll get her a bottle for her."  And I rolled over and shut my eyes.  Nobody was fooled and we crawled out of bed five minutes later after another fight broke out between Edwin and Joseph.

I've never been too fond of nursing babies.  I've always nursed my babies for about nine months, but mostly for economic reasons.  Formula is expensive.  Nursing is cheap.  It's also sometimes more convenient, and all of those people keep telling me that formula feeding will turn my baby into a sociopathic killer.  So there's that, too.

By the time I make it to nine months I'm quite ready to retire my role as resident milk cow and hand it over to the formula companies.  I figure that the baby was nursed for seventy-five percent of their first year, so they'll only be twenty-five percent sociopathic killer.  That's much better than one hundred percent.  I put away all of my nursing-associated paraphernalia and dance a little jig of happiness brought on by shirts that don't get stretched out, bras that don't have industrial rubber-band straps, and dresses that have side-zips.  I try not to remember that their retirement is only temporary.

This time, however, I've almost regretted having to wean Eleanor.  My youngest brother is getting married in March, and I'll be gone for a week.  Eleanor will be ten months old when I leave so weaning makes sense.  But I've wondered occasionally if I would have kept on going otherwise.  I spend most of my time interacting with the other children and I don't get nearly as much time with Eleanor as I'd like.  Nursing was ten minutes I got to spend holding her as her chubby hands carefully crawled across my face or gently tangled themselves in my hair.  Every night before going to bed, Brandon would play with Eleanor after her feeding, often the only time he got to play with her all day.  Even after the roughest of days, Eleanor never failed to cheer up her angry or tired or stressed father.  It's pretty hard to stay grumpy while playing patty-cake with a chubby little buck-toothed baby.

In the end, of course, I have to wean her at some point.  And maybe I wouldn't be so wistful if I didn't have a firm deadline.  But I am wistful.  I never knew that having multiple children would change me so much.  As I go through each stage again and again and again and again and again, the irritations and inconveniences fade into the background.  They never go away, but repetition mutes them some.  And as I recognize what is not the child, but part of 'that stage' and will eventually go away - one day Joseph will stop wanting to be fed every. single. meal - I can more clearly see the love-able parts of each child.

If I just had one or two children, I don't think I could have ever have learned to enjoy nursing or dressing or reading stories or going to the park or tickling my children.  Rearing small children would have been a short enough period of my life that I would be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel and do everything possible to get it over with.

But now I'm stuck in the eternal Groundhog Day slog of small children.  I've been living the same stages over and over and over again for more than eight years and it's turned into a rhythm.  Little baby - big baby - walking baby - talking baby - potty training - self-dressing, repeat.  Sometimes we don't make it to the end before the repeat happens.

But hidden in the repeat is magic.  Each repeat is the same and each repeat is different just as each child is the same and each child is different.  Eleanor has the cutest little baby smile I've ever seen - and so did Joseph and Edwin and Sophia and Kathleen.  But nobody's had gappy buck teeth like Eleanor.  Joseph drives me crazy some days- and so did Edwin and Sophia and Kathleen at this age.  But none of them had Joseph's particular cheeky smile that melts my heart just as I'm ready to commit some real violence on him.

As I become more familiar with the difficulties and how to handle them I have more time to appreciate my favorite parts.  I don't have to worry that Eleanor will never learn to sleep or crawl or sit up because I've learned that every normal child learns to do these things; some take longer than others, but they all get it done.  Instead I can just enjoy the pleasures of each stage and look forward to the pleasures of the next one.  I wonder how I will handle not having an adorable two year-old but I know that my adorable two year-old will turn into a cheeky three year-old who is potty trained.  And I know that my cuddly six month-old will turn into a crawling nine month-old who can entertain herself.  Every stage has its frustrations but every stage has its special joys.

I'm grateful for this lesson.  Everyone learn things differently because we are all different people.  But I have been taught by the experiences I have had.  I've gained more patience and love and understanding and appreciation for what joy children can bring to my life.  I know have plenty more to learn on these lessons, but I'm happy that my learning has finally started - even if it takes a lot of personal inconvenience and rough days to teach me the lessons.  I'm sure others can learn these things on their own, but it seems that I need someone else to teach them to me.  And who wouldn't trade some of their freedom and personal time for the ability to find joy in every part of life?

One day I will wean my last baby.  And I will be sad.  And I will be happy.  It truly will be the end, not just a pause, of that part of my life.  I will give away my pump and baby bathtub and nursing pillow and never return.  I will never cuddle my little baby close to me and just sit for ten or twenty minutes.  My babies will grow up and lose their dependence on me, growing more independent with each new skill.  One day they will be ready for total independence and leave my home forever, only coming back for visits.  Eventually they will bring their new spouse and their own family, the family that absorbs their whole life and love and time.  I will be just a leftover fragment, an earliest memory of love and comfort.  But of everyone in their whole life, I will have known them longest.  And I will always be able to remember holding such a grown up, responsible, talented person when they were oh so tiny.  No matter where they end up, they will have always started in my arms.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Adventure Saturday

This week Brandon had no visitors and the weather was sunny, so we decided to take a hike.  Since Brandon and I had a wedding to attend that evening we decided to stay close to town.  I've been following the notices from Hike Tajikistan, a local group that leads Sunday hikes every weekend.  We don't hike on Sunday, but I've been keeping up with the emails for ideas of good places to hike locally.

The hike for this Sunday started by the local cement plant, about ten minutes north of our house, so we decided to scout out the route for them.  Our first attempt to find the route ended very quickly in a big iron gate across the road.  But, being intrepid Saturday Adventurists, we kept going.  We passed another road that looked promising and decided to try it out.

The road started out concrete but very quickly turned to a very muddy gravel road.  I almost gave up when the road turned to small ponds, but Brandon pushed on and finally justified buying a four-wheel drive vehicle.  We pulled off the road a little while later and set off on our hike.


We followed the line of a very old bucket system that looked like it had moved rock from a quarry to the concrete plant.  When it started moving we realized that it was still moving rock from a distant quarry to the concrete plant.  And then we moved from underneath the lines when we saw the piles of rock that had fallen out of the buckets over time.


Sophia filled my pockets with small spring flowers.  We've had a very mild winter and the weather on Saturday was beautiful for hiking - sunny and low sixties.


The children, of course, thought that the hike (more like a walk) was interesting for about ten minutes.  Then the complaining started.  We just laughed and kept walking.  


We stopped for a rest break and a discussion of Alexander the Great and his Central Asian bride, Roxanne.


Sophia picked more flowers.


We finally reached the top of the ridge in the very first picture.  We've got some work to do on the children.


Then it was back to the car for the snacks.  Joseph started asking about snacks the minute we left the car and wouldn't stop asking for the entire hike.  He only ever shows up for the food.


Eleanor was fascinated by all of the grass and dirt and leaves on the ground.  She also got herself a reasonable sunburn.

The car was coated in a thick layer of mud by the end, so when we got back everyone helped wash the car.  Brandon didn't want to hide his head in shame when we drove up to the Hyatt that evening.  

I'm getting spoiled by living in a such a small town within easy driving distance to such lovely hikes.  I can't wait until wildflower season!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Sometimes that's just life

This week Brandon had a visitor come in from DC.  When friends and acquaintances hear the word 'diplomat' attached to Brandon, I can sometimes see the stars start to shine in their eyes. I can see the mental images of embassy balls, fancy cocktail parties, and high-powered meetings scroll through their head when the d-word comes out.  But really, 'diplomat' is just a name for another government monkey who just happens to live overseas.  It doesn't matter what your title is - when someone tells you to jump, you'd better ask how high.

The run-up to this visit, which was thankfully only a three day affair, had everyone in fits from the minute the visit was announced.  One of the shining virtues of Tajikistan is that it is really, really off the beaten path with almost no developed tourist industry, and so we are spared from visits of any really really important people.  Those visits take much longer than a mere few weeks to plan out.  I remember Brandon preparing for one visit in Baku, that involved counting steps at the venue the visitor was going to spend fifteen minutes at.  Whenever I hear of the President traveling to a foreign country, my first thought is for everyone at the embassy whose life just got exploded (or rather, just finished being exploded).  My second is for their families.

Brandon's visitor ended up staying over the weekend.  This meant that Brandon got to wake up at five Saturday morning to get ready for a few meetings, several visits to local sights, and a dinner at the Ambassador's.  The children and I got to spend our Saturday without Brandon.  They hadn't seen him since Thursday night and weren't to see him until Sunday morning.

Brandon had taken the car and it was raining, so we spent all day cooped up in the house, which is the same thing we did Friday while I worked on my to-do list and took Joseph in for stitches.  I had promised Kathleen that after I finished unpacking the house, I would finally make some doll dresses for her and Sophia.  These dresses were Kathleen's birthday present and had been waiting since August.  So I spent the day sewing in between breaking up fights, taking care of the baby, and trying (still) to get our printer to work.  Dinner for the children was leftovers, again, while I finished up Sophia's doll dress.  They watched a movie while I ate cereal for dinner, too tired to bother warming up something more nutritious and filling.

Brandon finally made it home around ten and we spent our Saturday night working on the printer so that he could print out an itinerary to hand over at five the next morning.

I've had better weekends.

As I dragged around the house, stewing in my self-pity I thought of my mother.  My father retired from OB/GYN practice the year Joseph was born, after spending over twenty-five years being gone for countless dinners, breakfasts, Saturdays and Sundays.  My mother didn't have the occasional visit interrupt her life; her whole life for almost three decades was interruptions.  I thought of a good friend, also with five children that she homeschools, whose husband is in residency and probably hasn't spent a Saturday with them in months.  I thought of my sister's friends in the military who spend years of their life separated from their husbands.

We all have bad weekends, bad months, bad years, and bad decades so that our husbands can get their jobs done.  Sometimes that job is meaningful - delivering babies, protecting our country, keeping people safe - but sometimes it isn't.  My father-in-law worked night shifts at a dynamite factory so that he could keep his family fed.  I'm not sure how much fulfillment can be found in a job like that.  It's definitely better than starving, but I know that my mother-in-law had a lot of very lonely nights so that her husband could keep the lights on.

Brandon would like to be home every night for dinner.  The children and I have had a long day of togetherness and we're looking forward to a fresh face in the house, someone new to tell the stories of the day to.  But most days he doesn't make it.  Often he'll come in time for a quick bite before reading the children a story before their bed time.  I'm grateful for this time.  One of my favorite memories is snuggling up in my parent's bed as my father read us the next chapter in Bilbo Baggin's unexpected journey.  But I can't remember the last time he made it home for dinner.

One lunch Sophia included a plea in her prayer that Brandon could come home for dinner, 'or at least to read us a story.'  I told her that dinner probably wasn't in the cards and not a story either.  "But I can stay up until he comes home for a kiss," she assured me, "I can stay awake for that, as long as it takes."  By the time Brandon leaned over to kiss Sophia that night, she was fast asleep.

I know there's nothing I can do.  This is life.  I don't even had a right to complain.  I live in a warm, comfortable house with more than enough food to eat.  Brandon has a job that lets him come home every night.  We have vacation and paid medical leave and retirement and reasonable job security.  Everyone is healthy.  Everyone is happy.  My husband is alive.  My husband comes home to me every night.


One day, in the seemingly impossibly far distant future, we will be done with this part.  We will have paid our dues and done our time and be through with someone else running our life.  No more lonely Saturdays, no more solo dinners, no more visits, no more paper being pushed to people who don't read it.  Nobody will be able to tell him that he can't come home for dinner.

But by then it will be too late.  The children be gone.  They will have moved on to their own lives, having learned the lessons we were able teach them in the time we had to teach.  Our dinner table, once so full and loud - so loud sometimes that I want to cover my ears and run away - will be quiet and empty.

And the only person waiting for him will be me.




Monday, February 9, 2015

Friday Night Hijinks, Part III

Friday morning started out reasonably well.  Brandon had an official visitor in town that he had to take care of, so the children and I started our morning alone.  I never like presiding over any meal alone, but we made it through with not much more than the usual breakfast craziness.

Since it was Friday, we didn't have school.  Theoretically I take Fridays to pursue my own personal hobbies, but so far I've just been spending Friday getting settled and slogging through the backlog of to-dos that haven't gotten done yet.  I toyed with the idea of trying to fit my to-dos in another time, but responsibility prevailed and I spent the morning finding, saving, and recording all my school receipts for reimbursement.  It's easy to grumble about the work, but on a per-hour basis it's pretty good pay.

The children spent the morning working on an art project and keeping themselves entertained.  I'm still new to the stage of parenting where my children can keep themselves reasonably entertained without too many fights, and I'm really really enjoying it.  There are even enough responsible parties that I can instruct the girls to go and give everyone lunch and it actually gets done.  Usually the kitchen is a small disaster, but it's a small price to pay for extra time gained to enter in a few more receipts.

After a short nap, the afternoon continued on with more form-filling (why do they want me to list every single book?) and creative entertainments.  After Joseph and Eleanor woke up from their naps, the girls decided that it was time for (yet another) Royal Wedding.  Patient, uncomplaining Eleanor was dressed up in her usual cream dress with cream tights and Joseph was bribed/coaxed into putting on some khakis, his church shirt, and a play dress coat.

Then the whole circus made its way, dragging the stroller with them, out into the courtyard.  I occasionally feel for our Chinese neighbors as the screams, shouts, cries, and yells drift over our wall into their yard.  Just the local diplomatic white trash, bringing down the property values.

I looked out the window to see yet another stroller-tricycle-bin combo rigged up to carry the prince and royal bride on their wedding progress.  Joseph sat nobly on his pillows with Eleanor regally on his lap while the girls worked out navigation.  I went back to work.  Hopefully these receipts in Russian (Tajik?) will work for internet reimbursement.

As I was trying to figure out why our printer wasn't printing anything in black, 'blood' started drifting into my window mixed with the usual shouts and screams that formed normal background noise.  I stuck my head outside and hollered for a situation report.  "Joseph fell down," Sophia shouted back, "and he's bleeding.  A lot."

I hustled downstairs.  Indeed, there was a lot of blood coming from a cut on Joseph's chin.  I brought him inside for a better look.  In Baku Sophia slipped and cut her chin, which ended in trip to the SOS clinic and a very expensive tube of Dermabond.  This was worse.

I called Brandon, whose phone was off.  I called his other phone, which went to message.  I called it again and again and again, knowing that he'd get the message.  Meanwhile I called my friend to see if she had the embassy doctor's number.  She did, and her husband was coming home to pick her up for a happy hour at the Marine house; did I need a ride?  Why yes, I did.  Brandon had taken the car to work that morning and was now unreachable in a meeting.

While on the phone, Brandon sent me a text.  Later he told how he had to awkwardly leave the most important meeting with the most important official that had disallowed all cell phones to figure out who had died.  Was this an emergency?  Why yes, it was.  Within a few minutes, mobile patrol had been sent out, my housekeeper had been dispatched, and the remaining children were given instructions on dinner, pajamas and a movie.  Joseph had been cleaned up, put in a new shirt, and bandaged up for our short drive to the embassy.  He was far past the trauma of having injured himself and heartily enjoyed his impromptu field trip in the mobile patrol car.

We marched into the embassy and found the doctor waiting for us.  He looked at Joseph's chin and announced that Joseph needed stitches.  I sat and filled out paperwork while the doctor carefully wrapped Joseph in a blanket, taped him to the bed in the exam room, and got to work cleaning out the cut, injecting anaesthetic, and stitching him up.  Joseph didn't care much for the pokes, but grew bored by the end of the stitches, making 'mouse' and 'goldfish' noises every time he was told to stop talking and hold still.

One of my earliest memories is of falling off the monkey bars when I was about Joseph's age.  My mother had a meeting one morning at church and left me outside to play on the playground where I decided that now was the time to learn to hang upside down.  I still remember raising a bloody ruckus in the emergency room and feeling sheepish when I couldn't feel anything but a strange pulling sensation as the doctor stitched up my head.

As I watched the doctor carefully tying each of Joseph's seven stitches, my thoughts drifted back to that memory, a permanent part of my life.  I thought how Joseph would always remember the feel of the scratchy blanket wrapped around him as the tape held him down while the doctor with a calm voice pulled the thread through his chin.  Whenever he fingers the inch-long scar on his chin he will remember Tajikistan and the embassy and the black mobile patrol car on one cold February evening.

When everything was finished, we hitched a ride home with mobile patrol.  Joseph was immediately surrounded when we walked in the door as everyone fought to get a view of his blue stitches.  I gratefully sent my housekeeper home, and set about getting some dinner for Joseph and myself before sending Joseph off to bed along with everyone else.

Medical emergency number one, completed.  I wonder what will come next?



Thursday, February 5, 2015

Well Hello, Winter

I'm not really all that fond of winter.  I grew up in central North Carolina, where I once heard winter described as 'running through a freezer naked.'  It's kind of uncomfortable while it lasts, but it really just isn't that long.  I have good memories of driving my father's convertible to school in February with the top off.

I managed to avoid winter all together when we lived in Cairo (hello seventy degrees in January!) which actually gave me a greater appreciation of having winter, if only to help me remember what time of year it was.

Winter in Baku wasn't very bad either; the whole city was on a peninsula stuck out in the Caspian so the temperatures never got too cold.  It didn't get very hot in the summer either, which was nice until you wanted to go swimming.  Then it wasn't nice at all.



When we were assigned to Dushanbe, I got ready to finally have to deal with a real winter - what else could one expect in the most mountainous country in the world?  After all, there are glaciers in this country.  Glaciers mean cold - enough cold that not only does the snow not melt, there's enough to turn into ice that can flow down a mountain.  It's one of my life goals to never live anywhere close to a glacier.



In preparation for our move I laid out a lot of cash on snow boots, snow pants, and snow mittens.  All of the children and Brandon got brand new gear.  Eleanor even got a down-filled baby snowsuit.  Previous to 2014 I didn't even know that baby snowsuits existed.  I bought myself a stunningly red calf-length down-filled coat.  No getting cold for me.  No sir.  I was ready.  We were all ready.



We got to Dushanbe in mid-November.  Halfway through a walk the day we landed I had to strip off my jacket, mittens, and coat.  Eleanor was slicked in sweat after being strapped to my front for the whole walk.  A week of so later it snowed and got quite cold.  Then it warmed up.  One day the children and I gathered stares up and down our street as we promenaded in our shirtsleeves - in January.  The locals thought that I was going to kill my children from exposure.



Last week it started snowing.  "Oh great!" I thought, "Time for winter to finally begin!  Then I can finally feel that I'm tough and able to handle anything."  Then the snow melted and it warmed up to the fifties again.  This morning it started snowing.  We got about two inches - which melted by dinner.  I checked the forecast for this week and the highs are bouncing between upper forties and lower fifties.  Yesterday we took a drive to find some snow.  Everyone ended up eating their snacks in shirtsleeves again, enjoying sunshine that seemed more suited to early March than late January.  Boys by the side of the road were selling flowers.  The grass was a verdant green.



So it turns out that winter here is more like 'winter.'  No weeks of sub-freezing temperatures or feet of snow to shovel off my driveway.  Most of the time our radiators heat the house without needing any help from the split-packs.  The biggest hardship is having to stay inside when it rains.



But I'm not complaining.  I know where to find snow if I ever need it (I'm not sure when that would be), and there's enough winter to make spring enjoyable, but not so much that everyone suffers from vitamin D deficiencies.  The children are happy, Brandon is happy, and I'm okay with it.  One out of six isn't too bad.


Monday, February 2, 2015

Playing the Bad Guy, to Everyone's Distress

Sometimes often I get lazy.  I feel like parenting is a constant experiment to see exactly how little I can get away with before the consequences of my inaction are more trouble than dealing with the actual problems in my life.  In my better moments, it's balancing what I can give with what is needed, but sometimes, it's just plain laziness.

Kathleen has always been a good student in school, which has only encouraged my laziness.  I kept a pretty good eye on what was going on in Baku, because she was the only child who was really in school.  Near the end, I started slipping as we prepared for our departure.  I didn't worry too much, because I knew we'd get back to our regularly scheduled program when life settled down some.

Life started settling down and then I had Eleanor.  It thought about settling down and then we visited all of the family we could think of.  Then we moved.  And moved again.  And finally, life settled down.

Somewhere between Baku and Oakwood and Dushanbe Kathleen got lazy too.  Her handwriting, which used to be lovely, turned into chicken scratch.  Whole pages of her Latin got 'forgotten.'  All of the poems she had memorized fell out of her head.  And her math.  Oh, her math.

Our first day of school four weeks ago started with checking Kathleens' last assignment from Oakwood.  Each day she reads one lesson of math (which thankfully, blessedly, is now self-taught) and then completes lesson practice and written practice - usually between thirty-five and forty problems.  I went through her work and found eighteen incorrect problems.

Kathleen, of course, was full of excuses - she was excited about being done with school, it was a hard lesson, she forgot to look over her work.  So I reserved judgement for the next day.  After missing seventeen problems, she thought that perhaps she had forgotten how to carry when multiplying and maybe she had forgotten some of the things - after all it had been two months of school break.

After a week or so more of atrocious math work, it became apparent that Kathleen had just gotten lazy.  Twelve minus five never equals eight, and she knew it the second she looked over the previous day's work.  Two times three might equal six, but two plus three is always five.

And so I buckled down to clean up the problem I had created myself.  It was decided that for every math problem Kathleen missed, she would have to work five extra problems.  If she missed two problems, it would only mean ten more.  But if she missed ten, that would mean fifty.  This applied to both her regular work and make-up work.

Last Thursday Kathleen completed two hundred fifty extra math problems.

Which means that tomorrow - in addition to teaching Sophia, teaching Edwin, minding Joseph and Eleanor, and washing and folding laundry - I have to check two hundred and fifty math problems and then work through ever single wrong problem with Kathleen.

I don't like this kind of parenting.  I'm always on the lookout for heads-I-win-tails-you-lose solutions.  Kids have to clean up the toys?  Okay, I'll set the timer and when it goes off, they have to pay me to pick up any remaining toys which will then go into the gunny sack.  I don't have to bother them and then I can just clean up which is faster anyway.  Children haven't completed their morning chores?  That's fine - but no lunch until they've done their chores.  And lunch ends at one o'clock.

I've found that any consequence that involves more than minimal input from me is a consequence that is not very likely to be enforced.  It's much easier to just not feed you lunch than it is for me to keep you from escaping from the time out corner or bathroom or wherever you've been banished to.

But Kathleen's math is the exact opposite - it's tails-you-lose-and-I-lose-too.  The more problems she misses, the more problems I have to correct with her and the more of my precious time I have to waste correcting them.

I was moaning about the situation one evening with Brandon and he asked why I was making such a fuss if it caused so many problems for me.  I thought about it for awhile.  Why was I making such a fuss?  It's not like Kathleen didn't know how to do math - none of her mistakes came from confusion - it was all inattention.  And in the end it's just math.  Brandon never made it past Algebra I and he's a diplomat for heaven's sake.  Not one person has ever asked him to complete a linear regression or solve a quadratic equation.  I took the AP calculus test my junior year of high school and haven't touched a math class since.  We certainly devote a lot of time in school acquiring a skill set that most of us replace with the calculator on our phone.

I thought about just letting it all pass - that's fine Kathleen, you missed a lot of math problems again today.  Try and do better next time!  My sense of rightness rebelled.  I can't just let those things slide.  That's why I'm teaching my own children - so that they can't get away with a half-hearted job and a pat on the head for doing it.  It's not the result that matters - it's the job.

Because in the end a whole lot of the things we learn in school fall out of our brains pretty quickly.  Occasionally I think on the years and years and years of my life spent in school and how much of it actually applies to my everyday life and wonder if maybe that time could have been better spent learning how to cook or clean house or mind children.

What I'm teaching Kathleen isn't just math.  Math is simply the medium through which much more important lessons are learned.  I'm teaching Kathleen that being thorough is important.  I'm teaching her that waltzing through your work so you can get to the good parts of life will end up getting you more work in the long run.  I'm teaching her that consequences will always get you in the end.  I'm teaching her that a hope and a prayer are never answered without a lot of hard work to do your end of the deal.  And I'm teaching her that a job well done is its own reward.

And I'm also probably teaching her that her mother can be pretty merciless.

I really wish that there was an easier way to teach these lessons, one that didn't involve so much personal inconvenience, but there isn't.  Those are the hard parts of parenting, the parts that mean a long hard slog for everyone involved.  Nobody likes teaching them and nobody likes learning them.  But if they aren't taught and they aren't learned it really won't matter what else everyone has been spending their time on.  And so I buckle down and try to teach them whatever way I can, giving up my free time and my own preferences to drill those all-important lessons in.  Be thorough.  Check your work.  Use your time wisely.  Work before play.  And above all learn to govern yourself.

But in the end, if they are truly and thoroughly learned, they'll never, ever be forgotten.  And then, only then after I've done everything I can and their choices are their own and I can't do a dang thing about them, I can rest.  I'm looking forward to that.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Life as a Fifth Child


A week or so ago I was unpacking.  We've been in our house for a month now, but I'm still not quite done.  First we had to wait for all of our things, then we had to wait for shelves to be constructed, and then our last consumable shipment arrived.  I'm getting tired of dealing with all of our things.  At this point I'm almost ready to burn everything to avoid dealing with it.  Almost.

The older children were outside playing on our playground equipment.  The day was beautifully warm and sunny, the perfect day for a walk.  A few minutes after I got to work, Eleanor woke up from her nap.  She has learned the art of rolling around the floor to find something that might interest here - a chair leg or drawer pull, book or toy - so she's usually pretty low-key when I'm getting things done as long as I don't leave her alone much.

I was working on a heavily cluttered storage room - the room where all of the uncategorized items got dumped while organizing all of the other rooms - and I didn't want Eleanor to get fussy and interrupt my work.  So I hauled her downstairs, suited her up, and took her outside.  After depositing her in the baby swing, I told the girls to keep an eye on her and went back to work, giving Eleanor a push on my way inside.

Every twenty minutes or so I would peek out the window to check on everyone and each time the scene would be different.  Eleanor, alone in her swing while everyone else was perfecting the art of hanging upside down on the jungle gym.  Kathleen pushing the stroller around the courtyard at breakneck speed with Eleanor strapped into the front, a red-plaid lump quietly watching her life flashing before her eyes.  Eleanor, buckled into the stroller while everyone else is swinging.  Sophia pushing Eleanor on the swing, performing underdog after underdog while Eleanor, again, reflected on how short her life had been.

Eventually the children got bored of outside and came tumbling back in.  I checked to see if they had brought the baby in.  Yes, yes of course mom, they assured me, because now we're going to dress her up!  It's time for her royal wedding!!

Half an hour later and the procession came down from the third floor.  Kathleen and Sophia, dressed in all of the gaudy frippery they could get their hands on, carried Eleanor in a laundry basket draped in the rest of the gaudiness that Kathleen and Sophia couldn't fit on themselves.  The baby was outfitted in a white dress-up dress and draped in a cape, with a fuzzy pink crown in her head and make-shift ring on her finger, looking patiently about her, as always.  "Business as usual," her expression seemed to say, "I never have any idea what they're going to do next.  But I'm okay with that."

"Hail!  Hail!  Hail Queen Eleanor!!" the girls shouted in unison, as they passed me, "Queen of the babies!  Hail Eleanor!"  They continued their stately march and headed down the next set of stairs.  I quietly followed and watched as they set her up in state on the couch cushions in the living room.  Sophia started a song on the piano and both girls danced a dance before prostrating themselves before their infant sovereign.  I went back to work, leaving Eleanor in the capable hands of her older sisters.


This is life as a fifth child.  You never have to be lonely because someone's always interested in dressing you up or reading you a book or hauling you into their box house or riding horse with you or having a picnic or taking your toys or giving you theirs or pushing you in the stroller or putting you in the swing or sliding you in a laundry basket.

You may get confused about who exactly is your mother because sometimes the tall lady puts you to sleep or sometimes the glasses girl gives you your bath or the middle one feeds you a bottle or the bigger boy sings you a song or the little one gives you your blanket or the glasses man changes your diaper.  There are so many people doing so many things that you can't keep track very well.

You never have to be bored because somebody's always talking or dancing or fighting or singing a song or reading a book or getting spanked or jumping on the couch or watching a movie or playing with toys.

Your job is to just sit back and watch the show happen.  Maybe it might be a little scary on that stroller ride, but you're used to it.  That brother jumping off the couch might get a little close, but you've seen it enough to know that he never quite lands on you.  Perhaps you've been left all alone for awhile, but you know that it's just a matter of time before everyone comes back to find you.  And you're never quite sure what is going to happen, but you do know that whatever it is, it will never, ever, ever be boring.

Sometimes I wonder what she's thinking while the crazy circus wheels loudly around her.  Her placid blue eyes solemnly watch the world go by, never betraying any surprise or concern or confusion.  Just watching.  She is something different to each person in the family - a live baby doll, an audience for antics, someone to cuddle, someone to tickle, someone to steal Mom's lap.

But who is she to Eleanor?  I guess we'll just have to wait and see.


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Happy Birthday to Me

This week I turned thirty-three.  A year ago I turned thirty-two, so it wasn't a big surprise when I woke up one morning and was thirty-three.  It doesn't bother me at all to be thirty-three and a year older than thirty-two (or four years older than twenty-nine); in fact I'd much rather be thirty-three than twenty-three and I'm looking forward to being ninety-three one day (but maybe not one hundred and three.  I'll probably be ready to be finished by then).  I like getting older.  I like having the added experience and patience that comes from spending another year alive and dealing with life and all of the good things and difficult things that come with it.  Maybe I'll feel differently about getting older one day, but for now I like it.

This year I got to spread my birthday out over the whole week.  I started out my birthday week by having a holiday.  Brandon was off work and my housekeeper was coming, so we left the children and went to lunch.  Our car is here in country but the registration wasn't finished on Monday, so we just walked to lunch.  Dushanbe is a very small city with reasonably maintained sidewalks so it makes for some pleasant walking if you're not in a hurry.  I'm quite looking forward to pleasant summer evening walks; there are very few things I enjoy more than a high summer evening walk.

It was nice that the walk was pleasant because the restaurant, which claimed to be serving Egyptian fare, wasn't.  I chose so I can complain.  If you're looking for authentic Egyptian, don't go to Al Misr restaurant - come to my house.  I'm not claiming I can do it as well as an Egyptian, but even I know that baba ghanoush does have tahina and doesn't have green peppers.  Or pomegranate arils.  Maybe somewhere else, but not in Egypt.

I had very responsible plans to hold school on my actual birthday since we had already skipped school on Monday.  Those plans lasted about half an hour into my morning chores when I lost my moral fibre and cancelled school.

I had a pleasant morning talking to my littlest brother, internet shopping for my presents (thanks, Mom and Bobbi!), and hanging out not teaching the children school.  The children were happy to play, take care of the baby, and make their favorite lunch - peanut butter sandwiches.  I spent the afternoon napping and reading a book while the children took care of the baby and chopped vegetables for soup.  It was very luxurious, like taking a sick day without actually being sick.

Our family has evolved a tradition of Birthday Saturdays, where the birthday person chooses the activity, which can cost money.  Brandon and I drove our newly registered car home Friday night (filled with lots and lots of packages - none of which were my birthday presents, which got sent to the wrong pouch address) so I decided to take a drive up into the mountains for my own birthday Saturday.

It was snowing so everyone put their snow clothes on before piling into the car.  We stopped when the roads started looking bad and got out to play in the snow.







Everyone had a great time and we're all looking forward to doing it again.  Probably next Saturday.

Today we finished out my birthday week with cake.  Brandon insisted on putting all thirty-three candles.  I couldn't find any matched or lighters, so Brandon stuck some paper towel into the toaster (plugged into the 220v outlet) and used that instead.  Everyone sung, I blew out the candles, and we had some delicious chocolate cake, baked by Brandon.

So, as always, it was a wonderful birthday.  It's pretty hard to have a bad one when I have six people who keep me company, remember my birthday, bake me cake, give me kisses, and generally make my life great. 

Happy Birthday to Me!