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Sunday, March 18, 2018

Change in Plans

A few weeks ago I found a firm mass in my abdomen.  I'm not very conversant with the usual makeup of my abdomen - it's not something I worry about most of the time - so after consulting with Google and then Brandon, I went to see the doctor here at post.  He confirmed both Brandon's and Google's opinion that there aren't supposed to be firm things (with the exception of babies) hanging out in your abdomen.  I got a bunch of blood tests, an ultrasound, and a CT scan.  None were able to provide satisfactory answers, so Brandon and I decided to send the children and me back to the US five weeks early.

I've come to know the disjoint that comes from a sudden and unexpected change in plans.  It's only happened once before, when we were evacuated from Cairo during the Arab Spring.  That change came so suddenly that I remember sitting in my hotel in Athens thinking that we might still be able to stay in Cairo and wait it out.  As soon as this thought would enter my head, I would look around and realize that we were already gone.  It took a few days, but before long the new course of events was the new normal and everything that had happened seemed foreordained and sensible.

So when the mind-bending change came this time, I knew what was happening.  It only lasts a few days, but the mental stutter that happens as you adjust to the new plan is very disorienting.  It takes time to get the new story to stick your brain, and meanwhile you catch yourself thinking "What should we do for Novruz? I'm glad we have Novruz holiday so I can pack."

It's even more disorienting this time because we made the decision to leave weeks before the children and I will actually leave.  My situation isn't dire enough to need a medevac, so we've had to get Brandon's orders changed to reflect my earlier departure.  Bureaucratic wheels turn slowly and so while we've been waiting to see when we can leave, I've played like life is normal.  The children and I finished our last week of school, I hosted Ladies' Night, Brandon and I have gone out, we took the children to the park.  But the whole time, the little voice in the back of my head keeps shouting, "You're leaving! You're never coming back! You have no idea what is wrong with you! Now is a perfect time time to freak out!"  I try and quiet it with ordinary concerns like what we're having for dinner or which clothes I want to pack for a 4-? month stint of living out of suitcases.

We had a surprise four-day weekend last week, so Brandon and I spent two of those days purging the house so that twenty-three pounds of crayon drawings and seventeen pounds of ratty books don't get sent all the way to Tashkent only to fill up their landfill space.  But a lot of things just won't get done.  It's interesting how many things in the necessary category can be shifted to the optional one when you're faced with a contraction of available time.  After all, it isn't necessary for blankets to be clean and toys to be organized just so they can be thrown in boxes and loaded onto a truck.

I feel a little like a book returned to the library with the last chapter left unread.  You know all of the important details, who married who and how the villain got their just desserts, but you don't get the satisfying closure that ties up all the loose ends and leaves you emotionally satisfied.  There are friends I've said 'see you later' but not 'goodbye' to.  We won't make it up to the mountains for one last hike.  That farewell party that I've been planning for the last year will have to be thrown by someone else.  My carefully hoarded food will now just be casually given away instead of savored for that last amazing meal.  I'll never teach that much-promised class on how to make doughnuts.

But in the end, we were always going to leave.  There was always going to be a last hike, last meal, last party, last night out with friends.  I just didn't realize that they'd already happened.  Eventually we'll almost forget how we left hastily, furtively, in the middle of the night like a song cut off halfway through the last verse.  We'll only remember the forty-one months we lived here and not the forty-second that didn't happen.  And then when something reminds us, we'll laugh and think how we had everything planned so perfectly and then so foolishly assumed those plans would work out - because who ever gets to live their plans exactly the way they plan them?

But for now, I still feel the absence of that forty-second month and the last chapter I didn't get here in Dushanbe.  But I also know that the loss, like everything in life, will pass eventually.  All in good time.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

International Women's Day

This past Thursday was International Women's Day.  I didn't know about this holiday before moving overseas, and when Brandon found out that I got two holidays, he was a little irritated.  "You're going to have to choose," he humphed at me on year, "either Women's Day, or Mother's Day.  Not both.

IWD (which we will now call it to save my fingers) is a really great holiday because it's almost never on a Sunday.  I've always done a little grumping of my own about Mother's Day being on a Sunday.  I can't quite call it a holiday when I have to get children ready for church, attend church, feed the children again, and then keep everyone from killing each other the rest of the day.  Theoretically I could insist my kind, loving husband do all those things on his own (and he would!), but it's not a holiday when you leave your spouse hanging so you can pry a little 'holiday' time for yourself.  It just doesn't work very well.

Brandon always gets work off for IWD because it's a big deal in this part of the world.  Wednesday afternoon the flower stands were doing a very brisk business and our local grocery store even had a selection of carefully wrapped roses for all the men to take to all the women in their lives - mothers, sisters, grandmothers, cousins, teachers, and whoever else has two X chromosomes.  Brandon was expected to bring in flowers for all of his female FSNs (which he didn't because, time).

In years past we've done about nothing for IWD, treating it as a family holiday, but this year I decided to treat myself.  I got together a few friends and we decided to go and enjoy our holiday at the Hyatt spa.  Because IWD is the very best excuse ever to ditch your husband for the day and go pamper yourself.  What husband can complain?  The only thing that comes close is a birthday.

I've not had much experience with spas because in the US, spas = lots of money.  But here in Dushanbe, you can get an hour-long massage for twenty-three dollars.  I felt a little like I was back in high school (but with a lot more money) as I gathered with my friends and we all giggled in the dressing room while changing and talking about plastic surgery and gossiping.  After changing, the spa ladies came and brought us back to the rooms and we all pretended that we are high class people who do this all the time

I got a facial, which I'd never done, and decided that massages are better.  I suppose that I can chalk all sorts of odd preferences up to my time in the foreign service - facials vs. massages, Turkish vs. Emirates, Azeri naan vs. Tajik naan. 

Afterwards, all glowingly beautiful or serenely relaxed, we went to lunch.  Because two hours at the spa aren't enough for IWD - lunch is an essential part.  We all had a great time and probably annoyed the waiters to no end with our so very American loudness.  But what's the fun with girlfriends if you can't laugh at each others' stories?

I'm very sad that we all will be somewhere else for the next International Women's Day, literally scattered across the globe.  But I am grateful for wonderful friends who will make the sacrifice and join me in a day of pampering!

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Truly Helpful Children

Today we had dinner guests.  Church was very small and we had some recurrent visitors, so everyone stayed after church and ate together.  I have now made a habit of prepping Sunday dinner on Saturday afternoon, so cooking time was about thirty minutes and I didn't make too much of a mess.  After we had finished eating our pad thai and cashew chicken, we had chocolate cake and ice cream for dessert. 

The children finished their dessert while the adults were still talking, so Brandon told the children to start cleaning up the kitchen.  When they asked how much they had to clean, I told them just to clean it all.  We adults continued talking for some time and the children trickled out of the kitchen and went off to play. 

I remember when they were all little and we couldn't get them to go off by themselves because the only thing they wanted in the whole wide world was to be close to us.  We once had dinner with friends whose five children ran off to play as soon as they finished eating and I marveled that the adults were left in perfect peace while the children entertained themselves without any help from us.  Now I'm at that same place in my own life and it really is a wonderful place to be.

Our guests eventually left and Brandon and I went to finish cleaning the kitchen.  But it was almost completely clean.  The dishwasher had to be started and a few (washed!) dishes had to be put away, but that was it.  I stood in the middle of the kitchen for a few minutes and marveled that the kitchen had been entirely cleaned without any input from me.  Then I stood for a few minutes and marveled for a few minutes more.

A month ago it snowed.  I enjoy looking at snow and I even enjoy sledding in snow, but I really, really hate putting children in snow clothes.  It seems to take at least an hour and by the end I'm hot, irritable, and exhausted.  Then someone has to go to the bathroom and I have to do it all over again.  Whenever people tell me that cold places aren't that bad as long as you have enough appropriate clothing, I look at them and ask how many children they have to put those all of those weather-appropriate layers on. 

That afternoon I was busy paying the bills and didn't notice when the children went outside to play in the snow.  After awhile I realized that the house was very quiet and looked out in the yard.  I counted heads and found six children playing nicely in the snow, all wearing snow pants, coats, mittens, boots, and hats (except for William who was just wearing his snowsuit).  I stuck my head out the window, took a picture to commemorate the event, and went back to paying bills.  But also I did a happy dance and felt true joy that comes from not having to put on a single mitten and having no children in the house.

I have now reached the amazing stage of parenting where I have Truly Useful Children.  I don't have a Truly Useful Child, I have Truly Useful Children.  Kathleen is eleven and a half, Sophia is almost ten, and Edwin is eight, which means I have three children that can follow instructions, read lists, go to the store for me, cook breakfast, clean the kitchen, clean up the house, change beds, get and clean up their own lunch, entertain themselves, entertain their siblings, pay household help, let in workmen, fold and put away laundry, change laundry, change diapers, wash out dirty diapers, bathe themselves, bathe siblings, and do their school work.  And the best part about this is that I will always have at least three children who are able do these things.  I will never go back to having all small children ever again.

Having all small children is a very exhausting job.  You are the only one who is capable of doing anything useful and everyone else in the house is actively working to break down any order you attempt to create.  Nobody is capable of rational thought and everyone wants you to interact with them all the time and make all the fun.  I remember counting down the hours until Brandon would come home and I could talk to another adult and have four sets of hands to stem the tide of chaos.  Our children went to bed very early in those days.

But now I have helpers to deploy against the chaos and the siblings that create it.  I don't have to do everything myself because I can have Kathleen set the table while Edwin bathes William while Sophia dresses Eleanor and I cook dinner.  It's amazing.  It's a whole new, sane way of living.  It was almost worth going through the years of craziness to get to the beginning of the era of sanity. 

So, to those of who are stuck in the crazy years and don't feel like they will ever end, I'm here to tell you that one day they will.  And life will be better.  Just hold on.  It will be worth it, I promise.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Almost There

This past week Joseph started reading My Father's Dragon.  He is on lesson 190 ("The Soft Sound of the SC Blend") of 234 reading lessons, which means that he will finish the book in four and a half weeks.  And when he finishes the book, it means that I will have one more child who can read.

Eight and a half years ago, Kathleen also learned how to read.  After Edwin was born and we returned to Cairo in February, I decided that it was high time for Kathleen to learn how to read.  She was almost three and a half and time was wasting.  Every morning we would sit down and do our reading lesson together.  There were usually a lot of tears (I've yet to have a child who actually enjoyed learning how to read) but I was very diligent.  That summer at the beach, my mother gave Kathleen a bunch of "I Can Read" books including Amelia Bedelia, Uncle Elephant, and Mouse Tales, for Kathleen's fourth birthday.  As soon as she got those books in her little hands, she ran off to a quiet place and read them all in one go.

I remember being surprised with how easy it was to teach children to read.  "You can teach any three year-old to read," I confidently told everyone, "It's really easy!"

Then came Sophia.  After a year and a half of spotty instruction and a year and a half of very diligent instruction, she too go to start reading My Father's Dragon - at the ripe old age of six.  With time and experience I've realized that she was dealing with other problems that made learning to read much harder, but at the time I thought that I was going to die of frustration.  When I thought back to my jaunty assurances that someone could teach any three year-old child to read, I just laughed.  It was a good thing I got an easy one to start with because I think I might have given up altogether with Sophia if she had been my first.

Edwin didn't start his instruction until he was four and also finished at six.  He could have probably started and then finished earlier, but I was busy fighting his older sister's fight and he just had to wait his turn.  Such is the life of a large family: an amalgamation of compromises that try to cover the important bases and sometimes leaves the other things out in the cold.

After having started first grade twice with children who weren't fluent readers, I decided that Joseph would not be the third mistake.  A few months ago I added up the number of lessons we had left in the reading book and then looked at my calendar.  This school year has a very definite end date.  We leave Dushanbe the second week of May, pack out the first week of May, and so school has to be finished the second week of April.  There is no way I am going to try and finish the last straggling bits of the school year when we finally unpack in Tashkent.

When I did the mental calculations, I realized that Joseph's reading was now going to be that part of the daily schedule that was non-negotiable.  On most days all of the school work gets done, but occasionally some crisis occurs and I have to start shedding the non-essentials.  And in addition to swapping out a grammar lesson for a reading lesson, I would also have to start doubling up on lessons.  On top of that we would start reading a chapter of Frog and Toad together before nap time and before bed.  It was very intense.

But of course that much reading (some days it was two hours of agony) really steps up progress and here we are with a little more than a month left of lessons together.

It's kind of crazy to look at my children and realize that all of them know how to read because I taught them the letters, taught them the sounds, and sat down and took years off my life helping them to put it all together.  Reading is one of the hardest things children ever learn how to do, and it's one of the hardest things to teach them; it's one of my Three Most Hated Thing to Teach.  But for the first time in seven years, I'll get a short break before starting Eleanor in the fall.

Joseph's ability to read marks the change of reading from minority to majority skill in our family.  This is always a happy point for me.  Most of our children are out of diapers (and even better, most of our theoretical children are too), most of our children dress and feed themselves, most can fold laundry, and now most can read.  I'm looking forward to packing suitcases, cooking, and cleaning up becoming majority skills.  It's a happy thing to train your own replacements.

But for now, I'll take reading.  I've certainly earned it.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Accurate Estimating

In ten weeks, we will be furiously packing the last few things in our suitcases, saying the last goodbyes, and cleaning the last bits of food out of our cupboards.  Right now our things are scattered through every single square foot of our 5,500 square foot house, we haven't even thought of any goodbye, and the cupboards are just as full as ever of food.

But the storage spaces are (finally) starting to look a little bare.  Last week I put the last marinated artichoke heart on my pizza and marked it off the mental list of available pizza toppings.  I used unsweetened baking chocolate (status: overabundance) instead of semisweet chocolate chips (status: threatened) in my chocolate cake this week.  And when we have pizza with the children, it's all Fanta all the time (root beer status: endangered).  But whenever we have ice cream, I encourage the children to have as many sprinkles as they want.  It turns out that seven pounds of sprinkles is a whole lot of sprinkles.

We have run into the end-of-tour time I like to call Feast and Famine This is the time when we start eating pumpkin everything while hoarding that one last can of Coco Lopez for the time when you really, really need a piƱa colada.

We weren't worried about extra weight when leaving Baku, so anything left over just got hauled with us to Dushanbe (including a 25-pound pail of split green peas that I bought ten years ago.  Those aren't leaving Tajikistan).  But this time we aren't taking any food with us and so all of the food in our house will either have to be 1. eaten, 2. sold, or 3, given away.  I have (mostly) resigned myself to giving away a lot of food.  Moving every two or three years is not for skinflints; I still try to avoid thinking about how much money we lose every time we have to get rid of everything in our cupboards just to buy it all over again in two months' time.  However, I really would like to eat as much as possible.

So that leads to Pumpkin Everything and 1.5 lbs/week consumption of pinto beans (which got old pretty fast and now I'm just giving the things away for free) and sprinkles on everything (how about sprinkle oatmeal?).  The children alternately love (sprinkles!!!) and hate (pinto beans again?!?) this part of our tour.  Brandon just feels a sense of moral uprightness as the shelves get emptier.  This is the man who likes turkey noodle soups because it uses up the last possible consumable part of a turkey.

Of course once we eat it all, then it's just gone until our next consumable shipment shows up in Tashkent (I'm talking to you, coconut milk).  Various meals get marked off the menu as their necessary ingredients get used up.  Special treat snacks get replaced by much less special Tajik substitutes (Sun Chips - you just can't get them here).  Chocolate chip is no longer one of the cookie options.

But then there are those few things that can't be replaced or given up, and those things give me heartburn.  How many pounds of oatmeal do we use in a week?  Will that be enough, or we will run out during the last month and I'll have to pay an arm and a leg for the whole time we're here?  What if I order too much brown sugar?  I know it's only a dollar a pound, but I don't want to just give the stuff away, do I?  Do I need one more tin of baking powder?  How much do I actually use in ten weeks???  Four pounds more of black beans should be enough.  And if not, oh well.  There's definitely nothing that can be done about it.

My favorite category of things is those that get used up right as we are leaving.  I have one more seven-pound bag of powdered sugar, which should be just enough to get through two more doughnut nights and that's it.  We will most likely have the exact number of cans of wheat needed to see us through forty-two months of living in Tajikistan.  I won't have to find anyone who wants a mostly used bucket of lard because it will just be an empty one.  Moments like that when I have the best estimating skills ever make me want to go an high-five someone, but nobody else in my family cares (or even notices) so I just give myself a high-five.

One day when I am much older than I am now, I will move to America and never leave again.  When I am out of kalimata olives, I will go to the store and buy another jar (or more likely ten just out of habit) and never worry about using it up before I move again.  I'll stop keeping track of usage on my phone and not want to throttle children who opened up a shampoo bottle without telling me.  By then I'll probably not have children at home to open up shampoo bottles anyway.

Until then, I'll be keeping lists and weighing how much brown sugar we use every morning.  Just another part of this glamorous life!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Living in Dushanbe: Winter Travel

Tajikistan is the most mountainous country in the world.  I've always been fond of superlatives, and so it's kind of cool to say that I live in the most mountainous country in the world.  According to Wikipedia (always a reliable source, I know), "93% of Tajikistan is mountainous with altitudes ranging from 300 m (980 ft) to almost 7,500 m (24,600 ft), and nearly 50% of Tajikistan's territory is above 3,000 m (9,800 ft)."

The mountains in Tajikistan are in three major chains, and those chains divide the country into three different regions.  If you want to go from one region to another, there's only one reliable way to get there: driving.  There aren't any train tracks that cross the mountains.  There is a flight that goes to Khujand, in the north, but it operates fairly unreliably, only flying when there are enough passengers to fill the flight.  If you want to go east to the Pamirs, a foundation owns a helicopter, but it is reportedly grounded because it can't be repaired.  

This past summer, Brandon was contacted by some visitors that wanted to check on a few sites where they were funding work.  They passed along their itinerary to Brandon who just about died laughing when he saw it.  One project was in Bukhara, a twelve-hour drive from Dushanbe, and the next was in the Pamirs, a two- or three-day drive from Dushanbe.  Listed was, "July 10, travel from Bukhara to Khorog."  He helpfully informed them that they might want to include a little more time for that leg of their travel. 

Tajikistan, in addition to being mountainous, also has some mostly very bad roads.  There are 'highways' that go throughout the country, but you don't have to go very far (in some cases about ten feet) before the pavement turns into dirt/gravel/formerly pavement but now mostly potholed roads.  And even the highways can be treacherous.  A few years ago we met a traveling photographer who had visited, at that time 158 countries.  He had traveled to the Pamirs on the 'highway' - the only paved road in the region - and declared it to be the absolute worst highway he had ever ridden on.  Last year some non-US diplomats died when their car went over the side of the same highway.

Driving in Tajikistan is not for the faint-hearted.  But when you get winter involved, sometimes it's just not for anybody at all.  

Khujand, in the north, is the second major city after Dushanbe and so there is a lot of embassy travel to visit with various contacts.  Recently Brandon was put in charge of arranging a trip to go up for a visit.  I like to check the weather and when I noticed the forecast, I showed Brandon.  "It says that there is supposed to be rain in Dushanbe for the three days of your trip.  Do you think it will snow up in the mountains?"  He checked the forecast, and it was calling for over a foot of snow over three days.

Driving up over the pass isn't really an exercise for the faint-hearted - the grade gets pretty steep and there aren't any guard rails between the edge and thousand-foot drops.  Add in an endless progression of slowly climbing tractor-trailers (the only way to get goods from the north to the south and vice versa as there aren't any trains) with insane Tajiks passing on blind curves and it is a ride that will keep you awake no matter how sleepy you are.  

Brandon went online checked with the Tajik road service.  They warned everyone of the impending snow storm and recommended that nobody try and get to Khujand for the next several days.  He checked with the Tajiks who worked at the embassy.  "Khujand?" they asked him, "We don't really think that's a good idea right now.  It is winter, after all.  Why don't you try in the spring?"

And then he visited with the embassy drivers.  One driver regaled him with tales of trying to get to Khujand in the snow.  "See, what happens is someone gets impatient with the trucks and tries to pass them.  But then they meet cars in the other lane and everyone get snarled up and it takes forever to get it sorted out.  One time we waited in the snow for six hours for the traffic to finally clear out so we could get over the pass.  Another time we waited for three or four hours before giving up and turning around.  I had been passing time with a guy who was taking some people up to Khujand, so I gave him my phone number and told him to give me a call when he finally got there.  He called me the next morning, sixteen hours after I turned around.  So, if it's all the same to you, I'd rather just stay here.  Have you thought about going in the spring?"

In the middle of these conversations, I reminded Brandon of the last time he went to Khujand in February.  He made it safely back to Dushanbe, only a few hours before several avalanches trapped people on the road for days.  We saw the remains of one of the avalanches four months later in May, and the snow was still ten feet deep over the river.  Had he perhaps thought about going in the spring?

By this point, Brandon decided that perhaps spring might be a better idea.  He talked with colleagues and they called off the trip.

We enjoyed three days of rain in Dushanbe, the most precipitation we've had all fall and winter.  Thursday evening, he came home from work.  "So, it's a good thing that we didn't go up to Khujand.  It snowed buckets up in the mountains and this afternoon there was an avalanche on the road up to the pass.  The entire road is shut down until they get it cleared out."

It sounds like spring indeed is a fine time to travel north.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Late Night Paperwork Party

Working for the US Government is not for those who hate paperwork.  Since everything the government does is funded by public taxpayer money, everything that costs money has to be documented.  When William was born last year, before we could go get home we had to 1. fill out form OF-126 2. get a birth certificate 3. Apply for a diplomatic passport 4. Apply for a Tajik visa, 5. Set up a layette shipment, and finally, 6. book plane tickets.  This of course, had nothing to do with the insurance paperwork, which was actually less paperwork.  

After we got home, I got to file a voucher for our covered expenses from the last three months, which included scanning in all of the receipts, inputting the expenses, listing the lodging for ninety days ($0, typed in ninety times), figuring out M&IE for seven people (that took some calculating) for two different locations, and then telling the money where to go.  After that it only took five or six different adjustments to the voucher and accompanying email exchanges before the money finally made it to our bank account - when William was seven months old.  

Brandon has a severe dislike for paperwork, and so when we discovered a few years ago that I could do the vouchering for him, it was a minor miracle.  I had been bothering him for nine months to voucher Joseph's trip to London (cost: about $6000) and he could never get around to it.  

So, paperwork.  There's nothing that gets done in the US Government without a stack of paperwork filled before it's done and another after it's done.

Two or three months ago I started putting together our itinerary for our upcoming home leave, training, and departure for Tashkent.  Unlike Brandon, I adore putting together a schedule and so wanted to get everything nailed down as soon as humanly possible.  Our plane schedules (with the exception of last summer) always end up being strange and so I like to get the tickets booked sooner when they're cheaper.  Also, we always end up on small flights for our last leg and sometimes they don't have eight free seats on a flight with only twenty or so people.  

I checked with my mom, I checked with our friends in London, I checked with Brandon's mom, and I checked with the travel office.  Everything was in complete harmony and I was ready to get those tickets bought.  

But then, of course, I ran into the inevitable snag, also known as Forms I Cannot Fill Out Myself.  There are a lot of forms that I can download off the internet, electronically sign for Brandon, and send in myself.  I like those forms.  They allow me to get my job done without asking my poor overworked husband who is doing a lot of jobs right now to do one more thing extra.  I hate asking him to do those things because then I become just one more nagger instead of the one person who isn't asking him for something.

Unfortunately for my plane tickets, not only was this form not only one I couldn't get off the internet, it wasn't even one that Brandon could print off and bring home.  It was an entire system that could only be accessed from the State department intranet.  

So I just asked.  And then asked.  And asked and asked and asked.  But meanwhile the government shut down, Brandon had to fill in for an absent TDYer, there were cables to write, meetings to attend, and reports to write about the meetings he attended.  I'm really wondering where those lazy government workers are so that Brandon can get at job there instead of working ten- or twelve- hour days for State.  

So one night last week we were drinking hot chocolate.  Often after the children go to bed we will have a treat together because we're adults and we can do that.  While sipping our hot chocolate, I was asking Brandon about how progress on the TM2 was going.  "Well," he started encouragingly, "I opened it up today.  But then I realized that I didn't have our itinerary so I couldn't fill it out."

I reminded him of the itinerary I had sent him a month ago, but he said that it was incomplete.  I asked him if I could come to work with him one day and fill it out, but he said that I wasn't allowed in his office because I don't have a clearance.  I asked him if we could work at it on another computer.

He looked at me for a minute, looked at the clock, and then announced, "Let's go do it right now."

I looked at the clock - it was nine thirty, which is just about our bed time.  I thought about waking up at five the next morning and thought about how nice going to bed would be.  I thought about how cold and dark it was outside and how far away the embassy is.  I thought about going to bed much later than ten.  I thought about having to do school and make doughnuts on a lot less sleep than I prefer.  Then I thought about plane tickets ands schedules and certainty.  I looked back at him.  "Okay.  Let's go."

We quickly finished our chocolate, shook Kathleen and Sophia awake, and told them we were going to the embassy.  They seemed to have a vague idea of what we were talking about, so we left the phone by Sophia, threw on our coats, and went for a late-night drive.

I'm sure the Marine on duty was a little curious about why we were both signing in at ten o'clock at night, but I'm also sure that he's seen his fair share of strange goings on.

Brandon has been the acting consular chief since August, so we headed to the consular section, which I am cleared to go into.  He fired up the computer, put on some music, and we started filling out forms.  

"When are we leaving Dushanbe?" 

"May seventh."

"How many days are we spending in London?"

"Five.  But only one of those counts as a rest stop.  The other four days will be annual leave."

"Where are we sending UAB to?"

"DC and Tashkent."

After an hour we had filled out all the boxes in a way that the system decided was okay, figured out how to add Kathleen back to Brandon's orders (there are only five boxes on the form that lists dependents, so when we added William, Kathleen fell off.  Which is ridiculous because I know we are not the only people in the foreign service with more than five children), found and entered all of Brandon's training classes, and finished the itinerary with our flight to Tashkent.

As we clicked the last box and hit submit, I did a happy dance around the room.  Brandon looked like he wanted to die.  I turned to him, "Don't you just feel great?  I love getting those forms filled out! It's such a feeling of accomplishment!  One more dragon slain!  Hooray for our side!!"

He looked at me.  "No.  I just want to throw the computer out the window.  But the glass is bulletproof, so I can't.  Maybe I can just kick it to pieces instead.  I.  Hate.  Paperwork."

Every now and then, I have moments in my marriage when I realize that I have married someone who is so very different from me.  We have a whole lot of compatibilities, but sometimes I stumble upon an unexpected difference.  This was one of those times.

I shrugged, smiled at him, and gave him a kiss.  "Good thing you married me, then.  Any more paperwork you want me to do?"

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Filling Out All the Forms

Recently our Tajik visas expired.  Since we still have a few months left in Dushanbe, we had to get new visas.  When we had to extend our visas the previous two times (yes, I will have three Tajik visas in my passport.  How many Tajik visas do you have in your passport??  All the glamorous places I get to visit...), we handed the forms to HR and they submitted them to the Tajik government.  Evidently the procedure has changed because this time I had the pleasure of submitting them all online. 

The procedure goes something like this: fill in about twenty-five drop-down boxes.  Every two boxes causes more boxes to appear, and fill in those too.  Go to the next window and fill in all of the relevant information by hand.  Then, after that is done, upload about fifteen different documents that you had to scan (some will get randomly rejected because they are too big, even though they are the same size as everything else).  Then you're done! 

That doesn't sound too bad, does it?

Now try doing it eight times.  By the end you will be ready to drop-kick the computer out the window.  I promise.

This is what my life is filled with - forms times eight.  When we flew to Dubai, we purchased one-way tickets on two different airlines.  This means that I got to fill out names, birthdays, gender, country of citizenship, phone numbers, and passport information for eight people, twice.  And, as an added bonus I got to do it all over again when my credit card didn't go through. 

Let's talk about doctor visits.  The last time I took the children to the dentist I spent almost the entire visit filling out forms.  And because we seem to use a different dentist every time we go back to the States, I get to do this every single time.  With every single provider - eye doctor, pediatrician, specialists, you name it.  I wish they had universal forms that I could just keep a big old stack of and hand out like candy.  This past year I finally managed to memorize our insurance ID numbers and then they changed providers on us in January.  Sigh. 

Every time we book tickets with the travel office I get to write down everyone's birthdays and United Mileage plus numbers.  After awhile I got smart, and just saved them to a document so I can copy and paste them. 

I don't want to even think about renewing our diplomatic passports next year.  Last time Brandon and I split the forms up and we raced.  I beat him by three forms.  Amateur.

My favorite is when the forms don't have enough spaces to list all of the family members.  I've used various methods in the past - write names in the margins, write them on the back, staple another sheet - but have settled on squeezing two names in one box.  Who is this male/female Joseph Henderson Sherwood Eleanor Sherwood who was born in two different years???

Sometimes I get the names and birthdays mixed up - was Sophia or Eleanor born the 18th? - and then have to start all over again.  But I'm in good company because Kathleen's most recent Tajik visa has Sophia's picture on it and Sophia's has no picture at all.  After awhile one little blonde girl does look a lot like another and there are just so many of them! I guess the passport agents in the Dushanbe airport figure they're all probably ours because who voluntarily smuggles six children into Tajikistan??

It's also fun keeping track of the documentation that comes with eight people.  Our family has gotten so large that we can no longer purchase tickets under one record locator - evidently the limit is six people and we blew past that almost four years ago.  So when we show up to check in at the airport and hand over the reams of documentation (I always print double sided to save a forest or two), we always have to explain to the very confused agents why only some of the people are listed.  Theoretically having eight people means that we can take sixteen bags when we fly, but I've never been brave enough to attempt it.  I'm not sure how we'd get that many bags to the airport.  Rent a U-Haul?

One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to pull out the Chunk of Passports.  Have you ever seen a stack of eight passports?  How about one that has sixteen passports?  I feel like an elite member of the world-traveler class when I pull out that stack and then watch the passport control agent's eyes widen in shock and awe.  It was almost birthing six children just to get that reaction.  Almost.

I suppose I should be proud of my elite status form-filling and document-managing skills, but I'm not quite sure how useful they'll be when my household eventually gets back down to manageable size (not that it will happen for awhile yet).  Maybe I can volunteer my services somewhere.  I'm sure someone has need of a woman who can wield a pen like a master.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Happy Birthday, William!

William turned one this week.  I remember Kathleen's first birthday and how incredibly long one year felt - at least a decade had passed between her birth and finally achieving that first birthday.  Whenever someone would look at my little babies and sigh, "Oh, they just grow up so fast!" I would nod head enthusiastically and reply, "And it's a good thing, too!"

But when William turned one this week, I could hardly believe it.  Wasn't he just a little squishy baby that cried a lot? (Okay, I don't miss that part) Or if not a little squishy baby, just a small baby?  It feels like five or six months have gone by, not an entire year.  The strangest thing was when I got him up the day after his birthday and realized that he was going to stay one for an entire year instead of reverting back to baby the next day.

Since William is our sixth child and our sixth first birthday, it wasn't very celebratory.  I do some aspects of mothering pretty well- reading stories every night, keeping the house running, teaching my children responsibility - but I'm not very good at birthdays.  Especially when the birthday celebrant isn't aware of what a birthday actually is.  I didn't even buy him a present.  When we're already lugging hundreds of pounds of toys (I think 160), the last thing we need is more toys for a child whose favorite source of toys is the trash can.

I did bake cupcakes and hand them out after church this morning in exchange for a rousing round of "Happy Birthday." Then when William is in therapy he has one less things to use as ammunition against us for being bad parents. "On my first birthday my parents did nothing.  They didn't even make me a cake."

I can say, however, that we are very happy to have William in our family.  He is most certainly the family mascot and completely beloved by all his siblings (at least when he's not crying).  I love when we are all sitting around the table and William is babbling happily while everyone stares on with adoring eyes.  Yesterday he was practicing - not very successfully - walking to people, his siblings were kicking each other over to be the one that William walked to next.  Often after breakfast Sophia or Edwin will spirit him away to go and play with him before school, and in the afternoon the children beg to wake him up from his nap so that they can play together.  He definitely is not lacking for love or attention.

I still can't believe that it's been a year, but I guess that's the way life goes.  Happy Birthday, William!

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Week When Everything Broke

The former Soviet Union is not an area of the world known for its high construction standards.  It wasn't great when the Soviets were in charge and it hasn't gotten much better in the decades following.  At one point, all of the embassy residences got inspected for earthquake safety, and not a single house passed the inspection.  Our house, new in late 2014, has numerous large cracks in the walls and a set of balcony doors doesn't close quite right because the walls have settled and the doorway has gone out of square.  It's a major miracle that most of the bridges up in the mountains haven't collapsed, and I'm pretty sure that a building inspector hasn't set foot in most of the villages either.

So, stuff breaks here.  A lot.  We have personally broken five toilet seats during our three years here.  One broke while Eleanor was using it, and she came to me sobbing, trying to explain that she hadn't done anything to break it - she was just sitting on it!  A few years ago our outside water meter broke when it got below freezing and it took five months to get it replaced.  About a quarter of the tiles in our downstairs bathrooms have popped off and had to be re-stuck.  I don't know how many times the shower head hoses in the bathrooms have had to be replaced; they probably should be put on a six-month replacement schedule.  About a third of the lights in the house don't work because the wiring just broke.  Every time someone comes to replace the bulbs (they're difficult to change), they dutifully put new bulbs in the broken lights and then figure they've done the job.

Usually something breaks every couple of weeks and I save them up for a monthly or bi-monthly work order party when everything gets done at once.  So it's not like everything is happening at once, but it is a definite slow, annoying trickle.

That is, until last week. 

It all started with the power.  The power in our house is terrible and has been terrible since the day we moved in.  We have put in untold work orders and the landlord has tried myriad fixes, but nothing has ever worked quite right.  We usually have enough power to get our normal day work done.  But if it's a cold day and I'm trying to cook dinner, microwave food, and dry clothes at the same time, the load is too much for the power supply and the generator turns on, which turns everything off.  Then it turns off because suddenly the load is fine because nothing is running.  This is something that I will definitely not miss when we leave.

Recently it has been getting worse and randomly turning on, turning off, turning on, turning off, turning on, and turning off for fifteen or twenty cycles.  Every time the generator turns on, everything in the house turns off and when the generator turns off, once again we have a few seconds of darkness.  One day it took ten minutes to microwave my lunch because of this.  Finally, after a few weeks, I called facilities maintenance (FM) and told them to come take a look.  They came, took a look, turned on our generator, and left. 

Now, a whole house generator is very nice but it is also very, very noisy, especially when it's in a high-walled concrete courtyard. After awhile it gets on your nerves, but we had no idea when it would be turned off again.  One rule that we were impressed with: never ever touch the generator.  It has power going through it, very dangerous.

I figured, however, that while the generator was running, I would take advantage of a reliable power supply and warm the house up.  This all happened after it snowed and got down into the teens for several nights in a row and so our house had gotten cold.  The radiators in our house keep it quite comfy when it is between forty and fifty-five degrees outside, anything below gets increasingly chilly and anything above gets too hot.  I long for the day when I will have central heat.

In addition to our radiators, we also have split-pack heat pumps that work as AC units and heaters.  But because of our bad power, we haven't been able to run them as heaters.  So I turned one on in my room (sixty-six degrees!), the study (sixty-three degrees), and two on the third floor where I was teaching school (sixty-two degrees).  I should have stopped when one of the circuit breakers flipped and the generator let out an ominous cough of black smoke, but I didn't.  I just reset the circuit and went back to turning my house into somewhere that didn't need a wool cardigan and a down jacket to keep warm in. 

A few minutes later, everything went dead.  The generator stopped and there was no power coming in from the city line.  So, I called FM (their number is on speed dial) and they assured me someone would be coming.

When I went outside to let them in, I noticed water spraying from our outside water meter.  The face of the water meter is glass (why they don't use plastic I can't figure out), and it had cracked during the below-freezing temperatures of the previous few days.  So, while they were fixing the generator, they turned off our outside water.  Again.

Later that day I noticed ceramic shards around our outside sink.  The same freezing temperatures that had done in our water meter had also taken out the sink.  Oh goody.

When Brandon came home from work the next day, he informed me that the 'check engine' light was on in the car.  He took it in and the mechanic told him that we needed new oxygen sensors. 

The same day I noticed that our distiller had stopped working and called my FM buddies, for the fifth time that week.

We have to pay our internet monthly, in cash, and this month it ran out eight days early.  When we finally reached the glorious day when we would have a whole new sixty gigs to consume the outside world with, nothing happened.  Brandon talked to someone at work who talked to the internet company who then (amazingly) fixed the problem.  I also daydream about things like Google Fiber.

Thursday morning, while I was teaching school, Kathleen started complaining of dizziness.  I told her to go and get a drink of water and something to eat.  She did, came back up, and started feeling dizzy again.  A minute or two later I started feeling dizzy and Edwin did too.  We all beat a hasty retreat down from the third floor and I called FM for the tenth time that week.  They came, turned off the generator - which had been running for over two days - and tested the air to make sure everything was okay.  It was.

And then, to wrap up the week, we had an earthquake.  It wasn't much of an earthquake - 6.1 a few hundred miles away - and I didn't believe Joseph when he told me the table was shaking.  But, it was a fitting end to a somewhat crazy week.  Fingers crossed that this week will be better.