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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Shedding the Pounds

Now that we've got Christmas over with it's time to get serious about leaving.  We leave in less than a month and the packers are coming (as soon as Brandon finally gets his TM4 back from DC so he can schedule them.  Christmas is a bad time to try to get orders processed) in less than three weeks.

I've been working on some preparations for leaving, but it's mostly been organizing computer files, collecting all of that important information like bank account numbers and passwords and putting them in one file, and organizing our music collection.  The last task isn't exactly vital but I know myself enough to realize that if I don't do it now I'll never do it.  So even though my house is a mess I now have all of the music we own organized in iTunes complete with cover art and correct genre.  Not necessary, but very satisfying every time I open iTunes.

It's a good thing Brandon has three days off this week for New Year celebrations.

Every time we move we have a weight allowance, which is generally the bane of every Foreign Service Spouse's life when it's time for packout.  When we joined and I found out the allowance I was schocked - how in the world could anyone have 7,200 pounds of stuff?  That's over three and a half tons.  It's not like we even have to furnish our own houses.  We could never own that many possessions.

All of you FS folks can now stop laughing.

The first time we packed out of Utah we had 2,500 pounds.  Then we shipped an additional shipment from VA that was about 750 pounds.  When we left Cairo we had 5,000 pounds and shipped another 1,000 from VA.  And in the two years we've been here the stream of packages from Amazon hasn't stopped coming.  Combine that with the impressive amount of leftover consumables we have (a hundred pounds of popcorn?  One-fifty of wheat?), and I'm definitely getting nervous.

So now it's time to play how much weight can we lose in the next three weeks.  I've been mentally preparing for the last six months and marking various items for the axe.  Brandon has whole shelves of textbooks from college that the internet, my kindle, and geopolitics have made obsolete and I'm pretty sure that some of the children's toys can quietly be sent to the donate pile after they've gone to bed.  But there's still just a lot of stuff that I can't get rid of.  Sure you use Christmas decorations only once a year, but they still have to come.  Children's clothing can be reused by a younger sibling, saving hundreds of dollars.  And homeschooling in foreign countries means that you get to be your own library.

A few weeks ago I was in a good mood so I attacked my closet.  I tried to be as ruthless as I could bring myself to be.  If I hadn't worn that grey sweater in the last two years I probably wasn't going to wear it in the next two.  And that swimsuit hadn't seen chlorine in at least seven.  As much as I liked the idea of those jeans ever fitting again, five children say that probably won't ever happen.  And even if it did (major illness is always a possibility), the jeans are already out of fashion anyway.

Dresses that were too short, even if I still liked them, got regretfully folded up and put in bags.  Shoes that I don't wear at least once a month were sent to the same place.  Sweaters, shirts, pants, jeans, skirts, and shorts all ended up in a rapidly growing pile of plastic bags filling up the middle of my closet.  Then I pulled out the bin of maternity clothes and filled more bags.

As the girls drifted through watching the proceedings they would occasionally lodge a protest.  "But Mom," they would wail, "maybe I could wear that when I'm a little older!"  "Not that dress!  You look so pretty in it."  But I stayed the course, keeping moving scales in mind.  Time to slim down.

After a few hours I gathered all of my bags together and admired the collection.  'That is a lot of clothes,' I marveled, 'I've done pretty well.'  Then I got out my travel scale and started weighing.  The first bag came in at a disappointing ten pounds.  I moved on.  Seven.  The next bag was shoes.  Thirteen.  Spirits sinking, I kept weighing.  Eleven.  Nine.  Fourteen.  After all was done, I totaled up the weight of my biggest clothes purge ever.  Fifty-two pounds.

So we have a lot of work left to do.  I'm hoping that somewhere in our house there is a closet full of lead bars that someone snuck into our shipment last time that will weight at least a ton or two.  If that doesn't happen, maybe another miracle might help me out.  Wish me luck.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Christmas 2013

This year we had another great Christmas.  I'm starting to notice a trend in our holidays recently - they've all been great.  I strongly suspect that this has something to do with our children getting older.  We've started to leave the phase of young family-ing that is known as Child Management Stage.  This stage is characterized by spending all of your children's waking hours chasing them around and trying to keep them from breaking something, fighting with each other, or breaking things while fighting.  Mealtimes usually end in tears and every minute after four o'clock is spent counting down to bedtime.  Holidays are even worse than regular days because you're trying to do all of the normal tasks (protecting valuables, separating combatants, spoon-feeding everyone) while attempting to 'celebrate' a holiday.  And by the end of the day everyone's pretty grumpy with everyone else and we're ready to not celebrate that particular holiday for another year.

But, thankfully, we seem to have (mostly) left that stage behind.  It appears that CMS only occurs when all of your children are small.  If only some are small but the rest are bigger, CMS no longer occurs.  I'm not sure why this is, but I'm pretty happy about it.  Happy enough, in fact, that I'm willing to keep adding small children to our family.

So Christmas this year was great.  Brandon and I didn't even roll out of bed until past 7:00 and the children patiently watched cartoons while we showered.  After dressing and tidying we had my favorite breakfast of the whole year - breakfast ring made from croissant dough.  If cinnamon-sugar, walnuts and date filling aren't already pretty tasty, rolling them up in croissant dough only makes them that much tastier.  I enjoyed my breakfast so much I temporarily forgot about the fun the rest of the day was bringing.

After cleaning up breakfast, brushing teeth, and making beds we finally let the children loose.  Everyone had a least one present they were happy with and enough candy to give them diabetes which created a very important stage of Christmas Day celebrations: post-present fat-dogging.  Joseph and I took a nap after awhile but everyone else had a great time eating candy, playing with their presents, reading books, and just hanging out.

After my nap Brandon and I worked on dinner (roast pork, mashed potatoes, raspberry jello and bread) for awhile and paused in the middle to go and visit the only member of our branch in town for the holidays.  He is recovering from breaking both legs in an accident this summer and his wife was out of town so we went to visit him and give him some much-needed company.

After dinner we cleaned up, had ice cream and cookies, and put the children to bed.  Even though Brandon had work the next morning we stayed up as late as we wanted to.  He talked to family and I read a book while indulging in my own Christmas stocking booty.

I know that there isn't peace on earth throughout the world, but this Christmas we had peace in our own little corner of the earth, joying in the pleasure of family love brought by the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Merry Christmas indeed.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

One Month to Go

We have a month left before we leave Baku.  A month seems like a long time until you start adding up the weeks.  This week is Christmas, the week after that is New Year's, then a week with nothing (so far), then the movers come the week after... and then the next week we leave and we're done with Baku forever.

We were talking about leaving and the girls asked when we would come back.  "Most likely never," I told them.  "But why?" Kathleen wondered, "What if we want to come back and visit someone?"

"Who would we visit?" I pointed out.  "All of our friends will leave within the next year or two, and I don't know anyone well enough here to come back and visit them.  And as beautiful as Azerbaijan is, there's no compelling reason to return.  So when we take off at five in the morning, wave goodbye because that's probably the last time you see Azerbaijan."

"Oh, okay," Kathleen shrugged her shoulders and moved onto more interesting topics.  "I'm excited to see America.  Aren't you?"

I confess that I'm not tearing up about leaving either.  When you know the month of your departure before your plane even lands in a new place, it's not like leaving comes as a shock.  And as that date comes closer things that normally get shrugged off and ignored start driving you crazy and that departure date can't come soon enough.  Of course if the departure date was in another year, those things wouldn't be nearly so annoying.

Once when I was talking with a friend, they mentioned a study (survey?) on children raised in this lifestyle.  The study said that those children had issues with working out long-term problems in their lives because they were so used to just pulling up stakes every few years and leaving all of their problems behind.  So when marriages got rough they had a tendency to just quit.  I can see where that comes from.  We have developed an ant problem since the weather cooled down (all of the tile floors in the house have radiant heating.  This is something I will have in my eventual house) and I've made some attempt to fight it, but really I'm just waiting until it's not my problem anymore.  Various broken things in the house (doorbell, laundry room door, a few baseboards) at this point are just going to stay broken because I've given up on trying to get Brandon to put a work order in for them.  I can see this being a problem when we eventually settle down and own our house and are responsible for maintenance.

There are some things, however, that I've been deferring for the past two years and am finally having to face.  Various closets have been collecting junk that I haven't had the will to bother with since we moved in here and now it's time to attack the piles and sort through things.  Although it can get pretty painful sorting through two years of accumulated detritus, I'm grateful that I'm forced to do this and it's only two years instead of twenty years of junk.  It's amazing how much less attached you become to things when you're in the middle of a month-long purge and every ounce counts toward your shipping weight.  I'm happy that hoarding is not one of my many personal difficulties.

I kept thinking that I had plenty of time to take care of all of this purging and sorting (some things go in suitcases, some things go to Virginia for nine months, and the rest go to storage) but now that we've got a month left suddenly the time has become very compressed.  It's like those scenes in The Lord of the Rings when Frodo sees the Ringwraiths.  After Christmas has passed I will most likely enter a state Brandon likes to call high dudgeon until we leave or everything is settled out, whichever comes first.  Ideally I'd like to get everything settled out (various bills paid, friends visited, computer files organized, OB appointments scheduled, file boxes organized, stocking sewn for baby girl, various sewing projects finished off) and this time, like every other time we've prepared for a move, I swear that I've started early enough to do it all, but I probably won't.  Regardless of whether or not that stocking is done, however, we'll be getting on that plane when it's leaving day.

That assumes, of course, that Brandon can get his PCS orders done before we leave.  He managed to submit the "hey, I'm leaving and so could I set up all of those things like plane tickets, POV shipment, HHE and UAB allowances," form just in time for everyone to leave Baku and not come back until the first week of January.  There is always something that comes down to the wire and this time I'm letting Brandon sweat it while I organize baby clothes.

By the time we're done with all of those things I think I'll be out of emotional energy to feel any sense of sadness or regret for the people and things we're leaving behind.  It's kind of like having a baby - by the end of pregnancy you're so dang tired and uncomfortable and tired of waiting that you don't care what you have to do in order to just get that baby out.

So, wish me luck.  Or rather, wish everyone around me luck as I neglect them for the next month.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas Crafts

Every year we make Christmas crafts it becomes a little less crowd control (don't touch that paint! Scissors are not for hair! No, that gingerbread is not for eating!) and a little more actual family fun.  We always have the same younger contingent of children who have to be waved away from the X-Acto knives but each year we have more older ones who understand what is going on and actually can make the crafts.  

Our long-term parenting strategy is to eventually get everyone to that stage and then we'll have some pretty amazing stuff going on around Christmas.  Right now, however, Brandon and I still are in charge of the bulk of artistic directing.  

This year we made snowflakes (pictures from last year),

wrapping paper,

and a gingerbread castle.  We just finished studying the Normal conquest in history, and this week there was a section about Norman castles in England after the conquest.  One of the suggested activities (which I never do) was to make a rice Krispy treat castle.  Kathleen suggested we make a gingerbread one instead, so we did.

This was, of course, the most popular activity of all.  Edwin didn't even pretend to be interested in snowflakes and stamped a few stamps before running off to construct trucks with his duplos, but he stuck around the entire time we had candy out.  I think he might have put on one piece of candy and spent the rest of the time eating it.  Joseph did the same.  The girls helped with the candy, however.  And a good time was had by all.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

And We're Expecting...

Last Tuesday I had my twenty week ultrasound.  We all know that the purpose of these ultrasounds is to check that the baby is growing well and to look for possible problems and not ust to see the gender.  But of course that what everyone's thinking about when they go in.

Obstetrical care overseas with State is an odd hodge-podge, especially when the post doctor leaves in June, four months before her replacement comes in October.  So far I've given my medical history to Yuri, on TDY from another post to fill in, Susan, another embassy TDY doctor, a nice doctor from the Hague who was working for three months at an Azeri clinic, the doctor in London who did my first trimester screening, the new doctor at post, and an English doctor working at another Azeri clinic.  

I've never actually been back to the same doctor my entire pregnancy - and I'm halfway through.  I'm glad that all of my pregnancies have been routinely boring so I don't have to tell some tale of complicated pregnancies repeatedly to every new doctor I meet.  It's so much easier to say, when they ask how the other pregnancies were, "fine, yes, just fine.  Everything was normal.  This one too."  

Thankfully the embassy sends a car and the med unit FSN with me every time I have to go to an Azeri clinic because they don't do things here like they do in the US.  I'm used to going to an OB/GYN office, filling out my medical history (did you know that all of my babies have weighed between 7 lbs 3 oz and 7 lbs 9 oz?  Sometimes I mix up the weights), filling out an insurance sheet that I can never feel that I've done quite correctly, waiting for my turn to step on the scale, pee in a cup, have my blood pressure taken, and then ushered back to see the doctor.  

Here there are clinics where you can see just about every type of doctor and no doctor has an assigned office because they rotate around various clinics.  Nobody speaks English and there is some mysterious desk that you go and give cash to at some point in the procedure.  Last time I handed Maya a wad of cash and she came back with change and a receipt.  I don't know how anything is set up and the signs are in Azeri, so I just follow Maya around the hallway and eventually she shows me to the doctor who might have a scale in his office, usually takes my blood pressure, and but thankfully never asks for a urine sample.  

After talking for awhile I wander around behind him until we find a room that has an ultrasound machine in it.  When I visited with the Dutch doctor, he ran the machine so I had some idea of what was going on.  This time, the tech was Azeri, the doctor wasn't in the room, and didn't speak Azeri anyway so I had to crane my neck and catch a glimpse on my own to try to get some idea of what was going on.  

Thankfully the doctor's assistant, who spoke some English, was in the room and Maya tagged along for fun (it was kind of like a lady-party) so the tech would talk to the assistant who would talk to Maya who would then translate to me.  Evidently there wasn't much going on because all I got out of the whole encounter was "It's a girl."

So yes, we're having another girl.  I've been hoping to switch back to girl mode after two boys and so I'm happy.  The girls are happy to have another one on the girl team, and the boys don't quite understand enough to be disappointed.  When we were talking about names at breakfast one day, Edwin announced that if the baby girl was a boy we could name her Mack.  But he did tell me on another occasion that he would be very happy to share his concrete truck with his little sister and read her books about trains.  Joseph, of course, is clueless, and will continue to be until there's suddenly someone else in the house permanently.

Since Brandon lost the vote last time, he's getting final say on the name and hasn't weighed in yet.  We were very attached to the first several names, but by the fifth it get's a little less exciting (sorry, fifth children).  But we'll name her something before she comes in April.  She.  I'm not sure if I can remember what girl mode is like, but I'll probably figure it out again pretty fast when the time comes.  Just like riding a bicycle, right?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Happy Birthday, Edwin

This week Edwin turned four.  Four used to be very big, but when you're the child third four doesn't seem as big as it used to be.  Edwin spent the week previous to his birthday firmly insisting that it wasn't going to be his birthday soon and he wasn't going to be turning four.  Sometimes he admitted that maybe he might turn six but never four.  But when his birthday came he was pretty happy about it being his birthday and turning four.

We didn't do much, having had a busy week, but Edwin didn't seem very put out.  After having a request for popsicles, chicken lentil soup (something I've never made), and "the other" lentil soup for dinner, I decided that he would really like pesto pasta for his birthday dinner.  I asked him about cakes and he requested cookie pie, something else I've also never made.  When Brandon pointed out that we had quinces in the refrigerator cooked and ready to use, Edwin got quince tart for a cake.  If it hadn't been for the quinces, he would have had angel food cake to put a dent in the several dozen egg whites sitting in the freezer.

So much for your birthday being about having it your way.

He did, however, get to drink as much juice as he wanted at dinner, and he drank a lot of juice.  

Buying presents for a four year-old old boy is very, very easy because trucks and cars come in so many different forms.  Brandon and I gave him a fire truck, my parents gave him a duplo truck, and Brandon's parents gave him Lightning McQueen and Mater.  Edwin was having so much fun with his new vehicles that he didn't bother having any of his quince tart.  

I can hardly believe that I've been a parent long enough that my third child is four, but there's no denying the numbers.  Edwin, of course, adds his own flavor to our family, talking incessantly about trucks, cars, monsters, bad guys, leprechauns, planes, trains, and all things distinctly male.  He gives his sisters grief constantly, but also can be very sweet about sharing and helping - when he's in the mood.  The other day at the store as I pushed him through the aisles in the biggest, most awkward and hard to steer car cart possible, he spent his whole ride loudly growling at every single person he passed.  They would look at him, confused, and look at me as if I could explain it.  I just shrugged my shoulders every time.  I didn't make him, I wanted to tell them.  He just came like that.  And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Our Turn

We have been reading and hearing about snow falling in practically everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere (even Egypt).  I have felt smug and the children disappointed.  Just about every afternoon for the last two weeks Kathleen has been asking if it just might possibly snow here in Baku.  I haven't encouraged her hope very much because I'm a mean mom and don't like snow.

But on Thursday her optimism won out and we woke up to snow.  Unfortunately it started snowing around three AM and wasn't deep enough by eight to get Brandon out of work.  But since I'm the teacher, principal, director, and superintendent of our school, I called school for the children.  It doesn't snow here very much and nobody would have gotten much work done anyway and I had a lot of things to get done for our move, so it seemed like a good idea.

We don't own any snow clothes (yet), so we had to improvise.  Edwin ended up in Sophia's tights, his pants, Kathleen's jeans, my socks, and Kathleen's black knee-high boots.  Sophia was in a mix of her and Kathleen's clothes with my socks, and Kathleen wore all of her clothes, supplemented by hand-me-down snow boots (the only pair in the house) from the neighbor.  Everyone was soaked by the end of forty-five minutes.  Sophia came home and declared that she was done with snow for the year, took a warm shower, changed, and went to the neighbor's to play for the rest of the morning.  Definitely have to get snow clothes for the next post.

I didn't set foot outside all day except to get some rosemary for dinner and neither did Joseph.  If you're not old enough to get yourself dressed in cold weather gear, you're not old enough to go outside alone.

The weather is flirting with snowing again tonight and I wouldn't mind Brandon having work cancelled  tomorrow but I'm not holding out hope.  But just to be on the safe side we stocked up on groceries yesterday.  You never know, right?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Getting Low on Dishes

A few days ago I looked into my cupboard and found five glasses.  I checked the dishwasher, the counter, and the refrigerator to see if I'd missed some but there weren't any more to be found.

The next day I noticed that we were out of bread (small) plates for dinner and did the search again.  Five were in the dishwasher from breakfast, two from lunch, but the rest were just as missing as the glasses.

When I informed Brandon later that our glasses stock has dwindled to just five, he commented that we couldn't even have anyone over for dinner unless we broke out the blue plastic cups.  It's probably a good thing we only have seven weeks left anyway.

When Brandon and I got married we registered for all of our dishes and silverware and sheets and towels because between the two of us we had about nothing.  I had some pots and pans and various kitchen things (including a six-piece set of small tart pans.  Ask me sometime how often I've used those), but never any actual dishes.  I can't really remember what I ate off of in the college years, but whatever it was, it wasn't mine.

So on the registry went plates, bowls, glasses and silverware.  Although there were only two of us at the time, I planned ahead and registered for sixteen settings of everything but the silverware.  I signed up for twenty of those.  You know, just in case I needed some extras.  Of course we didn't get all of the place settings we registered for, but when Brandon got his first real job with State I marched myself down to the Clarendon Crate and Barrel and finished up everything that we lacked.  I still remember unpacking my dishes in Cairo and admiring the tall stacks of white porcelain beauty that could hold food for sixteen people at once.

The only problem with white porcelain beauty is that it sometimes breaks.  Especially when you tend to live in houses that have hard-surface floors in their kitchen.  Stone and ceramic tile just isn't very forgiving to glasses and dishes dropped on it, and it seems that over the last four years there have been a lot of dishes dropped on them.  It doesn't seem like that many when they're dropped one at a time, a few months apart, but it only takes nine times to go from sixteen bread plates to seven.  And I'm not helping matters by making the children unload the dishwasher.

Of course I can always make the switch to plastic - it takes a whole lot of abuse to break plastic dishes - but I don't want to.  Everyone has things they're weirdly particular about and I guess dishes is one of my (fifty) things.  I like to use real porcelain dishes and I swear that drinks are colder and taste better when they're in glasses.

The price of this oddity is, of course, periodic orders from Crate and Barrel to replenish.  Usually I restock at the beginning of a tour with a few pieces of each kind - three or four bread plates, a half dozen glasses, a salad plate or two, but this next one's going to be a bit bigger than usual.  Maybe the children have been throwing them away when I'm not looking.  So far, I've been lucky and Crate and Barrel hasn't discontinued the setting I use.  Hopefully when they finally do, the children will be grown up and we'll be done moving around.  I'll cross my fingers.  Or maybe just unload the dishwasher myself.  But probably just cross my fingers.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Once in a blue moon, when the cat's away the mice will play instead of being sent to bed early

Last Wednesday Brandon had a reception to attend.  Every time he has something after hours for work, I thank my stars that he didn't decide to go into public diplomacy because instead of being gone two or three times a month he would be gone two or three times a week.

When he has these things he doesn't get home before 9:30 and so I'm on my own for the night.  Usually I take the opportunity to fix dinner early since we're not waiting for the theoretical slim possibility that Brandon might actually make it home for some part of dinner.  And since dinner is early then everyone can go to bed early and that leaves me with several long, free, quiet hours of time alone.  Sometimes I'll work on a project, sometimes I'll read a book, and sometimes I'll just revel in having hours to mindlessly waste on the internet.  It makes up for having to feed everyone dinner and put them to bed without any help.

Wednesday I was quite responsible and had dinner ready at 5:15 and finished by 5:45.  All I had left was scriptures, pajamas, and the rest of the night would be mine all mine.  What should I do?  Start a new book?  Make cookies?  Start a book and eat cookies?  Whatever it was it should definitely include warm, buttery chocolate chip cookies.  I just have to get the children to bed and then it will be cookie time.  All alone.  By myself.  With nobody to keep me company.  Or to keep me from eating all of the cookies

I turned to the girls.  "Here's a deal for you.  If you help me clean up the dishes, we can make chocolate chip cookies afterwards."

Their faces lit up.  "Yes!" they both nearly shouted back, "We'd love to help you with the dishes!"

I told them to start while I went upstairs to put Joseph to bed.  Two year-olds that can't behave themselves after 6:30 are not welcome at chocolate chip cookie parties.

When I made it back down after diaper, teeth brushing, story, tickling, and kisses, the girls were busily clearing the table and loading up the dishwasher.  Sophia asked if she could wash the dishes and I told her to be my guest.  Edwin, who had set the table for me while his sisters were out playing earlier, read books while listening to Bing sing about white Christmases.  I stood still for five seconds and enjoyed the pleasure of a happy house.

Pretty soon we had finished and I started on my end of the bargain, mixing up a recipe that I have had memorized before any of the children thought of coming into existence.  The oven preheated and I sprayed the pan while Sophia got the spoons for carving out mounds of chip spotted dough to drop in neat lines.  Edwin pretended to help while he snuck cookie dough.

The pan went into the oven and we wiped down the table to sit at for scripture time.  After Jared had begat Orihah who begat Kib who begat Shule who begat Omer who had begat Emer and he begat someone who begat someone else, the timer beeped and the cookies were perfectly done.  We wolfed them down with cold glasses of milk and Katheen, Sophia, and Edwin headed upstairs for toothbrushing, pajamas, and hand washing while I finished with the last few things in the kitchen and turned off the Christmas tree and music for the night.

After prayers, a story, and kisses it was time for bed.  As she wrapped her arms around my neck for a hug, Sophia smiled at me, "Thanks for the cookies tonight, Mom.  That was fun."  I smiled back as I kissed her.  "Yes, it was fun."

Then I went upstairs and ordered myself some new clothes and jewelry.  After all, what's the fun of the cat being gone if all the mice can't play?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

My Azeri Hero

Driving in Baku is an irregular proposition.  Most of the major roads are fairly well-paved, and the city is continuing to repave roads that hadn't seen new asphalt in several decades.  I spent the first six months playing pothole slalom on the road in front of our neighborhood, but now it's nice and smooth and even has these painted lines on it that drivers occasional interpret to mean lane markers.  But the cross-streets on either side of our block are every bit as horrendous as they were when we came and don't show any sign of getting fresh asphalt any time soon - definitely not before we leave.  When I'm driving on these roads I pretend that I'm practicing for our next post.

Occasionally new obstacles will pop up in these ignored backstreets, usually in the form of potholes or ditches or open manholes.  Despite being crazy drivers, Azeris, when out of their cars and not being forced to form lines, are very considerate of other people.  I don't know how many times I've had a stranger on the street back me up as I try to squeeze into a tight parallel parking spot.  They'll often help too when I'm trying to see how the width of my car lines up with the width of a hole between two other cars in traffic.  This drives Brandon crazy, but I find it really quite kind.  If you have seen my car you would know that I need all of the help possible because I am a horrible judge of its width.  Just ask the metal fence, water pipe, bus, gas main (they don't bury them here), and light post that I've run into over the last few years.

The locals' consideration also extends to warning drivers about new features in the road, so often you'll see sticks, bricks, and occasionally clothing on sticks marking holes and trenches that might be a problem for drivers going too fast for their own good.  It's not exactly orange cones and it's a far cry from road repair, but it works better than nothing.

So last week when I saw a brick in front of a dip in the side road near our neighborhood and watched the car in front of me swerve to avoid it, I swerved too, despite my impulse to just drive over the brick and show everyone I'm not afraid of some little dip.  As we sailed around the brick, I looked down to see the biggest hole I've ever seen in a road, probably ever.  It looked like there had been some sort of concrete-lined box under the road (part of the sewer system?) that had then caved in.  The edges of the hole hung over empty space and the bottom was over two feet deep - deep enough to cause a lot of trouble for any car who didn't heed the concrete brick.  Thank heaven I had decided to swerve.

I didn't think much about the hole until I came upon it again after grocery shopping this week.  As I barreled toward it, a girl on the street motioned that I should probably swerve and this time I knew that she wasn't kidding.  Last time there was plenty of room to swerve but this time there were cars parked on both sides of the hole.  That is something Azeris are not considerate about - blocking anyone and everyone in the quest of finding somewhere to park their cars.

First I went right.  About halfway through the creep to avoid certain disaster on one side and certain car damage on the other, I gave up and decided to back out and try the other side.  By this time two other cars were behind me, waiting to try their luck with the hole and so they got to back up too.  Azeris are good at backing up because they have to do it all the time.  Then I tried the left side.  It turns out that this side was even tighter than the right, and I decided that a few scrapes would be better than breaking a car axle by falling into that hole so I crept about as close as I could and was literally two inches from whatever idiot had decided parking their car next to a big hole would be a good idea.

As I said before, I'm a terrible judge of space in traffic.  I drive a big car and I'm a little person so I don't sit very high and can't see what is going on.  I started sweating and talking out loud.  I was about halfway around the hole and I didn't like the idea of backing up again.  But could I go forward?  I couldn't tell.  What should I do?  Part of me just wanted to park the car, unbuckle the children, and leave the car where it was.  Hopefully when I made Brandon go back and get it the blasted car would be gone.

But I couldn't do that.  What if the other car couldn't get out because I was blocking it?  When I was done reflecting and reminding myself to breathe, I looked up to see an Azeri man standing in front of my car talking on his cell phone.  He couldn't help but see the panicked look in my eyes, only standing about three feet away so he did what any person on the street does when a car is obviously in a tight situation - he started directing me.  Turn left.  Go forward.  Turn to the right.  A little more forward.  Then his eyes widened.  Stop.  Stop!!

I stopped.  He walked over to the passenger window and motioned for me to roll it down.  He couldn't reach the driver's side as it was about to kiss the Lada that had gotten me into this problem in the first place.  Did I speak Russian?  I shook my head no.  English?  Yes.  I nodded my head enthusiastically.  Yes.  He looked down at the hole, at the car, and then at me.  Why don't you let me drive your car?

I practically kicked the passenger door open after slithering across the car and shot from the car.  He hung up from the conversation he had been having - just hold on a minute, I've got to help this crazy white lady who can't drive and is about do wreck her car in a big hole, I'll call you back.  He got in, slithering back over the seats to the driver's side.

Now, if I had been in America, I would have paused a few moments before handing my car with my four children over to a complete stranger.  We've all heard stories of carjackings and nobody wants to be the stupid person who just hands their car over.  I would have thought again about just leaving the car parked.  Maybe I would have called Brandon for advice.  But here, in Baku, I didn't even hesitate.  I handed my car right over.  Maybe I was so stressed by my situation that I wasn't thinking clearly.  Maybe I'm so used to being a person that can't be messed with that I just assumed nobody would try anything.  But most of all, I just knew this random stranger wasn't trying to cause me problems.  He was just trying to help.  Because that's what men do here - they help women in trouble.  So I handed the car right over.

When I got out and saw exactly how close the car was to driving into a big hole, I almost passed out.  The font tires had cleared the hole, but the back was hanging on the edge, getting ready to plunge in and cause major problems.  Was my car insurance current?  I really wish I had a camera on my phone.

I almost passed out again as I watched my stranger-rescuer oh so very carefully back the car around the hole, performing magic right before my eyes, adjusting the wheels just a little this way and just a little that to keep the tires right on the edge of the hole.  I made a lame attempt at directing, but he wisely got some advice instead from a truck driver navigating the other side of the hole.  Then the car was free.

Evidently not trusting my ability to navigate the other side (smart man) he crept carefully around the marginally wider right side and got so close to the edge that the back tire bumped down on a loose piece of asphalt clinging to the side with the aid of some twisted re-bar.  As he drove down to the end of the road brief thoughts of carjacking flashed through my head, but my car stopped at the corner and he hopped about, already dialing his friend back on the phone.  As I almost cried with gratitude, thanking him repeatedly, he just nodded his head and walked down the road.  Another day, another white lady saved.  That's how things roll here in Baku.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Thanksgiving 2013

This year I did not cook Thanksgiving dinner all by myself.  I still spent all day cooking, but this year I only cooked pies (pumpkin, apple, coconut cream), stuffing (regular and cornbread), pomegranate sauce, and ice cream.  As we were scrambling to finish up the stuffing and clean the house and set the table and wash the dishes Brandon turned to me, exasperated.  "You know, no matter what we make or don't make, we always end up cooking all day long.  This is a tradition that needs to end."

I like the idea of Thanksgiving that involves kicking back and watching some sort of entertainment, but that hasn't happened yet - at least when I'm involved in the food preparation.  I'm holding out hope for Thanksgiving 2015 when the girls will be old enough to be sous chefs.  If you can't do it all yourself, have some children and make them do some of the work for you, right?

We held Thanksgiving with some of our neighbors from church and so, of course, had lots and lots of food to eat.  One of our friends has a great love of meat and cooked two turkeys, one smoked and one deep-fried.  We tried to give him an easy assignment, just the turkey and potatoes, as he was cooking both turkeys, but when his family showed up for dinner they were pulling a wagon that was loaded with the turkeys, pink jello 'salad,' sweet potatoes (he had found canned yams in a grocery store somewhere in the city), mashed potatoes, gravy, deviled eggs, drinks, and if two turkeys wasn't going to be enough meat, ham.  That's when I knew I had made the right choice about inviting them to Thanksgiving.

After everyone had eaten, the children had run upstairs to destroy the toy room, and we sat around and talked hoping for a little more room to show up, it looked like the dishes had barely been touched.  One family had to leave early for a school play (since the school their children attend is British, Thanksgiving is just another day) so we dished out pie right after dinner and I was so full that I didn't even take a piece until much later.

Brandon had to work on Friday, but I made an executive decision that Thanksgiving will always be a four-day weekend in our house (since I'm in charge of school I get to do those sorts of things).  In the spirit of our holiday weekend, we put the children to bed, cleaned up the dishes, and put on a holiday movie to finish up our Thanksgiving this year.  Brandon could go in late the next day.

As we finished sweeping up the drifts of crumbs from the kitchen floor, Brandon and I talked about all of the things we have to be thankful for.  Between good friends, a happy family, a strong and life-sustaining faith, a good job, a baby on the way, and lots of turkey in our bellies, we didn't have much to not be thankful for.  Life is pretty good.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Living with Children: Laundry

After our housekeeper quit right after we got back from R&R in August I took some domestic tasks back on myself.  As we all know very well by now, none of those tasks included scrubbing toilets because I don't scrub toilets.  But they did include doing my own laundry.  I always had little respect for women who let their housekeepers do their laundry (yes, sometimes I'm a judgmental jerk) until I let mine take the task off my hands.  Then I realized that's it's really nice not having to spend two hours folding and putting away laundry every week and I justified myself by taking the children on a walk instead.

But when Asli abandoned me I got that task dumped back into my lap along with ironing Brandon's shirts - six a week, something that I've never done.

So I did what any mother should do: I enlisted the help of my children.  Now lest you think that they were willingly enlisted and we live in a fairy-land where we all sing songs everyday and blow each other kisses and never speak above a pleasant murmur, we don't.  Maybe we occasionally visit the outskirts of a place that is neighboring that place, but we don't live there.  We live in a place that is a lot more loud, messy, and rude called reality.  Anybody who claims to live anywhere else is selling something.

But one of the wonderfully great things about living in our particular reality is that I can be the loudest and the rudest of the inhabitants, I am bigger than most of them, and they can't get away from me.  When I made castles in the air about homeschooling while Kathleen was getting to the age where I could put foundations under them, child labor was always a major portion of those castles.  Some of the earliest parts.  Since I direct everyone's time I can direct everyone to help me.

Before I start getting nasty comments (well, that would be if anyone other than friends who wouldn't be nasty anyway actually read this), I would like to point out that we all have different views on work and childhood.  I have a good friend with six children and a very busy husband who is one of the nicest people I've ever known.  I don't think I've ever heard her actually speak above a pleasant murmur, and she lives to serve other people.  I look at her and think how many good qualities of hers I don't possess and and am working on.  Since she never wants to put anyone out of their way she ends up taking a large portion of the household responsibilities on herself.  Childhood is precious and only happens once and so children should be allowed to enjoy it.  That is her view.

That's not my view.  I try to let my children enjoy their childhood, but I also give them responsibilities.  I need the help and they need to learn basic household responsibilities.  And I need the help.

So, every Monday I haul everyone's laundry upstairs at 5 am and start the first load.  During my exercise, breakfast, school, and lunch, I change the loads every hour.  By the time I wake up from my nap, everything is dried and sorted into baskets (I do this after each load).  One for me, one for Kathleen, and one for Sophia.  In my basket I have my clothes, Brandon's clothes, Joseph's clothes, sheets, and large towels.  Kathleen has her clothes and Edwin's clothes.  Sophia gets the small towels, washcloths, and her clothes.  Everyone folds the contents of their baskets and puts them away.  Then we repeat the next Monday.

Having the girls fold and put away their own clothes has required me to let go of my OCD tendencies.  I like the clothes to be folded in a very particular way, and the girls don't even come close to it.  I also like drawers to be neat and every time I see long-sleeved shirts co-mingling with short-sleeved shirts and pants in the skirt drawer and unmatched socks hiding in the underwear I have to close my eyes and turn away.  "It's their clothes," I chant to myself, "their drawers.  I have nothing to do with them.  I don't fold them, I don't put them away, I don't wear them, and I never have to look in them."  Then I resist the urge to rearrange everything.

Occasionally I'll give up and rearrange Edwin's because he didn't have anything to do with the haphazard stuffing of pants and shirts into the wrong places (usually Kathleen is running up against dinner and finishes sloppily) and really he needs to be able to find his clothes, right?  Last week when Sophia caught me at it, she rearranged her drawers too and I had a small thrill of moral victory.  Keep things neat and maybe they'll also learn to see that it's a good thing.

But for now, I'll take my victories where I can, and the biggest victory all is forty-five minutes.  Forty-five minutes to fold my basket and put everything away.  Then laundry is done until next week.  And that is a wonderful thing.

Sunday, November 24, 2013


Brandon is gone tonight.  He was gone last night.  He's going to be gone again tomorrow night.  He's been gone a lot lately; the last time he made it home for dinner was the first Thursday of this month (I know this because he came home early so I could go to craft night).  Things here have been a little rough lately.

Surprisingly, they haven't been as rough as I thought they would be - after all taking care of four children all day long while being pregnant isn't exactly a picnic - but the days have been pretty long, a seemingly endless merry-go-round of the same sights repeating themselves.  Get up, eat breakfast, school, lunch and naps, walk, dinner, feed children, get them ready for bed, wash dishes, feed Brandon, go to bed.  Repeat.

Now I'm not trying to complain.  The big picture, after all, is nothing but roses.  Brandon has a very stable, secure job that takes care of all of our needs, our wants, lets us plan for the future, and allows me to stay home with the children.  Everyone is healthy and we're all together.  We've been able to have four wonderful children that bring us joy every day and we even get to have another one.  We live in a beautiful warm house and eat plenty of good, healthy food every single day.  We even get to travel to foreign countries and own black tie attire.  Life is not only good, it's great.

But occasionally come times that aren't bad - nobody's died, gotten sick, or lost their job - but maybe a little irritating.  And I think maybe it's okay to not like them as much as the good times.  After all, who likes to spend dinner with four children after a long day when you can spend dinner with four children and their father, who hasn't been telling them to quit quarreling and so is a little fresher than you?  I know that I'd rather put the children to bed at a decent hour and spend some time playing Scrabble and chatting with my husband instead of chasing everyone into bed right before heading there yourself (after finishing the dishes) just so you can get up and begin everything over again the next dayWe're all allowed to have preferences, even if they don't always get honored.

So right now we're in the middle of one of the irritating times.  I'm grateful this isn't a habit - presiding over dinner alone - and that I have a husband who does everything in his power to make it home for dinner.  I'm grateful he's not deployed, or a New York lawyer, or working at Stauffer's.  I'm grateful he's around and plans to stay that way.  But still, I wouldn't mind having him around for dinner too. 

It's okay though, because in two months Brandon will be done here.  He will turn in his Blackberry and get on an airplane with us, having finished up all of his work (or maybe just left it for the next guy).  Our house will be packed, all of the forms will have been turned in, the car will be sent off, and everything that didn't get done will just have to stay that way.  We'll enjoy a whole month of visiting family, not visiting anyone at all, and eating dinner together every single night.  And that's life - the cycle of good and bad, the pleasant and the irritating.  Thankfully it's a cycle, and so I just have to remember when I'm on the down side of that cycle, I only have to wait until the good times come back.  That's all.  Just wait.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Pumpkin... everything

We have less than two and a half months before we leave.  One of the most obnoxious things about moving, from a logistical standpoint, is trying to get all of your food eaten before you leave.  Couple that with a one-month lag between ordering food online, and it gets even trickier.  Do I bother trying to order more gluten or just deal with lower-quality bread for the next two and half months?  After all, by the time I get it (around Christmas) how much baking am I going to do anyway?  On the other hand, pizza crust is a lot better with gluten....

Then throw in a consumables shipment where I had to decide what I would use over our entire tour based on some imagined number I conjured up in my pregnancy-addled brain two years ago.

This is how we're run out of black beans and tahina but have plenty of popcorn, powdered sugar, and chicken stock.  Bad planning.

Back when I was stocking up around Halloween 2011 I decided that we needed a lot of canned pumpkin because when you really want pumpkin bread, pumpkin cookies, and pumpkin pie, you really can't use anything but pumpkin.

Last year I think I used one can, for Thanksgiving dinner, which left us with about fourteen cans of pumpkin sitting in our consumables closet and about three months to use it.  I have this problem with a lot of areas in our consumable closet - in fact, it hardly looks like we've used anything in the last two years at all (except maybe TP) - and I've just resigned myself to doing something about it later.  I'm not quite sure what I'll do, but it will be decided by the last week of January and that's enough of a decision for me.

But the pumpkin has caught my imagination, or my pregnancy brain, or maybe it's the season, or who knows what, and pumpkin is now the centerpiece of my culinary google searches.  We're working our way through all of the pumpkin-themed baked goods I can think of and still have about four cans left.  So far we've had pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin waffles (twice), pumpkin bread, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin doughnuts with pumpkin glaze, pumpkin french toast, pumpkin German pancake, and pumpkin cookies.  This afternoon I looked into pumpkin eggnog recipes, and the next time I'm at the grocery store I'm getting cream cheese for pumpkin aeblskivers with maple-walnut-cream cheese filling and caramel syrup.  I think you can add pumpkin to just about any sweet baked good and come out okay.

Sophia, when we announced pumpkin German pancake for breakfast last Saturday morning, asked when we were going to stop having pumpkin in everything.  "When all of the pumpkin is gone," I told her, "and not before."

Even if I don't achieve moral victory over our 32 remaining cans of peas, I will triumph over the pumpkin.  Even if we have to eat pumpkin bread on our way to the plane out of here.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Marine Ball 2013

Brandon in his hours-old tux and me trying to hide the baby bump.
This year was my second Marine Ball.  We never went in Cairo; the mission was so big that we wouldn't have known anyone there and it was always held on Friday (the Sabbath) because of the Friday-Saturday weekend schedule.  Last year I spent days getting everything just exactly perfect, agonizing over the Most Beautiful Dress Ever, hairstyles, and makeup while dreaming of the perfectly romantic evening Brandon and I would enjoy dancing the night away in our fancy togs.

I left rather disappointed, especially after all of the work I had put in.  I kept waiting for the night to begin - after the cocktail hour and the speeches and the video and the cake cutting and dinner, then finally the party would really start and romance would carry me away.

Romance, unfortunately, is not compatible with Azeri DJs who try to burst everyone's eardrums and a husband who doesn't like to dance.  I knew this when we married, but somehow I thought that a fancy hotel ballroom would overcome Brandon's inhibitions about dancing to club-style music in front of all of his colleagues that he would have to look in the eye the next Monday morning.  Now, if I had had alcohol on my side, this would have probably worked.  But, being Mormon, this was not an option.  This is also why nobody dances at Mormon weddings. 

This year, I knew better.  When the children asked me what I was going to do at the Marine Ball all dressed up in my pretty dress with sparkly jewelry, fancy hair, and silver shoes, I told them the truth about all adult social entertainments.  "We're going to stand around and talk to each other."  

"That's all?  You're just going to talk?!?"  Yes kids, we're just going to talk.  They don't even have any pony rides.

Somehow Hollywood is able to make all of those black-tie galas and cocktail parties and high-end events look like they're more than a bunch of people standing around talking to each other.  The talking may involve fancy clothing, but in the end it's just talking, with some food thrown in to keep everyone from starving.

So this year, having realized one of the great Truths of Life, the ball was a complete success.  I got to dress up in a fancy dress after having my hair done by someone other than me, go to a classy hotel ballroom, and spend almost six hours talking to my friends.  Since we're almost done here I had some good friends to spend those hours talking with.  I love this lifestyle that gives me so many people to become close with, people that don't care if I'm cool or funny or even that interesting, just people who care about helping each other feel like this is our home.  I'm sad that we're leaving in a few months and the thread of that friendship will break.  Of course we'll keep in touch but it won't be the same, living together in a foreign country, lending each other peanut butter and 1/4 inch elastic, making our children play together so we can complain about the traffic or long hours our husbands' work.  My friends make my life bigger because theirs are part of it.

We finally left at 11:45, never having made it back into the ballroom after post-dinner lipstick application, having too much fun talking with friends.  I had told the babysitter we'd be back by 11:30, and if it hadn't been for that we probably would have stayed - and even danced - until the staff started turning the lights off to send everyone home.

But alas, all fun things have to end some time, and as I pulled all sixty-eight hairpins out, scrubbed off the makeup, and hung up my sparky ball gown in the very back corner of my closet, I sighed a little sigh as life returned back to normal.  Until next year.  And then I had to concede that perhaps, just a little, Hollywood might have gotten it right.