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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Olympic Day

I am not a creative mom.  Brandon and I have friends who do marvelously inventive theme days that involve wearing special clothing, eating particular foods, and doing fun activities together.  Every time I read about these days, first I feel guilty, then dismissive, and I finish by rationalizing that I don't have the time or energy to wear backwards clothes while eating a backwards meal finishing with a backwards story.

I do really fun stuff instead.  Like abandoning my children in the toy room for hours on end while taking a nap.  Because, of course, it fosters their creativity.  I'm doing them a service.  Really.

Part of Kathleen's history texts is an activity book that has coloring pages, map work, extra literature suggestions, and activities that correspond to the chapter we read for the week.  I usually give Kathleen the coloring pages (this week was Darius the Great) because they don't take me any extra time.  We do the map work together because it takes five minutes.  We look up supplementary information online.  But I never do the extra activities.  Build a model of the Nile and stage an inundation?  Pass.  Make your own model of the hanging gardens of Babylon? My schedule is already full with my nap.

I rationalize these omissions with the comfort that she'll see these subjects two more times before she graduates from high school and that will make, in total, about three more times than a lot of American school children cover these subjects.  And if she doesn't get into Harvard because we skipped making that Mycenean helmet, it will save me a lot of money in tuition costs.

Last week we studied the post dark-age Greeks.  Part of the first-grade treatment of this subject included an introduction to the Olympics.  Kathleen was fascinated to learn that we still have them today, and was put out to discover that women weren't allowed to watch or participate in the Greek ones.

While I flipping through the activities I noticed one that outlined having your own Greek Olympics.  Kathleen saw me looking at it.  "Don't worry Mom," she assured me, "I know that we can't do that.  So I won't be sad."

"Well..." I replied, feeling like Bad Mom of the Day, "we could ask your father and see what he thinks.  Maybe we could do it on Saturday."

Kathleen's face lit up.  "Could we?!?!  Oh MOM!!!!!"  And then she attempted to strangle me with a hug.

So on Saturday we held the Sherwood Olympics.  We started by watching the torch lighting from the London Olympics, and then marched out to the backyard where we held sprints, long jump, steeplechase, and shot put.  Inside we continued with wrestling, vaulting (over the couch), and rhythmic gymnastics.

We finished the morning with a Greek feast of tandir bread, hummus, kalimata olives, feta cheese, and tomatoes.  Everyone agreed that it had been the best Olympic day ever.

And now, when my children ask my why I'm never any fun, I'll remind them about the Olympic day.  That should be good for at least six months.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Why You Should Avoid Driving Over Trashbags

I do not know how to change a flat tire.  I have had various opportunities to learn, but never taken them.  Back when I was single, I kept a membership in AAA as my insurance against anything going wrong.  I never used it until I got married, and then only once.  After we moved to Cairo I let my membership lapse and had to laugh when I got offers to renew mailed to me in a foreign country where I didn't own a car.

Recently I was thinking about things like AAA and those long-ago opportunities to learn flat tire changing and concluded that none of those were necessary because in the fifteen years of driving I have never gotten a flat tire.  Ever.  I may have caused a four-car pileup, but no flat tires.  I'm not even quite sure about the exact location of my spare.  Maybe in the back somewhere?  Before leaving on a road trip once, Brandon asked me if our car has a jack and I had to shrug my shoulders.  I've never looked for one.  Because I don't get flat tires.

Cue ominous music.

So on last Thursday night I shut the door on the usual post-dinner mayhem and said good luck to Brandon before getting in the car to head over to our monthly Relief Society meeting.  When we were talking about the upcoming meeting, one of my friends commented that she always loves our meetings (which break up before ten at night, if we're lucky) because she gets the leave her five children home with her husband, spend the evening chatting with friends, and stay out late - and her husband can't complain because we're spending time at Relief Society!

As I zoomed up the hill past Bizim, trying to make up the minutes I had wasted looking up living conditions in a former Soviet Union capital, I saw a dumpster beside the road.  I'm still not sure how trash collection works around here for the general populace since ours works by putting anything we don't want on our porch beside the front door.  Unlike Cairo, however, I have actually seen garbage trucks and seemingly intentional placement of dumpsters throughout the city.

Spilling out of this dumpster were several bags of trash, strewn halfway across the road.  As I mentally planned my route up the hill, I considered the trash bags.  Who am I to be scared of trash bags?  I'm an American and don't slow to a crawl for two-inch potholes, so why should I be afraid of some plastic sacks filled with garbage?

Then Brandon's cautioning voice piped up and reminded me that I shouldn't take unnecessary risks and you never know what is in trash bags so just watch out and swerve like the rest of the scaredy-locals.  They might have a good reason for what they do.

The longer I've been married to Brandon, the more I've discovered that Brandon's little voice is often right, so I planned a trajectory that avoided the offending bags.

The things about roads around here, however, is that they contain cars going in two directions.  And this particular road also had bus 'stops' right around the dumpster area which narrow the road as everyone swerves around the buses stopped to pick up and drop off passengers.

So I had to balance my swerve between avoiding the garbage and avoiding the oncoming traffic, hopefully erring on the side of avoiding the traffic.  I must not have enough trash-swerving experience, however, because as I passed the translucent plastic lumps strewn across the road, I heard glass popping underneath my tires.

"Hmmm," I thought to myself, "I wonder if tires could be harmed by glass.  They're pretty thick, aren't they?  Avoid the bus!"  And then I concentrated on not hitting oncoming dump trucks.

Seven or eight minutes later I glanced at my glowing instrument panel-thing.  On it was an exclamation point outlined in a triangle and the car diagram lighted up, with the right front tire lighted up too.  And then I realized that yes, glass can cause your car tires problems.

At this point I was about a mile from the neighborhood where we were holding our activity.  It was dark and cold outside.  The car wasn't driving too irregularly.  The side of the road looked very cold and dark.  Maybe the tire was just slowly leaking.  And so I kept on driving until I pulled into a neighborhood side street.

Wanting to see how bad of a time I was in for, I pulled the car over to the side of the road and parked it.    I could hop out and see how the tire was looking, and then finish the drive to my friend's house and figure out what to do when I got there.  I jumped out of the door and walked over to the passenger's side.  As I took in the state of the tire, I realized that there was no more driving left in that particular tire - half of the air was gone.  So I got back in, pulled the car somewhere a little more out of the way, and called Brandon.

I knew he was getting the children ready for bed, so wasn't surprised when he didn't pick up his phone. When you combine a three-story house with three noisy children and Looney Toones, a politely ringing Blackberry sitting alone on the first floor doesn't have a chance.

I thought about calling the house phone, but then remembered that Joseph had yanked apart the wires that it was connected to the wall with.  So no house phone.  I was on my own.  On a dark side street.  In a foreign country.  With a very, very flat tire.  And no AAA to come help me.

So I did the only thing possible - I turned off the headlights, pulled the GPS off the windshield, turned of the motor, climbed out onto the muddy side of road, set the alarm, and started walking.  As I left my car alone, again, I hoped that I hadn't just made a very bad decision.  Baku isn't known for a lot of crime, I told myself.  And it was a quiet neighborhood street.  And we have dip plates.  And it was just going to be there overnight.  And hopefully it will be there in the morning.

While I walked the remaining half mile to my destination, I called Brandon repeatedly to keep myself company.  I had gotten to the eleventh attempt when I rang at my friend's gate and she let me in.

"Hey," I greeted her, out of breath from my vigorous walk, "could you have your driver pick up my car tomorrow morning after he's done taking everyone to school?  I got a flat tire and need it fixed."

The next morning around 9:30, my doorbell rang.  I opened it and Samir handed me my car keys.  "The car's in the garage with the tire fixed," he told me, "and it cost ten manat."

I don't think that AAA can beat that service.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

I am now a statistic

Note: I wrote this about a month ago, and have waited awhile to publish it.

Yesterday I went to the Scandanavia clinic for my first OB appointment.  When I mentioned to the doctor that I had been having some problems in the past few days, she led me next door to the ultrasound room.  I laid down on the bed, repeating the familiar procedure of pulling various layers of clothing askew, having gel (it's always cold) squirted on my abdomen, and waiting for the grainy little lump that could possibly be imagined to be a baby appear on the screen.

She slid the receiver back and forth over my belly and made a face.  After measuring a few things, she made a worse face.  Then she turned to me.  "I'm sorry," she said, "but your baby has no heartbeat.  It stopped growing some time ago."

I had suspected this news for several days, turning over the various reasons why I didn't think we'd be having our fifth child in August, telling myself it would be okay and reciting all of the reasons why the timing wasn't good in the first place, mentally tensing myself for the blow.

It's funny how that tensing is never quite real, how you always hold back the tiniest part that believes, despite all of the evidence otherwise, the blow will never come.  You hope that all of those signs were just your imagination and you'll look back and laugh at your paranoia when everything turns out just fine in a few months.

But sometimes the blow comes.

Having done some research on miscarriage, I've found that the risk is 10-25%, and that about one in five women experience a miscarriage at some point.  And when I think of all of the women I know with large families, there are very few who have not had something go wrong.  When you play the conception game, you are signing up for the risks and the possibility that things won't turn out.

So far I've been incredibly lucky - four children with no complications, all having come easily with no disappointments.  And so it makes sense that eventually something would happen.  That is, after all, what statistics tell us - that sometimes some things happen to some people.  Everyone's plan, however, is to not be one of those people.

But of course that never happens.  You may not one of those people who get stuck in an elevator for several hours, but maybe you're one who gets stuck in an airport overnight.  You may get lucky and never be in an serious car crash, but instead your kitchen burns down.  Things just happen - it's part of what we signed up for when we came here to earth.  

And so this week it's my turn.  It helps to have been expecting bad news, and it helps to be surrounded by four wonderful children.  I have all sorts of reasons why really, things will work out better if we wait a little while anyway.  There are so many reasons why I don't need to be upset.  I'm healthy.  The children are healthy.  It happened early.  This has never happened before; statistically it probably won't happen again.  It happened after four children.  I'm still young, with plenty of good years left in me.  I'll have a little more breathing room between Joseph and the next one.  We don't have to be gone for three months this summer.

But of course, reason and emotion sometimes don't see eye to eye, and I've still been upset despite all of the good reasons not to be.

However, life will continue on and I'll be just fine.  Brandon and I had plans for a romantic weekend away to celebrate my birthday, so we'll have some time together, even if it's a little less romantic.  The children keep me busy and focused on something other than myself and remind me how lucky I've been so far.

And the next time I fill out a chart at the OB, I'll have something else note down other than four normal, healthy pregnancies.  Just a statistic.  That's all.  

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Dinner Party

A few weeks ago Brandon and I went over to dinner at the DCM's (deputy chief of mission) house.  This is a small, social post and so he and his wife invite people from the mission over to their house for dinner from time to time.  His wife commented that he always attempts to get people together who don't know each other, but usually it doesn't work - each guest knows at least a few other people and so instead of awkward getting-to-know-you talk everyone just has a nice time.

A few days after Brandon accepted the invitation, he brought home an envelope with our name on it.  Secretly hoping for a winning lottery ticket, I opened it and found an invitation,  "Mr. - and Mrs. - invited you over to dinner, etc etc etc," complete with the little eagle that seems very common in Brandon's line of work.  

"Wow!" I commented to Brandon after I had read all of the official, italicy, words, "I feel like a Real Adult.  Please don't tell anybody that I'm not or I won't be able to go."

The evening started off with drinks, hors d'oeuvres, a nice jazz selection, and pleasant chatting.  After everyone had arrived and been introduced, we were ushered to the dining room.  I looked around, scouting out a spot with two chairs free so I could sit next to Brandon, and then stopped when I noticed cards in front of each plate.  

I remember making place cards once as a child at Thanksgiving.  After someone misspelled a cousin's name, the whole idea was scrapped and everyone sat in the usual jumble that happened every Thanksgiving.  Since then my closest contact with place cards has been Jane Austen movies.  

As I circled around the table, looking for my name, I froze as I realized that my name was next to the DCM's and... not my husband.  As we all noticed that none of us were sitting next to our spouses, the DCM's wife cheerfully announced that she had been taught in protocol class that husbands and wives should never be seated next to each other.  "After all," she smiled, "we get to see plenty of each other all the time, right?"

I could see Brandon wince as he realized that we would be separated the whole dinner and I would be left all alone, with nobody to regulate me, free to talk about whatever I wanted without Brandon there to cut me off.  I gave him a smile to reassure him that I would be good.  Really.  I would even remember which fork to use first.

The dinner started with salad and a puff-pastry version of khachapuri, and we chatted about attending weddings and being newly married.  After the staff removed the salad plates and brought in the main dish of chicken with bulgur and eggplant puree, a friend commented on the family dynamics of large families vs. small families (there's just a lot more chaos in the large ones, he concluded).  We all marveled over the cookie baskets containing diced fruit topped with raisin-nut ice cream, and someone asked the DCM's wife how the baskets were made.  "I don't know," she confessed, "my cook always comes up the most amazing things."

Full from a delicious dinner, we all retired to the living room for tea, coffee, and chocolates.  I've never been an (herbal) tea drinker, but this life is starting to turn me into one.  Not that I'm going to buy a teapot and cups anytime soon, however.  As we listened to "Sweet Georgia Brown" everyone continued talking about moving and renovating houses and The Hague and schooling and babies.   

Finally around 10:30, Brandon and I left with the other couple needing to get home and relieve the babysitter.  It didn't look, however, like the party was going to break up anytime soon.

I've found that the FS life has introduced me to a lot of new experiences that I would never had had if I'd lived the rest of my life in the US.  I've learned how to schlepp kids and stuff halfway across the world.  I can drive (and park) in Baku while answering an endless flow of questions about horses and rainbows.  I've lived on three different continents.  I've (somewhat) been through a revolution.  

And now I've been to a Real Live dinner party - one complete with a cook and someone to serve the dinner - the kind that doesn't involve the host shouting conversation from the kitchen while trying to get everything done on time.  I commented to Brandon on our way home that one of my favorite things about this lifestyle is that you don't have to be cool or interesting or connected or rich or beautiful to get invited to fun things - you just have to be a warm body.

If Brandon and I had decided to live in the U.S. and not overseas, our life would have been different from what it is now.  We would be living the life I was raised with - middle class, suburban, Mormon.  Our socializing would be mostly with other families with children, having dinner in the backyard or pizza night together.  The children would run around the house, creating a cheerful ruckus while the adults chatted in between refereeing disputes.  Maybe sometimes we would have dinner with just adults, but I don't think there would be any after-dinner tea in the living room involved - it would probably be after-dinner dishes in the kitchen.

But here we are instead in Baku, enjoying the attentions of a professional chef and not having to feel a shred of guilt about not doing the dishes.  It's funny when life takes you out of your normal experiences and hands you new, strange ones.  But good.  And sometimes, if you're lucky, tasty.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The World at My Fingertips

Today I got my Kindle.  The family who was bringing it had a few delays and didn't make it to Baku until this week.  They profusely apologized for making me wait for so long, but I really wasn't too distressed.  I've gotten used to waiting a month or so for stuff to arrive, and honestly I lose track of how long it's been since I've ordered something and so when it does come it's always a pleasant surprise.  I'm always shocked to hear that people in the U.S. can order something and have it come two days later.  It's like magic.

I'm also in the middle of a stack of books that Brandon gave me for my birthday and so am not dying for reading material.  What's the point of having more books at your fingertips when you're still finishing the ones in the house?

So when I opened the stylish black package this afternoon and pulled out my newest electronic toy, I enjoyed how pretty it was, but didn't immediately rush upstairs to get all those books I've been wanting.  Trying to have someone be excited about my new possession, I showed it to the children, and told them that this was a magic book, one that you could read lots and lots of different books on and they were all just there.  All of those big books squeezed into a little tiny electronic thing that you can hold.  They looked at me and then ran off to play, not remotely impressed.  Then I realized that they live in an age of computers and internet where the whole world is contained in a screen.

So I plugged my Kindle into the computer and charged it, not knowing what else to do.  I looked at the complete works of Anthony Trollope, and wondered about the capacity of the Kindle's hard drive, or whatever it stores things on.  After all, Anthony Trollope wrote long books.  Should I dedicate so much storage space to his complete works?  Unable to make up my mind, I decided to finish the books I already have before getting anymore.

A little while later Brandon wandered through and picked up the Kindle.  "So, what's on this thing?" he asked.  "Nothing," I confessed, "I've got to finish the books I have before getting new ones."

"Can I download something?"  Excited to find someone who was interested, I went on Amazon and  showed him how he could get his book, The Winning of the West, for free.  I've always been cheap, and I'm planning on making sure Amazon loses its bet about selling the Kindle to me for less in exchange for making money on the books I buy for my device.  There are a lot of very long, very free books that I can read before I pay a dime for anything else.

I couldn't figure out how to transfer the book to the Kindle without going through our finicky wireless, so Brandon left to put the children to bed.  After a few minutes and some manual-reading I moved the book file to the documents folder and two seconds later, the entire text of The Winning of the West, Volume 1, was in my hand.  Intoxicated with my success and greedy for more free reading material, I went back to Amazon and downloaded volumes two, three, and four.

And then my head exploded.

I have always loved reading.  My parents, walking past my room after bedtime, got in the habit of telling me to turn off my light and put my book away without ever looking to see if I was awake.  I remember struggling to read by the light of the flashlight.  For years I couldn't stand going to the bathroom without some printed material to keep me company.  If I was really desperate, I would read the kleenex box.  Breakfast was always peppered with squabbles over who got which cereal box to keep them company as we crunched through our bowls of Lucky Charms.  My high school boyfriend almost dumped me when I chose Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire over him while at the beach.  In college I had to stop reading altogether so that I would sleep and do my homework.

After Sophia was born, Brandon lost me to the salty embrace of Horatio Hornblower and only got me back after I'd followed him through every single one of his adventures.  When we were evacuated from Cairo, one of the first things I did was look up my closest library and haul the children in to get a card.  I discovered that I don't deal with stress by eating or shopping - I escape from my life into the pages of the closest book.

My love affair with reading has always been tainted by the problem of finding my next book.  Since I'm cheap, the library has always been my source of choice.  But any library only has so much space and so much money and so I've been limited to whatever my local library carries.  I have fond memories of strolling through the stacks of the Harold B. Lee Library and stumbling on the complete works of Andre Dumas, which kept me company for a few semesters.

When we moved overseas, my supply of new books slowed to a trickle, completely dependent on books that I was willing to spend money and HHE shipping weight on.  I started rereading the books we own and discovered that aging memory has certain advantages - give a book four or five years and I can read it all over again without remembering much of the previous reading.  I knew that eventually I would give in and get a Kindle, but I fought it.  And lost.

When I downloaded Roosevelt's writing for Brandon, my whole world shifted.  I looked out an saw endless streams of books coming to me over the internet, not limited by the buying tastes and budgets of my local library or my HHE shipping weight or sometimes even cost.  If I want to reread the entire works of Dumas I can.  If I want to read the biggest, thickest, trashiest book of The Wheel of Time, I can.  I don't have to wait three weeks.  I don't have to decide if this book is worth keeping around for the next twenty years.  I don't have to ask the library to purchase a copy of the book.  I just have to look it up and download it.  I will never ever again be without a new book to lure me into it's inviting pages, escaping to a land where children aren't my responsibility, dinner is cooked by someone else, and the problems are always sure to be figured out by the end.  I can read almost any book I can think of just by looking it up on the magic internet and downloading it into my magic device.  I can own all of the books.

I think Amazon may have just won its bet, and Brandon may have to stage an intervention.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Living in Baku: Car Washing

It rained here last week.  It wasn't much rain, just the usual drizzle that hangs in the sky here for a few days before deciding it's had enough and giving up.  Occasionally the rain comes down harder and pools up against the granite-curbed road median, making the left lane somewhat unnavigable, but this only happens every few months.  Usually it's just drizzle.

It's amazing, however, what just a little drizzle will do.  Baku is not nearly as dusty as Cairo - I can get away with one dusting a week - but it's still a dusty place with the fine, silty dust coming in on the wind from arid plains to the west.  Normally the dust isn't too visible, but when it rains the dust turns into mud which then coats everything in sight - including my black car.

Which means that it's time for another trip to the Car Wash Man as soon as the rain clears up.

Bakuvians love their cars.  "Sometimes I think," my housekeeper once told me, "that men love their cars more than their wives."  And part of loving their cars includes keeping them scrupulously clean, which can be pretty hard when it rains here.  I've seen cars that are so completely covered with a thin layer of fine brown mud that their license plates are completely obscured.  Last winter it snowed so much that people just started wiping down their door handles and taillights because they couldn't keep the mud off.  I've always wondered why those rear windshield wipers were necessary - is it really so hard see out your back window through the rain?  Now I use mine to wipe the mud off so I can see to back up.

And so dotted around all of the neighborhoods are Avto Yuyucus - a small bay with raised car ramps, a power washer, and someone to spray the mud off the paint and vacuum the mud out of the carpets.

Our car arrived after all of the snows last year, so it stayed pretty clean for awhile.  After a trip to the mountains in May, it got pretty dusty, so the children and I cleaned it off ourselves.  The summers here are dry and so not muddy, so the car stayed clean for awhile.  But after a few months it became apparent that Cannonball needed a wash.

Normally I don't care how clean my car is, but after living in a society where every keeps their cars mud-free, I started to feel self-conscious about driving my mud-encrusted car around the city.  I felt like I had food stains on my shirt.

I had noticed a garage with a power washer near the exits of our neighborhood, so one day I screwed up my courage and made a plan with my housekeeper.  "Okay," I told her, "I'm going to take the car to get washed.  I want it washed and vacuumed.  Is ten manat okay for that?"  She assured me that it was plenty. "So when I get there, I'm going to call you and hand the phone to the car wash guy.  Then I need you tell him what I want and that I need it by two."

I drove up and stopped the car.  The man walked up.  I pointed to my phone, called my housekeeper, and handed the phone to the man.  He took it and talked to my housekeeper.  Then he handed the phone back to me.  I handed my keys to him.  Then I walked home.

As I was walking away, I tried not to look back to see if a black Honda Pilot with red dip plates was making a speedy exit out of the neighborhood.  "It's okay," I reassured myself, "there's no way he's going to steal your car even though you just handed him the keys.  Where would he sell it, after all?  It's not like there are very many Honda Pilots of that vintage running around in this city so it would be pretty obvious.  And there are cameras watching everything.  And he knows that I know where he is.  And he does this all of the time.  If he stole cars he would be in jail."  I still couldn't completely tune out, however, the visions of a black Pilot with US dip plates rampaging all over the city doing nefarious deeds.

So when I came back at two and the car was clean, vacuumed, and most importantly, still there, I gratefully handed over the ten manat.  When the children saw it later, they were in awe. "Mom!  It's like we have a new car! Can we have it washed again next week?!"

I've gotten over my dependence on my housekeeper by now, and when I drive up to the yuyucu, the Car Wash Man walks out, I hand him my keys, and we nod at each other.  He knows that he's supposed to wash and vacuum it within the next few hours and I know that I'll pay him ten manat and the car will be clean.

But I still can't quite help from turning around to watch as I walk away.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sewing Projects Gone Bad, Part II

This weekend we had a birthday party to attend.  For most people around here, birthday parties are very common - it seems to be popular to invite every child in the class to every party which makes for a lot of parties; we've had friends going to two parties in one day.  For us, however, they're a lot less common since 1. Kathleen doesn't go to school and so has a lot fewer friends, and 2. we're social introverts.

This invitation didn't specifically ban presents, so I consulted with Brandon.  "Do you think I could get away with not bringing a present?  After all, the child is only three, right?  They probably wouldn't even notice.  After all, it's not like anybody needs a present."

Brandon gave me his patented did-you-really-just-ask-that-question look.  "Bring a present.  Don't be tacky."

Around here, birthday presents are hard to get - no Target, remember - gaudy, and very expensive.  A knock-off mini-Rapunzel doll cost Kathleen $10, and stuffed animals don't cost any less than $25.  And I'm cheap, especially when it is a birthday present for a three year-old.  So I decided to go with my standard thee-to-ten year-old female present: a homemade apron.  They never fail to disappoint.

I had Friday morning free, so I planned to get it knocked out in an hour or so and get a few other things done during the rest of the morning.  On Wednesday night, however, I had a change of plans.  A friend had shown me a cloth-doll book she had gotten in Japan awhile back and the dolls and clothes looked pretty simple.  Why not make that instead?  It would be so much more fun than an apron.  I could show off my awesome sewing skills.  And what little girl wouldn't love a doll with clothes to take off and put on and take off and put on and take off and put on?

So I borrowed the book and told Brandon my Brilliant Idea.  After I explained to him that if an apron is nice, a cloth doll with it's own set of clothes is nicer, he fixed me with another look and sighed.  "Do you really think that this is a good idea?  Maybe you've forgotten the Marine ball dress debacle and how you spent all week finishing that dress.  Do you really think it's a good idea to start a doll on Friday that you intend to give as a gift on Saturday?  You always say that these projects will be quick, but they never are."

I looked back at him.  "I'll finish it.  Don't worry.  It will be easy."

One day, I'll start to listen the the Voice of Reason that doubles as my husband and save myself a lot of trouble.  Unfortunately for the children and Brandon, Friday wasn't that day.

By the time I sent Kathleen off to fix lunch for her siblings (this will be great!  We'll eat it by the light of the moon!) and only had a head and two legs stuffed, I knew that I was in trouble and that Brandon was right.  Again.  But I also knew that it was too late to stop now, and I just had a little more of the hard stuff left before it was all downhill from there and it would waiting for Brandon when he came home.

And it was - just in its underwear.

Saturday morning started a little late and so I didn't start on the dress until 10:30.  A few minutes later, Brandon came downstairs.  "It's 2:00.  We'd better get ready to go."  Thankfully I only had a few snaps left to sew on or the doll would just have to live out the rest of it's life without anything but some underwear to keep it warm.

And just in case any of you have three year-old daughters, don't get any ideas.  I'm doing aprons from now on.  Probably.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

It's Time for a Me-Day

Thursday morning I kissed the children, gave Asli instructions about lunch and naps (um, give them some lunch, and then naps, okay?), and stepped out of the front door.  I closed the heavy door on the sounds of children wailing, shouting good-bye, and quarreling, clicked the lock shut, and got into my car and drove away all by myself.

My life is mostly home-centered.  I school the children four days a week.  We hardly ever go to play-dates.  I run errands once a week.  My gym is standing right next to the computer I'm writing at.  Nobody goes to pre-school, we only go to the park on Saturdays, and we haven't gone to the library in months.

So I stay home a lot.  Which is perfectly fine with me - I like our house, I enjoy spending time with my children, and going somewhere else is just too much work for me.

But every now and then I have a Me-Day.  Thursday was a Me-Day, so I dressed up in clothes not suited to chasing children up and down three stories' stairs, blow-dried my hair, put on earrings that wouldn't be pulled out by Joseph, and even put on makeup.  By a little after ten I was at a friend's house for the monthly spouse's coffee.  I chatted with friends about Brandon's bid list, met a new addition to the mission, ate blueberry muffins, and never once had to put anyone's underwear on.

After the coffee, I went and got my hair cut and straightened.  While I was waiting for all sorts of foul-smelling chemicals to do very unhealthy things to my hair, I perused Elle and learned that white is now in along with very expensive dresses.  I chatted about living overseas and didn't once tell anyone to stop talking and eat their lunch.

I finished around three and drove through the Baku drizzle to home where I was greeted by cheering children (I'm really not kidding.  I guess they do say that absence make the heart grow fonder) and dinner, cooked by Asli.  We had dinner at five, after which I put Joseph to bed and sent everyone else upstairs to watch a movie until Brandon came home to put them to bed.  And then I set to altering a bag dress I had foolishly bought three weeks after Edwin's birth.  Around seven Kathleen came downstairs to give me a kiss and then went back upstairs when Brandon called her.  And when I was done, I went to bed.

Some days in my life are pretty crazy.  Most day have at least a few instances of crazy.  That's what happens when you stay home all day with four children.  These days aren't bad, but they definitely take a lot of work and patience and love to run smoothly.  So when I get the chance every now and then to have a Me-Day, I take it.

Often I think of my friends who don't have an Asli to feed their children, watch their children, and make dinner, and feel guilty.  Maybe I'm really not able to hack it in the Real World where people have to do horrific things like scrub their own toilets and take all of their chilren to the grocery store.  My sister in law is almost finished with eleven years of undergrad, medical school, and residency with four, then five, now six children in tow to single parent while her husband studied all hours of the night.  Could I do that?

Maybe I could, maybe I couldn't.  Right now, however, I don't have to.  Instead I get Me-Days.  After all, what's the good of living in a place with no Target or public libraries if you can't take advantage of the benefits every now and then?

Sunday, February 3, 2013

One child is not like the other

I taught Kathleen to read when she was three.  Now before any of you start thinking I'm one of those overachieving parents who teach their babies sign language, in Chinese, while doing yoga together, I'm not.  I'm just lazy.

I have four children, all born within five years, so I'm a very busy mother.  Worse than that, however, I planned to have four children close together, so not only am I busy, but I'm obviously a little bit... shall we say... insane.  Since I knew I was going to be in for a whole lot of crazy for quite awhile (although there was no possible way to grasp the nature or degree of crazy I was getting myself in for), I decided it would be a good idea to formulate and adopt a parenting style that was going to work with the endless chaos of small children all around me all day long.

I like to call it the Lazy Parent style of parenting.  There are two guiding principles: 1. Take a nap every single day.  2. Teach my children how to be self-sufficient as soon as humanly possible.

Which is why Kathleen got reading lessons at the tender age of three.  I had no interest in her being some kind of wunderkind who would make me look good as a parent and shame everyone else, I just wanted her to quit asking me to read books and instead read books to herself and Sophia.  See?  Lazy Parenting.  A little bit of effort in exchange for never having to read Bill and Pete again.

And behold - it worked.

Kathleen took to reading without any difficulty at all, finishing the reading text we were using in less than six months.  I started teaching her when she was three and a half, and Grandma gave her some Amelia Bedelia books for her fourth birthday, books she snuck away from her birthday party to read - and read all of them in one sitting.  The only problem with teaching her to read, however, is now we have to take her books away so she will go to sleep.

Teaching Kathleen worked so well that I started teaching Sophia a few weeks after she turned three.  "Great," I thought, "she'll be reading even earlier and that's two children who can amuse themselves indefinitely."  And so I started teaching her the alphabet.  

That worked well, mostly, and Sophia was about halfway through the alphabet when we moved.  I tried to pick things back up in Virginia, but between preparing to move here and having Joseph, school definitely was not my top priority.  

So when we had settled down after a month or so here, I pulled out the school books and started reading lessons again.  I wasn't too worried about starting a little later with Sophia - after all she had three or four months until her birthday, and did it really matter if she was proficiently reading a little after four?

And now all of you with older children can laugh at me.  Because you know in reality what I only knew in theory - one child is not like the other.  Of course I knew that in the little things - Sophia loves to dress up and Kathleen loves horses, Sophia cuddles more than Kathleen, Sophia started walking much later than Kathleen.  But I didn't realize that two children coming from the same home environment with pretty equal exposure to the same things can learn so differently.

I have now been teaching Sophia to read for almost a year, very consistently, and she is now finally able to read short vowel sentences with some help from me.  Despite the fact that she has read the word 'and' several hundred times, she still has to sound it out every single time.  She still can't quite tell the difference between 'b' and 'd' and sometimes mixes 'a' and 'p' up.  We have finally made it to the point where she doesn't cry any more during the lessons.  Mostly.

Before I became a parent, I was sure I could game the system.  "Yeah," I thought smugly to myself, "some people have children that struggle with things.  But not my children.  Because they'll be my children and I'll teach them better than that."  And as an added trump card, I was going to homeschool which meant of course they would all be good at everything they did.  Because I was the one teaching them, of course.

Pause for laughter to subside.

It's funny how when you are young and inexperienced and you watch other people go through difficult things that you aren't going through.  You think that boy it sure is good that you are much more virtuous and so won't have any troubles because you are just so good.

There's nothing like parenting to realize that you are just as much a member of the masses as everyone else and you get your share of troubles just like everyone else does.  Because each child you have is an individual.  And even with all of the best parenting practices you can muster, it doesn't change that fact.  Despite the fact that you feed them exotic foods as much as possible, one might love new and exciting food, and one might only ever want peanut butter and jelly every single meal for the rest of their life.  

But that's the great thing about parenting - each child is different.  One loves to cuddle and the other gives great hugs.  This one gives you kisses all of the time and that one tells you non-stop that they love you.  One thinks that peek-a-boo is the best thing in the world and the other prefers tickles to kisses.  Each one is unique, each one brings something different to the family.

And so, Sophia and I continue the reading lessons every day.  I try not to get frustrated because she's not like her sister, and she tries hard to sound out 'and' one more time and forgive me when I do get frustrated.  One day, when she's written a Pulitzer-prize winning novel (those prizes are for novels, right?), we'll look back and remember the rocky start she had and laugh together.  And maybe she'll be kind enough to forgive me for thinking that all children are the same.