The views expressed in this blog are personal and not representative of the U.S. Government, etc etc etc.
Read at your own risk.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Our Evil Plan is Working

This evening I took the children on a walk around the neighborhood.  Theoretically Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest, but around here life gets a little crazy by four or five o'clock and I'm not feeling very restful, and the kids are feeling more restless than anything.  I suppose when your day consists of getting ready for church, going to church, cooking dinner and then eating it, maybe you're ready to go a little stir-crazy by the end too.  By five-thirty everyone was making just a little too much noise for being inside, so out we went.

Luckily we live in a neighborhood with deserted streets (we didn't have a single car pass us the entire time) perfect for walking in, so we walked.  There are two sections that have been under construction since we moved here that we'll periodically visit for updates, looking for some kind of entertainment (Oh look!  They finally put the windows in that house!).

This time we discovered a blobby-shaped concrete pad covered in astroturf, newly laid.  I have no idea what its final purpose is, but to children finishing a long, boring Sunday it looked like heaven.  Kathleen and Sophia ran up and down, prancing horses in a green pasture.  Edwin somersaulted in a long line, loop after loop after loop.  Joseph kicked off his flip-flops and ran circles around his siblings.  The girls started racing.  Edwin joined in.  Joseph wandered over and all four joined hands to run up and down the length of their new green wonderland.  I sat and watched them in the evening sun.

Sometimes I've wondered if having four children in five years was such a good idea as it seemed on paper (yes! It was all planned).  There are days when just about everyone in the house seems to spend the majority of the day yelling, screaming, whining, and crying.  Or the weeks when four children pass sicknesses off to each other like they're running a relay race.  Sometimes I don't get dinner until it's cold because everyone else needs help with cutting/scooping/serving/eating their dinners.  Life is generally pretty busy with so many bodies to contain.

But, even though our plan didn't truly take into account the craziness it would bring, it really did have a purpose.  And that was to give everyone a friend and have everyone close enough to play together through the decades of moves to new countries and new homes and new friends and new problems.

Up until recently, this plan hadn't been in place long enough to see complete results.  Sophia and Kathleen have been friends for some time now, but Edwin has only recently been behaved enough to be occasionally admitted, and Joseph has just been the baby.  I realized just recently, however, that Joseph is almost two and is getting pretty close to the end of being a baby.

This evening, if only a short, golden evening on the brilliant green of astroturf, the plan worked.  Kathleen, Sophia, Edwin, and Joseph laughed and shouted as they ran back and forth and back and forth across their new domain, hands linked like paper dolls.

As I watched them, I thought of all of the arguments against larger families - so much work, no time for yourself, no individual time for each child, too much money, too many years of your life sucked away - and laughed.  Yes, yes of course all of those are true.  They always have been and I would never deny that all of those things have an impact on my life.

But how could you compare that - money, time, a few extra years you won't need when you're dead anyway - to watching four little people that are attached to you forever, will always and forever have started with you, will grow up to be four people with lives full of meaning and more little people, run together on a quiet Sunday evening, full of joy in the way only little children can be?  I don't think I could trade anything for that.

And so, when people smile when they hear the ages or count the heads, and comment that my I have my hands full, I smile back and say yes, yes I do.  Some days they're full with aggravation.  But others are days when they're full of joy.  And those will be the days I will choose to remember when I'm old and tired and the sun has finished setting.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Moral Superiority is For the Dogs

A month ago my housekeeper quit.  We got home from our R&R Saturday night at eleven o'clock.  Sunday afternoon Brandon rolled over in bed and asked me if I had heard the doorbell ringing.  I hadn't heard it ring, but since it was three o'clock, I figured it was probably time to get up and feed everyone breakfast/lunch/early dinner.

As I stumbled down the front stairs lugging Joseph, my phone rang.  It was Asli, my housekeeper and she needed to 'talk about schedules' with me.  She was waiting outside.  I crawled over piles of luggage abandoned the night before in our front entryway to open the door and usher her in.  'You see,' she started in.  I knew where this was going.  'My daughter is in the hospital.  I can't work for you anymore starting tomorrow.  But my sister,' she waved to an unknown woman tagging along, 'is happy to work for you.'

I think maybe the door might have hit one of them on the butt as I hustled them out.

Sometimes I wish that people would just be honest and say 'I don't like working for you.  I think you're crazy and I hate your children.  I'm quitting.' instead of making up the same tired lie about a family member being in the hospital.

The truth is that Asli had been driving me crazy for quite a long time.  She had an amazing talent at hiding things in completely irrational places - camera chargers in toy bins, my hair product in the girls' jewelry drawer, nail clippers in the silverware drawer - because she was too lazy to put them up in the right places.  Her cooking declined steadily after she realized that I didn't care what she cooked until it was so bad that even Brandon started protesting.  I was always happy to see her go, even if it meant paying her until five and letting her leave at two.

But, the devil you know is always better than the devil you don't know, especially when you're leaving in less than five months.

I've now had three housekeepers quit/leave town on me.  I'm tired of having to train someone new and try to ignore their personal deficiencies (the housekeeper before Asli was incredibly slow), and so, I thought, maybe wouldn't it be just easier (and cheaper!) to just clean the house with the girls instead?  After all, lots of people in America clean their houses all by themselves and haven't died of overwork yet.

So I decided that I could be Super Housewife and do it all.  The first week started out okay.  On Tuesday I washed the laundry, split the folding with the girls, went to the grocery store with all four of the children, and put all of the laundry away.  And I made dinner.  All on four hours of sleep (thank you Unisom).  Because I'm awesome.

Wednesday, after finally getting a good night's sleep, the girls and I tackled the third floor.  Two hours later it was clean.  Hooray for our side!

Thursday I vacuumed all of the carpets and mopped all of the floors on the second floor while the girls cleaned all three bathrooms.  Really, cleaning isn't that bad.  How was I so scared of cleaning my own house?

Friday we were supposed to clean the bottom floor with the dreaded kitchen.  I hate cleaning kitchens.  So many things to scrub and wipe and keep track of.  So instead we went to the grocery store - all of us - again.  And I made home made pizza.  The kitchen wasn't that dirty anyway.

Monday it started again with the top floor and laundry.  At 8:30, I had finally finished cleaning up after dinner and realized something profoundly unsettling - I couldn't handle life, or at least all of it.

I could handle teaching school without anyone watching the boys.  I could handle doing all of my own laundry.  I could handle doing the ironing.  I could handle taking all of the children to the grocery store where we trailed cooing Azeri employees around the store.  I could even handle cooking my own dinner every night.  But I just couldn't handle doing all of those things and cleaning my house too.  Sadly, I wasn't even doing most of the cleaning - the girls were - and I still couldn't handle it.

But even worse than that, I realized after thinking more about my life, I actually could handle the management of cleaning my own house, I just didn't want to.  I didn't want to do it, and so I caved and called a friend whose housekeeper has a free day.  I'm still ashamed and try to think of valid excuses other than 'I'm too lazy' and even more ashamed that I try to come up with excuses instead of admitting that I'm plain old lazy and spoiled.

So, that's my brief foray into moral superiority.  It didn't last long.  I guess the warm glow just doesn't make up for every day reality.  Sigh.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

How to Buy a Car While Living Overseas

Did I ever tell you the story where Brandon and I bought a car this summer?  I didn't think so.

Up until two months ago in our entire lives Brandon and I, combined, have owned two cars.  When I was a sophomore in college, my parents helped me buy a silver 1996 Honda Civic.  The original plan was to buy a Prelude, but we couldn't find any over the summer, and so I grudgingly bought the Civic instead.  My parents insisted I would be happier in the long run since I'd probably put carseats in the back eventually and I knew they were right.  But that's why I didn't want a responsible car - I knew the next car I owned would be a minivan.

Which was almost true - it was an SUV - but only because we were moving to Baku and didn't think a minivan could make it here.  The Civic lasted eight years - from 2001 until we moved to Cairo in 2009.  Then we were without a car for two years until I bought our Honda Pilot, sight unseen with a check, the day before driving up to DC to set up temporary living during the Great NEA Evacuation of 2011, or the Arab Spring.

So that's it.  Eight and a half years of marriage.  Thirty-three years combined driving experience.  Two cars.  I guess we're boring, cheap, or very utilitarian.  It probably helps that we both come from families that drive cars into the ground before buying another used car to drive into the ground (or crash).


Brandon's in the Foreign Service, and he's a political officer (who favors posts to strange countries that speak obscure languages) and that means that we're pretty much guaranteed to spend at least nine months in between each posting in language training.  With training that long, we could choose to permanently relocate to DC and have our car and things shipped back to DC, but that means we'd have to pay for housing.  And I'm cheap.  So instead we're TDY (temporary duty) for nine months which means we get 900 pounds of stuff.  Period.  But in exchange, our housing is paid for.  And in the DC area, that's nothing to sniff at.  So we deal.

However, the housing doesn't include a car and so we have to figure something out.  We considered ZipCars (they don't generally come with six seats), renting a car (have you ever tried to rent a minivan for nine months?), going without (grocery shopping would get kind of tricky, and church isn't a walkable distance), renting a car just on the weekend (but no weekday library trips! and have you ever been to the Pentagon City Costco on a Saturday?), and just buying a car and selling it nine months later.

Obviously we decided to buy a car.  We all have our luxuries that we can't live without - a particular American product, some personal service, or a favorite TV show - and mine is mobility.  I don't like being trapped in a three-bedroom apartment (yes! three! for nine months!) with four children and no way to go and see all of the zoos and museums and parks and libraries and Target and Costco and friends and family that I can cram into a nine-month period.  So yes, not the cheapest option, but in the end, the one that works best with my personal sanity.  We all pay for that in some way or another.

This spring when I started looking into flight schedules and car rentals, I was shocked by the prices I found.  We're big enough that we have to rent a minivan, and our flight schedules involved flying into one small airport and out of a big one or the other way around and it all ended up looking very expensive - about $1500.  So I started thinking.  What if we just bought the car we were going to buy in January six months early?  We could pick it up in North Carolina, drive it to Missouri and see various family members and then leave it at Brandon's parents' house until we needed it for home leave.  Six months of car insurance and gas for driving was going to be cheaper than the rental - and then we could have a car for home leave.

I talked to Brandon and he agreed that it sounded like a reasonable plan so I emailed my car guy, Jef.  When I suddenly found myself in the US and in need of a car to take to DC, he came through with our Pilot that has been great.  My sister had used his service to buy her car, and so I knew that when he said the car was in good condition, it would be.  He did all of the taxes, tags, and registration and mailed my permanent plate to our Oakwood apartment.  All I had to do was hand him a check.  I didn't even test drive the car first.

I emailed him in April.  We wanted an Odyssey or Sienna, within a certain price range, with leather seats.  We were coming into Raleigh on August 2.  Could he do that?  Of course!  Within a month he had a car that looked like a good deal, so we sent him a check.  The week we left on R&R I sent him our flight information.

My parents are in Peru for three years and so when we landed in the Raleigh airport after almost 24 hours of traveling, we had no welcome crew.  Instead we staggered down to the baggage claim, corralled our two suitcases, one duffel, and two carseats and looked around for Jef.  He wasn't at the baggage claim, so Brandon went outside to look for him, presumably in a Sienna.  As Brandon headed for the doors he turned to shout back "What color is it?"

"What color is what?" I shouted back, too tired to care if half the baggage claim could hear me.

"The car!!" Brandon gestured wildly.

I thought for a minute and guiltily shrugged with a smile.  "Um, I forgot to ask!"

I could see his shoulders hunch in a sigh as he continued out the door.  Who would forget to ask the color of their new, check-has-cashed, car?

I nervously waited with the children, hoping that my plan that connected the dots starting with transportation picking us up out our house at 1:30 AM Baku time to getting to the airport, making our connections through Frankfurt and DC, and finally being picked up by Jef, who had never confirmed getting our flight plans, to be driven to the Days' Inn to finally crash-land, would work out.  There really were a lot of dots to connect.

Five minutes later Brandon returned without his back-pack, and I let the knot in my stomach go as the last dot got connected.

"It's gold," he told me as he hefted a suitcase-duffel-carseat combination in one hand and Joseph in the other, "your new car is gold."

I've never liked gold too much.  Oh well.  It won't be ours very long.

We loaded the bags in the car, strapped in carseats, strapped children in carseats, and followed Jef to the Days' Inn a few miles down the road.  We pulled in and Jef pulled out a stack of papers to sign.  Brandon signed while I kept Joseph from picking cigarette butts out of the trash and Sophia from crawling under bushes.  Brandon finished signing.  Jef explained some things.  He handed over the keys.  And then we had another car.

So, for the first time in our marriage, Brandon and I are a two-car family.  I suppose it's not a normal arrangement - each car on a different continent.  But hey, who said we were ever normal?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Sick Week(s)

Our family doesn't get sick very often.  Every now and then a few of the children might pass around a cold, or I might get struck down after eating out (but, for some unknown reason, never Brandon.  He claims moral superiority), but for the most part we've avoided any major disasters.  I think homeschooling might have something to do with it (less access to germ-of-the-week), but mostly I'm just grateful.  I hate vomit.  A lot.

However, nobody avoids being sick forever, and this past week and a half has been our turn.  Kathleen started off the fun two Saturdays ago, waking up with fever and other toilet-intensive issues.  She stuck close to her bed for a few days and was reasonably recovered by Monday.  Not that bad, I thought.  But I hope she doesn't share.

By Tuesday afternoon, I was stuck in bed with Joseph.  Brandon had to come home from work and make dinner while I lounged in my bed of pain.  The next day school was cancelled, but I did manage pancakes for dinner.  Thursday was a no-school day, too.  By then I was trying really hard to feel guilty about abandoning my schol responsibilities, but I was just too tired and sick to care.  Because did I mention that Joseph was sick too?  And he has a tendency to need lots of diaper changes in the middle of the night.  I finished recovering Sunday, but we were still up last night changing diapers.

Right on schedule, Sophia got ill Saturday night.  I stayed home from church with her Sunday, but left her with a movie to go next door for a branch pot-luck.  It's really nice to have church next door.

Last night about midnight, Edwin's high voice outside my door woke me up.  "Dad, I have a problem.  Dad, I have a problem.  Dad, I have a problem."  I stumbled out of my room and followed him into his to look for the disaster.  He apologetically gestured to his sheets (and pillow and blankets), which I gathered up and stuck in the wash after plopping him on the toilet.  

Brandon hunted up some pull-ups and helped me put new bedding on.  With a parting discussion about passing gas vs. going to the the bathroom, we crawled back into bed.  Brandon had fallen back asleep and I was on the edge when Edwin's voice returned.  This time he had gotten the carpet, and only after inspecting his shorts we realized that the problem was coming out of the other end.  So new sheets and back to bed - with a bowl.

At 1:30 Joseph woke up screaming to tell us he needed a diaper change.

So today I've been hanging out with Edwin and school has been called off again.  After having dealt with a sick seven year-old, five year-old, three year-old, and one year-old, I think I can say I prefer the three year-old the least.  He's potty trained, but I don't quite trust him, and he'd rather have my company and a movie.

Brandon's the last man standing.  He claims he won't get sick.  But we'll see.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

And We're Back!

Actually, we got back two weeks ago.  But the combination of jet lag (one memorable night I didn't sleep until the Unisom kicked in at 4:30), internet problems, wrestling life back into its normal schedule, and having no housekeeper has kept me from posting.

Just in case you were wondering, we survived our R&R.  We even had seats assigned that didn't leave any children in the care of strangers, except once, and Kathleen was in heaven having an adult pay attention to her chatter for the entire flight.  Every time we fly the children are older and the flights get easier, thank heaven.

The R&R was great, and we managed to see three of my siblings, including my brother Mike who I haven't seen in three years, two of Brandon's siblings, Brandon's parents, all of the kids' cousins on my side, all but three of the cousins on Brandon's side, and a handful of second cousins thrown in for extra fun.

We started out in North Carolina at the beach.

Then in a moment of insanity we thought that we should drive our new car from the NC coast to St. Louis in one day.  We made it, but when the boys started screaming to relieve the boredom from nine hours of driving and we still had seven hours left in the car, I swore I'd never do it again.  

We stayed the night and caught up with Brandon's sister and brother-in-law and their five children before heading to Hannibal to see some more cousins and Brandon's brother and his wife.

One afternoon we visited Nauvoo and got to see rope-making, baking, pottery, weaving, blacksmithing, and various other demonstrations.  The girls decided that dressing up was the best.

Then we headed west to Brandon's parents' house for more cousins, lots of tasty sweet corn, trampoline-jumping, and cow-watching.  

We celebrated Kathleen's seventh birthday with a pizza party 

and a visit to the zoo.

So now it's back to normal life until January.  When I get asked about the difficulties of living overseas, I shrug off the usual ones because life is generally composed of the same actions regardless of location - cooking, cleaning, taking care of children, spending time with friends, going to work.  It's being separated from family that is the worst.  We only have three weeks each summer to cram all of the family fun we can and then we have a drought until the next year.  And I think each year it's a little harder.  Sophia was nearly in tears this week because she couldn't understand why Brandon wasn't going to move us all to Jacksonville so she could be near her cousins.  

But, such is the nature of life and the choices we have to make.  I'm looking forward to next summer already.