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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Celebrating Christmas

Last year was not a good year for Christmas in the Sherwood family.  Living out of suitcases in a temporary house for five weeks ended on Christmas day when we moved into our permanent house.  We borrowed a tree from one of Brandon's (very, very kind) colleagues and made the best we could of the season.  But it wasn't very festive.

This year, Brandon vowed to celebrate Christmas so much he'd be happy to take down the tree and turn off the music on December 26th.

We started the Saturday after Thanksgiving.  We pulled out all of our Christmas decorations, loaded up the iPod with all fifteen of our Christmas CDs, and finished the day with White Christmas and peppermint hot chocolate.

In church the next day, we started singing Christmas hymns.  There are never enough Sundays between Thanksgiving and Christmas to sing all of the songs you want to.

The next Monday evening we made snowflakes and drank more hot chocolate.  Because you can never have enough hot chocolate.

On Saturday we went to our first holiday party.  I took my very favorite Christmas cookies, peppermint chocolate cookies.  Because, peppermint.  You can never get enough of that at Christmas.  And of course chocolate.  Because that's for all seasons.

The next Monday we made wrapping paper.  Brandon and I cut out potato stamps while the children eagerly and impatiently watched - I keep thinking that next year will be the year I'll hand over the Xacto blade and not care about the poor design quality - and then let them loose.  And after they went to bed, I made my own tastefully designed sheet.

The next Saturday we invited everyone over for a caroling party.  And we had hot chocolate.  Again.                                       

In church we watched the First Presidency Christmas Devotional and some of the children thought that they were going to die of Mormon Tabernacle Choir overdose.  I enjoyed it.

The next Monday we all enjoyed Mr. Krueger's Christmas, just in case people still felt a need for more MoTab, and drank the hot chocolate left over from Saturday's party.  Christmas, brought to you by hot chocolate.

And on Saturday we enjoyed our final Christmas party, a section party hosted by Brandon's boss.  The children enjoyed a visit from Ded Moroz and his helper, Snegurochka.  They got to howl for his arrival, circle the Christmas tree, chant for it to light up, and sing a song to receive their treat bag.  I'll now be unimpressed with Santa Claus forever.  All he does is sit in a comfy chair and ask about presents.  

Sunday, after having our church Christmas program, we made our yearly gingerbread house, a highlight of the children's Christmas celebrations.  The girls and Edwin are finally old enough to enjoy sticking candy on every single surface that I'll consent to squirt icing on, but Joseph (and now Eleanor) don't care for anything but stuffing every piece of candy they can find into their sticky faces.  

For our final Christmas Family Home Evening, we watched Muppets Christmas Carol and ate schawermas.  But no hot chocolate.

And tonight we'll have some friends over for Christmas Eve dinner and singing.  Then it will finally be Christmas.  

I used to worry that all of the fun things we do for Christmas were somehow wrong, distracting us from our worship of Christ.  But I've made my own peace, creating a place where gingerbread houses and the creator of the universe can coexist.  I can have fun with my children and enjoy the company of friends because of Christ's birth over 2,000 years ago.  The gift of his birth and life is not something to be admired and revered from afar, like that crystal vase your grandmother passed to you, the one that never can actually be used for anything because it is so precious.  The gift that he has given us - the ability to come here and have family and friends and fun and gifts and gingerbread houses - is one to be used every day to its fullest.  We can make snowflakes and think of the beauty that Christ gave us in everything, even snowflakes that we can barely see.  Our gifts to each other remind us of Christ's gift to us.  Our time with friends fills us with the love that Christ has for all of His brothers and sisters.  

And so we can pack up the tree this year, knowing that we have enjoyed the Christmas season this year to the fullest.  We will go on into the New Year, freshly reminded of the gifts we have been given.  And when Christmas comes around again next year, we can do it all again.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Happy Birthday, Edwin!

Edwin turned six last week.  I find this kind of amazing, that my third child is six now.  There is a qualitative difference between five and six.  Clothes aren't from the toddler section any more.  School is a full-time, state mandated affair.  It takes two hands to show how old you are.

Kathleen turned six when we were in Baku and it seemed like it had taken absolutely forever for her to get so amazingly big.  And then Edwin turned six, almost behind my back.  I remember my uncle telling me, as we both gazed at three week-old Kathleen asleep in her carseat, that you're holding a tiny little baby and then the next thing you know they're going off to college.  I'm starting to feel that with my own children, even if college is almost a decade away.

For Edwin's birthday we took him to a local play place - this time with indoor bumper cars! - and got fried chicken before coming home for coconut cake and presents.  His fondest wish was to go up into the mountains to play in the snow, but we had a busy day and so had to stay around town.

We've had a rough time with Edwin - no matter what anyone tries to tell you boys and girls are not the same - but he has really become a pleasant part of our family.  If you ask him right, he's happy to help and will talk your ear off about the largest airplanes that anyone could imagine.  He and Joseph will spend a good amount of time playing together every day, coming up with creative ways to make a whole lot of noise.  If he decides that he is going to do something, he does it and won't give up until it's done.  And he adores his little sister.

Happy Birthday, Edwin!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Caroling, Caroling Now We Go

Last Saturday I hosted my very first embassy party.  Dushanbe is a small enough embassy that pretty much every party is an open invitation party, which is something that I really enjoy.  Everybody is in the cool crowd because there aren't enough people to support two different crowds.

I lured guests with the promise of home made doughnuts, cider, and hot chocolate.  Maybe this wouldn't have worked in a country where those things are plentiful, but it works pretty well here.  You don't have to like me to like my doughnuts.

I had a fun time decorating the house, perusing the internet for weeks looking for anything that could be pulled together from local ingredients.  A few days before the party, I struck gold at a store that resells Ikea products and was able to find both red Christmas ornaments and votive candle holders.

The morning of the party we took a quick trip to the local park and... pruned... the local evergreens and took the prunings home to decorate the house.

Everyone finished off four and a half of the six dozen doughnuts I had made and drank a gallon and a half each of cider and hot chocolate before we settled down to get some caroling done.

Some of the songs went well, some better, and some just really, really long.  But all of the them were enjoyed and sung with gusto.

One of my favorite, favorite parts of the Foreign Service is being part of a strong, close community of people that I come to know and love.  We gather for birthday parties and barbecues, by the pool and around the Christmas tree.  We all know that in a few years the friends we sung all the verses of "We Three Kings of Orient Are" will be scattered across the world, never able to gather together again for a reprise.  But when we are together, we are family.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Snow Day

Dushanbe is not a very cold city.  Everyone here desperately hates winter, counting down the days until spring as soon as the temperatures start dipping below fifty degrees.  But it isn't because winter is particularly long, or even cold, it's because of bad housing and spotty electricity.  When your concrete block house with no insulation doesn't have power to run your few poor radiators, winter is a pretty rough time.

 We've had a nice fall, with the temperatures only dropping into the fifties in November.  Last week I shut off all of the radiators in the house because we were dying of heat - when it's 65 degrees and sunny, you only need a little heat, not ALL of it.

Then it got cold.  And then it started raining.  And then it got colder. told me that we would get some snow, about 1-3 inches on Thursday and 1-3 inches that night.  I shouldn't really be taking an American weather website as reliable anyway, and when the children and I went out Thursday afternoon in six inches of snow, I was reminded of that fact.

Luckily we have a park less than a quarter mile from our house, which makes for perfect snow playing when everyone else is huddling inside or hurrying home to huddle and get away from that nasty white stuff.

Most of the children had a great time making snow angels, sliding down hills, and making (and then breaking) several snowmen.  Eleanor was unimpressed, but most 19 month-olds are unimpressed with most new experiences.  We only bring her along because she can't be left alone in the house.

Dushanbe doesn't usually get snow until January, so it's started early this year.  Last year was pretty mild, so we'll have to see how this one goes.  But if it snows, we'll have a great time playing in it.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Christmas Shopping

I need (maybe need is a strong word) more Christmas decorations. When we pulled out our Christmas decorations from their two year-old mover's wrap this year, I realized (again) that we just don't have enough decorations to fill the large houses we end up in. I'm not much of a decorator because that would require spending time actually shopping for something that's simply there for atmospherics.

I got religion back in October and ordered two (two!) ten-foot long decorated garlands to hang on our enormous dark brown-painted staircase and did some serious searching for glass ball ornaments, but in the end the selection overwhelmed me and I didn't commit in time for anything to get here before January.  Such is life when you don't have a Target.  Somehow it's a whole lot easier to fill your shopping cart when the actual items are sitting on a shelf just waiting for you to drop them in.  I don't know how many thousands of dollars of stuff has never been bought because I never got the gumption up to enter my credit card number (which I have memorized, sadly) in the check-out form. Brandon claims this is a good thing.

I resigned myself to a rather bare-looking Christmas living room for yet another year and made solemn promises to at least replace the three fourteen year-old light strings that gave up the ghost this season and then practiced admiring our Christmas tree and stockings.

Then we decided to host a caroling party.  And, of course, there's nothing like the thought of guests to inspire one's latent decorating urge.

Thankfully, we are in a post-Soviet Muslim country instead of a regular Muslim country and everyone here celebrates New Year's in a way that looks suspiciously similar to Christmas, complete with trees and decorations.

So Saturday morning found all seven of us in the car right after eight o'clock for a quick trip to the large bazaar south of town with 'everything' you could ever need.  I had spent some time in Baku shopping in a bazaar of the same idea, so I knew we needed to get an early start to have even a prayer for a parking spot.  Most places in Dushanbe have decent parking - i.e. parking on the street - but this place, according to the Google Maps satellite image did not.

The scrum started in early, as it always does in these sorts of places, and when I spotted an open slot on the very edge of the sextuple-parked car mass, Brandon pulled over and gladly paid the three somoni (fifty cent) parking fee to the official looking man strolling around.  I strapped on Eleanor, got the children in order, and we all started started hiking.  All Soviet bazaars are organized on the same principle - rows and aisles of ten foot-wide stalls selling pretty much the same thing as their neighbors.  The stalls are organically organized into sections that morph into each other, and the only way to find something like, say, the fabric section is to 1. ask someone or 2. wander around until your find it.

We were on a tight schedule - birthday party at eleven - and so I nagged Brandon until he decided to attempt strategy number one.  "You want aisle number ten," the first man assured us, "that's where the New Year's decorations are."  We all turned around and hiked through Saturday morning shoppers, cart-men, tea-sellers, and piles of trash to the other end of the market.  Nothing but fabric.  We turned right and made it to the other corner and found fancy dresses and shoes, but no Christmas New Year's decorations.

So, on my insistent advice, Brandon took a survey.  Because if you ask ten people the same question, surely there will be a statistically significant number of similar answers, right?  "Row twenty four." "Across the street at door one." "I don't know." "Door three." "New Year's decorations?  Why would you want those?" "Somewhere over there [vague gesturing]." "Turn around and go back down that aisle.  Follow me."  And, with no other more reasonable options, we followed.

And he was right, but also not right.  We found a smattering of stalls hanging shiny tinsel garlands (so that's where they all went) and displaying glittered masks.  One guy even had several boxes of LED string lights in all colors but white.  But there was no swath of stalls with ball ornaments, white lights, and all of the other things we had braved traffic for forty-five minutes to find.  So we kept looking.  After making our way to construction goods and mens' clothing, Kathleen announced that it was almost ten o'clock.

Image result for Корвон Душанбе

I hadn't put on makeup, dried my hair, or wrapped the birthday boy's gift, so we turned around and headed back to the car.  There aren't convenient light poles (or light poles at all) in these parts of the world, but you can find your car just as well by marking what half-constructed building or fancy-dress store you parked near.  Maybe even easier.

So after easily finding our embarrassingly muddy black Pilot, we loaded everyone back into the car and hastily pulled out so that another driver, giddy with finding such a great spot, could pay his three Somoni to the man in the uniform.  No Christmas ornaments today.

If we had done this three or four years ago, I would have been pretty mad.  We had woken up early, gobbled down our breakfast, and driven to the opposite edge of Dushanbe just to find one thing. Three hours of our Saturday morning were wasted, and there wouldn't be any time next Saturday for attempt number two.  The decorations were there (confirmed sightings had been reported by multiple embassy personnel), we just couldn't find them.  I could sense them, deep in a hidden corner, mocking me with their promise of a stunning and tastefully decorated living room.  Instead I would have to live with what I could scrounge.  Maybe the anemic pine in front of our house could donate for the cause?

But, having looked in vain enough times before, I was just resigned.  Maybe I could make a field trip during the week.  Perhaps I could get some custom-done greenery from that lady at the botanical gardens.  Maybe snowflakes hanging from the chandeliers instead of balls?  Or perhaps everyone could just enjoy singing carols together without a Martha Stewart living room.  The songs would get sung, hot chocolate drunk, and doughnuts eaten either way.  And I saved money.

So those of you with easy Target access, enjoy your easy Christmas decorating.  Think of me when you load up your car with shiny baubles, strings of working lights, and cute Santa statues.  I'm off to go 'borrow' some greenery from my neighbors.  Wish me luck.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Norman Rockwell Moments

Four years ago we bought a piano.  I had grown up with a piano in my house, taking lessons for five years, and wanted my children to learn too.  When the first Christmas came I pulled out our Christmas songs and called everyone over to the piano.  "Let's sing some Christmas songs," I insisted, "it will be fun!"  Scenes from all of the family Christmas movies that ever had people happily joining together around a piano with smiles, harmony, and fuzzy camera lenses paraded through past my eyes as the children reluctantly abandoned the toys and games they had been happily playing at thirty seconds before.

Kathleen was five, Sophia three, Edwin two, and Joseph in bed.  I banged out the first few chords and bravely dove in to "Hark the Herald Angels Sing."  Kathleen, who could read, followed along hesitantly.  Sophia, not yet literate, made it through exactly five words before giving up and sneaking back to her baby doll.  Brandon wrestled Edwin to the couch and sang every ten words or so in between changing holds on Edwin.  

After a few songs I put the piano book away, fuzzy Christmas feelings scattering in the reality of actual family life that involves children, not actors paid to smile in pretend family love.

This past Sunday afternoon we gathered for our Sunday afternoon family game.  We've reached an awkward spread of ages; the girls are old enough to play more complicated games like Clue, Catan Junior, and Enchanted Forest (Brandon hates that game).  The boys only like games that involve destruction and loud noises - Jenga - and those for a maximum of fifteen minutes.  Brandon has his own treasured family visions regarding games, and wants everyone to play together.  

While rummaging around for something everyone could enjoy, Brandon hit upon name that song.  
As Thanksgiving has come and gone and our decorations are up, I suggested playing with Christmas songs.  Brandon worked up a point system - three notes is five points, five notes three - and the first round started.  Sophia stole "Oh Christmas Tree" from Kathleen and then we all sang it together.  Edwin stole "We Three Kings," and Joseph guessed "Jingle Bells" on his own.  

After each song everyone gathered around the tree, enthusiastically singing the words they knew and making up the ones they didn't.   We sang as the Christmas lights glowed softly next to the piano, bringing thirty-three Christmases' magic to the room.  We all sang songs of Christ's birth, gathered together in our family, one of the countless families that His coming brought eternity to.  

Eventually the boys wandered off and we finished with "Silent Night" before finishing off the last pumpkin pie for dinner/dessert (pumpkin is a vegetable) and regular life started again.  Joseph smacked Edwin with an improvised sword.  Eleanor dumped her milk on the floor.  Kathleen refused to give a toy back that she had stolen.  Everyone got sent to bed sooner than was strictly necessary.

Children are a lot of work, much much much more work than pleasure.  They come into the world helpless and clueless and parents have the daunting task of turning them into people that will be capable of rearing children of their own.  This work is good and necessary - without it everything in the world would stop in a very short time.  But it isn't exactly sitting on a beach in Tahiti.  Then again, nothing that is worth anything is sitting on a beach in Tahiti.  Brandon hated the quote hanging on his parent's wall by Goethe, "It is not doing the things we like to do, but liking the thing we have to do that makes life blessed."

But every now and then, those brief moments come that give us a glimpse into eternity, together as a family.  Everyone is in harmony, working or singing or playing together, and the world in that moment, in that small space, is perfect.  I am more than myself, Brandon and I are more than a couple, and all of the work and worry and long nights and frustrating times are paid off in the one perfect moment where we are a family.  Those moments come rarely, and their rarity brings infinite value to them.  When I think of an eternity with my family, the thing that is most precious to me in the world, I would trade literally anything for that.  I will change diapers, I will wipe noses, I will dry tears, I will wash dishes, I will stay up nights, I will break up fights, I will clean up vomit, and I will probably never take that vacation in Tahiti.  Nothing is too dear to give up.

This, of course, is hard to remember in the middle of fights happening while dishes have to be washed with a pause to change diapers.  It's always easy to see the goal on the straightaways; it's the curves that life throws you that make it hard to see there from here.  But in those times I can remember our perfect Sunday evening of love, Christmas, and singing.  And I will keep traveling down that road.  Because the end is worth it.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Dream Come True

When I was a child, my parents never washed Sunday dinner dishes.  After filling up on pot roast, mashed potatoes, jello, and rolls, they would inevitably stretch their arms, pull an enormous yawn and announce, "We're going to go take a nap.  Get the dishes done and Don't. Wake. Us. Up.  See you in a couple of hours."

I've often thought of those Sunday afternoons longingly.  I don't wistfully remember squabbling with my siblings until the dishes jobs got parted out (No, you got to wipe the counters last week.  It's my turn this week!) or taking three hours to finish what my mother could knock out in thirty minutes.  I always thought I lived with unreasonable tyrants who abused their parental monopoly on force.  I deserved some rest on the Sabbath, didn't I?  I had worked hard sitting through church and needed to recover curling up with my favorite book.  Washing dishes wasn't exactly on the program.

Instead, I've thought wistfully on my parent's ability to finish their dinner, clear their plates (maybe) and go take a Sunday afternoon nap.  What a luxury, to have enough time to spend an hour or two on Sunday to nap.  Instead of spending an hour washing the dishes they had just spent the previous two hours getting dirty just in time to hustle the children off to bed, they got to nap while somebody else washed the dishes.  What was that like?

I am here to tell you today that it is wonderful.

I just crawled out of bed from a beautiful, luxurious hour and a half nap.  I didn't wash a single dish, wipe up a single crumb, or sweep up a single dropped pea.  After finishing our turkey pot pie, Brandon announced to the children that we were going to take a nap before marching up the stairs and doing exactly that.

I'm sure the children squabbled about jobs, complained about tyrannical parents, and wondered when the resting part of the Sabbath was going to show up.  But I didn't hear any of it.  I was tucked into my bed, wonderfully unconscious of anything but a full belly, warm bed, and whatever dreams were parading past my closed eyelids.  Even if the children didn't get to rest on the Sabbath, I certainly did.

Thanks, Mom and Dad, for setting a good example!

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Happy Birthday, Joseph!

A few weeks ago Joseph turned four.  I remember when Kathleen turned four.  She was so big; she was able to dress herself, feed herself, use the bathroom by herself, and even get herself ready for bed.

Joseph, at four, is still firmly one of the little kids.  He can feed himself, but prefers to be fed, needs his buttons done up, will wander down the stairs half dressed calling for someone to wipe his bum, and will only get ready for bed with direct supervision.

Such is the difference between your fourth and first child.

For Joseph's birthday this year we celebrated with persimmon cake and presents.  One of the other downsides of being a fourth is the superabundance of toys filling the toy room.  This is good most of the time - more toys to play with - but it translates into the bare minimum of toys received as gifts.  If it weren't for my own fond memories of opening presents on my own birthday I wouldn't even give the children toys anymore.

But I'm not that mean so Joseph gleefully opened up a red toy truck from Brandon and me and a long wooden truck from his grandparents.  The girls, caught up in the excitement of birthday and presents, made Joseph a cardboard box garage to park his trucks in.  Joseph was delighted with everything and even ate some of his cake.  Both trucks went to bed with him that night.

It's very strange to have all but one of my children over three years old, to have four children that can mostly function independently and sometimes do the things that I tell them to do.  Our family is doing some serious thinking about growing up.

I'm grateful to have Joseph in our family; his constant cheerfulness and unfailing friendliness instantly endear him to just about everyone he meets (except his father who is driven nuts by all small children).  He's always happy to give me a hug and kiss and likes to follow me around the house making strange observations in his chirpy little four year-old voice.  I know that one day he will be all grown up and much taller than me.  His chirpy voice will have dropped but he'll probably still make friends with just about everyone he meets.  He will grow older and have four year-olds of his own that drive him just as crazy as he drove his own father.  And I'll laugh and tell him stories from his own childhood.

But for now, he's still little and wants a bedtime story before wrapping his arms around my neck for a tight squeezy hug.  I think I'll keep him.

Happy Birthday, Joseph!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Thanksgiving 2015

The only picture that got taken all day.
This year we hosted Thanksgiving.  Last year we got to to sponge off of someone else's work, milking the we-just-moved-into-the-country-six-days-ago excuse.  We were so new and jet-lagged we didn't even have to bring drinks.

But we've been here for over a year (and had a turkey in the freezer for almost as long) so we had to take our turn to host.  And, as Brandon pointed out, we'll probably never get invited over again because who wants to host a family of seven for Thanksgiving?  That's a whole lot of extra food to make.  

A new LDS family moved to Dushanbe a few weeks ago, so we had all six of them on Thursday.  Half of the other family in our group had gone home early for Christmas, so we had the lonely stragglers for dinner too.  So it was like church, but on a Thursday and without all of the singing.

I've learned from the years of cooking large meals and started cooking on Wednesday.  The children had school, so I turned on an audiobook and spent the whole day making four dozen rolls, stuffing, pie crust, persimmon cake, and brined the turkey.  After finishing school, the girls fed their younger siblings, put them down for naps, and played while I cooked and cooked and cooked.  Cooking is a lot easier when all you have to do is cook.

Thursday Brandon and I cooked two pumpkin pies, made trifle from the persimmon cake, roasted our twenty-two pound turkey, baked the stuffing and rolls, made gravy, and mashed four kilos of potatoes.  The children happily played all morning, set the table, and made place cards for everyone.  When everyone gathered we had two turkeys, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, butternut squash puree, cranberry sauce, rolls, gravy, persimmon trifle, pumpkin pie, and pecan pie.

By the end, everyone was full enough to roll out the door without enough leftovers to provide at least one more meal.  The children had a great time playing together, turning the third floor into an unholy mess that took most of the next morning to clean up.  And, as happens with every Thanksgiving meal that I cook, I made a very firm resolution to keep Christmas dinner simple.

Of all the holidays to spend overseas, Thanksgiving is the hardest for me.  My childhood Thanksgivings were spent with close family, a whole weekend with my favorite cousins riding bikes, exploring the nearby bay, and making fantastic creations.  With thirteen children in the house, the weekend was noisy, chaotic, and wonderful.  I will never forget those Thanksgivings.  

I'm grateful to have friends here in Dushanbe to help recreate part of those treasured Thanksgivings.  I'm grateful for Butterball turkeys flown all of the way to central Asia and cans of cranberry sauce shipped in consumables shipments, and the randomly discovered sweet potatoes that the CLO sold to us.  I'm grateful for my family, their safety and health.  I'm grateful for our happiness and being able to share it with others.  

Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 27, 2015

One Year Down, Two and a Half to Go

A year ago Saturday we stumbled off an overcrowded Turkish airlines flight into the cold, dark early morning Dushanbe air.  I remember cheerily chatting with Brandon's office sponsor as the embassy white van, filled with our ten suitcases, six backpacks, two carry-ons, three carseats, stroller, and pack-n-play, wound its way through the empty streets of our new hometown.  Arriving at a new post is equal parts terrifying, fascinating, exhausting, and exhilarating.

We were put into a temporary house for five weeks, and moved into our permanent house on Christmas Day, hastily setting up a borrowed tree to hold a delayed Christmas two days later.  We survived Dushanbe's cold, grey winter and spent the spring exploring our new country.  The hot summer days were spent lounging by the pool, and we made it back from our R&R just in time for a hiatus in hiking.

And now it's November again, back where we started.  The trees are brown and gold, starting to think seriously about giving up their hold and falling down to the ground they came from.  The sun sets just a little earlier each day, the grey November twilight reminding everyone that home is where light and warmth are to be found.  Everyone is settling in for the cold, still, quiet winter.

But this time I won't wonder if I can make it through the winter here in this country - will it be as grey as Baku?  As cold as Utah?  Will the snow stay for days on end, or melt in an afternoon?  What will we do with the children when everyone's seen much too much of our house and each other?  Where can we sled?  Can we sled?

I know all of the answers.  And now I can mark the time by our year's experience.  It doesn't get really cold until January.  When it's forty degrees and raining in Dushanbe, it's probably snowing at our favorite sledding spot.  March is chilly, but not as bad a February.  Plant beans in early April. Broccoli comes on in March and November.  July is too hot for hiking.  September is too cool for swimming.  Picnics are perfect in October, at the park next the road near the amusement park.

On Saturday we went out for our first Adventure Saturday in months.  We revisited our first spot and got stuck in some serious mud.  By the time we got free and home again, the car was caked in the stuff and I had to spray the large chunks off to keep my Sunday clothes clean the next day.  I opened the gate to spray the rivers of silty sludge down the driveway.  As I watched the world walk by, I didn't feel that I had opened the gates of my castle to an alien outside world.  I just felt at home, spraying down my driveway like any self-respecting Tajik does when it gets dirty.  Later as I was walking to the store for a quick errand, I knew every hole in the sidewalk and when the traffic was lightest for jaywalking.  I didn't freeze in the store aisles, unsure of what to get and where it was.  The curious stares didn't bother me - I've been here long enough to recognize the difference between curiosity and hostility.  I walked home in the chilly afternoon air and didn't feel that I had just braved an expedition into new territory.  I had run a quick errand, that was all.

When those we meet hear that Brandon extended not just one year, but one and a half years, there's usually some head scratching.  Most see Dushanbe as a place to get some experience that will enable them to go on to bigger and better places.  Do your time, and earn your rewards.  Why spend so long in one place when new experiences and better things are out there?

But I love feeling perfectly at home and having our departure so long away it is almost mythical - how can one even imagine that their little baby will be four years old when they leave?  I love settling in, rearranging the furniture until it is perfect, planting flowers and fruit trees, and getting wonderfully comfortable.  Friends who arrived months after us are eagerly awaiting their bid list, and we're not even thinking about ours.  Why bother when it's over a year away?

I know that one day we will leave Dushanbe and start afresh somewhere else.  But that is a far-off dream that is just hazy as those years we spent in Cairo.  What happened before was done long ago and what is to come hasn't breached the horizon yet.  For now were in the endless plane of the present with nothing else in sight but life and school and work and friends and living and Dushanbe.  One day we'll reach the end of that present and cross over into another one.  But not today, not tomorrow, and not for a very long string of tomorrows.

And that is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

And the Heat is On

Last Friday a man rang my doorbell.  He was here, he announced, to put in a new water pump for our heating system.  I quickly let him in and went back to my work.  After half hour or so, the radiators started gurgling, and not long after that they were warm to the touch.  I peeled off my jacket.  By Saturday morning the kitchen floors were warm.  My slippers went back to their place in the closet.  On Monday the sun came out and my socks came off.  By Tuesday we had to start cracking windows to let the heat out of our stifling kitchen.

When I asked for heat, I got it.

The children have started kicking off covers at night and Eleanor is sleeping in just a pair of cotton pajamas; I had to take off layers when her sheet was sweat-soaked in the morning.  I haven't worn socks for days and Joseph ran around all day today in shorts.

I know that eventually when the snow is on the ground and we haven't seen the sun for days, the heat will be necessary and I'll pull the jacket and slippers back out again, but mid November and sixty degrees doesn't require quite as much heat as we have running through our floors and radiators these days.

But hey, I'm not complaining.  I'd much, much rather be too hot than too cold.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Unrequited Love

Edwin loves his little sister.  He really really loves Eleanor.  When Joseph was born Edwin wasn't even quite two years old and had no conception of babies and siblings all of the things that are part of being a family.  Two year olds, although quite cute and reasonably agreeable, are barely human.  They don't know of much beyond eating, playing, and attempting to get their own way.

But by the time Eleanor showed up, Edwin, at the ripe old age of four and half, was old enough to realize about babies and watch as his older sisters adored, cooed over, and practically smothered baby Eleanor with love and attention.  He and Joseph had a pretty rocky relationship at that point - two year old brothers are, after all, barely human - so Eleanor, who wasn't going to take his toys, blow raspberries at him, or land him in time out, looked like a pretty good alternative to Joseph.

I remember finding Edwin's favorite toy cars carefully tucked into Eleanor's crib one afternoon as she peacefully napped.  While I had been teaching the girls' school he had quietly snuck into her (my) room and given his tiny baby sister some of the things he liked best.  Joseph couldn't even look at the green monster truck without a jealous smack from Edwin, but Edwin's little sister could get even the most precious truck without having to even ask for it.

When Eleanor got big enough to sit up, Edwin would swoop down and shower her with kisses every time he passed her.  The girls enjoyed dressing baby Eleanor, bathing baby Eleanor, building thrones for baby Eleanor, and carrying her around in a custom laundry basket palanquin.  Eleanor was the best living baby doll ever.  But Edwin just liked Eleanor.  He didn't care what she was doing or what he could do to her, he just liked her.  Every boy needs a little sister to care for, love, and protect.  They also need a little brother to fight with.

Unfortunately for Edwin, Eleanor doesn't return his feelings.  After patiently enduring his smothering love for over a year, Eleanor finally had enough and let everyone know about it.  Any time Edwin would come near, she would screech at the top of her lungs and swing her tiny baby fists at his advancing face.  Edwin, undeterred, would kiss her more and Eleanor, angrier still, would wail louder.  I finally had to put a limit on his kisses - five - and teach Eleanor the phrases 'no screaming.' and 'no hitting.'

Even after Edwin learned to back off, Eleanor, scarred for a month or two, would screech horribly any time she even thought he might be looking at her.  Poor Edwin, confused as to why his favorite person in the whole wide world was screaming so much, would sneak in and steal unauthorized kisses while I wasn't looking.  This, of course, set off the wailing and hitting all over again.

Thankfully things have calmed down in the past month.  Edwin, after being reminded that he too likes personal space, has backed off (spending quite a bit of time in the corner probably didn't hurt either) and Eleanor has learned the meaning of 'no screaming' and 'no hitting.'  Our house is much quieter these days.

One day Eleanor will be much older, much taller, more attractive.  The boys will start calling and I'll stay up nights trying to figure out how to make 'no talking to any boys until you're 25' into a reasonable sounding policy.  She'll go off to school and I'll work overtime on how to enforce that rule from 7,000 miles away.  And then I'll be glad for Edwin.  He will take good care of his little sister and those boys will think twice before messing with Edwin's baby sister because they'll have to mess with Edwin too.  Eleanor will probably think about breaking the screaming and hitting rule again.  But in the end when all is said and done, she will be happy for her adoring older brother.  And I will too.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Marine Ball 2015

After a hiatus last year for language training, Brandon and I attended our third Marine Ball.  Since we're at a new post with new people, I got to reuse my first Marine Ball dress.  This year I didn't have to alter a dress, buy a tuxedo, or alter someone else's dress.

Instead, we left the children at two in the afternoon, took a walk in the park on a gorgeous fall day, and I left Brandon reading a book while I got my hair fixed.  Then we checked into the same hotel the ball was held at and watched half of Jack Ryan:Shadow Recruit while making fun of the way Hollywood portrays certain agencies because we had nothing better to do.  We eventually got ready and made our way down to the ballroom to hang out with our friends.

It was much better than shopping for jewelry, sewing on buttons, feeding the children, cleaning up the house, kissing the children for the twentieth time on the way out the door, or any of the other things we did the hours before the Marine ball.  I was relaxed and Brandon wasn't irritated.

The ball itself was fun, of course.  We sat at a table with friends and got to listen to the Secretary of the Navy speak and watch the video and my personal favorite, the Escorting of the Cake.  I wonder how long those Marines have to practice to get the slow walk in perfect synchronization.  The food was quite tasty and our dessert was a spread of ice cream, custard, cheesecake, and mousse.  I hope they hold the Ball at the Sheraton next year, if only for the food.

Brandon finally allowed me to lead him to the dance floor and even smoothed his pained expression enough to make it almost invisible in the low light.  We enjoyed talking with our friends and taking our picture with the Marines.  By 10:30 we were tired, so we took the elevator up to our hotel room and went to sleep.  

The next morning we made it to breakfast by 10, half an hour before it ended.  We ate with our friends and weren't interrupted by any milk spills, requests for more food, or fights over eating food.  When I was done, I walked away and someone else did the dishes. 

We had some extra time before needing to be home, so we walked around the city, window shopping and chatting.  In the end, nothing was bought, but when your whole life is filled with getting things done, it's nice to occasionally do something doesn't get a single thing checked off a list.  It was a crisp, sunny fall day and I enjoyed strolling Dushanbe's wide tree-lined sidewalks holding hands with Brandon.  Even after ten years of marriage and eleven of friendship, we still haven't run out of things to talk about.

When we got home, the children were busy making paper dolls with my housekeeper and her daughter and the house was, as always, spotless.  Nobody had killed each other, nobody starved, and nobody was crying as we walked in the door.  They didn't even rush down the stairs looking for us as soon as the car pulled in.  It was as if they didn't even notice we had left.

I'm already looking forward to next year.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Cold, Dark Times

It's finally thinking about being winter here in Dushanbe.  After a long, gorgeous tail end of summer, the falls rains have come and with them cooler weather.  The mountains ringing the city have snow dusting their tops, reminding me that it's not too long before that snow comes to Dushanbe.  A few days ago I made the children try on their snow boots and pants, and the hat and mitten bins have come out of hiding to be restored to their wintertime place on the shoe racks.

The drop in temperatures have also brought the bane of all Tajiks' existence - blackouts.  Tajikistan is almost entirely powered by Nurek dam, about an hour south of Dushanbe.  This country doesn't have much in the way of natural resources other than tall mountains and stunning beauty and bringing anything into the country is very expensive, so any other form of power generation doesn't make much sense, especially as the dam was already built with Tajikistan became independent.

This works really well in the summer when the meltwater comes down off those really tall mountains.  There is enough water flowing through the dam that the spillway makes a pretty impressive plume all summer long.

Everyone has plenty of cheap, reliable (relatively) power.  A friend who is here with an NGO quoted me her electricity bill for July - 50 somoni, or $7.46.  Our generator sits all summer, lurking in the courtyard unused and quiet.

But when fall temperatures hit and everyone gets cold, there isn't enough power to go around.  And after the mountains start to freeze up and the water stops flowing so well, there really isn't enough power to go around.  This used to be mitigated by natural gas flowing in from Uzbekistan.  In the summer, power would flow out of Tajikistan to Uzbekistan and in the winter the flow would be reversed, with natural gas coming her to keep everyone warm.  But the countries haven't been on friendly terms for a decade or so and nothing flows either direction.  All of the gas pipes snaking their way through the city are empty and everyone is cold.

The villagers spend all summer taking their donkeys up into the hills to cut firewood for the winter.  Trees don't grow particularly well in the arid climate on steep hillsides and so there isn't much wood larger than a few inches in diameter for anyone to cut.  Coal is shipped in from China for city dwellers to use - our house was designed for the radiators to be run off a coal stove - but coal doesn't power lights or run cooking stoves.  And so everyone keeps candles.  And blankets.  And clothes to layer.

But mostly they're just cold and dark.

Those who have enough money (and somewhere to put it) have generators, and we're part of the lucky few percent who can depend on warmth and light all winter long.  I find myself irritated by the noise and smell sometimes when it runs half a day and into the night, but then when darkness falls and the hill behind our house is black black black, I repent of my irritation and am grateful for light switches that work every single day.

As the temperatures have continued cold and our working heat has no date fixed yet, I have found new sympathy for my neighbors in the cold months of winter.  One morning I painted with a pair of 600-fill down camping slippers, pants, long shirt, pullover, and down jacket and still found my nose and fingers cold.  This, I thought to myself as I tried to quell irritation about the heat, is only the beginning of what most Tajiks have to deal with all winter long.  Even with heat, they're lucky to have a 60 degree house.  I'm used to winter being the season of coats and mittens for outside and only pants and a shirt inside.  Here, Tajik babies wear tights and undershirts and socks and slippers and pants and sweaters and long shirts inside the house.  There are more clothes for outside.

I know that  poorly working radiators and cold bathroom floors are just temporary; one day I'll have a magical thermostat that will make sure that my whole house - even the bathroom - stays the temperature I tell it.  I won't have the lights shut off on my while I'm in the shower and the water slow to a trickle (our water comes from household tanks and the pressure from an electric pump) as I count to five and wait for the generator to come on.

But for those who live here, these things are the way life is.  Sometimes the power is on and sometimes it's off.  One day you have heat and the next day you don't.  Bundle up and keep your candles ready because it's a few more months until spring.  Hold your breath and pray the winter isn't long or cold or too dark.  Wait eagerly for summer and the return of light, warmth, plently of food, and no cold in sight.  Then do it all again when the next winter comes.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Eleanor at Eighteen Months

As we got ready for church last Sunday morning, I realized that, had we been living in a regular church unit, it would have been Eleanor's first Sunday in nursery.  I remember waiting and waiting and waiting for that magical date when I could shuck Kathleen off on someone else for a blissful two hours each week.  It seemed like it would never arrive and the torture of trying to keep Kathleen quiet for three hours was almost unbearable.  Living in Utah and living a short walk from the church, I even (briefly) considered leaving her home and napping for some of the time.

This time around I've had the luxury of home-churching so Eleanor hasn't even been attending until a month or two ago.  I highly recommend it, even if nursery isn't part of the deal.

Now that Eleanor is officially old enough to attend nursery, I've realized that she isn't that little, maddeningly screamy baby that I brought home to our tiny Oakwood apartment a year and a half (and half a planet) ago.  After I checked on her a few nights ago, I sat and watched her sleep.  As she lay stretched out, deliciously soft and limp in deep baby sleep, I noticed her head and feet were only a few inches from the rails of the crib.  When, between eight pounds and now, did she get so big?

Now she can climb all four flights of stairs in pursuit of my company and slide back down them all when I've just run up to the third floor to get something.  Sometimes I'll take pity on her and carry her back down with me.  She's figured out how to open all of the kitchen cupboards and spends the hour before dinner stacking and unstacking, stacking and unstacking the brightly-colored Ikea dishes that live in the cupboard under the distiller.  Sometimes, when the dishes have lost their novelty, she'll toddle over to the dry goods cupboard and see if maybe this time dry pinto beans taste like chocolate.  And when they don't, again, she'll spit them all over the kitchen floor.

When I'm teaching the children school, she will bring all of her of her favorite treasures to me - a doll, teddy bear, toy cup - and solemnly hand them up one by one until Kathleen's desk is overflowing with Eleanor's gifts.  Then she'll rummage through the play clothes for her favorite purple sparkly size ten dress-up shoe and scream in frustration when it, yet again, falls off while she tries to prance around the room becomingly.  And scream again when my efforts aren't any better than her own.

Edwin has taught her how to make slurping noises and how to roar.  Joseph taught her to flip her tongue while yelling.  The girls have taught her 'mama,' 'dada,' 'uh-oh,' 'ball,' and 'poop.'  I taught her 'shoe.'

She has discovered the girls' hiding places for their special treasures, the ones too precious to leave in the toy cupboard.  On Halloween she learned that bright crinkly wrappers have yummy treats inside them and screaming might get you another one.  She's figured out how to eat eggs with a fork and how to smear black bean soup everywhere with a spoon and how to make Mom yell really loud when milk is dumped on the floor.  And she knows inherently, as all children do, what electronic devices are real and powered and which ones aren't.

One of my favorite times of day is cuddling her into the corner of my lap after she's zipped into a fuzzy sleeper and clutching her soft knitted blanket.  We rock quietly together as I read Caps for Sale, Noisy Nora, or Where the Wild Things Are.  Her chubby fingers turn the pages for me as I read, almost from memory, the same stories my mother read to me while rocking in another rocking chair in another place almost a lifetime ago.  Then I will sing her a song or two or three before gently putting her down in her crib and waving goodnight as I shut the door.

I've loved each of my children at eighteen months, but I enjoy Eleanor more than I've enjoyed any of the other children.  So much of the anxiety and insecurity is gone, washed away by experience so that now I can just enjoy Eleanor.  I don't have to worry if she'll potty train, or if she'll nap, or if she'll get enough nutrition.  I know that she'll eventually talk (and then I'll wish she hadn't) and dress herself and grow up to be every bit as troublesome as her older siblings.  But now I just get to enjoy a sweet, cuddly little baby.  I don't have to teach her to read or tie or shoes or not talk back to me or not hit her siblings or not fight over toys.  Those things will come soon enough.  For now, she's just my baby.  She doesn't need to be anything else.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Russian Progress

The children and I have just finished our second month of Russian study.  When I finally gave in and started, I honestly didn't expect much progress very quickly.  Russian hovers somewhere between 'clip my toenails' and 'clean out the storage room' on my priority list.  Things that will eventually get done some time, but not on any kind of regular basis (yep.  And that is why I never get pedicures).

I don't really care if the girls became bilingual or can even converse with anyone on the street.  Our homeschool program only requires letter grades for core subjects, so I make sure that math and reading really get done, science and history mostly get done, and the rest is really just extra anyway.  And Russian is really, really extra.  About as extra as art.  When there's one of you and six people to take care of, you have to choose what you're really going to get worked up about.  You'd die if you cared about everything.

So I've been pleasantly surprised at our progress.  In addition to meeting with Albina, our very long-suffering tutor (on the day we studied animals Sophia decided to declare that she didn't want to eat a pink _____ when each animal was introduced), I also purchased Rosetta Stone and set up a flashcard program.  I figure that among the three three there would be enough coverage to get at least a few words stuck firmly in everyone's head.

And things are actually starting to stick.  I remember learning German while living in Vienna and slowly, slowly beginning to understand things that I saw and heard.  A high point was understanding a passing question about the time ('Wie spat ist est?') and answering in German.  We don't get out nearly as much as I did in Vienna, but the same thing is starting to happen here.  As we drive through town, Kathleen likes to read out all of the signs to practice her Cyrillic.  A few days ago she showed me a piece of paper with names written in Cyrillic.  When we were at the embassy Halloween party a few days ago, she started eavesdropping on conversations.  "Mom!" she turned to me excitedly, "They said something about boys!"

Edwin, who watches Dino Lingo every day (I will never, ever, ever be able to scrub those songs out of my memory.  Ever), likes to sit in the window and tell passersby how old he is.  "Hey!  Hey kid! I'm пять!  And soon I'll be шесть!"  Joseph, who also has been watching the dinosaurs teach him useful words like 'giraffe' and 'tiger' will randomly turn to me and ask me what the word for желтый is in Russian.  One afternoon during lunch he decided that, because I know the words for boy, green, milk, egg, and yellow, that I am the expert in Russian.  "Hey Mom, how do you say 'chocolate chip' in Russian?  What about 'generator'?  Do you know 'booster seat'?"  When, after striking out on a few more words, he pointed to his apple and I responded with яблоко, he exclaimed happily, "There!  You do know Russian!"

When we were at the park after a lesson when 'to see' was introduced, a man came up to me.  He asked if I knew Russian and then told me that I need to watch Eleanor, who was wandering (to him) dangerously close to an unsafe part (now that I think about it, I don't think that American parks have twelve-foot sheer drop-offs in them).  I pretended that I didn't understand him because dumb is easier than smart sometimes.  But I actually understood his words and not just his gestures.

And finally, finally, I can actually tell people who ring my doorbell that I don't speak Russian and do they speak English?  I even held a very stumbling conversation last week without someone who was convinced that our house was somebody else's дом, and I assured him that no, it was definitely our дом and by the way I didn't really understand Russian.  It was all very funny and we both laughed.  But he still kept ringing the doorbell.  So I eventually unplugged it.

Despite our progress, I'm still not moving Russian above toenail clipping in my priority list.  Because why put in more effort if we're still making progress?  Eventually when the girls are older and I have more time on my hands (ha, ha) we'll probably get around to studying Russian in some sort of systematic way with a text book.  I have far future plans that involve the children taking online college Russian courses, but they're still in the shadowy, insubstantial land of 'when they're so old they can drive cars' that probably isn't even real.  But for now, we're plunking along just fine.  Which is okay with me.  Maybe by this time next year I will be able to tell my gardner to prune the fruit trees.  But I'm not holding my breath.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Bah Humbug

Just in case you haven't noticed, Halloween is this week.  It's very very easy to forget American holidays when you live overseas and hardly ever leave your house.  We been here in Dushanbe for almost a year and I haven't noticed any seasonal decorating at all.  Baku decorated for New Year's, but I haven't seen anything here.  There aren't even any malls where the stray Ded Moroz could lurk.

So it could probably have slipped my notice that Halloween was this week, but it certainly hasn't slipped my children's notice.  That's the problem with teaching them how to read calendars - they read calendars.  "Mom!" Kathleen will announce after staring hard at the computer and counting softly under her breath for twenty minutes, "It's only seventy-six days until Christmas!  That's so close!  I can't wait until it's one day!  Don't you wish it was one day?  What do you want for Christmas??"

They've been counting down to Halloween for at least the last month and everyone has just about reached fever pitch.  Last Monday Joseph was acting up during Family Home Evening so I took him up to bed.  He lay in bed, wailing disconsolately.  Finally I calmed him down enough hear what he was wailing about.  "Don't leave me!!  I don't want to stay home!!  Don't got to the embassy for trick-or-treat without me!!  I want to go to Halloween!!!!"  I reassured him that it wasn't time yet so he rolled over and went to sleep.

This year Kathleen is going to be a medieval lady, Sophia a pioneer, Joseph Robert E. Lee, Edwin a Chinese boy, and Eleanor a pink princess.

And the best thing about these costumes?  I didn't have a single thing to do with them (okay, almost nothing.  I had to pin up Sophia's dress, which is adult-sized).

Somewhere between the children's first Halloween and now I formulated my I Don't Make Costumes policy, which is that I don't make costumes.  I don't consult on costumes, I don't help with costumes, and I never ever ever buy costumes.  When the children ask me what they should be for Halloween I shrug my shoulders and tell them that they're welcome to be whatever they want as long as I don't have to do anything to help.  I'm that mean.

The other day the girls were speculating what it would be like to just request a costume and a few weeks later have it show up ready-made in the back of Dad's car.  After considering the possibilities, Sophia finally admitted that it was actually more fun to make their own costumes.  They spend weeks trying to cobble together anything they can find into a reasonable costume.

This year they presented me with a waistcoat and stock, sewed during quiet time.  After Joseph's nap he was dolled up in a collared shirt, waistcoat, play coat, stock, Edwin's shorts with strings tied below the knee, and Sophia's tights.  The time period was a little off for Robert E. Lee, but I wasn't going to say anything.

Kathleen went through a multitude of outfits before settling on a mishmash of dress-up clothes that vaguely resembles something that might have come from the middle ages, if they middle ages had a lot more beading, sequins, and polyester.  Edwin requested a T-rex, a Stegosaurus, and an Airbus A-380 before settling with a Chinese-ish red brocade robe, also from the dress up box.

Sophia fished out a tutu, pink ballet skirt, and pink dress-up skirt and stuffed a protesting Eleanor into the ensemble.  Next year she'll be big enough to wear Sophia's red princess dress.

A few days ago Kathleen got worried about their homemade costumes.  What if some of their friends laughed at their costumes?  What would they do?  I assured her that their friends, almost all boys, probably wouldn't even notice what they were wearing, and not to worry.  After all, isn't the most important thing about Halloween the candy?  It's a holiday entirely devoid of any deeper meaning so she didn't need to lose sleep over it.

So if you happen to see my kids on Halloween dressed like the dregs of the dress-up bin, be assured that that is exactly what they're dressed up in.  But at the end of the night, I won't have spent a penny and everything can go right back to the place it came from.  And the children will be able to tell stories to their children about their horrible, mean, lazy mother who made them make their own Halloween costumes.  It will be great.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Upsides and Downsides

It's kind of cold in my house right now.  It's not so cold that everyone is wearing their winter coats inside (although that has happened before), but it's cold enough that I've pulled out my down slippers and jacket.  Which is kind of surprising, considering that just two weeks ago we were sweltering in ninety-plus heat.  Then the falls rains came and everything got cold.

Our house stays pretty cool in the summer, cool enough that I only have keep split packs running in the rooms that I'm actually in.  Its back half is dug into a hill, so the temperature doesn't fluctuate too badly.  This is good for 70+ temperatures, but once the temperature drops below 70, the cooler-inside-than-outside feature isn't such a good thing anymore.  This is generally a feature of masonry built houses, and so when the temperature dropped to fifty degrees, I had Brandon put in a work order to turn on our heat.

Our radiators are run off a couple of American hot water heaters which were put in by the embassy when our house joined the housing pool.  The previous system was a coal-fired stove.  I'm not sure how to do the voodoo that makes the heaters run the radiators and heat our water, so when we want heat we have to ask someone who knows the magic to come and give us heat.

So the Monday after a weekend of cold weather, Brandon put in the work order.  Monday passed and I pulled out all of the down comforters.  Tuesday came and the children decided that fall was really here to stay and reluctantly put on pants, long shirts, and socks.  Wednesday Brandon made a visit to the magic-making men and on Friday they showed up.

Our bathroom toilet seat also needed work - one of the bolts holding it on had snapped - so two of our friendly facilities maintenance men showed up to wave their magic wrenches and make my life better.  I love not having to perform maintenance on our house.  One day this will come back to haunt me when I'm 65 and don't know how to change my own lightbulbs, but for now it's really nice to have professionals fixing my leaks and repairing my dryer.

When they were done, the tall skinny man who speaks English better than the other one, called me down to explain that they had turned on the heat halfway and did I want it on all of the way?  Yes, please turn it on all of the way.  I'm okay with being a little hot if I don't have to wait for someone to come back to my house to finish the job.

"Okay," he shrugged, "we'll leave it on halfway and if it's still cold in a day or two, put in a work order and we'll turn it on the rest of the way."  Then they left.

I shrugged inwardly and went to go inspect my fully functioning toilet seat (did I ever tell you how we spent two weeks with none at all?  In January?).  My friend had kindly slid the one functioning bolt back together but not attended to the broken bolt.

And the next morning our third floor was sixty degrees.  The day after that it was fifty-eight.

Being taken care of by someone else is really, really nice.  When random Tajiks come and ring my doorbell and tell Brandon that we haven't paid the water bill, it's not my problem.  The whole neighborhood can be dark and cold and my generator (which magically always has gas) keeps me warm and light.  If my bookshelves are getting crammed, I can ask and have another one show up at my house and carried right to the place where I need it.  I'm not quite sure that, despite having five children and taking them all over the world, I can quite call myself a full-fledged adult.  Because real adults actually pay rent and have to deal with flooded basements.

But every now and then being taken care of isn't quite as nice.  Because if I don't know how to turn on my heat I can't.  And I spend days in a cold house wondering when it won't be cold anymore.  My toilet seat threatens to slide me onto the floor several times a day because I have no idea where to buy the correct bolt to screw the darn thing on.

One day I'll be able to march down to Home Depot and ask the kind men where I can find the toilet seat bolt and go home to fix it on the same day it broke.  My heat will turn on with the flick of a thermostat, even switching between heat and air conditioning whenever the fancy strikes it.

Then I'll remember the days of pampering with nostalgia and think that I never had things so good.  But I will have a warm house.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Well Hello There!

So it's been some time since all of you have gotten your daily recommended dose of the Sherwood Family Doings.  I'd like to pretend that our life has been crazy busy with fabulously interesting and blog-worthy activities, but it really hasn't that much.  We've all gotten sick.  And then we got sick again.  Then we had friends come and visit from Moscow.  And they all got sick (I'm sensing a theme here).  And in the end I just got lazy.

I toyed with the idea of just quitting altogether; blogging seems to take more and more time these days and on some Sunday evenings the last thing I want to do is sit down and write for a few hours.  I much prefer to be a consumer of writing instead of producing it.  I consider quitting every year or so, but in the end I can never quite go through with it.  I'm very much a creature of habit - I'm on my fifteenth year of running even though I hate every minute of it - and I just can't quit now.  We've had so many adventures over the last eight years and it would be a shame to break a streak that long.

So for now the stories will keep on coming (you're welcome, Mom).  I can't promise anything interesting or exciting.  But I can promise stories.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

All in a Monday

Monday started out pretty well.  School started on time and everyone worked steadily enough that I got done with teaching forty-five minutes before lunch time.  Instead of scrolling through Facebook, as I wanted to, I decided to be responsible and went to print out some school charts I had been working on.

Our printer has been having problems with its black ink ever since we made the foolish mistake of shipping it to Dushanbe.  In this lifestyle, printers really are a consumable item.  They were never meant to be shipped via airplane (or really at all), where there is plenty of variable air pressure and restful time to dry all of the little nozzles out and get them clogged.  I was smart enough to take out the ink cartridges - it only takes one printer box dripping in ink to learn that lesson.  After cleaning out the print head and going through a whole set of cartridges to clean the nozzles, I finally narrowed down the problem and ordered a new black cartridge (I use refillable cartridges).

The cartridge had come a few days earlier in the mail, and I set about removing the ink from the old cartridge - waste not, want not - and putting it into the new one.  Although the process is simple - syringe out ink from the bottle, squirt it into the hole in the cartridge - I always manage to stain my hands with ink no matter how hard I try.

I marched back to the computer with my new cartridge and printed a test.  The result was better than before, but still blurry.  Time to clean the print nozzles.  But first, time to refill the other black cartridge.  Okay, new test print.  Now the yellow is out.  Back to the bathroom, more ink on the fingers.  Put the yellow in, start another round of cleaning.  Oh, now the magenta is out.  Back to the bathroom to add pink to every other color staining my hands.  One more test print.  Nothing has changed.  Time to get serious.

A few YouTube videos later (why is always foreign nationals who make those helpful videos?), some failed screw-drivering, and I had the print head out and back in the bathroom.  Now all of the colors could stain my hands at once.  Sophia enjoyed the lovely spray pattern, and I hoped that this would fix my problem.  With the print head back in the printer and ready for another cleaning, I returned to the bathroom to fill the blue ink cartridge.  I started to think seriously about time versus money and just ordering Canon cartridges, who cares about cost and environmental waste.

I crossed my fingers as the test patterns spat out of the printer, praying that my problem would be fixed.  It wasn't.  I sighed and debated a whole new printer versus just the print head.  Both cost just about the same.

Dinner that night was black bean soup.  As Sophia pulled out the cornmeal for muffins, she announced that there definitely wasn't a cup left.  I sighed.  There never is a convenient time for grinding because you never know you're out until you're cooking - and cooking is never a leisure time activity.  It's time to cook because people are hungry and hungry people aren't patient people.

Thankfully I don't have to run up two flights of stairs for popcorn anymore, so it wasn't long before the kitchen sounded like a small airplane was taking off.  I've had my wheat grinder longer than I've had most of my children, and the whole time it has worked much better and with much less complaining than they have.  It's only gotten more useful in places where cornmeal costs three dollars for a half pound bag and whole wheat flour is something entirely unheard of.

I poured the bag of popcorn in, and turned to chopping carrots for the soup.  And then the grinding stopped, with a disconcerting thump and grinding of a frustrated motor.  I cut the power, waited for a second, and tried the first move of optimists.  It still grrrred in frustration, so I shut it off again.

My second move was the internet, which offered no hope in the first three pages.  I tried different search terms and still came up with nothing.  Quotes weren't any more helpful.  According to everything and everyone, NutriMills don't jam.  Until, of course, they do.

I sat and reviewed my options.  No NutriMill service centers on the continent.  Maybe I could take it to a local repairman.  That would require knowing one.  Order a new one, and borrow my friend's for the next month.  I looked for screws, found some, and went searching for my screwdriver.

By the time Brandon was home for dinner, the machine had been broken down to its motor and grinding plate.  I couldn't find any more screws to address and the twelve or so I had already removed lay scattered in mounds of popcorn and cornmeal.  I showed my problem to Brandon and he took over while I finished dinner half an hour late.

He succeeded where I had failed, and found the problem - a tooth in the grinding plate had sheared off and jammed the two plates.  We put the whole thing back together - I had had enough common sense to remember where the grounding wires hooked up - after finding all of the screws, and plugged it in.  Even with a missing tooth, it still made popcorn into cornmeal.  Three hundred dollars saved for another day.

Then we turned to our last task of the day, and started the children up to bed.  Joseph had been complaining of an upset stomach for the last few hours so he got put down first, with a bowl for good measure.  I've learned the hard way the fine line between imagined and real nausea.  Always err on the side of caution.  A three year-old has to have pretty strong imagination to turn down a fresh cornbread muffin.

A few minutes later and deep into the dinner dishes, Joseph showed up at the kitchen door.  "Mom!  I threw up!  But I got it in your toilet.  I got it in your toilet!"  I sighed and stripped his vomit-spattered shirt and pants.  "Let's get you a drink of water.  Then get some new pajamas."  Then I went upstairs to see where hope and reality met.

The smell spoke of hope and my feet confirmed that Joseph had only gotten some of the vomit in my toilet.  The rest was on my carpet.  I sighed again and went for paper towels.  Only recently have I learned that paper towels don't have to be washed out in a bucket.  They can be thrown away and the wet rags can be saved for the part that doesn't involve chunks.  Brandon sighed, louder than me, and went for the carpet cleaner.

Five passes later the smell still overpowered anyone standing five feet from the door.  We considered sleeping in the guest bedroom, but that would mean making another bed when ours was already made, and put a fan on the carpet instead and left the bedroom door open.  It still reeked by morning.

I went to bed that night, happy that Monday comes only once a week.  It hadn't been a bad Monday - nobody got hurt, nothing too expensive got ruined, and we were still in Dushanbe and together.  It was just an intensely irritating Monday.  And I was happy to be done with it.  And happy to have another seven days before Monday came round again.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Urban Camping

Things are thankfully calming down here in Dushanbe.  The 'bad guys,' as the boys call them, are being hunted down out of the mountains and things in the city are just as they've always been.  We're hoping that things will continue to wind down and we'll be able to get some fall hiking in soon.

We had planned to go camping during a local holiday, but the ban on leaving the city was still in place.  I knew that the children would be disappointed, so I suggested camping in our front courtyard.  They thought this was a great idea - all of the fun of camping without any of the trouble involved driving to some random place just to sleep outside.  So I had my housekeeper get a bag of firewood and - I thought - a plov cooker to put the fire in.  She brought the firewood and her own plov cooker (I can only imagine her confusion - plov is a winter dish), and we had hot dogs and s'mores for dinner.

Eleanor did not attend, and didn't even stay up late enough for the hot dogs.  So her siblings gave her a flashlight demonstration as consolation before she was bundled into her own crib, safe from all of the excitement and fire.  The children all slept soundly, and Brandon and I would have on our comfy camping mattresses if drivers of very loud heavy machinery didn't use our road for drag racing all night long.  When we woke around 5:30, Brandon commented that he would give up all of his secrets after another night of sleep like that.

The children were horrified to learn that urban camping meant urban hiking when we bundled them into the car the next morning.  We headed to Victory Park, a good-sized chunk of land situated on the hills surrounding Dushanbe.  In the children's defense, the day was pretty hot and the sun was pretty bright, and only the introduction of the alphabet game prevented complete mutiny. 

As we trudged along the dusty path in the hot sun, we named fruits, vegetables, animals, animals again, foods, foods again, countries, and names twice before we finally made it back to the car, soaked in sweat and caked in dirt.

So we ended the day with the only reasonable thing to do when you're urban adventuring - we went to the pool.  Because if you can't enjoy mother nature out in the wilds, you might as well enjoy the delights of the city.  About three quarters of the embassy families showed up too, and the children enjoyed an impromptu pool party with all of their best buddies.

 After going to bed late the night before, hiking for two hours, and swimming for two more, everyone was more than happy to be in bed before seven, and asleep before 7:15.  I enjoyed sleeping in my own comfy bed in my own quiet room.

The boys are already asking for the next campout.  I'm hoping the travel ban will be lifted soon.  Otherwise, I'm going to have to get some pretty good earplugs.