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

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Missing Keys

Last Sunday we had church at someone else's house.  Usually we have church at our house, but sometimes we mix things up and this past Sunday was one of those days.  Having church at home is nice because you're never late, but you also have to set up chairs and put everything away when everyone has left.  But if you have church at someone else's house, you have to put on shoes and leave on time.  So it's a toss-up.

This Sunday we had everyone loaded into the car twenty-five minutes before church started.  I was finishing up dressing William when Brandon started yelling about the car keys.  I finished with William and went down to find out the problem.  I'm not a good person, and so when Brandon said that he couldn't find the car keys, I silently said a prayer of thanks that he had them last and not me.  The moral high ground is always the better place to be in these instances.

I started looking, too because I'm an okay person and I know how frustrating it is to be the only one looking for a lost item.  Even the motions of looking are soothing to the person who has lost the item.

After fifteen minutes we still hadn't found the keys.

Thirty minutes passed and Brandon let the other members know to start without us.

Forty-five minutes passed and we realized that our last week of church would be spent looking for car keys.

After an hour Brandon started looking up how to get car keys replaced when you lived in Tajikistan and didn't have any extra keys to copy.

By that time everyone had systematically gone through the house, room by room, including sifting through every single trash can in the house.  We had looked under and in every single couch, in all the toy bins, in all the dressers, through every drawer, in every cupboard, and in every single conceivable place a set of keys could hide in a 5,500 square-foot house.

Eventually we all gave up and made dinner.

Brandon was in despair, trying to figure out how to turn a two-ton yard ornament into something that he could use to do things like take him to work in the morning.  I was a little less despairing, figuring that they would eventually turn up.  This happens with 95% of lost household items, with the exception of a rolling pin that Kathleen lost when we lived in an eight hundred square-foot duplex.

The day went on, and eventually the children settled in for story time with Dad.  In the middle of the mazzalato scene in The Count of Monte Cristo, Kathleen went to turn on Brandon's bedside lamp and found the keys up in the lampshade, stuck firmly to the metal supports by a magnet.

Eleanor went into the room to see what all the fuss was when everyone started shouting in joy and amazement.  "Oh, the keys!  I put them up there!  Sorry I forgot!"

That night I went and ordered Tiles for all the keys.  Technology really makes one's life better sometimes.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Practiced Art of Purging

Brandon and I are quickly coming up on our fourth major move.  I've found moving to be somewhat similar to childbirth - it doesn't last that long and when you're not actually in the middle of it, it doesn't seem like such a horrible thing.  But when you're going through it, it seems like you're stuck in the eternal now of a horrible slog that had no beginning and will have no end.  Traveling is also like this.

When it comes to the moving of our actual stuff, we don't have much to do.  The embassy has contracted movers that come, and over the course of two or three days, turn all of your possessions into an amazingly large mound of boxes.  That part is actually pretty boring.  We don't have much to do except watch the packers to make sure everything is handled appropriately and answer questions like "Do you want us to pack this half-eaten jar of peanut butter?"

But the downside of having a whole team of movers descend on your house en masse is that when they come you'd better be ready.  There is no careful filling of boxes and deciding what to keep and what to toss.  No consult with each other on how things should be organized.  No careful packing of things to make sure they won't be broken.  I have heard stories of trash bags being packed, all of the hardware for all of the furniture being thrown into a random box, and even a sleeping baby packed up - with a 'fragile' sticker on the side of the carton.

So it takes weeks to get ready for a move, and one of the most important parts of those preparations is The Purge.  I actually like having to purge our house every few years.  It's funny how virtuous it feels to discard things that you spent time and money acquiring.  You'd think it would be the other way, but it isn't.  Haven't worn that skirt the whole time you've been here?  Give it away!  Got a load of junky toys that you always secretly loathed?  Toss them!  Hate reading that stupid story that your three year-old brings to you every night?  Donate it!

Purging is something that takes a very specific emotional state to tackle.  It's a very exhausting job, so you have to be just itching to dive in and make at least 10,000 decisions about everything you own, including and not limited to: toy soldiers, CD cases, dress-ups, half-used bottles of medicine, your college graduation dress, hand-made books that you've never used in fifteen years, children's books, shoes, school books, shower curtains, expired but still potentially useful medications, ratty but also potentially useful sheets, stuffed animals (so many stuffed animals), random pictures from the days when they were printed on paper, laundry baskets with broken handles, unopened boxes of Ziploc bags, children's drawings, and glasses that nobody wears but could still be useful.

You always start the day out in the height of cheerful productivity, ruthlessly filling trash bags and donate boxes while tossing cheerful quips back and forth.  Brandon adores purging, so he drives the frenzy and I get caught up in it.  We are on such a roll that stopping for lunch seems like a waste of time and the children are just sound and motion on the periphery of our purging frenzy.  Every time a bag fills up, the new one gets opened with a satisfying snap and you toss with new power.

But the crash always comes, usually around five to six hours in, and then you just want to die.  The thought of making one more decision brings physical pain and you drag yourself to the trash bag and dribble in the items one by one, dropping in each stubby pencil carefully as if it was the most important thing you'd ever done.  You wonder why you ever thought it was a good idea and start to mentally calculate how many hundreds or thousands of dollars you would be willing to pay just to not have to make these decisions and ship the whole house complete with half-eaten jars of peanut butter.  The children's presence on the same floor are a justifiable reason for incandescent rage and screen time is the best invention in the whole history of mankind.  Dinner is ice cream.  Or cold cereal.  Or even better, both.

But eventually the pain ends and every dark, stinking, infested nook, cranny, junk drawer, and toy bin in your house has been exposed to the trash bag and cleansed of all superfluity.  You walk through your house and wonder how you had let so much junk infest your life and drag you down with its oppressive materiality.  Every closet, shelf, and drawer is beautifully organized and barely filled.  The mound of bags at the trash can is offering on the altar to the art of living simply.  All is right with the world.

The movers come, the boxes are packed up with bare minimum of things required to sustain life and keep the family running.  You marvel at how you thought you needed all those things that have now found new homes that aren't yours.  You vow to never buy anything else again that isn't strictly, absolutely necessary.

Then, a few months later, you open the boxes.  And while pulling out the mounds and mounds of stuff and finding somewhere anywhere to cram it all, you look at it and think, "Why did I pack all of this garbage?  What was I thinking?!?  Time to purge!"

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Change in Plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 11, 2018

International Women's Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Truly Helpful Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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