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Sunday, December 27, 2020

Christmas 2020

 Christmas this year was great.  I can't actually remember a Christmas that wasn't great, but there have been years that have been less great, all because of moving or medevacs.  I'm happy that this year had no moving (I'm talking to you,  2005, 2011 and 2014) and no babies, either newly born (Elizabeth, Edwin and Joseph) or soon-to-be born (William).  Sure, this year's Christmas did happen with a broken wrist and pandemic, but those are so much easier to deal with than packing or unpacking suitcases and boxes.  Seriously.

The children and I were all very happy to close our books on December 17th for the last school of 2020 and kick off our two-week Christmas break.  Brandon was happy to shut down his computer on Tuesday and kick off his five-day Christmas break.  There have been many years that saw Brandon get home from work late on Christmas Eve, so this year he just took the preceding two days off so that everyone could really get into the spirit.

Of course having more time for Christmas preparations means more time to think of wonderful food to cook, not more time to sit and read books.  I always plan to read more books, but inevitably end up cooking more food (sadly).

So on Wednesday we did our Christmas cooking, making tapenade, cheese ball, salmon mousse, spinach artichoke heart dip, and a whole gallon of eggnog.  On Thursday we did our Christmas Eve cooking, making chocolate mousse-meringue cake, bread, roasted vegetables, ham, mustard cream sauce, and croissant cinnamon rolls.  By the time our friends showed up for a late-afternoon Christmas Eve dinner, I was ready to be done with cooking, and thankfully, I was.

My own family's Christmas traditions always included both a Christmas Eve dinner and a big Christmas dinner, but I have come to peace with being morally inferior to my mother and only have Christmas Eve dinner.  When we have brave enough friends, we like to have company for dinner, singing, and a nativity play with whatever participants we can round up.  

After spending a lovely morning and early afternoon with the children and finally getting to enjoy lots of reading and a nap, we spent more time with the same friends as we went to their house for their own Christmas tradition - spending time with friends on Christmas day.  These are the same friends that we spent Thanksgiving with and see every Sunday, so they're either really good friends or just desperate for someone for their five boys to play with.

This year we've been able to really celebrate almost all of the Christmas traditions - decorating the house, making ornaments, cutting out snowflakes, stamping wrapping paper, having an advent calendar and devotional every night, and creating a gingerbread house (sadly, no caroling party).  I've been listening to Christmas music since the day after Thanksgiving, and the tree has been lit up for a month straight.  I feel like we have really celebrated Christmas this year.  So when the tree goes down on New Years Day and all the decorations get packed away, I'll be okay with moving on.  Because it was a great Christmas this year.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Winning in Central Asia

By most measurements, life is usually harder here in Central Asia than in the US.  We have some things that are easier, but there's a reason that we get paid extra money to go and live in strange places like Uzbekistan.  One of the harder things about being away from the US is not being near family and not having a regular ward to attend.  The children (and I) love going back to the US and going to a meeting where there are more than six people singing, there's a functional nursery, full classes for every age, and regular youth activities.  Being homeschooled makes socialization in church even more precious, especially for my two oldest girls.

But covid has proved to be the great leveler, and for most of this year, we've been in the exact same situation that everyone else around the world has been in.  Everyone has become just as home-based as we always are and my children aren't weird any more.  Church has been home-based for months, with a recent return to socially-distanced shortened sacrament-only meetings.  

We have also been stuck in home church since March, as one family in our group left for the US in March, and the second moved to Abu Dhabi this summer.  But with the return of the first family last month, we were able to resume our own church meetings again.  

Between a two-week quarantine and sickness, we weren't able to meet together until last week.  But as we all sat down together for our first meeting, I looked around and realized that we were probably one of the only units in the world that got to enjoy a mask-free full church schedule.  

At the beginning of the pandemic, our mission president gave all the small units leave to meet in whatever way they felt comfortable, so we've had compete autonomy to do what works for us.  Both families are comfortable with meeting together mask-free, and there's no reason to have a shortened schedule if everyone has already committed to being together anyway.  After all, two hours of church is nothing compared to the eight hours we spent together on Thanksgiving.

This week we had the Primary program, with all six of our primary children.  After we had finished and were celebrating with cookies and videos, we congratulated the children for having one of the only in-person Primary programs in the entire world that happened this year.  The children suddenly felt a lot more special, and I'm pretty sure that they will always remember that they were some of the privileged few in 2020 that got to participate in a Primary program.  

It's been really wonderful to have church together for these past two weeks.  Even though our church attendance has only increased by one other family, it has changed the nature of the meetings for the better.  

There is a reason that we meet together every week, and it isn't just so that we can receive the sacrament.  We all strengthen each other, support each other, and learn from each other.  Everyone brings their own experiences to the lessons, along with their way of seeing the gospel.  The children are encouraged by each other, and the youth get to be with their peer group.  We get to have lessons that we didn't think of ourselves, and our children get a break from being taught by us all week long.  And we all grow a little closer together in love and unity.

So, at least at church, we are happy to be here in Uzbekistan where we can worship together and have a little bit of normalcy back.  I'll take it where I can get it.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

When Both Your Cars Aren't Working

 We've been really happy to have two cars, after only having one (and for two years, none) for the entire fifteen years we've been married.  Brandon always has his car, I always have mine, and if one is in the shop, we still have the other.  

Our big car, a 2007 Honda Pilot, is getting old, so it's recently been spending much more time with the embassy mechanics.  Since moving to Tashkent, we've gotten the catalytic converter replaced, redone all the shocks and struts (hardly surprising, after driving on bad roads for the last nine years), put in a new radiator, gotten new oxygen sensors, and replaced the power steering pump.  Thankfully, the labor here is cheap, so most of the cost has been for parts.

Our other car, a 2012 Fit, has been much more reliable.  But back in July, I managed to puncture a tire while moving it back in to our garage.  Between uneven work schedules, quarantines, and our trip to the US, the tire never got fixed and we've been driving on the full-sized spare for the last six months.  Which is never a good idea, because the whole point of having a spare is so that there's one to use if your tire goes flat. 

Which, inevitably, it did.  Thankfully, it went flat while Brandon was it work, so he didn't have to figure out how to get it in to the mechanics.  Unfortunately, it happened the day before Brandon began another two-week quarantine, which ended just as the mechanic started his own two-week quarantine.  

While the Fit was waiting for a new tire in the embassy parking lot, the Pilot was leaking power steering fluid all over the garage floor.  When Brandon drove it last weekend, the power steering fluid was completely gone, making it very difficult to get in and out of the garage, and completely impossible for me to drive with only one hand.  

So back into the shop it went, and this time it we got to order a new rack and pinion, in addition to more power steering fluid.

On Monday, our car situation looked like this: cars we own - 2, cars that work - 0.  I had a salon appointment, but was able to take a taxi there and back.  Thankfully, there are several taxi apps that don't require any communication with the driver, so it's pretty easy to use even with my limited Russian.

On Tuesday, things got a little hairier.  Kathleen had horseback riding lessons, and the stable is outside city limits.  We took a taxi to the stable, but were unable to get one back.  Thankfully, it's only about two miles from the stable to our house and the day was not rainy, snowy, or even that cold so the walk wasn't too bad.  By the last half mile, however, Kathleen was walking in only one boot, as she had developed a blister on the other heel.  Apparently, her boots weren't made for walking, only for riding.

On Thursday, things came to their inevitable, hairy climax.  When the embassy mechanic got out of quarantine and looked at fixing the two flat tires, all four normal tires were declared completely unsafe.  So on Wednesday I got to buy a new rack and pinion set, in addition to four new tires, all for cars that we won't be owning in seven months.  Sometimes being adult is awesome, and sometimes it's just expensive.

The new tires were bought Wednesday afternoon, but couldn't be installed until Thursday during lunch.  That afternoon, at 2:30, I had to take the children to a horseback riding lesson.  I realized that morning that there wouldn't be anybody at home to watch Elizabeth and William.  I could have taken them, but I didn't have a car to take them in.  I sent a panicked text to the friend that a share my housekeeper with, and she generously allowed me to borrow her for the afternoon.

Brandon pointed out, however, that if the car was done by 2:00, he could bring the car to me, watch the small children while he finished the teleworking, and all my problems could be solved.  So when I texted my housekeeper (translated into Russian by Google Translate), I told her that I would probably need her, but maybe not.  Which, in my mind, meant 'come unless I tell you not to.'  

By 2:00, the tires were all on the car.  But unfortunately, the car battery was dead.  The recharging was set to take four hours.  So I didn't tell my housekeeper not to come, and when she texted me at 2:15, "Извините мне придти," I read it as, "excuse me, I am coming," and replied to her, "Thank you!" Now Russian questions are not exactly like English ones.  To ask a question in Russian, you just change the intonation but nothing else.  When you are texting, you add a question mark.

When she still wasn't here at 2:35 and all the children were piled into the taxi waiting (with a driver who told me that we couldn't put so many people in the car because of the police and I told him we didn't have any other options [which happened entirely in Russian]), I started panicking and sending texts.  I considered leaving Elizabeth and William alone in the house until she showed up, but that seemed like one of those Very Bad Ideas that end in disaster.  As the time got later and later, my texts got more and more impatient.  I had a car full of children with a taxi driver waiting.  I had two children waiting in the house.  I had a horseback riding lesson that was getting shorter and shorter the longer my housekeeper took to get to my house.  And I had two cars that I owned that were currently useless to me.  I knew it would be funny later, but it sure wasn't funny then.  

It was the perfect storm of missed opportunities.  If only the tires had been fixed the day before.  If only the battery hadn't been dead from sitting out in the parking lot for a month.  If only Brandon hadn't actually had to go in to work that week.  If only the Pilot had held out until the Fit was repaired.  If only I had actually thought through my childcare situation before scheduling a makeup lesson.  If only had had replied with, 'yes,' instead of 'thank you,' when my housekeeper asked me if she should come.  If only I had run her text through Google translate and gotten 'excuse me to come,' instead of relying on my own limited Russian skills.  Usually everything doesn't line up so perfectly so as to make such a situation, but there we were.

Finally, at 2:50, five minutes after our lesson had started, a taxi pulled up with my housekeeper inside.  I jumped in the taxi, she took William back inside the house, and the children and I made in time for a 25-minute lesson.  Brandon picked us up at the stable with the newly recharged, re-tired Fit, and life went back to its normal, quiet routine.  The Pilot is still out of commission until the pouch brings the new part, but one car is better than no cars.

So the moral of the story is: when you get a flat tire, fix it.  Because you never know if you'll get another right at the time your other car loses its power steering and your wife has to take all the babysitting-aged children to a horseback riding lesson on the day the housekeeper isn't there and you're actually at work so there's nobody to watch the babies.  

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Thanksgiving 2020

We had a wonderful Thanksgiving this year.  The last remaining family in our church group returned to Tashkent two and a half weeks ago, just in time to clear quarantine so that we could enjoy the holiday together.  

Thanksgiving can be a tricky holiday when there isn't any family within ten time zones.  The Thanksgivings of my youth were always a weekend-long affair where we traveled up to my dad's brother's house and spent the entire time running crazy with his eight children.  The dinner itself was simply a pause for food to fuel even wilder hijinks.  For me, Thanksgiving weekend will always be a time to spend large amounts of time hanging out with people you really like.

This can be hard to achieve when you've only been in a place for a week (Dushanbe) and don't know anyone, and is even a challenge when you've been in a place for awhile, but haven't found a family that shares your need for a really long day together while the children run wild.  This has become harder as we've had more children and have reached a truly intimidating family size.  After all, our family itself is larger than my parents' entire Thanksgiving party this year - which included my brother's family and two separate sets of missionaries.  

But thankfully, we've known our newly returned friends for our entire tour in Tashkent and they have five boys - which is pretty the much same as our seven children.  Brandon and the husband get along well, the wife and I get along equally well, and the children, spanning ages 2-13, also get along well with ours.  We're really lucky to have them here with us in Tashkent.

They very kindly offered to host this year, as I'm still stuck with 1 1/3 hands and not up to my full hosting capabilities.  In addition to getting out of hosting duties, I was also able to shift most of the cooking chores to my ever-helpful children and husband.  Sophia took on the task of pies, making and rolling out all four pie crusts, with the help of a video call from my mom.  She and Edwin mixed up the fillings.  Kathleen washed and peeled potatoes, and Brandon chopped and mashed them.  I made the sweet potato casserole, but used canned sweet potatoes, and Kathleen made the streusel topping (the part I like least).  My only solo effort was the rolls.  

We actually had a great time cooking together, and with three Truly Helpful children, everything was done without too much trouble.  I'm enjoying having older children who are not only capable, but also happy to come and cook with me in the kitchen.  We had all the dishes done by ten in the morning, and spent most of the next three hours watching various things bake in the oven while listening to "Thanksgiving music," which Sophia calls repurposed Christmas carols.

When we finally made it to our friends' house, the children were beyond excited to see their friends after eight months' absence.  It was almost physically painful for them to stop their playing in order to eat a hasty roll and daub of mashed potatoes before going back to playing games, firing nerf guns, and general hijinks.  

The adults were happy to sit and talk, occasionally dodging a stray nerf bullet, and catch up with everyone's doings in the last eight months.  Most of the children were old enough to amuse themselves, and the two youngest hardly caused any trouble.  I'm happy to be past the days of spending my holidays forcing children to eat food they don't want.  It's much more fun to be able to hold almost uninterrupted conversation for hours on end. 

After seven hours of food, talking, playing, pie, and a game of Charades, we parted, full of promises for further adventures together.  As we drove home, full of delicious food and even better friendship, Brandon turned to me.  "That's one of the very best Thanksgivings we've ever had."  And I had to agree with him.  Everyone was happy to be together and nobody was too stressed out.  The children all had a wonderful time.  The food was delicious.  Nobody had to work too hard.  We even got most of the dishes done.  On a normal year, it would have made for a great Thanksgiving.  But this year, with so much separation, isolation, stress, and fear, it was practically magical.  I'm grateful for all the things that worked together to make it happen.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Thoughts on One-Handedness

 I have now been stuck in a cast for twelve days.  Well, it's not actually a cast - it's a metal-foam-sandwhich brace wrapped in a very long ace bandage.  I'm not quite sure why I got this setup instead of a cast (my comprehension at the time was less than complete), but I am happy that I can take it off once a day when I shower.  

Unfortunately, I ended up with a slight crack in my elbow along with the break in my wrist, so the ace bandage-splint setup extends from my mid-upper arm down to my fingers.  My arm is fixed in a right angle and my hand is in extension, which means that my left arm is mostly useless.  I am able to wiggle the fingers on my left hand and grasp, push or squeeze things lightly, but not much else beyond that.  So most of my daily tasks are left up to my right hand (thank heaven I'm not left handed).

I was frankly surprised at the number of things that I can do one handed with no problems.  I discovered that putting in and taking out contacts with one hand is almost no different than doing it with one hand, and maybe a little easier.  If I have to rise them, I can hold a contact in my left fingers while rinsing with my right.  I'm happy that this isn't a problem, as I really don't like wearing glasses.

I can also eat, write, brush my hair, crack eggs, make my bed, hold Elizabeth (but not for long), teach school, use my phone, drive, put on shoes, brush my teeth, feed myself, and unload the dishwasher.

There are a lot of other things that I can do, but with modifications.  Getting dressed is more complicated, especially because of skinny jeans.  I can pull them up, but it takes some time.  I'm also stuck wearing short-sleeved shirts because I can't fit long-sleeved ones over my cast.  Ironically, this week has been the coldest week we've had the entire time we've lived in Tashkent.  Thankfully, our house is warm.

I can cook dinner, mostly, one handed, although it takes longer than it usually does.  Thankfully, I've been having children help me cook for several years now, so I can have them do the things that I simply can't, like grating cheese, washing dishes (I'm not sorry about that one), and chopping hard vegetables (I can slowly chop soft ones, like onions).  I also have to have them open anything with a lid, as twisting things is completely impossible.  But it is surprisingly tiring to cook dinner one-handed, and by the end of cooking dinner, feeding children dinner, and cleaning it up, I'm very worn out - especially if I have to sweep the floor.  It's been very bad luck that Brandon had a 'virtual visit' which meant phone calls every night this week.

There are some things, however, that I just can't do without two fully functional hands.  Every morning I have to get Sophia to pull my hair back in a ponytail, as that combines bending my arm, holding things tightly with my hand, and twisting - which are all very off-limits.  I'm very glad that Sophia likes to do hair, as everyone else in my family is completely and totally useless at doing ponytails.  Brandon made an attempt once and that was enough for him.  

I also can't change dirty diapers.  In a pinch, I can change non-poopy diapers and dress Elizabeth, but when it comes to messy jobs, I just can't manage keeping her fat, kicking legs out of the mess while wiping her stinking bum.  I've allowed everyone to use disposable diapers until my hand is functional again as I don't hate my family that much.  I have to confess, however, that, I'm not that sad about skipping diaper duty for the next month and half. 

But despite the small benefit of being off diaper duty, I'm looking forward to having two fully functional hands again.  I am getting used to planning out a lot of my more complicated maneuvers in advance, remembering the three comfortable positions I can sleep in, and not picking up Elizabeth with my left arm.  By the end of six weeks, I'll have mostly forgotten what it's like to do everything with two hands and will probably take some time to remember that I'm not one-handed anymore.  But I'm fairly confident that I'll get used to it pretty quickly - even if I am back to changing poopy diapers again.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Two Down, Five to Go

There is a saying that a horseback rider isn't a true rider until they've fallen off seven times.  Up until this week, I had only fallen off one time and so I guess I can't come close to considering myself a true horsewoman.  I don't like falling off, so as a general rule, I really try to avoid it.

The last time I fell off, I was bucked off while pregnant with Elizabeth.  Both Kathleen and Sophia had also fallen off Labello, a bad-tempered 16.5 hand white Hanoverian, so I didn't feel very bad about taking my turn falling off him.  I remember watching the ground rush towards me and thinking, "Ah, this is why we wear helmets!"

I don't remember the fall that happened this week. For some time after the fall, I didn't remember a lot of things.  One of the first vague and cloudy things that I remember was Kathleen, almost in tears, telling me that she'd already explained my accident five times.  I told her that I'd remember this time, but evidently she told me two more times before I stopped asking.  

I also remember asking, in Russian, how long it had been, how my horse was, and if I could have a bowl nearby just in case the nausea finally overtook me.  Those memories are dark and cloudy, like a half-remembered dream, and have chunks of space between them where the film skips ahead to the next part.

One of the parts featured Brandon, who inextricably was able to come get me in the middle of the day, not dressed in a suit.  "Why are you here?" I asked him, "Why aren't you at work?" When he explained that we was working home because of COVID, I didn't know what this COVID was that he was talking about.  When he asked me what I had done the day before, I couldn't remember welcoming friends back from their evacuation or Joseph's birthday.

The trip to a local clinic passed in disjointed seconds, and the CT scan and x-ray took much less time than they normally do.  Passing through the ring of the CT scanner reminded me of another scan several years ago, but I couldn't grasp the memory firmly enough to recall what the scan was for.

When we made it to the embassy and I got to see the x-ray of my broken radius, it was only a confirmation of what I'd known as soon as I tried to use my left arm.  I wasn't together enough to be grateful for the clear CT scan, but I am grateful for it now.  And I was more grateful as I discovered each new bruise and sore muscle, along with a black eye and chipped tooth.  I wasn't very far from spending the next few nights or weeks in the hospital instead of my own bed.

As the evening wore on, most of the afternoon fit itself back into my memories.  I had been jumping during my lesson that day.  I was riding my usual horse, a sweet horse that gets very nervous while jumping.  I've been working with her for quite awhile, but she just isn't good for a rider of my level, as even the smallest jumps become large and often end in an impromptu gallop.  After a previous lesson, I had commented to Brandon that she was frankly dangerous to jump.  My teacher had promised another, calmer horse, but that had not happened.

The jumping that day had started out well, and I was able to keep from any wild gallops by halting after each jump and calming her down.  My teacher raised the rail to around 2' 6", a height that I had jumped during previous lessons on my horse.  But according to Kathleen, this time my horse rushed the takeoff, snagged the rail with her front hoof, and we both went down.  

I'm mostly grateful that I don't remember the fall.  I'm not sure how confident I would be the next time I ride with that playing over and over again in my mind.  But part of me wants to know exactly how it happened, just to understand everything better.  Not that it matters, as that hole will remain in my memory until all is restored at resurrection day.

But despite all that went wrong, I am grateful that I am only dealing with the irritation of doing everything one-handed for the next six weeks.  I am grateful that I was, as always, wearing my helmet.  I am grateful that Kathleen was riding with me and was able to call Brandon and the PA at the embassy to come and pick up the pieces.  I don't know what I would have done on my own.  I'm grateful that Kathleen and I speak enough Russian to keep me from getting hauled to the closest local hospital.  I'm grateful that I was flung clear of my horse and didn't get rolled or trampled.  I'm grateful that I broke my left hand instead of my right.  I'm grateful that my chipped tooth is hardly noticeable.  

There are so many things to be grateful for.  So I haven't spent any time lamenting my accident or trying to figure out how it could have been prevented.  I don't regret going to my lesson that day, or wonder why God didn't stop me from going or keep the horse from clipping the rail.  Sometimes things just happen because we are here and living life.  For all the bad things that happen, there are probably a hundred worse things that could have happened.  So I am content with my broken wrist, chipped tooth, and holey memory.  It could have been much worse.

Happy Birthday, Joseph!

 This week Joseph turned nine years old.  It we were a normal-sized family, that would mean that my baby is almost double digits, but Joseph is our middle child so we have a long way to go before everyone is in double digits.

We celebrated the day by taking school off.  One of the benefits to homeschooling is being able to make your own holidays, and in our family, birthdays are holidays.  The children love being part of a big family, as there are birthdays most months of the year.  

Sadly, Brandon had to work, so I took the children to a new park in town without him.  But happily, he volunteered to watch Elizabeth and so we got to be free of baby nap schedules.  Everyone enjoyed getting out of the house and seeing something new and best of all - not doing school.  I enjoyed both myself.

After coming home, I let the children watch a movie in the middle of the day, something that only happens on Christmas.  I cooked Joseph's birthday cake, lemon meringue pie, and ordered his birthday dinner, Chinese food.  

After dinner, singing, and cake, Joseph finally got to the part of the day he'd been anticipating for weeks - the presents.  His siblings pooled their money and bought him an electric train set, and Brandon and I went together with my parents for a LEGO set.  With so many toys already here, I don't really want many more filling up the already crowded toy room.

The boys managed to finish the LEGO set before bed, and Joseph got to go to bed a happy boy after a very good birthday.  We all got to appreciate Joseph and celebrate having him as part of our family.  It was a good day for everyone.  

Sunday, November 8, 2020


         Flag of Kazakhstan - Wikipedia

This Monday was handshake day.  It's been a long week, so handshake day seems like it happened a month ago.  Bidding this year was much more involved than it's been in the past years, but in the end, the options got narrowed down to the same one as always: Central Asia.  

Monday didn't bring any surprises, as there had been a series of communications with both Nur-Sultan and the bureau, and both were very enthusiastic about Brandon coming to Kazakstan.  

I, however, am less enthusiastic.  Being raised in North Carolina, I have a healthy dislike of winter.  I prefer winters that last about six weeks, bring a snowfall or two, and don't stay much past late February and early March.  So far - despite Brandon's Russian skills - I've been able to have very reasonable winters for the eleven years we've been in the Foreign Service.  Brandon, who loves winter, has been on the losing end of the weather for all four posts we've had so far.

Now it's his turn to get all the winter back - with interest.  Nur-Sultan is the second coldest capitol in the word, with only Ulaanbaatar, the capitol of Mongolia, being colder.  Snow starts falling in October, the average high drops below freezing in November, and doesn't see anything above 32 degrees until April.  So, for half of the entire year, the average high temperature in Nur-Sultan is below freezing.  It gets so cold in the winter that the Ishim river freezes, everyone gets out their sleds and and ice skates, and the whole city plays on the frozen river for three months straight.  It's always been a life goal to never live in a place that has rivers freeze solid.  I feel like that is against the laws of decency.

Nur-Sultan is a new city, built in the site of a small administrative capital from the Soviet era.  The capitol of Kazakstan was moved in 1998 from Almaty, located in the mountains in the south of Kazakhstan, to Nur-Sultan.  It is a planned city, similar to Brasilia, and has skyscrapers, parks, a 60-meter glass pyramid, and an entire mall shaped like a glass yurt.  After spending our time in crumbling, post-Soviet cities, it will be somewhat nice to be somewhere new and shiny.  

The former capitol, Almaty, is nestled in a beautiful valley in the northern Tien-Shan mountains, with lots of skiing, hiking, and outdoor mountains.  Nur-Sultan is not.  Located in the northern part of Kazakhstan, Nur-Sultan is an island in the middle of vast steppe.  Other than hiking across endless steppe or cross-country skiing, there's not much to do outside the city.  I'm trying to convince Brandon that we all need to get horses and practice our steppe-raider skills, but so far he hasn't gone for it.  

We will be stopping in DC for a year of language training, so we won't be getting to Kazakhstan until summer of 2022, and I am okay with that.  Usually I'm excited to get to our next post, with new adventures and advantages.  But this time, I'm perfectly happy to spend another year delaying the freezing cold winters.  Everyone has a little more time to get older and more proficient at putting their own snow gear on and taking it off.  I have more time to research heated socks, leggings, jackets, hats, and mittens (I'm not kidding about hating cold) and enjoy seventy-degree Novembers.  I can put off winter for a little while longer.

I'm sure that in time we all come to enjoy all the of the good things that Nur-Sultan has to offer.  I've been living in strange places long enough to know that everything has its good features and its bad ones.  And just like there's no perfectly wonderful post, there's no perfectly terrible one either.  The children will probably tell tales for the rest of their live about the most amazing winters they've ever had, and I'm pretty sure someone will break an arm on the crazy sled runs they'll build in our backyard.  Everyone will definitely get better at ice skating.  We'll get really, really good at making hot tea by the gallon, and we'll really appreciate that technology has given up remote car starters.  And in the end, when I've survived -40 degree weather and lived to tell the tale, I might even learn to love winter.  A little bit.  Maybe.  Perhaps.  I'm not making any promises about that one.  

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Halloween 2020

We had a low-key Halloween this year.  Our Halloweens are usually low-key, but this year was a really low-key year.  A few weeks before Halloween, there was talk about having a socially-distant trunk-or-treat at the embassy compound.   When I asked the children if they'd rather do that or stay home for a bonfire and candy hunt, they all decided - given that the candy haul would be comparable - to stay home for the bonfire.

So my normally half-hearted Halloween efforts got even less so, and I managed to buy the kids off with fifteen minutes of candy hunting and no costumes whatsoever.  2020 for the win.

As Brandon and I were hiding candy around the yard ("Hey Mom, will it be in Easter eggs?  We still have some of them!" Nope kids, that would mean stuffing them first.  Why should I go to the trouble?), I remarked that it felt like we had just been hiding candy for Easter.  Of course Easter was six months ago, but that's how time goes these days.

They children all loved the hunt, and then happily divvied up the loot afterwards while Brandon and I got the bonfire going.  Earlier, when I was trying to explain to William about the evening's activities, he got very confused about whether we were going to have roasted candy or roasted marshmallows.  When I explained to him that we would roast the marshmallows - not the candy - he got very indignant.  "No Mom! I don't want to! Because marshmallows are disgusting and candy ISN'T!!!" 

But in the end, the joke was on him, because he fell asleep before we made it to the marshmallow roasting part of the evening.  It was probably just fine for his pancreas, however.

We finished the evening with the Lovecraft story "The Rats in the Walls," which understandably freaked out all the surviving children (William, Eleanor, and Elizabeth were in bed).  I'm not sure what Brandon is going to read for bonfires after he runs through all the Lovecraft stories.  

Everyone was bathed and in bed a little after eight, so I call the evening a win.  I guess all of 2020 hasn't been that bad.

Happy Birthday, Elizabeth!

Elizabeth turned one this week.  I know it's cliche to say, but I can't believe how fast the time has passed.  It's a been a strange first year, as Elizabeth was only four months old when covid hit, so the past eight months have been compressed down to a few weeks. 

I was a little sad the night before her birthday, as I rocked my last baby before putting her down to bed.  Now all our children are __ years old and will be from here on.  But, I suppose all children grow up and there's nothing we can do to stop them.

To celebrate Elizabeth's birthday, we made applesauce.  When Eleanor asked if we could do something fun to celebrate, she was very disappointed to find out that babies don't get fun things on their birthdays because they don't know what a birthday is anyway.

We made Elizabeth a cake today, lit a candle, and sung to her.  She was fairly puzzled about the entire experience and graciously allowed her siblings to blow out the candle for her.  Her kind grandmother sent her a gift, which she enjoyed very much. 

Elizabeth is a (usually) very happy baby, mostly content to crawl around the house looking for interesting things to explore.  She has recently discovered the pleasure of trash cans and can often be found in the bathroom with her treasures spread around her on the floor.  I unwisely taught her how to climb up stairs, so she has access to all floors of the house and can make bigger messes.

Recently she has begun preferring Sophia to me, which makes my heart die a little bit each time she pushes me away when I go to pick her up.  On a few occasions, she's started crying when I took her away from her favorite sister.  I have no one to blame myself, however, as I have the children help out a lot with the baby.  Such is the life as a seventh child.  

Everyone adores Elizabeth, and there is usually no shortage of children vying for her attention.  Joseph loves to push her in the swing, Eleanor enjoys dressing her up, William will show her books, Edwin spins her around while she giggles wildly, Kathleen takes her on walks almost every afternoon, and Sophia will pick her up every time she cries (which probably explains the preference).  

We are all happy to have Elizabeth as part of our family.  Happy Birthday! 

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Back in Wonka-Land

Last week, my Russian teacher's daughter fell ill.  She wasn't terribly ill, just tired and feeling low, which could be caused by any number of issues.  My teacher started getting worried, however, when her daughter lost her sense of smell and taste.  She got tested, and on Monday discovered that both she and her daughter were positive for COVID.  

I consulted with the medical provider at the embassy, and she put us back in quarantine.  It was convenient timing, as Brandon had spend all day out doing cotton observations and had to complete two weeks of quarantine himself.  I said a silent prayer of thanks that the quarantine came after Brandon and I spent a nice overnight at the Hilton in town without the children.

We are all getting used to quarantining, but getting used to things still doesn't make them enjoyable.  The children were most disappointed about not being able to go to the store for their candy fixes and Kathleen was frustrated with having to wait two weeks before her next horseback riding lesson.  Brandon didn't much care.  I texted a friend who had offered earlier to get us extra cash if we needed it, and got her husband to pick up our mail for us too.

After a very quiet half a week, Eleanor came down with a fever Wednesday evening.  Joseph fell ill that evening also, and by the morning Sophia had a sore throat and William also had a fever.  The fevers were quite low and everyone was in reasonable spirits, so normally I would have thought nothing of it.  I hate taking people to the med unit for something short of hemorrhagic bleeding or compound fractures - mostly because it takes a two-hour chunk out of my busy day.  

However, having four people display symptoms of COVID within five days of exposure to a COVID-positive friend was too coincidental for my taste.  I got in touch with our medical provider, and she generously offered to make a home visit to collect samples for testing.

I had heard that the nasal swabs were long, but I didn't quite realize how long they were until I watched as our masked, face-shielded, gloved, plastic-aproned NP stuck it up and up and up Joseph's nose.  He was not happy about being held in my death-grip and let the entire neighborhood know about it as he screamed like someone was trying to kill him.  

I had thought that his example would reassure Eleanor, but Joseph's screaming didn't inspire much confidence in his younger sister.  This time I held her head still while Sophia held her arms down and our intrepid medical provider crammed another impossibly long swab up both of Eleanor's nostrils.  I think that Eleanor's screaming started before the swab even reached her nostril.  Her screams, if possible, were even louder than Joseph's and went on longer.

Sophia held perfectly still for her swab and didn't utter a sound.

William didn't get swabbed at all.  I could only imagine he would take that probe being shoved up both his nostrils, and if three of us were sick with COVID, it was nearly impossible for anyone in the house to escape getting sick also.  

Within three hours we had the results back - negative.  I was both relieved and also a little bit disappointed.  I'm grateful that everyone just had a regular cold, but it would have been nice to just get the virus done with and not worry about exposure any more.  But mostly I was happy to get back to regularly-scheduled quarantine.

We live a pretty secluded life, only regularly interacting with our housekeeper, the piano teacher, and Russian teacher.  But I shouldn't have been surprised when someone we knew eventually got sick - everything here is pretty much open and while the virus isn't tearing through the population, it also isn't going to be gone anytime soon either.  But now that our Russian teacher (who is doing perfectly well) no longer a carrier, a third of the likely transmission routes is no longer possible.  So hopefully we won't have another quarantine for some time.  Fingers crossed.  

Sunday, October 4, 2020

How to Your Hands on Money That is Already Yours

 Brandon and I are working on a project (which will get its own blog post once it's done).  We started talking about it at the end of last year, looked for artists after quarantine ended, and found one that we liked right before we left for R&R.  We've finally gotten all of the details worked out and the time has come to pay for all the work that he will be doing for us.

Despite Uzbekistan having a relatively solid currency, everyone here likes to be paid in dollars.  We've never been in a country where anyone actually likes to be paid in local currency.  Sometimes you can pay businesses that are geared towards tourists with credit cards, which around here is carpet shops, but not much else.  Checks are just worthless pieces of paper.

Luckily, the embassy has cashier services.  In the US, when you actually need a whole lot of actual dollars, you can go to the bank where you have an account and withdraw money.  That, obviously, isn't an option overseas.  Some embassy families open accounts in their host country so they can use credit cards, get money out, and write checks (in countries where checks are actually a thing).  We've never tried to do that as banks in the places we live can be risky things - in Tajikistan, only fourteen percent of the population kept any money at all in banks.  Everyone else just kept it in sock drawers at home.

So the embassy has a cashier who will help you out, cashing checks and disbursing the money in local currency or dollars.  When we first were posted to Dushanbe, the embassy only allowed disbursement in local currency.  We had to go and visit the Hyatt and get money out in five-hundred dollar increments whenever we needed it to pay our housekeeper.  The ATM claimed to only allow two-hundred dollar withdrawals, but word was passed around that you could actually get out five hundred with a secret workaround.  

Thankfully, the cashier here is happy to hand over crisp hundred-dollar bills, which is good as we have a Russian tutor, piano teacher, pool man, and housekeeper who all want to be paid each month in US currency.  The only hitch is the daily limit - a thousand dollars a day.

A thousand dollars a day sounds like a lot of money.  But when you're paying a housekeeper who comes three times a week, a piano teacher that comes for three and a half hours a week, and a Russian tutor who practically lives at your house, that limit gets reached pretty easily.  And those are just the people that want to be paid in dollars - add in food for nine people and horseback riding lessons for six - and we have a pretty impressive cash flow these days.

But even with the limit, we usually don't run into problems.  Usually, the cashier is open every day, and so after a handful of trips to the window and more than a handful of stacks of money, there is enough money for monthly expenses.

We are not, however, in usual times - and haven't been for over six months now.  Instead of being open every day, the cashier office is now only open for three hours once a week - with the same thousand dollar limit.  Up until recently, we've been able to keep up with our army of dependents with weekly visits to the cashier's office.  It's a pain to go in once a week just to get money, but it's worked enough.

But then we decided to commission a project.  When the details were worked out and the final price was named, the artist asked if he could get his payment in advance.  He is a very well-known artist in Bukhara, so I'm less worried about being taken for a ride.  Additionally, the tourist business here is close to zero and he was quite sick with covid during the summer, so getting his payment in advance would help him out a lot.  I agreed to pay him in advance, and my wonderful Russian teacher, who has been helping out with the project, offered to be a courier for the money,

The only thing missing was the actual money.  We have plenty of money, but it turns out that having money in numbers and having money in actual bills is not the same thing.  And when you're in Uzbekistan in the middle of a pandemic and limited cash withdrawal availability, those two things are very, very different.

We started with an appeal to the financial management officer.  The daily money cap is more of a guideline, and if you ask in advance, the cashier will try and accommodate larger sums.  I could practically hear the incredulous laughter as she looked at the amount we were requesting.  No, she politely responded, that wouldn't be possible especially as we're nearing the end of the fiscal year and money services are already strained.  However, she noted, the ATM at the embassy could dispense up to two thousand dollars a day.

Great.  All we had to do was make a few trips and we would be fine.  Brandon and I headed over to the embassy and strode over to the Bank of Uzbekistan ATM, debit cards in hand.  The first attempt to enter Brandon's PIN ended in scrambled text, as did the second.  We decided to try the Russian option, which made it to the next window where we asked for two thousand dollars.  Were we willing to accept the ten dollar fee?  At this point, we weren't spoiled for choice.  Yes.  Ten seconds later, the machine spit out both our card and a receipt, but no cash.  Next we asked for a thousand dollars, with the same result.  

The hotels around here also have ATMs, so we headed to the Hyatt next.  There were no dollars available, only local currency.  And for the privilege of getting our own money, we had to pay a 1.5% service fee.  I will never grumble about US ATM fees again.  By this point, the afternoon was over and need to get home to cook dinner, so we gave up.

I talked with my Russian teacher the next day, hoping for some magic way we could get money from Tashkent to Bukhara without actually needing to physically give it to someone.  I now have a new appreciation for Venmo, wire transfers, online shopping, electronic bill pay, and PayPal.  She didn't have anything new to offer, so we resigned ourselves to a whole lot of ATM visits.

That evening we made another trip to the embassy to try to ATM one more time.  Not only did the artist prefer dollars to soum, but it would take ten times the number of bills to pay him the same amount of money.  This time we used the Russian screen and only asked for five hundred dollars.  The machine whirred, a polite voice told us to wait, and five crisp hundred dollar bills waited for us.  We tried again and five hundred more dollars joined the first stack nestled carefully in my wallet.  Brandon and I high-fived each other.  Then we tried it again.  Our luck didn't hold out.  The next ATM similarly disappointed us, but we still couldn't contain the glee that came from actually holding our very own money in our very own hands.

And so for the next several days, either Brandon or I (or sometimes both of us) made our daily trek to the embassy for money.  The ATM sits in the lobby within sight of the Marine who mans the security station for the embassy, and I can only imagine what he thought as he saw us coming for money day after day.  Each day another ten bills would join our growing stack, and I would count, again, how many more visits we had left until there was enough money.  

Two days before my teacher had plane tickets scheduled for her courier service, we finally had it all.  I handed it over to her as first I, then she, counted out each crisp bill to make sure they were all there.  I said a silent prayer that nobody would try and see how much money she had in her purse while she made the journey.  It isn't enough money that we can't afford to lose it, but it's still a lot of money.

Yesterday she sent pictures of the handoff, and so now we just have to wait for the beautiful things that will come from our artist.  Brandon and I are planning on a trip to go and pick up the work ourselves when it is done, and I am eagerly looking forward to the time when I can hold the work in my own hands and appreciate the beautiful thing that belongs to us.  And even better, we will have already paid for it.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

It's Bidding Time

This Monday started the six-week long time that is known in the State Department as bidding season.  Similar to a worldwide game of musical chairs, it's the time when all the officers that are leaving next summer secure their onward assignment.  A long list is published with all of the openings and everyone is left to find a job that fits their qualifications, experience, and personal preferences.  It resembles middle-school note passing, with various ways of expressing interest and trying to find someone that likes you as much as you like them.  The music stops this year, ironically, on the day after election day, when job offers are sent out and hopefully everyone has found a new spot.

For me, bidding season is equal parts anticipation and sheer terror.  I am a planner and always want to know where we're going next as soon as we get to our new post.  The excitement of a new place always calls to me, and I love poring through the list of positions as soon as they come out, imagining all of the great things about the various places on the list.  There are endless possibilities - as long as they are all possibilities.

But inevitably, reality occurs and I have to narrow down the list and Brandon has to get to work actually securing a job.  There may be a job that seems perfect for us and Brandon seems well suited for, but the post may like somebody more than him.  Too many factors go in to bidding to make any post a sure deal until the end, so I just have to cross my fingers and hope for the best.

This bidding cycle is the most interesting cycle we've had so far.  Brandon's first two cycles were directed assignments, which meant that we just submitted a wish list and someone else did the choosing.  Cairo was our first pick, and Baku our second, so there wasn't much disappointment when we got our assignments.  When Brandon bid for the first real time, we were on the winter cycle which had about four jobs that he could do.  Our options were Dushanbe, Lima, or Africa, so we were quite happy with Dushanbe.  When we got the job in Tashkent, Brandon bid only on Russian-speaking jobs which made for another restricted list of possibilities.

This time, however, we are bidding during the summer cycle and are not restricting our posts to Russian-speaking posts.  When Brandon narrowed down the list to posts in three geographic areas that had houses and R&R flights, we came up with thirty possible jobs.  Every single one of the jobs were in places that were completely reasonable.  Living in Dushanbe does move a lot of other countries into the 'completely reasonable' category, and it was nice to see so many options.

We've not been in the Foreign Service for eleven years, and I've become less picky about where we live.  I've given up the idea of trying to find the 'perfect' post, as every place has its upsides and downsides.  There are always tradeoffs, and so it is easier to just try for everything and see what works out, instead of hoping for that one post that is perfect and being disappointed when it doesn't work out.  

I have done a little bit of research on possible future posts, but not that much.  In former years, I obsessively searched for every single possible detail about each city, trying to figure out which one was the absolute best.  I haven't bothered this time, figuring that I probably only need to start comparing pros and cons if Brandon actually gets several job offers.  Otherwise, why bother learning all of the great things about a city that you'll never actually visit, much less live in?

In about four and a half weeks, the dust will settle and we will know what new country will join our list of strange places we've lived in.  All of the future possibilities will have collapsed down in to one single eventuality and my planner can start working on realities.  I'll start obsessively searching out every possible detail of what our next assignment will be like, and the countdown clock will start ticking in the back of my head.  I will daydream about all the adventures or try to think of ways to make up for all the deficiencies that will be there.  

But for now, the future is still uncertain and in that future many things are possible.  I hope it turns out well.

Welcome, Fall!

 Last Friday, a wind blew through Tashkent.  Clouds rolled in as the Virginia creeper covering our pool house blew wildly in the gusts.  A few smattering drops of rain dotted the dust and sent the children in to the house to escape the storm.

Saturday morning, fall was here.  

Up until last Friday, Tashkent was firmly still stuck in summer.  The weather had started to cool down, but the children swam every day and horseback riding lessons were sweat-drenched.  When I thought of anything but hot days and short-sleeved shirts, my mind couldn't imagine what that would be like.  I figured that summer would continue endlessly in one green, blue-skied, and sunny eternity.

But on Saturday, everyone was wearing jackets and jeans as we all enjoyed the warmth of a roaring bonfire.  I've started to notice trees turning yellow around town, and when we pulled in to the embassy parking lot yesterday, it was looking positively autumnal.

The temperatures have dropped into the mid-seventies during the day and the mid-fifties in the evening, which has made for absolutely beautiful afternoons.  However, it has ushered in the awkward temperature dance that happens in the fall and spring.  The houses here are enormous concrete boxes with no insulation, which makes them quite cool as soon as the temperature drops below the upper seventies.  This past week I was in socks, slippers, and a wool cardigan while teaching school and had to sleep under several blankets at night.

So I had the boilers turned on and by the next day everyone was throwing open windows to cool the house down.  Brandon complained about having to sleep in such a sweat box, but I pointed out that my feet had been ice cubes the night before.  We've turned off a lot of individual radiators to cool down some, but such is life with boilers.  Sometimes I have fantasies about one day living in a house with central heating and thermostats.

The cold-lovers in our family are delighted with the advent of fall, and are looking forward to crisp days and hot chocolate, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.  The fall fruits have come in to season and I'm enjoying pomegranates, persimmons, and pears.  Last week I made Brandon a quince tart, one of his favorite desserts.  

When I asked Eleanor today what she was looking forward to, she exclaimed, "snow!"  I'm happy for the change of seasons too, but less looking forward to the cold, grey days of January and February.  

But for now we're enjoying the beginning of another long, pleasant Tashkent fall that will take its time before descending into winter.  I'm not sure where we'll end up next, so I'll enjoy the last fall here while I can!

Sunday, September 13, 2020

End of Quarantine

As of Friday, we have officially been in Tashkent for fourteen days and our quarantine is over.  I can't say that the quarantine was particularly onerous - we've been doing some form of quarantine since March and it's not like we get out that much anyway.

The children were happy about some aspects of quarantine, mostly that they didn't have to start Russian lessons.  It was kind of nice to get over jet lag in complete isolation and not have to worry about Brandon getting to work or having to see anyone until we were fully human again.  

Getting groceries wasn't a problem either, as we've been doing grocery delivery for several months now.  Restaurants also deliver, so we weren't even stuck with the food that I felt like cooking in the depths of jet lag (which, as it turns out, was nothing more complicated than cold cereal).  

When I started cooking again, however there were a few meals when I discovered that I had forgotten a key ingredient and had to switch plans at the last minute.  Usually I send a child off to the store for last-minute ingredients, but couldn't because of quarantine.  

The hardest part from me was not having a housekeeper for two weeks.  I had visions of an amazingly dirty house after two weeks of neglect.  Briefly I considered cleaning it myself, but decided that we could live with the filth until Shoira was allowed to come back to work.  But other than our magic kitchen floor, which gets dirty whenever it's merely breathed on, and overflowing bathroom trash cans, the rest of the house stayed surprisingly clean.  Not that I'm planning on having it cleaned less frequently.

For the children, the hardest part was not going to the store.  Everyone had been paid to clean out a neighbor's yard while visiting my parents in Raleigh, and so the children were flush with new cash that was begging to be spent on treats.  Joseph had a detailed shopping list of all the things he would buy, and was disappointed to come back from the grocery store with 'gun' not crossed off his list.  However, he did come home with a new Lego set and candy, so he was somewhat mollified.  

The children, sadly or happily depending on who you talk to, are beginning all their lessons this week.  I'm pretty sure that the teachers are happy that we are beginning lessons this week also, as the cost for five children's lessons isn't a small sum.  I'm less happy, as now I have to make sure everyone does their practicing.

But, most of all, I'm happy that we've made it through our quarantine, and even happier that the quarantine appears to have been completely unnecessary.  Honestly, I'm shocked that we not only managed to spend over thirty-four hours flying across the world and around the States, but also spent time with lots of friends and family - some of whom also did a lot of traveling - without getting nothing more than a handful of very snotty colds.  I'm not quite sure how we managed to avoid getting sick, especially after spending twelve hours on a completely full plane (twice).  I can't claim that it was because we were especially careful, so I guess I'll just chalk it up to good luck.

The end of quarantine means that we will be back to our full and busy Regular Schedule.  And with the return of the regular schedule, we begin our last year in Tashkent.  Brandon has already started looking at new jobs, which only further emphasizes our dwindling time at this post.  I'm happy that we still have a year left before the dislocation of moving, but the last year is always full of Lasts.  This is our last fall here, so we only have one more opportunity to do all the fall things (which I'm at a loss to remember what they exactly are).  Then it will be the last Christmas, and the last spring and then the last summer and then we'll be gone.  

But for now it's only September, and so I'll enjoy my time, quarantine free, here in Tashkent.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

High School

 Kathleen started high school this year.  It's crazy to have a child in high school, as I clearly remember my own time in high school.  Even crazier was realizing that Kathleen, who is four years away from starting college, is five times closer to her freshman year than I am, who started at BYU twenty years ago.  I guess this is how getting old happens - you're young until suddenly it's someone else's turn to be young.

Whenever I've had conversations about homeschooling, high school is always brought up.  "But what will you do about high school?" the person will ask, "Won't you send her to traditional school then?" I had thought that perhaps we would consider sending Kathleen in for a few classes that were more hands on or instructor dependent, like science or math.  This year, ironically, that decision was taken out of our hands, as nobody here is attending school in person anyway.  So it's a moot point.

We hadn't really considered it anyway, however, as I've found an online academy - The Well-Trained Mind Academy - that offers individual online classes that follows along with the curriculum and learning philosophy that we've been using since Kathleen started kindergarten.  

When I started thinking about how Kathleen would do high school last year, I considered several options.  BYU offers an online high school that I looked in to, but I've heard from a friend who uses them that the instructors are not understanding about time differences, going so far as making students take exams at two in the morning.  We are twelve hours ahead of Utah, so that was not going to work very well.  

Also, I didn't like the classes offered.  The Well-Trained Mind is a classical curriculum that is built on four-year cycles that are repeated three times, with the culmination being in high school when the real in-depth learning happens.  BYU high school doesn't follow that cycle and so Kathleen wasn't going to get the final, most important cycle.

We also considered having her doing some classes as independent study through BYU University.  We plan on encouraging all our children to attend a Church of Jesus Christ school for a variety of reasons (one of them being financial), so it made sense to start getting credits now instead of taking AP tests for college credit.  That option isn't off the table, but we decided that freshman year might be a little early to start college level classes.  

So instead Kathleen is taking almost all of her classes through the Well-Trained Mind academy.  I'm busy with the smaller children who need in-person, hands-on instruction, so I decided it was better to have Kathleen learn from teachers who are paid to deliver in-depth high-quality education.  They were going to be more stringent than me, more thorough than me, and more knowledgable than me.  Also, it is good for her to get used to having to perform to someone else's standards and get used to doing things according to a deadline.  I knew that I would be inclined to be lazy with her education, and didn't want her to suffer for my laziness.  

She is also doing seminary online, through an expat class that is based in England.  I had hoped that there would be a weekly online live class, but it isn't set up that way, instead being self-study.  If we are overseas next year, I will find a US-based class that has live classes that she can attend a day or two per week.  And with the time difference, it won't even be held in the early morning. Seminary is much better with other people.  

Kathleen's favorite part of high school is getting to ride twice a week instead of once a week like the rest of her siblings.  Horseback riding is her after-school sport, so we decided that she could practice twice a week.  I don't like a lot of time commitments so we're keeping it to twice a week, but she's happy for the change.  I already ride twice a week, so we'll have some mother-daughter bonding time.

I feel somewhat sad that she won't have the typical fun high school experiences that I had in my high school days, but I'm also glad that she won't have to deal with so much of the negative ones that happen along with the good ones.  When she laments the lack of constant social interaction, I remind her that in four years she will get to begin college and be around peers all day, every day.  I know that there is no perfect option for schooling, and we are all happy with the one that we have chosen, despite its downsides.  Selfishly, I know that she will be gone in four years, and I want to keep her close while I can.  

So that's high school this year.  I'll let you know next year how it has turned out.  

First Week of School, jet lag edition

All of the children started school this week.  I really hate the first week of school.  Summer is not only a break for the children, but for me as well.  Our tight schedule relaxes, I don't have to chase people around to do things they don't want to do, and everyone gets a break.  But all summers must come to an end, and ours did this week.  Only nine more months until summer again.  Sigh.

At the end of school in June, I did a smart thing and prepped everything for the beginning of school this year.  I ordered school books, organized notebooks, wrote out schedules, made new grade spreadsheets, printed out workbooks, and arranged school tables.  This turned out to be a good move, as we started our school year less than seventy-two hours after returning to Tashkent.

Usually I deal with jet lag reasonably well, helped out significantly by prescription sleeping pills.  Brandon will complain of having been up half the night, and I will smugly commiserate, having gotten a full nights' sleep myself.  This time, however, was less successful.  I can't blame the baby, as she only woke up once or twice the first night.  I guess I'll just blame getting older.  In a reversal of fortunes, Brandon was the one who blissfully snored away while I tossed and turned all night.  I suppose it's payback for my years of smugness.  Thankfully we are more than a week back in Tashkent, and the sleepless jet lag nights and even more terrible days are safely in the place for bad memories that includes newborns, young motherhood, moving, and potty training.  

At the beginning of last week, however, we were still in the middle of bleary-eyed days filled with thick-limbed creeping around the house under clouds of exhausted despair.  If being jet lagged is anything like a bad hangover, I'm perfectly happy to not be a drinker.  So instead of full start to school, we had more of a graduated beginning to our academic year.

Kathleen, in her first year of high school (how did that happen???), had already started school two weeks earlier with the collection of online classes I signed her up for.  Sophia and Edwin, who have three online classes apiece, also got to try and fit those in around playing with friends and family in Utah.  It turns out that the trade-off for outsourcing teaching to someone else is having to stick with their schedule.  Sigh.

I hadn't finished a few last administrative things off this summer, so I spent a the first few days of the week arranging those.  Then I fell into the time-wasting planning of my eventual dream house (even moms sometimes get distracted and don't want to do their jobs).  So I didn't start actually teaching school until Thursday, and not quite all of the school at that.  But I did start school, and less a week after we returned home, so I felt like I got a solid high-five for that accomplishment.

Thankfully, each school year's start goes more smoothly than the last one, and, shockingly, this year was almost free of yelling (by me), crying (by the children), or screaming (by everyone).  Each year I add a few more improvements to the schedule and tweak things to make everyone's day run more smoothly.  Often I will introduce a new program to help keep everyone organized after a few weeks of chaos, but this year I haven't yet found anything that could use improvement.  I guess nine years of perfecting my systems has finally paid off.  

There was one morning that I finished my work by eleven and I wandered around the nearly silent house looking for random household tasks to fill my time until lunch.  It was almost eerie.  I'm very happy to be a mother of older children as well as little ones.  Life is just so much easier than it was five years ago.

This school year looks to be (hopefully) pretty quiet as we finish up our last year in Tashkent.  I'm happy that our last baby has arrived and I won't be pregnant or delivering this year, instead just continuing on with our quiet, regulated lives.  And I'm completely okay with that.  

Sunday, August 30, 2020


On July 30, we boarded a charter flight in Tashkent and about thirteen hours later, got off in New York.  After our flights through Korea had been cancelled two weeks earlier, we had given up hope of making it to the US for our usual summer vacation.  The following Monday Brandon heard news of a repatriation flight bringing Uzbeks back from New York.  As the airplane had to get there first, the Uzbek government was also offering seats on the outbound leg.  We quickly put ourselves on the list.  As is standard in these situations, we didn't actually get the tickets until four days before our departure, but we got them in the end.

The only catch was that we had no flights back.  There were still no commercial routes available for us to return on, and by leaving we ran the risk of being stuck out until commercial air travel opened back up - which could possibly take months.  I'm a bit of a gambler, and Brandon uncharacteristically agreed that we should just go and take our chances.  So we went, not knowing when we would get back.  

We landed in Raleigh on Thursday evening, taking thirteen hours to get more than a third of the way across the globe and nine hours to cover the last five hundred miles.  After a day to recover and fit in a few crucial doctor's appointments, we headed to the coast on Saturday for a week of the beach.  We hadn't been to my family's annual beach week since 2017, so the children were beyond excited to finally make it this year.  My extended family also showed up, with nine original siblings with spouses, twenty-nine children and spouses, and forty-nine grand children.  Despite coming from across the US (and the globe), everyone stayed healthy and had a wonderful week together, despite the category 1 hurricane that dropped in on Monday night.  

The next Saturday we drove from the beach to Raleigh where my parents dropped us off at the airport.  Everyone marveled at the luxury of taking one (only one!) flight to get to Salt Lake city where we picked up a couple of rental cars and drove up to Twin Falls, Idaho.  Brandon's brother had bravely invited both us and his parents to come for a visit, cramming twenty people into his house and camper trailer.  The children got to experience the long Idaho evenings, white water rafting, a giant slip n' slide, shooting guns, sparklers, a bonfire with s'mores, homemade ice cream, and endless cousin time.  Kathleen turned fourteen during the visit, so all the girls went out for lunch and shopping at the local mall.  Everyone got much less sleep than they were used to.

After Idaho we made our way down to Highland, Utah, where one of Brandon's sisters and three of his brothers live.  The children enjoyed getting reacquainted with more cousins and raiding a new toy room.  The adults had a great time catching up and everyone, again, stayed up much too late.  We finished our intermountain west visit with friends from the foreign service.  The children played, the adults talked, we went hiking and swimming, and everyone had a great time.  

We had tickets to return to Raleigh on the 21st of August, but nothing beyond that.  Brandon and I had decided to return to the beach for another week or two - what better place to wait for a ride home than the beach?  I had started looking at places to rent when we got an email about a return flight on August 27, another repatriation flight.  We once again put our names on the list and flew back to Raleigh to wait for the tickets to come through.  

The tickets did come through, four days before our flight and on Thursday we took the long flight back to Tashkent.  Everyone is almost through with jet lag, and school begins this week.

Our yearly trips to America are always the highlight of the summer, but this trip wins the prize for being the best ever.  After months and months of isolation, spending time with friends and family was an amazing gift.  The older I grow, the more important relationships are to me.  Doing things is fun, but being with people that I love is even better.  I can't count the number of times Brandon and I would look at each other and say, "Aren't you SO glad we decided to come???"  It was a much-needed opportunity to take a break, catch up, and refill everyone's empty social reservoirs.  

School starts again this week, and with it, the end of summer.  Life is still not normal here in Tashkent, and we have two weeks of total isolation before we can return to a semi-regular schedule.  But everyone has had a wonderful breather from normal, non-normal life and we can all head in to our last year in Tashkent with tanner skin, blonder hair, a serious sleep deficit, and wonderful memories.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

How We Do Homeschooling

Recently I've gotten a lot of questions from friends about homeschooling.  With the announcement of online or online-hybrid schooling in a lot of school districts, many parents have decided that homeschooling is the better option for their children.  I've been very happy to pass along my own advice, as giving advice is one of my favorite things to do.  Having gained my knowledge from countless mistakes, I'm glad to see someone else profiting from my hard-won experience.

I started homeschooling over ten years ago, when I taught Kathleen to read at the age of three.  This fall I'll have a freshman in high school, a seventh grader, a fifth grader, a third grader, and a first grader.  

I've always used The Well-Trained Mind, a book that Brandon brought home from the BYU bookstore when I was pregnant with Kathleen.  We had both wanted to homeschool, but I was very apprehensive about being able to teach everything myself.  For every year in school, the book laid out what I should do, how I should do it, when I should do it, and how long I should do it.  It was a huge relief to me.  We've been using it ever since.  

Choosing homeschool curriculum can be very daunting, as there seem to be endless options, but in the end it's a decision about preferences.  Some curricula are more academically rigorous, some are more exploration-based, others are religious, and others are secular.  It's just a matter of choice.  Most are perfectly reasonable, so it's just what works best for you and your family.  

I like The Well-Trained Mind because we're an academically rigorous type of family, and the curriculum is based on a classical education, with Latin and logic being included in the recommended areas of study.  That said, however, I've found that I've dropped a few things over the years, including Latin.  

I used to be very concerned that my children would be able to learn the most possible things they could physically stuff into a day, but over time I've realized that that wasn't the best method for me or the children.  Now that I have a child in high school, I can see that the subjects are repeated enough time that if Joseph hasn't memorized the definition of a noun in first grade, he will have memorized it by sixth grade.  He's going to read the History of the World series twice by the time he's through with middle school.  And the Saxon math books spend the first third of the book in review, so we'll see long division quite a few times.  

So in elementary school, I make sure that the children are able to: 1. Read fluently and capably.  Reading is the basis for everything, so it needs to be solid or the child won't be able to do anything else very well.  2. Know their math facts, how to count, add, subtract, multiply, divide, and tell time.  3. Write with decent handwriting (I hate messy handwriting, so I get a little fussy about it) and be able to spell correctly and write a summary.  Writing, like reading, is the foundation of almost any other discipline.  It's how we communicate, and if you can't write, nobody takes you seriously.

Science and history are fun subjects and are less important because they can be made up for later if you don't get around to them.  We do science and history because we've got time, but if you don't have time, these are the things you can skip.  Art and music are really extra.  We don't have any formal art curriculum and the kids take piano for music, as long as singing together as a family for church and Family Home Evening.  

In middle school, the children start taking online classes, through the Well-Trained Mind Academy, for history, writing, and math.  It's a good opportunity for them to learn to work for someone other than me, keep track of assignments, and have deadlines.  It's also nice for me to give the more time-intensive things to someone else.  I can teach writing and pre-algebra, but I'm busy teaching small children how to read, write, do math.  It's better to have someone else do those things.  Once the children are in seventh grade, they also teach their buddy science and history.  It helps me out and gives them the opportunity to review the material again.  

Kathleen is taking almost all of her classes online this year, only doing Russian, Logic, piano, and horseback riding not online.  So by high school, I'm not teaching them anything at all.  It is only homeschooling in that she's doing school at home and I'm just there to answer questions, check up, and offer moral support.  

So that's our homeschooling in a nutshell.  I'm happy to answer any questions in another post or answer questions sent along to me.  Homeschooling can seem pretty daunting and can get pretty chaotic depending on the day, but it's worked well enough for us that we have no intention of quitting.  There are many things I enjoy about it, but most of all I like that we get to be together as a family.  Every morning we have a hot breakfast together, and every evening we all eat dinner together.  After dinner, Brandon reads to the children and they all go to bed at eight.  I don't play a taxi driver, we don't high five each other on the way to different activities, and nobody stays up to the middle of the night doing homework.  It's a pretty good setup.