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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.