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Sunday, September 26, 2021



This weekend, we went camping.  I actually really enjoy camping, but I can't quite figure out why I find it so much fun.  There's something about fires, sleeping outside, and beautiful mornings that I like a lot.  We actually haven't gone camping the entire time we've been in Tashkent, and the last time we went camping, I was pregnant with William.  

One of the biggest obstacles to camping here (and also in Tajikistan) has been finding a place to camp.  There aren't any established campsites or camping areas, as 'camping' isn't something that anyone does here.  There are camps, but those don't have areas for tents, just concrete huts with shashlik grills outside them.  

So last weekend I sent the boys out to go and find us a place to camp.  The list of requirements is pretty short - it has to be somewhere that can fit the tent, is isolated enough that nobody will bother us, and has to have somewhere nearby to park the car.  When you're camping with nine people, car camping is the only option.  They returned with a place to go, but Brandon didn't make any promises about how great it was.  "It's flat and isolated, but that's about it."

So on Friday afternoon, the kids and I packed up the car to go on our first camping trip in five years.  It was significantly easier that it was five years ago, as I had very willing helpers to haul the stuff, load the car top carrier, and prep everything that I needed.  We finished up with several hours to spare before Brandon came home and we headed up to the mountains.

The site that Brandon found ended up being about a ten-minute walk from where we could park the car, and included fording a small river.  Brandon ended up personally hauling two-thirds of our stuff and two-thirds of our children across the river himself and everyone else helped where they could.

The site itself was big enough to fit our tent and very isolated, so it fit the bill nicely.  We were able to find plenty of wood to make a good fire and enjoy our usual camping dinner of roast hot dogs, chips, and s'mores.  My rule for camping food is that it has to be able to cooked on a stick because I don't wash dishes when I camp.  

When we bought our tent eight years ago, I bought the biggest tent that I could find.  I told Brandon that I wanted one that I could stand up in because there's nothing more obnoxious when camping than having to crawl around in your tent because it's too short to stand up in.  At the time it was ridiculously large, easily fitting us plus four small children.  This time, however, I realized that it was a good thing we had bought such a large tent because we could barely squeeze everyone in.  When they call a tent an eight-man tent, it really means eight sleeping bags and no more.  Elizabeth ended up sleeping in the middle of everyone's feet.  When she graduates to her own sleeping bag, I guess everyone will just have to squish a little.  

All the children had a grand time camping and doing all the camping things.  Nobody had to wash their hands, everyone got to eat as many marshmallows as they liked, they got to climb rocky hills and get extremely dirty, and the river got a lot of rocks chucked in it. 

And best of all, everyone got to burn stuff.  Because who doesn't like setting things on fire?  Our campsite had lots and lots of dead branches laying around, so everyone got to burn as many branches as their little hearts desired.  Elizabeth learned that one of end of the stick is hotter than the other, and William had a grand time setting everything he could find on fire.  What else could a four year-old boy want?  

By the end of the trip, everyone was thoroughly dirty, very stinky, pretty tired, and quite happy.  It was a completely successful trip and I already have plans for out next one.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Uzbek Fall, Take Four

 The children have been back in school now for three weeks.  Our routines have settled back into their usual groove, and order and sanity have resumed their usual supremacy in the house.  Our summers are a welcome break from the rigid schedules of the school year.  Everyone is happy for a chance to do some relaxing, spend more time playing, and not be so ruled by routine.  Summer always ends in the climax of our yearly trip to the US where the routine and predictability get entirely tossed out in window in a wild month of staying up late, seeing friends, and partying non-stop.  So by the time we get to fall and school, I (and perhaps the children) am happy to be embraced by the routine again.

This is our second last fall in Tashkent.  All last year I spent thinking that it would be the last fall, winter, and spring we spent in Tashkent.  When pumpkin somsas came into season in the fall, we ate as many as we could because this was the last time we'd get to enjoy the delicious mix of sweet and savory inside a flaky crust (if you've ever had them, you'd know exactly the heaven I'm describing).  After going sledding once last year, I bid the mountains farewell because we wouldn't be visiting them again.  And in the spring, everyone gorged themselves on the last season of amazing Uzbek strawberries.

But here we are again, and it's fall again, and we're still in Tashkent.  Sometimes I imagine a parallel life where I'm in DC right now, settling into a tiny little apartment while Brandon learns Kazakh and we enjoy a Virginian fall.  And then I look around and see the same fall I'm having for the fourth year in a row.  

That's not to say that I'm unhappy about another fall here in Tashkent.  And when compared with the alternative - hemorrhaging money while sleeping on top of each other and waiting to see what the next place will be like - I'm very happy to be here for a fourth year.  I haven't seen four falls in the same house since I was a teenager at my parents' house.  And I'm not likely to see another string of falls until Brandon and I retire and we finally settle down, whenever that will be.

This fall has been the usual September of Shattered Hopes.  After a long, hot, dry Uzbek summer, everyone is desperately waiting for a breath of cool air so we can all stop sweating the second we walk out of our houses.  And as is usual, the beginning of this month offered a false hope, a string of crystal-clear, blue-sky days that never got hotter than the low eighties.  I opened the windows, pulled out my cardigans for date nights, and looked forward to the next two months of beautiful weather.  Then, as usual, it got hot again.  Yesterday Brandon had an office farewell/welcome party, and it was outside next to his co-worker's pool.  Nobody said anything, but I know at least a few of us were looking longingly at it as we tried to hide in the shade from the 97-degree heat.  Eventually it will cool down for good, and then I will really have my last Uzbek fall.

We have grand plans for this fall, with camping, fishing, and horseback riding planned.  I've been scouting out some hikes to go on, and we might even try to make some friends for our final year here in Tashkent.  After all, if we don't have friends, there won't be anyone to have Thanksgiving with.  

I'm happy that this is our last, last fall in Tashkent.  One day I look forward to settling down and not having any last seasons at all as I actually don't like moving around very much.  But although we live in Tashkent, this isn't our home and we've always known that we would leave at some point.  So when it's time to leave, I'll be happy to go and explore the things that Kazakhstan has to offer.  Every place has something good about it, so I'm looking forward to finding those things out.

But for now, I'm happy to be here and have another year of stability.  And also, pumpkin somsas.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Last Time

 Two weeks ago, on the first day of school, on a whim I decided to put Elizabeth in undies.  The timing wasn't really the best, but it was going to be happening soon, so why not make an already crazy week even crazier?

My three least-favorite parenting tasks are sleep training, potty training, and teaching children how to read.  There are lots of unpleasant things about parenting (the noise is definitely one that gets old), but those three tasks are ones that call for a high amount of patience and faith that at the end of your effort, you'll get a child that is a little more like a real human being. 

 I think they are also frustrating because there often seems to be a lot of work put in for very little, if any, discernible progress.  It's nearly completely random reinforcement, with almost no tie between what you do and what results come from the child you're trying to teach.  It's an unfortunate reminder that even though you may want your child to pee on command in the place you want them to pee, if they don't want to, it's not going to happen.  That is one of the great frustrations of parenting - there are two wills involved, and usually the one that is less logical wins in a head-on confrontation.  

This year I also started teaching William to read.  And if I'd had another child, I'd probably be sleep training them right now too.  But thankfully I only have to do two of my least favorite things simultaneously instead of going for the unholy trifecta of complete insanity.  Everyone is happy that is the case.  It's funny how much an unhappy mother can make everyone's lives fairly miserable.

Potty training has had its usual and expected triumphs and disasters which are common to teaching any child a new skill.  I've cleaned up puddles, washed sheets and blankets, handed out chocolate chips, listened to (seemingly endless) wailing, and let everyone in the house know of all Elizabeth's successes. Thankfully her siblings are happy to clap for a potty full of urine. She, as is usual, hasn't liked it, but she's submitted to the program because I'm more stubborn than she is.

At this point, we're over the worst part of the process and nobody in the house wears diapers during the day.  Elizabeth toddles around the house wearing tiny little undies, which is possibly one of the cutest things that toddlers can wear.  I love their round little bellies poking out as they wander around the house with no shame, not yet realizing that everyone else is wearing clothes and their lack of them is an unusual thing.  I have perhaps two more years of this before she vigorously defends her modesty and insists on things like locked doors when she dresses.  

I have found, as seems to be true about many things with my later children, that this process hasn't been nearly as hateful as it used to be.  I don't know if it's because I'm older and less prone to hysterics, or I'm older and just don't have the energy to get wound up about things, or I'm older and have more experience and perspective about what things are really worth getting upset about, or I'm just older.  Whichever it is, I'm happy to be older.  It seems to make some things in life easier.  

But even if potty training is less unpleasant than it used to be, I'm still happy that this is the last time I have to try and figure out where the puddle is, use my mom-senses to figure out if that crying fit is caused by a full bladder or just pique, haul the little red potty around the house, and have endless conversations about the state of one's bladder.  Bathroom use is something I'm very happy to not to have to think about for anyone other than myself.  

There are lots of things I'm going to miss about having small children - having them cuddle up in my lap and fall asleep into limp relaxation, watching their pure delight with simple, little things - but I'm very happy to be done with diapers.  I can't stop my children from growing up and leaving innocence behind, but at least I can enjoy them leaving dependence behind also.  I've been changing diapers for fifteen years now, and I'm happy to quit for good.  I feel like I've done my time and I'm ready to move on with my life.  I'm happy to change diapers occasionally for someone else, but I'm happy that that stage of my life is almost over. 

Happy Birthday, Kathleen

While we were in the US, Kathleen turned fifteen years old.  We were at my parents' house, so she got to celebrate the day with her grandparents.  Her cousin was also visiting, so she got to celebrate with her also.  She has celebrated nearly every birthday in the US, which is the complete opposite of the rest of her siblings.

She started the day with Krispy Kreme doughnuts, which everyone was quite happy about.  Even though I make homemade doughnuts, there's nothing that matches a fresh Krispy Kreme.  She also got to spend the afternoon swimming and then have her birthday dinner and cake of her choice.

For her present from her grandmother, she went shopping with Sophia and her cousin (to celebrate their birthdays also) and out to lunch afterwards.  A few days later, she got to go riding with them and Eleanor tagged along for her birthday present from my mother.

Kathleen also got to spend her birthday at Driver's Ed, learning how to drive from my parents' neighbor who teaches part time at a local driving school.  She managed to get through the three days of driving without causing any accidents, so I'll call that a win.

It's strange to have a fifteen year-old in the house.  She is now three inches taller than me, has bigger feet than me, and wears my old clothes.  In less than three years, she'll be gone, the first one to leave the house.  That time that never felt like it would come is now quickly coming at me and I'm constantly surprised had how fast it has arrived.  

With Sophia's thirteenth birthday earlier in the summer, I'm now the mother of two teenaged daughters.  Having been the mother of at least one teenager for two years now, I can say that I mostly enjoy my teenagers.  They're often interesting to talk to, are usually quite dependable, and we get along together pretty well most of the time.  We've yet to have any of the terrible conflicts I've heard tales of, which I'm very grateful for.  Both Sophia and Kathleen have commented that they've come to the sad realization that I hold all the power and fighting is useless as I can make their lives pretty miserable.  I'm glad that they can understand that without having to try it out first.  

It was fun to watch both the girls spend a lot of time with their great aunts while we were at the beach this summer.  I would often see them out in the waves, chatting with their adult relatives, or talking with them long after dinner was done.  I am happy to see that my children enjoy the company of the people I love and respect and aren't so annoying that the adults run when they see the girls coming.  

I'm enjoying watching Kathleen grow up and come into the first stages of budding adulthood.  She's not ready to leave and run her own life yet, but we can both see that on the horizon.  Our conversations have shifted to talking about that coming time and how to prepare for it.  She still likes some things that she's liked since she was a child, but her interests are also maturing and turning into things that she will be able to enjoy throughout her life.  It's fascinating to watch.

Everyone is happy to have her in our family and I'm happy to have her as my firstborn, the one that I get to experiment and learn on.  She's very patient with me, and I'm grateful.  Happy birthday, Kathleen!

Sunday, September 5, 2021

R&R 2021: Lots of People, Lots of Fun, and a Fail

Editor's note. Our R&R this year was technically home leave, but I'm still going to call it R&R.  Nobody cares about State Department's arcane labeling except the State Department anyway.

On the whole, we had a great trip back to the US this summer.  Nobody got terribly sick, although most of us got the usual welcome-to-America cold that we get each year.  We've been gone for an entire year, so whatever cold we got last year has now morphed into a new variety that is ready to give everyone a week of snotty noses again.  It happens every year.

Our travel went amazingly smoothly, especially considering all of the crazy flight delays and cancellations I've been hearing about from everyone's summer travels.  One of our flights - the flight from JFK to Salt Lake - even got us to Salt Lake an entire hour early.  Our Uzbek Air flights had more than the usual four movies and even they were on time, which is practically unheard of. There was a hurricane projected to hit JFK at the exact same time our flight back to Tashkent was scheduled to take off, but Henri was kind enough to move just enough east that the kids and I made it home without any trouble.

We started the party out in Utah this year, where we got to see a lot of family - seven of Brandon's nine siblings with their twenty-two children made it to a family reunion.  All forty-three of us got to party for three days together and catch up with everyone, playing lots of games, telling lots of stories, and making lots (and lots) of happy noise.  Our girls were in heaven with their girl cousins, staying up much too late singing songs, braiding each other's hair, and talking about boys.  Sophia later told me that she had always thought that those things were silly, "but now I've realized that girls do those things because they're really fun!"

In addition to seeing Brandon's family, we also got to spend time with various friends that both live in Utah and were passing through during the summer.  We played in the park, had lunch together, had picnics, went swimming, hiked, got ice cream much too late at night, and got to set off fireworks to celebrate the 24th of July, a Utah state holiday.  Joseph got to live his best life as we stayed up late into the night eating homemade cherry ice cream and setting off round after round of smoke bombs, ground stars, cans of worms, and various other low-key fireworks.  

We left straight from one party to the next, flying in to North Carolina to a full house of guests who were at my parents' house in preparation for our annual beach trip.  The kids had a great time playing all week with their other cousins and all of my father's siblings but one.  Despite not having any hurricanes this year, the weather wasn't that great.  But it was a great year for rainy days, because we got to watch the Olympics.  It's the only time I don't feel bad about watching hours of TV on end, and with the power of smart TVs, we got to choose which events to watch.  One evening, Brandon and I stayed up much too late with my brother, watching endless random events and making snarky comments.  Because, family + Olympics = awesome.  

After the beach, we stayed at my parents' house for two weeks for the yearly summer ritual of doctor's visits.  In between the visits, the kids played in my parents' backyard, went to the movies, celebrated Kathleen's fifteenth birthday, swam at the pool, went to the park, had birthday time with their grandmother, and spent time with their cousin who came back with us.  My parents also took our five oldest and all of my sister's children on a bike riding adventure in the mountains of Virginia, which everyone enjoyed.  Brandon and I enjoyed having three blissfully quiet days all to ourselves.  Two small children are pretty easy to take care of when you're used to having seven.

After five fun-filled weeks in the US, Brandon and I went separate directions.  The kids and I all flew east back to Tashkent and he flew west to go caribou hunting in Alaska with his brother .  We had an uneventful trip home, and Brandon got to enjoy some quality time with his older brother.  What he didn't get to enjoy, however, was any hunting.  After waiting around for five days, waiting for the weather to clear up enough to catch a ride on a bush plane out to the tundra and caribou herds, their hunt got canceled.  So Brandon got to come home a week early and I got to single-parent for a week less.  

We always have a marvelous time in America, and we're always happy to come home at the end.  I hope that the children have many happy memories of our summers in the US.  As we were going through JFK airport, I was hit with the sense of having made it back to the motherland.  Then I thought about the children and realized that they probably didn't have that same feeling.  None of them have spent more than ten months in the US at any one time since we joined the State Department when Kathleen was 2 1/2 years old, and some of them haven't spent any more than three months at a time in the US.  The last time we actually 'lived' in the US was in 2014.

When I asked Kathleen how she felt about coming back to the States, she agreed that it didn't feel like the motherland to her.  "It feels more like I imagine what Disneyland would feel like.  It's the place where all the good things happen and all the best people are."  

One day we'll move back for good and summers won't be quite the same jam-packed level of magical happiness.  But for now, we'll enjoy them while we have them.