Saturday, June 30, 2007

Why Dad's Better

“You know, kids, we have so much stuff to bring to China that we’ll probably have to take two taxis to the airport.”

“How will we do that?”

“Well, dad will go in one taxi, I’ll go in the other, and we’ll split the suitcases and kids between us.”

“OOOH! I wanna go with dad!!!!”


“’Coz dad always says ‘yes’!”

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Factor of Five

Quick: how long does it take you to unload your dishwasher? It’s a simple task, really. It should take five minutes at most – unless you’re my father-in-law, who hand dries every piece before carefully placing it in its designated location. That’ll take you about 12 minutes (no, f-i-l, I haven’t timed you at this task). My point is, it isn’t hard to do.

Unless, of course, you have a one-year old underfoot.

Babies love dishwashers. Dishwashers are like forbidden toy chests, full of things that clank and poke and splash. Best of all, they have doors that open downward, which means that if you’re both agile and sneaky, you can actually climb in while your mama has turned her focus to stacking the forks.

These days, I’m emptying the dishwasher by opening it, quickly grabbing out the first items I can reach, then slamming it shut before Kyra gets to it. While she complains, I put away whatever I’ve managed to reach. Then I distract her and move in for another round.

This little game can go on and on, with neither side willing to admit defeat. Which is why, around here, the dishwasher is always half-full. Or half-empty, depending on how you look at it.

I call this phenomenon the Factor of Five. Basically, when you have a baby around, you have to assume that every last thing you do will take five times longer than it used to. It took five minutes to empty the dishwasher pre-baby? Now it’ll cost you almost half an hour. If it took 30 minutes to get dinner on the table before, it’s best to allow 2-3 hours now. It’s much harder to prep vegetables and check ovens with a baby clinging to your knees.

One important exception to my Factor of Five rule: personal hygiene. If you used to spend ten minutes taking a shower, well, consider yourself lucky if you get two minutes now.

The good news is, babies grow up. Eventually, you can park them in front of “Hot Wheels: The Movie” and buy yourself 2 good hours of free time while they stare, catatonic, at the screen.

Not that I've ever done that.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Kyra walks!

Last week, Kyra apparently decided it was time to start walking. So she grabbed her little push walker and started using it to do the circuit from kitchen to dining room to living room and back to kitchen.

Then, two days ago, she abandoned the walker and took off on her own, five short steps across the kitchen. She was so proud of herself - she clapped and giggled and bounced on her knees. She threw her arms in the air. Then she stood up and tried again. And again.

She still can't do much more than 4-5 steps at a time. But she's on her way.

And, as neither of the boys started walking until 13 months, she can spend the rest of her life teasing them about how she started walking before she hit 12-and-a-half months, a fact that is sure to drive them crazy a few years hence.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The End of an Era

This morning, Bart finally decided to put the Miata up for sale on Craigslist.

He’d been going back and forth: should he put it in storage for 3 years, like he did the last time we went overseas? Or sell it, and set the money aside to buy something else when we return? It was a tough decision, even leading to one of those annoying arguments married couples sometimes have, along these lines:

“When do you think you’re going to put the car up for sale?”

“I don’t know. Stop nagging.”

“I’m not nagging.”

“Yes you are.”

“Am not.”

“Am too.”

“Am not. And besides, if you’d sell it, I’d stop bugging you about it already.”

“Bugging? Or nagging?”

Anyway, this morning, he apparently decided he’d had enough of my nagging… er, bugging. And so he put the car on Craigslist.

Within 30 minutes, he had 7 inquiries from people who wanted the car. One lady arrived at our doorstep an hour later with her daughter. They drove the car, then gave us a deposit and promised to return on Monday with a cashier’s check.

And that's that.

Bart bought the car way back in ’98, when we were living in Long Beach, California. It was the perfect beach car, and he was thrilled to have it for his commute to Irvine along the Pacific Coast Highway. Then, of course, a few months after buying the car, he got this job. So he packed all of his earthly belongings into the car, and together with his baby brother, he drove clear across the country to Washington D.C. I stayed behind to pack up the teeny tiny house and await news on where he’d be assigned. Soon after he finished his training, we were assigned to Moscow, where a Miata clearly would not do. So the car went into storage for all those years while we moved from post to post.

I think he’ll be sad to give the car up.

And I’ll have to come up with something else to nag him about.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Search is Over...

After what seemed an eternity, but was really just 2 weekends on the market, our house is officially rented. We got three applications and chose the first because they seemed like a nice young family, perfect for our little place.

So the sign is out of the front yard, and I'm done cleaning house. The dust bunnies are already emerging from their hiding places, sensing victory.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

All Together Now

One of Bart’s Father’s Day presents was a Monopoly game. The boys were very excited at the prospect of a shiny new game and begged to play it after dessert on Father’s Day. Dessert, by the way, was a delicious homemade brownie ice cream sundae. The kids agreed that it was far better than the wretched dinner I forced down them (asked Shay: “Why do we always have to eat what dad likes just because it’s Father’s Day?”).

Back to Monopoly. Neither Aidan nor Kyra had taken naps that afternoon. None of the three kids had eaten much dinner. And, of course, it was a school day the next day. Then there’s the fact that the box very clearly states “ages 8 and up,” but none of our kids are eight yet. All the signs indicated that we should give them all baths and put them to bed. But they begged! So, naturally – stupidly – we relented.

We opened the box and an argument immediately ensued. Who would get to use the car game piece? Who would get the battleship? Who should choose first, anyway? The oldest? The youngest? The dad? Once that argument was settled (Shay was the car; Aidan, the cannon – which makes a lot of sense if you know them), I began to explain the rules. But when Kyra saw me perusing the rules, she realized I was no longer focusing on her. So she pulled herself up and started fussing as only a just-turned-one year-old can do. I sat her in my lap and tried to divvy up the money while she attempted to eat the hotels.

Finally it was time to start the game. All went well until Aidan had his turn. He wanted to buy Virginia Avenue, of course, but he didn’t want to give up his money. We coaxed it out of him and moved on, while he sat cross-armed and grumpy. On his very next turn, he landed on Chance and got to proceed directly to “Go,” collecting $200 in the process. Now, you might think that winning $200 would be considered a positive outcome of a dice roll. Well, as far as he was concerned, moving forward to “Go” looked exactly like moving backward to the starting point, which happened to be that very same square. He wanted none of it and threw a fit. Kyra decided to throw a sympathy fit, so now two out of three were bawling. But Shay was just figuring it out. He wanted to keep playing.

Bart and I came to our senses and yelled to Shay over the din that we’d have to stop for the night after a mere ten minutes. Cue Shay’s massive eruption of whininess.

It truly was an unforgettable Father’s Day.

Monday, June 18, 2007

A Black Thumb Turns Green

I thought some of you might enjoy this article from the Christian Science Monitor, "A Black Thumb Turns Green."

Friday, June 15, 2007

Ode to a Contractor

One of the things the property manager recommends is that you re-caulk any bathtubs and showers that haven’t been caulked in awhile. So today I think I’ll spend some time sitting in my shower, peeling out the old caulk and prepping the surface for new. Have you ever done that? It’s really a pain in the back, but it does make the shower look better. And, hopefully, it prevents the shower from springing a leak while the tenants are using it.

In our case, we only have to caulk the one shower, thank goodness, because the other two are relatively new. In fact, one is brand-spanking new, having only just been installed a few short weeks ago by Mr. Andy and his crew. Mr. Andy is what the kids call our contractor guy, and I swear they’ve spent as much time with him as with us over the past year or so. All three bathrooms had to be redone because of water damage and a tragic overuse of 70s style vanities. He put in a new kitchen, and I’m happy to report that I don’t miss the old chartreuse paisley laminate countertop a bit. He put in a new door in the basement. And just last week he installed a new front door and storm door, along with a new piece of subfloor, as we discovered that the subfloor in the entryway was absolutely rotted through. At this point, we really ought to just hand Mr. Andy every second paycheck to cover all the work this house needs. Remind me again why we want to hang onto it and rent it out for the next three years?

The kids love Mr. Andy because fun things happen when he’s here. Sometimes, he takes the doors off their hinges or pulls cabinets off of walls. Other days he sets up a noisy, scary looking saw in the front yard. He crashes and bashes and smashes up tile, yet somehow no one ever puts him in time out for this flagrant violation of the house rules. A couple of times, he even carried a toilet out of the house and placed it squarely on the lawn – and if you’ve never heard a seven year old’s laugh when he sees an actual TOILET! Right in the middle of the FRONT YARD! Well, then, you haven’t lived. Nothing in this world is funnier to a small boy than the sight of a toilet on a lawn. It draws kids from blocks away.

So I think my kids are going to miss Mr. Andy, potentially more than they miss their friends, who can make lots of potty jokes but cannot actually pick up potties and move them around. Which leads me to Parenting Tip #1. If you are trying in vain to get your small boys to eat their veggies, I suggest you tell them this: “Kids, if you want to grow up to be big and strong and able to impress your friends by carrying a potty out onto the lawn, you’d better finish those veggies.” Just a thought. And with that, I’m off to sit in the shower awhile…

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Aidan's Last Day

Aidan’s last day of school was today. I guess that makes him an official pre-school graduate. You laugh? Well, know that not all of his relatives achieved such early success – he counts at least one pre-school dropout amongst his loved ones.

It was touch and go whether he’d make it. Sweet little thing that he is, he was always getting in trouble at school. Sometimes he pushed other kids, or refused to participate at circle time - nothing really delinquent. Most recently, he got a five minute time out for calling another little boy “dumbo.” The little boy cried. Aidan didn’t seem all too concerned.

Still, he loved his school and I think he’s going to miss it. He often cried on the days that his brother went to school while he stayed home. I loved it, too - three whole hours of relative peace! Then there were the arts and crafts projects. He made bunny ears on Easter and spiders on Halloween. He made caterpillars, butterflies and snowmen. For Mother’s Day, he gave me a little card with a refrigerator magnet inside – and on the magnet was a picture of him. So cute.

On Thursday, he came home with a white paper sack, tied shut with a green ribbon and decorated with blue glitter that spelled out “DAD.” “It’s for Father’s Day,” he told me, and he tore open the package to show me the gift inside. “Isn’t that for dad?” I asked. “Shouldn’t we leave it wrapped up?” He ignored me and pulled out a foam can insulator, decorated with stickers. He looked at it, admiring his work, and said “It’s for daddy.” “Yes,” I answered, “why don’t we wrap it back open so he’ll be surprised on Father’s Day?”

“It’s okay, mom,” he explained. “He’ll let me use it.” He stuffed his sippy cup inside and took a drink. “Ahh,” he said, “nice and cool.”

I was only able to convince him to wrap it back up after he spilled some juice on it. Now it sits on our table, inside a crumpled paper sack, a little bit sticky, awaiting Father’s Day.

And I guess I’ll have to think up my own arts and crafts projects for at least the next few months.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Why Bother?

Take a moment now, please, and look around the room. What do you see? Well, if you’re in your house, you probably see just that – your house. But look closer. How do you think it would look to a stranger? There – now do you see it? You have a big pile of papers and keys and maybe a wallet parked on that table near the door. There’s probably a pair of sneakers over there, too. If you have kids, then you definitely have Cheerios on the floor, over near the sink, tucked just under the edge of the cupboard. And let’s not even get started on the dining room table.

We’re all of us surrounded by the detritus of our own lives, and because it’s ours, we never see it. But we have piles of unneeded junk everywhere.

Well, not me. Just you. I spent last week cleaning up, getting ready for potential tenants to come traipsing through my house. I scrubbed. I mopped. I organized. I did everything but vacuum (see post below, titled “How to Pack Less”). So my house was, by and large, looking quite good by Friday night.

On Saturday morning, Shay had a soccer game and Aidan had a birthday party to attend. So the house still looked rather nice when the slow trickle of people started through our house that afternoon. But this morning, no one stopped by. It’s Sunday, I figured – maybe no one house hunts on a Sunday. I let my guard down a bit. Pulled some weeds outside while the boys played in the sprinklers and Kyra played in the nearby mud. We tracked a little mud into the house when they went upstairs to change, but no matter. Kyra fell asleep, so I put her in her crib and put the boys in front of a movie. I finished up some chores, then thought I’d try to relax a bit while all the kids were occupied. After the movie ended, the boys went outside. And that’s the exact moment when they showed up.

A middle-aged Korean couple, well-dressed and soft-spoken, had arrived on our doorstep with their realtor. So I let them in, cringing when she took off her shoes in my not-quite-clean entry way. While they looked upstairs, I tried to clean up the popcorn bowls and cups in the kitchen. As they left, I saw another family approaching, so I dashed upstairs to make the boys’ beds. That’s when I discovered that Shay hadn’t entirely cleaned up after himself when he changed after playing in the sprinkler. He’d put his wet shirt and shorts in the hamper, which is pretty good for him. But somehow he’d managed to drop a soggy pair of underwear right in the middle of the hallway. I wanted to run after that couple and explain that we don’t normally leave wet muddy underwear lying around the house, but by then the next family was on the way upstairs.

That evening, as I cut vegetables in my now-clean-again kitchen, Kyra sat beside me on the floor, dumping an entire cupboard of Tupperware on the floor. Seriously, why do I bother trying to keep the place clean? Every time I turn around, someone is undoing what little progress I’ve made. And to make matters worse, Kyra decided that this weekend would be an excellent weekend to learn to climb up stairs. So she’s made the trek every time I’ve turned my back to put something away.

Let’s all pause for another moment. This time, please say a prayer that this place rents quickly, because we’re only two days into the ordeal, and I think the overexposure to cleaning solutions might be causing me to lose my mind.

Friday, June 8, 2007

For Rent

The property manager came yesterday and planted a “For Rent” sign in the front yard. It’s out there now, looking somewhat forlorn.

Our rental ad is on Craig’s List, pictures and all. I checked it out myself. Strange to see pictures of my house – and by the way, couldn’t they have let me move that huge pile of papers off the counter before they took the picture of the kitchen? Anyway, my hope is that the house will rent quickly, as it really will be a chore to keep it neat at all times in case someone wants to check it out.

I was feeling pretty good about myself for getting the massive reams of paperwork filled out so the property manager could start searching for a tenant. Then I started comparing notes with other friends who are heading out this summer. Seems half of them have already found tenants. So I’ve gone from feeling uber-organized to woefully incompetent.

It’s okay, though. The house might not be rented, but other things are finished. We’ve arranged to ship the car. We have pack out dates. We’ve reserved a hotel room. We’ve scheduled a whole-house clean. I’ve sent out the going away invites for the boys. And I’ve purchased 5 huge jugs of peanut butter from Costco – that ought to last my boys at least 2 months over there.

I have to wonder what prospective tenants will think as they tour our little house. When they look in the storage room, they’ll see those jars of peanut butter, right next to the jugs of laundry detergent, the stack of brand new toilet brushes, the boxes of baby wipes and a crate of chocolate syrup. I imagine they’ll think we’re a strange family, indeed.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

How to Pack Less

Well. Today was one of those days. I was busy tending my lists, looking for some easy things I could do and then cross off. Changed a few addresses, made a few calls. Aidan was napping; Kyra was crawling between cabinets, yanking out Tupperware, tossing plastic cups, and generally making a mess. That’s okay, though, because she was leaving me alone so I could get my work done. I admit it: I was ignoring her.

She opened the cupboard under the sink several times. Each time, I told her “not for Kyra” and moved her back to the Tupperware cupboard. The she decided to go for the cupboard full of pots and pans. Technically, I figured, she could pull those pans out, but it wasn’t likely, and hey, did I mention I was getting things done? So I chose to ignore her. I forgot that in the back of that cupboard I had a couple of big glass Pyrex dishes. Note the past tense there. Had. Because I no longer have them. I heard a tremendous crash and looked up to see my tiny, barefoot baby standing in a pile of glass shards. I rushed to pick her up and inspected her toes. All still there, covered with glass but uninjured. I deposited her in her playpen and spent the next hour sweeping up shards of glass. I had to empty out the whole cupboard and wash out every single pot – how did bits of glass get inside them all? Then I had to wipe down the shelves. After sweeping the floor carefully, I decided to vacuum, just for good measure.

By now Kyra was howling. She’d been in the playpen for almost an hour – no fun at all. “Just give me five more minutes,” I told her. “I’m almost done.” Ha.

A mere three minutes into my vacuuming, the vacuum made an awful, grinding noise and started spewing smoke. I pulled the plug, waited for it to cool off and took it apart. Everything inside looked fine to my amateur eyes (keeping in mind that I’m qualified to change a vacuum belt, but that’s about it – I don’t really know much about the guts of a vacuum). So I put it back together and plugged it back in. This time it started right up, but it sounded near death and it was still spewing some nasty smelling smoke.

I set the vacuum aside and started searching for glass on the dining room rug. I found several pieces, far from the original accident site, simply by impaling them on my fingers. By now, Kyra had given up on being rescued and had fallen asleep. But I was still stuck crawling around on my hands and knees, searching for shards and bleeding from numerous tiny wounds.

Two hours after the Pyrex dishes succumbed to the force of gravity, I’m sure there’s more glass on the rug. But I can’t vacuum it up. I can’t sweep it up. So I give up.

And now, because I simply wanted a little bit of time to ignore my kids and get some work done, I’ve created more work for myself. Not just the two hours I spent cleaning up. Now I have to find a vacuum repair shop. And pay someone to undo whatever damage I did. And then I'll have to finish vacuuming the rug. And put all of the pots and pans away again. And, of course, I'll have to start paying better attention to my kids. Sigh.

On the bright side, I now have fewer dishes to pack.

Monday, June 4, 2007


When I tell people we're moving the whole family to Beijing in a few short weeks, the questions I'm most frequently asked are how? and why?

Why, at first glance, is easy. I mean, why not? When you move, as we do, every 2-3 years, you get the chance to start over from scratch each time. You see a new part of the world. You see a new way of living. You see, in essence, a new part of yourself. Because the truth is, every time you get off the plane in a new country, you stretch the boundaries of your own skin. Maybe a lot, maybe just a little. But you will learn, and grow, and change with every move.

Of course, stretching is exercise. And it can be painful. Packing up, saying goodbye, moving far from loved ones - all of this hurts. Jet lag hurts, too. You stretch, you tear. But this crazy foreign service lifestyle has pushed us places we'd never have otherwise gone. And for the most part, it's been worthwhile.

Once you get where you're going, that is. The preparation? The build-up? That leads to the other oft-asked question. How? How in the world do you pack up three kids, a dog and a house in the suburbs? How do you pick a whole life up and put it back down in one piece, halfway around the world?


Right now, in the middle of it all, I don't quite see how. But we've done it numerous times before: from LA to NY to DC to Moscow to Armenia to Kazakhstan and back to DC, with stops in between in Seattle, LA and Virginia to have babies. So I know it can be done. Even by the least organized person you could hope to meet: me.

My husband sometimes calls me "90% Donna" because of my tendency to throw myself into a project until it is very nearly finished, and then abandon it. An annoying trait, no doubt. But it's actually quite useful in the world of the Foreign Service. Because once you accept the fact that you'll never be 100% prepared, you're ready to leap in.

In the meantime, you make lists. At least, I do. I have a seven-month workback schedule to get us from January to July '07. It contains reminders such as "Buy more suitcases," "Find property manager," "Apply for visas," "Get Japanese encephalitis shots," "Get dog groomed." All arranged according to the month in which I'm supposed to do them. Another list I have: Things to Buy for Beijing. Another: Things to Pack. One list shows what goes into Air Freight (we're allowed 800 pounds), what goes into storage, what goes on the slow boat. I have a list of invitees for the boys' upcoming going away party. I can cross reference that with the workback schedule, where it clearly states, under May, "Plan going away party." It's June already, and the party isn't planned, but no matter. I'll get there. Or not. Just knowing it's on the list gives me a sense of control.

I read through my lists every few days, cross off what's been done and look ahead to what still awaits my attention.

90% Donna knows I won't finish the whole list. But the most important things will somehow get done, and come July 24th, the real adventure will begin. Ready or not.

At each of our last posts, I've emailed periodic updates to my family and friends, filling them in on our adventures. My group email list has gotten rather cumbersome, however, so I've decided to post in blog form instead. Somehow it feels less presumptuous to post out here in the wide world than it did to force my way into your in boxes every week. This way you can read about our goings-on, or not, at your leisure. There will likely be a few weeks here and there when I post nothing at all, especially after we pack up the computer in late July and before we get it set up again on the other end. But I'll do my best.

Now listen up - this is important. I loved sending emails because it always prompted a few of you to write back with details about your own lives. Please don't abandon me just because I'm no longer in your in-box every week. Take pity: I'll be way across the globe over here, missing you more than you know. Please drop me a line occasionally letting me know what you're up to. This will be a fantastic adventure, but it'll still seem lonely if you're not along for the ride.
Please. Write your own stuff.