Sunday, August 30, 2009

Not The Best Weekend

My husband left on Saturday morning for a several-week-long TDY to Ulaanbataar, Mongolia.

A couple of hours after he left, the kids and I walked down the street and had lunch at Subway (their choice). While there, we heard that some NBA players were supposed to make an appearance just across the way, so we walked over. The boys hung with some friends, playing basketball at a hoop that had been set up for the visitors. Kyra ran around; Ainsley snoozed in her stroller.

The basketball players arrived. Not being an NBA fan, I couldn’t tell you who they were, but I do have pictures to prove it on my phone somewhere. While they were playing with the kids, I heard Ainsley crying in her stroller. I looked in, and she appeared to be choking and shaking. I picked her up and she was very, very warm. I tried to calm her down. I checked her mouth to see if something was stuck in there. After a few minutes, when I couldn’t stop her from gagging and she was appearing more and more distressed, I left my other three kids behind with a neighbor and walked with Ainsley to the clinic, which was just in the next parking lot. I thought maybe they could see if she was choking, or what was going on. The nurse brought us into a room and started to take vitals, but Ainsley got more and more distressed. So the nurse pulled a doctor out of an exam room, where she’d been with another patient. The doctor took a quick look, then left and summoned the head pediatrician. He took one look and called for both an oxygen tank and an ambulance.

They got her settled down. She didn’t appear to be choking on anything. She did have a very high fever, and she was having a lot of trouble breathing even with the oxygen. They thought she might have had a seizure, though it didn’t look quite like one to me. But they said she needed to go via ambulance to the ER for some bloodwork and a chest x-ray. They speculated that she could have aspirated something, or she could have pneumonia.

So I abandoned my kids with one neighbor and my stroller with another, climbed in an ambulance and raced to the ER, where we met another doctor who checked Ainsley over from head-to-toe and couldn’t quite figure it out. The chest x-ray was normal, but she was sounding terribly congested. Her heart was racing and she was just out of it.

They decided to admit her – us – for observation. By now, she was up and cheerfully exploring the ER, though with decidedly scary sounding raspy little breaths.

We spent the night. Lots of doctors checked her out: American, Chinese, European. Noone could agree on whether she’d had a seizure. All agreed that she didn’t have pneumonia. But they determined that she does have bronchitis or some sort of serious upper respiratory infection. She had IV antibiotics and some other stuff last night.

Meanwhile, I couldn’t call Bart in Mongolia, so I was texting him. He was trying to call our Embassy doctor, who was looking for me. Poor Bart had only just landed in Mongolia and was already scrambling to find a way home. I told him to stay put, as she did seem to be improving.

Kyra spent the night with one neighbor, Shay had a sleepover with another and Aidan with a third. A fourth neighbor met me at the hospital this morning and spent the day with Ainsley and me.

We got home late this afternoon, and I’ve been playing catch-up ever since.

At some point, it started to rain and I realized that the kids’ bikes were still parked down the street where we’d left them yesterday. So I loaded them all in the car to drive down and get their bikes – only to discover the car was dead. I actually got the kids into the van, but then couldn’t open the automatic doors to get them out. I had to force the doors open manually.

And of course, because timing is everything, I also discovered that at some point while everyone was out of the house, the garage door had been disabled so it wouldn’t shut or lock. I managed to temporarily fix the door this evening, but what’s up with that? No need for anybody to break into the house; I’d left the front door unlocked and accessible to all when I left the house that morning, long before I climbed in the back of that ambulance.

The ambulance driver, by the way, drove very, very fast.

I’m sure there’s more to add. But for now, I’m dreadfully exhausted. Ainsley seems fine again, but I’m supposed to spend the night “observing” her, which I take to mean I can sleep in her room next to her crib. No way I can stay up all night staring at her.

It’s been a long, long weekend, so that’s all from me for now. I’m off to observe Ainsley – or, more likely, to observe the insides of my eyeballs.

For worried grandparents from coast to coast, and for her daddy in Mongolia: she really is fine now. Really really. But she certainly did scare me yesterday.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Fire! Fire!

I turned on the television yesterday morning, intending to find Dora the Explorer for my daughter and a bit of peace for myself (shut up! There's nothing with a little television first thing in the morning. But I digress...).

There on the television was a woman reporting live from La Canada, California - just down the road from my old high school. Apparently, there are a couple of serious fires in the area. The smoke from the fires, she reported, is so bad that everybody needs to stay inside. She cut to some "man on the street" interviews, in which people complained about itchy eyes and scratchy throats.

Here's the thing: throughout her report, you could see smoke billowing in the background. Lots of smoke, to be sure. But you could also see blue sky. So I wondered: just how bad is this air they're breathing?

I paid a visit to my favorite website to find out. According to the air quality map, the air in southern California was "moderate:" on their scale of 0-250, the air was registering between 51-100.

By contrast, yesterday was a very nice day in Beijing. You could see blue sky. The breezes were blowing a lot of the nasty grey junk away, for the first time in weeks. Yet when I checked our air quality yesterday morning, we were already at 117 - worse than the air during a forest fire in SoCal, and this on a good day. This morning, we're at 182 already - unhealthy for everyone, not just sensitive people like children and the elderly.

It makes me want to move back to Los Angeles. I'd be the only person there marveling at the clean air in the summertime. And, comparatively speaking, I'd be right.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Back-to-Back Back to School

One child is in the lower elementary school, and one child is in the upper elementary school. Each has its own principal and counselors and curriculum, so each does Back to School on a different night.

Part of me hates Back to School Night. The same speeches, always about fostering a love of learning and creating a culture of respect. But part of me is a sucker for it: I love sitting in that teensy chair and picturing my child there. I love looking around the room and seeing what he sees. The notes they write, the notes we write back… I love all that stuff. But two nights in a row? Exhausting!

Aidan’s session was first. He has a great teacher, just really enthusiastic and excited about her job. They’ll be growing mealworms in science class (please don’t let him bring them home as pets…). They’ll have homework this year. Chinese every day. Computer class. Art, P.E. and Music. And he loves every minute of it.

Shay’s session was last night. He also has a great teacher, very mild-mannered and confident. The students each made their own newspaper to hang on the wall, complete with stats about themselves and stories about their heroes. Shay chose his dad as his hero, and it was so cute to see Bart get teary at the sight of that. Next to Shay’s newspaper hung another, and that little girl had chosen Jesus as her hero. So, all in all, I think Bart’s in good company, don’t you?

I’m a little frustrated with the Chinese program, though I won’t vent too much, as one never knows who is reading this blog! We were supposed to meet with the specialist teachers at the beginning of the night. The school is huge, but they told us the Chinese teachers were all on the 3rd floor. We spent 30 minutes wandering up and down the corridors, unable to find a Chinese classroom with our son’s name on it. Finally, we ran into the man who runs the whole school, and he mentioned there was a fourth Chinese classroom on the second floor. Down we went, and sure enough, his teacher was there, having just finished her presentation. I think I came on a bit strong with my interrogation, because I was so irritated at missing the entire presentation, but I threw a ton of questions her way in the five minutes before we had to go back upstairs, and I’m really not liking the way the program is going. They’ve thrown new kids in with kids like Shay, who is going on his third year of studying Chinese. But they won’t admit they’ve done it. The teacher said all of his classmates had Chinese last year, and when I pointed to two kids who were brand new to the school, she grew quite flustered. I don’t so much mind if they’re going to mix kids that way, but if so, they need to be honest about why they’re doing it. And if they think the new kids can hop in and sink or swim, then why can’t they put kids like Shay in with the neo-native speakers and let them sink or swim there? I think they are dumbing down the program for non-native speakers with the idea that the kids can’t handle it, and it really ticks me off. So. Didn’t I just say I wasn’t going to vent too much? I asked the teacher for a conference, and hopefully she’ll be able to reassure me then that they do plan on teaching my son Chinese. We only have one year to go, and I don’t want my kid just drifting through Chinese class. I want him progressing, even if he’ll forget it all by the 6th grade.

Harumph.

In other news, my job at the Embassy starts back up a week from today, so I have loads to finish up here at home between now and then. Doctor’s appointments, veterinary appointment, school meetings, a trip to the tailor and those two articles that are slowly getting done. Maybe I can even squeeze in a massage? But none of that will happen if I don’t wrap this up.

So, without further ado, here are some photos of Aidan's classroom. (I was so flustered after the search for the Chinese classroom that I forgot to take photos of Shay's)

The cubby:

The classroom:

A self portrait:

An exercise in teamwork:

The classmates:

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Blowing Kisses

For posterity's sake, I need to note that today, for the first time, my darling baby daughter started blowing me kisses.

It's a short step from blowing kisses to the "I hate you mommy" phase. So I'm going to enjoy this while it lasts.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Busy, Busy, Busy

Hello out there.

Remember me?

School started over a week ago, and I had all of these Big Plans for what I would do with my free time. But somehow, despite the fact that half of my kids are gone all day, that free time hasn't really materialized.

Sure I did manage to have that little tea party I mentioned - 20 or so people showed up, several of whom I'd never met before. And I've spent some time catching up with friends. But still, somehow, I haven't found any large chunks of time just waiting to be filled with working out, making cookies or updating this blog.

Maybe next year.

I'm still working on that bid list. Having trouble keeping all of the posts straight in my mind. But I have a tentative top 6 that I need to talk over with husband. Only problem is, he's leaving for a 3-week TDY to Ulan Bataar, Mongolia, at the end of the week, so I'm not quite sure when we'll get a chance to talk. Maybe I'll fly up there for a visit. Actually I'd love to do just that - I've never been to Mongolia - but 5 plane tickets on short notice? Maybe not gonna happen.

Meanwhile, I'm working on 2 articles that aren't technically due for a couple of weeks, but I've imposed a deadline of Monday, as I might be returning to work by then. So I'm interviewing and transcribing and researching and wondering why I put myself through all of this for a (very) few measly dollars?

Ainsley just fell asleep, but Kyra just woke up. So I'm back on mom duty for awhile. More from me later... maybe.

Monday, August 17, 2009

My Life - An Ordinary Day

Spent the morning at one of the big grocery stores in town, showing a newcomer around.

Realized I forgot some basic Chinese words while on vacation: things like "blue" and "white."

Realized "blue" and "white" are key words to know when helping newcomer find blue and white blankets. Would probably help to know the word for "blanket," too.

Also didn't know the Chinese word for the dish drainer thingee you put in the sink so your dishes can drain dry. But apparently I don't know the word for that in English, either.

Discovered that when you're walking around with a six-foot-tall black woman in a Chinese grocery store, loaded down with white and blue blankets, people will just stop and stare, open-mouthed.

Made a new friend, I think.

Also made pumpkin bread and soda bread for my little shindig tomorrow.

Discovered that my little shindig has become like a high school kegger - people I don't even know are telling me they plan to stop by.

Wonder if I need more soda bread?

Too late; I'm off to bed.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

More on Bidding

Over at Life After Jerusalem, Digger wrote a good explanation of the bidding process. Makes much more sense than the convoluted explanation I keep giving my relatives. So go read it if you want to know more.

I'm still plowing through post reports. Okay, not quite true. I took a break from that today to daydream about a possible winter holiday on a beach in Vietnam. Found a beach, found a resort - now I just have to dream up a way to fund this imaginary trip (no more R&R travel left for us this tour). I think it's back to work for me in September.

Hey, all these dreams: dreaming of a beach holiday... dreaming of a great next assignment... why shouldn't I be dreaming? The air quality in Beijing today was obscenely bad. It was over 200 on the scale I told you about awhile back. So I mostly stayed inside and dreamt of fresh air.

Tomorrow's a school day. I'll be spending my free time driving around town in search of a blender to replace the one I shattered last week. And I'll be prepping for a little gathering I've organized in my house Tuesday morning. At last count, about 35 people have been invited over for a tea party of sorts. Don't know how many will actually show up. Gonna be busy.

'night...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Free At Last, Free At Last

School starts tomorrow for both boys. The elder is disappointed because none of his friends from last year made it into this year's class - but he's pleased with his big win in the teacher lottery, as his teacher is apparently well-regarded in the 10-and-under crowd. And the younger is a bit worried, I think, that he'll have a new classroom and a new teacher and new friends to meet, but he liked his new teacher when he met her today, and his pals Otto and Chuma are in his class again.

We kick off the year with a picnic lunch and an afternoon in the classroom. Friday will be a full day of school for them... and a pedicure for me. Girl's gotta keep busy...

Monday, August 10, 2009

Apples Vs. Elephants: The Bidding Process

This is our fourth overseas assignment; our sixth overall (we did an extremely short stint in NYC and 3 years in DC). So you’d think we’d be pros at bidding. But truthfully, I still don’t get it, not entirely. Does anybody?

Here’s what happens, sort of. A list of all of the worldwide vacancies appears, along with their ranks to show you what level each job is. You can only bid on jobs that are at your rank or stretch one level above your current rank. So you look at the list of jobs for which you qualify. You have to include at least 6 bids on your list, and they can’t all be in the same geographic area. How do you choose which places to bid on? Well, you start with the State Dept Post Reports. These are maybe 50 pages each, with everything you could want to know about a country, from its climate to its system of government to the housing you can expect if assigned there. You read through these, discarding or starring the ones that horrify or fascinate you. Then, if you’re me, you go to talesmag.com, which has a section called “Real Post Reports.” This is because the official reports aren’t always 100% accurate: sometimes they skew information so the post seems better than it is because they need to attract bidders (so if scorpions are a real problem, for example, the report might mention that “scorpion bites occasionally happen in the outskirts of town” rather than saying “Little Johnny got his toe bitten off in his own entry hall when he stuck his foot in his shoe.”). Or, if they don’t want to lose hardship pay, they might make the problem sound worse than it is (“Be prepared to fend off wild scorpions in your house, dishes and bed on a regular basis.”). The real post reports site is written by regular folks who are currently assigned to the country, so they’ll give you a good picture of day-to-day life at post – though since you don’t know the people who are writing, you have to assume that some are sunny personalities and some are whiners – grain of salt, people.

So now you have all the info you’re going to get, unless you know someone who has served there. And it’s time to rank these places for your list, sight unseen.

This is really, really stressful. Because how do you compare, say, a small South American city where crime is rampant but the air is clean, with no direct flights but a great school, to a mid-sized European city where the tourism opportunities are abundant but the winters are dark and the language is unlearnable? How about a country where you have to find your own housing v a place where you need to rely on local medical care? A 12-room school v a place that requires high altitude medication be taken upon arrival? A place where you’re likely to be carjacked vs a place where you could get encephalitis?

See what I mean? It’s apples and elephants, and there’s just no way to compare.

So you look at each report with your list of priorities in mind (in my case: good schools, opportunity to learn a foreign language, easy travel time to States, adequate medical care, ability to save money). And you try to picture yourself there amongst the Incan ruins, or the beggars with leprosy, or the whatever you picture to yourself. And you start putting all of these places in order of kill to go there/like to go there/no way in hell I’d go there.

And then go ahead and turn that list in, in early October. It doesn’t matter anyway, because you won’t get any of the places you’ve been dreaming of. Your goal here is to fight like heck to avoid getting a “no way in hell” place. When we bid last time, Beijing wasn’t even on our initial list. We turned in our list of six, and they came back to us telling us we weren’t qualified for half of them because of one child’s medical clearance, which prevented us from going certain places. So we added more places. Some were assigned to other agents, so we had to add more places to keep the list at 6. Some of these new places we didn’t qualify for, again because of the medical clearance issue. Until one day someone called my husband and said “We really think you’d like Beijing. Why don’t you consider adding it to your list?” So we did, and lo and behold, we got it.

That’s how the bidding process works. Are we all clear on everything now? Oh, and one more caveat: Bart is up for promotion, so the list will change for us if he gets promoted, with several places being knocked off the list. We actually have to prepare two lists in case we suddenly lose eligibility for some of these places. And we also have some bid choices within the U.S. to consider, in places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, DC and New York.

So, without further ado, I present to you our list of international places from which to choose. Could you choose and rank six? Could you even find them all on a map?

Addis Ababa (Ethiopia)
Amman (Jordan)
Ankara (Turkey)
Bangkok
Bucharest
Copenhagen
Geneva
Guatemala City
The Hague
Helsinki
Jerusalem
La Paz
Lima
Madrid
Managua (Nicaragua)
Manama (Bahrain)
Panama
Paris
Prague
Quito (Ecuador)
Riga (Latvia)
Sarajevo
Seoul
Zagreb (Croatia)

UPDATE: Bart brought the actual list home last night. There are actually even more places on the list than I thought, though these additional posts mostly fall into my don't-want-'em category for various reasons: Gaborone, Frankfurt, Abidjan, Beirut, Dakar, Khartoum, Athens, Berlin, Cairo, Jeddah, Manila, New Dehli, Santo Domingo, San Salvador, Caracas, Kiev, Baku, Abuja, Antananarivo... go get your atlas, I'll wait... Conakry, Ho Chi Minh, Kampala, Kinshasa, Lusaka, Maputo... oh, you get the idea - 'nuff said!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Mail Call

After 2 years of buying nothing that couldn't be shipped through amazon or drugstore.com, I went a little crazy back home. I think I went to Target 4 or 5 times (my mom was laughing at me because I was overwhelmed at the wide selection of kids' bandages and I had to come back another day to choose). I went to Old Navy. Macys. Costco. The health food store. Bath and Body Works. Joanne's Fabrics. And so on...

My proudest purchase? I bought 3 of those gigantic 72-oz bags of chocolate chips at Costco. We bake a lot, and thus go through chocolate chips at the rate of a bag a week - at 5 dollars for an 18-oz bag in Beijing, it gets pretty pricey. For the low, low price of $11.95, the U.S. Postal Service shipped that box of chips to me here.

The box o chips was waiting for us when we arrived, and I was ecstatic. Oh, the cookies! The fudge! The chocolate chip pumpkin bread that awaits us! I immediately set to work making chocolate chip cookies. (Hey, it was 3 a.m. and I was wide awake. Why not be wide awake and munching on warm cookies?)

I opened the box and found that apparently the U.S. Postal Service had decided to bake those cookies for me. All 3 bags of chips were melted and fused together into bricks of chocolate. I whacked the bags on the counter. I hit them with heavy objects. I finally resorted to running one bag through the food processor. It is now a 72-oz bag of chocolate dust.

I am not happy. Bad, bad U.S. Postal Service. They must've had those boxes sitting on a tarmac somewhere for an entire day.

Whatever. Chocolate dust is better than regular dust, and so I made chocolate dust brownies instead. And here I am for the second night in a row, awake at an ungodly hour in the middle of the night. Eating homemade chocolate dust cookie brownie things.

On balance, I'd have to say: life is good.

Back in Beijing

I mentioned back in June that I was working on this article. And here it is, in print. Well, technically you have to be in Beijing to see it in print, but you get what I'm saying.

It's 5:30 a.m. and I've been awake for almost 3 hours. 3 of my kids are awake, too. Jetlag... the worst part of the FS lifestyle.

So much to catch up on. I'll try to write in bits and pieces over the next few days, because if I store it all up for one long post, well, you won't be hearing from me until 2010.

Here is a brief synopsis of my fabulous life:

Airplanes: hate 'em. But I don't have to get on another one for a good long time, and by then I'll be ready. The kids were spectacularly well-behaved on the flight out from Beijing in July. Seriously. Little haloes floated above their heads throughout the journey. Not once did they fight. They didn't even whine. I was like a rock star on the plane, with people telling me how wonderful my kids are. I basked in the glory of it all, all the way to Seattle. Apparently, they were just saving energy for the trip from Seattle to NY, because the boys spent that entire journey bickering, and I quickly moved from my evil-mom-hiss to my full-out don't-make-me-get-up-from-my-seat-snarl. But they made up for it on the trip back here, when they were once again well-behaved. If only you could predict it, you know?

Summer vacation: almost over. School starts next Thursday. So much left undone! Part of me (okay, most of me) is relieved to send 50% of my kids off to school and earn myself some free time. But another sliver of self is going to miss those little guys. When did they get so big?

Beijing: My eyes are burning. I had forgotten how atrocious the air is. Yesterday was brown and hazy and humid and nasty. At one point I told Shay he needed to go out into the sunshine so his body would adjust to the time and he asked "sunshine? What sunshine?" But - I snuck out for lunch with some friends, and it was good to catch up. Beijing is good and bad in equal measure. For example, the airport personnel were polite, professional, efficient. But then we hopped in the shuttle, and oh-my-gawd can noone drive in this country? The grocery store is still small and a bit dingy. But the store managers welcomed me back and asked how our trip was. And of course, when I discovered my computer was even more messed up than when I left, I started yelling at the lightbulbs that they'd better fix my computer because I was a writer, gosh darn it, and if my computer didn't start working right NOW I'd tell everyone China sucks! This place makes you paranoid. But 30 minutes later, the computer mysteriously worked again. Go figure.

Okay, I've abandoned the jetlagged beasts for long enough. More later. For now, go read my article and tell me I'm brilliant. Seriously. I'm waiting.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Our NY Recap

Ainsley's baptism - performed by Bart's favorite childhood priest
Another mass said by the priest who baptised Aidan - one of my favorite priests ever
On a secular note:
The Butterfly Conservatory
Picnic by the water in Cooperstown
Go-carts with Uncle Sean
Sunday brunch with Margaret and Aunt Nancy
Lots and lots and lots of ice cream
The brewery tour
Cider floats at Fly Creek
Watching Kyra swim
Meeting baby Julia
Finding the buffalo ranch
Watching the kids with Pop, Nana, Uncle Brian, Aunt Carolyn and Uncle Sean

Back to Beijing in the morning...
Please. Write your own stuff.