Saturday, December 31, 2011

Cup of Kindness Yet

I promise to post about a little girl turning one any day now, but in the meantime, as I watch fireworks bursting above my neighbor's snow-covered roof, may I wish all of you a very happy and healthy new year. In Estonia, up until five minutes ago it was appropriate to say "Good Old Year's End," but now I can officially and politely say, "Happy New Year."

So. Happy New Year, and good riddance to any troubles that 2011 insisted on foisting upon you. I trust things will be looking up for you, your family, the economy, blossoming democracies, and humanity in general.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Eventful

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to everyone. I have a post brewing about Girl's first year of life, which we celebrated on the 23rd, but between the chaos of Christmas and the chaos of hosting family, I'm beat. Here are some Christmas photos to tide you over.









Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Mama's Coming!

I'm holed up in our back sewing room, finishing some Christmas gifts. I took a few hours off today to do so, and Boy doesn't know I'm home. He's clomping around the first floor in high heels from his costume collection, announcing "Mama's coming!" clomp clomp clomp.


At some point, Nanny helped him procure a "baby," and he's been clomping around feeding it, putting it down for a nap, and strapping it in a car seat, punctuating each activity with "Mama's coming!" clomp clomp clomp.


This interpretation of mama is a marked improvement over a recent dress-up episode. Boy was donning heels and a necklace and declared, "Watch out! Mama's coming!"

Me: "Oh yeah? What does Mommy say?"

Boy: "'Bye bye!'"

Me: [picks pieces of heart off the floor]

I like to think I'm not alone as an often exasperated mother of a preschooler (and now, of a preschooler and a toddler...aiyeeeee!). There are nights when I review the events of the day and am embarrassed by the sheer number of arguments I had with a three year old. Worst of all, some of my most unflattering Mom Moments are regurgitated back at me by said three year old. I was ordered to "Move it!" off his bed one night when he wanted to make a point and I was blocking his way. Of late he is particularly fond of some variation on one of my perennial favorites: "I'm serious!"

I am serious, Mommy.


Seriously, Mommy.


Or the especially charming:

I am serious at you, Mommy!


I fear that any moment now he is going to spit out one of my more common expressions of utter exasperation: "I'm sick of you [fill in frustrating behavior here]!" That will get a wince or twelve out of me, and possibly an accusatory look from Husband.

So I suppose it's not shocking that he also thinks of "Bye bye!" when he thinks of me. He hears that a lot. After all, "You're driving me bonkers!" would be a lot worse.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Germany with Kids: A Pictoral Travel Guide


Forgive the blurry iPhone pictures. They tell a story of a mom and a nanny trying to entertain two children in a foreign country with bad weather and a very limiting hotel room. Here are my Official Mom Recommendations for Traveling Through Germany (or At Least To Frankfurt and Munich):

Hotel Room Forts.

The Christmas Train in Frankfurt is always a successful choice.



The Kinder Museum in Frankfurt has a free mini museum for little kids. It was a huge hit throughout the week.


They had bug parts on an overhead projector. Boy created this one on his own. Genius.

My Zeil mall has an indoor playground, a little ride-on train, and lots of Christmas trees.




And on to Munich, where the Deutsches Museum was a highlight. Tons of airplanes, trains, engines, cars, and other mechanical wonders. But best of all...
...the basement is the Kids' Kingdom, with a fire engine...
...a giant Lego pit and a water exploration area, giant musical instruments,  and other fantastic areas (not pictured).
Topping our list: there happened to be a giant Saturn V model at a rest stop on the way back to Frankfurt. The same rest stop had a lovely play area. 


I mean, seriously, German Rest Stop For The Win.

It was an exhausting trip, and we were very happy to make it back to Tallinn's little airport...

...where Boy could entertain himself by holding onto the suitcase, and Nanny could capture Mom on a Business Trip in all its horrifying glory.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Very Foreign Service Week

Or, more accurately: A Very Foreign Service Two Weeks.

Or, even more accurately: A Very Foreign Service Working Mother Two Weeks.

Or, most accurately: A Very Foreign Service Tandem Couple Working Mother Two Weeks.

Nanny, the kids, and I returned from a week in Germany yesterday.

Oh, how lovely! A week in Germany!


Well, yes, Germany is lovely. Its countryside is adorable and its cities are comfortable, beautiful, and full of both obvious wonders and hidden delights. But I said this was A Very Foreign Service Blah Blah Two Weeks, so let's back up a bit.

I am the chief of a section. I have daily and weekly managerial responsibilities, and a small but incredibly competent staff. I am also the chief of a section in a small embassy and I am, after all, a Foreign Service Generalist, which loosely translates to "Someone Who Is Expected to Do Anything At Any Moment." I don't resent that. It's definitely part of the gig, and honestly it's one of the parts that makes the job so exciting, even though every few years you lose major pieces of furniture to mold on a four month journey from South Asia.

Um, I digress.

Anyway. Generalist. Exciting. Yes. In larger posts, this usually meant I handled my one little piece of the puzzle, and that usually meant I adjudicated visas, which I actually loved doing. I am now a midlevel manager, and when you put aside the fact that that phrase most likely conjures up a Dilbert character with funny hair, I can say I like what I do within my little section. But, as I mentioned above, my responsibilities often fall outside that section, and the past couple weeks are the perfect example.

In the past two weeks as an FSO I have:

  • Trained my colleagues on Duty Officer responsibilities (I cannot be on duty 24 hours a day, after all, although of course really all of us are).
  • Planned and emceed a holiday event for Estonian counterparts and American citizens (which included making decor and seeking out Kosher treats...I pretended not to love it, but I not-so-secretly did).
  • Presented awards to student inventors at an educational expo, in Estonian.
  • Re-taken a four day course to renew my certification as an Equal Employment Opportunity counselor (hence the Germany trip)
  • Sent a non-warden warden message
  • And, of course, fulfilled my normal duties of section management

In the past two weeks as a mother I have:
  • Had my children cry/shout for me while I emceed a holiday event they were attending
  • Waved goodbye to Husband at 4:30 a.m. while he left for a two week business trip to the States
  • Flown to and from Germany with two kids, Nanny, and no Husband
  • Blocked everyone's exit on the S-bahn with large luggage and an unwieldy stroller
  • Wandered around Frankfurt's red light district looking for our hotel
  • Administered the Heimlich, successfully, to my choking daughter (worst ten seconds of my life and damn you, broccoli)
  • Tended to coughing, sneezing, crying children in the middle of the night
  • Shared a hotel bed with two kids every night for a week
  • Driven on the autobahn in the dark, in the snow, with two children yelling at me
  • Run to H&M to buy Boy new pants because I somehow imagined children would keep their clothes clean enough to wear more than once. Ha. Ha ha ha.
  • Washed a lot of bottles in a hotel room sink
  • Waited 30 minutes for the car rental company to find two toddler seats that were wholly inadequate
  • Driven on the autobahn in the dark, in the snow, with two children yelling at me
  • Searched for parking in Munich for 80 minutes
  • Why does no one in Munich care that I am trying to get around with two small children? No one cares. They are all tall and apathetic to my plight. That is my summary of Munich. Oh yes, and it's beautiful and the Deutsches Museum is perfect for kids and I saw an old friend and her son.
  • Lost it, more than once, when dealing with my poor 3 year old
  • Been overwhelmingly excited to find a large Saturn V model in the parking lot of a German rest stop.
  • Scooped poop out of a bathtub. Thank you, Girl.
  • Picked up poop off the floor. Thank you, Girl.

Thanks to Foreign Service Scheduling, Husband and I are on different continents, which would be vexing normally, but was completely exhausting when we threw Germany in the mix. And expensive. Very expensive. There is no special allowance for tandem couples. When you travel for training, you get per diem for the officer. No big deal, unless you are a single parent or, in our case, tandem parents with orders to be in different places at the same time. In that case, you are paying for travel and upkeep for three individuals who aren't on orders, and aren't funded in any way.

Someone at the training asked why I didn't leave the kids in Estonia with Nanny for the week. The answer was two-fold and easy:

1) She would have been on 24 hours a day. They aren't reliable sleepers. That's completely draining for her and very expensive for us.
2) I will not leave my children in another country with an unrelated adult. I trust Nanny completely, but in the event of an emergency I'd want a parent or, failing that, a grandparent there.

So I was left with little choice but to fly the brood to Germany. In the end, the Frankfurt Kinder Museum was a mere jaunt from our hotel. The children also got to have their first doner kabob fare, and that's worth it for them. 

Pictures will come, and they will be awesomely odd, but here are my lessons learned:

1) You really are a Generalist when you are a Generalist.
2) If you are tandem with kids, avoid having to travel to different places at the same time.
3) If you spend a week in Germany and have only had one beer, you can legitimately feel sorry for yourself.
4) Every single establishment in the world should have a small play area in the back with tables. Everyone wins: kids, parents, kid-free patrons. 
5) At the end of the business trip, just go home. Small children will not appreciate seeing yet another foreign place.
6) Realizing that you would not be financially worse off if one parent were Stay-At-Home thanks to childcare, tuition, and taxes is depressing, and you shouldn't think about it too much.

And with that, I shall return to baking treats for Boy's school holiday party. I already failed at finding them a Santa, so I can't fail to provide the requested American food. I am going to miss another country's official holiday party for this, but sometimes motherhood really does have to trump work. I may not provide Santa, but I'll be there, and so will my pumpkin bread.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

I'm Not a Shill...

...I'm just a supporter.

The front page of The Washington Post is depressing me. The economy is crumbling, the presidential campaign season is farcical thus far at best, Iranian students are destroying the British Embassy.

So! To counter that, I am sharing with you some organizations that I believe do actual good in this world, and I hope that you will check them out as you make your holiday giving decisions. Even better, share them with your friends and family. In times of economic trouble, charities--especially the smaller ones--struggle even as their services grow so much more valuable.

As a federal employee, I've watched my retirement investments and my kids' college funds plummet and my pay freeze. I am pretty damn lucky. Each holiday season, I decide that as a solvent consumer with a decent paycheck, I should support retailers. I've been broadening my definition of doing economic good: I should support retailers, I should support craftsmen, and I should support charities.

So here they are, the places I turn when I want my money to do something more valuable than add yet another pair of unused shoes to my closet:

Kiva

Kiva manages microlending. They partner with regional organizations to provide a framework in which you choose the project/entrepreneur and lend whatever amount of money in $25 increments. The entrepreneur then pays it back in regular installments, and you can lend it again as soon as you have a minimum of $25. I have been doing this for a few years now. It's fun, it makes a significant impact, and you can even give your friends and family funds to loan. Make sure you donate a bit as you check out for Kiva's overhead costs.


Donors Choose

Donors Choose is particularly close to my heart because I was the recipient of several funded projects when I was a teacher in the Bronx. I was broke, my school system was underfunded and overburdened, and those generous gifts helped me bring some innovative tools and ideas into my first grade classroom. You choose the project proposal and how much you want to donate toward it. In return, you might get some pretty sweet thank you notes.


The Liz Logelin Foundation

When Matt Logelin's young wife died the day after she delivered their preterm daughter, he was showered with love and material support from strangers across this vast thing we call the internet. In an effort to pay it forward, he created an organization that provides funds to struggling widows and widowers with children. LLF will cover their expenses for a month to soften the blow of losing not only their spouse, but often their only income. LLF has more applications than they can fund.


Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep

Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep matches volunteer photographers with grieving families after a stillbirth or loss of a newborn. Professional photographers capture those last few moments of life as parents and siblings love their little fading bundle. Sometimes they capture those moments after their son or daughter is already gone, before the nurses and doctors take the baby away forever. It's hard to go through their website emotionally unscathed.

I'm always happy to find an organization that has a short path from donor to recipient, so point me in the direction of foundations that make you warm and fuzzy. Share the love. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Hipster in the Mirror?

The Washington Post featured an opinion on the trend of "new domesticity," and I read it with interest and more than a little self-recognition. I've been gone from the U.S. for so long, and when I've been back I've been overwhelmed by children and language learning, that I didn't realize this was a new thing. I thought I was just uniquely useless until recently, the first to get eaten by a lion, the first one to be voted off the island. Turns out, this may have been brewing for a generation or two.

There are many Categoried Peoples claiming this trend of old-fashioned self-reliance: feminists, hipsters, libertarians, conspiracy theorists, People Currently Occupying Wall Street. A friend on the Facepage suggested this might even be our reaction to what we perceive as the imminent collapse of economies and governments. That thought is depressing, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit that that crosses my mind more than occasionally these days. Not enough to buy automatic weapons and circle my wagons, but enough that I think I'd better have some flexibility.

So why am I sitting in a room with a sewing machine, a serger, stacks of fabric, a box of knitting needles, a box of yarn, and a whole lot of glue, when five years ago I considered making a salad to be cooking? A few reasons, I think.

1) I am a serial hobbyist (see description on left). I like having something I'm interested in. In Tel Aviv, I had a personal trainer and ran a lot. In New York, I earned my black belt and spent about 6 nights a week at my Tae Kwon Do school. In college, I had theater. In middle school and high school I had horses.

I'd still love to do TKD, and I'd more than love to go back to riding, but as a working mom I don't get a lot of time at home. So home-based hobbies are particularly appealing.

2) Related to the working mom thing: I like my job, I really do, and I can't complain about my income. I know I am providing for my children, and they will thank me when they don't have to take out the equivalent of a large mortgage to go to college. But with two of us working all day, I feel like no one is making our home a home. That's mighty subjective, I know, but in my mind the amount of love and thought I put into a cable about Social Security, I wish I could put into dinner. It makes me happy that I made the blanket covering Girl as she sleeps. It's a little sloppy and a completely amateur effort, but it's full of love.

3) Nesting: I didn't get to nest when I was expecting Boy. We were in a one bedroom corporate apartment in Falls Church. When I returned stateside from India, I was 20 weeks pregnant with Girl. A few days later, I learned we were not having a boy (despite all Husband's claims that in no way does his family make girls...except for that one that obviously carried him) and I immediately set about imagining her nursery. A proper nursery! There was the issue of curtains, sheets, crib skirts, etc., ignoring the fact that I knew she would sleep with us for at least the first few months. The obvious solution was to buy a sewing machine. Check.

4) Self-reliance. I hate the idea that I went through all the trouble of college, grad school, and a career just to be totally useless when it comes to basic survival skills. I am slowly reversing that.

5) The environment. Do I really need salsa package in Idaho with ingredients from Mexico through a New York distribution center sent to Frankfurt and then Estonia? Probably no.

So there we are. There are other reasons I've developed an obsession with being Suzy Homemaker, but those are the biggies. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to return to purling my purls and knitting my knits.

(Seriously...it's Christmas present making time.)

Friday, November 25, 2011

Gratitude

Happy Thanksgiving! Here is where I engage in the annual tradition of declaring my gratitude publicly.

I am, of course, thankful for my family and friends, a job that not only pays me but challenges me, and my health. When I start to feel cranky and whiny, I check out the various lists of First World Problems, and I regain a little perspective.

I am thankful for the following non-obvious big things in the past year:

1) My VBAC. This was huge for me, changing the way I parent and they way I process my relationship with Boy. That's another story for another day, but it ranks near the top in the highlights of the past year.
2) Nanny. She helped us turn an awful situation into a blessing. She's been great with both our kids, and as a result I find myself completely surprised by actually being thankful Boy had to leave daycare.

3) Boy's new school. The director stopped me a little over a month ago and told me how much she enjoyed Boy, despite how much energy he has and how unpredictable his outbursts can be. My Lord, I never imagined an educator would say that about my son. It was a blessing in countless ways, not least of which was a reminder for me that Boy is loving, smart, and full of potential. No one should ever tell any three year old otherwise.

And the little things:

1) Girl took her first steps about ten days ago, and today, at the advanced age of 11 months and one day, toddled between adults.

2) Boy has started doing the potty dance before he realized he has to pee. These few seconds of advance notice prevent many an accident. Sadly, they did not prevent one on the plane from Poland, but that's only because he didn't know there was a bathroom on board and couldn't potty dance while strapped into his seat. I heart the potty dance.

3) Do you know that in the past four years, except for selling my Malibu when I left Israel for Korea, I have not had to worry about a single damn thing that is car-related? When the Mini betrayed us for the final time and we traded it in, Husband picked the new car out, asked my blessing, and told me where to sign. I haven't had to deal with an oil change, the tires, or any of the many iPod adapters. In this marriage, we embrace the idea of comparative advantage. He has cars; I have poopy diapers. It works.

Life is good.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Dear Santa:

"Boy, what do you want for Christmas?"

"A blue rocket!"

"What should Girl get for Christmas?"

"New pajamas to wear at night."

"What about Daddy?"

"A candle!"

"And Mommy?

"A green rocket!"

"And Nanny?"

"An iPad!"

"And Dza Dza and Grandma?"

"Two iPads!"

"And Grammy and Springs?"

"A brown rocket!"

"Uncle C, Aunt H, and Cousin A?"

"A cup holder!"

"And Uncle N and Aunt A?"

"A cup holder!"

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Warsaw

We turned this weekend into a long one and headed to Warsaw to visit friends from one of our previous posts. It was my third trip to the city, but everyone else's first. It was also cold. Tallinn has had an unseasonably warm fall thus far (it's still above freezing and nary a snowflake in sight), but we did see flurries in Poland, if only for a few minutes. Poland is a gorgeous country, and although I like Krakow and Gdansk even more than Warsaw, I'm always happy to spend some time in the capital.

Boy slowly dissolved into a cold-induced meltdown. This does not bode well for our Estonian winters. Note to self: When traveling through Central Europe in November, do not leave Boy's mittens in his school cubby.


Gray and cold, but still lovely.

We loaned out the non-melting down child for Kid Practice. Girl looked like a child from A Christmas Story


For whatever reason, the Man Behind the Camera was having a tough time getting non-fuzzy child action shots. Here's a be-snotted Girl strolling through the Old Town.



The Warsaw Uprising monument is one of my favorites in the world, and retelling the story chokes me up every. single. time. If you are unfamiliar, I recommend you read the summary. It's heartbreaking.



Don't worry, it's not real fur. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Truths

1) If we are about to travel, one or both of the children will get sick.

2) The week I plan to take annual leave will suddenly become the busiest week in months.

3) Any government computer program that you absolutely must use on a tight deadline will simply refuse to work.

4) If the Washington Post writes about federal employee job satisfaction, the comments section will be filled with vitriol and a decent amount of just sheer crazy. We are to be happy, always, and feel fortunate we are even paid for our work at all.

5) Every week after watching Glee, I must immediately read Tom and Lorenzo so I know how I felt about it.

6) When you have a "friend" on Facebook who repeatedly writes offensive, bigoted, borderline insane screeds, you are torn between a) unfriending him, and b) checking his status first every day in hopes of a new trainwreck.

7) It is impossible to get quality Mexican food (or Tex-Mex, of Californian Mex) outside of the Americas.

8) Similarly, no one does breakfast like Americans. Well, maybe with the exceptions of the Israelis.

9) Europe's street signs are designed to confuse.

10) If I have a few hours to pack for a trip, I will blog instead. Doh.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Siblings




Girl is rapidly approaching her first birthday. She has taken a step here or there, but at this point mostly enjoys standing. Although she's been sitting since five months, clapping since six, and crawling since eight, she just learned to roll over this week. She has one tooth in plain view, and the teeniest sliver of the second right next to it. Her hair is long enough for clips, but she doesn't enjoy our touching it very much. It's telling that my pictures of her at this age are from my phone, and they are few. Below are a couple of the many many pictures I have of Boy at the same age. She eclipses him in size and verbal skills; he was sprouting a new tooth on what seemed like a weekly basis. They are completely different children and at times it's hard to see how they both came from the same batch of genetic material. 







A number of friends are expecting their first child and inevitably I feel a bit wistful when I hear about the anticipation of the monumental earthquake that is parenthood. With each pregnancy, I would daydream about who this little person would be. With Girl, I had fewer opportunities to do so. Husband was in Iraq, and I was working/toddler-raising in India. Life was a bit of a distraction from the distraction of that daydream. When I grabbed the rare moment to focus on her, I pictured Boy in a dress. I figured we'd have a skinny brunette with a lot of attitude. She's recently started showing glimpses of sass, but her soft little blond self is nothing like I would have imagined. It's a reminder that for all of our imagining, our planning, our plotting, children are exactly who they are. They are brunette; they are blond. They are boys; they are girls. They are gay; they are straight. They are tall; they are short. They like pink; they like blue. Save for some genetic realities, there is little predicting who that teeny person is.

Girl didn't come out like I expected, she came out like she is. As she learns to talk and stand, and as she learns to grab crackers from her brother and hit him when he comes to retrieve them (what a bruiser!), I'm starting to see what that means. For all the anticipation of pregnancy, this is the real adventure.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

#(*%&%!

I know I must tiptoe this line of embracing my free speech and blogging away, and respecting that my job requires more discretion than the first amendment does. In general, it is a bad idea to:

a) publicly criticize the President or Secretary of State. You won't find me doing it here.*
b) make statements or express opinions that run contrary to U.S. foreign policy. You won't find me doing it here.*
c) lash out at politicians who rudely and dismissively insult the character of American diplomats. You're about to see me do that here.

*I am not claiming that I personally agree with everything everywhere. I am simply acknowledging that "U.S. official says [quote from your blog contradicting U.S. goals and positions]" is a really good way to damage your country and your career.


As for c), as soon as one of those politicians is elected president or named Secretary, then you suck it up and use the dissent channel if necessary. It's not fun, but self-censorship is part of your responsibility. You weren't hired to defend the Constitution of You and implement Your Foreign Policy. If you can't do that in good conscience, then you look for employment elsewhere. I firmly believe that.

Until then, use discretion. You want nothing more than to write about some of the more, um, interesting CODELs? Tempting? Certainly. Good career move? Oh no. Not to mention: what would happen if someone in your host country's government read your less-than-flattering assessment of someone with whom you just asked them to take a meeting?

But I draw the line here. Note that Perry offers nothing to substantiate his accusations, and he immediately reverts to the uniform worship that has consumed American politics. Lest someone think I am anti-military, I am certainly not. I just see this playing out in an overly simplistic fashion: military infallible! federal workers/diplomats baaaaad! It's tiresome. We are, in fact, on the same team.

What would I like to see in response? I'd like to see other politicians challenge that accusation in public and in the media. I'd like to see citizens challenge that accusation. I'd like a voice other than AFSA's to suggest to Congress that it is an unwise policy to make an FSO serving in Angola earn less than a percentage point more of his income than an FSO serving in Washington.

We are a small service, and we serve far away from home. I know sometimes an American citizen only has a personal interaction with us when we are delivering the unpopular message that, no, the Constitution doesn't have legal authority in Country Z. But sometimes, we are there on Thanksgiving day, texting your daughter as she hides under a bed in an Indian hotel that's under a terrorist attack, all to be able to tell her that, for the love of God, please don't answer the door if someone knocks. Sometimes you appreciate our assistance so much that we become a character in your Lifetime movie (yes, true story, and no, I won't link to it). Sometimes you are thankful we are there when your son suddenly passes away, and all his possessions, bank accounts, everything--even his body--are in a country far away that you've never visited. We help.

I don't want American citizens to stop speaking to their elected officials about foreign policy. I don't want an end to thoughtful criticism. I don't even want a medal. I would, however, like a little bit of respect.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Twilight

Nanny's birthday was Friday, and all she wanted was to drink beer, eat enchiladas, and watch Twilight. We abided, because none of that was more than borderline immoral and barring ethical reservations, you should generally indulge someone on her birthday. Plus, I've read all ten of the unequivocally horrible Sookie Stackhouse novels, so who am I to judge?

In fact, I was so entertained by Friday's night's viewing, that I purchased the second one on iTunes and watched it Saturday night. Nanny shared a drinking game with me, which included the rule that a participant must take a drink anytime there is bad acting. My tolerance isn't what it used to be, and the kids get up very early no matter what I did the night before, so I didn't dare play the game. There was a lot of bad acting. It rated about 128 on the Unintentional Comedy scale (0 to 100) and about a million on the Lessons I Don't Want My Daughter To Learn scale, such as:

1) You can love someone without having a conversation with them.

2) When the only way to stay with that person is to die and become a vampire, then that's what you do.

3) Little Volvos = Allegedly Badass (but not really badass)

4) When someone tells you the only thing he wants to do is murder and eat you, the proper response is "I trust you."

5) When your boyfriend breaks up with you suddenly, it is not unreasonable to sit in your room for months and ignore your friends.

6) Long hair and carrying a dream catcher? Must be American Indian. Short hair can mean an American Indian, but only if he's also a werewolf.

Will I watch the third? Probably. It's pretty awful, but amusingly so. If you are going to play the drinking game, I recommend wine coolers or something similarly light.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Do the Facebook Stalk!

(...to the tune of "Do the Hustle," obviously.)

I am married to a person who does not participate in The Facebook or social media in general (save for the many many nerd blogs he reads and many hours of World of Warcraft--from here forward, "Nerdcraft"--he wishes he had time to play). Two of the five people in my section don't have Facebook accounts either.

B..b..but...how can you find your crush from third grade?! I wonder out loud, quite confused how they accomplish nostalgic stalking without The Social Network. I don't want to find my crush from third grade, they lie. They lie! Who doesn't want to find their crush from third grade?! I found him. We are Facebook friends.

Also various crushes from many times in my life. And many previous BFFs, as, like most girls, I had a different one for each phase of my childhood and adolescence. Five different BFFs before college, to be exact...I had no falling out with any of them, life just changed. I love keeping up with them, a voyeur on their universally happy lives (or at least they seem that way, through the Facebook filter). One is even the daughter of a current governor. We are on opposite ends of the political spectrum and haven't talked since high school, but she's my cyber friend, and I'm hers. I find comfort knowing she is well.

I'm friends with my oldest friend. We were friends before we had the social synapses firing well enough to make friends. We were friends while we were in diapers, and I imagine we'll be friends when we end up back in them. We see each other every few years when I roll back through the U.S., and even without Facebook he'd be nothing short of my oldest friend, and always a dear one. But now I see his status updates, his daughter's pictures, his latest favorite band.

I can understand why none of this would interest someone who sees all the people in their lives. Perhaps for someone who has never moved or who lives down the street from their third grade crush, Facebook is unnecessary. My father laments the loss of human interaction and decries our modern refusal to acknowledge that, sometimes, we just lose touch, and that's okay. That certainly has merit too.

As I see it, Facebook is two things: first, an indisputable time suck. Second, it's a manifestation of this touchingly vulnerable human need to connect, to widen the social circle, to be a bit nosy. It's hard to feel alone when you have a Facebook friend.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Telecommute

The other day I stupidly stupidly stupidly marveled that Boy has not really been sick since starting preschool, and at daycare he had something new literally every week.

Silly woman.

So. Pink eye. OF COURSE. I have the double joy of restraining a very resistant three year old and trying to actually get eye drops in his eyes three times a day, and of being a social pariah with my own brand new case of pink eye. I looked at Girl's beautifully clear eyes this morning, and I already mourned her inevitable discomfort. The child cannot keep her hands off our faces or her little fists out of her tired eyes. It will happen.

Today is an awful day to be a walking contagion. Tomorrow would have been much more convenient. Today I had: our weekly (important) staff meeting, followed immediately by a monthly (important) smaller meeting, a couple special guests coming to my section, our newest staff member's third day on the job, and most importantly, an event with the public, run by my section. I can't miss the event, so I am overmedicating my eyes and hoping no one will notice. I'd wear sunglasses, but it gets dark at 4:45 or so now and we're inside anyway.

Luckily, we have a nifty little device that lets us access our desktops from a regular computer. I decided to work from home, so as to avoid the angry accusations from my currently pink-eye-free staff. (I'm typing now on my "lunch," so don't worry, Taxpayers.)

Holy Day of Productivity, Batman! I used to think it would be tough to focus while telecommuting, especially with Girl home. Turns out, Nanny has her under control, and I was checking things off my list quite quickly. I sent about 10 emails to people to cover what I would have said or done in various meetings I was missing, took care of a couple issues that needed addressing but always ended up on the back burner, bought all the refreshments for our event this evening, and worked out some details of an event I'm planning for early December. That's a pretty useful morning.

After my little break, I'll get my ducks in a row for this evening, take care of some admin stuff, and head into the office to rally the troops for our event. And by "rally," I mean "cause them to duck behind furniture lest I infect them."

I can completely see why efficiency experts are all about the telecommute, and why so many Department employees lament that our organization seems unwilling to exploit its possibilities. The reality is I couldn't telecommute regularly, as the very nature of my job requires me to be present for all sorts of urgent, not urgent, and appear-urgent-but-aren't-really-urgent matters. But next time my to-do list extends to the third or fourth page, I might consider ducking out of the office and all its distractions.

Telecommute for the win.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Let's Play Behavior Modification!

Boy, like most three year olds, is heavy on the pretending right now. We are constantly pretending to be turtles, frogs, cats, or babies. We are pretending to fly rockets, land rockets, look at rockets, and crash rockets. We are pretending to make Mommy coffee, and pretending to drink it. Every now and then, we pretend to modify our behavior.

The past year has been a tough row to hoe in parenthood, for those of you who have not gleaned as much from my Facebook statuses, my never-ending handwringing, or this here blog. After trying everything--and I really do mean everything--we finally came across one behavior modification technique that seems to work: the chip economy (or token economy, or coin economy, etc.). Basic idea: Boy earns coins (poker chips) for meeting prescribed expectations and then Boy uses coins to buy small toys out of a treasure chest. This has been huge in turning around his behavior, especially in school. He's not perfect, and a couple times a week he still whacks a kid for something, but he's much better.

When we first arrived in Estonia, Boy had reverted into some of his previously incredibly violent behavior. He was hurting Girl frequently and with gusto. We decided to crack down hard, and every time he bit, kicked, hit, threw things, or scratched, a toy of our choosing went into the "trash." It worked at first, but he was so overwhelmingly dispirited that he would put his own toys in the trash for doing something innocuous, like spilling his snack. He became bitter, angrier, and ultimately sad.

So at a colleague's urging, we started using 90% positive reinforcement (the chip economy), and 10% negative (time outs). We've seen marked improvement.

To make sure we weren't missing anything, we took Boy to see the psychiatrist who came through town this week. He confirmed that Boy is healthy, normal, and definitely a three year old. He also remarked that he liked how he interacted with us, and was impressed at how Boy verbalized his feelings (he was huddled in the corner, sniffing "I'm sad" because we wouldn't let him leave the room). Did we think Boy was autistic? No. But after this year of feeling like parenting failures, our confidence--or at least mine--was a bit shot. The doctor thought if anything Boy was simply under-socialized and needed as much exposure to kids as possible. No problem. We love his current school, and he loves going.

Behavior modification is such a significant part of our lives when, in an enthusiastic game of pretend, Boy rewarded me with a coin for sharing my imaginary toy. At least he didn't pretend to throw a toy in the trash. I still feel guilty about that one.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Peek Into State Department Culture

Every year at exactly tax time, each Foreign Service employee is subjected to the dreaded Employee Evaluation Report (EER), on which all future happiness, wealth, and success hinges. No pressure. In order not to irritate any of the readers who sit on the promotion panels, excluding employees from the possibility of promotion because they merely walked on water and not danced Swan Lake across it, there is much handwringing over minutiae. "Hit the ground running," is out. Overused. "Recommend for promotion," or "recommend for immediate promotion"? Why didn't she write "immediate"? Egads! Must be a crappy officer. One space or two after periods? Two is antiquated, but some of those reading your EERs and deciding your fate are certainly from the Old Guard. Two it is, even though it pains your soul. This is an age-old...wait, wait--that was uninventive and cliched. Mulligan! This obsession-bordering-on-paranoia has been around since Benjamin Franklin got drunk in Paris on the country's dime. Here is a delightful article by none other than Dean Acheson, a celebrity of sorts in the Foreign Service World. It's pretty amazing, and sums up what I can only imagine promotion panels are doing with all our overthought EERs.

Oh, and sorry Dean, if you read any of my EERs, you'll know that, as a modern Foreign Service Officer, I implement the hell of things.

Of Mice and Mail
By Dean Acheson
From Foreign Service Journal, May 1965


Long ago, when the world was young, the official censor of English usage and prose style in the Department of State was a charming lady with an imposing and elegant coiffure. In those days we were in the old State War, and Navy Building, just west of the White House. Affection for its tiers of pillared balconies and mansard roof and its present mantle of soft dove gray is the touchstone which separates aging Victorian aesthetes from neoclassicists and moderns. We loved, also, its swinging, slatted, saloon-type half doors. They not only provided ventilation before air conditioning and permitted most covenants to be overheard and hence openly arrived at, but their vicious swings into the hall created a sporting hazard for passersby.

The Department was much smaller then. The country had not yet reluctantly donned the imperial purple of world leadership, or acquired a voice heard hourly around the world, or discovered and exchanged culture; nor was it required to cope with the mounting ill will of the objects of its solicitude and generosity. The days when the Department would
add to its little nucleus of diplomatists the equivalent of Montgomery Ward, Chautauqua, CBS, and Lincoln Center were still mercifully ahead.

So much smaller was it that at the end of the day the elegantly coiffured chieftainess of the Division of Coordination and Review could and did bring to my office all the important departmental mail, to be read and signed over the title Acting Secretary. We began with a ritual which would have puzzled the uninitiated. She pulled a chair close to
the front of my desk and then sat, not on it, but in it – that is, she perched herself crosslegged in the chair. And thereby hangs a tale.

The Undersecretary’s mouse lived in his office fireplace, where for years a wood fire had been laid but never touched, much less lighted. Probably generations of internationally minded mice had grown up within the log structure and gone on to positions in the United Nations. When the long day’s work was ending and the busy office was hushed and the fever of departmental life was over, the mouse would come out. Some atavistic fear or urge, older than time, leads women to slander mice by believing that they harbor a lascivious desire to run up the female leg. Elephants seem to share this fear. At any rate, both are traditionally nervous in the presence of mice.

From her safe haven the chieftainess could observe the mouse without tremors as we tackled the mail. For years she had battled bravely with the bureaucracy and maintained the State Department’s standard of literacy high above that, for instance, of the Department of Agriculture of the Bureau of Internal Revenue. But time had dampened the fire and dulled her cutting edge. She welcomed the help of fresh enthusiasm and a
new blade.

We won a few opening and easy victories over phrases with no solid support—villainous expressions like “as regards to,” “acknowledging yours of,” “regretting our delay in,” and so on. Then came our first major attack on a departmental favorite. The target was the use of the verb “to feel” to describe the Department’s cogitating and deciding process.
“The Department feels that to adopt the course you urge would not,” et cetera, et cetera. The Department could, I insisted, decide, agree, disagree, approve, disapprove, conclude, and on rare occasions, and vicariously, think, but never feel. It had no feelings. It was incapable of feeling. So the ukase was issued that departmental feeling was out.

The immediacy of our success brought home to us the immensity of our combined power over the written words. When the chieftainess eliminated feeling from every letter no matter by whom written and I signed letters brought to me only by her, the Department simply ceased to feel. Absolute power, Lord Acton wrote, corrupts absolutely. But in our case, it was not so. Moderation was our guide. The tumbrel was filled discriminately. Into it went “implement” and “contact” used as verbs – “the Department must implement the Act of Congress” or “you should contact the Consul General at Antwerp.” These horrors sneezed into the sack. So did “finalize,” “analogize,” and “flexible” when used to modify “approach.” “To trigger” would have done so likewise if anyone had dared use it.

Thus far the natives showed no signs of restlessness under the new order. Indeed, they hardly noticed the increased literacy and clarity of their returning carbon copies. But our pruning knives soon cut deeper into clich├ęs which had taken the place of thought. The first of these was “contraproductive.” What would a congressman think, I asked, when
he read, “The course you proposed would, in the Department’s view, prove to be contraproductive”? It would sound to him suspiciously like a veiled reference to birth control.

Once started on this line of thought, we soon added to the proscribed list two other phrases, also likely to suggest undue familiarity with the shady side of sex. These were “abortive attempts” and “emasculating amendments.” “Crippling” amendments were bad enough. Why not, in both cases, switch to “stultifying” for a change?

Even those oddities were put down to no more than reluctance to admit modern ruggedness of speech into official correspondence. But when the guns were turned on “sincere” the murmurs grew. “For proof of Russian sincerity,” someone would write, “we look to deeds not words.” Nothing could have been more misleading or misinformed concerning both the meaning of the word and the nature of the Russians. Under pressure all would agree that Webster relegated to fifth place the letter writer’s
belief that “sincere” meant “virtuous.” As its first meaning, Noah put down just what the Russians were: “pure; unmixed; unadulterated; as sincere as milk,” or, one might add, as sincere – that is, unmixed and unadulterated – trouble. He even quoted the eighteenth-century wit, physician, and friend of Pope and Swift, John Arbuthnot, as writing (incomprehensibly), “There is no sincere acid in any animal juice.” That clinched the matter, and “sincere” as an adjectival encomium went on the Index Prohibitorum.

We were tempted to go further and rule out “Sincerely yours,” either as a self-serving declaration that the Department was “unmixed,” which was false on its face, or that, taking a lower meaning, it was “without deceit,” which the body of the letter usually disproved. We preferred “Respectfully yours” for our superiors in the White House and
the Capitol, a reserved “Very truly yours” for the citizenry and for foreign VIP’s the stately “With renewed expressions of my highest esteem” (a delightful phrase, since the expressions were never expressed). But “Sincerely yours,” having by usage been deprived of all meaning, was finally adjudged suitable for the departmental use.

Thus we strove mightily at the noble task of returning the Department’s prose to a Jeffersonian level; but we strove against the current. We became obstacles to efficiency. The mail backed up. Congressmen complained of the delay in answering their letters and refused to be assuaged by the superior prose of the answers when they did not come.

When the first symptoms of elephantiasis appeared with our absorption of Colonel Donovan’s Research and Intelligence people and Elmer Davis’ foreign-broadcasting facilities, our doom was sealed. Our evening sessions with the mail became as hopelessly inadequate as Gandhi’s spinning wheel. The revolution of expansion swept our ukases away, and through the ruins the exiled phrases defiantly marched back, contacting, implementing, feeling, contraproducing, aborting, and emasculating in shameless abandon.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Halloween-ish

Last Halloween, Boy was heading to bed just as trick-or-treaters in Virginia started making the rounds. The first knock echoed through our living room before we had a chance to squirrel him away safely in his room, and there was no keeping him from peering out the door, watching all the kids walking up and down our block. He sat on the stoop in the cool night, fleece pajamas on, hands tucked between his knees, mesmerized. We promised him he could go next year, but of course we knew that next year we once again would be far from home, and far from the Halloween nights of my childhood.

Embassy communities around the world try their darnedest to recreate those Halloween-type moments for the staff and families assigned to Post. Just last week I ordered our Thanksgiving turkey. Someone will have to take the ferry to Helsinki to pick it up, but no matter. In that vein, our Community Liaison Officer (CLO) planned our kids' Halloween party for this past Friday, thanks to many scheduling kinks that required it to be ten days out. So while I read about my friends' Halloween prep and see Halloween idea after Halloween idea on Pinterest, I have to remind myself that it's only over for us.

When we asked Boy what he wanted to be this year, he said without hesitation, "a space shuttle!" We clarified, but, yes, he meant  the space shuttle. Okay. For Girl, I fretted over the decision. The First Halloween. Momentous. Boy was almost 4 months old for his first Halloween, and we subjected him to this:



For Girl, my original idea of a Baby Ruth (the candy bar) costume wasn't going to work. She's crawling and standing...homegirl would not tolerate having her legs unusable. I then believed "slutty nurse" to be an inspired idea, but thought it might be awkward to explain that choice at the office party. So for her first Halloween, we settled on this:





That's me, in my office, as Hermione and Girl as Harry Potter. Because she was such a blur, it was hard to get a good picture of her robe and onesie (glasses are in her hand...the better for chewing on). Here she is in the Management Section's smoky Haunted House:




I painted a maroon tied on her white onesie and used fabric glue to attach a few gold ribbon stripes. I was going to use my beloved Silhouette machine to print a freezer paper stencil for the patch, but when I realized it was 10 p.m., I decided I was not going to stay up for hours simply to perfect a 10 month old's and a 39 year old's (more on that in a bit) costume. So...I printed out a patch, cut it out and used fabric glue to adhere it to felt. I cut it out again, and glued it to the Gryffindor robe I had sewn. For the robe, I used crummy black polyester and maroon knit jersey, lining the former with the latter and creating a fairly uneven maroon trim so folks would know this was no Draco Malfoy, despite her blond locks.

Originally I was going to draw on glasses with face paint, but thankfully I realized that would only result in squiggly black lines all over her as there was no way she wouldn't squirm. I had black plastic glasses, but she mostly chewed on them. Her face-paint lightening bolt somehow spread across her forehead and onto my cheek as the party went on.

But Boy's costume...that's pretty amazing. Husband is talented, and is wasting his skills on doing what he does for a living, although his current profession pays better and has better insurance. Boy wanted a space shuttle, and he got a space shuttle, with lights and everything.












 As for the adults, we designated Husband Mission Control (quite literally, as it turned out), and made him some patches for his vest.


That's Boy's "Cheese"-face. It's pretty hilarious.



And even Nanny got in the spirit, dressing like Bellatrix LaStrange, even though it was ten days before the actual Halloween.




A successful non-Halloween Halloween. It may have been on the wrong day and very far from home, but we spent the night before up far too late making costumes at the last minute, so it might as well have been the real thing.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Never fear, my faithful reader! I have not given up on blogging. No, quite the contrary: I've been amassing blogging material. You have the following ruminations to look forward to:

1) Three year olds! What is with them?

2) Husband makes a wearable space shuttle; I make an infant-sized Harry Potter costume.

3) Pinterest gets me cooking again.

4) Gilad Shalit, the angst of a mother, and the Second Lebanon War. Maybe. I haven't decided if there's a good way to go there or not.

But for now, I will share with you what I did on Saturday night, in a great fit of not being able to stand looking tired and older than I am. The culprit couldn't possibly be the short nights of constantly interrupted sleep. No! It's the damned gray hairs. I have had more than one person announce unbidden in the past few months that he loves all my gray hair. Husband was not one of those people. Husband simply comments that I have a growing number of them. Actually, I should say had. Yes, I who have only had highlights twice--both times more or less abject failures--decided that a proper Saturday night involved wine, spicy chocolate, and a box of hair dye whose instructions were in Estonian. Note that this was not a subject area covered in my ten months of Estonian training or the final test. I made Nanny help me, assuring her that in no way would I hold her personally responsible for the results.

The results were good. My attempts to get a picture of them were not. I have a fancy DSLR camera, the fine piece of machinery that takes anything good on here. But it's at least three feet away from me and requires uploading. Dealbreaker. I used the built-in camera in my laptop.

On the first night, with my hair freshly blown out, the tired eyes and poor lighting resulted in this unsatisfying picture:

Oh sweetie, just go to sleep.

So tonight I tried again, moving my head to block the light. The pictures evoke less pity for my sheer exhaustion, but completely fail to show the color:


Wait, no, on second look, I still appear exhausted.*

So I here I am, fanning out my hair to capture the reddish brown color while pointing my desk light at it:


This is an important rite of passage for me: the first box of hair dye in what will certainly be twenty years filled with boxes of hair dye. A husband, two kids, a career, and a five euro tube of hair color. Apparently I'm an adult, but I didn't know until that last one.

*But my necklace is adorable! Thanks to a helpful post by Jill at Baby Rabies, I ordered this custom peridot and blue topaz necklace and stackable rings from Olive Bungalow. Great mommy jewelry.