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


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.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Potty-trained in a weekend. Mostly. Not at night. But only one accident at school on Monday, and none yesterday or today. I am no longer worried that he only wants to be an astronaut so that he can pee himself regularly.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

When in Estonia... is generally advisable to do as the Estonians do. I will certainly continue to follow that maxim come the first dark, cold, snowy day, when I take layering advice from the various tall blonde people who live on my street.

So when I woke up sick this morning, I decided to heed the advice of the Estonian general I met at the Ambassador's house last week, and fire up our sauna for the first time. [Note to people considering the Foreign Service as a career: it can sometimes be delightfully surprising.] We have a proper, full-sized sauna, with a little dressing area and separate shower. I stretched out in the 52 degree dry heat (what is that in Fahrenheit? a million? Five years abroad, and these things still baffle me) and relaxed. I am sad to report I am still sick, but it was a very pleasant experience, and I'm sure it will be a common response to the cold wet days we are about to endure for months on end.

Said general also confirmed what I had heard to be true: Estonian children of course frequent sauna as well. Boy entered for a mere moment out of curiosity, declared it too hot, and stood outside the glass door, crying because he thought I was going to get burned, despite his father's and my calm assurances. I love the passionate, illogical devotion of little children.

Estonians and Finns use the sauna to socialize, of course, with family/co-workers/total strangers beating each other's backs with various be-leaved branches. I skipped that part. The sauna was also a birthing room, for the obvious advantages of heat and hot, sterile water. It was a morgue, a respectful and cherished place to place your loved one. There are sauna competitions, with naked Scandinavians competing to see how hot they can stand a sauna before someone dies. Pretty hot, I hear. Some locals have figured out how to make portable saunas with barrels and suspenders--the perfect perch for cheering on a heated cross-country skiing race. The Estonians could best be termed "a-religious." They are nominally Lutheran, but only thanks to years of German influence. But native Estonian culture is not at all a-spiritual. There's a relationship with the forest, especially, and the sea, with boulders and animals. And there is undoubtedly a strong connection with the sauna. I may never share that same innate love, but I'm happy to participate it in it (without the foliage, thank you).