Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Hardest Night

Lately, Sunday evenings have been Daddy’s night. Elise has been busier than usual as we approach our departure date, and more and more families decide to take advantage of her immense talent behind the camera. Most Sundays, almost every Sunday, the boys play trains or make race tracks in the living room or play room or play outside. Clementine will take a cat nap, just long enough for me to get dinner started or, best case, on the table in time for Elise’s return home.

Last night did not go so smoothly. Elise had shoots both Saturday and Sunday nights. I shouldn’t make it sound harder than it really is, because Elise does this EVERY SINGLE DAY, but I have yet to be comfortable with the idea that I can’t do everything.

I have always prided myself on my ability to take care of my children all by myself no matter what. Not that I have to frequently, hardly ever, but I understood early on that our happiness and the happiness of our marriage called for me to be able to step up and parent and free up Elise to pursue her own interests, grow her own career or just have some down time. I had heard Elise tell plenty of stories about her friend’s husbands who were incapable of putting their children to bed. I determined early on I wasn't going to be that kind of dad.

And I’m not. But with three kids, I have had to learn my limits. When it was just Sam and Pete, they could play while I made dinner or got baths ready. Add Clementine to the equation and, God love her, I just can’t do it all, and that has been a big adjustment.

I can’t honestly say it was easy at any point last night. I can’t say it started off okay then got rocky later. It was rough from the beginning. I’m sure the fact that I had not slept in past 5:00 a.m. in the last three weeks had something to do with it. As Elise moved toward the door camera bag in hand, I was immobilized on the couch. She left me wondering how I was going to pull this off. Never mind that she was only going to be gone two hours.

We had gone to Wal-Mart earlier in the day to buy a new wireless modem. (I was already spent and frustrated from spending what felt like the whole weekend feeling technologically inept. Our old wireless modem was fried in a near-miss lighting strike during the chuva da manga, the first rain that signals the end of the dry season, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to install the new one. It didn’t help that the instructions were in Portuguese, but I had always been under the impression that you just plugged the modem in and it started broadcasting a signal. When did setting up a wireless network get so complicated?) At Wal-Mart, we bought, in addition to glazed doughnuts—the only place in Brasilia one can buy true, honest-to-goodness doughnuts is Wal-Mart. Go figure—and pao de queijo the size of tennis balls, an inflatable baby pool for Clemmy and an inflatable raft shaped like a racing car for Pete and Sam. Sam had liberated the raft from its box even though I must have told him a thousand times, it was not possible for me to take three children who had yet to learn how to swim into the swimming pool by myself. I don’t even think I could put their bathing suits on all by myself. Sam was walking around the house, trying to blow up the raft. But since I didn’t want him to hyperventilate and pass out, I mercifully offered to blow the raft up for him.

Per Elise’s suggestion, I set them up outside with the hose, the water table, inflatable raft and Clementine’s new inflatable pool. Clem was getting restless, so I made her a bottle and attempted to put her down for a nap, while I watched Pete and Sam strip naked and race back and forth through her bedroom window. In the short amount of time it took for me to give Clementine her bottle, Pete barged into her room, naked, wet and crying no less than twice. Not ideal conditions for getting a baby to go to sleep.

I soon gave up. I rolled her activity center outside put Clementine in it with explicit instructions; Sam was not to spray her with her hose. She got a kick out of watching the boys play in the water. For all of about 30 seconds. After which point both Pete and Sam decided they were done outside, got dressed and declared they wanted to play inside, abandoning Clementine.

Exhausted and alone, she burst into tears. I picked her and the activity center up and brought them back inside. I fail to recall what Pete and Sam were doing at this point, but I thought I would try to put Clementine down again. She was clearly exhausted, but I had no better luck this time without intrusions than I had had earlier with intrusions.

It was almost 5:00, and I had only gotten as far as cutting the butternut squash. Oh, yeah. I was trying to make dinner, too. I had turned the oven on. Then, realizing I wasn’t going to be ready in time, I turned it off, not wanting to overheat the kitchen.

I picked up Clementine and brought her into mine and Elise’s room. I lay on the bed with her, hoping she would squiggle herself out. At that point, I didn’t really care what Sam and Pete were doing as long as they were quiet. A few minutes later, they slunk in, guilty smirks staining their faces. They hadn’t done anything wrong, they just wanted to be with us. I acquiesced, and the four of us squiggled on the bed.

It was close to five, and I figured I could do this for another hour. Just let them roll around on the bed for an hour or so until Elise got home. I was too tired to move, anyway.

At some point I realized I would have to get something on the table, so I got up and took Clementine into the kitchen, put her in her high chair and gave her some plastic bowls to chew on. Sam and Pete followed. I was able to put the squash in the oven and get the rice on. Then, the boys started breaking down. I put noodles on, too, realizing they weren’t going to be able to make it long enough for me to also clean, cut and cook chicken to go with our rice, beans and squash.

I scooped the boys bowls of penne. I make two Tupperware tubs. One with butter and cheese for Sam and one with tomato sauce for Pete. Why? Because that’s the way they like it. Yes, sometimes I do make parenting harder than it has to be, but that’s what you do when you love your kids.

I got the noodles on the table just as Clementine was winding down in her high chair. I picked her up. Pete whined from his seat at the table, “I want a snaaaaack!”

Me: “You don’t need a snack you’re having dinner.”

“I want a snaaaack!”

“What do you want? Pretzels? Marshmallows?” I queried, furious.

“Yeah, marshmallows!”

I reached into the cupboard, got down the bag of marshmallows and threw them at Peter. They hit him in the face, and he burst into tears. I immediately felt terrible.

I took Clementine and walked outside. Clearly, I had lost it. I needed to get some fresh air. Pete’s wailing carried from every window of the house.

I went back inside and tried to tell him I was sorry, but of course he wasn’t having anything to do with me at that point. He found his blanket and curled up on the floor of the play room sobbing. Much of the rest half hour was a blur. At some point, I started to make a bottle for Clemmy, and then Elise came home. She saw Pete on the floor and immediately deduced he was sick. He ran a fever all that night. I had been so discombobulated I didn’t even see it.

Later that evening, as we lay in bed, I was shell-shocked. I knew it was hard, but I never imagined it could be that hard. I thought I had an appreciation for what Elise did every day. I thought that if I planned ahead and anticipated everyone’s needs, I would be okay, but sometimes, despite best intentions, there is just no winning.

A few days later, Elise shared with me a discussion that was taking place on Facebook. Some mothers were debating the merits of attachment parenting versus detachment parenting. Now, I’m not exactly sure what attachment parenting or detachment parenting really is. From the discussion, I got that attachment parenting involves either breastfeeding your child until they reach middle school and/or wearing them in a papoose all day, and detachment parenting involves either hiring a nanny to parent your children for you or completely ignoring your children whether there is a nanny around as back-up or not.

I am sure these are extreme examples, but my point is, you can’t practice either attachment or detachment parenting with three hungry and tired kids. I don’t know what you call it because one doesn’t have the luxury of theorizing over one’s method of parenting from the eye of the hurricane. You do what you do because you love them and because you are their dad. Not to say those that practice detachment parenting don’t love their kids; obviously, they do. You just wonder if detachment parents wanted their kids to play in their cribs in the other room while you prepared a romantic, candlelit dinner for their significant other, instead of watching them cook from the high chair, why they decided to have kids in the first place.  

The next morning, I had just gotten out of the shower and was brushing my teeth when Peter padded into the bathroom. He looked up at me and whispered, “You throw marshmallows at me.” I scooped him up and told him I was sorry. I told him that I loved him and that I didn’t meant to hurt his feelings. I think he is going to work this one for awhile.

A Song from Pete

Sunday, September 23, 2012


Departure Workshop

Come to find out there is as much to do when you leave a country as there is when you arrive in one.  Last Monday, Elise and I attended a departure workshop, where the management section at work told us everything we needed to do to get out of dodge, from scheduling our pack-out, to selling our cars and making sure we return our house to the condition it was in when we arrived.  Each office with equities methodically and systematically detailed every step. It was surgery, cold and precise.

But our house could never be returned to the condition it was in before we arrived, because it is not the same house, and the condition it is in is better than it was when we arrived, even if it may have a few extra scuff and skids marks. This house bore witness to love, laughter. It cried over broken train tracks and crashed Legos. It screamed at each other. It stayed up all night. It leaked. It slammed doors. It grew in inches. It took teeth and spilled blood. It had dance parties and turned 40. IT HAD A BABY.

As a recently-married Brazilian test drove the Audi we bought here shortly after our arrival from the Cidade de Automoveis and a German diplomat working at the World Bank test drove the Subaru through the harrowing back alleys of Setor Comercial Norte, it is finally becoming real; we will soon be leaving Brazil.  We find comfort in the fact that we may be back. We want to come back. But who knows for sure if we will?

It will be hard to leave because Brazil has been so kind to us. Life is easy here. It is truly ironic, because when we left the States to live in Brazil, we thought life abroad would be harder, a lot harder, and maybe it was at first. Milk came in bags instead of cartons and jugs; I still spill it on the counters when I snip open the bag and try to pour it in the pitcher. I still don’t know how to order coffee right. In the States, at Starbucks, one becomes used to adding anyone of fifteen qualifiers to specify exactly how one likes their coffee, but here, in Brazil, I have learned to order coffee and just be happy with whatever I get. The same holds true for ordering out, especially through a drive-thru window where discourse is usually unintelligible anyway. We have gotten better, but sometimes we are still left wondering if we will get what we ask for or, at least, what we had thought we had asked for.

Now, I am slightly nervous to return to the States for a year, because life seems so much harder there than it is here.  One of the things I love most about Brazil is the health of the informal marketplace.  Here, one can believe that capitalism, in its purest, most unadultered, most unregulated form, is king. Anything that one could buy or sell can be done so easily. There is, obviously, an ugly side to this, as well, but I prefer to focus on the fact that the best breakfast and cup of coffee is often purchased out of the back of someone’s trunk pulled over at the bus stop and lunch comes in a Styrofoam box called marmotex, made in a kitchen in one of the satellite cities on the outskirts of Brasilia and sold on the side of the road, under a blooming mango tree, and comes with a plastic cup of Guarana.

We leave Brazil with an enormous sense of achievement. But our time to bask in this achievement will be short. New challenges and new adventures await us.

I am nervous because what will be known as the “Brazil Years” have been some of the absolute best years of my life. How will our time in Washington, and then in India, compare? It won’t. It won’t have to. We are a different (and bigger) family than we were the last time we were in Washington and we will be a different (and older) family than the one that was in either Brazil or Washington, and what will be known as the “India Years” will be filled with equal amounts of happiness and laughter, pain and disappointment as the Brazil Years and will be equally magical in their own way…only with fewer caipirinhas.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Clementine: Six Months (Of pure joy)

There is little in the world that brings me more joy than this little girl. I can't even for a minute, stop thinking, as crazy as it might sound, that she is a gift from heaven. I know. All babies are, but this one comes with a special message: I feel my Grandma and my Granddad in her, a reminder of the good that there is in the world, a gift of hope and a little shining light to guide us and remind us when it is hard to see beyond just what appears in front of our eyes. 

Paul and I joke that sometimes she doesn't even seem real, she is so perfect and so joyful, we pinch each other until it hurts, but she is still here. I hold her each night as she falls asleep and I pray quietly with her, for her, for everything and everyone that we have, something I haven't done in quite some time. She brings my beautifully crazy days to a soft and sweet close each night. 

This has also been a month of firsts:

First Tooth!

First tiny shoes, finally fit!

First time sitting up all alone. 

Thanks up there. I get it. We've got her, but you know that. She is making our hearts sing.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Power of Positive Thinking

When I make Sam’s lunch in the morning, I put his thermos of milk or water into the freezer so it stays cool and refreshing through the hot Brazilian morning despite being in his backpack.  Recently, at the tail end of the dry season, it has been water.

Yesterday morning, along with the work badge, I forgot Sam’s thermos in the freezer.  I broke the bad news to him as we were walking into school.

He frowned, then brightened.

“That’s okay,” he told me. “Tomorrow it will be frosty and delicious!”

This is water, mind you.

God, I love this kid. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Six Months

Pinch me, I'm still sure I must be dreaming. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012


In an attempt to curb some "less than thrilling" behaviors that come along with parenting two little boys, we are encouraging some others. Paul has taken the making (and customizing) of good behavior charts into his own hands recently. Ones we'd found online were too vague or were weekly and lets face it some weeks were  a little discouraging. It is hard enough to be a little boy without the reminder of a completely barren Good Behavior Chart to remind you at the end of a long week. 

Somewhere I heard it said by a woman on her hundredth birthday (and yes, it may have been on Willard Scott's Smuckers Birthday Tribute) that her key to longevity was always having something to look forward to...and even if we don't live into our hundreds, it is still a good rule to live by. So we give the boys something to look forward to and to work toward on each chart. Their current charts are for a trip to Nicolandia, a theme park within Brasilia's city park, Parque da Cidade, for the kids to ride the rides, eat popcorn and celebrate steps in the right direction. 

It is also becoming clear that Paul (as hard as he tries) is not the disciplinarian in our house, made clear in the photos below by not one, but TWO "Good Behavior Shortcuts" a la Chutes & Ladders, for, and I quote, "Extra good behavior." Which as far as I can see will require only 14 of the original 36 stickers required.  This should be interesting....

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The beginning of the next beginning

It isn’t fair to imagine the future in details, instead just in rough outlines of countries and ages and years in numbers.  It is easy for us to segment our lives like oranges in this foreign service lifestyle: Two years in Brazil. One year in DC. Two years in India. Just like oranges though, the years contain so much more than the fine membranes that define them.  There are too many details to imagine when looking forward, too many details to believe looking back.

Along with our moves from Florida to DC to Brazil, I certainly imagined a lot of changes: I imagined new houses, new foods, new cars and new languages, I imagined the kids would grow, I also always imagined I’d be excited to return home…and I am, in a bittersweet way.

I never imagined we’d leave as five. I expected, but could have never imagined bringing two boys home, two really big boys, that were just babies in diapers when we arrived, big brothers. I never imagined that I’d be carrying a sweet baby girl home in my arms to experience the USA for her very first time. I didn’t expect to feel like I was leaving home for home.

You know that old parental worry, the one you hear every new parent utter, “How will I ever find room in my heart to love another baby”? Then you do, and you wonder how you never loved that baby before. That is how I feel about world travel. Each country, a new baby. My heart has swelled and my mind has opened to reveal how much more space there really is in both than I’d ever thought.  Of course the USA will always be home, but how can you not call a place "home" that you’ve called "home"? A place that you watched your babies grow, a place that breathed new life into your marriage as new and exhausted parents, that loved your children as their own and offered your daughter her very first breath of life. This home, both Brasilia and our casa is a place that I’ve cried and laughed and will have made 750 days of memories that will always bathe the walls and ride on the echoes here, even after we’re gone.

Almost two years ago we stepped off the plane and we let Brazil entwine us. We never skimmed along the top like many do and for that we have more to untangle and unknot before we leave. When in reality, I fear my avoidance of the pain will feel more like a single chop to the roots we’ve laid. Through blurry airplane windows and eyes I’ll watch the beautiful details of Brazil slip back into the lush green landscape that it was when it originally presented itself to me in December of 2010. 

But we will always have Brazil, in Looly, in the kindness that has enlaid itself in our boys and in the gentle, tolerant, carefree people that have cared for us while we were here.

In a desperate attempt to remain grounded (and distracted) with our departure date looming just four months away, I’ve taken on a few projects: household space makeovers, painting projects, Pilates class and boot camp. We've been eating at all the restaurants we've always passed by and thought we'd have plenty of time to check out. I’ve been buying, testing and comparing acai and pao de queijo with the fervor of a mad scientist. I spend extra time admiring the big sky, the short and impossibly red sunsets and cataloging both mental and physical images in the rolodex of my mind and in the tiny file named “Brazil” on my desktop. A file that has grown ripe with thousands of delicately nestled memories within carpels I've named for months. 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Café com Vinil

Elise and I have been taking full advantage of Sheyla and Carol's generosity and fitting in as many date nights as possible before we leave Brazil. Even after almost two years in Brasilia we are still finding new places. In fact, we feel we are only beginning to scratch the surface of Brazil. We are just now venturing out to Asa Norte. In other words, there is a whole wing of Brasilia we have left to explore in our remaining months. 

Even in music, we are discovering that our knowledge heretofore is superficial, at best. Just like anywhere else, Brazil's musical culture is deep and runs in many different flavors, and yet I am still pleasantly surprised when I hear someone rapping or crooning country in Portuguese, for example (the later, called sertanejo, it almost always appears to be performed by two middle-aged men in winged collars accompanied by an accordion, i.e. Jorge e Mateus and Victor e Leo). That being said, I still don't understand why the soundtrack of Brazil (particularly, Rio) has to have Phil Collins on it. 

Sometimes, myself or Elise will have received a good recommendation or have a place in mind that we have been wanting to try. Sometimes we have to brainstorm for hours only to come up an old stand by. Regardless of where we end up going, date night affords Elise and I the opportunity to recharge our batteries (I won't say "reconnect", because, regardless of how little deep conversation our three kids and the hectic demands of the day allow, I never feel disconnected from her), talk about important things or talk about not important things. Our departure from Brazil in December is creeping up on us. We want to push it from our minds, but it is hard. We are now in a month that ends with a 'ember', which makes it not summer anymore and makes it seem not so far away. 

With designs on finding a 'scene' (or at least someplace that wasn't completely deserted at 7:00 p.m.; Brazilian dining hour doesn't start until at least 9, but both Elise and I would fall asleep on our plates if we waited to eat that late), we decided to head back to Fulô do Sertão for forro (yet another type of Brazilian music), caipirinhas and Northeastern fare such a acarajé, black-eyed pea fritters deep-fried in dendê (palm) oil. But unfortunately it looked closed,so we drove up to 413 Norte, almost to the tip of the north wing, to go to an Argentinian steak house we had heard good things about. As we feared, once we arrived, we found it deserted, but there were other interesting places on the same block that weren't, so we decided to park and just see what we could find. 

What we found was Café com Vinil. 

A place with two turntables and an entire wall of LPs. The menu was even divided into Side A (appetizers) and Side B (dinners) (Brief aside: since the demise of the LP and cassette tape, I have wondered how musicians decide what order to put songs on a CD. There is no side A or side B, per se. Hence, no need to close out side A or open side B. Moreover, does anyone even listen to the whole CD through from beginning to end. As soon as it was possible to go directly to the song number you wanted to hear simply by pressing a button, did anyone start a CD from the beginning to listen straight through without skipping ahead?  So is there even any reason to put any thought whatsoever in the order the songs should come in, except as a homage to antiquated technology and outdated mode of listening to music?)

Elise and I ordered beers (Colorado, inargueably the finest-crafted Brazilian beer), an indica (IPA) and a porter, and queijo coalho chips. Our waiter invited us to come inside and pick out something to listen to, but he already had pulled down R.E.M., the Police and Oasis, so clearly didn't need our help.

The place was rad and we should have stayed longer than we did. We were introduced to new Brazilian music, Capital Inicial and Os Paralamas do Sucesso, reminding us that there was more to Brazilian music than sertanejo and reminding us that we still had so much more to learn about Brazil. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Brazilian Independence Day

Celebrated on September 7 every year, Brazilian Independence Day was only the second time me the boys had ventured out solo.

The first time, Sam, Pete and I went to Itiquira Falls with Uncle Carlton and Jennifer when they came to visit last week. We had recently brought Clementine to Itiquira when Elise's parents were in town, and it ended up being a long day for her. Accordingly to Elise, she cried all the way home from the falls. This was no small feat as it was an almost two hour drive. So when we decided to take Carlton and Jennifer there, Elise opted to stay home with Clementine instead of subjecting her to another incredibly long day in the car.

Solo outings allow me to perfect my parenting planning. I am usually left to my own devices, though I suspect Elise is looking over my shoulder as I pack snacks and supplies. She made sure I had suntan lotion when we went to Itiquira. And I have yet to forget anything too crucial. (I remember well the afternoon Elise, Sam and I took a few month-old Peter to the Mall in DC on the orange line. After watching the kites circle the sky around the Washington Monument and slurping on red, white and blue star popsicles, Pete started to get hungry so I went to make him a bottle from the supplies I had stashed in the bottom of the stroller only to discover that I forgotten the disc that goes in the top of the baby bottle and all the water had leaked out, leaving us nothing to make a bottle with. After fruitlessly searching the Mall for a water vendor and finding all the kiosks closed for the Memorial Day holiday, we found ourselves with no other choice but to squeeze ourselves back onto the over-crowded orange line and suffer through Pete's screams all the way back to Arlington. It was a day that seared itself indelibly onto my brain, and every day since then I have checked and double-checked all my baby accouterments to make sure I am not forgetting some crucial and necessary piece of baby food or water. As thorough as I like to believe I am, however, I inevitably forget something. When we went to Itiquira I forgot a set of dry clothes. So, the boys went swimming in the clothes they had on and wore their bathing suits home. Yesterday, I forgot baby wipes. I had brought chocolate chip chewy granola bars and when the chocolate chips melted all over their fingers I had to tell them to wipe their hands on their shirts...or the grass.)

After making sure I had an ample supply of snacks, water and suntan lotion we headed out. I think part of the reason Elise decided to stay home this year was because it was incredibly hot and dry last year. Brazilian Independence Day falls at the end of the dry season. On the Esplanade, Brasilia's equivalent of the Washington Mall, all the grass is scorched and yellow like hay. It hasn't rained since June, and there isn't a cloud in the sky. Obeying Oscar Meimeyer's original vision of the city, trees are scare to nonexistent; he didn't want trees blocking his architectural genius. I have also heard it said he wanted all denizens of Brasilia to be able to see the horizon at all times; trees would prevent one from being able to do this. Nevermind that trees are essential to a proper ecosystem or that it is nearly impossible to stand through a military parade in 90 degree weather under the scorching sun without a breath of shade.

When we arrived on the Esplanade, we miraculously found an unclaimed parcel of shade. We laid claim immediately. Our parcel was actually located behind a barrier separating the parade route from the Esplanade proper. One of the highlights of Brazilian Independence Day is a military parade that passes in front of President Dilma Rousseff on the steps of Planalto, the Brazilian White House, and proceeds past risers filled with cheering Brazilians, down the Esplanade to the TV Tower. Our spot placed us right in front of one of the closed-circuit TVs so we could see what was coming down the parade route before it actually passed. When we saw the tanks on TV we listened for their rumble as they went by on the other side of the dividing wall. Fortunately, we found a crack in the wall, and Sam peeked through and could see the parade while I lifted Pete onto my shoulders where he could look over the top of the wall, both of them like boys sneaking a peak through a baseball game through a knot in the wooden outfield fence.

Tanks rumbled by. Strange-looking men in gas masks. Bomb-sniffing dogs, fire trucks, marching bands, trucks pulling jet skis (?), and presidential guard in tall plumaged hats trotting by on horseback. When the Air Force marched by, a fighter jet screamed through air, startling Pete. The jet was followed by a refueling plane and four more jets, flying in formation, chasing it like puppies trying to suckle from their mother. Then helicopters.

As the parade ended, the main attraction began:

The air show!

The planes zoomed over the Esplanade, climbing climbing climbing, then seemingly turning off their engines and free-falling back to earth. The crowd gasped in appreciation, then at the last possible second, the engine fired up and the plane pulled out of its death-defying dive.

In another maneuver, they flew at each other from opposites ends of the sky, nearly missing. Sam and Pete squealed in delight. 

And finally when it was time to say "Tchau!" they flew one by one past, dipping their wings from side to side. The crowd waved and cheered, and Pete and Sam jumped up and down. 

Honestly, though, I don't know who was more excited them...or me.