Friday, March 29, 2013

Wild Birds

"And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don't believe in magic will never find it." -Roald Dahl

Whenever we move, I know the magic of our new home will find us eventually, its the waiting for the magic that is so hard. I search for it, but this is a pursuit that always proves fruitless. Its like like trying to find the Christmas spirit. We all know you just sit patiently in the middle of a heavily decorated mall with bells on your socks and it finds you.

I don't believe in "wasted years"  in "in-betweens" or "transitions," of which we will have many in this Foreign Service life. No matter how hard they may be for Paul and I, I never want the kids to feel like these "Oakwood" times are to be wished away, because nine months in kid years is an eternity, and nine months in mom years is like a split second and no matter the perceived length, I want it to be magical for us all. 

We spent a lot of our early days here noses glued to the window, longing to be outside, maybe even hoping to see a toucan fly over. I don't know. In all our nose-pressing we noticed a few birds occasionally landing in the leafless tree just outside our second story apartment window. I had jotted "bird feeder" on one of our "to buy" lists as we got settled, but in my search for one in the periphery, while I stocked our home with essentials, it remained the one unchecked item.

When we got a surprise snow day a month or so ago that yielded a day off for Paul, a bunch of giant flakes and wet pavement, we took the kids to a special lunch and found ourselves, right next door to a wild bird supply store. Who knew? Me. Remember my other job is magician, Christmas sweater maker and bell sewer oner. So I nudged it along a little, magic maker that I am.

I had forgotten, living in a country where many people can barely feed and house themselves, that someone would purchase a costly home or food for a wild animal.

God Bless America. 

After a lengthy wild bird discussion with the passionate wild bird store clerk we purchased a little feeder that we thought we could dangle ourselves outside of our second story window to hang upon our little tree, and a bag of "no mess" bird seed. 

Also, God Bless America. Winter birds are tired of searching for food and when they find it just let them eat for God's sake. 

We also happened upon "Eastern Birds" in the library and ta da! We now know our birds: We know that they eat an entire feeder worth of food nearly every day. We know they do not like it when we bang our tiny fists on the window while they are eating. We know that maybe they're fat enough now to open their own damn seeds so we can not spend an extra $5.99 on No Mess bird seed. We know that  Clem can now say "bird" and that she can crawl at 6-7 miles per hour from the kitchen to the window when she spots them. We now know that this might just be a little bit of the magic we'll remember from here when we're gone. 

This afternoon I made lunch for the kids and heard Pete begin to giggle from the dining room table: "Uh Mom? Did you give me birdseed for my lunch?"

Friday, March 22, 2013

Land of Z

I made the mistake of watching the trailer for the latest zombie flick on my way home from work. Now I feel as though I have ants crawling over all me. I should go for a run--everyone was asleep when I got home from work, providing me the optimal window in which to do so--but I hadn't even eaten anything yet today, so I voraciously wolfed down a tuna fish sandwich with apples and sunflower seeds using the tuna fish Elise had left in refrigerator as soon as I walked in the door. I need to do something to shake the horrid images from my brain.

Knowing I can't go for a run, I write this hoping my kids will wake up soon. I have never consciously wished this before. In our daily routine it is incredibly rare, almost unheard of for all three to nap at the same time. It is like a cosmic syzygy, Saturn, Neptune, and Jupiter and their fifty-nine moons all aligning. But at this instance all I want is distraction.

That's not true. I am distracting myself by writing this; all I want is to hear their laughter. I'm glad it's Friday.

I am glad it's Friday for a number of reasons, perhaps the least of which is I feel I am the only one at my work who doesn't carry around a five gallon jug of water around with them at all times. Anyone of my coworkers is eminently prepared should they instantly and mysteriously find themselves dropped in the middle of the Gobi Desert. While I understand their desire to remain hydrated, every time I go to the drinking fountain I have to wait for someone to fill their Camelbak, water bottle or tea pot.

It's things like this that I wouldn't normally notice much less be bothered by, but on a Friday they infuriate. It means I need to play outside.

So, as they say in Chennai, "Nalla nee-aa-roo sun-nee. (Happy Saturday Sunday)." But know, too, "'Weekend' is just 'weekend'. Everyone in Chennai say, 'weekend.'"

So, Happy Weekend.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Different Drum

If Peter is the movie buff, Sam is the music man.

He is the one that feels the beat. This was no more in evidence than on our three-day drive from Florida to Washington, D.C. Our minivan, stuffed to bursting, reminded me of one of the short stories in Richard Scary's Busy Busy World, "South American Carnival". Like the jumbo jet in the photo below, our minivan was bloated to the point rivets were popping from steel.

Sam, carefully ensconced in the third row, boxed in by suitcases and strollers, spent most of the drive between a pair of giant ear phones, rocking out to Brazilian children's songs, music from the soundtrack of Rio and The Lion King, and one of his favorites, "I Like to Move It" from the original Madagascar. (Given my sons' love of Madagascar, I am tickled by the thought of some day accepting an assignment to the island and demonstrating to them that Madagascar actually exists. Though I fear it is not nearly as magical a place as depicted in the movie.) 

Speaking of islands, Sam might as well have been on one for most of that drive, walled in as he was by the teetering mountains of suitcases. Elise feared one may slide and crush him, but the worst occured when the long cardboard box with Peter's guitar in it slid onto Sam's head as we navigated a cloverleaf on I-95, playing an off-tune C chord off Sam's curls. 

In Brazil, Sam learned capoeira, a Brazilian form of martial art. Developed in the early 16th century by the descendents of African slaves, capoeria combines elements of music and dance. Forbidden to practice martial arts by their Portuguese masters, the slaves disguised the practice as art, and capoeira became yet another outlet for Sam's love of music and dance. One of his most exciting days at CRIL, his Brazilian preschool, was the day he was given his yellow belt by his master, Tio Chris, then ceremoniously split open his chin in celebration. I saw him a few minutes later at the medical unit, a victim of his own unbridled enthusiasm. 

Times in our family's life can be categorized in periods or eras, according to the song the boys like to listen to loudly on the radio. In Florida, we passed through the Michael Franti-era in which every time we got in the car we were treated to "(Say Hey) I Love You" at ear-splitting volumes. This coincided with the Lady Gaga-epoch.

In Brazil, Pete was especially fond of Flo Rida's "Whistle". And we couldn't drive anywhere without him asking to hear, "Your whistle song?" I happily obliged him when I could, until Elise told me what the song was really about which quickly curbed my affinity for it. 

These days, Sam is really into "Thrift Shop" by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. So much so, he is known to spontaneously burst into booty-bouncing dance much as he recently did in the middle of a recent trip to Baskin and Robbins 31 Flavors. 

The lyrics in this song are rather explicit, as well. Fortunately, there is a "clean" version that garbles the profanity and gives Elise and I the opportunity to sing our own version, "THIS IS GOING TO BE AWESOME!"

As sung, it makes a pretty good anthem. Exactly the kind of music a five-year old need to propel him through the day.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Endless Winter

We are two days away from the vernal equinox, the first day of spring; this morning, it snowed.


In other news, Elise is sick, Peter is sick, Clemetine and Sam have ear infections, but both seem on the mend. I, on the other hand (knock heavily on wood or wood veneer), have seem to have stayed above the fray. I hope this isn't a sign that I float above my family and outsiders don't take it as a signal that I don't delve into the trenches, roll my shirt sleeves up and dive elbow-deep into rivers of blood, sweat, baby tears, phlegm, slimey poop, reconstituted raisins and regurgitated Cheerios. Neither are true. I'm just lucky, I guess. For now. Knock knock.

After Elise showed Sam and Peter the Madagascar 2 video clip on the blog, Peter has expanded his movie quote to: "The good news is landing immediately. The bad news is crash landing immediately." How many three year olds know how to say 'immediately'??

On Saturday, we attempted to go to Phinny's house to attend his birthday brunch, but our path was blocked by the DC Rock 'n ' Roll marathon. It was the first time I had ever been on the other side, and for a split moment I could see why most of humanity despises runners. I appreciated the irony of being on the other side, my morning ruined by road blocks even if I could not appreciate brunch. After an hour and a half of trying to navigate around the marathon course which Elise had downloaded onto her iPhone, we gave up, realizing we would basically have to drive all the way back to Northern Virginia and start over on the beltway.

Yesterday (in addition to running around like a leprechaun golfer), I took the boys to the park in the freezing cold and made them run around so everyone would take much needed naps. Pete assumed the role of his alter ego, Cheetah Man, and ran wind sprints while I somehow was able to convince Sam that a broken-down Fisher Price lawnmower actually cut grass after which point he refused to leave the playground until he had finished cutting the grass. Even so it worked, and after chicken noodle soup cooled to a palatable temperature by ice cube mini-icebergs and hot chocolate not-too-hot, everyone went down for nap and I went for a run, tiny ice particles bouncing off my cheeks and forehead.

We were stuck inside for the rest of the day, suffering cabin fever. It seems the lack of spring even made building Legos difficult, the pieces we needed to complete certain designs no doubt were still in hibernation and no where to be found.

It seems everyone is in a holding pattern for spring. Perhaps, spring too has been sequestered, and its landing cannot be facilitated due lack of funding.

Sleepless in Falls Church

Last night Clementine awoke at 12:30 a.m. Generally, she has a few sips of milk then closes her eyes and falls right back to sleep. But not last night. She laid in my lap for thirty minutes, staring at the ceiling. As I sat there wishing for sleep that would never come, Peter whimpered like a wounded puppy and Sam murmured the words, "....your iPad..." Undoubtedly, they were sharing the same dream.

A few weeks ago, I had to take a class on life-coaching. I have long discriminated against anyone who called themselves a life coach. Many were too young to have accumulated much life experience which made me skeptical of their ability to provide life-shaping advice. In all fairness, I didn't quite understand that a life-coach is not a wizened sage squatting atop a snowy Tibetan peak in nothing more than a loincloth, but a person that helps people solve their own problems by asking a series of open-ended and thought-provoking questions.

I won't say whether or not my skepticism abated but will say that built into the class was a good deal of role play; we were expected to practice our new found life-coaching skills by solving each other's problems. I was not good at role play. See, I hadn't come to class with a revolver loaded with problems in need of solving. Between work and home, my life is too chaotic and frenzied. I don't have time for problems. Problems, the kind that can be smoothed away by life-coaching, are the product of having too much time on your hands, in my estimation, and I don't have the time for deep contemplative thought or introspection.

Except when I am awake in the middle of the night with a sleepless baby, then the only thing I can do is think deeply and contemplatively and introspect.

I won't say what I thought about last night between fighting to stay awake and tracing letters of the Tamil alphabet on a dry erase board in my brain, but midst the daily frustrations life brings it is a blessing to listen to your children sleep. I know this is the most hectic our lives will ever be, in the center of a maelstrom formed by three children all under the age of five spinning in circles around us, but this realization, this contemplative thought cannot occur in the eye of the storm. A sense of perspective only comes in the middle of the night, at a time that really doesn't do you a lot of good. It should come when Clementine is trying to crawl out of her high chair with spaghetti sauce smeared across her lips and cheeks, when Peter is peeing on the toilet seat, stubbornly refusing help with his aim, and Sam is asking for the ten thousandth glass of water of the day.

I would love for a life-coach to be able to give me more hours in the day, freeze time or make a bigger toilet bowl. I would love to stay up late and listen to my children sleep, but they rise too early for me to risk staying up that late. These are the problems I need solved. Until such a point that a life-coach can do these things, I'd rather climb a mountain.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Happy St. Patricks Day

This is what happens on St. Patricks day when I'm sick and Paul dresses himself  the kids. We were headed to do nothing more than our weekly grocery shopping, but apparently the holiday spirit took hold. The Brazilians aren't big on St. Patricks day so much so two years of repressed St. Patty's days and he was on fire. 

I'd venture to guess it all began last night when he ran out to get Chic-Fil-A after the kids had gone to bed (which we typically avoid because of their hatred infused yet surprisingly delicious chicken sandwich) and the woman at the register asked if he was wearing green. He was, by chance, earning him a free stuffed (with hatred) mini-cow. 

I refused to wear green this morning in my half-dead-winter-cold-induced state even though Paul jokingly pulled out a green mini dress and a green maxi skirt that he insisted that I wear, together. I opted for a grey sweatshirt and ripped jeans instead begging anyone that might dare to pinch me when I feel this horrible. 

His greatest moment today would probably have to be when the bagger at Trader Joe's told him his outfit was "awesome." 

Please note that even though they aren't super visible in the photo, his pants are also green plaid.  Wow, just wow.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Happy First Birthday Sweet Clementine

I fret and fret over the details of everything, especially my children's birthday parties. The pressure of knowing they'll only turn a certain age once is the mother's equivalent of being told this is your last day to live. I tediously clip glamorous birthday party photos and dream up guest lists and menus. As time draws closer, inevitably and cosmically, my plans are hurried, I race around trying to secure the worlds most perfect cupcake liners and I find myself alone in Michaels when I should be at home with my babies.

My time is short and my Oakwood apartment in the dead of winter isn't a dreamy aisle of a Clementine orchard with perfect evening light. But it is where we are now and my Grandma's spaghetti, store bought mini-cupcakes and our laminated table moved across the room near the window for a view of the thankful winter birds dining in our new bird feeder just outside, is more perfect than I ever could have planned.

Dueling Haircuts

Thursday afternoons is my late day at work, so we usually go out on an expedition and eat dinner out on Thursdays.

Recently, we have been going back to our old neighborhood, Ballston. Last night, we hit up one of our favorite "hagamer" (Pete-ism) places, Biggie Bun in Ballston, then went back to the barber shop we used to go to two years ago for haircuts.

Sure enough, the nice Vietnamese hairstylist remembered us from when we used to walk outside her shop (we lived right upstairs), from when I would pass by to go to work, and even remembered one incident in particular when I tried to get a reluctant Sam to get his haircut while Elise was out of town and we had to bribe him with a lollipop.

Thursday, March 14, 2013


We may not still live in Brazil, but the trains continue to stop at "The Brasilia West North Station."

The Good News and the Bad News

Pete is our movie buff.

This will be kid who goes to see the new Star Wars 85 times when it is released and will memorize all the lines.

He looks forward to Clemetine's naps, so he can watch TV. He tries to convince us she is tired, even if she just woke up, "I have good idea....Clementine take nap and me watch a show??"

He has also memorized his first movie quote from one of his favorite movies, Madagascar 2.

To hear Pete say it, it goes something like this, "The good news landing. The bad news crash landing." The cinematic version can be seen in the clip that follows, but it isn't nearly as cute or as funny as when Pete says (even though it is still pretty funny)!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Age of the Earth and the Smell of Sheep

The main reason we are in Washington is so I can learn to read this:

And say this: "Naan Paul. Neengal yrippradi irukeenga?"

Or: "I'm Paul. How are you?"

If it looks like I bunch of random squiggles, join the club. Through after two and a half weeks of Tamil class, I have learned to...very, very slowly...pronounce most of the words. What do these words mean? Good question. Mostly, I have no idea.

See, the Tamil alphabet has 12 vowels and 18 consonents. Each vowel and each consonent combine to form 216 unique characters. Unlike in English where the consonent "R" and the vowel "A" are combined to create the sound "Raaa" and are written "RA", in Tamil the same vowel would be combined with a similar consonent to create a "Raaa" sound, but be written using a completely unique character or squiggle. 216 that look something like this:

Learning Tamil has presented more than the obvious challenges. For instance, some sentences don't have verbs. And we are being taught some....interesting vocabulary. To say the least. In the first few weeks of Portuguese I remember learning the words for door, table, pen, window, and other common objects found around the classroom, for the purpose of learning to construct simple sentences such as, "The book is on top of the table."

So far, in addition to the words for cobra, mongoose, a toddy seller, a type of moonshine made from the trunks of coconut trees, jack fruit, three words for cooked rice and two words for uncooked rice, I've learned two words for the smell of sheep and one word that means the age of the world ("you-gum"). I am told, according to one of three Tamil professors, that it references how many years remain in the life of the Earth. This figure is in the hundreds of thousands so I needn't worry about the world ending while we are in India, though it appears I do have to worry about finding myself in an existential conversation on the world's remaining years. 

Unlike when I was learning Portuguese, Sam is getting into the spirit of things. Pete, too, though he was just a baby when I was taking Portuguese classes. When I was taking Portuguese and would come home and speak Portuguese to Sam, he would clamp his hands over his ears and run down the hall screaming, "NOOOOOO!!!" Now, both he and Pete now say "Vannaakam" ("Hello") and "Aprom par kalam!" ("See you later!"). Sam even uses the perfect Indian inflection so that he sounds like he's straight of the set of an Indian Jones movie. Next, he will have mastered the head wobble. 

To say the learning curve for mastering the Tamil language is flat is an understatement. It is a pancake. And it has been difficult to get motivated. Though 70 million Indians and Sri Lankans speak Tamil, much of the language has been overtaken by English words, and one can maintain a daily routine in Chennai and Tamil Nadu state fairly easily speaking only English. Learning Portuguese was easy in comparision. Yes, the alphabet is much the same, but it is easy to get motivated to learn a language that is important and has increasing utility. The utility of Tamil, on the other end, seems to be diminishing. 

By way of example, our professor was teaching us the Tamil word for telephone today, "Toe-lai-pay-see, but 'telephone' is 'telephone'. Everyone says 'telephone'." This has happened a lot. Cup, bottle, computer, the numbers, etc. all are now Tamil words. Fortunately, early Portuguese colonization has also left a legacy vocabulary. Window is "ja-neel" in Tamil and "janela" in Portuguese. Table is "may-sai" in Tamil and "mesa" in Portuguese.

I remember coming home from a full day of Portuguese class with Portuguese echoing between my ears. During baths I would call Peter "caozinho" ("puppy") and "fofinho" ("lil cutie") and in class, when prompted to talk about my weekend, would mostly talk about "trocando fraldas" ("changing diapers"). 

At the same time, a lot and not much has changed in two years. I am still changing diapers, but now I need to learn how to say it in Tamil. Elise says she is already tired of me "yippi-ding" around the house. I now come home with Tamil ringing in my brain and I am afraid the worse of the "yippi-ding" is still to come. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

State of Schools

Sam just started his second week of school here in Virginia. Having only sent any child, ever,  to a school out of the country, it has been hardest to get used to for me, but I'm catching on. Sam however walked in like he owned the place, stating that he loved it, "because everyone speaks English Mom, so I can make friends with whoever I want, right Mom?" 

"Right Sam-o. " 

When I tell you the boy had nil hesitation walking into a brand new school with a brand new teacher and a whole class of kids he didn't know, I am telling the truth. When being the new kid is all you know, you do it like it is your job. As he walked off ahead of me into the school and I hung behind timidly, nervous, 'Will his teacher and his classmates parents like me,' buffered by a toddler on one hand and a baby in arms, it is almost hard to believe, despite his size and his little puppy dog backpack, who is more experienced and well equipped to handle all this new.

He hung his backpack and coat on his hook, hugged and kissed his brother and sister goodbye, signed his little name on the sign in sheet and ran off to play. . .

I knew it would be a good day when these two grey doves awaited us at school.

Pete and I headed home for "Mom School." Mom School, is what happens more and more frequently, I'm gathering, when you try to send your child to preschool in the DC, Northern Virginia area. It is a name we decided to call Me, teaching Pete at home because he wasn't enrolled in preschool three years ago...when he was born. So....

 Pete's ready. He has been since he was born. He's always wanted to do and done everything Sam does. He chants his A, B, C's right along with Sam and sounds out letters and words, too.

So we're using this book, a whole lot of patience and a lot of markers...and furniture polish. We set up the "classroom" at the coffee table after putting Clem down for her morning nap and we practice letters and sounds and not asking "can I watch a show?" every 10 seconds.

The day, was as expected, great with reports from the director who said that, "Sam was so happy and hopped and bounced around smiling all day," and drawings in his backpack from girls. Not surprised on either count, that is my Sam.

When I dropped Sam off today he was the only child's name on the list who was asked to write out both his first and last name, because even though the other students are just learning to write their first names, she thought Sam was ready for both. Proof of the excellent year and a half he spent at CRIL in Brasilia. 

Today I picked him up and spied this in the hallway from Dr. Seuss's birthday celebration:

I'll know just what happened if I find the toilet clogged any time soon....

Friday, March 1, 2013

Apartment Living

Despite my initial reticence to call our new apartment home, I do like apartment living.

Elise probably summed it up best when we first walked down the hall to our new home, "I forgot how much I hate the smell of other people's cooking." When you walk down the hall around the dinner hour, between five and six in the evening, you are made the recipient of an array of both aromas and odors, foreign (not in the xenophobic sense, but in the unfamiliar, unidentifiable sense), exotic, nauseating, sublime, and lovely. You would also hear the sound of a frying pan rattling on a burner, the sizzle of something cooking in oil, the thwack of a dull knife against a plastic cutting board. One of the greatest things about my job is that it draws not only from all over the United States to fill its vacancies, but as those employees go out into the world to work they bring that world back to the United States. This is no more evident than during this time of night when you hear, too, the conversations taking place in kitchens, over ranges, running concurrent to cooking, in many tongues, most of which are completely alien to me.

When I leave our apartment in the morning, after saying goodbye to everyone and trying to steal goodbye kisses, I have to race Clementine to the door, then, sadly, shut it closed quickly behind me so that she doesn't follow me out into the hall. She has been known to make a break for it then crawl, Usain-Bolt-like, down the hall, no doubt singing, "Freedom! Blessed freedom!" in her head.

I have to leave hearing her on the other side of the door, either pounding on it with her tiny fists, crying, or often both. As I walk down the hall to the garbage chute, I again hear many days beginning, alarm clocks bleating, the frenzied garble of CNN or CNBC, and dogs barking, ready to go out. At night, after the chaotic din in our own house finally subsides, eerily you can hear other babies crying through the walls and ceilings. Elise and I steal glances at each other, noting that at other moments of the day, their parents may be enjoying a moment of peace and quiet while it is our own children who are doing the shrieking, but mostly grateful that, for the moment, all is calm in Casa Hanna.

I won't go so far to say that I love the smell of other people's cooking, but I am intrigued and fascinated by the fact that so many lives can exist in such close proximity, with each apartment the stage for its own comedic drama, their own sit-coms, that all these lives can exist and unfold in parallel, often never intersecting with the other lives despite sharing the same firmament, like cell phone calls that never overlap but doubtlessly occupy the same air space at the same time.

It is only when I am outside the bubble that encapsulates our own drama that I have the time to appreciate the dramas unfolding, in parallel, around us. When I think of Sam coming out of his room after nap wanting to show me his feet, because he just noted that there are tiny hairs growing on them....not on the toes mind you...but on the top of his feet..."Like a hobbit?" I ask him.

"What's a hobbit?" he squints his eyes at me curiously.

"A short person with hairy feet. Like you."

He glares at me, patently a Sam look; I honestly don't know where he learned, because, regardless of how upset Elise has ever been with me, I have never seen her glare at me quite like this kid does.

"No!" he insists, already exasperated by me. "Like your feet."

When I think of this exchange unfolding in our own home, I have trouble imagining what could be playing out in the apartments next door and across the hall, or in Building A or C.

Or when I come home and hear that Elise and the kids spent the afternoon, "Playing kitty," with Elise as the Mama Kitty and Clementine as the Baby Kitty and Sam and Pete as other (presumably child kitties), I have trouble picturing the hilarity that must surely also be playing out in the stories being written around me.

Or not.

Our stories are our own and that's what makes them special. Our's is a good story, and I hope our neighbors' are, too.

In the afternoons, when the kids return from school, they often pour into the courtyard between the buildings, playing games-without-rules on the tennis courts (definitely not tennis) and crowding the playground like a shrewedness of apes. Often, they are accompanied by their parents, and a rare moment of intersection happens, when vortices not meant to touch diverge. I search for smiles and mostly find them.

Except when I don't.

And it makes me appreciate that in the volumes of stories in the compendium that is Oakwood, I live in my story, a very good one.