Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Pete and Sam's Climbing Birthday Party!

What Happened When the Kids Went to the Zoo

I wish I could tell you. This will be a much less interesting story, because I had to work and didn't get to go.

It was the first day of winter break, and Elise took the kids -- along with Shreyas from Clementine's class and his mother Madhuri -- to the zoo. It was the first time Shreyas had been to the zoo in DC, so needless to say, he was very excited.

According to Elise, however, Sam was a nightmare, though karma caught up with him, and he got car sick on the way home in stop 'n' go traffic and threw up all over the back seat.

I was on opening shift. I left work at two and got home around three, after stopping at the store for beer, wine, and lasagna noodles. Elise and the kids weren't home yet. I ran downstairs and pulled my running shorts on and laced up my sneakers.

Then, I stopped.

Elise has been at the zoo with the three kids all. day. long. I wonder if she will want to make lasagna when she gets home?

I think we all know the answer to that one.

Still in my running clothes, I started boiling some water for the lasagna noodles. I'll make the lasagna real quick, I thought to myself, then jump on the treadmill while the lasagna is cooking. The kids will probably want to watch TV when they get home anyway after such a long day at the zoo.

I threw the lasagna noodles into the pot one by one. The last time I made lasagna, all the noodles stuck together. Very literally. The only difference between uncooked lasagna noodles that one knows as soon as you open a box of lasagna noodles and what I had made is that mine were hot and wet. Otherwise, they all looked like they had just come out of the box in one hot, wet, hardened mass, completely unsuitable for making anything with.

I know how to make lasagna conceptually. I know how to make each constituent element to good lasagna, but -- like everything -- the devil is in the details. How does one take these individual, delicious parts and put them together into a truly magnificent whole?

I had only one place to turn. The back of the lasagna noodle box. Well two, really. Because in making the spaghetti sauce, I had to follow the instructions on the back of the spaghetti sauce spice packet. Now, my family growing up just used store-bought jarred sauce. Elise prefers if-not-exactly homemade sauce, something that more resembles it than I am used to making and begins with a jar of tomato paste.

I had noodles, sauce, and meat all cooking at the same time, and I was feeling good. Next came the cheese mixture. Eggs, ricotta, shredded Parmesan. I was on fire!

After ten minutes, I took the noodles out of the water and -- still paranoid they were going to stick together -- I quickly googled "how to keep lasagna noodles from sticking together".

The answer: laying them out individually on a dish cloth to dry. Genius!

I laid out to dish clothes on the dining room table and laid out each lasagna noodle out on their blankets like they were sun-kissed octogenarians on Miami Beach.

That's when Elise called, "Get ready to meet us at the front door in five. Clem is breaking down, and Sam just puked all over himself."

I was at the door as promised. Pete came in and commented how good the house smelled. I thanked him, though I imagine anything smelled better after being trapped in a car with throw-up fumes. I would be scrubbing the carpet in the back seat of the car and extricating and disassembling a vomit-covered car seat instead of running. Elise derived mild amusement from my supine lasagna noodles. I was embarrassed by my paranoia they would stick together. Dinner came together. It never would have if I had gone running. Sam got in the shower, and Clementine calmed down after a time-out on her bed.

Every once in awhile, an unexpected window of opportunity opens for me to go running. Usually, I take it, leaping through it nary a glance rearward. But every once in awhile, the window opens and I get a strange feeling in the back of my mind. Something's not quite right. This window, though open now, could quickly close behind me, trapping me in an alternate dimension on the other side. Sometimes, it's best to think twice before stepping through. 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Merry Christmas!

This may be the first year no one is crying! :)

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Bus Stop Conversations

When I am on closing shift, I walk Peter and Sam to the bus stop in the morning. Sam's bus comes first, so about five to ten minutes, it's just Peter and I, waiting for his bus.

We cross to the other side of the street to catch his bus. Pete steps up onto the roots of a tree beside the sidewalk. The tree is tall, and the roots are gnarled and push up the sidewalk from beneath, cracking it in places. The footing is uneven, and he stumbles before climbing back up and asking me, "Dad...what's the biggest dragon?"

"The biggest?"


"That'd be the red dragon, wouldn't it?"

He thinks for a minute. It's cold out and he breathes his breath like fire.

I ask him, "What's the white dragon's breath weapon?"

"Ice," he answers. Then goes on to explain that it could also be bolts that freeze things and not, perhaps, a cone of continuous ice as you may be picturing.

"What's the green dragon's breath weapon?" I ask.

His brow furrows. "Green dragon?"

"Yeah...poisonous gas?"

"Oh YEAH....!" The kids have been watching new episodes of How to Train Your Dragon on Netflix. We don't have cable, so I got Roku internet, so the kids could watch cartoons. Elise talked me into subscribing to Netflix so we could watch The Chef's Table, a documentary series on different famous chefs. Perhaps not coincidentally, the kids are also now able to download and watch a basically an infinite stream of cartoons.

Elise was challenged recently to explain how we used to watch TV to the kids when they were upset they had to come to dinner before finishing the show they were watching. It was like trying to explain a rotary phone or typewriter. "You know...when I was your age...when we came home from school and turned on the TV, we just had to watch whatever was on. Even if we had to start in the middle of a show. We didn't get to start a new show every time we turned the TV on and we didn't always get to finish the show we were watching." This was TV when it was more passive, something that just ran in the background. Now, the kids can sit down and literally watch the entire season of a show in a marathon sitting if we let them.

"What's the blue dragon's breathe weapon?" I asked Petey.


"What's the black dragon's breath weapon?"


"Really?" I ask. "I thought it might be shadow or smoke. Okay...what's the red dragon's breath weapon?"

"That's easy."

"That is easy. Fire."

Pete started making flame noises just as we heard the school bus coming to a screeching stop at the street corner. I gave him a hug (none of the kids can hug front-facing, they all back into a hug or offer their side in a "side hug") and told him to be good for mom when he gets home from school. He usually is...at least, after he gets some food in his system. He routinely gets off the bus in the afternoon red-lining, flying on fumes, bonking hard. And is a nightmare until his blood sugar stabilizes.

It's a good thing he doesn't have a breath weapon then.

Crazy Elf Dance

Last weekend, was the perfect holiday weekend. The Saturday highlight was the boys' rock climbing birthday party, and the highlight Sunday was South India breakfast of dhosas, idli, vada, and upma, followed by a trip to the mall to see Santa Claus.

Santa's Village was sponsored by HGTV (wasn't even sure that was such a thing) and had various activities for the kids that helped the time waiting in line go by faster. The kids stood on a thing that looked like a teleporter pad from Star Trek while a machine scanned them to see if they had been naughty or nice. Then, we made a crazy elf dance video:

Friday, December 16, 2016

Anatomy of a Decision

I think to live a nomadic existence is rather unique. I don't think many people wake up in the morning or go to sleep at night wondering where they will move to, that movement is such an inevitability. After six years, movement is comfortable, and the lack of movement, to be still, has become disquieting. For Elise and I -- and I can imagine for our kids, as well, as it is the only existence they have ever known -- the act of remaining in place is an uncomfortable one. It's the same feeling you have when you first step off a treadmill or come off a roller rink; you feel like you are still moving, still plummeting or tumbling forward through space, only you're not going anywhere. Some people abhor change. Some thrive on it. 

I moved as a kid, too. I may have told the story here before, but, briefly, my mom took my brothers and I on vacation to Houston when I was in fifth grade. At least, I thought we were going on vacation. Maybe we were. I'm not sure what my mom knew at the time. Whether or not she knew we weren't going back or not. But we didn't. We stayed with my grandparents in a small town, Manvel, outside Houston's beltway for the entirety of fifth grade. 

Elise and I are cognizant of the effects a life on the run may have on the kids. We read a lot and talk to people. When I worked in American Citizen Services in India, the overwhelming majority of American citizens I met were minors. Their parents had been computer engineers, working for companies like TCS, Intel, and Accenture when they were assigned to positions in the United States. Many of them moved several times, back and forth across the Continental U.S., in much the same way Elise and I and the kids criss-cross the globe. When I met them to renew their passports, I liked to ask the older ones how they coped with the frequent moves and what did their parents do well -- or not so well -- to prepare them for the frequent moves. Without fail, they all told me their parents talked to them about their moves, so there were no surprises. So we talk to the kids about our upcoming move and about bidding, even if we don't know where we're going yet. 

Going to visit your grandparents for vacation, but not going back is the antithesis of communicating a move to a child. I don't fault my mother for this; I have no idea really what was going on or what she had to deal with. I remember her telling my brothers and I on the same trip that she and my father were getting a divorce, so I can only imagine she was either doing the best just to keep her head above water or doing what she thought was best for us. Either is forgivable. 

That move was jarring, as was the move back to Florida a year later. It is still nothing like what we ask the kids to do. Yet, they seem well-adjusted and well-suited to it. We hope we are instilling in them a sense of adventure and helping them to cultivate life skills they may not otherwise acquire. Everyone in my line of work either explains or justifies the constant moves frequently, as though it is something that we need to apologize for. I think many people appreciate that we are giving them a global perspective, while others may feel we are depriving them of an "All-American" upbringing. 

There are trade-offs to be sure. There is a spectrum of one's tolerance for movement and change. On one end, you have those who live their entire lives in their home town, perhaps never leaving to ply their trade or test their mettle in the big city. They have lots of friends and know all the bartenders. They have large family gatherings on Sunday afternoons. And on the other end, is us. 

This past summer, we bid on our next assignment, but as had happened the last time we bid, the day assignments were announced came and went, and we were left empty-handed. 

Our first two postings were directed. We were told where to go. I remember back then looking forward to the day when we would get to choose for ourselves where we would go. Now that we do get to choose for ourselves where we go, I look back longingly, missing the days when we were just told where to go. I underestimated how hard it would be to pull the trigger on your own fate. And when you are told where to go, you have no other choice but to make the best of it. When you have some culpability in the decision, you have to take personal responsibility for your own happiness. Arguably, you have to take personal responsibility for your own happiness whether you have someone else to blame or not. 

Hindsight is, as they say, 20/20, and as weeks passed and we still hadn't received news on a possible assignment, I played over and over again what I had done wrong. 

When we bid from India in January, 2015, there were only 30 jobs on our list. I bid on four of those. When I didn't receive an assignment, I went back to the list. A former colleague from Chennai was in the position I hold now in Washington, so I reached out to him, and the rest...as they also say...is history. We had a job lined up about a week later. 

8 weeks have passed since "Handshake Day". Almost two months. 

This time around, we deliberately moved from winter cycle to summer cycle, making hundreds of jobs potentially available to us. But I didn't believe on pursuing any job I wasn't really interested in or on any post I didn't think would be the perfect fit for our family, and bid on only five, including going back to Brasilia. As bidding season wore on, I was told -- one job after the other -- I wasn't competitive for the positions I was seeking. This was a jagged pill to swallow. An interview with Taipei, our number one choice, was encouraging in that it opened up the real possibility of an additional position other than the one I bid on. Unfortunately, it wouldn't become available until much later in the winter. Did I hold out for it, taking the risk of potentially missing out on another job? 

The job I have now is highly-coveted, because it is supposed to lead to a good onward assignment, but as bid season wore on, I quickly learned -- for a number of reasons -- that was not going to be case in my situation. Eventually the assignments officer did approach me, offering jobs in Papua New Guinea, Shenyang, Wuhan, and Chengdu. Papua New Guinea doesn't have a school. Shenyang, Wuhan, and Chengdu have emphysema-inducing smog. At the very end of bid season, he offered us Manila. I initially said no, then two hours later, reconsidered. The damage had been done. Though I interviewed for the job, it went to someone else. 

Desperate, I broke my own rule and bid on Zimbabwe, I got the job, but turned it down. Maybe the Dark Continent would be in our future some day, but today wasn't going to be that day. 

Early on in the process, I told Elise as we were looking at the bid list, "You know...we probably haven't even seen or considered where we're going to end up." As the weeks pass, this becomes increasingly likely. 

And yet, we keep a positive outlook. Everyone tells us good jobs pop up late in the bidding season. Nearly daily, a new job will pop up: Paris, Minsk, Mexico City. And nearly daily, I report back to Elise these new developments. Now, she just covers her ears and says to me, "Just tell me when it's over. Just tell me where we're going." 

Someday soon, I may text her, "Got the offer to _________________."

And we'll pull the suitcases down from the attic. 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Flag Day: Part Four

Amman, Jordan!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016


All the leaves that are going to fall have fallen. With a forecast low of 14 degrees tomorrow and snow in the cards for next week, fall is over and winter is here.

The Christmas lights are going up around the neighborhood, and at the request of our landlady, I shut off the outside water spigots to avoid freezing pipes, an exercise I am wholly unfamiliar with. Two Saturdays ago, Elise and I (with only passing help from the kids) stood beneath a cloudy, winter sky, wrestling with tangles of knotted Christmas lights we had dredged from boxes in the basement unopened since India. I wanted to climb a ladder and mount them on the eaves, but Elise would have none of it, so we ended up wrapping one bush in front of our house in holiday cheer. The bush on the other side of the front door remains bare, so we have asymmetrical Christmas lights adorning the front of our house. Clark Griswold would be so disappointed in us.

Later the same day, we drove half a block and bought a live Christmas tree--the first live tree we have had in at least three years--out of a Staples parking lot. Elise had grand visions of driving the family out into the woods or to a tree farm in the snow, hacking down our own tree out of the forest with a hatchet, tying it to the top of our car, and driving back to civilization. Meanwhile, I was eyeing the two perfectly good artificial trees we had stored in the basement. I quickly caved, however, realizing this may be the last opportunity we have to buy a live Christmas tree for some time.

The boys are getting excited for their joint birthday party this weekend at Earth Treks, a rock-climbing gym, Peter's choice. Both complained that they had always had a "family party" and this year wanted a "friend party". Elise and I were happy to oblige, but first have to make it through another week of closing shifts, though every day closer to the holidays makes the office incrementally quieter in the evenings.

I spoke to my mom just for a few minutes this evening, following her most recent surgery. She was watching basketball, so that--in and of itself--is a sign of recovery. Sometimes, it is difficult to focus at work with so much going on at home, with my mom being sick, and with bidding on our next assignment (the gift that keeps on giving...though I have had two interviews this week and am cautiously optimistic an end may be in sight). Now, Sam, too, is at home with a fever.

But the Transition Team has raised its head with full fury and--if nothing else--the frenzy of urgent taskings forces me to focus on work and makes the days and evenings go by faster. Winter, too, like fall, will be gone before we know it. Winter in Northern Virginia, though cold, is shy with its merits, needlessly diffident. It has more to give than is often readily apparent. And it takes an especially positive perspective to peer through the cold, dreary grey at the wonders that may lie beneath.

Clementine turned her back to me this morning just as we were getting ready to walk out to the car so I could drive her to school. "Look," she says, "My backpack is half-zipped up and half-zipped open."

"Like, 'Is the glass half-full or half empty'," I said.

"Yeah!"I'm looking forward to greeting this winter with my backpack half-zipped up.


Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Letters to Santa

I found this note slipped into the side pocket of my work bag. It was in a homemade envelope made from a plain white 8 1/2 x 11 piece of typing paper, held together with scotch tape. I didn't even know he had slipped it in my bag to mail!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Jayalalithaa 1948 - 2016

Many will say 2016 was a brutal year, a year in which many beloved figures were lost. Prince, David Bowie, Fidel Castro (maybe not so beloved by many), Leonard Cohen, the King of Thailand, Jose Fernandez in a boating accident, the guy who crawled into a metal cylinder and rocked back and forth as he 'played' R2-D2, Justice Scalia, Janet Reno, Nancy Reagan, Emerson of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Snape in the movies, and, last but certainly not least, Mohammed Ali.

All great lives. Some more influential than others. Arguably, Castro had a greater impact on people's lives than Emerson of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer did. Everyone feels the loss differently. Elise was upset when Prince passed away. My mom, when Jose Fernandez.

I tend not to get too upset when celebrities pass. I didn't really know them and few have had a large impact on my life. I'm sad for the loss of others. I worry about what can happen to communities when loved ones are lost. Especially communities I care about.

We commemorated Oscar Niemeyer's passing in 2012 on the blog, because his architecture was such a defining, if unconscious, feature of our time in Brazil. Similarly, not a day...a minute, really, went by in Chennai when we did not see Jayalalithaa's face. She was, very literally, omnipresent. Her cult of personality was all-encompassing, her picture was everywhere, on every billboard, road barricade, backpack and water bottle. She was Tamil Nadu's most beloved leader, and I know many are upset, distraught, genuinely worried, confused, and fearful since her passing.

Regardless of your political leaning, this is a huge loss for Tamil Nadu.

When we heard of her heart attack, we worried, and feared for those we knew and cared about, co-workers, colleagues, and friends, those who loved her. When she passed, I knew it would be hard for Chennai. But I know India to be a resilient place, and Indians to be a resilient people. There will be mourning, people setting themselves on fire and flinging themselves onto the hoods of automobiles in spasmodic orgies of grief.

I remember going outside the wall surrounding our office building when she was acquited of corruption charges and released from house arrest. She toured the city in her Amma-mobile, in a victory parade, past throngs of followers in all-white garb, waving palm fronds and beating on drums. I stood with my Indian co-workers hoping to get a glimpse. It was a moment of South Indian history.

Goodbye, Amma.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

"Are You My Uber?"

Last night, it started raining as Clementine was getting out of the shower. Elise offered to whisk everyone into the clothes in their pajamas and come pick me up at the Metro station.

"How will we know which one is Daddy?" Someone asked.

"He's the one wearing a black suit," responded Peter helpfully.

"Everyone is wearing a black suit," Elise gently reminded him.

"He's the one with grey hair," Peter added, nonplussed.

"Everyone has grey hair."

"He's the nice one."

Thanks, Petey. :)

"How can you tell just by looking someone if they're nice?" Elise asked.

Peter thought about that for a moment, then said, "He's the one who walks like one of those giant hamster things."

"Giant hamster? You mean a capybara? Like in Brazil?"

"Yeah...he walks like a capybara."

Gee, thanks, Petey. 

Whenever I approach the car when they pick me up from the Metro, I ask, "Are you my Uber?" Because people all over the city walk up to random cars wondering if it's their Uber ride. Unlike taxi cabs, Uber cars are mostly unmarked. Some may have tiny window stickers with Uber's 'U' logo on it, but mostly just about any kind of car could or could not be an Uber.

When we got home, it was straight to the shower for Sam who had yet to take one, and straight to bed for Peter and Clementine who then proceeded to have simultaneous meltdowns, exhaustion setting in.

Clementine was complaining of an imaginary ache in her ankle. Sometimes, I use 'magic' lotion on her imaginary aches and pains. Elise offered an especially healing-smelling, lemon verbena-scented roll-on antiperspirant. I rubbed it on Clementine's ankle, whereupon she added mild complaints on the thigh and behind the knee of her other leg.

Peter told me he was "having bad thoughts."

I put my thumb between his eyebrows, then pressed lightly on his forehead. "This is your pre-frontal cortex," I told him. "It's where the good thoughts are stored: going to the beach, playing in the ocean, building sand forts, eating ice cream, watching cartoons, trading Pokemon cards, playing soccer. When you apply pressure to the pre-frontal cortex, it releases the good thoughts into the rest of the brain."

I rubbed my thumb from his forehead to his hairline, spreading the good thoughts around. "There. Now all the good thoughts are in your head. Better?"

He nodded and closed his eyes and went to sleep. 

The Old Lady Who Ate a Bat

Here, she is eating a wizard. According to Peter, she also ate a goblin and an owl, "So what do you think about that!"

Yeah, ""WOW!" is right!