Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Directed Assignments - Update

Ian did NOT receive an e-mail "asking" him to "volunteer" for one of the 48 empty positions in Embassy Baghdad. We're relieved. But we're also realistic and with this occurrence we're trying to figure out how a tour in Iraq can fit into our lives on our terms rather than the State Department's terms. Ian has several e-mails out gathering more information. We'll let you know when we know.

A few words about Halloween and holidays in general.

I don't enjoy Halloween. I think it's a waste of time, energy and money to "celebrate" Halloween. Do I think it's celebrating the devil? No. I just don't think that for me, as a parent, that I should have to spend my time thinking and planning and doing for it. It's a kid thing and I try to stay out of it as much as possible. Call me a Grinch, but as someone pointed out, a Grinch would actually enjoy Halloween. I'll be the Easter Bunny of Halloween... and hide in my burrow.

Anyway, how is it I spent last night making 2 brain cakes for school? Why was I called on to find this or that for costumes? Why did we have dinner at the Halloween spectacular at Sparky's?

Why is it that so much energy is spent on Halloween at school including a costume parade and class parties, but no mention is made of Thanksgiving. The kids don't even get Turkey Day off. This year they'll get Friday off at least, next year they won't even get that much, yet the school will close for an entire week for Diwali. Yes, I understand we're in India and Diwali is the Hindu Christmas. But last I checked the school still had "American" in its name, and as such I consider Thankgiving quite a central holiday to America.

You know the two American holidays acknowledged next year? Labor Day and Presidents' Day. Labor Day probably because every country has a Labor Day, so why not. Presidents' Day? I think it's actually a teacher workday. I'd easily give up both to have Thanksgiving back.

So, I'm thinking I'll look around for costume sales now, for next year. Though I have to admit having Katherine dress up as Miss Tween Chennai today was pretty cool. Wish I'd gotten a photo.

MST3K fans....

Rejoice! And it's Joel too!

More Mock Movies Coming.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Rain rain rain

Welcome to Monsoon 2007. It rained all weekend, except the couple hours I was at lunch on Saturday and when the kids went swimming on Sunday. With the flooding the kids were off school today. We only lost one tree and had at most 4-5 inches of rain in spots, and only one wall is leaking with bubbling paint. I wouldn't worry about it too much other than it's near the fuse/power box and one drip has reached a light switch. That could be a problem.

Check out some snapshots:

Saturday, October 27, 2007


Conferences went well, the kids are right on target but we received suggestions for all the kids, which is more helpful than anything else.

Jonathon: Being a lefty is his biggest issue in this family. He copies what others do, which equals a page full of mirror image writing. So, out comes the old d'Nealian books and he'll have a page or two of handwriting practice to go with his reading each night. Reading is coming along fine. He can get through a page of Nate the Great, or Young Cam Jansen and he's read all the Ricky Ricotta books we have.
Nicholas: Good report all around. Sitting him next to kids who aren't his closest friends has helped. He's reading fine, the other day he plugged on the first Harry Potter, reading 3 pages out loud to me to help along his tone. He's getting better at reading for content and remembering details. He needs to practice his math facts outside of class more.
Rebecca: She's reading at 4th grade level and has finally found a series she enjoys on her own, the Animal Ark books. With the string of Bs on her report card she's determined to try harder and pull up her grades. That's going to take some effort in the reading response areas.
Katherine: We spoke with her Language Arts/Social Studies teacher, Math, Music and French. Her French teacher just loves her. She says Katherine is a great student, great accent, likes to practice (in class only, apparently, since she does say a word in French at home) and is wonderful to have in class. She said she notices that if Katherine is given some space, she does even better. The music teacher said she's come a long way with the Flute and needs to practice slurring and tonguing. It sounds a little wrong for a 6th grader, doesn't it? The math teacher mentioned how Katherine prefers to spend her break in the math room, by herself. Does that sound strange? Personally, I think it sounds like a good decompression time and understanding more about Katherine, that she takes everything quite personally and she said she doesn't want to hang around with the other girls talking about things that aren't of interest. As far as math goes, she needs to review more, even just go back a couple sections and do a problem or two to remember. Sounds easy enough. For LA/SS, organization comes into play. After conferences were done Ian and I went to Landmark and bought some organizational tools for her. Her desk is now a functional work space, not a game zone. We'll see how it goes. I should have taken a before picture, but I'll put up an after photo once I have it.
There you have it.


Check out

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

With the fires raging...

Some common fire related questions answered.

Mental Floss Fire Facts

Sometimes I really have a Duh moment

Getting the Kids involved.

Why didn't I think before to give the kids the jobs of crunching boxes and cans, and having one be the Light-Turner-Offer? Sometimes I'm so dense I wonder...

Report cards are in.

The kids did fine for first quarter. I can't gauge whether they did average because they did average or that everyone did average because it was 1st Quarter. It doesn't really matter, honestly. The comments were what we expected and we have parent-teacher conferences on Friday to hear the real story. I'm actually a little happy that they're having to work for their grades, and not just work but figure out their weaknesses and address them.

With Katherine starting middle school, organization is kicking her butt. We knew it would. Her grades all dropped, not for lack of knowledge but for lack of organization. Can't get a full grade when you turn in an assignment days late.

Rebecca received exemplary Effort marks, but still had a string of Bs on her card. She was disappointed and has begun asking for extra credit work. She even spoke with the P.E. teacher to figure out what he was looking for. He said he doesn't give out As except to those who truly excel in all the physical challenges and since I don't see that happening for her we told her not to sweat it (heh, a pun). I'd much rather she made a stronger effort in Science than P.E.

Nicholas and Jonathon aren't getting grades yet, just those odd developmental marks (D=Developing, etc). He's right on target for his grade. Jonathon got a D in Computers. Uh, we told him not to worry about that. I think I'd be more surprised by a 1st grader who received an E (for exceptional, of course) in Computers.

I might put up the kids actual grades, but for now, you get the idea. Everyone can improve.

Too neat to pass up...

Check out the Hobbit Doll House.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

AFSAnet: Telling Our Story

AFSA: American Foreign Service Association

The State Department gets a lot of, dare I say it, crap about not pulling its weight in Iraq. An e-mail went out recently to shed some light on the difficulties our agency faces. Usually, I don't like number stories, but since this one is so personal and pretty straightforward, I feel it's worth repeating here.

AFSAnet: Telling our Story
A small but growing number of voices are criticizing the State Department and Foreign Service for not "stepping up to the plate" in Iraq. Some, including people who urged the 2003 invasion, clearly seek to shift blame for failures by other actors. However, other critics appear to have no such malicious agenda, but rather base their criticisms on wildly inflated estimations of the capacities of civilian agencies to operate in combat zones such as Iraq.
AFSA is making an effort to set the record straight. Toward that end, AFSA President John Naland sent an e-mail on Oct. 16, 2007 to a journalist who had written an error-laden diatribe about Foreign Service staffing in Iraq. Below are excerpts from that e-mail:
Here are some baseline facts about the Foreign Service. The State Department Foreign Service is made up of approximately 11,500 people.
Of them, 6,500 are Foreign Service officers (for example, political officers) while 5,000 are Foreign Service specialists (for example, Diplomatic Security agents). There are another 1,500 or so Foreign Service members at USAID, the Foreign Commercial Service, the Foreign Agricultural Service, and the International Broadcasting Bureau, but I will focus on the State Department Foreign Service component.
Let's put the size of the State Department Foreign Service in perspective. The U.S. active- duty military is 119 times larger than the Foreign Service. The total uniformed military (active and reserve) is 217 times larger. A typical U.S. Army division is larger than the entire Foreign Service. The military has more uniformed personnel in Mississippi than the State Department has diplomats worldwide. The military has more full colonels/Navy captains than the State Department has diplomats. The military has more band members than the State Department has diplomats. The Defense Department has almost as many lawyers as the State Department has diplomats.
I will not even get into the huge disparities in operating budgets, which are widely known.
The key point -- especially for observers who think in terms of the myriad capabilities of our nation's large military -- is that the Foreign Service has a relatively small corps of officers.
Moreover, in contrast to the military, the vast majority of Foreign Service members are forward deployed (thus the word "foreign" in Foreign Service). Today, in a time of armed conflict, 21.1 percent of the active-duty military (290,000 out of 1,373,000) is stationed abroad (ashore or afloat). That compares to 68 percent of the Foreign Service currently stationed abroad at 167 U.S. embassies and 100 consulates and other missions.
There is nothing new about this high percentage of Foreign Service forward deployment. The percentages have not changed from two decades ago when I joined. Thus, the typical Foreign Service member serves two-thirds of his or her career abroad. Over a 30-year career, that adds up to 20 years spent stationed overseas.
Where are these overseas Foreign Service members? Nearly 60 percent are at posts categorized by the U.S. government as "hardship" due to difficult living conditions (for example, violent crime, harsh climate, social isolation, unhealthy air, and/or terrorist threats). Of those hardship posts, half are rated at or above the 15-percent differential level which constitutes great hardship. Thus, unlike the old stereotype seeing most Foreign Service members serving in comfortable Western European capitals, only one third of overseas posts are non-hardship -- and the majority of people at such posts are decompressing after serving at a hardship post.
Again, the contrast with the military is instructive. As previously mentioned, 78.9 percent of the active-duty military is stationed stateside (including 36,000 personnel in Hawaii). Of those serving abroad, there are more U.S. military personnel serving in the United Kingdom, Germany, or Japan than the State Department has diplomats worldwide.
The military does have a greater percentage of its personnel serving in unaccompanied tours (ashore or afloat) than the Foreign Service. I have not found solid statistics on this point, but subtracting those stationed at accompanied postings in Western Europe, Japan, and South Korea, it appears that around 11 percent of the military serving in unaccompanied tours. But the Foreign Service is catching up. Since 2001, the number of unaccompanied and limited-accompanied Foreign Service positions has quadrupled to 700 (representing 6.1 percent of the Foreign Service) at two dozen danger pay posts including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. This represents a dramatic change for Foreign Service members, who previously had fewer than 200 unaccompanied slots to fill at a few posts such as Bogotá and Beirut.
Moreover, consider these facts. Around 40 percent of the 7,800 overseas Foreign Service positions come up for reassignment each year (including all 700 one-year unaccompanied positions and a mixture of two-year great hardship posts and three-year lesser-hardship and non-hardship posts). That means that, in any given annual assignment cycle, almost one quarter of all overseas Foreign Service jobs to be
filled are at unaccompanied or limited-accompanied danger pay posts.
But what about the toughest duty assignment: Iraq. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in an Oct. 1, 2007, interview with the New York Post editorial board, stated that more than 20 percent of the Foreign Service has served, or is serving, in Iraq. I would have guessed that the percentage was a little lower, but let's stick with Secretary Rice's official estimate that 20 percent of our nation's diplomats have served in war-zone Iraq since 2003.
I have not found comparable military statistics. Presumably, at least for the Army and Marine Corps, it is over two-thirds with many troops serving two or more tours. But again, unlike the military which maintains 78.9 percent of its active members stateside, the Foreign Service has worldwide staffing responsibilities that necessitate posting the majority of its members in the 188 countries besides Iraq. Thus, of the 80 percent of Foreign Service members who have not (yet) served in Iraq, most are now at, or have recently returned from, a hardship assignment.
There are approximately 200 Foreign Service positions currently at Embassy Baghdad and another 70 or so at the 25 Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Compared to the U.S. military presence in Iraq, those numbers look small. Of course, the U.S. civilian presence in Iraq includes a range of other types of employees. But if press reports are accurate that around 1,000 U.S. citizens work at Embassy Baghdad, then the Foreign Service positions constitute about 20 percent of that total.
Turning to the PRTs, which comprise up to 600 members, the Foreign Service component is 10 to 15 percent.
There are good reasons for those ratios. As Secretary Rice has repeatedly explained in public statements, no country's diplomatic corps has people with many of the skills now needed in Iraq: oil and gas engineers, electrical grid managers, urban planners, city managers and transportation planners. If any U.S. defense planner in 2003 thought that the State Department and other civilian federal agencies had such people on staff in large numbers (Arabic speaking or not) ready to rebuild Iraq, they were wrong. Obviously, if they wanted to do so, the president and Congress could staff up civilian agencies to take responsibility for stabilization and reconstruction. But they have not done so.
Here are some other points to consider. While some Foreign Service members in Iraq are engaged in support activities that do not require them to leave the International Zone, many do travel in the "Red
Zone"-- working out of Embassy Baghdad, serving at one of the pre-surge PRTs, or serving at one of the 10 new PRTs embedded in Brigade Combat Teams. Also, although this was not the case right after the 2003 invasion, most Foreign Service members serve one-year tours in Iraq with only a relative few going for shorter temporary duty assignments. A small but growing number of Foreign Service members have served more than one tour in Iraq. None, except perhaps for Diplomatic Security special agents, are permitted to carry a weapon for self-defense.
The State Department so far has been able to fill its Iraq positions with volunteers. Every one of the more than 2,000 career Foreign Service members who have stepped up to the plate to serve in Iraq has done so as a volunteer. They receive less than two-weeks of special training to serve in a combat zone (unlike their predecessors 40 years ago who received three to four months of training before deploying to South Vietnam in the CORDS program). While Foreign Service volunteers in Iraq do receive added pay and other incentives (but not tax-free income like the military enjoys), surveys show that most are motivated by patriotism and a professional desire to contribute to our nation's top foreign policy objective. If the State Department ever does run out of volunteers, the Secretary of State retains the legal authority to direct assignments.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

And lo...

The old cell phone dried out. And works.

Seems Katherine will get to use it someday.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

We have reservations.

Check inside to see if we'll be in your area, and let us know if you'd like to get together.

15 December we arrive in: Belgium
18 December - 11 January we'll be in: Virginia
11 - 13 January has us in: Madison, WI
13 - 17 January in: San Francisco
18 - 22 January we're off to: Beijing
22 - 25 January we'll be in: Singapore
25 January we'll return to: Chennai

Um, oops.

Update: Meet my new phone, the Nokia 6085. No, it's not the most recent, but it works and it flips. And now that Ian got it off the All Hindi All The Time language selection (do you know how hard it is to get a phone off Hindi when you don't read Hindi and all the instructions are in English... with no Hindi translations?), I can actually start using it.

I guess I have to apologize to my neighbor for laughing when he ruined his cell phone by jumping in the pool with it tucked safely in his pocket. Granted, his was about a week old when he did it and a Motorola Razr.

I got my latest phone when we lived in Manila. The original gave a blue screen of death or something, and just quit working. Perfectly justifiable even if it was only a couple years old. This time, well, totally my fault. The pants had a stain I needed to hand scrub so I tossed it in the sink full of water and Woolite. Without emptying the pockets. My LCD screen is bubbly. Inside.

You know, I was really hoping to responsibly graduate to a better phone and pass this one on to Katherine for emergency use.

And guess what, I learned that the phone saved all my numbers, not the SIM card. If I should have your number, I don't any longer. Please e-mail it to me. That means you too, parents.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Sorry about that...

I keep forgetting to click off the "Comments" links that don't go anywhere. I know they clutter up the page. Sorry.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Whether you believe in it or not...

Read through the 50 things you can do to help the Earth.

The easiest that even FSOs can do: Use those CFLs, don't leave your appliances on standby, cover your pots when cooking, fill up the washer before using it, use the clothesline (unless you're in a country with burrowing fly maggots of course), recycle (yes, even overseas, especially in developing nations... we put aside all our soda and soup cans/cereal boxes/milk cartons in bags, apart from the regular garbage), recycle organic waste (if you have a yard, you can do it, we put a separate can in the kitchen to collect all the peels and egg shells, which then go into the compost), buy stuff with less packaging (a 1L water bottle takes less energy and creates less waste than 2 0.5L bottles), use reusable bags for shopping (like mine from, buy locally grown/fresh/organic (now that is easy to do overseas! Practically all our fruits and vegs are within the 100mile diet from small farmers), carpool.

See what you can do.

Six things that make my life easier.

We buy so much crap we don't need. Things that take up space and get shuffled around to make room for even more stuff we don't need.

But sometimes, just sometimes, I buy, make or get something that proves its usefulness over and over and it makes me happy.

Here's my list.

A pill splitter/crusher. I bought it from CVS before we went to Togo, for splitting our malaria meds. It's also great for splitting an adult tylenol when we run out of junior strength, for splitting and crushing the cats' deworming meds, and for crushing things just for fun.
A timer. Or three. We keep one in the kitchen for cooking of course, one in the boys' room for timeouts, and one on the piano for practice time.
A practically industrial strength pencil sharpener. Four kids means a lot of pencils for homework, and lots of colored pencils for drawing. Those little plastic sharpeners are not only badly made, they hurt for more than a pencil or two. Ours, with it's metal turning handle, just keeps on going.
A business card slip of laminated paper with all our airline and hotel numbers. We both have one in our wallets. Speaks for itself.
The laminator. I ordered a laminator from a library supply store because every year I'd go through the kids' school/art work and wish I could protect the few special papers. I bought a non-electric hand crank unit and I use it all the time. Seriously. Recently I went through the collection of recipes I've printed out or copied down, now they're laminated and in a 3-ring binder. No more oil spots. Our dinner table setting schedule, laminated. Pictures for the kids projects, laminated.
It's all good.
Oh wait... I said six right? Ian wanted to be included on the list. So yeah, life is easier with him too.


Kudos to Ian who was promoted from an FS-04 to an FS-03! About time and just in time, really, since the dollar is tanking in India right now. The lowest since 1998.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

A couple "new" blogs

These probably aren't new to anyone but me, but they are well worth a perusal by anyone who loves to eat and keep a pretty home.

The Pioneer Woman Cooks
- What happens when you take a city girl, put her on a cattle ranch where she has to feed her cowboy husband and growing kids. Her step by step cooking directions are designed for people like me who don't even know how to cut an onion properly.

Like Merchant Ships - Living beautifully in a frugal life. She incorporates flowers, color, simplicity and a dash of love into each part of her family's day.

Woof Woof

This is Nicholas's dog. I wish I could say it was Woof Woof (or as Nicholas spells it, Woff Woff, perhaps it's a German dog), but this lovely fuzzy thing is not. It was meant to be the replacement.


No. This is Woof Woof.


He looks sad, doesn't he? Physically and emotionally, he's a tired dog.

He's had a hard life, requiring several surgeries. One time, his innards nearly poured out the back of his heck.


But Nicholas has a particular favorite section of Woof Woof, to rub and rub and rub. It's what we call his black paw.


Black paw has had numerous reconstructive surgeries. Unfortunately over the years, all his filling has fallen out. And now, Nicholas has rubbed a significant hole through the outer layer.


There was only one thing to be done.


A pawectomy. And doesn't he look so much happier?


Next stop, a bath. Perhaps in a vat of lysol.

Out of the mouths of babes

I wish I could remember all the funky things Jonathon has said lately. Instead you get just one.

Jonathon has joined the "Mom, can I have a DS? Dad, can I have a DS? Mom, can I have a DS? Dad, can I have..." bandwagon. Rebecca pointed out that J already has a Tamagotchi, a Littlest Pet Shop thing and a NeoGeo. What does he say? "But mom, I just love 'lectronics!"


Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Name of the Rose

I watched "The Name of the Rose" years ago. I didn't get it and I recall telling someone it was a decent mystery but the substory with the girl was distracting. He told me that the girl was the story. Talk about feeling kinda stupid after that.

I haven't read the book as I've heard it's quite something to plow through, but I figured I'd give the movie another shot. The same thing happened. The mystery was OK, though not so much a mystery anymore since my first viewing. But I didn't understand the role of the girl.

So I read up a bit and Wikipedia cleared up quite a bit. It is a mystery, and the girl is a sidestory. She isn't "the rose," or maybe she is but the author didn't say she had to be. In fact, the title of the book just kind of came to him and doesn't refer to anything in particular.

Simplistic as it may be, I feel better. Sure, there's loads of references and hidden meanings throughout, but as far as the title goes and the role of the girl... the simple explanation seems the most correct. The story isn't as deep, nor am I as dumb, as I feared.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Where'd my post go?

I started an entry yesterday but so many people have been on my computer since then it's really no wonder it has vanished.

Anyhow, we're on day 4 of our long weekend, back to the grind tomorrow. Today we're off for Gandhi's birthday. Yesterday we were off for an apparently canceled bandh, aka strike. Now the plans are for someone or other to hold a hunger strike. As long as it doesn't mean we all have to go hungry I'm cool with that.

So everything was shut down yesterday, and for what? Because of the Ramayana.

The Ramayana is a Sanskrit epic about lord Rama and his wife Sita. Sita is captured by the demon king Ravana and taken to island of Lanka. Hanuman discovered where Sita was being held, but Rama decided that without a bridge to cross across the ocean to Lanka, only Hanuman would be able to reach her. So, Rama managed to build a bridge and rescue Sita.
The story has a lot more meat to it of course and a predictably sad ending, but that's the gist.
What does that have to do with anything? To believers, Lanka is the island of Sri Lanka and the bridge is the area of islands and shallows created when eons ago Sri Lanka tore off from the mainland. One particular political party sees the shallows as a hidrance to Tamil Nadu's shipping lane potential and wants to dredge the shallows to accommodate cargo ships. Other political parties believe that to do so would be to destroy Rama's bridge to rescue his beloved Sita.
And we got a day off for the two sides to stare menacingly at each other.