Friday, October 31, 2008

The Ideal Oreo

This is Caleb's take on the ideal Oreo cookie. I opened a new package of Oreos the other day and gave him a couple cookies as a treat. Then I got distracted by a pot of something boiling over in the kitchen and left the package next to Caleb on the floor. You can tell where this is going...

I was oblivious until I heard Daniel coming downstairs from his office. He got halfway down and exclaimed "Whoa, Caleb, where did you get those!" Caleb had very carefully removed the cream from every cookie and was just finishing off his pile of little white discs. He was completely ignoring the mountain of cookie covers. After all, the cookie is really just the vehicle for sugary, creamy goodness, I suppose.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Potluck Panic

Ahhhh, Sunday afternoon... Both boys are napping and I'm recovering from the morning. For the past year we've been getting together with a group of other expatriates on Sundays. We used to go to a Vietnamese church every week, but then baby number two arrived and that became impractical. Caleb was too old for the "cry room" but not quite ready to be left alone in a non-English speaking Sunday School class. It ended up that neither Daniel nor I sat through a service. We went in every direction but the sanctuary.

For the most part we've been glad to change things up and to get to know a few more of the expatriates living in Vietnam. The group meets in one or two homes each week depending on who is available to host. We find out via e-mail where we will be. We also find out via e-mail about any special events or other announcements. It's not a bad system except that Daniel gets the e-mails and I don't. He often remembers to forward them to me, but there is an exception to every rule.

Yesterday morning Daniel innocently asked me if I'd gotten the latest church e-mail. Of course I hadn't, which meant that I didn't know there was a potluck scheduled for today. Keep in mind that we are in the last week of October. I don't know about you, but when I reach the last week of any month I am counting my pennies and praying that neither boy needs a new package of diapers in the next few days. I had just made my last major trip to the supermarket for the month and came home with 392.000 dong ($23.40) in my wallet. This was designated for fresh vegetables and extra milk if we run out. It didn't leave a lot of room for emergency potluck ingredients.

Normally when this happens (this was the third potluck I didn't know about until less than 24 hours in advance), we use the boys' naps as an excuse to ditch the meal. Today's festivities, however, were at the home of a very nice family who always go out of their way to make the place kid-friendly. We just couldn't ditch again.

I had no choice but to be creative. The request was that we bring a salad, so I rummaged the cupboards and laid ingredients out on the counter in categories: Mexican/Southwestern, Mediterranean, Asian, generic American, etc. The biggest pile hands-down was Mexican/Southwestern. I had beans, cilantro, peppers, half a packet of taco seasoning, and a few other random things that roughly qualified for the category. In the end I came up with a salad that was surprisingly...passable. I swore Daniel to secrecy and told him exactly what to say if questioned. "It's called Fiesta Salad. Very easy. Old family recipe."

If you're interested, here is the recipe. (I don't recommend that you follow it since it reveals more about my manner of cooking than the method of making Fiesta Salad.)

Fiesta Salad (aka. Heather's Potluck Surprise)

Salad Ingredients:
  • 1 chicken breast, cooked and shredded (defrost in the microwave if necessary, just be careful not to let the ends turn white and rubbery)
  • 2 green bell peppers (wrinkly is okay but avoid the mushy spots)
  • 1 red bell pepper (ditto)
  • 1.5 cans of beans (2 cans is optimal, but I had one in the back of the cupboard and half of another opened in the fridge. I used Canellini beans because white adds so much color to the dish. Not really--they were all I could find. Black beans or kidney beans would probably be better. If you're really pressed, throw in a combination of whatever you have on hand. Avoid baked beans and pork & beans unless you're feeling really adventurous. In that case, do whatever blows your hair back.)
  • 1 cup of cooked couscous (This isn't really Mexican or Southwestern, but it was left over in the fridge from Caleb's lunch on Thursday and I needed something to add a little bulk to the salad.)
  • handful of chopped cilantro (Be generous but don't overdo it.)
  • smaller handful of chopped green onion (Use your nose. If you start wiping your eyes on your sleeve and wondering where the last of the Kleenex went, you've probably got more than enough.)
Chop the peppers and rinse the beans. (If you're in Vietnam remember to use bottled water for the final rinse. You never know who will come to an expat potluck. Some poor soul may not have adjusted to even low doses of the local water yet. Hotel bathrooms are nice, but no one wants to spend the bulk of their holiday there.) Mix all of the ingredients together in a large bowl.

Dressing Ingredients:
  • 1/2 or 1/3 packet of taco mix (I'm not sure how much was actually in the packet. I found it crumpled up in the back of my spice cupboard. It was kind of hard and sticky, so there was probably more there than I first suspected. It was just concentrated.)
  • juice from two Asian limes (We get a lemon/lime cross breed here that is smaller than the green limes we use in the States. One green lime would probably do the trick.)
  • a slosh of vegetable oil (Just pour until it looks about right. Maybe 1/4 cup.)
  • enough sugar to keep you from flinching when you do the fingertip taste test.
Add all the dressing ingredients to a spill-proof container and shake over the sink (since "spill-proof" is almost always false advertising). Taste the dressing several times to get it right. It should make you think of taco salad--tangy and a little spicy. Pour the dressing over the salad ingredients and toss to coat.

  • coarse black pepper
  • shredded Cheddar cheese (Be sparing, cheese is expensive these days.)
  • a few sprigs of cilantro for a garnish (If the leaves are free of brown spots)
These toppings are optional. I added them mostly because I was out of main ingredients and the volume looked a little skimpy for a crowd.

Friday, October 24, 2008

What Goes Up Must Come Down

We made it through the week without Daniel. He got home from Thailand around 8:30 last night. Caleb waited up for him and slept in this morning. Now he and Daniel are collaborating over plans for the box of Legos. Nathan is napping so I'm enjoying my coffee and some uninterrupted time in front of the blog interface.

It was a reasonably uneventful week except for Nathan's fat lip and Caleb's new nose fixation. Our house is tiled throughout with hard ceramic tiles over concrete. It makes for easy clean-up but is treacherous for beginning walkers and toddlers who decide every piece of furniture must be climbed and, if possible, leaped from. A couple mornings ago Nathan was crawling across the living room and for no apparent reason did a face plant on the tile. It was not the first (or even the tenth) time this has happened so I picked him up as a matter of course and wasn't particularly impressed until I saw blood. To be totally honest, it hardly qualified as a "smudge" of blood on his chin, but for whatever reason when there is the faintest trace of blood anywhere on my child's body I immediately shift into ER mode and wonder if I still have a tube of lipstick somewhere to mark the patient's forehead for triage. As the adrenaline courses through my veins, stories about moms who lift cars off their children or carry them through burning buildings become completely believable. In the end, Nathan ended up with nothing more noteworthy than a swollen top lip. It is nearly healed already and didn't seem to phase him even at its worst. As soon as I'd kissed him and wiped the smudge off his chin he was back to tearing around the house on all fours.

Caleb's nose fetish, on the other hand, is an ongoing issue. He made the discovery this week that nostrils are a great place for storing small things like stickers and little balls of toilet paper. I blame Daniel. He was coming down with the flu before leaving for Bangkok and had a drippy nose. He got so tired of wiping it that I caught him bathing Caleb with wads of tissue stuffed up his nose. (A practical solution though not a very attractive one.) It's possible that Caleb's discovery was completely independent of Daniel's example, but it strikes me as a strange coincidence.

After carefully removing a sticker and a couple other random items from his nose, I gave Caleb the "do that again and I might have to call the doctor" lecture. Apparently he was willing to take his chances, because the lecture was completely ineffective. At dinner a clump of sticky rice somehow found its way up his right nostril. I had gone to get Nathan a washcloth. When I came back Caleb was desperately picking at it and, of course, making the problem worse. The clump did not remain a clump and while I was able to remove the foremost grains of rice, there were several that were beyond reach. I fumbled around in the drawer of baby toiletries trying to find something that would remove the rice with minimal risk of pushing it further back. Providentially, I stumbled upon the bulb aspirator. I never really used the thing when the boys were tiny babies because it made them cry and, honestly, the whole concept grossed me out. I must be getting less squeamish because I ran back to the table with a triumphant whoop and sucked out the offending bits in a flash.

Caleb didn't know what had hit him. He sneezed a couple times for good measure, shed big "what are you doing to me" tears, and then begged for the bulb aspirator. He spent the rest of the evening cleaning Bear's nose and telling him "It's okay, Bear. It'll just take a second..." He tried to repeat the procedure on his brother, but I had to draw the line somewhere.

The bulb aspirator went into the bath and into bed with Caleb that night. While Daniel was away Caleb migrated to my bed most nights dragging his bear and blanket and other paraphernalia with him. The night after the rice-in-the-nose episode he brought the bulb aspirator along. I didn't think much of it until I was startled from a doze by Caleb suctioning my nose. At that point, I had to crack down and institute the "no nose suctioning after bedtime" rule. So far he's followed it. During the waking hours we all have the cleanest noses in town.

Well, Nathan will be waking soon and it appears that both Caleb and Daniel have reached their Lego building limit. I should go join the fun.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

While the Cat's Away

Daniel is in Bangkok this week for some meetings, so the boys and I are holding down the fort. Last night at bedtime Caleb kept insisting he was "soooooo hungry" he had to have popcorn. We had just nicely settled down on either side of a big bowl when Nathan woke up and wanted to join the fun. Caleb was very excited about introducing his little brother to the joys of popcorn. To his credit, Nathan took to it like a true member of the family. (We are big popcorn fans.) As was to be expected, both boys woke up grouchy this morning. Oh well, sometimes it's worth it.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Skip to the Loo, My Darlin'

One of my friends who happens to be British came by this morning with her two little girls. After they left, Caleb went to his room to nap singing "Skip, skip, skip to the loo!" I'm not sure that the original was intended to be a ditty about visiting the bathroom (aka. "loo"), but at this point I'm thankful for any encouragement Caleb gets in that direction. If only he really would skip to the loo instead of pitching a fit every time we suggest it.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Few Photos

Lately, Caleb has taken great pride in his role as big brother. He even tries to haul Nathan around using a backwards bear hug maneuver that makes me nervous and makes Nathan laugh. I'm not sure what inspired it or who initiated it, but I found Caleb watching tv with Nathan on his lap--a perfect photo opportunity.

One More

I couldn't resist posting this picture. There is something so satisfying about a wide-open mouth. It's less of a triumph when he raspberries it all back at me.

Things that Make Me Squirm, Part II

Aggressive geckos, skittering cockroaches, and fermented fish sauce are all squirm-worthy in their own right. I don't have to write paragraphs to explain why the sound of cockroaches under our bed at night makes my skin crawl. Other things, however, are less obvious. Small talk, for instance, seems innocent enough. Trying to get to know people is noble. What could possibly be wrong with being friendly?

The rub comes when friendliness means something entirely different to person A than it does to person B. In the States, initial gestures of friendship include comments about the weather or a favorite sports team or the latest reality tv show. If you really want to express appreciation for a person you might make some vague offer to get together in the future. "We should have you over for dinner sometime" is standard code for "You seem like a nice person. Let's keep our getting-to-know-each-other options open." As long as everyone understands the code, the system runs like a well-oiled machine.

Unfortunately for us, the system in Vietnam is completely different. The machine uses different parts in different places and we are left completely flumoxed (I've been waiting for an opportunity to use that word!). It's no secret that in Asia small talk begins with questions like: "How old are you?" "How much do you earn each month?" "What did you spend for that shirt?" "Have you put on a little weight lately?" For the most part we've learned to navigate these questions in ways that are politely evasive. We are no longer left gaping like grounded fish when friends try to get a conversation going. I'm proud of this hard-earned savvy, and I breeze into conversations feeling very good about myself until I hit an even more puzzling out-of-place part in the machine. I like to call it the "unwanted advice cog." No relationship is really off the ground in Vietnam until the initiator starts giving unsolicited advice. To a westerner bred in an environment where every man is responsible for his own decisions and a person with unformed opinions is wishy washy, advice that we haven't gone looking for is as much fun as an old-fashioned punch in the nose.

Let me illustrate the difficulty. A man we barely know came to our house recently to discuss some translation work Daniel had done for him. Before he left, he came into the living room to meet me and the boys. After a few pleasantries he said without further ado, "I want to give you two pieces of advice." I'm translating, but that was the gist of it. He is older than us and has some training in community health, so I suppose we should have been eager for the free tips. At the time I was too busy steeling myself for what was to follow.

His first piece of advice was that I should take the boys out into the alley to play every morning between 9:00 and 10:00 so that the sun is at the right angle for them to absorb vitamin D without getting burnt. This is not a bad idea except for the fact that we live next door to a university. From 6am until lunchtime our alley is filled with cliques of chattering girls, women in pajamas carrying bags of raw meat and vegetables home from the market, adolescent boys weaving in and out of the crowd on motorbikes, and stray dogs picking through garbage. I nodded politely and dismissed charge number one.

Charge number two had more sting. It so happened that Caleb was watching cartoons at the time. He had woken up grouchy from his nap and when that happens there is no hope for the situation but to push juice or milk at him and leave him staring zombie-like at the tv until he is a little more human. I know letting the boys watch tv is not ideal, but I have come to depend on it as an extra set of hands when I'm busy with one kid and need to distract the other one. (Nathan is not really into tv yet, but he is a sucker for the Baby Einstein videos.) I feel secretly guilty about all the tv watching that goes on in our house, but I've been too desperate for sanity to put my foot down. Needless to say, our visitor's second piece of advice touched a raw nerve when he explained in great detail the dangers of allowing the boys to watch more than one tv show per day. It didn't help that as the guy was talking Caleb was staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed at some ridiculous show about teenage spies. It's pretty hard to disagree when your kid is posing as the poster boy for a “turn off the tv” campaign. I'm sure the guy expected me to fly for the remote and turn the dreadful show off, but it was all I could do to smile politely and thank him for his concern.

When he finally left, I spent the next hour or so stewing over his comments and drumming up justifications. Eventually my anger dwindled and I calmed down enough to admit that even if the guy had been a bull in a china shop, the damage probably wouldn't have been so extensive if the china weren't so fragile. Isn't that why unsolicited advice is almost always so maddening? Nine times out of ten it draws attention to the very thing we already feel the most uncertain or embarrassed or guilty about. I can't think of anything that makes me squirm more uncomfortably than having someone else discuss my disheveled closets, or my perpetually unfinished writing projects, or my hodge-podge parenting methods.

I tend to chew on things like an old brown cow chewing her cud. At any given time I have several lumps tucked into each cheek. I can be cooking dinner, playing with the boys, or talking with Daniel and still be turning the bits over with my tongue. I was still pondering the situation above when Daniel and I somehow got into a conversation about what spiritual maturity looks like and how a person can know whether he or she is growing in faithfulness. Daniel mentioned the proverb about a fool not receiving instruction and suggested that humility and teachability could be markers. I agreed but tried to hide my discomfort. Was it possible that the Vietnamese were on to something with all their advice giving and receiving? I decided to take a look at Proverbs myself. The first verse I happened upon was this: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” (“Sure, sure,” I thought, “but the advice doesn't need to be so grossly out-of-place and insensitive!”) I read the next verse, “The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent ignores an insult” Proverbs 12:15-16. Enough said.

I'm sure I will continue to squirm when I'm blind-sided by all the friendly tips that come my way. It's hard not to. I can hold out hope, though, that in time I will become a little more Vietnamese or, better yet, a little more wise. Maybe, just maybe, I will learn to clench my half-baked opinions less tightly and to defend my way of doing things less fiercely. Maybe.

Well, I should go make sense of the disaster that is our living room. We turned the tv off this morning. In a grand attempt to start fresh, we ate pancakes, built block castles, made a zoo with the Noah's Ark animals, read storybooks, played an alphabet game on the computer, cleaned out the wading pool, and turned the couch cushions into a fort. I made it to about 10:30 and was so completely exhausted that Caleb and I spent the next hour (while Nathan napped) watching Thomas the Tank Engine. Oh well, it was a valiant effort.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

More Birthday News

Here are a couple of the promised pictures. If you want to see more, check out the slide show on the right. In spite of the fact that it was so hot the chocolate frosting ran into the white and the red trim kept wanting to fall off, Caleb was happy with his cake. By the way, decorating a cake in the tropics is no easy matter. I could only do it in ten minute increments before the frosting got too soft and runny. Then I had to stuff the whole mess in the fridge for twenty minutes before I could start again. Fortunately, I've learned from experience to leave a whole day for such a process and the cake was finished well in time for the party. Caleb's reaction made the ordeal worthwhile. His excitement was contagious.

Unfortunately, that's not the only thing that was contagious. We caught Caleb on video tape licking the cake topper and sticking it back on top of the frosting. A day or so later Daniel and I both came down with Caleb's runny nose and watery eyes. My guess is that we're not the only ones.

Now that we are several days post-birthday, life is back to routine. I'm still getting used to having a three-year-old, but the transition obviously does not seem so momentous to Caleb. I said to him this morning with a hug and much enthusiasm, "Caleb, you're three years old!" He replied, "Yeah, I know that" and went back to watching his morning cartoon. I guess we're already on to bigger and better things.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Happy Birthday, Caleb!

This post is dated October 10th on the blog, but it is already the morning of October 11th in Vietnam. Caleb is three today! He woke up around six this morning ready for the festivities and had opened the last of his presents by seven. Now he is playing with his new assortment of vehicles and toys and watching a Bob the Builder video. A few days ago I asked him what he wanted for his birthday breakfast. He didn't seem to have any ideas so I made a few suggestions (mostly in an attempt to avoid having M&Ms and ice cream on the menu). When I mentioned zucchini bread he said,"Ya, ya, ya, zucchini bread! That's a good plan." It may have been a good plan, but the piece of zucchini bread is sitting untouched next to his morning milk. I guess that's to be expected with all the excitement.

We were going to take Caleb to the swimming pool this morning but both he and Nathan have been running low fevers and seem to be coming down with a cough. It isn't slowing them down at all, but I'm not sure sharing our germs with a pool full of other kids is the best idea. Instead, some of our friends are coming by to have lunch and cake. They didn't seem worried by the germ swapping potential and are bringing their kids. Caleb will be sharing his Cars birthday with a pack of little girls. We'll see how that goes.

I should probably go finish cutting up the vegetables for lunch. I will post pictures of the big party later today.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Things That Make Me Squirm

Though we have been living in Vietnam for over five years, there are still things that make me squirm. I will never get used to hearing cockroaches skittering under our bed in the night or alley cats fighting on our roof. I doubt that I will ever fully appreciate the smell of fermenting fish sauce or coffee the consistency of spent motor oil. On the other hand, there are other things that I've grown so accustomed to I scarcely notice them anymore. We have a small army of geckos that live on our walls and ceilings. They eat mosquitoes and spiders and moths so we figure they earn their keep. Normally they mind their own business and we forget they are around. Occasionally, though, they hide in door jams and make an awful "pop" when we shut the doors. Then they smell rotten for a day or so until the ants clean up the mess. Twice I've found a shivering or half-frigid gecko stranded in the refrigerator, and once an immature gecko lost his grip on the ceiling and landed on Daniel's head.

Usually these gecko mishaps are the exception to the rule, but lately I've been dueling with a particularly aggressive gecko who took up residence under Caleb's booster seat. Apparently he discovered an all-you-can-eat buffet of crumbs and spilled food and has forsaken bugs entirely. Every time Caleb climbs into his seat, the gecko dashes out and makes a break for the wall. After meals he waits for the all-clear then heads back to his hideout. No matter how well I try to clean under the chair, he still returns for the pickings.

I find the whole scenario a bit creepy, but Caleb doesn't seem to mind sharing his chair. He fondly refers to the little monster as "my gecko" and likes to look for him before climbing into his booster seat. The other day he found the unsuspecting gecko dining and tried to catch him. I came out of the kitchen in time to see the gecko hightailing it out from under the table with Caleb in hot pursuit crawling on all fours after him. Boys will be boys, I suppose. I just wish that geckos would be geckos and stick to snagging mosquitoes. Ah well, maybe given enough time I will resign myself to having a guest at meals.