Inside Henry's Mind

Since Calvin has been in school this year, I've had a lot more time one on one with Henry. He has this amazing imagination that I only rarely tap into, and that I often don't understand or appreciate fully, mostly because my creativity runs to the practical or innovative, and his is still in the childhood realm of play and fantasy, for no other purpose than fun.

He talks pretty much all day long, from the time he wakes in the morning, until the time he finally falls asleep (often talking himself - and Calvin - to sleep). Often I come back from an accidental tune-out and finally ask him, "What did you say?" and he will say, "I wasn't talking to you! I was talking to Ducky (or to whomever)." Other times, I don't come out of the tune-out quickly enough, or I mistakenly think he is talking to Ducky (or to whomever) and he is really talking to me. So we have our communication mishaps.

But I have been loving so much about his thoughts and the things he says and does lately...

For one thing, he has a little accent that I can't quite replicate, but it is adorable. He says "floor" like "fleur" and "tomorrow" with the slightest little "v" sound where the double "r" is. He says "rocket" like "racket" and "car" like "cur." And anything with a "ch" at the beginning he says with a "ts" sound instead. I just want to bottle his speech up.

He has also been creating a lot of art lately. And he has some pretty deep explanations for his drawings. One was a picture of each member of our family in their own personal air balloon. He showed his Dad and said, "Guess which one you are in, Dad?" David couldn't guess, and Henry said, "The one at the bottom, because you are the biggest and the heaviest so your balloon can't go so high. And Charlie is the highest because he is just little and not very heavy."

A little while ago, he made a construction paper cutout scene of me and him looking at the Pyramids. He showed it to me and said, "I chose red for the backgwound because it's soooooo hot in the desert."

He has also become very aware of letters and words and can read an awful lot. He recognizes many of the cyrillic letters and knows what sounds they make, too. Today he asked me, "What does a Russian 'w' look like?" I told him that there isn't a Russian 'w.' And he immediately answered, "Well, how do they spell 'water' without it?"

In the last day or two he has also started saying, "Thank you" for very spontaneous things. Like today: "Thank you for buying this kind of bread, Mom. I really like it." And, "Thank you for letting Ducky come snuggle in your bed, too."

We've had a few rough moments months years with Henry, but times like these remind me that inside, he is a very thoughtful and bright and quite a sweet boy.



This is all we can see out our window right now (compare to the side-bar photo):

It's been gray outside for a long time now, it seems, but the fog descended night before last and hasn't let up, even in the middle of the day.

I was out walking last evening and I couldn't see people clearly until they were twenty or thirty feet away, and they were actually just shadows of people coming down the sidewalk through the fog.

It's easy to feel like you're starring in a black and white movie. Or like the village might not appear again for a hundred years.

That's January.


Shifting Viewpoints

When I came to Ukraine in 1996, I know that my grandparents were extremely wary of me going to a former Soviet state to live for a year and a half. I never really understood the Cold War as clearly as when I saw their concern and felt their apprehension toward all things Eastern Bloc. They never made blatant criticism, and I know my grandpa was fascinated with my travels and proud of my decision to serve a mission, but still, the palpable distrust and even hate for communism was ever present.

Indeed, when I lived here in the midst of the terrible economic situation in the mid-90s, I was confronted every minute with vestiges of a corrupt social, economic and political system that had given way to an even more corrupt system that was calling itself freedom. I was perplexed by people's fatalistic acceptance of things as they are and an unwillingness to strive for change in the face of injustice.

Most of all, I was amazed when I talked with people who actually wanted communism back. At least then, people would tell me, we had bread on our table. And sometimes, for brief moments, I would wonder if they didn't have a valid point. But more often I just found myself loathing a political regime that had systematically destroyed individuality, economic freedom, rule of law, and people's trust in themselves and their government.

There have been many changes in the last ten years in Ukraine. Not all for the better. The governing body which started with such promise a few years ago has squandered all of its good will and is now a joke among other nations and even among its own people - a circus of childlike jealousy and competition, infighting and even literal fistfights. And in the meantime, the economy is sliding dangerously, many important issues go unaddressed while vast, unabashed corruption in business and politics is the norm.

But one small thing that has changed are the protests and demonstrations. More people are speaking out. Sometimes it's sad how little it changes, but just the fact that people will say what they think and believe is a step in a positive direction as far as I'm concerned.

One day a couple of months ago, we were walking on the main street and plaza of Kiev (Khrashatek) and noticed a demonstration starting up on the other side of the street. David had heard about a Fascist demonstration that day, but it was supposed to be starting at another part of town and shouldn't have been on the square where we were right then.

That's when we realized that this demonstration on the square was actually a group of Communists waiting for the Fascists to come - it was a counter demonstration!

The sign they were holding up said, "Fascism doesn't go!" (That's a rough translation - you get the idea.) David chuckled to himself and when I looked at him, he said, "Never thought I'd agree with the Communists about something."

The Fascists indeed did not go all the way to the square that day to meet up with the Communists - they picked a fight with the police on their route first and it ended in somewhat of a beat-down and dispersed before reaching Khreshatek.

What struck me, though, is how sometimes even Communism - in the name of which some of the most horrendous atrocities of human history have been committed - is not always a love or hate, wrong or right ideology. There are so many shades of red.


Making A Stand

For some time after we first moved here - and, let's be honest, it's an ongoing thing - David and I had a little "thing" for the kiosks on the streets. There's something nostalgic about it, I think - brings back memories of the missionary-on-the-street days.

Kiosks haven't changed a whole lot in thirteen years except maybe to become more permanent in their temporary look. They are mostly still little booths with faded samples of what they sell stuck to the inside of the windows and a little window where you knock to ask for what you want. One change is that there are now glass-doored refrigerators set up outside the kiosks where you can pull out your own cold (yes!) soda, once you pay and the clerk pushes a button to unlock the refrigerator.

It's a lot easier to run around the corner to an outdoor kiosk for a snack than it is to tackle the supermarket. Kiosks are like 7-11 meets a lemonade stand. You can get sodas, chocolate, crackers, chips, cookies and other sweet treats there. Snickers were the main thing back in the day, but now you can get Twix and M&Ms and Orbit gum as well. There's also hot coffee and cigarettes by the stick and a pretty good alcoholic beverage selection (for as much as I know about alcoholic beverages).

I knew we had stopped at kiosks a few too many times when, not too long after we arrived, Henry kept asking if he could play "little stand." I could not figure out what he had in mind until he went ahead and started playing it at the kitchen table:

His is actually a pretty good assembly and representation of what and how a kiosk sells their stuff.

Some funny things to know about kiosks:

Even if it looks like they have a perfectly good bottle of juice right there and you have perfectly good money to pay for it, they will not sell it to you if it is the only one they have. It's their display model. So don't even ask.

Also, they might have a lot of display models of things that they haven't had in stock for weeks, months, years. But it looks good in the window.

If they don't have exact change to give you, you will get a one-serving pack of coffee or a dusty piece of candy or a single cigarette for change.

If you don't know how to say what you want in Russian or Ukrainian, just say it in English with a Russian accent and they'll totally know what it is. Example: Twix is "Tveeks."

Lots of specialty kiosks and stands have popped up as entrepreneurial spirit has increased. A lot of the women who used to just sell hot piroszhky out of a bag lined with a blanket and a sheet of plastic (for insulation) on the street now have a little kiosk from which to sell their potato pies. (Pure deliciousness.)

But my favorite stand ever is the one that just established itself in the breezeway of our nearest supermarket...

It is a CORN stand.

Not popcorn. Corn. Kernels by the cup. And you can have any of the following toppings added to it, just like you might order an ice cream sundae:

melted butter
chili sauce (like the Asian Sriracha stuff)
balsamic vinegar
sunflower oil
smetana (sour cream)
dijon mustard
ketchup (not entirely like ours)

I did't notice in my exit whether there were also sprinkles, like onions, tomatoes and pecans or something that can also be added. I was in a hurry that day and haven't been back to try it out. I'll take a picture when I do.

But a corn stand. Is that not awesome? The only thing that would make it more exciting to me is if they used Olathe Sweet corn instead of canned. But the ingenuity gets two thumbs up from me. Which topping would you try?


Orphanage Visit

Hey Mom, this post is for you and your Friday shop ladies! I have been having a hard time e-mailing photos, so I decided to post them to the blog.

For my other readers, I thought you also might like a look at a little orphanage in Ukraine that I visited with some Embassy folks right after Christmas.

The American Embassy community donated gifts for each of the 52 orphans at Otchiy Dim (translated "Father's House" in English) during the Christmas season. I mentioned this project to my mom and she and some extended family stuffed stockings for each of the orphans to add to the gifts.

The children at Otchiy Dim are either genuine orphans (whose parents are both deceased) or else children whose parents could not or would not care for them. Many of them were rescued from the street and are now in the care of the orphanage, which provides clothing, shelter, food, and school for them.

Otchiy Dim is actually a brighter and more pleasant place than I remember orphanages being. I think it is because it is run by individuals who genuinely care for the children (they were so genuinely tender and kind with the kids) and it is funded not by the state, but by private donations. This kind of charitable organization is actually becoming more common, but most people still believe it is the state's responsibility to take care of such things. Fund raising is very difficult and is neverending, so it makes the work of orphanages like this a daily miracle. The bottom line, however, is the state can never do what a real human being (or many together) can do. I certainly believe that the state would never do what the workers here do for these children.

Here are lots of pics from the day I went with the group to deliver the gifts. I didn't realize until too late that my camera was on a setting for night pictures and so it was focusing relaly slow and took very blurry pictures. Bummer. But you get the idea.

This is what the orphanage looks like from the outside:

This is one of the bedrooms (a little set of bunks on the left, a closet, a toilet room and a pair of sinks on the right). -

This little girl opened her gift so carefully. She pulled off each piece of tape individually from the seam and kept them, then folded the wrapping into a nice little square. Later, when she had her stocking, she pulled one thing out of it at a time, admiring each piece of candy and each little toy, asking questions and playing with one things for a few minutes before she took the next thing out. -

This little boy captured my attention and I got quite a few pictures of him because he was so fun to watch and I was on the same side of the room with him. I think I just loved his red hair. He also enjoyed each and every item in his stocking. And he could not get over how many matchbox cars were in the package he got. He just kept saying, "Look! So many!" And he carried the box around without opening it the whole time we were there. One of the guys even joked, "Do you think he knows he can actually open that box and play with all those cars, or does he think it's just for carrying around and looking at all of them together?" It was adorable...

This boy was the first one to receive his gift and he took it and sat down to watch and wait until everyone else got theirs. Each time a new name was called, all the children cheered for the recipient. We told them that they could open their before all the gifts were handed out, which some of them did. Others were just happy to watch and wait while everyone got presents.

This little girl jumped up into my arms the minute I walked into the room. I had never visited before, and she didn't even know me, and she gave me the biggest bear hug a four-year-old could give. She smiled like this the entire time we were there.

A few more pictures of my little red-haired boy...

And a few more pictures of the children enjoying each other and their gifts...

These are the older boys at the orphanage. They didn't peak in their stockings or open their gifts because they wanted to save them for the New Year, which is actually the big gift-giving occasion here in Ukraine. We delivered the gifts on the 27th, so they were going to wait a few days just to have something special for the New Year!

This little boy is named Misha. He sat so expectantly for a looooong time while lots of other children received their gifts. Every now and then Santa would say, "Who's next?" And Misha would answer, "Me!" Santa would say, "And who are you?" And he'd say, "Misha!!!" The helpers were scrambling to find the gift with Misha's name on it even while Santa handed out more for the other children. Finally, Santa read, "Misha!" And everyone in the room clapped and shouted and laughed and little Misha jumped practically across the whole room from his teacher's lap where he'd been waiting so long. It was so sweet because everyone was waiting just as expectantly as he was for the gift to be for him!

This is probably my favorite picture of the day, although a lot of the pictures captured the same idea. I was amazed and touched by how excited each of the children was, not only for their own gift, but for what others received. They cheered and were in awe when someone opened something. They waited expectantly to see what was in each present. And of course, I don't know how the ensuing hours or days were, but just the initial reaction of excitement for others' joy and great gifts was so tender and sincere. Even children who hadn't been called for a gift yet were interested in the joy of their little friends and rejoiced with them. I didn't see any jealousy or sulking or grouchy impatience or resentment over "different" or "better" gifts. I didn't see anyone hoarding or refusing to share, either. They were happy to have and happy to share. They were all just happy because everyone around them was happy.

Being happy for others was my take-home lesson, from these little children who don't have even a fraction of the advantages and joys that most of us do. They seem to know intuitively that someone else's gift or happiness or success or luck doesn't mean that there is less of it for them. They are hopeful and giving and content and loving and enthusiastic about everything good. I'd like to be a little more like that.


Charlie's New Word

Charlie has a pretty limited vocabulary at the moment. He just doesn't feel the need to talk a lot and since he is not a crying, screaming, frustrated non-speaker, I haven't worried too much. He can call for me or his dad, he yells some derivative of "Calvin" and "Henry" (usually when we are calling them), he says "No" very authoritatively, and has started saying, "Heeeey!" when someone does something he edoesn't like. Which is hilarious, I might add.

Today especially, however, he has been "chattering," trying out all kinds of vowels and consonants and multi-syllable explanations of things we can't really understand. But one word he has clearly said over and over again, for some unknown reason. So we spent the better part of an hour trying to get him to say it again and keep his excited older brothers out of the picture, because it is stinkin' cute. (If I do say so myself.) Finally, we achieved a sufficiently short, sweet, and clear example of his new word. I promise it will make you smile. Almost as goofily as it made me smile.

(Disclaimer: Yes, my toddler gets ahold of markers sometimes. Yes, my husband does call our children, "Dude." And yes, my hair is getting ridiculously long. But really, you should just notice my baby's cute little voice.)


The Line Up and More Henry

In case you were wondering, there are several reasons why we don't send out Christmas cards. (Besides my slackerness...) One, because when I say, "Go stand by the Christmas tree so I can take a picture," they all go line up, suspect-like, against the very blank white wall that is, technically, by the Christmas tree, but not near enough for anything but the shadow of the tree to actually be in the picture with them...

Next, because they all have their statements to make, none of which are, "I can smile nicely like a happy-at-Christmas child." (Calvin: "I just lost a tooth." Henry: "I love my newest talking plush." Charlie: "Heh. I dare you to say I'm not cute.")

And finally, which probably doesn't need mentioned because of it's obviousness, but it is that our pajama / cute Christmas attire is severely lacking. Namely, in long enough tops and actual pants.

(Charlie's aunt does rock, though.)

Ah well. Maybe someday.

I ended my last post with Henry, but I have more to say...

I've been obsessing about Henry lately - partly because I think he and I are in the same boat adjustment-wise, and partly because in general I'm always worried that he is getting middle-child-ed and needs a little extra TLC.

His behavior has been quite out of control very frequently since we moved and I want to figure out what I can do. It's been tricky! Lately, though, I feel like we might be turning the corner (knock on wood...)and things are getting better. But even if that's not true, he luckily still comes up with loveable things to keep me glad to be his mom.

He told me last night: "I just wanted to love on you all day, Mom. Can I sit on your lap?"

A little while ago he got hurt and started crying pretty hard and when I asked him what happened, he said, "Calvin...he thought I was, like, an hour away from the door...but I was only an inch away! And he pushed it shut, real hard, so the doorknob hit me right in the head!!!!" (Incidentally, he never wants Calvin to get in trouble. He always softens what Calvin did or makes an explanation like this one.)

Tonight he fell asleep too late for a nap and too early for bed and then woke up and wanted snuggled. He was coughing, coughing, coughing and I asked him about three or four times if he was sure he didn't want any cough medicine. (FYI, getting him to swallow cough medicine without a stainy spew incident is tricky and since the medicine isn't a cure, I let him choose these days. We've been fighting the fight for a week and a half. I'm done. He prefers incessant hacking over yicky syrup. What can I do?) Anyway, I asked again if he was sure he didn't want any cough medicine and he said, "I'm sure, Mom. But why is the humidifier not set up?" Ahem. I'll get on that right away, sir.

He was exactly 4 1/2 years old yesterday. I don't really have any fun traditions for half birthdays, but he got a kick out of it when I told him that after today, he was closer to five than four. And I told him that next time he has a half birthday, we'll have half a cake and sing half a song. He said, "No. I don't want half. I want the middle. It's in the middle of my birthdays and I'm the middle boy. So I want the middle of the cake and you can sing the middle of the song."

That's my boy, taking his half out of the middle.

He's going to be just fine.


Hola, '09

I zonked out with Nyquil last night because I didn't know what else to do with myself and was vaguely aware of midnight because David was trying to wake Calvin (who also didn't wake up). I was more aware of the end of the city-wide amateur fireworks display at about 3 a.m. when two or three (extremely loud) mortar bursts flashed toward our bedroom window and were incorporated in a dream I was having of a city being attacked by rockets like David told me came through the sleeping trailers he stayed in in Iraq.

And so, the New Year started with a bang / steady roll of fireworks.

We had a nice brunch with some friends across town and since two of the three children fell asleep in the car on the way home, we extended our drive to the forests outside of Kyiv. It was nice to see...trees. Undisturbed snow. A long road stretching out in front of us for a good piece, kinda like the year ahead...

I've been considering some resolutions, because I love a new start and things to work on, but I'll be real honest and just say that keeping my game face on is the best I can do right now. So that's what I'm doing.

But we are making some plans for the months ahead, namely a little trip to Egypt in February and maybe a visit to Istanbul over Spring Break. These places sound so exotic and far, but we are really just across the border or over a little sea from them now. A lot easier to get to from here than from D.C., that's for sure. And not even terribly expensive. Travel plans always make my heart sing.

Calvin is not going to say "freaking" anymore.

Henry is going to try not to push his baby brother anymore.

Charlie is going to keep being the delight of all mankind.

AND - thanks be to heaven - this year is NOT an eternal, ranting, frothing election year. Does it not seem like we've been talking '08 for ages now?! Yea! It's finally over! That in itself says '09 can only be better.

(P.S. I would just like to say that everything everyone has been saying is so terrible and needs "fixed" in America? They have NO IDEA what a beautiful place and miraculous system and amazing heritage and wonderful life of possibility and hope they have. Maybe in 2009 they can get over themselves.)


And before I digress onto slippery slopes of political commentary which I devoutly avoid on this here blog, I will end with this little tidbit from Henry - the boy who is trying to be utterly charming and engaging in an effort to make me forget that I've put him to bed twice already tonight...

While poking the top of my computer screen, he declares, "Mom, no grown-up ever needs help." And follows that up with, "So why is there a button right here that says, 'help?!'"

I can't tell you when Henry started reading. Or when he got better at computers than Calvin and - for that matter - me. That makes me a little sad. All my thoughts of conscientiously teaching my children everything, thoughtfully molding their little minds and carefully spooning in the things that I think they should be learning...There is a lot of that, but then there is a realization that they are their own people, and they will learn and figure out so much on their own. Brilliant little stinkers.