Monday, June 30, 2008

A Three Hour Cruise...

Nothing to make one yearn for a desk job like hard, grueling labor. Take, say, cattle roping, working an offshore oilrig, or heavy construction. All look pretty cush after three days of three hours straight with 15 toddlers.

Yes it’s joyful to spend time and share in the innocence and play of children blah blah blah. But I am wearing out the little belt holster on my cell phone from checking the time so often. It is astounding the pure elasticity of time from, say, 10:42 to 10:44. Can that really only have been two minutes? We just sang, crawled like crabs and did an art project? In contrast to the Buddhist idea of relaxing into the impermanence of everything, that time is passing and so shall all things, I may well have discovered the one thing that brings time to a clawing, numbing, screeching halt.

So 15 kids – Adler, August, Bodie, Bennett, Clara, Ethan, Hannah, Jessie, Joshua, Juri, Kanto, Marisa, Matthias, Rohan and Sadie. All cute and charming individually. Put them together and I feel like the targeted Piggy in Lord of the Flies.

This week we tried a range of activities: collecting and painting rocks like lady bugs, singing everything from Rolly Polly to I’m a Little Tea Pot, dancing to Aloyce the drummer, and crown-making This is the stuff of college application essays.

Lessons learned from week one at Camp Msasani:
  • Many short activities are needed. The morning is now broken into 8 different segments ranging from circle time/singing to art activities to movement activities, with plenty of free time.
  • Hydrate hydrate hydrate – dealing with toddlers for three hours is, according to experts, comparable to running a marathon. So lots of liquids, carbo-loading, and glucose gel.
  • Have bloody mary’s ready at 11:30 pick-up. It gets parents there on time and is a nice carrot to make it through the morning.
  • Change Ivy League curricula to somewhere address toddler’s mercurial needs. Maybe cut a little Milton or Shakespeare and substitute with something more real world, like how to deal with a screaming two year old in the midst of a temper tantrum because the dog won’t let her grab its tail.
  • Finally, don’t worry if you screw up. Stay just shy of permanent traumatization and you’ll be fine. They won’t remember any of this, because, hey, they’re only two years old!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Camp Msasani

“Desperate times call for drastic measures.”

Preschool ended last week. Little Scholars had an end of semester party, which meant Bodie was buzzing on a chocolate cake sugar high when I picked him up. He was running around manically hugging teachers and unwary kids, saying, as everyone else did, “have a great summer!” I doubt he really understood what this meant. Walking home from school, we passed a goat munching grass on the side of the road. “Have a great summer, goat”, yelled Bodie.

As we were leaving, I was handed his first report card. I had a flash of fear – I’m a dad now and I need to treat this report card with some gravity. In my mind, we needed to have a sit down and celebrate his strengths but also address some issues. We needed to have a man to, well, 2-year-old talk about how he was doing. I remember those talks vividly, and I’ll be damned if he isn’t going to have that same trembling fear at the end of each year also.

(This next paragraph is mostly, rather, entirely, for my mom). According to his report card, Bodie seemed to excel at preschool. In terms of Personal Development, “He is a well-behaved and polite student. He is very independent when playing and picking out the toys of his choice. He enjoys doing many tasks on his own such as finding his own shoes, getting his bag ready for snack time and picking out the color crayon that he would prefer.” (I’ve been working with him in the evenings on picking out crayons, so am glad to see that hard work rewarded.) Here is the room for improvement: “Although he rarely gets in trouble on his own accord, he sometimes gets influenced by the older boys (this trait is hereditary from Hillary’s side.) “When playing with blocks, he can stack 6-8 objects and expresses good eye-hand co-ordination especially while throwing or catching (all those long training afternoons in the backyard are paying off!). He enjoys dramatic play including make believe kitchen (from Grammy) and talking over the toy telephone (goes without saying). He has a wonderful sense of humor, and he “enjoys hugs.” “He is particularly concerned about the well being of the other students – wants to know why they are crying or lets the teacher know if anyone fell down” (I’ll own the compassion part). He shows well developed communication skills and uses them when wanting to express his feelings and thoughts (I’m guessing this one isn’t from me…) And critically, “he uses play dough properly and enjoys molding it”!

All in all, a pretty successful first stab venturing out into the world of critiquing. All that money we’ve chosen to stock away in his therapy fund instead of a college fund looks like it can accrue a little more interest.

It took a day for it to fully dawn on me. No school means, well, no school. So Bodie in the morning, Bodie at lunch, Bodie in the afternoon and Bodie in the evening. This is good, I told myself. I love him. I love spending time with him. He is funny and I get to spend all day with him. The entire, livelong day, every day… Argh!

A drastic measure was needed. I googled, but could find no sleep away summer camps for two year olds in East Africa. I needed another plan. Out of sheer panic, Camp Msasani is being launched as a place for 18-month to 3-year-old kids to congregate and play three mornings a week. Why, if one scrambling toddler is overwhelming, would I want to submit myself to a dozen? One word: reinforcements.

Most toddlers will come accompanied by a parent or nanny. I’ve hired a teacher from the preschool. I imagine that I’ll be able to sit and have a Bloody Mary and issue directives: “ok, you kids, I need you to clear these concrete blocks from the back yard now.”

Camp Msasani (the name of the peninsula where we live) kicks off next week with a dozen registrants, a teacher, a guy who plays African drums with kids, and a fresh stock of arts and crafts supplies. I am banking on the court system here being arduous and arcane, so any liability suits that may ensue will take years to catch up with us.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Let the Comeuppance Continue

Our car was finally received, less the radio, which mysteriously was listed as “not included” in the papers from the Dar Port Authority. My take is that some higher power is suggesting that rather than drumming and swaying to African music on the road, we should pay attention to swaying cars, buses, roaming goats, bicycles, carts, chickens, etc.

While the car is here, it doesn’t have plates, registration papers, or insurance yet. Getting these essential things entails another dive into the muck of local bureaucracy.

So, knowing full well that it is stupid, I have been driving around when I need to. I don’t know what Tanzanian prison is like. I’ve seen plenty of movies with South American prisons and Turkish prisons holding drug mules, and can only guess that those might look like a Four Seasons in comparison. But my thinking is, most of the police here are on foot. What are they gonna do? Run after me? Or call on their radio (which I’m pretty sure they don’t even have) for someone with a car to go after a car with plates… oh wait, there are no plates. I’m sure there are significant disadvantages to having a police force so under funded that they don’t have vehicles, but in this one instance…

Bodie is still surfacing from his bout with stomach flu almost a week ago, and has eaten very little. Getting him plump had been a fervent mission of our housekeeper and our nanny, Judith and Grace. Grace had a prepared a weekly menu of high-carb mush – potatoes with carrots and leeks, or some variation. Each afternoon, they’d each wield a spoon as he’d go racing around. It was almost like a lacrosse game, with each holding a spoon, and Bodie’s mouth the net. And it worked. He got rounder and fuller.

But all the nice rolling little neck jowls and rounded belly that Judith and Grace were so proud to put on him disappeared over the last week. He has become, like his cousins, (and his parents until relatively recently) skinny. He has refused virtually all food for a week. And if anything were ever going to turn me into my food-pushing Jewish mother, this was it. Here Bodie, try this special sandwich I made you, here is chocolate for breakfast, how about this yummy cookie with jelly…

Yesterday, I threw out the idea of pancakes and, for the first time in a week, he showed real excitement. I drove our cute little unlicensed, unregistered, uninsured car up to Slipway with Bodie singing ‘pancakes, pancakes” in back. As only my mother's voice deep in my head could say, he doesn't need to go to school, he's going to eat!"

So focused on pancakes and food actually going in Bodie, I forgot that that’s where Barclays bank is. And where a bank is, police are. As soon as we pulled up, a policeman, rifle slung over his shoulder, beige uniform, black boots and beret, came over. “Where are your plates?” he demanded. I told him they were coming later in the day and I just drove down the road to feed my son. I thought some element of that worked, because we walked away and he seemed satisfied.

After pancakes, and playing at a playground, and looking at boats, so a good hour and a half later, Bodie and I went back to the car. The policeman was still right where we’d left him, standing by the driver’s door. He said, “in this country, this is a serious matter.” I was thinking of saying I was an ambassador, but was unshaven and in shorts, so instead said I’d take the car straight home and not drive. He stared at me for a while, then gazed off in the distance, mulling his options.

Thoughts of how I wished I’d paid better attention to Swahili class to navigate Tanzanian prison danced through my mind. I wondered, who is going to take Bodie to school in the morning. I wondered if I’d be able to blog from prison. After what seemed like many minutes, he said, “I want a soda.”

“I’m sorry?” I said, thinking that I completely misheard him.

“Give me money”, he responded.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out a crumpled 1,000 shilling note (about $1) and he shook it off like a pitcher shaking off a catcher. I handed him a 10,000 shillings note (about $10). He smiled, took it, cautioned again that I shouldn’t be driving, and walked away.

I knew I had been playing a dangerous game, but got out of it for a simple $10. I was no fool.

It was only later, with the retelling of the story to Hillary, and her, compassionate response, “he was a security guard, not police”, with the unsaid, “you idiot”, that I realized while I thought he was mulling his options, he was trying to assess whether I’d be dumb enough to think he had some real standing. He had correctly sized me up.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Anniversary Do’s and Don’t’s

Anniversary Do’s, clearly seen in Hallmark ads or commercials for diamonds, include: romantically gazing into each other’s eyes over a fancy white tablecloth dinner murmuring little loving quips in a loving way, maybe some hugging and effortless swinging of the wife around in a circle on a beach, maybe champagne being raised in a toast with recollections of this day X years ago in which you exchanged vows of devotion in front of family and friends….

Anniversary Don’ts include slim jims, a broken car window, and the ever-present, but necessary for full effect, kid heave-o-rama.

The evening started with great promise. A friend, K, generously offered to take Bodie for the night so Hillary and I could follow the prescription for Anniversary Do’s. She came to pick up Bodie, and as I shoveled him and a week’s worth of diapers into the back seat, where Marissa, her one-and-a-half year-old was strapped in, K asked if he needed a car seat. I figured he could hang on as they weren’t going far. Not wanting to be seen as the type of parent who thinks that his two-year old could simply hang on, I ran to retrieve the car seat, installed it, strapped Bodie in, kissed him good night. He was begging for some keys to play with, just like Marissa had, so K graciously offered him another set of keys to play with. I shut his door and K, shut the door on Marissa’s side.

Instantly, we heard beep beep It’s a familiar and usually reassuring beep beep. The car is locked and all is safe thanks to the magic of Japanese inventiveness that allows you to push a little button and lock all four doors and the rear hatch at once! Marissa had found the lock button on her keys, which weren’t really play keys, but the keys to the car. Both kids were strapped in, safe, like two astronauts ready for blast-off, because that’s the good kind of parents we are.

K was calm and suggested calling the security company as they have an auto service, so would easily be able to slim jim the door open. I called and tried to explain the situation. The emergency operator kept asking me the wrong questions and clearly didn’t understand what I was trying to explain. The tenor and pitch of my voice rising with aggravation might not have been the best way for me to communicate. I ended up demanding someone that spoke English better (which I’m sure was well received). Meanwhile, Hillary, not one for nuances of a phone conversation in a crisis, had pushed the panic button. Five minutes later, the security car, sirens blaring, pulled up.

Five minutes is a long time if you measure it in verses of Old MacDonald. K and I stood outside the back windows, singing at the top of our voices, verse after verse. Bodie and Marissa, strapped in, clapped and moo mooed here and neigh neighed there, enjoying the game.

When the security guards came though, Bodie wanted out. He had had enough of the game and started to cry and reach for Hillary. If you were to examine the evening like an archeologist with various phases, that was the end of the Calmozoic Era. I wanted to break the window and end this, but there was a conference of six security guards standing around the car, talking over each other. They checked the doors. Yup, locked. Lots of gesturing with prying motions, lock picking intimations, and more conversation.

Hillary, seeing Bodie crying, said sternly, “Alfred, break the window.”

I grabbed a large garden hoe, but waited another minute as the conference of security guards poked and prodded the Land Cruiser like a giant acorn squash, to see if there might be some soft points for easy access.

It wasn’t until Bodie was wailing full throttle, reaching for Hillary through the glass, yelling, “Mama!” that Hillary said with an appropriate degree of hysteria, “Break the f#*@ing window!”

Hillary grabbed the garden hoe and raised it shoulder high as if a curveball had been pitched. I had this vision of any trekking guide carefully explaining that when hiking, you never want to get in between a mother bear/elephant/lion/hippo etc. and her cub. I nevertheless stepped in between Hillary and the car and grabbed the hoe. Dangerous a maneuver as it was, I sure wasn’t going to be emasculated in front of six guards and K while my wife broke the window. I was going to smash it.

One of the members of the guard committee had a crowbar and was gently prying a back window. I told him to push and break the window, which he did. Glass pebbles rained down on the driveway. I hopped in through the open window and freed the kids.

Kids released, safely enfolded in mother’s crushing arms, we decided that Bodie going over to K’s house might not be the best thing for him or us right then, so we all went out to dinner at a TGIFridays imitation steakhouse. The restaurant clearly didn’t know they were supposed to have white tablecloths for us. There were crayons on the tables, a playground with legos for kids, and blaring American pop music. Thinking the trauma of the evening was over, Hillary had a gin and tonic at the playground, and we went home.

About the time that I should have been tossing Hillary around in a circle on a beach per protocol, Bodie offered his own version of an anniversary gift with a different type of tossing. At 1 am he heaved (and answered the question that had been in my mind for a few weeks of whether he was really eating the snack I packed for him everyday in preschool, which I was glad to see that he was). He is not a kid to just dabble in things though. He took a measured, metronomic approach. He retched all over his bed at 2 am, ralphed on his clothes and our bed at 3 am, hurled on the new sheets we’d put on at 4 am, and culminated with a good effort pillow and floor-covering heave at 5 am.

So perhaps not worthy of a De Beers ad, this Anniversary actually may be a better real world reflection of how we’ve managed to create cohesion out of two separate lives over the past few years. Anyone can weather a fancy dinner marred only by a soggy profiterole, but we managed to extract two trapped toddlers, wash three loads of laundry and nurse a feverish son, all with coherence and solidarity in approach and a fair divvying of duties. Somehow that makes this anniversary more telling.