Saturday, April 15, 2006

Two for the Price of One !

Well ... maybe not for the "price" of one!

I've just been propelled into "unclehood" again, with the birth on Wednesday of Rodrigo and Eduardo (Rodrigo is the one in blue! and Eduardo is ... duh!). Proud mommy Tatiana will have her hands (and everything else!) full with these two bundles of joy. Contented daddy Celio (Cristina's brother) was one giant smile throughout the first day. He may be beginning to come back down to earth now, I think: two at once won't be a walk in the park!

Luckily for Tatiana (at least I think it is "luckily"!), Celio is showing signs of being quite a doting, attentive father (and husband). He dove right into diaper changing like a veteran. Good thing: they're going to have plenty of diapers to change!


At birth, this double-barreled diaper-filling machine weighed in at 4.5 Kg (10 pounds) -- that's 90.5 cm (35.4 in) of pure baby-flesh! (These are cumulative statistics... proportionally, Eduardo is half a cm shorter than Rodrigo, and 200 grams lighter!). To the satisfaction of all, they were born chock full of vim and vigor ... without necessity of an extended visit to the incubator!

I will admit right out that I'm intrigued and somewhat intimidated by the task that Celio and Tatiana are facing. I am by no means inexperienced when it comes to raising boys, but two infants at once? That seems somewhat daunting! At one "swell foop", they nearly caught up with us! On the other hand, I have no actual experience with twins to go by: this is a first among our various nieces and nephews -- the first twins in the family!

Usually when I think of twins, I think of the formidable challenges that may go along with the identity crisis that would surely happen being a kid and having a sibling identical in every respect to you. Rodrigo and Eduardo are not, however, identical twins. Now, after 10 years of fatherhood, a part of me is wondering if having two (or three!) at once wouldn't have been a great thing!

Sure ... there are some logistical challenges associated with raising two or more babies at once: two mouths to suckle, two babies to burp, two strollers to push around ... but these difficulties really only apply to the first year or so. Once they are no longer nursing and start getting around on their own, the difficulties will be the same as they are for anyone who has two toddlers at once.

This was our case, with James and Christian: Christian was born when James was only 18 months old. We ended up just spreading this whole "baby phase" out over several years, which in the end was probably more work than if we had just doubled up and got it over with all at once!

Unfortunately it is too late for this sudden spark of insight to benefit us in any way. When I look at Kevin and think that not until 7 years from now will he be in the same grade as James, it just seems forever! I can't believe what we have gone through, and will still have to go through before we can set them loose on the world! (hopefully, send them all off to college!).

It's just one arduous challenge after another. And of course, I wouldn't give it up for the world. How can one explain that? It is so utterly irrational!

But ask me if I would trade places with Celio and Tatiana right now (or even Mark and Cleia, my brother-in-law and Cristina's sister who have just embarked on the more traditional single-child adventure with daughter Isabella!) !?! I feel sorry for them all, but am consoled with the knowledge that they will soon become anesthetized to the suffering, now that they have been transformed into stuperous, glazed-eyed, drooling zombies (i.e. "parents"). There is also the so-called "memory effect" ... which results in our forgetting about virtually everything that happened during the first year-or-so of our children's lives. This is a fundamental evolutionary adaption for humans, without which, no one would ever have a second child intentionally!!!

Removing tongue from cheek for a moment: I'm sure Celio and Tati are up to the task. They are off to a good start, and we look forward to accompanying their successes as they embark on this perilous but rewarding adventure. This new batch of cousins comes at a propitious moment, since several of the older ones have ingressed into that crucial and precarious stage known as "adolescence", which means that it is very likely that they will soon all but disappear from the collective "family" life.


One final observation: the birth of Rodrigo and Eduardo raises my nephew / niece count to a total of 14 (8 nephews, 6 nieces)... unless I've left someone out (!). If I could get them all together in one place, that would make a total of 17 kids counting my three! Unfortunately, one of the disadvantages of being a "multinational" family -- with various relations spread (literally) about the planet (although most of us are in the same hemisphere -- western -- at least!), is that we don't always have close contact with all of the aunts, uncles, and cuz's.

This is something that I deeply regret ... although there isn't much that I can do about it. There is something about the relationship between cousins that is special, which I think is mostly because, unlike with friends, we generally share a common history and values that gives the relationship a headstart. Cousins are like brothers and sisters, without most of the "sibling rivalry" that can get in the way of friendship. Without question, my closest friendships while growing up (outside my nuclear family) were with my cousins. Being a generally apprehensive introvert when it came to socialization, the unconditional acceptance provided by the extended family -- aunts, uncles and cousins -- afforded a safe environment to relax and be myself. Still today, I'm sure that if weren't for the barriers imposed by geography, it would be a great pleasure to maintain far more frequent and intimate contact with them all (and I'm still trying to convince Greg to visit us down here ... so far to no avail, but I will keep trying!).

I see the same thing with our kids today. Their relationship with the only nephew and niece that live near to us -- Bruno and Mariana -- even with them being several years older, have enriched the lives of our children immensely (and vice-versa, I'm sure). They've also had a very close relationship with Juliana and Nicole, even though they live in the US, since they frequently spend a good deal of their vacation time here in Brazil. But the kids are all older now, and school and other responsabilities means that having time for family matters is getting harder and harder. We had feared somewhat that Kevin would miss out on having a close relationship with cousins; but having the twins around now may fill in the lacuna: he'll be the "older cousin" to them, teaching them how to get into all kinds of mischief!

The other new addition to the family is Isabella, who, living in New Jersey, is technically the "farthest away" cousin. Time will tell what their relationship with Isabella will be like; but I think there is every reason to believe that it will be as close as all of the other cousins has been. We are all looking forward to meeting her personally; but it increasingly appears that she will be toddling around by the time we have the chance!

We've gone up to a couple of years at a time without seeing the nephews and nieces from my side of the family (the Kansas branch!); and whenever we do, there is a little problem with the "language barrier" that complicates things between the kids. Even so, we were amazed and pleased at how well the "cousins" got along -- and how quickly they accepted each other -- last year during our visit around Christmas time. We look forward to increasing this contact in the future: I just hope it happens while they are still young enough to form the kind of memories that I have from my childhood.

Family is family, no matter where we find ourselves in the world. If the roots are deep enough, the branches can spread far and wide, but the tree will never fall. The kids know it... they feel it: it's acceptance. I can't help but think that, in some respects, the wide reaching branches that make up our family makes the world seem a smaller, warmer place for our kids. I know it does for me.

Now a couple more pics!


Daddy and Mommy ... all smiles

Meeting the cousins!

UPDATE! 12:27 AM, April 16

Hope everyone has a HAPPY EASTER!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Those Darn Kids!

"Hey! Stop that! If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times! Don't you go beheading your brother!"

Those darn kids! You can't turn your back for a second without them getting into some kind of mischief! Luckily, Kevin tipped me off before things got out of hand!

Life can be tough when you've got a big brother.


As advertised, the pool is now open for business. I haven't posted many pictures lately, and there is a reason for that: I'm lazy. But also, it's because my digital camera broke. Well, actually, the telescoping zoom lens started jamming, and I decided to take it apart to see if I could fix it. I couldn't. The zoom lens doesn't stick any more, but I think that's just because the camera won't even turn on at all.

I did trade in my cellphone last week, which sports a pretty nifty 2.0 megapixel camera and actually takes videos also. Until I either fix my camera or buy a new one, I will have to make due with this phonecam.

As of today, the patio stonework is well underway: this weekend or early next week, everything should be ready. We shall soon bid farewell to our construction crew, whom we have come to know so well.

Here are a few pictures taken on Saturday, at the pool's inauguration! (note that these pictures don't demonstrate the phonecam's full resolution, having been reduced to fit on the weblog page). I post them without commentary; but since a picture is worth a thousand words, I do so content that I haven't failed to live up to my customary levels of verbosity!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Chaos Theory

Our life has been once again in a state of upheaval. Somehow, in the blink of an eye, turmoil and chaos descended upon us here in Gramlingville. And by our choice, no less.

It all began just as things were starting to get calm again. After living the last five months of last year under a siege of dust and dirt, pounding hammers and power tools, with the constant presence of workmen within a stone's throw of our front door, you would think we would have had enough.

Well, we had had more than enough. But ... we also hadn't actually finished all of the work that the original project entailed (reform of the swimming pool and patio, for example, went unfinished); but since the first segment of the project overran its budget (and deadline) we had decided (vehemently) to postpone the second leg indefinitely.

As we put the holiday season behind us, we realized, however, that there were a couple of loose threads that couldn't be put off any longer: for one thing, we haven't yet laid down sod, so our yard still looks like a construction site -- and turns into a mud pit whenever it rains. I won't get into what that means to our quality of life here, particularly with a large, juvenile, playful, and exciteable labrador retriever on the loose. I have written about that before (and that was back when we supposedly had grass!)

The main episode that triggered our recall of the construction crew, however, was yet another overflow of the grease trap.


The Grease Trap

I am not sure if this interesting device exists in other countries; I'm pretty sure that in the United States, the fat and grease that makes it down the sink and through the garbage disposal goes straight into the sewer. However, building regulations in Brazil require that every legal residence has a "grease trap", designed to do exactly what its name implies: capture the greasy residue which tends to solidify in the sewer lines (note that we don't have our own septic tank ... this requirement is for connection to the public sewer system). I also can't exactly say what makes this kitchen grease more noxious to the public sewage system than the ... ahem ... other "solid waste" hailing from the privies. This may be important in Brazil because having hot water in the kitchen sink is more of an exception than the rule (this was an example of a difficult cultural adaptation for me -- washing dishes in cold water!).

Whatever the precise reason that makes this device a necessary part of building code in Brazil, in our particular case, the "grease trap" has been nothing but an almost constant headache for us. The grease trap is underground, but sports an iron lid that looks like a midget manhole cover for cleaning and inspection. The goal of the grease trap is to "trap" the grease: but then what? Well, at some point you have to remove the grease, because otherwise, it just stays there, until the pit itself is filled. I think I probably needn't go into too much detail of what cleaning this grease trap is like: just imagine a bucket, rubber gloves, and several months accumulation of putrifying lard and food scraps (let it be known that we don't have an electric disposal either!).

But as bad as cleaning the pit is, the alternative is worse: when the grease trap overflows, you have a malodorous oil-slick on your hands, a small-scale disaster worthy of HAZMAT team intervention.

A curious architectural decision made by my first contractor has both the grease pit and the sewer inspection pit right on our front porch! Beneath the kitchen window. This is our varanda, where we typically sit with friends and family for whatever get-togethers we happen to be having. It was also our favorite place to have lunch or dinner, particularly when it was hot and we could sit outside and overlook the pool and yard with a cool breeze carrying the song of the cicadas and ...

the putrid smell of rotten grease and sewage!

It took us maybe a week or so after moving in to the house to realize that the localization of these basic plumbing items was an error, and that's not even taking into account the aesthetic aspect of having a couple of iron manhole covers embedded into our expensive white ceramic floor. I'm sure I must have offered approval to Francisco (the contractor) on this decision. I have no recollection of the event, but I imagine the exchange went something like this:

Francisco: "Eh ... I'm thinking about putting the grease trap and sewage inspection pit right about here. That OK with you?"

Me: "Are you sure that's the best place?"

Francisco: "Well, if I put it down there I'll have to dig another hole..."

Me: "Oh. Well whatever you think is best."

This was how most of the big decisions were handled during the last months of construction of our first house (or, the first construction of the first "wing" of our house .... whatever!). I quickly caved in to most of his decisions, being under the delusion that this would somehow accelerate the overall pace of construction. Of course that was not the case: by that time, Francisco was being paid by the week. I should have realized something was amiss when I noticed he was cultivating corn and tomatoes in the yard ... ahhh, now there's another story!


The problem with the grease trap was two-fold: first, neither the grease trap nor the sewage pit lids were air-tight, making it a generator of unsavory fragrances in a very inappropriate place. This problem was remedied easily enough with a bit of silicon caulking, passed liberally around the edges of the lids. Secondly, and more critically, some mysterious defect or mistake that Francisco made when he installed said device left it with a significant propensity for overflowing. What´s worse: it overflowed not because it was full (which should take from six months to a year at most), but because the wastewater drainage tube that connects it with the sewage system would become obstructed -- with exactly the grease that the device was supposed to trap!

This problem had been occuring, on average, every one- or two-months. When it happened, I not only would have to scoop the greasy scum out of the trap, but I would have to open the sewage inspection pit and run a line (roto-rooter kind of thing) between the two chambers until I managed to clear the blockage. Then, I would have to scrub down the varanda with hot water and soap and ... to finish off the job ... re-seal the lids with silicon to prevent the escape of noxious fumes!

Allow me to reiterate: over the last two years, I´ve had to do this every couple of months. Sometimes, when the quality of my efforts failed to live up to my customary levels of diligence, I would have to repeat the job within a few days.


Needless to say, this is a problem that has been high-priority for some time now. You can imagine the scenario: guests are soon to be arriving for a party; food is laid out on the table; everything is ready, when suddenly ...!

(I am happy to inform that, never, as far as I can recall, have any guests actually been directly exposed to any of the objectionable consequences that I have been describing, thanks to our assiduous efforts behind the scenes! Well ... maybe a stray fume or two, but nothing that we couldn't pass off as coming from Kevin's diaper!)

I had certainly had enough of this sisyphean endeavor. The definitive solution to this problem, unfortunately, was not to come easy. Several attempts were made to solve the problem in situ, to no avail. The problem seemed to be that the kitchen wastewater entered the pit too low, causing the water to pass under the trap before the cooler pit water caused the grease to solidify. The Final Resolution would require the destruction of nearly 10 square meters of our varanda, with the consequent substitution of ceramic tiling. It also caused a chain reaction which, in the end, catapulted us back into the midst of a major construction project.

Loose Threads

I called the grease pit a "loose thread", and it really was: throughout the entire first stage of construction, the removal and relocation of these two pits were on the "to do" list; but in the rush to finish the work-in-progress before Christmas, this task never got bumped to top of the queue. It turns out there was good reason to put it off as long as possible.

Like the metaphorical unraveling of a fabric with the pull of a single loose thread, my contractor again found himself back in business. It went something like this:

  • To move the sewage inspection pit, new holes for the pit had to be dug, farther from the house.
  • To dig the new holes, 30-year-old stonework on the patio surrounding the pool had to be torn up. This stonework would be impossible (and undesirable) to replace.
  • Rather than leave a cement space with manhole covers surrounded by ancient cracked and powdery stonework right next to the pool, we decided to tear out all of the stonework, replacing it with concrete.
  • We would have to, however, leave at least some of the stonework as a border around the pool, or replace the border of the pool with new stonework. We elected to leave the old stone around the pool.
  • We then realized that we would have to either 1) pour a thick layer of concrete around the pool to cover the patio, avoiding a highly "trippable" step up to the border of the pool, or 2) poor a thin layer of concrete, making a very "trippable" difference in height. This question was significant, in that if we would want to eventually (some day) place stonework on the patio in lieu of the concrete, we would need to poor the concrete slab thin.
  • We elected to poor the concrete slab thin, and, furthermore, decided to go all out, replacing the stonework of the entire patio instead of just pouring concrete. This was the key decision which caused the true unraveling, or "domino effect" which ensued ...
  • With the decision to replace the patio made, we realized that we had to check the pool plumbing: the pool was at least thirty years old, and any future problems in this area would require tearing up the stonework to get to the plumbing.
  • Since we were digging up the pool plumbing and stonework, I decided to take advantage of the moment and have the crude, homemade "skimmer" replaced with a decent, functional skimmer embedded in the pool wall.
  • Diagnosis of the pool plumbing resulted in the recommendation of complete and immediate substitution, which would require digging down and underneath the pool, and replacement of the pool's drain.
  • This required draining of the pool, which in turn revealed the sorry state of the pool's tilework. I knew that, but we had no intention of resurfacing the pool, in spite of a large number of cracked and broken tiles.
  • The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I think this gives a good idea of what ensued ... it took us at least another week before we gave in to pressure, and went from "substituting a few broken tiles" to "stripping the entire pool and replacing all tile work".

That's where we are now. Of course, I left out a number of details: new guttering on the house, drainage plumbing for the patio, cleaning of the cistern, installation of outdoor lighting, new steps for the varanda ... oh, and we still haven't got to laying down sod!

That's more than enough for now. I leave you with the following sequence of pictures:

The loose thread:

The unraveling:

Getting close!