How To Make Your Own Passport Photos - Optimized

One of the unexpected areas of expertise we have developed is in the area of passport photos.  We have of course needed them for keeping the passports updated, but in our lives, they are needed for many other events: long-stay visas, visas that you need to buy before arriving at the border, even lots of official documents such as driver's licenses still use a "bring your own passport photo" policy where we live.  I have at least 4 passport photos in my current passport, associated with various visas.  So we keep several on hand, just in case.

When I was in college, I went to a Mailboxes, Etc, and paid about $13 for two passport photos.  They were awful and the source of many a border guard's amusement for the next ten years of travels.  Thankfully, digital photo technology has progressed to a more convenient and less expensive way to fill this function.  So here are a few things we've learned about efficiently creating your passport photos:

1.  Chose a big blank background and shoot a bunch of photos with a "more than you think necessary" margin of blank space around you.  You can always crop later.

(1a.)  For newborns:  All three of our kids had their first passport photos taken in their first week of life.  Method:  Put a white sheet on the bed.  Swaddle the kid up tight, and lay them awake on their back on the white sheet.  Fire away.  Choose the one (and there will likely only be one) with eyes open and both ears visible.

2.  Load the picture into Picasa or editing program of your choice.  Crop with a square dimension.  Aim to get the total head height about half of the total picture height.  Err on the side of a smaller head if necessary, because these things are often cut further when getting used.  This is a further reason to give yourself a generous white margin at the outset.

3.  Whiten the background.  We just learned this one, as the Burundian visa office's scanner was having trouble with our off-white/greyish background.  It can't be too white.  The Picasa "highlight" function works well.

4.  Make a JPG with a 2x3 grid of your square photo.  This will come out perfectly in a 4x6 photo as 6 standard size passport photos.  Alternatively, Picasa's collage function works well in a grid if you set the collage size to 4x6.  Save photo and print.  VoilĂ !  Six photos for about 28 cents.  Here's our recent one (Rachel got spot 6 because she's the most likely to travel again the soonest.)


Struggling with Sleepless Nights

Toby's first birthday is in a couple weeks.  He does not sleep through the night.  He never has.  Not once this past year.  It's been better the last few weeks, but prior to that, he averaged waking up 3-6 times per night.  Here are some thoughts that may or may not be helpful to someone else in the same circumstance.

  1.  This is hard.  Very very hard.  We know something about sleep deprivation after years of medical residency.  That also is very hard.  This is probably harder, because it never stops.
  2. This has been a little easier for us because Ben also didn't sleep through the night until 15 months old (Actually, it's been harder because of the same reason).  What I mean is that a significant part of the stamina battle is the despair that "my child will NEVER again sleep through the night".  Corollary: "I will NEVER again sleep through the night."  Things were such a struggle with Ben, and yet the large majority of nights where Toby was waking up, Ben was sleeping peacefully.  And so will Toby.  It.  Will.  Happen.
  3. The perfectly natural response of many people to hearing our difficulties is "Wow, that's hard.  What do you think the problem is?  Have you tried…?"  We would prefer them to stop after "Wow, that's hard."  And maybe follow with, "Would you like some coffee?"  It's very natural, but another significant part of the battle is being plagued by the feeling that this is due to something we are or are not doing.  And such innocent questions make us doubt ourselves all over again.  And yet we have tried everything.  Let him cry.  Pick him up.  Put him down awake.  Put him down asleep.  Absence of sleep cues.  Presence of sleep cues.  Quiet separate environment.  Different foods.  Sleeping in bed.  Swaddling.  Unswaddling.  White noise.  And every slight improvement gave birth to false hope which was followed up until those hopes dissipated into another sleepless night.  

So we have decided that it is not something we are or are not doing.  And we are done with that.  For whatever reason that we do not understand, God is allowing this to happen.  And we pray it ends soon.  But we will try to trust him in the ambiguity until then, believing that good things can come out of trusting in difficult circumstances when God is weaving his story.

It is exhausting.

But it will not last.

And it is not your fault or a deficit in your parenting.


If a Tree Falls in Burundi, It Definitely Makes a Sound

Our house is currently being built.  And one of the amazing features is that it has yet to require a single machine.  Bricks are hand-carried.  Cement is hand-mixed.  There is a guy whose job it is to make mud with his bare feet like grapes in "A Walk in the Clouds" (strange, but that allusion was completely lost on him).

And there have also been trees cleared.  We feel somewhat guilty about this, but work to assuage our conscience by promising to plant more and doing penance by repeatedly reading "The Lorax" to the kids.

I don't know how this process goes down in a land of machines, but here are a few photos of one of the big pines coming down.  Before this first photo, a man climbed 40ft or so and hacked off branches, and then tied a rope around the trunk.  The tree itself is maybe 60 feet tall.

The plan is evident.  Some guys (seen below) will pull the rope he tied around the trunk in the direction they want it to go, while other guys hack at the base.  When it starts to fall, everyone will scream and run.

And it's a good plan.  But a few things to note.  First, that an existing house (where we are currently living) could be crushed if the tree falls in the wrong direction.  Second, a few weeks prior, a similar tree-felling had gone a bit unexpectedly and taken out three other trees on its way down.  So, of course, we all came out to watch.

First, the guys hacking at the base.
 Second, the guys on the other end of the rope, pulling.  The goal is to land it in a 8 ft wide stretch that runs between our garden and the current home building site (for the Cropseys, this time).  Ambitious.
 And after a lot of screams, and an impressive boom, the result was a total ace in the hole.  They landed that giant trunk exactly where they intended.  Amazing.


Tuning a Piano

Ever since the Cropsey's graciously gave us their piano here in Burundi, I've been looking forward to having a real piano in the house again.  However, years of not being tuned, transatlantic boat travel, and a numerous bumps along the way had put the ole' upright in a bit of a dissonant situation.  So I would play it every once in a while, but it wasn't very pretty.

Rewind:  Before leaving for Tenwek in 2009, the music director at our church in Michigan, Scott, handed me a piano tuning wrench and small rubber wedge (seen above), apparently the essential tools for tuning a piano, and told me that he could see how I might have use of these, in a world with no piano tuners.

Well, of all the mighty things that arrived last month in our container, I was particularly on the lookout for these little tools, and when we decided to host a night of Christmas carols at our house on Christmas Eve, it seemed obvious that now was the time to try them out.

I don't know how to tune a piano.  And I don't think that I can do a professional job.  Nevertheless, I tuned a piano.  And it sounds, not great, but SOOO much better.

Armed with said tools, and a $5 chromatic tuning app I had downloaded in Kenya, I set to work, with only the knowledge that the rubber wedge is used to mute two of the strings to isolate the third.  The process took about 4 hours altogether.  The really high and really low notes didn't register well on the tuner, but I had never noticed before how hard it is to tell whether those notes sound in tune anyways.

Life in international missions in remote places has several challenges, but sometimes they are just fun.


2013 Wrapup

Well, we have embarrassingly ground to a halt on the Adventures of Eric and Rachel blog.  Believe me, we are still having adventures...it's just becoming more and more difficult to chronicle them!  Lest we start work at the hospital (Jan 2) before blogging and then become even MORE unlikely to post a blog, let me give you a brief update on our Kibuye adventures.

We moved in on November 1.  Our house at that time was little more than concrete footings.  But the progress has been remarkable!  Here it is in early December.  Eric is standing in what will become our bedroom.  It's been quite a time (mostly for Eric) planning out our house.  I foolishly thought we wouldn't need to have more than minimal input in the process, but Eric has spent a lot of time designing blueprints, planning window sizes, arranging bathroom layouts, etc.  The trusses are up now and next week the roof and floor should be placed.  Still thinking it will be early spring before the interior is complete enough to move in, but exciting none the less.

We celebrated Thanksgiving with our team (on a Saturday).  Some of you may recall the infamous "large turkey in a small French oven" oven fire of 2012.  Well, I am happy to say that my oven is quite a bit bigger, and Burundian turkeys are quite a bit smaller, so that I was able to cook 2 of them side by side in my oven this year and there wasn't even any smoke.  We pulled out all the stops and there were American delicacies a-plenty (including jello and green bean casserole).  There was much to be thankful for this year.

Maggie and Elise in their "Indian princess" costumes:

Toby will be 9mo on Jan 1.  He is crawling, pulling up, and cruising, although still not sleeping through the night.  Sigh.  Guess you can't have everything!  He is a sweetie, though, when he's not complaining about the lack of attention a third born gets.  He has been eating lots of solid foods and so I was particularly glad when the pack and play and high chair showed up on the container (aka the Big Red Box, which arrived with Christmas cheer less than a week to spare).  He's cute to feed on my lap but it was getting to be a bit challenging...

Here he is with Anita, our Burundian "nanny."  The language barrier is challenging to all of us except Toby, who seems to enjoy time spent with her.  She is very nice, and we pray all goes well during the 1 1/2 days per week that both Eric and Rachel are working at the hospital at the same time.

And then, Christmas.  The kids got their traditional Christmas jammies from Eric's mom, Mimi.  All 8 (!) of the grandkids have a matching pair.

 We also had our Christmas tree (shipped on an early container) and some ornaments and stockings, so our house looked Christmas-y even before the container arrived on Dec 18.  But it did come bearing Christmas gifts (purchased up to 2-3 years earlier), more ornaments, and a general good time of rediscovering things long since packed away.  All that to say, we had a fun time celebrating with our immediate family and teammates, although as always, we missed our families dearly.

2014 will bring the beginning of clinical work at Kibuye.  Pray for us in this last big transition.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


Merry Christmas from the McLaughlins


Old House, New House

Sometimes there is just too much to say, and not anywhere close enough bandwidth to say it in blog form.  So, at least a few photos to show that this blog is still alive.

2 weeks ago, we packed up from our temporary home at the Banga guesthouse.  Here is our "living room".

The front of the house, with the adjacent Catholic church.

The view from our place, which will certainly be missed.

Et voila! Our "new" house, the old mission house where we are staying for the next several months.

And just across the yard, the foundation for our real new home is being laid.

And who wouldn't want to finish with kids-in-baskets?


Toby Photo Shoot

Last Saturday I had a good time playing around with our camera and Picasa on the computer.  Toby will be six months on Tuesday and that's around the age when I had formal photos done of Maggie and Ben.  Of course, there are no JC Penney or Sears studios within a few miles of here, so I had to try it myself.  A few blankets, a chair, and a bedsheet in the front yard made up my studio.  Here are the best results:


International Grooming

I think almost any guy would consider it a boast to have pretty minimal trappings when it comes to grooming, and I would say the same.  Yet, it struck me the other day that, simple though it may seem, daily grooming has taken on quite a complex history.

  1.  Showering.  Here in Banga, if there is power (+/- running water), I will take a bucket sponge bath every other morning.  The reason for the power is that I prefer to use one kettle full of boiling water.  Both the shampoo and the kettle are from a Chinese store here in the capital, and it takes a special adapter to plug it into the wall here.  The soap is Burundian.
  2. Brushing teeth.  Tooth care is culturally interesting, and I have come to believe that no one prioritizes it like Americans.  We have a Colgate "herbal" flavored toothpaste we got in Kenya.  The toothbrush is American.  I have a stockpile of American floss that a friend brought out.  Good luck finding reasonably-priced dental floss anywhere else, including Europe.
  3. Deodorant.  Another very cultural thing.  Unthinkable in many parts of the world.  In Kenya, I once found a roll-on stick made by Umbro, the soccer-shorts people, but it didn't last long.  In France, I tried a spray, but the scent left something to be desired (per Rachel).  I thought I would go back to stockpiling American stuff, but found a French store with a good option just before leaving, and that's what I have here in Burundi.
  4. Shaving.  Though shaving cream is hard to come by in Burundi, normally this is not a hard one.  I have cream and razors from France, as well as a set of 220V clippers from France.
  5. Meds.  My allergies flare up in setting of blooming green foliage, which is most of the time here in the equatorial highlands of Africa.  When I got to Kenya, I asked the pharmacy to order some nasal steroids, so I have a stash from Kenya.  A visiting eye doc got me some allergy eye drops, and I'm not sure where they are from, but a lot of there stuff is manufactured in India.

And now, I'm ready to go.  I mean, I can still consider myself a low-maintenance guy, right?  It only takes the USA, France, Kenya, China, Burundi, and possibly India to get me through daily grooming.  Oh yeah, and electricity.


Kindle + Library = Revolution

Yes, we like books.

Yes, we moved to rural Africa (again).

So, what does one do in that setting?

Well, really there are several options.  One can fill a container with books that you got free at a rockin' venue in Baltimore, called the Baltimore Book Thing.  You can also load your Kindle with every free book (published before 1923) that you've ever wanted to read.  Lastly, you can raid the personal library of every anglophone family you encounter.

And we have done all those things.

Yet, there are a few holes.  We like to read some more obscure books, hard to find at cast-off library sales.  And then there are new books.

And then the eBook world met up with the public library world.  All you need is a library card, and you can download library books from the comfort of your own home.  Even if your home is in Burundi.

And part of the beauty of this is that Kindle books are amazingly small, usually less than 500kb, making them downloadable even with really slow connections.  Suddenly new books by favorite authors are available to us.  The latest Newbery winners are available to us.  In short, we have shifted from "what is around to read?" to "what would we like to read?"  Whoa.


Brief Update

Sorry for the long blog silence!  Internet is pretty sketchy here in Burundi (at least, upcountry where we are staying for language study).  I am taking advantage of a Bujumbura weekend to post a few pics.  We are focusing most of our internet efforts on email and the McCropder blog, but thought I'd post a few kid pics (for the grandmas). 

First, Toby has been growing like a weed!  Almost 19 lbs now and I think I can say, officially a sitter.  He has rolled front to back, back to front, and inches a lot by flailing his legs while lying on his back.  Such a sweet kid.  Not a great sleeper, but always cheerful.  We tried him on bananas (which he really enjoyed) but he slept particularly bad those days, and spit up a lot more, so maybe we'll hold off another few weeks before more solids.

Ben is now 2 1/2 and potty training pretty well, actually.  His favorite activity is playing "bad guys."  He is pictured below with his "sword" and "bad guy hat."

Maggie is loving her preschool (with Micah and Abi) and was recently featured in a play about David Livingstone healing a chief's daughter of appendicitis.  She was the tribal chief and was (in my humble opinion) awesome.  Deadpan delivery, didn't forget any lines, classic.  "If she dies, you will die."  I see a future.

 And just for fun, our kiddos loved a friend's slip and slide this weekend in Buja.  It was so hot and sticky, an afternoon in the water was perfect!  Even Toby stuck his feet in.


A Few More Pictures

Who would have thought that I would ever say this, but I sure will miss Kenyan internet. :)  We leave for Burundi tomorrow AM and have been frantically using the faster (or even present) bandwidth before we enter the next three months of unknown but possibly absent internet.  Our last chances to skype, download files, post pictures...you get the idea.  So, the last of our Kenya photos for your viewing enjoyment (we realize Toby got the short end of the stick in the Tenwek photo blog since he was napping most of the time that Mags and Ben were out playing).

My "team" on OB: Moses, Vincent, Mary, and Sinkeet were my interns, and Dr. Joy Draper is the OB consultant at Tenwek for 2 yrs.  We had a great time!

 On my last day, the theatre and OB staff prepared a little goodbye sendoff.  Also holding the cake is Valentine, one of the PAACS residents rotating on GYN

 A new swing for Tenwek, still loved by the kiddos (and easier to ride that the circular one)

 Family photo with our beloved house helper, Rose

 The kids loved the wildlife viewing on the way to Nairobi...a truck in front of us threw maize to the waiting baboons, who were QUITE close as you can see.  Just another baboon adventure with the McLaughlins...

 Toby has been such a happy guy this month!

 Starting to sit up a little on his own, although he still needs a hand in the back.

And his loving sister...


What Is Worth Knowing?

Maggie and Ben are constantly asking us to tell them stories.  We do our best, but they admittedly can wear us down at times.  Ben asked for one today, and I didn't really know it, so I suggested they tell me.  Maggie busted out an incredible recitation.  It's called "The Night Kitchen", an old Maurice Sendak story that we have an animated version of.  She can't have seen it more than six times, but she went on for minutes, reciting it perfectly.

Never has my brain felt so old.

Throughout my medical training, I often would think back to my undergraduate self, sitting in class, no notes to be found anywhere, soaking in what was being said with rapt attention.

Then I'd shake myself back to the lecture already in progress, and realize that, despite my concession to take notes, I wasn't going to take away much from this hour of listening.  It's not a dramatic shift, and my overall capacity for learning is fine, but the change feels real.

And so now Maggie's brain, my college brain, and my current brain seem to be points on a straight line, of which the slope is not positive.


Not really.  It depends on what I'm trying to steer my mind towards, but the crux of the matter is that I'm finally learning that not everything is equally worth knowing.

"Here in the information age, what is it exactly that we are so incredibly well-informed about?"  A quote passed on from James Paternoster.

Some things are very worth knowing.  Given my life, the French language and the Kirundi language are two of them.  Scores of medical concepts are worth knowing.  But not all of them.

I've had years of devouring books, going from a lecture at work to an NPR article in the car to an evening of reading.  I'm thankful for these things, but there is much vanity here, and I'm pretty sure many of us run a risk in the digital age of being reduced to info-mongering.

What is worth knowing?

"Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up."

If my brain is gradually slowing down, but that which I know is more apt, more useful, more true, more beautiful, have I just gotten a consolation prize?  Or is it a trade only a self-centered info-mongerer would turn down?

I'm glad for the stories.  I'm glad for the wisdom of so many that I've gained from.  And yet it may just be that a few minutes of solitude would express something more worth knowing.

By the way, rural Africa should be a pretty good place to learn this lesson, but there is still a choice to be made.


Life at Tenwek (take II)

We have very much been enjoying our second stay at Tenwek.  In some ways it feels like we have only been gone a few months!  Rachel has been working 3 days a week at the hospital and taking call, and Eric has been helping the medicine and peds teams round on her off days, as well as leading worship at church and taking care of the kiddos.  We feel like we've settled into as much routine as we could have hoped for, given that this is only a 4 week stopover on our way to Burundi.  Thought we'd share some photo highlights with you from our 2 1/2 weeks so far.

The waterfall:  a classic Tenwek photo op. :)  The kids loved throwing rocks in the water.  We loved reminiscing about all our previous hikes.  Thought we had taken some previous family pictures (in 2010/11) at the waterfall but I guess not.

The chai ritual!  A great part of Kenyan life is the daily chai break, at home and at the hospital.  Rose, our beloved househelper who watched Maggie when I was at work, is working for another family here but they just happened to be on vacation during our month long stay.  So she agreed to come and help us out!  It is so great to see her again, and of course she makes awesome chai.  The kids can't get enough (since it's mostly milk and sugar).

The giggle tree:  We are staying at the guesthouse, not our old house down in the "lower compound."  It has its plusses and minuses.  One of the plusses is this tree.  Even Ben can climb up on the lowest branches, which are less than a foot off the ground.  There is also a trampoline and swing at the house next door to us, so there are lots of fun things to do all day outside.  And since the weather is perfect...

The turtles:  A long term family has always had at least a couple of turtles.  Maggie used to love going to visit, and in fact turtle (tuh-duh) was one of her first words.  Now there are 6 turtles and Ben enjoys them as much as Maggie.

The treehouse:  When we lived here before, a missionary kid and his grandpa built a treehouse right in front of the apartment building we stayed in.  In fact, it's more of a tree fortress and required supporting pillars under the tree branches.  Nice to see it's alive and well and being loved by many kids.

The guesthouse:  We never spent much time here during our previous stay, since it's just short termers who stay here.  But it's been fun this time to meet people (new visitors come almost daily), use the porch swing, play in the activity room, and run up and down all the stairs.

Jolly Green:  Our great McCropder van is still around!  We had sold it to another missionary family, who decided they were looking for something different, and sold it to a Kenyan pastor from Kericho.  He just happened to be taking some folks on a mission trip to Bomet and stopped by Tenwek to wash the van.  Looks like he has taken very good care of it.  John Cropsey's name is still clearly stenciled by the driver's side door. :)

Bethesda worship:  The regular worship leaders wasted no time in enlisting Eric and Jason to help lead worship.  Even though Eric didn't have a voice the first Sunday due to an unfortunate bout of laryngitis, he still played piano and guitar.  It has been wonderful to sing all our favorite Swahili songs again.  A careful observer will note the drummer, Asante Musyoka, all of about 6 yrs old.  He's actually quite good.

More of Bethesda...Maggie and Ben went to Sunday school last week, which was led by a short term missions team from Indiana. They loved the puppet show and then got to help act out the story of Noah.  Lots of little Kenyan kiddos and my two blondies, sitting in the back.

New friends!  There is a Urologist and his family here for 2 yrs, staying just down the sidewalk from us.  Their 3 yr old daughter Ivey has become fast friends with both Ben and Maggie.  Here they are playing in our kitchen cupboard (staying in the guesthouse means lots of empty cupboards for playing in, since we don't have anything to PUT in the cupboards!).

Learning some African drumming skills!

So, all in all we're having a great time!  We'll be here until August 2, then head back to Nairobi for a few days before leaving for Burundi August 5.  It's been a perfect transition for our family between France and Burundi.