Monday, December 31, 2012

Resolutions, 'cause what did you expect?

Here are my New Year's Resolutions:

1) Write every day, even if it's just a short piece, or a conversation with my pets. I'm not promising it will always be good, but I'm really going to try to write every day, because it makes me feel good, and sometimes, like with the adoption pieces I wrote this week, it helps me sort out some important stuff. Please check in often, and tell your friends because it's a lot more fun to write when you feel like someone is reading what you've written.

2) Fight for what's important. For me, that's women's rights, especially sexual freedom, and the rights of children, which this year I think will focus on gun control and education. And, of course, Russian adoption. Not only are these things that mean a lot to me, they are things I might be able to impact through my writing. I hope you'll fight with me.

3) Take care of myself. We all need to exercise more and eat better. I'll try to do that, but I'm specifically going to try to do more fun, active things that involve Boo and Wonderdog. The only way I'll keep exercising is if it's fun, and having Boo and/or Wonderdog along makes most things more fun. Plus, I'll feel extra-good if I'm taking good care of my dog and teaching Boo good habits. And hopefully, doing fun and interesting things will provide me with fun, interesting things to write about. Bonus!

I think that's enough for one year, and soon Hopper will be home with our New Year's Eve sushi. Happy New Year, everyone! May 2013 be a productive, peaceful and healthy year for us all.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Family Game Play

A few weeks ago, Wil Wheaton had a YouTube chat about Tabletop and gaming. I submitted a question, asking what games he would recommend for Boo. When he answered it, I was shocked and star-struck. I've never participated in a YouTube chat before, and there was Wil Wheaton looking me right in the eye and answering my question, talking to me, parent to parent, about something that's really important to him as a dad. The basic message is that it doesn't matter what you play with your kids, as long as you play with your kids.

You know what? He's right. Games are really good for kids. Since last summer, we have purchased or received as gifts six new games. As I watch Boo learn the rules and strategies for each game, I see her brain developing. It's a big adjustment to learn the rules to a new game, and I think the learning process involved is good for all of us.

Boo is a remarkably persistent game player. We began playing Rummikub on vacation this summer, and we played for five days straight before she won a game. Most 9-year-olds would have lost interest in a game before then, but Boo wanted to learn the game, and she kept at it until she learned it, and then wanted to play some more.

Because of that persistence, I see her adjusting her game play each time she plays. She has certain fondnesses--she'll sacrifice a game of Oz Fluxx to keep the Toto card--but she plays well. And I love that I'm teaching her something she'll be able to do any time, with any group of people. Games like Rummikub, Munchkin and Fluxx can be played at a party, in a dorm room, or at game night in the local game shop. So they'll go with her throughout her lifetime. And the love of games opens her up to learning new ones, as I've been doing lately.

In the meantime, we're having fun together. And that's just good.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The unseen tragedy of the Russian adoption ban

Pavel Astakhov, Russia's Child Rights Commisioner, was quoted in this New York Times article as saying, “The children who have been chosen by foreign American parents — we know of 46 children who were seen, whose paperwork was processed, who came in the sights of American agencies,” Mr. Astakhov said in his statement. “They will not be able to go to America, to those who wanted to see them as their adopted children. There is no need to go out and make a tragedy out of it.”

He's right, I suppose. As we all learned from Dirty Dancing, a tragedy is twenty men trapped in a mine, or monks burning themselves in protest. These children are probably not going to die as a direct result of this decision. So in that sense, it's not a tragedy. 

But that is a very limited interpretation. 

Anyone who has read the post I wrote yesterday will know what Hopper and I went through when we adopted Boo. Intercountry adoption is not something to be taken lightly or done on a whim. The people who are currently in process (somewhere between 46 and 250 families) have been through a lot to get where they are. I grieve for those families. But I cannot speak for them.

But what about the children who are already here? 60,000 Russian children have been adopted by American families since 1992. On Friday, I told Boo that Russia has made it illegal for Americans to adopt Russian children. In the same breath, I assured her that this will have no effect on us: she is safe. We are a family. Nobody can change that. But she keeps asking me, "Why?" 

Boo has no memory of Russia because she was 8 months old when we adopted her. She has photos of our trip, guide books with pictures, and a book I made her about our adoption journey, but no memories of her own. Yet she is intensely proud that she was born in Russia. Her schoolmates know that fact about her. She wrote a report in first grade about Russia, and proudly brought in artifacts that we have in our home. When she had to bring a piece of art to school that hangs in our house, she chose a watercolor painting of the famous statue of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg. And she dreams of one day visiting Russia so that she can see it herself.

But that was before.

Now, Boo is hurting. She feels, I think, that our family has been seen as wanting. Her happiness, her sense of safety, her feeling of belonging in America has been judged as wrong by the Russian government. And they wish to deny those things to future children. This makes no more sense to a nine-year-old than it does to her mother.  

When I first heard that this law was pending, it was last Tuesday. It was shocking because I didn't hear of it from an adoption contact, but from a friend living in Moscow. I knew, because of that, that this wasn't a rumor like so many I have heard over the years. It was true. It was particularly painful because I have a friend who was scheduled to meet her baby the following Monday. And it was agonizing because only four days had passed since the massacre at Newtown, CT. 

As the day progressed, I read as much as I could find about the pending legislation. I spoke with my friend who was desperately trying to find out whether her adoption would continue (at that time, it seemed that it would, so my friend traveled to Russia and met a little girl whom she may now not be permitted to adopt.) And as the day progressed, I began to feel weak. While I was teaching that afternoon, a headache began. By the time I got home, it was a full-blown migraine. I vomited the pain and the anger most of that evening and had to take the following day off from work to recover.

I didn't get the connection until this week when I thought back on it. This law is punishment for the death of Dima Yakovlev, who died when his father accidentally left him in a car all day. The father in that case had a nervous breakdown when he realized what he had done. It was a tragic mistake, but it was a mistake, and this father has suffered greatly for it. Jail, a conviction, would have done nothing to add to his suffering. It would have done nothing to protect children: this man will not adopt again. This man will grieve until the day he dies, just as the parents in Newtown will. 

But because of his tragic mistake, now thousands of other children will suffer. Some will die in Russian orphanages. Many will lose out on life-saving, and certainly life-altering, therapies that are available in the US. Most will be cast out of the orphanages when they turn 16 to an uncertain future with no support and little education.

That, I think, is why I became physically ill from hearing this news. It felt like a punishment for being a victim. Every parent's greatest fear is that a child will die. There is nothing worse anyone can imagine than losing a child. But when you are an adopted parent, there is an added fear. If I lose my child, I will be judged. I will never be given another. To have that punishment visited not only on the neglectful parents, the violent parents, but on parents who have not even begun to parent, and to have that punishment visited on Americans just days after twenty of our precious children were murdered in cold blood was too much for me to handle. 

You see no tragedy, Mr. Astakhov, but I see many tragedies. The tragedy of loss that would-be parents will suffer over the next few months if your scheme is allowed to stand. The tragedy of lost potential among the thousands of Russian children who will be stranded in your inadequate orphanage system. And the loss of pride in their country of origin among the 60,000 Russian orphans who have already become Americans. 

Is that not a tragedy too, Mr. Astakhov?

Friday, December 28, 2012

Becoming our baby

Even before Hopper and I were engaged, I told him I wanted to adopt a child. Becoming a parent was important to me, even essential to my identity, but I never felt that biological relationship was an important part of the equation. He needed to know that if we were going to get serious.

Really, I had decided on adoption when I was fourteen. A storyline on a soap opera I enjoyed featured a couple who went to the ends of the earth to conceive a child. Even at that age, I couldn't relate to their decision. Even at that age, I knew I'd be a mother.

So after we were married long enough, when Hopper finally said he was ready too, our adoption journey began.

Being me, I researched. I read about every country on the State Department database. (I just tried to count the countries on the State Department database. I stopped at 40. I was still in the C's.) I joined an online support group. I tried (and failed) to create an in-person support group. I spoke to relatives who had adopted. I went to a conference. I researched.

We narrowed it down. Only countries where we have ancestry or relatives. (That limits us to the northern hemisphere.) Only countries with more than 1000 adoptions per year. (China, or Russia?) I don't want adoption to be the center of our family. We don't want that to be the first thing other people see when they meet us. We would adopt from Russia.

When the time came to make the first thoroughly-researched phone call to start the process, I crumpled in terror. The reality that my dream could finally come true--that after all these years of assuming I'd be a mother someday, I could just pick up a phone and make it happen--scared me. It was the beginning of a journey that would change my life forever.

But I did it. I made that call, and the next one. I got the letters of recommendation we needed and processed the paperwork. We got fingerprinted, interviewed, home studied, background checked and examined. We had shots and answered questions about our pasts, present and future. We analyzed our capacity for love, our style of discipline, and how we would raise a child in an ethical framework.

Every one of these steps cost money. It was a lot like buying a house, really. Just keep signing checks and don't think about it too much. I never added it up, because I don't want to know. We had the money. That's all that matters.

I am not a romantic. I knew that any adoption process would be out of my control, so I protected myself. I never imagined that this far-away baby was the love of my life. I always called her by her Russian name. I reminded myself at every step that she was not mine and would not be mine until the Russian judge said so.

The day we met her, all I could think about was a woman who I knew from my online chat group. She said that when she received her first referral, she and her husband spent 45 minutes trying to make eye contact with the baby. There was no response. They had to refuse the referral.

So my one goal for the day was to make eye contact with this baby. That was all that mattered.

Now, usually, I'm pretty good with babies. Boo was seven months old that day, and the best way to make "friends" with a seven-month-old is to carry her around a room and talk about whatever catches her eye. Eventually, that seven-month-old will become interested in the sound of your voice and follow the sound to your face.

I knew this from good instinct and a lifetime of being the person who held other people's babies at parties. From at least the time my cousin was born, when I was twelve, I had received compliments on my ability to amuse a baby in stressful circumstances for long periods of time.

But all that mattered was eye contact. And someone put us in a room with a mirror.

Anyone who knows Boo knows about her little mirror problem. She can't pass one. There are a lot more mirrors in the world than you think. I know. I live with Boo. If there is a mirror, she will find it and get stuck in front of it. A trip to Ikea is fraught with moments where one second Boo is walking beside me, and the next second: gone. I look back, and there she is. There was a mirror. She got stuck. I grab her by the hand, and we move on together. Until the next mirror.

The day we met, I cared only about eye contact. And Boo cared only about the mirror. It took up an entire wall. It might have been the first time she saw her whole body at once.

Finally, I got the idea of making her fly. I actually remember my mother flying me. She would lie on her back with her knees tucked to her chest, and I would lie with my belly on her shins. She'd hold my hands and I'd fly above her.

You have to modify it a bit for a seven-month-old, but only a bit. She loved the flying. She laughed, she smiled--and there was nowhere to look but into my eyes. At last, we made eye contact. My baby was okay.

But she wasn't my baby yet. We signed a form, played with her a few more times, and had to return to New Jersey to wait for court. They told me not to cry in front of the baby when we left. It makes it harder for the babies if they see their parents cry, they said. So I had to run out of the room before the translator was done conveying my thanks for the excellent care not-yet-Boo was receiving.

At work a few days later a woman came to visit. She was on Maternity Leave and had brought her baby for a visit. Everyone surrounded the baby, cooing and asking questions. "My baby is doing that already," I thought. (Not my baby--not yet. Not until the Judge says so. But she is--she's doing that. Even in the Baby Home she's big, and she's fat, and she's developing just fine.)

When we got back to Russia I couldn't believe that Boo recognized me. A big smile came over her face when we walked into the room. (Not my baby. Not yet my baby. She isn't my baby until the Judge says she is.) We went to Court and presented our case to the Judge. Then we waited.

It takes about 20 minutes for the Judge to render her decision. She has to type it before she comes back and announces it. So we waited in the small courtroom with our Translator, the Director of Boo's Baby Home, the Social Worker, and the Prosecutor, who was there to speak for the interests of the State. Finally, the Judge returned and said that Boo was ours. Finally and forever Boo.

When we arrived at the Baby Home that afternoon, a caregiver asked me in stilted English, "What is her name?" She had obviously practiced this phrase for use with new parents. It would be my first act as Boo's mother: to introduce her by her newly given name to the women who had cared for her all her life.

I balked. Could I answer such a question? Did I have the audacity to tell them that her name was no longer what it had been for all her eight months of life?

I looked back at our Translator, who looked back at me, baffled. The question had been asked in English: there was nothing to translate.

Finally, I blurted it out, "Boo," I said. The Caregiver beamed, and immediately Russified the name. "Boolashka," she cooed. Babies in Russia are never called by their given names. There must be a diminutive added. And there she was: my baby, but not-yet-my-baby. We left her again, for the last time. For us, the Mandatory Waiting Period had been waived. That was common in those days. We would be able to pick Boo up the very next day and bring her first to Moscow, then home.

I remember feeling as if I were floating down the street. Nothing seemed real. Still, sometimes, I wonder that we went to Russia and they gave us a baby. Also, the 8-hour time difference and the things we had to do--get her re-issued birth certificate, get permission from the Police for Boo to leave the district where she was born--made it impossible to call my mother until 6PM local time. If my mother didn't know I had a baby, then I didn't have a baby.

We shopped and bought formula and diapers and baby food and spoons and cake and tea for Boo's caregivers. I carefully packed the outfit I had purchased a few days before with my mother and Hopper: an adorable overalls set. I also grabbed a fleecy romper in case it was cold.

Friends of mine who gave birth to their babies are always shocked about what happened next. They handed me a naked baby, and then watched to see what I would do. There were no lessons in diapering or feeding or how to hold the baby. But that was okay. I was, after all, the person who held everyone's babies at parties. My aunt had taught me to change a diaper when I was twelve. I had friends who would hand me their crying babies. I deftly put on Boo's diaper, the adorable little shirt, and then tragedy struck. The overalls were shorts!

There is no greater sin for a Russian mother than underdressing her baby. Boo had been dressed in three layers and a hat to go from one room in the Baby Home to another. And here I was preparing to take her outside. OUTSIDE--where it was only seventy degrees! In shorts. I was horrified. The Caregivers were unsure what to do. So I dutifully took out the fleece romper and stuffed her into it. Everyone relaxed. (Except Boo, who had to ride home in the car in her fleece romper, sweating mightily.) We stepped out into the sunshine, and Hopper took a picture. Boo leaving the Baby Home forever.

Becoming our baby.

Thursday, December 27, 2012


I'm working on a piece that isn't done. In the meantime, here's a picture of Cat and Wonderdog:

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Arriving home from Rise of the Guardians


Me: I think you must be one of Jack Frost's minions, because you bring fun with you wherever you go.


Me: But fun isn't your center. You are a Dog of Love.


Cat: Oh, hey. I see you're back. What's that dog doing?

Me: Hello, Cat! Wonderdog's center is love. What's your center?

Cat: Cat.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Why isn't Magic Menorah a thing?

My mom really likes rituals. She is a storyteller, she loves the theater, and has often lamented the modernization of the Catholic Church. Not that she's Catholic, of course, she just really thought they had something good with the Latin and the incense and all of that.

So when we were kids and couldn't have Santa, we had Magic Menorah.

Magic Menorah has many things in common with Santa--he lives at a pole (the South,) he brings gifts, he's mysterious, and you can write letters to him if you're so inclined. But in addition to coming eight nights a year instead of just one, Magic Menorah also kicks it up a notch.

He hides the presents.

That's right.

He hides them.

And all you get is a clue, delivered by a parent.

Because only parents can hear Magic Menorah's voice.

There's no issue with handwriting on cards or any of that nonsense. No cards, just the clue. And nothing happens until you, the kid, figure the damned thing out. Your parents just stand there, waiting, as you race around the house, trying to unravel what Magic Menorah meant by "a place of hope" or "the best place in the house" or "a safe place to sleep if you're bigger than a breadbox." What the hell is a breadbox? You're nine! You don't know what a breadbox is. How are you supposed to figure it out?!

But Chanukah can't go on until you find the present, and anyway, it's a present, and you want it!

If you've got an older brother, he finds his present but can't open it until you find yours, and he starts telling you how easy your clue is and why haven't you figured it out yet?

And then you get it. Maybe with help, better if it's on your own, but either way, suddenly, the clue makes sense, and you run to the only place it could be, and there it is! You've walked past it six times already without noticing it, but now it's there and it's got your name on it and you get to bring it downstairs in triumph.

Doesn't that beat the pants off a pile of crap under a tree?

But it only happens at my house right now.

This should totally be a thing.

Get on it, Jews!

You never forget your first

I feel like I should be writing about what it's like to be a Jew and a Humanist on Christmas--why do they get the lights, when ours is the Festival of Lights? Axial tilt is the reason for the season!--but I'm kind of stuck on this geek thing so that's what you're getting.

Today, at a Christmas party, we'll be giving Boo her first set of gaming dice. For my less geeky friends, those are the special dice one uses for playing D&D and other role playing games (RPGs.) For the random elements of the game, you need dice ranging from 4-sided (d4) to 20-sided (d20) and if you're gaming with friends, the dice tend to get mixed up, so it's helpful to have your own distinctive set so that you can sort them out again when the game is finished. Gamers get really attached to some of their dice. Hopper still has two of his original dice. They're worn down at the corners, but he proudly showed them to Boo the other day, because he's had them for 30 years. They're not in the bag with his favorite dice, but he's not going to throw them out, either.

But this moment won't be the same for Boo as it was for Hopper. Hopper discovered D&D on his own--he heard about it from friends, or saw the books somewhere, and decided to try it. He saved up his allowance to buy that first set of dice, because without them, he couldn't play. And he and his friends pored over the rule books--learning, discussing, debating--they figured out how to play together, because nobody they knew had done it before.

Boo rolled her first character using Hopper's dice. She'll be playing her first campaign with her parents, with her dad as the DM. She's a native.

I suppose there were native geeks when we were young--folks whose parents were so excited about a new Star Trek that they let their young children watch, or re-enactors who brought their sons to battles, or Creative Anachronists--but somehow this feels different.

I ran out of yesterday, so I'm finishing this on Christmas, just after watching Rise of the Guardians, which I thoroughly endorse and recommend.

We gave Boo the dice. She opened them, and said, "Dungeons and Dragons dice! Now I can roll them as much as I want and you won't yell at me!" "You're playing?" said my brother, "I might have a present for you..."

And the moment was gone...swept away in a blur of presents and children and Christmas.

But later on, in a moment of quiet, he appeared from upstairs, holding his first edition manuals and a couple of old modules. "You can borrow these for as long as you want," Brother said to Boo. "But when you're done with them, make sure you give them back to me, okay?"

"Do you understand," I asked, "You can keep them, but don't ever throw them out or give them away, okay? If you get tired of them, Uncle Brother wants them back."

Boo nodded, understanding the gravity of the situation.

I tried to engage Brother in a conversation about D&D then, but he couldn't do it. The details of the rules are blurry to him, for he has moved on from gaming.

Just make sure you don't throw away his manuals.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

To boldly go...

A couple of days ago I posted on Facebook that my geekness has been changing lately, thanks to Neil deGrasse Tyson.

"Yay, science!" chorused my friends.

But,'s not really about Dr.'s more of a Wheaton thing and...[sigh] must explain.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all about science. "Yay, science!" is a cheer I can get behind. But Neil deGrasse Tyson lives squarely in my old geekitude. I've loved him since he first appeared on Nova Science Now--before he was the host. And I practically grew up in the American Museum of Natural History, where he works. My grounding in science entertainment goes back a long way, to the days of watching Nova and Life on Earth and The Living Planet with my dad as a kid. Even though Dr. Tyson isn't old enough to have appeared on those shows, his style of education is rooted in that same place and I've been that kind of geek forever. So even though Startalk was the catalyst for the change, Neil deGrasse Tyson isn't the focus of it.

I tried to plot the vectors of the change, and found it can't be done, but here's the narrative:

It started with Neil deGrasse Tyson, went through Wil Wheaton, past The Big Bang Theory, bounced off Eureka, and went back through Wil Wheaton via Tabletop and into games, writing and the dark places of the interwebz.

At a later time, it started again withe Neil deGrasse Tyson, went via my husband and bounced off of Brent Spiner and LeVar Burton and landed in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

And in the end, I wound up at a game shop buying Boo her first gaming dice and then spending a sick Sunday with Hopper watching a TNG marathon.

I'm not claiming to have ever been anything other than a geek. I always loved learning. I've always been the person around who knew all the rules, all the background, and most of the details. Hopper decided to marry me when I said that Star Wars was three of my favorite movies, I read, I'm fairly tech-literate, I went to one of those elite, East-Coast colleges you're always hearing about. I'm a geek.

But neither gaming nor Star Trek had ever been my thing. I was conversant in both--my brother played D&D when we were growing up, so I played a little and sat in on more than a few sessions. I know a d6 from a d10 (but always have to look closely to tell a d12 from a d20) and I can throw around terms like RPG, GM and NPC without confusion. I can't say I ever watched a Star Trek show regularly, but I saw enough episodes to know the differences between Star Trek, TNG, Voyager and Enterprise, and I once made a joke about Deanna Troi that I'm still really proud of (but you had to be there.)

So when I first heard Wil Wheaton on Startalk, I had to ask Hopper who Wesley Crusher was, but when he explained, I totally remembered "that kid." And so began my adventures in a new kind of geekitude. Adventures that I plan to blog about here.