Tuesday, February 27, 2007


I had no idea what a huge scene it was here. They say it's a huge scene, but until you experience it, it's kind of like Vietnam. You have to have been there to really know what it's like.

--Actor Rainn Wilson, on The Sundance Film Festival

David and I are walking up Main Street. I use the word "up" quite literally, since it's a steep hill, and at 7,000 feet, I'm feeling it. My snow boots make scuffling sounds on the slushy sidewalk, but I can't look down or I'll slam into someone. I tuck my chin into my scarf, which is covered in snowflakes that have just begun falling. "I could use some coffee," I tell David. He's already been here a day to give a presentation with Adobe, but I've just arrived. I point across the street. "There's a place called Cows. They have coffee, and--I'm guessing--ice cream." We cross the street, which is narrow but packed with taxis, trucks and other jaywalkers like ourselves. I open the door to Cows, and a rush of warmth and sound pours out. We peer inside, and it's a sea of shoulders and heads. Quickly, it becomes clear that all these people have packed themselves into Cows for a reason, and that reason is standing in the center of the crowd, resplendent in a spotless, full-length camel-hair coat and a blazing diamond ear stud the size of my nose. It's P. Diddy, or whatever he's calling himself these days. He's on the cell phone. Lots of other cell phones are out, and they are pointed at Diddy. There's a lot of yelling and pushing. A chorus of girlish voices goes up: "We love you, Diddy!"

"Okay," I say to David. "This is seriously bizarre." It's 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, January 20 in Park City, Utah. I am finally at Sundance.

A woman came up to me and said, 'Oh, I'd like to gift you.' I didn't know gift was a verb, but apparently it is, and that's what people do: They gift each other here. So I got a Sonic toothbrush and a little photo frame and shoes. And a Timberland coat.

--Rainn Wilson

I can tell that a lot is going on just barely out of my sight. We pass storefronts that have been transformed into "suites" for the 10 days of Sundance--for magazines like Entertainment Weekly and Premiere, Las Vegas nightclubs, temporary outposts for clothing designers, cell phone retailers and high-end liquor, and even one suite dedicated to an unction with the tagline "Better than Botox." The latter is gifting pink snow hats with their logo, and we see them all over town on the heads of women who are also wearing three-inch Jimmy Choos in the snow. The giveaways are known as "swag," and the only swag I get is a film reel from Adobe that contains liquid breath mints and chapstick. It's pretty cute, though. Before the weekend is up, we have discovered all the spots in town to score free coffee, water and soda--each time we help ourselves, my non-celebrity heart gets a little thrill.

There's a lot of blah, blah, blah going on at a festival, and you can get lost in that.

--Diego Luna, Actor

David gets me a VIP pass from Adobe that says my name and "Sponsor" at the bottom. We wear them on lanyards around our necks in the hope they will get us into stuff. They don't, but apparently they do lend us some version of Sundance street cred because a lot of people approach us. Some of them ask for directions, or what movies we've seen, and a few just seem to want to chat. Like, "Are you here for the producers party?" or "What did you think of Hal Hartley's views on HD?" I am sort of snowed by what I take for small-town community spirit, but then my friend Jessica, who used to live near Park City and went to Sundance every year, says "You got Hollywood-ed."


"That's why everyone seemed so friendly."

"But they didn't seem to have any particular point in talking to me."

"Exactly." Apparently, this is what struggling actors and directors and producers do at Sundance: they make conversation with people in badges for as long as necessary to determine if they have something to offer, or for absolute certain that they don't. I have no idea if I made it difficult for them or not. Certainly the ubiquitous uniform of puffy parkas and Ugg boots is a great leveller, and the reason why the blond girls in rabbit fur and stilletos tend to make a statement that perhaps they don't intend.

As any Sundance veteran will tell you, debuting a movie at the snowcapped Rocky Mountain festival can be nerve-racking. You worry that people won't get your vision. That your film won't be picked up for distribution. That critics will eviscerate you.

--Missy Schwartz, Entertainment Weekly

David and I have lunch in Salt Lake City after I fly in, and while we eat he shows me the Sundance movie catalog. I'm amazed that nearly every film features actors I've heard of. David is excited that he snagged a couple VIP tickets to a film screening the next day; someone was handing them out at the Adobe event the night before. The film is The Year of the Dog, starring Molly Shannon and directed by Mike White (Chuck and Buck and The Good Girl) and it will screen at 8:30 a.m. You read that right. Unlike other film festivals, Sundance runs films throughout the work day and each one screens four or more times during the festival. For many attendees, it is a work day. I'm thrilled that we have tickets but sort of mystified by why they are otherwise so hard to come by. I learn that the tickets sell out months in advance, and by the time the festival actually starts, one's only options are to "know someone" or to take part in the arcane "Wait List" process. More on that in a moment.

We wake at dawn the next day because we are staying five miles out of town, and because Park City is so small we have to park far away and then ride the free shuttle into the center of town. We get very good at this. On this morning, we luck out with a parking space right near the theater because it is so early. It's called The Library Theatre, and that's because it's actually the Park City library with a Sundance makeover. Most of the theaters are multi-taskers. Another one, according to a volunteer I meet, is actually a converted basketball court. As we rush towards the entrance, I feel like a VIP for the first and only time. We flash our shiny tickets and volunteers wave us through while unlucky people pace the sidewalk shouting "Tickets? Extra tickets?" and we swoosh past a white tent bulging with a hundred people or more behind a barricade. Did I mention it's six degrees this fine morning? Inside, we are greeted by several more volunteers who motion us towards the back of the theater. Once we nab seats, I go out a side door to use the bathroom and get a bottle of water, and when I come back I'm allowed to by-pass the line. I hear the door volunteers telling a bunch of people with tickets that the screening is full, sorry about that, better luck next time. I sit down just as an organizer comes out to introduce the film.

It's weird to sit in a theater with 400 people and watch a movie and think OHMIGOD, I'M AT SUNDANCE because you're still sitting in a crowded theater watching a movie, just like always. The movie is very strange. It begins with several establishing shots of Molly Shannon and a Jack Russell terrier named Pencil so we understand that the dog is her life. The audience is howling in a strained way that kind of freaks me out--I don't find it very funny. It's like they're trying to be ingratiating or want to feel they're having the full Sundance experience. The movie shifts sharply with the introduction of John C. Reilly, who is very funny, and Peter Saarsgard, who's kind of creepy but I love him anyway. The whole time I'm watching, I can't figure out the tone--is this a movie celebrating animal rights activism, or is it a satire about animal rights activism? It seems wrong that I don't know. When the movie comes to a theater near you, you'll have to explain it to me. The most exciting part is that Molly's brother is played by Tom McCarthy, who wrote and directed The Station Agent (put that in your queue--it rocks) and is also an actor (the brother-in-law in Meet The Parents) but also appears in my college photo album. I attended the University of London on a Junior Year Abroad program, and so did Tom. All the Americans used to clump together in the campus pub at night, drinking gin and tonic and talking about whatever 20-year-olds with gin and tonics talk about. Tom used to say that when he graduated he was going to Hollywood. "To do what?" I asked. "To become an actor," he said, without apology or braggadocio. "Good luck with that," I said. Clearly he didn't need my best wishes, since he did just fine with his plan, and even wrote a movie in his '30s that I'd rank with my favorites. My hat's off to you, Tom. Just briefly, because I'm freezing without it.

After the movie, the director and nearly the entire cast file in for an Q&A, and that's where I really feel the magic of Sundance. Famous people don't parade into the theater when you see a movie at home. I am thrilled to discover that Peter Saarsgard is just as adorable without a script, and experience a weird sensation being in the same room as Tom McCarthy, 20 years later, both of us with completely different lives now. It's a tad depressing, to tell you the truth.

Waitress was written and directed by Adrienne Shelly, who was killed last November in New York City at age 40. Celebrating without Shelly, who also costarred, would be tough. 'We're going to try to enjoy it,' Cheryl Hines says, forcing a smile. 'But I know it's going to be emotional.'

Not really understanding what we are getting ourselves into, David and I decide to try our luck with the Wait List system for a 4:00 screening of Waitress. The movie has good buzz, but it's showing in the largest venue--more than 1,000 seats--so we figure we've got a shot. The rules, as detailed in the film guide, are to show up two hours before a show to receive a number. Then, line up again before the film in order of these numbers. We arrive 2 1/2 hours early and barely make it into the indoor pen, which is then closed due to fire regulations. Hundreds of people are left out in the cold, never to be seen again. The pen is hot and crowded, with no chairs. The high altitude makes me feel like I'm on sedatives, and I end up huddled in a corner for nearly 45 minutes while David stands in the line. Finally, we're given the numbers 155 and 156, which means after everyone with tickets is seated, this is our position. We walk to the hospitality suite, where we read and drink free beverages for a long time. Then we hike back to the theater, and this time we wait in line for an hour, not really sure where to stand. We end up getting into a lively discussion with a mother-daughter quartet who have driven in from another Utah town and have successfully seen a few movies on the Wait List system. They are optimistic about our chances. We enjoy the conversation, but the updates from the volunteers grow increasingly grim. Finally, with about 20 people in line before us, the announcement comes that the film is starting and there are no more seats. Still, no one budges. If the others are like us, they just can't process the fact that we've waited in line for several hours and still aren't going to get in. David and I end up slumped in the lobby with a banana and a brownie, gathering our strength for the long walk back to headquarters. Several volunteers guard the theater doors.

This was the year Sundance elders marketed a mantra--FOCUS ON FILM--in an effort to clear a festivalgoer's mind of the distractions of celebrity sightings and rampant swagnation. And the mantra became a freebie button--which is a form of swag, no?

--Lisa Schwarzbaum, film critic

David and I have been talking about attending Sundance together ever since we met. Movies were our first common ground, our first shared passion. And Sundance is movie nirvana, the place where it all comes together--the business, the craft, the stars, the movies available around the clock. For years we talked about volunteering, which would get us free passes to all the screenings--when we weren't working in sub-zero temperatures, that is. But lots of other people want these jobs, too, and we never got our act together to apply. Now that we have a kid, the idea of 10 days running errands and seeing movies three states away is no longer practical. This year, David was surprised to get an invitation to Sundance from Adobe, and the offer of a (fabulously swanky) place to stay on top of that. I was fuming and bitter until Paul and Mary offered to take Jarrah for the weekend and man, do we OWE them. It is the first time in a year that David and I are alone together for longer than five hours.

I knew I was going to see famous people--it's impossible to avoid them in a town so small. After the Diddy sighting, we happen upon William Baldwin signing autographs down by the ski lift (I tell David he's the only Baldwin the years have been kind to) and we think we see Sienna Miller getting interviewed on a balcony across the street while we are noshing at Main St. Pizza & Noodle. Then there's the cast in the flesh at The Year of the Dog, and a surreal encounter at Rite-Aid, while I am deliberating over a selection of gel inserts for my boots. Suddenly, there stand Dick and Logan from Veronica Mars, which is doubly weird because a) they are obviously in need of ablutions and b) they film in San Diego! We also get up close and personal with the director Hal Hartley, who speaks at "HD House" (oy, that name) and seems like a very nice man. There is an awesome moment when David asks the check-in gal if the Hal Hartley panel is seating yet, and she rolls her eyes and says "No, the astronaut Buzz Aldridge has been in there forever and won't stop talking."

"Do you mean Buzz ALDRIN?" inquires David, in the high-pitched voice he reserves for special examples of moronity, and--wait for it--adds, "...THE MAN WHO WALKED ON THE MOON?" She is non-plussed.

"Yeah, that's him. I can't remember everybody's name."

So, the Sundance Festival is both exactly like and nothing like I expected. I expected lots of gawking and gazing and swag and suites and stars, and in that sense it delivers. The glamour quotient is high. At the same time, there's a very charming way in which the freezing weather and the proximity of a small town create a certain coziness--while the air is chilly, the vibe is not. But I definitely thought I'd attend more films, and it's frustrating that fulfilling this intention is totally out of my control. I know that this is hard for David, too. I also have an unsettling feeling when we walk by doorways with white curtains and credential-checking booth babes, knowing that just behind those curtains rich, famous people are frolicking with other rich, famous people, not to mentiion receiving the gifts they can actually afford to buy on their own. In the weeks that follow, I read coverage of Sundance in several magazines and marvel at photos snapped in the exact locations I'd been, often on the same day and time, of people and events I did not see. It's as if there had been a wrinkle in the time-space continuum and David and I attended a parallel version of Sundance.

And yet I didn't really want or expect to feel like a celebrity at Sundance. I wanted to see movies, and wanted just to be there, for a short time, in the fulcrum of the filmmaking world, experiencing that energy. In this, Sundance does not disappointment. And I'm glad that I was a part of it.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Short Order Cook

Jarrah is running a restaurant out of our living room. I believe it may be an Italian restaurant. She's a very generous host, and won't take no for an answer when she offers the soup du jour.

The menu varies, but you are usually offered a choice of juice or milk while being seated. Even if you demure, the response is "All right!" and she bustles away to the prep station (aka our Tupperware drawer) and, shortly thereafter, returns with your refreshment. She hands it to you with a triumphant "There!" and then waits while you drink it (no dawdling, please) before inquiring "Soup?" Even if you say, "Thanks, but I'm awfully full right now!" she responds "All right!" and races away again (no wonder she retains her girlish figure amidst so many prandial delights) and quickly returns. Now you have an important choice to make: "Fork? Or Boon?" She's flawlessly polite, whatever your decision, and you won't have to wait long to tuck into your meal.

The subsequent course offerings vary, but only slightly. There might be "Apple?" or "Chee?" or "Chock snack?" (the latter is how she describes her chocolate animal crackers) But the house special is "PEE-tzuh?" and here is where I have the biggest challenge keeping a straight face.

See, she offers the pizza like it's a delectation known only to angels, and she happens to have a private stash back in the kitchen that she's willing to share...but only with YOU. She leans in very close to your face, widens her eyes until they look like two shiny brown marbles, and says the magic word. "Pizza?" Here is where the proprietor of this restaurant is going to have difficulty turning a profit, for if one accepts this pizza, one will immediately be offered more...about seven or eight times. And you better believe the eighth offer will suffer from no deflation of enthusiasm, not the slightest lapse in service, to the detriment of this diner treating the moment with the gravity it certainly deserves. Occasionally, I throw a wrench in the works by saying "But Jarrah, I've already eaten seven pieces of pizza! I'm stuffed!"

To which the response is always "All right!" followed by the arrival of my eighth slice, as speedily as the first.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Ding Dong

Okay, now I really feel old. Just now, I was sitting here at my desk when I saw a shaggy preteen swoop up the driveway and ring our doorbell, then swoop back across the street, like a hairy pelican. I watched him and two smaller accomplices duck behind a white truck and stay there. I could see six shoes. I studied them, since my desk faces the street, with comfortable interest. What were they doing back there? Soon after, it occurred to me that they were waiting. Waiting for me. Doorbell ditch, we called it in my youth. According to the rules, I was now supposed to come to the door and peer up and down the street with a perplexed expression while they giggled behind the truck. Not a big payoff to this game, really.

Well, okay. I was mildly annoyed that they might have woken Jarrah. But by the time I opened the door (first I got the mail, so they would be cheated out of the perplexed expression) I was feeling rather saucy. "Hello, boys!" I called across the street. "I can see you!" No response. "Why don't you come out from behind that truck because I want to ask you something." I wasn't really sure where I was going with this but I was amusing myself. "Can you come out, please? I just want to ask you one thing." Suddenly, they uprooted themselves all at once and tore off down the street. "Come back, boys!" I called. "Don't be shy! I just want to ask you one thing!"

I'm not sure what that would have been, so I guess it's a good thing they didn't want to know.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Year of the Pig

Today is Chinese New Year--Gung Hay Fat Choy! We celebrated by joining Mary, Paul, Joy and their extended families for dim sum at Pearl in Rancho Bernardo. The place was so big and so crowded it reminded me of dining at the White Swan in Guangzhou. All the little girls in Chinese silk dresses added to the impression. But the Lion Dancers accompanied by drums and gongs reminded me of Hong Kong, as the New Year's celebration was in full swing when we arrived last year. Watching the Lion Dancers brings luck for the new year, and even better luck if you "feed" the lions some red envelopes filled with money. Mary very kindly provided Jarrah with an envelope for these lions, and Paul helped her give it to them. It was all very exciting and very loud.

When we finally got settled at our table with the Lazy Susan ("This is a Lazy Susan!" I told Jarrah, spinning it around and immediately regretting offering up an idiom that is impossible to translate and sounds offensive to boot) I realized, with more than a little guilt, that I apparently don't LIKE dim sum. For one thing, I don't eat shrimp or pork, and for another I am afraid of mystery buns filled with gelatinous paste of undetermined origin. We ended up ordering some noodles before I fainted right into my empty plate. Jarrah liked dim sum, however, and even yummed up her sesame mung bean ball and an egg custard that she thought was a cupcake.

Still, it was a lovely afternoon, and I had the opportunity once again to appreciate how warmly we are always welcomed by Mary and Pauls' families. The New Year is a good time to give thanks for that.

And speaking of giving thanks, I had a really amazing time yesterday enjoying my birthday present from Synthia, whom I have known for nearly 23 years. When I unwrapped her gift a few months ago, I was confused: two balls of really nice yarn and some long wooden sticks. Um, thanks! But then I opened the card, and out fell the schedule for The Grove, a fabulous yarn/bookshop that offers all kinds of knitting events, including a "Beginner's Scarf Class" in two parts. I was moved to tears when she explained that she wanted to give me something that would involve us spending time together. With three kids between us, not to mention dozens of activities because we are both the fill-up-the-calendar type, I don't see enough of her these days, and the opportunity to learn something I've always wanted to learn while spending two consecutive Saturdays hanging out could not have been more thoughtful.

So, the big day was finally here, and we were off to the Grove with our chic bamboo needles and all our hopes, fears and dreams of becoming one of those nonchalant, super-groovy knitting gals with a half-finished shawl-collar, belted cardigan peeking out of her knitting bag. Soon we were seated around a big table with the incredibly sweet and funny instructor and three other gals learning to cast on "cheap and dirty." I came close to a panic attack when it became clear that I was the only one who had no idea what was going on (Note to Readers: I am utterly hopeless with learning new manual tasks. I actually become light-headed with terror because no matter how many times I watch something, I can't do it until like an hour after everyone else has figured it out) but when I finally had my breakthrough there was no stopping me. We sat around that table gabbing and giggling and the time and rows flew by. We touched on every topic: marriage, children, career, pets, hobbies, geography, movies, art, politics...you name it. I marveled that everyone was so forthcoming about the intimate details of their lives...usually it's just me who's "sharing" with people I've just met. But then our teacher talked about how knitting is an ancient art originally practiced just by women, and the afternoon made total sense.

I am determined to finish my scarf by the next class. And then I'm going to learn how to put fringe on it.

Friday, February 16, 2007

That's All She Wrote

It's almost Chinese New Year and the weeks are zipping along. We had Valentine's Day, or as it was known in Guangzhou, "Varlentine's Day," and we got to celebrate exactly one year since our official U.S. Consulate appointment. This year, we ate turkey meatloaf at our own kitchen table and everyone got at least eight hours of sleep. Jarrah and I made glitter-glue-covered Valentines for David/Daddy, and in turn he spoiled us with gifts (microwaveable slippers for me, a new book for her.)

Also, Jarrah and I got together with Olivia and Jessica to decorate heart-shaped cookies, and this was a lot of fun though it began with tragedy. Seems the concept of cookies as "art" was difficult for Jarrah to grasp. There was a cookie in front of her, delectably frosted. There were several canisters of colored gew-gaws available for shaking. But the suggestion to initiate some sort of cookie renovation project was coming across like a lot of white noise, apparently, since Jarrah kept lifting the cookie hopefully towards her mouth, only to have the rest of us shout, "No, no, no! First you decorate! Here, like this!" For a while she attempted to be a sport, and then I noticed that her eyes had become limpid pools. "Are you sad?" I asked incredulously, just as two perfect tears welled over onto her cheeks. I promptly burst into tears, too.

It occurred to me then that she viewed us as sadists, arranging a hunk of gooey heart-shaped goodness at her chin level and then screeching at her not to eat it. I was embarrassed by my own outburst, which I believe stemmed from the fact that the Jarrah I know is a fist-pounding yeller, not a silent, stoic weeper--indeed, I had never seen this behavior before. I realized that she must have been demonstrating a truly irrepressible grief--over the withholding of baked goods. A girl after my own heart, really.

In other news, we received word that our final post-placement report went to China last week, which means our paperwork requirements are almost complete. And because we had the momentum going (and because we can't file taxes without it!) I applied for Jarrah's Social Security number yesterday, with the support of Melissa and one-year-old Linda, who patiently waited with me for nearly an hour. Now all we need is a passport and we're totally done!

Jarrah is still loving school, and on Thursday for the first time she told me what she'd done that day: "I paint." Since I was currently holding the fruits of her creation, a lovely skyscape of fluffy clouds, this was clearly an accurate statement. I guess I'm not being totally honest when I say this is the first time: every time I pick her up and say "What did you do in school today?" she says "Eat." And that, my friends, is the end of the discussion. Could she be preparing me for her teenage years?

In news unrelated to Jarrah, I had a crazy Saturday last week, first attending a Nia jam in Chula Vista with my friend Grace, then racing back to Mission Valley for a Feldenkreis workshop (it was focusing on hands, and my hands have been thrashed since Jarrah--my fingers make all kinds of disturbing crunching sounds when I use them) and then, after wolfing some Mexican food in the car, dashing to Hillcrest with Grace and Jessica to begin our evening as vagina hostesses.

Wait, that sounds pretty bad. Let me explain: we were volunteers at a performance of The Vagina Monologues (a few of our friends appeared in it) and the job we chose was manning (womanning?) "The V-Day Cafe," which featured coffee, water, soda and chocolate vaginas. And that, Dear Readers, was all. It was a lively job, as the show started at 7:00 and many people had arrived hungry and thirsty, so we were on our toes until after 10:00, occasionally slipping into our back-row seats to enjoy the show, but never shirking our responsibilities. The show was a benefit for a few estro-centric organizations, so we were determined to sell every last scrap of our wan provisions. There may have been a couple sodas left, but you better believe those hand-made (!) chocolate vaginas on a stick (!!) sold out by intermission. "Welcome!" we shouted to the audience of 300 as they passed us coming in: "Care for a chocolate vagina to enjoy during the show?" We made a lot of friends. It was just that kind of night.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Creatures Great and Small

We had a magical Family Day with Paul, Mary and Joy yesterday. Officially, it was our second one, and David joked that it should have started with a wake-up call at 6:00 a.m. and a really long bus ride. Instead, we had the usual frenetic morning routine, which used to be complicated enough when two people needed to shower, dress and eat, but has become totally unmanageable with the addition of a third person who needs to be fed, cleaned, dressed and accessorized with multiple tiny containers of what-not. And who mightily resists all of the above.

So, we got a late start, and our original plan of nibbling patisserie during the trip had to be jettisoned. Luckily, the Rupperts rode to the rescue with a Starbucks run, so there were no parched throats on the 45-minute journey.

Journey to where, you ask? Well, for this first Family Day that we were able to celebrate in our own way, we wanted to make it special. We mulled over the options--theme park? boat ride? snow tubing?--and finally decided on an Amtrak (aka "doot-doot") trip to an exotic location that could be reached within the limits of a 2-year-old attention span. After a little investigation, we chose San Juan Capistrano, though we knew little of its allure. It was the right distance (about an hour from San Diego), and we knew it had a mission.

San Juan Capistrano, we hardly knew ye. But now we do, and our love is deep and strong. First of all, the ride is gorgeous, with cliffs and scrub and beaches and the twinkling sea. The train is roomy and friendly for kids, even those who wish to climb up and down the stairs. When we arrived, we had the serendipitous good fortune to run into a very nice gal named Diane, who was out for a stroll with her daughter Leah--whom she adopted from China a few months ago! Since she was local, she advised us that we were standing mere yards from a fabulous attraction we had known nothing about: Zoomars Petting Zoo. It was literally across the tracks, enter on your right.

Now, I've been to my share of petting zoos, and more than my share in the past year. They're fine, but generally their pleasures are limited to a few scraggly goats and sheep and perhaps a skittish pig or deer. They are dusty and damp and one's child is filthy within minutes. This place, my friends, was no petting zoo. It was petting heaven!

As we entered, we saw sweet-faced emus, llamas and ponies, and a cheerful gal sold us baskets of carrot sticks and ice cream cones filled with seeds. A miniature doot-doot chugged around on a little track, and smiling children trotted around the yard on well-coiffed ponies. The clean, roomy pens contained fuzzy pink pigs, and chickens with black-and-white polka dots. We saw a baby goat the size of a large rabbit, and a miniature donkey with lush bangs.

But oh, my friends, what caused me to shove the children aside and make a bee line for the gate? A gigantic enclosure, filled with comfy wooden benches and smooth tree stumps for lounging, in which angora and Persian bunnies, and spotted guinea pigs in every texture and hue, frolicked and cavorted. Now everyone knows guinea pigs are cute. But you haven't really seen cute until you've seen those twitchy, tufty little beasts leaping around outside a cage. And you haven't really experienced cute overload until one rears on its hind legs in front of you in the hope you will produce a carrot.

After a couple blissful hours, we were ready for more than carrots ourselves, so we got our hands stamped (methinks the highlight of Jarrah's day was the "damp!" she kept showing us, on both hands--she insisted) and made our way into town, which was only one block! After a melancholy detour at The San Ramos Cafe, a ramshackle private home where the chef both lives and grows the day's fare and which was described by departing guests as "the best meal I've ever eaten"--alas, they had no highchairs--we headed up the street to a SJC historical landmark, the El Adobe, which was one of President Nixon's haunts and whose menu features a sandwich named for him. The girls were getting tired and we had a brief but loud skirmish over the perplexing fact that the waiter seemed to be absconding with their strollers (he was merely parking them in another room, but the impenetrable moods of a toddler made this into a grand tragedy) we toasted each other with frosty margaritas (ooooh! drinking in the afternoon! one of the many joys of train travel!) and dug into plates of cheesy goodness.

Hoping for some nap action, we proceeded after lunch to the famous Mission SJC, recently and impressively renovated, where the swallows famously return every spring and the bells toll for thee and then some. We rolled the strollers containing cheese-filled, blanket-clutching babies across the clickety-clack cobblestones, around and around the square for a half-hour, but only one baby succumbed and it wasn't mine. Every time I slowed the stroller, Jarrah craned around to see what kind of fun was forthcoming, and I finally gave up. We sat in the lovely stone courtyard while Joy slept a while, taking turns with Jarrah, and appreciated the fact that it was a Tuesday afternoon and we had no idea what time it was and didn't really care.

When we finally chose a departure train, there was more than enough time for a coffee-and-soda run at Ruby's (SJC is the kind of place where we could run into our El Adobe waiter on the street and he was excited to see us again) and a second visit to Zoomars, where the girls had their first pony ride, and were pretty darn thrilled about it. I was happy to see my guinea pigs again, even though Jarrah wouldn't let me hold the carrots, and we lazed another hour in the straw before making the arduous 50-yard trek to the depot.

And just to show you what kind of day it was: the train was full and the two families had to sit at opposite ends of the car. When the porter took the tickets, he noticed this and without being asked, said "I'll be back in a few minutes and we'll get you all seats together." Which he did. Just like on that little bus in Chongqing, one year ago exactly.

Monday, February 05, 2007

525,600 Minutes

Many of you will recognize the title's allusion to the musical Rent and the song "Seasons of Love," which asks the question "How do you measure a year?" and then provides a lot of answers. I'm not a big fan of Rent, but I cried when I first heard this song (at a wedding, I think) because...well, because I'm a huge sap, whaddaya want?

Tomorrow is my one year anniversary of becoming a mom. Pretty good trick, really, since in a year I've gone from meeting my new baby to celebrating her second birthday and watching her start preschool, but that's the way it goes. I took the accelerated course. It's also the anniversary of David becoming a dad. And, as I remarked this morning, 365 days of poopy diapers (that's one way to measure a year!)

Here are some more: one year of Huggies wet wipes, one year of exploring every park in San Diego, one year of wondering if anything could be blacker than Jarrah's eyes or whiter than her little teeth or yummier-smelling than her skin, one year of tiny shoes, one year of PBS children's television, one year of always seeing someone in the rear view mirror, one year of interrupted meals, one year of knee hugs, one year of sippy cups, one year of knowing that someone is sleeping snug across the hall, and a little less than that of knowing that this someone makes us a family.

At times, it seems like we've known Jarrah for 10 years. At times, 10 days. I know that Jarrah has changed a lot during this time--she's grown seven inches, gained five pounds, her hair has gotten long and shaggy, her teeth have come in, she's risen from a roly-poly wobbly baby to a leggy little girl. She's gone from expressing her every need with "Em! Em!" to a vocabulary that surprises me daily. While she once ate anything within her reach (parsley, lemon wedges) she's become increasingly toddler-picky (if it's not "chee" or "apple" she probably doesn't want it.) She's become both more unruly (hello, tantrums!) and more empathetic (remembering to say "please" and "thank you" and patting us gently on the back after we sneeze.)

The biggest difference from one year ago is that she knows who we are. We are "Muh-muh" and "Da-da," and we are very important. If we are out of sight for too long, she will not let us put her down when we come back. If we go out to a movie, she sobs histrionically from the doorstep in the arms of her babysitter. In the morning or after a nap, she wakes with one of our names on her lips. She identifies ownership through us: "Muh-muh's car," "Da-da's shoes." When I pick her up from school, she lights up when I come around the corner. When David gets home from work, she races to the door to greet him. It's been so long, I can't really even remember how, for nearly two months, she screamed and sobbed her way through the night, grieving for everything she'd lost and the strangeness of what she'd found. And though it's all right there in black and white in my blog entries from China, I can no longer access the feelings I had when she rejected me completely and moaned when so much as a hem of my coat entered her airspace.

When I get reflective, I realize that I have grown into my motherhood in the past year, though I've struggled and squirmed and resisted. I have found a little more patience, a little more flexibility, a little more humility, and these help me get through the day. I still let myself get too tired and eat bad food and lose my temper too quickly. I still sometimes delude myself that I'm in charge, I'm the boss, and we'll do the day my way. And then I have another opportunity to learn, and another, and another. And isn't that what I've been trying to do all my life? Learn stuff? Isn't that what kept me in school for 27 years? This is another kind of school--Mom School. I do my homework but sometimes I fail the tests. The lessons are dazzling and boring and excruciatingly difficult. Sometimes I get all three in the same day.

The most important thing I've learned this year, and it required no effort at all, just time: Jarrah was meant for us. We'd heard about it again and again, people adopting a child and feeling like there was no way this match could NOT have happened. It sounded sweet but perfunctory. What did I know? There is a Chinese belief that an invisible red thread connects all people--all over the world--who are meant to be joined in some way. It's one of the most prominent tropes of Chinese adoption. It's taken me months, but I finally know that it's not just a nice idea.

There are lots of ways to make a family. This is one.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Great Moments in Language Acquisition

Yesterday Jarrah slept in. Around 8:00, I opened her door, switched on the light and called "Good morning!" She sat up and regarded me blinkily. I approached.

"Mama," she began.

"Yes?" I said.


"Buh-bye?" I echoed.

"Buh-bye. Lights. OFF."

And she fell back on the pillow. Oo-kay, then. I can take a hint.


Last night I made her soup for dinner. Soup is her favorite food. Now, anything in a bowl has become soup--eggs, cereal, pasta. But that's another story. I approached her booster chair with the bowl of soup.

"Mmmmm, soup!" she said.

"Yes," I said. "It is indeed soup."

"Mmmm! Indeed soup."

Apparently, that's one of her favorites.


Jarrah: (beating her fists on her snack tray) "LOLA, LOLA, LOLA, LOLA, LOLA!"

Sam: "Do you want to watch Charlie and Lola?"

Jarrah: "All right."


Jarrah: (eating breakfast, with a lavish spread of tiny mandarin slices, tiny crackers and tiny hunks of cheese on her tray): "Oops!" (throws cracker on floor) "Oops!" (throws orange on floor) "Oops!" (throws cheese hunk on floor) [REPEAT UNTIL TRAY IS EMPTY]

Sam: (shielding eyes with hand, attempting to read paper and drink coffee): "..."

Jarrah: "Mama! Mama, mama, mama!"

Sam: "WHAT?"

Jarrah: "I hungry."