Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Woman of a Certain Age

I just had a birthday, and despite a head full of quicksand from an unfortunately timed cold, it was very nice.

In recent years, I've learned to ask for what I want on my birthday. Most years, I make myself an appointment for a massage in the afternoon, but this year I knew that if I lay face down, my sinuses would not cooperate. There was also a strong likelihood that my meticulously orchestrated Girls Night Out was going to get smoked out by the fires, not to mention the very real possibility that myself or my guests could be fleeing for our lives, so I took a deep breath (scratch that--deep breathing just makes my lungs feel like clenched fists these days) and willed myself to be a dandelion, changing and adapting with the breeze.

By Saturday, the smoke had receded enough to return to the site of my earlier restaurant review, Lei Lounge, with nine of my nearest and dearest. As anticipated, there were yummy tapas, fruity drinks, surly waiters, overflowing cleavage, and revelry for all. Here is a snapshot of my favorite moment from the evening:

Scene: White leather cabana. Sam is opening gifts from generous guests (you shouldn't have, dear ones!) with one hand, and nibbling a VG cupcake with the other (Thank you, Mary!) Suddenly, a muscular young man appears. He is clad in a tight t-shirt, and asks if we're having fun. We are indeed, thank you very much.

T-shirt Boy: Well, that's great. I'm the house massage therapist, and I was just wondering if any of you ladies would like a massage.

(stunned silence)

Sam: Are you joking?

T-shirt Boy: Nope.

Sam: Hell, yeah!

And that, my dear Readers, is what those wise aphorism people call "the icing on the cake." Plus, I got actual icing.

It was a glorious evening, but the actual natal day dawned bright and feeling of crapcake. It didn't seem possible, but my cold was much worse. "Happy Birthday!" David said cheerily, "I'm bringing you the newspaper in bed! Then out for pancakes!"

"Don't wanna stay in bed," I whined. "My head hurts. Everything hurts. And I can't breathe. And I don't wanna go out, either."

Readers, I regret to admit that mature fortitude does not necessarily increase with age.

We did finally make it out for pancakes...for lunch. They were scrumptious. One of my birthday wishes had been a walk on the beach, but when David broached the subject I started in with the kvetching again. Luckily, he prevailed, because a walk on Coronado and a search from unbroken sand dollars in the bracing wave-wash was some kind of miracle cure. One hearty dose of sun, sand and sea air, and I felt better than I had in a week. And Jarrah got muddy and wet, which for her is the definition of time well spent .

When we got back, there was time for TV (easily justified as therapeutic) and a spot of nap before our heroic babysitter arrived. There had been talk of fancy dining, but my blunted taste buds blocked that plan, and just as well. Instead, we went to the new Burger Lounge in Kensington (my new goal is to frequent only places called "Lounge") and it was sublime. I don't say that lightly, either. David and I have sampled burgers in cities across this country and the world, and this was one of the best. Also, it was a warm evening, and we got to sit outside in downtown Kensington, which is a neighborhood where dining on the sidewalk is actually enjoyable. We had a little stroll afterwards, and I felt relaxed and peaceful for the first time in a while.

Then we went to see Dan in Real Life, which had looked promising, plus Juliette Binoche rocks. And she did, but the movie was a little stagey in its cuteness for me. Or maybe I'm just jealous that I can't convince my extended family to Jazzercise on our front lawn. One notable feature of the movie, though, that I must call attention to here: the family reunion key to the plot included a little girl who seemed to be adopted from China, and this detail WAS NEVER MENTIONED. I see this as a really positive depiction of international adoption, and one I hope will become the norm in visual media. The little girl, Bella, wasn't the family's adopted kid--she was just their kid, in a way that didn't require scrutiny or comment. Hooray for the ordinary! Amazingly, I realized when I saw her name in the credits (I do have a scary memory for names) that she was the same little girl featured in a New York Times Magazine article in April 2007 called "8 Things Never to Say to an Adopted Child" by Elizabeth Cuthrell. Cuthrell is a Hollwood producer and screenwriter, which is probably how her daughter got hooked up with the movie.

So, it was a subdued birthday compared to the decadence of last year, but it felt right. I bought myself an egg-sized faux-Aquamarine cocktail ring, and wore it on Saturday evening. "I felt it was time," I told the other girls who admired it, "Now that I'm a woman of a certain age, I need giant fake jewelry."

And how do I know that, Readers? It's all that wisdom that comes with age.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Things That Are Orange

It's fall in San Diego, so the home fires are burning. Literally. So far we are lucky; the sun is still out in our neighborhood. But people are fleeing all over the county, David's work neighborhood has been evacuated, Jarrah's school is closed, and we are glued to the news. Endless looping lists of which houses are down, and reporters in scuba masks standing in front of flaming wooden frames. My stomach twists in knots imagining all those people losing their nests. And it's terrifying to contemplate what we would take if we had to evacuate...all the adoption paperwork, of course, and some photos...but what else? How could I fit two filing cabinets full of dissertation research in the car? Or would it perhaps be the ultimate liberating gesture to let it all go up in flames? I'm so daft these days I moaned to David, "How can we save my blog?" Still not used to this virtual thing, evidently.

The Pumpkin Patch field trip scheduled for Wednesday has been cancelled due to air quality issues, but luckily we have some freakishly cute photos of Jarrah and friends at Bates Nut Farm from last weekend. That place is like a theme park, and I mean that in a good way:

We had a fro-yo date recently with our friend Jennifer and her 1-year-old, Hadarya, and Jarrah was quite taken with the dynamic tot. At one point, she hugged her, turned to me and announced, "So cute! She's my daughter."

This weekend Jarrah had a low-grade fever and a slight cough for several days, so we were a bit house-bound and she couldn't see all her "frenz," not to mention missing a trip to visit Grandma and Pop-Pop. By today, when we stared at a screen full of orange flames all day and were boring beyond belief, she'd about had it with our monotonous lifestyle. She leaned on my leg as I alternately knit and snuck peeks at the TV.

"Jarrah, don't lean on me when I'm holding pokey bits."

"Okay. I can have my own pokey bits when I'm older?"

"Yes. When you're older."

"And I can drink coffee, and eat a bagel?"

I realized just last week that we've somehow transitioned from the thrill of Jarrah using words to communicate with us, to the pure delight of hearing her speak as a way of exploring her world. I remember attending a poetry reading where the writer read an epic piece of "Found Poetry." I liken Jarrah's awakening everyday language to found poetry. It's simple and true and lovely, and totally original.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

It Takes a Village

Today at the zoo with Jessica and Yea-Yea, we sat down for lunch near a mom and her two kids. White mom, Chinese kids. I smiled at them, but they were busy eating. Without considering it any further, I said cheerily, "Hello. Do we know you?"

Not the most subtle salutation. But honestly, identifying another adoptive parent of Chinese children begs for a secret handshake, or at least some kind of finger sign. The evidence sits there like an elephant in the room (the elephant in the zoo?) when we're right next to another family that looks like ours, so we smile at each other coyly, then look away, batting our eyelashes. Our children, not nearly so socially delicate, stare each other down as if to say "I know about you."

The first time it happened to us, we didn't have Jarrah yet. Shortly after we filed our paperwork, David and I saw them in Outback Steakhouse. The smiling white couple, holding a Chinese baby in their laps, feeding her off their plates. I beamed at them, practically winking, willing my face to convey approval and excitement without suggesting "stalker" or "nativist." It was hard back then, because I had no child to hoist up and affirm my credentials: "See? We're the same! See? The same!"

China adoption is hardly rare these days, and has been occurring in this country since 1992. In the past couple of years, China has ranked #1 in the United States in the total of international adoptions. Since 2002, approximately 5,000 to 8,000 Chinese children have been adopted by U.S. families each year. So it's not at all unusual to go to Legoland or Seaworld or any other popular kid attraction and see at least one family that looks like mine. On the other hand, you have to put these numbers in the context of every biological child that's been born since 1992, and suddenly you're looking at a unique situation indeed. Certainly, encountering other families formed by China adoption is not so commonplace that it could ever go without notice. At least, not by me.

In China, we were on Lantau Island off Hong Kong when we spotted a blond couple eating lunch at the vegetarian monastery with their beautiful little girl, clearly Chinese. I poked Mary and pointed. She said, "I'm going to talk to them." I hissed, "Don't! What if we've made a mistake?" But Mary was not so jet-lagged that she couldn't see what was escaping me: these people were not in China for a vacation. Mary was a natural. She walked up and said, "Hi. I'm Mary, and this is my husband, Paul. These are our friends, Sam and David. We're adopting baby girls in Chongqing in a few days."

What a great approach! It put the facts on the table, and allowed the recipients to respond in whatever fashion they liked. With Mary's intro, it was easy for them to confirm what we'd suspected: they were here to adopt again. In fact, they were traveling with our agency, and we'd be standing together to swear the oath at the Consulate in Guangzhou in two weeks.

Since then, we've had "the encounter" many times, and often, we've been with Paul, Mary and Joy. That's not really a coincidence, as we often visit popular kid attractions together. There's always a lot of meaningful "Hi" and "Well, hello!" with waggling eyebrows, like we're trying to determine if the other is single and looking. But actually, we're trying to make a connection, validate ourselves by confirming there are others like us.

Or maybe that's just what I'm trying to do. I spend so much time in groups of parents and children--through school, playdates, or just chatting at the park--in which I am special and separate. I am Other. It's not remarked upon, or hardly ever. But everyone has their bundles of joy with matching red hair, or pointy chins, or big blue eyes, and then there's my daughter, who has black eyes and straight hair, and me who, well, doesn't.

And that's why I think I'm drawn to other families that look like ours. Because, in fact, they don't: David and I don't resemble those other mommies and daddies, and our daughters, aside from being Chinese, don't look alike, either. But, by virtue of how we are arranged, we are parallel, subsets of a larger set. And while that doesn't much matter to Jarrah (she'd make friends with a dinosaur if it were seated at the next table, munching on pizza) it matters to me. It makes me feel special in a good way, like being in an exclusive club for which only a select few know the password.

If only there were a damn password. Because there's not, today I startled this other mom when I said, "Do we know you?" What I really meant was, "Are you in San Diego FCC?" but she looked surprised and laughed, and for one horrible second I thought she was going to say, "This isn't what you think it is." But if it hadn't been what I thought it was, she wouldn't have known to say that, would she? And she did know. "Actually, we're visiting from Chicago; my husband is here on business."

I introduced myself and Jarrah to her, and she introduced her girls, who were three and five, and angelic in both appearance and deportment. During our half-hour lunch, while Jarrah slathered her head and arms in tomato sauce and whined ceaselessly for "treats," I never heard either girl make a sound. They sat up straight, ate their sandwiches, and hardly seemed curious about us. Their mom, Kathy, told us that while they are FCC members in Chicago, they adopted at the same time as several of their friends, and they sort of form their own little group now. So, possibly this scenario is truly common to them.

Kathy was friendly, and her smile was warm, but she didn't try to draw me out. I asked her a bunch of questions ("What province?" "How old when...?") and I volunteered some info about Jarrah's orphanage because Kathy looked amazed after asking Jarrah, "How old are you?" and hearing "I'm two and a half." Kathy shot me a look, I nodded, and she burst out, "Her orphanage had some good nutrition!" Considering Jarrah was 27 lbs. at 13 months, that must have been true, but it was weird to hear this from another parent of a Chinese girl. Jarrah really does tower over a lot of her same-age peers, Chinese or not.

I'm not sure what led her in this direction, but Kathy asked me, "Are you on your own?" Ah, now there's another code. It means, "Are you a single parent?" Until now, a common version of Chinese adoption, since China has long been a friendly place for single moms. No more, though. On May 1, 2007, the China Center for Adoption Affairs stopped accepting applications from singles. They have their reasons, but they are culture-specific, and it's a great loss for both countries, if you ask me. I tried to figure out what I'd said (or didn't say) to suggest that I was single, but I never figured it out.

I also said Jarrah was an only child "for now," and she echoed "For now?" "Well, turns out this parenting thing is hard," I said, and she laughed and nodded. Then she told me that having two is crazy-hard at first, more than twice as hard, but then suddenly, it's way easier than having one. A lot of people have told me this, and I can't imagine what they might mean. We'll see if I ever find out. With the current wait times for child referral in China running to three years, it's not looking promising.

When we were getting ready to go, I had to stifle the urge to offer Kathy my card. (It's a Nia business card, yes, laugh if you will.) For some reason, I wanted her to know she had "people" in San Diego, if she wanted any travel advice, or playdates, or another like-minded adult to talk to while her husband was at the conference. But I guess what stopped me is the presumption on my part that I was "like-minded." After all, what did I know about her? Nothing at all, except that she has two children, and enjoys the zoo.

And yet I read a tapestry of shared personal history, and mutual experience, into the single stitch of her children's origins. I can't help myself. Maybe it's a rookie impulse--I've been doing this less than two years. Maybe not. I'd be interested to hear your perspective, Readers.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Wherein I Take a PR Moment

The blurb at the end of this post was written by my old pal Pam Thompson, who just last week published her first novel. I am privileged to have as friends several people who have published books (and at least one who needs all the fingers on my right hand to count hers) but, to my knowledge, this is the first friend-penned novel. So I am basking in the vicarious glow of her achievement.

And what an achievement it is. I've had the honor of reading the novel in proofs, which makes me feel like a cool insider, and I'm working on a review. But I wanted to post about the book here so that my writerly Readers could dash right out and order your copies from Amazon. Oh, I forgot: you don't have to dash right out. You can just open another window.

Every Past Thing emerges, dream-like, from Mourning Picture by Edwin Romanzo Elmer, a painting which hangs in the Smith College Art Museum. Because of that last little detail, I've known this painting for over half my life, and once you've seen it, you can't get it out of your mind. The couple in black perched on the lawn in front of an incongruously grand house is unsettling enough, but then there's the little girl in the foreground, petting a sheep and staring off into the middle distance. Only the title of the painting alludes to her story--she, little Effie Elmer, is the one the artist (and his wife, Mary) are mourning.

Thompson's story belongs to Mary Elmer, and follows her stream-of-consciousness musings about a mother's ultimate loss, distance from her struggling artist husband, encounters with the artist's brother and new wife, flashbacks to a young lover who stirred Mary's loins, and more recent stirrings for a young anarchist whom she encounters in a Manhattan cafe. Her state is so recognizable--conflicted, irrational, yearning--that I would get completely lost in Thompson's voice, forgetting where I was, as it swept me along.

It feels pretty strange to refer to Pam as "Thompson," even if it's correct to do so. I met Pam in my poetry class one evening in 1991--she was a prospective student to the MFA program at UMass Amherst, I was an old-timer of two years. She was effortlessly gorgeous in rumpled thriftstore clothing, no makeup, and librarian-style glasses, with a smile that, then and now, makes it seem she's always on the verge of laughing. Murmuring some inquiries to my neighbor, I learned she was actually a fiction writer, and that another student, Kevin, was planning to host her that night. As soon as I heard that, I felt honor-bound to intervene. Kevin was fine, but I'd spent a lot of time in his apartment in an earlier phase in my life (I was dating his roommate) and knew I could not subject an unknowing innocent to his version of domesticity. Somewhat bossily, I introduced myself to Pam and informed her she'd now be staying with me, as I could offer her the superior lodgings (that would be my extra futon, on the floor of my living room.) She was surprisingly gracious, and accepted immediately.

In the morning, Pam announced she was taking me to breakfast, to thank me for my hospitality, the kind of good manners I never think of myself. I had to be at a morning class, so I told Pam to take her time packing up. Just as I was rushing out, I said "This was fun. I hope to see you in the fall." She smiled and said, "You've already helped make my decision easier."

Now, if the Pamster had ended up at UT Austin (they were offering her a full scholarship, because they knew a good thing) her comment might have stung a bit, but in September, I walked into my teaching orientation and there was Pam, still in the cool glasses, waving me to the empty seat beside her. Turned out she must have really liked my living room, because she was now living in a house at the end of my street, and we were classmates, colleagues (both new to the writing program) and neighbors. And though I ended up 3,000 miles away when I graduated, we've never really been out of touch.

Here's what kind of friend Pam is. She asked me what she could cook for my 25th birthday dinner party, and I said, "All I really want is chocolate mousse, but that's too hard, because I want it from scratch." She shrugged, whipped up a dozen servings in these bitchin' glass goblets, and it was divinely decadent, covered in real cream, scented with brandy.

Of course, you shouldn't read Pam's book because I love her. You should read it because it's a revelation in contemporary fiction. Her style might make you think of Virginia Woolf (which would be just fine with Pam; she's a big fan.) You'll find out lots about 19th century American painting, the essays and poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emma Goldman and the cafe culture of New York City at the turn of the 20th century, and much more. But you won't feel like you're learning anything, because it will feel like you're living it instead.

Check it out. And then drop Pam a line, because writers hardly ever know who's reading them anymore. You can tell her I sent you.


My novel Every Past Thing is just out.

Help me celebrate at a reading at the excellent Amherst Books this Friday, October 5, at 8 pm (where I can promise wine, Cathy Ciepiela, and a surprise guest from Jerusalem).

Come to the panel and reception at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York next Thursday, October 11, from 6 to 8 pm (“Feminist New York” with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Deborah Siegel)

Read my editor Fred Ramey’s blog, in which he makes my day, week, year.

Go ask for it at your favorite bookstore.

Write a review.

Forward this.

Thank you. Thank you.

Posted By Pam Thompson to girl with glasses at 10/01/2007 06:19:00 PM

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

This morning, on the way into preschool, Jarrah and I ran into Kelly and her daughter, Addison.

Kelly: "Look, it's Jarrah! Hello, Jarrah!"

Me: "Good morning!"

Jarrah: "Hi. This is Mommy, my new best friend."

Monday, October 08, 2007

Fantabulous Toddler Logic

This weekend, David, Jarrah and I attempted to ready our backyard for fall:

Sam: These beds are full of weeds!

Jarrah: They're sleeping.

Recently, I told Jarrah I was going into the bedroom to make a special phone call (ergo, I did not want her banging on the door for an hour.)

Jarrah: (wailing) Mommy, don't make a special phone call!

Sam: Honey, why not?

Jarrah: Because I love you!

Monday, October 01, 2007


Usually I write posts with some kind of soaring arc to them, so I can hear the string section kick in towards the end. But today is Monday, and unlike the past two Mondays when I embarked on life-changing odysseys, today is just a regular ol' Monday (I hope.)

David's parents were visiting us for 10 days--staying in an amazing apartment downtown. That's how cool they are--people they meet on cruises to Mexico offer them their apartments when they're out of town. We had some shopping trips, some yummy meals, a visit to my parents in Orange County (where we accidentally walked several miles around Balboa Island and to the tip of Balboa Pier) and a trip to Julian to visit "apple world." We saw the band Hullabaloo perform at the Quail Botanical Gardens. We went to an art fair, where Jarrah got her face painted by a lovely woman who spent fully 15 minutes on her creation, during which Jarrah didn't move an eyelash. We met up with the Rupperts at the end of Yom Kippur; the photos on the rocks were taken at the end of the fast, shortly before it got dark and we got to break it at Red Robin!

David went to Seattle for a very long day and night, and Jarrah and I used the time to go shopping with Jessica and Yea-Yea for birthday gifties for our matching Libra husbands (who are also exactly the same age.) David was very pleased with his prezzies, since this year I made him fill out a form (aren't I romantic?) with very specific questions about his desires, and so for once he actually got what he wanted. One of those items was an iPod Nano, which is absurdly cute.

His actual birthday coincided with the annual FCC Moon Festival, which may be my favorite FCC event of the year, as it takes place at night under a full moon, involves hot chocolate, moon cakes (this year we had cupcakes for David) and features a "lantern parade" in which all the little cuties march around a big field holding paper lanterns with glow sticks inside. We didn't get to snuggle in blankets as much as I might have liked, since certain people were running hectares in order to terrorize some night-sniffing rabbits, but it was lovely anyway.