Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Picking the Flies Out of Her Teeth: Observing One Friend’s Wild Ride on the Facebook Log Flume

As someone who freely admits that her only reason for being on Facebook is to spy on her children (it was my sole condition for allowing them to join), I take a detached view of the social media that so many of my friends seem to find indispensable. Even though I might describe myself as “Facebook neutral,” I do understand that it’s the only possible way to communicate with my kids on any topic, let alone get a peek at those pictures from the sleepover, find out what time I need to pick them up at the movies, whatever. 

But even such judicious neutrality has its limits, as I recently discovered. Mary Katherine and I were recently visiting with a friend who has steadfastly refused to join Facebook, with the reasoning that she works with crazy people (no, really, they’re institutionalized, not merely whimsical, like the whack-jobs at your office) and the crazies would use Facebook to stalk her. Also, it turned out upon closer questioning, old boyfriends, but if you knew her old boyfriends you wouldn’t judge.

The reason I was asking about Facebook in the first place was that she had missed out on lots of pictures Emma had posted from China. Some of these pictures, especially of the fish market, were well worth missing, but I didn’t want her lose a chance for future Sino-carcass-close-ups, so I told her that Mary Katherine and I would set her up with a Facebook account. She squirmed. She sighed. And finally, she relented. 

And lo, it came to pass. Technology moves very swiftly when a 13-year-old is in charge. We followed our friend’s directive to set up a Facebook page that used only her obscure middle name, not her first, and to scrub all personal data possible. No photo, no birthday, no relationship status. We set the highest levels of privacy, and demonstrated the safety of each feature to her. We told her she could just friend Emma, look at the photos of her year abroad, and leave it at that.

Except she didn’t quite leave it at that. First, she invited her two younger brothers to be her friends, and the result of that misstep was that she received several hundred photos of obese cats within 24 hours, all intended to torment her about the heft of her current pet. Fat cats in outfits, fat cats holding chip bags, fat cats at the gym, whatever. “I didn’t know there were that many pictures of cats in the whole world,” she said, revealing a major gap in her cultural awareness (probably comes from spending all that time trying to help crazy people and not diddling away half her life watching talking kittens on You Tube, but a gap, nonetheless).

After the cat troubles, things quieted down. Every now and again, I shared an article from NPR or the New York Times with her. Sometimes, she would even write back:  Thanks! I smiled to myself, proud that I’d been able to help assist a sane, rational person to make a nice merge onto the Information Superhighway.

And then all hell broke loose. It started on a Sunday morning, when the first new status update I noticed was that someone had tagged her in a picture. Oh my, I thought, this is not within her maximum-security policy. I started to send instructions on how to untag herself, I noticed that her first name, not her middle name, was listed in the tag. Then I checked back and watched the horror unfold – first, a notice that she had a new profile picture, then a statement that she was in a relationship, then a long list of people she’d friended. Well, I thought, you embrace that technology, girlfriend.

And then it all came crashing down. The next week, I received an email from her that sounded, well, desperate:  “Help me.  I want to stop getting people’s posts about what they've eaten or pooped out, etc.  I can't figure out how to do that.” I sent her instructions and received this reply: “Thank you! .I'm seriously getting people’s deep thoughts, play-by-play commentary as they watch a sporting event, shout outs to their husbands (who are probably with them as they post) and food details."

Later (via that old standby, the phone), she told me, “It’s all the adults doing the blabbing!  It’s not your kids or my baby brother or any teen person!” I sighed. Emma had pretty much said the same thing to me, just a month earlier. I had borrowed her laptop in order to access Facebook in China (she has an illegal VPN connection), and one night she’d read over my shoulder while I browsed. “These are the most boring status updates ever!” she declared. “What is WITH you old people?” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the messages she was currently reading were the cream of my friend crop. I’d already unsubscribed from several characters who were repeat offenders in my unforgiveable triumvirate:

1) What you ate, are about to eat, or what you’re thinking about eating. (Even worse:  The commenters who add “yum,” or “I’ll be over with a knife and fork,” or – creepiest of all – “My mouth is watering.” 

2) Hypochondria. You just sneezed all over the clean basket of laundry? One word for you, my friend: “Unsubscribe.”

3) Anything with cats.

So, given these stringent rules, Emma was, in fact, reading the Algonquin Round Table of my friends, and still she found it lacking. You should read about the guy who reports on his calorie intake and weight every Monday, I thought. Or the woman who has been getting something, having something, or just getting over something for about a year now. Them, I axed. This, sweetie, is the best and the brightest, after they've taken their menopause hormones and antidepressants, and maybe an Advil for that bunion.

I sympathize with my newly disillusioned-with-Facebook friend. She had such a happy few days there, riding that wild wave of Facebook thrills: “Whee, that’s someone I went to college with!”followed by, “I always liked her in high school,”  before it all devolved. She hasn’t returned to her formerly near-anonymous status, but it’s just a matter of time, I suppose. She’s just one posted-photo-of-dessert away from getting herself an Amish buggie and starting to communicate with quill and parchment. And, really, I can't blame her.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Wipe a Nose, Write a Check: What “Service” Really Means

I celebrated our National Day of Service one day early, with my regular volunteer shift at the Crisis Nursery. Dr. King, in his time, organized boycotts, led marches and gave stirring speeches. For my contribution this year, I wiped crusty noses, mopped up drool dribbles, and spoonfed mashed carrots to a toddler. I helped Purpess and Promiss get settled for their naps with a warm bottle and a few stories, and then I went home.

Compared to the accomplishments of a martyred civil rights leader, it seems a little light on vision, achievement and sweeping change.

The MLK Day of Service has been in place since 1994, and it’s the only federal holiday observed as a national day of service. The organizers call it "a day on, not a day off." As someone who volunteers regularly for a number of organizations, I love this idea and I wish it would catch fire in our collective national consciousness. One day a year, couldn’t the malls be closed? Or could schools require that students show up and work in the community? What could all our government's employees, together, accomplish in one day?

If we really embraced this holiday, hands could get dirty and eyes could be opened. As it is, efforts still seem a little weak. Considering that and wondering why, I thought about my own volunteer efforts and the organizations I support.

What I Don’t Do: Write Checks. I have noticed that charities often seem more eager for my cash than for my time. I understand this. I serve on a couple of nonprofits boards, and things are increasingly tight financially. But I also think that the reason I am more often asked for money instead of effort is that volunteers can be more trouble than they’re worth. To have volunteers, you have to have clear, definable jobs for them, and you have to deal with all the things they might be bringing to the endeavor, like sloppy work, loud opinions or a generally poor representation of your organization. They have to be trained, supervised and often praised excessively. Checks, on the other hand, just have to be cashed.

What I Do: Show Up. The last time I looked, I seem to have misplaced my trust fund. I don’t have the economic resources to pony up a lot of cash, but I can give an hour or two to a worthy cause, if they ask. I go the Crisis Nursery and wipe noses. I show up at my local public high school and help kids with their college essays. I write press releases for a youth theater company.

What I Wish I Could Do: How much time have you got? Maybe it’s all for the best that I wasn’t born with a big comfortable pile of old family money. For one thing, I never would have left school, and I’d currently be working on my sixth Ph.D. For another, I’d think that writing checks was enough. I’d go to galas and balls and charity dinners, dressed in swell duds, and I’d outbid everyone else for the silent auction and be the honorary chairwoman at a couple fabulous events every year. But I’d miss out on the nose wiping, and the spelling help and the chance to sit in cramped meetings with people who are passionate about their issues, and who desperately need just a little bit of practical help.

I realize that, in many ways, I am far from the ideal nonprofit supporter. Showing up to work, on time, is great. But funding the Julie Kendrick Wing of Whatever We Want would probably be better. Still, I do what I can, even without that honorary chairmanship to the charity ball. And all I can do, as I often tell myself, will have to do, at least for now.

There are the people who lead the march on Washington, and there are the people who give Promiss a bottle before her nap, and I think I know which kind of person I’ve turned out to be.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Pink Ostriches for Lunch

I can’t imagine inviting a group of giant-sized, round-eyed monsters for Christmas Eve lunch, but Emma’s host parents are made of tougher stuff than I, God bless them. We were nothing but trouble from the start.  Emma took an exit at the subway that left her utterly lost. First, she tried some fruitless consultation with a couple of cab drivers, who kept sneaking glances at the four white people with her, as if she were a keeper taking us to an audition at the Beijing Circus. (“It’s going to be hard to go back to just being normal looking, after being a hideous eyesore for two weeks,” Mary Katherine observed wryly one morning on the subway, deflecting the stares of horror that were flitting across the faces of our fellow passengers.) The cab drivers were too gobsmacked to help, so Emma resorted to a couple cryptic calls to her host mom.

We arrive half an hour late, stiff-faced and cold from our now-daily lost-getting exercise. Plus, we’d passed a giant and garish Puppet Theater on our endless walk, and Mary Katherine is worried someone was going to make her see a puppet show, so anxiety levels are high. We fill up the apartment with our puffy coats, our puffy selves and our chatter.

Emma’s host parents had set bowls of oranges and nuts on the coffee table, have tea ready to pour, and are working in the kitchen on preparing tray after tray of perfectly formed dumplings. The television is turned to an English language station. The statues of Stalin and Mao gleam on the shelf, ready for inspection. 

Then I look into the eyes of Emma’s host mom, and take the first deep breath since she left home in September. This woman is happy to see us, or at least is doing a great job of pretending, and she and her husband welcome us warmly. Her graciousness calms us, so of course we move to the couch and begin tossing back snacks right away.

I’ve prepared many meals for guests in my life, so I had a good basic idea of the to-do lists they’d been managing in the moments leading up to this one, starting with waking up early on Saturday morning and realizing with a thud that this day was going to be a long one. Out of bed, get things going, and get to the market before they run out of the good stuff.  Back to the market for that one thing we forgot. Apartment cleaning. Clutter removal. Knick-knack rearrangement. Bathroom check.

Then, the pre-party existential angst that Zora O’Neill and Tamara Reynolds, who run an underground supper club in New York, call “The Hour of Self-Loathing:” Why am I doing this? Who are these people and why have I asked them to my house? I have better things to do with my time than worry about them. Nobody better ask for decaf, that’s all I’m saying. I had to believe  that Emma’s host mom had been wishing she could take a nap instead of making forced conversation with the Large Family, party of five.

It was clear that they had already been working all morning. Dad was rolling out dumpling skins with a miniature rolling pin, tossing them into a pile at a rapid rate and engaging in some good-natured ribbing with the mom about which of them was the better dumpling roller. It wasn’t until the following week, when l I took a dumpling-making class at the China Culture Center, that I would learn how hard it was to create that perfectly thin surface and uniformly circular shape. A couple bowls of fillings were set up, and I think they were pleased when we asked to help with filling. Our efforts were lumpy and misshapen, but we were assured they’d taste just as good.


They have prepared hot pot for us, which Emma tells us is a purely special occasion food. Then they serve those incredible dumplings, being sure to provide soy sauce for Mary Katherine and Olivia. (Vinegar is the correct dipping choice, but Emma had warned them.) Emma grew pensive. “I sat right here and ate dumplings the night I arrived. I was really late, but my host mom sat up with me, and she just kept making them until I was so full that I went to bed.”

Before she left home last summer, I had a secret wish for the sort of host parents who would be perfect for Emma. I imagined a pair of Chinese tigers, ready to discipline all of those soft, American tendencies. Instead, with Emma’s usual luck, she’d found herself with kind-faced, kind-eyed people who met her with open arms, open hearts and a platter of dumplings.

Meal finished, we announce our next plan for the day, a visit the Olympic village, which is nearby.  There is a quiet conversation between the parents in which I understand the dad to be proposing to drive us in his car. After a quick assessment of our massive volume,  I sense encroaching panic, so I propose the bus, instead.  Relieved, Emma’s host mom offers to walk us there. Winding through the neighborhood, we generate astounded stares, as if she is taking her herd of pink ostriches for an afternoon stroll. Waiting for the bus and chatting, I take the opportunity to look carefully at her soft, smooth face and into her lively, kind eyes.

I remember more kindnesses that Emma has mentioned in passing remarks, in between plot summaries of pirated movies, debates on communism vs. capitalism and detailed descriptions of her plan for world domination. A few weeks before, for example, Emma had been very anxious about a speech she had to give, in Chinese, to the entire school. After it was all over and we were Skyping, she tossed off a remark that her host mom thought she had done very well. “Wait a minute. That woman bicycled twenty minutes in awful traffic to come see you give a speech, in Chinese, on the weather in Minnesota?”

The “duh” that followed this question could be expected. To Emma, that’s just the way things are. To me, it’s a marvel, one more example of how this little orphan girl seems to have an astonishing ability to find herself a safe harbor, no matter where she lands.

So there I was at the bus stop, with the woman who had just walked me through her neighborhood. She was probably thinking about what she'd tell everyone tomorrow, when they asked. I knew other things about her:  she did Emma’s laundry every day and hung it in the meager sunshine to dry. After yet another near-miss biking accident from my daredevil daughter, she had arranged a neighborly swap of Emma’s flimsy bike for one she thought might be sturdier.

And she invited all of us over to her house on a Saturday afternoon.

Standing at the bus stop, I suddenly remembered another set of eyes that reminded me of hers. I looked into them as I sat in a van in the parking lot of a Wuhan Foundling Hospital on a hot June day sixteen years ago, holding my new daughter on my lap. Emma's foster mom, who had been caring for her these past four months, came to the back of the idling car and looked in the window at me. We had no words, just our eyes, and we spent several long moments just looking at each other.

Sometimes all you can do is love a child for as long as you can.  Then you have to let go and allow someone else to take over the job.  But you do what you can. You look in her eyes.

The bus arrives, packed as full as every mode of transportation in this oversized city, and we scramble on to find our places. I turn back for one more look, one more thank you, and then I’m off to the rest of my Christmas Eve.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Apparating, not Apps: My New Year’s Wish for a Transportation Revolution

When I was a kid, there were two ways to communicate from long distances: First, check the mailbox. Second, pick up the avocado-green, rotary dial telephone in the kitchen when it rang. (There weren’t answering machines, so you had to run to pick it up or miss the call.) The fancier families had extra-long cords that allowed teenagers to sit in the hall closest and have private conversations. No one in my social circle had a princess telephone in their bedroom, with a separate line, but I saw it on television (black and white, three channels).

So, that’s changed a little bit.

When I was a kid, there were four ways to travel long distances:  boat, train, car or airplane.

And that hasn’t changed at all.

Here is my New Year’s plea to the inventive geniuses of this world: We have enough apps for that, really. Could you possibly shift your focus from what we do with our thumbs all day, to how we get our physical selves from place to place?

Given the astonishing leaps we’ve made in communications, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a similar sea change in transportation. I take it for granted that I can talk to my daughter via Skype every morning in Beijing, and carry her flat little pixilated head out to the back yard to see last night’s snowfall. Is it too much to ask that I can manage to apparate at Beijing Middle School for teacher conferences, or that she can materialize herself into her sister’s Christmas program and sing along to "Kermit's Christmas"? I think not.

Someday, I want to be visiting New York's Natural History Museum with my granddaughter. First, we’ll see the Mountain of Useless Appliances, with tons of IBM Selectrics at the base, and a mass of CPUs tottering at the top. Then we’ll stop in front of the display of Ancient Air Travel. The diorama will depict the huddled masses on a flight to New York, crammed together in the fetid atmosphere, keeping their eyes downward as the Stew-Master bullies them like the newest recruits at Camp Lejeune. In the display, she is pushing her weapon/cart, selling the poor oppressed masses her exorbitantly priced “food.”

“Who are those people, Grandma?” my little darling will ask. I’ll want to pick her up for a better look, but since the average four-year-old will weigh 150 pounds in the future, given our current food consumption trajectory, I’ll just tell her stand on her tiptoes to get a better view of Grandma’s past. “Long ago, people used to travel in airplanes,” I’ll tell her. “They were great for getting from place to place in a very long, usually incredibly delayed amount of time, except that they were expensive, smelly, germ-ridden tubes of broken dreams.”

“Gee, Grandma,” she’ll lisp adorably as she places her enormous, fat-laden hand in mind. “You are so old. And I’m really hungry again. Can I apparate us to McDonald’s for another TripleMac before lunch?”  “You bet, honey,” I’ll say, and she’ll press a few buttons on her personal keypad with her gigantic, extenuated thumbs, and get us back to Minneapolis in a jiffy.

Game on, boys:  All you Jasons and Channings and Jakes and Elis out there:  Put down COD and start designing me some modern-day, Jetson-level Transpo, stat. I’ve got a date with my granddaughter in 20 years, and I don’t want to be late.

Beijing, yoga, 6 a.m.

View from studio window, Beijing Marriott City Wall, 2011

The first thing that has to happen is to find the gym attendant and beg her to turn off the music. Realize that perhaps "turn off" is not the right phrase.  Try "cancel" and "extinguish." Experiment with placing hands over ears, finger to lips. Finally, See recognition in her eyes: Oh, so this is the one American who does not prefer 80s techno-pop during workouts.

Follow her to the key closet, down a long haul to the tiny studio space, and watch her unlock yet another door. The music, blessedly, stops. Put hands together in prayer and say "namaste" to her when she emerges. Be glad she doesn't laugh.

The next thing is to roll out the beat-up mat and take a place on it. Look out the window. Okay, this is different. Laundry drying on three different lines, all of it uniformly grey, one of those three-wheel aluminum foil mobiles parked next to a hut, a skyline swooping with pagodas.

Take a breath. Take another. Have no idea what to do next, so ask for help.

And, miraculously, receive it, from the teachers I've been following. Jeffrey asks for Sun A, Paula demands too many Sun Bs. Do them anyway. Moya has a great new idea for triangle, twisting triangle, triangle on toast. Here is Myra, asking for the longest-ever utkatasana and then asking for a lift at the corners of the mouth, too.

Keep moving. Each time you greet another day in this disorienting place and time, know that there is one thing to do. Pick up the mat and take the elevator to the studio. Then start by convincing today's attendant that the music really, really needs to be turned off.