Saturday, April 28, 2012

Somewhere in Wuhan (And the Part I Left Out)

Emma in Wuhan, 1995

“I wasn’t going to tell you that,” he said, and it seemed he already wished he could take back his words. We were sitting on the lumpy brown chairs in one corner of our Wuhan hotel room, whispering together while Emma napped on the double bed, surrounded by pillows to keep her from going anywhere.

The minute he had said it, I had jumped to my feet and raced over to check on her, my daughter of 24 hours. Her lucky bindi, carefully painted with red nail polish by her foster mother, had been washed away, but her shiny red manicure was still in place. She slept with a frown on her face and her hands up in the air, a posture she would maintain for the next 17 years, each time she lost her nightly battle with sleep. Along with so much else, though, I didn’t know that then.

But there was one thing, the thing he’d just told me, that I wished I could un-know, right away, because now there was an image in my mind that I couldn’t wipe away. He’d just come from a final meeting with the orphanage officials, and I could tell from the moment he stepped into the room that something troubling had happened.

“They found her when she was two days old,” he’d reported, looking away. “At the radio parts factory.”

A two-day-old baby. In February. At the radio parts factory.

But not just any baby.

This baby. This one that I’d already given four bottles to, already changed a few diapers for, already bathed, nervously, in the hotel sink.

My daughter.

When people talk about their children, they use the word “love,” but that’s a concept that, for me, always contained too much an element of choice. We decide whom to love. With Emma, there had been no deciding.

From the moment I had embarked on this adventure, had clipped my hook to the bungee cord of a crazy idea to adopt a child from China, it was as if a magnet had been placed deep within me. The minute she was placed in my arms at the Wuhan Foundling Hospital, our opposite poles had attracted, inevitably. We were attached, and it was just that simple and just that complicated, even after only 24 hours.

So the thought of her ever being alone, being cold or being in danger --  the thought of her anywhere near something that sounded as menacing as a radio parts factory – made me feel rent in two and impelled me to sprint to her bedside, just to make sure she was still safe. She was safe. She was Emma, and nothing as simple as mere abandonment as an infant was going to get in the way of her rocket ride. But of course, that was one of those things I didn’t know yet.

“We don’t need to talk about that part, ever again,” he said.

And, for seventeen years, we didn’t. On her birthday each year, I would brightly bring up reminders of  her birth parents, a topic in which she always seemed disinterested. I had friends with kids from China who demanded daily and detailed recollections of what had happened to them. Emma, the ruling Queen of Emma-land, seemed to be a country of one, content with her own present and unconcerned about the past. Still, I always looked for a way to mention her parents and tell her how proud they would be of her. We would toast them, thank them, say that even halfway around the world, they were thinking about her. Behind my eyes, though, there was always the Dickensian-dark backstory and that looming hulk of the radio parts factory.

I knew from recent studies that most kids adopted from China shared a similar story – a poor family who had one girl already, who had tried for a boy and who, with the birth of this daughter, had failed. Often, I’d read, there was an iron-willed mother-in-law involved, one who commanded what had to be done. Like most things in China, it was all more complex than it seemed. What looked like an abandonment was often an arrangement with a sympathetic friend who agreed to “find” the girl and get her to an orphanage. If she had to be left somewhere, hidden watchers were stationed to ensure her safety. It’s one of the immutable rules of China, I suppose, that someone is always watching. She was loved and she was safe, I tried to tell myself, but, on so many February twenty-seconds, after the frosting had been licked off the candles and the wrapping paper had been burned in the fireplace, that thought did not hold much comfort.

And just at the point of the story where I might be forgiven for this repeated omission, I have another one to confess. Emma has been living in China this academic year. She decided to return to her hometown in the spring, to visit her orphanage. She asked for my help in arranging the journey. I was asked to gather up all the papers we’d been given in Wuhan. I found them in the family safety deposit box. Her Chinese visa. Her medical exam. The first photo I’d ever seen of her, sent via fax machine. Another photo we’d had to take at the American embassy in Guangzhou, when she had turned angrily from the camera and I’d had to turn her face back toward it. My fingers are the only part of me in the photograph, but I swear, I can tell they’re nervous fingers.

I took the papers home and begin to scan each page. It occurred to me, somewhere during this task, that I should send these documents to Emma, too. I thought she’d be delighted to discover that she didn’t need the English translation sheet, but could read the original Chinese. Then I came across a document that mentioned where she was found. I suddenly felt like a character in a James Bond movie: “So, radio parts factory, we meet again.”

Emma on the flight out of Wuhan, 1995

I sent all the documents to the agency. I sat for a long time in front of the computer, deciding which ones to send to Emma. I imagined her, alone, in her bedroom, in Beijing, reading all of this. I pictured her quick eyes scanning the sheets, taking it all in. I imagined how she would feel when she got to that one, how her eyebrows would crumple together, and how she would reach to chew on the shreds of the baby blanket she brought with her from home (it's visible, whole, peeking out of the red bag in the picture above).

I sent her every document but that one.

Sometimes it takes years for us to realize the mistakes we’ve made as parents -- the things we should have done, the things we shouldn’t have said. As I sat at the computer that day, I knew it was wrong to withhold this document, but I couldn't bring myself to unleash the truth upon her while she was all alone in that complicated and chaotic place.

The truth comes out though, sooner or later, every time. The arrangements were made, the permissions were received, and Emma and her father spent yesterday at the Wuhan Foundling Hospital. The guide we’d hired, armed with the information I had sent, included a visit to the radio parts factory in the itinerary.

Somewhere in Wuhan, Emma has relatives. Somewhere in Wuhan, I know she wishes, she has a mother and a father and a brother and sister. But somewhere in Wuhan, she was released from their family circle, and that somewhere was the radio parts factory. She was with someone who loved her when the truth she was seeking came crashing in on her. I can only hope that helped.

As I’m writing this, I haven’t yet heard a report from the travelers, haven’t pieced together what sense Emma is making of this journey. But that’s beside the point for this record of my omissions and my failures. We can each of us only tell our own stories, so I am telling mine. It’s not a very proud one, but, finally, it’s honest.

At some point in everyone’s life, adopted or not, there is a time to reflect on family. How on earth, we think, did I end up with these people? While some may point to destiny, biology or just random chance, I do admit that I believe in a higher power. My version may be a little bit offbeat (I’ve written in another blog about how I’m convinced that God will resemble Cole Porter, and that heaven will include nightly showings of all my favorite plays), but I’ve also discovered that I believe in a corollary Cocktail Party theory of families. God, the great jester, throws us together in these lifelong cocktail parties with people he thinks will make amusing or instructive company for us. While I realize that the guest list can seem sometimes to be vengeful, or obtuse, or just plain wrong-headed, I have great hopes that, someday, it will all be clear why we ended up in the same unending party with those particular family members.

So, the way my theory  goes, my girls are stuck at the same cocktail party as I am, and while I’ve spent a great deal of time these past seventeen years getting them carrot sticks and offering them coloring books and trying to keep them amused, I have some hopes that in the years to come they might occasionally offer to freshen my drink, or bring me a rumaki, or, if I ever make good on my continued threat to take up smoking, light my cigarette for me.

For whatever reason, Emma is at this party with me as her mother, and that’s going to be something she has to make her own sort of sense of, along with everything else the poor kid is trying to figure out these days. She has been the great adventure of my life, but I understand that the relationship holds something different for each of us. She is in my bloodstream, something so elemental to my existence that I can’t imagine living without her. I am her launching pad, nothing more and nothing less, the thing she pushes against to help her slip into orbit. And even as she's flashing against the sky, I still feel the pull of her and know that, somehow, we'll always be connected.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Bargains by the Pound

I don’t like shopping, I like scrounging, and there’s a big difference.  Shopping happens at a store, or worse yet, a mall. It features nice lighting, helpful attendants, piped-in music and shopping bags. Feh. 

Scrounging, a much more adventurous experience, involves heaps and bins and random assortments of what might be crud or might be kinda sorta useful. It takes place in furtive curbside stops, at garage sales and, blessedly, at my new spiritual home, the Goodwill Outlet on University Avenue in St. Paul.  

I don’t know how I managed to survive so many years before uncovering this Shangri-La right in my own city, but from the moment I walked in the door, I knew I had found the Real Deal. The harsh, overhead lighting. The bored security guard leaning against the cement block wall. The diverse customer base that left me, the white lady, in the minority. The heaps of bizarrely unrelated merchandise, with conveyer belts pushing buckets of randomness along. And, the best part -- the fabulous By the Pound pricing system, a truly genius plan. Who could resist an experience in which everything you buy will cost $1.49 a pound? Clearly, not me.

The first time I happened upon this wonderland, I was with Mary Katherine, a vintage-friendly gal, and her overly hygienic friend Olivia. Mary Katherine dove in quickly, searching for treasure in her trademark “pony in here somewhere” style. Olivia stood back, aghast, once again. This was not the first time I’d horrified the poor thing, and would not, I fear, be the last.

But I had bins to sort through, so I got right to work. From the first heap, I pulled out a man’s XXL sweatshirt (I had thought it was a bedspread), followed by a newborn onesie, complete with formula stains. Next, a couple of bedraggled prom dresses that, could they talk, might have some juicy tales to tell. Then a quick succession of regrettable '80s fashion choices – blouses with button covers, holiday-themed vests and a “power suit” (remember those?  I wore them constantly and never attained a smidgen of power), complete with football-worthy shoulder pads.  Finally, one lone espadrille. Now we were getting somewhere, I thought happily, anticipating that the next bin over would surely be the one that yielded a treasure – and yes, I’m aware that this pattern of cogitation is not unlike that of chronic slot machine players, but without the free drinks.

I sensed a shadow crossing my newest heap. Mary Katherine and Olivia were standing across from me, faces tight with that “about to die of boredom” look that teens manage so well. Mary’s pony-somewhere spirit seemed to have soured. Olivia looked like she wanted to go home and take a bath, possibly a Full Silkwood. I begged for five more minutes and then gave in, taking my small pile to the scale … a red cardigan for Mary Katherine, a couple summer tops for Emma (it’s getting hot in Beijing, she tells me) and a pillowcase with cherries on it because, well, I like things with cherries on them. Total sale: $5.25. No bag. Go home.

I’ve been back once already, this time without the teens, wearing comfortable shoes, and with an MP3 player to drown out the execrable music.  I was in heaven, just rooting around and thinking of all the stories that went with all this junk. I suppose I could have spent a nice day at the mall, sipping a smoothie and strolling through the cologne-scented aisles, but really, why would I want to?  There aren’t any stories associated with anything there, and here, I had nothing but questions. What happened to that other pink rain boot? Did the sleeves on that plaid jacket get cut off by a chainsaw, or eaten by a bear? Did someone actually wear this, and how long ago, and how sorry were they afterwards?

Give me stories, and give me bins, and most of all, give me by-the-pound pricing for my scrounging adventures. I'm sure I'll find just what I'm looking for, the next heap over.

Saturday, April 14, 2012


I’ve had just enough whining about pixels being inferior to print. I love to hold a musty old book in my hand as much as the next wine-swilling book clubber, but there is one way that pixels beat the page every time, and that time is when you’re standing by the printing press at  2 a.m., and you notice a typo just as the last of your 10,000-quantity-run, four-color brochures comes shooting off the line.

Pixels can be changed, and that, for anyone who has ever had to call the client and explain why their name was misspelled on the cover of the prospectus, is a very good thing.

So why, then, if corrections are infinitely available, do errors so significantly abound? Forget the creative spelling and punctuation excursions of the hairy-eared and frothing online commenters, and just consider a place where you’d think accuracy would be of the highest importance – one’s own LinkedIn profile page. I wrote last summer about my quest to make better use of LinkedIn. In the months since, I’ve seen a lot of profiles. And a lot of mistakes. In the interest of providing a cautionary tale and sending us all to our pages for one more quick read-through, I am presenting these examples from actual profiles I've stumbled upon in the last few months.

These are not arcane little flubs or niggles about semicolon use. They are really dumb mistakes, and many are made in the first two lines of someone’s profile. Really? You don’t have the stamina to do a two-line quality check? You’re clearly CEO material – will $10 million a year be enough as a starting salary?

I’ll start with an easy one, a mistake we’ve all made. Wouldn’t you think LinkedIn could have a spell check that would catch this one?  I mean, how many actual manger manufacturers can there be, outside of the greater Bethlehem metro area, and couldn’t they get an override that would allow the rest of us to stop doing what dear Regenia A. has done:

Regenia A.

Program Manger at Best Buy

Sometimes people just get key happy. Here’s one which leaves me wondering if  the "junior" person is a better speller ...

Seniior Policy Aide at City of Minneapolis

And here’s a guy who really, really needs help: 

Chemicle Depecdency Tecnician at Endeavor Place

When I saw this next one, I actually stopped and thought, "Wait, what's a "roject" manager?"  I thought it was some high-tech thing I had missed the boat on.  Sadly, this guy was out of my network area, so I'll never know what rojects he's managing these days.  Or rejects, for that matter. 


John T.

roject Manager at LHB

Perhaps I've got it all wrong, and he actually works with Mystery Inc.'s gang of meddling kids and their dog, Scooby Doo.  "Roh Roh!  A new Roject! Call John T!"

Some people seem to have some issues with LinkedIn's most basic entry requests, such as correctly inputting one’s first and last name. One day, I got an email that said, “Learn about Weinfurtner, your new connection.” I thought, “Who in the world would name their child Weinfurtner?” Turns out this lady had it mixed up, unless her last name is somehow Tammie. Here’s how it was listed in her profile:

Sometimes people don’t want to settle for a mere two names. I really think, for example, that these two should get together ... together.


Jim Splinter Splinter 

Jody Jody Finkenaur 

And, for that matter,  they might enjoy spending time with

Ilana Ilana

Independent Food & Beverages Professional

After seeing this sort of personal screwing up, I wondered if it extended to corporate entities, as well.  I tried an old eBay trick, the “shandahleer run-around.” Turns out there’s an entire group of shoppers who take advantage of eBay’s lack of spell checking to search for all the misinformed ways someone might spell something they’re posting – say, a chandelier that might be languishing unsold by a seller who doesn’t understand why their perfectly nice shandahleer hasn’t been snapped up yet.

I entered some misspelled names in LinkedIn’s search engine, and what I found was either laughable or sobering, depending on how much you care about the future of the English language and the species in general. I found 28 companies who spelled their company name "Assocaites," including law firms, civil engineers and CPAs.

And there are even a few who can’t get past a second-grade Spelling Bee word like “company.”
Of course, we all make mistakes, especially digital ones, but since they’re so incredibly editable, I’d urge everyone to make a quick resume and profile check, just to make sure they haven’t listed themselves as a “manger” at a terrific “copmany.” If you decide to head to my LinkedIn profile page for some competitive proofreading, and find a typo, please tell me, for God’s sake. (Plus, I just put it in there to see if you were really looking.)

And if you happen to know one of these characters who got LinkedOut today, please, tell them, too.  They need all the friends they can get.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Bag in the Other Mom’s Minivan: What I’ve Learned as a Semi-Professional Teen Transporter

I drive a lot of teenagers, and I drive them many places. I do all this without benefit of space (I drive a Beetle) or ability (I favor the “crazy old granny in the slow lane” school of driving). What I do have are a flexible schedule and an open heart, so my services, such as they are, are frequently requested. Sometimes I think that my most cherished charasteristic as a mother is my ability to keep my schedule clear of pressing appointments between three and five p.m., when everyone needs to get to rehearsal.

The kids I drive are uniformly kind-hearted and grateful. The chorus of thank-you’s I receive at the end of each trip would do their parents proud. And sometimes they even forget that I’m in the car, which is when I get to hear the really good dish.

In addition to occasional gossip tidbits, I’ve picked up some other pointers along the way. These are old news to those who spend most of their time organizing herds of teens, so to all the youth directors and program planners and field trip coordinators who toil in the fields of eternal adolescence, I offer a respectful honk of my chock-full-o-teens car as I pass your minivan on the highway.

The Use of Antennae for Silent Battle Planning
I grew up with much older siblings who were teens when I was a wee tot, so perhaps that informs my paradigm that teenagers use the phone to make their plans. By this, I mean that I think they will use their actual voices with one another. And that’s what I keep expecting, even though it never, ever happens. When I was a child, our house phone was an avocado green number with a standard-length cord, so teen plans were easily overheard by anyone who happened to be in the kitchen. I always knew who was going where, and so did anyone else within earshot.

Not so these days, which is fine (I am all for quiet), except that it’s often very surprising. In the hour before we are leaving for some event, I barely notice Mary Katherine tapping away on her phone. Then, ten minutes before we need to leave, she provides the rundown of kids and addresses for which pickups are required. 

Every single time, I am dumbfounded. “How did she gain all this information without speaking?” I marvel. I imagine masses of teens rubbing their antennae together and communicating the secret location of the colony’s treasure, like very large and fashionably dressed insects. I am in awe of their stealthy ability to plan complex battle arrangements in total silence, like the Great Mime Army of Minneapolis.

The Hotel California Factor
You took the gang to the movie, or the mall, or to see a fellow actor's show. It may seem to you as if it’s all over now, everyone is tired, and it’s time to go home. You even have all seven -- where’s that short kid? Oh, there he is—eight of your charges standing by.

Not so fast. I have spent more time waiting to leave events with teenagers than I’ve spent at the events themselves. Bladders get smaller as the evening progresses. Purses have been left behind and must be frantically searched for. One girl goes missing and everyone is worried that she’s Freaking Out about seeing Chandler and Kaelynne together, whoever they are. And there is always, always a bag in some other mom’s minivan that you have to wait around to retrieve. As the Eagles more or less said, You can stand by the exit looking at your watch and sighing all you want, but you can never leave.

And that bag?  The one in the minivan you had to wait for? This will be the very same bag that gets left in your trunk 45 minutes later, a fact you will discover only after you’ve dropped everyone else at their homes and are pulling into your driveway. From the backseat, your up-to-now silent teen will provide the antennae-delivered update: “You have to turn around. Her algebra book is in that bag, and she has to have it tonight.” Put it in “R,” honey, and don’t expect to be in bed before midnight.

The Group Laugh
Everything is funnier when you’re transporting a large mass of teenagers. The guy crabwalking across the street? People will howl and hold their sides and wet their pants. The man at the bus stop, reading a book?  See him two days in a row and he becomes the stuff of hysterical legend. Plus, if nothing especially funny seems to be happening at the moment, the kids who weren’t around for the crabwalker can be filled in on the hilarious details, or Nathalie can start shouting “Mom” at puzzled passersby (gets a laugh every time, at least inside the vehicle).

So, here's what I've learned about transporting teenagers:  I never know what’s going on, I never, ever get back home at a decent hour, but I have some good really laughs about that crabwalking guy along the way.