My niece joined the family on July 12th, 2010. This special young lady's mother is my younger sister, which in classic Chinese culture makes me her Jiu Jiu (舅舅) -- thus the title of this blog. Here I intend to semi-regularly post reflections, thoughts, stories, and assorted whathaveyous pertaining to our trip to China, adoption in general, and (mostly) watching my niece grow up. Since the web is a very public place, I will attempt to maintain my family's privacy while telling the story... but I invite you to follow the blog and come along for the adventure!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Ocean City vs. Hurricane Sandy

AJ's social work conference in Ocean City, Maryland, was scheduled a little later than usual this year. It seemed like a good idea at the time; after all, who thought we'd have a record-setting Frankenstorm at the end of October?!?

As usual, we turned it into a family trip. Mom & Dad headed out to OC with AJ & the Pipsqueak the day before the conference, and I followed on Friday. (I worked last weekend, so I took Friday as my comp day and -- perhaps presciently? -- added Monday as a vacation day). My drive was my first chance to try out several new toys: the GPS that I bought about a month ago, my week-old iPhone 4S, and a batch of iOS apps dedicated to either Ocean City or user-reported traffic problems.

A quick aside: if you live anywhere in the DC metro area, you know "the" way to OC is to head east on MD Route 50. Oh, sure, there are variations (I prefer to turn off on Route 90 just a few miles shy of the coast, coming in on the northern end of OC's main drag) -- but it's really a straight shot across the Bay Bridge and through or around a few towns, then ending up smack-dab in the middle of OC.

So, of course, my GPS insisted on having me turn off an just about any podunk side road I passed, convinced that I needed to get as close to the Atlantic Ocean as possible before actually pointing my vehicle in the intended direction. I'm glad I knew the route and ignored the GPS -- even giving it a few (increasingly impolite) comments about its ability to help me navigate -- or I probably would've been on the road at least 1-1/2 hours longer. At least the traffic reporting app was helpful...!

Anyway, I managed to reach the hotel just in time for an Evening Tea that was part of the conference, and the Pipsqueak happily latched onto me and gave me a workout carrying her around. (Dude, your niece is getting bigger -- and heavier!) She also demonstrated her skills as an elevator operator, pushing all the proper buttons with just the bare minimum of coaching. We had dinner at one of the few all-you-can-eat seafood buffets open off-season (not the one we were looking for), somehow managing to limit the Pipsqueak to five desserts -- none of which she actually ate -- before heading back to the hotel for the night. Shortly before we all bedded down, I decided the pretty scene of the nearly-full moon shining on the smooth ocean surface was too pretty to not record with my camera.

The next morning, Miri squeezed in a few last precious moments of sleep while the grownups all scrambled to get ready in the suite's ONE miniscule bathroom (next year, we'll take two adjoining rooms so we'll have two bathrooms).  Jealous as I was of my niece's not-so-quiet snores, I focused on recovering from sleeping on the couch (the pull-out sofa bed was actually painful to lay on so I just folded myself onto the too-short sofa), and then took a series of photos out the window. I'll leave out the experimental time-lapse exposures and simply include a good representative of just how pretty the sunrise was on Saturday morning:

We didn't see many signs of the approaching Frankenstorm (although we had The Weather Channel on TV most of the time we were in the room), and headed down to breakfast. When we finished, Grandma walked Miri to the conference room so she could hug Mommy goodbye for the morning (one look at her face as AJ walked away from the breakfast table convinced us all that would be A Good Idea), and then all the non-Social Worker members of the family piled into my car for a quick drive to the southernmost tip of the city.

We visited a jewelry store where I turned out to be the only member of the family who wasn't on a first-name basis with the proprietor (who I'll refer to as  the Nice Jewelry Lady), who cooed over how much the Pipsqueak had grown since her last visit. Despite it being business as usual (although they would be closing much earlier than usual), there were already plywood panels up on many storefronts, along with a few signs similar to the one outside the jewelry store's entrance.

We slowly walked a short distance up the boardwalk, then returned to the hotel for the box lunches provided by the conference. (By the way, none of us were crashing the party or freeloading; AJ had paid for us all.) Most of the conversation revolved around the approaching storm and everybody's concerns about being able to get home safely -- most of us had forgotten that the Bay Bridge is closed to traffic if the wind reaches 50mph, and forecasters were saying that was a very real possibility the next day.

After some discussion, AJ gave Mom a specific wish list for the jewelry store because she didn't think she could get there herself before their new closing time and she returned to the conference. The rest of us watched the Weather Channel for a little while in our suite, then returned to the boardwalk for a while. We visited the jewelry store again (where there was more boarding-up activity underway), then wandered along the boardwalk. We didn't do a lot of shopping, but the Pipsqueak did have a lot of fun playing in the sand despite the now-unbroken blast of wind coming out of the north. (At one point, after I purposely messed up the instructions for making Sand Cakes, Miri reared up to her full height, put her hands on her hips, and impatiently asked me, "Now what did I teach you?!?")

Sometime around 1:30-2:00 in the afternoon, we realized the sky was a lot grayer, the wind was a lot sharper, and the surf was definitely picking up; even some of the gulls were finding perches instead of kiting overhead looking for tidbits. We made a quick stop for fries at Thrasher's, then headed back to the hotel for their free High Tea (and a scheduled conference break that would let AJ join us). A clear indication of just how much the weather had changed was my ability to take a photo with my camera aimed directly into the sun at midday... and watching the surf climb almost halfway up the beach behind our hotel.

At tea, AJ told us there was so much concern about Sunday's weather forecast that the entire conference had been rescheduled; they were simply going to push through until 6:30-7pm to finish everything on the agenda, and Sunday's activities would be limited to the pre-paid breakfast at 7:30am. We negotiated the Lack of Mommy Time with Miri, and set out to keep her occupied indoors the rest of the evening. For a while, we played "normal" indoor games, including building & knocking down towers with soft foam blocks -- which Miri insisted she wanted to take a picture of with my camera.

(Not a bad shot, considering she usually has her fingers on the lens and palm covering the flash!) After a little while, I heard what became a regular, repetitive request: "Uncle Brian, can I see your phone for a minute?" I had encased my iPhone in an Otterbox case (not waterproof, but pretty doggone strong, and you can get 'em for less than half price online with a little searching) so I wasn't too worried -- and quickly realized I didn't need to worry at all. Miri has seen smartphones before, playing games on iOS and Android devices with a little help from some of the little girls in our group of adoption friends, so I figured she would "kinda-sorta" know what to do. Well... kinda-sorta my foot, this three-year-old unerringly turned my iPhone right side up, clicked the Home button, slid the onscreen unlock switch to the side, flipped unerringly through several screens of other apps to the games, and began playing one of the "dress the princess" apps I'd installed for her without ever having used my phone before. (Face it, Dude: you're obsolete!)

We had dinner at the buffet we had intended to visit the previous night, arriving just about the same time as the rain we'd been expecting. After wiping out several pounds of steamed crab legs, we drove through the rain back to our hotel -- leaving the restaurant staff behind us taping door seams shut and putting up plywood panels on the windows. Before turning out the lights, we did what we could to get ready to get outta Dodge as soon after Sunday's breakfast as we could. After some discussion (while Miri played with my phone, of course), we decided to avoid the Bay Bridge and head north on a more land-based route through Delaware so that my first experience driving my new-ish RAV4 through serious crosswinds would not be on a long bridge perched high above the Chesapeake Bay.

We all got up at 6:30am, and as the skies began to lighten I realized the scene outside was totally different from what we had seen the previous morning. The sky was grey and coated with clouds, the ocean was a steely grey color with big waves & whitecaps visible from the beach out to the horizon, and when the waves broke the water ran all the way up to the base of the dune separating our hotel from the beach. (The odd blue tone of the photo is due to it being a long exposure at high ISO setting with low levels of early-morning light -- believe me, everything was an ugly grey!)

A greatly-diminished number of conference attendees slowly congregated over the breakfast buffet (almost half had already left), and we all commented on how angry the ocean looked -- the photos below were taken through the windows because the deck had been closed due to high winds.

During breakfast, we received news that our planned route home was now the main route for a mandatory evacuation of almost 50,000 Delawarians & tourists and decided the Bay Bridge wasn't such a bad idea after all. Loading our two vehicles took much longer than planned because we couldn't fit onto any of the passing elevators jammed with other departing guests and their luggage, but I finally pulled out of my parking spot at exactly 9:47am and we drove home in tandem without major incident.

Okay, there was the 10-mile backup due to an overpass on Route 50 having only one navigable lane, and the quick potty stop that caused while we were still on the "wrong" side of the Bay Bridge... and the time when I realized I was so tired I was actually driving at 65mph with my eyes closed... but we made it all the way home without major incident.  Mom & Dad and I made the rounds of several supermarkets up near AJ's house, eventually finding the last two packs of "no refrigeration needed" milk boxes within a multi-mile radius (and returning to AJ's house with said milk as quietly as possible because the Pipsqueak had finally fallen asleep), and when I got to my house I had to ask my next-door neighbor to move his car out of my reserved spot... and then I finally dragged my carry-on upstairs and began trying to get all my laundry done & devices fully charged before the weather has a chance to knowck out the local power grid.

So, in closing... that's an accounting of this year's version of the Pipsqueak's annual Ocean City conference, and here's wishing all of you a safe, problem-free week as Frankenstorm Sandy passes through.

Stay safe, y'all...!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

An Unexpected Feeling

This post is going to be a little different from most others I've made to date.

It's not about the Pipsqueak. It's not about our family, the family-building process, or more difficult aspects of adoption.

It's about me... and an emotion I was not expecting.

I feel guilty.

Not about helping carry my niece halfway around the world from where she was born. Not about helping my sister become a single mother with no good candidate in sight to become the Pipsqueak's Daddy. Not about... well, not about any of the things I thought I might feel guilty about.

I feel guilty about not caring about news about China-U.S. relations.

Back during AJ's paperchase, I slowly morphed from (almost) news junkie to newsophobic, so much so that during the last few months before AJ got The Call I was actively avoiding any potential source of news about China. The longer the wait dragged on, the harder it became to deal with news about anything that could interfere in the adoption process in even the most minute of ways. Even after TA, I caught myself limiting my interest in China news to anything I thought we would have to deal with on a first-hand basis; witness my near-panic over news of flooding in Nanning a couple of weeks before we were due to arrive there.

We've been home for roughly 2.25 years now, and it took me about 1.75 of those years to be able to pay any real attention to news about China-U.S. relations without my brain automatically activating all shields and finding something -- anything! -- else to occupy my attention. I have finally reached the point where I no longer immediately switch into "fight or flight" mode when I see or hear the word "China" in the news, and instead try to listen and process the story like any other.

The final piece of the puzzle to return my reaction to China-related news slowly fell into place beginning a few months back, when the last of the families in our group of adoption friends finally (FINALLY!) got their referral, then TA, then actually met their daughter in China, and made it back home safely. And all of a sudden, I didn't care any more. China and the U.S. in a trade war? Bring it on! Getting tough on China? Yeah, let's do it!  Cracking down on Chinese counterfeiters? Squash 'em!  Countering Chinese hackers?  Spike the SOBs!  Hey, it's okay, a chill in China-U.S. relations can't hurt us anymo-


Suddenly, during one of the (seemingly countless) recent reports of Sino-American disagreements, while thinking all the above thoughts I got knocked down and thoroughly soaked by an unseen and unexpected (but rather large) wave of guilt.

No, a chill in China-U.S. relations can't affect our adoption any more, and all our adoption friends have finally come home with their sons & daughters... but I still read a lot of "mommy blogs" and log into the Rumor Queen forums. What about all those families still trapped in the paperchase, all those dreams that could be stamped into oblivion, all those feelings of love for & connection with children who could suddenly be denied to their adoptive families?

So now I'm feeling guilty... and I really wasn't expecting this. Part of the guilt comes from a lifetime as Foreign Service "brat" and TCK, a background that essentially programmed me to see multiple facets of every story, to find ways of understanding "the other side(s)" no matter how simply a story was presented in the mass media. That part of me is more than just a little upset with the rest of me for blowing off the feelings of all those adoptive families still trapped in the paperchase.

And somewhere in the back of my mind is a very quiet voice asking if I'm the only one experiencing this particular emotional stew. I spent almost as much time pre-TA researching attachment issues, reading adoption horror stories, and seeking out helpful resources as AJ did, but somehow nothing prepared me for (or warned me about) this particular surprise so long after helping bring the Pipsqueak home.

I have to wonder if this is one of those aspects of international adoption that's not really spoken about but rather is (perhaps unconsciously) pushed back into the shadows in an effort to minimize the psychic scarring of the paperchase, all those years of balancing on an increasingly narrow base while dodging the arrows of finance, bureaucracy, family issues, and international politics. Maybe I wasn't able to find information about it because the IA community is still trying to adjust to the constant stretching out of the time between filing and Gotcha Day, maybe it's because no one can talk about it in detail because it amplifies & strengthens the memories of the pain & fears of the paperchase, maybe I simply haven't been able to see it because I was so sure nothing like this would occur after the adoption process was done...? (Dude, maybe you're feeling this because you're just weird...?)

Is it normal to be so relieved at all that being done and over with once an adoption is complete that we stop empathizing with other families still waiting? Is it being selfish? Is it a defense mechanism to hold back the negative memories?

I really don't have an answer, and (at least until people start reading this post) the only person who can cause me embarrassment over all this is that funny-looking guy in the mirror.

The thing is, he'd like to know if other folks have felt something like this...

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Wherein Uncle brian Picks up the Pipsqueak After School

With all that's been going on lately, I haven't had a chance to write much about the Pipsqueak's new daycare. (Yes, yes, of course there's lots of other stuff going on, I just want to write about this particular subject right now!)

As mentioned in a couple of earlier posts, the Pipsqueak's original daycare provider made a series of negative changes and then basically proceeded to lie about them -- so the Pipsqueak is now attending a different preschool that's thankfully not much farther from home. We had all noticed some behavior changes, with the smallest member of the family singing & yakking it up less than usual for days at a time, but by the end of her first week at the new place Miri was back to her usual self. She's had a couple of play dates with her favorite little friend from the original preschool but is making new friends and every day she comes home with a handwritten report from her teacher, every one of which seems to be gushing out positives about her ability to adjust to new situations, to make new friends, to tackle new challenges... all the abilities & behaviors we'd already begun taking for granted.

Since the schedules of all four of the Pipsqueak's grownups have been getting wilder by the day, there was one afternoon when I had to pick her up at the daycare center and take her to work with me, where AJ kept her occupied for a little longer (while trying, without much success, to finish her own work with Miri "helping") and then carted her on back home. That afternoon I put my GPS up on the dashboard and headed off into uncharted territory.

Just about the time I realized the strange "bonging" noises I heard were warning tones from the GPS and not something on the radio, I witnessed the two cars immediately in front of me getting flashed by a speed camera (just one of a bajillion that have sprung up around the area and that are, unfortunately, multiplying like bunny rabbits). I stomped on the brakes with one eye on the rear-view mirror and was happy to not see a flash as I passed the camera -- only to realize I had to turn right here! in order to reach the daycare center.

You'll be glad to know a Toyota RAV4 does indeed balance nicely on just two wheels.

Anyway, I walked through the front door, then (using the code AJ had given me the night before) buzzed myself in through a second set of heavy doors. and then walked through a third heavy door only to have a young woman, a toddler in her arms, suddenly materialize in front of me. I started to stammer out something about AJ being at work and my being there to pick up my niece when the nice lady gave me a big smile and sweetly said, "You must be Miri's Uncle Brian! Can I see a photo ID, please?"

I decided I liked the place. (Later on AJ told me I had been dealing with the center's Director, and I liked it even better.)

My identity firmly established (after which I noticed our family photo from a few weeks back up on the wall in the office alongside several others), I was escorted through several parcels of low-level chaos to find the Pipsqueak playing happily with another little girl. She came running over as soon as she saw me, then stopped dead in her tracks.

"Where Grandma and Grandpa?"  I explained that Grandpa needed new glasses and that Grandma had gone with him, but that they weren't ready yet so I was picking her up instead.

"Where is Mommy?"  Uh-oh.  I explained Mommy was at work, and that I had a big surprise for her -- we were going to go right now to meet Mommy at work, wasn't that going to be fun...?

"Where is Mommy's work?" I had to think about that one (and do so under pressure, since now the Director and two instructors were watching the exchange). After Miri asked the same question a third time, I had a brainstorm.

"Do you want to know the address?"

"Yeh!"Bingo! I told her the address, then gave a quick run-down of the route we'd follow to get there, and my niece was once again all smiles, starting to drag me toward the door with a firm, "We go now! I go to Mommy at work!" I suggested a pit stop would be a good idea first, so of course Miri wanted me to follow her into the bathroom. I was trying to figure out how to handle that particular situation when a young man who worked there told me it was alright, the Pipsqueak could do it by herself -- and he was indeed right about it! While Miri took care of her business, I amused myself by watching the young man negotiating with a little boy ("You're only two and a half, don't you want to go back to your group with the other little boys and girls your age?" "No! I almost three!"). A quick visit to Miri's cubby -- she led me confidently on an almost arrow-straight path across three classrooms to get there -- and we had everything needed for the ride.

As I directed her toward my car, she asked, "Is this your car now, Uncle Brian?" and when I reassured her it was indeed my new car, she stopped, gave it a thorough once-over, and pronounced it "shiny" with a smile. There was a little negotiating once I'd opened the door -- something about her driving while I sat in the back! -- and eventually we were on our way. Of course, I drove a lot more carefully with the precious cargo in the back, and had to keep up a running account of where on our route we were, what the next major landmark would be, and how much longer it would be before we arrived at Mommy's work, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable ride for us both. (As usual, Miri nodded off about 30 seconds before the end of the trip, but knowing we were at Mommy's work kept the usual just-woke-up-from-nap crankiness at bay.)

All in all, a good first visit to preschool by Miri's Jiujiu. if I say so myself.

Oh, and those daily reports in which her teachers constantly sing the Pipsqueak's praises? A few days later, AJ got one the mentioned Miri "really loves her puppy" -- which is strange, because she shares her house with Mommy and two cats, nary a canine in sight. Dropping the Pipsqueak off the next morning, AJ asked if the teacher meant Miri really loved her little stuffed Doggy (who still goes everywhere with her) and was told no, the teacher had been referring to the new puppy Miri had at home; she'd stood up and told the whole class all about how she helped feed it, and how they would play together, and how she would help Mommy take the puppy for walks outside...

So now we know "fer surrre" that Miri likes her new preschool, because her imagination is running at full throttle... and her storytelling is totally believable, even for experienced daycare workers! I'm going to have to keep that in mind...

...but at least we all know she's having fun in school again!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Off-Topic (Again)...!

Did you ever feel like you were being... watched?

When I got to work Tuesday afternoon, I stopped in to visit AJ in her office as usual and found her conversing with one of our unit managers. At one point the UM asked, "Are you going to take a picture of your face?" and when I became obviously confused, she simply pointed to where AJ had hung her jacket on the back of the office door.

These photos have not been manipulated in any way (aside from being reduced in size from almost 5MB each); AJ's jacket was not arranged, manipulated, or molded in any way; and there is nothing behind the jacket except the hook it's hanging from.

This was my first shot, from across the room.

He seemed to squint when I used the flash up close...

...and just looked annoyed when I shot with only natural light.
I've decided to call him "Mister Jacket" and am waiting to see if he returns as Halloween approaches. (Did I mention that the filename of all three photos begins with "P1060" but that the 1st one ends with "666"?!?)

Oh, yeah -- there really is a Pipsqueak-oriented post in the works (with lots of photos!), but after seeing this at work on Tuesday afternoon, I just had to share it!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

And Now For Something Completely Different...

I'm making this post while quite thoroughly sleep-deprived. Consider yourselves warned. :-)

While editing my next "real" post in the wee hours of the morning (tired as I am, sleep just will not come), I found a photo on my camera that gave me a case of the giggles that I decided to share. It's actually a picture of yours truly, taken at the annual luau party we have for residents & families every year.

Every year, I get to play bartender (especially funny when you realize the beer in my fridge at home averages 4 years of age), and every year I have to experiment with an assortment of blenders to produce pina coladas.

Virgin pina coladas, that is -- you know, the alcohol-free version. (Hey, when you've got folks on meds, you do not want to add R-OH compounds to the chemistry!)  There's just one problem (assuming you decide to ignore the fact that there's just one of me making drinks for over 100 people, that I have to periodically run to fetch a bucket of ice myself, that I am working amidst a tangle of semi-legal extension cords and drippy liquids, or that this year I had only ONE blender)...

Y'see, the rum in a pina colada does a lot more than add flavor; it acts as anti-freeze while you mix the drink. Pour rum into a carafe of ice & pina colada mix, and the ice remains semi-liquid while you blend it all into a smooth, refreshing drink. Remove the rum from the equation and you have ice that desperately seeks to re-freeze the instant it is crushed by the blender's blades, leading to a chunky, semi-solid slush with a large air pocket surrounding the blades at the bottom of the carafe that prevents it from actually being liquified.

In short: it ain't easy, folks. This year I had to rush things even more than usual (you can only make so many pina coladas at a time with just one blender!), leading to the situation depicted in the photo below.

Yes, that is indeed yours truly looking a tad silly in a loud (semi)Hawaiian shirt...

Yes, I am indeed using surgical gloves to keep my hands (and the drinks) clean...

...and yes, that is indeed an entire pitcher/carafe full of alcohol-free "pina coladas" I am trying, without success, to pour.

The truth is, the "pina coladas" in the carafe didn't so much as change shape from what you see above, much less pour, until I gave up and began using a small soup ladle to transfer the stuff into cups.

Amazingly, despite a few very diplomatically-phrased comments about perhaps combining a bit more of the pina colada mix with a bit less ice next year, everyone appreciated my efforts (a big chunk of pineapple & bright red maraschino cherry in each cup probably helped).

But when (if!) I ever make pina coladas at home, you can bet I'll put in some rum... it's just waaaay easier that way!

PS - At AJ's suggestion, Mom & Dad brought the Pipsqueak to the luau; although I had very little time with her, I understand she had a grand old time watching the dancers, sipping punch, and getting ooh'd and aaah'd over by the staff (most of whom hadn't seen her since before her 2nd birthday).