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!

Friday, January 30, 2015

Catching Up -- At Long Last! -- On the End of 2014

Okay, here it is at long last -- the post that catches me up to all the stuff from last year that I wanted to post about. So lemme get some road under this show...

December started out with the Pipsqueak getting an eye exam and my house getting a new roof. While totally unrelated to each other, both are landmark events because they have potentially scary outcomes but both turned out very well... although AJ will have paid for the eye checkup literally years before I've finished paying for the roof!

Recalling part of the tease at the end of my last post, we really got the events of the month going with a couple of eels on roller skates... accompanied by a mermaid on roller skates and a 6-foot-tall guy dressed like a crazy seagull. In short, we went to the Olney Theater to see the following:

Some family friends had presented us with the amazing gift of a couple of free tickets for the show (accompanied by their rave reviews for the production), so we were able to get all five of us to the show a lot more affordably than would've or could've been possible otherwise. We weren't entirely sure how Miri would do with a live-action version of her almost-favorite animated Disney character (Ariel was #1 until Olaf came along), but she loved the show and had a great time. Truth be told, we all had a great time -- Olney put on a really good production.

Many of the key members of the cast were available, still in full costume, for autographs after the show, so AJ & Miri got on line while we crowd-watched and stood by with iPhones ready. Miri got a nice hug from Ariel, but somehow seemed more in awe of Grimsby... until she encountered Ursula. We had been worried that the Pipsqueak would be afraid of the slightly monstrous sea witch, but performer Donna Migliaccio (who darn well near stole the show) was so friendly and funny and welcoming, she actually went back for a second big hug.

As we were getting ready to leave, a couple of Ariel's sisters (now out of costume) also stopped for a quick "hi" and hug with the Pipsqueak and we discovered they were real sisters, and their father was standing nearby beaming at his two very talented daughters. All in all a very successful and fun day for everyone involved.

The next weekend was a bummer for me, because while everyone else went to the Sugar Plum Extravaganza, I went to work as Manager on Duty for the day.  Bleagh.  (Dude, you're being understated again.)  The SPE, which we discovered last year thanks to some good friends, is kind of like the Cliff's Notes version of The Nutcracker -- all the main characters & scenes are there, but the entire performance is edited to keep it (mostly) within the attention span of younger kids. That's not to say it's amateurish in any way -- quite the opposite, I remember some truly amazing dancers of varying ages last year, and have been told this year's performance was just as good. The long session after the show where all the kids in the audience are invited into the performance space to "perform" along with all the professional dancers (still in full costume) makes it all the more special, and I'm hoping to poach a few photos from the various cameras & iPhones that went along for the ride.

We had a family milestone on the 18th: Miri's first real school recital!  Luckily it was during the day, so I was able to  race over to the school like a madman  attend the performance of the combined kindergarten classes singing a variety of songs accompanied by their very talented music teacher. The kids were lined up on the steps leading to a small stage in the school's cafeteria/activity room, and as much fun as we had it was hard not to notice that Miri was sitting in the front row... in a short dress... with her knees as far apart as comfort would allow. Oh, well -- as AJ laughingly said, it's one more thing she's got a couple of years to work on. (Dude, the kid's just five, give her a break!)

After the performance, the families were invited to stay a little longer for some special activities. I had a chance to meet the Pipsqueak's teacher (last of the family to do so) and thank her personally for helping nurture and encourage my niece's love of learning and desire to know more about everything, and Ms. F's response was to thank me for helping do the same -- and to tell me that Miri really does have an innate love of learning and is a joy for her to work with. (Yes, I'm kvelling again.)

When I found the rest of the family in the very full but not-quite-chaotic room, I thought the kids were sitting down to a post-performance snack because at each seat there was a tray with a small orange juice box and what looked like a nice assortment of graham crackers, pretzels and candies... and maybe pudding...?  Turns out the juice boxes were empty, the pudding was actually white cake frosting, and none of it was for eating; the kids were going to make little houses!  The frosting was the mortar used to attach the graham cracker "walls" and "roof" to the juice boxes, and everything else was there for decorating (again using the frosting to hold everything together). All in all it was a fun, creative, and only mildly messy form of arts & crafts that everyone attending had a good time with... although by the time all was said and done, a few of the kids (and even a few of the parents) had almost as much frosting on them as on their construction projects!

I had to scramble to get back home, change, and get to work because we had our annual Christmas party for the residents & their families that night, but I have to admit I wished I had thought to take the evening off (like AJ did, smart girl that she is).  To be honest, I enjoy the party -- although this year Santa & Mrs. Claus couldn't attend the way they usually do -- and it's nice to see how much extra extra work the Dietary staff puts in to make sure everything looks at least as good as it tastes. (I'm making a point of, well, pointing this out because I think it's important for everyone to understand that nursing homes are not necessarily the dank, dark dungeons where Grandma goes to die that so many people seem to believe they are. Yes, there are some pretty scary facilities out there, but that ain't the norm any more, folks. At least not where the Pipsqueak's family is involved.)

The next evening was pretty cool -- literally, because we met up with a bunch of our adoption friends to see the annual ice sculpture show at the Gaylord National Resort at National Harbor. The theme this year (it changes each time) was "Frosty the Snowman" (based on the 1969 Rankin-Bass TV cartoon special). We had been told to come dressed as if we were dealing with a super-cold winter night, and then lined up for warm parkas to put on over our winter gear -- and since those parkas were actually cold to the touch well after they'd been used by visitors earlier in the day, we were all a little bit apprehensive about what we were facing inside the giant refrigerated tent that housed the ice sculptures.

Let's just say that I've now discovered a whole new meaning for the word "cold" -- the thermometer atop one huge display showed a temperature of just nine degrees Farenheit, and I had to keep sticking my camera into an internal pocket of my winter coat (under the borrowed parka) to keep both it and my fingers from freezing. In fact, the air was so cold and dry, we couldn't even see our breath -- and when we finally exited the refrigerated tent, everyone laughed at how the 40-degree weather felt hot and muggy!

The preceding isn't actually a complaint; the whole event is something we'll probably repeat in future years.  The ice sculptures are made by artists brought in from the Winter Festival in Harbin, China (we all thought that was extra-appropriate for our group), and the characters looked exactly the same as they did in the TV cartoon. I'll let my camera do a little of the talking...

The man of the hour (just the first of many times he's seen in the display).
This is just part of the entrance -- and it's ALL made of colored & carved ice, nothing else!
Miri had so much fun on the ice slides, she went back up three more times!
(Mommy had fun, too, but decided her tush was too cold to go more than once.)
Okay, I admit it -- I took this photo just because it includes
a fire that's made of ice.
Part of an exhibit showing how the figures are made. Each of
the "before" and "after" heads is roughly 10 feet high! 
One of the artists from Harbin working on a (small by comparison) sculpture of
a classic Chinese dragon, using a hand-held chisel to create individual scales.  
Part of the extensive larger-than-life-size nativity scene near the exit. Unfortunately,
my camera really couldn't capture the beauty of the light shining through the clear ice.
We all decided to extend the evening by having dinner there at National Harbor, and I was amazed at how BIG the place is. What would be a lobby/atrium in some buildings is large enough at the Gaylord that the "outdoor patio" at the restaurant we chose really was an outdoor space (albeit nicely climate-controlled). It was hard to capture the sheer volume of space enclosed by the hotel's walls and roof, but take a close look at the photo I've included. See that little "house" in the left foreground? It was a free-standing three-storey-tall building! Even more amazing is that during the holiday, the ginormous Christmas tree hanging from the roof trusses (just out of sight behind that house) becomes the centerpiece of an hourly sound & light show celebrating the Christmas holiday. Each show is a little different (and some are a little louder than perhaps absolutely necessary), but all include lots of moving lights, dancing lights, color-changing lights, lasers, and music... and they even make it snow inside the building.  Pretty darn cool, if you ask me!

NOTE:  if you're planning on seeing the ice sculptures this year, plan on getting there early. Tickets are for a specific time, and while we practically walked straight in for the 5:30 show the line to get into the showings from 6:30 onwards was loooong.

Well, even with all the Christmasing that was going on around us, we all enjoyed our family Hanukkah celebrations even if the "sound and light show" was the ancient music box in the base of our old hanukkiah (menorah) accompanying simple candle flames for eight nights. This year we also celebrated Miri becoming a "big girl" by letting her handle the real candles instead of just the electric (or battery-powered) verisons. She was a little nervous with the open flames at first (and Grandma was a lot more than just a little nervous watching her granddaughter handling live flames), but she came through like a champ and the worst thing that happened during the entire holiday was only having 2 colors of candles left for the last night.

With everyone's schedules being so different (and crowded, and sometimes downright weird), we all exchanged gifts on just one night. Miri decided she wanted to give everyone calendars, and -- with just a little bit of help from Mommy -- did a great job of selecting just the right one for each recipient. For example, she and Grandpa have always had a special "thing" about looking at the moon up in the sky when it's near full, so Dad got a calendar with a different scene featuring the moon for each month. She also recently learned that her uncle used to play the guitar (and has since "helped" me re-string my old friend so I can start practicing & playing again), so I got a calendar featuring photos of rare, unique & interesting guitars. To make her gifts even more special, the Pipsqueak made her own wrapping paper:

On the last night, Miri was extra-excited to receive (among numerous other gifts) more Frozen-themed items (when will the mania end?!?!), and can be seen here using her rapidly-expanding reading skills[1] to examine the box for the umpteenth time.

Tigger seems a tad perturbed, but Miri's perfectly comfortable like that.
We all got a bit of a Hanukkah surprise that evening when I opened Mom & Dad's front door to find that "suburban ungulate" I mentioned in my last post... three of them, in fact, less than 20 feet from the door. The one you see here calmly looked at the crowd gathering in the doorway, then continued to contentedly trim our folks' bushes, gradually moving within just a few feet of the door until the entire group ambled slowly around the side of the house in search of fresh fodder.

The remainder of 2014 sort of just floated on by, interrupted only by minor (thankfully) medical adventures and the day-after-Christmas discovery at work that Corporate had hired a contractor to swap out all the PC hard drives loaded with WinXP for new ones loaded with Win7 but not replace all the user files, data, applications, etc. from the old drives (an error they are still pushing hard to correct, thankfully).

I'd like to talk about all the wild excitement of the family New Year's Eve celebration, but in truth there wasn't much "wild" (or even very exciting) about it. We all met at a favorite Chinese restaurant for an early dinner together as mentioned in this post, then headed home... and we all acted like old fuddy-duddys and watches some of the festivities on TV before calling each other with new year wishes and then going to bed. It ain't excitin' but it's real life, and knowing that the family Adventure picked right up where it left off on the morning of January 1st without noticing a new number on the calendar provides a bit of happily reassuring constancy in our increasingly crazy world.

And that, as they say, was that. Now you (finally) know all the other stuff I wanted to tell you about from 2014 and in my next post I'll get back to talking about more current events in the Pipsqueak's life along with a few planned future posts talking about other interestin' stuff.

So, until next time -- I hope no one's had to shovel too much snow, and I'll see y'all soon!

[1] We continue to be happily amazed at how Miri's ability to read keeps growing in leaps and bounds. books she had trouble with a few months ago are now boring in their simplicity, and just this week her mid-term report has her reading at a 1st grade level with continuing advancement expected.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Catching Up on November of 2014...

Okay, deep breath... Just two more months left to cover in 2014... Let's get one out of the way...

November started off somewhat artistically, with AJ & I meeting a friend for the Sunday matinee performance of "Memphis" at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia, Maryland. I'm including this non-Pipsqueak-related item because 1) it's a darn good show that's worth seeing, and 2) Toby's is more than worth the money for anyone in the Baltimore-Washington corridor; Toby (yes, she's a real person!) attracts and hires truly talented people for her shows, many of which have won multiple national-level awards, and the food's always good. We used to have a score of dinner theaters in the area, now Toby's of Columbia is the last and is more than worth the drive.

I had a follow-up exam a few days later with the surgeon who performed my vitrectomy, and am happy (thrilled!) to say the exam went very well and the prognosis is excellent. I still have one more follow-up visit in the spring, but I can see (ironically, still better uncorrected than AJ) and that's all that matters in this case. There was some "open season" insurance shopping at work after that (I got a raise but thanks to changes in the offerings & medical insurance coverage from my employer, each paycheck is now about $20 less than before), and then finally we got back in to fun stuff on the 23rd when Miri's BFF S had her 8th birthday party.

Much like what seems to be 98% of all girls between the ages of three and eleven, S decided on a Frozen theme for her party, along with a few unique personal touches. One of her cousins (I think I got that right), a lovely young lady still in college, proved to be an absolutely rockin' cake-baker by producing (along with several dozen very yummy cupcakes) a pair of absolutely rockin' Frozen cakes featuring Anna and Elsa:
To make Anna and Elsa: Bake cone-shaped cakes, cover the dolls up to just above the highest point of the cake with plastic wrap, carefully cut vertical holes in each cake and gently push the dolls inside, then decorate with frosting. (It's nowhere near as easy as it sounds.)

There were plenty of other Frozen touches, and AJ also brought along "the girls" (the life-size cardboard Anna & Elsa figures I first mentioned in this post) that got lots of use for photo ops during the party. There were plenty of games and activities to keep the crowd of kids happy, and it was here that S added a personal touch. She's very much enamored of equine mythical creatures like Pegasus and unicorns, so instead of "pin the tail on the donkey" the kids all got to play "pin the horn on the unicorn" -- resulting in un-horned unicorns surrounded by stick-on unicorn horns scattered across an almost 15-foot stretch of wall.  Miri somehow ended up with a faux fur stole as a blindfold, but it didn't seem to help her aim any more than any of the other kids'...

In addition to being lots of fun, the party turned out to be educational; we all learned a new word:

Yep, say hello to the winged unicorn, better known (apparently) as an alacorn. (We've also found it spelled "alicorn" and Taylor Swift tweeted photos of herself dressed as a "pegacorn" for Halloween, but the snob in me prefers the more Latin-rooted ala- version.)  Needless to say, I'm becoming rather well-practiced at drawing the beasts, since Miri was immediately as smitten with them as her BFF.

In any case, the party was a lot of fun even if my niece now tells me to draw a horse and a Pegasus and a unicorn and an alacorn pretty much every time we get together...!

Oh, and before I forget... AJ & Miri were again invited to a friend's house to build gingerbread houses, with this year's result shown below. Unlike last year, it's season-themed instead of holiday-themed, thus the lack of the previously-seen odd combination of Stars of David, menorahs, and Santa Claus:

We closed out November as we usually do, with a big family get-together for Thanksgiving (and a birthday celebration for cousin S). The Floridian section of the family came up north and we all piled into my uncle & aunt's house in Virginia to make lots of noise and eat lots of food.

The next generation of cousins discover they can have fun without electronics!
There aren't many web-safe photos of the day, but a grand old time was had by all; the Pipsqueak (who's about the same size as her much younger cousin in the photo above) spent all of about five minutes doing her "I'm shy" act, and then the entire membership of the next generation pretty much picked up right where they left off last year. There were also birthday presents, and some early Hanukkah presents, so after a while the living room bore an amazing resemblance to the aftermath of a massive explosion in a tissue paper factory... but we all had fun with it.

There were a couple of nice surprises waiting for us that day as well. The first was a cloth runner stretching the entire length of the table printed with a collage of family photos from Thanksgivings (and other events) of years past. Our cousins had made it online (Cafe Press, I believe) and brought it as part of the celebration, and it was a really nice addition to the decor... and a really nice way to bring back memories of good times together.

The second surprise was something we'd never done before but which I think we'll make a regular part of Thanksgivings in the future.  Just before we all sat down to eat, our cousins passed out a couple of "leaves" cut from colored construction paper to everyone (even the kiddos) with instructions to write one thing we were especially thankful for on each leaf. Cousin L then placed a vase in the center of the table, but instead of flowers it held a couple of bare sticks with lots of little branches. We then took turns reading our "leaves" out loud and then hanging them on the sticks. By the time we were all done, we had a very full centerpiece in autumn colors and a couple of relatives in or near tears with happy emotion. (I had to do some creative cropping of the photo, sorry for the odd size.) We all sat down to eat with a happy reminder, amidst all the discussion of politics and jobs and finances and doctor visits and school problems and all the other "stuff" of everyday life, of all the really important things that gave the holiday its real meaning and that gave us all (yes, even our newly minted three-year-old) a nice warm feeling inside.

Finally, right at the very end of the month, my (only slightly crazy) sister, along with a couple of other moms, got Miri involved in a Daisy troop. For those of you not familiar with the Daisies -- a group that hitherto has included Yours Truly -- a "Daisy" is the earliest step in the Girl Scout hierarchy. Of course, with an insanely demanding full-time job, a part-time job, the occasional gig as a mentor or Supervisor for budding social workers, and her more-than-full-time employment as a single mom, AJ isn't just getting her daughter involved; she herself is a co-leader of the troop... Thus the evening before the first meeting being spent at Mom & Dad's dining room table as she & Mom (with a little double-visioned help from me and kibitzing by Dad) prepared posters of the motto and rules and pledge and all the other stuff that goes into running a troop of Scouts. So far, so good -- but please don't use the term "free time" anywhere within earshot of my sister for a while, okay...?

And with that, November of 2014 came to a close. There was plenty more that happened before the year came to an end -- eels on roller skates, toe shoes, inadvertent flashes, giant colored ice cubes, live flames, suburban ruminants, and a computer disaster, just to name a few -- but that's all for my next post in which I will at long last close out my look back at 2014. So, until then... stay happy, stay healthy, and keep those snow shovels handy...!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Pipsqueakisms Old and New

Yep, still got lots of catching up to do on 2014... But I decided that it's been too long since my last listing of Pipsqueakisms, so here are a few to start the year off right with!

Actually, before getting to the Pipsqueakisms themselves... they've changed. It's kind of bittersweet, to tell the truth; my niece has already grown into  (thank God) an intelligent, inquisitive, interested little girl just raring to get Out There and prove herself to the world. The one- and two-word "isms," cute as they were, have mostly faded away as Miri's language skills continue to leap forward... "I hep! I want the screwter, you hold the bang!" has become, "Can I help? I'll use the screwdriver while you hold the hammer for me to use later!" (One evening about two weeks ago, after Miri presented us with a particularly well thought-out and educational monologue at the dinner table, I asked AJ, "What happed to that quiet little baby you brought back from China?" and she responded, wistful smile on her face as she watched her daughter lecture Grandpa on taking better care of himself, "She's gone.")

But it's all good, really it is; this is the natural progression of things, the way children are supposed to develop, and as wistful as our smiles may be from time to time the wonder, pride, and excitement that come with watching my niece grow and develop and expand her horizons are things I would not trade for... well, not for all the tea in China. <grin>

And, on that seri-comic note, here's a batch (maybe the last?) of the old-style Pipsqueakisms:

  • She likes eating roaster cups (Reese's Pieces).
  • Jail windows have eye run bars.
  • The pendulum on a grandfather clock moves brackers and foreways.
  • Her kindergarten classes are held in a mentary school.
  • She likes when Mommy or Uncle Brian give her a pick pick ride (piggyback ride).
  • Mommy thought she had a fever so she used a marmeter to check it.
  • One of her friends had a peeyata at his birthday party (piñata).
  • It's always a special treat to get a popicle (Tootsie Roll Pop).
  • If you call someone and they're not home, you leave a mechige on their phone.
  • A couch with lots of soft pillows is cumpatle to sit on.
  • When people sneeze, sometimes we say "bless you" and sometimes "eezoontite!"
  • After singing a just-learned song, she told Mommy "I learn what you practice me!"
  • If you can't park where you're going, the shadow bus takes you to your car (shuttle bus).
  • You clean germs off your hands with handitizer.
  • If you turn off all the lights at night, it gets blitch dark.

My niece, the budding linguist...!  And now for some of the newer-style Pipsqueakisms...

Upon being complimented on her outfit of sparkly shoes, pink & white socks, pale pink leggings, bright pink skirt, and deep pink shirt: "I am full of pink today!

During one particularly hectic week...

Miri: "Grandma, is Mommy picking me up after school today?"

Grandma: "Mommy is working late so Grandpa and I will be picking you up."

Miri: "That's okay. Are you bringing me to your house?"

Grandma" Yes, and Mommy will come get you there later."

Miri: "When Mommy works Saturday or Sunday, you watch me, too."

Grandma: "That's right, we do."

Miri (hands up in air, in schoolmarm voice): "Well, somebody has to take care of the child!"

One ongoing Pipsqueakism pops up every time Miri talks to someone on the phone and then hands it back to someone else:

Miri: "I put you on [name] now, don't hang up!"

Miri's school does a lot to encourage the kids to read, including having parents track how many minutes of actual reading take place outside of school. ("Uncle Brian, remember to tell Mommy how many minutes I read to you!")  In November, the Pipsqueak came in first in the Kindergarten class so they announced her name to the whole school in the morning announcements and gave her a big squishy star (sparkly gold plush stuffed stars are the prizes). When she was picked up after school that day, the conversation went something like this:

Grandma (kvelling): "We are so proud of you!"

Miri (deadpan): "And impressed, too!"

A few days ago, Dad was (as usual) doing something he knew he wasn't supposed to do and Mom was (also as usual) more than a little exasperated. That particular disagreement came to a quick end thusly:

Mom (to Dad): "You're going to drive me insane!"

Miri (in schoolmarm mode): "Grandpa, you need to behave because Grandma's crazy."

The five of us met up at a Chinese restaurant for an early New Year's Eve dinner and Miri was in fine form. First she decided her placemat, with the usual Chinese zodiac information, was a treasure map; then it became her lesson plan and she took it around the table making each of us in turn read the name of each zodiac animal when she pointed to it, then count them out loud. Finally it became a survey, with Mommy being the first subject.

Miri: "Mommy, what is your favorite thing about this family?"

AJ (trying to swallow a shrimp): "Well, let's see, um..."

Miri (in schoolmarm voice): "You know, you could say 'I love my child'...!"

(I'm still not sure how my sister managed to avoid choking on her food at that point, because she was laughing so hard there were tears rolling down her cheeks as she gave her daughter a big hug.)

And, on that note, I'll wish one and all a slightly belated happy new year (and hopefully a healthy
one!)... Until next time...