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!

Saturday, December 9, 2017

On Identity and Performance

Okay, I know that title's a little cryptic, maybe even a little dangerous-sounding.  It's just the first thing that sprang into my head when I started this post, and despite trying several other titles it insisted on dislodging every other idea from that spot, so...

(Oh, and I know there's a whole lotta text to read through in this post, but there should be some fun video aaaalll the way at the bottom of the page as a reward for slogging through it. Just sayin'.)

My niece is a fairly self-defined personality. Even while we were still in China, she showed very consistent habits & behaviors -- some of which I can still see evolved versions of today -- and beyond the usual basic hoping to fit in well with the people she likes (common in almost all kids & many adults) she is very consistently her. Oh, sure, sometimes she comes home with some silly saying or the occasional fake English accent, and she'll get interested in those aspects of pop culture that her friends show interest in... but when we talk with her or listen to her or watch her from afar, what we don't see is a fear of expressing herself, of developing her own opinions & ideas even if they're different from those of her peers, of basically finding some way of letting people know, this is me and that is not.

I have no way to know if this is the result of being in an orphanage for the first 13 months of her life or simply the way she's wired; I just know that since she was about two years old, I've been telling people that Miri knows the rules of the universe and does not hesitate to enforce them. :-)

One facet of her identity is that she's very much aware of being Jewish in a world where most people are not. Before she was even matched, AJ had made it clear that she was going to bring up her daughter in the same religion that she was born into, and make sure the little girl would be educated enough in the religion to be able to make her own decision as to whether or not she'd follow it, and to what degree, when she was old enough to start taking the reins of her life for herself.

Happily, this has to date not interfered in any way with her relationships; the kids she's closest with cover a small but varied range of religious backgrounds and as far as Miri is concerned, some of them celebrate Christmas and some of them celebrate Hanukkah and some of them celebrate something else but that's all okay because, as she has told me a few times, "Everybody is supposed to be able to believe what they want to even if someone else doesn't think it's right as long as nobody is hurting anybody." (Considering our grab-bag collection of cousins, that's really A Good Thing.)

Combine her strong feelings about who & what she is (or is not), her philosophy of "different is okay," and her matter-of-fact way of expressing both, and you've got a young lady who sometimes pulls the proverbial carpet out from under the feet of folks who don't know her.  The fact that Miri also absotively posilutely loves to perform and has no qualms about dancing or singing in front of almost any size of crowd, and you've got the potential for some really interesting things to happen.

Like, f'rinstance, the annual Christmas party at the nursing home where AJ works.

Pretty much everybody who worked with Mommy and Uncle Brian back at Woodside knew the Pipsqueak; she didn't visit often but when she did she had no qualms about engaging the staff in conversation or try to find ways to help them do their work, and once she'd gotten a little older she would often help out the Activities staff with games & events for the residents.  Although she doesn't visit as often, she's establishing the same kind of relationships at the nursing home where AJ works now.  Since they were having their annual Christmas Party this past weekend, AJ thought it would be a good idea to not only volunteer to help out but to also have Miri join her to lend a hand.  (Mom told me she thinks the Pipsqueak has decided it's her job to help old people.)

So there she is, a little Jewish Chinese girl helping out at the annual Christmas party in a Quaker-run nursing home.  The entertainer who'd been hired for the party noticed her interacting with the residents and figured all the grandmas & grandpas in the room would probably enjoy engaging with a cute little girl who obviously had no qualms about interacting with them on a personal basis, so he made the somewhat fateful decision to include her in his show.

I wasn't there but AJ filled me in.  Things started off on a quiet note, with the entertainer kind of coaxing Miri on-mic to help him out with something, then handing her a microphone of her own and asking her if she thought it might be a good idea to sing some Christmas songs.

Microphone in hand, standing beside a large Christmas tree in the dining room of a Quaker facility full of people there to celebrate Christmas, my niece looked straight at the guy and very matter-of-factly said, "I don't celebrate Christmas. My family celebrates Hanukkah."

Apparently there were a few seconds of very quiet time immediately after that. I don't know if it was the straightforward but NOT "in yo' face" way Miri said it, or the way she stood there holding her microphone up and waiting for him to say something, but I give real kudos to the entertainer.  He looked around and then at her and said, "Actually, we celebrate Hanukkah in my family, too. Would you rather sing some Hanukkah songs?" and the two of them proceeded to do just that. (In all honesty, a couple of non-Christmas songs were already on the program, and he had the music programmed into his sound system.)

(Note: For any readers who appreciate irony... Miri had spent most of the afternoon participating in a special event -- of course the entire family was there! -- at which the youth choirs of several synagogues all performed individually & together with singer/songwriter/percussionist/musician Billy Jonas -- without a single Hanukkah song on the program!)

Luckily AJ had her iPhone in her pocket, and she caught video of Miriam's duets of Maos Tzur (Rock of Ages) and Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah... snippets of which I've included below for your viewing pleasure.  (Unfortunately, I had to do a lot of trimming of the Maos Tzur video to meet Blogger's size limits; after telling Miri that she's really good and does really well in front of people, he said he hoped the Pipsqueak would get anything she wanted for all eight nights of Hanukkah and you could hear AJ laughingly reply, "Thanks a lot....!" He also asked if she wanted some Hanukkah gelt[1], and she said yes -- plus chocolate!)

After both songs were over, the Pipsqueak got a big hand from the appreciative crowd and the entertainer proceeded to make good on his statements by giving her $2 as combined Hanukkah gelt and payment for her performance!

Oh, and one more thing.  Since I blathered on about identity at the beginning of this post, I thought y'all might be interested on a really good deal I found on Cyber Monday:

We haven't gotten around to having the Pipsqueak fill a test tube with spit just yet, but I'll keep everyone posted as we learn some potentially interesting things about some of her most basic building blocks.

Okay, that's it for tonight, I'm trying to get back on track with my catching up (which is now likely to extend into next year, darn it) and keeping up to date. 'Til next time...!

[1] Gelt = money  It was common in the old country for children to get a couple of coins (especially in poor families who didn't have enough to buy other gifts). These days, the "money" is usually disc-shaped pieces of chocolate wrapped in silver or gold foil to look like coins. I mean, doesn't it make sense to celebrate a holiday involving open flames by giving already-excited young children a sugar high...?  LOL

Monday, December 4, 2017

Arts & Crafts: A Real Witch's Broom

HOLY FRIJOLE!  I got so frakking tired and busy (and tired) that I just realized that it's been almost an entire month since my last post! I have a ridiculous amount of catching up to do -- all in my "copious" free time, of course -- with barely anything actually ready for posting.

I hereby throw myself upon the charity of the jury and ask for forgiveness.  (Really. I mean it!)  Since there are only a few partial bits & pieces of draft posts at the moment, I''m cleaning up the most complete and posting it just to avoid missing any more semi-sorta-current events... so here's a treatise (Dude, it's 34 days after the fact!) on the creation of part of the Pipsqueak's Halloween costume.

And for those of you who (perhaps rightfully) are complaining that this is coming at least 34 days late.... the way I see it, you can always use this for a costume next year, or any other time you need a broom but don't have one handy. So there.

So far, on Halloween the Pipsqueak has turned into a princess, Olaf from Frozen, a giant blue crayon, and a black cat (some more than once).  This year, she went as a cute witch.

I learned of her choice when my sister began gushing excitedly about her daughter's Halloween costume, news that was verfied very matter-of-factly by Miri herself.  We all got the story of how the costume choice was made, how the right top was found, how this little witch would be wearing a poufy not-quite-a-tutu bright pink skirt, how AJ found a great witch's hat with purple stars on it in just the right size, and, oh, by the way, Brian, can you find striped witch's socks on Amazon...?

I was all over that, and the next evening on the phone was reading off potential choices to my bemused sister, both of us aghast at the cost of some of the offerings.  A nicely priced pair of red-and-white striped tall socks (think Wizard of Oz stockinged feet sticking out from under Dorothy's house) were soon added to the costume.  There was even a very successful costume test at a Halloween-themed birthday party a few days ago.

But something was missing.

You see, not too many minutes after the request to find appropriate socks on Amazon came a request to find an appropriate witch's broom as well.

"Oh, don't worry about that -- I'll make her one!"  (Dude, remember what your father learned about volunteering while he was in the Navy...?)

In the two weeks following that statement, I had to deal with a to-do list that insisted on getting longer by the day no matter how hard I worked... so my broom-making was limited to mentally planning out the best way to do the job.  Looking around the house, it was impossible to miss the  bundles of wood air-drying in preparation for kiln drying (for wand-making, more on that in a later post) so I knew the broom handle was no problem.  Should I make it from paper?  Should I make it from straw?  NO!  The Pipsqueak would not have a fake broom -- I would make her a real old-fashioned witch's broom with twigs and twine like in the old days!

(Dude, you really need to have your head examined.)

Then came the phone call from AJ in which she casually mentioned that no, the broom wasn't needed for Halloween on the 31st... it had to be ready for pickup on the 26th so Miri could have it in time for her school's annual Halloween parade on the 27th.


Thus began the flurry of activity detailed below. NOTE: The first couple of steps were not recorded because 1) I forgot, and 2) so many things went wrong with Plan A, then Plan B, then Plan C, then Plan... well, you get the idea.


Supplies: Assorted bits of wood described below; a large ball of twine; Elmer's Clear School Glue; at least three 12"x30" (approx.) strips of brown craft paper; and a pair of scissors. (NOTE: a hot glue gun would've saved me a lot of mess & trouble over the Elmer's; I recommend you use one if you've got one!)

Step 1: Find a good, solid stick that's straight-ish, at least half an inch thick, and at least three feet long.  The one I chose was naturally de-barked by the windstorm that brought it down, and is about 42" in length.

Step 2: Lightly sand the broomstick (Oh, so that's where that word comes from!) so that it remains rustic in appearance but offers zero splinters.  Sand & file the ends so they're slightly rounded and relatively harmless.  I specifically chose a stick without any bark on it because bark tends to flake off at random times and/or can hide little hitchhikers, and I didn't want anything suddenly detaching or emerging from the broom unexpectedly.

Step 3: Gather a batch of thin, flexible twigs. They don't need to be exactly uniform and some can even be a bit twisty, but they should all be 11" - 13" long.

Step 4: Attach 4-5 of the twigs to the business end of the broomstick, overlapping the end of the broomstick by a couple of inches and making sure they all fan out a little bit.  Remember, you're going for a rustic look, so they don't need to line up perfectly.  This was the step where a hot glue gun would've saved me a lot of trouble, cussing, mess, cussing, despair, cussing, broken twigs, and cussing; the Elmer's glue simply could not hold the twigs in place.

Step 4A: Use short bits of twine to tie 4-5 twigs to the business end of the broomstick, then use Elmer's glue to keep the knots tied and twine in place.

Step 5: Cut a strip of brown craft paper long enough to wrap loosely around the twigs and wide enough to not quite cover them completely -- I used pieces about roughly 12" wide and 30" long.  Fold over a 1" flap along one long edge and smear it with glue. (The flap adds strength to the part of the paper that will be softened by the liquid glue.)

Step 6: Wrap the craft paper over the twine holding the twigs in place on the end of the broomstick, glue side down; it should extend far enough to just cover all but the longest twigs.  The paper should form a rough cone shape, with the wide end loose over the twigs but the gluey end wrapped very tightly around the broomstick & twine (see photos below).

Step 7: Use the scissors to carefully cut the craft paper into a rough fringe.
Step 8: Add a 2nd layer of paper fringe by repeating steps 5-7.  The business end of the broomstick should now look something like this:

Step 9: Cut a piece of twine 2-3 feet long (no need to be exact).  Tie it tightly around one of the loose twigs about 1" from one end.  Add a 2nd twig next to the 1st, tied the same way, then a 3rd and so on, spaced roughly the same distance apart until you have enough to wrap all the way around the business end of the broom. You probably won't need more than 10-12 twigs, and should have a long segment of unused twine left at one end.  (Note: I used a bit of glue on each knot to keep it tight and prevent the twigs from slipping out.)  The photo below shows the first 4 twigs partway through this step.

Step 10: Wrap the linked twigs around the base of the broom, covering the paper & twigs already in place, wrapping the long end of the twine around the whole thing & tying it tightly. Use dabs of glue to help hold it all in place & keep the knots from slipping.

Step 11: Add one more layer of craft paper fringe on top of the entire bundle as done in steps 5-7.

Step 12: Cut a long piece of twine (I used about 6-1/2 feet). Tie it tightly around the upper end of the top layer of craft paper and begin wrapping it tightly around the broomstick, wrapping downward toward the twigs.  Loop it under itself every 3-4 turns to keep it from unwinding. When there are just a few inches left, tie a tight double knot and bring the loose end up to wrap under any protruding twigs, then tie it & cut off any excess.  Again, I used dabs of glue on all knots and around the upper & lower edges of the wrapping to keep everything in place.

VOILA - You have created an authentic-looking rustic witch's broom!

After taking the photo above (and a couple like it), I went back to where I'd been working on the dining room table, looked down, and realized I had forgotten something.

Step 13: Get out the vacuum cleaner...

Regardless of the mess, the results of the process were really satisfying -- even if the broom did just lay there no matter how loudly & firmly I called, "UP!" while standing next to it.  The Pipsqueak was happy to carry it with her during the parade (as you'll see in a future post), although by the time all the kids were herded back into the school for the post-parade party Mommy was carrying the broom ("too heavy!"), witch's hat ("too itchy!"), and jacket ("too hot!").  The best part was when I introduced myself to Miri's teacher in the classroom afterwards and she made a point of mentioning just how cool her witch's broom was...! 

In any case, I had a lot of fun (for the most part) constructing the broom, and figured that my experience might come in handy for someone else's costume construction in the future... thus all the verbiage above.

I'll post again in a few days, and 'til then I hope everyone had a fun Halloween and a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Personal Space

Well, looks like I done did it again.. skipped a week (or three) in my blogging. At least this time I have a couple of good excuses, including throwing my semi-annual "big sick" but things are back to the insanity that now passes for normal 'round these parts, so let's get some road under this show...

Over the years, one corner of Mom & Dad's family room slowly morphed into The Place Where All The Pipsqueak's Things Are Kept.  It didn't start out that way, and wasn't really planned; it just seemed to be the best corner to stash things in, and the spot with the most room for the little plastic slide she used to love crawling up (and which she now towers over).  As she left toddlerhood that part of the room turned out to be the best place to put a small shelf unit for some of her books & toys. Fast-forward a couple of years, and the shelf unit (actually more of a rack for plastic bins rather than actual shelves) was joined by an ever-growing collection of bins, baskets, boxes, rolling 3-drawer things that don't roll very well, and, well... stuff.

An ever-expanding sea of things that became increasingly difficult to wade through to get to the light switch.

An ever-expanding collection of things that she needed to spend more & more time looking through to find what she was looking for.  (Something that actually runs in the family.)

An ever-expanding collection of things that were more & more precariously perched and piled atop each other as the bin rack and baskets overflowed with both new things she enjoyed and old things she had long ago outgrown.

The kicker came about six weeks ago, when a member of the Texas branch of the family decided Uncle Ruby (that's Dad) wasn't exactly a spring chicken any more so she organized a family reunion and scheduled a not-so-small mob into the house for dinner one night.  (The event is scheduled for early November; I'm sure you'll read about it here in the blog.)  Mom was and remains beyond perplexed over how to fit nearly 40 people into the  house but very quickly realized we'd fit a lot more of the mob into the family room if Miri's things weren't so busy taking up so much of it.

It would've been easy to just pack everything up in boxes and stash it in the basement or garage; to pull out all the books & toys we know Miri doesn't play with any more and get rid of them; to just tell the Pipsqueak that Grandma & Grandpa really need that space so could she please take some of her things home; or to do any number of other things that would have very quickly cleared out the space.

But that's the corner that's held the Pipsqueak's things since she was about two years old, and Mom wanted to make sure Miri knew that it was still her house and she belonged there no matter what, and just unilaterally tossing stuff away or telling the Pipsqueak to clear out was the absolute opposite of that message so we had to figure out another way.

A review of all the things that were spreading outward from the corner quickly proved that an appreciable percentage had truly been outgrown, and that a better storage solution would take care of almost everything left over... so we began hunting for shelves and cabinets that would work.  I'll save you the eleventy-seven hours of reading the entire story and just say we settled on a small Billy bookcase from IKEA, with an optional set of doors and a height extender that would bring it up to an almost perfect size & capacity.

Y'all remember  what happened the last time I put together IKEA furniture for the Pipsqueak, right...?  (You can read the saga here, and here, and here.)  Well, things went slightly more smoothly this time.  I got the bookcase assembled with no glitches, the special adjustable sunken hinges I'd learned to hate while working at IKEA installed and adjusted without a hitch, and I even had the doors properly aligned with maybe five minutes' work... but then came the height extender.  No matter how I looked at the instructions (which I luckily brought up online instead of ripping open the box), the anchor holes that were absolutely required for installation just did. not. exist. on the top of the bookcase.  I began surfing the web on my iPhone to try to figure out what I'd done wrong and eventually discovered some guy's blog in which he bemoaned the fact that the short Billy would have been exactly the right height for his needs with the height extender attached but that the height extender was designed to only fit atop the 72" version of the Billy,  nothing smaller.

I'll skip the cussing, discussing, and general whattheheckweretheythinking tirade(s) and cleaned up some of the mess I'd made before heading home.  AJ & I had tickets for a Sunday matinee of Dreamgirls at Toby's that weekend, so Mom took advantage of having the Pipsqueak on hand for almost an entire Sunday to have her go through all the toys and books to box up the things she didn't want any more, arrange things in "her" new "grown up" cabinet, and figure out the best way to store those things she wanted to keep but didn't use very often.  Miri rose to the challenge and by the time Mommy and Uncle Brian returned from the theater she had nearly everything in its new place and had decided she really liked the idea of the more grown-up style of storage.

And, lo and behold, the sea of boxes and baskets and such had been reduced to a single 3-drawer rolling thingy with Miri's art supplies, while everything else that she wanted to keep was neatly put away within or atop the Billy unit.  More importantly, the idea of the house still being hers  as much as anyone else's, and that part of the room being dedicated to her as her own personal space, was more concrete than ever.

In fact, the idea of that being the Pipsqueak's personal space was so well-reinforced, Mom said that shortly before AJ & I arrived she had gone into the family room and Miri -- who had been standing and looking around with that look on her face -- turned to her and quietly asked, "Grandma, would it be okay if we got something like a rug for my personal space to make it more comfortable for me to sit on the floor...?"

We're still tweaking things -- it's hard to find good bookends that don't cost a fortune -- but it's pretty obvious that my niece has no question about whether or not she "belongs" in that particular spot.

Now we just gotta figure out where to put the other 30+ cousins in November...

Friday, September 29, 2017

"You Owe Her Big Time"

A belated but sincere L'SHANA TOVAH to one and all -- may you all be inscribed in the book of life for many long, happy, and healthy years!

Uncle Brian done went and screwed up.

Luckily for me, the story has a happy ending. :-)

Every year, the Pipsqueak's school has a special 1-day morning program in which dads can accompany their kids on a "fitness course" set up inside the school. There are stations featuring different tests of coordination and/or fitness, and instructions on how to move from one to the next (e.g., hop on one foot, zig-zag down the hall, etc.). There's also free bottled water & healthy snacks available at the end, along with a couple of extra minutes for inter-generational bonding before the kids all have to go to class. The school's done a good job of trying to be inclusive by specifically mentioning dads, uncles, stepdads, grandpas, and general "father figures" on the handout for each year's event (and they're still working on appropriately decreasing exclusiveness).

Last year,  Miri & I had a lot of fun with it so we were both looking forward to this year's event.  Sooooo of course I managed to get myself myself sick again (too much doing, too little sleeping, and way the [bleep] too much stress for too long), so my ability to participate in this year's program was questionable. Despite still periodically losing my voice, needing 1-2 naps a day, and having to be a mouth-breather multiple times daily, on Wednesday evening I told Miri I was planning to participate and her face lit up like a thousand-watt bulb.

I set FOUR alarms and went to bed early... and suddenly could. NOT. fall. asleep.  Somewhere around 4:00am, the room finally faded to black.  I remember the first alarm going off at 7:00 and thinking, "Oh, good, I have an hour to get there..."

...and the next thing I remember is being re-awakened from an astonishingly weird dream by the combined sounds of my iPhone's klaxon alarm, the loud beeping of my clock radio,  the phone next to my bed ringing, and the phone's talking Caller ID feature announcing AJ's cell phone number.

The event began at 8:15 and the last group would be allowed through at 8:40.  I rolled over to answer the phone and saw a big blue-green "8:18" on the face of my clock radio.

I live about 20 minutes from the school.

I tried to simultaneously get out of bed, put on a pair of jeans, and run a razor over my face without letting go of the phone. AJ doubted that I could make it to the school on time but I told her I needed to at least try. I called from the halfway point and her prognosis had improved from "impossible" to "unlikely" so I redoubled my efforts (i.e., went from driving like an Indy driver to calling Engineering for Warp 8) and cussed my way past slower-moving drivers, through yellow lights, and around curves at what I have to admit was an exhilarating rate of of forward motion.[1]

I called AJ's cell phone again as I maneuvered into a spot miraculously available right in front of the school but she didn't answer. Even more worried, I jumped out of the car and ran toward the front door....

...and encountered my sister coming back out after sending a very, very unhappy little girl into class because the event had been declared over while I was parking.

Panting from my short run, I asked how badly I'd screwed up. AJ's answer started clearly but became muffled after just a few words. Then the sidewalk began to change shape, and a cloud blocked the sun. I put my hand on a nearby signpost to steady myself, and for a moment I thought it was too flimsy and was bending away from me... then realized that none of the above was happening anywhere outside the confines of my head so I held up a hand to AJ, closed my eyes, and leaned on the signpost while gripping it more tightly.

It's good to have a sister who's a trained clinical social worker; she reacted calmly, asked the right questions, and stood by ready to help without drama or unnecessary action. It took a few minutes, but eventually the signpost stopped warping and the sidewalk stopped squirming under my feet so I cautiously opened my eyes and found there were no clouds in the sky. I still had a little trouble catching my breath but the world was slowly returning to normal.

Still panting, I realized that if I'd participated in the fitness events I probably would have been laying spread-eagled on my face in the middle of a school hallway. I should not have promised Miri that I'd participate in something so active when I knew that just walking up the stairs had been leaving me breathless due to congestion (and probably shouldn't have thought of bringing my lovely little URI into an elementary school in the first place).

But I did, and she'd been really really really excited about it, and I screwed up, and now I could clearly hear AJ telling me that the Pipsqueak had been in tears when the event ended and I had still not shown up. Her next statement came through crystal-clear: "You owe her big time."

I didn't disagree. We went over everyone's schedule and came up with zero available time for at least two weeks and then AJ mentioned she really did need to get to work. After I reassured her I felt OK and would just sit in my air-conditioned car for a few minutes to make sure I was able to drive safely, she headed off to where she'd parked and I did as I'd promised. She drove past me a couple of minutes later but I continued to sit, feeling very annoyed with myself over both promising to do what I couldn't and then breaking the promise.

Just as I came to realize that I had done a much worse job of parking than I originally thought (Dude, aren't your wheels supposed to be less than two feet from the curb on a major road...?) I had a mini-revelation: I was taking Mom & Dad to a PT appointment that ended around lunchtime but had nothing on my schedule afterwards (something that subsequently turned out to be only partly correct)... Hmm... I called AJ to check on her schedule for the evening and said I wanted to take the Pipsqueak on a dinner date as part of my apology. She thought it was a great idea and let the after-care crew know Uncle Brian would be picking up Miri instead of Mommy (and to let it be a surprise).

Fast-forward through an increasingly complicated day (and a desperately needed 90-minute nap) and just as I was leaving the house, a traffic alert came through saying the road I needed was blocked by an accident. Thinking, Yeah, it's that kind of a day, I headed to the school as quickly as traffic allowed and was happily shocked to discover the alert was totally wrong. I walked in to find Miri working on an art project, and she looked up at me, gave me a fleeting smile, and then looked back down. Not a good reaction.

One of the counselors said, "Hey, look who's here to pick you up!" and got a terse, "I know, I'm not blind!" that left the two of us looking at each other in surprise. (I'd expect that kind of response from a high schooler... but a kid in 3rd grade? Yikes!) I walked over, sat down opposite my niece while she studiously ignored me, and explained that I was very sorry, that I knew I messed up in the morning and was very annoyed with myself about it, and that as part of my apology I wanted to take her out on a dinner date.

That last phrase got a quick stare, a big smile, and a happy, "REALLY?" and suddenly everything was good in the world again. She finished the art project, then dragged to the back of the room to help pick up her stuff, then practically dragged me out the door. I spent the next 15 minutes sitting in the car getting bombarded by a rapid-fire description of how she was unhappy in the morning but felt better by lunch and she did some stuff in school today and her wiggly tooth is really loose but won't come out and one of the kids was making silly comments at lunch and her wiggly tooth is really loose but won't come out and her mouth feels weird because of the wiggly tooth and is Mommy home or still at work and and and... (You get the idea.)

I texted AJ & our folks so they'd know all was OK and eventually stopped the flow of verbiage from the back seat long enough to decide we would go to IHOP for pancakes. Miri was equally verbose aaaalllllll the way there so I knew she was happy, and the restaurant was nearly empty so we had almost no wait for our food. True to form, she finished one of the kids' platters with a side of bacon, then an adult-sized side of bacon and another scrambled egg, then about 1/3 of my short stack before deciding she was full, all while talking absolutely NONSTOP (mostly about that wiggly tooth) with an occasional break to try out a new game on my iPhone.

That plate was clean 6-1/2 minutes later!
As our talkative meal progressed, I was (very slowly) feeling progressively less upset & guilty for my morning screw-up, but it was really Miri who let me off the hook. As we were getting ready to leave, I began to apologize one last time for messing up her morning, and she replied, "This is better, because in the morning we would have only had a few minutes together but this way we had hours!" followed with a big hug.

I owed her big time but, at least this time, the bill's paid in full.   :-)

1 - Was I driving fast?  Heck, yeah -- but not as insanely as it might sound.  I stopped at any light I didn't think I could get through before it had turned red, stopped at every stop sign, kept decent separation, and made neither tires nor brakes squeal even once.  Meanwhile, I witnessed one car run a stop sign in front of me, a 2nd run a red light in front of me, and a 3rd run over the curb when trying to make a turn, all driving "safely."  Judge me if you want, but I have neither death wish nor desire to maim others and I know the limits of my & my vehicle's abilities.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Catching Up: Beauty and the Beast Onstage

April continued to be a busy month this year, but we made sure the schedule included Good Stuff that we scheduled for the sake of Good Stuff.  It was far too early to call it a birthday present for the Pipsqueak, but when AJ first noticed "Beauty and the Beast" on the playbill at Toby's Dinner Theatre (all the way back in December!) it immediately became part of the family's plan.

One little complication... All those months in advance and every single weekend matinee was sold out.  Weeknight performances can be a bit of an adventure for us to get to, but hey -- it's Beauty and the Beast! We had to make it work -- so for the first time in a very long time, we bought tickets for a weeknight performance (Tuesday the 25th, to be exact). And, since this was a kinda special thing, it would be all five of us (along with our lovely friend Karole, who's been joining  AJ & Yours Truly at Toby's Sunday morning matinees for years & years).

I'm still not sure how it happened, but we all managed to get to the theater on time.  (Dude, did your sister threaten someone with death so she could leave on time for a change?) I picked up Mom & Dad, AJ scooped up Miri at after-school care, we converged on her house & transferred into her van, and headed off to Columbia at a blistering 35mph. (It was rush hour, after all.)  We had good seats, ate far too much from the buffet (as usual), and managed to get some of the last scoops of ice cream just before they closed the DIY sundae bar to get the show going.

An added attraction for us was that our waitress was the lovely Janine Sunday, who (although she was not appearing in this particular performance) we've been watching in shows at Toby's since way back in the day before she and husband Russell were an item.  Hubby Russell himself was the Beast so we got to hear a little about what went into getting ready for the show along with some personal family updates.

And then the pre-show monologue/intro was underway, and Mom & Dad discovered that their slightly devious daughter had made sure they were singled out in the crowd in recognition of their 64th(!) anniversary just two weeks earlier.  There's always extra applause and few oohs & aahs when bigger anniversaries are mentioned, and they got quite a nice ovation. (Our folks ironically never actually dated each other during several years of what turned out to be something of a courtship; the longevity of their marriage is based on mutual friendship & respect that goes back to their meeting on New Year's Eve 1950-51.)

Finally the house lights went down, the music came up, and we were transported to the world of Disney's Beauty and the Beast live onstage. (Toby's is a fairly intimate theater-in-the-round so anything happening "onstage" was only a few feet away from us.)  There were a couple of times Miri got a bit fidgety, as might be expected from someone still looking forward to their 8th birthday, but she behaved exactly as a young lady should (as usual without being told) and spent most of the time engrossed in the show... even when she spent time in Mommy's lap, which is her favorite seat.

There was the usual "short intermission" which we've never seen last less than 10 minutes longer than scheduled that gave us a few more moments to talk to Janine, then the slightly scary 2nd act that featured Miri's most and least favorite parts of the story. (Beast doesn't scare her; Gaston killing someone does.) Finally, after a rousing closing number and the usual chaos of everyone trying to stand up after eating too much and sitting too long, some of the cast came back out onto the floor and we were lucky enough to catch photos with leads Nicki Elledge (still in Belle's famous yellow gown) and Russell Sunday (still in full Beast regalia):

Nicki was as gracious as we could have ever hoped, and we surprised Russell by reminding him of one of the very first roles we'd seem him play at Toby's quite a while back. He took a few moments to explain to Miri how complicated it was to not only get into the Beast makeup but also how hard it was to keep it on during the show (his mouth seemed to always want to fall apart), and then it really was time for us to all head home. After all, it was a school night, and the show hadn't even started until 8pm!

Mom has always had a love of theater, and Dad's always enjoyed it, so AJ & I were brought up with the same feelings... And it's wonderful to see my how niece shares the attraction entirely from within herself, without any "teaching" from her grownups.  Toby's 2017-2018 season includes "Mamma Mia" right on time for Miri's birthday -- honestly a bit of a "maybe" but still under consideration -- and then Disney's "Little Mermaid" through the holiday season... So you'll definitely be reading about more theater visits in coming months!

Coming in my next catch-up: Miri & her peeps perform on the public stage!

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Catching Up: Easter 2017

(What, doesn't every Jewish family celebrate Easter...?)

To be honest, our "celebration" of Easter is areligious, pretty much beginning & ending with an egg hunt, maybe a chocolate bunny or three, and (if we're lucky) a fun get-together involving good food.  As we have for the past several years, we happily spent it being hosted by close friends from our MIT group.

We arrived at the house surprisingly close to the time we were supposed to (a bit of a feat for this family!) and quickly divided up as we usually do: the grownups all chatting & trying to help out in the living room / dining room / kitchen while all the kids alternated between making lots of happy noise & mess downstairs in the basement or upstairs in CN's bedroom. (Punctuated every now and then with a less happy noise when her younger brother was a boy and the girls were girls, of course!)

After a while we noticed the hazy sky was rapidly changing to a threatening grey so the grownups made sure the younger generation remained indoors and we began hiding eggs for the hunt.  What the plastic eggs lacked in accurate depiction of egghood they more than made up for in volume -- I lost count of how many I'd placed somewhere in the middle range of 2-digit numbers and there were several of us placing the eggs in the back, side, and front yards. Of course it started raining shortly before we finished, but it was light enough to mostly ignore (I took momentary refuge under a tall flowering bush that promptly began leaking rainwater down the back of my neck) and soon the deed was done.

We had plastic eggs placed high and placed low; tucked into dark corners and laying out in plain view; snuggled into nooks & crannies and balanced on fenceposts; in the grass and on the deck; nestled firmly into depressions and balanced carefully on rises; on the ground and tucked into bushes... In short, there were eggs pretty darn much everywhere by the time we were done.  Of course, being me, I decided to experiment a little with the ol' "hide in plain sight" trick using similar shapes and colors:

The weather cleared considerably as we tried herding the cats rounding up all the kids so CN & Miri gave us a quick recital featuring the fan dance they were learning for CCACC/CLAPS...

...and then they were off!

(Note to self: You'll have a lot more photos of the egg hunt if fewer eggs are placed where the kids don't either need help to reach them or adult supervision to avoid injury while gathering them. Oops.)

The rules of the hunt were simple: don't do any major damage to the house, the yard, yourselves, or each other, and have a good time; the result was that everybody had fun and all the kids had an impressive haul.  We discovered that residual rainwater had leaked into a few eggs to spoil the candy inside, so there was careful sorting, opening, and checking of every. single. plastic. egg. to make sure no one ended up with a mouthful of damp & potentially dirty candy. (Dude, they all still ended up with a few thousand calories' worth each, don't sweat it!)

Mom had also put together Easter baskets for all the kids that included giant stuffed bunnies.  The kids were thrilled with their new companions and Miri was happy to formally present them to everyone.... plus it afforded everyone quite a photo op!

(Yes, I know they're facing the wrong way. I forgot to ask if I could post the photo showing their faces!)
We were eventually able to corral all the loose eggs (and egg halves), candy, stickers, mini-toys, etc. along with their collectors and sat down to enjoy a really nice Easter meal.  We started off with the Greek Easter game tsougrisma: each of was was given a hard-boiled egg with its shell dyed red and we took turns knocking them together in an attempt to crack the other person's eggshell. I don't remember who won, but it was a new thing for us and a lot of fun. (I do remember that I was not the winner, but my cracked egg turned out to be very tasty with a little salt so no harm done.)

As good as the food was, the desserts (yes, plural) were the highlight of the meal. The stars of the show were a couple of home-baked Easter cakes that were just as pretty on the inside as on the outside, and delicious to boot!

The kids, well-fueled with sugar and carbs, returned to their happy noisemaking while the adults all tried fending off a bout of post-meal sleepiness with more good conversation (and a little additional noshing) in the living room, but after a while the adults began waking up and the kids began coming down from their sugar high and it was time to go home.

Oh, and my "hide in plain sight" eggs?  It took a few minutes for the kids to collect all of them, so I'll be doing that again!  :-)

Monday, September 4, 2017

Big Day Coming! (with Special Postscript)

Well, so much for posting every 5-6 days.... <sigh>  I'll keep trying, I promise. Been VERY busy. Am VERY VERY VERY tired.

But I will keep posting -- promise. :-)

Anyway, just a quick note today (have to take a pathophysiology test in a couple of hours).

Tomorrow (September 5th) is a big day: the Pipsqueak starts 3rd grade!  We're all happy (so far!) with her teacher, who's been at the school for quite some time & has often taught higher grades. Miri is happy because she's found out that all but one of her peeps from last year will be in her class, and Miri's grownups are happy because class size is reasonable.  (Miri did mention that there are also three "Misbehavings" from last year in her class, but that's to be expected.)

Most exciting of all, though (as far as the Pipsqueak is concerned) is the fact that she'll be upstairs with the big kids now!  The school is built in such a way that most of us asked, "what upstairs?!?" when we heard.  You literally can't see the 2nd floor from the front of the school, but it's definitely there and it's where the classrooms for grades 3 - 4 - 5 are located.  If having to climb a flight of stairs to get to class  doesn't sound like A Big Deal to you (Dude, it's kinda inconvenient, no?), you're not an eight year old whose closest BFFs are a couple of years older than you -- believe me, it is A Big Deal and we're thrilled that Miri is starting 3rd grade with a happy/excited positive outlook.

Of course, AJ is already planning to quietly cry in her car for a minute or two after dropping off her daughter for the first day of school, just like she's done every previous year...  And Uncle Brian keeps catching himself wondering what happened to that scrawny little baby that peed all over him seven years ago in Nanning.  <:-}

SPECIAL NOTE:  We are fortunate to live in an area unaffected by Hurricane Harvey, and those friends & family  who live in Texas have been lucky enough to have (for the most part) missed the worst of the storm's effects. However, thousands upon thousands of people have not been so lucky; I urge everyone with the capability of helping to do so. Some important links:
  • The American Red Cross has a donation hotline at 1-800-HELP-NOW (1-800-435-7669); click here for their website.
  • FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) has the lead in mobilizing SAR, housing, food, and medical care.  Click here for their website.
  • Feeding America is the nation's largest charitable hunger-relief organization. Click here for their website.
  • For those concerned about the legitimacy of any particular group or charity claiming to be collecting for Hurricane Harvey relief, Charity Navigator has a list with charity ratings as well as local (TX) organizations you might want to help out.  Click here for the website.
  • For those seeking information about the area affected, Google has an interactive "crisis map" to show the areas hardest hit, road closures, etc.  Click here for the website.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

My Sister's Cat is Psychic

I just wanted to make a real quick post before any more time goes by -- it's been another in a series of long days separated by too-short nights and I'm having trouble keeping my eyes open, so I'll give y'all some actual content in another couple of days. (There's nothing particularly bad going on, there just aren't enough hours to complete all that needs to be completed.)

As I said in the title, my sister's cat is psychic.  Her name is Xu'an and she's an odd little creature who'll happily come up to you and rub against your leg for attention only to dart away at warp 8 if you so much as show a sign of bending down to pay her any direct attention. (Assuming she even comes out of hiding when you enter the house.)  She's a lot more direct with AJ & Miri, and has an interesting way to ask for attention: she climbs up AJ's leg.

This is also how AJ knows when it's time to trim Xuan's claws. No blood? All is well. Small holes in pants? Time to trim. Bloody wounds from ankle to inner thigh? Do nothing until those claws are trimmed. Unfortunately, this is one little kitty who hates - detests - loathes - despises having her claws trimmed, so it's never a one-person job.

For the past several years, AJ has gotten into the habit of telling her older brother she needs his help trimming the cat's claws, eventually resulting in me carefully gripping a squirmily unhappy kitty while AJ makes like the Flash with feline nail trimmers. The problem is that we usually first have to catch Xuan, and that's much more easily said than done.

Y'see, this is a cat who Knows. I can walk into the house a dozen days in a row and at worst she'll run up the stairs until she recognized my voice.  But every -- and I mean EVERY -- time I come in with the intention of helping get her nails clipped, she high-tails it for the nether shadows beneath the lowest, heaviest, deepest pieces of furniture in the house... or simply engages the cloaking device she borrowed from a passing Klingon warbird some time back when we weren't paying attention.

We never say anything out loud, never approach the drawer holding the clippers, never do anything (that we're aware of) that in any way indicates there's a claw clipping planned, but Xuan will always know that's the plan and act accordingly.

Latest case in point: Last week the entire family went to see "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" at Toby's Theatre of Columbia, and stopped at AJ's on the way home for a quick pit stop and to take care of several odds & ends... among which was the clipping of Xuan's increasingly pain-inducing claws.

Problem was, the kitty was nowhere to be found. No one said or did ANYTHING to indicate the day's plans included snipping those pointy toe razors -- we were actually all so tired that all we did was collapse onto the living room sofas for a few minutes without speaking -- but Xuan was nowhere to be found. It became so worrisome that AJ, Miri and I spent about 25 minutes looking hither, thither and yon with flashlights and a broomstick while AJ quietly fretted over the possibility that her furry daughter had gotten out of the house and was lost, but we never found Xuan no matter how hard we looked.

Eventually we absolutely had to get on with our day, so I bundled Mom & Dad into my car and set out for their house while AJ moved her van first out of my way in the driveway, then into her garage.  We were maybe six or seven minutes out when my phone rang with AJ's ringtone. I picked it up (using the hands-free Bluetooth connection; it's illegal otherwise and dangerous besides) and before I could ask if they'd found the cat, we heard Miri telling us that when she & Mommy walked back into the house from the garage they were greeted by Xuan coming down the stairs mewing for some attention.

I swear, that cat is psychic.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Landmark Memories, Landmark Changes

Special note: The photos in this post are not mine; they have been culled from a series of online searches. Although none of the photos carried copyright notices, if you are the creator of any of these images and want them removed, please contact me and I will comply.

Back in December of 2014, I wrote a post titled "Memories..."about how I'd accidentally rediscovered the receipt from the dinner at which AJ let me & Cousin E in on the little secret of her adoption plans.

I mentioned that dinner was in a Cheesecake Factory restaurant. That particular branch of the chain was in White Flint Mall, which was for a time the poshest, most advanced shopping venue in the area.

White Flint didn't have hallways; it had "neighborhoods" -- the most notable being one designed to resemble a seaside Mediterranean street, and another designed to look like a street in old Georgetown (very accurately depicted, complete with architectural features rescued from demolished buildings in that DC neighborhood). Even the "regular" shopping areas were posher and "classier" than other malls, and it had one of the first multiplex movie theaters in the area and the first dedicated food court that I can remember (the "Eatery") in any regional mall.

There was a two-story Borders bookstore (complete with its own coffee shop) where you could read or sample the huge stock of CDs for hours, a small theater for live performances, restaurants set up like outdoor cafes, a high-end art gallery, and some of the coolest shops you could hope to find (especially the one that was stocked exclusively with blacklight-activated merchandise).

Locals used to take out-of-town visitors there just to show it off (or take their dates there as an affordable alternative to clubbing in Georgetown) and have a bite to eat, maybe blow a few bucks in the arcade at Dave & Buster's, catch a flick, or just window shop while occasionally gasping at the price tags.  I think I even made a comment during that one particular meal that it would be a cool place to bring "the baby" after she'd come home.

Main entrance, ca. 2012: P.F. Chang's, Bertucci's, Dave & Buster's, and the Cheesecake Factory

Time was not kind to White Flint Mall; several other area malls successfully went equally upscale without chasing away most of their earlier clientele, a renovation of the eatery did not go over well (and seemed badly thought out), and after just a few years the parking garage had to be closed & reopened one section at a time while the beams & columns could be reinforced after the structure was found to be failing. (Dude, talk about parking problems...!)

The local economy went up and down, and with each "down" one or two of the specialty shops would close, and sometimes one of the larger high-end stores as well. Soon there were gaps inside where shops closed but no new tenants took their place, the bookstore went away, the theater went away, people got tired of the TV-size screens and thin walls of the multiplex... and with each "blip" in the economy, more shoppers stayed away. (You can read a detailed history on Wikipedia by clicking here.)

Well, it turns out that the Pipsqueak isn't going to get to sit down to a meal in the spot that marked the beginning of our adoption odyssey for me.  Reduced to just a shadow of its former self, White Flint closed late in 2015 and by the end of January 2016 the entire structure was torn down (except for the Lord & Taylor store that was busy suing the developer for breach of contract, a case since decided in L&T's favor).
Main entrance, ca. October 2015
Supposedly, over the next few years that large, rubble-strewn wasteland at the southern end of Rockville's "Golden Mile" will be replaced with a "town center" development complete with business and residential areas and (somewhat ironically) thousands of square feet of retail space.

White Flint Mall had become a white elephant, a victim of cut-rate engineering and lack of planning for downturns in the economy.  And now it's gone...

...but that mid-size round table about three-quarters of the way toward the back of the Cheesecake Factory, near the windows that looked out onto one of the busier hallways inside the mall itself with the people walking past oblivious to my sister's life-changing statement, remains as solid and real in my mind today as it was more than a decade ago, when White Flint Mall was still in its prime.

Besides, "the baby" now prefers CalTort or Mickey D's... <grin>

Friday, August 4, 2017

Catching Up: Early April

NOTE 1: In the interest of honesty, I have to admit that this blog entry isn't about the Pipsqsueak per se but is really just a chance for me to post a few pretty pictures I wanted to share.

NOTE 2: I found an IKEA commercial online that depicts (with some accuracy) the moment when adoptive mother and child meet, with some very low-key selling at the end. I know not all adoptions work like the one shown -- but some do actually work that way, and it's a sweet moment for all my readers involved with (or just curious about) adoption. You can see the commercial here.

March departed and April entered with some "interesting" weather that once again left our neighborhoods with leaves & small branches spread everywhere, large branches (and a few full trees) on the ground, and enough standing water to float a small destroyer as overwhelmed storm drains became blocked.  Luckily all the family homesteads made it through the mess with little more than post-storm yard cleanups (and a little kitty litter on the floor in my basement) required... but it again drove home the fact that the months of the calendar don't give a hoot about "In like a lion, out like a lamb" poetry.

One effect of the weather was that it seemed to scare a lot of trees into bloom, since until then we'd only had a scattering of color.  I fired off at least a couple of dozen photos of the trees around my house, only to discover I'd been working with a dirty lens; a little careful cropping still left me with several nice shots, a few of which I include below just because I like them.

We had already been invited to spend Easter with some very close friends from the MIT group (our Easter celebrations are roughly 117% secular) but we took advantage of everyone having a little extra time off to spend a day with my uncle & aunt in Virginia.  There's a pretty (man-made) lake a couple of blocks away from their house, easily reached by walking and with a wide swathe of wooded parkland around it, so (as usual) the Pipsqueak wanted to take a postprandial walk in that direction.[1]

We had begun our "early" dinner later than planned, and engaged in all the usual storytelling and joking and discussion that stretches it out far more than the time needed to just eat, so it was already beginning to get dark and Miri had some convincing to do in order to get her walk.  Expert negotiator that she is, we agreed to a (slightly) shortened version of our usual walk and set off for the lake.

Miri engaged Mommy, Cousin E & her SO and yours truly in the usual banter about why this, what's that, why that, what's this, we need to look for treasure, and can you use that stick Uncle Brian? that's a big part of all such walks.  Unlike similar walks when she was just a toddler, these were interspersed with (short) breaks during which Miri kept herself occupied so the grownups could all talk among themselves.  Cousin E's SO is an excellent photographer (and has begun doing that work professionally, I'll link him here when he's ready) so he and I were discussing some projects he's got in the pipeline until the sight of the rising moon on the lake turned our conversation to capturing images like the one in front of us.

I decided I was being dumb by not trying to do what I was talking about -- I'm still trying to learn how to use some of the specialty functions on my camera! -- and took six or seven shots from the sidewalk.  I didn't have a tripod and was truly experimenting with different settings, but a couple of the photos turned out a lot nicer than I'd expected:

 It was getting dark enough to make walking on uneven sections of sidewalk difficult, so we called it a night and headed back to the house, and then everyone left for their respective homes a short time later.

It may not have been a "special event" day, but we all went to bed content with having spent some quality family time together -- and the Pipsqueak primed for the upcoming Easter egg hunt with her BFFs.

[1] You've seen previous photos of this lake on the blog and are likely to see more in the future; it's something of a family tradition for Miri to take Mommy, Cousin E, and Uncle Brian on a walk there when we visit.