May 31, 2010

"Rabbi, is there a blessing for AWESOME?"

2010 JRC Kallah, Memorial Day at Camp Beber with Hart

Hart and I had an amazing time this weekend. Hart was an active participant the whole weekend. He volunteered for "Kamp Kallah," helping with children's activities and babysitting, which meant doing a patrol shift of the sleeping kids. He went to all the social activities for the older kids: an ice cream social, a dance AND a midnight party at Taco Bell just for the counselors. He did a demonstration of Jedi Knight moves for the Talent Show.
I think people who don't know us were surprised to hear that Hart has disabilities because you might not have known it from his behavior (although I heard his toy elephant went to Taco Bell, too). The weekend isn't very structured and the kids, especially the older ones, have a lot of latitude to do what they want.

I told Hart that when he gets angry or frustrated back at school, he should remember that he is capable of good behavior and making new friends and good choices!

I can really see that Hart got a lot out of the weekend. Last year, he was merely "attending," and this year he was a full participant. I confess I didn't see much of him. He took his childcare obligations and partying very seriously.

I wish I could bottle and package whatever is in the air at Camp Beber over Memorial Day and dole it out to Hart throughout the year. If only.

May 27, 2010

May 26, 2010

Roll On, Big O . . . redux

Lawson's Orange Juice Commercial from the 1970s.

In theory, this blog is about my adventures with Hart and Jeff, but since my very old post about finding Lawson's stores on every corner in Japan, the hits just keep a-comin'.

So here's the classic commercial. Ohioans, feel free to sing along.

May 25, 2010

Let's Do the Time Warp, Again . . .

My dearest and most enduring friendships are with people I met years ago doing theater. I love performing. So maybe it is no surprise that this year I decided to return to community theater. My last stage appearance was about twenty-seven years ago. Theater productions were important, cherished experiences of my former life; before coming to Chicago, marriage, house and children. I don't know that I missed theater really, I never thought I was exceptionally talented, and I've been busy enough in those intervening years.

However, to my delight, I was cast in Oakton Community College's production of FIDDLER OF THE ROOF as Grandma Tzeitl. If you know the play, Grandma makes an appearance in Tevye's "dream" to convince his wife to allow their daughter to marry the man of her choice. If you don't know the show, she's a singing ghost in one scene.

So now I'm back. Back home after weeks of rehearsals and twelve performances. But I am really back from a strange trip through time. Community theater is just as I remembered it, albeit with two notable exceptions: no gay men--oddly, sadly; no drugs--thankfully. Other than that, it was just like old times: frustrating and exhilarating practices, precociously ambitious teenagers, owners of amazing voices, smarty-pants 20-somethings and 20-somethings with extraordinary commitment and focus. I even feel fondly nostalgic for the usual suspects who may or may not make their entrances on time, or bother to memorize their lines. Those of us onstage just hold our collective breath every night! I believe it was Will Shakespeare himself who famously said, "Prithee, pick up your fecking cues!" and Aristophanes who had to threaten the chorus members with the introduction of another main character if they didn't speak their lines in unison.

I remember this as all part of the alluring charm of non-professional theater. Take a diverse group of people, have them spend eight intensive weeks together, then disperse them. I felt exactly as I did at age nineteen, which was a bit alarming when I saw my post-nineteen-year-old face in the bright lights of the dressing room mirror.

One of my castmates leaned over early in a rehearsal while I was scribbling in my score, "You read music?" I nodded, but I was thinking, in my best Tallulah Bankhead/Katharine Hepburn/Sophie Tucker imitation, "Honey, I've been annotating musical theater scores in soft pencil since before Reagan was in office!" It was so great to be back. Magical.

THE LARK by Jean Anouilh

May 10, 2010

Travels with Jeff

I have heard for years about the unrepentant anti-Semitism of the Viennese, so Jeff and I were prepared to be on the "down-low" on our trip, despite traveling during Passover. What I wasn't prepared for, in both Vienna and Prague, was the enlightened attitude towards disabled people. As my Prague ex-pat friend (also Jewish) explains, "Even skinheads here assist blind people across the street and lift wheelchairs into the tram."
Everywhere we went, it seemed, Jeff was offered an unpublished discount. I believe the cashier at Křivoklát castle was asking, "Child?" indicating Jeff. "No, sixteen," I told her, pointing at the posted admission prices. Even so, she charged the "under-12" price for him. I came prepared with euros for our community Seder attendance, but despite being "post-Bar Mitzvah," the synagogue treasurer asked half-price for Jeff.

The Seder at Or Chadash was lovely, although long. The Rabbi led the service in Hebrew, followed by explanations in both German and English. I allowed Jeff to amuse himself with his Yu-Gi-Oh cards and toy horses. We were seated with a Viennese family with younger twin boys, who had lived in Boston for many years. I was growing more embarrassed by the minute as Jeff distracted the boys from the proceedings with his toys. At long last, I leaned over to the boys' mother in hopes of explaining our circumstances. She waved her hand immediately as if to say that no explanation was needed. (I found out later, she is a psychiatrist. She must have figured things out as soon as we sat down.)

There is a bit of a trick to traveling with Jeff in unfamiliar places. Unlike here, I don't have the advantage of casing the joint ahead of time. Who knows what objects of desire will hurl themselves in Jeff's path? I have come to steer us to the other side of the street if a hobby shop or toy store looms into view. However, a quaint, little music store in Vienna seemed like a safe bet. We had passed it several times while it was closed and when Jeff said he wanted to look for a gift for his guitar teacher, I acquiesced. To my dismay, Jeff immediately honed in on a display of miniature instruments. I confess they were adorable, but I explained to Jeff that even the smallest violin would use up all his spending money for the whole trip and then some. Just as I was considering how to maneuver Jeff towards the exit, the proprietress came over to assist us. "How much for the big one, or this one, or this tiny one?" Jeff was saying, unlikely to be deterred. But I heard a snippet of German between the woman and her husband that sounded like, " . . .the little one that's broken" and moments later she was pressing a tiny violin in a miniature case into Jeff's grateful hand. That four-inch fiddle turned out to be the most treasured souvenir of our visit to Vienna.

I have learned over the years, through bitter experience, to make our needs known. It's now instinct to insist on aisle seats on the airplane, a booth at restaurants, and to make note of closest exit in public places. What an extraordinary relief to be accommodated without having to ask.

May 4, 2010

Russian orphanage offers love, but not new families

For the many people who have asked my opinion on the Tennesse mother who sent her Russian adopted son back, I offer this article in today's New York Times, which states, more eloquently, what I have been saying for some time.

Published: May 3, 2010
"The case of an adopted boy who was sent back by a family in the U.S. has focused attention on a troubled system."

MOSCOW — There is nothing dreary about Orphanage No. 11. It has rooms filled with enough dolls and trains and stuffed animals to make any child giggly. It has speech therapists and round-the-clock nurses and cooks who delight in covertly slipping a treat into a tiny hand. It has the feel of a place where love abounds.

What it does not have are many visits from potential parents. Few of its children will ever be adopted — by Russians or foreigners. When they reach age 7 and are too old for this institution they will be shuttled to the next one, reflecting an entrenched system that is much better at warehousing children — and profiting from them — than finding them families.

The case of a Russian boy who returned alone to Moscow, sent back by his American adoptive mother, has focused intense attention on the pitfalls of international adoption.
But the outcry has obscured fundamental questions about why Russia has so many orphans and orphanages in the first place.

In recent days, senior Russian officials have begun to acknowledge how troubled their system is.
The chairwoman of the parliamentary committee on family and children, Yelena B. Mizulina, spotlighted what she said was a shocking statistic: Russia has more orphans now, 700,000, than at the end of World War II, when an estimated 25 million Soviet citizens were killed.

Ms. Mizulina noted that for all the complaints about the return of the boy, Artyom Savelyev, by his adoptive mother in Tennessee, Russia itself has plenty of experience with failed placements. She said 30,000 children in the last three years inside Russia were sent back to institutions by their adoptive, foster or guardianship families.

“Specialists call such a boom in returns a humanitarian catastrophe,” she said.
She reeled off more figures. The percentage of children who are designated orphans is four to five times higher in Russia than in Europe or the United States. Of those, 30 percent live in orphanages. Most of them are children who have been either given up by their parents or removed from dysfunctional homes by the authorities.

Her comments offered a sense of the frustration over the state of Russia’s orphanage system, which has long been resistant to reform. Over the years, proposals to reduce the system’s size — the deinstitutionalization that occurred decades ago in the United States and elsewhere — have gone nowhere.

Despite the horror stories recounted about Russian orphanages, social welfare experts say that conditions in many are not terrible; some are excellent. The more pressing issue is the warehousing of young children in large-scale facilities, which experts say can hold back their social and intellectual development.

But the system’s defenders said that until the government figures out how to cut down on social problems like drug and alcohol abuse to improve family life, there is no alternative.
“It would be a lot better if there were no orphanages, and every child were happy in the family that he or she has,” said the director of Orphanage No. 11, Lidiya Y. Slusareva. “But if there are bad families, then it is better that the children are here.”

The scrutiny of the Russian system comes as Russian and American diplomats are working out new rules for adoptions. Russian officials, who have often seemed embarrassed that their country cannot care for all its children and has to give some up to foreigners, demanded the new rules after Artyom was returned.

The Foreign Ministry said adoptions by Americans would be suspended until an agreement is reached. It is not entirely clear whether adoptions are actually frozen, or whether the process is just being dragged out.

In recent years, the Russian government has repeatedly pledged to bolster efforts to help families stay together, to increase the number of children who are adopted and to expand foster care. But it has not had notable success.

Indeed, while Russia has its share of social problems, the large number of orphans stems in part from a policy that does not place a high value on keeping families together. The Russian government spends roughly $3 billion annually on orphanages and similar facilities, creating a system that is an important source of jobs and money on the regional level — and a target for corruption.

As a result, it is in the interests of regional officials to maintain the flow of children to orphanages and then not to let them leave, child welfare experts said. When adoptions are permitted, families, especially foreign families, have to pay large fees and navigate a complex bureaucracy.
“The system has one goal, which is to preserve itself,” said Boris L. Altshuler, chairman of Right of the Child, an advocacy group in Moscow, and a member of a Kremlin advisory group.
“That is why the process of adoption in Russia is like going through the circles of hell,” he said. “The system wants these children to remain orphans.”

He said that in 2008, 115,000 children in Russia were designated as without parental care, typically after being removed from their homes by caseworkers. Only 9,000 children were returned to their parents that year. In the United States, where reuniting families is a primary goal, the percentage is far higher, he said.

Over all, 13,000 children were officially adopted in 2008 — 9,000 by Russians and 4,000 by foreigners, officials said. The system’s stagnation can be seen at Orphanage No. 11, which houses 45 to 50 children. Most have health or behavior difficulties, but the staff coaxes wonders from them. In the auditorium on a recent day, a group rehearsed a dance wearing 18th-century ball costumes, then went back to the dressing room before returning in Russian peasant outfits for a traditional dance. It was hard not to be charmed. Even so, only a single child has been adopted from the orphanage this year.

Since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, a total of 74 children have been adopted — an average of about four a year, said the director, Ms. Slusareva, who plays no role in their placement. The total comprises 20 adoptions to Russians, 24 to Americans and 30 to other foreigners.

The case of Artyom at first spurred a strong reaction, with some Russians saying that a country whose population is shrinking should never send its children abroad.

But Ms. Slusareva did not agree. The primary goal, she said, should be to locate good homes for these children — preferably in Russia, but if not there, then elsewhere. “The hardest thing is when a child asks, ‘When will a mama come for me?’ ” she said. “So the best moment for me is when a child leaves the orphanage with a family.”

A version of this article appeared in print on May 4, 2010, on page A1 of the New York edition.