Monday, April 28, 2008

I'm no fan of Barbie, but ...

Maybe they should save their consternation for Bratz.

By ALI AKBAR DAREINI, Associated Press Writer Mon Apr 28, 4:09 PM ET

TEHRAN, Iran - A top Iranian judiciary official warned Monday against the "destructive" cultural and social consequences of importing Barbie dolls and other Western toys.

In the latest salvo in a more than decade-old government campaign against Barbie, Prosecutor General Ghorban Ali Dori Najafabadi said in an official letter to Vice President Parviz Davoudi that the doll and other Western toys are a "danger" that need to be stopped.

"The irregular importation of such toys, which unfortunately arrive through unofficial sources and smuggling, is destructive culturally and a social danger," said the letter, a copy of which was made available to The Associated Press.

Iranian markets have been inundated with smuggled Western toys in recent years partly due to a dramatic rise in purchasing power as a result of increased oil revenues.

While importing the toys is not necessarily illegal, it is discouraged by a government that seeks to protect Iranians from what it calls the negative effects of Western culture.

Najafabadi said the increasing visibility of Western dolls has alarmed authorities and they are considering intervening.

"The displays of personalities such as Barbie, Batman, Spiderman and Harry Potter ... as well as the irregular importation of unsanctioned computer games and movies are all warning bells to the officials in the cultural arena," his letter said.

Najafabadi said Iran is the world's third biggest importer of toys and warned that smuggled imports pose a threat to the "identity" of the new generation.

"Undoubtedly, the personality and identity of the new generation and our children, as a result of unrestricted importation of toys, has been put at risk and caused irreparable damages," he said.

Mattel Inc., the maker of Barbie, had no immediate comment on the Iranian letter.

Barbie is sold wearing swimsuits and miniskirts in a society where women must wear head scarves in public and men and women are not allowed to swim together.

In 1996, the head of a government-backed children's agency called Barbie a "Trojan horse" sneaking in Western influences such as makeup and revealing clothes.

Authorities launched a campaign of confiscating Barbies from toy shops in 2002, denouncing the un-Islamic sensibilities of the iconic American doll. But the campaign was eventually dropped.

Also in 2002, Iran introduced its own competing dolls — the twins Dara and Sara — who were designed to promote traditional values with their modest clothing and pro-family stories. But the dolls proved unable to stem the Barbie tide.

Angel Food v. Devil's Food

Here's another one I didn't write that struck me as particularly funny:

Angel's Food vs. Devil's Food...

In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth and populated the Earth with broccoli, cauliflower and spinach, green and yellow and red vegetables of all kinds, so Man and Woman would live long and healthy lives.

Then using God's great gifts, Satan created Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream and Krispy Creme Donuts. And Satan said, "You want chocolate with that?"

And Man said, "Yes!" and Woman said, "and as long as you're at it, add some sprinkles." And they gained 10 pounds. And Satan smiled.

And God created the healthful yogurt that Woman might keep the figure that Man found so fair. And Satan brought forth white flour from the wheat, and sugar from the cane and combined them. And Woman went from size 6 to size 14.

So God said, "Try my fresh green salad." And Satan presented Ranch Dressing, buttery croutons and garlic toast on the side. And Man and Woman unfastened their belts following the repast.

God then said, "I have sent you heart healthy vegetables and olive oil in which to cook them." And Satan brought forth deep fried fish and chicken-fried steak so big it needed its own platter. And Man gained more weight and his cholesterol went through the roof.

God then created a light, fluffy white cake, named it "Angel Food Cake," and said, "It is good." Satan then created chocolate cake and named it "Devil's Food."

God then brought forth running shoes so that His children might lose those extra pounds. And Satan gave cable TV with a remote control so Man would not have to toil changing the channels. And Man and Woman laughed and cried before the flickering blue light and gained pounds.

Then God brought forth the potato, naturally low in fat and brimming with nutrition. And Satan peeled off the healthful skin and sliced the starchy center into chips and deep-fried them. And Man gained pounds.

God then gave lean beef so that Man might consume fewer calories and still satisfy his appetite. And Satan created McDonald's and its 99-cent double cheeseburger. Then said, "You want fries with that?" And Man replied, "Yes! And super size them!" And Satan said, "It is good." And Man went into cardiac arrest.

God sighed and created quadruple bypass surgery.

Then Satan created HMOs.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Tears on my laptop

On Fridays, I work at home. This past Friday, I fired up my virtual connection to the office, opened up my work email and learned that a coworker had died. The email had been sent on Thursday after I left, and immediately, I called in to try to learn what had happened. Suicide. It goes without saying that the day went downhill from there. I spent the remainder of the work day in a mental fog, crying intermittently as I tried to write. When I wasn't crying, or reading the email traffic about the availability of EAP counselors and the all-hands meeting for my office, I was on the phone with people from the office trying to make sense of what had happened.

There's no way that Jane's (not her real name) death makes sense to me even now, and at present, I'm mad at her. When I'm not crying, that is. And I'm spending a lot of this weekend doing just that. I've known other people who've committed suicide, but I was closer to this woman than I was to those people. I can't say that we were close friends, but we were friends and had been colleagues for nearly six years (I was hired at my current job in July 2002). Jane was actually one of my peer-interviewers when I applied for my job, and perhaps one of the reasons I accepted the job when offered. And Jane and I shared some important commonalities. We both struggled with depression, and we both battled eating and weight issues. It's the commonalities that make her self-induced death harder to accept, and like a lot of those left behind in any suicide, I wonder what might have prevented it.

A couple of people I know have told me not to think this way. One told me that Jane's passing was her choice and I couldn't have done anything to stop it. The first part is definitely true, and I suppose that a person absolutely set on ending her life would be pretty much impossible to stop.

The second friend, a colleague, told me that I shouldn't be angry, that I should understand why she did it because I too suffer from depression. That doesn't work for me. Even in the worst of my own depression, and I've had bouts of it since college, I've never been suicidal. Sure, I had some minor suicidal ideation in my mid-twenties, but it was mainly drama queen stuff in response to a job that was harder than anything I've dealt with in my life, and frankly, for which I was emotionally unsuited.

That pain was pretty bad, but it did end, by the way. My employer soon realized I was unsuited, too, and terminated me. Looking back, that was a humane act because it caused me to leave a career that would have been soul-crushing and strike out for something better. It took several years, but the road eventually led to law school. That was probably the road I should have taken in the first place, though at the time, I was probably too immature and perfectionistic to have survived law school.

Since that time, I've had ups and downs. My bouts of depression have mainly involved extreme lethargy, overeating, weight gain, poor sleep hygiene, a messy house, crabbiness, and tearfulness, but not losing my will to live or purposefully trying to die. I know my strong religious convictions have played a part in this, but beyond that, killing myself just doesn't compute. At some point (in my late 20's or early 30's), I realized that things usually do get better if you give them time. I've never gotten so deeply mired in depression that I haven't found something good to hold onto ... a hug from a friend, a call from a family member, an unexpected check in the mail. I don't know what it's like to lose all hope. I'm surprised that Jane did know that.

I'm not just saying this because she's dead, but Jane was a terrific woman through and through. She was unfailingly kind, endlessly caring, utterly decent, and a damn fine lawyer, too. Jane was the type who'd organize the office baby showers, retirement parties and welcome receptions for new employees. I'd worked closely with her last fall on our agency's Unity Day observance, which is an annual celebration our varied personal histories and origins. Jane always had a kind word and a good suggestion for resolving the sticky legal problem currently on my desk. Beyond my individual sorrow, Jane's death is a huge loss for our agency. And it begs the question: Did she even know how much we all loved her? I suspect she did, but the depression monster was stronger than that love.

Despite my anger about the emotional chaos her passing creates for us all, I pray she's found the peace she was seeking. Requiescat in pace, dear friend.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Ring! Ring!

This is not a post about jewelry, title to the contrary. It's a post about amazing customer service that's almost unheard of these days.

I've always loved my engagement and wedding rings. Back when Kevin and I decided to get married, he did some Internet research about local jewelers after spending a rather frustrating Sunday afternoon store-hopping in a large mall. Washington Diamond, a small family-owned store in Falls Church, Virginia, got consistently high marks its customers, and so he decided to make an appointment there. We went on a Thursday night after work.

Our shopping experience there was clearly different than anything we'd experienced at the mall stores. Instead of being sized up, shaken down, or shamed into looking at bigger stones than we could afford (essentially, a used-car-buying experience), one of the owners, who'd apparently already discussed budget with Kevin, simply brought a tray of stones in our price range into his office, and I selected the one that I liked. No attitude, no condescension, no frilly showroom.

The photo above doesn't do justice to it. It was the smallest stone on the tray, but has incredible fire. Though it's not small, what it "lacks" in carats, it more than makes up in color, cut and clarity. And it was considerably less than a stone of similar weight (but of a lesser quality) that we'd seen at the mall stores.

It gets better. I brought with me a picture of a ring I liked from a bridal magazine. We found the setting in one of Robert's catalogs, and it was pricey. Robert proposed that his goldsmith would make a similar ring -- not identical, of course, but in the same genre -- for a considerably less inflated price. The goldsmith made me an elegant ring for which I still get frequent compliments. When time to buy a wedding band rolled around, we came back to Washington Diamond and they created a matching band.

So you can imagine my upset when I looked at my hand one day last fall and saw that one of the baguettes had fallen out of the engagement ring.

Together with my coworkers, I scoured the floor of my office, the hall and the restroom on the floor where I work. We took apart my computer keyboard. We turned off all the lights and searched using a flashlight. No stone.

I emailed Washington Diamond to inquire about a repair. The owner called me the next day and assured me that the ring could be repaired for a reasonable price. Essentially, I would pay for the new stone. That's it.

So last month, I finally took my ring in for repair. I left my wedding band as well so they could inspect it. No sense losing another baguette. Because before I took over the family filing system, Kevin had lost the certificate that came with the ring, so I wanted to replace that. And, yes, give me an updated appraisal, too.

I picked up the rings late last week. I swear, they looked new. The baguette turned out to be a bit more expensive than we expected because it's not a size they normally use, but Washington Diamond had cleaned and polished the rings beautifully, and replated the platinum parts with rhodium -- all for the cost of another baguette. And they even had a photocopy of the certificate in their files.

I love these guys. I love my rings!

My 10th anniversary is coming up. An anniversary ring? Oh, how I wish! But, those darned tuition payments never end. (That's not to say that she's not worth every penny of it.)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Pet Diaries: Dog vs. Cat

No, I didn't write this myself. Don't know the author (for attribution purposes), but it is too good not to share.

The Dog's Diary:

8:00 am - Dog food! My favorite thing!

9:30 am - A car ride! My favorite thing!

9:40 am - A walk in the park! My favorite thing!

10:30 am - Got rubbed and petted! My favorite thing!

12:00 pm - Milk bones! My favorite thing!

1:00 pm - Played in the yard! My favorite thing!

3:00 pm - Wagged my tail! My favorite thing!

5:00 pm - Dinner! My favorite thing!

7:00 pm - Got to play ball! My favorite thing!

8:00 pm - Wow! Watched TV with the people! My favorite thing!

11:00 pm - Sleeping on the bed! My favorite thing!

The Cat's Diary:

Day 983 of my captivity.

My captors continue to taunt me with bizarre little dangling objects. They dine lavishly on fresh meat, while the other inmates and I are fed some sort of dry nuggets. Although I make my contempt for the rations perfectly clear, I nevertheless must eat something in order to keep up my strength. The only thing that keeps me going is my dream of escape. In an attempt to disgust them, I once again vomit on the carpet. Today I decapitated a mouse and dropped its headless body at their feet. I had hoped this would strike fear into their hearts, since it clearly demonstrates my capabilities. However, they merely made condescending comments about what a "good little hunter" I am. Jerks!

There was some sort of assembly of their accomplices tonight. I was placed in solitary confinement for the duration of the event. However, I could hear the noises and smell the food. I overheard that my confinement was due to the power of "allergies." I must learn what this means, and how to use it to my advantage. Today I was almost successful in an attempt to assassinate one of my tormentors by weaving around his feet as he was walking. I must try this again
tomorrow, but at the top of the stairs.

I am convinced that the other prisoners here are flunkies and snitches. The dog receives special privileges. He is regularly released, and seems to be more than willing to return. He is obviously retarded. The bird must be an informant. I observe him communicate with the guards regularly. I am certain that he reports my every move. My captors have arranged protective custody for him in an elevated cell, so he is safe. For now.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

April 9, 2003, and Beyond

In the fall of 2003, I did something I've always thought would be fun to do, write a feature-like article for a magazine. It all started a few months earlier -- during the thick of the events I've been describing in this series -- when I received the slick Furman magazine from my alma mater. (My first foray into higher education was at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., where I graduated in 1979 with a B.A. in history.) There was a first-person article from a classmate, Jim Ewel, regarding an adventure he and his family had in Paris, when Jim decided to take a few months off from work and get an humble kitchen-prep job at a multi-star eatery there. Now, this adventure begs the question, "Who can afford to do that?" After college, Jim seems to have struck out for Seattle and landed a job in the little software start-up that eventually ate the industry. So while I was in law school reading about Microsoft's antitrust "issues," Jim was probably making a ton of money. Oh, well.... I saw the article and said, "I can do this!" Not market Windows mind you, or slice and dice in Paris (though I probably actually could do that), mind you. No, write a first-person article for a slick magazine. After ruling out the Washington Post's Sunday magazine, I contacted the editor of Furman. He liked the idea, and six months later, I was a published author. With apologies to Paul Harvey, the " Rest of the Story" comes from my article:

On Wednesday, April 9, we boarded an early-morning flight to Hong Kong, and at noon departed for Chicago from a tomb-like Hong Kong International Airport. The trip back was somber – and very different from the journey over. On our flight to Beijing, every seat was taken, but we had congregated in the plane’s galleys, gotten to know our fellow adoptive parents and chatted up the flight attendants, who were more than happy to keep the liquid refreshments flowing. On the way back, the flight was half-empty and the attendants were wearing surgical masks and latex gloves.

By now, Madeline was adjusting to us – and rapidly becoming her sprightly self. She didn’t sleep until we were 30 minutes outside of O’Hare, when she nodded off in my arms. When we passed through Immigration, the inspector looked at her and said with a grin, “Well, it’s another ‘lucky kid’!” With a stamp and a stroke of his pen, Madeline became a citizen.

Her warm welcome to America was short-lived, however. On the way to the domestic gate, she was awakened by an overly zealous security inspector who insisted that she be removed from her harness so that it could be X-rayed. I didn’t know terrorists had sunk so low. As we took off, she started whimpering and pawing her ears, and she remained unhappy all the way home. Kevin’s folks met us right outside the security perimeter – two very tired parents with their first grandchild.

At the time, many returning parents in the China adoption community were choosing to be quarantined for 10 days. We thought this was excessive, and we knew that Kevin’s parents would never agree to wait that long to meet their grandchild. To be safe, though, we decided not to leave the house much during our first few days home.

I did, however, take Madeline to our family practitioner, Dr. Joanne Watson, the day after we got home to get more amoxicillin for what I was sure was an ear infection. I also told Dr. Watson about my illness in China. She attributed it to the same causes I had – jet lag, dehydration, stress – but told me to keep in touch.

When we took the baby to Johns Hopkins, the doctor pronounced her “healthy but small” and advised us to continue treating her scabies and to feed her whatever she’d eat. By the end of the next week, Easter weekend, all of us were over jet lag and feeling better, and we decided that Madeline would make her social debut in church.

By Monday night, however, both Kevin and I were feeling sick. Kevin thought he was suffering from allergies, but my symptoms from Nanning had returned with a vengeance, and this time with an added problem: shortness of breath.

When my temperature reached 101 on Tuesday, I called Dr. Watson’s office. Within minutes she returned the call and said, “It’s probably nothing, but I think we need to rule out SARS, and a hospital is the best place to do that.” She agreed to make the arrangements. If I was sick, it was likely that everyone in the house would get sick, so we decided that all of us should be tested. We left immediately.

Kevin dropped Madeline and me at the emergency room door, where a security guard stepped up and asked, “Ma’am, are you Mrs. McGee?” When I said yes, he led me to one side as a staff member approached, bringing masks for us to wear. He wasn’t in protective clothing and kept a healthy distance. When Kevin arrived, the guard led us all to an isolation room, where a group of doctors and nurses waited – in masks, gowns, gloves and goggles.

Five hours later, after we had endured assorted questions, tests, X-rays and specimen collections, the nurse-manager, who had been presiding over this circus, re-entered our isolation chamber and announced, “Edith, you have a probable case of SARS.” (I later learned that she had used the wrong term; I was merely a “suspected” case.) She went on to explain that I would have to be isolated until 10 days after all symptoms had abated, and that Kevin and Madeline would have to stay inside for three days – unless they developed symptoms, in which case they’d be isolated, too. She added that only the Centers for Disease Control could verify whether I actually had the disease, and the process might take a few days.

Then came the ground rules: No stops on the way home. No visitors, even for emergencies (including the guy I had scheduled to fix my dishwasher). I was to check in with the health department twice a day; they would call the next morning with instructions. If my symptoms worsened at all, I was to call 911 and let county emergency services know that I was “the SARS lady,” so they could send an ambulance crew in protective gear. Having seen reports on television about people in isolation, we wondered if the hospital intended to notify the media. She assured us that the media would not be called.

I’m sure her intentions were the best. I’m also sure the media train had already left the station by the time we reached home.

We decided we would limit the spread of information and tell people on a “need to know” basis. We called Kevin’s parents and my brother and sister-in-law, Mike and Alice. Alice offered to purchase groceries and leave them on our porch. Our niece, Rebecca, who worked at a photo store, offered to develop our film from China.

We did not call my family in Tennessee. Before the trip, my mother had called in a swivet, fearful that we would be exposed to SARS. I responded that the issue wasn’t open for debate. Our child was waiting in China, and we were going.

The next morning, I received the first of many calls from the Anne Arundel County Health Department. After fielding several dozen questions from Dr. Sohail Qarni and his nurse, Marie Crawford, I went back to bed, expecting a peaceful recovery.

Later that day, though, a public affairs officer at the health department called. “I really hate having to tell you this,” she said, “and I don’t know the source of the leak, but The Washington Post has your name. They just called to confirm that the suspected SARS patient in Anne Arundel County is Edith McGee. We refused to comment, of course.”

My reply cannot be printed in a family publication, and when I hung up I was trembling with anger. A few moments later, the phone rang again. It was a Post reporter. I hung up. He called again. Kevin grabbed the receiver and shouted, “If you print anything about my wife, we’re going to sue you!” Having confirmed my condition – and obviously undeterred by the isolation – the reporter rang our doorbell a couple of hours later. Kevin shouted for him to go away.

The next morning, the story ran in the Post and was picked up on radio and television: a 45-year-old Millersville woman who had just returned from China with her husband and one-year-old son was sequestered in their home.

The phone calls started almost immediately. Our builder’s project manager left a message: Was I the woman with SARS? He needed to know, because company personnel had been in our home since our return. Recognizing the potential for trouble, I confessed.

My boss called next. “This is none of my business, but I know you were sick in China. Listen, if it’s you, I’ll put ‘sick leave’ on your timecard rather than ‘annual leave’.” Recognizing that the amount of paid leave available to me had just increased, I confessed. Then a girlfriend called. “They got the baby’s sex wrong, but I know this is you, and I’m worried sick.” Recognizing a shoulder to cry on, I confessed. So much for privacy.

Later that day, Nurse Marie called and dropped another bomb. “The Post has been bugging our public affairs people all day. They’re sure it’s you. Won’t you give them a telephone interview?” After she assured me that Phuong Ly, the reporter now on the story, was “nice,” Kevin and I granted an anonymous interview, hoping it would put an end to the media interest.

That evening, a Baltimore news crew conducted on-the-street interviews at a strip mall near our house, and patron after patron gravely insisted that the health authorities had a duty to reveal my name to the public. So now I was Typhoid Mary.

In contrast, Phuong’s story was balanced and accurate. We didn’t look like fools, and she graciously omitted most of the identifying details. But our decision to talk to the Post only encouraged the media. We became a hot commodity.

First, the local television stations did telephone interviews. Then the national outfits wanted a piece of the action. We agreed to cooperate as long as our names weren’t used and as long as I didn’t do live interviews. We wanted to maintain at least the pretense of privacy, and I was sick enough to distrust my self-censorship capabilities. I talked with the CBS Evening News and the New York Times. Unfortunately, members of my immediate family in Tennessee saw the CBS piece, and yes, Mom, I know you told me not to go.

That weekend, CNN’s medical reporter, Elizabeth Cohen, called and requested an on-camera interview. Although I was feeling better, I was still supposed to avoid contact with others. CNN asked if we could provide footage, using our camcorder, and ship the tape. Our faces would be obscured for the broadcast. We complied, and the result was a delightful piece. Elizabeth and her producer were so pleased with our footage – “This is better than the stuff we get from our affiliates!” – that they jokingly offered to award us academic credit for our experience in news production.

Over the next 10 days I continued to improve – and talk to the press. On Monday, May 5, Kevin returned to work, and later that day the health department called to let me know I was free at last. Ten days had elapsed since I had run a fever.

Within minutes, television reporters were calling again, this time for on-camera interviews. Granted, we were a great human-interest story: “Middle-aged woman goes to China, adopts adorable child, gets very sick, then recovers just in time for Mother’s Day!”

Over the next two weeks, stations from Baltimore and Washington sent crews. Phuong Ly from the Post dropped by with a photographer in tow. Our local rag, the Maryland Gazette, and the Annapolis paper, The Capital, also sent a reporter and photographer. A Chinese language daily did a story, as did Voice of America. Sharyl Atkisson of CBS Evening News interviewed me about the effects of my two-week isolation for a story on the gaps in the public health system that the SARS crisis had exposed.

And then, by Memorial Day, it was over.

In retrospect, I doubt we would have received so much attention had there been another big story other than SARS. And despite the leak to the Post, the entire media circus would have been avoidable had Kevin and I been less accommodating.

But I think it was better that we cooperated. We offered the press a “real” story rather than fodder for the kind of speculation that fuels unfounded fears. In turn, despite having to field a few silly questions, we were treated well.

Leave it to Fox, however, to sensationalize our story. A few days after I learned that I had not been infected with the corona virus that causes SARS, a reporter for the network’s D.C. affiliate asked whether anyone had been unkind to me. At the time, there were reports that some people returning from China were being shunned by friends and neighbors. “Only one,” I said, and described a humorous encounter with another patron at a department store where I was awaiting checkout with Madeline. The woman told her young children to stay away from us because we might make them sick. Fox played that up.

Not everyone who’d been exposed to us was treated so benignly. Alice, my sister-in-law, received a call from the mother of one of Rebecca’s schoolmates, asking if she was safe to be around. My brother Mike, an airline pilot, informed his employer, and although the airline allowed him to continue flying, some flight attendants and a first officer mutinied.

The people we knew personally, however, were kind and supportive. Some of our new neighbors asked about my welfare while I was still in isolation. Our pastor and my in-laws handled with humor and grace some concerned but polite inquiries from persons I’d “exposed” at church.

Despite being able to identify a bit with Monica Lewinsky, we’re none the worse for wear. And yes, knowing what we know now, we’d still have gone to China to get Madeline.

It’s not just that she is a wonderful child, a match for our family that only God could have engineered. It’s that once we saw her picture and knew her name, there was a hook through our hearts. Even before she was officially ours, we knew that we were her parents.

And what parents wouldn’t go?

Five years later, my story still surfaces in odd ways. I'll be standing in the produce department and some total stranger will approach me and say, "Hey aren't you...." It used to happen all of the time, though, thankfully, it's infrequent and I've gone back to being Citizen Edie, rather than the Millersville SARS Mom. But, Google "Edie McGee" and "SARS" and see what you get.

I still wonder what it was that attacked my respiratory system. The tests say that it wasn't SARS, but it was unlike any cold, pneumonia or flu that I've ever experienced. Occasionally, I wonder if it will have some long-term effect on my health. I raised the issue when I had the mysterious breathing troubles after my lap-band surgery last fall, and the physician's assistant with whom I was speaking proceeded to chew me out about not sharing my story with my surgeon and anesthesiologist before the surgery. WTH? (Sorry Drs. Schweitzer and Mazza, but hey, I had surgery in 2005 and didn't have breathing problems then....) It's been five years, people! Surely my lungs are well by now. So, I keep walking on the treadmill and refusing to live in fear. It was a fluke and what a fluke it was.

Darn! I'd hoped to get my fifteen minutes of fame doing something more worthwhile than being Patient Zero in a media-created pandemic.

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

April 7, 2003

Sorry for the long delay in finishing our story, but a lot has happened in the last two weeks. Don't worry -- nothing particularly earth shattering. I just had a personal goal of getting all our tax-related paperwork finished by April 1 so that our accountant would have a couple of weeks to work on it, and then on April 4, Madeline and I drove to Tennessee for a family wedding. (No, I did not let Madeline drive. Her feet don't reach the pedals yet, and my gut sense is that she will be a speeder.) We returned on April 6, and since that time, I've been crunching away on Girl Scout stuff. I lead Madeline's Daisy troop. I had new leader training last weekend, and the Spring merchandise sale stuff came in and had to be distributed to the parents. On top of all this, I've been doing shuttle diplomacy for four different appeals at work. I've had no time to write. Zero, zip, nada. The dust has settled now, and I can continue the saga.

We spent a few days in Nanning waiting for Madeline's Chinese passport and various other documents, then on Friday, April 4, we flew to Guangzhou for the last leg of our trip. And that's when things started to get weird -- at least they did for us. Here's an email home dated April 7, which I wrote while Kevin was at our Consulate appointment for Madeline's visa. I've interjected a few comments in brackets.

Hello everyone!

Greetings from the epicenter of SARS. We are in Guangzhou getting Madeline's visa. Guangzhou reminds me a lot of San Francisco. On the water, cool and foggy.
[I will add here, five years after the fact, that unlike the City by the Bay, Guangzhou is not particularly hilly.] Although the Consulate assures us everything is okay -- no one there has gotten sick, and they have a lot of public contact -- we have been told not to go out where there are crowds of people and are complying. To save us from venturing out, they even did a "group swear" at the hotel. [After writing this email, I learned that they actually did it at the Consulate. We were told it would be at the hotel, but apparently they put everyone who showed up on the bus when the appointed time came. They did, however, allow us to send only one parent and did not require us to bring the baby.] We are also coming back one day early and avoiding spending the night in Hong Kong, which was our original itinerary.

Fortunately, this is a VERY nice hotel, comparable to a big Park Avenue hotel in NYC, so we are very comfortable even as we are cloistered somewhat. Kevin went back to Shamian Island this afternoon to shop. I'd love to see more of the city myself, but because it's raining and I've been running a low-grade fever since last Wednesday (I caught Madeline's cold), I am typing one-handed and holding her with the other.

After spending Thursday touring the Nanning countryside and visiting a farm village similar to the one where Madeline was likely conceived and born (you've never seen poverty like this, believe me), we got all her paperwork on Friday morning and flew to Guangzhou on Friday night. Madeline did very well on the plane. [Kevin tells me he's seen far worse poverty in the Philippines. The guides did tell us that this particular village was relatively wealthy; nonetheless, seeing it was still sobering for a rich, fat American like me.] No screaming. She just went right to sleep. We spent Saturday getting her visa physical exam and photos made, as well as shopping on Shamian Island. BTW, Madeline is 28.5 inches high and weighs 19.3 lbs.

On Sunday, we went to church on Shamian Island right by the Consulate. It was an "official" protestant church, but the people were very fervent. [It's a partial misconception that people can't worship in China. You can worship, but it has to be at a government-approved church. The government-sanctioned protestant denomination is called the Three-Self Patriotic Movement.] We sang hymns in Mandarin -- same hymns, and they had the Pinyin (English phonetic) words on an overhead screen. They had an English language translator for the sermon. The sermon was on 2nd Timothy. It was more in the nature of a Bible study than an American sermon, and definitely had a cultural twist. The pastor talked about being a good citizen of China AND Christian. He also admonished the younger parishioners to obey their parents and grandparents. [Very Chinese.] We met a bunch of young university students who spoke good English and had a nice visit while waiting for the service to begin. They were very supportive of international adoption of orphaned or abandoned children like Madeline. On Sunday afternoon we saw the Guangdong Folk Art Museum. What a place! Beautiful paintings, ceramics, bone carving, wood carving and embroidered pieces to die for. Today was the group swear. Since they only needed one parent, I stayed in the room with Madeline and Kevin went.

Madeline is doing beautifully. She still has a cold and scabies, both of which we are treating, but she's really warmed up to us and is showing us what she can do and who she is. She's a velcro baby with me and is gradually warming up to Kevin. She took her first steps on Saturday afternoon. The orphanage told me she was right on the verge of walking. We had a meeting to do paperwork on Saturday, and we, of course, brought her. She saw a ziplock bag of Cheerios (a favorite of this little girl) on the other side of the room and just took off. She's not real steady on her feet, but she walks on her own, and we got to witness those first steps. Unfortunately, we didn't have the cameras with us at the time.

She also talks a little. In Cantonese, of course. The waitress this morning translated, and she's definitely trying to communicate with us. She asked us for milk (nai-nai). She also calls me "mama" and Kevin "dada." She also loves to steal things from us and play games. She's anything but peaceful and quiet, which is another meaning for her name.

I'll write some more when I get back. It's hard to do this with a baby on your lap!

One of my few regrets about the trip was not getting out more during the Guangzhou leg. We'd heard time and time again from adoptive parents that Guangzhou is a terrific city with wonderful, child-friendly restaurants and fabulous shopping, much of which is on Shamian Island where the U.S. Consulate is located. (The fabled White Swan Hotel is also on Shamian Island, and most adoptive families stay there. Our agency, America-World Adoption Association, doesn't use the White Swan, so we missed that part of the China adoption experience. Oh, well. Some parents are peeved when they learn that AWAA uses a different hotel, but the agency has its reasons, and they are good ones. And the China Hotel where we stayed is itself fabulous.) We'd heard about the lovely park across from our hotel. We'd heard about the famed open-air food market where you can get just about anything you might want to eat, including animals that we Americans consider house pets. We'd heard about the beautiful Six Banyan Temple, a renouned Buddhist cultural site. We missed all that. And we broke our rule and ate at Mickey D's our first night there. It was next to the hotel. (I don't regret eating at McDonalds, but I do regret introducing Madeline to french fries at such a tender age. She was also introduced to another favorite while still in China: chocolate ice cream. See the video above.) Hopefully, we'll get back to Guangzhou in not too many years. I want to see it properly.

We also missed our Hong Kong layover. I've always wanted to go to Hong Kong. We'd planned to fly out of Guangzhou with our group the morning of April 9. Our group was leaving Guangzhou at 6:30 a.m. and taking a 30-minute hop to Hong Kong, then flying back to Chicago at noon. We planned to check into the airport hotel instead, spend the 9th playing in Hong Kong, and leave on the same flight the next day. Our agency advised us that it might be wise to return with the group instead, so we changed our flights while we were in Guangzhou. While I was disappointed on both counts, it was smart to do what we did, given that the World Health Organization had declared Guangzhou to be the epicenter of SARS the very week that we arrived there.

While the email above sounds totally cheery, the truth was, I felt like crap. I didn't have a low-grade fever, unless you consider 101.5 to be low-grade. I had a dry, hacking cough and trouble breathing. Even though it was cool in Guangzhou, sweat just poured off of my body with the slightest activity. I had zero energy. It was hard work just getting out of bed and taking care of the baby. My gut was going crazy, and I was losing weight at a precarious rate. I was disappointed to have to miss so much on this long-awaited trip, but there was definitely something wrong with my body. I wanted to go home. April 9 did not come a moment too soon.