Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Brotherhood of Joseph - two-part interview

As promised.  A recent interview with Connie Martinson about The Brotherhood of Joseph just popped up on line. For those who don't know, the book is about the long road my wife and I took to parenthood, through a variety of doctor's offices, hospitals, clinics, lawyer's offices and adoption agencies, but finally winding up in Siberia, where the real test was waiting.

Again, my thanks to Connie for the care and interest she brought to our discussion.  Here are the links to part 1 and part 2 of our talk.

Links to an earlier interview we conducted about John the Baptizer and the recent Central Park anthology can be found here.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Tuesday Talk

This year's Cate School senior class of 2013 invited me to speak at their series of Tuesday Talks, held weekly in the Katherine Thayer Cate Memorial Chapel (where, as is mentioned below, I was also married).

As part of an  ongoing Senior Inquiry Project, the class has been asked to ponder the question "How did we get here?"  The remarks below -- delivered this morning, November 10, 2012 (a Saturday, I know) -- are, among other things, my attempt to grapple with that question

Almost exactly twenty five years ago -- on November 21, to be precise, 1987 -- my father, my mother, and my brother Sam had just returned to New York City from a weekend in New England.  My father dropped off my brother and my mother at the apartment on 79th Street.  Then he went to park the car in a lot up on 95th Street and Second Avenue. It was an uncommonly windy morning -- the windiest morning of the year, they said -- so much so that, as my father was walking back down 93rd street, high above him, up on the 33rd floor balcony of a residential apartment building, a glass tabletop was lifted off its base and tumbled over the rail.

It shattered into who-knows-how-many pieces on the way down, but one of those pieces, about the size of a pinky, sliced down through all those wild, buffeting winds and struck my father in the back of the head like a bullet. He fell. A doorman saw him, saw that he was bleeding, that he had been hit by something, and hailed a taxi, figuring that would get him to the hospital quicker than an ambulance.

I happened to be home.  I was living out on Long Island at the time. I had graduated from college the spring before and I was working on a book with a friend, but I had come in to the city that same morning to attend a party that night. When the phone rang in the kitchen, I answered. It was a police officer, saying that my father had been struck in the head by a piece of glass, and that we should probably come down to New York Hospital where they had him.

My initial reaction was casual, as if nothing so bad had happened. "Oh, Daaad! isn't that just like Daaad, getting hit in the head by a piece of glass." It didn't make sense, so my mother and my brother and I -- my brother, I should say, was thirteen at the time -- all got in a cab, and went down to New York Hospital, and it wasn't until we were actually driving down Second Avenue that it started to dawn on me that this was probably a lot more serious than I'd been imagining. It was a truly sinking feeling, intuition, or maybe it finally just hitting me -- it's never good news when a police officer calls your home.

So we got to the hospital, by which time I was definitely feeling the darkness of the moment, and my mother was too -- we both understood that we were not just coming to pick Dad up with a bandage on his head. And in fact, within moments of our arrival in the emergency room, they actually wheeled him by, while we were being told what had really happened. His stretcher passed right in front of us, and I stopped listening. I got it. He looked like he'd been in combat

But the information was that this piece of glass was still in his head, and they were prepping him for surgery. There was a lot of swelling obviously. They would need to get that down as much as they could, but as soon as possible, probably that night, they were going to try to remove the piece of glass, but they couldn't assure us that my father would survive the operation because the glass itself might have been stanching the wound. Depending on what arteries it might have hit, or might be plugging, they might remove the glass, and be unable to contain the bleeding.

So I took my brother back to the apartment. My mother stayed at the hospital -- because we had no idea when or how long the operation was going to be. I don't know if we even had dinner. Pizza. Stouffers. But I remember putting Sam to bed, sitting next to him on the bed and telling him, we just pray for the chance to see him again. That is all, so we can tell him. And he want to bed, I stayed up. I had to call friends and relatives. And I'll always have a place in my heart for Stanley Kubrick's Lolita, because it was the only thing that was on at 2 AM, which is I think when this operation finally got started.

But it's rude of me to keep you in any further suspense. He made it. One centimeter this way or that way, and probably not, but they got the glass out of his head, and there were articles in the The New York Post and The Daily News about it. My Dad had recently been named head of programming at a cable television network, so for about three days running, the Post took to calling him the "scalped TV exec." "Scalped TV exec waging miracle recovery!"  And then it got better. We didn't talk to any of the papers, but apparently some reporter got through to the people who lived in our building -- not people who knew us very well, because apparently all they knew about my father was that "oh right, you mean the guy who goes jogging every day at 5:30?" So the in the paper, of course, they started saying that part of the reason he recovered so quickly was because he was in such good shape; he was a health nut. He became "Scalped TV exec jogger man." He was like some show on Fox.

Within three or four days, he was sitting up in the ICU and doing all those hilarious things that people who have suffered massive head injuries do -- thinking he's on an airplane somewhere, stuck on the runway, getting angry at flight attendants -- but he was on a road to recovery that...well, you could say we're still on it, I guess, but the steepest inclines were those first couple years. They were not easy, but the upshot is that he could walk in here right now, about as fit a seventy-seven year old man as you're liable to see, and you wouldn't know that anything unusual had ever happened to him, unless of course you asked him to use an ATM machine or a Metro Card, in which case you might begin to suspect that something was up, but I actually don't think that has anything to do with the accident.

So the story is a bit of a litmus test. If you've found yourself at any point in that description thinking, "Wow, Mr. Hansen's Dad, he's like the luckiest man in the world!" well, you my friend are an optimist. If you thought, "Gosh, Mr. Hansen's Dad has to be the unluckiest man in the world," you're a pessimist. And if you heard that whole thing and thought, "I don't know, who's to say?" I think that just means you're old.

Anyway, my brother, as I mentioned, was thirteen, just starting ninth grade, and applying to high schools. I had gone to school up in New England. My sister had as well, so the assumption was that Sam would probably do the same. But after the accident, which turned the apartment on 79th Street into a kind of recuperative facility for a couple years there, there was an instinct to keep the family a little closer together. It's hard to separate when something like that happens, and all of a sudden New England seemed far away.

What didn't feel so far away -- as strange as it may seem -- was Cate. My mother grew up here in Carpinteria. You can actually see the ranch from the dining hall. My father attended Cate for two years. We had a cousin who was here. We had aunts and uncles living down the road, so the idea of Sam's coming here felt safer in an odd way. I just think it made my mother feel better to think that if anything were to happen to Sam, or if something were to happen back home  -- because we weren't out of the woods by a long shot -- her sister was literally eight minutes away, by Jeep.

So Sam attended Cate, and actually when Sam visited the Mesa for the first time, he stopped off to pay respects to one Betty Woodworth, who was living down on Middle Road. He sat quietly at her kitchen table, probably feeling very nervous and wondering why he was there. The reason he was there was that the Woodworths and my mother's family had known each other from when my mother was growing up here -- not that well, but the Brookses and the Woodworths share a lot of tribal markings in common. So when Sam came to the Mesa, that kind of re-cemented an old family connection, enough at least -- hang with me here  -- that a few years later when Betty Woodworth's youngest daughter Elizabeth  needed a place to stay in New York, to take a six-week summer Shakespearean acting class, Betty called up my mother to ask if she knew of anywhere cheap -- or free -- that Elizabeth could stay.

Now time and manners advise me to make this long story as short as I can. The shortest I can manage is that Elizabeth ended up staying in my parents' apartment that summer. My parents weren't there. I was living down in the west village at the time, being very cool Mr. Novel writer guy -- I had hair -- and what do you know,  I found myself  spending a lot of time lurking around the outside of this Shakespearean acting class. Elizabeth and I woo'd, one thing led to another and, well, four years later she and I were wed...

…Here.  Right here. Fourteen years ago. Scene of the crime. The rest is reasonably well documented as these things go. We lived in New York for about a decade, got our family started -- and boy, am I making that long story short -- then about five years ago, we moved back out here for what was supposed to be one year, honey I swear. I finished a book, started loitering around campus. Ross Robins asked if I'd like to make myself useful.  I said "sure, what's that?" and here I stand.

So in answer to the question of the year: that's how I got here. But what's interesting about that is that if I had the time to tell you the slightly longer version of how all those intervening years played out, you would see that there seems to have been a rather elaborate magnetic field drawing me to Cate -- obviously. I married into its hall of fame, but did you also know, for instance ( some of you do) that Stanley Woodworth  -- Betty Woodworth's husband, and namesake of the excellence in teaching plaque that hangs in the Schoolhouse breezeway -- taught my father here? When he was a young French teacher, one of his students was a young Peter Hansen, which of course means -- incidentally, theoretically -- that one of you sitting here could grow up to have a son that marries my daughter. And I will find out who you are. And we will talk.

But so yes, my standing here would seem to be the result of a carefully calibrated network of profound and ineluctable forces, blood, like-mindedness, book-mindedness, matchmaking mothers, oracles, riddles, roadside encounters.  From certain perspectives, the fix was in.

But  let me take you back to the beginning of my talk, because as much as my standing here may have to do with all those powerful invisible magnets, it has everything but everything to do with the flight of that little piece of glass, whistling down from thirty three stories through the windiest day of the year directly for the back of my father's head  -- because if that little shard dodges one centimeter to the left, well, then you optimists are right -- he was a lucky man -- because one centimeter to the left and I doubt very much that Peter Hansen could walk through that door right now, and I probably couldn't ever watch Lolita again, and I don't think Sam Hansen comes here and sits in Betty Woodworth's kitchen. Doesn't make sense. 

Likewise, if that little shiny arrowhead gets pushed two inches that way, well then you pessimists are right -- poor guy, because it easily could have missed him and landed harmlessly against the pavement. And if that's what happened, then again, Sam's not in that kitchen. He's up in New Hampshire somewhere, or Massachusetts, or who knows. In which case, Betty Woodworth is certainly not calling up my mom to see where her daughter might stay for six weeks that the summer of whatever it was, 1994? '95? That would've been really weird.

But that's not what happened. And who knows, maybe -- if the winds had been different  -- maybe those invisible magnets would have re-adjusted and found some other way to get me here. Maybe they were in charge of all that wind; I don't know how the universe works. All I know is that shard fell exactly where it fell, and it set it off the rest of our lives, including a lot of pain, and struggle, and frustration, and sacrifice, but also including the fact that I stand before you now, because that little shard of glass is how I got here. And the really crazy part -- which would be kind of unbelievable if it weren't also so undeniable -- is that now that you've been sitting here listening to me for the last fifteen minutes, now that you've heard my story -- now that we are all together --  that little shard is how you got here too.

So let us all go celebrate -- together -- with milk and cookies.

Connie Martinson Talks Books

A few weeks back I was on Connie Martinson Talks Books to plug Andrew Blauner's Central Park: an Anthology, which includes a story of mine. We also discussed John the Baptizer.  I returned last week and we had a nice chat about The Brotherhood of Joseph, which I'll post here as soon as it becomes available. My thanks to Connie for all her interest.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Commencement Speech - May 27, 2012: "The Trouble with Instinct"

The Cate School seniors, class of 2012, were kind enough to invite me to deliver an address at their commencement ceremony this past Sunday, May 27.

What follows is the transcript:

Ladies and gentleman, Mr. Williams, esteemed guests, trustees, class of 2012, I want to thank you for inviting me to speak today. It is an honor.

Let me repay your kindness by telling you just how profound my admiration is for what you've accomplished here. Whoever said youth is wasted on the young clearly never set foot on this campus. I think you've managed your time here -- collectively and individually -- with extraordinary grace and energy and flexibility, because it is a kind of gymnastic that we ask of you here, to proceed on any given day from a Schoolhouse 1 to a science lab, to the playing field or the pool or the gym, to the ceramics barn, to the theater, the art room, the chapel, the list goes on -- but to perform in each of these venues at such a high level, and so devotedly. Maybe you think that's natural. It's not. It's amazing to watch, and humbling and inspiring. So thank you.

Having said that, this special little window -- in which you're able to engage so intensely in so many different pursuits -- is hard to keep open. Even next year, as your horizons broaden, your focus will begin to tighten, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In order to become more accomplished and to make your fullest contribution, you may need to focus more than a place like Cate really allows.

Choices lie ahead, and it is in context of these (I hate say) rather significant choices, that commencement speakers such as myself will tell soon-to-graduates like you things like "Don't compromise your beliefs," "Trust your instinct," "Follow you heart." Steve Jobs said it rather famously, and who better? "Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition."

And I of course agree with that.

I guess my only question is: how? For most people, telling them to follow their heart is a little like shouting "Open your eyes!" at a blind man: That's the whole problem. We'd follow our hearts in a second if we knew what the damned thing was telling us. How do we know?

There are really only two arenas in which I've had any notable experience with instinct, or intuition; one would be my writing, and the other would be in how I got to be a father.

And the two actually came together at one point

I wrote a book about the journey my wife and I took to parenthood. It was a long one -- the journey, not the book -- that led the two of us through what seemed an endless maze of doctor's offices and clinics and lawyers' offices and agencies and municipal government buildings. You don't have to think about that stuff right now. Just know that when you go through something like that, years and years of wanting something that much, trying everything you can think of to attain it, but still failing over and over and over, it takes a toll. You begin to lose faith in a lot of things, including your instincts. You feel like you must not be reading signals correctly, because you're not making good choices, clearly. That's how we felt.

And yet, when our path finally took us all the way to the far side of the world, to a beautiful little town called Tomsk, in Siberia, it turned out to be a moment of overwhelming instinct, heeded at tremendous risk, that finally delivered us to our son Theo.

So I wrote a book about that.

And whenever anybody reads the book -- anyone who knows me -- they will invariably ask, what about Ada?

Ada is Theo's sister. She's nineteen months younger than he is, and she was born about five-hundred miles south of Tomsk, in Kazakhstan, in a town called Ust-kamenogorsk, which roughly translates to mean "the rubble in the valley." So people will often ask me "When does Ada get her book? Seems only fair."

I hesitate for two reasons:

The first is that I make it a policy never to write a sequel to any of my books unless someone with money specifically asks me to

Second, what happened in Kazakhstan wasn't really as dramatic, in the traditional sense, as what took place in Tomsk.

In Tomsk-- and again, I don’t want to go too far into it -- but my wife and I were literally handed a gift that for some mysterious and inexplicable reason -- born of intuition -- we could not bring ourselves accept, and because of that refusal we were forced to confront the possibility not only that everything we had been working toward for the previous seven years wasn't going to happen; but that maybe it shouldn't happen. Maybe the whole idea of our being parents had been ill-conceived, because we were clearly broken in some fundamental way. What other explanation was there?

We stewed in that idea -- and the fact that we were now resolved to reject our last best chance at ever being parents -- for one night, which was without question the darkest night I've known, or hope to know. The following day by noon, however, under an equally inexplicable set of circumstances, I found myself feeling more elated, more triumphant, more -- I have to say -- cosmically vindicated than I had ever felt in my life, or ever expect to.

So the trip definitely worked out -- miraculously so -- but it was an absolutely harrowing experience, and far more dramatic, and traumatic and gut-wrenching, than I would wish upon my worst enemy. In fact, if you'd close-miced me at any point during our last day in Tomsk -- and this was after the clouds had parted -- you'd have heard me murmuring the same five words over and over again like a mantra:

"Ain't go'n be no re-match . . . Aint go'n be no rematch."

Yet two years later, there we were climbing the ring again to go get Ada. Why? Because Elizabeth and I had envisioned more. We envisioned a sibling for Theo, and whether that was Instinct or the Height of Ingratitude, there seemed to be only one way to find out.

But as I say, this was a very different experience. Challenging, no question, but more muted.

The first time we went to meet Ada, for instance: We were in the office of the director of the Babyhouse, which is what they called this particular orphanage. For reasons that made no sense to me at the time, and still don't, the agents had to bring in another baby for us to meet first, on the understanding that the second child we were going to meet was the one to whom we had been "betrothed," as it were. So they bring in the first baby, a girl. Beautiful, black-eyed, heart-shaped face, and we actually have to hold her, and play, and go through this weird Kabuki where everyone in the room knows this is not the child we're here to see, or bring home. And this little girl seemed to know it too somehow, like this wasn't the first time she'd run this drill. And I can still see her face as she's sitting in my lap looking up at me, registering the emotional obscenity of this moment. It was brutal, as you can imagine, and a very disconcerting way to set your palette.

Then they brought in Ada.

Now many of you here know Ada. I don't think I'm just being a proud father when I say that if the phrase "delightful hopping ball of sun-filled love-emitting energy" had not been coined by some Japanese novelty t-shirt, someone would have to come up with it to describe Ada. She is an absurdly, ridiculously fun and infectious joyful spirit . . .

Well, not in Kazakhstan.

I jump to the third time we saw her. This was in the main nursery area. There were about ten children in there, none of them older than a year -- stationed in various playpens and high chairs. We walk in and they all look up at us -- and babies, just so you know, even babies who've spent their whole lives in babyhouses -- are not cynical. They see two parental types walk in a room, their faces light up. They all start smiling and reaching out to us -- "Hi!" -- all except for one, who is sitting alone in a pen at the back of the room, a giant crib, and she's got her legs (which were very skinny back then) stuck halfway through the rails, and she's looking at us, dead on, like this…like she might as well already be thirteen; like "Where the hell have you guys been?"

And I get it. I understood, but I wanted to say, "All right, all right, just give me a minute here." Because the truth is, this thing we were doing -- adopting a second child into a new family -- is an extremely delicate maneuver.

I mentioned Theo. Theo was with us, and thank God he was there because he was definitely the coolest one among us. He was like that guy from the Dos Equis beer ad -- he's walking around, tipping cabbies and doormen. "We're going to get my sister? Great. I'll bring a banjo."

That is, until we actually get in there. That's when things get a little dicey, because from his perspective, when we actually get in there and start doing this thing, that means having to watch Mom and Dad go into this strange room and pick up this other child whom they've never met, and right away start using the same tones of voice they use with you; the same expressions on their faces, same gestures, the same toys they gave you are now being handed this strange little girl. If you see that and you don't find it painful and confusing and . . . scary, then you're not paying attention. And Theo pays attention. It may have been that same visit, one of these scenes was unfolding in front of him. I think he may have just been watching Elizabeth take Ada from one of the caretakers, but this sound came out of him, spontaneously, this perfectly non-verbal, almost selfless expression of Oooooh-whaaaaat-is-happening-to-my-universe?…

So we decided, maybe we should do this in shifts -- all go in together, say hi, but then take turns. One of us would visit with Ada, the other would grab a toy truck and take Theo downstairs to this empty little playground they had next to the parking lot. We did this for him, as I say -- not to shove in his face what was going on upstairs -- but I'll admit, I was doing it for me, too, because I was struggling.

We'd been so happy back home in New York (which is where we were living at the time). We'd finally gotten something right, remember? We felt so blessed, and now we were just going to roll the dice again? Change it inalterably? What we were doing in Kazakhstan -- in the long run I knew it was right, I did -- but at the same time, it posed a direct and immediate threat to a joy I had been feeling that I didn't think I was ever going to get to feel.

So it was a struggle, setting that energy aside when it was my turn to go up and see Ada, because she was in an odd spot, too, obviously, trying to figure out who these people were and could they be trusted.

But we just kind of muscled through it, all of us. It's funny, Ada's and my first moments of real connection, that she initiated: I'd be holding her -- and this was when it was just the two of us -- and she would look me straight in the eye, very close, with this very penetrating, peering, "can I trust you?" look -- then she'd just tilt her forehead into mine. (Doink.) It was a very fitting gesture in a way, this deliberate third-eye collision -- because it is warm, and connecting, but it's also hard and it hurts if you don't do it right…

So that's what happened in Kazakhstan. That's what that book would be about: all of us just ploughing ahead, pulling our shifts, and waiting for the fear and the protectiveness to subside and be replaced by its opposite.

For you sports fans out there, if what happened in Tomsk was like a Hail Mary pass -- and it was -- what happened in Kazakhstan was three yards and a cloud of dust, all the way down field.

And the reason I'm telling you this -- because I can sense some of you may have begun wondering (I know my wife is wondering) -- the reason I'm telling you this is both to warn you and to reassure you, I hope, that there is no formula for figuring out what your heart is telling you, or how to follow it.

There will be times you'll feel like maybe you need to give up on your dream, and that will be the right thing to do, either because another dream will come along, or maybe because you just needed to let go for a second, and your first dream will come spilling in on you like a closet full of tennis balls

And there will be other times you just need to lower your shoulder and drive from your legs. And how will you know which is which? (Shrug) Instinct comes with a very complex and customized decoder ring, and no one talking into a microphone could ever presume to tell you how to read yours.

But I will, since I have the mic, give you this one tip, based in no small part upon the experiences I've been describing. Make of it what you will.

Do not fool yourself into thinking that your heart is interested in what comes easy, and I know this from my writing as well, in fact, (but don't worry, I'll make this quick). The funny thing about writing books is that, for all the work that goes into them -- all the research, the outlines, the writing and revising -- each one winds up teaching you one thing (if you're lucky), and that is how to write it, which is a useless piece of information once you've figured it out. Once you're done, you go right back to square one, trying to figure out what you're going to do next, and how.

If you're like me, a couple ideas will occur: there'll be that one you think about and you kind of like it because you're pretty sure you can handle it. You think, "Yeah, I see that. In fact I know exactly how I'd do that. Maybe I could even knock that one out in a year, right? Easy."

Then there'll be that other idea. You can see it, but there's also something about it -- maybe it's the story, or a character or some narrative maneuver you have in mind -- but there's some built-in black hole right in the middle of it that makes you think, "I have no idea how I would pull that off.' Something that just makes the whole idea seem mildly impossible.

And what I am suggesting to you is that if this really is your heart talking to you about what you want to do with your life, it's going to choose option B every time, the one that seems impossible, because your heart, as it turns out, is not interested in the downhill slope, or what you're pretty sure you can handle. Your heart really just wants to expand, and it's using you to do it, so the hardest thing you can imagine -- the hardest thing you can imagine -- that is exactly what it wants to do.

And as for that other voice you're going to be hearing along the way -- heck, I'll bet some of you have been hearing it a lot the last few months -- the voice that says, "I got this. I actually know how this goes, I can handle this, no problem" -- on this day of days, hear me when I say: that's not you heart telling you that you've arrived, or that you've made it, or that you have finally found yourself.

That's your heart telling you you're done.

Go in peace, class of 2012, and knock 'em dead

Thursday, May 24, 2012

"The Creative Gene"

The very stylish new Cate School Bulletin recently asked me to write a short piece about the prevalance of painters in my family. (The painting above is a woodcut actually, by my mother, entitled "Birches.")

Heres a snippet:
  • The point — if we must identify some influence, some monkey-see monkey-do element to growing up in the home of an artist — was the extraordinary stubbornness on display, the constancy involved in returning to the same room every day, closing the door and taking up those same nuts and bolts again, and again and again and again, surrendering to the same indomitable compulsion without complaint, without fanfare, without comment. Just being the tortoise instead of the hare, that was the point.

I provide two links: one to the article itself, the other to a flash version of the entire issue, which is dedicated to the arts at Cate. "The Creative Gene" starts on page 23, and includes more paintings by family members, including my aunt, Meredith Abbott, and my cousins, Robert Abbott and Whitney Abbott. But the whole issue is terrific and terrific looking. Congratulations to Sarah Kidwell and her right-hand man, Jarred Ray, for putting it all together.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Central Park: an anthology

If I'm not mistaken, yesterday marked the release of CENTRAL PARK: an anthology. Edited by Andrew Blauner, the collection contains pieces by Colson Whitehead, Paul Auster, Francine Prose, Jonathan Safran Foer, and a bunch of other fine writers. There's one by me as well, entitled "Beastie," excerpted from a much longer story by the same name that I wrote a few years back. In recognition, I include here a poem that, though it does not appear in the published excerpt, inspired the story as a whole. (If you'd like to see some illustrations from the same story, hop on over to the drawings blog.)

Lord of the Lamp-post

With perfect poise the bronze await,
While passers gaze, and painters paint,
While sticky-fingered babies muck their ears and noses.
All throughout the park they stay
as nannies read and children play.
With dignity and no complaint
the statues hold their poses.

Even when the sun descends
and all the paths begin to clear,
while lamps alight to welcome night,
no pigeon is so impolite
as to suppose that anyone is here.
Not while the Beastie sleeps.

It’s only when the moon eludes the cloud-bank,
and every peering bedroom light goes dim,
When darkness looms in quiet rooms,
and closets stand like mummy’s tombs,
and the last child’s dream is finally entered in,

that’s when the shadow slips out from its dungeon
and tumbles down to slurp itself a drink,
to forage in the trees for midnight luncheon
and just like that make chiseled eyelids blink,
and fingers twitch, and noses itch
and round bronze shoulders sink.
From meer to lake, they’ll all awake
from bridle path, to reservoir, to rink
shall Alice and her friends descend the toadstool
the duck look down and Anderson stand up,
Shall statesmen turn their sculpted heads
Crack free their heals, tramp flower beds
While noted busts from pedestals un-cup

And the only one that they let see them
is the only one who lets them see:
They’re not alone.
There’s flesh and bone.
There’s pointy ears, and fingernails, and teeth.
There is the Beastie,
shaggy Beastie,
Lord of the Lamp-post.

So the siblings in the garden quit the fountain,
set down their bowl to drink the evening air.
So seraphim stretch out their wings,
and statesmen state some stately things,
The Pilgrim prays, and muses wash their hair.
The animals who guard the zoo-clock flee the entry arch.
They all head down to the merry-go-round
and watch the soldiers march,
while Alice lounges on the lawns,
eating apples made of bronze,
and cherubs cross the bridge in each direction,
while horses graze, and lizards laze,
while Kings attack the meadow haze,
and ugly ducklings pity their reflection.
And they converse and they digress
they plot, they scheme, and they confess
Though to what we can but guess

As the only one who ever hears them
is the only one who lets them hear:
his moon-ward howl,
his stomach growl,
his gnaw, his paw, his grunt, his scratch, his cheer–
It is the Beastie,
shaggy Beastie,
Lord of the lamp-post.

So for the while, the poets float on rowboats
The door-mouse roars, and governors patrol.
The busts burst out in evening song.
The Indian hunter joins along.
The falcon flies. The husky digs a hole.

But just as every day must soon give way to night,
so must darkness yield to light;
it creeps up from the east.
The bronze cock crows, the whole park knows
it’s time - for hero, deity, and beast.

They choose the quickest paths back to their places.
They reckon thoughts to conjure faces.
The pilgrim flares his boots and stands his gun.
Jagiello climbs up to his mount.
The angel crowns the water fount--
Each one of them to right where it begun:
Alice to her toadstool,
the kitten to her lap,
Hans Christian sets his storybook on knee.
He opens to the page again,
the one that locks his cage again.
The duckling lifts his bill so he can see.

By then the Beastie’s safe inside,
upon a slab that’s three feet wide,
exhausted from his night and turning in.
The lamp-posts snuff, that was enough.
The sun’s returned. Its first rays scissor in.
And when they touch Tecumsah’s cheek,
that’s when the last should steal its peak,
as after that they stiffen and they stay.
Their light recedes to other needs
To summon anyone who reads,
                                      Or strolls,
                                                 or paints,
                                                        or anyone who’ll play.

                                            -- unattributed

Congratulations, Andrew!

(And here are some places to purchase: Amazon. B&N. IndieBound.)

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Suspension of Russian Adoption

The New York Times yesterday reported Russia’s formal announcement to suspend indefinitely all adoptions of Russian children by Americans, this in the wake of the case of Torry Ann Hansen, who reportedly sent her adopted son of just one year, seven year old Justin (Named Artyom in Russia) back to Russia by plane.

I am a little hesitant to comment, in the first place because it feels a little presumptuous, the idea that my own experience as the happy, proud, and blessed father of two children who were adopted internationally – one from Russia, one from Kazakhstan but of Russian heritage – in any way equips me to speak with special authority on this incident or its aftermath. If there is one rule of thumb that one can take from the adoption process, it is that no two cases are alike. Each is the product of several complex, often very painful backstories, as well as a myriad of practical, legal, and cosmic contingencies that no distant analysis can possibly hope to assess. No one following the story of the Hansens (no relation, for the record) through press reports knows nearly enough to assert anything useful or meaningful about who exactly is at fault or what exactly should have been done to avoid such an obviously tragic situation.

To the broader issue of how this story has affected the status of Americans wanting to adopt from Russia, however, I have a number of reactions, all drawn from experience, all offered in hopes of tamping down some of the rasher responses that this incident seems to have elicited.

First, to the extent that Artyom’s case may be seen to expose systemic negligence or cravenness on the part of any of the parties involved -- American adoption agencies, the Russian orphanage system and Educational Bureau that oversees international adoption -- my own experience was that the individuals involved, from the domestic agents, to foreign agents, lawyers, doctors, drivers, translators, social workers, judges, nurses, and caretakers, were almost universally well-intentioned, caring, professional, and dedicated to a degree that I have frankly not seen in any other walk of life. Obviously exceptions exist. Anywhere there is money to be made and people in desperate situations, opportunists will emerge. That does not change the fact that 99% of the people working to bring together adoptive children and adoptive parents are heroes. They are saints and angels walking among us, and I consider the opportunity to have worked with them – though “work” is obviously not the word – to be one of the great privileges, and one of the most humbling experiences, of my entire life.

Like most couples who reach the point of adopting internationally, my wife and I felt ourselves to be in a pretty desperate, defenseless situation, at the mercy of a highly bureaucratic system over which we had very little control. Yet as we wended our way through, and particularly at the most crucial period while we were abroad and committing legally and emotionally to our children (which is actually a pretty good story, you should read it some time), we encountered a level of attention, expertise and understanding beyond anything we could possibly have imagined. It was frankly surreal, the amount of time and care these people brought to our effort, and there is literally not a day that passes that I do not think of them, all of them -- common ordinary everyday people, living in remote corners of the world, in homes of their own with children of their own and problems of their own, who nonetheless, unbidden by anything but the generosity of their spirits, worked so tirelessly to make our family and our happiness possible. God bless them all to the end of their days, and please don’t let this latest unrelated incident tar their efforts or the incalculable good they have done.

That said, anyone trying to put in perspective the Russian response to this incident should know: such suspensions are not all that unusual. They’re pretty par for the course, in fact, which is why one bit of advice that I do give couples considering international adoption is that they need to be light on their feet. International adoption is a constantly shifting landscape. Countries open up and shut down their programs all the time, in part because incidents of abuse, deception, and corruption do occur – no system is fail-safe – and when they do, there exists in most of these countries very active local lobbying groups that are virulently opposed to international adoption, and that are ready to pounce on these stories like tigers.

To a degree, one can understand. There is no greater natural resource than a nation’s children, and one can see how upsetting and offensive it might feel, watching those children being taken away by foreigners on airplanes. If foreign couples were routinely coming to America to adopt American-born children, you better believe there would be organizations dedicated to opposing it, who would be calling it blight on the nation’s character, and who would, like existing groups abroad, attribute the most disgusting imaginable motives to these foreign adoptive parents: accusing them of buying children to put them to work, or to exploit them sexually, etc. etc. These things are said, and they would be said here too if the shoe were on the other foot. So it is that stories like that Torry Anne Hansen’s are seized upon both by nativists, publicity-mongers, and hay-making politicians, as they serve to support the cause and vindicate the worst suspicions of some very suspicious minds.

Fortunately, there also exists in all these countries much saner, more compassionate, less paranoid minds that do recognize the fundamental good of adoption, and who tend eventually to prevail in restoring and improving such programs, contingent upon new rules and regulations designed to redouble the vigilance of the various agencies and parties involved, to make sure that the corruption, deception, and lassitude that invariably creep into any operation is kept to a minimum.

All this, of course, dances around the other question to which such incidents invariably give rise (just go check the comments sections of any related blog-post), and that is: why would anyone want to adopt of a foreign child in the first place when there are so many perfectly good American children who need homes and loving families? I can’t pretend that this is a mindset for which I have a whole lot of time or sympathy. The idea that “patriotism” should be informing a couple’s most intimate decision about how they want to form a family just seems odd to me, a little sick, and frankly un-American. All children deserve loving homes. Any couple or individual who wants to provide such a home to any child anywhere should be encouraged and supported and not have to suffer the insinuation of being somehow elitist or America-hating for the path they choose.

The fact is, adopting a child, whether one does so domestically or internationally, is an extremely difficult thing to do – logistically, financially, and most of all emotionally. In this day and age, most couples who have come to the threshold of adoption have traveled and long and painful road, marked all along the way by failure and heartbreak. They are not picking and choosing options based upon their personal preferences and prejudices. They are being forced to choose priorities among a list of variables – age, gender, medical risk, expense, delay, ethnicity, and nationality – none of which they want to have to consider, but which they must consider in order to proceed towards the elusive goal of becoming parents. What tilts a given couple in one direction over another is likely to be very subtle. I suppose patriotism could be an element, sure (a twisted take on it anyway). So could family background, so could the couple’s age, or the environment in which they live. So could personal medical history, family history, timing, who they know, friends who have had good experience with one route, friends who have a bad experience with another. The point is, it is an unimaginably subtle and complex set of influences that guide an adoptive couple on their path, but what they are looking for, above all, is WHAT WILL WORK. After all that struggling and doubt and false starts and failure, they just want a sign that this is the way is it supposed to be; this is the way that it will be. For some, those signs point to Russia; for others, they point to Korea, or Guatemala, or Ethiopia, or China, or Tennessee, or Florida, or the Foster agency down the block. The hope is that everyone is eventually able to find the path that works for them and for the children; not that they find the path that works for someone else.

And this brings us, finally, to the individuals who have been most adversely affected by this recent decision, and those are the families whose adoptions are still pending, but which have now been put on hold indefinitely. The Times reported that there were 250 such families right now. Again, I’m loathe to make assumptions about the experience of people I do not know, but as one who has walked down this particular road, I can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that these people are devastated – heartbroken, confused, angry, and bereft. They had reason to believe that their dream was finally becoming a reality. They had seen the light at the end of the tunnel. The light was an actual person, a child, whom they had already held and promised their hearts to. Yesterday, for reasons having nothing to do with them or those children, that light went dark again. Those children have been wrested from their hearts, and have been replaced by all the doubts and discouragement they have been fighting to overcome since deciding they wanted to be parents.

Obviously, as a rubbernecker, I am intrigued and concerned by whatever motivated Torry Anne Hansen to do what she did. I am concerned for Artyom as well and I wish him the brightest possible future. But I’ll admit it, my deepest concern right now is with the other victims of this incident – the families that might have been and might still be – and it is to them I extend my most earnest and heartfelt prayers, that they find a way to stay strong and determined, be patient, continue to trust their instinct, and find a way to understand: all of these obstacles and setbacks will serve them some day, God willing, as parents.