Thursday, December 30, 2004

A Year Without a Santa Claus

My Christmas was awesome last year. I got an e-mail from our facilitator in Ukraine, who wrote, "Pack your bags. You need to be here next week." I waited for those words for 17 months before I got to read them. No wait, it was more like four years.

This year was even better because I got to spend Christmas with our new son. It was everything I had hoped it would be and then some. The kid spent almost 30 minutes unwrapping his presents on Christmas Eve. Then he tried tearing into ours. Then he took stock of all his loot. He couldn't believe his eyes.

Hard to believe this time last year he was in the hospital in Ukraine. And when you think if "children's ward" what comes to mind? Perhaps some colorful wall murals, stuffed animals, mobiles hanging from the ceiling? You might smell anticeptic, but that's about as "foul" of a smell as it gets, right?

The hospital in Ukraine was a series of two- and three-story buildings on frozen grounds. We parked on the street alongside the hospital, across from a series of high rise apartment buildings built during the reign of communism. If you've ever seen projects or tenements in, oh, maybe the Bronx, Watts, Newark or South Capitol in D.C., the apartments in Ukraine made those look like palaces. There were stray dogs roaming through the streets, picking through various trashcans--at least those that weren't lit with fires for people to warm themselves or cook their food.

Lights weren't on during the day and so when we initially went to the "lobby" of the main building, it was dark. Someone pointed our translator to the "children's ward"-- a building on the far south corner of the hospital grounds.

Getting to that building was treacherous on the icy ground. And even where sections of paved path were dry, they were uneven and bulging from massive tree roots underneath.

One side of the building had a row of doors, almost like a walk-up for each room. The other side was the main entrance and stairwell, leading to the upper floors. The first thing I saw was a huge teddy bear mural painted on top of a Robins Egg Blue background. Then I looked outside the window as three orderlies wheeled someone on a guerney outside. The shapeless body underneath the sheet was more than just cold, it was stiff. I supposed the morgue was next to the children's ward.

Inside was as dark as the lobby of the first building we'd seen. A mixture of urine and feces permeated the corridor.

We were led into a physician's office, which seemed cozy, compared to the rest of the building, but that's not saying much. Everything in the building was as gray as the daylight outside. In fact, when they brought in our little boy, he was the only colorful thing about the place; and I mean that literally because they had dressed him in a bright yellow and red clown outfit that was three sizes too big for him.

Over the next few days, we had a chance to play with Mr. Na in his room because we assured the head physician that both of us had had the chickenpox as kids. His room was quarantined--and he shared it with two other babies and a nine year-old boy who was the pox culprit. There was no way to access his room from the inside of the hospital--we had to make our way outside and around to the other side of the building. The steps leading to the door were treacherous, if anyone could make it that far without sinking in a hole full of ice water.

Access to the room was through the bathroom, which smelled 8,000 times worse than the feces/urine combo in the hallway. It smelled like the entire hospital's sewage system was right there, in that 8'x8' yellow-tiled room with a toilet that was nothing more than a glorified hole in the ground.

Our son-to-be (Mr. Na) barely had the chickenpox, and looked a lot healthier than his roommates who were each covered in spots. To add insult to injury, they looked as though they had just returned from a paintball battle. Their faces were smeared with a blue iodine solution to minimize the pox itching. We nicknamed the little girl roommate "Bluebeard" and found the 9 year-old to be quite handy in terms of trying to quiet down the children. When they cried, he'd get up and rock them; and when the nurses came to change or feed them, he'd help. He was the only one in the room who wasn't an orphan, and his family would come by at least once a day to bring him treats or toys--all of which he'd share with the others.

Mr. Na had just turned 19 months when we met him on that day in January. He had been in the hospital for 21 days--a lifetime for a baby. He was there long before the boy with the pox came--and the staff figured he might as well get those, too, while he was recovering from bronchitis.

Santa managed to miss this little speck of rice on Earth and Christmas didn't come last year for him or for Bluebeard, or for the little baby boy who was always crying because he was always wet because the nurses never changed him. There were no twinkling lights. There wasn't a tree loaded with ornaments and lovingly wrapped presents stuffed underneath. There were no stockings filled with cookies or chocolates. Just a few community pacifiers and rattles that probably hadn't been washed since they were unpacked.

Even though Santa found Mr. Na this year, and more than made up for the two years he spent Christmas-less, I couldn't help but think about Bluebeard or the little baby boy who cried nonstop. I hope that families found them the way we found Mr. Na. I hope someone is showering them with the love that they deserve. And I hope this year, Santa found them too.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Top 10 Books I Read in 2004

When it comes to reading, I'm not the type of person who follows various bestseller lists for recommendations. I used to do that and wound up wasting my time reading a lot of crap. The DaVinci Code comes to mind.

From a reading standpoint, 2004 was a "word of mouth" year for me and I based my selections on recommendations from friends and fellow writers (and some who I consider both!) I hope that if you scan my list and you find yourself wondering, "did I read this?" you'll pick one of the following books up in 2005 because they're all really great and you can tell your friends they were recommended to you by a Seattle Simian.

One of my dear writer friends loaned me Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas and I appreciated the examples of books Maas used when illustrating a point of character, plot or narrative development--so much so, I wrote down 30 or so titles of books I had either read long ago or missed entirely.

What follows, then, is a list of classics I've enjoyed this past year and some newer selections which I believe are also destined to withstand the test of time:

Rabbit, Run
Rabbit Redux
Rabbit is Rich
Rabbit at Rest
- John Updike
You can't read one of the above without reading the other three (g'wan, read the first one and you'll agree). Updike delves into the human psyche, creating characters so real, I felt like I knew and really HATED Rabbit. The series spans nearly four decades during Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom's lifetime and Updike used some pretty sharp imagery with was consistent among all four books.

Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut
Easily one of the best books I've read. Vonnegut's matter-of-fact voice is suberb and the story borders on pee-in-your-pants funny to thought-provoking.

1984 - George Orwell
How'd I miss having to read this in high school? Maybe it was assigned in my Junior year, which, quite coincidentally, was 1984--but it was also the year I cut so many classes that my GPA plummeted to a mere 1.8. Either way, I'm glad I somehow skipped it because it's much more meaningful to me now, as a wisened old monkey in a world full of crazy motherfuckers who remind me very much of Winston Smith's comrades. I've seen the movie, of course, with John Hurt (and as a matter of fact, I rented it again after reading the book) and always admired the Apple commercial (that was THE commercial that did it for me in terms of getting my shit together and going to college to study advertising) but none of these things holds a candle to Orwell's descriptions of a world so completely fucked up. Where Vonnegut spelled out the ruins of Dresden (by comparing it to walking on the moon), Orwell's storytelling placed the reader in a war-torn London without having to use one rubble-esque descriptor.

Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
Lolita is beautifully written, to the point where, as sick as it sounds, you (dear reader) start to feel sorry for the perv.
I can't help but read this book now and think of Jeremy Irons, because he brought Humbert Humbert to life, and I'm really turned on by his diction. He was perfect for that role.

Dry - Augusten Burroughs
I loved this book from the get-go as I, too, aspired to be (a female) Darren Stevens from Bewitched. Having spent 16 years in advertising and PR (mostly in agencies, God, how sick is that?) I felt so connected to Burroughs in this novel and I loved his depiction of the agency world; but beyond that, Dry is a great story about staying sane and sober, in a world that's often better lived-in completely sauced.


Running With Scissors
- Augusten Burroughs
Contrary to my review of Eggers's book, I found Burroughs's memoir so utterly fantastic, there were times I thought it was fiction. I couldn't believe his incredible story and I'm really looking forward to the movie's release in 2005.

You Shall Know Our Velocity! - Dave Eggers
Eggers's characters and setting are so vivid, I often believed this was memoir, not fiction. I was amazed by his storytelling. I could have done without the cow part, but...hey, that's me. I hated the short story Eggers wrote about the Golden Retriever drowning in a river, too.

Other books I recommend:

Martin Dressler - The Tale of an American Dreamer - Steven Millhauser

Perfume - A Story of Murder - Patrick Suskind

The Sound and the Fury - William Faulkner

To The Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Merry Chrismukkah

My list is now on McSweeney's, co-authored by yours truly and her sig other. It was his idea--I just made it better.

I haven't had much to say lately, mostly because I've been suffering from sheer exhaustion. I guess this year finally caught up with me.

I hope to come back soon enough with some end-of-year lists. I'm working on the list of Top 10 Books I've Read and a list of Awesome People in 2004. Stay tuned.

Happy Holidays, Friends, and thanks for reading!

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Stop me if you think that you've heard this one before

You know, it's kinda funny how, after eight years of living here, I bitch and moan about the weather and how dreary it is. Today was just one of those days where, if I had allowed myself, I would have stayed in pajamas and curled up on the couch to watch endless episodes of Thomas and Friends or Dora the Explorer, but instead, I mustered up everything I could and got myself and Mr. Na bundled up to leave the house for awhile.

I was in such a pissy mood, too. First, Mr. Na insisted on taking THREE Mega-Blok trucks--the kind that come apart in three pieces. So I'm toting my messenger bag, sippy cup, a bottle of water for me, my keys and his three trucks to the car and as I lift him in to the car seat, one of the pieces goes flying underneath. So while it's pouring outside and Mr. Na is demanding I retrieve his beloved truck piece, I'm crawling underneath my car to try and find it.

Then, halfway up the street, I realize I had forgotten my shopping list--something that is a MUST HAVE when you have a 2-1/2 year-old sitting in your shopping cart, playing slapjack with your hands. So I had to turn around, park, run back inside and grab the list.

Finally, I make my way back up the street and turn on my MP3 player. I've got a Phat Noise that holds 2800 songs and I use every single mega-byte of it. As I flip through my 30 or so "Discs" (folders of different bands or genres), I come across The Smiths and I am instantly transformed. There are very few bands who have that sort of seratonin-like effect on me.

The first single I ever bought of The Smiths was a 12" of "What Difference Does it Make?" issued by Rough Trade in January 1984. For the longest time, I thought it was Morrissey on the cover, in blue sepia, holding a glass of milk (and I never made the correlation that Terence Stamp was the head bad guy in Superman 2). Either way, The Smiths alleviated any middle class teenage angst I carried around, though I'm sure Morrissey would be the first to roll his eyes at the mere thought of me. I wasn't some punk living on the Dole in Manchester--I was a 15 year-old Orange County KROQ groupie with a penchant for OP and Vans, not plaid pants and body piercings, though I preferred to run with the best of them (ahem: the best that Burbank could provide, that is).

Morrissey's nonepareil voice was the perfect accompaniment to Johnny Marr's guitar. Marr, who is one of the best 12-string guitarists--bar none (in fact my favorite Talking Heads song is "Nothing But Flowers" where Marr's 12-string kicks ass).

I had the pleasure of seeing The Smiths at the Hollywood Paladium in 1985. It was a hell of a show, only to end abruptly because a skinhead bounded up on to the stage and grabbed Morrissey. Thankfully, it was during the first or second encore. It was still sheer bliss.

While interning at Capitol Records in 1987, my boss stuck out her tongue when I put "Louder Than Bombs" in the tape player we shared. By the time "Oscillating Wildly" came on, she asked if she could borrow the tape.
"Take it," I said. "I'm getting the CD after work."

It's still one of my favorites after all these years, though I will say, my all-time favorite song is "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore." It has always been the song I listened to nonstop when shit went down for me, regardless of what it was: breakups, divorce, death, miscarriage--whatever.

The Smiths--to me--was one of those bands who, whenever I go to England, I stop and reflect, thanking the Queen and all of her country's problems so that a band so amazing as The Smiths could have fodder. It's really no wonder that God chastised Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People for never signing them.

Despite their breakup, The Smiths will always be a favorite.

As I drove in traffic this morning, listening to "Stop Me if You Think That You've Heard This One Before" I caught a glimpse of Mr. Na in the review mirror, head bobbing. He was in the zone.

You know, this kid's got good taste.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Whew! One more hurdle down. We survived court and Mr. Na is ours (again!)

What a crazy week--and one I don't want to re-live ever again.

On the plus side, I heard of this site and it's awfully nice to see others getting dumped on for a good cause.

I'm preparing my top 10 list of the best books I've read in 2004. Certainly, Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons won't make the cut; however,they give me hope that I could be, um, a better writer.

C and I saw The Incredibles last weekend. What an awesome flick! I had my doubts going into it, but was very surprised. I loved Edna (but who wouldn't, dahlink).

I'm debating on whether or not I should take Mr. Na to see Polar Express at the IMAX. I'm afraid his little brain will explode.

Well, here's hoping next week will be a lot less stressful.