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Saturday, October 24, 2015

A Mother's Pride

Any mother worth the title is proud of her children.

But when that child has overcome incredible obstacles, from being born into a family of alcoholics, to being adopted by a new family, to learning a new language and culture, to struggling with PTSD and ADHD and low self-esteem, to reach a milestone in her life, THAT is reason to be especially proud. And I am an especially proud mom.

My daughter was born in western Siberia to a family with a long history of alcoholism. Her birth father is also a drug addict. She was bounced from family member to family member. At best, her birth mother ignored her. At worst, she abused her. Finally the Russian government stepped in and removed her from the family, placing her in a series of orphanages.

She and I met when she was almost 11 years old. She was part of a group of Russian orphans visiting the U.S. for a 'culture camp,' but in reality the goal was to find adoptive families for the children. I volunteered to have a girl stay with me, since my undergraduate degree is in Russian language. That simple decision -- to host a Russian orphan for a couple of weeks -- changed both our lives forever.

We hit it off immediately, and she wasted no time in telling me that she wanted to stay in America and for me to be her mom. Of course, she was required by both Russian and American laws to return to Russia while I prepared the mounds of paperwork required by both governments. Neither of us had any idea how long this would take, so I told her I would come for her in Russia as soon as I got in permission. The wait took only three months, a much shorter amount of time than expected.

I traveled to Russia just before Christmas, appeared in a Russian courtroom, and the adoption was approved. Once I brought her home, things went well for a while. It was wonderful to watch her learn about so many new things, from our huge grocery stores to the many toys and hair accessories for sale. This honeymoon period came to a crashing halt, and she -- and I -- struggled for a long time. When I started this journey, I had little knowledge about reactive attachment disorder (RAD), but I soon became an expert in this and several other emotional disorders common among children from an orphanage background. A therapist once told me that if he ever had a child with RAD, he would want advice from me rather than a therapist, most of whom are clueless about RAD.

But with lots of treatment by people specially trained to treat these disorders, she began to change, and I began to better understand the workings of her 'trauma brain,' as one therapist called it. Although she often struggled, she continued to make changes in her behaviors. She graduated from high school, completing the final year with on-line and correspondence classes. This was a major accomplishment, but she persevered (with a lot of encouragement -- OK, nagging -- from mom.)

As a hands-on learner, sitting through hours of classes in college didn't seem like a good option fr her post-high school education. But as someone with a great deal of creativity and an outgoing personality, cosmetology school seemed like a good choice. She left the first cosmetology school when it became obvious it wasn't a good fit for her, but she really liked the second school. She graduated in late July and got a job working at a local salon while awaiting a date for her state board exam. She studied really hard and despite her test anxiety, she passed the written test with flying colors. She did even better on the practical exam. So now she has her license, a job she likes and what should be a rewarding career ahead of her.

So THIS is why I am such a proud mom. Yes, it seemed at times that she would never graduate, but we never gave up. I knew that once she sets her mind to something, there is no stopping her. And that was exactly what happened. She got extra hours for working as an unpaid extern at a local salon (which has hired her as a stylist). She studied hard for her written board exam and passed with a very good score.

So now this former orphan, who knew no English and had known little but hurt and rejection, has a loving mom, a wonderful, supportive boyfriend, a good job that she enjoys and is really good at, and a wonderful sense of accomplishment.

I think we both should be extremely proud, don't you?

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Blue Gate

I am very pleased to present this photo, 'Blue Gate,' for sale through my photography Web site at

This has proven to be one of the most popular photographs I have offered for sale. It also is one of my personal favorites. Ironically, it was not taken on one of my trips to a foreign country, but in my neighborhood early one morning, just after sunrise. This goes to show that it isn't necessary to travel the world to find beautiful and interesting scenes to photograph. Beauty is all around us, if we will but look for it.


Saturday, October 17, 2015

Facebook: Is It Good or Bad?

I spend way too much time on Facebook, and I often feel overwhelmed by the stories about terrible cruelty to animals, the slaughter of elephants, lions and other African wildlife by 'trophy' hunters, and killing contests in the U.S. to see which team can kill the most coyotes or foxes in a given period of time. I have stopped following several pages simply because I was overwhelmed by all the cruelty and death.

But I also appreciate the fact that through Facebook, I can stay in touch with friends in Russia, Turkey, Kenya, Botswana and Ukraine -- many of them friends I met while traveling in those distant lands. I can offer my sympathy when something bad happens, such as terror attacks in Turkey and Kenya, and I can send encouragement as my Botswana guide prepares for his year-long trip to the United States. I can admire the photos of my Russian friend's dacha (country house) and gardens, and I can learn about Ukraine's on-going civil unrest from a Ukrainian friend who shares my love of golden retrievers. And I can enjoy the travels of other friends I met while traveling.

Facebook also allows me to sympathize when on-line friends lose one of their beloved dogs (many of my friends I met through our common love of golden retrievers), as well as celebrating birthdays and good times with them through cyberspace. I share the exciting news about my daughter's graduation from cosmetology school and her success in passing her state exams for licensing. I also use Facebook to share information -- both good and bad -- about the ongoing fight in Africa to save elephants and rhinoceros from extinction due to poaching, and to spread information about the plight of wolves in America and other countries.

So, is Facebook good or bad? It certainly has a wide-reaching impact, with billions of followers around the world. It can brighten my day with a shared cartoon or video, and it can bring sobering news.

I guess, like most things in life, it is neither good nor bad. It is what we choose to make of it. What Facebook is not is a substitute for real human interaction. It is not a forum for anonymously attacking others or spreading hatred. It is not a place to post pornographic videos or photos, or adds that say "Hi! I'm Jessica. I'm 22. Please send me a friend request." in the middle of a discussion about another topic.

I think the positives of Facebook and other social media outweigh the negatives, as long as we remember to live our real lives more than our on-line lives.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Tired of Death

I am tired of death.

I am tired of reading about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent victims of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. I am tired of the deaths of police officers killed simply because they are cops. I am tired of the deaths of members of our military who are killed in battles or skirmishes or helicopter crashes in some God-forsaken foreign country. I am tired of the deaths of African-Americans killed because of the color of their skin (whether they were committing a crime at the time or not). I am tired of the ongoing mass murders of innocent people by gun-toting people with anger or mental illness issues. I am tired of the deaths of people in 'ethnic cleansing' or religious wars. I am tired of innocent people being killed by fanatical suicide bombers and those who leave bombs in public places to kill as many people as possible. I am tired of people being shot because some thug thinks it would be 'fun' or wants to see what it feels like to kill someone.

I am tired of the deaths of wild animals. A grizzly bear in Idaho was killed recently for eating apples from an orchard. Her two cubs -- just a few months old -- were dropped off near Yellowstone National Park, to die this winter since they will not be able to fend for themselves. I am tired of the deaths of wolves through shooting, trapping, snaring and poisoning because of a fictitious belief that they are decimating elk populations or eating all the cows and sheep of ranchers. I am tired of the deaths of 400,000 coyotes every year, some 320,000 killed in 'contests' to see who can kill the most of these fascinating canids in a given amount of time. I am tired of the deaths of millions of wild animals killed each year at the hands of the U.S. Wildlife Services agency, which each year kills some 4 million animals at a cost to American taxpayers of more than $100 million.

I am tired of the deaths of magnificent wild animals killed so some impotent man can hang their heads on the wall of his 'man cave.' I am tired of the deaths of elephants for their tusks so some wealthy Chinese can have a trinket made of ivory, and I am tired of the deaths of rhinoceros so some Asian man can make himself feel virile by consuming ground-up rhino horn (which is made of keratin, the same substance found in fingernails). I am tired of the deaths of million of companion animals in the United States every year because their owners failed to have them spayed or neutered, or grew tired of them or the animals grew up and are no longer cute or for any number of equally stupid reasons. And I am tired of so many of my friends' wonderful dogs losing their battles with cancer.

So yes, I am tired of death. For a supposedly 'advanced' species, we humans certainly are doing a wonderful job of killing other animals as well as our fellow humans. I don't know how much more 'advancement' of our species I can take. How about you? Are you tired of death, too?

Friday, October 9, 2015

Finding Heroes

Bindi Irwin, daughter of the late crocodile hunter Steve Irwin, recently did a dance as part of her participation in this season's Dancing with the Stars. It was a tribute to her father, who died at age 44 when his heart was pierced by the barb of a stingray.

That started me thinking about where we find heroes these days. I can't say I have any heroes, but there are several people I greatly admire. And no, they don't play baseball or box or act.

Steve Irwin definitely was one of the people I greatly admired for his unending enthusiasm and passion about the world's wildlife, especially the crocodiles and other frequently overlooked cold-blooded animals with which we share our planet.

Another person who has earned my admiration because of her decades of research and work to save Africa's endangered chimpanzees is Dr. Jane Goodall. In recent years, her focus has expanded from chimpanzees to other of the world's endangered animals and the environment. Dr. Goodall remains an ambassador for the nonhuman species of animals, traveling and giving presentations throughout the world despite being 81 years old.

Iain Douglas-Hamilton and his daughter Saba operate the Save the Elephants organization in northern Kenya. He has studied the elephants of Samburu for more than 45 years. STE focuses on sustaining elephant populations, habitat preservation, education and community involvement, using elephants outfitted with radio collars to track their movements.  I am thrilled to be able to visit Elephant Camp next year, to spend time watching the researchers and observing elephants close-up.

Malala Yousafzai is a young Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for daring to speak out and defend her belief that girls should have the opportunity to get an education. She not only survived the attack, but she has continued her outspoken advocacy for girls, even winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.  She has addressed the United Nations on her 16th birthday, and she met with England's Queen Elizabeth II and with U.S. President Barack Obama. Malala continues to speak out in favor of children's rights and promoting her belief that education can, indeed, change the world.

I admire the first responders (police, firefighters, paramedics) and members of the military who make such huge sacrifices to save and/or protect people they don't know. They put their lives on the line with every call, with every patrol. Even if they don't do something 'heroic,' the fact they are willing to risk their lives in the service of others warrants my admiration.

Although I don't know their names, I greatly admire the rangers who every day put their lives on the line as they work to protect Africa's elephants, rhinoceros and other animals from the ravages of poaching. I am particularly in awe of the Black Mambas, a predominantly female anti-poaching unit in South Africa.

My deep admiration also goes to the keepers, the pilots, the veterinarians and all those who work with the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust to rescue, raise and release into the wild the endless stream of baby elephants orphaned by poachers in Kenya.  Although a few animals are rescued after they were separated from their herd or fell into a community well, the vast majority are orphaned by poachers that murdered the baby elephants' mothers.

I have nothing but admiration for the volunteers with National Mill Dog Rescue, a Colorado-based organization that takes unwanted dogs  that have outlived their usefulness to the heartless people that run puppy mills.  For those who don't know, puppy mills are commercial dog breeding operations that supply nearly all of the puppies sold online and in pet stores.  Dogs are kept in tiny, wire-floored cages, denied all human interaction and affection as well as medical care.  Once they are no longer capable of breeding, they are discarded and if they're lucky rescued by NMDR.  They are given health checks, grooming, good food and water, help with any medical, behavioral or socialization issues and rather than having just a number, each dog is given a name.

I don't see professional athletes, actors or other celebrities as heroes. These people may be very well-paid for what they do, and they may excel at what they do, but what they do is far from heroic. The people I admire, as described above, have devoted their lives to making the world a better place.

Who are your heroes or, if like me you don't have heroes, whom do you most admire for their work to make this world a better place?  I would love to see a time when our heroes are not people who can hit a golf ball or throw a football or act in a movie. Let's make people like the ones above, who have devoted their lives to a cause far greater than sports or movies, our real heroes.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Cup

There has been so much disturbing news lately -- mass shootings of innocent people, the killing of a beloved lion by a trophy hunter and several elephants by poachers, the terrible release of 3 million gallons of water loaded with heavy metals, a deputy sheriff executed as he pumped gas -- that I want to write about something silly for a change.

In general, I am not a collector of things. In fact, I have been getting rid of things -- clothing, shoes, books, housewares, you name it. I have given away a couple dozen books, several CDs, piles of clothes and shoes, and boxes of housewares. I am always looking for more things to get rid of.

I used to buy a T-shirt from places I visited, but that practice stopped years ago. Now when I travel, I try to buy a coffee cup reflective of the new place I am visiting. Because I travel a lot both domestically and internationally, I now have quite a large collection of coffee cups. And I don't even drink coffee!

I do, however, have a cup of hot tea every morning as I read the daily newspaper. And using one of these cups from a place I have visited brings back memories of that place. For example, the cup I bought at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw reminds me of my trip to Poland, including the somber visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps, and to the wonderful city of Krakow. My mug from a mosaic shop in Jordan reminds me of the visit to Petra and lunch with Bedouins. I have cups from Russia, Hungary, London, Kenya, from all over, even from the Russian cosmonaut training center in Star City. I also have cups with wolves on them, and others with dogs, reflective of my love of these species. One even has a photo of one of my golden retrievers who died years ago. Each cup has a story and a memory of its own.

Some day, when I'm too old to travel or when it becomes too difficult to fly to the other side of the planet, I hope these simple, utilitarian items will continue to remind me of the amazing places I visited, the memories I made and the people I met. In the meantime, I look forward each morning to drinking my favorite tea from a cup filled not only with hot tea, but also with memories of places visited.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Down Memory Lane

I recently returned from a three-day trip with my sister to visit several places from our childhood. We jokingly referred to it as our 'Thelma and Louise ' trip, although there were no guns and Brad Pitt was unfortunately absent.

We began our trip by visiting the hospice where our dad died and seeing for the first time the memorial brick we had installed in the courtyard. Then we made a rain-soaked visit to the cemetery in the northwest suburbs of Chicago where our parents are buried. We then had lunch at my dad's favorite restaurant. We even got to sit in the booth where he always took his meals.

The next morning we headed south on Interstate 57. We located the graves of our paternal uncle and grandmother, as well as of our great-aunt and -uncle. After making a quick trip to purchase some silk flowers, we returned to put the flowers and vases in front of the graves. My sister's memory served us well and led us straight to the house of our great aunt and uncle. which later was occupied by my uncle after they died. With the help of Google maps, we were able to locate the large brick house where my grandmother lived for several years. Sadly, it is definitely showing its age.

From there we continued our journey south.  We spent some time visiting the campus of the university from which we both graduated. I hadn't been there in more than 35 years, so the campus and campus town had changed a great deal. I enjoyed visiting the library where I spent many hours as a student and part-time employee. The big room that used to hold the card catalog is now filled with computer stations for students.

Continuing our journey south, we eventually found the town square of the small town where some of our relatives once lived and located a delightful little barbecue place on the outskirts of town.  After lunch we continued south, stopping at the cemetery where our maternal grandparents and aunt and uncle are buried.  As I walked through this small, old cemetery, I was struck by the graves of so many children who had died either at birth or early in infancy.

As I visited these cemeteries -- all of them quite old -- my interest in photographing some of the older and more interesting headstones was piqued. I haven't yet figured out the best approach to take to photograph old headstones, but I think it could be a fascinating project for me. There is so much history and so many stories in those headstones.

We concluded our road trip with a lovely evening with my second cousin, her husband and two teenage sons. I got a quick tour of the property where my maternal aunt and uncle used to live. The house has been torn down and vegetation has taken over much of the land. But the family has plans to eventually clear the land and perhaps build on it. The house where my grandparents had lived, and where I and my siblings had spent many happy summer vacations, had been torn down decades ago and replaced with a newer, more modern dwelling.

I had not seen my cousin since she and her mom -- my cousin -- lived in Southern California when she was 15 years old. Since that family gathering, we have reconnected on Facebook.  I don't have a lot of family members, so it's always great to reconnect with those I do have.

So Thelma and Louise completed their road trip and had a good time along the way. I got to spend time with my sister, whom I don't often see, to reconnect with my cousin and meet her family and to pay our respects to long-lost relatives.