Wednesday, November 11, 2009

First Story, Part 1

I have an accomplishment to announce. To you it won’t seem like much, but really it’s quite something. I finished a book. No, really. I did. Ok, so, yeah, you’re right. It’s not much. But you have to understand why, for me, it’s bigger than you might think. I’m a terrible finisher. I can start a *ton* of things. But finishing things is another story altogether. I just don’t like the idea of that particular experience being over. So I leave stuff unfinished. Now there’s a lot of stuff that I leave unfinished that I just hated.  But there’s also a large number of things that are unfinished because I like the idea of having some of it left.  I’d much rather delete something from my harddisk than have to deal with running out of space. I keep buffers for everything. My dresser has empty space in it… well it had empty space in it.  My wife makes sure to fill all available storage.

Long and short: When I really like a book and when I really don’t like a book – it looks the same. I have a hard time finishing it.

So it’s somewhat remarkable that I finished a book that I really, really liked. The book is called A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Don Miller. It’s about story. And, in particular, how the elements required to make a good story might also be the elements required to make a good life. Miller asks us to imagine a character who isn’t likeable, pursuing something that isn’t worthwhile, in a setting that isn’t memorable, against minimal conflict, and then wonders if anyone would ever consider making that story into a movie. Imagine the final scene of this movie where the character finally drives his newly acquired BMW off the lot, and rides it into the sunset in tears. I can only imagine this scene being actually produced in something like Scary Movie, or the other comedic mockeries of other movies.

Miller’s point is that if the only thing we strive for in life is as trivial as getting the BMW (or a cell phone), then that’s just as much a mockery of real life as the above scene is a mockery of a real movie. It should be no wonder that amidst that type of living, we find people who are dejected and overwhelmed while living in a society with more money, leisure and luxury than any other in the history of the world.

When I look at my life, I see a pretty comfortable life. I love my wife. I love my children. But I also see a life that would make a terrible movie. Let’s compare me to the elements in a story:
  1. Likable – check (at least I think I'm likable)
  2. Wants something – check (who doesn’t want something?)
  3. …that’s worthwhile – BZZT (a different cell phone really doesn’t count)
  4. Overcomes conflict to get it – BZZT (I lead a pretty easy life)
  5. In a memorable setting – BZZT (I sit in front of a computer or TV screen most of the time)
All told, I’m not telling a very compelling story. My life as a movie would be boring. And, it turns out, my life as a life is pretty boring, too.

It’s with this backdrop that I tell you what I really want to tell you with this post. I’ve started doing something about it.

A friend of my wife’s sent us information about an organization (here after referred to as "the organization") that works with orphanages in the former Soviet Union, specifically Russia, Ukraine and Latvia.  Twice a year, this organization arranges for families to host the orphans in the US. The reason is that the government run orphanages close down for 4 weeks around Christmas, and 6 weeks in the summer. Kids who are not placed with host families are sent to “camps”. I don’t have any idea what these camps are like, but the image that comes to mind is not pleasant.

Normally, I would look at something like this and think, “Gee, that’s too bad. Bad government really sucks. It creates poverty and these poor kids are the victims. I should write a blog post about how government is the cause of this kind of thing, and maybe influence a small number of people, who influence a small number. Then maybe, at some distant point in the future, this will change the world.”  This reaction would not be entirely unlike my previous reaction to reading one of Don Miller's books.  About the last thing I’d think is, “Hey, let’s host one of these kids.” But that’s what we’re trying to do.

Now, I say “trying” to do, because it turns out to be more difficult than you’d think. There are a lot of obstacles in the way.
  1. The host families are the ones who pay for the kids to travel to the US. And it’s not cheap. The fees start out at $2350.
  2. We have to agree that the $2350 is a donation to "the organization". This allows it to be tax deductible. But it also means that under no circumstances will the donation be refunded. So, if for example, something in our application process goes wrong, or the child gets sick and can’t travel, or who knows what, it’s still a donation.
  3. The documentation required to do this is really quite a lot. "The organization" and the originating countries have to ensure that we won’t
  1. Abuse the kids
  2. Sell them into slavery
  3. Sell them into prostitution
  4. Or do any of the other myriad of awful things that humans do to each other
  1. So this means that my wife & I have to:
  1. Give away our social security numbers, potentially to a foreign government
  2. Get ourselves fingerprinted and request an FBI criminal background check
  3. Complete a psychological examinatio
  4. Pay for all of the nickel & dime fees associated with completing all of this paper work
  5. And a ton of other things that I’m forgetting right now
  1. We will attend an 8 hour training session.  Prior to that, we are required to read (and remember) 35-pages of single spaced, small print rules associated with hosting a child.
  2. A huge part of what we will try to accomplish while he’s here is to get vision and dental care for the child.  This is either paid for by us (but can’t be covered by our insurance since he’s not a member of our family) or we will have to call around and ask doctors to provide this care pro bono.
  3. All of this is complicated by one fact: Most of the children (including the one that we’re hosting) don’t speak English… at all.
  4. When the child arrives, the sum total of the possessions he will likely have are the clothes he’s wearing. So, we will provide him with a carry-on size suitcase which we will fill with stuff. Primarily clothes and a few toys, etc. However, we have to be careful to provide things that are not “too” valuable. Because if, for example, we gave him an iPod, some authority where the child lives will likely take it to sell.
  5. Which means, that we have to readjust what we are going to give our children for Christmas. Because it’s be incredibly gauche to be giving elaborate gifts to our kids while our guest got socks.
  6. Which means that, in addition to rearranging their sleeping so that we can give our guest a private room, we also have to explain to our kids that this is going to be a very different experience for them - and that Christmas is not going to be what they've come to expect.
  7. And on top of that, no one that he meets – neither us, nor our kids, nor our friends, no one – is allowed to utter the word “adoption”. "The organization" calls it the “a-word”. There are two reasons for this:
  1. "The organization" is not an adoption agency, and if the established adoption agencies hear “adoption” spoken of by the kids, "the organization" could lose their ability to arrange these hosting opportunities
  2. More importantly: we can’t set the child up for thinking that he’s going to be adopted. There are even *more* obstacles in the way before that could happen.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg.  All of the paperwork has to be completed very quickly… almost immediately. The child we hope to host will arrive Dec 13. All of the paperwork has to be completed and processed by both the US government and the foreign government. If you’ve read my blog at all, you know that I’m not confident that anything can be done efficiently by any government, least wise a former soviet state.

Long story short: we’re putting great time, effort and money into something that may not happen. During which we will struggle mightily to figure out how to overcome the language barrier, and at the end of which, whether we want to or not, we’re going to be forced to confront the idea of the a-word. I’ve heard enough of what these kids futures might hold to know that I can’t not consider it.

So this is what we’re doing. I consider this to be a test story. A trial run. Something that’s worthwhile and hard, but not impossible.  It may open the door for future stories that are harder yet more wonderful. And while I’m doing this, primarily for this child, I'm also doing it (in part) to make my story more interesting. But I’m also doing it for my children – the one’s we gave birth to. Read Chapter 9 from Miller's book. It's short. And as I re-read it, it nearly brings me to tears.

Pray for us, please. There is much to do and much uncertainty.  But there is one thing I’m certain of: the next 8-10 weeks will not be boring.