Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Real Thing

I am a junkie, though my addiction is socially acceptable. I can drink like a fish, but never compromise lucidity or morality, and I never need a designated driver.

My greatest weakness is 12 fluid ounces, canned in crimson, heavenly just north of icy, and, with “Dynamic Ribbon Device,” has the best logo appellation of any product I know.

I love Coca-Cola. Rather, I LOVE Coca-Cola.

Very little soda was imbibed during my childhood, but the few one-liter glass bottles we did drink are recalled with genuine fondness. Away at college, external restraint was nonexistent; indeed, I owe my degree largely to Coke’s caffeine, which rendered me quasi-alert through scores of veterinary school all-nighters. After graduation my habit lived on; any thoughts of consequences of such liberal consumption were fleeting.

In 1999, I met my dear friend Donna. I encouraged her, successfully, to adopt Russian twins; she encouraged me, unsuccessfully, to adopt healthier beverage choices. Occasionally, she would e-mail me links to articles extolling the benefits of a Coke-free life. I appreciated her concern, but continued heeding signs proclaiming, “Enjoy Coca-Cola.” Once, she sent a study claiming researchers had found that women who drank even one soda a day were 83% more likely to develop type-2 diabetes than those who drank soda less than once per month. With my aunt a diabetic and a resultant kidney transplant recipient, Donna stoked my fears, though the effect had a fruit fly’s longevity.

My mom harped, too, and offered me a reward to go a month without Coke, betting I’d break my addiction. I selected February, and after collecting my prize, chilled a Coke in celebration.

Coke was my first thought in any crisis. In Moscow last August, suffering the extreme heat wave and acrid smoke, I woke up several mornings feeling smothered by the mask I’d slept in. In a desperate message to Hope, the Lighthouse Project director, I fretted about the smell, my smoke-induced panic attacks, and how Coke proved more helpful than the masks. Hope had before joined the cacophony of voices cautioning temperance, but now she instructed me to buy a case and to down a can whenever I was ready to “freak out.” I followed her orders religiously, and muddled through the week with Coke in hand, an omnipresent pick-me-up.

In GUM Mall in November, the kids, soon to go home to the orphanages, licked ice cream cones. As David videotaped, an especially divine sip of Coke reminded me of my favorite Coke commercial, which incited my singing it (video below). During my rendition, a Gucci clerk listened at the entrance to his store. Afterward, he approached me, and with outstretched hand introduced himself, over-flattering me with thanks for the “music.” Professing his love for America, he was surprised I enjoyed Moscow sufficiently to visit eight times. He wondered what drew me here, though since Russians are divided on the propriety of international adoption, I remained noncommittal. Returning to his door, he invited me to sing at GUM again soon.

Back in the States, assorted stressors kept me quaffing Coke. When December mornings started with Coke as breakfast, and my immediate instinct upon receipt of troubling news was to head for the refrigerator, I realized I could change volitionally, or have health foist it on me. Past experience proved if I stopped drinking Coke during the middle of the year, I would, on a whim, give up with a hollow promise to restart tomorrow; hence, my success was twinned with beginning January 1. My sister, anxious to provide incentive, pledged money for each consecutive Coke-less day in 2011, with the money to finance an adoption fund to assist the Lighthouse child of my choice. This was dirty pool, as it demanded my success, no matter how difficult.

I've seen these children, whom I could help, staring at us by the orphanage door as we left with our children, off to our own lives. Zulya and Lora still linger, as their family sells cats and oranges in an effort to get them home. Discovered too late, 15-year-old Svetlana signed documents allowing her brothers to be adopted while she remained behind, on the promise the family would return for her, once they could find the money. Others, like cheery Vasily or HIV-positive Artem, don’t even have families wanting them yet. Failure for the sake of an addiction would be unconscionable; children not yet picked from our trips need my strident efforts. Even my own little brood joined in, each making a pledge for every day of “sobriety,” hoping to encourage me and the orphans.

December 31 was a five-Coke day. As I opened the can I knew would be my last, I consciously savored the crack of the tab, the refreshing mist-in-the-face it generated, and the first sip’s assault of carbonation. Coke connoisseurs understand not all vintages taste equally good; this wasn’t a top-flight serving, but finishing at 11:58 p.m., my nostalgia was disproportionate to the quality. Tuning in to the Times Square ball drop with less enthusiasm than most years, I felt immediate panic when “2011” lit up.

The first days were filled with headaches, as several stressful moments shoved me perilously close to snagging one of the two Cokes I spirited away in my refrigerator for comfort, but I never succumbed. Finally last night, I was strong enough to tap my foot along with a Coca-Cola commercial parroting my GUM tune. For the first time, I was not craving Coke as I watched.

I could still enjoy Coca-Cola, I’ll admit, but I feel a burgeoning sense of power. I could take one from my refrigerator. Now, I don’t have to. This time, it’s the real thing.


I have 28 days Coke-free days down, with 337 to go in 2011, and after that, hopefully, a lifetime of extreme moderation. If you would like to help me kick my habit, and help a deserving Lighthouse child in the process, please contact me at to make your per diem pledge. Flat donations can also be made; checks should be written to “Beyond the Cross Adoption Fund” and mailed to First Assembly of God, 1608 N. Oak Street, Rolla, MO 65401. Please write “Coca-Cola” in the memo line.  All donations are tax deductible, and will be used to support the adoption of Russian children.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


I burn the midnight oil Wednesday. Testing my new alarm clock before slipping off to sleep, I find it in working order. When I awaken to the ping of rain on the metal roof outside my window, it’s still dark. I love rain and lay reveling in the stormy symphony, surprised my alarm hasn’t sounded yet. Tired, I plan to rest a few more minutes before checking the time.

I am not done thinking these thoughts when a sharp knock jolts me from recumbency. Cracking the door, I am horrified to see Roberta. “It’s 5:40!” she says. Throwing on clothes and brushing my teeth doesn’t take long, but as I run into the common area, everyone is waiting. Departing ten minutes late, the downpour accentuates our urgency. When we’re almost to the main street, I realize I don’t have my phone. So flustered that I fling fear of the dark aside, I sprint back to the hotel alone. Glancing round my room, I remember I’d readied everything last night, and had the phone in my bag with me. I can’t bother with my umbrella as I tear back to the group; I’ve sloshed through ankle-deep puddles and already look dreadful. As the only one who knows where we’re going, I have to reach the group before they reach the metro. Gasping, legs shaky from oxygen debt, I catch up, beneficiary of their fortuitous delay at a crosswalk whose leisurely cycles I curse at every other encounter.

We rush into our metro stop in time to watch the train pull away. Metro trains typically arrive every 90 seconds, but this early, it’s a stress-compounding five minutes. When another finally screams to a halt, it’s empty and I collapse, frazzled, in a seat, thankful we have no line changes. The kids’ train is due at 6:37 a.m. When we emerge from the metro into the railway station, it’s 6:34 a.m. I can scarcely believe we made it. All other trips, I pass the wait with tortured pacing, praying the families deem the kids worthy of their efforts to traverse the globe. Now though, relief is a lonely emotion; I’m quite void of the energy worry and pacing extract.

While David is telling my video camera that he’s anxious and nervous, the train lumbers in. Before we get to the back, where the kids traveled, they’re standing outside the car watching for us, with Katya, age twenty, our translator. Katya’s mom, Irina, translated our last two trips, but as our first-call court translator, her services are required for a family adopting two children today. Before the trip, Irina shared with me Katya’s apprehension. As we meet, I encourage her, expecting she’ll do a great job. “Thank you,” she beams, “that’s very pleasant!”

Rudimentary introductions over, kids, chaperone, and two hosts board a minibus to the hotel. The rest of us take a less hectic return trip via the metro. When we get back, the hosts are serving the kids Count Chocula and Frankenberry cereal I brought from home.

After breakfast, we commandeer the common area as games spill out and hosts begin to interact with the kids. The hotel owner stops by, congenial, but shocked we have so many children this time. When the rain relents, we visit a playground behind the hotel. Sheri distributes Pixy Stix; when one child shows us his blue tongue, the others crowd around to display theirs, too. Nine-year-old Andrea is here hosting with her parents. Metal equipment like that long ago banished from U.S. playgrounds outfits this park, planted in hard-packed earth. While the playground is likely far more austere than anywhere the Arkansas girl has played previously, she is having the time of her life with the kids. “This is the best playground ever!” she shouts at me, before darting off to rejoin the others.

Lunchtime takes us to the Golden Arches. Our trips feature repeated meals at the kid-pleasing chain, which the hosts good-naturedly tolerate both for its familiarity and popularity with the children. I ask the kids what they’d like to eat. Given the choice of one or two cheeseburgers, all the older kids clamor for two, seemingly amazed their preferences have clout. As they pick their drinks, prior experience warns me I’ll have to get lucky for them to remember what they ordered when I return. It never fails; the last child served feels slighted when the remaining beverage is not what they requested. Maria, six, refuses food; I order anyway. She ultimately drinks her Sprite, and eats one or two fries when goaded by an adult.

After lunch, one family, the chaperone, and the youngest kids return to the hotel, while the rest of us see the Cosmonaut Museum, joined by Dima, our driver. Once there, the kids flit between exhibits, more interested in taking photos than taking in Moscow’s best-produced museum. Witnessing this, Dima decries their indifference to the displays themselves. He tries, with modest success, to corner some kids for discussion of a few artifacts, but eventually gives up. I’d like them to glean something educational, too, but they’re enjoying themselves; with children’s tickets less than $1 apiece, fun alone is adequate recompense.

Afterward, we take a spin on Moscow-850, the 23-story Ferris wheel constructed in 1997 to honor Moscow’s 850th anniversary. The saleswoman distrusts my Russian as I ask for 15 tickets. She thrusts her finger at me and insists, “One,” with an air of finality. We go back and forth, until I trump her by saying, “Groupa!” This finally extracts the required tickets, albeit delivered with a hint of reluctance. The wheel makes a complete revolution in seven minutes, never stopping. Passengers board the moving wheel; to move slowly invites being jerked by the arm and stuffed into the car as it breezes by. The ride itself is silent and tranquil, the antithesis of the boarding procedure. Dima rides with me; he claims on a clear day like today, he can see Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral. I’m not knowledgeable enough to argue, but I never spot either.

After the Ferris wheel ride and disembarkation as harried as boarding, we return to the hotel. It’s a very long metro ride, and I lack the gumption to venture out to another restaurant. We end up cooking pelmini at the hotel. The kids love it, all except Maria, who eats only a slice of tomato. After dinner, several kids play Twister, Andrea among them. Though she has a family and doesn’t speak Russian, the orphans accept her as one of their own. This interaction is one of my favorite developments during the week.

While I prepare the food, Igor asks Katya to inquire of me when the rest of the families are coming. He’s counted hosts, and notes with dismay that the kids far outnumber families. I am shocked by the query, and realize too late I should have instructed Katya not to translate such questions. After my artless dodging at dinner, Igor asks later in the evening if anyone is coming to meet him. There are two other kids with him who aren’t likely to get families this time, and Sheri has travelled over 7000 miles to tell him herself that she wants him. Giving a lame, noncommittal answer, I slink off to my room before he can ask anything else.

I have work in spades anyway. During my end-of-day accounting, I discover with sinking heart that, after the ticket seller’s runaround earlier, I left the Ferris wheel bereft of 1250 rubles change. At bedtime, I check my alarm again, and find it was properly set today. I obviously turned it off unaware this morning, in an overtired stupor. I banish it from the nightstand and set it far from the bed; henceforth I’ll have to rise to quiet it.

If all goes well, I’ll pick Melinda up at the train station at 6:37 a.m. tomorrow after her trip to our region to meet Evgenia. I’ll be ready at 5:45 a.m.

On the button.

Monday, January 3, 2011


Wednesday my families arrive. Three have traveled previously, and want to visit kids they’re waiting for. Sheri hopes to adopt Igor, but he doesn’t know it yet. She wants to see his face when he finds out, so she has traveled to tell him personally. Barrie worries Alexandra will lose hope as the adoption process drags on, so he is here to encourage her. Amy aches to see Yulya again; she’s been waiting a year, through no fault of Amy’s. David is traveling to see Zulya and Lora; his wife met them last trip, and they’re planning to adopt, but he's anxious to meet them himself. Mike and Roberta are coming, along with their daughter, and Stefanee is visiting, just four weeks after a cross-country move with her husband and young children. Melinda is already in our region to meet a child too young for the trip. It’s her second trip with us, and she’ll join us for the weekend to spend time with the rest of the children.

Dima calls me when he leaves the airport with four of the families; the others are arriving at another airport later today. I expect them in an hour, but it’s closer to two, as traffic is punishing. When they walk into the hotel, it feels like a reunion of sorts, even with those I’ve not previously met. They’re kindred spirits in my mission, and we’ve spoken so often. Meeting the hosts is almost as big a thrill as meeting the kids.

Before we all left home, I offered them the options of resting upon arrival or sightseeing. All good-naturedly choose the Armory Museum over a nap.  Armory tickets come with an entrance time, and a 90-minute window to view the exhibits. The museum is within the Kremlin’s walls; entrance requires an expensive ticket, passage through a metal detector, and a half-hearted inspection of purses. Bags are not allowed inside, though it’s still a mystery to me how Russians differentiate between bags and purses. Calling my bag a purse, an attendant rebuffs my attempt to leave it at the bag check room.

The doors open at precisely 2:30. The Armory is my favorite Russian museum; I like everything about it. The museum is intimate, the restrooms are the cleanest I’ve seen here, and there’s a time limit. We start at the end, as the best exhibits are there. Catherine the Great’s wasp-waisted coronation gown; Peter the Great’s boots, like eighteenth-century hip waders; and Ivan the Terrible’s very straight-backed ivory throne are preserved in these final rooms. My favorite exhibits are the gaudy carriages of Russia’s tsars and tsarinas. Signs in Russian and English bid viewers not to touch, but the carriages are so alluring our group never manages strict compliance. A guard in a green sport coat shadows a more exuberant member of our band, but his requests to refrain from touching are issued in Russian, and fall on deaf ears. When an arm comes too close to a carriage, red lights flash, and a loud multi-lingual recording rebukes the unwitting miscreant. While it’s embarrassing if I’m in close proximity, it’s good for a chuckle at a distance.

After the Armory, dusk is descending, so we wander next door to Red Square to see St. Basil’s by night, when it’s even more magical than by day. Once there, it’s still not quite dark, so we end up in GUM Mall for a snack. I order a Coca-Cola, my go-to beverage. Barrie adores it, too, I learned on the August trip. Now I  feel selfish imbibing in front of him when he says he and his wife have forsworn it until they get Alexandra home. Seeking a way to relate to her inability to enjoy the “finer things in life,” they’ve vowed to forego soda in a Lenten-like exercise of self-denial. As I sheepishly quaff my drink, Barrie graciously salves my conscience by confiding he’s finally beyond the point of temptation when in the presence of someone enjoying a Coke.

Back in Red Square, the Kremlin bell tower is striking five, the red stars above its towers are aglow, St. Basil’s domes shine, and GUM is completely outlined in white lights. The scene is glorious; I want to stretch out my arms and twirl around to take it all in. While the photographers in our group finish their photos, I ask everyone if they’re punctual. We’re meeting the kids at the train station tomorrow, and need to leave the hotel by 5:45 a.m. I don’t know if I should tell them that time, or earlier. All of them claim they’re prompt, so we set 5:45 for our departure.

After Red Square, we return to the hotel to find Mike, Roberta, and David waiting. We’re hungry, it’s been months since I’ve eaten at MuMu, and I have a hankering for pelmini, so our destination is obvious. MuMu’s atmosphere is cozy and the food uniformly delicious, but its quirks seem Soviet. The restaurant is cafeteria-style, and the line staffed by Central Asians with infinitesimal patience. To hesitate even a moment when ordering is to invite certain rolled-eyed censure. Each item ordered is meticulously weighed, and any overage painstakingly removed. As I watch a worker reclaim a half-bite of coleslaw from a plate overzealously served, I can’t help but think the cost of the time exceeds the value of the few strands of salvaged cabbage, unless Russia’s minimum wage is much lower than I imagine. At checkout, each paying customer receives a sugar-crusted caramel candy most of my travelers find irresistible. But no matter how many diners are on a single order, only one candy is presented: one receipt, one caramel, no exceptions. No amount of protest or gesticulation at the vastness of our party ever wrests additional candy from the cashier. In Russia, the customer is never right.

Back at the hotel, Sheri, Roberta, and Stefanee exhibit the extra things they’ve brought to send back to the orphanages as donations. While sorting all their gifts and candy feels festive, I am moved by their generosity and creativity, as I sense the compassion that drove their selections. This was not required of them, yet they yearn to brighten the kids’ hardscrabble existence. The kinship I feel with those who care enough to travel with me never grows old.

As I anticipate tomorrow, I hope my hosts, my friends, will find what they’ve come here looking for.