The Final Frontier


A snapshot into the crazy world of what being married to me is like, based on an actual telephone conversation I had with my husband today:

“Ok, I need to tell you something really big,” I said.

“Big, as in I need to sit down, or maybe just lean on something? Or are you joking?” he said.

“No, I’m not joking, it’s not bad, but maybe you should lean on something,” I said excitedly.

“Okaaaay, well, what is it?”

Now keep in mind that not only was I over-the-moon excited about this news, I had also had a whole handful of chocolate-covered espresso beans which for someone like me who generally avoids caffeine, made me talk even faster than I normally do, so it came out something like this: “NASAistakingapplicationsforastronauts, and I want to apply!”

“What?! Are you serious? No way! Do you know how many space shuttles or rockets have exploded in the history of space flight?”

Silence on my end, then “I can’t believe you’re not supporting me in this.  You’re supposed to help me achieve my dreams. They’re going to go to MARS!!!”

“But, honey, don’t you know how dangerous that is?”

“Um, hello, firefighter/SWAT medic? Seriously?!”

“Uh, right. Point taken. ”

Big sigh on his end of the line, then “OK, fine. I didn’t even know you wanted to be an astronaut.” (Really, he’s such a good guy, isn’t he?)

“I’ve only wanted to be an astronaut my whole life.  It’s SPACE!  Who wouldn’t want to go to space?  How cool would that be?!”  Actually, it was one of several things I’d considered.  Almost a year ago, I posted my dream list of future occupations when I was a kid which included “Supreme court justice, Shirley Temple stand-in, crime-fighting assassin/journalist, astronaut, and finally, Nobel Prize-winning brain researcher.”

As I was talking to him, I had been scrolling through NASA’s website, looking at the requirements in more detail.  The article I’d read said only a bachelor’s degree in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, or mathematics) field (CHECK!), at least 3 years of experience in that field (CHECK!), and the ability to pass the astronaut physical (Well, going to have to investigate that further). What I was looking for specifically was the one thing I knew I couldn’t overcome based on will alone:  The height requirement.

“Oh no! It says 62 inches, ” I said despairingly.

“Well, that’s probably based on–”

“Hah! Wait, that’s only if I want to be a pilot or commander, plus they need over 1000 flight hours as pilot-in-command.  But I only have to be 58.5 inches tall if I want to be a mission specialist, and I’ve got that beat by a whole inch and a half! I could be a mission specialist.”

“A whole inch and a half, huh?”

I was so elated, I pretended not to hear the gently sarcastic tone in his voice. Then, as I continued to read the requirements to him, I dropped back down to Earth. Vision was another requirement, and I’m famous in my family for having horrendously thick glasses starting from age 8, until the miracle of contact lenses came along.  I had been told by one well-known eye surgeon, “We have no surgical options for you. Perhaps you’ll develop cataracts early.”

“Oh no, there’s a minimum vision requirement. 20/200 or better uncorrected. Hmm, maybe I should look into getting Lasik done anyway. Oh wait! It says correctable to 20/20, each eye. Ok, I’ve still got a chance. Or I could be a payload specialist.”

He quietly listened to me as I continued on in this vein for another 5 minutes, up and down the spectrum of excitement, as I came to the realization as I read further, that the likelihood of actually getting picked to go to astronaut candidate school was only about 0.6 %.

“Well, it would be cool just to get a rejection letter from NASA, right? I’m going to apply anyway. You never know! I could be the first PA in space. My collaborating physician would be available. . .on Earth!”

My son’s reaction when I told him NASA was taking applications for astronauts, and that I was going to apply, was even cooler.

“You’re going to be an astronaut?  Wait, how?  Can you take me with you?  I want to go to Mars, too!”

“Sweetie, you’re not old enough yet.  But if you want to be an astronaut, see how important it is to get a college degree in one of the STEM fields?” (I know, I know, not everyone needs to go to college, but seriously, Tiger Mama training dies hard.)

We surfed the NASA website together, and oohed and aahed over pictures of rockets and astronauts.

“Do you think they get to keep the blue jumpsuits?”

“Yep, pretty sure they do.”

“I want one.”

“Me too, buddy.”

We read more in depth about the physical requirements with him saying “I could do that!” and me saying, “Hmm, not sure if I can pass the swimming test (I have this horrible fear of drowning) and my little guy saying “I can though!” and right there, I watched the dream blossom in his eyes, and saw the final frontier open up for him. No limits here on Earth.  Not if you think you can be an astronaut.  And who doesn’t want that for their kids?

NASAlogo

Here’s the actual description of astronaut requirements if you’re interested in one of those blue jumpsuits, too:

http://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/postsecondary/features/F_Astronaut_Requirements.html

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A 10 Year Old’s Guide on How to Raise Your Kids to Be Good Kids


My 10-year-old son also known as He Who Never Stops Moving, seems to think that after he goes to bed, I’m hosting wild dance parties or X-Men/Avenger/Star Wars movie marathons with candy appetizers and unlimited refills on pop.  Though he is incredibly crabby when he doesn’t get a full night’s rest, he often asks me why I”m not going to bed when he does with a distinct tone meant to convey the complete unfairness of the fact that he has to go to bed, and I get to stay awake.  I also think this is completely unfair, and so I’ve gotten in the habit of detailing a list of exciting highlights for the evening, which tonight included loading the dishwasher, putting away Halloween decorations, folding laundry, making tomorrow’s lunches, organizing coupons/receipts, and writing my next blog post.  This usually convinces him that he would indeed prefer not to be an adult tonight, and then he goes right to sleep.

Tonight, however, as I was tucking him into bed he asked, “What are you going to write about?”

Given my upbringing by parents who managed to evade capture by the Việt Cộng, I answered his question with a question: ‘What do you think I should write about?” (See, Mama, I was paying attention).

Luckily for you (and me), he had very strong views about this:

“You should tell people how to make sure their kids will be good kids.”

Curious as to what his answers would be, I asked him, “Well, what should I tell them?”

He furrowed his brow for a second, then came up with the following list reproduced nearly verbatim here and in exactly the order he stated them on how to raise your kids to be good kids. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did:

  1. “Make your kids take piano lessons and practice even if they don’t want to.
  2. Make your kids take karate lessons even if they don’t want to.
  3. Feed them veggies every day.
  4. Don’t let them eat too much candy, especially Halloween candy and junk.
  5. Say prayers with them every night. Because it’s important to worship God and to be thankful. Maybe you can make that part sound better. (I left it as is.)
  6. Make sure to love them a lot.

OK, you can add other stuff in if you want to, too.”

This took longer to type than it did for him to say.  I kissed him good night, turned off the light, and marveled at how quickly he came up with these suggestions. I’ll leave the term “make your kids” for him and his future therapist to work through. I’m just grateful that he thinks of himself as a good kid, and I thank God I’ve been blessed with the care and keeping of three old souls with wonderfully distinct personalities.  In terms of “other stuff” to add to this list, I think I’d only add this:

7. Make sure to really listen to your kids.

I’m glad I did.

He Who Never Stops Moving, at about age 5, dressed up as a Frenchman for no apparent reason, except perhaps so that he can say, "Wii, Wii."

He Who Never Stops Moving, at about age 5, dressed up as a Frenchman for no apparent reason, except perhaps so that he can say, “Wii, Wii.”

Ode to Bánh mì


I had a very serious post planned for today, opening sentences poised, and paragraphs half-written, then someone told me it was National Sandwich Day, and my mouth started salivating.  Like one of Pavlov’s subjects, the word sandwich in my mind is irrevocably tied to Bánh mì which is a Vietnamese sandwich.  Now I know that a lot of these National Day of Whatever have been started for purely commercial reasons, but for a person who loves food and eating as much as I do, any excuse to eat one of these is good enough for me.  

Bánh mì thịt heo nướng with cilantro, peanuts, large cucumber slices, juillienned pickles carrots and daikon radish, and jalapenos.

Bánh mì thịt heo nướng with cilantro, peanuts, large cucumber slices, julienned pickled carrots and daikon radish, and jalapenos.

It wasn’t always like this.  In the small town outside of Detroit where I grew up, Vietnamese food was made only by people related to me. At home. And we were not a family who went out to eat at restaurants except for very special occasions, and then to a Szechuan place about 20 minutes away in Garden City.  The owner spoke Korean. My dad would start conversing with him, and ask for the special menu, meaning the dishes that weren’t found anywhere on the plastic printed menus with tiny red pepper symbols next to them.  Pretty soon all manner of delicious foods were paraded out and placed on the table, from fried mandu (dumplings deep-fried to a perfect crispy texture, with a slightly chewy inside layer, with seasoned meat inside, just hot enough to make you inhale sharply through pursed lips, but not hot enough to burn your tongue) to seafood dishes brimming with crab, sea cucumber, shrimp, and artistically cut, slightly crisp vegetables swimming in an oyster sauce. Delicately seasoned broths with crackling bits of rice, browned just to the point of crispiness were an entree and not part of the first course. And, at the end of the meal, my dad would not even raise an eyebrow at the bill, always leaving the owner a generous tip, which would then make my mother’s eyebrows shoot up alarmingly.

I don’t mean to say that we were deprived, as my mother has a knack for tasting a dish, and being able to replicate it, and most of us would prefer to have a home-cooked meal by her over any restaurant meal. But because of this, I grew up fairly unexposed to restaurant Vietnamese food, which is a little different from your home-cooked meals.  The only way to get these was in Windsor, Ontario, which in the pre-9/11 days, was a 20 minute drive across the Ambassador Bridge to University Street.  It felt like a foreign country, the sights and smells just like the Asian grocery store, but multiplied a hundred-fold.

This was where I first saw the classic dangling barbecued red ducks, held up ignominiously by their clawed feet.  We’d go into a number of different shops, through some algorithm in my mother’s head on who had the best prices for whatever she had in her mental list.  I never saw my mother write out a to-do list or shopping list, and constantly wish I had her memory. She mourns the fact that she has trouble remembering things now as she used to know by heart all the phone numbers for all the telephone exchanges for the military base where she met my father. I tell her her memory has subsided to normal human level now.

One of the visits was always to the herbalist, and the acrid, stinging scent brings back instant memories of the concoction she must have spent precious money on to try to fatten me up. The dark brown, murky liquid with various roots and leaves in it was brewed on the kitchen stove, then ladled into what looked to me like an impossibly large cup. A small piece of hard candy was laid next to it, as incentive to finish the entire thing, preferably without gagging or retching. The house would be permeated with the smell, and my brothers would watch me as I sat at the kitchen table, face resting on fisted hands, sympathetic but staying far enough away that they wouldn’t be noticed and possibly made to drink it, too. That was in the days when I was in such a hurry to get back to my books that food wasn’t such a priority to me, and I was, as my mother called it, “a toothpick”.

It didn't work, unless there is a delayed effect 25 years later.

It didn’t work, unless there is a delayed effect occurring 25 years later.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, I’ve learned since then how delicious food can be.  Part of that appreciation started with the Bánh mì sandwich.  The kind my mother always bought was what is known as either bánh mì thịt nguội, or bánh mì đặc biệt.  Bánh mì is a general term for all bread in Vietnamese, however, it is also synonymous with the sandwich, which is made from a French baguette made usually with wheat and rice flour (though I’m not able to taste much difference between those with rice flour and without). It is one good by-product of the French colonial times in Vietnam.  Thịt means meat and nguội means cooled or cold.  This is also sometimes known as bánh mì đặc biệt meaning a special sandwich, which seems more than appropriate to me.  It’s filled with Vietnamese cold cuts which may include what we called Vietnamese bologna growing up or chả lụa (pork sausage), head cheese (more delicious than the name sounds, trust me), and sliced pork roasted with the classic red seasoning, and sometimes liver pâté. Though delicious, the meat wasn’t the best part of the sandwich, as it could not be complete without pickled carrots and daikon radish, julienned fresh cucumbers and cilantro. A buttery mayonnaise added some moisture and helped to bind all the ingredients together.

Fixings for

Fixings for bánh mì thịt nguội

Thrown in like little red hand grenades of spiciness were the deadly red Thai chilies, sliced to such minuscule portions that they were nearly impossible to ferret out completely, inevitably leading to abandoning the sandwich briefly for several glasses of water, followed by careful eyeing of the sandwich yet again, before taking the next tentative bites.  Because it is so delicious, and you think you’ve been meticulous about catching all the peppers, a few more bites will lead to thinking you are safe, and then another ninja chili will cause your tongue or lips to blossom in pain, and the whole process will begin again. These were a special treat, and each of us would get one small baguette for our own.  

These may look like ordinary Thai chili peppers to you, but be forewarned, they are stealthy and wicked.

These may look like ordinary Thai chili peppers to you, but be forewarned, they are stealthy and wicked.

I thought perhaps at first that it was the novelty and scarcity of the sandwich which has also been called a Vietnamese po’boy or hoagie, which was the attraction.  As I got older and got a chance to try many other kinds of sandwiches including reubens, Cubanos, Philly steak hoagies, and calzones among others (can you tell I have no issues with gluten sensitivity?), the novelty of bánh mì wore off. Or so I thought.

Then when I was in the process of moving to this high desert place we now call home, I made a phone call to the physician assistant program here, in the hopes that they might have an opening so that I could continue to be involved in educating PA students as I had in Detroit.  The PA program director told me that she did not, but would be happy to take my name, and C.V. in the event that an opening came available. As I spelled out my name for her, the tone of her voice changed from polite interest to animated questioning.

“Are you Vietnamese?” she asked.

“Yes, well, half anyway,” I replied.

“Can you speak Vietnamese?”, she asked, her voice becoming more excited.

“Um, yes?” But what does that have to do with teaching PA students I wondered to myself.

“Did you know there is a very large Vietnamese population here? And some of our students are Vietnamese.”

“No, I assumed it was mostly Spanish and Native American,” I responded, wonder dawning in my voice.

In the end, I got to teach here, and not only that I discovered the proximity of not one, but several Vietnamese sandwich shops, Vietnamese restaurants, and even a Vietnamese church. I had gone from being related to the only Vietnamese people I knew (other than those I met in college), to a city filled with them, completely on accident.

And so I did the only thing I could do.  I went to every Vietnamese place I could find to try the bánh mì (and the phở, but that’s another blog post). Purely for research purposes, of course. I discovered bánh mì thịt heo nướng, what I now call the gateway bánh mì, filled with seasoned roast pork, a sandwich no one I’ve ever introduced to has ever disliked. And, like so many other things, I’ve discovered that there are many right ways to make a bánh mìall of them informed by personal choice, with variations in bread which is normally baked on site, fillings, types of vegetables included, consistency of mayonnaise (which is definitely not Hellman’s) and chilis used. Here in the Southwest, those red ninja-stealth chilis have been replaced by jalapenos, which when seeded and sliced, often look just like the much more innocuous green pepper.

Fresh, they could be green peppers in your sandwich. Except green peppers don't make your lips feel like they want to fall off.

Fresh, they could be green peppers in your sandwich. Except green peppers don’t make your lips feel like they want to fall off.

Same effect, different chili, but still delicious.  It turns out I was wrong. I’m pretty partial to bánh mì, even if I can have one every day.

Not that I do.

Or have done.

Not yet, anyway.

Though I'm not a tshirt collecting person, I would wear this.

Though I’m not a tshirt collecting person, I would wear this.

Hello darkness, my old friend


Steve Inskeep woke me up way too early this morning.  No, I haven’t thrown over my husband for someone new.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, he sounds way too chipper to have been up for hours as the host of Morning Edition on NPR. With Daylight Savings Time this weekend, theoretically, we all got 1 more hour of sleep last night, but in reality, I spent 1 more hour awake, and started yawning as soon as darkness fell.  Now it really feels like autumn has arrived, and winter is coming ;-).

Hello darkness, my old friend

Hello darkness, my old friend.

The news is filled at this time of year with the same stories from last year about whether or not we should continue with Daylight Savings Time. As we are among those who have eschewed cable TV for streaming services and the local evening news is filled with hype-filled emptiness, I like to get my news as I get ready for the work day and on my drive in to the hospital. This morning, the words “in Detroit” made my head snap towards the radio.  Having trained in Detroit, and grown up driving “Downtown” to the RenCen and Hart Plaza, I miss my old city. I never knew it in its glory day.  The Detroit I knew was already worn around the edges.  The grand architecture which makes it an attraction for photographers, film makers, and crazy tiger owners, is crumbling and the infrastructure which has been neglected for so long is struggling to take care of the residents of my former city.

A live tiger got loose in the old Packard plant during a photo shoot. (Photo: Andy Didorosi)

A live tiger got loose in the old Packard plant during a photo shoot. (Photo: Andy Didorosi)

What I heard today though wasn’t yet another mock-sad exploitation of the dark days of Detroit.  Instead it celebrated the success of a program implemented to bring suicide levels to 0%.  No, that is not a typo.  The goal of the program was actually to prevent suicides and thus bring the suicide rate down to 0.  Now anyone who’s every been at a meeting, no matter where it is, whether for work or the PTO or your local library guild, can imagine the silence that most likely followed that proposal. The thinking among a lot of health care workers and psychologists is that it is impossible to prevent every suicide.  This is a growing problem among veterans all over the country, and one that has been highlighted in the media as an example of how the VA is failing our wounded warriors.  As one of those left behind to question why, any reduction in the suicide rate is a miracle.

This is the first I’ve heard of any success stories, and this is truly a success, and has been for many years.  After embracing the idea, which must have taken a complete paradigm shift, the Henry Ford Health System, the same one that took care of my family for years, was able to achieve their goal for at least 2 years.  In 2009, the suicide rate among the high-risk mental health population was zero. Even now, it is 80% lower than before the start of the program.  And this was during the heart of the recession, when there were plenty of factors to make anyone depressed, plenty of reasons that someone might look into the heart of darkness, and decide the pain and shadows are too much to bear any longer.

Today on All Souls' Day, residents of New Orleans must show iID to be allowed to come to the historic St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 to pay their respects to those who have died, following a new directive by the Archdiocese of New Orleans, prior to my visit there.

Today on All Souls’ Day residents of New Orleans (another city that has seen it’s share of darkness) must show ID to be allowed to come to the historic St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 to pay their respects to those who have died, following a new directive by the Archdiocese of New Orleans (prior to my visit there).

How did this happen?  Henry Ford Health system is not situated in a rich community filled with deep pocket books.  When I trained there, most patients were on Medicaid or some type of assistance. Though the people I worked with were all hard-working, dedicated professionals, they are no different from health care providers here, or anywhere I believe. The answer, I think, lies in turning upside down the presumption that nothing can be done, and aiming for complete eradication of the problem of suicide.  And though a complete analysis of this phenomenon hasn’t occurred yet, all signs point to the possibility that the extensive work put into achieving these results has actually saved this medical system money.  While we have politicians spouting sound bites about how broken our health care system is, in Detroit, a symbol of decay and decline, some big dreamers actually are making a difference in patients’ lives, and managing not to make the bottom line worse.

Why isn’t this story all over the news at night instead of Donald Trump’s unnatural hair do?  I think it is because we have a tendency to focus on the negative and the darkness. In optical illusions, we have to train our eyes to see beyond the negative spaces.  To see what is right there in front of us waiting to be revealed, we need to let go of our preconceived notions, and be open to a new perspective.

What do you see first? The beautiful curves of the chalice, or two faces about to kiss?

What do you see first? The beautiful curves of the chalice, or two faces about to kiss?

What can we do on this Feast of All Souls, to turn away from our old familiar friend darkness and negativity? For me, I’ll start with welcoming the light of morning, instead of mourning the darkness that comes too soon.  I’m thankful today for all those in Detroit working hard to make the impossible possible, for news that manages to highlight positive stories, and for the blessing of warm covers on chilly mornings.

Novemberish


I really don’t like the month of November, and so when I learned that November’s adjectival form, Novemberish, means “dreary,” I wasn’t at all surprised.  I love autumn which symbolizes so many good things to me–the start of the school year, cooler days, and Halloween.  I didn’t get to join in the fun of Halloween much growing up, with parents who thought such American traditions odd  (“You want to dress up in strange clothes and beg for candy from our neighbors?  No.”) and so I thoroughly enjoy Halloween as an adult, with an annual Halloween costume party, dry ice in my apple cider for that spooky effect, and lots of candy.

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My little monkey

After Halloween though, I’ve always felt the sadness of having nothing to look forward to anymore. Though it is considered part of autumn, November feels bleaker, as the wind blows away the brilliance that dazzles us after the warmth of summer, stripping us down to bare branches.

Growing up in Michigan, I dreaded dreary November, knowing it would bring the Northern chill and gray skies with it.  Here in this desert place in which we’ve settled, the chill comes mainly at night.  We’ve put most of our plants to bed, and rain has been more frequent, a blessing in this arid place.  We’ve harvested the last of the first successful tomato planting for this brown-thumbed woman.

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This is All Saints’ Day which marks every first day of November, a holy day, and so I’m trying to think of November as a time of gestation, a sacred rebirth and time of building.  Though we tend to focus on the famous, better known saints such as Joan of Arc (my middle daughter’s personal favorite) or St. Francis (the pope’s namesake), saints are actually thought of as those who’ve attained heaven.   My grandma died in November, and so I think of her frequently at this time of year, missing her wisdom and the never-ending prayers she spent countless hours in, seeking peace and protection for her loved ones.

St. Joan of Arc, image from www.catholictradition.org

St. Joan of Arc, image from http://www.catholictradition.org

It is thought that originally All Hallow’s Eve and All Saints’ Day was tied together as a way to co-opt Samhain in the Scottish Highlands (as many Church holy days were all over the world)  As my fellow Outlander readers know, it is considered “a thin time” in which the links between the world and other places are more open.

“The dark came down on All Hallows’ Eve. We went to sleep to the sound of howling wind and pelting rain, and woke on the Feast of All Saints to whiteness and large soft flakes falling down and down in absolute silence…This is the thin time, when the beloved dead draw near. The world turns inward, and the chilling air grows thick with dreams and mystery. The sky goes from a sharp clear cold where a million stars burn bright and close, to the gray-pink cloud that enfolds the earth with the promise of snow.” –Diana Gabaldon, A Breath of Snow and Ashes

In the Southwestern tradition, we celebrate Dia de los Muertos, which recognizes that death is a part of life, and honors it, instead of fearing it or indulging in sadness, with parades and make-up featuring calacas and calaveras (skeletons and skulls). Though this is a fact I deal with in my work as a physician assistant, this November I’m going to try to celebrate the lives of those who have died instead of mourning their loss in my life, thinking instead of what I’ve learned from having been blessed to have them in my life. In Mexico, it coincides with the Dia de los Innocentes, a day dedicated to deceased children, making it even more fitting that we think of November as a month pregnant with possibilities.

Some paint only half the face with calaveras, to demonstrate the continual duality of life and death.

I’m challenging myself to write a little every day, or a lot if the Spirit moves me, and to remember all the brilliance that precedes this month and using it to light my way through to the hope of heaven and rebirth.  I invite you to rethink November as well, to try to redefine Novemberish in your own way.  What will you do to push back the grayness that threatens overhead? What can you build in this month that rewrites Novemberish into the 9th month again?

Today I am thankful for a sunshine-filled All Saints’ Day, for a faith that does not shy away from honoring our dead, and for writers that inspire me to keep reaching for heaven.