A Soccer Mom’s Ode to Baseball & Dia de Los Muertos


I planned a post today about All Soul’s Day, a day we celebrate the lives of those we’ve loved who have passed away. Living here in the Southwest, Dia de Los Muertos is big, with festive parades and sugar skull decorations everywhere. Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Day, is a Mexican holiday celebrated on November 1st and 2nd, honoring the deceased with food, ofrendas, and calavera make-up.  

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It also happens to coincide tonight with Game 7 of the World Series, a tied series between the Cleveland Indians, and the underdog favorites, the Chicago Cubs.  Being from Detroit, my team is the Tigers, but I’m a sucker for the underdog, so I’ve been rooting for the Cubs. But tonight of all nights, we had no TV reception.  Though we live in the Southwest, we live in high desert, which means that November has brought cooler temperatures, and the winds were whipping over the mountain, shaking our tiny little antenna beyond its capacity. Like my dad always taught me though, “This is history!” We had to witness this, and so I dragged my husband out to the local pub to watch the game, despite a long day after soccer practice for our little guy.

As I’ve posted before, I’m not an athlete.We don’t watch a lot of sports except when my kids are playing or the Olympics are on.  My son has been playing soccer for 7 years, and I still don’t get what off sides (not even sure this is one word or two) means when the ref calls it.  But I grew up watching baseball, and the 1984 World Series Champions were my Tigers.  I can still remember the faces of the players from Sweet Lou Whitaker to Gibby, and my personal favorites, Alan Trammell and for some reason Darrell Evans. Hot Sunday afternoons we sprawled out in front of the TV, fan rotating over all of us ineffectually, or my aunt would pull the antenna up on her stereo to catch the broadcast on WJR by Ernie Harwell.

Image result for 1984 world series roster

Tonight, I wanted a little of that baseball magic back.  Watching those games made time stand still, and the game tonight did not disappoint.  I don’t know these faces like I knew my Tigers, but I recognized the same intensity in them.  That drive to win, to play at the top of your game, the agony of a strike when the count is down 3 balls, 2 strikes, and it’s the bottom of the inning, it’s still there.  We sat in the pub with complete strangers, our eyes rooted to each swing of the bat, each bounce of the ball across a rainy field, and all of our cheers and groans somehow united us.  One couple, Marshall and Jennifer, happened to be from Illinois, with long generations of die-hard Cubs fans who never had seen the Cubs get this far in the World Series.  Marshall’s grandfather died two years ago at age 88, having never had his lifelong wish to see the Cubs win the World Series fulfilled.  His wife Jennifer rubbed the back of his Cubs shirt as the score tied at 6-6, and we headed into a 10th inning with a rain delay.

I looked around the pub, at the bartenders who were kind enough to stay open past closing time, at the customers wandering in and out to stand, arms folded in front of the television, at the waitstaff expertly whisking away glasses and plates, and thought of all the other baseball fans across the world, sitting like we were, on the edge of our seats, praying and watching, jumping up with every hit, cheering every catch, holding our breaths collectively.  This, then, is what draws people to sports, though we are not all athletes.  This drama, this heightened awareness of each passing second, it makes us feel alive, makes us feel as connected as if we are all related to the players, like me on the sidelines cheering for my little guy kicking that soccer ball towards the goal.

And when the Cubs did win it, hard-fought as we watched with fingers clenched, palms sweating, Marshall raised a glass in honor of his grandfather, as fans all across the world did, for those who have passed, and didn’t get to be here celebrating with us.  We honor our dead by remembering them, by cherishing their memories, by our longing to share moments such as this with them. After the game, we lingered in the pub, savoring the atmosphere charged with the joyous aftermath of victory, then walked out into the darkness, a blessing of rain echoing that on the baseball field, a strangely fitting end to Dia de los Muertos.

Image result for 1984 world series roster

 

Oenomel


Today I awoke to a symphony of birds outside my window. I’d fallen asleep with the door to my balcony open as it had been uncomfortably warm when I finally got home from the sloping streets of Santa Fe, and though I’d hoped to sleep in, I highly recommend this over the blaring siren call of an alarm clock. Yesterday felt like spring, a day for wearing shorts and strolling to nowhere particular. If you are anything like me, you’re saying, “I can’t believe it’s May already!” My good friends with green thumbs were bemoaning the hail, sleet, snow and rain we got on May 1: “But it’s May Day!” which led me to think of the real meaning of the phrase Mayday. A derivation of the French “Aidez-moi!” which means “help me!”, this international sign of distress was born in 1927, based on an Italian guy’s take on M’aider. This is improper French (take it from someone with entirely too little French retained in my head for the number of French classes in high school and college I’ve taken). To distinguish it from a casual mention in radio chatter of May Day (for which there are any number of celebrations, pagan and Christian) it must be repeated 3 times to be considered a valid distress call. This brings to mind scenes from all kinds of stories in which an incantation or phrase must be said 3 times in order for magic to occur.

Because I love words so much, I have daily deliverings of words of the day and daily prompts regarding words, most of which I read and tuck away in some obscure fold in my brain, but sometimes the confluence of the words makes it feel like there is some greater theme or scheme not obvious to the oblivious like me that demands to be written about. Today’s word of the day is oenomel, which means “something combining strength and sweetness.” The daily prompt when I began writing this post was the word Hope. In my strangely wired brain, a cry of mayday is a signal of hope.  It means we believe that our cry for deliverance from that which threatens us will be answered.  To ask for help is to believe in some small way that someone or something will save us.  Said 3 times, it is an incantation of hope, a belief in a stronger power to come to our aid in times of distress.  And, today, of all days, a day to celebrate mothers and motherhood seemed an appropriate day to celebrate hope.  If you have been blessed as I have been with a mother who has always been able to offer hope and strength in equal measure during times most dire and full of confusion, or with other strong women who stood in a mother’s stead to be present for you, count yourself among those who have always known hope, always known that any maydays would not need to be said 3 times, as the magic of the cry for mother needs only be said once.

Today I wish for you a day filled with birdsong and brightness, a day made for strolling with those you love, and a life in which you can be for others, an oenomel. I am thankful for my mother and all the strong women I’ve been surrounded by. I pray to honor their example.  Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers by every definition of the word, everywhere, from your local dragon mama!

 

 

 

 

 

Swallow It


As I sit here with an ice pack and foot propped up, it occurs to me that the old adage that doctors make the worst patients should be amended to include all medical providers.  In my work, on a daily basis I dispense medical advice that I frequently ignore.  Not because I think I’m ten foot tall and bullet-proof, but because I’m busy running around taking care of other things before I realize that I haven’t had a single thing to drink all day (hence the three kidney stones), or busy running around and not watching where I’m going (hence the three sprained ankles in three years).  Is it any wonder my mother is always admonishing me to slow down?

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I am a firm believer in the mind-body connection.  Since I started practicing medicine, I’ve seen what stress can do to our bodies.  Like most women I know, I carry all of my stress in my neck and shoulders, the non-ergonomic office chair and computer set-up, of course, contributing to the problems.  My husband, on the other hand, feels his stress in his stomach, having difficulty eating when he feels stressed out (I wish I had that problem!).  The brain is the most powerful organ in our body with its ability to effect changes which may seem magical to those not confronted with these cases every day.

Though both branches of my family have survived wars and strife, my recognition of PTSD has grown by leaps and bounds through my work with veterans.  Time after time, I am struck by the stories my patients tell of how ill-equipped they were psychologically to deal with what they saw and did.  Many veterans came back from Vietnam or Korea, and stated that they had no problems with “shell-shock” like other veterans they knew, raising families and working steadily at jobs that built this country, until they retired.  Then suddenly, they find themselves experiencing palpitations and sweaty hands in crowds, nightmares/vivid dreams of people and places they have not thought of for years.  They come in genuinely confused, some of them undergoing cardiac testing for these symptoms which make no sense to them.  After years of looking forward and striving for the next thing, retirement affords them space and time to look backwards, and they find their past is catching up with them.

One veteran told me that shortly after he arrived in Vietnam, he spoke to his supervising officer about his doubts that he could deal with all of the death he was seeing.  This was a man whom he respected, a grizzled veteran of many military maneuvers, and so he took the man’s advice to heart.  “Swallow it,” the young soldier was told.  “If you don’t, it will eat you alive, so swallow it, because we don’t have time for it now, and your job is to stay alive.  Just stay alive.”  I am not a psychologist or expert on PTSD, but I found it interesting that the veteran’s main complaint was debilitating stomach pain with extensive gastrointestinal testing over many years which has been negative.

I’ve had other patients come in with complaints of dizziness.  In medicine, a complaint of dizziness needs to be further clarified in order to narrow the differential diagnosis.  My question to patients with dizziness or lightheadedness is usually asking them if they have a sensation of feeling woozy like they are about to pass out, a spinning sensation either of the world spinning or of themselves spinning, or a feeling of being off-balance.  I’ve learned that besides trying to figure out all of the medical reasons for a patient’s symptoms, it is important to ask questions about how the rest of their life is going as this will have an effect on their symptoms.  It never surprises me that the patients who will share that they are feeling lost or confused, will also describe their dizziness as a feeling of being off-balance, often times associated with blurry vision or tunnel vision.  Is it any wonder that those who most feel out of control emotionally have symptoms that mimic having lost sight of where they are going or where the ground is? Some have literally used the words, “I don’t know which way is up.”

The words that people use when describing their symptoms and telling their stories can be revealing.  Perhaps because I love words so much, I think they are important and I try to pay attention to how people describe their pain.  In our training as PAs, we are asked to be very specific in how we document pain.  Some patients will laugh a little at my question, ‘Would you describe the pain as sharp, stabbing, squeezing, pressure, aching, burning or something else?’ but it helps people to find the word that best describes their pain.  As medical providers, we have a lot of experience dealing with pain, and though I cannot truly “feel” their pain, I always feel that if I can help them name it, it will have less power over them.

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One method frequently used to help patients categorize their sensation of pain.

As medical providers, sometimes we can be so focused on the disorder, we forget that mind-body connection.  No matter how many times we read the study about how pretending to smile actually improves a person’s mood, we point the arrow from body to mind, and forgot the power the mind has over the body.  One of my most memorable patients during my psych rotation was a woman who had been diagnosed with somatization disorder (which in the DSM-5 has now been replaced with the broader category of somatic symptom disorder in order to “remove the mind-body separation that is implied in DSM-IV”). She reported paralysis and loss of feeling from the waist down, though all testing and imaging was normal, and there was no report or sign of injury or external trauma. She had been there for weeks undergoing test after test before she was moved to the psychiatric ward. Other patients have reported blindness, others deafness. She would speak cheerfully of everything but the broken engagement that had occurred just prior to her hospitalization, that event a black hole into which all memory had vanished. Was it chance that this woman had lost half of her body, her better half perhaps? Or that she was numb, and paralyzed to the point that she could not move forward or backward?

At the time, though, I was in my first rotation in my second year of PA school. My job was only to learn everything I could about somatization disorder which was thought to be very rare in order to prepare a presentation for the rest of those in our consult service, round on this patient every morning, as well as attending to any new consults that came in that day. My job wasn’t to diagnose this woman with heartbreak, though I thought most likely it was true.

As a PA working in cardiology many years later, I would learn about Takotsubo cardiomyopathy aka stress cardiomyopathy or broken heart syndrome, in which the heart muscle function is dramatically affected in approximately 85% of cases by an emotionally or physically stressful event. Patients normally arrive at the hospital with symptoms mimicking a heart attack, including chest pain and difficulty breathing. Actual visualization of the coronary arteries usually reveals no evidence of significant atherosclerotic plaque to explain the dramatic change in the heart’s ability to pump efficiently or the change in the actual shape of the heart muscle itself.  In most instances, the heart muscle function returns to normal by the time of the patient’s discharge (usually within a week).

Figure 2.

Called Takotsubo after a Japanese ceramic pot used to trap octupi, this is a dramatic change in the normal shape of the heart (Credit: Circulation 2011; 124)

The more we learn though, the greater distance we put between ourselves and our patients.  We think we learn enough to make a difference, gaining the tools and knowledge to ease suffering and effect cures.  We gather information, nod sympathetically, lay hands on our patients, and dispense knowledge and prescriptions with impunity, doing our best with what we know. Our patients get better, mostly, but sometimes they do not, and we blame ourselves. We want that distance because we want to believe that we can help our patients. We want to believe we do know enough to make a difference. We forget though, we are ourselves human as well. It is a bitter pill to swallow–“Cure thyself!” we are told and tell ourselves, though we no more listen to our own advice than our patients might. We stumble, and curse the ground, and forget that perhaps,  our mind wants us to listen, and slow down. We learn again, what bruising, pain, and heartbreak can do, and in doing so, close the gap between us all again.

 

 

International Day for Tolerance


Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the International Day for Tolerance established by the United Nations. The concept of tolerance is a curious one. If you say you tolerate something, it implies you are not enthusiastic in your support of it. So why would the United Nations pick the word “tolerance”? Why not acceptance or love or some other equally touchy-feely word? Could it be because they are realists, and don’t really believe in a goal in which all people in all nations could someday love or even accept one another? History, and even more specifically recent history, would support this more cynical viewpoint, especially as the backlash from the events in Paris, Beiruit, Iraq, and Syria have led to calls from governors in the United States to close their doors to Syrian refugees.

If you look at the word tolerance in its broader form, however, nuances emerge that perhaps could shed light on the choice of the the word.  In mechanical terms, it could be described in regards to the strength/ability of an object to carry a certain weight, or an object made to fit within certain proscribed standards and specifications. Increased accuracy of measurement and quality of instruments leads to improved tolerance.  A carpenter would choose a finely tuned saw with a razor-sharp edge to saw a piece of lumber into 2 pieces that would have the finest tolerance, meaning barely any difference between the two edges when placed next to one another.  The ability to “meet up” these two pieces which would allow for the best match would be one in which the raw edges have been honed to the point that the pieces can mesh into 1 stronger object.

Words have power, as we all know from playground taunts to criticisms from loved ones.  That power comes from the ability to evoke strong emotions.  Take the two words “refugee” and “migrant”.  Refugee has connotations of seeking sanctuary from harm, while migrants evokes movement for gain.  When we look at others, meaning those we consider different from ourselves, the words we use to describe them allows us to either shorten the distance between us and them, or bring them closer.  My family and I were refugees from Vietnam and stayed in refugee camps in the Philippines and Guam awaiting acceptance into this country, then became citizens through the naturalization process. Looking back at media reports regarding Vietnamese refugees who fled the war in Vietnam, the word migrant is not used.  So why the difference?  What is the difference between one group of people fleeing violence, bloodshed, terror and persecution and another?  Even the word refugee, however, implies that they are in need, and in fact, they are. But the fact also exists that some of the greatest contributors to this country have been at one time or another refugees.

This video highlights a few of these individuals including Albert Einstein:

http://www.attn.com/stories/3122/famous-refugees?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=viralvideoposttext&utm_campaign=videos

Yes, but, what about all the refugees who have performed acts of terrorism, the governors would argue?  How do we protect our citizens from carrying out their hidden agendas? Let’s take a look at some of these terrifying refugees, and postulate how much damage they can do to our country. Perhaps by studying them closely, we can figure out what their hidden agenda is. (all images attributed to Swedish photographer and twice-winner of the World Press Photo awards Magnus Wennman, from his photo project Where the Children Sleep).

http://www.buzzfeed.com/lynzybilling/where-syrian-children-sleep#.rhJ3ZV3jG

What happened to this that adorns a symbol of our nation’s compassion?

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

If we look at the situation in regards to the Syrian refugees, using this broader concept of tolerance, it begins to make more sense.  We need the ability to carry the weight of knowledge in order to have an increased tolerance. The increased accuracy of measurement comes with our ability to look closely at the facts as they stand without the clouding that comes from fear, suspicion or anger, measuring them against the standards of truth.  The quality of our instruments, the minds and hearts by which make these measured decisions, should also be held to the highest standards and ideals upon which this country was founded.  We must polish our rough edges, to the point we can see that there is barely any difference between our two sides. We are human beings on both sides, and if we can increase our tolerance, we can again become the nation that our forefathers envisioned, one in which “the hungry, the poor, and the oppressed” can find sanctuary.

There is no easy solution to this.  We are a nation that already has hungry, poor and oppressed within our own borders. I want to feel safe in my own country from terrorist attacks. I’m not advocating for throwing open the doors to potential security threats. I don’t pretend to have answers for the multitude of problems that our world faces.  I don’t consider myself a political person, and certainly not one seeking controversy or conflict.  But when we as a people can look at small children in need, paint them with the broad brush of fear, and turn away from them, we are not living the ideals of tolerance.  Perhaps I am wrong to seek these ideals, but I know no other way of achieving tolerance than to view one another as human beings, remembering that we were all children once. As a mother, I cannot see pictures of suffering children without thinking of my own, and my heart breaks for these helpless innocents.

Today I am grateful to live in a country that I still believe is the greatest country in the world, with all its flaws and complexities inherent to a nation that was based on free will and independent thought.  I am thankful I have the freedom to debate, and to question our leadership, and that I was allowed to become a citizen of this great nation. I owe all that I have and am to becoming an American citizen, and hope that I am doing my part every day to be worthy of these blessings.

More history on the Internationl Day for Tolerance: http://www.un.org/en/events/toleranceday/

Imagine


I grew up in a town where being an artist was not valued in the same way as other more practical jobs. No one in that small town in which I grew up in ever introduced him or herself as an artist.  But in the days following terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, Syria, Russian jets being shot down over the Sinai peninsula, and countless other senseless killings, artists are the ones who are showing others the way through the tragedy and heartbreak.

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Through artwork, poetry, photography, and music, artists are showing the world how to mourn, drawing all of us together in community, and demonstrating solidarity in support of peace without the boundaries of language or religion or politics.  Art can cut through all the rhetoric of spin, fanaticism, and shouting, to show us the humanity that links us, and by doing so, reminds us again of what makes us more than the base creatures who perpetrated all of these crimes, which are crimes against not one people, not one country, but against all of humanity.

This musician is a perfect example of an artist who felt so moved to share in a perfect setting a song that draws us all together to mourn and to imagine a better world. If we can imagine it, we can make it a reality, and for this reason, I am proud to call myself an artist, too.

ImagineTellitSlantMama

World Kindness Day vs. Friday the 13th


Today is World Kindness Day. The irony of this in conjunction with the attacks in Paris is heartbreaking. My heart is with all those suffering in France today.  All over the world, monuments and buildings are lit in the colors of the French flag, a symbol of solidarity.  We are all French today.

Amidst the chaos and the tragedy of these horrific acts of terrorism, it is easy to fall into despair at the state of the world.  It is easy to fall back on superstition, to say that nothing good can come on Friday the 13th. To do so though absolves some of the responsibility from the shoulders of those who planned and carried out these attacks. Perhaps they chose today to carry out their nefarious plans because of the negativity associated with Friday the 13th, but the blame is on these evil men, and has nothing to do with the date.

In the midst of the shooting and bombings, there are reports of those going above and beyond the call of duty. Again, saying that the Parisian men and women who are opening their doors for those evacuated from the attack sites using #portesouvertes, or “open doors,” or the medical personnel coming in without being called, and working late into the night beyond their shift, are doing so secondary to World Kindness Day is to take away from the actions of these good people, whose kindness is intrinsic to their nature, and not the result of any specific international event.

Every day, we can choose to do good in a world where negativity and tragedy are highlighted and featured.  Let us continue to be the beacon of light for others, to stand for those who cannot, and to open doors that others would have barricaded forever.

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In Memoriam


We hold memorials, not only to remember those we love, but also to share with others the stories of our loved ones –the tiny, idiosyncratic details which made them a unique part of our lives, the timeline of events which in their entirety sets a life apart, and the multiplicity of ways in which their lives touched ours. In this telling, we can shed light on this one beloved of our own, whose dying has left us bereft, but whose living cast our souls that much closer to heaven. I shared this memoriam when my grandmother passed away on 11/12/2006.

I’ve told the story of her passing, the privilege of being the last to hear her heart beat. This, then, is the story of her life, as told through the eyes of those who loved her.  She was born to well-to-do parents in North Vietnam in the Year of the Snake.  As was the custom of that time, she finished school at an early age. She married my grandfather at 15. She bore her first child at age 17. She had 11 children in total, though only 7 lived to adulthood.  She and my grandfather were very religious, and were respected elders of the church in her village. She fled from the Communists to South Vietnam in 1954. She became a widow in January 1970. She fled the Communists again in 1975 to come to America. She lived in Woodhaven, Michigan for the next 31 years, raising children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

That story though, leaves out the details which reveal who she really was.  The well-to-do family into which she was born was a farm with no running water, electricity, or indoor plumbing.  She walked to mass daily, carrying her shoes and washing her feet before entering the church.  She married my grandfather, not because he was a wealthy man, but because he was known in her village to be a good man.  Though he had been orphaned, he knew his letters, and was well-respected as an honorable man who had made his own way in the world.  Two years after she married him, at age 17, she gave birth to a son, then buried him shortly thereafter.  She called each of the children who did not survive to adulthood her angels.  Though she had borne 11 children of her own, she took in two sons of a widowed cousin.  She bore all of her children but one daughter at home, often getting up the next day to work. She survived for months at a time, alone, while my grandfather sought work in South Vietnam. When she and her family fled North Vietnam, they left only with the clothing they wore, but my grandfather was able to rescue all of the holy articles from the church, to bring to the South.

Just before Saigon fell in 1975, at age 60, she made her way from her village with her two youngest daughters, first to Vung Tau to get to international waters, where she was turned away because she was a woman, and then through road barricades to Saigon, where her second daughter refused to leave Vietnam without her mother and sisters. She survived refugee camps in Guam and the Philippines before arriving in the city in which her eldest daughter had made her home. She never went back to Vietnam.  She never saw her oldest living son again, as he preceded her in death.

Though she never learned to speak more than a few words of English, she was much more Americanized than some other Vietnamese Americans who arrived at the same time who wouldn’t touch hamburgers or French fries, some of her favorite foods, and one of the few English words she could say. She loved to sing, and taught me all of my prayers.  She loved to fly on airplanes, and preferred the window seat.  She traveled to Vietnamese Catholic pilgrimages in Missouri, vacationed in Tennessee, Mackinac Island, Colorado and California.  She couldn’t wait to go to church every Sunday, and never missed mass until she became ill. She prayed constantly, rosary beads always at hand.  She loved babies, massaging their chubby legs, and kissing them in the Vietnamese tradition by inhaling that unique baby scent.  She loved her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren fiercely, and expected them all to abide by the Christian principles with which she had raised them. She died peacefully in the company of loved ones, having just received Communion.

Who is to say what one person’s passing through this world can mean?  For my grandmother, testament to her life is borne out in those of her own blood standing among you and far away in Vietnam. It is up to us, the living, to bear witness through our actions, to her courage, her love, her wisdom and her faithfulness.

Today I am grateful for the opportunity to have lived with my grandmother until I got married and moved out of the house. I am thankful that she lived long enough to have squeezed and kissed each of my children, and that I’ll always have the example of her loving kindness to guide me.

Taken outside our apartment building in Michigan

                 Taken outside our apartment building in Michigan

Go!


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Before I knew how to spell my own name, I had left the place that will always be called Saigon in my heart, staying in the Philippines, Guam, and then landing all the way across the world in the United States. Sometimes, I wonder if it is this that has given me such “itchy feet” or if the penchant for travel came from my parents. Luckily for me, my father’s “itchy feet” brought him to Vietnam when the call went out for an assistant fire chief, or I might never have been born.

As the situation in Vietnam worsened, my parents even considered moving to Saudi Arabia with some of my dad’s Korean colleagues. Once we got to the US, my parents put down roots, and have never moved from the same house they bought in 1977. Partly, this was because my grandfather moved all over Korea to find work, and thus my father had to move from school to school growing up, and so he vowed that his children would all get the chance to grow up in one school district. The other reason is that we settled in Michigan to be close to my mother’s sister, and the rest of our family eventually all did the same.

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For someone who had always lived in the same town, surrounded by family, this had the opposite effect on me than on my father. I longed to see the rest of the world, always wondering what it would be like to live somewhere else, where no one knew me. I got a little experience with this in 7th grade, when my parents decided to switch my little brother and I to a Catholic school close to my parents’ business. For the first time, I didn’t know anyone, and had to figure out a whole new school system, as the newcomer into a school where most kids had already known one another for eight years. That kind of experience in middle school, when you are still trying to figure out who you are and your place in the world was invaluable for the introspection it gave me. Then, I had my first true taste of travel in my sophomore year of high school. My social studies teacher was very interested in exposing students to other cultures, and nearly every year, took a group of students to a foreign country. We raised money selling all manner of things no one would likely buy on their own, and went to Russia by way of Kharkov, and Berlin. It was the trip of a lifetime for a kid who couldn’t remember being any farther from home than Grand Rapids, Michigan 3 hours away. And I got to go with my best friend, who had luckily been smart enough to pack all manner of goodies in her suitcase, including toilet paper and Lysol spray.

Lysol to the rescue!

Lysol to the rescue!

The amazing part to me was that my parents were completely supportive of the trip.  At the time, I didn’t have the perspective I have now. All I knew then, was that I wasn’t even allowed to spend the night at my best friend’s house 3 minutes from my own or walk to the store on the other side of the busy street down the road from my house without a week-long preparation of begging, cajoling, and promises to do all my chores first, and even then, knew they might change their minds at the last minute.  And now, they were letting me leave the country?!

I know now that it was about allowing me to go on a school-sanctioned trip in an opportunity that they would never get to give me, and they wanted me to experience what they lived every day which was being in a culture that was not your own 24 hours a day for 10 days.  I’m so thankful that they let me go. There were so many firsts on that trip for me, which to others, now including my own children, might not seem like that big of a deal, but to me were. My first (remembered) airplane ride and the view of the world from an airplane with my best friend by my side made me realize that traveling the world was not only possible, but also could be a whole lot of fun.  We had friends who went with us who were homesick or wouldn’t eat the food or complained about the toilet paper, which did get worse and worse as we got farther away from the US (think the consistency of the light brown paper with pink and blue lines used in kindergarten to practice handwriting). I was never homesick and ate everything they gave us and didn’t complain about anything because I couldn’t believe I was allowed to be away from home. So I learned another valuable lesson, about being positive and open-minded with new experiences, lessons which have served me well ever since.  Since then, I’ve been blessed to travel to many more places for work and for pleasure than I ever dreamed I could, but not much tops that first trip in which we saw Red Square and the Berlin Wall.

The fall of the Berlin Wall. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex Features

The fall of the Berlin Wall. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex Features

The Berlin Wall has long since been torn down, but my oldest daughter has spoken of wanting some day to move to Germany. When she was little, we tried to take her everywhere we went, and she traveled often with my parents including twice to Disney World. I hope I have instilled in her the same lessons I learned with my travel adventures. What I found most true though is that it is easy to travel when you know you have a home to return to, where the people you love can’t wait to welcome you back with open arms.  I hope I’ve raised my children to have the confidence to leave home and the courage to know that no matter how vast the oceans they explore, we will always be waiting for them on the shore.

“No man is brave that has never walked a hundred miles. If you want to know the truth of who you are, walk until not a person knows your name. Travel is the great leveler, the great teacher, bitter as medicine, crueler than mirror-glass. A long stretch of road will teach you more about yourself than a hundred years of quiet.”
Patrick Rothfuss, The Wise Man’s Fear 

5 things I Learned from Being the Mother of a “Late Bloomer”


The Bronze Award, to be placed on her Girl Scout vest.

The Bronze Award, to be placed on her Girl Scout vest.

Today, we attended a Girl Scout awards ceremony in which my middle daughter and her troop were awarded the Bronze Award, the highest honor a Junior Girl Scout can achieve. They joined other girls across the state receiving awards for community service projects ranging from collecting art supplies for the local children’s hospital to painting playground equipment to working with homeless shelters for Birthday Boxes.  Now that they’ve moved on to become Cadette Girl Scouts, they’ll be working towards the Silver Award, and then before they leave high school, the Gold Award, akin to the Eagle Scout achievement. I love Girl Scouts as it allows girls to progress at their own rate, make differences in their communities using their unique skills and ambitions, and encourages girls to accept others no matter how different they may be from “the norm.”

My middle daughter is a “late bloomer”, and definitely not “the norm.”  I can say this with certainty, looking at all the other little girls on the playground in their sassy pre-teeny bopper outfits. At 11 years old, she’s in middle school, a time that most of us look back at and shudder. Fifth grade was a rough one for both of us, but within a few weeks of the start of summer vacation away from the bullies, the happy-go-lucky girl she normally is resurfaced, and now she’s at a new school for artistically-minded children and loves it.  Academically, she is leaps and bounds ahead of all her classmates, but “less mature, in a good way” than her classmates according to her 5th grade teacher, who got that my daughter doesn’t fit any mold, and thankfully accepted her for who she is. I don’t mean late bloomer in the physical sense, though the orthodontist wants to wait for her to “grow into her teeth” and she is thinner than my mother would like.

“Are you feeding her?” she asks me, forgetting that at her age, I was also all awkward skin and bones, and in desperate need of braces.  Though she reminds me so much of myself at this age, in some ways we are very different. As a kid, I wanted so much to fit the mold. As an immigrant child with a very practical mother, I grew up wishing I didn’t have to have a bowl cut hair cut, noticing all the things others had that I did not.  I made my own path and style, mainly because I had to embrace what I had (translation:  I wore what my mom bought for me), but a little part of me always wished to have perfectly straight, well-behaved hair, Jordache jeans (yes, I know this dates me), and socks that matched my outfits.

The infamous Jordache logo

The infamous Jordache logo

My daughter has tons of cute outfits, socks in a rainbow of colors and a box full of hair bands and accoutrements, and leaves the house some mornings looking like a homeless child (as my husband laughingly says). He doesn’t get what I know to be true, that other mothers see her and judge me for letting her leave the house like that, that other kids judge her for not wearing the latest fashions, though she does not care one bit. I know I should not care, but I do–that others will see her and judge both her and I by the clothes that she wears, because that is the kind of world we live in, and I want to smooth the road ahead of her so growing up will be a little easier for my spirited little one. She has always been one to follow her own path, not caring and not understanding why others care so much about what she thinks or how she acts. She really just wants to be left alone to draw and write stories, though that doesn’t mean she will sit still and be quiet if she sees someone younger or more helpless being picked on. These are the things she knows to be true, though the bullies at her old school haven’t learned these lessons yet, and I am working on learning them, too.

Random doodling that she was going to throw in the trash

Random doodling that she was going to throw in the trash

1.What someone wears on the outside is much less important than how they look on the inside.  She asked me once if there is a rule in our house that clothing has to match.  The less fuss devoted to hair styling and brushing means more time to draw or write stories for her.  She stopped wearing skirts and dresses except for church, because she discovered it gets in the way of running around on the playground. She notes that some of the best-dressed girls at her old school are those who tormented her the most. Point taken.

2. A person’s physical age is much less important than his or her mental age.  She plays equally well with older and younger children and converses easily with adults, so long as they are willing to be kind and imaginative.  Some of her closest friends are younger than her, and partly this is because they are much better at seeing her for who she is on the inside, and she does not really care, though others laugh at her for playing with “babies.” It is also because she never talks down to those younger than her, never thinking herself better than them just because she’s older.

3. Boys and girls can be friends, as long as they like the same things and are nice to each other.  Some of her best friends are boys.  They like to climb trees, play in the treehouse/fort, tell each other stories, and laugh over funny animal videos. They don’t overcomplicate friendship by asking “Are you my friend friend or my best friend?” They just hang out and have a good time chasing the dog around or having Nerf gun wars.   She told me that the kids in her class with boyfriends and girlfriends are “precocious.” Wanting to make sure that she was using the word in the correct context, I asked her to explain what she meant by that.  “They all think it’s weird that Dylan and I are just friends, but I think they are doing and thinking about things that are waaay too advanced for their age, so that’s why I called them precocious.” Thank God for that!

4. Labels are for packages, not people.  In a world where marketing and spin is more important than content, packaging counts.  Packaging makes it easier for us as people to categorize, label, and move on. In medicine, we have the same tendencies, to label people with diagnoses, and then forget they are not a diagnosis, but people with a story. My little girl has been given many labels in her life, some of them by kids and adults who couldn’t look past the outside to the beautiful old soul within.  My little girl does not think like other people, so no surprise, she does not talk or act like others either, which instantly gets people’s attention.  She can talk for hours (and does) about her favorite fan fiction art, and laughs at her own inside jokes. The less polite ones want to know if there is something wrong with her, some label that can make them feel better, so they can shove her in a category, and get comfortable again with their preconceptions about gifted kids. Sometimes, I wonder if I have done her a disservice, by not teaching her how to camouflage herself except to those who understand the difference between a label and a person. And then I think, maybe the world just needs to learn how to accept her.  That doesn’t mean I think she’s the perfect kid or that we’re not continually working on manners and acceptable versus unacceptable behavior, because in the end, my job is to challenge her to get out of her comfort zone so she can become the best person that she can be.

5. It’s OK not to want to grow up.  As the oldest in my family, I always wanted to hang out with the adults and figure out what they were doing and saying as I found it so fascinating. I wanted to be an adult way before my time, something my parents encouraged–I learned to cook, clean and be responsible for my siblings and grandmother from an early age.  I thought that being adult-like would give me more control and more privileges, and traded believing in magic, Santa Claus, and fairy dust for worry, responsibility, and the lure of knowledge.  That doesn’t mean that I’m not raising her to be responsible, to work hard or to seek knowledge, but my little girl (at least for a little while longer) is very happy being a little girl. She still believes in unicorns, still believes that good will always win in the end, and that being a kid is way more fun than being a grown-up. I think she may be right, but, I’m not telling her that.

How to Fall in Love


Having gotten over my glow from dreaming about wearing a blue NASA jumpsuit to Mars after the announcement that NASA will be taking applications for the next astronaut training cycle, I came to a funny realization yesterday. Sometimes the things that seem closest to your heart and obvious, are not so obvious to those you know and love. My husband, whom I’ve known for over 20 years, whose been with me through deaths and births, friendships and heartaches, the demise of numerous TV shows, moves to 3 different homes and across the country, had no idea that I really, truly was serious about wanting to become an astronaut. He had absolutely no idea that it had been a lifelong dream. It’s got to make you wonder, just a tiny bit, how well people know one another.

This made me think of the New York Times article this year called “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This” that spawned a whole series of columns and articles, and even it’s own downloadable app about 36 questions based on a study that “explored whether intimacy between two strangers can be accelerated by having them ask each other a specific series of personal questions.” The series of questions were designed to become more “probing” than the next one, and ends with an exercise in which the two people are supposed to stare into one another’s eyes for 4 minutes.

Because I’m a glutton for punishment, I thought this would be a fun thing to do. This article came out in January, and we’ve never even answered one of these questions, as setting aside 2 hours and 4 min (which is apparently how long the writer of the article took to complete this experiment), is virtually impossible to do with 2 full-time and 2 part-time jobs (at least until July) between the two of us, children in soccer, karate, Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, swimming, catechism, piano, and managing to keep our house from being put on the Environmental Hazards List, while setting personal records for achieving the Guinness record for tallest piles of laundry.  If we tried to stare into each other’s eyes for 4 minutes straight 1 of 2 things would likely happen: I would dissolve in a fit of giggles and highly unbecoming snorts of hilarity for no reason, or he would fall asleep.

I wondered again if we’d managed to complete this, if this would have revealed what seemed to me to be an well-known fact about myself, given my love for science/science fiction, love of travel, and desire to see/experience everything possible.  After perusing the question list, I saw 2 questions which could potentially have revealed this:

“14. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?  . . .

27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.”

Thinking further though, I’m pretty sure astronaut would NOT have come up.  In fact, as I read through the list, I know I would have answered a lot of these questions differently now than I would have when we were dating. And, maybe will answer them differently in another 10 years. So the question to ask is, do we truly every know anyone? Is it possible to know everything there is to know about someone ever, no matter how close we are?

I think the answer is no.  And I think that that’s OK.  One of the most illuminating quotes I read as a kid basically stated that in all lives but our own, we are but minor players.   No matter how much we think we know someone, they are the only ones who know everything about themselves, although for the less introspective among us, perhaps even this is not true.

Regardless, as entertaining as it may be to sit down and answer these questions, the premise that this might make you fall in love with someone is a trope that might be interesting in a movie or as the basis for a newspaper article, but the reality of falling in love with someone has less to do with knowing the answers to 36 questions, and more to do with how well we know ourselves. And the important question is not how to fall in love, but how to stay in love and how to continue to love despite the changes wrought by time and circumstance.

And so I’m not upset or surprised that he didn’t know this about me. Instead, I realized that it is more important that he cares to find out more, that he keeps asking and learning more than a mere 36 questions would ever tell him, and that even after all these years, we still have secrets and surprises to discover.  The authors of the study understood this, beyond the way the results have been hyped:  “One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure.”

Link to the article with the 36 questions:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/fashion/no-37-big-wedding-or-small.html?_r=0