Adventures at 101 Independence Ave SE


In honor of National Book Lovers Day, I thought I’d share with you the most nerdly adventure a book lover like me could have–a day spent at the largest library in the world, which is located in our own nation’s capital. If you’ve never had the luxury of exploring the Library of Congress, I’ll offer my portrait of a beautiful and wondrous place that could not have existed without one man whose quote all book lovers can identify with:

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In Washington D.C. for the day after a phenomenal conference on genetics and genomics where I was representing PAs, I started off the day getting off the Metro at Union Station, and headed to the U.S. Capitol Building, where I had signed up online the night before for a tour at 8:45 am (the earliest available). It’s free, but you must sign up, as the tours tend to fill up fast.  I’ll share the tour of the US Capitol in another blog post (one of those patriotic, sappy ones, so be forewarned now!), but suffice it to say, I was thrilled to see a sign that pointed to a tunnel between the U.S. Capitol and the Library of Congress.

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This tunnel, besides the cool factor of travelling underground between two very different buildings, had the advantage of bypassing security (though you have to pass back through security when heading back from the Library of Congress into the Capitol), as well as being literally cooler given the muggy D.C. heat even at that time of day.  For the members of Congress to have the Congressional Research Service which directly serves Congress in such close proximity is likely quite useful.

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Besides the sheer beauty of the frescoes and statuary there, the immensity of the Library of Congress and all it encompasses is astonishing.  It is actually 3 large buildings, the Jefferson, Madison, and Adams buildings which are all interconnected (yes, more tunnels!). This is the Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson Building. Hours could be spent in this part of the library alone.

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At any time, numerous exhibits are ongoing at the library including one currently on Gershwin, another on World War I propaganda art, and another on a collection of maps including one of the first of America.  As part of their bible exhibit, which contains 18 from their collection of over 1500 in over 150 languages, I got to see the Gutenberg Bible, pictured here, and the Giant Bible of Mainz. Everyone knows about the Gutenberg Bible and its significance in regards to movable type, but to have it juxtaposed with the Giant Bible of Mainz which was hand lettered, and produced in the same time and place provided a great contrast.  Seeing first-hand the visible guidelines so that those lettering it could write in a straight, neat line, really brought home how time-consuming a process it was. It took the scribe 15 months, ending on my birthday in the year 1453 of all days!

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While exploring all the buildings, I came across the U.S. Copyright Office housed on the fourth floor, which I did not know was a department of the Library of Congress. It contains the world’s largest database of copyrighted works and copyright ownership information. In fiscal year 2015, it registered an astounding 443,812 claims to copyright.  So, there are definitely new things under the sun, though many would claim the opposite to be true.  An office where hearings regarding copyright are conducted is imbued with a modern art twist. By some strange chance, I happened to come when no one was present, and I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland come upon some strange alternate dimension, as its decor was so different from the rest of the library.

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In my travels through the basement, I came across hallways lined with card catalogs.  I thought perhaps they had been abandoned for computer records, however, Carl from Engineering soon disabused me of this notion. Apparently, most resources can be found via computer, but they keep the card catalog because not everything has been put into the computer databases, and he still finds researchers standing with drawers open, writing on pull-out wooden shelves in the basement searching for hidden treasures.

I also came across a giant globe, and one of the engineering workers in hard hat stood studying the topographic map for a long time whilst I took a picture of this giant globe.  It allowed me to give a perspective of just how big it was, and the way he stood there just begged to have the picture taken.

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There’s an even larger one upstairs on the second floor in the Madison building, but I was told it was in an area of mostly offices, and the woman on the elevator could not tell me what its significance was.  In my very active imagination, I thought that perhaps they had to be separated because the force of gravity between the two massive globes would wreak havoc on mortal beings and delicate instruments betwixt them.  Either that or having 2 globes next to each other wouldn’t be structurally sound, but that seems a rather boring answer if you ask me.

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I did my part in rescuing our economy from financial ruin by making sure to visit the gift shop where I had to stop myself from buying a large scarf printed like an old library card, and one of these fun purses made from recycled Reader’s Digests. The children ended up with a keychain globe of precious stones, a parchment set with quill and glass inkwell, and accurate, readable copies of the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Bill of Rights.

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Lest you think the library is only for adults, the Young Reader’s Center is a cozy set of rooms on the ground floor with the requisite puppet theater, low tables for artwork, a television with DVD player in a small viewing room and a cushy sectional with large bean bags for curling up to read books and listening to Story Time. If I lived nearby, I would come here every day with my children.

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Windows everywhere fill the rooms with natural light. There are step stools throughout to reach the upper shelves (so thoughtful, says the short person), with whimsical carved animals like this one.

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All this walking began to make me hungry, and thinking I didn’t want to go back out into the heat, then come back in through TSA-like security, I asked if there was a place to eat nearby.  It turns out in the basement of the Madison building (far away from all the books), there was a Dunkin Donuts, Subway, and a small coffee shop, none of which sounded sufficiently adventuresome to me. On the 6th floor of the building, though, I also learned that there was a large cafeteria, which according to another man with a silver hard hat in the basement, “Is excellent. I mean, really outstanding.” So, of course, I had to make my way up to the Madison Café. Unfortunately, the elevators chose that moment to go out of service, so I earned my lunch by climbing up the stairs to the 6th floor. And the man in the hard hat was right. The variety of choices was a vision especially with my stomach growling loudly enough to be embarrassing.  It included a buffet with offerings included deep-fried oysters, stuffed cabbage, a salad bar, 3 different types of soups, numerous desserts including bread pudding, as well as a grill for made-to-order burgers and sandwiches, a sushi bar, an Asian section with phở, udon noodle soup,  a bibimbap bar, and a breakfast food area.  I chose a beef bibimbap with japchae and cucumber kimchi that was surprisingly good for $7.99. The Asian girl serving the food behind the counter ended up with a similar plate behind me in the checkout, so I knew it had to be at least palatable, or at the very least not poisoned. Perhaps it was because I was so famished, but it was, in fact, delicious.

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I couldn’t get over the fact that I was eating delicious Korean food in the Library of Congress while sitting looking out over the city, when a church bell from nearby St. Peter’s Catholic Church began to toll in the tower across the way from the library.  It was definitely surreal.  The glowing cylinders in the air aren’t ghosts of presidents past hanging about, just the reflection of the pretty light fixtures in the cafeteria which was decorated also with posters from all over the world, and photographs of children reading.

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Thus refueled, I went next to the Moving Image Research Center, where you can view movies, though you have to request it at least 2 weeks in advance as they store most of the films offsite.  They began collecting motion pictures in 1893.  Films are shown and open to the public in the Mary Pickford Theater which is within the Library of Congress itself. Seating is first come, first serve though. It was there that I learned that anyone over the age of 16 could get a library card.  So being the giant book nerd that I am, I had to get my very own Library of Congress card.  I’ve covered up the picture of me grinning like a fool and part of my signature with my Metro card, which I suppose I’ll save until I come back to D.C.

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The process to get a library card was surprisingly quick, starting with a line-up to speak to a lady who requested my driver’s license, asked me if I had requested a library card online, and since I had not, directed me to a set of computers where I filled out a form, then went to sit in line to get my picture taken.  The whole process with 2 people in front of me in line took at most 10 minutes, and was much more enjoyable than any visit to the DMV.

Upon leaving, I saw a curious sign and heard Barry Manilow and laughter spilling from the adjacent room.

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I peeked inside and saw an incongruous sight–couples waltzing, ranging from young to old, of all different races.  They beckoned me in, saying “Come on in and join us.” So I did.

My only previous exposure to ballroom dancing was a dancing instructor hired for Dana’s 30th birthday party, where I learned that I am awful at following and possibly born with 2 left feet, and resolved at that point to avoid any kind of structured dancing without more instruction.  Well, the more instruction day had apparently arrived, in the form of Dean. I could not tell if he was with the other 2 instructors, one a matter-of-fact early thirty-something Caucasian lady in pants and dancing heeled shoes, and the other a smiling tall African American man in polo shirt and chino, or just really loved ballroom dancing.

Thanks to Dean and his “big step, little, little” and “1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3” I acquitted myself reasonably well with a “Well done!” from the tall African American man who asked if I’d done this before, and learned the twinkle step and the patty cake. The pictures are somewhat blurry because most of our time was spent dancing, as it should be.  I spent about 30 minutes in this slice of alternate reality, most of it smiling like a crazy person, because who goes ballroom dancing in the Library of Congress? Me, I guess.

Oh, and at the Library, there are also a bunch of books. Stacks and stacks of lovely books–in case you thought I only like libraries for all the other cool stuff. I once worked with a PA, and perhaps he was teasing me, given what he knew about me and my love of libraries, who said that he didn’t see the point of libraries, stating that if he wanted a book, he would just go buy one at the book store.  I sputtered, and tried to articulate all that libraries mean to me, a person who could count the number of books in the house while growing up on 1 hand.  My adventures at 101 Independence Ave SE just confirmed what I knew when I was just a little girl with a library card: Libraries are a portal to another world, a place where magic becomes reality if you can only open yourself up to all the possibilities and knowledge the world has to offer. I’m thankful for libraries, and for a country that believes that knowledge is important enough to preserve for everyone in a place of unsurpassing beauty and wonder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Inverse Law of Bathrooms & Nighttime Vomiting


My husband is downstairs watching Band of Brothers, Season 25, Episode 36,000,000 of men shooting and shouting at one another, blankets tossed aside as his fever breaks finally from the flu that snuck up on him this morning.  I don’t find this at all relaxing, the profanity and underlying violence of the voices making me flinch as I check his temperature, but perhaps we are both just punchier than usual from lack of sleep. Last night, in the midst of a dream about penguins finding their way home, the sound of 4 sharp bangs dragged me from visions of Antarctica.

“What was that noise?” I whispered to my husband, immediately awake and frightened.

“What, what? What noise?”

Four more bangs in quick succession followed.

“That noise!” I said urgently, nearly pushing him out of bed.  He stumbled out into the hallway, coming back within a few seconds, as I was putting on my robe.  In the darkness, I am less blind than usual, knowing the layout of my own bedroom, but somehow I missed my middle daughter making her way towards our bathroom. She had been the one banging on her own door to signal the end of her vomiting in her doorway and her need for assistance, as her own bathroom was missing not only the toilet, but a working sink as we are in the midst of removing the 80’s funk which permeates our entire bought-in-a-foreclosure home.

I was not great at physics though I was blessed with great teachers and professors.  Physics is a fun science full of demonstrations, and on tests and homework, I had little difficulty, completing calculations and solving equations so long as I stuck to rote memorization.  In real life, however, during physics lab when those principles had to be played out in real time with gravity at work, I usually failed miserably at predicting how the world actually works.

Last night, however, a real-world situation presented itself and I immediately was able to write a new axiom, and though it is based on a single observational study, I offer it up as a truth that I would recommend to anyone as worthy of remembering.  I am calling it The Inverse Law of Bathrooms and Nighttime Vomiting also known as the ILBNV (pretty catchy, right?).

The person farthest from the closest working bathroom will be the most likely to have an episode of nighttime vomiting, and also most likely to expel the entire contents of their dinner the farthest distance in the shortest amount of time.  

Splitting duties, I took care of cleaning up the daughter, who apparently upon evacuating the contents of her stomach immediately felt better.  My husband, bless his heart, cleaned up much of the mess, electing at 3 am to finish the rest in the morning.  I describe my 2 youngest children as one who never stops talking, and one who never stops moving. Having realized quickly that ILBNV was now in play, I moved her downstairs to be nearer to the bathroom.  Once she was tucked in, and after climbing into bed with her, however, she could not wait to begin describing to me in great detail exactly how terrible vomiting feels, smells and sounds.  By the time she finally fell asleep, I was lying in bed wondering if the twinges in my stomach were my imagination prompted by her vivid descriptions, or actually the beginnings of an exception to the ILBNV.  Thankfully, the axiom held true, and I awoke at 6:30 am to find my husband groping his way one-eyed towards the coffee-maker.

On days like this with just a few hours of sleep, knowing I’m facing getting the kids off to school on time, followed by a full load of patients, then Girl Scouts and piano lessons, then dinner, homework, bedtime and clean-up, I try to remind myself that I once couldn’t wait to be a grown-up. Most of the time, it works, and I’m grateful to be living the dream as they say. Having now penned the ILBNV and with my place in physics history now secure, I’m thinking about quitting my day job, once I find where I put those bonbons I’ve been hoarding.  I’ll look for them just as soon as I finish cleaning up the rest of the mess from last night, as the husband is now in no shape to be scrubbing carpets or walls. It’s a glamorous life, but someone has to do it.

This somewhat flattened York peppermint patty found at the bottom of my travel bag is the closest thing to a bonbon I could find. Luckily, it was still delicious.

This somewhat flattened York peppermint patty found at the bottom of my travel bag is the closest thing to a bonbon I could find. Luckily, it was still delicious.

Today I am grateful for stomach bugs that last only 24 hours, a good sense of humor, and bonbons in all forms!

 

 

 

 

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?

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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

Triskaidekaphobia


The first time I was truly afraid of a patient, I was standing in an outpatient family practice clinic in Detroit.  If you’ve ever felt mind-numbing fear, you know that it creates a dividing line between that moment and the next. Strange details imprint on your brain, like the heft of the chart in your suddenly damp hands, and the musty smell of an exam room suddenly grown tinier.  Grown men have told me that part of the attraction for going to war is learning if they have what it takes when confronted with the fear that is part and parcel of combat.  When we watch movie characters stumble into bad situations, we have the prescience that comes with being an observer, and tell ourselves that we would never, ever go into the dark house after the psycho or get in the car with the charming serial killer.  In actuality, how often do we do dangerous things and not realize how close we stand to the precipice?  As my childhood friends will tell you, I had what I considered a charming unawareness for these types of situations (until, of course, I became a mother), and perhaps it came from my innate belief that all people are good.  When I was younger, I traipsed into places and talked to people that now I would never let my children associate with, but again, I really didn’t think anyone wanted to hurt me, and I trusted that I would know it if they did, but perhaps that was hubris or plain dumb luck that I never got hurt.

This time though, the analytical, writer part of my brain was coolly noting that, for once, I was actually not only assessing the situation accurately, but also responding in what I thought was a very calm and non-threatening manner, though the other animal instincts in my brain that had made the fine hairs on the backs of my hands prickle within the first 2 minutes of meeting this patient, were screaming “Run! Get out of there, right now! Do not pass go, do not stop! Get out!”  It was like, and I kid you not, the good buddy in movies, you know, the sensible one like Velma, or actually more like the hyper-panicky one Shaggy, tapping on my shoulder and whispering “I don’t think this is a good idea.”

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Having grown up in the suburbs of Detroit, in a town where everyone looked so familiar I would have trouble placing the face as being someone I knew from church, the gas station, school, or work, going to PA school in “the city” was exciting to me.  I knew I’d be exposed to situations I’d never experienced, and like my combat veterans, wondered if I’d have what it took. I wasn’t afraid of the crack addicts or gang-bangers. I was afraid that I wouldn’t know how to react, wouldn’t have what it took in the face of an emergency to do what had to be done–chest compressions, suturing, bandaging, reading EKGs accurately. I thought I’d be most afraid in the ER at Henry Ford Main, or during my psychiatry rotation where I was on the inpatient consult service for Detroit Receiving and Sinai Grace, because of the out of my control aspect of those situations.  In an outpatient clinic, I naively thought, at least you could kind of predict what kind of day you were going to have.  Appointments are scheduled, and you can predict what kind of patients you will see, unlike in the ER, when you can have a heart attack, gunshot wound to the hand, and head cold all walk in at the same time.  It was a controlled environment, I thought, and control of my environment is key.

All of us desire control. It begins when we’re learning how to talk and walk.  This is where the terrible twos (and threes and fours for some of us) get their name.  The desire to exercise our will on the environment is innate.  We want to be able to choose our path. We want to believe that we have control, though in reality, we have very little. Today is Friday the 13th, a day many fear, though most of us find it superstitious.  We scoff at people who would have “silly fears” of things like the number 13, but in reality, don’t we all pause for just half a second, if we have an interview or date that gets set for Friday the 13th or we’re placed in hotel room #13? It doesn’t stop us from continuing on with our lives, but given the choice, just to be on the safe side, wouldn’t we change the date or room number, if we could?

As children, many of the sayings that we grew up with enforce those beliefs: Step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back–so we avoid walking on the cracks, just in case. It’s part of the mistaken belief, these superstitions, that we can control our destiny. We believe that by following all the rules, we can control our circumstances.  As children we pray, if I promise to do all my homework next time, please let me pass this test. As adults we pray, if I promise to be a better mother, please let her be OK.  Fear is irrational, it compromises our illusion of control, because it shows us how little power we actually have.  When we see through the eyes of fear, nothing is in our control, and that is the most frightening thing.

The unkempt woman in the musty exam room looked right through me.  All of us want to be seen, truly seen for who we are, and when others do not see, it can be frustrating, and make us doubt ourselves.  When she did not respond to me, I wondered for a brief second, did I not speak loudly enough? I had read her chart before coming in the room. It was supposed to be a routine follow-up for her annual gynecological exam.  Her list of medications gave me clues to what was missing in the 1 sentence description of why she was there.

“Have you been taking your Clozaril?” I asked.

“My mother has blue hair. Do you see them? People walk on buses,” she said.

Being alone in a room with a schizophrenic patient off her medications is not a place for a green PA student.  My very first rotation was psychiatry on the inpatient wards. Ingrained in us were several rules: Make sure to always be between the patient and the exit.  Make sure that someone knows where you are at all times.  Make sure that you wear long hair pulled back so a patient cannot grab you.  I had seen schizophrenic patients on their medications, discharged them home to the loving care of family or friends, after seeing them admitted off their medications, when they could not distinguish between their reality and ours.  Most were not violent, but what was frightening was their inability to see us. To them, I could have been a 300 lb body builder threatening to take away their most prized possessions, and as anyone who’s ever been threatened knows, fear will make us strike out to protect ourselves.

Fear will take a perfectly reasonable person, and turn them into a knife-wielding, gun-toting, hate-speech throwing part of a mob like those we’ve seen on the news.  It turns off the reasonable, logical parts of our brains, and takes us back to the child we all were once, vulnerable and at the mercy of others.  When we point our fingers at others, tsk at the behaviors that we, of course, would never engage in, scoff at superstitions and phobias, we forget to look at what prompts them.  We forget to look deeper. We forget to ask ourselves what are they really afraid of–and what am I afraid of that I am too blind to see them for who they really are.

“You know what? I think I left your bloodwork outside. I’ll be right back,” I lied, and briskly walked out of the room, straight to my preceptor’s office, and explained the situation to him.  I never saw that woman again, but I’ll never forget her eyes or the trembling of my hands afterward.  Have you ever been truly afraid? Do you have any phobias or fears that may seem irrational to others? I’d love to hear about them. I discovered an irrational fear of heights when I climbed up on a ladder to explore an old B52 bomber, and could not make my legs work to climb back down the ladder I had just ascended 10 minutes prior.

Today I am grateful for reminders that all of us have fears that lie behind the facade of control we all cling to. I am thankful for the friends who kept me from making irrevocable mistakes in my innocence when I didn’t have enough fear, and hope my children will have such good friends as they make their way through a world filled with too many choices.

And because I’m a giant nerd who loves words:   Triskaidekaphobia is derived from treiskaideka, the Greek word for thirteen + phobia, fear of = a fear of thirteen.Pi

National Poetry Month


I know they say the first day of spring is in March, but really, if you’re from Michigan, you know that spring doesn’t really begin until April, and so for me, I think of the first day of April as the herald that spring is around the corner. Lilac bushes are bursting into bloom all over the place, and I hope you are somewhere you can enjoy their fragrance. I have another story to tell you about lilac bushes, but that will be for another blog post.

April is National Poetry Month or NaPoMo as some people call it, which sounds like a word from another language to me, so very appropriate. I promise only to inflict one of my old poems on you today, in tribute to National Poetry Month, but I would encourage you to read some poetry this month. A poem is often just a snippet of loveliness and beauty that makes you see the world a little differently for a little while. Since my blog is named after a line from one of Emily Dickinson’s poems, I’m sure it is no surprise to you that I love poetry. Haiku is one of my favorite forms of poetry, as it embodies a lot of what I love about it: structure (5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables), a theme from nature or the natural world, and because of its structure, an emphasis on making every word count. If you are a poet, try a new form, such as an elegy or a sestina. It will stretch your writing muscles to try something different. Even if you’re not a poet, it’s fun to wrestle words into these shapes, and see if they will do your bidding.

My kids love poetry. I started them with the inimitable Shel Silverstein, and they quote funny lines from his books all the time. I wonder when we lose our love of funny-sounding words or lines, and begin to think of poetry as something for aesthetes or someone else. For those of us that love music, I think that love of poetry has just become subversive, hidden in the lines of song lyrics. Poetry itself does not and should not take itself too seriously. How could it, with wonderful words like abecedarian?

I found my favorite new word for today on this great site with definitions and examples of poetic forms: abecedarian, or a form of poem in which the first line or stanza begins with A, the second B, etc.: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/glossary-terms

And here is the only poem of mine that I have memorized and readily available for human consumption. I hope you like it.

Longing

Tiny, perfect stars
Drift over a void of black
A wish falls to earth

And just in case you start to take poetry a little too seriously, here are the poems my little ones were inspired to write with much silliness and giggling, when I told them it was National Poetry Month. Enjoy!

From my little guy (please keep in mind he is only 8, and scatalogical humor still reigns supreme in his mind):

Violets are red,
Roses are blue,
My dog and me ate my sister’s homework,
BUURP!

And from my animal-loving 10 yr old about our sister-dog: “It’s a cinquain! Well, my version of one.” Yep, schooled by an 11-year old.
Mocha
lazy, silly
dozing, stretching, snoring
laying, sniffing
Sloth

Today I am thankful for poetry, for Shel Silverstein, and for the start of spring.

Sing!


In 5th grade in my elementary school, you could sign up for band. I had so longed to be able to play the piano, but then was assigned the clarinet. You can imagine my disappointment. My parents would listen to me practice dutifully in my room, the squeaks and squawks emanating from my bedroom so unlike any kind of music they or I had ever heard. They were relieved, I’m sure, when I asked to be switched to the flute. Unfortunately, I was no better at this, and being the practical sort of people that they are, stopped throwing good money after bad, and I did not continue on in band in middle school. I think my parents, and perhaps even the neighbors, were grateful for that.

That year was the same year I became a citizen, and coincidentally (or perhaps not), the theme for our choral show that year was patriotism. We learned The Star Spangled Banner, My Country Tis of Thee, God Bless America, and Yankee Doodle Dandy. Guess who got picked to be the Yankee Doodle Dandy? That’s right, this girl, the one who has to wear a microphone to lecture to her class of less than 20 people, the one who has had to repeat her name so many times at roll call because the substitute teacher #1.Doesn’t know how to pronounce my name, and #2.Can’t hear me saying “Here” the first 3 times she calls my name. At the time, I thought I was being picked for my vocal talents. Although I can carry a tune, I’m sure my selection had more to do with my impending citizenship than with any sort of raw talent.

For a long time after I figured this out, I only sang in church, mainly because I felt God could hear me no matter how quiet I was and could feel how much I loved to sing, and that would be enough. Then one day, I read this quote “He who sings, prays twice,” attributed to St. Augustine.* This feels so true to me, perhaps because my happiest times singing were in church. All of our voices blend together in one beautiful harmony raised in worship. A very good church choir can be transcendent, lifting us up. Even a single voice can do this. I thought of this when I saw a clip of the Sicilian nun, Sister Cristina, on the Voice. Her voice is beautiful, but what struck me most about this clip are the tears in the eyes of one of the judges. At first glance, it seems improbable that this young nun could move a man with tattoos on his throat known for calling people “Dude” to tears, but with her profoundly simple and joyful expression of her faith through her song, she is able to touch him.

Isn’t that all that we long to do as human beings? This is what we want, for ourselves, and for our children to have, this joyful and inspired expression of who we really are, without concern of judgment. There is a popular song in which a mother sings to her children, “I hope you dance.” I would add to that, I hope you sing!

Today I am thankful for all musicians who are able to sing or create music which touches our souls. I am thankful for music teachers who perpetuate the love of music. And I am grateful for my oldest daughter who both sings and teaches piano, and occasionally dances :), my 10 yr old daughter who dances when no one is looking, and for a son who still sings and dances with abandon.

*The actual translation of St. Augustine’s words from Latin, is: “For he who sings praise, does not only praise, but also praises joyfully; he who sings praise, not only sings, but also loves Him whom he is singing about/to/for. There is a praise-filled public proclamation (praedicatio) in the praise of someone who is confessing/acknowledging (God), in the song of the lover (there is) love.” Isn’t this even more beautiful than the popular misquote of St. Augustine?

The link from which this definition came with the actual Latin, because I am a nerd:
http://wdtprs.com/blog/2006/02/st-augustine-he-who-sings-prays-twice

The YouTube video in which Sister Cristina is featured (be sure to click on the Closed Caption button which translates it into English, unless you understand Italian):

My Self


Being both Vietnamese and Korean, but having grown up in America, I have a strange relationship with the English language and my mother-tongue Vietnamese.  Because I was blessed to grow up with my grandmother who knew only enough English to order some of her favorite foods (i.e., hamburger–preferably a Big Mac), I learned enough Vietnamese to allow me to understand the gist of most stories told around the dinner table, but not enough to ever allow me to be a diplomat (unless said diplomat was being asked to take out the garbage).  I never learned to read Vietnamese until I went to college, and it was there that I discovered several things.
#1. The reason I had such a difficult time understanding my newly arrived cousins wasn’t because there was something wrong with me (though some might disagree), but because they had a Southern Vietnamese accent, and I had been raised with my grandmother’s Northern Vietnamese dialect.  My grandmother survived not only the emigration from Vietnam to America (see my previous post Flight), but also a harrowing escape from northern Vietnam to southern Vietnam because of the Communists.

#2. The other revelation to me was how I even came to be born. Now, normally, taking a language class does not prompt a discussion regarding existentialism, however, having now learned the proper pronunciation for words and phrases that I had heard all of my life, I realized how poor my father’s Vietnamese is, which led me to wonder how my mother and father managed to have a conversation in those early years, let alone fall in love.  Their mutual language had to have been English, which was obviously a 2nd language for both.  One phrase which I had heard all my life, and realized later was being mangled every day was the phrase “Mình ơi”.   This is a term of endearment similar to honey or sweetheart, and primarily used between husbands and wives.   My father pronounces it “Me-noy”, which explains why it took me so long to figure out exactly what he was saying all these years to my mother.  When I learned the literal meaning behind the phrase, it made me take a closer look at my family.  You see, growing up in a fairly traditional Asian family, compliments and positive feedback are not the norm.  We don’t “hug it out” in our family.  Children are given nicknames based on practical descriptions: “Little brother, big sister, etc.”  And so, when I learned the meaning of “Me-noy”, I was taken aback by how beautiful it is.  Mình ơi literally translates into “my self” or “my body”.  I was instantly reminded of this verse:

“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be as one flesh.” Genesis 2:24.

Mình ơi is at once beautiful and archaic.  It describes what one writer calls “the transcendent unity of husband and wife”, in which you become so much a part of one another, their body is yours and vice versa, while also describing the possessiveness that is inherent in marriage.  It pales in comparison to honey or sweetheart in terms of its depth of meaning.  Love thyself, or love one another, it is all the same if the true meaning of the phrase is felt.

In one passage from Scripture, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”  And Peter answers “Yes, I love you” in 3 different ways.   What limits us in our understanding of this passage, and why I find the scholarship of the Church’s teaching so helpful, is that in translation from Greek or Latin, the words used for love differ in each sentence.   Love of God has a different word from love of neighbor or friend.  When translated to English, that meaning is lost as we have only 1 word for love, and thus the subtle nuances of the exchange between Jesus and Peter are lost on us.  In the same way, “Me-noy” went from “honey” to something much more meaningful once I understood the significance.  There is power in naming something, as it allows us to truly see its nature.  When we are able to name an unfamiliar noise as the knocking of a shutter in the wind, it changes our reality and our emotional response.  Understanding Mình ơi showed me the depth beneath a life in which sweet words are seldom said.  I love you is the dinner my mother cooks for all of us on our birthdays, planned for days in advance.  It is the shoveling of the driveway on yet another snowy day, and hours spent knitting socks for feet that grow cold at night.  It is that which withstands illness, death, and heartache and transcends the boundaries of our self.

Today I am thankful for languages, spoken and otherwise. I am grateful to have grown up bilingual and multicultural, as it has given me the ability to appreciate all that is unique and wonderful in each world.

Because I love words so much, I wonder what the phrases lovers use in other countries reveals about their culture?  I’ve shared a link to an article which lists a few, but please feel free to comment if you have an example of one used in your family or culture:

http://mentalfloss.com/article/55564/15-delightful-foreign-terms-endearment-english-should-adopt

This article is a lovely one which discusses the meaning of the word “ơi”:

http://diacritics.org/2011/erin-ninh-an-ode-to-%C6%A1i

And in response to yesterday’s post about Pi Day, a video response to Pi Day by Vihart, which because it is equally nerdy and snarky, manages not to make me like Pi Day less:

The Nerdiest Day of the Year


Today is Pi Day, so deemed because it is 3/14. Technically since it’s March of 2014, it’s Pi Month.  I’m not sure if anyone else is calling it Pi Month except me,  so you heard it here first if it becomes a thing.  Of course, I never know when something becomes a thing, unless I overhear my kids talking about it, then I have to google it to figure out what it means anyway.  My husband calls it the nerdiest day of the year, so of course I love it.  I think it is closely followed by May the 4th, Star Wars Day, another personal favorite.  All of my children are big fans of Star Wars, Legos, and science fiction.  In fact, yesterday, my little guy told me he wants to be an astronomer.  He was so excited to share what he had learned about Neptune (did you know it has one very thin ring?) and Jupiter’s moons.  My littlest daughter piped in about Venus’ atmosphere and her plans to convert it to livable planet, and I couldn’t stop smiling at their enthusiasm.  Science is their favorite subject, closely followed by recess, I believe.

When I was growing up, being called a nerd was an insult.  Wearing glasses was not cool.  Now it is considered cool to wear glasses to the point that people wear big glasses (the kind I was forced to wear as a kid because that’s the only kind they had back then) with fake lenses.  There are whole websites devoted to being a nerd with products galore to celebrate geekiness. It gives me hope for my kids who through the cruelty of genetics, all wear glasses.  Of course their glasses are much cuter than mine or my husband’s ever were.  It also gives me hope for this generation that perhaps a world that can celebrate the power of pi, can be a world that supports a little boy who wants to be an astronomer and a little girl who wants to be a Venutian gardener.

Today I am thankful for a world that celebrates nerds, geeks, and pi even if it is only for 1 day.  I am grateful for this world of wonders full of comets, planets with only 1 thin ring, and children who can see the glory of God in the starry night.

Full moon hike at White Sands.

Full moon hike at White Sands.