Finding Our Stars


When I was 12 years old, I wrote a silly poem called “A Well-Rounded Gal” featuring lines about being able to recite poetry while standing on my head wielding a sword with my left hand, and all manner of other skills that a prepubescent girl who’d read all the classic Arthurian, science fiction and fantasy novels thought were requisite to qualify as a Renaissance woman. Though the list was a bit on the fantastical side (though I would still love to learn how to properly sword-fight), in reality, like everyone I think, I kept a mental list of things I wanted to be knowledgeable about, skills I thought a real adult would know. Perhaps it is part of the pitfalls of perfectionism or some crackpot bill of goods sold to all of us, that dangles that carrot of “If Only”, this feeling of inadequacy that comes from knowing less than I should.  It’s not that Socratic knowing-what-I-don’t-know inspiration that prompts us to seek knowledge, but the palm-sweat inducing sensation brought on by the sound of “should.”

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On that mental list that a Renaissance, always-prepared Girl Scout dragon mama carried in the toolbox is the ability to navigate by way of the constellations. Now as anyone who knows me will tell you, I have a terrible sense of direction. I frequently turn left, meaning to turn right.  I get lost, or as I call it “go adventuring” on a regular basis–in places I’ve lived for years.  I’ve learned that when in doubt, whichever way my instinct tells me to go, I should go the opposite, which is then usually the correct way home. Before we moved to a place where my mountain is always in the East, determining where North lies without GPS was a multi-step process that involved:

1. Looking to first determine where the sun was in relation to where I was (not as easy as you think in a state like Michigan where it’s frequently overcast).

2. Humming the lines to an old Girl Scout song: “The golden sun sinks in the West, Great Spirit calls Girl Scouts to rest… ”

3. Recalling which way I-75 runs, and where I was in relation to this freeway

4.Imagining a compass rose and mentally walking around this to determine in which direction lay North.

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So, perhaps being able to navigate by the stars is asking a bit much.  I would be willing to settle for being able to find the constellations, I thought.

So when my middle daughter asked me to come as a chaperone on the school trip to the planetarium, I was stoked. Here was an opportunity to add to my repository of Renaissance woman skills. Our astronomer guide was a woman who had clearly given the talk to elementary school children numerous times throughout the years. One thing I had not counted on was how dark the giant room became once she shut off the lights so we could look up at the ceiling and pretend we were looking up at the night sky.  It was breathtaking, and enlightening, but unfortunately, my super-hero power of being able to sleep anywhere at any time kicked in.  Life skill NOT achieved, though a refreshing nap was had, luckily without any embarrassing snores.

The next opportunity for redemption presented itself at our trip to Chaco Canyon with the Boy Scouts.  The ranger gathered us for a hike after dark (which in my mind seemed like a great opportunity to sprain ankles or have small children fall into gullies) then began speaking about the ancient people who had built the mysterious dwelling places at Chaco Canyon. He told a legend of how the stars were placed in the sky, the constellations a way of explaining how the world began, when crops should be planted, how men and women interacted, and as we sat under the brightening stars waiting for the moon to rise and show us the way, he recounted how these stories told with the constellations as illustrations and backdrop would be told over and over again.  The people knew those stars and the moon like we know street signs, he said.  Their world revolved around lightness and dark, without artificial light to lead them astray.

I realized then, we all have that longing in us to know and understand the heavens, from ancient people to all of us with our Kindles and smartphones.  We all struggle to make meaning of those bright lights in the distance, beckoning us to wonder what lies in the abyss and the unknown.  What I longed for at 12 is the same thing we all have wanted across millenia– to be able to find our way home in the darkness, and no amount of “Shoulds” can dim the stars.  They are there, as they have been for millions of years, waiting for us to tell our stories.

As National Blog Post Month begins again, I’m trying yet again to find my way back. Unlike the mariners of old, keeping journals, star charts and compasses that helped them differentiate the days on dark seas, navigating their way home by the constellations, I lost my internal compass, stopped writing, and got a little lost as I tend to do.  I am grateful today for the observatories that allow us to grasp for brighter lights on the horizon, for the stars in our world that stay constant, and for those wise people in our life like Socrates, who remind us to keep searching for truth. I hope you enjoy this month’s journey to find it with me.

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We visited the Griffith Park Observatory in February,  which is located atop Mount Hollywood, and was featured in the James Dean film Rebel Without a Cause.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

 

 

Best-Laid Plans


Those dark brown eyes ringed with lady-killer eyelashes looked huge in his pale, greenish face.

“Was I brave, mama?”

Oh, little man, you know how to break your mama’s heart into tiny little pieces. And just like that, I knew we wouldn’t be going to Colorado for Thanksgiving.

“You sure were, buddy. Let’s hope you don’t need to be brave tonight.” But, unfortunately, he was up vomiting twice again through the night, after the phone call that had me hurrying back to his dojo, where he managed to vomit 4 times in the 15 minutes it took me to get there.  He made it through the rest of the night, humor intact, “I am kinda greenish, like the Hulk!” with only a bit of drama.  “You don’t know what I’m going through here, Mama,” he sighed, as he rested his flushed cheeks on my chest.

Since Saturday, I’ve been building up to the realization that we likely won’t be spending Thanksgiving with my aunt, uncle and cousins in Colorado Springs.  One of the delights of moving out this way was getting to know better my father’s youngest sister, my uncle and the cousins who had come once for a visit many, many years ago when we were kids. Now we’re all grown with kids and careers of our own, and getting to know and love them anew as adults has been such a gift.

My aunt is an amazing athlete (skills which obviously skipped me), golfing like a professional, and regaling us with stories of running the Pikes Peak marathon when she was older than I am now.  She used to traverse Pikes Peak regularly, and my favorite story to tell about her is the time she met some college kids just knackered out on the ride down from the top of the peak on the Cog Railway, defeated by the mountain.  “The trick is not to stop,” she advised them. “Ask me how old I am. I used to climb Pikes Peak once a week.”  She is a tiny little fashionista, always perfectly coiffed and dressed, and has more style in her little finger than my whole body.

My uncle has a deep, rumbling chuckle that makes me smile every time I hear it. He’s a night owl like me, and I love to hear his stories from when he was in the military, which is how he met my aunt. I think my husband looks forward to hanging out with him as much as I do, so when he woke up on Saturday feeling like he’d been hit by a bus, hacking and congested, and said that he wasn’t sure about driving up to Colorado Springs especially with a storm brewing, I knew he wasn’t joking, and that our plans for Thanksgiving were in jeopardy.

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I know that Christmas is usually everyone’s favorite holiday, but for me, it’s Thanksgiving.  My sister laughs because she knows how much I love to eat–“So, of course, it’s your favorite!” I love that the focus is on being grateful, the food and family.  Every Thanksgiving I look forward to being with everyone around a huge table groaning under the weight of a giant turkey, a ham studded with cloves and pineapples, lumpy mashed potatoes, squash with no weird marshmallow topping, kim chi, sausage stuffing, salad with interesting bits like corn and mango thrown in a la little sister, and corn bread. Every Thanksgiving, my mother would try a new dish, and if it went over well might get added to the rotation. I’d wake up every Thanksgiving, and the house would already be filled with the smell of roasting turkey and red seasoned pork loin (because we’re Asian, duh).  The bread prepared for days prior to Thanksgiving would be ready to be tossed with shitake mushrooms, sausage, shredded carrots, celery and sage to make the stuffing, my favorite Thanksgiving dish. Given my mother’s aversion to baking pies, desserts would be brought by family, and we couldn’t wait for my aunt’s famous homemade pistachio pudding pie to arrive.

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As we got older and could participate more in the decision-making, we’ve tried various forms of turkeys–in the roasting pan, in the oven, in a deep fryer, injected with mango infusions, covered in butter, in a bag, thoroughly covered in various rubs, stuffed with apples, celery, cranberries, carrots, onions and garlic. Regardless of how the turkey tasted that year, the outcome was always the same: family gathered, thanks given for another year together, and delicious leftovers for days.

My little guy’s stomach bug was the topper to the decision not to leave today as planned.  He is better today, keeping food down, but the big guy is still contagious, and I would not bring sickness to my aunt’s house.  To top it all off, a huge winter storm is making its way toward Colorado, making it impossible to make it there and back in time for my sick firefighter to make it in to work on Black Friday. This isn’t my first Thanksgiving away from home and the rest of the family, but it doesn’t make it any easier. To distract myself from missing everyone, I follow my mother’s example and challenge myself to make a new dish. The first Thanksgiving it was a roast duck. Tomorrow I’ll be trying my hand at a pecan pie cobbler, and I’ll be preparing the bread, turkey legs and pork loin, inviting all the friends who are part of my family here, and doing the best we can to make it Thanksgiving wherever we are, though my heart is in Colorado Springs and a small town outside of Detroit.

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The first Thanksgiving meal cooked on my own after we moved–not quite the groaning table of my childhood, but tasty or so I was told. 🙂

 

 

In Which Several Unusual Events Occur


The day began innocuously enough, pushed to a small sliver of the bed by an exceptionally warm little boy who had shown up at my bedside late last night or early morning depending on if you see the glass half-empty or half-full. He has not crept into my bed in months, but his tear-streaked little round face in the moonlight tugged at my heartstrings, and I could not send him back to his room. Little did I know the surprises the day would bring.

In which a patient faints and technology intervenes:

My patients were not unusual, kind and full of stories of living overseas, but one of my colleagues had the opportunity to use a new device we were just briefed on recently when his patient felt dizzy then lost his balance. The premise of this device is stunning in its simplicity.  As no one in our facility is allowed to lift anything or anyone greater than 30 lbs, it uses a small portable battery-operated generator that allows what looks like several stacked air mattresses to fill sequentially, until the patient is raised to a height that makes it easier to transfer to a gurney or hospital bed.

In which a snowstorm appears suddenly in the desert:

Leaving work, though as always I am grateful for rain in a state that has been drought-stricken for so long, the chill and ongoing downpour had me planning for a quiet day of snuggling in front of the fire watching movies with my husband.  The rain quickly turned into snow as I drove home, which in this high desert place is not usually seen until November 30th, making roads slick and visibility poor, but turning the landscape into a winter wonderland in minutes.

In which a sleeping man surprises me:

Walking into the house, it was unusually quiet, and I found him sleeping on the couch. He is not one who usually naps, preferring to stay on a normal sleeping schedule when home, however, I knew he’d had 8 calls after midnight, the last a structure fire at 6:30 am, so I was glad to see him getting some rest.

In which a tree decides it has taken all it can take:

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As we prepared dinner, we noticed that one of our trees in the backyard had cracked beneath the weight of the heavy wet snow. It fell over as quietly as if it had just suddenly decided to lay down and rest without a noise.

In which the children try exotic tropical fruit:

My littlest ones have a habit of asking to try all manner of fruits and vegetables in the grocery store, and though I love that they love fruits and vegetables, the practical side of me is unwilling to pay $5 for 1 piece of fruit, especially when we have no idea if it will taste terrible. In the produce section of our grocery store, there is a section in which they sell very ripe fruit that needs to be eaten quickly for 99 cents/bag. Today, one of the bags contained both 2 dragon fruits and several star fruit.  While I cooked dinner, they looked up how to cut them up, and everyone got to try dragonfruit and starfruit appetizers.  Verdict?  Dragonfruit have a beautiful magenta color on the outside, but the interior is black and white, with a refreshing sweet taste and seeds similar to a kiwi.  Definitely delicious!  Starfruit when exceedingly ripe is NOT delicious with a consistency and texture like a cucumber without the seeds.

In which we have turkey cutlets, sweet potatoes, and cranberry sauce, although it is not Thanksgiving yet:

While at the grocery store, I also saw turkey cutlets on sale, so decided to try a new recipe, or more accurately, I decided to take a few different recipes and then combine them together, add my own combination of spices, and throw them on a bed of kale and spinach.  wpid-20151116_184720-1.jpg

In which we all enjoy a moonlight romp in the snow, especially the dog:

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Today’s accumulation was between 3-5 inches depending on which side of town you lived on.  Numerous snowballs were thrown, a snowman was resurrected, then lost his head, and much rolling around across the front lawn occurred.

In which we all made wishes, and watched them sail into the night sky: 

My husband had been given 2 paper lanterns at the lantern festival where he and his crew were staged to make sure no fire-bearing paper bombs started any forest fires.  He brought them home for us to experience the magic. We watched them drift upward until they were indistinguishable from the stars, as we made silent wishes.

In which we all go for a moonlit snow hike despite it being very close to bedtime:

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Hiking down to the store to return movies was more fun secondary to the slip and slide factor, and the children enjoyed the opportunity to be outside so close to bedtime.

In which we end the day in front of the fire finally: 

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No hot cocoa as requested by the chocolate lover, but we did all warm our frozen feet by the fireplace, then upstairs for bedtime prayers and getting tucked into bed, cozy after the snowy adventure.

Tonight I’m grateful for days filled with the ordinary and the unusual.  I’m thankful to live in a place full of surprises. I pray for days like this for all of you, spent with loved ones in simple pleasures.

 

 

 

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.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Make sure to really listen to your kids.

I’m glad I did.

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

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

Turning into My Mother


All of my life, people have commented on how much I look like my father.  When I was very young, it was confusing to me because I absolutely did not want anyone mistaking me for a boy, especially with the requisite Asian bowl cut I suffered with, and given the unnatural planes of my unusually square head, it was not a good look.  I would frown and refute these statements, preferring to believe instead that I looked like my mother. As I grew older, this did not really change except that I inherited my mother’s naturally thick and voluminous hair which in combination with my father’s wavy hair and Michigan humidity made for freakishly bad frizzy lion-head days.  Looking back at pictures of my mother when I was a teenager cursed with heavy brown plastic-framed glasses and never-ending adjustments at the orthodontist, I was always amazed at her perfectly straight teeth and glowing skin despite never having medical or dental care growing up poor in Vietnam. Most of her pictures were taken in the time after she met my father, given that pictures were a luxury then. In these pictures, she always looks steadily at the camera, beautiful smile captured perfectly, without a hint of the awkwardness I feel whenever the camera lens is turned towards me.

My mama is second from the left in the second row.

My mama is second from the left in the second row.

Recently though, a family member posted a picture of her on Facebook from what looks like sometime in her teenage years.  She’s in the back row, tentative smile on her face, and I was struck by how much daughter #2 looks like her in this picture.  I realized then that though I don’t look like my mother, I’ve managed to pass some pretty awesome genes on.  And though people always joke that they are turning into their mothers, here are the ways I would love to be considered to be like her:

1.My mother is generous, giving of her time and talents freely.  People I didn’t even know would show up at her garden and she would give away bushels of vegetables.  When our next-door neighbor was ill, she was there helping to care for the lady we called Grandma, though she was not blood-related.  Family members call her all the time to take them to doctor appointments, to help them negotiate vehicles, or navigate government bureaucracy.  She’s held the hands of two sisters as they got the same diagnosis of breast cancer she received years before.  When my uncles came over from Vietnam, they stayed with her, and another aunt until they found a house of their own, adding their family of 9 kids and 5 kids respectively to a house with 8 of us already living there. When her sister was doing the flowers for a cousin’s wedding, my mother ran to get flowers and vases, and helped with arrangements late into the night before the wedding with my aunt, sister, and I. When family calls from Vietnam asking for help for sickness or a death in the family or even helping to build a new church, she responds without hesitation, remembering what it was like to be in need.  She loves to volunteer at church, and hopes someday to volunteer with Catholic orphanages overseas.

2.My mother is patient. My grandmother lived for years with us, and I can’t recall her ever losing her temper or raising her voice in anger to her.  Grandma was kind and loving, but it must have been difficult for my mother not to be the boss in her own home, as my grandmother ruled the roost as is the way in most Asian households where deference to elders is the norm. Caught between a very traditional Korean husband, and her own mother’s traditional views, it must have been a difficult place to try to raise 4 rascally, mischievous kids in a new country.  She has always taught me to honor where I came from and to respect others through her example. By watching how she lovingly and respectfully cared for my grandmother, and my father’s mother when she lived with us for a few months, I learned the true meaning of patience.

3. My mother is practical.  She knows how to stretch a dollar better than anyone I know.  She has always been a savvy saver, which enabled her and my father to buy a house shortly after we arrived here in America, and put 4 kids through college.  We didn’t have a lot of toys growing up, but we always had good food, and we all ended up with a good education, and that could not have been accomplished without her hard work and ability to save money.  I know she went without a lot of things to sacrifice for her children, and I’m grateful to have learned the value of a dollar from her.

4.My mother is an incredible cook.  She cooks by smell, unable to stomach some of the spicy foods my father and the rest of the family loves. I am forever grateful that she parked me at the stove at age 11, telling me:  “This is how it should smell.  Food should look good, too, because it makes it taste better,” and countless other nuggets of wisdom which she picked up through the years.  When they were dating, my dad marveled at her ability to go to restaurants and then come home and recreate what she had tried, especially because she hadn’t been exposed to a lot of fancy cooking growing up poor.  To this day, she continues to try new recipes, and learn how to make new dishes.  Some of my best memories are of cooking new foods with her. I think her love language is cooking for others, and so as soon as she walks into the door at my house, she is already planning what she wants to make for us.

Bánh da lợn, a traditional Vietnamese dessert that we learned how to make together from watching YouTube videos.

Bánh da lợn, a traditional Vietnamese dessert that we learned how to make together from watching YouTube videos.

5.My mother is fearless.  She left her home and everything she knew because she had to, and was successful here in a completely foreign country which I dare anyone of us to try. She has always encouraged us to try new things, move to new places, and not to be afraid to spread our wings a little further.  And at a very young 62 (soon to be 63, as her birthday is tomorrow), she is still game for new experiences.  We recently went to Disneyland, and though she is definitely not a fan of roller coasters, she went on 2 different roller coasters with her grandbabies, including Space Mountain, which scared me!  I don’t think she’ll ever do it again, but her and my dad were the only senior citizens on that roller coaster, and they deserve credit for that.

6.My mother is a wonderful gardener.  She knows plants, and I always say that if I had to be stuck with anyone on a desert island, it would be her, because she can spot edible plants anywhere.  She has green hands, not just a green thumb, and is able to coax plants into growing anywhere.  She has always been grounded, literally and figuratively, and we have had a garden since we had enough room to plant one. I grew up with organically grown fresh fruits and vegetables before it was a thing, and can thank my mother for my love of both.  My kids grew up with baby food lovingly harvested by her hands from her gardens.

7.My mother is funny.  You might not know it if you don’t know her well, but she has a silly sense of humor, which balances out my father’s seriousness.  She loves to laugh, and play jokes on people , and some of the best memories of growing up are of watching her laugh until she falls down, tears streaming down her face, that beautiful smile wide and effortless. Just a warning–one of her favorite pranks is boxing up a large squash from her garden to give to you at Christmas, hidden beneath layers of newspaper.

My mama and baby brother giggling like mad over a program on the Ipad that alters pictures of people by giving them squished or enlarged heads, eyes or bodies.

My mama and baby brother giggling like mad over a program on the Ipad that alters pictures of people by giving them squished or enlarged heads, eyes or bodies.

I am blessed to have my mother in my life still, watching over me and her precious grandchildren. I’ve also been blessed to grow up with the loving influence of my grandmother,  and aunts who have mothered me through all kinds of ups and downs. Heaven knows I have not been a perfect daughter, but the day someone tells me, “You’re just like your mother,” I’ll take it as a compliment, and thank my mama and all those who have mothered me for the wonderful examples they have set for me.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers I know and love, of babies and fur babies, of babies here on Earth and in our hearts,  and especially to my mama.  And happy early birthday, Mama! Wish we could be there to celebrate with you!

His Great-Grandfathers’ Boy


“Why in the world would you let your son buy a book about war?” This was the question posed to me at a thrift store by the well-meaning woman behind the counter.  I looked down at my son, then seven years old, gamely clutching his pick with two hands.  The World War II Encyclopedia cover was graced with black and white pictures of tanks, uniformed men, and flags, and looked heavier than my son, skin and bones that he is.  His large brown eyes looked back at me, unblinking, sure that his mother would persevere in buying him a book, because when had I ever refused any child of mine a book?

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What she didn’t know was that unlike his sisters, for whom words are the keys to Neverland, incantations to the spell of transformation that leaves you blinking not to see wings when you stretch out your arms, for him books were still mysteries.  For me, reading meant figuring out how to get my constant-motion machine to sit still long enough for the magic to enmesh him.  That he had picked a book, instead of a gadget with moving parts or a brightly colored toy was a revelation to me, at least until I saw the title of the book.

You see, though my husband was one of three brothers, thusfar the weight of carrying on the family name rests solely on my baby boy. He has always known of the meaning of his first name, which is actually my mother-in-law’s maiden name, just as my name echoes my mother’s maiden name. I believe strongly in the power of names, and the legacy bestowed by the double burden of carrying both of his great-grandfather’s names (and his father’s) is one I think was worth passing on.

I never knew the benevolent gaze only grandfathers can give until I met my husband’s.  Our family is blessed with strong-willed women, and my mother’s mother is ever-present in my earliest memories, but the towering legends of my grandfathers were passed down in bits and pieces through stories of their fierceness.  My father’s father was stoic, unsmiling in black and white photos, a patriarch in war when his sons were pursued by Japanese soldiers through the mountains of Korea.  My mother’s father was a religious man felled by a stroke, then lifted up by inner strength and determination to walk again to the church the Communists worked to take away from him.  I never met either of these brave men, dead long before I drew my first breath.

My husband’s grandfathers though, were kindly, white-haired men who patted my hand, accepting me into their families without a word.  The Vietnamese word for grandpa was not even in my immediate lexicon, and my husband had a nickname for one of his–his PaPap.  He was a quiet man, one who never spoke of his service until shortly before he died, of landing on the beaches of Normandy the day after, of being part of the “clean-up crew.” I knew him only as the very quiet man who opened his home on Christmas Eve. I always felt comfortable with him, as he was reserved like me, an oasis in the maelstrom of preternaturally good-looking cousins whipping quips and insults with equal wit and precision at one another.  I cherish especially 2 memories of him, one of dancing with him at my wedding, and the last in which I was able to bring my baby boy to him at the nursing home before he died, so my husband and I could tell him that our little boy shared his name.

In my everyday work, I meet veterans who have served all over the world in many different wars, but I have a special place in my heart for World War II veterans.  This is because of my husband’s PaPap, but also because they are a special breed.  One veteran who was in the Battle of the Bulge spoke of being lucky because he was able to get a warm jacket from one of his Air Force flying buddies, while everyone else had summer gear in the brutal winter that ensued.  He was seeing me for frostbite 70 years afterwards, being treated for the first time ever for the residual effects.  He had mentioned it in passing to his primary provider that perhaps the numbness and tingling might be from the frozen toes he had suffered while in Germany by way of explanation, and not complaint. I was mesmerized by his stories, of men and boys unprepared for the long battle. Seeking words of wisdom, I asked him, “How did you do it?  How did you survive?” His answer, like so many other WWII vets, underscores what sets them apart:  “We endured.” There was no drama, no entitlement, just a simple, succinct statement in which he counted himself as part of the whole, doing what had to be done.

When the boy who would become my husband told me that if he could be like anyone, he would like to be like his grandfathers, impeccable in actions and words, I wondered what it would be like to have flesh and blood heroes.  I wanted that for my son.  And knowing this, knowing that he chose this book to learn more about what his great-grandfathers had experienced, I would not have spared him a “a book about war.”  My girlfriend’s first child is a boy. In the way all mothers have, she wished to protect him from the evils of the world, and so asked family and friends to refrain from giving him any toy guns or weapons. In the mysterious way of many boys, he fashioned guns out of paper and ran around the house shooting at imaginary enemies despite minimal exposure to these things. Neither her son nor mine are brutes or sociopaths, both of them animal-loving, gentle souls who love to be snuggled by their mothers.

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My little guy standing in the back of a C130, the plane in which we fled Vietnam.

As I looked at this woman, I considered all of these stories, trying to figure out how best to answer her.  How did I tell her that if not for one war, I would never have existed? How to tell her that my parents grew up in war time, their parents figuring out how best to protect their families, and perhaps her parents doing the same, so that one day I might have the chance to stand here and debate with her about the appropriateness of reading material for my son? How to tell her that though peace is what we all crave and would wish for our loved ones, the reality is that war exists, and to pretend that I could shield him from this is to deny the sacrifices that better people than she and I had made?  How did I show her that though we have been blessed since the Civil War not to have war in the United States, it is through the remembrance of those battles and those veterans, that we can hopefully prevent bloodshed here?  Did I tell her that though I would never want my son to have to know what it is to spill the blood of another, I would proudly call myself the mother of a soldier if he so chose to follow that path?

Unfortunately, I did not. As is always true for me, the words sat in my mouth, angled edges weighing down my tongue. Instead, I said only, “His great-grandfather served in World War II.” She frowned disapprovingly at me, and reluctantly took it from my son’s hands to wrap it.  Today you can find this book on my son’s bookshelf. The pages are bent in some places where he has stopped to bookmark something compelling to his little boy brain. When he reads it, his brows furrow in concentration as he pores over the black and white pictures, and I can see the generations of men in the lines of those furrows, stretching far back into the past.

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Today I am thankful to live in a country where little girls like myself can grow up to carry on their father’s names, for grandfathers and great-grandfathers living and dead who inspire us to be impeccable and fierce, and for the unique gift of being the mother of a son who has been blessed to grow up under the loving eyes of both his grandfathers and grandmothers.

Has a stranger ever questioned your parenting choices? How did you respond? Have you had qualms about what is and isn’t appropriate reading material for your children? Do you have a story about your grandfather or great-grandfather that you’d like to share?  If so, I’d love to hear it.