World Kindness Day vs. Friday the 13th


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

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

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

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

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In Memoriam


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taken outside our apartment building in Michigan

                 Taken outside our apartment building in Michigan

A Lovely Day Trip


The soul needs time in open spaces, time to breathe in wide vistas, time on open roads. When I’m able to get away from the neverending bustle bound by the constricts of the hands on a clock, I can feel an almost physical expansion of my soul with every breath. It is a feeling for me like that you get when lying down in bed for the first time as each vertebrae unfurls and stretches.  I am blessed in this adopted place of mine in many places to expand the soul.

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A short drive from my home, and the topography opens up. This beautiful rock formation is intriguing in its shape, as if an enormous chisel fashioned it into these proscribed shapes.

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Autumn is showing its gorgeous colors in the golden leaves of these trees outside a small pueblo. We get much fewer reds and oranges in the foliage here as opposed to Michigan, but the colors of the Earth make up for it.

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The massive striations in these mountains always make me feel like I’m looking back into prehistoric times, looking at layers of history.

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As we drove closer to the caldera, the changes in climate are evident in the colors of the mountains and the types of greenery we saw.

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You can almost sense the presence of ancient rivers and glaciers in the cutouts revealing the hearts of these mountains.

Jemez River

We stopped at a fishing spot after we passed through Jemez Pueblo as the winding roads were making my little guy feel a little green, and found a rushing, gurgling tributary of the Jemez River bounded by large boulders and protected by 2 more bark-than-bite dogs belonging to a man who told us he’d caught a cutthroat trout about a foot long (as measured by his large hands) a bit further up.

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This formation is known as Battleship Rock. It rises majestically from the evergreens around it, surprising in its triangular shape.

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As we neared the caldera, my husband looked for the open state land where he had camped last winter for his first elk hunt. As we neared the place he had pitched his tent, a whole herd of elk appeared suddenly.  Another term for a herd of elk is a gang of elk.  This makes me giggle, thinking of West Side Story’s gangs transformed into elk.

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The gang of elk seemed unusual in that we saw many bulls as well as cows.  As soon as we approached, the whole herd began moving away, though not in a panicked stampede, just a bit offended, as if we had brought stinky cheese to the party, and they had suddenly thought of someplace else they had to be.

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It was much colder here than near home, and we weren’t dressed for the weather as warmly as we should have been. I felt bad for this motorcyclist with whom we were sharing the road, as he was so exposed to the biting winds, and the twisting roads were slippery enough that he was driving at about 25 mph.

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The effects of the Las Conchas fire are still evident over 4 years later. This fire was all over the news when we first moved here, threatening the homes of people we knew, causing respiratory symptoms, and spurring panic. It burned over 156,000 acres. I couldn’t capture the horizontal shadows thrown by the sunlight through the trees as well as I wanted to.

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Within minutes after this, we entered the Valles Caldera with the trees and evergreens suddenly opening into this wide open grassland with copses of trees and springs of the Jemez River suddenly appearing out of the ground.

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This is one of the newest Junior Ranger badges, as the Valles Caldera was placed under the auspices of the National Park Service about 5 weeks ago according to the park ranger at the office.  Our family made a total of 56 people whom he had seen that day, most of whom were hiking or bicycling into the caldera.  No motorized vehicles were allowed beyond the office at that point.  My little guy earned this badge by accomplishing 5 activities at the visitor center, including lassoing a (hobby) horse “like a boss”. I thought he did pretty well for a greenhorn who’d never tried it before, but the wind whipping around the corner of the building outside made us beat a hasty retreat inside.  One of the other tasks was to try to “band” the park ranger without him knowing, which consisted of trying to clip a “tag” onto his clothing, but as we were the only people in the visitor center at the time, pretty difficult to accomplish. He was very tolerant of my little guy’s attempts to sneak up on him, but gave him points for trying.  He gave credit to his partner for developing all the fun activities for the kids to do, as he was a newcomer to the park, having just recently transferred there from Yellowstone.

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As we headed out of the caldera, we could see the mountains of Santa Fe in the distance. It is amazing to me and to others that we have been skiing more here than we ever did in Michigan, partly because of my unathletic nature, but also because as my brother is always saying, “But you moved to the desert!”  My little ones are learning to snowboard, which to me looks like a lot of falling down, but they love it.

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Heading into the city to find lunch, I had a geek girl moment and had to snap a picture of this road sign.  I didn’t get a chance to get a picture of Trinity Road or Boomer Road, but think that whomever named the roads here definitely had a sense of humor.  We were so hungry that I didn’t take any pictures of our lunch, which included a crawfish po’boy, the Sidewinder reuben, cheeseburgers and truffle fries which my middle daughter practically inhaled right off my plate.  I tried a sample of a hard root beer which my husband thought was tasty, and I did not like at all as it had a chemically aftertaste. I’ll take my root beer untainted by alcohol next time.  This is not an actual picture of the dessert bowl after she got done with the crème brûlée, as it would just look like an empty bowl.  She has been growing like crazy and now is within a few inches of being taller than me (not that that’s very tall) and now can wear my shoes.

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As we drove home, sated and tired, the last rays of sunlight touched this outcropping of stone, looking to me like the perfect perch for angels to rest.

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My two little ones, now much happier now that they’d been fed more than the apples and juice boxes I’d packed for the trip, giggled and told stories to each other on the way home. I leaned my head back against the head rest, content to have been able to spend the day with loved ones in no hurry whatsoever.  I wish a day like this for all of you sometime soon.

Today I am thankful for the natural beauty of my adopted state, for a husband who loves the outdoors and suggested this trip, and for a phone camera that takes pictures that make me happy.  I have not altered any of these pictures except for cropping so you could see the true colors of this gorgeous landscape.

Go!


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

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

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

Lysol to the rescue!

Lysol to the rescue!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The infamous Jordache logo

The infamous Jordache logo

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

Random doodling that she was going to throw in the trash

Random doodling that she was going to throw in the trash

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

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

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

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

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

How to Fall in Love


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the article with the 36 questions:

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

 

The Final Frontier


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

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

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

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

“Okaaaay, well, what is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh, right. Point taken. ”

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

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

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

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

“Well, that’s probably based on–”

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

“A whole inch and a half, huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yep, pretty sure they do.”

“I want one.”

“Me too, buddy.”

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

NASAlogo

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Make sure to really listen to your kids.

I’m glad I did.

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

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

Ode to Bánh mì


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fixings for

Fixings for bánh mì thịt nguội

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you Vietnamese?” she asked.

“Yes, well, half anyway,” I replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not that I do.

Or have done.

Not yet, anyway.

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

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

Hello darkness, my old friend


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

Hello darkness, my old friend

Hello darkness, my old friend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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