Saturday, January 31, 2009

Another Round

Here we go again. (Yes, that's a plus sign you're looking at.)

Don't they say three time's the charm?

Monday, January 26, 2009

Progress Report

For the past few weeks, I've been taking some writing classes and I find myself focused more than I've been for the past eight months. One is a feature writing class at the city college, another on line called Boot Camp for Journalists through Media Bistro, and another on literary techniques starting in a week at Berkeley Extension. I also took a class this Saturday with my friend Carrie on flash fiction at the Writing Salon, which made me realize (again) how intricate, intelligent, and daunting literary writing can be.

All of a sudden, I find myself flooded with writing projects. All but one unpaid, but hey, I need the experience. At the city college, the instructor asked me to be the editor in chief of the on campus magazine, which I gladly accepted. It will help me build my portfolio and gain practical experience. I have a few stories I am preparing for the magazine. I also did a short interview of Michelle Rhee, the DC Schools Chancellor, which pretty much tanked. Note to self: email interviews are not the way to go. Good lesson learned. I did the interview by email because her press secretary allotted me ten minutes for an interview but suggested I supplement it with email questions. Unfortunately, the email answers do not provide much insight. I still have my ten minutes on the phone with her, so I'll see if I can get anything useful, and then I'll write up the interview on Kimch Mamas. Koream Magazine also published one of my Kimchi Mamas posts in the January issue, and this weekend, they agreed to pay me for a piece on Luke Song, the designer who made Aretha Franklin's inauguration hat, whom I thoroughly enjoyed interviewing yesterday morning. On top of that, I have class assignments and a few other interviews in the pipelines. Whew.

And I'm loving it.

Since the start of the new year, I have been feeling so optimistic. As if I am not just wasting time. As if I'm not just floundering. As if I'm finally building toward something. Part of it is just entering a new year. I love new starts, new markers. It's like spring cleaning that lets me shed the baggage of the past year. Another part of it, I suspect, is that I'm beyond the hormonal chaos of the miscarriage and we are back to trying again, which allows me to hope instead of being bogged down by the dejection of the failed pregnancy.

Mainly, though, I think the turning point was reading the article about Immunity to Change. I started thinking about psychological blocks I may have about changing careers. I thought of the obvious ones, like wanting to make a good living, the security of having a regular, structured job. One day, it dawned on me that much of the anxiety I was feeling was not about the job change itself (although I still wonder what the hell I'm doing sometimes) but about spending time in this crack between careers, which probably stems from my experience growing up.

When my dad quit his engineering job and starting running a hamburger joint with my mom, they lost their middle class comforts and took up exhausting, physically demanding labor. Before then, my mom had stayed at home to take care of us, cooking us snacks and helping us entertain our friends. As the managing director, my dad had a relatively senior position, and he was flanked by assistants who ran errands for him (yes, it was a different time and a different culture). My dad had never operated the microwave oven (yes, shocking). Suddenly, they were thrown out of this secure, easy world and began working 16 hour days, driving to the wholesaler to pick up onions, lettuce, tubs of catchup, mustard, and pickles, standing over the grill and a vat of grease six days a week, coming home with burn marks on their arms and cuts on their fingers. The most shocking image was my mother who lost 30 pounds in a matter of a few months and my dad who suddenly drove erratically (as hard it is to believe, he had never exceeded the speed limit before) and shut down when he came home.

Anyway, I'd written about this ad nauseam, but to a sheltered fourteen year old, it must have been pretty shocking. I think I must have felt tremendously guilty watching them come home late every night, exhausted and dejected. Compared to their lives, going to school and just studying seemed like such a luxury. So, yeah, I studied and did what I was supposed to do for school. But I spent a lot of time organizing their sock and underwear drawers. And sorting their shirts by color and folding the sweaters and knits into perfectly symmetrical stacks. And rearranging the kitchen pantry into the most immaculate rows of canned soups, canned vegetables, ramen, dried goods. And preparing dinner, doing the laundry, and cleaning the house. With every task, I thought, if I do it, it's one less task they have to do when they come home. I wanted to contribute however I could, but it was never enough. I couldn't shorten their long days. I couldn't save them from their burn marks. I couldn't take away their fatigue.

I realized that the feeling I've been feeling is similar to the one I used to have growing up. Feeling as if I am not contributing. Worrying about not doing enough. Feeling like a free loader, even though Jeff was doing everything to encourage me to try my hand at this writing business. I realized that I was paralyzed by my own anxiety. And that was a moment of ephiphany.

I'm not sure what I do with this kind of anxiety, but somehow, just recognizing that has made a huge difference. For a change, I find that I am able to push that anxiety to the side and give myself the mental space to learn what I need to for a career change. And take the chance to try this out. I could work on my writing for another six months, a year, and it may never go anywhere. But at least, now we'll have a chance to see.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Miscarriage Tests

For all who are dealing with miscarriage issues, I am posting a list of all of the tests I've gone through. This may provide a starting point for your own checklist if you have to go through this unfortunate testing. (Please note that the descriptions were cut and pasted from pregnancy websites, mainly I can't vouch for the accuracy of the information and I have no medical expertise. Please confer with your doctor about the specifics.)

If anyone out there has been through any miscarriage tests that are not listed here, I would love to hear from you.

1. Chromosomal Defect with Fetus: Fetal Karyotype

To determine if the miscarriage was due to a chromosomal abnormality, the doctor sends the fetal tissue to a lab after D&C.

2. Chromosomal Problem with Parents

Blood test of parents to determine if either parent has genetic problems that can lead to miscarriages.

3. Structural Problem with Uterus

Scarring or fibroids growing within the uterus can sometimes interfere with implantation and the embryo’s blood supply. For the hysteroscopy, the doctor fills the uterus with saline and inserts a thin telescope into the uterus to examine it.

4. Blood Clotting Related Tests (all tested with a simple blood test)

a. Anti-Cardiolipin Antibodies

Cardiolipin antibodies are proteins found in your body that work against cardiolipin. Cardiolipin is a molecule found in your blood platelets and various cell membranes. It is one of a group of molecules called phospholipids. You need cardiolipin in order to help regulate blood clotting throughout your body. Sometimes though, your body can mistake cardiolipin for an attacking substance. As a result, your body creates soldier-like molecules to fight against the cardiolipin.

b. Anti-Phospholipid Antibodies

Antibodies are special cells that are supposed to help our bodies attack foreign invaders, like bacteria from colds and infections. Sometimes though, the body mistakes its own cells for invaders and attacks them, causing a host of problems. This is the case with antiphospholipid antibodies - they attack our own cells.

Antiphospholipid antibodies are proteins that circulate around in the bloodstream. These proteins bind to cell membranes, making them sticky. This prevents our blood from flowing properly, resulting in blood clots. These antibodies can endanger the health of both you or your baby.

c. Lupus Anticoagulant

This is a protein in your blood that causes it to clot in your bloodstream and veins differently than it normally would. Women with large amounts of lupus anticoagulant in their blood often suffer from blood clots in their placentas.

d. Anti-Thrombin III Deficiency

Antithrombin III (AT-III) is a protein made in the liver. It inhibits coagulation and limits the forming of blood clots.

A shortage of AT-III affects the normal process of coagulation and can lead to excessive blood clotting. There are two categories of AT-III deficiency. Patients with Type I deficiency have reduced amounts of AT-III protein and functional activity, while patients with Types II and III deficiency have normal protein levels, but some of it does not function properly.

Antithrombin-III deficiency can cause or lead to thrombosis, a clot forming in a blood vessel. If a clot attached to a blood vessel wall breaks loose and travels in the bloodstream, it is called an embolus. An embolus that reaches a blood vessel in the lungs is called a pulmonary embolism. This type of clot can block the blood vessel, cut off the oxygen supply to the lung tissue, and, in some cases, cause death.

e. Protein C Deficiency

Protein C deficiency is one of a number of inherited coagulation disorders resulting in a hypercoagulable state known as thrombophilia. Recent advances in genetics and biochemistry have allowed us to identify numerous coagulation defects, each having the common result of thrombosis. Examples of such deficiency disorders include abnormalities of factor V Leiden, factor XII, three chains of fibrinogen, heparin cofactor II, plasminogen, protein C, protein S, and thrombomodulin.

f. Protein S Deficiency

Protein S deficiency is a genetic trait that predisposes one to the formation of venous clots.

g. Factor V Leiden Mutation

Factor V Leiden thrombophilia is an inherited disorder of blood clotting. Factor V Leiden is the name of a specific mutation that results in thrombophilia, or an increased tendency to form abnormal blood clots in blood vessels.

h. Factor II (Prothrombin) Mutation

A specific change in the genetic code causes the body to produce too much of the prothrombin protein. Having too much prothrombin makes the blood more likely to clot.

i. MTHFR Mutation/Hyper-Homocysteinemia

MTHFR stands for Methylenetetrahydrofolate Reductase. It is a type of gene mutation that impairs the body's ability to absorb folic acid, and some studies have associated MTHFR gene mutations with increased risk of miscarriages (but other studies have found no link).

5. Tests for Potential Hormonal Problems (all tested by simple blood test)

a. Progesterone Level

Progesterone is a female hormone produced by the ovaries. It plays a vital role in both ovulation and pregnancy. After an egg is released from your ovaries, the remaining follicle becomes the corpus luteum. The corpus luteum secretes estrogen which, in turn, produces progesterone. This progesterone softens your uterine lining, helping with implantation.

b. Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH)

FSH is one of a number of hormones that is secreted by your brain. Inside your brain, located just at the base of your neck, there is a tiny region called the pituitary gland. This gland is responsible for releasing a variety of different hormones, including FSH. FSH hormone is used to help encourage the growth of eggs in women and sperm in men.

If you are having troubles conceiving, your health care provider will try to analyze your ovarian reserve. Your ovarian reserve refers to the number of eggs that you have available for fertilization. A high ovarian reserve usually indicates a good number of viable eggs present in your ovaries. A low ovarian reserve may indicate that you have fewer available eggs. In order to test ovarian reserve, many health care professionals rely on measurements of your FSH. Levels of this hormone directly correlate to the number of eggs that you have "on reserve" in your ovaries.

c. Estradiol

Estradiol is a type of estrogen, which is the major female reproductive hormone. Estradiol is the primary type of estrogen, and it is produced in your ovaries. As they grow and develop, your egg follicles secrete estradiol, helping to trigger the rest of the reproductive cycle.

The estradiol test is a diagnostic procedure used to measure the levels of estradiol in your blood stream. It is performed in conjuction with the Day 3 FSH test. A simple blood test, the estradiol test is performed in order to determine a woman's ovarian reserve. It is also performed in order to confirm a woman's FSH test

d. Prolactin

Prolactin is a chemical that is secreted by your pituitary gland. This is the pea-sized gland found in the middle of your brain, which is responsible for triggering many of your body's processes. Prolactin is found in both men and women and is released at various times throughout the day and night. Prolactin is generally released in order to stimulate milk production in pregnant women. It also enlarges a woman's mammary glands in order to allow her to prepare for breastfeeding.

Prolactin inhibits two hormones necessary to your ovulation: follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH). Both of these hormones are responsible for helping your eggs to develop and mature in the ovaries, so that they can be released during ovulation. When you have excess prolactin in your bloodstream, ovulation is not triggered, and you will be unable to become pregnant. Prolactin may also affect your menstrual cycle and the regularity of your periods.

Normal prolactin levels in women are somewhere between 30 and 600 mIU/I. If your levels measure towards the high end of this spectrum or above, you may be suffering from a prolactin irregularity.

e. Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH)

There are two main types of thyroid problems that can affect fertility:

* Hyperthyroidism (over-active thyroid): hyperthyroidism is often hereditary. Symptoms include fatigue, increased heart rate, weight loss and light or absent periods. It occurs most frequently in menopausal women. Its impacts include an increased risk of miscarriage. Treatment options include drugs, radioactive therapy and surgery.

* Hypothyroidism (under-active thyroid): hypothyroidism is also usually hereditary. Its symptoms include fatigue, lack of concentration, muscle aches, constipation, weight gain, very long menstrual cycles and heavy periods. In some people the thyroid gland (which is in the throat in front of the windpipe) may be enlarged. Treatment will be lifelong and takes the form of thyroxine tablets, with a likely increased dose during pregnancy.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


It had turned a burned brownish color, like a dying leaf. It was folded into an eighth, not symmetrically, but haphazardly, as if by a child's hands. Tattered along the edges, tearing here and there.

He pulls it out of the box with his brown spotted hands and says, "What is this?"

He unfolds it into a quarter, checks the date - June 5, 1956 - skims the headlines on that page, flips it to the other side, skims some more, unfolds it into half, and tosses it aside.

"Who knows why I saved that."

He continues rummaging through the box, pulling out a few photographs. There is one of them as they peer out the side window of a Cadillac, he in a tuxedo, she in a veil, their skins rosy and taut, betraying none of the sagging and wrinkles to come. He pulls out another, of his parents posing in front of their Pennsylvania home, the father proud and tall in his plaid pants and short sleeved t-shirt, the mother with her arm through his, hair tucked away under a scarf. Then comes a photo of Tuffy, the mutt that is now long gone, and a stack of report cards from Jeff's grade school with his teacher's comments of his progress in perfect handwriting.

I'm curious, so I pick up the folded newspaper page once again. I unfold it cautiously, as if my fingers may stain and damage this piece of history, peruse the headlines quickly and flip it over. On the other side is a photo spread, of women adorned in tiaras, banners draped across their chests, holding bouquets of roses and wands, beaming smiles all around. I zero in on the captions below and scan the names.

"Hey, Jeff, isn't that your mom?"

Jeff's dad squints his eyes and zooms in.

"Yup, that's her," he says. "That was the year before I met her."

There she stands, tiara adorned, in a strapless, lace evening gown. Underneath is her name and title "Ms. Montgomery County."

"Jeff, did you know your mom was in a beauty pageant?"

He shrugs back a "who knew?"

We both lean over to look at her on the other end of the couch, tucked in a cardigan even in 80 degree weather, and she smiles as she dismisses it with her hand. "Oh, I did it just for the money. I probably wouldn't do it again."

We study the photos one by one. "Here she is again." "Look there she is in the biniki contest." I look at her, in the photo, then on the couch, then at the photo again. Here she sits, more than half a century later, still the same person, but no longer the same. Between the photo and her lie a marriage, two births, five relocations, and 19,220 days. And so much more that I don't know. I wonder what has become of those days, where they have gone. Whether they are shed, like flakes of dry skin, or if they build up to give us our gravitas and wrinkles. If she could shift them through a sieve, which ones would she salvage?

If only we could preserve these days like apricot preserve. And I think of my clutter of photos lying in a box and make plans to sort through them once we go home.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Salvaging the Day

Last week, three days in a row, I heard from three friends who have been laid off, from three different industries. Yesterday, I heard of another friend of a friend who was laid off. For the first time since I've been laid off, several of my friends are not working. But I don't think we'll be loitering in the mall every day. We'll have our occasional lunches, for sure, but I suspect we are each in our own way fighting the demons that can make us feel useless, helpless. We spend our days researching, revising and submitting our resumes, pouring over job search sites, reaching out to friends who may have leads, and doing whatever we can to fill up the day with something that can be counted - however loosely - as an accomplishment.

I am in a slightly different place since I am trying to figure out a new career direction, but I've learned that nothing depresses me more than the thought that I've wasted a whole day. It does not feel enough to plan a lunch with a friend, go to the gym, or run errands. I need to be able to point to something tangible that I have done, something I can count as another brick for the new path I'm trying to forge, whether it's working on a draft, researching for a possible interview lead, or reading some book that taught me something new. I've also learned that it is important to have human contact throughout the day, even if it's just a matter of working in a cafe instead of in my living room. Most importantly, I've learned that going about this process by myself does not work. I had always prided myself on being self-sufficient and knowing exactly what to do in times of need, but this time around, I wasted a lot of time trying to figure it out on my own. I've slowly come to realize that I need help, whether it's by taking a few classes, talking to others who've had similar experiences, or simply crying out when I feel lost.

If anyone out there reading this has suffered a lay off, please hang in there. Something will work out. Be patient with the economy - and with yourself. Don't give in to the sense of dejection or depression that can bury you. If you feel it lurking, reach out - to your family, friends, a random blog. And find a way to salvage the day because today leads to tomorrow, and with tomorrow comes possibilities.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Back to School

When the overweight, bearded guy who could have been a cross between a NYC intellectual and a lumberjack walked in the door, I was relieved. At least, he wasn't scrawny like the two kids flanking me. At least, he wasn't dressed in sweats with his hot pink boxers of dancing elephants exposed around his butt, like the guy who asked if I had an extra pen. Maybe he was 20 years younger underneath his beard, but had I run into him at a Starbuck's, I wouldn't have wondered if he was old enough to drink coffee.

No one asked if I was the instructor, as they did at the counter when I was picking up a parking permit. I grabbed the corner seat furthest to the back, near one of the blackboards and facing the black and white clock that hangs in every classroom I've ever sat in. Across the desk, a skinny Asian kid with black wire-rim glasses, a wanna be fu manchu mustache, and a ponytail was scrawling furiously into his composition notebook and filled two full pages during the five minute wait. Finally, the instructor walked in, and he was older than me. As in, he attended Woodstock older. Whew.

We went around the room and blurted out short introductions. Well, I'm sort of trying to figure out my major and you know, I like writing, so, ummm, I thought this journalism class could be good for me... Uhh, I haven't really decided my major yet but I need to get my credits, so that's why I'm here... We had a string of the same intros in more or less the same words until we came to the fu manchu kid. He put his pen down, closed his notebook, pushed his chair back, stood up, carefully placed his hands on the edge of the table after adjusting his glasses, cleared his throat, and then listed, in one run-on sentence, all the websites where he regularly submitted comments as well as all of the periodicals he read, including The New York Times, BBC, SF Chronicle, and as he pointed out with special emphasis, Al Jazeera. He then launched into his personal aspirations to re-unite North and South Korea because, as he saw it, North Korea has not been doing anything for a while now and there is no reason why the two countries should be separated. The instructor tactfully told the kid to shut up and then we went on.

When it was my turn, I said, Well, I graduated from college fifteen years ago and from law school ten years ago... And I swear some of the kids sucked in their breaths and their eyes got rounder. The girl who looked like she stepped out of Flashdance in her cut off black t-shirt hanging off her right shoulder even leaned in to taker a closer look, as if I were some exhibit at the world's fair. The one dressed like a dancer for Madonna flared her nostrils. I took a breath and continued. So, I'm trying out a career change and I would love to write some pieces to build my portfolio. The instructor (bless him) gave me a warm smile, nodded as if I were just another kid, and moved on.

The hour and a half passed quickly. We talked about the elements of a good piece of journalism, the importance of writing simply, clearly, the art of story telling. We read a couple of samples of beautifully written pieces. We then talked about our assignments for the week. I sat there, took notes, and absorbed what was presented, like the other kids in the classroom.

The instructor had been working as a journalist for over 40 years, with the last 22 at the Chronicle. Not too long ago, he took the buy out package that the Chronicle has been pushing on its employees as the paper shrinks more and more each day. And it made me wonder (again) if there is a future in this writing business. Even if I make it in that world, could I really succeed, as in make a living with it succeed? But as Jeff reminded me, I don't need to answer that today. Today, I get to be a student.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


I fell for the wrong man once. It was doomed from the start, even though I didn't know it then. I was in my late 20s, and the life I had lived until then had been sheltered. I was the girl who listened to her parents, who got good grades, who had clear rules of morality. I spent most of my 20s hoping to meet a man who met my parents' requirements. The problem was that they did not meet mine. I rarely met a man I found attractive, and I worried that something was wrong with me, that I was too frigid. When he came along and my heart did the little thump, thump, I felt relieved.

He had traits that I used to put on a pedestal - a dry wit, intellectualism, a tortured soul. Before I knew it, a cavalier version of me that I hadn't known existed stepped forward. Perhaps because I had been guarded for so long, my emotions suddenly opened up with an intensity I didn't know I had. I wanted to give in to the experience and let it happen. I didn't care how it might end. I assumed that I could then walk away and resume my normal life. I didn't know that your emotions can grab you as if you were a piece of wilted spinach and thrash you around. I didn't know that what I thought was in my command could consume me and take over, drag me by my hair even as my brain grappled for control.

The relationship slugged on longer than it should have. The happy moments were overshadowed by tortured exchanges as I demanded a logical explanation for what he couldn't -- or didn't want to -- put into words. The first time we broke up, I talked to a few friends. The second, third, and the fourth time, I kept quiet, ashamed that I was so out of control, that I couldn't walk away and mean it. I knew it would never work. I knew it the first time we broke up. But my emotions kept dragging me back, as if I were caught in ripples of waves that kept pulling me in over and over again.

I wasted so much time first trying to fix what I could not, even as he told me it could not work, not really. Then I wasted more time fighting myself, trying to convince myself that I had to extricate myself, even as I let myself get pulled in deeper. One day, I suddenly realized that I wanted a normal life, a life that comes with a family, children. It was no longer enough to have the freedom marked by staying out as late as I wanted without having to make a call, grocery shopping for one, not having to compromise. The intense emotions - as much as I indulged in them - did not make a life. I needed more. I found that I was no longer embarrassed to admit - to myself or others - that I wanted to meet someone to marry and have children.

Sometimes, when I am walking hand in hand with Jeff, I wonder if I could have gotten here without that tortured experience. Could I have realized how much I wanted this life had I not lived so long with what I could not have? I wonder what it was in myself that was so tied to that dead-end relationship, what kind of a strange comfort I felt. Why I had endured so much less than I deserved. That's when I grab Jeff's hand tighter and kiss his sweet lips. And thank him for finding me.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A Form of Relief

Sometimes when I pick up Sherlock's poop, a part of me is relieved when it's the firm, relatively dry, well-constituted kind, even though it feels disturbingly warm through the plastic bag, and not the runny (and yet, not runny enough) mush that forces me to evaluate the boundary of my duties as a good citizen to clean up after him. So that's how it felt when I learned that our last baby had trisomy 21 and would have had Down's Syndrome had I carried him to term. (And yes, it was a boy.) A part of me was relieved that we weren't forced to make a decision that no couple would ever want to make, even as we demand the right to make the decision in the first place. Another part of me was relieved that the baby was inherently defective, that it wasn't my body that caused the demise, even though my body created his chromosomal defect in the first place.

These are funny forms of relief, when something so shitty comes with a discount tag and a reminder that it could have been so much worse.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Interview: Robert Kagen and Lisa Lahey

I reached out to the authors of Immunity to Change, Robert Kagen and Lisa Lahey of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, with a few questions about their theory on how we can overcome the obstacles to making the changes we want. (Discussed in yesterday's post.) Their responses are even more detailed and insightful than what I read in the O Magazine article. I can't wait to read their book (to be released in mid-February and can be pre-ordered online).

Here is what they had to say:

Q. Please specify the steps you recommend to someone who finds him/herself bogged down in his/her efforts to change.

A. Before suggesting any ‘step’ we want to say that we aren’t actually that big on ‘advice.’ We don’t think we are any smarter than the people we help, so what we’d come up with for ‘what you might try’ is probably no different than what people have already thought of on their own. What we have to offer starts off in quite a different direction: Don’t take any step out of the ‘bog’ at all—until you have a new ‘footing’ for taking steps in the first place! Helping you see your ‘immunity to change’ provides that ‘new footing.’

Now having said that, we suppose we can suggest some first ‘inner steps’ to get you into the right state to develop this new footing. You need to get your head and heart in a good frame — change is hard and if you are trying to change some long held way of operating, it will take time (and concerted effort) to alter that. Too often, people believe they ought to be able to see gains immediately, and then they get discouraged. (And for many people, that discouragement turns into self-disparagement, which then gets them into a negative spiral!).

Another early internal prep is to ask yourself how important your goal is to you. Because change is so hard, you need to really want to change. We use a 1-5 “important to me” scale (1=not very important, and 5=extremely important). Minimally, you need to think and feel that your goal is very important (4). This is what you believe, and not only what others may want for or from you.

Be explicit about why your current change goal is so important to you. What do you hope to gain by making this change? Identify your personal reasons first and only then consider how others may benefit by your accomplishing your goal. This whole step is about clarifying your motivational state (a huge resource for change work).

If all of this is in place (you have a positive frame of mind, a very important goal, and high incentive for pursuing it) and you are stymied, it’s worth asking whether there is some technical reason why you are not making progress: are you trying to accomplish too much all at once? Are you in the midst of some big change in your life that leaves no time, energy or spirit left for this additional change? If you can’t identify any powerful technical explanation, then it’s quite likely that you have an immunity to change around that particular goal. Welcome to the big canoe!

All the next steps we recommend add up to having you understand what your exact immunity is. That’s where the 4-column exercise comes in.

Once you’ve done that, the next steps involve targeted self-observations and learning how to test new actions that can inform your worldview. We describe and give lots of examples of all these steps in our new book, Immunity to Change.

Q. The core of your theory on overcoming the obstacles to change seems to hinge on our ability to identify our buried anxieties. How do you recommend we go about identifying these anxieties if we hide them from ourselves?

A. Our Immunity to Change exercise is designed to do exactly that. Starting in Column 1, we write the important goal we want to accomplish. Then, we honestly answer the question of what we, personally, are doing and not doing that works against that goal. We then use that column 2 information as a resource to identify our anxiety. How? By asking ourselves the question, “Imagine doing the opposite of those behaviors in column 2. What worries or fears come up?” We enter our answer into the top of column 3.

Let’s anchor this in an example: let’s say I have a goal to be more straight-forward in telling people what I really think. What do I do that works against that? I sugar coat my words; I withhold what I really think; I say something once and if the person doesn’t respond, I let it go. That takes me to the critical step: now I need to ask myself to imagine doing the opposite of all that—so imagine saying things directly, and follow-up on that—and then paying attention to what worries or fears emerge. Ok, I worry that I’ll say the wrong thing, and that people will think I don’t know what I’m talking about, that I’m uninformed, maybe even dumb. Or I might worry that I will make people uncomfortable, and they won’t like that or me! Or perhaps my biggest worry is that people will, in turn, be more frank with me, and I’m not sure I want to hear that. Different people, obviously, will answer this question differently.

That’s the worry. Now I need to take another step in column 3 which involves seeing our active relationship to these anxieties.

The core idea behind the immunity to change is that we do not merely have these fears; we sensibly, even artfully, protect ourselves from them. We create ways of dealing with the anxiety these fears provoke. We are not only afraid; we take action to combat our fears. We are actively (but not necessarily consciously) committed to making sure the things we are afraid of do not happen. This is the heart of a third-column commitment. It is a commitment to keep the thing we are afraid of from happening. To follow this example then, I could say I have a commitment to be seen by others as being smart, or easy-going, or likeable. Or that I have a commitment to people withholding the negative feedback they have for me.

Identifying our anxiety, seeing how it has a hold on us and how it gets in the way of accomplishing important goals (our immunity to change) is a crucial step. But that insight isn’t sufficient for us to change. We need to identify the assumptions we are making that keep that anxiety running so deeply. (And that’s column 4). It’s the assumptions we make that hold us back.

The most reliable route to ultimately dismantling the immune system begins by identifying the core assumptions that sustain it. We use the concept of “big assumptions” to signal that there are some ways we understand ourselves and the world (and the relationship between the world and ourselves) that we do not see as mental constructions. Rather, we see them as truths, incontrovertible facts, accurate representations of how we and the world are. These constructions of reality are actually assumptions; they may well be true, but they also may not be. When we treat an assumption as if it is a truth, we have made it what we call a big assumption.

The heart of successful change is learning how to safely test those so that we can generate actual, rather than imagined, data about the consequences of new actions. This is how we can develop a new understanding that the world works differently than we had imagined, that we can still be safe—and even experience more expansive benefits—doing things we never thought possible before.

Q. Do you have suggestions on how we should sort through our anxieties? In other words, how do we individually assess which anxieties are healthy and necessary and which ones hold us back from our potential?

A. We might have to push back a bit on this forced choice. It may be important to start with a recognition that all our anxieties are, in a way, ‘healthy,’ insofar as the impulse to take care of ourselves, to keep ourselves alive, is certainly healthy. We start Immunity to Change with our belief that the usual explanations for why change is so difficult are not very good: ‘Human weakness,’ ‘lack of discipline,’ ‘insufficient incentives,’ ‘the inability for old dogs to learn new tricks,’ and so on. We say that the failure to accomplish important goals is often due to the success we are having accomplishing other goals which are usually out of sight!

The person in the example above is failing at being more courageous in his communications, but he is succeeding brilliantly at staying likeable or protecting himself from other people’s frankness, or whatever is ‘in this 3rd column.’ These hidden, parallel goals are always about protecting ourselves. They are about the way we are handling the fear of our own demise. We need to start with the sense that this anxiety, like a big friendly dog that barks at everyone who comes to the door, is on our side, and intends our good. When we look out the window, and see that all this barking is about the postman, we don’t shoot our dog. We just tell him, ‘Calm down, silly, It’s just Ed, the mailman; relax.” The experiments we describe in Immunity to Change are a way to help us learn to run our big friendly dog, rather than letting our dog run us.

Q. Do you think it's possible to overcome our psychological fears/anxieties without addressing real life sources that engendered those fears/anxieties in the first place?

A. In most cases, yes. The problem for most of us is that our assumptions about the dangers we face are Big Assumptions, that is, they may be correct in some cases but we over-generalize them. We all have a particular ‘door’ where we see all approachers as dangerous intruders. So we then need to protect ourselves all of the time. At some earlier point in our lives, we may have learned that speaking directly and honestly is dangerous. Whether we learned that indirectly, e.g., we witnessed scenes between our parents, or directly, e.g., we got slapped, literally or figuratively, for saying what we thought, these are powerful learning events. Where we get into trouble is when that learning extends beyond that situation and shapes our understanding of how the whole world works and how I therefore need to operate all of the time. As we discuss in the book, some people we work with make very explicit connections between their now-visible, anxious ‘parallel goals’ and things that happened to them years ago, sometimes many, many years ago. It’s often a powerful and helpful experience. Making that connection is one kind of fuel for overturning the immunity to change. But many people make no such connection, ever, throughout our work together, and they also make big progress. Happily, there are many sources of ‘fuel,’ and our process tries to make them all available to people.

Q. For those in your workshops who failed to change as they set out to do, did you notice any common thread(s) in what went wrong?

A. The most common threads are these:
  • the original goal gets seen in a brighter light (through the immunity to change) and the person concludes that it’s just not as important as he or she thought it was. They drop their change goal, at least for now. That may be because they now understand what would need to change and that feels too scary or risky, or because they see the various trade-offs and conclude that the status quo is good enough, or they realize what’s involved in tackling the change and this is just not a good time in their lives to take it on. (None of this means that the person won’t eventually feel otherwise; “readiness” to change is a real phenomena)
  • the person gets pulled into trying to change by going only at behaviors, and ignoring the underlying mindset changes that also need to change. (Sometimes the opposite happens, where the person gets too drawn into the psychology dimension and isn’t willing or able to risk testing assumptions).

Q. Have you noticed any common personality types or backgrounds (i.e., difficult life experiences, etc.) among people who are more resistant to changing despite their own goals?

A. The kind of change we are talking about here doesn’t occur for personality types who want quick and big results.

Q. Have you worked with many attorneys in your workshops? If so, have you noticed any common trait(s) among attorneys and their resistance to change?

A. Yes, we’ve worked with many attorneys. In general, they seem to appreciate the logic behind the 4-column exercise and are surprised at how quickly it gets to real issues.

Q. Do you still offer workshops on change at the Harvard Graduate School of Education? How do we sign up?

A. Yes, our next workshop is scheduled for Saturday, March 28th. For further information feel free to leave any message on our website,, or call us at 781-254.4541.


Wow, lot to chew on... I hope you find this as helpful as I do.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


As you know, I've been frustrated by my slow progress in figuring out my new direction. I've made so little progress and have been irritated with myself for having squandered so much time. It has been eight months since I got booted out of Paul Hastings, and I have very little to show for it. This period has been the most unproductive since I left law school. I keep asking myself, why can't I get it together?

During my plane ride to Israel, I read an eye opening article about a new book called Immunity to Change by clinical psychologist Robert Kagen and Lisa Lahey (to be released in mid-February). Essentially, Kagen and Lahey believe that when we fail to bring about the change we want, it could be because we are at odds with ourselves. When we find difficulty implementing changes, despite ourselves, our defense mechanism may be kicking in to protect ourselves from a deeply buried layer of anxiety. It is, as the article quoted, having "one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake."

It may not be because we are lazy or lack willpower. (Well, not always.)

"What you see as demonic is actually in some ways a very tender expression," says Lahey, "a protection of something you feel vulnerable about."

I find this theory fascinating. I have been treating this transition mainly as a job change, but it is also a transformation of identity and realignment of values. The article made me realize that I need to be more attentive to the psychological transition I am undergoing. Considering how I spent the past ten years talking myself into accepting my lot as an attorney, I should recognize that I am buried under layers of psychological shields I put in place. And it will take time and patience to dismantle them.

When I was a third year law student, I went to a friend's wedding. My friend put me at the same table with an accomplished documentary filmmaker knowing how much I appreciated her work. I sat two seats away from the filmmaker, and between us was another young woman about my age. When the filmmaker asked us what we did, I stammered, "Well, I'm in law school..." and the woman in the middle said, "I'm a writer," even though she soon clarified that she had not yet been published. The filmmaker asked me one or two polite questions about law school and then turned to the writer with a host of questions I wished she had asked me, like what kind of writing do you do, who are your favorite authors, what do you think about this or that book, etc. That evening, I realized for the first time what my career decision meant for me. Others would cast me in the role of a lawyer, with all the stereotypes and assumptions that go with it, just as I had stereotypes about politicians or actresses. That was probably one of my most depressing days in law school.

So for the past ten years, I built up some defenses to help me come to terms with my unhappy choice. Some of it came in the form of being overly sensitive to lawyer jokes, talking a little too insistently about the practicalities of making a decent living and setting up for retirement, rolling my eyeballs at the artsy, fartsy types. Some of it resulted in arguments with my sister, who obtained an MFA in writing. Some of it manifested in the smugness of buying $15 martinis and taking a cab because my time was too precious to be wasted on public transportation.

So I am going to sit down and sort through these issues, one by one, and try to disentangle myself as much as I can.

And then maybe I will be ready to start writing seriously in about ten more years...

Monday, January 5, 2009

In Search of Redemption

I'm not the only Korean kid whose parents acted as if becoming a lawyer or a doctor were the only career options. For my parents, the doctor path was the first line of offense. Throughout high school, we were barraged by comments like, Don't you want to become a doctor? Dr. Rosenberg is such a gentleman. He always pays his bills on time. Look how well his wife dresses. Along with some downright dirty, guilt-tripping pleas like, Wouldn't it be nice to have a doctor in the family? Think of how you can help us when we grow old. Imagine if we developed heart problems... They found ways to weave these hints into any random occasion, bearing testimony to their faith in the Chinese water torture method. If you repeat it often enough, my mother once confessed, it will seep in.

Every time I tried to point out that I fainted at the sight of my own blood and that I hated chemistry, my parents dismissed me with a wave of the hand. You can become a doctor if you try hard enough. As if it were only a matter of effort. Their bombardment continued until I declared myself an English major in college. Soon, my parents began telling their customers that English was a perfect major for pre-law.

Their imposed career path hung like an albatross around my neck. Perhaps a common legacy for immigrant children, my life felt ransomed. As if it had already been paid for by my parents who worked fourteen to sixteen hour days, first at a hamburger joint, then at a dry cleaners. When they lifelessly dragged themselves to the store at the crack of dawn with the same packed lunch of rice and chicken they had eaten daily for years, bickered over the smallest cleaning mishaps, or snored heavily in front of the tv on their one day off, I felt responsible.

We moved to the States in 1979 when our dad was transferred to the NY office of Hyundai Heavy Industries. When Hyundai asked him to return to Korea after six years, my dad quit after weeks of hand-wringing. It was the first time we saw him cry. Our parents said that returning to Korea would jeopardize our futures, especially of my brother who was already a high school sophomore and would not have enough time to prepare for Korea's rigorous college entrance exams. Almost overnight, our father went from being a managing director of a Korean conglomerate who gloated in retelling the tales of his business trips to Scotland, India and Amsterdam to a guy who served strawberry shakes and french fries, from a father who steadfastly doled out extra homework to the man who sat alone in the corner and could muster no more than a few perfunctory words for his children.

It was our fall from middle class grace, where we left behind full service gas stations, Jordache jeans, and company picnics. The transition may have been less traumatic had the success come easily. But our father had paid for his success with defiance, loneliness, and hard work. For a boy who, through sheer persistence, had propelled himself from a life of rice paddies, manual labor, and flimsy plank outhouses above the pig's trough to scholarships to Masan High School and then to Seoul National University, it must have felt like waking from a dream.

When our family returned to Korea for a short visit in the late 80's, my dad's relatives looked at his haggard face and my mother's emaciated frame and interrogated, Why did you go to America? Was it worth it? Those questions must have seeped into my veins, because I found myself struggling to find a way out of this confounding riddle. The move that had beckoned with a promising future brought instead a crushing end to a cherished career and threatened to drown us in regret. The need to find a way to redeem the difficult lives we were living, to find a way out, felt pressurized, as if we were living in an underwater bubble about to burst. To my teenage mind, all the answers pointed to our career choices, and I wondered how to surface without suffocating myself in the process.

My career path started at a fork, leading to either redemption or rejection. On the one hand, I could choose a career that answered for my parents' difficult lives in the US. To the question Why did you move to America?, my life could supply the answer Why, for the children, of course. Look where they are now. It was all worth it. And my parents could smile at their relatives with some level of self-satisfaction. Alternatively, I could do what I wanted, answer to my inner desire, and fulfill my potential in a field that fed my urgings. But this choice would afford my parents no bragging rights, no sense of redemption. The first choice seemed misguidedly too old world, too self-sacrificing, and the latter childish and selfish, too American.

If only I had been inclined to become a doctor or a lawyer. Instead, I found it a painful dilemma. I timidly wanted to write. My parents had invested in a future lawyer. My brother buckled under the pressure of being a first-born son and rebelled. The burden fell to me, the second born. I took my LSAT during my fourth year of college. When I scored in the 98th percentile, I bragged to a few close friends but hid the results from my parents. When I received my acceptance into Georgetown Law a couple of years later, I cried. I remember asking my mother, with all the angst of a 24 year-old, why I, and not my siblings, had to be the one to be sacrificed, why couldn't I be free to live my own life. And I self-pityingly mulled over the injustice that someone else's mere wish should shape my life.

For the past decade, I worked as an attorney without too much regret, but still wondered if this is all there is. When I lost my job in 2008, my parents surprisingly encouraged me not to look for work immediately. You need to rest your body to have your baby, they said. You can always look for some part time job later. Initially, I felt as if I had been betrayed for the past fifteen years, as if my career, which they were now dismissing so casually, never really meant that much to them. But then I started to realize that sometime during the past fifteen years, the pressures we used to have must have been released. Somewhere along the line, the wounds we had as a family healed, and we were no longer in such desperate need of a salve. We could now make room for other priorities. I felt as if I had been released, as if I had repaid my dues.

In our lives, I see the Gift of the Magi, where a sacrifice is returned with another sacrifice. Where for the future of his children, a man gives up his dreams, and his children sacrifice some of their own to restore what he lost. Instead of a thwarted career smothering another, I've wondered if there could have been another way. I struggle to find some insight and wisdom admist the clutter of cultural rifts, unfulfilled dreams, and the painful lament that love should demand so much. But I remember what my mother told me a few years after I received my JD. You don't know what you have done for your father. You gave him his spirit back. And I fill with a quiet pride and whisper a silent thanks that all is not lost.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Beginning of Days

I love new beginnings. I love brushing off the lumps of yesterday's what if's and if only's and flinging them behind me. No need to let those awkward mistakes, regrets, and irritants pass through the fine sieve of the new year. Why stay at their mercy?

So I kick my miscarriages and Paul Hastings job fiasco to the gutter. I first stomp on them, with my fists clenched, face scrunched, all my effort concentrated on landing perfectly in place, and crush them like empty beer cans. I draw in a breath and swing my leg swiftly, aiming as far and high as I could. They land with a thud. May the dust settle where they will.

I squeeze my way into the new year, keeping my eyes wide open. I already feel lighter. And more hopeful. It is only the beginning of the year, and I have yet to grow my onion layers of spent days. From here, I will try to remember that things grow outward from within, and that it is my core I need to cultivate. I will try to remember to be kind to myself, nurturing what needs to grow, protecting what tends to cower. And I will try to see things with a clear perspective.

Like the ability to see that all I have to discard from 2008 are the miscarriages and the job fiasco. Just those three from a year's worth of living ain't too bad. And these are not purely unfortunate events. The Paul Hastings termination is a blessing in disguise since I would have surely been miserable had I worked in a law firm my whole life but may have lacked the guts to leave on my own. The experience was so shocking only because I had been so sheltered for the past decade. As for my miscarriages, I remind myself that just two years ago, I was whining about the possibility of being alone forever, and here I am today, with the sweetest man and the possibility of someday having children. The miscarriages are setbacks only because I did not view them as a normal byproduct of trying to have children, which I now am beginning to appreciate.

And if the tears come -- when the tears come -- I will tell myself that they are natural outgrowths of all that I have. Which is not necessarily a bad place to be.