Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Passing Moment

I see him out of the corner of my eye as I walk across the playground. The meter maid, stepping back into his little white car. And D says, "Are these two hour spots?" I look at my iPhone to see it's 12:11pm, and I try to remember when I parked my car. Shortly before 10am, surely, because I arrived early to help set up right after buying a blueberry scone for my son at Pannikin. As she keeps swinging her daughter on the swing, D says, "Have we been here more than two hours? I think he's just marking the tires." Before she completes her sentence, I'm already rushing across the playground to grab my keys, back towards my car, out the playground gate, as I yell out to my 3 year old, who's climbing a truck, "I'll be right back! I'm just moving the car."And I yell at D to keep an eye out for him.

As I near my car, I run around it quickly to see if it has any white chalk slashes on the tires. Seeing none, I jump in my car, turn on the ignition, and back up, catching my breath and reminding myself to check the rear. I pull out and inch just three spots over. I put the car in park, step on the parking break, step out of the car, look over to the meter maid to make sure he's not already issuing tickets, and head back toward the playground gate.

I'm just a few steps away from the gate when I see my son through the fence, his eyes darting, tears streaking down his little face, his mouth open in a cry, his arms outstretched, and his little legs scurrying as fast as they could across the playground, across the stretch of the fence, like a caged animal, caught on the wrong side. I hear his cry, panicked, desperate, piercing through the giggles and the laughter of the playground. I rush across the sidewalk, open the gate, and run down the steps, calling his name. His eyes meet mine, and he keeps crying his panic stricken cry, a scream muddled with Mommy, you left me, you left me, Mommy, you left me, as tears stream down his face, his mouth still agape as he gasps for breath. As soon as I'm on the ground, I crouch down and he throws himself into my arms, and I wrap myself around him, assuring him, no, no, Mommy wouldn't leave you. Did you think I was leaving without you? Mommy has never left you anywhere, have I? No, little guy, we're going home together. I just had to move the car, did you hear me? I just didn't want a ticket. Oh, I'm so sorry. I'm sorry.

My words aren't enough to soothe him, as he keeps crying, and I keep holding him as I repeat myself. His little body shudders as he sobs, and I pick him up and carry him across the playground to sit on a bench. There, he quiets, and his little friends come over to hover and soothe him in their 3 year old ways, a little tap on the back here and there, a few slurred "Are you okay," their eyes wide with concern and fear.

A few minutes later, he's already running across the field, throwing a ball, yelling for his turn.

On our way home, I pull in to a frozen yogurt shop and let him load his cup with chocolate frozen yogurt, sprinkles, mini gummy bears, mochi, and some sugary flakey cereal that I can't even name.

More than twelve hours later, I'm still replaying the moment in my head, still desperately sorry. I think that image will be forever etched in my mind, like the time he got his little fingers jammed in the hotel door in Hawaii as I stood just a foot away from him and his fingers swelled up like mini marshmallows.

I think about the burdens of parenthood, the power we have to cause this level of panic, this mini earthquake in their world. To induce a level of anxiety that we ourselves no longer understand. How easily these moments can come, when you are caught in a moment of distraction, when you have momentarily fallen out of focus. It makes me shudder to think of all that could happen -- and not fully relieved of all that hasn't.

I think of him sleeping in his Lightning McQueen bed. Through the door, I can hear him breathing, rolling around now and then. He seems so fragile, so vulnerable, still so little. And I think of all that is in my power to do, how I have to be more careful, more protective of the little person that he is.

It is 3 in the morning, and I'm just sitting here, thinking about these things and waiting for my son to awake, to run into our room, giggling as he usually does, announce that he is awake at the top of his lungs, jump on us with his boney knees and elbows, slither into our comforter between me and Jeff, and relentlessly tap my shoulder as he asks, "Mommy, can you turn so you can look at me?" And when he does, I'll turn as he asks, press my cheek against his, and hold him a little longer and a little tighter than I usually do.

Thursday, August 15, 2013


A few months ago, I started getting that feeling -- that panicked, suffocating feeling that you get when you feel time running out. I rushed to my computer and counted down the remaining days. A little less than two months. Not even eight full weeks. Just 54 measly days.

I mapped out a plan. Hit the gym every day. Alternate between days of cardio and strength training. Eat less. Eliminate all carbs. Don't eat after 6pm. Shed at least a pound a week. Get rid of all the fat in my upper arm and my midriff. Get my hair done. Find a dress.

That was all I had time to do. In less than eight weeks, we were flying out to Chicago for my 20th college reunion. Eight weeks weren't enough to fashion a new career, publish a book, or make a documentary. Not enough to become a CEO or an activist or a social commentator. Not enough to establish a village or even a non-profit. Not enough to fulfill any of the aspirations I had set out for myself in my 20s.

But it was enough time to transform myself into a beach babe. And failing that, the least I could do was try to look as good as I did in my facebook profile photo.

Going back for a reunion, especially after 20 years, is not for the feeble minded. It takes guts to face all those people who heard you talk about all the things that were wrong with this world, and all the things you were going to do to fix it. It takes guts to face that 20 year old idealistic self who thought the world was populated with idiots, especially all those who submitted blindly to the slavery of law firms and investment banks. It takes guts to go back and show all that you haven't done with 20 years of your life.

I have little to show for myself these days. No job. No social accolade to speak of. No presidential award of honor. No honorary degree. No peace corps stint to brag about. No travels around the world worth mentioning. Yes, a law degree, but I am not a partner or a GC or even a lowly associate. I guess I could brag about the well publicized termination and 100K down the drain, but I already bragged about them at the last reunion.

At the least, I am married and have two beautiful children, but I learned not to treat such things as accomplishments when we read Virginia Woolf during my sophomore year.

I thought about skipping the college reunion. But months earlier, when the reunion was merely an enticing idea in the distant future, I had foolishly signed up to participate on the reunion committee. And volunteered to prepare the reunion memory book. And had goaded all of my friends to show up or consider themselves dead in my world.

The eight weeks breezed by -- more quickly than I would have liked. I downloaded My Fitness Pal on my iPhone. I hit the gym as often as I could. I even lifted weights. And weighed myself every morning. And tried on all the dresses I owned.

The day before we were scheduled to fly out, I weighed myself in the morning as usual, right after I peed and pooped and right before I was weighted down with excess water from the shower. The scale showed the same number as the day before. Just 3 measly pounds less than what it was eight weeks ago.

I threw a couple of outfits in the suitcase because I couldn't decide which looked worse. And packed the prettiest dresses for my little girl with matching hair clips and sweaters. I made sure to pack my son's hair gel and his most fashionable polo shirts and plaid shorts. Then we set off for my past.

Chicago was just as I had remembered it, and completely different. We landed in Midway Airport, where I had arrived alone in the fall of 1989 with just two suitcases to see me through the year. To get to the hotel, we drove down Lakeshore Drive, where I had cruised up and down with friends as we searched for restaurants at 2 in the morning after a dance party or another. The next day, while my son napped in the hotel with Jeff, I pushed my daughter in a stroller down Michigan Avenue, where I had wandered as a lost 20 year old, dressed in an oversized men's sports jacket, thinking about Foucault, Levi Strauss, and Emile Durkheim.

The next day, Jeff and I dressed for the class dinner. I was grateful for the cooler weather, which allowed me to wear my completely black outfit with more generous covering. I put on a little more make up than usual and the new hoop earrings I had picked up that afternoon at Nordstrom. Before I stepped out of the bathroom, I looked at myself in the mirror and practiced my smile. To my surprise, the person who smiled back looked pretty good. Maybe it was the lighting in the hotel. Or the extra layer of mascara. Or the hoop earrings. But I didn't see the extra ten pounds glaring back at me. I saw a little glimmer in my eyes and excitement.

The evening passed much too quickly. It was filled with squeals of delight, hugs, giggles, clicks of the camera, and too many glasses of wine. We talked about the old days, gossiped about people we knew, gushed about how the other looked, and listened to stories about families, job headaches, and infertility problems.

To my surprise, no one even asked about my career. Or if they did, it was so nonintrusive that it didn't register. I don't think it was because no one cared. It just didn't come up. Maybe because we had too many other things to talk about.

The next day, Jeff and I drove to the campus and watched our kids run around on the quads where I had spent many afternoons buried in a book or engrossed in some conversation about the meaning of life. We stepped into Harper's Library, where I had passed countless nights trying not to nod off as I attempted to finish the paper due the next day, where I had painstakingly worked on my literary magazines, where I had suffered my secret crushes. We walked down the streets where I had found life at its most intense and had tried to savor it as long as I could.

That evening, a bunch of us gathered at my old roommate's house in the suburbs and watched our kids play with each other as we bantered and chowed down Giordano's pizza.

I don't know why I expected the reunion to be some resume comparison event. I have never related to my friends through the lens of our accomplishments, so why did I expect it to happen now?

It is my own self-consciousness, my own internal conflict. It is true what they say. No one else obsesses about you as much as yourself. I don't have it all together, at least not at this point in my life, but it was okay. It didn't get in the way of anything because no one really cares. At least not in that judging way. And what a relief to find out.

It was good to go back. To see my friends, to revisit the campus, to have a chance to think about the person I used to be and the person I am now. Sometimes I miss that person I was -- that intense girl so determined to be independent, so unwilling to expose any vulnerability, so serious about living my life. But I realized that I like the person I am now. More settled, a little more secure, and willing to show my vulnerability. And a little more forgiving, even of myself. Maybe it's a sign of happiness. Or even maturity...

* * *

(Here are a couple of photos of my kids making themselves at home on my old campus. It warmed my heart to see them there.)


Here's a post I wrote on Kimchi Mamas on Google's refusal to let me open a profile on Google+ (or Google- as I now like to call them).
I am a 42 year old Korean-American woman. I go by my given name, Shinyung Oh. A few days ago, I attempted to set up a profile on Google+, not because I necessarily need yet another social networking site. Linkedin and Facebook are more than enough to max out my limited capacity for online small talk and ogling. But I applied, mainly because I have my personal blog on blogger and wanted to add some tools offered by Google+ to expand my readership.
When I tried to set up the profile, Google refused to allow me to complete it. The following sentence appeared at the top of the profile I was not allowed to access: "Your profile has been suspended because it violates our name policy." When I clicked on the "name policy" to find out how I could have violated Google+'s policy, it stated:
Google+ makes connecting with people on the web more like connecting with people in the real world. It's recommended that you go by your first and last name because it will help you connect with people you know and help them find you. 
This policy applies only to Google+ profiles. Google+ profiles are for individuals.

I had set up the profile using my real name, both my first and last. It is the name I use for my driver's license, my credit cards, my bank account, my legal practice, and my son's preschool paperwork. It is how everyone knows me, and if others call me by any other names, I don't want to know about it.
As Google+ requested, I submitted an appeal. Google+ suggested that I provide "Links to online locations where a significant community knows you by this name." For the appeal, I submitted the link to my gmail account, which was opened with my real name, as well as the link to my profile on blogger, which is owned by Google and which was also opened with my real name.
Two days later, the Google+ Team rejected my appeal, stating in a form email that "[a]fter reviewing your appeal, we have determined that your name does not comply with the Google+ Names Policy."
Assuming that I had not provided enough material, I submitted yet another appeal. This time, I followed Google's advice to provide "Links or scanned copies of print media, news articles, etc. where you are known by this name." This time, I submitted about six different links, including one to an article about me on the Wall Street Journal blog, one of my posts on a site called KoreanAmericanStory.org, my posts on Kimchimamas.typepad.commy Linkedin Profile, and a couple of others.
Google+ rejected me again the next day with the same form email. 
This is the first time in my 42 years that anyone -- or any software -- has refused to believe that my name is legitimate. 
I am not a virtual wallflower. Five years ago, I was fortunate enough to be fired just six days after a miscarriage by a law firm renowned for its employment expertise. My farewell email to the firm went viral when Above the Law obtained a copy. As a result, my name and the circumstances surrounding my termination appeared in newspaper articles all over the web, including in the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the Today Show, and ABC News. A number of legal publications and blogs also picked up the story, including the ABA Journal and Legal Week, among others. My name is splattered all over the web, like diarrhea on the sides of a porcelain toilet bowl.
A google search of "Shinyung Oh" pulls up several images of me, including one with the following phrase: "Her name is Shinyung Oh. Mess with her at your peril." There is another taken from the Wall Street Journal, with my name "Shinyung Oh" typed below the pixelated image. Among the search results are my LinkedIn profile, my State Bar of California profile, my lawyer profile on Martindale Hubbell, and a number of my blog posts on various blogs. I saw records of my home sale in San Francisco, a few articles I had written for various publications, pdfs of my legal briefs, an article about a pro bono case I handled, and lists of donations I have made in the past.
If those at Google did not believe my name to be legitimate, why couldn't they have simply googled it?
The news of Google+'s rejection of my identity spread quickly on Facebook, where I posted the news. My friends responded with comments like:
"Its their way of saying your name is not whitey enough. Lol.have you considered changing it to Jane." 
"That's messed up."
"first the KTVU snafu, and now this. you'd think there'd be enough koreans working at google so this wouldn't happen."
Google has an office in Korea, by the way. (Do the employees there have Google+ accounts, I wonder?)
Google's refusal to believe the legitimacy of my name surprises me. Shinyung Oh doesn't sound like a fake name to me. It's not Ho Lee Fuk or Sum Ting Wong. I heard of a girl in college named Raisin Cain. And an unfortunate Korean kid named Bum Suk. But my parents were more merciful.   
The surname "Oh" should not be unfamiliar to most Americans who have watched Sideways or Grey's Anatomy (whose actress Sandra Oh just announced her departure from the show). But even for those who have been blissfully sheltered from American pop culture, a single search for "surname Oh" leads to a Wikipedia page which explains that "O or Oh is a romanization of a number of East Asian surnames" and lists a number of examples such as "David Oh (a Korean American politician)", "Junggeun Oh (a Korean artist)", "Oh Eun-Sun (a Korean mountaineer)", and "Oh Hye-Rin (a member of South Korean girl group, After School)". The search also pulls up links to a site described as "Oh - Last Name Meaning, Surname Origin & Family Name History" and to "Oh Name Meaning and Oh Family History at Ancestry.com." Both of these sites explain that "Oh is a common surname throughout Korea." 
As a teenager, I went through a period of being awkward about my name, as I wrote about here a while back. But in college, I got over it. When I became naturalized in the 90s, I took out the space between the two syllables in my first name. I hated having people assume that my first name was Shin and my middle name Yung, and I decided to have more faith in my fellow Americans' ability to pronounce two syllables even without a spatial aid. Sometimes when I meet people, I offer a little assistance with the pronunciation by pointing to the appropriate part of my body and then saying, "and not old." But no one I've ever encountered ever said, "Really? Is that your real name?"
For a global company co-founded by a guy named Sergey, you'd think its employees would be somewhat sensitized to different names. My name may be unusual in America, perhaps, but I am not the only Shinyung Oh (albeit with slightly different spellings), as Google search results of Facebook shows. Most reside in Korea, but Google and its products are global. And any company that sets up roadblocks to its products better have a clear sense of what it's trying to block. And learn how to use the tools at its disposal to avoid spurning the very customers it is trying to attract. 
But I can understand that the Google+ Team may have better things to do than google search the names of every person who tries to apply. After all, it has about 359 million active users (according to Wikipedia). Maybe the team is busy trying to come up with grand schemes for stealing Facebook's 1.11 billion users. 
I have decided not to continue to appeal to Google. I have no desire to send Google a copy of my driver's license or passport, as it invites me to. After all, I'm not applying for asylum, just access to yet another virtual social space. And I have little faith in Google+ Team's ability to delete my private information, as it assures me it would. Besides, I am no less visible on the web as a result, thanks to Google. My readers will have to find me however they can. Perhaps by using Google's search engine.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Something Funny

This made me laugh, and I had to share:

The other day, my husband Jeff was helping our 3.5 year old get dressed after a bath. As Jeff started to help T with his shirt, T started farting.

I said, "Uh, oh, do we have an emergency here?"

T said, "No, it's just my body telling Daddy to put my underwear on first."

Thursday, August 8, 2013


In 2008, I was fired by Paul Hastings three days after I returned to work after having a miscarriage. The firm knew about my pregnancy - and my subsequent miscarriage. I thought the firm's timing of my termination was deliberate and to put it mildly, insensitive. In response, I wrote a lengthy email detailing my perspective of the situation and turning down their offer of three months severance in exchange for an agreement promising to keep my termination and the firm's handling of the termination secret. That email went viral.

Even now, five years later, when Above the Law happens to reference my email, traffic to my blog spikes. I'm sure many are curious. Whatever happened to that woman? Did she get her ass kicked? Did she show them by going in-house and refusing to hire that firm? Did she ever manage to land another job interview? Does she regret what she did?

Like the thousands of comments that my original email spurred, I'm sure many of these questions have nothing to do with me. They are more about the reader's own concerns and anxieties. What happens to an employee who sticks out her middle finger at her former employer? Does she get away with it? Or is she shot down to wallow in her own remorse? What can I do to protect my own job, ensure I make partnership?

Well, I'll tell you what happened to me. For a brief period after the termination, I worked on a few projects as a contract attorney. Then my friends started referring clients to me, and I handled my own cases until my son was about a year and a half. It started to feel overwhelming to handle my own cases solo while also raising a child, so I decided then to refer those cases out and become a stay at home mom. That's what I have been doing for the past three years.

During that time, I also had a second child. My days have been filled with trips to Sea World, to Legoland, the San Diego Zoo, and playdates. I have time to read with my children, to answer all of their questions (and there are plenty from a 3.5 year old), to prepare their snacks and their meals, to bathe them, to roll around in the sand and to giggle with them. I wouldn't have traded that time for anything. Not even a law firm salary.

I've also had the luxury to think about what I want in life. And I've allowed myself to admit that I really don't want to be a lawyer for the rest of my life. I've always known that, but it's another to decide to act on that -- to give up that bar membership, to dismiss the 100K in student loan as just a minor financial miscalculation (and thank goodness I paid off my debts within the first three years of my practice), to decide that the three years spent in law school wasn't really a terrible waste of time since I learned so much.

I may have arrived at this decision even without the Paul Hastings incident. But it certainly made it easier. I saw a different perspective to what it means to be a stooge in a big law firm. The people who were involved in my termination were not evil. I actually liked them as individuals. But maybe the type of people who succeed in that type of environment are those who simply go along with whatever is asked of them. Not raise a stink. Be a good soldier. Check your spine at the door.

I remember participating in our litigation department meetings in the few months leading up to my termination. A few associates in our department had stopped showing up for work, and no one knew what happened to them. Did they quit? Did they get fired? Did they transfer? What happened? Well, we figured they got fired because some associates stayed in touch with them, but no one knew of the circumstances. During our department meetings, I remember raising my hand and asking about those associates who disappeared. I directly asked, "Are we having layoffs?" Several of the partners acted astounded that I would even think that the firm was having layoff, but refused to acknowledge that those associates had been fired. The department head simply said that he could not talk about them because the information was private.

What was amazing about those meetings was that no one -- not even one other associate -- was willing to ask questions about what was going on. Maybe some already knew the details because they were friends with those who left. But I know many other associates were in the dark with me because I had asked around and no one knew. I was astounded that I was working in an environment where people were afraid to ask basic questions about their job security.

After I left, a few of the younger associates thanked me for asking those questions at the department meetings that they said they were too afraid to ask. It says something about today's corporate environment in America that people can't ask basic questions -- that my one email should spur such interest and such a reaction.

For me, it was a healthy experience. I not only gained a new perspective, but I now feel more confident about myself. I feel like I can do so much more than I thought myself capable of doing. I also left the firm with a healthy sense of respect for myself. I can speak up for myself, and I can defend myself. That feels pretty good.

I'm trying to figure out my new career. It hasn't been easy trying to fit that in while I'm also taking care of two little ones. At the same time, it's a luxury and a privilege. Not many people are in a situation where they have the means to stay at home with the children and the means to invest in a new career. I feel blessed every day.

I'm just living my life. And trying to be a decent human being and a good citizen. And use my time wisely. All that good stuff. Not too different from what you are probably doing.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

An Unexpected Sweetness

My dad is a bit shy. And a little awkward. In a crowd, he'll be standing near the periphery with a big grin on his face. And twenty minutes later, he'll still be there, with the same grin. Without even a drink in his hand.

He never drives the car over the speed limit, even when other cars backlog behind him, honking, and they finally pass, revving up their engines and craning their necks to see who the hell drives at 55mph during rush hour.

His weight never fluctuates. For most of his adult life, he weighed exactly 120 pounds, a slight weight even for his 5 feet 4 inches. Now in his 70s, he has the shape of a skinny pre-teen. At mealtimes, he used to lecture us never to eat until we were full. Just stop before you fill up, he advised, because your stomach needs time to register its fullness. He rarely eats dessert, never a bite after he brushes his teeth, and rarely snacks, only relenting when my mother goads him repeatedly.

When we were in elementary school, he was the guy who doled out our extra homework. He filled up pages and pages of composition notebooks with math problems in columns so perfectly straight that you would have thought he used a ruler to guide his handwriting. When writing his checks, he always wrote in perfect block letters that I have since seen from some other engineering types.

During his 50s and 60s, he spent most of his days hunched over a table shaped like an ironing board, surrounded by tubes of chemicals. I never learned the names of chemicals, but I knew they were noxious. He used them to clean the mounds of clothes that arrived by armfuls everyday at their busy dry cleaner. He went over each piece of clothing slowly, meticulously, as if he were studying some engineering problem to be solved. The clothes came out perfectly, but his fastidiousness irritated my mother, who often complained that they could leave the store at a reasonable hour if he simply worked faster.

When he returned home, he holed up in the bedroom to count the day's earnings, dollar by dollar, quarter by quarter. He logged the earnings into a composition notebook, in the column next to the date, along with the number of the day's customers. When he finished, he placed the notebook next to the other two dozen he had maintained for the past 20 somewhat odd years of running the business.

Then when he had free time, he read the New York Times from beginning to end, with the paper spread out in front of him, a dictionary to his right. If we ever needed to know anything factual, like the population count of the people in Indonesia, we would ask him first before consulting the encyclopedia, because he often knew the information on the spot. He would tell us what we needed to know, along with other tidbits, like its status as the most populous Muslim nation.

I never quite know how to interact with him.

He is the guy who established the rules in our household. The one who refused to let us grow out our hair because he said it would interfere with our studying. The one who refused to let us wear makeup. The one I was reluctant to show my report card to when it had anything less than straight As. The one I was afraid to ask for permission when I was asked to go to the senior prom my freshman year.

While growing up, my sister and I huddled around our mom to chat, but never our dad. We told our mom about our daily lives, and he learned about our lives through our mom. And when we needed his permission for something, we always asked our mom, and a day or two later, she would tell us his response. Even these days, when we call, he says a perfunctory hello and hands the phone over to my mom.

For most of my life, I rarely made physical contact with him, except for a stretch when I was in the second grade and decided that we should kiss our parents goodnight before going to bed as I had seen on TV. Even now, whenever I have an occasion to part from my parents, I give my mom a hug. But with my dad, I give him a quick bow of the head and an awkward, half-hearted wave with my hand as I mutter "bye" in English.

We grew up hearing stories of his upbringing, of how he lived in a room in someone else's house as a child so that he could be closer to his school instead of walking miles each day. Of how he moved in with a doctor family in Seoul when he was accepted into a university in the city. We accepted these stories as an explanation for the state of our relationship.

When my son was first born, my dad came out with my mom to help. While my mom hurried around to help with the cooking, the cleaning, and all other tasks that go with running a house, he sat around, unsure of what to do with himself, first clutching my copy of The Aquariums of Pyongyang and then the week after, The Rape of Nanking. But the minute we stepped out with the baby in a stroller, he claimed his spot behind the stroller. You walk, I'll push, he always insisted. No, no, Dad, I would say, it's okay. You guys walk and enjoy the view. He would refuse to release his grip from the stroller, and I would relent. Then we would walk, my mom and me, purposeless for a change, and my dad steady in his role.

During those walks, my mom never failed to remind me how he had never pushed a stroller when we were little, and how he never held a newborn until I popped my son into his arms the day he was born. When we were little, my dad was often abroad, sent to work in places like Europe and Japan. My mom told us of how my sister cried when she first met him because he was away during her birth and for the first months of her life. I didn't understand how long that was until I had my own children and found out how long it takes for infants to develop stranger anxiety.

This past month, we stayed with my parents in New York for a couple of weeks. My 18 months old daughter had met my parents a few times before, but this was the first time she was old enough to interact with them in more substantive ways than just crying or smiling at them.

The visit started out as expected, with my mom cooking up a storm and fussing over the kids and my dad just smiling from the periphery as our kids roamed around their house and reached for everything within grasp. Even though there were four adults and just two kids, we at times felt outnumbered. When my mom scurried into the kitchen to prepare this or that dish or cut the fruit, I always rushed in behind her to help, which left Jeff to play defense with two kids in a house with exposed stairs, doors that jam little fingers, and glass objects waiting to fall on their heads.

The first day, my dad, in his effort to help, scooped up my daughter before I even had a chance to explain how shy she is, how she hates being picked up by anyone other than me and Jeff, how her petite figure belies her ability to scream. Miraculously, she did not scream. Or reach out to come to me. Or bury her face in her hands to pretend that she didn't see my dad. Instead, she just sat there, nestled in my dad's arms, looking as natural as an owl on a branch. She stared back at our baffled faces with a look as if to say, "What? What are you looking at?"

The strangeness continued when my mother picked her up. Whimpering, my daughter reached out not for me, but for my dad. Once ensconced in his arms, she stopped whining.

As the week continued, our daughter surprised us even more. During meal times, she repeatedly blew kisses at my dad -- and only my dad -- and waved her tiny hand at him as she whispered "Hi, Buji" in her abbreviated version of Harabuji, Korean for grandfather. My mom would interrupt my dad in the middle of his slurping and say,"She's waving! Wave back! Blow her a kiss!" In the minivan, she often tipped forward as far as her seatbelt would allow to look for him and giggle as soon as their eyes met. Whenever my dad wasn't in the room, she looked around, whispering, "Buji, Buji." Then when he appeared, her eyes lit up, and the flurry of kisses and waves resumed. She soon discovered his hiding spot, behind the desk in my old bedroom. As he sat there reading the New York Times, she ran in and crouched down to tip her head to meet his face. Once in position, she dispensed more kisses and hellos, and ran back in every few minutes until he finally gave up and came out carrying her in his arms.

My baffled mother asked her daily, "What about me? I'm the one who feeds you. Aren't you going to come to me?"

In my Facebook posts, I refer to my daughter as my angel. She seems like an angel now more than ever. She's tiny, weighing no more than 20 pounds, with a vocabulary of 50 or so words. She loves to say "neigh-neigh,""moo-moo," and "no, no!" She eats everything in birdlike nibbles, except for bratwurst or salami, which she devours like a starving hyena. This little being somehow arrived with a secret knowledge of our needs, our shortcomings, and the magical power to free us from the way we thought we were supposed to be. It is a sweetness and a generosity I had not anticipated -- and a filling of sorts, a filling we had all been craving but had not known until now.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


I don't have any insights this week. And apparently haven't had any for the past several weeks. But I would love to share some words streaming out of my 3.5 year old these days (which I've already posted on Facebook). Maybe you'll get some giggles out of these:

An exchange as we were walking along the ocean in Hawaii last week.
T: "I'm going to walk on the sand."
Jeff: "T, stay on the path."
T: "But I AM on the path!" (As he steps off the paved path and into the foot trodden "path" on the grass.)
Jeff: "Don't be a lawyer on me. Stay on the path. You know what I mean."
T: "I'm NOT a lawyer, Dad, I'm NOT a lawyer!"
Me: "T, do you know what a lawyer is?"
T: "No."
Me: "Then how do you know you're not a lawyer?"
T: "Because I'm just a regular guy."

In New York, as we're leaving a restaurant, T says, "Mom, can I have my snack now?"
Me: "T, what did Mommy say when you asked me earlier?"
T: "You said let's talk about it later. (Pause.) So, Mom, let's talk about it."

As his babysitter starts to put sunscreen on him, T says: "I don't need that. I'm Korean!"

And a little snippet from the life of my 19 months old angel:

Lately, my daughter has been giggling when I say "I love you" to her. Last night, when I said "I love you," she put her fingers together and tapped them a couple of times to sign "more" and then she whispered "more." When I complied and said "I love you" again, she giggled and rolled over to go to sleep.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Giving Up

For several months, I had been seized by a lingering headache. A dull throbbing, as if someone put a vice on my temples, tightening it ever so slightly. The other day, I realized that I've been having an ongoing dialogue with my sister in my head, going over snippets of what I could remember of our arguments, replaying her complaints, trying to decipher what she was saying, trying to see them from a new angle. Sometimes, I'm pleading with her, other times trying to reason, and then on other occasions, screaming and cursing her out. Depending on what's going on in my head, I'm either hopeful, resigned, or angry. And when I'm angry, the anger seethes out. And then the tears fall, whether I'm with Jeff, my kids, or some random stranger.

I realized that I've been doing this for the past seven years, ever since she estranged me. Trying to find some way to open a channel of communication. Trying to find my way out of this Kafka-esque maze, trying to shake the surreal out of my reality. Last month, I went to New York after avoiding it for three years, reluctant to go back and be hit in the face with our broken family, reluctant to put my parents in the awkward position of dealing with their daughters in separate transactions, as if we were hostile animals to be kept in separate cages. I finally decided to return, because I no longer had my children's ages as an excuse for not traveling long distance, because I no longer wanted to live in avoidance.

We decided to tack it on after my college reunion in Chicago to avoid making two trips to the East Coast. Soon after we arrived in New York, I found out that my sister's wedding at City Hall was scheduled to be held that week. What crappy planning on our part. How worse could our timing have been?

It turned out to be a strange week, with me encouraging my mom to wear a dress, not trousers, to the wedding and urging her not to show up empty handed, even if she already gave them a big fat check. Then shopping with my mom to help her buy a dress for the event, helping her pick out a wedding present, a card, wrapping paper. Then driving her back to Rite Aid because the wrapping paper turned out to be clear cellophane instead of silver lining. Listening to my parents talk through the logistics of the day, figuring out which train to take to the city. Me, always the dutiful daughter, offering to drive them to the train station so that they wouldn't have to walk blocks in their get up from the only lot that wasn't filled by mid-morning. Watching Jeff drive off with them in my place to go to the train station so that I could avoid making a scene in front of them with my mom's makeup all done. Standing next to my mother as she talks to my sister on the phone listening to her explain why she can't come out to Long Island to meet us for dinner even though Jeff and I are visiting with our kids.

In the midst of all this, I found myself seething at my parents. When all this started, I had begged them to help me somehow. To help us with this breach. To try to find some way to help us resolve this. But they claimed to be powerless. When does she ever listen to us, they said. What can we do? 

I found myself screaming at them. You're the parents. Show some leadership. Other parents figure out a way to help. Why can't you! Why are you so passive? When have I ever asked you to help me before? I'm so angry at you, so angry. 

My parents advised that's how things are sometimes. You grow older, you grow apart. You now have your own family to worry about. Siblings can't stay close when you have your own lives. 

I was disgusted by their sense of fatalism, their passivity. I argued with them and tried to convince them of their power, their ability to persuade, to lead. To keep the family together.

I found myself vowing never to come back. It's too hard, I told my mom. It hurts too much.

The rest of the visit, however, was amazingly pleasant, despite all this. We arrived to find the house immaculate and stocked with all things organic, including bags of cherries, pints of blueberries and raspberries, cereal, milk, meat, and even the bath and hand soap, this from my parents who had previously stepped into their local Whole Foods once. They splurged the kids with new gifts of toys and mounds of snacks. And they had rounded up all the toys they could find remaining from our childhood days.

Most mornings, we packed a huge bag of snacks and piled into our rental minivan, where my mom sat next to our son, and my dad next to my daughter (who found it amusing to wave at them periodically during the drive when she wasn't napping). We spent the days as tourists with my parents, visiting the Museum of Natural History, the Long Island Children's Museum, the Cradle of Aviation Museum. Taking a cruise around the Statue of Liberty. My children rode a carousel with my parents, who said they might as well since when are they going to have another opportunity. My mom first insisted on riding the horse that pumped up and down, but as the whirl of the power started, she jumped off and plopped next to my dad on the fixed bench. We spent two mornings at a driving range where our son played putt putt golf with my parents, even though the grounds were sopping wet from rain the prior day. After, they yelled at the guy working on the golf course to get the train out, their grandkids wanted a ride. The guy ran over to some rusty shed and came out creaking in a 4 car train, dutifully blowing the horn to let the kids know that the train had arrived. We all then piled on and sat in that damn thing as the guy drove us over a rubbled path and circled the parking lot twice. The remaining mornings, we spent with our kids giggling in a kiddie pool in my parents' backyard while Jeff menaced with the water hose.

Then, every day, just hours after we had stuffed ourselves with a full breakfast, they herded us to a restaurant where they ordered dishes upon dishes, encouraging us to eat, heaping food on our kids' plates. When they saw how well our son ate at their favorite Korean BBQ place, they made plans to return three days later. Then after we had stuffed ourselves, they had us pull over at a Korean grocery or Whole Foods so that we could pick up more food. And as we drove home, my dad pointed out to my three and half year old son every single golf driving range or course on which he had played.

As our visit unfolded, I found myself exhausted. But with a slightly different perspective.

I started to realize that it's time to give up hope. To give up hope of having a cohesive family. To give up hope of reconciling. To give up some romantic version of the Waltons that we'll never be. When I found out about my sister's wedding, I realized that a part of me had been holding out for an invitation to the wedding, because my mom had told me late last year that she planned to invite me. How foolish I had been to hope for some reconciliation after all these years. Let's face it. When someone hasn't talked to you in seven years, you aren't getting a damn invitation to her wedding. And it's time to face that. We're never going to reconcile. Not after seven years.

When someone refuses to talk to you for seven years, nothing can change. They are not willing to entertain any new set of facts, any new piece of information to inform their actions. They don't want to see it through a new perspective. They have already made up their minds. They have closed themselves off. It's so obvious now, but I don't know why I didn't see that before.  

Even if I had anything new to say, I don't even think it'll make a difference. For most of our adult lives, I had been such a good sister to her. I don't think she would deny it. I always thought of her and always included her in my life. I can't remember a single close friend of mine that I didn't introduce her to. I remember her calling me when she was in high school, needing help convincing my parents to let her go to her choice of college. And I did as requested, talking to my parents for hours on the phone, doing all I could to convince them. I remember keeping her boyfriends secret from my parents and always being available to listen to her talk about the guys in her life, her work situation, her friends, her books. I always invited her out to visit me wherever I lived, sometimes her and her friend, paying for her plane tickets and whatever expenses she incurred during her visit. I remember going out to North Carolina to help her move, even getting stung by a bee in the eye during the process, and doing that again when she was living in New York. I remember taking her on a trip to the Yosemite, to LA, to Paris, paying for all of the expenses, the tickets, figuring out our itinerary for the whole week. I remember always buying her a souvenir first before even buying my own whenever I went away on a trip. I remember helping her move in with me in San Francisco, buying her ticket, clearing out a room for her, buying her new furniture, even when I was strained with my new mortgage in my new house, and throwing her a brunch so that she could meet all of my friends.

Despite all that, she didn't see any point in giving me the benefit of the doubt. Of taking pause before kicking me to the curb. Not that I think I should get a free pass. No, but I should have had some reserve of goodwill to at least warrant a second chance before exile. But it made no difference. So why should anything I do in the future make any difference?

What hurts the most is that she gave me no room to be a human being, blind to my own flaws. And that she cut off any hope of me learning from her, growing from our tensions, gaining a new perspective as a result. I remember her complaining that I demeaned her by ordering for her in the restaurants when we ate out. And now I look back and think it so strange that I did that. Why did I do that? So strange. But maybe not so strange in a family where I order for my parents at every restaurant. But whatever the reason, she gave no latitude for me to be blind to my own actions, to have the generosity to accept that I may have some human flaws that I could one day overcome.

But it hardly matters now. That reconciliation is never going to happen. I see that now. I told my parents this time. I told them my expectation that I will not see her until one of their funerals. Their eyes widened but they nodded along.

But I'm also realizing that we could be a family without my sister. Me, with my kids and Jeff, and my parents. We could still be a family. And I don't have to wedge my sister in the middle to make us cohesive. We could still be a family with just us, without her.

I let this problem with my sister get in the way of my relationship with my parents. Because I blamed them. I blamed them for not being able to help us. I thought they had failed in one of their basic functions as a parent. I also blamed them for us getting into this predicament in the first place. For putting me in the role of the domestic taskmaster while they worked 16 hour days. For making me my sister's keeper. For using me as a conduit to speak to her when they couldn't figure out a way to connect with her directly. For using me to influence her when they abandoned their own powers. But my dad is in his 70s now, my mom in her late 60s. There's too little time left to quarrel.

After our plane landed in San Diego, I called my parents to let them know that we had arrived. My mom answered. After the initial greetings, she said, "I wish we could come out to visit you once a year and you could come out to New York once a year." I found my responding, "Maybe, Mom. Maybe..."

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


Next week, we're heading out to Hawaii. We love going out there. The kids love playing in the water, and we stay in beautiful resorts that feel like paradise. We live a blessed life, and we know it. Jeff and I say it to each other almost everyday -- how lucky we are to live as we do. We have very few worries, we have beautiful children, and we have each other.

Last summer, we took my parents with us. It was our way of saying thanks for them helping us with our daughter after she was born. They put their lives on hold for almost a month to help us out, and we repaid with ten days in Big Island. When we stepped into the lobby of The Fairmont and saw the panorama of the resort grounds, my parents' jaws dropped. I had taken them to Hawaii before, but we didn't stay in such a nice place last time. Every morning, before we even woke up, they had walked all over the grounds, looking at all the flowers, the trees, the birds, and the geckos. Then we met for the breakfast buffet, where they piled up their dishes as I had never seen them piled up before. Then they got up for a second round, before going back for desserts.

After eating, we usually headed over to the beach so that my son could play in the water while I sat under the cabana with our infant. My parents joined us some mornings, and on others, they went to play golf. Then it was time for a meal of crab rolls and hamburgers. After, the kids napped indoors while my parents napped in the cabana. In the evening, we went out for dinner and ate delicious sushi at the fabulous Monstera restaurant right outside the resort.

I had never seen my parents so relaxed and happy. Most times, when my parents visit, my mom is so busy trying to help that we usually get into arguments. I ask her to stop doing my laundry or my dishes, and she shoos me away, telling me to go watch my kids. Then, she gets exhausted and then gets irritated with my dad for not helping enough, even though he does everything she asks him to do. When we were in Hawaii, there was nothing to do. All they could do was relax on the beach, take walks, or play golf. No time for irritation.

This past month, we went to NY to visit them. On a table in their living room, they had the framed photos of Hawaii that I had sent them. And attached to the frame was a coaster from the resort, where my dad had jotted down the dates we had spent in Hawaii.

This year, we are going alone, and I felt a little guilty telling them that we were going. But we are already planning a trip to Sedona with them this winter, and I expect my dad to save another coaster from that trip.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Giving Myself a Break

A couple of months ago, I met with an admissions assistant at University of San Diego's Masters in Family Therapy program.  He was a young guy -- in his early 30s perhaps. We chatted for just 30 minutes about the admissions requirement so that I can start thinking about how someone like me -- someone post career no. 1, someone midlife, someone with a family -- can start to incorporate a masters program into her life. We sat in a small conference room, he with a brochure, me with a purse and a single piece of paper with all of my questions. I asked all the questions off of my list, and he gave me the answers that he gives in his capacity. After the short meeting, I walked around the building, briefly peering into classrooms where lecturers stood in front of whiteboards and a few kids in hooded sweatshirts sat hunched over their computers. As I walked around, I found myself muttering, "Really? Am I going to leave my kids at home with some stranger so that I can come sit here? Really??"

Shortly after that visit, I pushed aside the idea of doing a MFT program. If I'm so ready to push it aside, maybe it's not the right path for me. Maybe I really wasn't that into it in the first place -- not that committed to the idea. Maybe...

For the past few months, we've had a babysitter for about 12 hours a week so that I can figure these things out. I haven't been doing anything with that time other than blogging and entertaining the idea of doing something with my writing. I love writing. It grips me at my core -- deep inside where it really matters. Like any other craft, I need to keep at it -- practice it, immerse in it -- knead it like dough. Despite my shortcomings, I find it fulfilling in a way few other things are. But how do you make a living with it, make it a career? I know others do -- so why do I doubt that I can? I feel like such a coward at times. I've never taken a risk in my life. Not really. And I wonder what I even have to say that's worth saying -- really, is anything I have to say any different than what anyone else feels or says? And how could I ever write as beautifully as some of those writers out there? What about all those people with PhDs in literature, those who've read everything worth reading? I haven't read a book in ages -- I feel like such a phony.

Last night, I read some interviews with Kazuo Ishiguro. For the past year, I've been obsessed with his book Never Let Me Go, and I can't stop thinking about it. So I was just poking around on the net after putting my son down for the night, and what a pleasant surprise that he wasn't schooled in literature. He wanted to be a musician and went onto writing only when he couldn't make a success of a music career. He then went onto a MFA program. In one of the interviews, he identified the few writers who formed the foundation of his writing. I copied down that list.

I'm still floundering, but it's clear that I need some more structure. I've been all over the map lately. I sometimes think I should get the MFT because I can use that knowledge as a basis for writing anyway, even if I decide not to become a therapist. Other days, I'm convinced that I need to become a journalist, and build my foundation for writing that way. I've also considered just blogging -- using this as my basis for writing and launching my writing career that way. Since my time is so limited these days anyway, isn't that a good use of my time?

I've even been going back and forth about signing up for an online class. One class. Which takes up just a couple of hours a week. Just because it's right around dinner time, and I'm not sure whether I should delay the kids' dinner time so that I could sit in front of the computer.

What is wrong with me??!!

Ugh, ok, as I'm writing this, it's becoming obvious that I just need to sign up for a class. Stop feeling so guilty. I'm allowed to do this, right? What's the harm? I can spend a few hundres bucks on a class. I can. Really. Right??

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

My Favorite Time

Near the end of the day, after I've stacked all the crusty dishes in the dishwasher, washed the highchair tray for the eighth time that day, picked up smeared beets and clumped shredded cheese and sticky rice off of the high chair and floor, scrubbed the bottles and tiny spoons with the brush, and left all the leftovers on the table for Jeff to handle, I pick up my little girl. Even though I had just given her a bath less than an hour earlier, little gobs of rice and cheese are tangled in her wisps of hair. She smells of sweet potato and milk and cheese. I cart her over to the sink and rinse off what I can, even though she protests by pulling her hand back before all the soap has been washed out. I stretch her little limbs to meet the faucet once again and shrink back when she threatens to grab its mouth and splash us both. As I carry her down the hall to change her yet again, she giggles and coos and talks to me in her secret language.

We make our way upstairs, with her still cradled in my arms and a milk bottle in my hand. I bounce up the stairs with a little extra jolt to squeeze in her last fun for the day, as I exclaim, "Bouncy, bouncy, bounce!" She giggles with each jolt, squeezing her eyes and scrunching her nose. Upstairs, I click on one reading lamp, just enough to help me make my way across the room, where I bundle her in two layers of wearable blankets, and with the push of a button, I make raindrops magically fall without rain. As I zip her up, her hands rise to her eyes and she rubs and rubs as if suddenly lured by the spell of sleep.

I pick her up once more and we move back across the room to sit on the glider. There, I nestle her in my lap with her back stretched across my left arm. With my other hand, I pick up the bottle and hold it up for her. Her mouth reaches for it eagerly, even though we had just eaten minutes earlier, and she fills up for the night. Her head rests on the hollow of my neck, and she slumps with a sudden heaviness, as if giving in, no longer fighting. I rock ever so gently, gently enough to help her find her rhythm of sleep.

There, while she drinks, I hold her. I pull her in a little closer and press my cheek against her forehead. I feel her warmth, her softness, the tickle of her hair. I breathe in the familiar, comforting scent of her skin. I listen to her breathe. I kiss her all over her face and pull up her tiny hand to plant some more kisses there.

When she is done, she pushes the bottle away. She rubs her eyes some more, and I keep rocking her. She rolls herself over and pulls up her head to look at me. She puts her delicate finger on my nose to say "nose." Then she folds herself into a little ball on my lap and shifts around to find a comfortable spot. I pick her up once more and ferry her across the room. I swing her slowly as I walk, whispering, "It's sleepy time." I lean over to kiss her a few more times, to smell her, to breathe in her breath, before I lean over to lay her in her crib. I run my hand down her hair and her cheeks as I say good night. With her eyes barely open, she kicks a couple of times in the air, then rolls over onto her stomach, turns her head to face the wall, and positions herself for sleep.

I linger a bit. Standing over her crib, I watch her shift and settle down. I see her back rise and fall. I fidget a bit with the curtain and then the stuffed animals sitting by the side. Then I watch some more. Then, reluctantly, I tip toe away and leave her in the care of the night.  

Monday, April 15, 2013

Our Weekend

When Jeff worried on Saturday evening that Sherlock may not make it through the night, I brushed aside his concerns. "He'll be fine," I said with a wave of the hand. "You just gave him his medication. It takes some time for it to kick in, and when it does, I'm sure he'll start eating again. You'll see."

Earlier that day, a little after 2pm, we arrived home after brunch at our friends'. All morning, Jeff waited for a call from the vet and the result of the biopsy, which would then determine the course of treatment. He spoke to the receptionist who told him that the vet wasn't in on the weekend and wouldn't be in until Tuesday. "I was told that we would have the results in 24 hours. We cannot wait until Tuesday," Jeff told the lady evenly. "Our dog is sick, and we need to get him his medication." Hours and multiple calls later, we finally had the medication. Sherlock hadn't eaten for days, and we were hoping the medication would help him regain his appetite.

After he fed Sherlock his one and half pills of prednisone, Jeff prepared the guest bedroom for Sherlock. He couldn't stand to leave Sherlock outside in such condition, despite T's allergies. He laid some towels on the carpet since all of Sherlock's beds were now weather beaten and filthy from being left outside. Jeff spent the night down there after helping put the kids to bed.

In the morning, Sherlock looked better. He still wasn't eating, but Jeff put some peanut butter around his pills and helped him swallow. In his bowl, we left out two of his favorite foods, salmon and cheese, and left to do our outing for the day. When we returned after lunch, we noticed that Sherlock still hadn't eaten and had thrown up what little he had. He was sitting by the side of the house, and Jeff cajoled him to his kennel where he could lie on his pad. When Sherlock started walking, his gait was staggered and he barely made it across the narrow yard.

While I was inside helping T go down for his nap and feeding S, Jeff sat outside with Sherlock hugging him and petting him. About an hour later, I went outside to see how they were doing. I saw Jeff sitting in front of the dog house crying. "I think I have to take him in," he said. "Look how he's suffering." Through the grates of his dog house, I could see Sherlock prostrated with his sides heaving up and down as if he were weighted down with bricks.

"Oh, no..." was all I could manage to say, and we cried and cried. "Tell me if that's not the right decision," Jeff asked through his tears. And I said, "I don't know, I don't know. I don't know when you're supposed to do something like that. How do you know?"

Jeff walked down the driveway with Sherlock's pad to put it in the back of his truck. Then he came back and waited for me as I finished petting him. He tried to cajole Sherlock out of the kennel but Sherlock couldn't move. Jeff reached in and pulled him out. Then, he picked him up and carried Sherlock's drooping 63 pound frame to the truck. There, Jeff hoisted him up on the back door propped open and climbed up. Once up there, Jeff picked up Sherlock once again and placed him on his pad. From his pad, Sherlock lifted his head to look at me as I stood on the curb. Then they drove away.

Jeff returned less than an hour later. I saw him come in through the gate and start throwing things away. Two doggie bowls, a doggie pad, kennel, a roll of poop bags, shampoo, brush. He said Sherlock didn't even make it to the hospital. When they arrived, Sherlock was barely breathing, and he died in Jeff's arms in the back of the truck.

Just two weeks ago, he seemed perfectly fine. Then this past Thursday, we found out that he probably had cancer, and three days later, he was gone. I can't stop thinking of the book Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, where people are born burdened, fated for a cruel end, and yet they live looking forward, propelling themselves to the next rite of passage. When I read the book, I thought days on end about how true it was, and now I can feel how true it is. And I feel so burdened -- burdened with our fates and what we've brought on ourselves -- by having a pet, by having children. I think of our aging parents, of our numbered days, our vulnerability.

I wish I had been kinder to him instead of treating him as a source of irritation all those days. That I had petted him more. That I hadn't shooed him out of my way all those times. That I had been more of a pal than an enforcer.

Maybe I'm too old to be learning these lessons, but then again maybe you're never too old to learn such lessons. I think of the 10 years that passed so quickly, and how those years sum up to nothing more than the time spent with each other. And I think about how I have to love my children and Jeff a little more, how I have to hug and kiss them a little more, how we have to laugh a little more. I think about my friends I want to see, the talks we can have, the times we can share. I think about being a little more kind, a little more generous, a little more forgiving. And with those thoughts, life feels a little less and a little more at the same time.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Another Day

When we awoke, it was a day like any other. Little T ran into our room, screaming, "I'm awake! Mommy, Daddy, I'm awake. It's morning time!" In spurts from her crib, Little S cried "mamamamamama, mamamamama," until Jeff crawled out of bed and picked her up. When I managed to drag myself out from under the cover, T wrapped himself around my arm and screamed, "Mommy, I want to be with you, I want to be with you!" as he smothered me with open mouthed kisses.

I pried myself loose and ran downstairs to grab some milk for S and headed back up. After the milk, the change of diaper, the pee-pee on the potty, the undressing of pajamas and then the dressing into the day's outfit, after a discussion on whether it was a school day or a swim class day, we all scurried downstairs. After Jeff burned the frozen waffles and made another for T, after S nibbled on prunes and kiwi to make her business a little less unpleasant, I took my shower. Then I ran into the garage to unload the laundry dried the night before and to load yet another load in our never-ending cycle of laundry. When I turned with my basket in hand, I noticed a stack of plastic bins leaning, threatening to crush us, and I called Jeff into the garage to rearrange the plastic bins to remove the one with the broken lid on the bottom and set them straight. After the rearranging, we made plans to go out for lunch. Then, Jeff hurried out to take T to his morning swim class while I cleaned the smeared fruit off of S's face.

When Jeff and T returned, I loaded the kids into the car to go to playgroup. At E's house, we nibbled on snacks, chatted with other moms and cooed at other babies, rubbed smeared paint off of T and S as they expressed their artistic inclinations at the craft table. After the hour passed in what seemed like minutes, I hurried out with the kids to try to make it home in time to meet Jeff as we had planned. In the car, I checked my phone and noticed his email, canceling our lunch, explaining that he needed to take Sherlock to the vet for a follow up exam, that it wasn't looking good.

I drove around with the kids strapped in their carseats, little S fast asleep, T prattling on as he always does. We headed for the McDonalds drive thru, where I could feed T his lunch without disrupting little S's nap. After debating the disadvantages of the cheeseburger versus the chicken mcnuggets, we settled on the cheeseburger, which he promptly decided not to eat after poking five holes through the buns because he found the cheese not to his liking, although he ate the apple slices and drank the milk. I drove us back home and finally, impatient, and unable to entertain T any longer, I awoke S from her nap and herded us inside. After some playing with legos and magna tiles and tea sets, T fell asleep after I bribed him with an after-nap movie.

Three hours later, Jeff still wasn't home, and I left him a voicemail and a text, wondering what the hell was taking so long. S and I flipped through fourteen different board books, pointing at dog, dog, ruff, ruff, kitty, kitty, meow, meow, and duck, duck, quack, quack. I refilled the ball popper again and again as she giggled and bounced up and down in delight. We walked around the living room and then through the kitchen, and then through the living room again, with her soft tiny hand wrapped around my index finger. I wedged myself between her and the garbage drawer where she likes to practice her newly discovered hobby of throwing tissues away, after daintily dabbing away at her little mouth, me hoping she would never discover the crushing pain of closing doors.

As we took yet another turn around the living room, I heard the gate squeak open, and I scooped S up and headed to the front door. There I saw Sherlock lingering around his dog house next to the bowl of dry food still left uneaten, his belly shaven of fur in a large rectangular patch the size of a laptop, and no sight of Jeff. Still carrying S, I walked out the front door, toward the front gate when I saw Jeff come out from behind the garage where he had been throwing something out.

He saw me, came up the three steps into our front yard, and standing with his hand extended to steady the swinging gate, said with an attempted smile, "I took him for a swim," pointing at Sherlock. "How did it go? Did the vet figure out what's wrong?" I asked.

And he looked up once again and looked back down, with his hand still on the gate, as he said, "So, he has cancer. They did all the tests and the ultrasound showed the lumps and they're pretty sure that's what it is. And we can do chemo but it's eight thousand dollars and it may or may not give him another six months and I always thought it made no sense for dogs when there are kids out there who can't get treatment and maybe we just donate that money where it can be used for a kid. They think he has a few weeks left, but they have some steroid treatment they can try..."

And he kept talking as if he were afraid to stop talking, afraid to take a breath, afraid to let the words run out. And as he talked, my ears must have gotten stuck many words ago, right around the beginning when he said the word cancer and a part of my brain must have been trying to process it because I stood very still as the word began to sink in. And I felt myself starting to crumble. It was as if someone had injected me with some narcotic, making my body feel heavy, weighted, overtaken by emotion and tears that just sprang out of nowhere, and I started crying and Jeff said, "You're going to make me cry now."

I reached out and we held each other with S in between us, in front of the gate, both of us leaning in to each other and staring at Sherlock through our tears.

Friday, April 12, 2013

In Honor of Sibling Day

When we were planning our family, Jeff and I never considered stopping after one. We always wanted to have at least two children (although, much to Jeff's horror, I initially floated the idea of going for four.) The reason was partly selfish. We didn't want to get stuck playing Legos with our kid until he left for college. But we also considered all the benefits siblings can provide each other. Like having a partner for Ring Around the Rosie. And having someone who will eat the rest of the mashed sweet potatoes (which T always does) instead of having countless Earth's Best jars accumulate in the fridge. And making up some silly song for his sister to make her giggle even though she has no idea what he's saying. And giving each other a little smooch when the other falls. We wanted our children to be there for each other when life's hardships inevitably surface. We wanted to find a way for them not to feel so alone in this world. To feel like there is always someone who has your back, who is sitting with you in your corner, even when Jeff and I are no longer around.

I've always been glad not to be an only child. I think I would have hated it. I pitied some of my friends who had no siblings. So many of them seemed lonely. And some seemed overly self-involved. And a few others seemed to have narrower exposure to the world, which I attributed to them not having as many influences within the family. Not all my only child friends were like that, of course, and I also have some perfectly well adjusted friends who have no siblings. But even they have to carry more burden than I would prefer in looking out for their parents and worrying about their well being as they age.

I know I learned a lot from my siblings. Even from my brother's heavy metal music, which I found painful to listen to at ear drum breaking volume. My sister introduced me to a lot of literature and ways of seing things. And we used to talk so much about our family issues -- and everything else. I miss that.

Yesterday morning, I saw a couple of posts on Facebook about Sibling Day when I first woke up, and I found myself bawling when I was later using the bathroom. Our family seems like such a failure these days, and I'm not sure why that is. Why our family fell apart when others manage to hold theirs together. It feels like the biggest failure in my life. It colors everything, making all else feel somewhat hopeless. Whenever Jeff and I have an argument, even the most trivial, I find myself saying, "Well, this is going to shit like everything else." I feel pessimistic and flawed, as if it is all my fault. As if I really don't have any skills in managing human relationships. I also feel alone in this world in an existential sense, in a way I've never felt before, even though I have a wonderful family of my own.

I've been reading about sibling strife to understand better why we have so much in my family. The book I recently finished profiles 60 different sets of sibling of different backgrounds and ages. I'm amazed to see how varied the specific disputes can be and yet, when it comes down to it, it seems there is just a handful of root causes of sibling friction.

I've heard many times that when siblings don't get along -- not just fight now and then, but are antagonistic to each other -- often, the deep down root of the conflict is not with each other but really with the parents. In other words, a sibling does not dislike his or her sibling because he/she is a fundamentally bad person. Rather, the sibling is angry or grieved about some sense of unfairness at the parents' treatment of the children. For example, when a parent favors one child over others, the unfavored child expresses anger at the favored child, but it is really the parent whose behavior should be addressed.

This is probably part of the problem in my own case. Not to blame the parents. I think most parents do what they can, what they believe to be right. And I know my parents had no bad intentions. But like most people, they have their blind spots, their unquestioned cultural norms, their own weaknesses and needs. And they tend to be passive more than proactive, and for large segments of our childhood, they didn't have the time to be actively engaged in our lives. I think a lot of the problems in our family stems from a combination of these factors.

I also think sibling relationships need a lot of help to follow the right course. I see it in my own children. They have so much affection to share, but at the same time, there is inherent competition for attention and control. Without some intervention from me and Jeff, I don't know whether my children could have a healthy relationship. We have to set limits and teach them how to treat each other -- and to respect each other. And to see each other as individuals, not just as the younger or older sibling. There is an inherent imbalance of power, and I make an effort to help our older child be sensitive to that. I also try to teach them to value having a cohesive family. I tell T, "Do you know that you and S are going to be such good friends? When she learns to talk, you can talk to her about anything and everything. You guys will have so much fun together!"

I'm not trying to say that I am blameless in my fallouts with my own siblings. I know we've all done things we regret -- and wish that we could have found ways to conduct ourselves more maturely and with more foresight. But severing a family relationship is such a drastic act, and I can't help but wonder if the tensions in our relationships didn't result from a pattern of unhealthy behavior that should have been addressed along the way. If the relationship wasn't already at a breaking point.

I thought reading about other siblings would make me reflect further about my situation. It has to a degree, but it has also had this unexpected effect of making me want to wash my hands of the whole thing. Seeing others persistently engage in such painful and noxious battles makes me want to disengage. When I read about these other siblings, I wanted to tell them, just move on! Live your life. Why keep going back for more?

Yeah, good advice for myself. I'm starting to realize that there is nothing you really can do when someone in your family cuts you off. You can mourn the situation, but you can't change their minds -- not unilaterally. And I think the willingness to throw away a relationship may reflect the reality that the relationship was unhealthy to begin with -- and maybe the one throwing away the relationship wanted to find a way to come out from under the burdens of the relationship. That for them, the burdens outweighed any benefits.

And I can see that a little more objectively now, without feeling so defensive. And understanding that the relationship may not have entirely been about me but also about the dynamics of our family or my sibling's sense of self helps me to understand that maybe some separation is for the best. Because that person no longer wants to continue to engage in that role in the family. Or needs to affirm herself, to say, "I'm worthy of more than that. You can't treat me like that." Or no longer wants to be in the shadows of another, to see herself in comparison with her sibling. Or maybe a separation from the sibling somehow helps them salvage the direct relationship with the parent somehow, although I'm not sure why it works like that.

I wonder at what age we start to see ourselves through our own eyes. When do we stop viewing ourselves through our parents' eyes and judge ourselves to be inadequate? When do we stop being the one who was loved less? The one who didn't receive the kind of approval we felt we deserved? When do we stop competing against each other? When do we stop re-living the childhood wrongs we feel we suffered at the hands of our sibling? And when do we recognize childhood acts for what they were -- as immature behavior of children with underdeveloped judgment?

It's amazing that you can live the remaining 60-80% of your life stuck in the mold set by those first 18 years. Or fighting it. Or bitterly engaged in repudiating it. And still feeling angry, or deprived, or cheated.

I think the only thing you can do is to find a way to achieve your own happiness. It sounds so trite, but it's not really. You have to find a way to get your emotional needs met -- and to even get to that stage, you have to work on yourself and figure out what your emotional needs are. You have to find a way to figure yourself out -- and a way to be honest with yourself. I don't think you can have a healthy relationship with others unless you're happy with yourself -- and I know I need to work on that to protect my relationships with my own family.

I'm not sure where I am on that road, but I know I have a long way to go. There are things about myself that I don't even know I don't know. I have so many blind spots about myself. But thinking about this makes me feel somewhat liberated -- and helps me start to pull my head out of the muddle.

So for all of you out there with healthy sibling relationships, I envy you -- and I toast you. I hope you took note of the day that just passed and made a point to celebrate it in some way, however small.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Paranoia of a Mother

Being a mother makes me paranoid in a way I never expected. Every grandma, car, or dog we pass on the street is a potential enemy, and I keep my fangs ready to attack if necessary. That sweet faced blond college girl texting behind the wheel of her Prius? She's better stop long before the stop sign or I will scream bloody murder until I wake her out of her iPhone stupor. That lanky teenager hunched atop his skateboard careening down the sidewalk? Don't even dare swerve toward my baby in her stroller because I'll kick a rock in front of his wheels before he can say narly. That grandma walking her pitbull? Yeah, you'd better believe I'm going to cross the street because I don't want to have to try to pry that dog's jaws off of my baby's neck.

As if the everyday encounters weren't enough, I go looking for trouble. I scour the papers and read up on every abduction, every murder, every accident involving a child. I could not stop myself from reading every article on Leiby Kletzky, the Newtown massacre, Jaycee Dugard, you name it. I scour the stories of the incidents, the reactions of their family and friends, their funerals.

Every time I read about one of these kids, my teeth clench. I start rubbing my forehead and feel my chest tighten. I cry for them, their parents, their siblings. I jab my husband lying next to me reading some technical manual (if such things can be read) and say, "Can you believe this? Can you imagine something like this happening to us?"

"No, no, I can't" is always my husband's whisper of a response. As I rant on, he asks how I find this stuff -- and why am I always reading such stories?

I'm drawn to them. Somewhat curious, perhaps, and completely horrified. But I want to know. Where were the parents? What did the parents do or not do? And most importantly, what did the predator do? It's not just morbid curiosity. I feel as if we have to prepare. What IF something like this were to happen to us? What IF? And how can we prevent it? Who are these monsters? How do they think? What is their m.o.?

We have to come up with a plan of action. We have to know our enemies.

I imagine how I would react. What would I do if something unthinkable were to happen? If someone were to break into our house, how would I fight back? Would we bonk him with our $2 flashlight? I'm poorly equipped with not even a single martial arts class, barely an hour of self defense lesson. I've had fleeting thoughts about whether I need to equip myself with the proper tools.

We have perfectly rational friends, those with higher degrees, sensible and thoughtful people, without even a splotch of red on their necks -- those who seem like one of us -- arm themselves. "What, you bought a gun? You're willing to kill someone with that thing?" And they always respond, "Well, if I have to..."

One friend who is considering buying a gun has two beautiful daughters. Not yet teens. They are breathtakingly beautiful, sweet, and so, so innocent. Our friend wants a gun to protect her daughters. "What if some asshole tries to hurt one of them? I'm going to take that motherfucker out." She is tiny, our friend. Always with a smile on her face. And she loves babies. All babies. I can't even imagine her with a gun. Or shooting someone. But she would do it, take out that motherfucker, if she had to.

I wonder who is the fool here. Me, or those millions of people with guns in their possession. In the event of a break and entry, or god forbid, some kind of riot or a massive earthquake where law and order breaks down, wouldn't we want to protect ourselves, our children? I think of those images from the LA Riots, when those Korean grocers guarded their stores from their rooftops, brandishing their rifles. And I thought, "Damn right. Defend yourselves and what is rightfully yours." And aren't our children worth protecting more than a bunch of groceries? And if something were to happen, something terrible, would I be able to stand by helplessly? Wouldn't I want something -- anything -- to fight back?

Of course. Of course. What parent wouldn't? I would use it -- I know it in my gut. And I wouldn't be sorry because I would be doing what I had to do to defend my children. Every parent must feel this. And every parent has the same right to defend her child as I do.

So what does that mean? A couple of guns in every household. Teachers armed with guns. Guns in glove compartments. Guns in strollers. Guns at amusement parks, at basketball games, at picnics.

I think about when my children become old enough to play at their friends' houses without me. Do I ask the parents first -- "Do you have guns in your house? How is it secured? Can I come by to make sure it's not in a place where the children can access it?" And walking down the street, I now have to worry about people with guns in addition to texting drivers, reckless kids on skateboards, pitbulls.

I grew up with a lot of fear -- in New York in the 80s. It was pre-Giuliani New York, the days paralyzed by the murder of Kitty Genovese, the smoldering anger of Bernie Goetz, the rape of the Central Park jogger. I never went out at night, and if the sun started to set while we were out, we scurried home, looking over our shoulders. As I grew older, that fear never left me, even when my parents escaped to the placidity of Long Island. I remember coming home from work, in the quiet of the evening, looking all around the vicinity from within the safety of the locked car before I darted out and ran the 20 feet to our front door. When I was in law school, I remember stopping in my tracks and waiting for the men to pass me after making deliberate eye contact with them before I continued, because that's what I learned in a self defense class. Now, even though we live in the sanctuary of La Jolla, where people leave their french doors gaping open and elementary school kids roam the neighborhood on their own, I still look over my shoulders in the evening.

That kind of anxiety still lives in me. And that is my view of the world. A dangerous place where people prey on each other. Where you keep your door locked at all times. Where there is a monster lurking behind every corner.

Our three year old went through a monster phase recently. He was scared to sleep at night because he said there was a monster in his room. He didn't want us to leave, and he wanted to keep his door open. We wanted to allay his fears, so we told him how monsters don't really exist except in books and movies. When that didn't work, we told him that the monster was a cute cuddly monster, like Elmo. When he didn't believe us, we let him sleep with our dog in his room, until we found out that he was allergic to dogs.

He has since outgrown his fear of monsters. But we went through a lot to help him feel secure in this world, to feel less threatened. Because we want him to believe that he lives in that kind of a world, where not everyone is a monster, a potential threat. Where people are kind to each other. We don't want him to grow up with anxiety, with stress, with fears that make him shrivel. We want him to thrive, to be confident. We want him to be the yellow daisy in the middle of our flower garden, not the dandelion growing in the crack of the footpath at the cemetery.

I want our children to grow up in Michael Moore's Canada, not City of God's Rio de Janeiro. Dorothy's Kansas, not the Wild West. And when I think about how we create that kind of a community, I don't picture a lot of guns. I picture a community where people can resolve their differences without weapons. Where the mentally impaired cannot pick up a semi-automatic. Where there is help for people who need it. Where everyone is included, even the socially awkward, the shy nerd, the difficult misfit. Where the social contract hasn't frayed so much at the edges that people feel the need to fend for themselves.

As a parent, I can't stop imagining all the threats around us. But I also imagine utopias, a better community for my children. And maybe the only way to get there is to start imagining it.

Back In Charge

If there ever were such a thing as an Homeliness Pagent, I could have been a contender. I might even have been a semi-finalist. And if they had a bowl haircut competition, I could have been crowned the Homeliness Queen, with my coiffure in place of the tiara.

In middle school, I stood a good foot taller than most boys in my class. I have photos from my 6th grade birthday party, me "dancing" with my arms fully extended and resting on the shoulders of a scrawny blond boy named Stephen, who probably weighed about 30 pounds less and stood 18 inches shorter. My back hunched like Quasimodo, straining to shrink, straining to fit in. Coke bottle glasses resting on my oily nose. Hair that looked like I conditioned with bacon grease. No zits, thank goodness, but bushy eyebrows, flimsy K Mart t-shirt and no name jeans with some pair of nondescript shoes.

My parents downplayed the importance of looks when we were growing up. Initially, my dad refused to let us grow out our hair because he said it would "interfere" with our studying. We were prohibited from wearing make-up of any kind. And designer clothes? Out. No pierced ears. I don't remember wearing any jewelry. In 7th grade, I went to my friend Susan's house and was shocked to see her dresser covered with an assortment of little baskets overflowing with earrings, rings, bracelets, necklaces, sunglasses, and swatch covers. I hadn't realized before then that you could have more than one of each of those items.

I have always been awkward when it comes to looks. As a child, I was always the tallest for my age and rather chunky. I also reached puberty prematurely. One other girl and I were the only ones with boobs in fourth grade, and of course, she and I were friends, probably out of commiseration. Back then, I assumed I was chosen for this acclaim from some random luck of the draw, but now I wonder if our regular meals at Burger King didn't account for a surplus of hormones in my system.

Our diet only got worse when my parents started working long hours at the store.  With limited time to grocery shop, they stocked the fridge with boxes and boxes of frozen food from their fast food joint. We ate eggrolls for breakfast. And for lunch. And for dinner. I don't remember eating much else. Oh, and Hungry Man meals and Banquet Fried Chicken with rice and ketchup, which we of course consumed in front of the TV. There was a spurt in my early teens when my speed of growth outpaced my caloric intake, and I slimmed out for a short stretch. But the fried food soon caught up to me.  

It also didn't help that we rarely exercised. When we were little, we played an occasional game of tennis. And swam in the summer. But as we grew older and were left to our own, I rarely exercised, except to hit a tennis ball against the side of my school building when I was bored.

By the time I arrived in college, I had excess fat and a shortage of confidence. I always stood with my arms across my stomach to hide the bulge, and wore loose shirts and jackets to mask the crowning.  I never thought guys would be interested in me. I only had secret crushes, although I gave myself away with my ogling, awkward stammering, and undisguisable blushing.

It wasn't until I was forced to take a PE class in college that I started exercising. Sure, we had PE classes when I was at Cardozo High School in Queens, but I don't remember doing anything resembling physical activity. A bunch of us girls just stood around chatting until it was time to change out of our t-shirt and shorts. I figured college would be pretty much the same. To fulfill my PE requirement, I signed up for jogging because 20 of the 40 minute class were reserved for changing. I expected to fill up the 20 minutes of class pretty much the same way I had spent my time in high school.

The first time in my jogging class, I just walked. Very slowly. Often, my PE teacher jogged in place alongside me, trying to encourage me to pick up my pace. No pressure, just a smile, a wink, and a little "why not"? I just smiled and kept walking. That's how I spent the rest of the quarter. Then, one evening, a couple of years later, in the middle of Chicago winter, with the wind chill factor hitting the teens, with land blanketed with snow as far as the eyes could see, I ran out of my dorm in a pair of sweatpants and two layers of long sleeved knit shirts. I don't know what came over me, but I started running. I ran north on S. Shore Drive, past the apartment buildings to my left, past the field of snow on my right, along the lake that undulated with blocks of ice as large as Toyota Tundras. Even though it was late in the evening, the snow lit up the landscape around me, as if I were in the glow of a giant angel. I felt safe even though I was alone on the streets, and all I could hear was the sound of my own breathing. Steam rose from my mouth, my teeth hurt from the cold, and my cheeks felt completely numb. I ran as far as I could and turned back when my sides started to ache.

When I returned to my dorm, I was sweating and breathing like a horse. The sleeves that I had extended to cover my gloveless hands were wrinkled and damp. I ran into a friend in the lobby, and he said, "What the hell are you doing?" He looked at me like I was crazy. I felt a little crazy. I don't know what got into me that day. Maybe it was one of those days in college when I had spent too much time alone reading Thucydides. Or mulling over my future and feeling utterly hopeless. Or pining over some boy who would never see me in that way. But whatever it was, it was one of the best days of my life.

That was the day when I first realized that I was in charge of my body. Well, not really completely in charge, but still, not its slave. When I understood that I didn't have to feel bad about the way I looked and could do nothing. That I could stop being that chubby kid. That I could just run off the fat. That I wasn't stuck.

I spent good chunks of my 20s and 30s running. All I did my third year of law school was run and throw pottery. I clocked about 35 to 40 miles a week, sometimes 45. The first few years I lived in San Francisco, I lived in the Marina, and I spent hours running along the trail in Crissy Field. I am never completely confident, and I always feel 10 pounds overweight. But I no longer feel like a walrus.

When I got pregnant, I stopped running. I let myself go. I was partly afraid of running, especially after all my miscarriages. But I was also tired all the time. I thought it was important to listen to my body telling me to nap, to rest for the baby. I gained a lot of weight during my pregnancies, about 40 pounds with each. I lost most of that weight through breast feeding, but I somehow managed to regain 10 pounds of it in the last few months, probably because I kept eating as if I were still breastfeeding. I also lost a lot of my muscle mass during the last few years.

When I'm unhappy with the way I look, I feel downright bad. I hate looking at photos of myself. I wear raggedy t-shirts from Target that I stocked up on while I was pregnant. I wear the same jeans over and over again because I'm afraid to put on newly washed pants that are no longer stretched to my comfort. I let my hair grow out with their split ends because I don't want to look at myself in the mirror at the hair dresser's.

Last month, I started running again. I signed up at 24 Hour Fitness and got on the treadmill. I barely made it to 3 miles. But I still went back the next day. I'm up to 5 miles now. And I started doing P90X videos that my friends have been doing. I'm determined to get myself back in shape. I want to feel good about the way I look again. I don't want to stand with my arms blocking my stomach, and I don't want to hide behind large t-shirts. I don't want to waste time trying to recover from feeling bad after seeing photos of my blubbery self, and I don't want to stand around straining to shrink. My time is better spent exercising.

There are people who say you should love yourself no matter what. I don't buy into that. It takes too much energy to recover from feeling bad, to work on my emotional landscape. It's easier to shed the weight.

I'm giving myself two months to lose 10 pounds. Anyone want to do it with me?