Of Moms and Money

“Don’t we have any money?”

This plaintive question came out of the mouth of then three-year old grandson Edin, his face at once forlorn and beseeching. We had reached the wall of the Charlottesville Alakazam toy store where the heavy machinery lived: bulldozers and 20180919_210618excavators and dump trucks and backhoes. Edin had his eye on a cement mixer. It was so big that he had to hold it with both arms outstretched. It sported bold blue stripes on the drum (which turned!), a movable chute at the back, a hose and a detachable pail. I said, “It costs a lot of money, Edin.” That’s when he asked, “Don’t we have any money?” And that’s when Bill and I went, “Awww,” and bought it for him.

A jumble of thoughts and feelings stirred through my mind. This is a waste of money. This’ll make Edin happy, or just as importantly, he’ll not be unhappy. His parents won’t appreciate more junk in their house. What kind of example of impulse spending am I giving Edin? But then again, we can afford it, and I love to see Edin smile.

Parents and grandparents need help to sort out all those conflicting thoughts and feelings. A book by finance writer Beth Kobliner, Make Your Kid a Money Genius (even if you’re not), gives a game plan of what we need to do to teach our children to be smart and responsible about money, even three year olds!

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TALK TO YOUR KIDS ABOUT MONEY. It’s never easy, but it’s essential. In fact, I think that is where my parents failed me and where I, in turn, failed my son. My father came to America from China with no money, but he had his medical degree. He spent many financially lean years as a medical resident, working in hospitals for room and board and $10-$50 a month. (Mom, my sister and I were only able to join him seven years after his arrival in the US.) We lived in a one-bedroom apartment in South St. Louis and slept on furniture given us by nuns at Dad’s hospital.

Over time, Dad’s orthopedic practice prospered and he became well-to-do. He was incredibly generous with me, paying for college and for my medical education. In 1976, my tuition was $5000 a year, up $1500 from the year before. I thought it was outrageously high.

I was woefully unprepared when I started making my own money. It was a patient who told me that I could do better with a money market compared to a savings account. I felt completely cowed when “negotiating” for jobs and benefits. Benefits, what are they? I wish Dad had told me about work-place practices and bolstered my self-confidence when I had to talk with hospital administrators. Once, I asked him how I should go about investing my money. All he said was, “Buy mutual funds.”

My mom’s message throughout was, “Don’t spend.” And she was enough of a tiger-mom that by the time I came to America at age eight, spending money for anything I didn’t need was unthinkable. She was a savvy shopper in the Chinese way. She inspected each string bean for tenderness and snap.

My conversations about money with my son Alex, Edin’s dad, usually ran along the lines of “Those Air Jordans cost too much.” “You don’t need another Star Wars action figure, box of Legos or Ghost Rider comic book.” I did not openly share my values. I sent money to environmental and civil rights organizations, but didn’t tell Alex. I gave Alex $20 to slip into the Salvation Army kettle each Christmas, but didn’t suggest he donate his own money to causes he cared about. And now he’s grown up with a family. We never talk money. And truthfully, I don’t want to because I still feel pretty incompetent.

Kobliner assures parents that they are up to the task, even if they feel that they themselves don’t know enough or if they have made a mess of their own finances. She states that there are only a few important concepts in the world of personal finance, despite advertising by financial advice firms to the contrary. She explains what these are and how to implement them.

The “Save More” chapter says that your kid needs to get in the habit of saving. For preschoolers, she suggests a family savings pot where everyone chips in and saves for a pizza night or a trip to the waterpark. Let the child help count out the money when it’s time to spend it and figure out if there’s enough for the extra topping. This will also teach your little one about numbers and coins.

In middle school, kids can have a definite percentage of money go into savings, like a IMG_5286quarter for every dollar. It’s best to have this rule before he is “rolling around on his bedroom floor covered in twenties like a lottery player who’s hit the jackpot” from birthday cash or, in my family’s case, Chinese New Year’s red envelopes.

For older kids, she talks about saving for college, interest rates, CDs, even down payment for a house. Kobliner insists that “It’s never good to have no money.” The idea is that, if it wipes out all your savings to pay for something you want, it’s better to do without because everyone needs a cushion.

Each of Kobliner’s topics is full of good, practical, do-able ideas for different age groups.  She shows how to do a job search and suggests investing summer job earnings and grandma’s cash gift in a tax-free Roth IRA. Her comment to elementary schoolers that “Getting rich is not a career goal,” reminds me of my son at that age telling me, “I’d make a good Lucky Lotto winner, Mom.”

Kobliner suggests kids through high school should pay in cash and buy only what they can afford to pay for now. She has a chart showing just how onerous credit card interest is and harps on how important credit ratings are, both yours and your kid’s.

She also suggests parents play the “want versus need” game with preschoolers. “We need milk and apples; we want chocolate milk and Oreos.” Or as Edin said at Charlottesville’s Atlas Coffee Shop, “I neeeeed carrot cake.”  Advice to older children includes “Always buy a used car” and “Don’t shop just to feel better.”

Kobliner stresses the need for health insurance and discusses what other kinds of insurance a young adult needs and doesn’t need. She talks about ways to pay for college, including a step-by-step plan that starts with specific things to do in 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th grades. If paying for college is a concern of yours, this section is worth the price of the book.

Kobliner also has a chapter called “Give Back.” Kids need to see their parents donating time and money to causes we feel are important and to people who are worse off than we are. She cites studies that giving is also psychologically rewarding.

PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH. This is Kobliner’s main point to parents. Save, invest, insure, stay out of debt, give back –yes, you have to do that. But take heart, Make Your Kid a Money Genius (even if you’re not) will help you. On this part, I think my folks and I deserve passing grades. I think that Alex learned some good habits by watching my actions. As for my grandkids, I plan to give Alex and Bill’s kids a copy of this book so they’ll actually talk to their children about money!

Tell me: What parental message about money did you get?

Taxonomic Justice for Puerto Rican Todies

There are only five species of todies in the world. Two live in Hispaniola, the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and one each in Cuba, Jamaica and

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Puerto Rican tody           Photo by Gloria Archilla

Puerto Rico. I have seen THREE of them. What a kick! And now, I have met the man whose life mission is to make the Puerto Rican tody the symbol of Puerto Rico.

Todies are small, jewel-like birds, the size of a hummingbird. Their vivid emerald-green back and head are contrasted with a nail-polish-red throat patch. The red throat is accented by the thin border of white around it and by the tody’s characteristic upward head tilt. The five species show subtle differences in the coloration of the breast, some variation in the width of the bill, and one has a spot of blue on the head. They are short distance flyers and so live only on their particular island.

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Billboard of a Cuban tody at Las Terrazas, Cuba. Note the dot of blue below the eye.

My first tody sighting was in Jamaica in the 1990s. At the time, I didn’t even know there was such a bird as a tody. I thought the name unattractive, too much like “toady,” but the bird was beautiful. It looked like someone wearing a green coat with a red ascot. Bill and I saw the Cuban tody in 2013. It sat quietly on a low branch in the forest at Las Terrazas Reserve. The tody was the mascot for the place.

I saw the Puerto Rican tody in February, 2018. It was almost five months after Hurricane Maria. Recovery of both natural and manmade structures was spotty. Tree leaves had grown back, but in disorganized clumps like hair sprouting from old IMG_4384men’s ears. Many utility poles were still down. Street signs stood at skewed angles.

It’s a wonder that the birds weren’t all swept out to sea. Our birding guide, Gabriel Lugo, told Bill and me that more birds died from starvation than from the actual storm as every tree was stripped bare and there was no food. Gabriel drove us from San Juan in the northeast of the island over the mountains all the way to the southwestern tip. We saw several todies in the dry forest (versus the rain forest).

The next day was rainy. Gabriel took us to a friend’s house that had hummingbird feeders. This was in a mountainous section that was hit especially hard by Maria. We drove through rugged terrain, passing newly repaired bridges and roofs covered with disaster-blue tarps.

Pepe, a sturdily built man with an easy grin, met us at the top of his steep driveway. I couldn’t gauge Pepe’s age: older than Gabriel, younger than us. Of course, that’s anywhere from 35 to 70. He escorted us to a covered porch fronted by a decorative metal grille. Outside of the bars was a colorful garden studded with a half dozen hummingbird feeders on poles. Scores of hummers –green mangos, Puerto Rican emeralds and Antillean mangos — chased each other from feeder to feeder to nearby bushes with ferocious intensity.

Gabriel mentioned that Pepe’s carefully selected plantings were torn up by the hurricane. Pepe said that during the storm, he and his wife anchored the feeders to the grille inside of the porch to lure the hummers to protection. I asked Pepe how he was coping with the aftermath. He was not at all emotional. He said, “One minute something is there. The next, it’s not.”

I can’t remember who first mentioned the tody, but it soon became clear that Pepe IMG_5271was an expert. He and his wife, Fela, travel extensively in Latin America making nature videos. They have a portmanteau professional name: FelPe. And he has a passion: to change the scientific name of the Puerto Rican tody, affectionately called “San Pedrito” or Little Saint Peter, from todus mexicanus to todus portoricensis. (Todus is Latin for “something small.” )

He presented me with his book, The Root of the Antilles: the History of the Todidae Family, which presses his case to the International Commission for Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). The book begins with European sightings of the tody, the first one in 1687 by a Dutchman in Jamaica. In the following centuries, French, English and Dutch saw different species of the tody (on their respective islands) and tried to describe, draw and classify them.

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In 1837, an Englishman, John Gould, and his wife, Elizabeth, made accurate drawings of the Cuban tody and called it todus multicolor. Unfortunately, they neglected to present their findings to the correct zoological society, so that the findings went uncredited.

The very next year, 1838, Adolphe Lesson, a doctor in the French navy, sent his brother Rene in France a description matching that of the Cuban tody. He claimed he shot it in Porto Rico. (The name Porto Rico was changed to Puerto Rico in 1932.) Rene Lesson called the Cuban tody todus portoricensis, named after Puerto Rico. Adolphe also described another tody he claimed he captured in Tampico, Mexico. Rene called this bird todus mexicanus, named after Mexico. That bird was the Puerto Rican tody. As Pepe states in the book, “At that moment our species were tied together and we have yet been unable to untie the knot.” (There aren’t and never were todies in Mexico.)

In the ways of the Nomenclature Commission, chronological precedence is very important. So, even though it seems obvious that the Puerto Rico tody should be called puertoricensis or portoricensis, this has not happened. It appears that the Cuban tody managed to escape the fate of being the “todus portoricensis,” to become the appropriately named todus multicolor because of the 1837 Gould findings.

This book shows how messy science can be. Mistakes, confusion and very bad illustrations (no photos in those days) abound, and these untruths are often copied and passed on. Pepe and Fela ((Jose Gonzalez Diaz and Felisa Collazo Torres) wrote in the book their official petition to the ICZN to change the name for scientific accuracy and to honor Rene Lesson’s intent to associate the bird with its proper location. They seek taxonomic justice.

At the time Pepe gave me the book, I was astounded and moved by the effort he and his wife had put into teasing out the history and the science of this little bird. I was impressed by how passionately they advocated for the name change. But I was also a bit puzzled. Here was a man who dismissed the destruction of his garden, being cut off from the village by the washed out bridge and living without electricity for months with a philosophical shrug. And yet, he has written an entire book because of the Latin name of a bird.

When I read the book, however, I was persuaded by Pepe’s reasoning. He wants the San Pedrito to be the emblematic bird of Puerto Rico. He wants it to be a unifying force for the community, a point of pride. He wants this pride to transfer to protection of the habitat of the bird in particular and of the environment of Puerto Rico in general. He wrote, “The apparent simple act of rectification [of the name] allows us to understand the enormous benefits that gives us the fragile and complex stability that is ultimately what assures us our survival.” I’d fight that hard for survival too.

Long live todus portoricensis!  IMG_5273

Tell me: Do you have a passion that others may consider quixotic? What is it?

The Life I Want

We all have an image of what our “best” life would look like. Mine would include having a perfectly supportive husband, eternally appreciative children; insightful conversations and gourmet dinners with friends; disciplined daily exercise and writing routines; and a wildly successful blog. Before I retired from doctoring, smart and considerate co-workers were important.

So, if that’s my perfect life then how is it that I am writing this essay slouched on my IMG_5254couch, computer heating up my lap and the St. Louis Cardinals blaring on the TV, nibbling on Trader Joe’s mango strips straight from the package? How come Bill and I always eat dinner with plates on our laps, him reading his phone and me watching PBS News? How come Bill was the only viewer on my blog site today, and I had to beg him to log on?

Guido Brunetti, a police detective, has the life I dream of. In this long running 51ySgr8NqLLmystery series by Donna Leon, I have accompanied Guido at home and at work. I have met his family, his co-workers and his superiors. I have been with Guido walking through Venice’s maze of streets and alleys, many of them dead-ending at the water’s edge. He and I have ridden the vaporetti and the police boats in the canals and lagoons. I have fallen asleep with him while reading Thucydides, Pliny, Aeschylus and Sophocles.

As a native, Brunetti’s mental map of Venice is based on landmarks like churches, palazzos, bridges and vaporetto stations, never street addresses. Pictures of friend Larry and Bill in 2004. Notice they are holding maps!

 

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In the Temptation of Forgiveness, Leon’s 27th novel in the series, Guido investigates an assault. His team consists of fellow detective Claudia, young, smart and intuitive, and Lorenzo, his long time sergeant. The three have an easy companionship. They speak frankly among themselves, freely floating theories and making jokes. The boss’s secretary is an ally to Brunetti and a force to be reckoned with. Brunetti’s bosses, Lieutenant Scarpa and Vice-Questore Patta, are vain, lazy and sleazily ambitious.

Brunetti spreads a wide net in search of the assailant. When he interviews the vicitm’s wife, she balks at further questions, asking, “What good would it do?”

“He [Brunetti] realized that finding the guilty person would do no one any good at all and never would. It would do bad to the person who had committed the crime and to their family.”

“’It is not my job to do good, Signora,’ he admitted. ‘Only to find the guilty person and see that they are arrested.’”

His search for a motive and a culprit lead him to uncover many sordid schemes his greedy fellow citizens are foisting on the vulnerable. He is more disappointed than surprised. Of course, in the end, he unravels the who and the why. He always does.

Whether or not the perpetrators of crimes in Venice are brought to justice, a sometime-slippery concept, is hard to predict. Forces outside of Brunetti’s control –political considerations, financial clout, social position — often hi-jack the expected “crime and punishment” sequence in a city and country rife with corruption.

Brunetti is dogged in his pursuit of criminals, but he is also philosophical. He finds solace, and sometimes instruction, in reading Greek and Roman classics. In The Temptation of Forgiveness, he is reading Sophocles’ Antigone. The heroine, Antigone, defies her uncle Creon’s ruling that her brother’s body must be left to rot. Her sister Ismene says, “We must submit to the law.” Antigone breaks the law in the service of a higher code and buries him. She pays with her life. Brunetti considers the ramifications of unjust laws on those whose job is to uphold the law.

While reading, he banters with his wife, Paola, who is also reading. He says to Paola, “Ismene tells me that ‘We are mere women, and we cannot fight against men.’” Paola mockingly replies, “So I’ve always believed.” She does not even look up from her book.

Brunetti has two teenage children, a boy and a girl. These days, they meet mostly at mealtime. Everyone delights in Paola’s cooking: gnochetti di zucca (squash gnocchi), spezzatino (stew), ciambella (bundt cake) with raisins and pumpkins, chestnut and hazelnut cake. Paola is such a richly wrought character, a professor of literature, a devotee of Henry James, someone who can hold her own in any conversation so I don’t even mind that she does all the cooking.

It is not the actual circumstances of Brunetti’s life that I want. Yes, Venice is beautiful but I know it’s overrun with tourists. They clog the streets. The cruise liners pollute the lagoon. The tourists skew the local economy by raising restaurant prices and causing the stores to be filled with “Made in China” kitsch.

Clearly Brunetti enjoys the intellectual aspects of being a detective. He likes his co-workers. But work is challenging too. And his superiors are cretins. And his enemies are numerous and powerful: industrial polluters, human traffickers, drug smugglers, corrupt politicians, and plain old bad guys (and gals).

What I want when I say that I want Brunetti’s life, is to emulate his emotional center. To capture some of his grace and equanimity. To enjoy family and friends. To keep doing my best without guaranteed results. To find beauty and humor in everyday situations. To appreciate good literature. To savor, as Brunetti said while opening a bottle of Collavini Ribolla Gialla to sip while reading Antigone “the different sensations that life could offer.” Oh, and maybe Paola’s cooking too.

Tell me: Which Fictional Character’s Life Do You Want, and why?

The Small Are Eating the Old

“The small are eating the old.” My cousin, Yu, whose name means Jade in Chinese, said these words to me when I was in China in 2016. Yu’s point is that the older generations are sacrificing too much for the youth. (In English, I call him “cousin.” In Chinese, he is the grandson of my father’s oldest brother. Yu calls me “Auntie Ling-Ling who is related on the father’s side.”)

What? I was shocked. No society treasures its children more than the Chinese. A Chinese term for being pregnant literally means “possessing happiness” ( 有喜) Traditionally, children were responsible for the care of aging parents. The more children, the more secure one’s old age. When the government enacted its “one child policy” in the 1980s, it was bucking a mighty trend. Even today, with a hit-or-miss social insurance system for retirees, children are still many pensioners’ chief support. So, why is my cousin feeling so put upon by the young?

Since my last visit to China in 1997, almost twenty years ago, all the responsibility for childcare has shifted to grandparents. Here’s how that happened. Almost everyone who lives in an urban area has to retire by age 60 to make jobs available for younger generations. As a result, fairly young grandparents have time to do childcare. Their grown children live under very competitive situations. Housing is incredibly tight and expensive. Income inequality, once unheard of, is as high as in the United States (Harvard Business Review). Both parents must work.

The working husband and wife are each the product of the one-child policy. Their child is also an only child. Moreover, as the Chinese tend not to move from city to city, it is likely that all the grandparents are in the same town. So now, there are typically six adults (two sets of grandparents and the parents) looking after this one precious child.

IMG_5243I paid more attention to Yu’s situation than I otherwise might have because I had read Lesley Stahl’s book Becoming Grandma: The Joys and Science of the New Grandparenting,” on the plane ride over. It was a birthday present from my son and daughter-in-law, the parents of my little grandson Edin.

Lesley Stahl wrote this book because she’s crazy about her grandbaby. Me too! As you can tell from my previous essay, “A Moment in Paradise,” I spent hours on the back porch just staring at the infant Edin. And since last October, Caleb is tied for the “world’s most beautiful baby” title. Besides waxing rhapsodic about her family in general, and granddaughter Jordan in particular, Stahl focused on the many permutations grandparenting takes these days.

In every category of grandparenting, I can name someone who fits. My cousin’s wife is a “granny nanny.” For several years now, she has left her home in St. Louis to live months at a time in Minnesota to care for the kids of her son and daughter-in-law, both professors. Tennis friend Jim, a grizzled Vietnam-era vet, babysits his three, soon to be four, grandkids several days and nights a week. He loves being “Papa.” An activist friend in the 1990s successfully sued her drug-addicted daughter for custody of her granddaughter. My high school friend became a grandmother after her gay son and his partner adopted a brother and sister pair of siblings.

My family is part of the mix-and-match grandparents of divorce, widowhood and remarriage. Edin and Caleb have three pairs of grandparents. In addition, I am step-grandma to my husband’s seven grandchildren. Everyone I know helps with money and some level of childcare.

Stahl talks briefly about “glammas” (glamorous grandmas?) who aren’t interested in their grandkids. Some think that grandparenthood makes them old. Two years ago, I was grandmother of the bride. I usually don’t care about being old, but that felt old. Others say, “Been there. Done that.” One man described his mother’s reaction to being with the kids, “To her, they’re exhausting, boring and nerve-racking.” Stahl gives short shrift to those grandparents who are not completely bowled over by grandkids.

She glosses over the fact that some grandparents may feel a little trapped in their caretaker role. She tells the story of a woman who left her home in Ecuador to come to the US to take care of her two grandkids. For ten years! Stahl writes, “But in the end, Gramma is fulfilled, the children benefit from the love and attention, and the parents have peace of mind…. Everyone wins.” Also, she downplays the kids’ behavior. There are difficult kids, but not in Lesley Stahl’s world.

Stahl lives a privileged life. She and her husband flew to Los Angeles from New York and stayed a week and a half for the birth of their first grandchild. They redecorated their apartment to include a nursery. They rented a house for a month in Santa Barbara for a family vacation. And a lot of her anecdotal evidence comes from her wealthy, privileged friends: Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, joint chief of staff Martin Dempsey, columnist Ellen Goodman, the movers and shakers of New York and Washington. She never acknowledges that perhaps her ability to enjoy her grandchildren is related in part to her exceptional privilege.

However extravagant and extensive the help American grandparents give to their grandchildren, in most cases, they are merely helpers or boosters to the parents. This is not the case in China. Grandparents are expected, not just to kick in financially and to do babysitting, but to be the main caregivers.

I saw a hint of this before we even got to Shanghai. Bill and I had booked a week of bird watching in the western province of Sichuan. We went with a guide and a driver. Both were men in their early thirties. Each was the father of a small child. Obviously, their jobs required them to be away from home for extended periods.

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Yak on the grill

They and their wives depended on their parents, especially, the wife’s mother, for childcare. It explained why, when we found some especially delicious yak jerky at roadside stand, each of them bought a kilo for their mothers-in-law.

My cousin Yu and his wife are responsible for their four-year old granddaughter Ying, whose name means smart or clever, on the weekends. Yu complained that Ying likes her other grandparents better. But he is reluctant to say anything to his son because he is worried that his childcare hours might go up. Their modest apartment is overflowing with toys. The tiny alcove that was their son’s childhood bedroom is even more crowded now that they have bought Ying a piano.

Chinese families feel a lot of pressure for their one child to keep up with the one child of the Zhangs and the Chens and the Wangs. Not just piano lessons, but English and other languages, violin and other musical instruments, classical Chinese literature, calligraphy, art and sports, anything to give their child a competitive edge.

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Yu carving a seal

And the lessons are not cheap. Yu told me that one piano or English lesson for children costs as much as what he pays for a semester of the seal-carving class he takes at the “elder college.” At this point he said, “The small are eating the old.”

Yu’s younger sister Lan (Orchid) has her grandson full time because he, her son and daughter-in-law and her husband all live together. This boy is ten now. She organizes all his extra-curricular activities: soccer, classical Chinese literature and martial arts. He goes home for lunch on school days. I remember getting a picture of this cute toddler and her note that she was raising him. I was surprised. I thought it was an aberration. I was wrong.

I do not want to give the impression that the actual parents are uncaring people. They pitch in mightily to raise their son or daughter. I have seen parents on a weekend with their little one in the Shanghai Art Museum using their cellphones to provide light for the child to copy an old masters painting.

In her book, Lesley Stahl assumes that the more adult attention to the children, the better for the children’s physical, emotional and intellectual development. In China, there are typically six adults totally focused on raising each child. Do those kids have an advantage?

But, what about the stress on the grandparents? Columnist Ellen Goodman said that if you’re a full-time caregiver, there’s an element of financial sacrifice and exhaustion. Well, sometimes it is exhausting. The highest number of steps I ever recorded on my iPhone, over 24,000, was the day I took care of Edin and Caleb. This was more than the steps I clocked walking to and on the Great Wall, although the Wall had many more floors. I do not entirely agree with the statement, “…with grandchildren there is no weariness that competes with the elation and joy of being with them.”

In a bit of irony, a few months before my arrival in China, the government passed a new law allowing families to have two children. Shaking his head, Yu said, “We’re able to have two children now. But I’m not sure my wife and I have the stamina for it.”

Tell me: Were your grandparents a very big part of your life? What is the easiest or hardest part about being a grandparent?

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Cathy and Edin
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Caleb and Bill

Deep Breaths, Everyone

Me, a yoga instructor? What could go wrong?

IMG_5234Quite a lot, according to William J. Broad in The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards. The chapter called “Risk of Injury” talks about strokes from extreme neck contortion, disk ruptures in the neck and back, ribs popping out,
rotator cuff tears, torn Achilles tendons and even bone fractures. According to one survey of 1300 practitioners, “The largest number of injuries (with 231 reports) centered on the lower back. In declining order of prevalence, the other main sites were the shoulder (219 incidents), the knee (174) and the neck (110)”

My women physicians’ group, Balance for Women Physicians (no pun intended), holds a yearly conference in Colorado. We always start the day with yoga. This year, our long-time (and marvelous) yoga teacher couldn’t join us. The group knows that I have been doing yoga for almost twenty years. So, they asked me to lead the practice.

But, I do yoga, not teach it! Doing yoga and leading yoga are two very different

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Downward Dog

propositions. As a practitioner, I keep fairly focused on the instructions, But sometimes, even as my body is in Downward Dog, my mind is on what I need to buy at the grocery store. When I zone out, I can always get back on form by looking at what the teacher is doing.

As someone just doing yoga, I never need to say anything. As the instructor, I will be the only one talking. I am used to the back and forth of conversation. My style as a doctor was to crack jokes with the patients. I am a bit lost without feedback to what I say.

My normal speaking style is to talk loud and fast. During the yoga session, I would have to speak in a calm, soft, soothing voice and, at the same time, with enough authority so that people will do what I say. “Begin on all fours.” “Slacken your jaw.” “Bend your knees, put your hands on your hips and slowly come up.” “Lift your arms above your head.” “And breathe.” I am giggling even as I write this. I’ve never had to modulate my voice this way.

Then we come to the poses, the asanas. I know what to do when I’m told to do a Bridge Pose or a Boat Pose or a Cat/Cow or a Fire Hydrant. (You don’t really make a pose like a hydrant. You start on all fours and lift a bent knee leg up and down. It should be called the Dog at the Fire Hydrant Pose). See, this is my problem. How am I going to concentrate and not let my mind be distracted by inappropriate asides?

I have never paid much attention on how we transition from one pose to the other. I need to organize sequences of poses to make logical transitions so I don’t make people sit, stand, lie down, get on hands and knees repeatedly. My teacher is very creative, and flows in and out of asanas as smoothly as a magician handles silk scarves. She’s gotten us into Triangle Pose from a Warrior Two Pose, and from a Wide-angle Standing Bend and from other poses too.

I’m not sure I know how to explain to a room of people where to place your feet and

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Warrior Two

arms to get into Warrior Two. (Something like: “Put your right foot toward the front of the mat. Bend that knee. Move the left foot back in line with the instep of the right foot. And shake it all about.” Oops, wrong activity! Let’s try again. “Lift your arms parallel to the ground, right arm in front, left in back.”) I need to explain the poses in short, concise phrases, which I should memorize. And in between, there are those calming reminders: “Soften your neck.” “Relax your shoulders.” “Breathe.”

I always chuckle a little when the yoga teacher confuses her right side with her left. Now, making this mistake has become my worst fear. From a supine position, cross the right leg over the left. Then, move both legs to the right while turning the head to the left, or is it the other way? Is it the right index finger and thumb around the left wrist and then lean right? Or lean left? My teacher, like Ginger Rogers dancing with Fred Astaire, does everything backwards. She mirrors us. She tells us to raise our left arm while raising her right. I am so not gonna do that.

An underappreciated aspect of teaching yoga is the balance of extension and flexion poses. When we do a extension pose, like Bridge Pose, which involves a back bend, the good teachers will immediately follow with an opposing pose, like Child’s Pose, in which we bend forward. I have visions of my twisting people up without remembering to have them do the opposite stretch. They’ll just get more and more pretzeled.

So why don’t I do a Nancy Reagan and just say no to my group? For a bunch of reasons. One is that the program already promises that we offer yoga. Another is that yoga is such a positive thing—good for the body, mind and spirit. The Science of Yoga debunks a lot of false yogic benefits such as increasing the oxygen level to your brain and promoting weight loss. But even that book talks about enhancing flexibility and lifting mood.

In my own life, I’ve experienced two benefits of yoga. The first is body awareness. If I need to step on a series of stones to cross a stream, I am confidant that my legs and feet can cover those spaces. The second is mindfulness. To spend an hour a couple of times a week focusing on my breathing and my body movements is a meditation. As a Harvard Medical School scientist said in the Science of Yoga, “Yoga brings you into the moment. It brings a feeling of joy or energy with activity, a kind of mindfulness.”

Actually, I am looking forward to learning a new skill, especially because my yoga teacher has graciously offered to help me. I also know that my colleagues will appreciate my efforts and enjoy doing yoga with me. My fellow women physicians are really good at friendship.

Tell me: Have you ever agreed to something that was outside of your comfort zone?

Mending the Living

“There’s been a car accident. The ambulance is taking your son to Barnes Hospital,” said an unfamiliar male voice.

On the way to the hospital, I tried to block out the “What if’s,” but scenarios clicked through my brain like a photo slideshow. Fractures, casts, crutches. Scars. Or the more ominous “internal injuries.” Or worse yet, brain damage. Being a doctor doesn’t help in cases like this. It just makes your worries more specific.

My voice cracking, I said, “Don’t you think it’s a good sign he was able to ask someone to call us?” My husband Bill only nodded. I blinked back tears. Could all my efforts at raising this kid end like this? I tore my mind away and just looked at the winter scape along the highway.

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In the novel The Heart, by French writer Maylis de Kerangal, translated by Sam Taylor, the worst does happen to 19-year-old Simon Limbres. He and two surfing friends drive off in the early morning to catch an exceptional wave off the Normandy coast. On the way home, the driver falls asleep, runs off the road and hits a post. Simon, sitting in the middle seat of the van and not belted in, is thrown into the windshield.

The Heart takes us through the next 24 hours and all the lives affected by Simon’s accident. Marianne and Sean are the parents. She is French. His background is Maori. They are separated. The hospital finds Marianne first. She goes to the hospital and is met by the ICU doctor. He tells her that Simon has had cranial trauma. He is in a coma. It is irreversible. She cannot see him just yet.

Marianne leaves several messages for Sean. When he finally calls back, she realizes that he is still in a world where Simon is okay. As she breaks the news to him, she hears that “his voice has defected now, leaving the land of the innocent and joining Marianne, piercing the fragile membrane that separates the lucky and the damned.”

They go together to the ICU to see Simon. Other than the bandage on his head, he looks intact. Marianne can hear his heart beating and thinks back to hearing his heart in her womb on an ultrasound. Sean takes his son’s hand and says, “Simon. We’re here. We’re with you, you can hear me, Simon, my boy, we’re here.”

The parents’ grief takes many turns. Marianne thinks of all the times she’s heard of people coming out of comas. Maybe it’s some computer glitch, his brain scan. Sean blames himself for making the surfboard for Simon. In his grief, he bangs his head again and again against the car steering wheel. Marianne blames Sean for giving Simon a love for the sea. Even as they are sharing the sorrow with their young daughter Lou and Simon’s girlfriend Juliette, a part of them thinks about what the day might have been like had the accident not happened.

As the sorrow of Simon’s family grows wider and deeper, another set of people goes into action: the transplant teams. Their job is life-and-death important and urgent. Simon’s organs can save many lives. But, the organs need to be harvested as soon as possible.

The parents must be treated with utmost kindness but also utmost truth. The ICU doctor tells them that the latest of several serial EEGs shows that Simon’s brain continues to show no activity. With sensitivity but also brutal frankness, the transplant coordinator, Thomas, who had been in the room with the ICU doctor, brings up the subject of organ donation.

He asks for their consent “to the removal of his organs for transplant operations.” The parents are stunned. Sean declares, “Simon’s body is not just a box of organs that you can help yourself to.” The parents leave the hospital, walk near the sea, and after some time, decide for the donation. Marianne realizes, “They won’t hurt him. They won’t hurt him at all.”

This decision triggers a cascade of activity. Thomas calls the Biomedical Agency, a central data bank for organ transplants. Marthe, who takes the call with all of Simon’s medical information, searches for recipients who are compatible with Simon’s blood type and immune system. They even need to be compatible with the shape and size of Simon’s heart. She feels the weight of the responsibility, knowing the tornado of activity she will generate, and the hope.

She decides on a 51-year-old woman in Paris for the heart. “Strasbourg takes the liver (a six –year-old girl), Lyon the lungs (a seventeen-year-old girl), Rouen the kidneys (a nine year old boy).”

Claire Mejan, the heart patient in Paris, has three grown sons and a mother. She is a translator. She has myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, which causes heart failure. She struggles to breathe and tires easily. She has had this for three years. She moved into a teeny, dark apartment in Paris because it is across the street from the hospital. A heart transplant is her only option. She is aware that for her to live, someone has to die.

Thomas, the transplant coordinator at Simon’s hospital, had promised the parents two things. Just before they clamp the blood vessels to remove Simon’s heart, Thomas whispers into Simon’s ear that “Sean and Marianne are with him, and Lou and Grandma, he whispers that Juliette is there by his side.” Then he places ear buds into Simon’s ears and plays a track of sea sounds that the parents had given Thomas. Then, the removal proceeds.

Thomas’ second promise to Sean and Marianne was, “Your son’s body will be restored.”

Thomas exhorts the surgeons to close up with as much care as they used in their retrieval of the precious organs. They fill out the hollowed out spaces with fabrics and compresses. When the surgeons leave, Thomas and Cordelia, the young nurse who has taken care of him since his arrival into the hospital and who assisted in the surgery, clean Simon and wrap him in an immaculate white sheet, knotted at the head and foot.

“Tomorrow morning, Simon Limbres will be returned to his family, to Sean and Marianne, to Juliette and Lou, to his loved ones, and he will be returned to them ad integrum,” (restored to his previous appearance). In less than twenty-four hours from the time Simon got up from bed to catch the big wave, his heart beats in Claire Mejan’s chest.

***

The Barnes ER was spacious, brightly lit and impersonal. We were told to wait. We waited. When we saw Alex return on a gurney, presumably from X-ray, we followed him to his room. He gave me a smile that conveyed mixed feelings—glad to see me but not sure if I’d be mad. I looked him up and down. A scraped knee, torn jeans and stitches across his left eyebrow. “That scar over your eye will look dashing someday,” I said. Alex gave a deprecating shrug.

The doctor told us that Alex had no broken bones. He gave us instructions on wound infections and told us to check Alex every two hours for signs of head injury, such as lethargy, vomiting, or seizures. To my great relief, the doctor mentioned that a blood test for alcohol and urine drug screens were negative.

Reading The Heart reminded me of the word “catharsis,” that I learned in high school.

The purpose of the Greek tragedies, according to Aristotle, was to cleanse the heart through pity and terror. He called that release of emotion “cartharsis.” Reading Simon’s story, I felt like I had dodged a bullet that time with Alex. I had landed on the side of the lucky, and I was grateful beyond words. Not that I didn’t have nightmares and anxiety for a long time afterwards. Even now, whenever Alex, who has two sons of his own, leaves my house, I tell him “Drive safely.”

Tell me: What play, movie or book has been a cathartic experience for you?

Shake It Off: How to Escape From Your Pain-Body

“You are going to tell me that you didn’t say anything, but I can tell what you’re thinking,” I say through gritted teeth.

“I’m sorry,” is my husband’s reply, but his face shows puzzlement and the resentment of the wrongly accused, not contrition or concern.

He does his curious head-turning move, which is a full turn from right to left with a little dip of the chin. It’s like shrugging with your neck. Then he turns away, like the conversation is over.

In a voice trembling with fury, I accuse him, “You just don’t care, do you?”

His voice takes on a blaming tone, “Now you’re just trying to hurt me. What do you want from me?”

“You should know.”

What are we arguing about? It really doesn’t matter. Here are some real-life subjects we have fought over: golf, tennis, too much courtesy, restaurant choices, laundry settings, what time to leave the house, you name it.

In my rational moments, I admit that there’s probably nothing Bill could do that would satisfy me when I’m in that “spoiling for a fight” mood. But I would never give him that satisfaction. HA!

Eckhart Tolle, a spiritual teacher and author of A New Earth: Awakening to Your IMG_5201Life’s Purpose, finally explains what’s happening when I – and you too, maybe? – get into such a deep funk that nothing can mollify me. I was taken over by my pain-body. The pain-body consists of old emotional pain, traumas from the past that never had a chance to heal. “The energy field of old but still very-much-alive emotion that lives in almost every human being is the pain-body. “

The pain-body can lie dormant for weeks, months, sometimes years, but when the proper triggers are pulled, when one’s buttons are pushed, the pain-body awakens and goes looking for trouble. It feeds on negative thinking. It creates drama. “The pain-body is an addiction to unhappiness.” Not only that, but the pain-body wants to make everyone around it unhappy.

There are two ways of escaping from the pain-body and its effects. One is to wait it out. After days or weeks, the pain-body, like a tick that glommed on you, is full and quits. By that time, you are exhausted and your relationships are in tatters.

The second way is to just shake off the pain body. Tolle compares this process to the way ducks behave when they squabble. a_new_earth_quotes_ducks_flapping_wings-resized-600After two ducks fight, they swim apart, each flapping its wings vigorously to release excess energy, and then float off. It’s over.

According to Tolle, “[t]he beginning of freedom from the pain-body lies first in the realization that you have a pain-body.” Then, it is necessary to notice, at the time it is happening, the process of being taken over by the pain body. Be aware of your negative emotions, anger and hostility in real time. “Yes, I am mad. Yes, I feel unjustly treated. Yes, I don’t feel understood.” Such awareness, or Presence, as Tolle puts it, promotes “dis-identification” with the pain-body. Mindfulness is the key to achieving awareness.

Each person’s pain-body, as expected, has different components and triggers, as many as there are thoughts. Mine include being Chinese, not speaking English when I first came to America, being a woman, being in a hyper-competitive family, having various hang-ups with men, needing a hysterectomy at age 33, and more. The exciting and revolutionary aspect of what Tolle is teaching in A New Earth is that one doesn’t have to slog through all of that. No years of lying on the couch dredging up old stories and old hurts. It is enough to become aware, and then disengage, with those thoughts and grudges, with the old earth, with the Ego.

I want to give you an example of an incident from this morning. Bill and I were walking in the neighborhood. We came to a spot where ornamental grasses narrowed the walk so that only one of us could pass at a time. He, as he often does, stopped in his tracks, maybe even took a step or two backwards. Besides breaking my walking rhythm, it annoyed me that he was telling me in this way that I should walk ahead. “Control through courtesy,” I’ve often charged.

This whole cascade of thoughts and feelings zipped through my mind right there on the sidewalk. This gave me a chance to consider my reaction. I realized that I have a choice. I could be mad that he’s directing where I should go or I could flap my wings and float off. I chose the latter.

Tell me: What pushes the triggers on your pain-body?