Web of Friendship

Editor’s note:

The connections I’ve maintained with my childhood friends taught me how a lot about how family could be, and equipped me to find my missing family. I met Susan Sommer when we were in grade school, and am so pleased to have her as my first guest blogger.

By Susan Sommer

I’ve done battle with my share of remote controls, new TV set-up instructions, and computer software glitches, but I have to say, technology is my friend—especially the internet. Yep, I’m Googley-eyed and face Facebook daily, I’m LinkedIn and loving it, I cheer along other “losers” on LoseIt!, I read blogs from A to Z, and my comments are scattered across the globe.

Now, I’m not some loner dork who sits all day at the keyboard and doesn’t know how to converse at
parties. I have plenty of real-world friends and do get out enough to know, for example, whether it’s still winter or not.

Seriously, though, the internet is a thing of beauty, IMHO (and just a few short years ago I didn’t
know what that stood for). I’ve reconnected with people from my past who I thought I’d never see or
hear from again. And not just old boyfriends either, but true friends—people I’d traveled with, a
childhood pen pal, high school classmates who are now as (gulp) middle-aged as I.

I treasure my family and friends who live near enough to see on a regular basis—these are the people
who know me best and who I know I can always rely on no matter what. They are the base of my days, weeks, months, and years. Without them, I would be the loner dork. But getting reacquainted with old friends online—as well as making new ones who I might never meet, but could, if one of us happens to be passing through the other’s town or attending the same conference, and you never know who is destined to become your next old friend—has broadened my world.

I grew up in Alaska, sometimes in the far reaches of the Alaskan bush. I always felt sheltered. I remedied that by traveling as a young woman, but now that I’m married and stable and I work from home, I’ve once again become somewhat cut off from new experiences. The internet offers me the web of friendship outside my immediate sphere of existence. I trade thoughts on editing with LinkedIn members; I learn fascinating tidbits about farming from a Facebook group (like the best way to kill a chicken before plucking and processing, and that you can use goat placenta in a facial mask); I receive encouragement to keep shedding those extra pounds from my LoseIt! friends, only one of whom I actually know in person; and as a member of our 30-year high school reunion planning committee (which I sucked myself into by being the first to open my mouth online about the upcoming event), I can’t imagine trying to find old classmates by perusing the telephone book (you now, that big heavy paper tome plopped unceremoniously at the end of our driveways each spring?).

Despite the fact that for some reason my husband seems to think I’m just goofing around on Facebook all day (not ALL day, I tell him when I stagger down from my office and open the fridge and think hmmm, what am I going to make for dinner?), social media and search engines have changed my life for the better in unique ways. Our rural-ish neighborhood has drawn closer through use of a handful of closed Facebook groups—one for wildlife sightings, one for bartering, and another for general ramblings. I recently, finally, found my old pen pal from when I was ten years old. We’d met once, traded a few holiday cards over the years, then lost touch; turns out we’re leading very similar lifestyles, right down to how many and what type of pets we have. And just this week when I was doing research online for a freelance article, I “met” a woman who had visited Alaska several years ago and was familiar with my parents’ old trapping cabin from the 1950s.

It’s a small world out there. I don’t panic when I go off-grid for a few days like some people do. My
phone is dumb so I can’t check email. But if the internet ever disappeared, for whatever reason, I would surely miss its power to connect.

Susan Sommer is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Alaska.  She holds a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing & Literary Arts.  Visit her at www.akwriter.com
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Celebrating a Gift

Today is cause for a celebration.

Exactly twenty three years ago, after nearly 70 hours of labor, my youngest daughter Meredith was born. At home.  The only attendants were her toddler-sister and her alarmed father.

The midwife set to deliver her had left to refill the oxygen tank and was side-tracked by a lunch offer.  I waited for her as long as I could, until the pain in my back took a sudden turn, and very quickly, Meredith was born.  The eight pound, bruised and battered baby looked up at me, and it was love.

Other mothers assured me that I wouldn’t ever remember the pain of labor.

I remember.  Like it were yesterday.     

But what I remember more was how quickly my squalling baby turned into a feisty toddler that turned into a rebellious teenager that turned into a kind, ambitious,  and gracious young woman.

Motherhood (parenthood) is a gift. There’s nothing I’ve ever wanted more, or been less prepared to do.  No job I have worked harder at, and still fumbled.   And there is absolutely nothing that has given me greater joy.  I’m so fortunate to have been a part of this child’s life.

Happy Birthday, Meredith Eleni.

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Three Reasons to Locate Your Missing Family Members

Did you get a chance to watch the television show The Locator on We TV before it went off the air?  The one where investigator Troy Dunn found missing loved ones and filmed the reunions?  His tagline was You can’t find peace until you find all the pieces.

That was true for me. One of the best decisions I ever made in my youth was to find my missing father.  I was still young enough that I didn’t fully realize how much growing up without him hurt me. Or how growing up hearing scary stories about him shaped not just the way I felt about him, but how I felt about myself.

Of course, when I located my father (thanks to my attorney friend Ira) in May of 1985, I found out I had a whole passel of siblings I hadn’t known about; five brothers and one sister.  I had more aunts and uncles than I’d ever imagined, and cousins galore. And I learned that much of what I’d heard about my father and why my parents split simply weren’t true. I also learned that despite what my mother told me, my father had wanted me,  and didn’t know where I’d disappeared to the day he went to exercise his visitation and I’d gone missing.

Years later, I met a brother on my mom’s side I hadn’t seen since I was a toddler. Again, it was magic. I followed up by contacting family I’d lost contact with for one reason or another.  Each reunion was a gift all its own.Twenty-seven years after my first family reunion, the connections I’ve made with family continue to add color and dimension to my life, and I often tell others with missing family members, “Look him (or her, or them) up! What are you worried about?”

In truth, locating missing family comes with inherent risks of rejection, disappointment, and the likelihood that unsavory family secrets get revealed. But the reasons for finding missing family trump those, in my experience.
Wanda and Me 003
Sister Wanda in Anchorage
Aunts and Uncles, Kentucky
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Vincent, David, LauraGrace, Gardnar, and Danny Meredith
Tana and Mere 024
Sister Maddy, brother Harold, and daughter Meredith


Three Reasons to Find Your Missing Family

  1. Because you want answers- to your family history, health history, and to know what part of you is due to nature vs. nurture.  For me, getting to know my whole family helped me know and accept myself easier.
  2. Because we all need connection. Without them, we become prickly, weird, and depressed. You might unearth more weirdness by finding your missing family. But you may very well expand your capacity to love.
  3. Because you’re dying. Not to put too fine a point on it, but we all are, beginning the process as soon as we’re born.  With your days being numbered, don’t you want to know who’s out there with your DNA?

When my oldest daughter began dating Vince, an old friend of hers from high school, I learned two things about him. He had cancer. And he grew up in a splintered family like I had. He told me his mom had been a young Filipina immigrant when she married his father, a tall and rough American soldier.

Vince had vivid memories of his father terrorizing his mother after they separated. He remembered her not being allowed to exercise her custody rights, and remembered her moving out of state.
“I want to know my family,” he told me. “I want to know them all, the Filipino side, my siblings, all of them. Can you help me?”
I was thrilled to be asked.

But before I got very far, Vince’s health took a sharp turn for the worse. In February of 2010, he told me he thought he was dying.  Within the next eight weeks,   his body was ravaged by tumors.  He lay in the middle of his family’s living room while they smoked cigarettes and played the television loudly. Unable to eat or speak, his face hallowed and his eyes sunk.  He was in much pain, and I privately wondered why he fought the inevitable for so long.

It turned out that his mother had been granted permission by his father to see him one last time. A dozen years had passed since she had seen him. Vince’s mother hadn’t been permitted access to Vince was a small boy, and though she called and sent packages irregularly, it wasn’t the same.

vinceandcass
Vince’s mother arrived in Alaska on May 14th and was given an hour or more to visit. Though he could no longer communicate verbally, Vince relaxed into his mother’s embrace. He died many hours later, on May 15, 2010.

http://main.acsevents.org/site/TR/RelayForLife/RFLCY16GW?pg=entry&fr_id=75351

If Vince had some assurance he’d get to meet his Filipino family, be they good, bad or indifferent, would he have lived longer?  Lived happier?  We’ll never know.  I do know that finding mine changed everything, and like Troy Dunn promised, I found peace.

Do you have stories of finding missing family members that you’d like to share?  Or have family that you’re thinking about finding? Leave a comment below.

Not Judging Amy/ An Employer Responds to Domestic Violence

Tonight, I went to the University of Alaska, Anchorage’s (UAA)  screening of Telling Amy’s Story, a documentary sponsored by Verizon Wireless after their long-time Pennsylvania employee was shot at point blank range in her home by her husband while her parents and her children waited for her outside in an idling vehicle.

Long before Amy’s murder ten years ago, Verizon invested in employee trainings on family violence, teaching their managers the three R’s:

            1) Recognize the signs of domestic violence.
2) Respond in a manner that promoted respect to the victim and safety to coworkers.
3) Refer the victim to a local domestic abuse agency.

That’s more than most companies do, but it wasn’t enough to save thirty-three year-old Amy Homan McGee. After her life ended abruptly, her safe and sheltered Pennsylvania community was stunned. It wasn’t until police completed a fatality review in 2005 that family, friends, and coworkers interviews pieced together the pattern of control and intimidation she had been subjected to by her husband.

It’s surprised me that the film attracted more than fifty people in the Anchorage showing. It started at 5:30 at night, after work or school for most of us. But in Alaska, the prevalence of domestic violence is high in a state with otherwise relatively low crime rate.

Nationally, 1 of every 4 women in the United States has or will experience domestic violence, according to the Center for Disease Control’s 2008 data.

In Alaska, it’s 1 out of 2 women, according to UAA’s Justice Center figures from 2010.

Of all the women murdered in America, 50% were killed by their current or former husband or lover, according to the Department of Justice in 2007.

For murdered men, that figure is 5%.

Telling Amy’s Storygives those in her life who outlived her a chance to process their devastation as they struggle to find where missed points for intervention occurred.

Most of us will have a friend, a daughter, a mother, or sister who will experience interpersonal violence within their lifetimes. Do you know what local resources in your community can help?

Pennsylvania Detective Deirdri Fishel said it best; “If you can’t be safe in your own home, does it matter if your community is safe?”

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To Eat or Not to Eat: The End of a Troubled Relationship

Not all bad relationships are between people. I’ve limped along my negative relationship with food for decades, carrying the associated emotional and physical baggage. 
My old diaries from ages 13 and 14 are missing the cursory teenage angst about boys and mean girls at school. Even the fact that my mother disappeared with her last husband, leaving me and high dry with a barely- adult sister.
Instead, the journals contain page after page of what I ate:
         
          Monday- cornflakes with skim milk.
     Tuesday-same.
    Wednesday-same.  
    Thursday- one box of Suzy Q’s, one pound M&M’s, cornflakes with whole milk.
You get the point. Starve, starve, starve, and binge.
When I was in my mid-twenties, already a single mother of two girls and on food stamps, a friend set me up on a date. The date wanted to meet for lunch at Simon & Seafort’s, an Anchorage landmark known for its fabulous seafood and steaks. I spent the next few days fantasizing about what I would eat. Should I order something I knew I’d love, like a burger and fries, or venture into new territory and order a shrimp louie?  My poor future date.  I never thought a lick about him.
Just as well.
We met for lunch a few days later. My date was a portly brunette at least twenty years older than me with a mustache that covered his upper lip. He didn’t smile much, but talked a lot. He was a museum curator, and he assured me he had LOTS of money. “Order anything you like,” he said. Seeing my look of surprise, he said, “I’m serious. Anything.”
He didn’t have to tell me twice. But since he did, I went wild with the appetizers. Calamari, potato wedges with gruyere, beef tips, and crab and artichoke dip on bread. Yum!
My date? I don’t know what he ate. He just talked and talked and talked. But I didn’t mind. I was self-medicating. Our waitress circled the table repeatedly, trying to take away baskets with food still in it. Since my mouth was full, I had to shoo her away by waving my free hand.
When the bill came, my date finally got quiet. “I’ve never had a lunch cost so much,” was his only comment.
Another one bites the dust.  Although it was a great temporary departure from poverty, the food hangover lasted for days.
As much as I adore eating, I don’t love the feeling of being that out of control.  I want to eat food that’s kind to me, and eat what I need, not everything I can swallow.
It’s important to be intentional about all relationships. I don’t hang out with people who bring out my worst qualities or encourage me to abandon goals and core beliefs.
 And the same is true with food.

Recently, I’ve come to love the show Hungry Girl on the Food Network.  I’m confident Lisa Lillien and I would be friends if she lived in Alaska.  The food is fun, with respectable portions thanks to some innovative substitutions. I haven’t tried a recipe of hers that I didn’t love.  A close second is Not My Mama’s Meal’s by Bobby 
To Eat or Not to Eat: Three Questions I Ask Myself When Deciding
  1.       )      Is this food good for me?
    2)      Will I like myself after I’ve eaten it?
    3)      Have I exercised enough to burn the energy it will give me?

Pretty simple, but I’m used to telling myself I deserve to eat this cake, French fries etc., instead of I deserve to feel healthy and fit.  And I do deserve to be healthy.

You do, too.

Any recipes or tips you’d like to share, Dear Reader?

Turkey burger with Hungry Girl Onion Rings

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3d Book Group/AfterImage by Carla Malden

Every six weeks or so, I get together with some of my favorite friends and talk books.  Until now, we’ve met at a coffee shop, spoken about our impressions of the book, and let conversation morph into one about our lives and loves.

(1/2 the group at Cafe Del Mundo




This time, we tried something different.
I selected the book AfterImage by Carla Malden. It was recommended to me last summer at a writer’s conference as an example of a memoir that seamlessly moves from the past to the future while telling a beautiful love story.
Normally, books about women whose husbands have died make me jealous. My marriage was heinous, and I really wanted my husband to die. I prayed for it to happen. It never did.
But this book tells of an enviable relationship that began for the writer as a teenager and led to a personal and professional partnership (the two were screenwriters) that ended too soon. The author had me hooked in the first paragraph:
“Mrs. Starkman,” said the doctor, “sit down.”
          Ten months, three week later, my husband was dead.
           Cancer is an awesome opponent. Sometimes it wins. Even when it most should not. Even when all goodness is on the other side.
I wasn’t the only one who loved AfterImage. We all agreed that it was lyrically written, universally relatable, and pretty funny in spots for a book of its kind.
I saw on the author’s site that she attends book groups in person or via Skype when possible. She responded immediately when I submitted a request. Due to the time difference between Alaska and California, we settled on a Q and A format. The group submitted their questions and comments to me which I forwarded on to Ms. Malden.
What was it like, writing this without your husband who you wrote with for ages?
It was the only type of writing I could do without him.  I could not return to screenwriting (and still              have not).  This was a completely different type of writing — more individual, less dependent on a particular structure.  I found I could access that voice, whereas I didn’t feel I had the confidence or the inclination to write a screenplay without him.  We had developed a rhythm as to how to do that together over the years that I didn’t feel I could re-invent.  This book took on a method of its own.  I had to write it, in a way, even though it was agonizing.  
  Was it a cathartic experience? 
   “Cathartic” isn’t precisely the right word.  But it was a learning experience.  I learned that I really                    love writing prose which I hadn’t done in a long time.  In retrospect (as it’s been a few years now since I finished the actual writing), I realize that it was important for me to turn the events of that year into some sort of narrative that I could wrap my arms around, to make it less surreal.  Writing the book helped me understand that this had really happened… and, at the same time, turned it into a “story” that I could somehow contain (or, at least, have the illusion of containing).  Maybe it helped stop that “story” from subsuming the rest of my life because for a while there, I really felt like I would never come up for air.  Wasn’t sure I wanted to — which I think is necessary part of the process.  I now believe you have to make that daily choice to live — in whatever limited way you can — when you’re in the darkest depths of an experience like that.
  What are you reading now?
  Right now I’m reading “Defending Jacob” which is a courtroom best seller — the kind of thing I very  rarely read, but it happened to be on a Kindle that was given to me.  (I rarely read on the Kindle either — I prefer the old-fashioned way!).  Before that, I read a book called “Heft” that I found enormously inventive and compelling.  Within the past year I was on a Meg Wolitzer kick — caught up with everything of hers I hadn’t read before, and then, coincidentally, her mother, Hilma Wolitzer, just came out with a new book called “An Available Man” which I really enjoyed (though it kind of freaked me out because it’s about a widower and parts of it were so much like a fictionalized version of my book).
There were a few more questions she answered, but you get the drift, Reader. Suddenly reading a touching story became a real conversation, and our book group was so thankful that our author provided insight. And the author was sincerely touched that we chose her book to read and spent time discussing it.
Our 3d book group was a great success. Next group, we’re hoping to have local author Bong attend with us and tell us about writing Escape to Survive.
What tips do you have to keep your book group fun and relevant?

 AfterImage will soon be available in paperback.

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Child Abduction’s Anniversary

Eighteen years ago today, my daughters were snatched and taken to Greece.

There are certain details I’ll never forget. I remember waving goodbye to them as they climbed into their father’s jeep for their two day visitation.   I remember meeting my friend Julie for lunch that day to celebrate her birthday. I remember feeling slightly guilty for enjoying the much-needed break from the constant demands of single motherhood, not realizing that this break would last just over two long years.

March 13, 1994 is one of my life’s uglier anniversaries.

But there is much about the next many months and years that are important to remember. Important enough that I’ve written them down so that our history will not be erased.
I remember the support from my friends, my coworkers, and the Anchorage community at large. The tireless work of local attorneys Michael Schneider and James Gorton. And I remember the trips to Greece which led to new and lasting friendships, and to finding my daughters. Only to be arrested.
International parental child abduction is on the rise. Less than half of the parents whose children are taken from home countries ever see them again.

But thanks to the help of so many, I became one of the luckier ones.
So what’s the anniversary I do celebrate?

May 24, 1996. The day the girls and I returned home to Alaska.

 In truth, I celebrate just a little every day that this crisis from our past could not prevent us from enjoying a fabulous future.



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Take It From Me: Supporting Your Abused Friend While Staying Safe and Sane

DO

  • Tell her she deserves to be treated well.
  • Tell her you’re concerned for her safety .
  • Ask questions like “Why do you think he/she does that?”
  • Limit how much time you spend listening to her vent.
  • Report abuse of children in the home, or of children witnessing the violence to child protective services.
  • Refer her to get help at the local domestic violence agency.
  • DON’T

  • Tell her, “I’d never put up with that.”
  • Tell her to leave her abuser.
  • State your negative opinion about her abuser.
  • Think you can rescue her.
  • Judge her decision to stay in the relationship.
  • Become her cheerleader or get invested in her decisions.
  • Your loved one in an abusive relationship feels plenty of judgment already. No need to add to the pressure.

    A few explanations are necessary.

    Why not tell her to leave her abuser?

    Because more women are seriously injured or killed when leaving a violent relationship, not while remaining in it. She alone will live with the consequences of leaving, not you.

    Limit how much time you spend listening to her vent. Now that’s always been a controversial one. I nearly burned through a couple of relationships, leaning so hard on a couple of friends I dared to share my scary secrets with.  It’s a lot of pressure to put on the listener. And because we’re all human, it leads the well-meaning friend or family member to become invested in the choices of the abused. After all, how long do any of us want to hear the same version of the depressing story, over and over again?

    Don’t cheerlead. By that I mean, don’t say, “I knew you could do it!” if your friend leaves her partner, or gets a job, or whatever.  It seems nice. It seems harmless, right? But in the end, your abused friend, who wants your approval, may feel pressured to be less than honest with you when she waffles on her choices.

    It takes most women several tries before she’s able to leave her violent relationship for good.  Pace yourself. Take care of yourself. You’ll be a better support in the long run.

    What tips do you have to maintaining your support of an abused friend while staying safe and staying sane? Leave a comment below.

    Meandering Miser

    (Journal entry)


    1/5/12
    I know it’s been two days since I officially arrived (and four days since leaving AK), but it’s never too late to start journaling, right?
    The long and winding road took me to layover in Seattle for a day, where I got to spend quality time with my dear old college friend, Mike Dominoski. I hadn’t seen him in twenty-plus years. He hasn’t changed much, only for the better. I met his lovely new wife, Mike’s first. At age fifty. Now that’s courage and love.
    My trip has been dampened by my lack of attention to details. I forgot to bring pictures for my arrival VISA. But I had a pleasant layover in Korea, and made it to Hanoi three days after leaving Anchorage. It was midnight when I flew in. I knew the ride to my hotel would be another hour, so I ordered a driver through the hotel six months earlier.
    And guess what? My driver wasn’t there. I scanned the airport for someone holding a sign with my name. No luck. There weren’t pay phones. No airport staff to talk to. Soon after I arrived, it was just me in the dark Hanoi airport, and a bunch of taxi drivers queued up outside. I’d been warned about Hanoi taxi drivers and the two tiered pricing system that exists for locals and Westerners. No thanks.
    But after an hour of waiting for my runaway driver, I weakened. I went outside and negotiated the fee with a driver who I noticed had ten long, papery thin fingernails. We agreed on $15.00 and I hopped in after shaking his hand. A second man slid in the cab just behind me. He worked with my driver, and once the taxi accelerated, the second man began raising the price of my cab fee. I opened the door and hopped out of the moving taxi, tugging my luggage before it left with the men. The second man hopped out of the car and followed me back into the airport, begging me to get back in the taxi. Just as I approached the door to the airport, a rat ran in front of me.
    Hello, Hanoi.
    My second effort was much better. I got the nicest driver ever who was more than happy to accept my proposed fee. I was more than happy to give a good tip. And an hour later, I found myself in my lovely hotel room.
    I’ve been frozen ever since. I had dragged my spring clothes out of my closet for this trip. Short sleeves, capri pants, and sun dresses. It’s wet and freezing in Vietnam.
    The Rising Dragon Hotel is clean, hospitable, and amazingly homey. No one has over-charged me and the staff is concerned that I have a good time.
    I am, all in all.
    It’s difficult in a foreign country- to bank, bathe, shop, dress, and even walk without incident. Cars drive up on the sidewalk regularly, motorcycles honk constantly, and people target-glance my wallet.
    I don’t know why I do it sometimes. Why not just relax in Hawaii? What is this need to see the world? I suspect I can learn to be a more compassionate person for it, and can represent our people well. It’s a thrill like no other, testing one’s mettle in that way.

    1/06/12
    Yesterday, I arrived in Heaven. Laos welcomed me with sun, heat, a driver holding a sign with my name on it, and two new American friends, a married couple currently stationed in Japan , a precious dorm room for $8 a day at Rivertime Eco Resort and Lodge. I walk down a dirt hill for my meals on the lodge’s floating restaurant, eat for nearly nothing, and enjoy the company of staff-Lao, Hmong, Australian, and British. I do excursions at my leisure. For $7, I had a one hour massage. I watched staff do karaoke ($3). I go walking, sunbathing, and hear the sounds of water, animals, and an occasional motor from a boat passing by. I do what I want, when I want. I gave school supplies to the local kids through Pack For a Purpose. Feel fabulous.          http://www.packforapurpose.org/docs/your-story.shtml
    In 1999, I was still struggling, had a paper route, worked ten hour days as a social worker, attended graduate school, and carted (or dispatched friends to cart) the girls around for their activities. They were 11 and 12 years old.

    Now here I sit in the sun in Laos, happy to leave my college-aged lovely daughters behind as I also leave the man of my dreams and the job I adore for three, self-indulgent weeks. This is awesome. If life gets no better than it is right here, right now, so be it. Good enough.


    1/8/12
    In the span of four days, I’ve gone on two village tours ($5 apiece), went kayaking for free, inner tubing($5), had a traditional Lao dance lesson, compliments of the locals having lunch at the floating restaurant, collected 4 new Facebook friends, and been invited to a Lao woman’s home to visit. This resort is a single mother’s dream.
    And Hanoi? It’s a different experience altogether. If you like a constant chorus of beeping horns, cold, damp weather, locals target-glancing your belongings, pressure to shop, and uniformed men every so many meters watching your every move, Hanoi may well be your mecca.
    As for me? J’e deteste.
    (The next three days were filled with more fun in the sun, meeting other resort guests from England, France, Israel, and Laos, and touring the capital’s war museum, riding back to the airport in a tuk-tuk. I hated leaving Laos.)
    1/15/12
    Dear Journal,
    Vietnam is mildly better this time around. My ride was actually at the airport in Hanoi when I flew back from Vientienne. Jennifer and I met up. Then we went to Sapa via overnight train. We had a teeny cabin and shared it with an Aussie married couple. Marty and Peter. I loved them immediately. They’re hilarious.
    We went to a hotel directly from the train, took a shower, and began our trekking tour which consisted of 5-8 kilometers daily in monsoon-type weather mountains of Sapa in Hmong villages swarmed by Hmong women calling out, “You buy from me? You make me happy?” Occasionally, someone asked our ages, a popular question in every social circle in Vietnam.
    I wanted to scream. Between the rain, the mud, and the begging, I was fried. I’d forgotten what a jerk I can be. The villages were as pleasurable to walk through as chicken coops. But after the good exercise the hikes provided, Jennifer and I enjoyed the new friends we met in our tour by sharing dinner time with them. We drank hot wine, which tasted like your average cabernet sauvignon heated up to 150 degrees. I wouldn’t touch it at home, but when you’re freezing after a good, long hike, somehow it works. And we went to a Vietnamese massage spa, where we sat in a sort of assembly line and warmed our feet in buckets of hot water while we got over-the-clothing body rubs.

    1/16/12
    Today, we got back in the early morning hours, taxi’d back to the Rising Dragon, and took much needed showers. Jennifer and I went to lunch and shopping with Marty. I got too comfortable with the crowds in Hanoi since Jennifer and Marty were with me, and barely noticed the hand unzipping my handbag as we chatted and strolled. I wrapped my hand around the attached wrist, and squeezed hard, calling out for Jennifer to help. I didn’t actually need any. I was mad at the female pick-pocketer. She was scared of my mad. I held on to her awhile. Now what? I wondered. She did too, and encouraged me to let go of her. I did.
    On to Hoi An. Jennifer wisely decided that we should go via overnight train. I was tired and grumpy from the aftertaste of Sapa until we got to our overnight cabin. Seated closely across from us on the bottom bunk were three Buddhist monks. They stared at us as though we were a zoo exhibit, and spoke in Vietnamese about us.
    “How old are you?” asked Middle Monk.
    “47,” I answered, and motioning to Jennifer, “and she’s 42…How old are you?”
    The monks bookending Middle-monk were both 29. Middle Monk was 33.
    Jennifer leaned forward from the bottom bunk. “Do you speak English?” she asked, speaking louder and slower than usual.
    Middle monk shook his head no. “Do you speak Vietnam?” he asked, matching her volume and pace perfectly.
    All three monks burst into girly laughter.
    Too often, I’ve thought that the Vietnamese are cold and humorless. On this night, the evening of my pick-pocketer, I was rewarded with being proven wrong.
    The monks continued to talk and giggle amongst themselves. At around 11:30PM, I turned off my light in the top bunk and gestured that I was going to sleep. They said goodnight and lowered their voices accordingly.
    Nearly a half hour later, I was awakened to the sound of Jennifer shreiking. I flicked on the light and saw that the monks had bestowed her with their traditional Chinese New Year foods, the Thousand-Year Egg and bean curd, and were insisting Jennifer partake.
    Bean curd has a strange texture, but is otherwise fine to eat. But the Thousand-Year Egg? That was brutal.

    In case you don’t watch the Travel Channel, Dear Reader, let me tell you what that is. It’s a half-incubated egg, either chicken or duck, that’s prepared in a concoction of things like salt, clay, and lime, and left to age for a good long period. Not a thousand years, but too long. So inside the shell is what amounts to a chicken fetus. Chunks of meat and hard-boiled egg, all at once. Blech!

    Once I popped my head up to see what was going on, the pressure shifted to me. Middle Monk prepared me a plate of goodies, stood up, and handed it to me on the top bunk. I shook my head no, worried I would puke. He wouldn’t have it. “You! You! You! You!,” he said loudly in mock anger. We repeated the process. Twice. The others laughed uproariously.
    What else was there to do? It was Chinese New Year. These were monks.

    Two eggs later (it tasted like boiled egg with pieces of chicken inside it) with a bean curd chaser, I had to admit that it wasn’t half-bad. Jennifer and I were only too happy to provide three Vietnamese monks fodder for their holiday.

    And that was when I knew it was love. Me and Vietnam. Not the Love at First Sight kind of love I had with Laos. But the arranged marriage, you’ve grown on me over time and will definitely do in pinch kind of love.


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    Holiday Joy




    This holiday season passed by much better than I’d ever hoped.
    Every year since I can remember, I’ve dreaded the holidays. By October, I’m praying I could wake up and it be January 2nd. Forget Halloween, Thanksgiving. Really forget Christmas, and skip the Happy New Year. Please.
    But at the end of 2011, not only was I looking forward to traveling to Vietnam and Laos, I was in the thick of planning an in-service for some of the kids at the youth detention center I work at who would be spending their own holidays in custody.
    Some of them come from loving families with rich traditions. Most do not.
    On any given day in our detention center, we house juveniles who are orphaned, abused, and/or neglected. A good percentage of them don’t know who their father is, or haven’t seen him for years.
    So getting some local artists to give workshops to motivate our detained kids and teach them a new skill seemed like an easy way to make a positive difference in their lives, and remind them that one day they would be released to a community that cared. After meeting with detention staff, we titled mini-conference for kids Bring the Outside In.
    Did I say it would be easy? Not so much.
    It turns out, a lot of people are busy or traveling on holidays. Who knew? So although I know many talented writers, artists, and musicians, it looked as though my hope would never materialize due to scheduling challenges.
    But in the end, several amazing and generous volunteers came forward. Restaurateur Barry Yabyabin from KLT Diner showed the kids how to cook a healthy and inexpensive Filipino dish, pancit. My dear friend and comic genius Lee Post taught drawing. Amber Rose and her assistant Anne Freitag led the kids in Scottish Country Dancing. And Trey Josey and Kima Hamilton from Brave New Alaskan Voices mesmerized the kids with the art of the spoken word.
    The kids were thrilled. But what I loved most was watching the volunteers, tentative at the beginning of their workshops, get energized teaching the kids a skill that might very well contribute to the staff’s rehabilitative efforts.
    We all have some gift to offer the people around us. The trick is finding it and connecting it with the person(s) who need it.
    Christmas of 2010 helped me turn a corner. Gifts versus presents. Memories versus madness.
    I’m already planning Christmas of 2012.
    Much appreciation to the volunteers.
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