Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Dear Worst

Dear Worst,

Life isn't always fun and games, cuz you are always lurking just behind the rainbow.  And because I'm overbooked with subbing assignments and evening meetings and concert rehearsals and birthday parties and lesson planning and TKD testing and mandatory dinner engagement in the next few weeks, I am full of rants and must vent with a short post.  Here are my #TopTen Worsts in each category:

10. Driving: Backing up.  #ThereAreReasonsWhyOurEyesAreInFrontOfOurHeads

9. Summers: Mosquitoes.  #MyImmuneSystemHatesMe

8. Days: Not enough hours in them.  #OverAchieverOrUnderSleeper

7. Facebook: News feed algorithm.  #ItKnowsUsBetterThanWeKnowOurselves

6. Twitter: The never-caught-up stream.  #IveTotallyGivenUp  #ListsSchmists

5. Candy Crush Saga: Level 125.  #LevelFromHell  #MyPoorEyes

4. Cleaning: Hurting myself while I'm at it.  #RubbingSaltOnTheWound

3. Cooking: Being under any sort of time limit.  #LikeOilAndWater  (#SeeWhatIDidThere)

2. Subbing: Not learning the kids' names fast enough.  #WhatsYourNameAGAIN?

1. Parenting: Standing your ground AND feeling bad for the kid.  #ParentingIsHEARTWork

So, Dear Worst, I know, I know, mine are first world problems.  But if anyone can relate to any of these, then I won't feel so alone.  They kinda bring people together, you know?

(And yes, as soon as I ranted about Level 125 to a friend--after having been stuck there for weeks--I passed it immediately after the conversation.  How's that for productive venting?)

(It's okay, I can't see you shake your head in pity on your side of the screen.)

(So, go ahead, shake away.)


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Dear Miracles

Dear Miracles,

You do happen.  I actually have two to prove it--my two blessed kiddos, my Miracles who continue to complete me.  It's been a while now, but I always think back to when you happened as a reminder not to take Life for granted.


I just had a feeling.  In my early 20s, I had a feeling that I had endometriosis, something that cannot be diagnosed without surgery nor dealt with until I was ready to have children, which was still years away.  Treatment for endometriosis includes a variety of ways to "shut down" one's reproductive system, since hormones are the culprit that inflames the symptoms.  For years, I dealt with the pain and fear of infertility.  And when Dear Husband and I were ready to have a family, no signs of pregnancy came for months, and then years.

There was no doubt in my mind since I was a little girl that I wanted to be a mother.  It was something I knew with all of my heart and with absolute certainty--like the way days follow nights, or the precision of mathematical calculations, or that kindness and compassion define humanity.  And when something you want so badly cannot be yours, your heart breaks a little, each day, each month, each year.

We went through the standard infertility treatment, a check list that brought us to the last resort: in-vitro fertilization (IVF) center.  During the initial workup, an ultrasound found chocolate cysts (endometrial adhesions) on my ovaries (the only form of endometriosis visible without surgery).  You can't really say that I was surprised.  That sent me directly to the OR for a laparoscopy to 1) officially diagnose and 2) remove endometrial adhesions and cysts, before attempting IVF (the presence of endometriosis bypasses intrauterine insemination, or IUI, the less invasive infertility treatment).

I had always known that had I been born in another time, I would have remained child-less and likely forever broken.  But I was fortunate enough to have had access to modern technology, good doctors, and a fantastic insurance plan (one great perk of being a teacher).  Even though my surgical notes indicated that I had moderate-to-severe endometriosis, I still had a glimmer of hope with this next step, IVF.

The first IVF consultation we had was overwhelming to say the least.  The amount of drugs that had to be ordered was staggering.  It has been over a decade, but I still remember much of the details: daily shots in the belly fat, blood draws every other day to monitor hormone levels, and ultrasounds to monitor follicle development prior to egg retrieval, to start.  Which, for the very-hopeful me, was all fine and dandy.  I followed the directions to a T, making sure everything was done exactly as directed, down to the exact minute and milliliter.

Then came the day I was told that our first IVF attempt failed because I hadn't produced enough follicles.  That they would readjust my meds to ensure better production next time.  DH still remembers how we drove home: him driving and me crying; him being helpless and me sobbing uncontrollably; him saying "we'll try again" and me thinking "in two more months."  Two more months.  Waiting is a cruel, cold-hearted beast.  I feared that I didn't have enough heart left for breaking during that length of time.

They upped my dosage while I feared hyperstimulation (which can be severe enough to land you in the hospital).  This art of "just right"--not too little but not too much--is where doctors demonstrate their expertise.  This second time, my doctor got it just right.  After successful egg retrieval and subsequent in-vitro fertilization, we had to "trick" my body into thinking that I was pregnant, meaning more shots.  But these were not the shots in the belly with the half inch needles.  These were the 2-inch 22-gauge ginormous needles that inject progesterone oil (think thick) into the muscles of the buttocks.  Everyday.  "Bruised" takes on new meaning when you have butt cheeks that are the color of green and purple.

The only reason I was able to go through with giant needles in my butt was the promise of a baby... but all the while fearing the promise would be yet another devastating disappointment.

But that promise did finally arrive, and DH will never let me live down how we found out.  The fertility center took my blood that morning, and when the lab results came back, a nurse was supposed to call my cell phone and leave a message.  I'd check the message, and then call DH.  But for whatever reason, the nurse called my home phone instead and left a message there.  After hearing a ton of number gibberish, I finally heard the word, "positive."  In my state of shock, joy, or momentous relief, I just assumed that DH got the message since he can access it.  That or I just forgot about him altogether and I ran downstairs to tell my teacher colleagues who had been following my IVF saga.

DH was not the first to find out.  (But I think he's almost forgiven me for that.)

To celebrate this great news, I was rewarded with another month of progesterone shots.  By the time that was all done, 1) the color of my rear end was not human, 2) DH was shooting me up with one eye closed--like a rock star, and 3) we saw the baby's heartbeat.

That beautiful, pulsating, black-and-white blip on the screen was the culmination of my surgery, IVF, and years of longing.  So we had to do this a little differently than most other people.  But we had ourselves a baby.  

And then I had nine more months to wait.

We went through the exact same thing with our second baby.  Except because I had stopped working, and DH's insurance was a joke, we had to take out a home equity loan for the second IVF.  And in a short few year's time, the injections changed from syringe and vials to syringe pens: just attach a needle, click the dial to the correct dosage, and shoot.  This pen in the pic is one helluva souvenir from IVF #2.

And I made sure that DH was the first to find out the good news this time around.  After all, he was my rock through these trying times.

In the end, our challenges of conceiving our babies still pale in comparison to the trials others go through, and we were the lucky ones that had happy endings.  It's been a long time, and I've always meant to write down--for memories' sake--our "makings of a family" story.  It's interesting to relive, however difficult it was at the time to live.  And here it is.

During our chaotic days filled with the kiddos' endless activities and wants and needs, taking a moment to think about how they actually came to be can be refreshing and provides some much needed perspective.  Of course it is always during those times of I-can't-take-this-anymore parenting moments, during the distress of having to tame wild heathens children--to the point where I actually question the reason behind having said monsters children--when DH looks at me with the most serious look and says, "And you wanted children?"  

And this is when I tell him he's not funny.  The man thinks he's Jimmy Fallon or something. 

(I continue to be treated for endometriosis--even though there will be no more babies--since it has a very high chance of recurrence.  I am now living mostly pain-free and completely spared from reproductive worries.  Do you hear the angels sing?


So, Dear Miracles, indeed you are life-changing.  When I look back at my child-less self more than eleven years ago, I still feel a pang of sorrow, because I instantly remember that empty feeling.  Now on the other side, I know how much my life has been enriched by my own two Miracles.  Life works in mysterious ways.  Perhaps this serves to make me cherish what I once didn't have, and now have been blessed with absolute certainty.  I am most grateful for having the chance to be a mother.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Dear Teacher Prestige

Dear Teacher Prestige,

No doubt you vary among cultures having different perceptions of a teacher's social status.  It is interesting for me to see and feel the differences between cultures in the East and the West as a teacher myself.


Chinese School started this past Sunday. My kiddos continue their studies there while I began the year with my new class of two- and three-year-olds.  It was wonderful meeting new families and seeing returning ones.  My day went really well, and I was pleased with the day's work.  Over the last year and a half there, I've realized that even in America, when a group of Chinese parents and teachers are together, many Chinese practices are still front and center.  A particularly noticeable one is the way in which teachers are regarded.

From my memory thirty-plus years ago in Taiwan, teachers have always experienced high occupational prestige.  The respect with which the society regards teachers is visible through words and action.  Teachers are not called Mrs. Smith or Mr. Jackson; they are called Teacher Smith or Teacher Jackson.  They are not regarded as just any other person, but as a person of profession, even by name.  When in the company of teachers, people oftentimes greet them with a slight bow of the upper body.  (In traditional culture, the measure of respect is in the degree of bend in the bow; saving the 90 degree bows for momentous and celebratory occasions nowadays, the greeting bow has been modified to a mini-bow, more like a tip of the head.)  Above all, parents take the words of teachers very seriously, always reteaching to their children what teachers preach in school during the day, in both academic and social-emotional parameters.

A lot of that is cultural affect.  You do what you have learned from the generation before you.  Education is highly regarded in many parts of Asia.  Even though I don't necessarily agree with all the teaching methods in Asia, it is invariably true that teachers are generally regarded with the utmost respect.

Having had this value embedded in me during my early years, I carried it over to my adult life here.  When I first started teaching as a newbie teacher, I would always call my colleagues by their last names: Mrs. Smith or Mr. Jackson.  Another newbie teacher of Asian descent did the same (for the same reason), but we were both reprimanded by our colleagues.  Call me by my first name, for goodness sake! they'd say.  I did, eventually, but it took some time.  Even today, I still refer to my kiddos' teachers by their last names--out of respect--unless they specifically tell me not to.

Old habits are hard to break.

I have always felt that people in general are more friendly than formal here in the States, and that has nothing to do with whether people respect teachers or not.  People show respect in different ways, and that is easily recognizable by interpersonal behavior and a lot of common sense.  But having been away from my birth country for so long, it had been a while since I've experienced Chinese formality, specifically in a school setting.

My kiddos started Chinese School back in Fall of 2011.  We found a nearby school whose tuition is very reasonable.  We thought it would be a good opportunity to get some "Chinese time" in the kiddos' lives.  (We don't speak exclusively in Chinese at home--or much at all, rather--but that's for another post altogether.)  DH and I didn't go to Chinese school growing up here in the States.  We just learned and practiced it at home, after having gone to school in Taiwan and already learned how to read and write Chinese at the 3rd/4th grade level.  We never had to go through the pressure and agony of having our precious weekends taken up by Chinese school.  But ironically, we were going to be those parents that send their kids to Chinese School.  Touche.  Dear Daughter started Chinese school at age 8, which is late by "Chinese standards," but we waited for Dear Son to be old enough to go, since they were more apt to go together.

When I found myself among my native language speakers at the school, all of those formality practices came back to me naturally.  I readily greeted the kiddo's teachers with a tip of the head out of respect.  You remember such things the way you don't forget how to ride a bicycle.

Old habits come back easily.  

New parents to the school met and became friendly with one another, chit-chatting in the hallways while waiting for their children's break time.  Many parents had younger children waiting with them.  Halfway through the year, the school's education directors approached me to see whether I'd be up for teaching a new preschool class, having heard of my previous teaching experience.  Seeing the toddlers and preschoolers out in hallway, I thought, sure, I can teach these cute little ones!  So I took the position.  And here we are.

When I first started teaching the preschool class, there was an interesting transition period.  One semester I was a mom and friend to other parents, and the next semester I became their children's teacher.  I felt extremely grateful that everyone was so supportive of my role change.  Having been in this [western] culture for so long, I felt a bit out of sorts when others regarded me they way I regarded my kiddos' teachers.  Oftentimes grandparents of my students bring me freshly harvested Chinese vegetables that they grew themselves.  Words cannot describe how incredibly grateful I feel.  Every single time.

I need to put the shoe on my other foot now.  Touche.

But the point of all this?  I have a little story to tell.  People come and go throughout our lives.  But you never know how each one will affect you, at least not right away.

I will never forget a grandpa of one of my students, a gentleman who had always greeted me in the hallways of Chinese school with a booming and resounding "Teacher!" and even stopped to send the slightest bow my way.  It caught me by surprise the first time because it is a no-brainer in our culture that younger people naturally pay respect to elder people.  For a grandpa to show this sort of courtesy to a mom-turned-teacher was incredibly flattering and difficult for me to accept naturally.  I always bowed right back immediately and greeted him warmly, though sheepishly and gratefully.  I was not only taken aback, but also felt tremendous affection and acknowledgement from this kind man during these weekly encounters.  He and his grandchildren left the school after that semester, and I missed his entire family: he and his lovely wife, his younger grandson who was my student, his elder grandson who was Dear Son's classmate, and his daughter whom I had become friends with in the hallway.

I found out recently that this gentleman passed away last month after a year-long struggle with cancer.  It surprised me how much I was affected by his passing: how sad I was, and how often I thought about him after hearing the news, even though I only knew him for a period of time during those brief moments in the hallways of Chinese school.  His legacy will undoubtedly be a loving husband, father, and grandfather to his family.  But to me, he embodies a spirit that values education and the work that teachers do.  He has touched me in ways that make me want to be a better teacher.  I will always remember his smile, his straightforward, no-nonsense enthusiasm, and his deep, mahogany voice.

The pain of reality are often softened by beautiful memories, and these will be the ones that I think of when I am faced with the many challenges of teaching.

And because I am way too Americanized don't think of myself as a traditional, Confucian Chinese teacher, I have no expectations of anyone paying any sort of formal respect to me.  I only have my students' best interest in mind, and we--my students and their parents--truly all just have a great time in class.  More traditional parents might still call me "Teacher," but if you're "new-age" like me, I'll high-five you down the hallways of Chinese school as a greeting if you'd like.

Old habits can evolve into new ones.  I can roll how you roll.  


So, Dear Teacher Prestige, it has been quite humbling for me to experience such differences in you across continents and countries.  But I know that it's not how one shows respect to teachers, but that we acknowledge that their work benefits our children, and that we appreciate everything they do.  And I'm saying that as a parent.  As a teacher, well, I'll have to earn that, and I promise to put my best effort forward.


Thursday, September 5, 2013

Dear Tomatoes

Dear Tomatoes,

You did not grow so well in my backyard last summer.  By the time we were in danger of freezing temperatures in the fall, a dozen or so of you were full grown, but still green.  But this year, you came back with a vengeance, and more than made up for last year's inadequate crop.


If last summer was all about growing and eating Swiss chard, this summer, it's all about tomatoes.  This year, I grew 4 different types of tomatoes: heirloom, plum, sun sugar, and black cherry (the first three from Bonnie Pots, and the last one from seed).  I was not anticipating this sort of harvest, and I've been a little more than frantic in the last week trying to keep up with them so they don't rot or spoil.  The first thing I learned from ALL THE TOMATOES is: if you plant them, they might grow.  We have tomatoes growing out of our ears.  Tomatoes in the garden, on the kitchen counter, on the windowsill, in the fridge, falling out of the fridge, in the freezer, and even in the oven.  Hence, here are the Rest of the Things I Learned from Growing Tomatoes in my usual #TopTen form:

10. Start small, end tall.  Back in May when I planted my Bonnie Pots into the ground, the tomato plants seemed so small, and it felt like they'd never grow fast enough to bear fruit and honor me with some tomatoes.  Now, they are growing out of their cages.  They are even trying to grow into my house.  Well, it's more like they are very friendly with my window screens, but whatevs.  The cages have toppled over countless times in rainstorms, and the wires are all bent out of shape and will never stand up straight again.  But we're not into garden aesthetics, so no matter.  But I'll try to remember not to worry about their size at the beginning next time 'round.  Cuz THEY GROW.  #PatienceGrasshopper

9. Don't over-water.  Eager-beaver gardeners, such as myself, tend to get overly excited and water the heck out of their gardens.  If I learned anything from last year, it's that if tomatoes get too much water, their skin will crack and they will look frightful and grotesque.  You can still get large, beautiful, and flavorful tomatoes without watering them to death.  #IfYouCareForAesthetics

8. Anchor cages well from the start.  Lest you want to be picking up and reanchoring them after every thunderstorm.  Once the plants get big and heavy, getting the cages back into the ground to keep the plants upright is virtually impossible.  #BonelessCages

7. Don't over crowd.  I did all right with spacing between tomato plants, but I got greedy when it came to Bonnie Pot selection.  One such pot had not one, but two tomato plants.  My amateur logic: two plants = twice the tomatoes, right?  Well, only if you want to have so much stems and leaves growing in a cage that there is hardly any room to reach in and pluck off a tomato.  We're talking so little room that the tomatoes are growing warped due to lack of space.  At one point, it was so crowded inside the cage that I gave up keeping all the stems in, so now there are tomatoes growing on the ground.  Yes, we're classy tomato growers like that.  #ShhhDon'tLook

6.  Mother Nature works in magical ways.  I got to see tomatoes ripen live and up close.  In a cluster, the fruits near the main stem ripen first, creating a cascade of changing colors.  This was much easier to see in smaller tomato varieties.  #ColorsCaptured

5. Want not, waste not.  I had to do something with all these tomatoes, so I had to learn how to keep them around longer.  Since I don't have any canning equipment (nor do I want to spend a lot of money to acquire them), I chose to eat them, freeze them, oven-dry them, and paste them (as in make tomato paste).  Eating is easy; the sun sugar tomatoes are AMAZINGLY sweet.  I can eat a bowl of them any time of the day.  Freezing required more work, as did oven-drying.  I am still planning to paste them before my 5 pounds of plum tomatoes go bad, and the clock is ticking.  #ChopChop

4. To seed or not to seed; that is the question.  I never knew why people seeded tomatoes until this year (cuz I looked it up).  It seems to be that seeds turn to a bitter flavor when cooked.  I never found that to be true, since I've cooked a home-style Chinese dish--tomatoes stirfried with eggs--for decades now, and I always used whole chopped tomatoes.  I froze a batch of seeded tomatoes, and now I'll have to freeze another batch with seeds to do a comparison.  Also, my friend from high school, Karen, posted this article to my Facebook timeline on a thread discussing this topic, and it stated that seeds provide the umami (flavor) in tomatoes.  I'm a rustic kind of gal: I like peels in my mashed potatoes, and skin on my apples.  #SeedsAreFineByMe

3. Freshly-made salsa is righteous, dudes!  Its cousin, Freshly-Made Guacamole, is a close second.  Give me some tortilla chips and I call it a meal.  #ThePicSaysItAll

2. Windowsill magic.  Last year my cyber-friend Cindy advised me to ripen my dozen early-harvested tomatoes on the windowsill, and it worked like magic.  This year, several tomatoes fell off the vines from my trying to harvest others (see #7) before they were ripe.  Same method, same beautiful results.  #NoPicsButTrustMe

1. Nostalgia comes in the form of sugar-sprinkled chopped tomatoes.  We (Dear Husband and I) both used to eat this when we were little back in Taiwan.  I hadn't had this in 30+ years.  With all my tomatoes, I had to think of ways to eat them, and this was the easiest and most memorable way.  The juicy tomatoes with a sweet crunch make me feel like I'm six again.  #WalkingDownSweetMemoryLane


So, Dear Tomatoes, you done me good this year.  With all the antioxidant properties of lycopene and fab nutrients for heart-health, you are definitely a great farming choice.  Now if I can only get my kiddos to appreciate you in ways other than in sauce for pizza and pasta...  Don't worry, I'm working on it.  And surely I'll see ya again next year.