Archive for October, 2009


Bookshelves in Stanford Libraries after 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, Stanford News Service

Bookshelves in Stanford Libraries after 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, copyright Stanford News Service


 On October 17, 1989, around 5:00pm, I was lounging around with my roommates in our (ahem!) trailer at Manzanita Trailer Park at Stanford University.  Classes were over for the day and we were each relaxing in our individual rooms, which offered only the illusion of privacy.  All of us were from out of state: Massachusetts, New York, Texas.  When the trailer started shaking, at first I thought it was a truck going by.  But then the shaking started getting stronger.

“Get under the doorways!” my roommate yelled.  So that’s what we did, not realizing that the thin pressboard doorways would do nothing to protect us.  Still, we huddled in our doorways while the walls shook, books falling off shelves, furniture shifting across the floors.  And then it was over.

Earthquake.  We poured out of the trailer into the open field, where others had started to gather.  To those of us out-of-staters, it felt like a wild amusement park ride.  Did you feel that?  We looked at each other, wide-eyed and giddy, nervously laughing over the realization that we had just been through an earthquake.  A big one, according to the Californians.  

We turned on the television.  Confused local TV anchors improvising while news reports came in.  The Bay Bridge had collapsed, said one report.  Fires in the Marina.  Thousands feared dead.  Yikes.  

My roommates and I called home before the phones went down, which they would within the hour.  My brother answered the phone.

“Hi Herb,” I said.  “I’m okay.”

“So what?” asked my brother, as surly as ever.

“We just had an earthquake.”

“Cool,” he said.  He yelled at my parents in the background.  “Hey, Ma!  Bean was in an earthquake!  Turn on the TV!”

I wouldn’t be able to call home again for a few days, so my family was relieved that I got through when I did.

More news reports came in.  The earthquake measured 7.1, they said.  The strongest in a generation. Freeway collapsed in Oakland.  People trapped in cars.  Aftershocks expected.  Stay away from high rises.  Stories started coming in from around campus.  A few dorms and several older buildings were closed for structural damage.  A rock chimney had almost fallen on a student.  Hoover Tower was closed for inspection.  Classes were canceled tomorrow.

Aftershocks would continue for the next few days.  Some friends who were displaced from their dorm spent the night on the floor of our trailer.  We all figured that our humble trailer was one of the safest places to be; if the thin tin roof caved in, it wouldn’t hurt that much.

We had a day off from classes, but by the next week, things were back to normal, with the exception of some classroom relocations.  Temporary classrooms (more trailers!) were set up in parking lots.  There were huge wooden supports that went up in some arches in the Quad, Stanford’s iconic original campus buildings.  Those supports still remain today.

The earthquake was downgraded to 6.9 and, thankfully, not as many people died as originally estimated.  Still, it caused billions of dollars of damage to the Bay Area, damage that would include the tearing down of the Embarcadero freeway in San Francisco and the current rebuilding of the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge.  The biggest earthquake in a generation.  I was there.

It’s an indelible memory, hunkering down in our trailer as the books fell off the shelves.  I was 21 years old, a time when I felt I was young and indestructible, with nothing but the future ahead of me.  It’s sobering to think about those old sandstone buildings, edifices meant to memorialize a prestigious academia, now propped up by wooden supports.  I, myself, am a little creakier now, less idealistic and certainly less cocky, battleworn by 20 years of life and experience since.  Change—sometimes big, catastrophic change—is inevitable.  Remembering the earthquake reminds me of the frailty of it all.

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Yesterday, in the ongoing saga of getting settled in our new house, we hung my print of Bernice Bing’s Mayacamas No. 6.  It goes well in our bedroom, with our modern furniture and bright colored duvet cover.   As a gift to myself, I had it custom framed recently.  It was the first time Hubby had really looked at the print and he asked me about the artist.  I found myself somewhat moved telling him about Bernice Bing.

Bernice Bing is an artist you’ve probably never heard of.  She grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown and came of age in the 1950’s, during the City’s Beat Generation.  She was a part of all that foment, hanging out with Alan Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti in North Beach cafes.  It was the men who got credit for the Beat movement, though.  None of the women really did, and certainly not a woman of color, as Bernice was.  She was a lesbian, no less, which undoubtedly marginalized her even more.  So although she was hailed as a peer to artists of her generation and exhibited widely in the Bay Area, she toiled in relative obscurity until her death in the 1991.  But through it all, through health difficulties and artist’s poverty, she kept producing her art.

I had heard about Bernice Bing in my work with the Asian Pacific American community in San Francisco.  Her name was tossed around a fair amount, but I had never seen her work.  She was one of the founders of Asian American Women’s Artists’ Association (AAWAA), which helped to nurture several artist friends of mine: Flo Oy Wong, Lenore Chinn, and Nancy Hom.  Hubby knows these women and knows that I hold them dear, as they have been like older sisters, mentors to me as I have endeavored to build my own community through art.  To think of Bernice Bing as a mentor to these women, well, it felt like she was related to me, like a great aunt I had never met.

Last year, at the Shifting Currents exhibition at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco (the first ever major survey exhibition of Asian American artists), I was drawn to this one particular painting.  It was an abstract expressionist landscape, reminiscent of Diebenkorn, whose work I greatly admire.  Bold strokes of color, undefined but determined.  There was power in this painting, like a quiet, but strong voice fighting to be heard.  It was a struggle with which I am all too familiar.  Then I saw that the painting, Mayacamas No. 6, was by Bernice Bing.  It made perfect sense.  Of course it spoke to me.  It was like a long lost relative reaching out through time and generation to say: “I know you.” 

This brings me back to my ongoing ponderings raised in my previous post, Questions for Womanhood.  Do women really need to be mothers in order to be fulfilled? Bernice Bing never had children of her own, but did produce her own “children” in her art.  And she definitely had influence on generations of artists.  Would she have been able to do so if she had been a mother?  Maybe, maybe not.  Alice Walker likes to say that women artists and writers should have one—and only one—child, in order to preserve their creative energy for their work.  Producing art is creative, spiritual act, not unlike producing a child.  It requires our full commitment and attention, not unlike raising a child.

To be frank, my own mother feels that my writing is complete waste of time and, like a good Chinese mother, worries endlessly about how I will make a living, despite all evidence proving that I am perfectly capable of doing so.  It’s fair to say that I would be lost with “mothers” like Bernice Bing, who—even in her absence—offers me a more simpatico ear in her art.  For Bernice, mothering her art was fulfillment, enough to feed and nourish her through a difficult life and give her hope beyond herself.  Did she “miss out” by not having her own children.  Maybe.  Would we “miss out” had she not produced her body of work?  Definitely.

Mayacamas No. 6, by Bernice Bing

Mayacamas No. 6, by Bernice Bing

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Birth by Choice

Irony.  Readers of my blog will know that I am far from the earthy-crunchy advocate for natural childbirth.  Before getting pregnant, my attitude was give me drugs, epidurals are God’s gift to womankind.  (See previous post: Pondering Pain.)  But I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reading since then and I am surprised to find myself in my current position, moving towards natural childbirth.  

Informally asking my friends who have given birth, I was stunned to learn how many of them had had C-sections.  It was perhaps 40% of them.  This really surprised me.  In every case, the mother was told that the baby was in distress and needed assistance to be born.  Nationally in the U.S., the Cesarean rate is 31%.  That’s 1 in 3 babies born in the U.S.!  To me, that seems awfully high.  People will argue that fewer women and babies die in childbirth these days, thanks to modern medical technology; however, does that mean 1/3 of all babies born in the U.S. would have died without the C-section?  Why, then, is the C-section rate in the Netherlands only 12%?  And why, then, does the World Health Organization recommend the C-section rate for developed countries to be 10-15%?

Evidence seems to point to, alas, modern medical technology.  Drug-initiated induction of labor and epidurals lead to higher rates of C-sections than do natural childbirth.  If your body is let alone to do what it was designed to do, the vast majority of the time, it works.  Women have been giving birth for millennia.  Why mess with a good thing?

Because of a recent political brouhaha with our obstetrician practice, Hubby and I chose to check out the midwifery practice at Catholic Medical Center.  Their C-section rate hovers around 6-7%.  Their epidural rate is only 18%.  This tells me that the midwives know what they’re doing and that they’re utilizing every natural means possible before resorting to drugs.  The same is not true of high-tech obstetricians, who have been trained to cut flesh and perform surgeries.  

I must say, because of my previous suboptimal experience with the medical establishment (see previous post Preggers, finally), I am less likely to swallow the doctors’ advice hook, line, and sinker.  In the age of managed health care, I have learned that I must educate myself and be my own advocate.  Especially regarding the birth of my child.

I do feel fortunate that I have been able to find resources here in New Hampshire, which is remarkably progressive in its options for childbirth.  We have contracted with a doula and taken a childbirth class with hypnobirthing.  I am doing prenatal yoga, which I look forward to every week.  Who knows?  In the end, there may be an emergency and I may require a C-section.  For this reason, we still chose to birth in a hospital, where emergency services are available.  However, we’re going give this kid every chance there is to come into the world on his/her own terms.  Hopefully, not by scalpel.

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As a pregnant woman, I am on the U.S. government’s priority list for those to receive the new H1N1 flu vaccination, which should be available in the next few weeks.  The Center for Disease Control strongly recommends it for pregnant women, as does my OB and several doctor friends.  Pregnant women are more susceptible to infection as our immune systems are compromised in order to carry the “foreign” body that becomes our baby.  Out of 100 pregnant women hospitalized in intensive-care units for H1N1 since last spring, 28 have died.  Not a very good statistic.

Still, the H1N1 vaccination is a brand new product, FDA approved, but not terribly well tested, as it was rushed to market by those oh-so-wonderful pharmaceutical companies.  Other pregnant women I talk to are dubious, as I am, about putting a brand new vaccine into our bodies and how it will affect our babies.  I’ve been paranoid about taking any drugs during this pregnancy; I believe the strongest thing I’ve taken has been Tylenol PM.  

Hubby wants me to get the vaccine.  He’s all about statistics.  But he’s not the one carrying this baby.  One doctor friend suggests waiting a month or so to see if anything shakes out for pregnant women from the first wave of vaccinations.  That might not be a bad idea, though that puts my vaccination at about mid-November, just a few weeks away from my due date.  At that point, I’m wondering if the best course of action is just to wait until the baby is born and then get myself vaccinated?  Questions, questions.

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