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I first met Auntie Ah-din when I was 18, on my first visit to Taiwan.  It had been a very long flight from New York and I wasn’t expecting anyone to meet me when I checked into my dorm.  But this gentle woman touched me on my arm and said, “芸 思?” 芸 思 is my Chinese name and up until that minute, nobody had ever called me by my Chinese name.  I barely recognized it.  And then I noticed this gentle woman looked a lot like my mother.  She must be related to me.  And she must have recognized me because I look like my mother too.

Back then, Auntie Ah-din didn’t speak a word of English and I didn’t speak a word of Mandarin, but we managed to communicate somehow.  I could understand her Taiwanese and Uncle Sean could speak enough English to get through to me.  My cousin, Sally, 13 years old and a foot taller than me, was starting to learn English in her middle school.   Tina was then only eight years old, loud and opinionated—she could be understood in any language.  Auntie and her family welcomed me into their home, where I felt warm and invited.  They were a family that laughed a lot together, and that made me feel at home.

What I remembered about my aunt when I met her that summer was how gentle she was.  There was a softness and grace to her, even if she was just doing chores around the house.  This remained true through all the years I’ve known her.  Auntie Ah-din was my gentle aunt.

Even if she was correcting you, she was gentle about it.  I have a memory of Auntie Ah-din teaching me how to play mahjongg. (This was after they had come to America.) I was really bad at mahjongg, and Auntie had to correct me a lot.  Don’t play that tile, play this one.  See?  But she did so with a laugh that made me feel okay about making mistakes.

Within a year of my visit to Taiwan, the family was moving to America.  A few years after that, Uncle Sean passed away.  It was such a sad time.  I remember thinking that Auntie Ah-din was very brave.  She had to have a lot of courage to come to America and make a life here for herself and her daughters, without Uncle Sean.  She had to be very strong.

I know it wasn’t easy for Auntie here.  I’m sure there were times she thought about returning to Taiwan.  But she chose to stay to be near her daughters and to be closer to her sisters.  I don’t think she regretted this decision.  I say this because I watched her at family gatherings (my wedding and Tina’s wedding) and it was clear she enjoyed being with her sisters and her family.

Sally and Tina, I know your mom was proud of the women you have become.   I could see it every time she talked about you.  It’s not just about the college education and the good-salaried jobs, but about the people you have become.

I remember once, soon after Sally had become vegan, Auntie had clucked her tongue and said, “Bu guai!” And maybe the veganism was a little inconvenient.  But Auntie had this smile behind her words that told me how proud she was of her daughter, that you had made your own principled decision and become your own person.

And Tina, it was always clear to me how proud your mother—and your father—were of your strength, even when you were an 8 year old girl.  You were always a survivor.

It’s been a very difficult time for our family.  We lost Auntie Yassu just six months ago.  Everybody is crazy with grief.

You know, the interesting thing about being American in this Taiwanese family is that I only understand when people are speaking English.  Call me a stupid American, but I believe this gave me some advantages.  Both Auntie Ah-din and Auntie Yassu had to communicate with me in ways other than language.  I believe they did so with their kindness and gentleness, their genuine smiles, their courage and their strength.  They communicated with their spirit.  And this part of them—their spirit, the best part of us that makes us human—this part lives on in those of us who loved them.

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My Aunt Jane passed away last week.  It has been a very sad time for my family.  Aunt Jane was my mother’s sister.  She was only 66 years old.  She had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer only six months ago.  Two weeks after Aunt Jane was diagnosed, my mother lost another sister, Aunt Susan, who was 67.

I am writing an open letter to Milo, who is now 2 1/2 years old.  Below is what I wrote to him about Aunt Jane.

May 21, 2012

Dear Milo,

It’s been a sad time.  Auntie Jane passed away.  It was expected.  She had pancreatic cancer.  She was diagnosed six months ago and given 4-6 months to live.  Auntie Jane was my cousins’, Sally and Tina’s mother.  They lost their father when they were school girls.  Now they lost their mother.

Auntie Jane is Ah-mah’s sister and she helped Ah-mah and Ah-kong at their company for many years.  She lived near Ah-mah and Ah-kong.  She met you when you were born and loved you very much.  You saw her often enough that you recognized her.  She was very gentle and kind.

The last six months of her life, Auntie Jane lived in New York, near her daughters.  This last month of her life, I brought you to visit her three times.  I drove you with Ah-mah to visit Auntie Jane, because we didn’t have much time left with her.  It was a long drive, but you were a trooper.  I brought you because it made Auntie Jane happy to see you.  I even told you this, that you made everybody happy.

When we saw Auntie Jane one month ago, she was very skinny, half the size of her normal self.  But she was still able to walk around and have a conversation.  You gave her a hug.  We went to the park and played.  She was very happy to see you.

Three weeks later, we came back to visit.  It was Auntie Jane’s 66th birthday.  She could no longer talk very well and needed help to walk around.  You sang her happy birthday six times.  All the aunties  were there and everybody clapped.  I watched Auntie Jane watching you.  Even though she could not speak, I could see some light dancing in her eyes.  Your singing brought her some joy.  For the rest of our short visit, she watched you play and sing.

The next week, we came back to say goodbye.  Auntie Jane was bedridden and could not open her eyes or speak.  She was most likely unconscious, but they say she could possibly hear us, so we spoke to her.  Ah-mah was very, very sad.  I was sad too.  You and I sang Frere Jacques to Auntie Jane.  I could tell it was very confusing to you and part of me debated about bringing you.  It was a very stressful visit.  But I thought it was important that we say goodbye.  I think she heard us.

The next day, Auntie Jane passed away.

A few days later, we drove back to New York for Auntie Jane’s funeral.  We drove together with Ah-mah and Ah-kong in another car.  We shared a hotel suite with two bedrooms and a living room.  The hotel had a pool.  You had a wonderful time playing in the pool.  I was asked to give the eulogy for Auntie’s funeral, so I woke up early to finish it.  The morning of the funeral, you declared, “I make everybody happy!”

Your father and I laughed.  While I hope you don’t grow up with a god complex, I was glad for your light in a very sad situation.  I was very glad you could bring a little joy to Auntie Jane during her last days.

I know you probably won’t remember Auntie Jane in your conscious memory, but I hope this note in your letter reminds you of someone who loved you.



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Long Hiatus

I have let this blog lie fallow for much too long.  There are any number of reasons why I don’t write.  And it’s a funny thing writing a blog.  I try to be positive and uplifting, but sometimes life isn’t always positive and uplifting.  Sometimes, it’s downright painful.

So I can’t always promise positive and uplifting.  Hopefully, I can promise some honesty.  That’s the best I can do.

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Freak snow storm the weekend before Halloween.  It was an actual Nor’easter in October.  We’ve had our fair share of Nor’easters since we moved to New Hampshire, but not in October, and not with the leaves still on the trees.  (It’s been a beautiful autumn, actually.  Until the snow started.)  The snow came down in big, wet, fluffy flakes that delighted Milo for the first few hours.  It was the kind of snow that makes great snowballs and snowmen.  It was also the kind of snow that sticks to tree limbs and weighs them down to the point of breaking.  Add to that, the fact that leaves were still on those limbs and you have a lot of broken limbs and falling trees.  Trees that fall over power lines.

We knew the storm was coming, of course, and we ran out to get some supplies.  (Most of our stash we had left over from preparing for Hurricane Irene in August.)  We expected to lose power.  Past storms we lost power for less than 24 hours. (Our house is right off a major road, so when the area loses power, we’re typically one of the first to have power restored.)  We don’t own a generator.  Call us optimistic or cocky, but we lived in a cabin in the woods without electricity or running water for a year.  We figured we could stand a few days without electricity.

Typically, when the lights flicker, we fill the bathtub with water.  The reason we fill the bathtub is that when the power is out, our water pump for our well doesn’t work.  There is about 5 or 6 gallons of water left in a reserve tank, but that’s all.  This means we can’t flush the toilet, so we try to fill up the bathtub to have excess water on hand to flush the toilet.  Typically, after the lights flicker, it is likely the power will go out in a few minutes.  But typically, we have enough time to fill the bathtub.  This time, we did not.  Around 6 pm Saturday night, the lights flickered and everything went black.  Power was out.

This is what we typically do when the power goes out: Blake hooks up our car battery to his inverter and gets us power to run enough lights, computers, and internet.  We just need to charge the car battery every 3 or 4 hours to make sure it doesn’t go dead.  We dump bags of ice in the refrigerator. We put on extra layers of clothes and pull out extra blankets.  This time, we did all this, but we did not have a full bathtub, so we could not flush the toilets.  Yellow, yellow, let it mellow!

When we checked the utility website, it said power was expected to be restored at 2:00am.  So we went to bed and expected to have power in the morning.  It was a cold night and we huddled together in our family bed with extra blankets and listened to the hum of our neighbors’ generators.  In the middle of the night, we were awakened by a loud crash.  It freaked me out.  Blake said it was a tree branch breaking and I should go back to sleep.  In the morning, there was still no power and the house was cold.

The damage the storm caused during the night was remarkable.  Trees bent all the way over, as if bowing down in child’s pose.  The loud crash was the top of a tree that had snapped off and scraped the side our house.  Broken trees and limbs everywhere.  There was a tree down at the end of our driveway that blocked the road.  Blake plowed the driveway and, along with our neighbors, moved the tree blocking the road.  I decided to remedy the fact that we had no water to flush our toilets.  I filled up our bathtub with snow.  I put a pot of snow on the propane stove to heat up and wash dishes.  Nothing like being resourceful.

Twenty-four hours came and went and still no power.  We spent a second chilly night huddled together under the bed.  The next day, the utility website suggested we may not get power for another three days!  Not looking good.  We got some wood from our neighbor and started up a fire in the fireplace.  Plenty of melted snow in the bathtub, so we could now flush the toilets.  We could hunker down for a few more days, right?

Thankfully, our power came back on that night, before midnight.  We lost power for a total of 52 hours.  Not pleasant, but not bad in the relative scheme of things.  We later heard from friends who lost power for a full six days.  Six days!  Maybe it’s time to invest in a generator?

The view from our backyard, Oct. 30, 2011.

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Post-Irene Update

We got lucky.  The storm knocked out power to many of our neighbors, but left us alone.  There was plenty of wind and limbs tossed about the yard, but other than that, we got off scott free.  Milo’s weather report for the day: “Big blowing.”

Irene left us a messy driveway. No complaints here!

Getting updates from friends around New England who were not as lucky.  Many still without power.  Vermont was especially hard hit.  Many roads and bridges washed out, leaving communities isolated.  We got very lucky.  If the storm had come through a little more east, we would have been walloped.

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Because passport fees went up on July 13th, on July 12th, we took Milo to the local post office to apply for his passport.  We intend to expose Milo to as much of the world as possible, so he needs his passport.  Baby passports are good for five years.

Milo is coming up on 8 months.  He has already traveled to the West Coast twice and will do so again next week.  He has been on 9 plane flights.  And, before the year is out, we hope to use his passport.  At the very least, to visit Canada!

To put things in perspective, Milo’s mommy was on her first plane flight at age 7, which is also when she got her first passport.  That flight was from New York to Iceland and eventually to Brussels, Belgium, where my family lived for one year.

Milo’s daddy was on his first plane flight at the age of 19, which is also when he got his passport.  He flew from Portland, Oregon, to Costa Rica, for a month-long adventure.

We figure Milo will be a precocious kid, so we’re starting early.  Travel is good for the soul.  Hopefully, he’ll thank us for making him get his passport so young.

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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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Weekend in Maine

It was my birthday this past weekend and Hubby treated me to a weekend in Maine.  He had spent a year at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, so we got bed & breakfast recommendations from a friend of his who still lives in the area. We settled on Williams Pond Lodge, a newly opened off-grid establishment tucked off the beaten path near Bucksport, Maine.  Hubby’s friend highly recommended the food, which is what sold me.

We were not disappointed.  At the end of a gravel road, we were warmly greeted by our hosts, Dominick and David, who had bread pudding baking in the oven when we arrived.  When we were shown our room, I had to re-define my image of “off-grid.”  Hubby and I had lived off-grid for almost a year in Oregon in a very rustic cabin that was perpetually dark and dusty.  At Williams Pond Lodge, the rooms are impeccably finished, well-lighted (with compact fluorescent bulbs), with heated wood floors and a gas stove.  We had a private bath and lacked for nothing.  During the day, the room boasted a beautiful view of the pond.  This wasn’t off-grid.  This was posh.

But it was off-grid.  The whole establishment is powered by solar panels and propane.  With high-efficiency appliances and careful conservation, Williams Pond Lodge does just fine with their renewable energy.  David, who is the gourmet chef, prepared elaborate 3-course breakfasts each morning, featuring homemade granola & fruit, crab meat & asparagus frittata, Scottish oat pancakes with almonds & orange zest, and our choice of baked goods, including apricot & white chocolate scones and pecan caramel sticky buns.  We were spoiled and pampered.  And all of this off-grid.

The best thing about Williams Pond Lodge, however, were the hosts themselves.  On both nights, Hubby and I stayed up late talking with David and Dominick, sharing our life stories, dreams, and lefty politics.  Their hospitality made it easy to feel comfortable. They even invited us to homemade pizza for my birthday dinner. We felt we made instant friends with this warm, loving couple.  Hubby later joked that he brought me San Francisco in the middle of the Maine woods.  No wonder it felt like home.

If you’re in Maine, check out Williams Pond Lodge (www.williamspondlodge.com).  And if you’re a Maine resident, vote No on 1 in November.


Williams Pond Lodge Bed & Breakfast. 100% off grid.


Our hosts, Dominic & David

Our hosts, Dominick & David

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New York Story

We spent a much-needed weekend away in New York over the Labor Day holiday.  It’s been about 4 years since we’ve been to NYC. My goal was to see friends and eat good food.  Since I grew up in New England and my brother went to Columbia, I’ve visited NYC numerous times and had done most of the touristy stuff.  Hubby had not, however, so the one destination we agreed to was to go up the Empire State Building.

We stayed with our friends Edmond & Ruth Chow, who live in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn.  Edmond was in my writers’ group in the Bay Area. He is a wonderfully talented poet who masquerades around as an electrical engineer PhD during the day.  Ruth is a recovering lawyer who is currently finding contentment in a multitude of knitting and quilting projects. (While we were there, Ruth crocheted the edge around a swaddling blanket for our baby.)  The Chows have been in NYC about 4 years and Edmond says he’s over it.  When he first arrived in NYC, he was going to poetry readings every night and reveling in the city cultural life.  Now he says the readings are the same poets over and over again and he’s less impressed.  

I had always thought New York was too big and too much stimulation for me.  San Francisco was just my size.  But after listening to Edmond, maybe I could handle New York with enough time and patience.  The frustrating thing, however, seemed to be the difficulty in developing community.  People live in their own little worlds and don’t reach outside of their bubbles much.  What I love about San Francisco is the community I’d developed there, over the 6+ years I’d lived in the City.  But it seemed that community was more difficult in New York.  Despite being surrounded by people, cities could be the loneliest places on earth.


Baby's first visit to New York.

Baby's first visit to New York.


Since we were in New York and taking public transportation everywhere, I tried an impromptu experiment of subway etiquette.  How many people would give up their seat to a pregnant woman?  I had lamented the fact that we left San Francisco before I was obviously showing, so that people would not stand up for me, but now that we were in New York, I would have plenty of opportunity to exercise my pregnant woman priority. 

So out of five subway rides on which there were no seats available, one person stood up to offer me her seat and two people (kids) scooted over to make room for me.  One lady standing in the doorway yelled at her son, “Get out of her way, she’s pregnant!” though he wasn’t really in my way.  And on the street, a yellow cab almost ran me over.  To be fair, I assumed people would notice me because I’m pregnant, but in New York, no one really does.  It’s a cruel world.

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Sometimes it feels as if the universe is conspiring against you.  We had hoped to move our futon into the new house last week.  We thought camping out in our house renovation would help motivate us to do the work more quickly.  But when we tried hauling the futon out of my parents’ garage, we noticed it was moldy.

This is bad news.  It’s been a rainy, hot summer, the kind of summer mold loves.  We noticed our memory foam mattress top was also moldy.  Possible other victims are our mattresses, couch, two loveseats, clothes, and (yikes!) my books.  I don’t know what can be salvaged, if anything, and I’m afraid to look.  I am not one to get too attached to the material, but I will be very unhappy if we have to burn all our belongings and dish out money to buy new furniture.  Not to mention rebuild my library, which includes personalized signed copies of many books.

Maybe moving back to New England was not such a good idea.

My parents picked up an air mattress for us so that we could sack out in the new house.  We managed to install our hardwood floors this weekend, though our out-of-shape bodies are now paying for it.

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