29 December, 2014

{this moment} 122

{this moment} is a Monday ritual that my father started in May 2011, and that I have maintained since May 2014. He described it as "A single image - no words - capturing a moment from the past. A simple moment along my life's Journey - but one over which I wish to linger and savor each treasured aspect of the memories it evokes." When he passed away in February 2014, he left a folder containing images that he hoped to share in the months and years ahead. For some, I share my perspective of the story behind the moment on Thursdays, in a companion ritual called {this memory}. For others, the story is lost in the ocean of time, but I welcome flights of imagination and speculation from readers.

{this moment} was adapted from cath's wonderful blog ~just my thoughts. She, in turn, borrowed it from Pamanner's Blog. My dad suggested, "Check out their blogs, and if you're inspired to do the same, leave a link to your {this moment} in the comments for each of us to find and see. If you are moved or intrigued by my {this moment}, please leave a comment." I encourage the same.


23 December, 2014

'Twas the night before Christmas: Satirical edition

A repost from my dad in honor of our first holiday season without him…this originally appeared on January 10, 2014, although I wrote the poem he included in 2004. 

One last Christmas post - we're still fully decorated here, so this should come as no surprise. I offer a 'poem' by my older daughter. She sent this to family about a decade ago, fully illustrated with photographs, just after the Christmas Eve gathering (see the Family of the Bride), It's thoroughly tongue-in-cheek, and I still find it very funny and am amazed in that it could paint a portrait of this year's celebration just as well as that year's. Family tradition is strong in this household.

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through my house
Not a creature was stirring, not even the dead skunk in the garage.
The Christmas trees were alight in every single room,
Evidence that my mother had recently been there.

Just one child was nestled all snug in her bed,
While visions of sugar plums danced in her head.

And my sister in her (tarty) earrings, and I in my (dangerously pointy) heels,
Were still hours away from a long winter's nap
(But at least my pedicure made it this far).

When out on the porch there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the door I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutter, and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow (this IS upstate New York)
Gave the lustre of midday to objects below,

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a few aunts and uncles, and sixteen-plus cousins.

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be Uncle Bill.
More rapid than eagles, his courses they came,
and he whistled and shouted and called them by name:

"Now Andrea! Now Emily!
Now, Kelley and Andy!
On, Christopher! On, Chloe!
On, Jason and Peter!

To the top of the porch!
To the top of the wall!
Now dash inside! Dash inside!
Dash inside all!"

And then, in a twinkling, we were packed into a church
The fat lady squeezed behind the holy water, her perch.
As I drew in my head and was turning around,
Down the aisle came the crazy priest with a bound.

He was dressed like Bono, from his sunglasses to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with excessive(!) incense and soot.
His eyes--how they twinkled! His dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
What was he smoking before the mass?
He rambled about Iraq and misused the word “crass”
That his associations were loose and his ideas tangential
Convinced my father that he was really quite mental.
(A recent schizophrenic break, perhaps?)

At home again, we spoke not a word, but went straight to our work,
Filling our bellies with shrimp scampi, aubergine parmigiana, and biscotti.
And opening presents at Chloe’s command

No one was embarrassed by lingerie from great-aunts.
And as we emptied my parents’ liquor supply all around,
We discovered that there was no Red Bull to be found.

Jay and Pete sprang to Andy’s sleigh
And away they all slid down the icy road (barely missing a large rock).
But they made it back in time for some Jäger bombs
But at last I heard Chris exclaim,

"Nothing says ‘Merry Christmas’ like drinking with family!"

In loving memory of those we lost in the years since I wrote this poem;
we will miss you on Christmas Eve.

Thomas Glenn Brown
1948 - 2014
Olympia "Aunt Bea" McAleese
1920 - 2011
Ann Marie Killino
1940  - 2011
William "Uncle Bill" McAleese
191_ - 2007

and in celebration of Landon, Gavin, Finn, Brooke and Aria, 
who have joined us for many Christmas Eves to come.

On the front porch of my grandparents' and great-grandparents' house,
c. mid-1940s

20 December, 2014

My new favorite blog

I have no idea if this will be funny to non-pediatricians...but I love it so much, I think everyone should give it a chance.

Likelihood Ratio, by David Hill: http://likelihoodratio.blogspot.com

And here's a random cute photo of Finn trying to pick up a girl in the airport on the way to Guatemala City...see how she's doing that flirty look-up-look-down-look-up again thing?

19 December, 2014

Easy Peasy

For anyone out there who is looking to give a little more before the holidays...this one is near and dear to my heart...

Click here to learn more about and support Roundup River Ranch.

And this the post that my dad wrote - but never previously shared - about taking care of my son while I was busy (zip-lining in a frilly black tutu, eating the world's best pancakes and staring, awestruck, at the sugared sky) at camp...

Wow - you would never know they are mother and daughter!

As we have for the first time our grandson here without his mother. She's off being a physician at a cancer camp for children, at least for a few days. This is the first time they have been apart since his birth about 18 months ago. After his bath, he was put to bed about an hour ago and fell asleep almost immediately.

Not so his mother. I asked her this morning if I had ever told her about the first time she was apart from her mother. I hadn't. She was about 19 months old, and her mother was back in the hospital to have her sister. I tried to put her in the crib. Screaming and raging. After while, I began walking - bouncing and rocking her. Screaming and raging. Finally I took her into bed with me and held her until she fell asleep. Screaming and raging for what seemed like eternity.

My wife's aunt and mother were staying with me and kept coming to my door to ask if I wanted them to take her. No, I did not and was determined to hold her until she fell asleep. The screaming and raging finally subsided as she fell asleep.

You know how we always joke about wishing our children would have children just like them. Well, that clearly hasn't happened here. Finn goes to sleep every night easily and sleeps through the night. My daughter always resisted going to sleep.

So what's the moral of the story? I don't know. Maybe you can tell me.


18 December, 2014

Winter Song/White Winter Hymnal - Virginia Sil'hooettes & Virginia Gentlemen

This video made me deliciously happy. The Lawn was "lit" with fairy lights for the first time in my fourth year at UVA, and it's still beautiful. I miss Charlottesville and the University. In spite of all the bad news lately, there are lots of wonderful people doing brilliant work there. Happy holidays, everyone!

17 December, 2014

Happy Holidays from the AACR

I love this quote: "The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away."

I'm working on it.

12 December, 2014

Mean Girls by Emma Gerson-Rosenthal

Really impressive song addressing bullying by a 12 year old girl (who happens to be the daughter of a singer-songwriter I've been listening to for years)...

09 December, 2014

Light For The Navigator, X

Wednesday Without Words

Old Cape Henry Lighthouse
First considered in 1720
First federal project by the newly independent U.S. in 1789
First Lighted in 1792
Within Fort Story
Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Originally posted three years ago, my father planned to revisit this series of lighthouses this year. Although he never did, I have chosen to repost these monthly on the day of his passing, in his memory and in celebration of his love for lighthouses.

See: Birth of Salvation
Digital photograph
Copyright © 2011 Thomas G. Brown

05 December, 2014

{this memory} 121

This is the story behind last Monday's {this moment}.

It's New Year's Eve, 2013, and we're having a party at my parents' house. You're looking at my almost-2-year-old son playing near our fireplace with his similarly aged cousin, Gavin.

What are they doing??? you wonder...

I was taking photographs with an digital SLR camera. To focus, I held down the "shoot" button very slightly. This produced a green light where the camera focused, which disappeared when it flashed. I'd never noticed before but the two boys definitely did, and they were nothing if not persistent in their efforts to capture the green dot.

My cousin, Gavin's father, and I laughed until we cried watching them chase each other - and themselves - in circles. It was reminiscent of the time one of my college friends adopted a cat, and his roommates (and the cat) had some fun with a laser pointer.

Childish...yet hilarious.

01 December, 2014

{this moment} 121

{this moment} is a Monday ritual that my father started in May 2011, and that I have maintained since May 2014. He described it as "A single image - no words - capturing a moment from the past. A simple moment along my life's Journey - but one over which I wish to linger and savor each treasured aspect of the memories it evokes." When he passed away in February 2014, he left a folder containing images that he hoped to share in the months and years ahead. For some, I share my perspective of the story behind the moment on Thursdays, in a companion ritual called {this memory}. For others, the story is lost in the ocean of time, but I welcome flights of imagination and speculation from readers.

{this moment} was adapted from cath's wonderful blog ~just my thoughts. She, in turn, borrowed it from Pamanner's Blog. My dad suggested, "Check out their blogs, and if you're inspired to do the same, leave a link to your {this moment} in the comments for each of us to find and see. If you are moved or intrigued by my {this moment}, please leave a comment." I encourage the same.


27 November, 2014

Christmas in the City: A tribute

The City at its peak, Christmas 2008
About a year and a half ago, my dad wrote a piece recounting a conversation about being a Collector.

As a child I was also a Collector - of books, stuffed animals, Swarovski crystal, Storybook Collection dolls, porcelain figures holding a number for each birthday, and, most quirkily, decorative pill boxes from our travels. As an adult, I rarely lived in one place for more than a year, and frequently less. Three years at the same address in Denver (and five on the same street!) was my longest stretch. In a record year (2007), I received mail at six different addresses; when I was required to provide a seven-year residential history, it was three pages long and included eight U.S. states and six countries.

All of that - and my not-so-secret yearning to be a Minimalist - wears on one's ability to Collect.

This piece is a tribute to my favorite of my father's Collections. Christmas in the City is a line of illuminated, hand-painted porcelain buildings, for lack of a better word, by Department 56. Circa 1990, my father bought my mother a Department 56 Snow Village piece around Christmastime, a simple house with a wide front porch that first sat in our hallway and then found a home under our Christmas tree. Over the next few years, a small country village developed along the railroad track that always ran around the tree, but eventually, my dad transferred his affections to the Christmas in the City (they are slightly smaller and matte rather than shiny), and a serious Collection was born.

Some of the City can be seen behind
us in this picture from Christmas 2004
At first, the City lived in the breakfast room windowsill...quietly pretty, unobtrusive, unnoticed by most, probably. But it grew...and grew...and grew...until it required its own custom made tables, taking up one-third of the family room and then almost half the living room at its peak. In addition to the houses and buildings, there were people, including carolers and moving ice skaters, cars, horse-drawn wagons, a variety of trees, and other little details, like a trash can filled with wrapping paper and a mailbox.

My dad cut special foam boards for the base and covered them in green felt. He laid out vinyl city streets and sprinkled them with fake "snow" - all using just his one good arm, although my sister helped extensively, particularly at its peak.

My parents and sister often made an effort to make sure the decorations, including the City in all its glory, were up before I came home for the Thanksgiving holidays, so I could have every second at home to enjoy them. Best family ever. I am thankful for every second with each of you.

This would have been Center City, I suppose.

I sometimes wished I could shrink myself (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids or Beetlejuice style?) and walk around the city streets, listening to carolers, eating roasted chestnuts and drinking hot apple cider or mulled wine. Umm umm umm, Finn would say.

The ice skaters really moved! (with the help of magnets)

The cathedral was really lovely. 

This three-story Italian trattoria decorated with Christmas wreaths and bright red bows was always one of my favorite pieces.

I suspect the City will make an appearance in some form this year, or maybe next, but on a much smaller scale. All good things, right?  

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

26 November, 2014

The honors of honor {addended}

I took this post offline for a bit while I thought about whether to rewrite it. If you didn't read it the first time, you might want to skip down a bit and then come back to this.

I'm sure many people saw Rolling Stone's "A Note to Our Readers" or read accounts of it. If you think you have a strong opinion, but haven't seen the actual "Note", I would really encourage you to go back and reading it carefully, because it doesn't say what a lot of the newspapers to pick up the story suggest it says.

Yes, I think the report and the magazine did everyone involved in the story a grave disservice by not investigating more thoroughly. Yes, I agree with journalists who said, If you were reporting on a burglary, would you be obligated to interview the suspected burglar? Well, yes...and no... If the lack of investigation into the crime, the affiliations of the suspect, etc. were part of the story, you might very well. Moreover, if there was a really good chance that people involved were going to deny the events and try to smear the victim, thoroughly investigating the likely response, including the evidence supporting or refuting the denial and counter-accusations, would be in everyone's best interests.

Because what is one of the basic practices of detectives everywhere? Interview everyone involved before they have a chance to talk to each other, share stories, figure out what's going on, right? It seems like Jackie's friends and the involved fraternity would have been much less likely to be able to cover it up if they had been interviewed before the story appeared and prompted such an outcry. Given what we know about how rape survivors are treated, I don't think it's wrong to apply a different standard for reporting...I think it's only fair to the survivor, to give her the best possible chance of having her story taken seriously.

For all those who think they know now that "Jackie" lied, please go back and read Rolling Stone's note. I'm not going to argue that she was completely honest - I'm just going to ask you to justify:
1) Why you are willing to accept the fraternity's statement (with no more corroborating evidence that the victim could provide) that there was no party that weekend and that no one matching the description of the victim's date was a fraternity brother? (Another source claimed that the fraternity's records of events didn't go back far enough to confirm or deny.)
2) Why you aren't willing to consider that the victim might have gotten details wrong and still have been assaulted? (For instance, she reported hearing her attackers make statements that suggested to her that the attack was part of an initiation rite; fraternity rush is mainly a spring event, although several fraternities and sororities participate in a more low-key fall rush. According to another anonymous friend, she allegedly changed the number of attackers from five to seven.)

Finally, several sources have suggested that Jackie's friends didn't corroborate her story. Actually, according to the Rolling Stone note, one of the friends who was present on the night of attack says that Jackie told him she was forced to give oral sex to a group of men. I agree that discrepancies warrant better investigation (criminal and investigative reporting). But I'd also ask: Isn't that enough?

Many people were quick to question how someone who sustained such a severe assault could walk away with minimal injuries. I wondered, as a physician, but I also didn't completely care, if I'm being honest. For me, the brutality of the crime was the "hook" to get people to care, because people are stunningly indifferent to the idea that nonviolent nonconsensual sex is a crime. I'm not surprised that a victim might learn to exaggerate the violence to get the response any sexual assault deserves.

Last thought: The quality of reporting on the "retraction" has been just as poor as the original reporting. The Washington Post used the headline "Key elements of Rolling Stone's UVA gang rape allegations in doubt", even though the most key element, the failure of the University to investigate rapes, period, is not in doubt at all.

My original post:
This week, we had to rearrange various rooms while new hardwood floors were installed. My dad had a framed copy of the James Hay poem The Honor Men that I have been meaning to hang in our study/library. It ends with the line, "I have worn the honors of honor, I graduated from Virginia."

I'm assuming that many of you know where this is going. For those who don't, you should probably start here, with the Rolling Stone article, "A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and a Struggle for Justice at UVA."

The short version is that it tells the story of a UVA undergraduate who was gang-raped at a fraternity party by seven men, none of whom ever faced charges or even administrative justice.

Then I would recommend you read this from the Cavalier Daily.

Let me say first: A lot of people - including UVA's Board of Visitors and several deans - have been busy expressed their outrage, their disappointment, their disgust. For some of them, it might be genuine. But many more people were not shocked, because we've known since sexual assault on university campuses started getting more attention last year, that eventually the media spotlight would fall on UVA. And we knew we weren't any different than anyone else. 

Secondly: Until I hear two people speak up, I am wholly unconvinced that anything will change. Who are those two people? 

(1) A dean or administrator, any dean or administrator, who is willing to acknowledge that people in the administration knew sexual assault was under-addressed and under-disciplined and is willing to speak honestly about why that is...protecting the University's image, unwillingness to restrain the traditional Greek culture that turns out alumni with deep loyalty and deeper pockets, a continued belief that women actually make out rape claims when they regret sleeping with someone or that "boys will be boys" and those poor young men's lives shouldn't be ruined because everyone got a little drunk...? 

I'm being sarcastic, of course, but I sincerely believe that there are faculty, administrators, parents, students and alumni out there who believe those last two things to be true. I knew, secondhand, that the administration was light on sexual assault claims when I was a student, from a variety of sources. Therefore, I conclude that every administrator can't be "shocked and disappointed" by the reports.

Fact check: "Conventional scholarly wisdom" estimates that about 2% of rape claims are false, and the majority of these fall into two categories - mentally ill women who fabricate claims, sometimes involving men they've never met or never had a sexual relationship with, and women who were raped but mis-identify their attackers. Why do so many people believe that "bad sex" or "morning-after regrets" would lead to women wanting to be humiliated and dragged through the muck of sexual assault investigations? Is our cultural need to believe that women shouldn't like sex that powerful? 

(2) A former student/alumnus who was a perpetrator or an enabler of a sexual assault and is willing to not just take responsibility but talk about the culture that leads widespread violence against women.

I feel like I should give a shout-out to my college friends, roommates and even my ex-boyfriend. Is there a non-awkward way to say, Hey, I know we're not close now, but thanks for not caring more about your popularity and social status than my physical and mental well being? Maybe a Hallmark card... Sorry I always left my hair in the shower drain ... Thanks for never using me as rapist bait to score easy alcohol!

Speaking as someone who went on to become a pediatrician -- the survivor's friends unwillingness to even seek medical help for her was probably one of the most appalling parts of the story for me. People can get septic and die from shock after a violent rape. I am suddenly profoundly grateful that I was never a part of the subculture described in that article, that the first people I met and connected with as a 16-year-old in a new place 500 miles from home (because, yes, I was super-young and far away, so I literally knew no one else when I arrived and could have conceivably been that much more vulnerable) were of a totally different ilk that the first-years depicted in the article. None of my friends rushed fraternities or sororities - or as far as I know, even considered rushing - and I can count the number of frat parties I went to on one hand. 

Which leads me to my final points: UVA isn't unique. Perhaps it's a little worse because of the closer ties to Southern tradition than Yale or Harvard; perhaps it's a bit better than Florida State (at least the football team isn't buying off the police department!). But I'll critique any journalist who argues that something exceptional has been happening in Charlottesville. First of all, fewer than one-third of Virginia students belong to a fraternity or sorority; as my experience attests, there is a huge social and extracurricular scene that is separate from Greek life and sometimes separate from heavy drinking and partying.

Secondly, sexual assault and violence against women is a national problem. Really, it's an international problem, but that's more than I can write about here. Until the "silent majority" (addressed in the Cav Daily piece above) decides that that (1) sexual assault is always a crime - period - that always warrants punishment and (2) the odds of women "just making it up" are very, very low, we aren't going to make much progress. Changing a culture is hard but it's not impossible. 

The Honor Men

The University of Virginia writes her highest degree on the souls of her sons.

The parchment page of scholarship – the colored ribbon of a society – the jeweled emblem of a fraternity – the orange symbol of athletic prowess – all these, a year hence, will be at the best mementos of happy hours – like the withered flower a woman presses between the pages of a book for sentiment’s sake.

If you live a long, long time, and hold honesty of conscience above honesty of purse; 
And turn aside without ostentation to aid the weak; 
And treasure ideals more than raw ambition; 
And track no man to his undeserved hurt; and pursue no woman to her tears; 
And love the beauty of noble music and mist-veiled mountains and blossoming valleys and great monuments -

If you live a long time and, keeping the faith in all these things hour by hour, still see that the sun gilds your path with real gold and that the moon floats in dream silver;


Remembering the purple shadows of the lawn, the majesty of the colonnades, and the dream of your youth, you may say in reverence and thankfulness:

“I have worn the honors of honor, I graduated from Virginia.”

by James Hay, Jr.
Editor in Chief, Corks & Curls, 1903

18 November, 2014

Fixing links

Just a heads-up to those who may be particularly interested in the posts on health and disability: I fixed the broken links and added some missing posts, both from my writing and my dad's. Check it out it the header bar above or click here.

15 November, 2014

Unaccompanied minors

Here's yet another news report about children crossing the border alone from Latin America in search of a better life in the U.S.: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/09/us/honduran-youth-finds-welcome-mat-at-oakland-school-designed-for-immigrants.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=photo-spot-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news

This one stood out to me for its focus on how children and teenagers try to remake their lives here.

But what I would like is to hear a politician acknowledge this kind of truth...

In early part of the 20th century, my grandfather arrived on Ellis Island. He was thirteen years old. And he was alone.

His name was Pietro, but he soon adopted the Anglicized name Peter, which has been passed down through two more generations in our family. He left behind his mother and stepfather in southern Italy. My mother tells me that he and his stepfather didn't get along, and so it was decided that he would come here to join an aunt and make a better life.

He did. He had no more than an eighth grade education - as did my grandmother, who was born in the U.S. to Italian immigrant parents - but he learned to speak English fluently, got married and opened a successful restaurant and bar. He raised three children, all of whom became loving and devoted parents to their own children. The younger two (including my mother) went on to graduate from college. My sister and have spent most of our three decades going to school. Is it the American Dream? We are happy and healthy; we have nice homes and good medical insurance and stable jobs; we have each other. 

So I look back on that story and I think, how very lucky we've been. Yes, we all worked hard. But we were all given the chance to work hard. Do I deserve to be here, by chance of my birth, any more than anyone else?

My father's family can trace their ancestry back through eight or more generations born on North American soil - as far back as the first half of the 18th century. Is that a better claim than being the granddaughter of a 13-year-old boy who sailed across an ocean alone?
My grandparents, Ida and Peter,
dancing at a wedding in the 1960s

Many of my ancestors made their way across the Atlantic in search of a better life, or adventure, or maybe just the hope of getting rich, or richer. The best story, perhaps true, perhaps not, recounts a young nobleman who was kidnapped from a port in Wales and sold into indentured servitude, eventually impressing the plantation owner and charming his daughter into marriage. But all of those ancestors, however brave or brilliant, came to conquer and colonize a land that they had no right to take.

I know, practically speaking, that we need a path to legal status for those already in the country; incentives for those not yet here to pursue legal routes to immigration; and security for the border. I also think (although it's too much to discuss here) that there needs to be a serious discussion of how we decide who "counts" as a refugee in the context of drug trade-fueled violence in Central America. If I knew exactly how to achieve all of that, I'd be shouting it from the rooftops until someone listened.

In the meantime, I just want to hear a politician speak from a place of acknowledging that those of us who are already here legally have no moral high ground from which to offer and defend their proposals. We are here because we were lucky, and because our grandparents, great-grandparents and so on were willing to risk their lives to try for that better life...and in the cases of those who can - not without pride - claim to be descendants of the American Revolution, because our ancestors didn't much care who might already be living here and what our presence might do to their culture or way of life.

Leaders are so quick to point to the immigrants in their own families with pride, to lay claim to the idea that Americans are special stock, descended disproportionately from people who risked what they already had in pursuit of something "better". I've never yet heard a politician start with, There but for the grace of God go I...or consider whether current immigration policies would have allowed their ancestors to enter in the first place. It would be political suicide to publicly contemplate the morality of colonizing a land by force versus crossing a border without papers.  

It doesn't mean we should throw open the gates and let everyone who wants to immigrate do so. It just means that we have no basis, none whatsoever, on which to judge the choices of those who will try to come by any path they can find.

If you have children, what wouldn't you do to keep them safe, warm and fed? I would risk anything to protect my son. Politicians who say that people who don't respect our laws don't deserve to live in our country, who label the actions of desperate people as immoral? That level of condescension, of hypocrisy, of self-absorbed ignorance makes me want to hit something. Or someone.

My father used to say that I was not "rule-governed," so I would say this: what rule, what law, what policy is worthy of anyone's respect if it says that a mother* trying to save her children is a criminal?

*And writers about American culture say we've created a cult of (ideal) motherhood. They leave out the "European/white" part. 

14 November, 2014

Gift guide: best and worst of Christmas past

Just in time for the shopping holiday season, I decided to highlight some of the best gifts I've given and received (and some of the worst). I love getting presents as much as the next person, but I really really love giving the perfect gift.

Best gifts I've ever given: For some reason, these are disproportionately objects that could be used as weapons, and disproportionately male-targeted. I think - with most clothes, shoes, bags and jewelry off the table, at least if I'm hoping for the recipient to be excited - that I spend more time thinking creatively when I'm giving gifts to men. Several years ago, I had a replica of an orbitoclast made for my dad: he wrote about it here, so I won't recap the story. My sister's fiancé claims to hate Christmas (but loves weapons), so he's gotten a set of tiny switchblade cufflinks - which were reportedly sharp enough to draw blood. For their engagement party, they got an engraved Champagne sabre.

Runners up: a trainer stand for a mountain bike; a monogrammed steak brand; a dwarf Meyer lemon tree (although they killed it, eventually); matching olive wood spoons so my mom, sister and I could each be cooking with the same spoon in our separate kitchens.  

quilt from Say Yes, Juliet
Best gifts sourced from Etsy: This overlaps with the previous category - the orbitoclast was the product of Etsy's Alchemy feature. Alchemy matched customers in search of a unique item with sellers with the skills to create such an item. It was offline for a bit, but has re-emerged as the Custom Order Corner (with slightly stricter rules and more oversight, I think). I also used Alchemy to have a custom quilt made for a little girl - each square had a translation of her first and middle names in a different language. For Christmas last year, my dad gave me a copper bracelet engraved with phrase chi hullo li na billia chih (roughly translated from Choctaw as "I will always love you"). Pretty good for a last gift, if there has to be one. (I need a bittersweet emoji - suggestions?)

Runners up: There are tons. Check out the painter Obsolete World, the photographer Elle Moss, hand-dyed ombré tights from BZRshop, pottery from Kandace Lockwood, barrettes (for kids) from KatesKlips, modern art from Messicakes, and really amazing geometric furniture from MSTRF. I may need to devote a whole post on my favorite Etsy artists. Next year, I would like to try to only give gifts that are handmade.

Best gifts I didn't know I wanted: My sister has an incredible knack for this. One year, I swore I didn't like stemless wine glasses. Then she gave me a set of six Riedel "O" glasses and suddenly I couldn't understand how I lived without them. (It's true that I knock them over less often). I was solidly anti-Tiffany (all my undergraduate peers wore than same stupid, overpriced silver bean)...and then she gave me a sterling silver infinity pendant on a double chain, and I wore it every day for the next several years. Two years ago, she gave me a totally unexpected forest green coat with hot pink trim (from Anthropologie), which I never would have chosen for myself but attracts fairly constant flattery.

Most embarrassing: One Valentine's Day, an ex-boyfriend's parents happened to be visiting the city where I was living, and asked to take me out to dinner. (It wasn't a recent break-up, and we were all friends, so it was really just coincidental that it happened to be that particular holiday.) I brought them a book I thought they'd like - they brought me earrings, a bracelet, and...black lace boyshorts and a bright pink thong from the company hanky panky (tag line: "world's most comfortable thong"). And, apparently, I wasn't too embarrassed, because I kept the underwear.

Runner-up: A boy my age at the time (more than an acquaintance but not a good friend) gave me a very soft, light green throw/blanket at my high school graduation party. Again, it was awkward-but-kinda-sweet-really, and I've actually had it ever since.

Best gifts I've given myself: This year, for my birthday, I replaced my lost iPod Shuffle for running (which was a gift from an earlier birthday). And then, a few weeks later, I bought a baby grand piano, which I've wanted since I was 10. And four years ago, I gave myself a custom-made Todd Loewy steel coffee table, which still might be the best thing I've ever paid for myself.
Todd Loewy coffee tables

Most epic fail in gift-giving (or really great symbolism!): One year, a guy I was in the process of breaking up with bought me an EcoSphere, which was dead on arrival. It's sort of hilarious in hindsight.

What I wish for every year and never getShaun Leane talon earrings. (Hint, hint, loved ones. I love you too.) Extra brut Champagne. Passes to the climbing gym (and a good climbing partner). Lace fingerless gloves. (I know - what's the point?) One of those weird coral wands for pulling hair back from PluieTieks (ballet flats) in every color. A monthlong vacation in the Maldives. A cure for cancer, universal health care, world peace. (Or at least a U.S. election result that I could understand, but even that seems to be asking a bit much.)

Websites that have been especially inspiring this year: (certain people better not peek!)
and lots of books and wine, of course, because you can't go wrong with books and wine.

10 November, 2014

{this moment} 120

{this moment} is a Monday ritual that my father started in May 2011, and that I have maintained since May 2014. He described it as "A single image - no words - capturing a moment from the past. A simple moment along my life's Journey - but one over which I wish to linger and savor each treasured aspect of the memories it evokes." When he passed away in February 2014, he left a folder containing images that he hoped to share in the months and years ahead. For some, I share my perspective of the story behind the moment on Thursdays, in a companion ritual called {this memory}. For others, the story is lost in the ocean of time, but I welcome flights of imagination and speculation from readers.

{this moment} was adapted from cath's wonderful blog ~just my thoughts. She, in turn, borrowed it from Pamanner's Blog. My dad suggested, "Check out their blogs, and if you're inspired to do the same, leave a link to your {this moment} in the comments for each of us to find and see. If you are moved or intrigued by my {this moment}, please leave a comment." I encourage the same.


09 November, 2014

Light For The Navigator, IX

Wednesday Without Words
New Cape Henry Lighthouse
First Lighted in 1881
Within Fort Story
Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Originally posted three years ago, my father planned to revisit this series of lighthouses this year. Although he never did, I have chosen to repost these monthly on the day of his passing, in his memory and in celebration of his love for lighthouses.

See: Birth of Salvation
Digital scan of 35mm color slide
Copyright © 2011 Thomas G. Brown

08 November, 2014

A tree grows near Xela

Tree on a hillside near Xela (Quetzaltenango), Guatemala
March 2008

07 November, 2014

Native language

Midway through my second year of medical school, I attended a holiday party at a neighborhood bar with a bunch of my classmates. The mood was festive. Exams were finished. Tequila shots were passed around. I hovered halfway between two groups, listening to both conversations but not really a part of either.

At then it struck me: Even tipsy - even steadily marching toward alcohol poisoning in a few cases - everyone continued to converse fluently about "basic science", the courses in biochemistry, anatomy, physiology, pathology, and so on that we all studied during the first two years of medical school. Their vocabularies were peppered with medical terminology. True, I would not have trusted any one of them behind the wheel of a car, much less in an emergency or operating room, and I doubt anyone would have been happy to see a standardized test, but I saw that we had passed a sort of point of no return: the point at which our subconscious minds began to belong more to medicine than to the rest of the world.

From there, it only gets worse - if our goal as physicians is to remain well equipped to relate to our patients and their families. (And our own families.)

By now, eleven years in, I must admit that medicalese is closer to my native language than my real first language, American English. Of course, it's not different enough from English to qualify as its own language, or even its own dialect. But I would venture to guess that medicalese has more unique words, and worse, more common words used in unique ways, than one would find comparing British to American English. Even the grammatical structure is subtly different, and that changes the way I think. 

I call it my native language because it's now the language that I hear in my head, when I talk to myself. The language I write first drafts in, unless I'm very deliberately trying to avoid it. The language I fall back on when I'm sleepy or flustered. When my son had a developmental evaluation, the therapists were surprised of some of the complex commands he could understand; I was not, because they fit the structure of the language of medicine, and I know he hears it often.

Doctors are justifiably criticized when they used big words and funky acronyms that most patients would never have had reason to learn: Carcinoma, for cancer. FUO, for fever of unknown origin. But I find that with a half-effort, we can avoid these fairly easily, or at least write them down for patients and explain their definitions. Saying "PRBCs" is a mouthful; "blood transfusion" is much easier.

What is much, much harder is remembering all the "normal" every day words that have been co-opted as medical jargon and the weird ways in which I've learned to construct sentences.

What I thought was: "Some types of subcutaneous mass are non-malignant and may self-resolve, without necessitating without further intervention."

What I said was: "This could resolve on its own."

But what did my patient hear?

I paused as soon as I said it, as I wracked my brain, trying to remember whether using "resolve" to refer to a symptom or illness was a normal thing to say. Would my mom have said to my sister about her cold, "It will resolve on its own." Probably not. But they would understand, even if they wouldn't say it spontaneously. On the flip side, my mom and sister both have advanced degrees and backgrounds in psychology and mental health, and talking about one's cold isn't quite on the same stress level as talking about a child's potential life-threatening illness - plenty of studies have shown that people under stress aren't functioning at the same level that they normally would - they aren't able to grasp the same concepts that they would under normal circumstances.

Back before I had an empirical basis for thinking about this, a friend (then a medical student) who had just had his first child with his wife (a general pediatrician) told me that they selected their son's pediatrician because he talked to them like they were "just like any other parents." He said his wife wanted someone who would treat her like she was "just a mom" - meaning, not like a doctor, or a pediatrician. I was a little skeptical, but I had neither kids nor a medical specialty, so I just shrugged - of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion and reasoning when choosing a medical provider.

But ten years on, as a mother, a daughter, and a pediatric oncologist, I can't imagine wanting a physician to address me as if I didn't have a medical - and science - background. For one thing, it would feel condescending. But more importantly, it would be confusing. Sometimes medicalese is unnecessarily cumbersome, trumping our own feelings of importance in the world (as doctors) and deliberately obscuring our discussion from the comprehension of our patients (that seems to be especially the case with acronyms). That, happily, is the minority of its use. Most of the time, we use specific medical language because it's more precise. Like the oft-repeated story of the Eskimo language having dozens of words for different types of snow, I have dozens of words and descriptors to describe different types of broken bones.

When I translate my thought process - in my now-native language - into American English, details are lost. Something is always lost in translation, right? And when someone else - whether it's a patient in a clinic, or a friend at a bar, or my own doctor who thinks he's doing me a favor by speaking "plainly" - tells me a story about health, in my head, I'm trying to translate it  into medicalese, so I can better understand it. But it is imprecise - I'm often left guessing about all the information that English doesn't have words to convey, at least not succinctly. Literal translations of complex ideas from medicalese end up being tremendously wordy and almost impossible to follow.

For example:
Absolute neutrophil count (ANC) - a measurement of the amount of a specific type of white blood cell (the neutrophil) that usually fights off bacterial infections.

I thought that was not terrible, but Microsoft Word informed me that it was written on a twelfth-grade level and has a Flesh-Kincaid reading ease score of around 35 (easier is higher, up to 100). Oops. So I played around with it until I managed to write a description at a fourth-grade reading level (which is what we usually aspire to, in order to reach the lowest common denominator of patient literacy and education). It went like this: "How many of a specific kind of cell you have in your blood. This cell is called a neutrophil. It fights off infections from bacteria."

Ugh. I would have a hard time talking like that and not sounding robotic, I think.

I haven't quite figured out what this all means for me, personally, or for the ideal of the medical profession. I once considered myself somewhat unusual among my colleague-friends, because I wasn't "premed" for most of my college years, my undergraduate degree wasn't in biology or chemistry, and I imagined I could have just as easily pursued any number of other careers. Joining the foreign service or going to law school were high on the list at the time. Later, I contemplated finishing an anthropology Ph.D. or applying for an MFA in creative writing (always more school where I'm concerned) and becoming a novelist. Often, I puzzled over why I never seriously considered journalism: when I had to do a "what would you be if you weren't a doctor?" icebreaker, I picked "foreign correspondent."

Now I have a unique "best of all worlds" sort of job. I occasionally wonder if I could ever give up practicing medicine - I do really want to write that novel - but I think not. I think it's a part of my identity, my consciousness, in more ways than just my native language. Of course, language is culture, and culture is identity, no? Language shapes the very way we allow ourselves think. 

"To have another language is to possess a second soul."
- Charlemagne

06 November, 2014

{this memory} 119

This is the story behind last Monday's {this moment}.

It's mid-December 2013 and we're at my parents' house in upstate New York.

I really, really, really love this picture.

My father, Thom, is sitting on the couch in our family room and holding my then-22-month-old son, Finn. This was my dad's usual perch, from my point of view. He had an acrylic laptop stand that allowed him to easily position his MacBook in front of him and swivel it away when he needed to get up (using only one arm, of course).

That December, I was interviewing for jobs in anticipation of finishing my fellowship, and I adopted my parents' house as a sort of home base. Finn stayed with my parents (and my sister and her fiancé, who were living there as well), while I flew back and forth to Boston, Houston, etc.

For the last several years, my father always sent each member of our family a Jacquie Lawson interactive advent calendar. Each day brings a new mini app, which becomes a part of the whole Christmas scene - it's pretty cool, actually. For instance, on one day, you design snowflakes; later, when you are visiting the Christmas tree scene, you see your snowflakes falling outside the window.

It is especially awesome if you are not quite two.

Every morning while I was away, my son would sit on my dad's lap and they would open up the new scene and game for that day. Which is what they are doing in this picture.

A few weeks ago, I opened last year's calendar and showed Finn, explaining that this was a game he played with his grandpa. Every now and then, I try to tell him stories and remind him how much his grandfather loved him.

For a long time after my dad died, I burst into tears every time I walked into the family room and he was not sitting there - he was always sitting there, with his oxygen tubing threaded around his ears and running out through the hallways and up the stairs. I couldn't bring myself to touch his glasses, sitting on his laptop desk. Eventually, after I moved back home permanently, we gave away the old red living room set to make room for my (modern, streamlined, slate-grey) sectional. We repainted the navy and cream walls in a warm grey. We put away all but a few of my dad's framed Hard Rock Café pins, which dominated an entire wall (framing them was a painstaking task that took me several hours), and painted that wall a bold turquoise, in preparation for a new gallery of family photos.

As much as I secretly openly hated the red plush furniture - which contained enough fur from my sister's gigantic yellow lab to knit a blanket - I have to admit that I'm a little sad that it's gone now. It feels as though, if I could see it still, I might see my dad sitting there too.

I'm looking forward to this year's calendar.

03 November, 2014

{this moment} 119

{this moment} is a Monday ritual that my father started in May 2011, and that I have maintained since May 2014. He described it as "A single image - no words - capturing a moment from the past. A simple moment along my life's Journey - but one over which I wish to linger and savor each treasured aspect of the memories it evokes." When he passed away in February 2014, he left a folder containing images that he hoped to share in the months and years ahead. For some, I share my perspective of the story behind the moment on Thursdays, in a companion ritual called {this memory}. For others, the story is lost in the ocean of time, but I welcome flights of imagination and speculation from readers.

{this moment} was adapted from cath's wonderful blog ~just my thoughts. She, in turn, borrowed it from Pamanner's Blog. My dad suggested, "Check out their blogs, and if you're inspired to do the same, leave a link to your {this moment} in the comments for each of us to find and see. If you are moved or intrigued by my {this moment}, please leave a comment." I encourage the same.


29 October, 2014

This evening's borrowed wisdom

Years ago, I made a few fruitless attempts at blogging before starting my cooking blog last year. How many years ago, you ask? Well, at one point, I had a Xanga blog. 

In any case, most of what has survived is painful to re-read. One of my biggest challenges in making progress as a writer has been that - until this space - I rarely share personal writing and often, after a year or two, will simply erase whole files and entries. And blogs.

But I salvaged this post (under the same title) from February 2008, when I was finishing med school and chatting with a childhood friend online...something about it still resonates.
me: it seems odd in retrospect that I would apply to places I hadn't ever visited but who knows?
friend: undergrad was a very different sort of experience
me: my ex dated a girl who went to one of the schools I'd considered
me: I met her at a party
me: we stood in line for the bathroom and talked about how we could have been friends, had I gone there
me: in another life, perhaps!
me: undergrad is definitely something I could have done several times in several different ways and still learned new things
friend: and THAT, I think, is the point
friend: brings me back around to never, ever trying to pinpoint where I may have gone wrong
friend: b/c I'd inevitably miss all sorts of things that went very, very right
friend: and my less-than-infinite wisdom is not up to that task
"Amy in Postmodern Art"
Denver Art Museum, March 2010

28 October, 2014

Dueling "bests" in preschool lit

Finn and I (okay, just me, but I did get his input) decided to present our favorite books for children aged 1 to 3 or 4 years in the form of dueling "bests."

...with apologies to the illustrators...I know you're just as important as the authors but I ran out of time to look up your names...

Best book that rhymes
Amy says… Little Blue Truck, by Alice Schertle and Jill McElmurry
Finn says… Good-Night, Good-Night, Construction Site, by Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld

Let me state a simple truth: It is not all that fun to read wordy story books to a child who is: A) currently standing on his head, asking to play ring-around-the-rosie for the 500th time; B) trying to fold the pages into origami before you've finished the first sentence; C) chanting "no, not right" at escalating volume after every third word; or D) crying "I bwoke book" while pointing to the flap he ripped the last time you tried to read Where's Spot?

Therefore, the vast majority of really lovely, brilliantly creative and artfully written children's books are definitely for school-age children, or in some cases, for parents to read in the privacy and quietude of their own beds, after their little ones have gone to sleep.

A good rhyme solves all of that. Even better, a good rhyming book is easily memorized, so when your child decides to see if it can swim with him, or demands ONE MORE BOOK after you finally managed to turn the lights out, or is utterly hysterical during a car trip, you can just recite them. Seriously. I memorized these two after reading them half a dozen times - they are that rhythmic. (Little Blue Truck was a gift from my dad.)

Best book about going to sleep
Amy says… Llama Llama Red Pajama, by Anna Dewdney
Finn says… The Going to Bed Book, by Sandra Boynton

I love Anna Dewdney's Llama Llama series. They are all great stories that toddlers can relate to and learn from. And, most importantly, they rhyme. I also love Sandra Boynton. One of Finn's earliest favorites was Barnyard Dance - when he was just about a year, he would participate in each part of the dance - stomp your feet, clap your hands, etc.

Both of these end with great lines that I sometimes quote to Finn in lieu of reading them (if we've already read three or four others). "Mama Llama's always near, even if she's not right here. Little llama, don't you know? Mama Llama loves you so." It helps a bit with separation anxiety at bedtime.

The Going to Bed Book ends with "The moon is high. The sea is deep. They rock and rock and rock to sleep."

Best book that teaches letters or numbers
Amy says… Chicka Chicka Boom, by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault
Finn says… The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle

These are classics. Enough said? The Very Hungry Caterpillar was the first book I can remember reading, with help. Finn likes to stick his fingers through the holes, but as he's gotten a bit older, he does participate in counting the fruit a bit more. He likes see the "mommy letters" and "baby letters" in Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. 

Best book about food
Amy says… Dim Sum for Everyone, by Grace Lin
Finn says… Noodles for Baby, by Jamie Meckel

Dim Sum for Everyone was written by a graduate of my high school (she was several years ahead) who became an artist and illustrator, and realized there was a huge gap in the children's book market when it came to Asian characters. I also love The Ugly Vegetables, a partly autobiographical tale of the Chinese "ugly" vegetables that her mother grew in the garden, while the white families on their block grew flowers. Finn prefers Noodles for Baby, a rhyming (yay) book about the many kinds of noodles (and babies!) in the Hawaiian Islands (our friends grew up in Hawaii and brought Finn the book). I worry that the baby throwing the noodles in the air and up her nose will give him ideas, but so far…nothing he didn't think of himself first.

Best pop-up book
Amy says… Ben's Box, by Michael Foreman
Finn says… School Bugs, by David A. Carter

Ben's Box is a book from my childhood that I don't remember reading, but now I adore it (with one caveat). It is one of the most gorgeously constructed pop-up books I've ever seen, and it describes the adventures of a little boy whose mother gets a new washing machine. (That's the caveat - offended by the suggestion that a new washing machine is a mother's "toy", I substitute "father.") He just gets the empty box but quickly uses his imagination to make it so much more.

School Bugs, unfortunately, from my point of view, is a bit lacking in text (and rhyme) but it also has cool, interactive pop-ups and flaps. Finn loves it for the playground scene at the very end.

Best Dr. Seuss book
Amy says… The Butter Battle Book
Finn says… One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish

I feel like an idiot: The Butter Battle Book was probably my favorite book in kindergarten, but I didn't get that it was about the Cold War until I read it to Finn for the first time last year. One Fish Two Fish was, apocryphally, the first book I read entirely by myself. I also love The Lorax, by the way. And The Sleep Book nearly made the Sleep category above.

Best book with flaps
Amy says… Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, by Eric Carle
Finn says… Beautiful Oops!, by Barney Saltzberg

I admit, Beautiful Oops! is very creative. But like the next category, it can get a bit tiresome for the adult reader. It shows various "oopses" like torn paper and spills and ways in which a young artist can transform them into a masterpiece (instead of getting angry or frustrated).

Best book that doesn't have any kind of plot, or even characters, really
Amy says… Green, by Laura Vaccaro Seeger
Finn says… Press Here, by Hervé Tullet

Green is a book of beautiful illustrations of different shades of green. Each page has a cut-out appropriate to the scene that reveals some of the color on the next page (e.g. tiny holes reveal a tawny yellow color and look like fireflies but when you turn the page, the color appears more yellow-green and is an autumn tree). I picked up Press Here thinking that its resemblance to an iPad app unplugged would amuse Finn...and it did. It really, really did. He calls it the "beep beep book" because it starts with a yellow dot and an instruction to "press here." Then two dots appear, then three... Later, the reader is asked to rub one until it turns red and the other until it turns blue. I'm sure you can see how this is endlessly amusing for a two-year-old and maybe not quite as amusing for a tired parent.

Best book that Finn doesn't understand yet
Amy says… The Dark, by Lemony Snicket
Finn says… Le Pétit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (admittedly, the pop-up edition)

Please read The Dark. It is so awesome and hilarious and sweet. I can't do it justice without giving it away. Trust me.

Best book of all time
Amy says… Wherever You Are My Love Will Find You, by Nancy Tillman
Finn says… Please, Baby, Please, by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee

Please, Baby, Please is Finn's favorite book of all time. He could read it dozens of times in a row and will always pick it if it's an option. It's a pretty simple story - on each page, the baby is shown doing something babies love to do and parents beg ("please, baby!") them not to do - but he gets really into it, pointing out that the baby in the book doesn't like to eat her peas, only her pasta, but he (Finn) likes peas and pasta. On another page, he'll remind me that he has felt just like the baby when I made him leave the playground, while on yet another, he'll be outraged that the baby won't share her ball. On the last page, the baby asks the mommy to "Kiss me good-night? Please, mama, please", which is my favorite part.