Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Almost Famous

Last night in the ER I got the first taste of the rarity of a medical emergency like Jason's. The nurses recognized me, those that didn't whispered as I walked past. Sadie's illness was taken very seriously, and all the stops were pulled to make sure she was OK. And I was frequently asked how he was doing now that he was off the ventilator, and if he was more lucid. Today I had complete strangers ask how he was - our local Target pharmacist, a CVS pharmacist last night, and then my primary care physician, whom I had not discussed the case with. It turns out there is a reason why.

The fun continued last night after listening to my home answering machine. The dermatologist Jason saw a couple of weeks ago called to leave the lab tests results. Turns out that there are a "hint of auto antibodies" in one of the cultures. We have yet to work on what that means, but my Google searches yielded insights as to why we were having protein (and thus swelling) issues in the CCU during his intubation. It also may explain why the virus he had ravaged him so much - his immune system is likely out of whack. Now to figure out why.

This morning Jason was released from the hospital, but before I picked him up I told him of the results, and we used speaker phone to notify the attending nurse, who passed the word onto the doctor.

In the mean time, apparently the culture came back positive from the first night - and it shows H Flu. It's pretty rare to contract due to Hib vaccinations. So we're piecing together how he could have gotten it.

In a new Michael Crichton turn (no more ER, think more like "Congo"), I was standing in line at Target after dropping off some prescriptions when my phone rang. I didn't recognize the number, but decided to answer, thinking it may be Jason's work or the hospital. It was the Department of Health.

The gentleman on the other line of the phone was calm and collected as he asked about our family, living conditions, the children's health, my health. He mentioned a possible quarantine and prophylactics, but wanted to gather more information first. As we talked, I found out he'd already received lab reports from the hospital (which had alerted him to the situation), had spoken to our and the children's primary care physicians and knew most of our medical history. He'd talked to our pharmacist and gotten those records. And he knew about Jason's dermatology referral. He was just quizzing me, I guess... he already knew the answers. Creepy. Talk about Big Brother.

State Health guy said he'd call back in a few minutes with directives. When he called back, he wasn't quite so foreboding, but asked how I'd been feeling. He had found out from ER records (which he'd requested and I'd just released) that I had Jason's sputum (which included a lot of blood) all over my face and clothes that day. Not shockingly, it's not a good thing, so they wanted me to get on antibiotics immediately. When I told him that my throat had been hurting with what I thought was sympathy pains or dry air, he told me to immediately go to my primary care provided for a culture and the goods (antibiotics). At my doctor's office I had cultures taken, confirmed a fever of over 101 and he confirmed my throat was cherry red with white patches. I can't tell you how happy this makes me after what we've all been through the past five days.

As far as the girls, it turns out I hadn't been overreacting when I took Sadie to the ER last night. She's on the correct antibiotics, which they gave because they knew it was either a stress or h-flu type of infection (thanks to her daddy's medical records). Katie is headed for the doctor tomorrow, and I'm a bit worried by what I originally thought was a bug bite that now looks much worse on the side of her face. She had strep a little over two weeks ago, and a 10-day course of antibiotics, but they weren't the ones that fight these particularly nasty strains of strep and flu. I'm not OVERLY worried, though, because both girls were away from him during his coughing spasms and stridor, so it's unlikely they were infected. Our extended family has been informed to be vigilant, but it is very unlikely they'd be sick, even those present on the day he was so sick in our home. I had cordoned off the area he was sick in and had sterilized everything the following day, so we're OK on that front. Friends and family who visited in the hospital are fine - they had a HEPA filter going the entire time, and he was no longer infectious by the time he woke up.

So, tonight I'm feeling more like a Michael Chrichton book than the ER mini-series he produces. I'm exhausted and have a fever of about 102. I've been sick the entire time, but just kept going knowing I didn't have another option. I also kind of thought, to be honest, that I was being a bit of a hypochondriac given the terrible things I witnessed with Jason on Christmas day. Several nights I woke up having difficulty swallowing, which I'd attributed to stress.

I'm hoping that by tomorrow Sadie is much better, and I'm on the mend, and that by the first day of 2009 we're over this hump. I know Jason has a bit of a road ahead in determining the true nature of the medical problems that led to his hospitalization, but just to have each one of our health OK for a day would be great.

As an aside, I know I haven't really been writing like my normal self. This whole thing has been a weird, life-changing kind of event, and not just for me. Jason is trying to process what he saw, how he feels, and where he "went" during all of this. It's hard to lose 3 days of your life. I'll leave the details of the events and his emotions for him to tell - if he wants to, to whom he wishes to share it.

I, on the other hand, wonder who this person is coming home. Will he be the same? Will his life change forever? And how do I process all of this, myself? He said and saw some crazy things in there. And he's got a very different outlook on life at the moment. I just wonder if that will last, or change. I don't know how else to describe what I'm feeling now, and it's definitely too deep to bring to the surface yet, let alone write about. I may never talk about it, actually. I just don't know.

Monday, December 29, 2008

On this episode of ER...

Jason is doing well, having "stepped down" from Critical Care to the Cardiac/Pulmonary Unit. His vitals are good, and he's feeling better with each passing minute, making incredible progress at a fast pace. The nurses are amazed.

Meanwhile, down in the ER, most of the show's "regulars" are back in play, with an unusually high volume of patients with a vast variety of maladies. Special Guest Kim Thies (who appeared on last week's episode) makes another appearance, this time with her youngest daughter, Sadie, who presents with many of the symptoms of a rare and deadly disease - the one which everyone is still discussing from the previous week. The nurses drop in to visit with Kim, her sister and the young child, talking about the miraculous intervention the previous week while the child waits to be evaluated.

The young child is sent home after about 4 hours on antibiotics after a series of soft-tissue x-rays and minor probing. A strep A test has yielded negative results, but the child clearly has a strep-like bacteria or virus harboring in the back of her throat... strangely similar to her father's.

On the way out of the hospital, Kim goes by the patient Jason's hotel room with her young daughter in tow, and a tearful reunion ensues.

As the episode concludes, the Kim returns home exhausted and calls Jason in the hospital, dancing around the issues and things that have yet to be discussed. They talk only momentarily about the need to search more deeply for answers to unwrap the medical history. And they make plans for his return home the next day.

In the fade out, Kim is seen typing away in a quiet house, sipping hot tea to soothe her raw, sore throat.

End scene. (and our day)

Coming to...

Today isn't nearly as entertaining as yesterday, but it's not as intense, either. I'm actually taking an afternoon break at home to catch up on some work stuff, file insurance and all the other goodness that comes with an extended hospital stay.

The doctors think Jason can come home very soon, possibly even tomorrow - all his vitals are fine. He's functioning very well, and no longer hallucinating. His motor skills are not there yet, and he's functioning like he's a very smart drunk. For those of you that have seen him drunk, you know he's not a smart one, so that part is kind of weird. :) He's not really up and walking much, but we'll probably try that again this afternoon. Basically, today he's back to himself, annoying me to death about how much longer it will be before he can leave. Every 5 minutes... it's worse than a road trip to DisneyWorld with a 4 year old.

The girls will probably both be back with me tomorrow too. So for the moment I'm enjoying my few moments away from the beeps and sanitizer smells (even if I'm working). Now that the crisis is over, I'm ready to crash for about a week.

Over the Hump

Jason was extubated this morning, and has been doing really well. I've laughed a lot today at his weird comments, imaginary friends and musical references. The day nurse was really concerned about his lack of lucidity, but for once, I haven't been. I just feel that since they were giving him an overload of meds to keep him down that it's being stored longer than normal in his body fat. As the day went on, he got more and more coherent and lucid. He's still forgetting comments made just moments before, but he's also undergone a major trauma and has no recollection after Christmas eve (which is expected and part of the nature of the drugs he was given, and something I'm thankful for right now).

Some of our fun today included wanting to go on a search for a missing Snuffalopogus (who apparently had been in the room with us most of the day). When Jason was asked shortly after being brought out of his sleeping state who I was, he said excitedly "she's THAT lady." He later referred to me as the "one who fell down the mountain on skis that he laughed at and followed" (long story - but it is one that's about a decade old now). He spent quite a bit of time chatting up the IV machine. And at one point he was gazing at/around me, just beaming. I asked him what was going on. He exclaimed it was just so beautiful. I said something like I hadn't even put on makeup or done my hair. He said, "No, not you. That beautiful crystal blue waterfall behind you with the dancing bears." Ummm, yeah. I couldn't make this stuff up if I had to.

In addition to the fun outbursts ("scratching nuts!," "lalalalala" and "grape wash"), lapses into various Duran Duran references (he frequently told me he was "Hungry Like a Wolf" before lapsing into uncontrolled giggles) and singing "Sister Christian," he was also "picking" quite a bit and trying to pull out his oxygen, iv's and such. I was hands-on, all day long, except for a brief respite when some friends came to visit (thanks Cristen, Pam, Steve, Tanya and Seamus - it sooo helped my sanity). I'm exhausted, but in a better way than before. Where I had woken up this morning feeling downhearted and thinking it was going to be possibly another week of CCU (based on what they told me lat night), I'll be getting up tomorrow to the hope that it will be only days before he's out of there. BIG difference from the 3-4 weeks they were projecting previously.

Thanks for all the thoughts, prayers, comments and support. We have the best network of friends and loved ones anyone could ask for.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

I hate ICUs

I hate the smell, the beeps, the droning fans and the life support machines lying around. I hate when the staff start saying "every case is different" followed by "I haven't seen this before." But even more so, I hate when they avoid responses to your questions, or worse, don't tell you of changes. I can see changes. I'm not blind.

Edema is setting in fast - I went home for 2 hrs, and came back to +3 swelling in his extremities. He's had to be suctioned more frequently, and it's thick and bloody. They avoided explanation, until I asked them if what I was seeing was acurate. They agreed (who knows what they are holding back that I don't see). Yeah, I'm officially worried now.

Monday is now the very earliest they will extubate.

Day 3 begins...

I came in to the CCU early (before visiting hours) to try to catch Jason's specialists on their rounds. Luckily I caught both the ENT and the pulmonologist. They had tried to reduce the vent this morning, but there was no air leak, meaning there as no reduction in swelling overnight. They'll try again tomorrow.

His white counts have lowered to 14, so the antibiotics are kicking in. He's on 60 cc of propofol to keep him under (normal is 50 max), but he still woke up when I came in this morning. He wanted to know what was going on and how much longer. Wish I could give him an answer. They gave him adavan and morphine to knock him back out.

I cornered the specialists and drilled them with all my concerns and questions. Jason has been sick with one malady or another since May, including several URIs (including pneumonia)and has frequently complained he could not get full breaths and his chest didn't feel right. The specialists say we have to just focus on getting the swelling down enough to get him extubated before we can I think about what is causing all these things. I'm just glad his white counts are dropping, meaning the antibiotics are kicking in. His chest xray is clear, so that's good too.

So, it's another day of waiting, watching and hoping for a reduction in swelling. I'll post if anything comes up.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Hanging out in the CCU

Jason's still in the CCU, on a ventilator, with steady vitals. The swelling has not begun to go down, which I find worrysome, but we won't know more until we see the ENT specialist again tomorrow. I was there most the day, and he was awake and lucid several times, to our nurses dismay. They let him try to communicate with me while they put in more meds to sedate him (for some reason he doesn't go down as easily as he should). Using gestures and lots of eyebrow action he asked about how the girls were, where he was, what had happened, how long he had been there and how long he would be there. I lied and told him 2-3 days.

It looks like 3-4 weeks, though we hope he is extubated in 48-72 hours (they're adding a day or two, due to the lack of reduction in swelling). He'll remain in an induced coma until they extubate for his own safety.

He looked worse this morning in terms of swelling than last night. They say the reduction of swelling will likely occur from the inside out, so it may look worse than it really is. His white cell count is hovering at 18-19. He's beginning to breathe over the vent even when he's out cold, which is good in his case. And his heart rate is back down in the 80s (yesterday it was in the 140s). So, I think he's over the hump and we're now into the waiting game.

Thank you for all the prayers, well wishes, support, calls and hugs. The kids are doing fine - Katie went to be with her cousin Brittany, and is happy as a clam to have a few days with her. Sadie is sick with a cold, but the fever seems to be over. Mom and Dad are staying with her so I can be at the hospital with Jason. His family has been visiting. For now we have to keep visitors there to a minimum, but once he's off the ventilator we'll be able to have people over to visit. If I don't reply to comments/posts/emails/calls, please know I love you and I appreciate it despite my lack of correspondence. Thanks!

Stable

Jason's stable this morning, though he woke last night and sat straight up in bed (not good when you're on a vent!). They've got him knocked back out and resting. His blood pressure and oxygen saturation levels look good, and his pulse is staying steady. The fever is still going, as expected. Visitation doesn't start until 10 am, so I haven't been in to see him yet, but they say the swelling in his neck is about the same.

Thanks for checking in!

Jason's Ok

Thanks to all the friends and family for thoughts and prayers. For those not in the loop, Jason had breathing issues today and landed in the ER this morning. He was later released, only to return a few hours later in worse condition. The diagnosis is epiglottitus, and he was miserable. There were a few scary minutes when they couldn't get him intubated and we were losing him, but luckily they succeeded without having to do an emergency tracheotomy (which was mere inches from taking place). I can't even describe the feelings/emotions/tiredness of the day.

He's in a medically induced coma for the next 48 hours, and the swelling in his throat should receed during that time. They hope to extubate him then, and then he'll be in the hospital at least a week or two recovering. I'll update here when I can.

I got home and did some reading, and just found out it's contagious, so please pray/chant/whatever you do to the higher powers that be that the kids, extended family and I don't come down with it. Especially the kids. This stuff is nasty.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Love, Love, Love

Sadie has become the meanest little bugger to her sister. She kicks her, pulls her hair and pesters her endlessly. Katie will be sitting, playing quietly, and Sadie will come up and yank her hair, just to see the reaction. We've tried everything to stop it, but it just wouldn't end today. Katie was crying every 10 minutes for another hit, pinch or hair pull. It doesn't help that both girls are still feeling ill and housebound.

At one point Sadie yanked a chunk of hair out, sending Katie into a (very loud) spasm of cries. Jason had enough and went in and pulled Sadie's hair so she'd know how it felt. Sadie erupted in cries - both girls at the top of their lungs. Five minutes later it calmed down, only for Sadie to do it again. I decided to try another tactic.

I told Katie to fight back. If Sadie pulled her hair again (the pain infliction of that moment), she was to pull back - HARD. If she hit, hit back. Bit, bite back. I told her it wasn't the nicest thing to do, but that we needed to teach Sadie that a) it hurts and b) there are consequences (since making her sister cry seems to be more of a benefit then a consequence to Sadie).

Sure enough, a few minutes later they're playing quietly in their room. I hear Katie yowl in pain again and rush to the stairs to listen to what's happening. Katie pulls back, HARD. Sadie cried. I waited. Katie came to the top of the stairs.

"Mommy, I never want to do that again. I don't like to hurt Sadie." Awwwww.

I wish I say my tactic stopped it. It didn't. Sadie started scratching again. Now Katie's got hang ups because she didn't want to hurt her sister and feels bad about it. And the yowling continues...

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

I'm still here!

Just not able to keep up with the blog lately. The last few weeks have been insane - 70 hour work weeks, late nights, sick kids, sick me, etc., etc. Just yesterday we got the tree up, today the lights outside. I haven't even thought about Christmas lists...

But the girls are merry and bright, ready for Santa. Thank God for advent calendars, which helps dilute the number of "how many more days" I get every hour. They keep me chipper despite the blundering economy (that is definitely having an impact on my clients, thus on me). We've been singing carols galore. Sadie's favorite is Jingle Bells, Katie is a classic Here Comes Santa Clause kind of girl. I'm still rooting around for those Christmas CDs I squirrel away every year... I know they're here somewhere!

I'm still looking for a couple of kids to round out our school enrollment. Know of any? Send them my way! We've been working on the different winter holidays, and I have to admit, I've learned a lot about Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and the Advent that I didn't previously know. And I've learned a lot about guinea pig diets. Yes, we have two additions to our classrooms. I now understand why they are called pigs. Sadie loves to hold the fattest one, Peanut, and make him squeal like mad. Vixie is my favorite - she actually cuddles. At least as much as a smelly rodent with a minimal IQ is able to snuggle. Ah, the joys of preschool!

I'll resurface soon with something of interest - for now, enjoy the holiday preparations!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

I'm thankful for Vivien Thomas

As I mumbled about this weekend, feeling a bit forlorn, a friend blogged a story about a man I knew nothing of, but whom I owe my child's life to. The story was so inspiring, I just have to share it here. Vivien Thomas is my newest hero.

Excerpted from Adventures of a Funky Heart...

Vivien Theodore Thomas was born on August 29, 1910 in Lake Providence, Louisiana. After graduating high school in 1929, he planned to attend Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School, (Tennessee State University) with hopes of becoming a doctor.

He had been in school two months when the stock market crashed, causing him to lose his part-time carpentry job. Forced to drop out of college, Thomas still found work as a Lab Assistant at Vanderbilt University Medical School, working for surgeon Dr. Alfred Blalock. Although hired to sweep floors and clean out cages, Vivien Thomas impressed Dr. Blalock with his intelligence. Blalock was so impressed that he trained Thomas to be his Surgical Technician.

Thomas began assisting Blalock in the study of shock during surgery. Shock is caused by a sudden drop in blood flow through the body, and can be fatal. Working together, Blalock and Thomas developed ways to prevent shock from occurring during an operation. By World War II most of their theories were in use, saving the lives of countless injured soldiers.

In 1941, Dr. Blalock was hired by Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, to serve as the hospital’s Chief Surgeon and as a Surgical Professor in the Hopkins Medical School. The doctor asked his trusted assistant to go with him, and Thomas agreed. But while Blalock was responsible for training every surgeon in the school, Thomas had to enter the building through the service entrance. He was also listed on the hospital payroll as a handyman.

The two men respected and trusted each other, but were hardly equal. At one time, Blalock was paid ten times more than Thomas. Often the doctor hired Thomas to serve drinks in his home during a social event. And never was Thomas allowed in the Operating Room.

It was at Johns Hopkins that the two men met Dr. Helen Taussig. Taussig had been hired in 1930 to oversee the Cardiac Clinic of the Harriet Lane Home, (Hopkins’ children’s hospital) and quickly grew interested in “Blue-Baby” diseases.

Usually, blood coming into the heart is routed first to the lungs, where it absorbs oxygen. The oxygen rich blood then goes back to the heart, where it is pumped throughout the body. Blue Babies are born with a badly formed heart or blood vessels that cannot provide enough oxygen to the blood. Their skin has a distinctive blueish tinge, especially in the fingertips. At that time Blue Baby diseases were incurable, and almost all of the patients died very young.

Dr. Taussig approached Dr. Blalock with an idea: if a Blue Baby’s heart couldn’t provide oxygen to the blood naturally , then why couldn’t a surgeon re-route the major blood vessels? Taussig’s plan was interesting but extremely dangerous. The operation would have to take place near the heart, and heart surgery was so risky it was almost never recommended. Any accidental damage to the heart would have to be repaired within 4 minutes, or the patient died.

Busy with his teaching duties, Blalock asked Vivien Thomas to work out the details of how such an operation could be done. Thomas began by studying medical textbooks, drawings and diagrams of hearts, and even real hearts taken from dead bodies. Then he operated on dogs, intentionally creating Blue Baby hearts in them. Later he would operate again, repairing the heart and making careful notes of everything he did. It was a slow process, learning exactly what had to be done. Many dogs died, and several of the surgical tools he needed didn’t even exist. Quite often, Thomas would invent them.

X-rays of the patient were another problem. X-ray films provide a good still photograph of the workings of the body. But Taussig preferred to use a fluoroscope. A fluoroscope image is best described as “X-ray TV”– It provided moving images of the interior of the body. If the patient accidentally moved, so did the picture. There was no way to record the fluoroscope image, so the three doctors would have to study their patient’s fluoroscope scans carefully and commit them to memory.

At last they felt they were ready, and Taussig began to search for a proper patient. On November 29, 1944, they operated on a little girl named Eileen. Although fifteen months old, Eileen only weighed nine pounds.

Thomas had planned to be in the observation room, watching the operation. Blalock said no – he felt more comfortable with Thomas close enough to give him advice. In preparation for the operation, Thomas had performed the procedure over 100 times on animals. Blalock had been taught the procedure by Thomas, but had actually done it only once. Breaking all the rules of the time, Thomas entered the operating room and guided Blalock through the operation.

Eileen’s heart never stopped beating and her blood vessels were only as thick as a matchstick. After about 90 minutes, Blalock was finished. Everyone held their breath as he removed the last clamp from a blood vessel. After a long pause, Helen Taussig said “Al, the baby’s lips are a glorious pink color.”

Proven to be a success, Blalock’s team performed nearly 300 operations in less than a year. Surgeons came from around the world to study Blalock’s new surgical procedures, only to learn that Thomas was the expert, not Blalock or Taussig. Still, the operation was known as the “Blalock-Taussig Shunt,” named for the surgeon who performed it and the doctor who suggested it.

Blalock retired in 1964 and died four months later. For six years, Thomas continued to teach but took on no major project – almost as if he were in mourning. But as the 1970’s began, more and more African-Americans were entering the Hopkins Medical School. To them, Vivien Thomas was not just one of their teachers, he became their mentor. And just as he had guided Blalock so many years before, Thomas’ advice and support guided a new generation of doctors through medical school.

Thomas died in 1985, just a few days before his autobiography was published.* Today, Vivien Thomas is almost unknown to the general public. But Dr. Alfred Blalock never forgot him. If someone stood too close to his right shoulder during an operation, Blalock would tell them to back away. “Only Vivien may stand there.”

* Thomas’ autobiography has been reissued with a new title: Partners of the Heart: Vivien Thomas and his work with Alfred Blalock.

And now, my friends, it's time to track down that autobiography. Thanks for sharing the story Steve!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Holiday Horrors

How was my weekend? Well...

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Trying to Keep My Head Above Water

It's been a busy week or two since I've last had time to post. Preschool has officially started, and we have our first students. We took one student on that we were unable to keep, which is upsetting for me. But, I learned an important lesson on how Montessori is not for everyone. It was a long day on Friday, as we worked to figure out the best solution, which in the end resulted in our not taking on the little one. I've been upset about it all weekend, even though I know we did the right thing.

The girls are doing great! Katie got her first report card, with all perfect scores on her progress. She's gotten comfortable in her classroom, as her teacher informs me she's become quite the chatterbox. I'm glad she doesn't save it all for at home. It's amazing how much - and how long - a six year old can talk. I try to pay attention, but often feel my eyes glazing over about 5 minutes into her rendition of her entire day. Wow. She doesn't leave out a detail. I think that, instead of Guatanimo, they should tape shut the prisoner's mouth and stick them in a room with a rotation of six year old girls, each fresh from a day at school. Talk about torture. But I love that she's so open with me, so I shouldn't complain. Much.

Sadie has taken to preschool better than I thought she would. She has a tough time sharing mommy when I'm in the classroom, and has been remanded a few times for wanting to push others away when they come to close to me. She's enjoying her introductory lessons, though, and I'm amazed that a little spitfire like her will take her time to so delicately unroll her mat, place her materials on it just so, work quietly, and then put her mat away. Amazing stuff, this Montessori method. She is fiercely independent as always... we're past the biting phase, and now into a hitting one. Good times keep on rolling!

Preschool is hilarious, and has left me considering wanting to do another blog, anonymously. Seriously, the things these kids say and do are incredible - from potty jokes to play-do up the nose, it's been a nonstop barrel of laughs.

I'm still managing my two full-time clients and doing the work for my other business as well, so I barely have a moment to blink, let alone write these days. I'm zapped of energy, yet feeling enthusiastically hopeful about this school thing. I do enjoy it more than I imagined I would, and can't wait to see how we grow.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election 2.0

So, Obama won. It's no surprise, really. It was fun to be a part of history today. I actually got goosebumps as I stood in line with a hundred plus people at our little voting station, realizing that many, for the first time in their lives, were making an investment in our country. The woman behind me was 62 and voting for the first time. Wow.

Now to see how we reflect on this historic day four years from now...

The thing that I think isn't being talked about enough is the evolution of communication that led to this historic night. And how it will change elections next time around. Obama exploited Web 2.0, and I truly believe that this, plus grass roots efforts, was his potion for success. The Republican party can be blamed for choosing a poor VP candidate, neglecting to find a campaign winning message and many other things. But I think that truly, they lost because they did not embrace the evolution of communication, but kicked against it. They wanted to mandate what the public saw, and how they interpreted it. They failed to understand that, in today's society, the public defines the politician (or the company), destroying the long-held belief that the politician (or company) can dictate what it is and who it stands for. Evolution at its finest.

What scares me is the thought of our election four years from now. Because next time, both candidates will have caught onto technology and embraced it. Next time they'll be able to reach further into our homes and lives... scary, isn't it?!

UPDATE: Check this article out - great ideas on how Web 2.0 can infiltrate and change our political system.

Monday, November 03, 2008

GOOD Morning!

I awoke at 5:00 this morning to the girls fighting. I rolled out of bed, covered in sweat (I'm still recovering from bronchitis, which hit late last week). Came downstairs to discover Darla had eaten off half of the fur on her tail, leaving a nasty patch of red skin showing. The girls had destroyed what little I'd kept up over the weekend. And Sadie was hot. Great. She'd been sick early last week, got better within 24 hours, but then had been fighting something since Friday, so I sat her down, got her some food and drink and turned on the TV. Then I noticed Katie was hot too. Looks like there will be no school today.

I got both situated in front of the television and sat down to survey the damage. I discovered Carly had broken one of her nails, in HALF. It was dangling and bloody. Oh joy.

Katie got on my computer to check in on Webkinz, but quickly closed it and looked at me. Uh oh. Pale face, dark sunken eyes. Checked her fever 102. Checked Sadie's - 101. And mine? A mere 99.8 today.

So, I'm trying to decide now who should go to the doctor and who shouldn't. So far, since 5:00 a.m. I've changed two beds, bathed one child and one dog, tried to perform minor surgery on the other dog (unsuccessful), and started the sterilization process, which includes thus far two loads of laundry, a load of dishes, Lysol mass attack and vacuuming. Any one care to join in on my fun?

The only person I know who's having less fun than me today is Amanda, who's headed back to the clinker for more chemo. Please send positive mojo/energy/prayers her way - that they find the right cocktail to get her into remission this time around, minus the massive mouth sores. Hang in there, 'Manda!

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Slacker McSlackity

I won't lie... I haven't felt like writing. So I haven't been. Life's taken some unexpected turns that have left me reeling a bit, but I'll be back in the game soon. In the mean time, I'll post some photos.

Sweatsuits - $15.
Reindeer headbands to be cut up and reused as cat and mouse ears - $ 2.
Staying up until 3 am making homemade Tom and Jerry costumes the night before the Halloween party - 5 hours of lost sleep.
Photos of your kids willingly wearing the most ridiculous costumes ever - Priceless.



Straw maze! A local farmer's market puts it up every year, and we have to go through it several times before the season is over.


There's no more chances of getting Sadie in an unposed shot. Every time I pull out the camera, she stops what she's doing (in this case, smashing pumpkin guts with the stem) to shout "Cheeez!"


Katie carved her pumpkin completely on her own! She held her mouth that way as she did it the entire time, too.



Crazy Hair Day at school on Halloween.
She loved it. Really she did.
Meanwhile, I hummed "Jem, she's truly outrageous..." all day long.

Sadie's ears weighed more than she did, and they kept flopping over with every breeze of wind. And we all couldn't stop laughing. Guess we'll go back to buying costumes next year - although the homemade ones will be good blackmail pictures later in life...

Hope you had a Happy Halloween, too!

Don't forget to VOTE on Tuesday!!!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Seeing Stars

For the girls birthdays this year I made each a cake for their at-home soiree. Sadie got Pooh, and Katie chose Tinkerbell. Both involved thousands of little icing stars, which are fun at first, but torturous after about 1:00 a.m.

Katie's cake, though, was more fun to make than I'd anticipated. It was so much fun, in fact, that it has encouraged me to simply buy a cake at Ukrops next year. Here's how it went:

1. Cake came out of the oven PERFECTLY. Sat it on the counter to cool, went to take care of something, and Sadie got by me and into the kitchen. Five minutes of an unattended toddler led to this...


2. Made another cake. It fell. Face came off when coming out of pan. It was about midnight by then. It came out looking like this. In case you're unsure, yes. It is about 1/2" deep (compared to the previous cake's light and fluffy 4 or so inches).


3. Improvisation. Cake 1 plus Cake 2 equals something similar to what it should look like.


4. Final product. See? You can't even tell. Unless you ate it. Half of it tasted like lead poo, the other was light and fluffy.

Sarah Palin Fun

I can't help it... this is too funny not to pass on. Click on anything in the picture and she'll tell you what it is. http://www.palinaspresident.us/

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Random Stuff falling from my Brain onto the Computer Screen

Warning - there is no cohesion to this entry whatsoever. This is what happens when one is overworked, sleep deprived and exhausted to top it off.

So, what did you think of the final presidential debate? All in all I thought McCain looked like the guy I actually would have voted for last election cycle. I was happy to see him back at his best. And tonight reconfirmed how much fun it is to be an independent. Although I had pretty much made up my mind months ago, I am able to see pros and cons of each candidate. At the end of the debate, I've finally made up my mind for sure ,though I'd been leaning that way quite a while. I'm going with the guy that I can see making educated, sound decisions that consider the population at large, that I believe will be the best leader both abroad and at home. Guess who that is? There, I did it. I spilled my political beans. I'm voting Obama.
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The school is finally open. Ms. Amy, our school teacher, is awesome - Sadie has thoroughly enjoyed her first two days of "skooooohl." She's learning (though she doesn't know it) about spacial relationships, simple math skills and language. Plus she's doing fun crafts and such. She's taking some nice naps, eating like a little piggy and generally a happy camper. She just needed a constant availability of new things to see and do, apparently, to forgo the tantrums. She does miss her Grandma, though!

So yeah, the school is done. A few pickity pics are included for your viewing pleasure. Pretty, no?! Sadie's favorite area thus far seems to be practical life and botany/animal science/geography. Katie's loving math and language, and has been having fun doing phonetic excercises with the movable alphabet. I need to get out and get more photos of the sensorial area and practical life - tres cool!


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Though I seem to be the only human truly affected, my fluffy feline best friend has gone missing. It's been over a week and two trips to the pound, but still no Buster. The people at the pound told me yesterday that there's been a rash of rabid racoons in our area, which has me fearing the worst. Especially since the day before he disappeared I noted racoon prints on my car hood. I miss his furry highness knocking me over in the mornings as he begged for breakfast, purring his loud, uneven purr and licking my toes with his sandpaper tounge. Well, I don't miss the toe licking, but I'd take it every day for hours on end if he'd just come home. There I go getting all teary about it again. I miss my kitty!!! He is (I refuse to think he's otherwise) the best cat ever. Ask anyone who's met him.

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Check out Sadie's latest trick:



Endless dinner time fun. That's "burp" in case you didn't figure it out. A mother couldn't be more proud.

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And, to conclude this random mess of a blog entry, some long overdue pics of pretties!

Monday, October 06, 2008

Who's disorganized?!

My newest employee suggested to me today that I contract out to someone to "organize" my life. Umm, yeah. It's gotten that bad.

I haven't kept up with blogging here because I haven't kept up at home. I haven't kept up at home because I can't surface from the consulting business. I can't surface from the consulting business because I'm so far behind on the new school stuff. And I can't catch up on that because I don't have 48 hour work days.

The remedy? I took off for the weekend on a trip to Blacksburg. I turned off the email on my iPhone, left the laptop at home and imbibed in nothing but fun from Friday night through Sunday afternoon. Man, I needed that. I came home feeling like a new woman - prepared to take on the world.

Then I realized that piles of laundry awaited. Katie's homework wasn't finished as of 7 am this morning (what is WITH the Kindergarten homework, anyway?!). The house looks like the Tasmanian Devil resides here. I'm further behind on work now. I'm even more desperately behind on the school. And one of my client's is on a war path heading straight toward me. I'm sure of it.

Maybe I should get the "professional organizer's" number. Or maybe I could just throw the towel in and head back to Blacksburg. Avoidance sounds wonderful at the moment.

(Side note - For my friends who read and keep up with the CHD world, there are a few really interesting entries on the CHD Blog of late regarding long-term care of CHD patients.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Worst Mommy Award

And it goes to none other than myself. I made the video for Sadie's birthday. Last Friday was Katie's. She asked for a video as well. The problem is, to make a video for her I have to condense 6 years. Plus find the right song (I refuse to use Hannah Montana). So it isn't done yet. Ah well. Hopefully it'll get done this weekend. Along with more painting, yard work, financial analysis, ant killing, flyer posting, power washing, shelf building and other fun things I have on my agenda. I'm praying for rain on Saturday morning so that we can skip Katie's soccer this week. Three days in a row two weeks back to back is enough.

So, yeah, Katie is 6! She decided she'd be kind enough to share her festivities with her sister, and we had a joint party this year at the local air-jumpy-place (JumpZone - they were great!). We ended up with close to 20 munchkins in attendance, after much whittling of the guest list. Katie didn't get to invite kids from her Kindergarten class this year - I had to put my foot down somewhere or we would have filled the darn place. Sadie didn't get many on her list at all, thanks to Katie's ever-growing social network. That kid has more connections than I do! Sadie ran around like a mad woman, trying to keep up with her sister and the other big kids. All in all, a good party - especially since it wasn't in my home.

In fun news on the home front, we've had an invasion of ants in the last 24 hours that rivals something out of a horror movie. I bought 8 bait traps, some spray, gel and outdoor treatment and got down and dirty spreading it all. Tomorrow I look forward to the joy of emptying cabinets to remove all their tiny little carcasses. I've already gotten rid of the honey bottle full of them (how DO they get in there?!), a couple of pounds of sugar and a ziploc bag of lollipops. Nasty little buggers. I have to admit I hate to kill them, though. The pest guys said not to interfere - to let them take the bait back to their nests. So I've spent some time watching them travel in their little lines along my backspash, stopping to chat with their passing neighbors. "Hey George, how are the kids?" "Fine Mary, just taking back this nice bit of (poison)grub to them - check it out! It's in cabinet three and there's tons to be had by all!" They seem much more intelligent than the crazy cricket spider things that will invade later this fall.

Also on the homefront, Three Oaks Montessori School opens on October 13! I've hired on an AMS certified teacher, and we're busily prepping the classroom area. Still having problems with the county and DSS, but I'll find a way, I'm sure. For now I'm going to open to 5 lucky students until we finalize our DSS application and can add others. I've been loving getting out there and experimenting with the girls and our neighbor kids with the different materials, and amazed with Sadie's progress already. I'd been worried about her age and ability to cope in the classroom, but she is better behaved in the classroom than at home by far. Katie is excited about the "big kid" materials we got, too - I purchased an entire primary to elementary classroom kit, so there's lots of work with fractions, geography and language that she's been dying to get into. I do what I can with her, but I have tons to learn - I can't wait for OUR school to start! I'm nervous as heck about filling up the classroom and waiting list(s) quickly - our marketing materials arrive tomorrow, and it just all makes it so real. Of course, the loan payment to do all of this slaps me into that reality as well.

And on the other business front, I continue to plug along with my clients. It's been a tough few months, and one is facing a situation much like the one on Wall Street (only nano-sized in comparison), so I've had a permanent case of heartburn over it for the last few weeks. A "bailout" may be in sight, though, so I'm hanging on and hoping for the best. I figure something has to break soon! (Hopefully it won't be within the synapses of my brain!)

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Lisencing woes

I seriously wonder how it is that, in our current state system, I can be taxed for a detached building as "livable space," yet unable to use it as "livable space" by a separate state agency. The detached garage has now been fully converted and sprots a new restroom, complete with extra sink, ample space ratios per child and a nice plan of floor space. Yet DSS has now informed me I can't use it, because a law - down the road - will say I can't. Not that it's there in writing now. Not that they told me about it before, when I called and specifically asked (one agent said I could use it, another said absolutely not, but could not tell me why, or where it is mandated). Turns out the commissioner gets final say, and he says no 100% of the time to these sorts of requests. Sweet. Not that I won't try anyway!!

So glad my investment is already paying off. So glad I spent the last two months of my life fighting a contractor (Mike Kersey, All Exteriors, They SUCK) for a lousy job done, which still isn't finished. I ended up having to tell him not to come onto my property anymore after it escalated over a series of lies I caught him in.... I digress.

So anyway, I met an illiterate man who's applying for licensing to provide child care for after school. A woman who's brother just got out of prison on homicide, who currently resides with her but is moving out next month, who is applying. Another woman who has 600 sq ft in her entire household, and no outdoor area who is applying to care for 12 children daily. All these people are likely to be licensed. But in the meantime, my HVAC-installed, plumbed, 3-exited, well-lighted detached building that is technically defined as living space by the county (see my recent audit hiking up my taxes as proof), chock full o' beautiful new Montessori materials is inelligible for use. So lovely.

On to Plan C. Or is it D? E? I've lost track...

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

It's her first day...

And she cried when I dropped her off. Oh, no. Not the tears. I was repressing my own as I walked away from her outstretched arms.

Not that her teacher helped. Her teacher didn't even greet her when she went in the classroom. Ms. X is about 23 years old at most, I believe. Seriously, don't they train Kindergarten teachers to say hello to their pupils? She was busy sorting markers, and the students all sat staring at each other at their desks, except for one little annoying guy who ran around with a glue stick in his hand. I think he'd been sniffing it.

And the teacher had moved her desk. At orientation, Katie was near the center of the classroom. Now she's off to the side, seated next to "Bertha," who must be about 75 lbs. She is the biggest Kindergartener I've seen in my entire life. Seeing that this is a person to have on your side, I introduced her to Katie. "Bertha" gave a loud, obnoxious "Haayyy" as she scratched her belly, which protruded over her jeans. Please, please don't turn my baby into a redneck.

Full report later on the first day. I'm here at work biting my nails, watching the clock, and hoping that I saw the worst part of Katie's day. Private school keeps looking better and better...

In all seriousness, though, it was a lot harder to watch Katie go than I thought it would be. Last night I sat looking at baby pictures, amazed at how quickly the years have passed. My cute little toddler is now 'school-aged' and off to make her own mark in the world. I realize she still depends on us, but at the same time, this is the dawn of her independence. Time to spread her wings. You want your kid to grow up to be independent, self-assured and such, but when the time comes to begin to let go, it's so much harder than I thought it would be.

She'll be fine. She'll adjust, and she'll love Kindergarten, I'm sure. Ms. X is probably just as nervous as her pupils and has no clue how to interact with parents yet. "Bertha" will likely become her best friend, and a great ally when bullies prevail the playground. And I'll learn to love having a routine for the first time in over a year.

But today, right now, I'm a bit blue... my baby is growing up too quickly!

UPDATE: She LOVED her first day! When I asked what the best part was, she said "everything!" I had been so worried, but she stopped crying by the time the pledge started (before I'd even walked out of the building). She also told me she made so many friends that it was hard to choose who to play with. Yay. She survived! (and so did I...)

Monday, September 01, 2008

Oh Happy Day

Labor Day, for me, is a lucky day. Two years ago, it was the day Sadie was born, and the first day she survived. Today it is a great day because (drumroll...) after two months of an intense search, I hired my first teacher for Three Oaks Montessori! It's official, our school is opening on October 13.

{Happy dance, Happy dance}

I'm so excited! The classroom is nearly complete, with only touch up paint, some final supplies and some art work I hope to create for the walls. I'll post a photo soon. The supplies are mostly here (some are still on back order), and I have to admit the room looks nice, despite my contractor's best attempts to screw it all up (most recently - a leaky door that let in over an inch of rain). I'd been feeling a bit glum the past couple of weeks about the contractor's screw ups, an initial "no" from my best candidate to teach, some messed up materials, etc. I've been working a gazillion hours on it all over the past two months, and felt like I was getting no where. Now it all seems not only manageable, but minor... because I have a teacher! Hooray!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Goodbye Old Friend...

This week I said goodbye to a reliable, old friend - one who has been with me for about 8 years. My beloved Expedition was getting near her end... the transmission wasn't responding as it should, her brakes were squeaky and needed to be replaced, she costed more than $100 to fill up (even with the dropping gas prices) and the work needed to keep her running exceeded her net worth. I'd seen it coming for a few months, and kept nursing her along, not quite ready to let go.

I have to admit that I teared up a bit when the dealer drove her away. When I got home with my new car, tears till in my eyes, and confided this to my sister, she told me I'm nuts for feeling so glum about, of all things, a vehicle. But I loved that truck. It had been a huge part of my life these past eight years.

That truck had taken me safely, loaded with friends and/or family, on road trips all over the country - from Chicago to Pensacola, Myrtle Beach to Philadelphia, Atlanta to Iowa. We went tailgating, to weddings and funerals, bowl games and vacations. Both of my babies came home from the hospital, cradled in the center of that metal giant. Just two months ago she went half-way across the country, on a trip to New Orleans for business. She was a great truck.

I'm really going to miss my leather seats, 6 disc CD, pimped out speakers, and ample cargo space. I know, I know. All excesses I never needed. But all the more apparent when I dropped to a consumer-friendly crossover without a single bell or whistle.

I do realize this is something I should talk to my shrink about. I realize it's much deeper - that it's symbolic of all the things I'm losing and changing in my personal life right now. Stuff I'm not ready to talk about here, in cyberspace. All the same, that vehicle held a little bit of my heart. And held a huge number of happy memories. Over 150,000 miles of them.

Farewell, old friend - you've served me well!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The NIghtmare Remodel is Finally Over

The good news is that the garage is finished, and is now operable and functional space. Now to get the permits and such needed to use it. The other good news is that I no longer have to deal with All Exteriors, which is located in central Virginia. I'm including them as a label, in hopes that other unsuspecting persons cross this post and run away from these guys.

First off, the carpenter, Kevin, was great. The crew, for the most part was also good. But the owner, Mike, was rotten, through and through. He brought his crew on and began working them before I signed a contract, despite my insistence that he not do so (I should have known then!!). He cost more than everyone else. But he told me that the final product would be "top quality."

Well, if "top quality" means missing major items, hot water tanks put in places easily accessible by small children and in an entry way, crappy peal and stick vinyl laid crookedly, deviance from color schemes, unfinished and exposed wood on the exterior of the building, doors that don't close properly, missing keys from locks (which were installed upside down), warped and bubbled fascia, cigarette butts littering the area, people smoking in the new building, an office (equipment, files, furniture) covered in cement and drywall dust, a missing ceiling fan, areas of walls un-sanded and not primed, exposed exterior piping, fingerprints IN the painted doors, paint smeared everywhere on windows and doors, paint not applied to the interior and other general small grievances, well then, hell, it was a top quality job. A few samples posted for your viewing pleasure.

Angry? A bit. This guy wasted my time and money, and now I have to spend extra time to fix things. I'm unhappy with the finished product, and even more so with the process involved to get said job finished. I spent countless hours babysitting All Exteriors before I left, after I returned and even fighting with them while IN Japan (he insisted on working while I was away, then tried to swindle the money out of Kerinda in my absence prior to my approval AND completion of the job). He badgered and bullied my family... this mama bear was LIVID when I returned. Then, after a severe tongue lashing, the silent treatment and several snide comments about "quality," he did everything I requested, exactly as I asked (even if it took 3 tries) and finally I paid him and sent him on his merry way. Never to be seen again. I hope.

That's All Exteriors, folks. Owner, Mike Kersey. Don't use them!

Karma, baby. Karma.

Now, on to painting.... what matches Crap Brown carpet and Poo Swirl peel and stick? Perhaps a nice Chartreuse Puke? (Definitely not the 5 gallons of creamy yellow that I bought! Anyone need some yellow paint?).

Saturday, August 16, 2008

J2J V: Tokyo, Over and Out!

It's taken me days to find the time or energy to follow up with the final part of the Japan trip and to wrap up my thoughts. I'm still exhausted, but here goes on somewhat of a conclusion to our journey...

After leaving the serenity of Koyasan, we climbed back aboard the local bus, took the cable car, took the local train, grabbed an express train, sped along on the shinkansen (bullet train) and navigated the subway system that took us, 8 hours later, to our final destination, Tokyo. Unlike the rest of Japan that I had experienced, Tokyo was very Western feeling. Skyscrapers abounded in every direction, neon signs clamored for my attention and the subway system was like navigating along the noodles in a pile of spaghetti. I became wary and agitated, worried about pickpockets and speeding taxis. Basically, it felt like I was back in the US. But with a language barrier.

After navigating the subway to our approximate area of the city, we walked around cluelessly for about half an hour before giving up and getting a cab. Navigating Tokyo is next to impossible - most streets don't have names. Addresses go like this... 2-3-1 Yoyogi (our hotel's address). This means that it's in Yoyogi area, is in chome (or grid) 2, block 3, building 1. This may seem to make some sense, until you throw into the mix that blocks, buildings and chomes do not go in any order that a foreigner would understand. They were numbered as they were built. So 2 may be next to 32. Cab drivers don't have a clue - they rely on GPS. Locals don't know anything except their very small, local area of blocks. It's frustrating as heck to get around there.

Tokyo is a metropolis just like every other I've ever been to. Nothing really stood out to me. Perhaps it was the weariness of our long trip. Maybe it was my extreme homesickness for my girls and furry children. Or it could be that I was just sick of the language barriers, foreign food and lack of wi-fi. I felt disconnected and alone, drowning in a vast sea of strangers.

We did manage to get out and discover shabu-shabu and sukiyaki. We ate from a big bowl of boiling broth, into which we added vegetables from a salad bar, beef and pork, stirring and boiling it as we ate. I broke my meat ban big time, and payed for it dearly, but it felt great to have a meal I enjoyed eating after days of tempura'd leaves, boiled tofu and beans.

We also traveled across the city to the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, which was built in 645 (and rebuilt after the Tokyo bombing of 1945). The story goes that in 628, two fisherman brothers netted a golden statue of Kannon, goddess of mercy. Sensoji was built to house the statue, and thousands flock there to seek her favor by burning incense.

The entrance to the temple boasted an impressive gate with a gigantic paper lantern hanging from its ballast. After walking through the gate and admiring its impressively fearful gaurdians, I was transported into a lane filled with colorful flags, legions of souvenir peddlers and a carnival-like atmosphere. The lane ended at the main gate to the temple, alongside which stood an impressive five-story pagoda.

We stopped inside the main gate to get our fortunes, which is accomplished by dropping 100¥ into a slot, shaking a container with sticks in it until one alls out, matching the Japanese-scripted number on the stick to a numbered drawer and removing your fortune. I pulled my drawer, and was instantly surrounded by onlookers oohing and ahhing - apparently I had pulled the best fortune one can obtain. Jason's luck was very different - he got the worst one possible. It was funny that ours were so different, with over 30-some in the mix that we could have gotten!

On our way out of Asakusa, we stumbled across a ferry dock, and on a whim decided to take a ride and see where it went. It took us to the Southern business district near Roppingi, where we were met by salarymen just getting off of work. We followed the masses into a subway station, stopping for a bottle of "Happy Hoppy" (couldn't resist that one!) in one of the plethora of eating and dining establishments in the underground malls that are scattered throughout Tokyo.

The final day we managed to drag ourselves out of bed at 5:00 a.m. to head down to Tsukiji fish market, one of the largest in the world. I'd be lying to say we were thrilled about going. But, it was our last day there, and it was one of those things I thought I'd be disappointed about not seeing when I returned, so on we trudged. Well, actually we just called a cab. Though we knew it would cost about $30 each way, we were both too tired to try navigating it.

The market was impressive, with fishermen who had clearly been at sea quite some time scurrying around in their big, black boots. Deliverymen drove little carts like bats out of hell throughout the narrow corridors, and it was hard to stay out of their way. We finally found the auction and watched the strange hand signals, auctioneer calls and fish-tagging take place. Then we stopped at a little dive for some very-fresh sushi. It was good, but to be honest, sushi at 6 a.m. after more than a week of raw fish almost daily about did us in. Neither of us could finish our orders. I accidentally ate some fermented fish eggs which I think I can still taste from time to time in the back of my mouth.

We rushed back to the hotel, caught a shuttle (2-hours!) to the airport, rode a delayed flight out to Chicago, missed our connecting, landed another flight to DC, arrived, found our luggage had not, and waited around for an hour or so for Jason's dad to pick us up. Our luggage arrived the next evening on our doorstep. Thank you, United, for that special bonus at the end of a long trip.

All in all, Japan was a wonderful experience. I definitely recommend going. I do have some suggestions if you do decide to go, though:

  • Don't waste time learning too much Japanese. All they say to you is thank you, please, hello, goodbye anyway (remember, you are American, and therefore a Barbarian). Add in a request to find the bathroom "toire wa domo desu ka" in the mix, and you're good to go. Yes, you'll have a tough time. But really, you'll have a tough time even if you learn multiple phrases. It's just that different.
  • Ignore the advice about bringing lots of tissues to use as toilet paper. Everywhere I went, even public bathrooms in remote places, had toilet paper. Chalk that one up to myth.
  • Buy Frommer's at least a month or two before traveling. It was our constant companion on this trip.
  • Don't blow your nose in public. Or put your hands in your pockets. Or cross your arms. Or stare. Or wear shoes into a temple. A voice of experience, people.
Random observations
  • Despite having outstanding technology in terms of useless gizmos and extreme toiletry, there is no wi-fi to be found in all of Japan, apparently.
  • About 10% of Japanese women wear kimonos. I’m not sure why. Is it religious? For certain jobs? Or just a preference?
  • Men can push women around on the subways, as well as children. And that's ok. By them, at least. Not by me.
  • It's not fun to go to a foreign country where everyone is tiny when you are bordering ginormous and have huge breasts. You get openly stared at. Or at least your breasts do, because they're at everyone else's eye level.
  • It’s a more extreme culture shock than anything I have ever experienced before. Because there are few roman characters on maps and signs, it’s very hard to find what you’re looking for. Thankfully, I was addicted to mahjong on my computer for years, so I eventually matched the symbols to our guide maps/books, at least enough to navigate and find food.
  • English-worded shirts (with Roman letters) are extremely popular, but many of the sayings make no sense at all to us. Visit Engrish.com for some great examples. They're not exaggerating in the least.
  • Stop to read the English translations of signs when they are present. Hilarious. See photo at right for an example.
  • If you don't know how to say it in Japanese, try saying it in English, replacing the l's with r's. E.g. Coka-Cora. Seriously. Sank-you is also quite common. Many said "sank you" to us repeatedly.
Anyway, we're home, and I'm recovering. It was an exhausting trip, and there's no rest for the weary when you're a mommy that's been away for more than a week. Not to mention my contractor woes, which seem to be coming to conclusion early next week. I'm beat, and so happy to be back at home, with my children, animals and my pacifier (wi-fi and my MacBook Pro). Heaven.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

J2J IV: Koyasan has taken my heart



Our next adventure took us to Osaka, where we were completely confused by a new subway and rail system. We finally found the right line, which provided a two-hour train ride (both express and local) to the base of Mount Koya, or Koyasan as the Japanese call it. From there, we took a cable car unlike any other I'd seen up the side of the mountain, hopped in a bus and landed about 20 minutes later at our bus stop. It was breathtaking – gigantic hydrangeas and butterfly bushes lined our way, with bright bursts of lilies and the occasional glimpse of a water fall.

The mountain boasts more than 115 Shingon Buddhist temples in the village of Koya (5,000 people, 1,000 of which are monks), which was founded by Kobo Daishi (Kukai) about 1,200 years ago, who is said to still rest there in meditation.

Upon reaching our bus stop, we were immersed in a small village unlike anything else we had experienced in Japan thus far. We chose to stay at the Shojoshin-in Temple, a beautiful and ancient place. It was easy to find our host temple for the night, which was conveniently located at the entrance of Okunoin, a pathway that leads to the great Kobo Daishi’s shrine.

To be honest, we hadn’t a clue what to do upon arrival at the temple. We blustered around in search of the correct entrance, then figured out where our shoes went (no shoes in the temple). Thankfully we ran into some English-speaking guests who called an assistant to check us in.

We were almost an hour past dinner time (our train got stopped due to either a thunderstorm, accident or combination of the two – we had no idea what the explanation was as it was given in Japanese), but we still were able to receive our traditional vegetarian meal. Neither of us know most of the components of it, but it did contain beans, vegetable tempura, pickled vegetables, tofu, soup, watermelon and lots of seaweed/kelp type things. Some was very, very good. Others I am happy to have experienced but will never try again.

After dinner, we headed out to Okunoin, as we had read that it was something that must be seen at night as well as during the day. It was an incredible experience. The recent downpour had left the tombstones and monuments glistening, and the fresh air was tinged with incense and cedar. The shear number of carved stones was incredible... around 200,000 line the 1.6 km walk to the temple and shrine. We couldn’t see beyond the first few headstones, but knew that the depth of them must be incredible. I felt at peace and in awe to be walking down the very same path where emperors, samaurai and feudal lords had walked hundreds of years before. The path was lined with stone lanterns to lead the way, with trees leaning over the pathway, frogs creaking over head and gentle breezes tickling the back of your neck.

After our evening stroll, we headed back to our room, which opened onto a beautiful little Japanese garden. Our room was traditionally Japanese, complete with tatami mats, fusuma (sliding, paper lined doors) and communal bathing areas. We slept on futons on the floor, with the fusuma open onto a hillside Japanese garden, bringing in a nice breeze. I slept more soundly than I had the entire time here in Japan, lulled to sleep by the creaking boards, sweet incense and sounds of the wind outside. It's hard to describe the inner peace I felt that night - not just relief from the weariness of travel and modern life, but from some very personal and deep part inside me. In this foreign place so very different from my usual surroundings, my religious experiences or anything else I hold as my personal norms, it was strange to feel an undeniable sense of belonging.

In the morning I was woken by a bell calling us to prayers at 5:50 a.m. (Jason hadn't found the same inner peace, and had barely slept all night!) We splashed cold water on our faces and stumbled down with the rest of the tourists and henro (pilgrims) to watch the morning prayers, complete with chanting monks, strange rituals I did not understand, banging of cymbals and the ringing of a bell. Candles and incense burned, and the air around us shimmered with the light reflecting from the gold adornments, shiny black furnishings and elaborately woven rugs. It was magical, and I found myself lost in meditation, despite the language barrier and my lack of understanding. I was all too disappointed when it ended after what seemed like such a short time, but my feet were grateful – they were close to falling asleep. Sitting on the floor on tatami in the proper manner takes practice and flexibility, neither of which I’ve had. Time to take up yoga again when I get home.

We next were led to breakfast, which once again was served kaiseki style. We had seaweed, more tofu, more beans, more green stuff I couldn’t place. The tea was different than the previous night's green tea – I think Oolong? Again, I’m clueless as to what it was.

With the rhythms of the monks' chanting still ringing in my head, we headed out once again to walk to path in Okunoin. Sunlight streamed through the trees, and it was breathtakingly, achingly beautiful. The kind of beauty that you know you will experience only a few times in your life. The kind that makes tears spring to your eyes. I felt such peace and happiness in just being present and being there. It was incredible how much we could not see during the night that was visible the next morning. The path was much more populated, and I enjoyed watching the rituals at the various shrines, as well as the temple. Henro from across the country were there, easily identifiable by their white smocks and (sometimes) bamboo hats. We walked around Kobo Daishi's shrine, but were quickly shooed out of a side area – I guess we weren’t supposed to be there. Luckily we’re Americans, which equals barbarians to the Japanese, so I think we will be forgiven by the ancestors and those present in flesh as well!

I could not resist the temptation any longer to reach out and touch the mammoth trees, many of them hundreds of years old. The textures of the rough, flaking bark contrasted with the spongy, incredibly soft moss are now imprinted on my soul, along with the sights, sounds and smells of this incredible place.

This was one of those experiences I know I will carry in my heart until the day I die. It was all at once mystical, peaceful, magical, inspiring and awesome. If you ever get the chance to go to Koyasan, DO IT! No matter what your religious background, there is something that will undeniably move your spirit in ways you have not felt before. It is incredible.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Journe to Japan III: Kyoto and the Geisha

After three dull days of meetings in Otsu at Lake Biwa, we relocated to Kyoto, which has much more to offer in terms of sites, sounds, smells and people watching. Otsu was clearly a Japanese resort area, designed for Japanese. This meant there was little to do other than lay by the pool, bike or boat. All of these are fine recreations, but I couldn’t easily do any of these for fear of being seen skipping out on the meetings or potential dinner conversations that I was there for in the first place.

Our new diggs were a major upgrade at the Grand Prince Hotel of Kyoto. The hotel was located in the mountains, along a cedar-lined winding path. I was overcome with the fresh smell of cedar, something like jasmine and fresh, clean air (seemingly hard to find in the stifling Japanese summer). The shade of the trees and buzz of the cicadas added to the ambiance… this place was heavenly.

That evening I had to return that night for a special “congratulatory thanks and working dinner” with my fellow collaborators of the conference. I managed to navigate the transport system alone (took the subway, a rail line and a cab to get there). The dinner was traditional Japanese style, or kaiseki, in which multiple small dishes are served. It started with boiled tofu, sashimi, then sushi, tempura, Kobe beef, a pork dish, broiled salted fish, then moved on to Udon noodles, pickled Japanese vegetables, rice and concluded with some various fruits. The dinner was served over a two hour period, and I enjoyed the surprises each dish held. Although I’ve gone pretty much vegetarian over the past several months (still eat fish), I broke my self-enforced ban on meats and gave the Kobe beef a try. I’m so glad I did. The cows are massaged daily, fed beer and from all of this have the fat actually marbled into the meat, instead of separated as we see in American steaks. It literally melted in my mouth and was one of the best things I’ve ever had.

The following morning we hit the streets of Kyoto for a short time before I’d have to head back to Otsu for the evening. We went to Nijo Castle, which was first completed in 1603. Though low-lying and more functional than aesthetic, it was impressive none the less. We were mesmerized by the “nightingale” floors – the floor boards were designed to creak, making a sound that is similar to a nightingale’s song. This would alert the inhabitants of any intruders. We saw these boards at several places through out our travels.

From Nijojo we wandered the streets until we found a shopping and dining district, Teramachi. On pure accident we stumbled into a tiny sushi shop. The owner and (I think) his wife, plus one local were the only people there. They served us right on the sushi bar, and encouraged us to eat with our hands (I stuck with chopsticks, not a big fan of holding raw fish). The sushi was incredible. I’m going to miss it when I get back to the States.

My evening plans were to head back to Otsu one final night for the concluding banquet. I had been invited to sit on an honorary panel as part of a ceremony which included drumming on a beer barrel with wooden spoons. I ran out the door, walked to the subway, and jumped onto the Biwako line train just in time to make it to the dinner… so I thought. In actuality, I jumped on an express train that did not stop in Otsu, but went many kilometers beyond. Crap. It took me over an hour to get back to Kyoto, at which time it was too late for me to get a train to Otsu in time. I went back to the hotel, sad about missing the ceremony and conclusion of this project I'd been working on for more than four years.

When I got back to the hotel, I found that Jason had found ways to amuse himself while I was away, including Japanese whiskey, an in-room massage and that he had booked us for an onsen the next day. An onsen is a Japanese hot sulphar spring, and this one was on the other side of Kyoto, high in the mountains. The baths at this one were indoor, as well as outdoor, but all communal. Meaning lots of naked (though sexes are separated). I was not thrilled with this idea, given my heightened self awareness of my body (here in Japan I’m pretty much a sumo in comparison to most people). Thankfully we ran out of time so we didn’t make it up there to try it out. I didn’t know whether to be disappointed (once in a lifetime experience) or thankful (no nudity in public for me – yippee!).

The next day we woke up early and headed out once again to be Amerikajeen tourists. We stick out like sore thumbs here, and people often look at us and giggle. Some won’t sit near us on subways. I was feeling pretty self conscious about it all until I read that the Japanese are very shy and are afraid we’ll ask questions and they won’t be able to answer. Ohhh. That explains it. I’m glad I don’t stink (as much).

The weather is incredibly stifling here, hitting the 90s by 6 am or so (it gets light around 4:30). The humidity is unbelievable, and we found we broke into a sweat just walking out the doors of the hotel. We ended up walking over 8 hours that day, seeing historic sites (the Imperial castle grounds), visiting shrines and temples and stumbling into an area where Geisha still live and work. We caught a glimpse of one on the streets, but she was quickly surrounded by tourists (mostly Japanese) and squeals, and she ducked into a door and vanished as quickly as she appeared.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Journey to Japan II: Dining Fun

We haven't had much time to get out and do much here in Otsu, Shiga. Yesterday was my "big" (3 minute) speech of congratulatory welcome for the conference. I was nervous and didn't sleep a wink the night before... it's strange, because normally I'm fine with public speaking. I guess the difference was that I was on the other side of the world, speaking to an audience of which 2/3 did not speak the language I was presenting in. No pressure. I was told I did well, though, and as a result was inundated all day by smiling Japanese men who came up to me just to smile and say "Herro Kim-san" (I told them all they could call me Kim), then stand and stare at me. I get lots of attention here, that's for sure. I was self conscious most the morning, but then figured, ah, what the hell... so I'm a freak show. Might as well enjoy it!

I have received a few gifts already, and have been honored frequently by my Japanese hosts. I was feeling pretty high on life by the time our group lunch came around, but then made a bad decision in terms of seating. I sat next to someone I knew from the States, who was sitting beside a total lunatic. There were about 12 people at our table, and the lunatic proceeded to ask me about my background in microwave science (none), why I was there, etc. Clearly, he had issues about self esteem, so he was trying to make me look bad in front of my hosts and new friends. He then proceeded to tell everyone that he creates outstanding knives with handles made of microwave-dried wood (wow-wee) and that he buys mammoth ivory from Native Americans to make magic wands. Yes, he is an amateur magician. My passive-aggressive tendencies were too much for me to ignore, so I made several jokes at his expense, which others were laughing about later in the evening. Sorry buddy, messed with the wrong non-microwave-science chick.

Onward and upward... so yesterday's adventures were fairly minimal. Jason went out for long walks in the 95º+ weather with humidity making temps feel close to 110º. Then he came back for the Japanese tub, which is where I find him whenever I get back from meetings. He enjoyed being the center of attention, and said that he often had young children come up to him to say "herro" and giggle. It seems that he, too, is a freak show here.

For dinner we hit the hotel's barbecue. We had no clue what we were in store for. We were the only non-Japanese there, and it had a family, festive atmosphere. The menu, of course, was all in Japanese and our waiter and waitress didn't speak English. So we pointed to a couple of things (having no clue what they were) and tried to watch others eat so we'd know what to do.

A few moments after ordering we were served some edamame (yum! I know that one!) and cold beers that were somewhat like Miller lite in flavor. I have no clue what brand they were. Then they brought out a plate piled with all different things - steak, chicken-ish looking stuff, squid, bell peppers, cabbage, shrimp and other goodies. We tried our best to blend in and cook the stuff, then tried our hand at chopsticks. It's so much easier to eat sushi or noodles than small strips of beef with chopsticks, FYI. There was some sort of squash that looked like cantaloupe, tasted like sweet potatoes and was hard and somewhat crisp as well.

The best part was when I took a big bite of the squid's head, which apparently was attached to whatever endoskeleton thing they boast. It crunched, squirted down my throat and caused me to make a small scene while gagging on it. It tasted good, though, and I managed to recover and eat the tentacles, which I enjoyed.

I haven't seen any wildlife at all yet except for this little lovely creature that was crawling across the side walk last night.

We're now off to Kyoto, where ancient temples, castles and geisha-watching awaits. Now the fun begins! I have 2 more days of meetings, but will be skipping out on the mornings and showing up for the afternoon exhibit sessions and mandatory dinners. Tomorrow night I'm a part of a special ceremony that involves banging on beer barrels with wooden spoons. Another great honor for this silly American non-microwave scientist. Sayonara!


Side note: I have no clue what the bear means or what he is, but we see them everywhere, in big and small versions throughout the city we're in. Hmmm...