The Mommy Rush

Learning, Exploring, Creating, and Growing.

2012: My Year of Balance and Knowing the Fish

Yesterday morning I visited the Lan Su Chinese Garden in downtown Portland and was truly inspired. I decided to finally visit this landmark in my hometown for 2 reasons, 1) the rain had let up and the weather was somewhat conducive to a walk in a garden, and 2) it was FREE! As a way to generate local interest in the Chinese culture and to prepare for the Chinese New Year celebration later this month, they have opened their doors for the Great Eight Free Days, because, as you may know, eight is a very lucky number in Chinese culture.

In anticipation of the visit, I expected to see some beautiful plants, architecture and design and to learn a thing or two about the garden. But what I left with was so much more. I was fortunate enough to arrive just as a tour was beginning, and there was just one other person in the tour so I pretty much had a personal tour from a very knowledgeable ‘Chino-phile’ (his word, not mine) and come to find out he is a published author of two books about Taoist principles, The Tao of Now, and the philosophy of tea, The Hut Beneath the Pine: Tea Poems.

What struck me most about the experience was how much the Taoist principles on which the garden design is based would resonate so strongly with me and where I am in my life.  The first pavilion we stopped in is known as the Knowing the Fish Pavilion and as we stepped into the square pavilion that overlooked the fish pond that spans the garden, Dan, our tour guide told the story of the two ancient philosophers, that the pavilion is named for.

One day Chuang Tzu and a friend were walking by a river.

“Look at the fish swimming about,” said Chuang Tzu, “They are really enjoying themselves.”

“You are not a fish,” replied the friend, “So you can’t truly know that they are enjoying themselves.”

“You are not me,” said Chuang Tzu. “So how do you know that I do not know that the fish are enjoying themselves?”  

The moral of the story is that the fish are in their element, so they must be at peace. And when one is at peace, they are happy.  Then it follows that if one is in their element, they must be happy.  Chuang Tzu saw the fish in their element and knew that they were happy. 

This year, I’ve committed to live with intention, to stay within my element, and to ensure every moment that passes is spent in alignment with my values and within my element,  and more specifically to capture these moments here on The Mommy Rush.  But what are those values and where is my element?  These questions have been on my mind over the last 3 month ever since I left my full-time, very demanding position as a product manager for educational publisher, Learning.com

It’s funny the way life works, isn’t it? I think back to my life at the beginning of last Summer, and I remember feeling like my stress level was at its max and that if I were given one more thing to deal with, life would fall apart.  And then the news, the surgery, and my view of life shifted dramatically.  I recieved my wake-up call and I decided to re-evaluate what I was put here to do.

Reflection

Even before our family medical crisis, my inner voice was very quietly whispering that I needed a change, but it wasn’t until I had to face such a difficult challenge, that I realized what this meant.  I was off-track.  I was spending my very precious time on earth, on work and things that were out of alignment with my true purpose, my true spirit.  So, at the end of September, when my company began evaluating budget reduction options, I made it known that I was open to a change.  And on September 30, I parted ways with my full-time employer and since then I’ve been reflecting on what it is I was meant to do with my time on earth.  After several weeks of reflection there was at least one thing that I knew for sure, that, until now, I was not living life with any intention and I was not really living.

Living Fully

What does this really mean? Living Fully?  This was a big question that I knew would take a while to answer and so instead of jumping to my next project, I began to take note of moments when I felt like I was ‘in my element’; when I was enjoying what I was doing, learning a lesson, or creating a memory.  These moments were my clues to developing a list of values that define how I want to spend 2012.  In order to live in my element, like the fish in the pond, I’ve decided I will only spend my time and energy on activities that fall within my list of values.  As a means of simplifying the list, I’ve summarized each in one word and have described below what each means to me and what it will mean in 2012. 

  1. Purpose: In 2012, I will live with intention and accept my obligation to serve my purpose.  As recently as 6 months ago, if you were to ask me to describe my purpose, I would have had no problem.  This year, I would like to be less rigid about what this purpose is and to live each day within my present purpose.  Each day, I’ll ask myself, ‘what can I do today to live my life with intention, within the framework of my list of values?’  I imagine this year, I’ll continue to reflect on this concept and with any luck by next year, my purpose will be clear to me and all those around me.
  2. WisdomWhen I began to reflect on what types of activities make me feel most alive, one activity rose to the top of the list as very important to me: lifelong learning.  Not from an educator perspective, even though my career is focused on encouraging students to embrace lifelong learning, but rather a desire to learn for learning’s sake.  As a voracious reader, I want to be more purposeful about applying the lessons I learn from reading and from life itself.
  3. Connection:  It’s no secret that I value my family to no end.  Though my offspring are often the source of my craziness, they are also the source of the majority of my joy – capturing this joy was the original intent of this blog!  I also heavily value my relationships, with my husband, my immediate and extended family, and longtime and recent friendships.  This year I will dedicate my efforts to developing these connections and allowing them to enrich my life.
  4. Spirit:  It is hard to put into words how critical inspiration is for me; when I am inspired there is no stopping me.  However, when I’ve lost my inspiration, or have allowed my spirit to be depleted, I find myself trying to dig my way out of a deep ditch – which often involves a day at the spa or a solitary retreat.  This year, I will make a conscious effort to feed my spirit, to avoid the need to retreat from life to recharge.  I’ve heard the term “Sharpen the Saw”, and that is my goal, this year.
  5. Journey:  I have a deep and significant desire to travel the world, to experience life in different parts of the world.  This year, I will design my life to include opportunities to make regular journeys that enrich my life, whether they are international adventures or local field trips to expand my horizons and to continue my quest for wisdom.  Yesterday’s visit to the Lan Su Chinese Garden is a perfect example of a local journey that has impacted me through inspiration and exploration.  More and more of these journeys, this year!
  6. Energy When I began to think about when I feel most alive, I most certainly know that eating healthy and being fit are important not only for my physical health, but for my mental health as well.  When I look back at 2011, I’m pleased that I managed to accomplish at least one goal I had for the year – to lose much of the weight I’d hung onto since my last 2 pregnancies.  I accomplished this through a simple routine of adding 2-3 easy runs to my week.  As a lifelong runner, this baby step in improving my health and fitness did wonders for my mental fitness as well.  This year, I will continue with this routine and consciously care for my energy levels through the health and fitness of my body.
  7. Simplicity:  This concept of simplification has been calling to me for some time.  2011 found me taking some steps to purge our home from unnecessary clutter.  However, there is so much more to do, and I’ve learned that the effort towards simplicity requires a wholehearted dedication to a simple living mindset.  This year, I am committed to living simply, mainly to make room, literally and figuratively, for the many new experiences and joys I plan to focus on, in the near future. 
  8. Nourishment This value comes from my love of good food and the process of preparing good food from whole foods, something I love, but with a busy household and demanding career, rarely have had the time to incorporate into our lives.  This year, I will pay close attention to how we nourish our bodies with food, and will focus and reflect on the meals and foods our whole family puts into our bodies.  In addition, I will allow myself to explore, enjoy, and learn about the foods and drinks that I absolutely  love: wine, tea, chocolate, and cheese.

Balance

To sum up my focus for 2012, I’ve decided to focus on BALANCE, which was a key principle used in the design of the Lan Su Chinese Garden.  Balance, depicted through the concepts of Yin and Yang are infused throughout the garden, as well as the philosophy of the Tao.  I will maintain Balance; of work and life, energy and spirit, wisdom and simplicity.   I will maintain Balance and through Balance I will Know the Fish.

God will never give you more than you can handle! (or “It could’ve been worse!”)

I’m not sure I would have had another opportunity to learn about how fragile our health is without experiencing the events of the last 3 months…

It was almost 3 months ago that we first learned of my husband J’s heart condition and if that were all the medical issues we had to deal with, we would have had our hands filled. Looking back on everything that’s happened, I’m reminded of a quote I regularly share with friends and family when they face what seems insurmountable crises in their lives. Except now it is me that I’m counseling.

“God will never give you more than you can handle.”

Well, it seems He has some unbelievable faith in J, in me, and in our family unit. If you aren’t yet up to speed on the initial situation, I encourage you to read up and come back another day – to read the rest of this may be more than you can handle in one sitting.

For the rest of you, I apologize for the delay in the online update. I have spent most of my time keeping a busy household running and maintaining sanity during a very trying time in our lives. I finally feel comfortable sharing all that has happened, considering J just had his follow-up appointment with his surgeon yesterday, that has cleared him to return to what the rest of us would consider ‘normal life’ – i.e. driving, working, exercise with limits, etc. I am truly amazed at the determination J has shown in recovery from his procedure and medical complications.

As it turns out, there are many risks that come with undergoing open heart surgery to replace a defective valve. Even before the procedure, in addition to the risk of aortic rupture or dissection from the aneurysm, because of the condition of J’s valve, he was at increased risk of a heart infection, endocarditis, which is extremely rare in the general population, but not so rare with defective or mechanical valves. Endocarditis presents with symptoms such as fever, shortness of breath, and overall fatigue, all symptoms that J began to recognize almost immediately after his diagnosis. The primary symptom, fever, is one that will prevent any surgeon from operating on a patient, barring an emergent situation. And so, we spent 3 weeks waiting for J’s low grade fever to break. During this time, we spent 4 nights in the ER and J had too many tests to count, trying to get to the bottom of the origin of the symptoms. Fortunately, endocarditis was ruled out early, but on October 24, when J finally was cleared to have his surgery, we still did not have an explanation for the fever and ill feeling; we all (doctors included) chalked it up to a seasonal flu-like virus and braced ourselves for a very trying recovery.

J was wheeled into the OR on the Monday morning, October 24, and that afternoon, his surgeon met me in the waiting room at Providence St. Vincent Heart and Vascular Institute to report that the procedure went exactly as planned and that J was recovering well in the ICU. The next 2 days were a struggle for J, but a relief to me to see him on his way to recovery. I remember laughing as he reported his fantasy football reports coming out of his morphine fog, and then when he continually referred to his amazing nurse, Erika, as Nurse Jackie. It seemed even in the toughest times, J kept his sense of humor.

Unfortunately, the relief was short-lived. The day after the surgery, J reported a strange feeling, or non-feeling in his left leg. After 2 days of continued numbness, J’s surgeon called in a neurologist who ordered an MRI and confirmed that he had suffered a minor stroke during the surgery.

To say that this was a blow is an understatement! But for the purposes of brevity, I’ll say that J dealt with the news with amazing courage; I agreed wholeheartedly with his resolving statement that day, “Well, it could’ve been worse.” I have no doubt his determination was somewhat due the reassuring words from the wonderful doctors, nurses, physical therapists and specialists who reinforced their belief that J would recover all of the functionality of his leg. This began J’s mission to relearn how to walk and to build up his strength to get out of the hospital.

We were thrilled when J was released on Saturday following the surgery – day 6 post-op – just in time for him to watch the USC/Stanford football game on his own flat screen TV. (He informed his surgeon of this goal even before he entered the OR and he did it!) And so began the slow path to recovery at home that included walking, breathing, tracking medications and appointments with specialists. All was looking well until 2 weeks post-op when J recognized his resting heart rate was elevated, between 110 and 130bpm . His cardiologist requested he come in that day for an EKG and immediately referred him to have an Echocardiogram to check for pericardial effusion, or fluid buildup around the heart, another common complication of open heart surgery. This condition when severe would cause elevated heart rate and could ultimately damage the heart function left untreated. (As if we didn’t have enough to worry about…) The echocardiogram showed only slight effusion which did not concern Dr. Beckerman, though he recommended J come in for a follow-up echo in 2 weeks. His reassurance was only slightly helpful, until 2 days later when J reported his fever had returned along with his difficulty breathing.

Long story short, J’s cardiologist referred us to an infectious disease specialist to get to the bottom of the fever of unknown origin (FUO). He was honest in saying he had no other explanation for the symptom and felt it was critical that we get to the bottom of it. It was a week and a half later when Dr. Cameron Cover discovered that J had a rare strain of the Epstien-Barr virus – aka “Mono”. It turns out he likely contracted the virus while we were in Mexico 5 months prior and was fighting it throughout the whole episode of dealing with his heart condition. Looking back, J remembers the original reason he went in for the physical was because of feeling run-down and tired, classic symptoms of mono, but because he was dealing with a rare strain, the traditional mono spot and blood cultures were unable to pick it up.

At the end of the day, I am so relieved to at least be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. J is still very tired and by no means back to where he was prior to the surgery. But having witnessed his metamorphosis over the last 12 weeks, I can only be truly amazed at the state of medicine today! We are so lucky to have access to truly the top doctors in the Portland area, arguably in the country. I’ve listed the doctors we’ve worked with in case any of you are in the situation of needing a particular medical specialist.

Dr. Jamie Beckerman, Cardiologist

Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, Cardio-Thoracic Surgeon

Dr. Ted Lowenkopf, Neurologist

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Thanks to all of you for keeping us in your thoughts and prayers! It certainly is appreciated…

College Search in the Information Age

About 3 weeks ago, I told the Big Son that I wanted him to start to research colleges. All of the kids in his 10th grade class had just taken the PSAT and I figured it was time for him to start planning for his future.

So this afternoon, he and I were on our way to the grocery store when I pulled off at the library to return some magazines. As we pulled in, I asked him how his college search was going and he said he hasn’t really done much because of his homework load.

‘Well we’re here at the library, now. Do you want to pick up a book to get you started?’

‘A book? Why would I need a book? I have a computer…’

It is a new day!!!

The joys of parenting: a riddle

Here’s a puzzler for you:

What do the items in this list have in common?

Miniature water gun
Half-eaten donut
Unopened pack of fake moustaches
Half-eaten bag of Cheezits
Pink Jumbo sunglasses
Half-full juice box
Lakeridge high school sweatpants
Men’s lycra running pants
Boys sweatshirt
1 (count them: 1) classic Adidas shoe, size 12 Youth
Windup plastic milk carton
1 very hard French fry
Plastic Easter egg with penny inside
Worn out mouth guard
3 water bottles of various levels of fullness
1 pink barrette
2 neon plastic rings
1 half-melted tube of blistex

I’ll give you a second…Give up?

All items I just cleaned out of the backseat of my car. Ah, joys of parenting!

You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have left.

“You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have left.” – Scott Dolezal

I read this quote in a magazine I flipped through yesterday in the waiting room of one of the leading cardio-thoracic surgeons in Portland, Oregon and it sums up perfectly the lesson I am still learning from the events leading up to today.

It is less than 2 weeks  from the day our family boarded the emotional roller coaster that I have come to know as our current reality. On Friday, September 9, I came home from work to find my 38 year-old husband (J) laying down on our bed staring blankly at the ceiling.  This in itself is not something to be concerned about considering we both work fairly demanding jobs and often just need time to decompress at the end of a day or week.

Nonetheless, it did warrant a check-in so I asked if anything was wrong.

“I’m just a little freaked out about something.  Last week, at my physical, Dr. Lam (my new hero!) suggested I get an echo-cardiogram, which was this morning.  It turns out they found something… well 2 things actually.”

And that’s how it all began… for me at least.  For J, I can’t even begin to imagine what was going through his brain that day, but I think he was in a state of shock and disbelief.  Truth be told, he is still dealing with the emotions that come with facing your own mortality.  By then, he had already spoken to a cardiologist from our clinic about the diagnosis, and though he couldn’t articulate the clinical terms to me, what I learned that day is that he had a defective heart valve which had caused swelling of the heart.

So much has happened since that Friday, and we now at least have a better picture of what we are facing in terms of treatment and proper diagnosis.  It turns out that J was born with a condition called Bicuspid Aortic Valve (BAV), which means that the valve that controls blood flow from the heart to the aorta has only 2 cusps, whereas this valve is typically a tricuspid (or 3 cusp) valve.  This condition is fairly rare (<2% of the population) and in and of itself is not a concern.  Except when it is not diagnosed and monitored from childhood.  In our case, J and his family had no idea he had this condition and because of this, his heart has been compensating for his entire 38 years of life.  Common scenarios for BAV include valve regurgitation, and aortic stenosis or aneurysm.  In our case, we’re 2 for 3 – J has severe aortic regurgitation and a 5 cm aortic aneurysm – both of which have put him down a path that requires… gulp… open heart surgery.

Pause… I want to be sure that everyone who reads this understands that, while extremely serious, neither condition is uncommon, incurable, or emergent. Which means there is not only a clear path to fixing the situation (a cure), but because it was found in time, we have the time to make informed decisions about how to correct it.  (J’s new cardiologist, Dr. Beckerman suggested we send his primary care physician, Dr. Summer Lam, a very nice Christmas card, this year, because she likely saved his life!)   Valve replacements are procedures that are done everyday and in a patient of his age, have a near perfect survival rate, nearing 99%.  But it doesn’t make it any less scary, for J, for me, or for any of the family and friends who care about him.

And so, for the last 2 weeks, we (most of J’s immediate family and I) have been madly learning as much as we can about BAV, aortic aneurysm, and the procedures necessary to correct them, because we are facing some very big decisions in the coming days – timing of surgery, choosing a surgeon, valve replacement type, etc.  As I sat in Dr. Storm Floten’s waiting room yesterday, I happened to pick up a copy of Heart Insight Magazine, whose cover story was about a 19 year old boy, who had already survived 4 heart surgeries. Though our situation is not even close to that in Scott Dolezal’s story, I drew a little inspiration from his closing quote, which is exactly what is keeping us all moving forward, right now.

“You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have left.”

That’s my Lesson #2, in my advice to a younger me.  And likely the theme of any posts in my near future…

Advice to a younger me… Lesson #1: Face your fears!

I had a moment of clarity, last weekend as I flew from Portland to San Jose, CA to attend my 20 year high school reunion. It started when I began thinking about what the event really represented.  20 years! 20 years?  I was 17 when I graduated from high school, which means that I’m more than twice as old as I was that June afternoon in 1991, when they handed me my ‘ticket to freedom’. 

As I thought back to that time in my life, it struck me how much I had to learn, though, at the time, I was sure I knew it all.  The summer after graduation is still a blur, but I do remember dreaming and thinking about all that I wanted to do in life, what I wanted to learn and to experience.  I remember feeling like the world was mine to conquer.  If only I had had the wisdom of an older me to warn me of the challenges I was to face, and to prepare me for the obstacles and  heartbreaks I now know were part of life.   

I started thinking and decided that I wanted to try to document the lessons I’ve picked up over the past 20 years.  What would I tell that younger me?  There really is so much… much more than I can fit in one post.  So I’m going to begin a series, “Advice to a younger me…”, about the lessons I’ve learned throughout my life, in the spirit of Gretchen Rubin’s “Secrets of Adulthood” from The Happiness Project.  This way, I can give myself some space to explore and share where the lessons come from and how they’ve impacted me over time. 

Please feel free to comment with thoughts about your life lessons or to suggest any I should add to the list.  The lessons are in no particular order other than that in which they came to me as I created the list.  It may be safe to say that the most important are always top of mind, so Lesson #1 is surely somewhere in my Top 3.

Lesson #1: “Fear is good.  Face it!”

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers fear.” -Nelson Mandela

“You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” – Eleanor Roosevelt 

Thinking back to that summer of 91, I would say there were so many things that I was afraid of, many of which I didn’t even know, at the time.   To begin with, until I boarded the plane to Boston, MA, in August of that year, I had never traveled alone. This meant that to take that very first step onto the American Airlines flight from San Jose to Boston, I had to summon up some serious grown-up courage pretty early. And for the most part, it was all a sham.  I think this lesson comes first because very soon after that first flight, I began to recognize that when I faced my fears head on, I became more confident and in turn more willing to do things that, well, were downright scary.

I would say that the biggest fear I ever faced in my life, was my fear of public speaking, which manifested itself through a panic attack I suffered while delivering a speech to my university capstone class, in the fall of my senior year of college.  Until that point, I had never had a panic attack and quite frankly had no idea what it was.  Throughout my presentation, I remember the dialogue in my head going something like this…”I’m going to die. What is happening? Must be a heart attack. Oh no, I’m going to die!” 

Isn’t it funny the moments we remember, so vividly?  It’s during these moments that we are given the opportunity for growth.  I am convinced the moment I had that first anxiety attack, was a turning point in my life, because it put me on a mission to face that fear head on.  Because, I could no sooner see myself continuing in life without speaking in public, than I could imagine living without eating.  It was not a question of if, it was a question of how.  And it was my responsibility to figure out the how.

What I soon came to realize was that this fear was not one I could conquer easily.  True phobias, I’ve learned, are subconscious, meaning they induce a physiological response to a stimulus. In other words, I couldn’t think my way out of this fear.  So I began a multi-year effort to give myself as many opportunities to speak in public, as possible.  I registered for a graduate course on delivering speeches, I joined the student government, as a Senator for the College of Engineering, a position which was often vacant (I know, shocker: not a lot of engineers campaigning for a chance to speak to and for others…), I even wrote and delivered a speech to an audience of ~4,000 of my graduating classmates and families.  While the anxiety didn’t go away immediately, delivering speeches and presentations over time, began to become bearable.  And what kept me going, was the satisfaction I felt, each and every time I stood in front of an audience, felt that fear… and, well, did it anyway. 

It’s possible that this lesson is most important to me because the process I went through to learn it defined a large part of my career.  Or perhaps because it required so much of my effort to overcome.  But it is true that I now deliver between 50-60 presentations a year which is a pretty healthy portion of my professional life.  If I had accepted my fear of speaking and moved on to other things, who knows what I’d be doing, now. 

What fear have you faced, and how has it impacted your life? 

Tomorrow, I’ll share Lesson #2… stay tuned!

Pest control, traffic laws, and toilet paper: things I am grateful to have in my life…

So we’ve made it back home after our whirlwind adventure to San Pancho, Mexico and I have been dying to get this post out of me.  The two weeks we spent on this vacation have been some of the most challenging, but also the most rewarding.  Certainly, one of the most rewarding vacations I can remember, and I’m pretty sure I speak for the entire family when I say that we were all very happy to make it home to our familiar and comfortable lives.  But, no sooner had we arrived to our house, that I began to recognize how much we take for granted in our everyday lives. 

Living in a very small village in Mexico was perhaps the first time all of us were tested with so many challenges to going about our everyday life.  I can only sum it up as being, well, tiring.  But rather than go on about how difficult the trip was, I would much rather reflect on the many things that we have in our lives that we just take for granted.  I spent much of my first day back reflecting on this thought and though this list only takes into account our recent experience in San Pancho, much of this applies to living in any underdeveloped area or region.  This trip gave me a broader perspective of the world and the ability to truly appreciate how lucky we are to live such comfortable lives. And so, here are the 10 things I was grateful to return to at home, that I will no longer take for granted.  I count them as blessings after spending some time without them.

1) Clean drinking water:  If I had a peso for every time I heard, “Don’t drink the water!” from someone after I shared our plan to visit San Pancho, I’d be able to pay for… well… dinner!  Fortunately, I can say that only 2 of us had a mild case (if at all) of the dreaded Montezuma’s Revenge during this trip, though we all had at least one bout of loose stools (sorry if this is TMI, but it is the reality of travel in Mexico).  But since it was all short lived, I have a feeling it was simply the side effect of the malaria pills we were taking daily. 

But the fact that the risk of drinking the water was a serious concern (I’ve had Montezuma’s Revenge and it is no picnic), something we had to pay close attention to, made a big difference in how we went about an ordinary day; brushing our teeth (remember.. 3 kids) became a family project, to be sure nobody inadvertently rinsed under the faucet.  We did everything with bottled water, though when we could we avoided water (and ice) altogether.  The kids don’t normally get to drink soda at home, so this was a welcome change for them.  In fact, the first Spanish words Little Son E used on his own were to order his drinks from a waiter, “Me gusteria Sprite!”  We all bust out laughing the first time we heard this…

2) Choices for food:  If I never see another quesadilla, it might be too soon.  Ok, maybe that’s an exxaggeration.  But, the downside to staying in a small fishing village is that there are a limited number of dining establishments. And after two weeks of dining in local restaurants and taco stands, we realized, pretty quickly, that the menus at most places included pretty much the same food.  The only difference was in the preparation – some tostadas had just ceviche (cold cooked shrimp salad), while others were covered with lettuce, tomatoes, salsa, beans.  But, every restaurant served tostadas.  And tacos, burritos, quesadillas.  So, if it were possible, I believe we literally got tired of Mexican food.  I came to this realization the day before we left when I actually turned down a side of guacamole (what?!) and ordered a plate of good ole fashioned french fries.  (Unfortunately, the restaurant was out of french fries, that day…) 

3) Salad!  Or more specifically, any fruit or vegetable that requires rinsing before eating.  The nice thing was that we didn’t have to take out a loan to buy a mango, in fact they were literally free on every corner, but to order anything at a restaurant that did not require peeling – i.e. lettuce, spinach, cucumbers, tomatoes, etc. – meant risking ingesting water from rinsing in tap water.  So we just avoided them unless we rinsed/prepared it ourselves.  Thankfully, because of the peel, mangoes, avocadoes, and pineapples were fair game, which has resulted in my minor overdose of avocadoes.

4) Pest control:  In a previous post I mentioned the warm welcome we received from the mosquitoes, when we arrived.  They were very happy to have us visit their town because as it turns out, they were very hungry.  We quickly learned that the 40% DEET repellent that we brought with us to protect ourselves from the monsters is actually much like salad dressing to them.  I distinctly remember Josh covering himself in a layer of repellent, only to watch two of the monsters land directly on his wet arm.  By day 4, you would have thought I was suffering from the Chicken Pox, and by day 6, we threw out the DEET in exchange for the all-natural lemongrass – eucalyptus blend given to us by my mother-in-law.  Seemed to work, or perhaps the blood-suckers tired of us, but our second week was a bit better.

But beyond the bug bites, we had to get accustomed to all kinds of critters that crawled, flew, climbed, buzzed all around us, in and out of the house.  Again, with our facilities open to the elements, we never knew what we would find each morning when we visited the bathroom.  We found lizards, giant moths, crickets, army ants, and much more.  I will not miss having to worry about pests at all times, everywhere we go. 

5) Smooth roads:  This one surprised me a bit.  I mentioned to someone that if I were to return to San Pancho again, that I would not choose to drive anything less than a Jeep or off-road vehicle.  Most of the roads in San Pancho were quite literally, cobblestone roads.  The only vehicles that could travel faster than 5 MPH were ATVs, the dune-buggies, and Jeeps.  Everyone else was better off parking and walking, because the roads were so uneven!

There is one highway that runs through all of the towns in Nayarit – from Puerto Vallarta all the way to the capital, Tepic – but even that was an infrastructure nightmare – with enormous potholes that seemed to come out of nowhere.  Oh and the driving…

6) Traffic laws:  I will never again curse a speed limit sign.  Because at least I know that for the most part, in the US, we are expected to adhere to it.  During our day trip into a northern part of the state, I quickly came to realized that the traffic signs on the highways were either there for decoration or simply as suggestions.  As I followed the “suggested” speed limit, I was constantly passed by local drivers with angry or quizzical looks on their faces.  But I had a hard time driving 100 Kph when the sign posted said 40 kph.  I was happy to be the gringo out for a sunday drive, which annoyed the heck out of my speed demon husband willing to just ‘go with the flow’.

7) Temperate climate:  Here’s another surprise…Portland has nothing on the Mexican rainy season!  In the month of July alone, San Pancho recorded 19 inches of rain.  That’s about equal to the average rainfall in Portland from January to July!  And the rain in Nayarit does not come quietly.  We had nightly booming thunder and lightning storms that should be classified as tropical storms in my book.  One morning it rained for an hour straight, totalling 5 inches, and flooded the town’s main artery for several hours.  I’ll take Portland drizzle over that any day!

Oh and did I mention the hair situation?  Humidity and curly hair do not mix, so I pretty much had a bad hair vacation.  I am so grateful for the climate we returned to and every morning I thank heavens that I have at least some idea of what my hair will look like by the end of the day. 

 8 ) Clean, indoor bathrooms:  This should probably be higher on the list of things we take for granted.  Imagine exploring an open air market in a hot busy mexican village with a recently potty trained 3 year old who, when she has to go, really has to go.  And you can begin to appreciate how clean and accessible our public restrooms are.

9) Toilet paper (and for that matter, toilet seats):  Ladies?  Enough said!

10) Time:  At the end of the day, there was nothing that we encountered that threatened our survival.  But what we came to appreciate was all of the luxuries that we are accustomed to, that make it possible for us to focus on life.  The biggest challenge we faced during our trip was that we had to really think and plan everything we did; from brushing our teeth, to eating every meal, to just sitting and relaxing on the deck.  Having to spend our time with this thinking and planning meant we were not able to do other things… like relaxing by the pool with a book and a pina colada… well we did do that, but I could have read so much more….

Now after a list like the above, it would seem that I would never want to return to a place like San Pancho, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  We had some amazing experiences that we will likely remember for years and there are a handful of things that I will truly miss about San Pancho, Nayarit and the Riviera.

1) Authentic guacamole – Although I’m taking a break for a while, I proved that I could pretty much survive on an all chips and guacamole diet.  With the right spices, peppers, onions, and fresh avocadoes, you can’t find that here.

2) Primo margaritas!! (this probably should be listed first) – Because I avoided drinking water, I decided to replace it with … margaritas.  And in doing so became quite the connoisseur.  The secret, I learned, is in the tequila..  And, well, the tequila is no better than in Mexico!!

3) Turtles – I’ve written a whole post about our experience with Project Tortuga on my STEM blog, Educate to Innovate with STEM.  Suffice it to say that this part of the trip was the most memorable; an experience that impacted me beyond words.

4) Fresh tortillas and shrimp tostadas:  nowhere fresher!

5) Warm ocean and pool water: coming from someone who very rarely sets foot in the ocean or pool, this was important.  And made it possible for me to truly enjoy laying out by the pool and on the beach, because I could very easily jump in to cool off.  I’ll miss that!

At the end of the day, we all had a wonderful time.  But it is nice to come home to the familiar and if I ever get to the point of forgetting all that we are lucky to have in our lives, I’ll at least have this list to remind myself of our blessings.

Taking it all in…and keeping it simple! A different way of life…

 

I’m typing this as I sit in the kitchen in the home we are renting in beautiful San Pancho, Mexico, while we await the end of thunder and rain storm that puts Portland, OR to shame.  When friends warned us that it rains buckets during the rainy season, in Mexico, we didn’t know that we should actually expect to see buckets, and coconuts, flowing down the river in the street in front of the house.  

 

Little Son E meets the monkey at the restaurant at Playa San Pancho

 

Attack of the mini-crabs...We should have expected it, considering the house is just at the edge of a rainforest jungle, judging by the wild animal sounds that never seem to stop.  We have enjoyed watching the dance of the fireflies each night before turning in, however, we are a bit annoyed with the mating calls of some of the tropical birds that seem to begin sometime between midnight and 2am.  And we have learned not to leave our shoes outside overnight, not because of the scorpions, which we were warned of, but rather the wild mini attack crabs, who seem to percieve humans as their biggest threat on earth.  Under normal circumstances, these creatures might be something to fear except for the fact that they are no more than 3 inches from pincher to pincher, so it is more of a comedy routine than anything we should be frightened of.

All of the experiences we have had since we’ve arrived have given us all a peek into the everyday culture  in San Pancho.  Our first night here gave us the opportunity to adapt to a new and unfamiliar place, the biggest challenge beyond the stifling heat, has been the welcoming of the many insects and bugs that are just everywhere.  We were warned about the mosquitoes, common to any wet humid climate, and we came armed with bottles of very strong bug repellent and daily doses of anti-malarial medication.  But, I don’t think any of us were prepared for what this meant in practical terms. 

 

Patio at Casa Asoleada

The home where we are staying is quite nice, relative to most of the homes in town.  And the town itself, is by far the smallest town the kids have ever spent time in.  But although the house is newer and well-cared for, it is very small and is by no means luxury accomodations.  There are only 3 rooms – 2 air-conditioned bedrooms and a kitchen/living room.  We are lucky in the sense that the home has hot running water, which is not a given in the rest of the town, however the outside bathrooms take a lot of getting used to.  Yes, both bathrooms are sheltered, yet open to the elements.  Which means that you have the sounds of wildlife as the background music, while you tend to your business. 

I am certainly grateful for the hot water for showers, however I couldn’t resist investing in a mosquito repellent candle to ward off the mosquitoes in the bathroom, when we ventured back to Puerto Vallarta to shop at the super store “Mega” to pick up some food.  I am also grateful for the AC in both of the bedrooms, which makes it possible to sleep comfortably and keeps the room fairly free of mosquitoes.  It has been a challenge for Little Son E to remember to close the screen doors behind himself, but he is getting better about it and I’m sure he’ll get the hang of it before the end of the week. 

Our favorite restaurant - "Los Delfines"Probably the biggest surprise for all of us has been how much we would enjoy the food .  By now we’ve dined in 4 different local restaurants – which are often just the front of a local famiy’s home – and our favorite is definitely the one we visited the first night we arrived: Los Delfines.  On that first night, we were greeted warmly by our server, though once we asked about ordering in English we were introduced to a young lady no older than 16, who became our way of communicating to all of the women who worked in the restaurant.  The first challenge was choosing what we wanted to order because, although much of the choices were in english, many of the names of the dishes were not translatable in English. So we asked our young translator to describe what a Volcane and a Sope was and both Little Son E and I chose to try these new dishes.  The rest of the family ordered familiar choices – fajitas, tacos, enchiladas, and quesadillas.  And none of us were disappointed!

In fact, Little Son summed it up after his second bite when he asked, “Can we come here tomorrow?”  Even our spanish hostesses understood what he meant and smiled with pride.  Since we’ve arrived, we’ve become some of their best customers in town.  We’ve decided that whenever possible we would eat at the local restaurants because for the cost, there is no reason to try to cook for ourselves.  Our typical dinner at Los Delfines, came out to less than 200 pesos, which is about $16 (for 5 people).

We are all learning how to adapt to our new environment and enjoying the new experiences as a different way of life.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain

Boys racing from the beach to lunch!

Which sums up the reason I decided that our family needed an extended vacation in a country outside of the US.  After much research and planning, we just arrived at our home away from home, for the next two weeks, in San Pancho, Mexico.  San Pancho is a small town just north of Puerto Vallarta, with a population of just under 1,000. It is safe to say that the town moves at a pace much slower that our entire family is used to, which is precisely the reason I chose the destination.  We were lucky to find a lovely rental home, Casa Asoleada, located right on the outskirts of town.  The cost for the 2 weeks is extremely reasonable, equivalent to what we pay for a long weekend in Central Oregon, mostly because it is the off-season for travel to Mexico.

Baby girl N hanging out with her Daddy

Though I’ve not written much about the recent change in my view of life (inspired in part by reading The Art of Nonconformity, by Chris Guillebeau, and Vagabonding, by Rolf Potts), this blog in itself is one part of my resolution to live, and in this case, parent, with intention.  One of my biggest concerns with the way we are raising our children, is the fear that they will grow up with a sense of entitlement, or the expectation that life should come easy to them.  Given that we live in one of the more affluent parts of Portland, OR and that none of the kids have ever known what it is like to ‘need’ anything, the point of this summer trip is to spend an extended period of time ‘living’ in a different part of the world to 1) give the children a global perspective of a world that does not center around Lake Oswego, OR, and 2) to introduce them to opportunities available to them outside of the US.  If they come to appreciate all that they are lucky to have in their lives, then that is a bonus!

Big Son N will enBig Son and me at lunch under the Palapas on Playa San Panchoter 10th grade in the fall and before long will need to begin thinking about colleges.  What better way to demonstrate why 4 years of Spanish language is so valuable, than to live in a Spanish speaking country. We want to give him the chance to practice speaking Spanish, to build confidence in his ability to communicate with other cultures.

I must say that there were many reasons we chose the sleepy town of San Pancho, not the least of which was the ability to tie in some volunteer work with the Project Tortuga conservation project. This amazing program recruits volunteers from around the world, to monitor the Mexican beaches for Olive Ridley sea turtles, who come to shore to lay eggs, and move the eggs to a hatchery to maximize the number of surviving turtles that make it to sea.  The hatchling season is from June – August, so our timing was perfect for this opportunity.

Tomorrow I will post on the adventures we’ve had since we’ve arrived in San Pancho, there have been many, so stay tuned…

8 ways to kickstart your family’s summer reading …

It’s summertime!  And with summer comes… the summer doldrums; when kids seem to have forgotten how to entertain themselves and resort to the infamous complaint, “I’m bored!”  That phrase is like nails on a chalkboard to me and so this summer I am instituting a mandatory Summer Reading Plan for the entire family.  It doesn’t hurt that there are plenty of technology options out there that can encourage even the most reluctant reader to engage their mind in a story.  Here are some of the tools I’m employing this year as part of the Rush Family Summer Reading Plan.

Technology for Readers:

1.  Amazon Kindle:

Last year on my birthday, my husband bought me a Kindle, which was one of the more perfect gifts I’ve received in my lifetime.  At the time, the Kindle was the leading e-book reader out there and really the only service that had any sort of variety in books available.  So I dug right in and have since made great use of the very portable device.  Somewhere in the Summer of 2010, I discovered the Amazon Kindle app on my iPhone, which allowed me to access my Kindle library directly from my phone.  This was a huge leap for me, because it allowed me to cram in little bits of reading during normally wasted time when I might not have my Kindle in hand – i.e. in line at the grocery, during my lunch hour, etc.  I especially like the fact that my bookmarks, highlights, and last page are stored in my account regardless of the device I use as my reader.  So when I pick the Kindle back up, I am reminded that I have read to future page on a different device and am given the option to begin reading at that page.  The downside of the Kindle is of course, not all titles are available yet, but Amazon is making great strides in alerting publishers of titles its readers are requesting and I have no doubt that in the near future, I’ll have no limitations to the titles I can read on a Kindle.  The Kindle Store boasts 950,000 titles and counting.

 2.  Audible membership:

I recently fell in love with this service because of the lack of time I have to actually sit and read a book.  Because I find myself doing mindless work around the house – laundry, dishes, etc – in the past I have used my iPhone and earphones to listen to podcasts to keep me from dying of boredom.  But at the suggestion of a fellow reader, I tried the free 14-day trial from Audible (Their current offer  is 3 months for $7.95/mo).  In one weekend, I completed 2 books and within a week I upgraded to a 2 year membership which allows me to download up to 24 books within 24 months.

The nice thing about the service is that with your membership you are essentially downloading credits which mean you are able to purchase audiobooks at a fraction of the suggested price.  The downside I found with the monthly memberships is that you are limited to only 1-2 books a month, and if you go over you are charged for the full price of the book (less 10%).  For those of you who are only reading at bedtime – 20-30 minutes per day – this may be fine.  But for those of us who consume books like water, I need a bit more flexibility and so I went for the 2 year deal – which allows me to purchase up to 24 books for an effective price of $9.50 each.   My next plan is to download some Young Adult titles to our iPod Touch for Big Son N to listen to during our summer trips.

3.  Nook Color (by Barnes and Noble):

My mother-in-law, an avid reader, recently found herself in Barnes and Noble store taking the Nook color for a test drive.  That day she announced that she must have a Nook Color.  Dear hubby and I weren’t as familiar with the device as we both read on our iPhones – me with Kindle and he with iBooks.  But, with her birthday just weeks away, I found myself at Barnes and Noble purchasing a Nook Color.  I haven’t spent much time with the device, but my mother-in-law is just smitten with it.  She is not the most technologically savvy consumer so this tells me that BN got many of the features just right for the late adopters, taking advantage of the market feedback that came out of the Kindle innovations.  The nice thing about the Nook, besides being in color, is that it has a very simple browser that allows web-surfing, something that is not as streamlined on the first generation Kindle.  I don’t think the library for Nook is as vast as the Kindle, but it seems to suit Grandma just fine.

4.  Leapfrog TagJr.

Baby Girl N received the Tag Jr. from Santa this past Christmas and I am just loving the fact that she is able to sit and “read” books on her own.  Granted, the number of available books for the device is VERY  limited; I think there are only about 20 books available, anywhere, and only about 6 at local retailers.  But as Baby N is only 3 years old, she is taking advantage of reading the same books over and over again. And I’m grateful they all cover topics  she should be learning anyway, such as colors, number, shapes.  This has been a life saver on our long plane trips this spring and we intend to keep it with us for our summer travel as well.

Summer Reading Programs

5.  Barnes and Noble Summer Reading Program:

Nothing motivates Middle Son E like Free Stuff.  And Barnes and Noble is smart enough to build that into their summer reading program.  They are offering kids a free book after they read any 8 books.  They even provide a journal for kids to record their read books that can be turned in for a free book at any B&N location.   E is a bit like me, he devours books. So, I have no doubt he will complete this challenge many times over before the summer is over.  B&N has not forgotten about Parents and Teachers; they provide activity guides that help adults to engage kids in fun activities related to reading.

6.  Borders Double Dog Dare Reading Challenge:

Much like the B&N program, Borders is offering a free book for kids who read, in this case, 10 books over the summer.  The difference is that they must choose the free book from a list of eligible titles.  Not a problem, in our case, as the list is varied. And it is another way for E to benefit from his “Free Stuff” obsession, in a good way!  Oh, and this program is only for kids 12 and under.

7.  Pizza Hut BOOK it! Program:

Even Pizza Hut is encouraging kids to READ!  The Book It Program is designed for schools to manage, but parents can register as a home-school locations to request the kit be sent to their home.  Even without the kid, however, the Book It program website has many helpful  resources to encourage your kiddos to pick up a book.

8.  Local Library Summer Reading Program:

Chances are, your local library has a summer reading program that is designed for kids in the local area, complete with rewards and recommended reading lists.  We are lucky enough to live in a city that have 3 different county library systems, and all of them have a comparable reading program for the Portland kiddos.

Multnomah County “Get in Gear” Summer Reading:

http://www.multcolib.org/summer/

Clackamas and Washington Counties “One World, Many Stories” Reading Program:

http://www.co.clackamas.or.us/lib/summer.htm

http://www.wccls.org/srp/en/2011/kids

No excuses!  Get out there and READ!  Please post a comment if you know of other Reading Tools or programs that I missed.

My next post will include the Rush family Summer Reading Lists with recommendations for all ages…  Stay tuned!

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