Sunday, April 29, 2012

Breathing Space

Enterprise flying near the Woolworth Building in Lower Manhattan, from my apartment rooftop April 27, 2012.

I hear the soft slaps of my father's burgundy Papa-slippers as he walks down the hallway to its end, then slowly turns around and paces back. Over and over. Back and forth. With 3-year-old me riding piggyback, or o-boo-ba, as my Korean mom would say. It is the middle of the night and I can't breathe. The asthma medicines in 1961 were not helpful. There was some yellow, icky-tasting liquid that I recall. The only thing that made me feel better was getting a piggyback-ride and gradually falling asleep as my shallow, rapid breathing synchronized to the steady rhythm of fatherly slippers. It's one of my earliest and most vivid memories of Papa, who died when I was a teen.

I could've used an o-boo-ba this past week when I landed in the hospital for asthma, but Papa's not around anymore and I'm a grown-up adult. Still, it would've been more comforting than the massive amounts of corticosteroids that made me jittery and the Ambien that gave me nightmares.

Although I must say, steroids do the trick. Thank you, science, for better daily medicines, which should keep most asthmatics - those who receive consistent health care - out of the emergency room. My problem is that I'm allergic to just about everything on this planet, and this was a particularly bad allergy season. I think the only thing that would really help my health, but at great injury to my sense of style, would be if I were to go about my day in an air-conditioned, HEPA-filtered spacesuit.

Asthma can be debilitating to people in varying degrees. There was New York Times foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid, born in Oklahoma City like my husband, who died of uncontrolled asthma triggered by an allergy to horses when he was crossing the border out of Syria. Then there was Teddy Roosevelt, who overcame his childhood asthma by exercise and sheer willpower, which, frankly, I find annoying. After having read more about Teddy Roosevelt recently, I can say that TR was a maniac. Do not compare me to TR. I will never be able to overcome asthma to lead an expedition into the Amazon jungle, nor could I continue with a speech after having been shot and the bullet still lodged in my chest.

I can't complain about asthma and do not. My father passed on the genetic disposition to me and my siblings -  the five of us -  but that's just how it was. My parents never thought of us as growing up to careers requiring healthy lungs, like athletes or florists. The life of the mind was the ticket, with its infinite possibilities. We may have been fragile and earthbound, but our imaginations were lifted aloft by literature, music and science.

And yet, early on I vowed never to have children because I did not want to watch my child gasp for air while I stood by helplessly. Now, I wonder. But I had my busy career, and met my Oklahoman late in life, and there you have it. We are quite happy without kids. Except that we do have a darling child, who happens to have four legs and a tail.


On Friday, the day after I got out of the hospital, I was breathing easier but still feeling pretty low. Then something happened that sent my spirits soaring. The Space Shuttle prototype Enterprise was making a special last fly-by over New York City. I was tired but there was no way I would miss this. It represented my father's aspirations in space exploration as a scientist and a classic Star Trek fan, which he also passed on to me.

I went up to the roof of my apartment building in Lower Manhattan to watch for her. The skies were a beautiful blue with soft white clouds, and the bracing fresh air soothed my lungs. There was a joyful hoopin' and hollerin' from people all around as Enterprise came into view. Then everyone in this busy city just stopped what they were doing to look up, eyes wide and hearts full of pride at this universal symbol for transcending earthly constraints.

Hitching a ride on the back of a jumbo jet, Enterprise flew triumphantly from the Statue of Liberty up the Hudson River, turned around by the George Washington Bridge, and then flew back down again. An o-boo-ba!

NASA photo, April 27, 2012

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Don't Miss the Boat: A New York Love Story

One sultry summer day in 1997 I met my future husband on a boat to Ellis Island. It was as romantic as it sounds.

I was 39 years old and unmarried, 38 of those years by choice. My Korean mother, who to her great regret started a family before she graduated from college, programmed me well: I was to have an education and an independent career before I got married, and at the same time, no man was good enough for me. To my mother’s dismay, it worked too well. Not only did I have one career, as a college professor, I started as second one, in law, and now she was worried I’d never meet a life companion.

I started to worry, too. I had earlier convinced myself that I was fine being alone, thank you very much, but now I had just moved to New York City, from Chicago by way of Ohio, had no clue about how to meet anyone, and dearly wanted someone to share my life. It couldn’t be anyone – it had be someone interested in books, history, music, especially classical piano, films and art but most of all, someone with an ironic sense of humor – another gift from my sharp-witted mother. I was so lonely that I filled out a notebook form at a coffee shop that facilitated dates. When I listed my education: B.A./M.A./Ph.D from The University of Chicago and soon to be J.D. from Columbia Law with a specialty in First Amendment law, I thought: “No way anyone’s going to call me.” And no one did.

My fellow law students were in their early 20s –way too young. One of them, a brilliant, extremely stylish and extremely short 24-year old Vietnamese woman name Thi, dragged me one day while we were working as summer law firm clerks to an event at Ellis Island hosted by The Lawyers Committee on Human Rights. I didn’t want to go but she was adamant. When we boarded the boat at the southern most end of Manhattan, a man in shirtsleeves with blondish hair and, yes I’ll say it – dreamy blue eyes - sat behind us, mopping sweat from his brow from the heat. “You lawyers?” He inquired. I said yes, budding lawyers. He was a journalist on the editorial board of a New York newspaper, invited to the event by friends he knew on the Committee. He had interviewed them on series of articles about Cuban prisoners back when he was at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (I found out later that the series made him a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize).

A writer! My heart quickened. The conversation came easily and we ended up chatting further at Ellis Island, surrounded by its riveting, haunting history and the glorious harbor. I looked very young, so I made a sure he knew I was older than the other law students and found out he was ten years my senior. No problem.

The boat ride back on jet-black, gentle waves gave us a tremendous view of the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan, now glittering with lights and bathed in the romantic glow of the smitten. I confided to Thi that I’d like to see this man again, but didn’t know what to do. He was about to disembark and walk out of my life forever. She suggested running after him to ask him for his business card. (I told you she was brilliant!) I did just that and he said: “Would you like to go to dinner sometime?”

When I got back to the law firm, I promptly did a Lexis search (no one Googled back then). If he wasn’t a good writer, I would be very disappointed indeed. I was pleased to see many, many awards and columns of great insight, including one that talked about a trip into Brooklyn while musing on the current Edward Hopper exhibit –I love Hopper and had just seen that exhibit! Later, on our many daily phone conversations, I found out he’s so well-read it puts me to shame, is extremely and sharply funny, and – something important to me – is of a shared cultural heritage that made it unnecessary to explain, for example, what Watergate means or who Floyd the Barber is. In fact, he’s a big fan of Floyd’s. To top it off, he mentioned in passing that he owns a baby grand piano and likes classical music. That's the equivalent of a red Ferrari to other women. I was hooked.

Who knew that I’d meet just the right man for me late in life in New York City on that fateful boat. He’s a southern gentleman from East Texas and Oklahoma, a slow talker with each well-chosen word a gem, a writer of extraordinary original ideas grounded in facts and observation, and quite simply the kindest, most humane person I ever met. Since that first dinner, we have not gone a day without chatting and laughing, and we’ve now been together almost 15 years, married for twelve.

That’s my New York love story. I guess the motto is, don’t give up. You never know. Don’t miss the boat.

And they lived happily ever after.