The day the music died…

What is it about a broken instrument that breaks your heart?

This is my ukulele:

The kids were playing with it in the basement and it remained down there for a few weeks. When I asked them to bring it back upstairs, they delivered it into my hands with a hole in it. I gasped in horror when I saw it. I couldn’t even speak for a few minutes. (Anyone who knows me will tell you that doesn’t happen very often). The kids pulled out their best puppy-eyed, “Hunh?! There’s a hole in it?” when I pointed it out to them. They hadn’t even realized there was a hole and had NO IDEA how, or even when it happened.

My limited edition, solid cedar top and Hawaiian Koa wood ukulele with gloss finish, shell purfling, pickup, and built-in tuner was such a pretty little instrument. It still plays. But now it just looks like an instrument that lives in a household with three young children, rather than like a beautiful symbol of its owner’s sad little fantasy of being a musician…(a musician, who also happens to live in an immaculately pristine and serene household where terrible tragedies such as this could never happen).

This is what happened to Teddy’s ukulele this morning:

We heard a thud and then wailing. Nicholas and Teddy were so upset they were shrieking incoherently. It turns out that the boys were hanging out on Teddy’s bed when the ukulele fell off of it. When he tried to retrieve it, he stepped on it and snapped its poor, scrawny little neck. This somehow escalated into a crazy hailstorm of caterwauling and shouting this morning. It was Bedlam. Everyone was LOSING it. Not a great way to start the day.

Clearly, we are living too carelessly. It’s not so much the broken instruments, the perpetually messy house, the overloaded schedules…It’s how we deal with these stresses. What’s getting broken that we can’t see? This is what worries me the most. The sense of security and well-being that we should feel at home is what’s at stake here. And if that’s what’s getting broken, that really is heart-breaking.

The other day my husband and I were discussing for the umpteenth time why our once sweet, unflappable-bordering-on-phlegmatic Teddy has become such a grumpy old man. (He even changes into a shabby old bathrobe as soon as he gets home from school). We first noticed the personality change when he had a bad case of Lyme Disease this past summer. He became irritable, prickly, and frankly: pretty hard to live with. A jacked-up dose of antibiotics seemed to knock out the disease, but he’s never fully returned to his Teddy Bear self of old.

Whenever Teddy goes into Grumpy Old Man Mode, I tend to assume that it’s the ghostly whisps of Lyme Disease making their presence felt. Colin’s theory is that we are modeling the crabby behavior. There is far too much stress in our house and we aren’t dealing with it well. Of course, I know that it could be far, far worse. We are lucky to have a home. We are lucky to have each other. I know we’re like a zillion families out there with two working parents, additional duties and commitments, three children with their own crowded roster of activities, two cute but rotten dogs, and a house and yard that look like the set of a post-apocalyptic movie. I’m just pretty sure that we deal with these stresses worse than most. We are crabby, grumpy, yell-y, steam-coming-out-of-the-ears kind of people. I know this is why when I’m waivering about whether or not to go to my yoga class, EVERYONE in my family starts begging me, literally begging me to go.

So we’ve resolved to change the paradigm from the top down. I want to go into the New Year with a calmer, happier household. My husband and I have challenged each other to an Anti-Crabby contest. We will be issuing demerits to each other for bad behavior. We’re still figuring out what the punishment for the loser will be, but it will be bad, really bad.

The Cut the Crab Challenge is ON.

Tell me your best strategy for dealing with stress in the “Leave a Reply” section by midnight Sunday, December 2nd and you’ll be entered into a drawing for a fabulous prize. I’m not sure what the prize for the winner will be, but it will be good, really good. Truly. So come on! Leave a comment! The fact that not too many people read this blog means the odds of winning are HUGELY in your favor!

Fall Roundup, Part 2

I’m holding on tight to these last days of Autumn. I’ll miss the crisp weather tempered by the warm sun. I’ll miss the spectacular kaleidoscope of colors…

Here’s a link to a lovely autumnal poem:  Fall, by Edward Hirsch at the website.

You can subscribe (for free) to The Academy of American Poets’ “Poem a Day” on the website to have a poem like this one sent to your email address every day.

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Here’s what happened yesterday…

Teddy woke up with an earache, pain in his jaw, a sore throat and pain in his chest. If it had been just one, two, or maybe even three symptoms, we probably would have dosed him up with Tylenol and packed him off to school with a pat on the back and a see you later, kid. We’re not mollycoddlers in our household. (Nicholas will tell you about the time he had an appendectomy and days later the doctors wouldn’t let him leave the hospital because they felt that his pain was not yet under control. I dispatched him on a Bhutan Death March around the nurses’ station to prove to them that he was fit enough to leave. He shuffled, stooped over like an old man around that desk while I whispered, “Come on, Nicholas, straighten up, faster, faster, FASTER)! So, ANYWAY…Teddy’s four symptoms seemed to warrant a trip to the doctor’s office.

I called my office to let them know I’d be a little late and took Teddy to the family medicine clinic.  I tried to get him registered as a walk-in, but the people at the registration desk told us that we should go directly to the clinic to get the appointment. At the clinic they told us to come back in an hour for the first available appointment. We paced the halls of the hospital for half an hour, sat in the cafeteria for another twenty minutes, and optimistically returned to the clinic ten minutes before Teddy’s appointment.

We sat. And sat. And sat. I grew old sitting there.

Twenty minutes after his appointment slot, I went up to the front desk to ask how much longer it might be. The woman behind the desk told me that he would have been seen already, but for the fact that  I hadn’t registered him.

“But I did try to register him, and they told me to come directly to you. Remember? You made the appointment for me?”

“But then after you made the appointment with us, you should have gone back to register him.”


Another forty minutes later we were led back into the inner sanctum. As I’m sure we all know, this is just a ploy to make you think that you may actually see a doctor in this century.

After another lifetime of waiting, the doctor came in to examine Teddy.

He checked Teddy’s ear…Ear infection, surely, I thought….Nothing.

He checked Teddy’s throat…Of COURSE! Strep. It’s gotta be strep throat…….Nothing.

He checked Teddy’s lungs…Aha! Pneumonia. It must be pneumonia……….Nothing.

Is it very wrong to be bitterly disappointed and maybe even just a teensy bit pissed off when you’re told (after a total of three hours of waiting around in a germy hospital) that your kid does not have a raging ear infection, strep throat, or pneumonia and is, in fact, in blooming health?

OK, just checking.

Tomorrow: Fall Roundup, Part 2

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This Thanksgiving, it was all about this little guy:  my 2 year old nephew we call “Dandelion,” because of the chick fuzz on his head. We don’t get to see him very often as he lives far away, so we go into full-on frenzied paparazzi mode when he visits. All weekend long we openly, shamelessly vied for a word, a glance, or a wave of the hand with every kind of blandishment and bribe we could throw his way. Despite our exertions, he would only bestow his favor upon my daughter and the men in the family. It didn’t stop the rest of us from trying, though…

Here’s Dandelion with his dad, my little brother:

And here he is with his mother:

See the golden glow around her? She is truly as lovely inside as she is on the outside. Sometimes we jokingly ask my brother, “How did YOU, the Prince of Darkness, manage to convince the Sugar Plum Fairy to marry you?” (This may possibly be the reason why he refers to us, his loving sisters, as “the Harpies”). His wife comes from a family of life coaches and counselors who live to communicate and help people find fulfillment and reach their fullest potential. She herself is a life coach, as well as an amazing singer-songwriter. When my taciturn and somewhat misanthropic brother will break his silence to idly muse about, say, his desire to open a zoo, where humans, rather than animals are displayed behind bars, a pained expression will pass over his wife’s face. She’ll say, “Honey, I really think we need to process that.” Whereupon, he will amiably punch her delicate arm with his meaty fist and say, “OK, Dude.”

It was a typical Kim family holiday: sit, chat, eat, repeat. Sit, chat, eat, repeat. Sit, chat, eat, repeat…

My poor son had to work on his term paper outline all weekend long…

Every once in a while he would take a break to sprint around the block:

I found a reminder of our trip to San Francisco in my parents’ fridge. We had eaten smoked salmon for breakfast every morning in the Garden Court at the Palace Hotel. My mother proclaimed that she felt like she was eating a king’s feast, and so we started to call her the “Countess” for the rest of the time we were there. This weekend when I opened the fridge, I saw that my sister had bought some smoked salmon for her and had attached this note:

Today is my sister’s birthday. She is the sun around which our family revolves. She is extravagant in her love, lavish in her generosity. She is wickedly funny and witty. I think she may be the only person in the world, who reads so voraciously that she takes books into the shower. She is the world’s best storyteller. Honest to God, listening to her retell a movie plot is way better than actually seeing the movie. She can talk about the price of crude oil and somehow make it so enthralling that you hang on her every word. Beauty follows in her wake. I love you, Sissy. Happy Birthday, and may your every wish come true! xoxoxo

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for so many things, but most of all: for my family.

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Top Ten Toys for 2012

Black Friday shopping? Read this first!

1) Plush microbes

We discovered these when we lived in Carrboro. We would make frequent visits to a great store called Chapel Hill Comics. The store had an amazing selection of comic books, but my son Nicholas was magnetically drawn to their display basket of plush microbes. He would lovingly fondle Ebola or E.coli…and then he’d ask me if I would buy Chlamydia for him.


“Why not?”


“Well, can I get Gonno, Goh No…”

“No. No. No. You can’t have Gonorrhea.”

“How about Syphilis?”

“NO! No, Nicholas. Just stop, OK? Here, I’ll get you Salmonella.”

2) Mr. Potato Head, a classic toy with a twist:

3) Canned Unicorn at for your favorite “quirky” little foodie:

4) F.A.O. Schwartz has the Barbie Foosball table for the kid who has everything:

5) My kids got this Racing Grannies set from their own Granny.

Or, if you prefer: Racing Granddads, complete with double-barreled oxygen tanks!

6)The BugZooka

My kids aren’t even allowed to have water guns. But the BugZooka is now our most cherished possession. Lock and load.

7) Bacon flavored toothpaste stocking stuffer:

Is it just me, or is anyone else ready for bacon chic to be over already?!

8) Monster High Venus McFlytrap

No joke: this is listed as one of’s bestselling dolls. I’m not feeling it…

9)Hearthsong has Buddy Bumper Balls for siblings who love/hate each other:

10) A real Dustbuster

Toy companies sell toy vacuums that have very weak suction…Why not get a real dustbuster or vacuum for your kids to “play” with? Bwahahahahahahahaha!!!

To all you parents out there who want to get a head start on their Christmas shopping: you’re welcome!

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In Seoul I climbed mountains to stand in candle-lit Buddhist temples perched on the steep slopes. I’ve stood with the throng in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican listening to the Pope give his Easter address from a balcony. I’ve sat in silence with Quakers in the exquisite simplicity of a wooden meeting room lit by sun streaming in through skylights. But the most sacred moment I’ve been privy to thus far took place in a slightly shabby hospital room at New-York Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.

It happened about six years ago, when I was there with my daughter, who was six months old at the time. She was scheduled to have surgery the following day, and a trio of phlebotomists had come in to her hospital room to draw blood for the requisite pre-operative blood work. It’s a one-person job, but I was not at all surprised to see several come in together. Already by six months, my baby was a veteran of hospital rooms and E.R.s, so I knew by then that even the most experienced phlebotomists hate “sticking” infants. In those first six months of my daughter’s life, more than once I’d watch the phlebotomist’s face fall when he or she would enter the cubicle to see me waiting with my baby in my arms. They would immediately excuse themselves to start hunting for a colleague upon whom to foist off the dirty deed. What made it worse was that my daughter was what they call a “hard stick,” and it often took multiple attempts before a tiny vein could be found. More than once a nurse or phlebotomist would try a couple times and would then refuse to try again. On one occasion, after the first phlebotomist failed to draw blood after two attempts, we had to wait for another one to come back from lunch, because no one else could be conscripted.

So there in the hospital, when three phlebotomists walked in to my baby’s room to draw her blood, I understood. Other doctors and nurses happened to be in the room when they came in, and together they formed a circle around the bed where I sat holding my baby. At the periphery, others watched with bowed heads.

It was silent in the room as the phlebotomist prepared her needles and tubes, but as soon as she began a gentle whispering filled the room. It rose up all around me like the rustle of autumn leaves being blown by the wind. It took me a moment to realize what it was: the sound of people in that room, from all over the world, offering up prayers in their own languages for my little baby, for the phlebotomist to draw her blood easily, and on the first try.

She was able to do it. My daughter cried for just a few seconds and then smiled up at the phlebotomist when the needle was withdrawn. The woman turned to look at me with tears in her own eyes and marveled in her softly accented English, “What kind of baby is this? She’s smiling at me, after I just poked her with a needle!”

There are very few moments in life like this: moments so rare and precious when you know that you are in the presence of something holy and you feel sanctified for having witnessed it. I will remember this moment and the goodness and decency of strangers, who all prayed to some higher being that my baby would be spared pain, with wonder and deep gratitude for the rest of my life.

Home from the hospital

Signs of our times

Tomorrow I’ll join the hordes on the highway as I head to Arlington to spend Thanksgiving with my family. I’m going to republish three old posts on Wednesday through Friday and will return on Monday with new ones.

Seen around grounds…

Globalization on steroids:And my all time favorite:

I just did a little research and discovered a facebook page dedicated to the “Take what you need project.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

Working it out…

I love the moments when my boys are like this:

But let’s get real. There are plenty of days when they’re like this:

This afternoon they left in high spirits to play tennis at the courts in our neighborhood. I’m still not sure what happened at the tennis courts, but they returned home separately, both filled with fury and absolutely certain that the other had been grievously, outrageously, unforgivably in the wrong. Venomous words and death stares were exchanged. Bitter tears were shed. They retreated to opposite ends of the house to marinate in their own bile.

I wondered if I should dispense a few bromides, make them hug it out, or exact insincere apologies from both aggrieved parties. Being the exceedingly lazy person that I am, I decided to do the easiest thing: nothing at all.

I was reminded of how my mother dealt with us when we quarreled as children…

One day my older sisters were bickering with each other. My mother frogmarched them into the kitchen, poured herself a cup of coffee, drew up a chair, and in a brisk, business-like tone instructed them to punch each other.

My sisters looked at her and then each other with intense embarrassment and discomfiture.

“Well?! You wanted to fight. So fight. Go on!” she said, drumming her fingers on the kitchen table.

They stood there looking miserable.

“Amie, you punch Annabelle,” she urged. Weeping now, my sister declined.

“You wanted to fight, so fight, I said! Go on! Punch Annabelle as hard as you can!”

Seeing that my mother would not be deterred, Amie weakly nudged Annabelle with a closed fist. Now my mother was really enjoying herself. She took another long swig of her coffee and said, “OK, Annabelle. Now you punch her back. Go on!”

When Annabelle, who was also sobbing by now, returned the nudge, they were both finally released from the horror show.

Years later my brother and I were squabbling about something or other when my mother remembered the diabolically clever penal scheme that had sprung like a miracle from her brain: the perfectly formed child of her fertile imagination. She couldn’t wait to relive the glory of the moment.

“You want to fight?! OK! Go on, fight! Adrienne, you punch Teddy.”

I can only imagine the satisfaction she felt as she watched the scene of her past triumph repeat itself.

“But I — don’t want — to hit him!” I blubbered and spluttered and managed to gasp out.

“I said, HIT him! You want to fight so badly, here’s your chance. I’m not stopping you! PUNCH him as HARD as you can!”

It was clear to me that we were mere puppets in this twisted demonstration of my mother’s disciplinary ingenuity and that the show would only end when we did as we were told. I delivered the first symbolic “punch,” a mere brush with my knuckles.

My mother pounced, practially spitting in glee, “Teddy! It’s your turn. Now you punch Adrienne!”

She didn’t need to tell him twice. He turned and punched me so hard I landed on my beleaguered ass clear across the room. That was the last time she ever tried that. But hey, it all worked out in the end…My brother and I love each other, and I even named my own son after him.

This afternoon I heard a lot of sniffling and muttering that went on for hours. Nicholas eventually started to do his homework in the dining room. Teddy took up his ukulele in the living room next door and started strumming it softly.

“Who’s playing the ukulele?” I heard from the dining room. I braced myself for the brouhaha that was sure to ensue and tried to head it off.

“Teddy,” I said, “Nicholas is trying to study. Why don’t you go up to your room and play?”

“No, I like it.” Nicholas said from the other room. “Teddy, you sound really good.”

And that was that. Peace in the valley once again.

People as Topiary

My husband coined the expression “People as Topiary” to describe the Korean attitude toward perceived imperfections. For Korean people a misplaced freckle might constitute disfigurement. Sadly, I know this from first-hand experience. My mother will scrutinize my face with concern after not seeing me in a while and ask, “Did you always have those freckles under your eye?” She tries to quell the rising note of panic in her voice, but it’s unmistakable…Those freckles (which, yes, I’ve had all my life) are located where tears might be and that is Not Good. Pity the Korean child born with a hairline a millimeter too low over his forehead, for this is an obvious indication that his father is suspect. A nose that is too pointy portends a life of poverty and bad luck. Throw out the prospect of a decent marriage if such a misfortune should befall you — or find yourself a good plastic surgeon.

Korea is now the country with the highest number of plastic surgeries per capita. An astonishing one in five Korean women has plastic surgery, according to a market research survey done in 2009. The most popular procedure is double-eyelid surgery, which creates a crease in the lids. Even Roh, Moo-Hyun, the former president who committed suicide in 2009, acknowledged having had an eyelid job during his term in office.

When I was in high school a lemur-eyed woman in my dad’s Korean congregation would harangue me every Sunday during coffee hour to get this procedure done. I would try to inconspicuously skulk off to a corner clutching my donut, but she’d always seek me out and bray, “Honey, you should get your eyes done so you look pretty like me!” Years later, I got my double eyelids, not through plastic surgery, but the good old-fashioned way: droopy, aging skin. Lucky me.

Currently, the “Flower boy” look is the Korean ideal of male perfection. “Flower boys” are waif-like men with delicate, “pretty” features and flawless skin, often enhanced with makeup. In pursuit of this look, South Korean men spend staggering sums of money on skin products and makeup – more than any other male population around the world. If you’re not born with it, you can buy it.

But there’s not much you can do about the most disastrous misfortune of all, which is to be born without native intelligence. Not that people don’t try. There is a plethora of plastic surgery clinics in Korea, but there are even more after school cram schools (hagwan). Parents choose where to live based on how convenient the neighborhood is to a good hagwan. Plastic surgery, in fact, is sometimes offered as a reward for good grades. The ultimate goal of all this cramming is to earn a spot in an elite university, because to graduate with a pedigree is to ensure one’s place in society.

I think this is why I find the Psy (Park, Jae-sang) phenomenon so entertaining. Much has been written about Psy’s average looks. He has called himself “a chubby guy” and he doesn’t appear to have had any “work” done. For the K-pop stars who have flirted at the edges of the kind of global fame he has enjoyed, looks are as important as musical ability. I think it’s safe to assume that a substantial percentage of these K-pop idols have been pruned, lopped, shaped and sheared to achieve the undernourished, saucer-eyed, elfin look du jour.

Psy’s father, the head of a large firm, sent his son to Boston University to study business so that he could return to Korea and take over the company. Instead, Psy dropped out of Boston University, enrolled in Berklee College of Music, and then dropped out of that school as well. You just know his parents’ innards were twisting into tight ulcerous knots when he returned to Korea without a degree. What a bitter pill it must have been when instead of taking over the family business, he became a controversial musician and was busted for pot. But one of the more interesting Karmic stories that emerged when Psy became so wildly popular that United Nations Secretary General Ban, Ki-Moon ceded to him the title of  “most famous Korean person in the world,” was that the value of his father’s company soared.

There is something truly beautiful in the fact that Psy has achieved fame and fortune, all without being one of these:

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