Monday, January 26, 2015

Traveling in the Car

By Larry Collins, Guest Blogger

One of the many highlights of our daughter Kimberly’s visit last month for me included singing in the car on the way to Disneyland.

As we approached the parking structure, Kim, now in her forties, and I (I’m seventy) were happily singing the duet “Love is an Open Door” from the movie Frozen. And yes, I’ve seen the YouTube videos. In my opinion, we were just as good.
Singing comes naturally to our family. My dad and his three brothers harmonized around the piano at many family gatherings when I was growing up. Lorna’s grandfather was a semi-professional lyric tenor, and her mother both played and taught piano. Her aunts, mother, and grandmother sang hymns in parts while doing the dishes each night.

For many years, beginning when Kim was little, our family spent several hours driving between our home and our parents’ place at the beach where we spent each weekend. To pass the time, our trio would sing. After working through the latest radio songs and “Doe a Deer” from The Sound of Music, we would begin one of our other current favorites.

A special one was a round recorded by Spanky and Our Gang. The actual title is “Pedagogical Round #2. It is one of the most difficult songs to learn, but one of the most fun to sing. It was also a good teaching tool to learn the scale, as each number in the song corresponds to a musical note. For each repetition, we increased the tempo until either someone faltered, or we broke into spontaneous laughter.
I have included the link to the YouTube video above so you can hear it for yourself. It went like this:

One, Three, Five, Eight, Seven, Six, Five, Four,
Three, Five, Two, Three, Four, sharp Five.
And the Eight is the same as the One, but an octave apart
Try to learn it by heart.

Another was Don Mc Lean’s “By the Waters of Babylon.” We liked this one so much we taught it and sang it at church.

We’d sometimes take hikes into Big Santa Anita Canyon. On those trips, we sang Art Garfunkel’s “Woyaya” from his album, Angel Clare in harmony. Some of the girls from Kim’s Girl Scout troop may remember this one.

In addition, we read on those long journeys. Whoever wasn’t driving read to Kim. We went through all the Little House books, including the biographies, The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Stewart Little, Charlotte’s Web, etc.

All of us have wonderful memories of those long trips and the fun we had on our travels.


Did any of you have special rituals for fighting the boredom of a long ride? We’d love to hear about them.

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Wonderful Reunion



Today we fly home from Washington State after an eleven-day trip to attend the 2014 Rick Steves’ Tour Reunion. This event is held every January so those who shared a tour during the previous year can meet again in Edmonds. Many of the tour guides from Europe attend as well. This year, the little town of Edmonds hosted over 3000 people for this event!
Before the reunion last weekend, however, we visited with several of our friends who live in the area.

We started our visit with our dear friend Rev. Serena Sullivan in Tacoma. She had stayed with us in Dana Point for a few days last year, so we loved seeing her once again. We’d never been to this lovely city before, so we enjoyed exploring, and she was a great guide. Our friend is now retired, so she had discretionary time to spend with us.

We enjoyed the Glass Museum as well as the Natural History Museum. She drove us on a scenic tour of the area, and we wandered through the cute little shops in some of the charming areas of town. We even went to the show one evening to see “Into the Woods” in a charming old theater. Oh, and we ate in several wonderful restaurants.

While based in Tacoma, we drove to Woodinville o spend a day with our friends, the Newtons. We hadn’t seen them since about 1991, and really enjoyed catching up. We talked all day and still had lots and lots to share.

After several days in Tacoma, we checked into our hotel in Edmonds. While there, we went to Mukilteo to meet another friend from Whidbey Island for lunch. We hadn’t seen her in years, either. The Newtons surprised her by joining us. We all attended the same church many years ago, so once again, we had lots to catch up on. Fortunately, the restaurant wasn’t too busy because we occupied a large booth for well over three hours, and they allowed us to stay!

A couple of days later, we drove to Bellevue to spend the day with our friends, the Donovans. They are more former members of the same church family. They moved to Washington in the 1980s, and we have stayed in touch through the years. We visited them when we were in WA in 1991, but we haven’t been together since.

We were invited for lunch, but when asked to stay for dinner, too, we happily agreed. Another seven hours with still more conversation left for the future!

On Saturday morning, the day of the reunion, another tour member from our group, Mas, met us at the hotel, and we all drove together to the Edmonds Conference Center for the formal event.
What a great time! Nine of us (nearly half of our 21 tour members) showed up. One couple came all the way from Ohio! We laughed and talked and shared memories and caught up. Our guide, Virginie, had come from France, and we enjoyed seeing her again.

We were the group which had the most members present, and we won the prize—Gummy Bears!
We also had our photo taken with Rick, Unfortunately, Larry had run back to the car, and Dick took the photo, so both of them were missing. (We don’t have the copy of the photo yet.)

One Rick Steves’ tour requirement is for each person in the group to select a stranger to be their ‘buddy’ throughout the trip. When the group reunited at the bus or to start a new adventure, we did a ‘buddy check’ to make sure everyone was present. Mas was my buddy. Larry’s buddy, Dick, also attended. The relationships we had formed over the two weeks of our trip remained strong.

On Sunday, the company presented events for anyone interested in a future trip to ‘test drive a tour guide.’ Throughout the day, in three different locations, tour guides showed slides and described their tours. Then, if anyone was interested, the guides made themselves available for questions at the Conference Center.

We’d talked about going to Spain, so we attended the early presentation on the basic tour of Spain’s major cities. Since another presentation about a different tour of Spain was scheduled after one on Italy, we decided to sit in on that one as well. Rick himself provided the narration. We really enjoyed being reminded of all the great memories of our own Italian trip.

After the second Spain presentation, we decided to go to lunch, and who did we run into? Our friend Mas! We all ate lunch together, enjoying one last chance to connect.

After lunch, our tour guide, Virginie, took part in the presentation on the trip we had enjoyed. So we attended that one to give her support. She did a wonderful job! If we hadn’t done it already last year, we’d have been ready to sign up.

We took the opportunity to say goodbye to her once more before returning to the hotel late in the afternoon.

During the night, we had a six-hour power outage. When we woke in the morning, the power was back on, but some parts of the area were still in the dark. The wind and hard rain the night before had caused several severe outages.

After breakfast, we packed and drove to the hotel near the airport for our last night in Seattle—careful to avoid the traffic for the football game! (Seattle won, and the city went crazy!)
We checked in and then returned the rental car.

So today,we’re headed home, ready to get back after a terrific trip filled with visits with old friends and new ones, including those with whom we experienced the glory of France.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Inside Story on Biologists Who Become Writers

Today my friend biologist/author J.L. Greger gives some insight on why she writes. Welcome, Janet!

Did you ever wonder why so many physicians and other biologists write novels? Maybe we all secretly dream we’ll write a best seller like Michael Crichton, Robin Cook, or A.J. Cronin. Note: I said dream not expect. What are our other reasons?

Medical thrillers and mysteries are an opportunity to educate readers about science.
Like most scientists and physicians, I shrink into the corner when I hear acquaintances disparage all vaccines. I’m usually too polite, or maybe cowardly is a better word, to make comments, but these experiences remind me science literacy is suboptimal in the U.S.
The trick to doing science education in novels is to do it so gently the reader doesn’t realize (s)he learned a little science. Readers mainly want to be entertained.

Let me show how I turned science into a fast–moving adventure in my latest novel Malignancy. Recently Cuban scientists patented a therapeutic cancer vaccine to treat a rather rare type of lung cancer (non-small cell). This drug revs up a patient’s own immune system to produce cells, which recognize substances found on the surface of tumor cells but not on the surface of normal cells. These immune cells then slay the cancer cells, but not the normal cells.
Okay that’s a heavy dose of science. Boring!
What’s the social relevance? This patent demonstrates Cuban scientists are doing competitive science, and Cuba wants to market it through the free enterprise system. That suggests political changes in Cuba.
It’s getting more interesting. Right?
I also discovered U.S. scientists were trying to augment existing scientific exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba, despite the embargo on Cuba. Check out the editorial “Science diplomacy with Cuba” in the journal Science on June 6, 2014.
Now I’ve got the basis of sending Sara Almquist, a scientist and the heroine of my previous medical thrillers, to Cuba to do a little “scientific diplomacy.”
Let’s add a bit more info. Cuba is in a special trading alliance with Bolivia and Venezuela, and one of Bolivia’s biggest exports is coca and its derivatives (i.e. cocaine). I’ve got the ingredients for a thriller.
Accuracy is important in medical thrillers and mysteries, but shouldn’t seem labored.
In my third novel, Sara Almquist learns silver miners in Potosí, Bolivia carry little food or water into the mines. In order to endure the pain caused by thirst, hunger, and heavy exertion at a high altitude (13,000 feet), they chew coca leaves. The active ingredients in coca leaves and its derivative cocaine are not analgesics that dull pain. They are stimulants and help users ignore pain. Accordingly, I named the book Ignore the Pain not Dull the Pain, but didn’t discuss the pharmacological effects of coca.
Medical novels are a chance for biologists to introduce readers to their colleagues.
First off, I should note no character, except Bug, Sara Almquist’s Japanese Chin dog, in my novels is real. Bug (the character) is based on my own Japanese Chin named Bug. He is a pet therapy dog and a black and white ball of fuzz who outsmarts me daily.
Although I show my protagonist’s warts, I don’t trivialize her into being a bumbler, who clumsily forces her way into police investigations, as the authors of many cozies do. She’s a smart, attractive, and assertive (Isn’t that a nicer word than pushy?) middle-aged woman. Typical of many women scientists.
As an epidemiologist, Sara, in essence, is a professional snoop who analyzes all types of data to discover patterns, which suggest factors that increase or decrease the likelihood of health problems. The analyses of epidemiologists are sometimes the basis of public policies, and experienced epidemiologists are often public health consultants in foreign countries. Thus Sara’s trips to Bolivia in Ignore the Pain and Cuba in Malignancy are logical and allow me to show the locations from a different perspective than that of a tourist.
In Ignore the Pain, I tried to capture the sights, sounds, and smells of poverty in Bolivia. My description of how the indigenous people handle twins when the mother can’t produce enough milk is, I believe, a more effective way to illustrate the dire situations faced by many in Bolivia than to cite statistics, i.e. six percent of the children born in Bolivia die before their fifth birthday.
In Malignancy, Sara meets with sophisticated Cuban scientists who know much more about the U.S. than their counterparts, including Sara, know of Cuba.
Now do you want to know the rest of the story?
I’m a retired biology professor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Bug and I live in the Southwest. My website is: http://www.jlgreger.com, my Amazon link is http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B008IFZSC4. I can be reached at jlgreger@oaktreebooks.com.
Here are thumbnail sketches of my novels:
● In the suspense novel, Coming Flu, learn whether the Philippine flu or a drug kingpin caught in the quarantine is more deadly. Coming Flu: http://amzn.com/1610090985
● In the medical mystery, Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight, discover whether an ambitious young “diet doctor” or an old-timer with buried secrets is the killer. Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight: http://amzn.com/1610090624
● In the thriller, Ignore the Pain, feel the fear as an epidemiologist learns too much about the coca trade while on a public health assignment in Bolivia. Ignore the Pain: http://amzn.com/1610091310

● In the thriller, Malignancy, know the tension as a woman scientist tries to escape the clutches of a drug lord and accepts a risky assignment in Cuba. Malignancy: http://amzn.com/1610091779

Friday, December 26, 2014

Our Best Christmas Gifts Ever

As we sat around the table this year at Christmas, I asked, “What was your very best Christmas gift ever?”

Not too surprisingly, three of the guys mentioned bicycles.

My brother-in-love talked about the Stingray he received when he was ten as giving him freedom. He could ride with his friends to school and to the park. It was the ‘in’ bike for its time, and he rode it for years, doing wheelies and flying down the streets of our neighborhood.
My husband said the year he got his J.C. Higgins, the Rolls Royce of bicycles, was most memorable. He and his little brother had gotten up in the wee hours of the morning to play with all the little toys under the tree. They completely missed the big bicycle and tricycle tucked behind it.
This was the best of the best, complete with saddlebags, an electric horn and light, and lots of chrome and trim. Unfortunately, it was also very heavy and had only one speed. In addition, it was really too tall for him, so he had to stand on the curb in order to mount it and leap off in order to stop without the bike falling over on him. Not long afterward, he removed the saddlebags, light, horn, and everything else he could, but he never was able to beat his friend who rode a three-speed.

My brother’s bicycle story was of the year when he was four, and Dad had repainted and refurbished our cousin’s old bicycle for him. After a few weeks, my brother told Dad he didn’t need the training wheels. After watching the kid ride his friend’s bicycle up and down the block, Dad said he’d remove the training wheels when he got home from work the next day. Unfortunately, Dad never returned from work the next day or any other day. So this is a bittersweet memory for my brother.

A great nephew said he remembered being given his older brother’s old skateboard. This gift began an ongoing love affair. After dinner this year, he tackled the hill up the street from our house. It has become mythical in our family since our nephew and his cousin both crashed on the hill. Fortunately, neither sustained serious injuries. We captured the incidents on videotape, and they have been watched by the family until the crashes have become legendary. Nevertheless, no problems occurred this year, so the enjoyment of the new skateboard remained complete.

My best gift was the mama doll I received when I was five. Mary Ann became my best friend throughout my childhood. A couple of years later, she looked pretty sad, but I never stopped loving her. My little brother had bitten off the ends of a couple of her fingers and poked her eyes into her head. Her wig was missing, and her cheeks were worn from being kissed so often. For my sixth birthday, Dad refurbished her, including a new wig and all new clothes.
When my daughter was small, she was allowed to play carefully with Mary Ann only when she was ill. For my Christmas gift when my daughter was in her teens, she located a fancy dress at the thrift shop for my doll, since her old clothing was pretty-well worn out. My beloved doll still wears that dress, and once in a great while a visiting child is allowed to hold and hug her.

My daughter’s best gift was her own TV and Princes phone. She received both when she was about ten. These two items made her feel very independent and grown-up.
Our great-niece told us about the ring which had belonged to her great-grandmother, and which she had always loved. The Christmas after her great-grandmother’s death, she was given that special ring. She wears it today, and it keeps the memory of her beloved relative alive for her.

A friend who joined us for dinner said having her husband released from the hospital for the day in 1969 was the very best gift she would ever receive. His prognosis, following being shot in the head in Vietnam, remained highly questionable, but at least he was allowed to be with his family this once.

Her husband shared his wife’s sentiment. Today, 40+ years later, he is still with us and has accomplished far more than the specialists ever dreamed he would. But that Christmas of 1969 marked the beginning of the promise of a new life for both our friends.

My sister-in love’s answer moved me the most. Her best gift ever was a simple set of jacks and a ball. She told us about spending four years with her sister in a convent, while her brothers lived with the fathers in a different facility. Between several masses each day, meals, school, and chores, she had very little free time. She spent some in the library, but she and her sister found the center of an old golf ball and several smooth stones with which they played jacks. For Christmas, the nuns gave her a real set with a real ball.
Her eyes still light up with joy when she talks about this gift and when she says, “And I was really good!”

I’m certain all of us have received other wonderful gifts over the years, but what was telling for me was the one constant in all the stories we shared. The joy of these gifts lasted long beyond Christmas morning. The boys mentioned the freedom and speed of their gifts, which transported them to other places. Our friends mark the 1969 Christmas homecoming as the beginning of their new life together and his slow recovery. The ring continues to be a reminder of a beloved great-grandmother, while our daughter’s TV and phone made her feel grown-up and more independent.

My Mary Ann still makes me smile. I confess, I usually kiss her cheek before I put her safely away.


What was your favorite Christmas gift ever? When did you receive it? Why was it special?

Monday, December 22, 2014

My Worst Christmas Ever

Recently my brother and I discussed our worst Christmas ever. Even though the ones since then may not always have been joyous, none will ever compare with the worst.

On February 16, 1954, I stepped off the school bus just like every other day. I looked toward our house and saw cars parked in our driveway and along both sides of the street. Some I recognized. Some I didn’t.

As I walked home, I kept running different possible scenarios through my head as to why so many people would be at our house. None of them made sense.

My confusion deepened when I opened the door and saw my aunts, several neighbors, and some of my parents’ friends sitting and standing around the living room and in the kitchen. Most appeared to be crying.

I grew even more alarmed when I looked down the hall. The window blind on the glass back door had been pulled down, leaving the corridor in shadow.

My mother started toward me. She wore a brown and white striped dress I disliked. Her eyes were red, and my dad’s father had his arm around her as they approached.

My first thought was: That’s really weird. They hate each other. Why is Grandpa holding onto my mother?

She walked up to me and said, “Your daddy died this morning.”

I realized everyone in the room was staring at me as if they expected something. Since they had all been crying, I decided to conjure up a few tears. They came more from fear and confusion than from any real emotion.

My aunt brought me a glass of tomato juice.

I was seven years old and realized my whole world had just changed, only I wasn’t really sure quite how yet.

The concept of death wasn’t new to me. My grandfather had died when I was twenty-six months old, and I was still keenly aware of his absence.

My four-year-old brother wasn’t present. I later learned he’d been sent across the street to another neighbor’s house.
Christmas 1953, the year before the worst one ever.
As an adult, I realize what this moment must have been like for our mother. She had been raised to expect to spend her life as a wife and mother. Suddenly, at thirty-six years old, she was responsible for raising two small children without their father. And Dad’s $1000 life insurance policy provided only enough to bury him.

From then on, it was as if my dad had simply evaporated. We never spoke of him, and we were never given permission to grieve for him. The three of us didn’t do so until over fifty years later.

The next morning, I was sent off to school as if nothing had changed.

The atmosphere there contained the same unreality as at home. My father had died the day before, yet no one said anything about it. Not my teacher. Not the other students, No one. There, life went on as usual, only I no longer felt a part of it.

I have many memories of the next few days, but the most vivid is my crying and begging to be allowed to go to the funeral. Following the wisdom of the day, however, I was once again sent off to school.

Just before Christmas, Mom announced we would spend Christmas Eve with my grandmother. She was not like the warm and fuzzy grandmas I’d seen in movies and on TV. Our grandmother was starched and stiff and had the gift of criticism. She had made it clear to both of us that, no matter what we accomplished, it would never meet her high standards. I worked hard for years to gain her approval, only to be met with more suggestions for improvement.

On Christmas morning, my brother and I woke early to discover that Santa had, as promised, found us at Grandma’s house. I remember several gifts I received that year, including a life-sized doll with elastic bands on her feet and hands so you could dance with her. It was certainly not anything I would have thought to ask for. It looked sort-of like this one, only not dressed quite as well.

Shortly afterward, I wandered into my grandmother’s service porch and discovered the boxes and shopping bags from our gifts. In our house, Santa removed the toys from their packaging to put under the tree.

Here was concrete proof that my friends had been right. Santa was a story we were told by our parents. I had asked and asked my mother about what they had told me, but she insisted that a real person in a red suit brought our Christmas gifts.

My first thought upon my discovery was: If Mom lied about this, what else has she lied to us about?

When my daughter was born, I made myself a promise never to lie to her. When she asked me the same questions I’d asked my mother, my stock response became, “What do you think?” Then I’d nod in agreement with whatever logic she had come up with.

When it finally came out that she knew the truth and had for quite some time, I asked her why she hadn’t said anything.

After my assurance that she’d still get her ‘Santa gift,’ her answer made me cry. “I didn’t want to spoil your fun, Mommy.”

What a different scenario from my own childhood when, within the span of less than a year, I lost my father, Santa Claus, and my trust in my mother’s veracity.

It took time before I found the joy in Christmas again, but because we were quite poor, I always knew I would never get the gift I most wanted. The year when all my friends received new bicycles, a much-needed robe awaited me on Christmas morning. I would have to save all my money and earn more before I finally bought my own bike. And even then, I was not allowed to buy the one I wanted.

The year 1954 provides a clear line marking the end of my childhood.

Do you have a worst Christmas story? When was it, and what happened?