Sunday, January 25, 2009

Rip Van Winkle

Recently I was thinking about how my health issues make me feel like I am a good deal older than I am. It reminded me of Rip Van Winkle. It feels like one day I went to sleep as a 40 yr old and woke up and I was 60. Yikes. Only in my story, no one has aged but me. That is SO not fair!

Ever the optimist (or trying to be) I decided that better Rip Van Winkle than Dr. Jeckle and Mr. Hyde. That was, of course, until I realized that I also have my Mr. Hyde days. Uh oh!

So I have accepted Rip Van Winkle, but if one day I start acting like I just stepped out of Alice in Wonderland, somebody slap me!!!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

That Thing We Call Death

Death is a subject that keeps coming before me lately, like a red stop light demanding my attention. No, not my death, though Heaven knows that is a topic I have come face to face with. My red light moments have been more about how I could use my experiences to help someone else who is struggling at the same stop.

Dying is really about living. It is about how you lived your life, about success' and unfortunately regrets, things you wish you would have done differently, things you wish you could have done.

Dying is about being remembered when you are gone. When your shadow is no longer here, what will remain to mark that you were here? Who will remember you? What will they remember?

Dying is about fear: fear of the unknown, fear of the pain of those who are left behind, fear of things left undone. It is fear of how the end will come.

When we are given a chance to ponder death, before it comes to us, it can be a blessing, an awakening.

Dying is like a magnifying glass, in that it brings things into a sharp focus. It gives us clarity about what we really value and who we are and who we would like to be.

As I write this I realize that I don't have any advice for those who are facing death. They know these things that I would share with them probably better than I do. My advice then is for the living. In the past, I have found it awkward to speak to someone I know has a terminal illness. What could I say?

Now, I understand. I would tell my loved one how much they mean to me. I would share memories of good times and bad. We would laugh and cry together. I would let them talk to me about their fears and regrets. I would reassure them that their success' far out weigh any short comings. I would tell them how they have positively affected my life and that I will always remember them. I would reassure them that the family "left behind" will be alright.

I would share with them my testimony of Jesus Christ. For me the times that I felt closest to death were also the times that I felt closest to the Lord. And I miss that. I truly do. That gives me hope. Yes, death can also be about hope.

Mostly, I would hold their hand, laugh and cry and rejoice that because of Christ we know this life is not the end.

Shall We Dance?

You know I love Cultures. I also really love Cultural Dances. Recently I was treated to a new one, Tinikling the national dance of the Phillipines. What fun! My daughter learned to do it in her music class, and they demonstrated it for the parents.

Of course, like any form of dance the dancers make it look easy. After the presentation, the parents were given a chance to try it. Never wanting to miss an opportunity to make a fool of myself, I jumped right up. Fortunately, I was also able to persuade my friends to come try it too, though they did much better than I did. It is harder than it looks! I was doing great until the sticks started moving.

Watch, and if you are feeling adventurous, get some bamboo, or PVC pipe (which ever is easiest to find in your area) and a couple 'stickers' and give it a try! You are guaranteed some laughs and a great work out.

Monday, January 19, 2009

What are we missing?

Today in one of my favorite blogs "my thoughts" I read a wonderful news story. I was immediately intrigued and searched for the original source. It was the Washington post. Apparently the version I am about to share with you has been circulating in e-mails, message boards and blogs, and no small wonder.

A Violinist in the Metro

A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousand of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule.

A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping continued to walk.

A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars.

Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston and the seats average $100.

This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of an social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?

One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?

full article at the Washington Post

Wow. That last paragraph is what will linger with me for awhile. What am I missing as I hurry through my life?

My first thought was my children. Years ago I heard a speaker, Reed Benson, say, "You could be raising your spiritual superiors. Imagine being Mary raising Jesus." I was amazed by that possibility. I had to laugh at myself later, after all who am I that my children or most people for that matter might not be my spiritual superiors? And yet, since I am the adult, the authority figure and they are the children it is hard to imagine them as superiors. Do I truly value this time I spend with these little people who will be with me for such a short time, or do I rush through each day missing the moments that I should treasure as the people in the Metro.

Then I expanded my thoughts to the people of my life. Remember the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" with Jimmy Stewart? I watch it every Christmas and it reminds me of the powerful impact we make on one another's lives...and most of the time without realizing it. I read this article and wondered once again about the people in my life, do I appreciate them as I should? Or do I chose to spend my time with strangers via TV, movies, Internet. . .

I wondered if sometimes we are the "violinist" and do not see our own potential, value and beauty in the world. Is OUR value any less simply because the people around us are sometimes too busy to notice?

Ha, maybe I should remember this next time I am dismayed that my blog does not have more readers!

What things or people in your life are you missing?

Friday, January 16, 2009

My wish for you

Today I was listening to my favorite sound, that of my children laughing. They were laughing at their dad because he had done something goofy. Laughter is so important for children, for families.... for everyone, I thought. My husband and I have always said, as long as we have our sense of humor we will be OK.

Which made me wonder, what is it that is so appealing, so healing, so simply wonderful about laughter?

I started to analyze it.

You can't laugh with someone you are angry with. Try to picture that for a moment. Think of the last time you were angry with someone. If they had told you a joke, no matter how funny, you would not have laughed. So laughter signifies good feelings between people. After the apologies are said, laughter can help the mending begin, but it won't be there until some good feeling returns. That explains in part why there is so little of laughter in prison. Oh there is some laughter there, but it is usually the coarse type. An impostor, hopelessly trying to make up for the lack of the real thing. Shudder...anger is cold and dark. Laughter is not only happy it is warmth and love.

How about the last time you were sad, really sad. Could laughter reach you there? Sometimes at funerals people laugh. "Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion," (Steel Magnolias). Even in the darkest of times, laughter has a way of reaching deep down and beginning the healing.

Great friendships can begin with laughter. If I can laugh with someone, I know that is a spark for a potential friendship. In fact, if someone makes me laugh, that is enough to make me want to be their friend.

Remember when you were a kid and you laughed so hard you peed your pants. C'mon admit it, you know you've done it! You're smiling now aren't you? Let's just hope the last time that happened to you was a long, long time ago.

Imagine the laughter that comes from being exhausted. You know what I am talking about. Those times you laughed until you cried about something that was not really that funny, just because you were tired. But oh how good that laughter felt. One of those times for me was when I was in the hospital, after having a baby. My sweet husband brought me flowers. Not cut flowers, but the kind you plant. I took one look at them...pretty but slightly wilted and burst out laughing. I laughed so hard I cried, and the nurse looked at me like she wondered if they had given me too much pain medication. I laughed because I know my husband so well, and I knew he had rescued those flowers from a dumpster somewhere. (Greenhouses can only sell perfect looking plants, and many less-than-perfect but nice plants get thrown away.) Of course, it only made me laugh harder when he feigned innocence to the bewildered nurse. "He brought me Dumpster Flowers" kept running through my mind and I laughed until I couldn't catch my breath. Even today, he pretends not to know what was so funny about that. And I, of course, still laugh. I don't even have to be tired.

Have you ever laughed even when it hurt? I'm not talking about those aching cheek muscles, though I love that one too. I had a c-section with one of my little blessings. My husband took me on my obligatory walk around the hospital floor, and kept making me laugh though I begged him not to. Ow, ow, ow, torture!

Laughter can chase away fear. It can't necessarily keep it away. I think of laughter in this sense more like a yippy lap dog, barking with all it's might than a german shepherd. But it can give you some respite from the fear. That reminds me of the time my husband started comparing my various health issues to what would be the equivalent in a car. At the end of it he concluded with mock sincerity that if I were a car, we would sell me to the junk yard and get something else. Wicked, wicked man! How I love him.

Sometimes we look to laughter simply for entertainment. The best movies, TV shows, books, and even music make us laugh. We must not forget blogs. My favorite blogs are those that intermingle funny posts with serious thought provoking ones.

As I think back over my life and all the tender memories, laughter is often there. It's not in the family photos, but it's there.. Sometimes it is the photographer, sometimes the frame. Yes, maybe that is it. Laughter is the frame that holds our lives together.

I wish you...laughter.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

"I wonder"

Families with young children almost always have certain words that are not allowed in the home. Usually these are the 4-letter variety and a few others like shut up or stupid. In our family we also banned the all too common phrase, "I don't know."

Those of you who don't have children may be wondering why, but the parents out there are nodding their heads. Parents hear this phrase a lot.

"Who made this mess on the floor?"

"I don't know."

"What did I tell you about that?"

"I don't know."

"Where is your homework?"

"I don't know."

But it isn't just children that are habitually retreating to this escape phrase. Adults are guilty of it too. My husband and I realized that very quickly when we banned it!

When we say, "I don't know", a door in our mind slams shut. Whether the question is a simple, "where is the remote control?", or something more complicated such as "how do cell phones work?", or "why do people have trouble accepting new ideas?" Once we say, "I don't know" our thinking on that subject ceases. That is quite sad when we consider that our knowledge is one of the few things we can take with us at the end of this life. How many opportunities for growth and learning are missed because of this seemingly harmless phrase?

We have been pleasantly surprised to see the results of keeping the mental doors open, and encouraging the thought process both in ourselves as parents and in our children. Now when someone asks for the remote control instead of saying by habit, "I don't know", we think for a moment and perhaps say, "I remember that the baby had it by the couch." So we look under the couch and there it is. That was much more helpful than "I don't know."! My husband, who loves science, has found wonderful ideas come to his mind about scientific questions like "why is the sky blue?" As a mom, my main concerns are more philosophical such as "why is this child misbehaving?" As I open the doors of my mind, I find the solutions to such problems forming themselves in my mind. An unexpected and welcomed result of all this has been seeing the answers the children come up with when they are encouraged to think things through. Some of their answers are humorous, but others are quite profound. Never underestimate a child.

Of course, we are creatures of habit. There is a temptation to slip back into our comfort zone by substituting, "I'm not sure". To remedy that, we are encouraging the children and ourselves to say instead, "I wonder...", "I think..." or "Perhaps..."

"I wonder" is an incredible key for opening up our minds and sparking our curiousity. I believe this is the secret of many great scientists, inventors, and philosophers. Just imagine where we would be if Thomas Edison had been content with "I don't know" instead of opening his mind with "I wonder". "I wonder" can bless our lives in so many ways.

The greatest benefit of "I wonder" is that it opens our minds to receive the Spirit. I am convinced that the important answers we have received since we made this change in our home, have come from the Spirit. Taking the time to study something out in our minds, prepares our mind to receive instruction and true knowledge from The Source of all truth and knowledge.

Searching the scriptures we will find many times the instruction to "ponder these things". We will also see many examples of prophets and great women of the scriptures who received revelation and guidance after they pondered their questions in their hearts. They wondered, prayed and listened.

Imagine yourself reading Isaiah. If you put the scriptures down and shake your head, "I don't know what he is talking about!" Then you will never understand him. However, if you say "I wonder what Isaiah meant by that?" and ponder different possibilities through out your day, then you have opened up your mind and heart to be taught by the Spirit.

This learning does not have to be limited to spiritual things though. As we ponder, or I like to say, "marinate in our minds" any knowledge we wish to receive whether it is spiritual, scientific, or philosophical, insights will come to us by the Holy Ghost. Is there any doubt that Galileo, Mozart or George Washington where blessed with the Spirit to accomplish what they did in their lives?

As sons and daughters of God, we each have the seeds of divinity in us. We too can accomplish great things. "I wonder...." is a the first step.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Invincible Leslie's Cape gets caught

So the other day I got an e-mail from my doctor...I love that. I love that I can e-mail my doctor and vice versa, and I love my doctor. Anyway, he was letting me know the results of one of my blood tests. I should have been happy, the results gave us an answer. I hate it when the doctors say that my problem is "idiopathic". No, they don't mean idiotpatient. Idiopathic means "cause unknown". I like to have reasons for things!

Instead of being happy to have an answer (we can scratch idiopathic off that problem at least), I was dismayed, befuddled, disoriented.

Remember in The Incredibles (you HAVE seen it haven't you?!) where Edna Mode tells Mr. Incredible that she won't make outfits with capes because they are dangerous? That is how I if my Leslie the Invincible cape got caught in a fan and pulled in.

I am feeling better now. Not quite so invincible, but getting there. So why mention it? Because I want to be honest. It would be wrong to pretend that my health issues do not sometimes fill me with fear and dread. I have said this before, but it is worth repeating. It is ok to be afraid sometimes. The goal, for me at least, is not to let the fear overcome you, or move in to live with you. Take that fear to the Lord, He has big shoulders.

Prayer and introspection are helping me get my cape unstuck. Leslie the Invincible will fly again soon.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Just that makes me cry

I first saw this on a web forum. Apparently this is the audition phase from the British equivalent of American Idol. Here is this guy who sells cell phones for a living. Pay special attention to the judges faces when he tells them he is going to sing opera. Can't blame them, I had my doubts too.
Paul Potts on Britian's Got Talent

I got an e-mail from a long time friend. She said she wished they could have had these guys at M's (her sister) funeral. What a shock I didn't know that M. had died. Obviously, M and I were not close, but it was still a shock. Then I listened to this song...
Amazing Grace by Il Divo

You are probably already familiar with this song, but I was completely amazed the first time I heard it on Delilah's show. I only caught part of it at that time, and quickly jotted down a few of the words, because I knew I had to find the whole song! I found it and I have loved it ever since. I cannot tell you what it means to me...I hope you realize what a powerful statement that is for a writer to be without words...
I Can Only Imagine

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Will the real YOU please stand up?

The boys I work with are an interesting study in human nature. Some of them can be very charming and intelligent...Dr. Jeckle, but when they don't get their way...Mr Hyde.

I had one of those experiences last night. There is one young man, I will call him Jay, who was really difficult the first night I met him. When I tried to get him and his friends to go to bed (I work overnight shift after all), he accused me first of not understanding teenagers and what they are going through, then played the racism card, then began making sexual comments. Lovely night!

Since then though we have developed a relationship, and now when I come in at night he greets me with a smile. We make small talk, and when he is in the mood he greets me with a hug. I look back at that first night in amazement...until last night.

Jay and one of his friends had some half-baked scheme that I never discovered, but was able to thwart. I knew I was ruining their plans because they began to get angry. At one point Jay and his buddy had split up, and so I radioed for assistance. He told me that would only make the situation worse, the tone of his words was clear. He was a threatening me, trying to scare me into backing down.

Call me naive (I will own it, being somewhat naive is a safe harbor), but I could not believe he was threatening me! Hadn't we come to some kind of understanding with one another? Perhaps not.

He then proceeded to give me his best gangster face (and yes he is actually in a gang, and yes he did look threatening). The funny thing was he froze this scowl on his face and appeared to be trying to stare me down. Unbelievable.

I said, "Jay are you having a seizure? That happened once with another boys who lived here." He didn't laugh, but my partner who was upstairs keeping a careful watch said she thought it was hilarious. He did, however, stop scowling at me and he and his buddy went to bed at last.

This is not the first time I have wondered which side of this young man's personality is the REAL one? Is the gangster real, and the nice young man an act, a ruse? Or is the charming young man real, and the gangster persona a ruse for his friends? Maybe both of them live inside of him, and it just depends which one he allows to come to the surface.

I have these kinds of questions a few of the boys. Finally I realized, it doesn't matter. I might never have the answer to my questions but my job, not only as "staff", but as a daughter of God, is to try and nurture the side of them I want to see more of. I am reminded of a favorite quote that I haven't thought of for a long time.
Goethe, a German Philosopher, said, "If you treat a man as he is, he will stay as he is. If you treat a man as he should be and could be, he will become what he ought to be."

As this idea was impressed upon me (the Spirit?), it was also impressed upon me that I need to give the same nurturing to myself. After all, many times I have asked who am I? Am I the person I sometimes see in the mirror (not a physical mirror, but life's cold reality) a person with so many flaws and weaknesses that if I were a piece of clay I would roll myself into a ball and start over. Other times though I am gentler with myself, I look in the mirror and feel joy at who I have become.

Which one is real? Am I being too hard on myself sometimes and too idealistic other times? And does it matter? I see now that what I need to do is nurture that "best self". If it isn't real maybe nurturing it can make it become so.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Agony of the Gym

So today I went back to the gym (thanks Shawna!). It was grueling; I almost didn't make it.

The agony was not from the walking thing...mental hiccup, what's that word?...treadmill yes that's it. Not from the treadmill, not from the bicycle, certainly not from the stair climber...just looking at that thing makes my muscles ache.

No, the torture was my own pride! Seriously! It is hard to waddle in there in my Pillsbury Dough Girl body and exercise with all those people who look like they could star their own exercise DVD. Ack. But I did it!!! Score one for the pleasantly plump people everywhere. I didn't burn off any pounds (yet), but I gave that pride monkey on my back a good slap!

My Children, My Lab Rats...

Yes, you read that right, lab rats. Of course, I say that in a loving way. Before you start “tsk, tsking” me, you should know I think your children are lab rats too. All children are.

Explanation time...

My vision of science is that it is a continual process of experiments, hypothesis’, trial and error all in an effort to find the TRUTH. A very informal explanation of the scientific method is to begin with a question in mind. Form a hypothesis, and then do an experiment to see if your hypothesis was correct. Today in a moment of “mom guilt” I realized that’s was parenting is …an on-going experiment and my darling children are my unfortunate, but naively willing lab rats.

It begins the day a woman finds out she is pregnant. The mental processing (read: guessing) begins. Obstetrician, family doctor or midwife? What do I eat? Then the baby comes and more questions. Which kind of diapers should I use? Breastfeeding or bottle feeding? Crib or family bed? And so it begins. The parent-scientist forms a hypothesis about each of these questions, acts upon it and thus the scientific experiment, er…parenting experience begins.

If I were actually a scientist working with lab rats, it seems that I would get better with my hypothesis as the years go by. Parenting is not that simple. After all rats have a limited capability in what they can do, but children are ever growing and changing. The older they get the more complicated the questions (read: experiments) become. Should what age should they date, should they have a cell phone, what to do if they break the rules. Some of these experiments go well leaving parents glowing with pride in their children and in their parenting skills. Other experiments leave parents wondering if maybe they should have stuck with a dog or cat instead of trying this parenting thing.

Failure is an inevitable outcome. Scientists expect it and simply try to learn from their mistakes. Parents try to learn from their mistakes too, but their stakes are much higher. That’s where the mom guilt comes in. Guilt is something moms do well.

Which leads me to today’s lesson. I was pondering on an “experiment” that I felt had failed and you guessed it, feeling guilty for my error. Then it hit me that while I did not receive the expected outcome (my hypothesis was off the mark), there were some other positive outcomes that I had not considered. I think this is an area that scientists have an advantage on us parents, they are more likely to see and rejoice in the unexpected outcomes.

Truth and children are similar in the ways that they elude our efforts to define them. Truth is easy to define you say, but ponder that for a moment. Killing is wrong. Simple truth, right? And yet, what if you are defending yourself, your family, or your country? Then killing can at times be necessary. This is what I mean that the truth escapes our efforts to define it. Children also can escape our efforts to define and shape them. But if we are willing to be like scientists and learn from the unexpected, our experiences and our children can teach us new “truths” and joys that we had not anticipated along the way.

Which makes me see that as a parent, sometimes I am the Scientist and sometimes I am the lab rat. If so, it is a glorious path to the cheese.

The Culture of Healers

Lately I am fascinated with the culture of Doctors, nurses...healers. Years ago (we won't talk about how many) when I was 17, I took an EMT class. I turned 18 by the time the class ended and was able to take the test and become an EMT. I loved the class. I love medicine.

Working on the ambulance (which I did for about two years) however was a different experience. I was very uncomfortable with it. When I was under pressure (and being on an ambulance IS pressure!) it seemed that everything I had learned evaporated from my brain and I was left clueless, helpless, and hopeless. In my own defense, when I turned in my "two week notice" and explained this concern to my boss he encouraged me to stay and said he had no complaints from my partners. Whew!

Still that was not the only problem. I also found out that I am rather shy about touching strangers. Definately a problem for an EMT. The biggest problem though was the emotional attachment. I wanted to take everyone home with me, and when we lost one...that was too much. An EMT certification needs to be renewed every two years. When my two years was up, I didn't renew.

The company I worked with did transports as well as emergency calls, so we did a lot of transports for people to and from radiation treatments and from the hospital to the nursing home etc.

There was one teenage boy who had cancer and every day he needed to be transported for some treatment. I remember the first time I saw him lying there in bed, he had to have been 6 ft tall, and I thought, "oh this boy needs to be playing basketball, not lying in a hospital bed." We were all rejoyced with him as he began to get his strength back and the nurses put up a sign "speed limit 1 mph" trying to urge him not to overdue it. Eventually he left Tucson, where I worked and returned to his home town.

One day, we had a transport to the town where this boy lived. We dropped off our patient at the hospital there and as we were getting ready to leave I saw this boy's family. I was happy to see them again, and rushed over. I asked them how he was doing, without speaking they took me to his room, where he lay in bed. He was in a coma. I went to his bedside and held his hand. I started crying; I couldn't help it. I am crying now as I type this. His family came over and hugged me and we wept together.

This and other experiences helped me decide that the medical field was not the place I wanted to be. I am still fascinated with medicine, but like a tourist on safari for me it is better observed from a distance.

So I am curious what motivates people to work in the medical profession? In search of answers to these questions, I turned to books (by now you are not surprised at that, right?) I am still pondering, but for now I wanted to share a couple books I have found helpful and interesting.

My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor is a fascinating memoir by a brain scientist who had a stroke and recovered. Your initial thought might be that that sounds boring, but trust me it isn't. If you look up the book at, they have a link to an excerpt of her giving a presentation about her experience. Just watch it and you will see that she is not boring at all. Highly recommended!

How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman This book really answers some of my "doctor culture" questions and his style of writing is very enjoyable. As a patient, I found it a little eye opening and a little disconcerting. Definately a worthwhile read.

Anatomy of Hope by Jerome Groopman I like this one better than his other book and I would call this a "must read". It was uplifting and inspiring. It gave me much to think about.

On Call: A Doctor's Days and Nights in Residency by Emily R. Transue I just picked this one up from the library, so I haven't read it yet. Though if the dust jacket is a reliable indicator, this book may have more answers to my questions. At any rate it looks interesting.

Since I am really getting interested in memoirs, I turned to blogs. Here are my two favorite "doctor" blogs: I love the variety in this blog. The posts cover a wide range of topics, ranging from medicine, family, to rants about the neighborhood slum lord. It is very well written and engaging. Funny too, which is always a nice breath of air. My only complaint is that it is too short. I hope that there will be more posts forthcoming. This blog is by a 67 year old, some what cantankerous old doctor in India. Of course, it speaks to me in two ways. I love the posts about his patients, but I also really love the cultural experience his experience being in another country. You know he has his patients keep their medical charts with them, and bring them when they come in? He does a lot of house calls to, can you imagine?

Gangs and Families

I love to study different cultures...and I loosely define culture as groups of people who think the same way. Therefore, a culture could be a group of people who are of the same "race", or a religion, or people that are interested in the same thing i.e. homeschooling.

I work with teenage boys in a foster care group home. Several of them are members of gangs. Naturally I decided I have a unique opportunity here to learn more about "gang culture" by going to the source.

One evening one of the boys was drawing gang insignia on a poster board and I figured that was an invitation. So I hesitantly began asking him questions. I didn't really expect him to be very forth coming. Surprisingly he was as long as I asked direct questions.

I asked him which gang he belonged to. "Family," he corrected. I said, "ok whatever," and the conversation continued. I really didn't take the family idea very seriously.

I felt awkward at first so trying to be coy, I said, "So how did you join the gang? Did you just tell them you wanted to be a member?" He just looked at me as if to say, "I know you are not THAT stupid," and said nothing. So I rephrased my question being candid and honest this time. "Ok, I have heard that to join a gang you have to be 'jumped in', and I want to know if that is true."

He said, "Yes, in my gang you stand in the center of a circle of 13 guys." Thirteen seems to be an important number to hispanic gangs. "One guy gives the signal and they all start beating you for a couple minutes, then they stop."

You are probably thinking what I was thinking, "What an insane ritual! Why would anyone want to do that?" Then suddenly it hit me, why they do it. Because gangs are often involved in fights, they want to know that prospective new members can handle the pressure of a fight and not turn 'coward' and run when they need you. The reason someone would subject themselves to that is because the streets can be a dangerous place, and it helps to have "family" (we would say a gang), to watch your back. And he didn't mention...but I assume...assist you in getting drugs more easily. Of course, just being in a gang makes the streets even more dangerous, but the boys don't seem to think through this part of it.

"So what about girls?" I asked. Again he gave me the look and was silent. "Ok, I heard that girls who want to join a gang are gang raped or have to have sex with the gang members, is that true?" He said that in some gangs it is, or when a girl is the first female member of that gang. But in his gang, a girl who wants to join is "jumped in" by other girls, just as the boys are.

I asked him other questions and found out that it is generally true that there are higher up gang members who give out assignments to the lower level members. I asked him what kind of assignments he had as living in a group home he had very little freedom. He said his assignment is to do recruiting kind of work while he is at school. Lovely. . .

"Is it true that when you join a gang you are basically in for life? And what happens if you change your mind, can't you just move cross country and start a new life?" I wondered.

He said "yes you are in for life, and no you can't just move across country. Eventually, they will find you. There's always someone who knows someone who will recognize you. And when they do, they will be furious that you turned your back on the family."

Personally, I don't think it is impossible to leave a gang, I knew someone at church once that was an ex-gangbanger. But I don't really know if he was looking over his shoulder constantly for the first few years. What is interesting though is that the active members of the gang feel they can't leave (and in the case of the boy I talked to, don't want to).

"So is John," (not his real name,) "a member of your gang too?" He laughed at that and said, "No I think he belongs to his dad's gang." Holy cow, you mean this really is a family affair? Yikes.

On a different day I asked another boy why he had chosen to be in gang and he said, "Oh, it just seemed like the thing to do. My father, uncles, brothers are all in gangs."

These conversations left me intrigued, and I wanted to know more. All my life when I have wanted to know something I find a book and this time was no different. I found a book called, "Under and Alone"by William Queen. It is about an ATF officer who infiltrated the Mongol Motorcycle gang. They are said to be the most dangerous motorcycle gang in America. I bet you thought the Hell's Angels held that title. So did I. Apparently the Mongols and the Hell's Angels are bitter rivals, but the Mongols have a reputation for being the more violent.

Unfortunately, I can't recommend the book to you since the language is pretty harsh. Normally, I don't read books with that language either, but I hear it at work and I wanted to know about gangs so I made an exception in this case.

"Under and Alone" illuminated the idea of a gang being a family. In one part of the book, "Billy's" aunt died. She had been like a mother to him and he grieved her loss as one would a mother. He took some time off for the funeral and upon returning went to the office. He said he saw several ATF officers and other staff who all knew he where he had been and why, and no one mentioned his loss. Then he went to meet up with the Mongols for a "manadatory" bike run. The first Mongol that saw him grabbed him in a tremendous bear hug and said, "Billy, I'm so sorry about your loss." Then another Mongol did the same, and another and another. As the day went on, each arriving Mongol greeted him in the same way. He was stunned and deeply moved. He felt more friendship and compassion for his loss from this gang members than he had from his co-workers. At that moment he wanted to just get on his bike and ride off and truly be "Billy St. John" and leave his other life as an ATF officer behind. It was a difficult time for him, but he told himself, "Get a grip, if these guys found out you are an undercover cop they will shoot you on the spot." Still it was a difficult time for him.

That explains one aspect of the gang=family phenomenon.

Something else occured to me. Years ago, I lived in Bethel, Alaska (working with juvenile delinquents). Bethel is in "the bush", and I found it to be very lonely. One day I had an opportunity to talk to the pyschiatrist who came to see the kids. He asked me how I was adjusting and I told him it was hard because the people there won't invite you into their hearts and lives until you have been around for at least a year. "Why would I stick around for a year if I have no friends?" I asked. He explained to me that because of the harsh living conditions in the Bush, what starts out as an ordinary day can quickly become a life or death experience. When people live together in life or death situations, they develop a special sort of bond. And what is gang life if not a daily life or death experience?

All this makes me think, of course, about my family. Besides my biological family, I consider my church associates "family", and I consider some of my close friends as family. As you know, families can bring our greatest joy, and also be our greatest heartache. Fortunately neither of my families would try to kill me if I decided to leave them. Although at times, I might want to kill them!

To my families, I love you and thanks for being my "gang".