Dangerous, Common And Treatable

An ad from the San Francisco Hep B Free Campaign. Source: SFHepBFree.org
An ad from the San Francisco Hep B Free Campaign. Source: SFHepBFree.org

Originally published in The Quarterly Magazine, Spring 2015 issue

A deadly disease lurks in the blood of nearly 1 in 50 people in Los Angeles. The silent killer is the Hepatitis B virus (HBV). And a simple blood test for those who are more prone can easily be the first step in eliminating the devastating effects.

Though some may feel shame in being a potential carrier, this misconception carries a greater shame in not being tested and facing death. The truth is that Hepatitis B (Hep B) is a sickness like any other, passed between average people. But unlike other illnesses, the virus often progresses without any notice to its victim. 85% of carriers have no symptoms. Undetected, HBV quietly replicates, eventually targeting the liver. “The main cause of death from Hepatitis B is liver failure and the development of liver cancer,” says Dr. Myron Tong, M.D., Ph.D., Director of Asian Liver Center and Clinical Hepatology at UCLA and Chief of the Liver Center at Huntington Medical Research Institutes (HMRI) in Pasadena.

This insidious attack can continue for decades until the damage is so great that the individual begins to experience severe fatigue, abdominal pain, or jaundice (deep yellowing of the skin or eyes). These are only a sample of symptoms caused by a distressed liver. “By this time, you’re pretty sick,” says Tong. Those affected “don’t feel sick so they don’t feel an urgency to be screened. [With advances in testing and medication,] we don’t need to see people dying of Hep B anymore,” says Mimi Chang, Senior Nurse Practitioner, Asian Pacific Liver Center in LA.

Looking in the future: This could be you. By the time Hep B individual is jaundiced, the liver is already seriously damaged. Source: WebMD.com
Looking in the future: This could be you. By the time Hep B individual is jaundiced, the liver is already seriously damaged. Source: WebMD.com

Because the virus is transmitted through blood and bodily fluids (like semen and vaginal fluids), one cannot get Hep B through casual contact (hand shakes, sneezing or sharing utensils). However, HBV is 50-100% more contagious than HIV. 50% of HBV is vertically transmitted from mother to child during the birthing process. Intravenous drug users, men who have sex with other men, and those with multiple sex partners are also at risk.

Immigrants (even second and third generation) from and those traveling to areas around the world where there are high rates of HBV carriers are also at greater risk. Some high-risk regions include, but are not limited to, East Asia, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. 75% of carriers around the world are Asian, according to Tong. So in LA where Asians make up nearly 15% of the population, the number of people who don’ t know they have Hep B is an issue.

Endemic areas around the world. Source: HepBFreeHawaii.org
Endemic areas around the world. Source: HepBFreeHawaii.org

One of the saddest cases seen by Susan Lewis, RN and Clinical Hepatology Coordinator at USC, was in an educated family man of 28, raised in the US, who didn’t know he had Hep B but came to the hospital when symptoms finally appeared. He died of liver complications before his 30th birthday. But this stark outcome can easily be avoided.

“Chronic hepatitis B is a treatable infection. Screening of at-risk persons, early detection and treatment, when indicated, can lessen the risks of illness, liver cirrhosis, liver cancer and death from liver disease,” says Dr. John Donovan, M.D., Assistant Professor of Medicine, Gastrointestinal and Liver Diseases, Keck School of Medicine at USC. With education and careful attention to Hep B, Tong believes this health concern can even be eradicated in the next few decades.

Since 1991, all children born in the US routinely receive the Hep B vaccination (in existence since the early 1980s), effectively protecting 95% of those inoculated. But for those who did not receive the vaccine, it is still a necessity, so long as the virus is not in their system (only found by a blood test) and they are born to a family from outside the US where Hep B is endemic. For instance, a person born in the US in the 70s to a parent who immigrated from southeast Asia should be tested because even though the parent did not show outward signs of Hep B, they could have passed down the virus to their children. The vaccine is useless if an individual was already exposed to HBV and is an asymptomatic carrier. For these people, a blood test is necessary to be screened for the virus.

A doctor can then determine if a person needs the vaccine based on family history, or if found positive, the type of treatment needed (usually one pill each day until the HBV is under control.) The sooner it’s caught, the less damage to the liver and the higher the chance of survival. All pregnant women in the US are tested for Hep B. If they are found positive, the baby has a chance at a Hep B-free life if treated at the time of delivery.

If anyone has a family history of liver cancer or falls in the categories above, screening is necessary. Since physicians may not exactly know the people groups who need testing, it is up to the public to become aware and ask for the test. And money should not be an issue. For those who need it, there are free clinics where testing can be done and if necessary, funding for treatment as well. Visit AsianPacificLiverCenter.Org for more on testing in LA, regardless of race. Having a discussion about family origins and medical history can begin the awareness toward testing for a potentially hazardous illness that is completely treatable if found well before symptoms arise.

Join others on May 19, National Hepatitis Testing Day and be an advocate for a “Hep B Free LA” (a volunteer organization to help educate and promote screenings).

To read more about Hep B, go to http://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/B/bFAQ.htm or http://www.AsianPacificLiverCenter.Org

A special thank you to Dr. Tong for his expertise in Hep B and extensive help in research for this article.


Grief in Good Times Through the Holidays

Originally printed in the South Pasadena Review 12/18/14; for my column, “A Stone’s Throw”

Image from psych central.com
Image from psychcentral.com

This is a season of celebration and joy. It’s seen in stores and along Fair Oaks. It’s heard on the radio and in churches. You can smell it from kitchens. We feel it in the air. But for those who have lost a loved one (and now I join this thoughtful bunch with the sudden passing of my father this September) mixed emotions abound.

I don’t pretend to be experienced in grief; this inevitability is still raw. But as I mourn and help my mom in the process as well, we’ve learned much together, stumbled through Thanksgiving, and continue to figure it out as we go.

Mom lives with us for now (2 loud children, a needy dog and patient husband among us.) We decided it’s best for us to be together. The boys have to sleep in the same room, though challenging at times, this has also proven to be good; they actually like it this way, now.

Mom and I are currently going through the seemingly endless “business” of tying-up financial loose ends, memorializing dad’s life with an engraved bench in Griffith Park (his favorite hiking spot), cleaning, and creating memories of his legacy as a poet and a “viewing stone” artist.

Random things make us break down at various times. For mom, she became angry when having to check-off “married,” “single,” or “widowed” on a form or cries when thinking about all the food she didn’t let him eat (cannot win here.) For me, I broke down at the grocery store after seeing a friend from the past. All are examples of just a few of the many unusual times grief has struck.

We fight the dichotomous need to hold in our emotions, so we’re not a blubbering mess at every turn, while at the same time, try to encourage each other to just let it out, to allow the grief to flow naturally.

When I want to cry, I don’t. When I want to hold it in, because it’s just downright embarrassing at times, my face curls up hideously in a last-ditch effort to control the flood about to erupt.

There is, of course, no one “right” way to mourn. There are, however, some good things to keep in mind, whether you are grieving or someone you know is mourning a loss (this may also include beloved pets). Whether or not it’s been a few months or a few decades since the loss, grief rears itself unexpectedly and sometimes so deeply it may seem no one can possibly understand. Experts say it gets better with time. I’m trusting this.

For now, there are days I am numb, emotionless even. Sometimes I am so busy, taking care of everyone else, that I forget mourning. But as a good friend reminded me, I, too, am grieving. When I stay in that space, I realize it’s the pain I’m avoiding. And as I read in grief.com, “Grief is the way out of pain.” So it behooves us to find ways to grieve well.

Here are some dos and don’ts I’ve found helpful or have discovered through research:

Do something for yourself, whatever feeds your soul (even if it’s “fun,” don’t feel guilty, laughter is also a form of medicine). My mom wants to learn how to play the guitar. I write.

Do think about children who are close, they are often “forgotten grievers.” Keeping old traditions during the holidays may serve them well. And come up with some enjoyable new ones, too.

Do things for others. Volunteer at a food bank. Visit those who may be lonely. A month after my father’s passing I made a meal for a new mom and that surprisingly felt healing to serve another.

Do celebrate the season. For me, Christmas is about “Emanuel,” God with us. So my focus here fills me and keeps me grounded.

Do rest.

Don’t force yourself to do something that doesn’t feel right. Allow yourself to be alone and be with people, whatever helps.

Don’t keep feelings locked-up. Talk about your loved one, whether or not emotions follow. Celebrate this season as you mourn and remember treasured memories of your loved one.

Don’t reject help. You may be blessed (and allow blessings to fall on others) in unexpected ways as you stay connected to people. This was definitely true for us in the form of friends giving us meals, to give only one example.

Though there is no magic solution to make the pain go away during the holidays and the “quiet” months that follow, there are ways to press into it and make it a time to celebrate the life of a loved one and how they made you who you are.

For dealing with grief, try one of these resources in South Pasadena: Jessica ChenFeng, PhD, LMFT (626) 817-2188, therapywithmftjess.com; Craig Clark, PhD (626) 403-0734; Jacqueline Woods, LMFT at Pacific Trauma Treatment Center (626) 808-4030, PacificTTC.com. Also, seek counseling and grief support in various houses of faith in the community.

Research credit and online resources: griefnet.org and grief.com

In Memory of Sang Gil Suk 8/7/39 – 9/7/14

Farewell to My Daddy: A Rock Star! A Writer. A Role Model.

Daddy Suk's younger days
Daddy Suk’s younger days

The Rock Star

In College I told a friend about my dad’s “Rock Show.”

My friend replied, “What? You’re dad’s in a band? He’s so cool!”

“No, not a rock show with rock music, but a show with stones, viewing stones.” Apparently, that was still cool; so we went and enjoyed a more mellow kind of show, one with peace and God’s beauty at the center.

These stones (or Soo Suk) filled our home, lined our walls, stairs and bathroom. Even our last name “Suk” means “stone” in Korean. God gave my dad a fitting name. And in turn, my dad gave my eldest son, his middle name – Ian “Stone” Wang. Even my email is stonemama@gmail.

And like a rock, my dad was strong, carved by God and one of a kind. His passion was to discover stones that told a story… of war and peace, a story of strength and vulnerability, and sometimes a simple story of a dancer…which brings me to his love for words.

The Writer

My daddy, the writer, the poet, not only admired beauty in nature, but he deeply appreciated the simplicity and profound nature of words.

He has probably penned over a hundred poems. And though they seem simplistic at first, they are pregnant with meaning. That’s really hard to do! The collection of poems could easily be made into a book, but he didn’t care about the result as much as the process of creating.

And that creative literary spirit was passed down to me. Nature and words spoke to his soul. It was his way of connecting with God, like it is for me. I now realize that the things he valued, I learned to value from him.

One of dad's hundred+ stones
One of dad’s hundred+ stones

The Role Model

My daddy was my role model:

He loved fun. He loved God’s creation. He loved animals. He loved people. He loved life. He loved Jesus.

He loved well.

Sometimes he took fun to an extreme. Once he was playing a game called “Bloody Knuckles” where one person punches his fist against another’s fist until someone gives up. (Kids, don’t try this at home!) My dad played this silly game with a co-worker half his age and ended up breaking his hand, literally fracturing it. Okay, this is not good role model behavior, but what I did get from it (besides, don’t play “bloody knuckles” with someone bigger and stronger”) was that even when you’re 50 (or 70 or 90), you can still enjoy playing silly games! (Only remember, safety first!)

He had no desire to accumulate wealth or power, but rather, he valued experience and beauty far more. He spent his money on trips and on people, instead of on stuff. (He’s been to Death Valley nearly 30 times and took people on tours at least half the time.)

But even more than the rocks I painfully stubbed my toes against, or more than the poems that are sadly lost in translation because my Korean is lacking, or more than the silly guy who would joke with perfect strangers, I remember my daddy as the one who taught me to enjoy life, to not take things too seriously, and to be giving. He would say, “you learn by doing, so let’s go…” camping, hiking or into some new adventure.

As a grandfather, my dad found a way to slip money and gifts into every meeting with my kids. And we saw him a couple times every week! At one point, my youngest exclaimed, “Harabugee is RICH!”

Yes, indeed, he was rich. We didn’t live in a grand home, but we were rich!

Socrates said, “He is richest who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature.” My daddy’s genuine appreciation for the simple and small things in life made him wealthier than kings.

When I think of my dad, I think of the classic children’s book, “The Giving Tree” By Shel Silverstein. This tree gave it’s leaves, apples, branches even it’s whole trunk to the one she loved. And in the end, though my dad didn’t say much, he kept giving, just like this tree. Let me read the ending to this story…

“I don’t need very much now,” said the boy,

“just a quiet place to sit and rest. I am very tired.”

“Well,” said the tree, straightening herself up as much as she could,

“well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting. Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.”

And the boy did. And the tree was happy…

And my dad was happy.

My daddy was my tree, my rock… a steady support. When he looked at me, his eyes sparkled with pride. I knew he was proud of me and that has made me stronger, too. His support has made me who I am today.

Thank you, daddy, for teaching me how to live well. I miss you. But I am excited you are in the best place ever – with all the people you haven’t seen in so long, a place of immense beauty and an eternal story to tell.

You are gone from here, but your legacy lives on in me, in your grandchildren and in all the people who were fortunate enough to meet you.

I love you. Though it hurts to not have you here anymore, I know I will see you again!

Daddy and me
Daddy and me

Olympic Freeway Murals Come Alive Again

Originally published in Fall 2014 Quarterly Magazine

John Wehrle's "Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo" - 101 Freeway at Spring St.
John Wehrle’s “Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo” – 101 Freeway at Spring St.

Larger-than-life faces, a child frozen in a handstand, flying mythical columns, and colorful cartoon cars stream by on concrete walls as commuters and visitors from around the world speed or crawl by restored murals.

This is Los Angeles, “mural capital of the world,” and home to the 10 Olympic Freeway Murals from 1984.

Angelinos are fortunate to live and work in a metropolis surrounded by public art created by esteemed muralists. But it is easy to take the beauty of the artwork for granted as drivers sit behind the wheel.

Yet these murals beckon and bend to the rushing nature of traffic. They were created to be experienced in motion – an inspiring backdrop during a hectic day.

According to Isabel Rojas-Williams, Executive Director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles (MCLA), “Although we were all excited to host the Olympics in Los Angeles thirty years ago, in my memory the excitement occurred as I opened the Olympic Arts Festival calendar and saw the opportunities to enjoy world-class art along with world-class sports!”

Unfortunately, mural art is more susceptible to not only highway expansion and the elements, but also taggers who illegally vie for the public’s attention with their own message, placed directly on top of the commissioned works. Because of this, Caltrans painted over the walls. And supporters of the original art have called for restoration.

On August 24 of this year, MCLA held a 30th anniversary celebration fundraiser to help the effort.

The original 10 muralists were honored at the historic Pico House: Glenna Avila, Judith F. Baca, Alonzo Davis, Willie Herrón III, Frank Romero, Terry Schoonhoven, Roderick Sykes, Kent Twitchell, John Wehrle, and Richard Wyatt.

According to Wehrle, “It was wonderful to see people … who went through the same fairly harrowing experience” of making art on the shoulders of some of the busiest freeways in the world (the 101 and 110.)

It was also an honor, Wehrle said, to be counted among the reputable muralists chosen “to represent a vision of LA and the chance to work with other visionary artists of the highest caliber.”

Wehrle’s 24’ x 207’, Keim silicate paint Olympic mural, Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo is an homage to the ancient Greek games and man’s reach into space as a Babel-like tower becomes the rings of Jupiter.

Rojas-Williams said, “As an art historian and scholar of murals, I’m inspired by the history conveyed by the murals in our city. The 1984 Olympic Freeway Murals were painted by some of LA’s most iconic muralists.”

The painstaking restoration is well worth the effort. Avila’s L.A. Freeway Kids took six months for preliminary drawings and another six months to prepare and paint acrylic onto the wall. The mural stands 20 feet high and 225 feet long, and some eight additional artists were hired to help complete the painting.

The mural depicted real children in Avila’s life, playing and running while wearing t-shirts of iconic, kid-friendly places around town: the Los Angeles Zoo, the former Children’s Museum of Los Angeles, Disneyland, and UCLA.

At the forefront of the restorations is Herrón III, artist of the Olympic mural Struggles of the World. Lauded by both Avila and Wehrle, Avila stated of him, “He’s my hero.” And though Herrón III has helped to restore multiple Olympic Freeway Murals, he has yet to work on his own.

Of the 10 original murals, five murals have been restored, one is in the process, two are candidates to be restored in the future, and two have been destroyed in a freeway expansion project.

Rojas-Williams adds, “Murals are important because they convey the voice of the masses, the disenfranchised, the voiceless. Murals serve as an education tool; they empower. They are like open-air books, which educate communities about their history … The 1984 Olympic Freeway Murals brought tremendous pride to Los Angeles.”

The 10 Olympic Freeway Murals:

Glenna Avila’s “L.A. Freeway Kids,” — 101 Freeway near Los Angeles St.

Judith Baca’s “Hitting the Wall” — 110 Freeway at 4th St.

Frank Romero’s “Going to the Olympics” — 101 Freeway between Alameda and San Pedro

Kent Twitchell’s “ Lita Albuquerque Monument” — 101 Freeway, Temple St. underpass
 and “Jim Morphesis Monument” — 101 Freeway, Temple St. underpass

John Wehrle’s “Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo” — 101 Freeway at Spring St.

Alonzo Davis’ “Eye on ‘84” — 110 Freeway, 3rd St. onramp (currently painted over and waiting to be restored)

Willie Herrón III’s “Struggles of the World” — 101 Freeway at Alameda St. (currently painted over and waiting to be restored)

Terry Schoonhoven’s “Cityscape” — 110 Freeway, 6th St. off-ramp (currently painted over and waiting to be restored)

Roderick Sykes’ “Unity” — 110 Freeway, Figueroa St. exit (destroyed)

Richard Wyatt’s, “James and Spectators” –110 Freeway at Adams Blvd. and Flower St. (destroyed)

To find local murals and learn more about MCLA, go to muralconservancy.org

The Edible Pumpkin Patch

Kabocha pumpkin photo courtesy of wholedelicious.com
Kabocha pumpkin photo courtesy of wholedelicious.com

Originally published in “A Stone’s Throw” column in the South Pasadena Review newspaper, October 2014.

Fall is by far my favorite season. There’s a chill in the air (however faint this year), leaves turn a brilliant yellow and orange, and whiffs of pumpkin waft all around. Pumpkins! I adore this autumn gourd.

Consider these pumpkin nutrition facts: it’s low in calories (one cooked cup is 49 calories); it’s an antioxidant, rich in vitamins A, C and E; it’s rich in minerals like calcium, copper, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium; the seeds have an excellent amount of dietary fiber and are good for the heart; there are more than 45 varieties (it gets complicated when you include types of squash); and as my second grader taught me, the more lines outside, the more seeds inside. (I checked the facts and he’s basically right!)

Though the pure inside flesh of the pumpkin is healthy for our bodies, many pumpkin products may not be as much. (Make sure to check nutrition facts on the package.) But they are tasty!

This year I’ve been visiting a kind of pumpkin patch weekly! Trader Joe’s. And my habit has been stretching my wallet and my belly.

I consistently walk out with at least three to five pumpkin items each time: Pumpkin Cream Cheese, Pumpkin Rolls with pumpkin icing, Pumpkin O’s cereal, Iced Pumpkin Scone Cookies, Dark Chocolate Pumpkin Spice Salted Caramels … )

This last week, I purchased three actual pumpkins to grace our front porch and welcome people into our pumpkin-stuffed home (pantry, fridge and people alike.)

As you enter my pumpkin candle-scented house, you will find me smothered in Pumpkin Body Butter, munching on a Harvest Salad with pumpkin vinaigrette, sipping Pumpkin Spice Coffee, and making Pumpkin Bread Pudding.

There are more than 60 pumpkin items in all at this one particular store. So really, I am just skimming the surface.

Though I may seem a little crazy I am actually holding back when I buy just a few items. Oh, how I yearn to try so much more and I probably will (like Pumpkin Pie Mochi Ice Cream, Pecan Pumpkin Oatmeal, and Pumpkin Cranberry Scone Mix!)

Trust me when I say, I don’t work for any particular grocer or pumpkin association in any way. And I assure you; I am not alone in my pumpkin headedness. On The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Fallon even jokes, on more than one occasion, about America’s insatiable appetite for pumpkin lattes, another weakness of mine. (Does that even surprise you by now?)

Amidst pumpkins galore and as delicious as all the pumpkin products are, one of my family’s all-time favorite fall treats is my mom’s simple Asian Pumpkin Porridge with only three ingredients (pumpkin, rice and salt or sugar). I’m drawn back to the basic pumpkin itself. (See recipe below.)

So as you enjoy the plethora of pumpkin in our lives, don’t forget to enjoy pure pumpkin and celebrate our access to and love for it.

Final pumpkin fact: The word “pumpkin” was shamelessly used 40 times in the writing of this piece.

Mama Suk’s Asian Pumpkin Porridge

(Mom says that kings used to eat this in Korea.)

Rinse one cup of rice. Soak in water for one to two hours. Take a greenish Kabocha Squash/Japanese Pumpkin (about five pounds) and wash well, scrub even. (You can use any cooking pumpkin, but Kabocha is our favorite.) Cut in half. Take out seeds. (You can bake those separately.) Steam for roughly 20 minutes, until soft (You can also microwave about one minute per pound.)

Scoop out flesh and combine with soaked rice. Food process or mash the mixture. Stir mixture often in a pot over medium heat, reducing heat to low after boiling. Stir into a thicker consistency. Watch for clumping by stirring regularly for about 15 minutes. (Optional: mix in ½ cup milk for a smoother texture.)

Add about ½ teaspoon salt (to taste) if you want a savory porridge. Or add about one to two teaspoons of sugar (to taste) for a sweet, dessert-like porridge. Enjoy and make sure to let me know how it turns out!

The Magnificent and Mysterious Monarch Migration

Monarch butterfly prepares for flight. Photo by ASWang
Monarch butterfly prepares for flight. Photo by ASWang

The moment I laid eyes on a chunky yellow, black and white-striped monarch caterpillar (larva), I was hooked. It is colorful, peaceful and eats a lot. It’s mesmerizing to observe.

But all this munching is in preparation for something profound, a phenomenon known as the monarch butterfly migration, a fierce journey of up to 3,000 miles in about 2 months from this majestic pollinator that faces multiple perils.

After 12 days or so of emerging from its egg and 5 instars later (shedding old skin and emerging into a larger caterpillar each time), it pupates, turning into a lovely light green jewel of a chrysalis speckled with a shimmering gold crown and a matching golden arc pattern beneath, like a priceless pendant worthy of royalty.

Finally, after being motionless for 10-14 days, the chrysalis turns black, then translucent and the great transformation that took place inside is revealed.

A glorious orange and black butterfly emerges, about 4 inches wide. It takes within 10 minutes to 2 hours to unravel its wings, pumping fluid into and flapping them while they dry and prepare for flight.

But even more than being beautiful and graceful, the delicate monarch butterfly is relentless in its keen sense of travel and highly adaptable under pressure.

“They are incredibly robust in their survival strategies… They’re pretty hardy! To fly as far as they do, they have to be!” says Gail Morris, conservation specialist in Arizona.

Among all insects, it stands alone in its determination to survive by an ability deeply rooted in its DNA to migrate to overwintering sites in the oyamel forests of Mexico, the tip of Florida and the coast of California.

But this unique migration is in danger of extinction. Generally speaking, there are two populations of monarchs within the same species, one to the east and one to the west of the Rocky Mountains. And each has its own migration pattern.

The traditional thinking has been that these two populations are completely separate. But recent studies from the Southwest Monarch Study and partners who tagged monarchs in the West, found that some made their way further south, overwintering in Mexico with the predominant eastern population of fall migrators.

According to Dr. Robert Pyle, founder of the Xerces Society and author of Chasing Monarchs, “The Continental Divide is not the absolute dividing line between Mexican and Californian migrants, as has always been said. Basically, the westernmost (coastal, S Oregon, Northwest) monarchs migrate to the California coast, while some of the inland ones migrate to Mexico. We have no idea how many or what determines the destination.”

The monarch migration in the East is better understood and documented than the western migration pattern that is still being discovered.

The monarchs in the East begin their spring migration to the North in the oyamel forest, when the sun warms their bodies and conditions are suitable for travel. It takes about a month to land in the southern parts of the United States, east of the Rockies. The females lay nearly 400 eggs on multiple milkweed plants to ensure the survival of at least 3 into adulthood! The parent monarch, the first generation, then dies.

The spring migration is brutal. The bright colors on the larva and the orange on the butterfly is a warning that they are poisonous, but this does not deter some predators. And not only do the monarchs face wind conditions that often flow against the direction they’re headed, but also the cost of reproduction is a toll on their longevity.

The second generation takes another 4-6 weeks to fly further north, from Texas to North Carolina and even parts of Virginia. They lay their eggs and die. The 3rd and sometimes even a 4th generation continues the cycle and the journey north, finishing the spring migration in the southeastern parts of Canada and northern portions of the United States.

Then the fall migrators emerge. They are in a state of diapause, not mating and so are able to make the dangerous 2-month journey south to Mexico mostly and some to Florida. On this 1,500-3,000 mile trip, depending on where they began, the monarchs are faced with death daily from predators, disease, extreme weather conditions like storms, geographic challenges like vast stretches of water where staying in flight is critical, and a lack of milkweed to sustain their energy.

When the monarchs finally make it to Mexico they overwinter in the trees of the oyamel forest, clustering together to keep warm. It’s a joyous and wondrous time in the village nearby when millions of monarchs descend and the locals believe their ancestors have returned in late October around “Dia de los Muertos,” or the Day of the Dead.

The Monarchs remain there until about March, when this first generation begins the spring migration north and east to mate, lay eggs and die after an exhausting 8-9 months of life, arguably the longest of any butterfly. And the cycle begins again.

The western population appears to have a similar pattern of generational travel, having a fall migration from Washington, Oregon and the southwestern sections of Canada to the coast of California (some even venturing to Arizona and even the oyamel forest of Mexico.)

But travel routes during the spring migration north and the fall migration south to various overwintering sites are not so defined. And both the migration and the overwintering sites are in danger.

According to Sarina Jepsen, Endangered Species Program Director at the Xerces Society, “There’s an art to preserving overwintering sites. Microclimate change can occur when just some of the trees at the site are cut – affecting humidity, shade, sun and protection from wind.”

Though disease and other natural causes threaten the survival of the monarchs, perhaps the most severe threat is from humans.

In the East, the growing culture of genetically modified crops allow for the mass dumping of harsh herbicides, destroying native milkweed plants, the only breeding and feeding grounds for monarchs.

In Mexico, the monarchs’ overwintering habitats are threatened by deforestation of the oyamel forest.

In the West, our drought problem and urban sprawl destroys the milkweed, hence eliminating the monarch’s only food source.

So it’s no surprise that the monarch population has plummeted. According to the Xerces Society, the eastern population has dropped nearly 90% compared to the highest monarch population estimated in 1996-1997, hitting an all-time low this year.

The western population has seen about a 50% decline (taking into consideration a 17-year average) since 1997 when 1.2 million monarchs were counted. The last count in November 2013 recorded around 200,000.

Though the numbers look bleak, there is certainly a surge of interest in preserving this natural work of art and vital piece of our ecology. And protecting the monarchs’ migration is to protect the monarch itself.

“The more you learn about monarchs the more fascinating they become… Monarch butterflies are also ideal for involving citizen scientists and for conducting research with students. This is especially true in the west where we are still developing a culture of effective citizen science.” says Dr. Francis Villablanca, Professor of biological sciences at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, director and research advisor for monarch alert.

So to become more educated and help the monarch population recover, try some of the unique activities below.

Visit an overwintering site October-February. There are hundreds along the California coast, from Mendocino County to San Diego, the only place to see overwintering monarch in the United States. According to Dr. Villablanca, “Two of the most spectacular sites are Elwood Main in Santa Barbara, and Pismo Beach State Park.” Another popular site is around the Pacific Grove Museum. xerces.org/where-to-see-monarchs-in-california/

Become a citizen scientist during the Thanksgiving count and help field researchers determine the total number of monarch (October-January). xerces.org/butterfly-conservation/western-monarch-thanksgiving-count/

Learn how to get involved in tagging monarchs and furthering the study of migration patterns. monarchalert.calpoly.edu

Visit a vivarium (a house of butterflies) Go to butterflyfarms.org for year-round visits. Or enjoy the butterfly pavilion at the Natural History Museum (April-August)

For a fun family activity in your own yard, create a milkweed garden and become a feeding and breeding waystation for spring migrators headed north. xerces.org/milkweed-seed-finder/, monarchwatch.org and landmnursery.com

Visit my blog for more information on monarchs and to read about my experience raising and releasing monarchs in our home in the San Gabriel Valley. annsukwang.com

A special thanks to those who shared their passion for and wisdom about monarchs: Angie Babbit, Pat Flanagan, David James, Sarina Jepsen, Gail Morris, Dr. Robert Pyle and Dr. Francis Villablanca.

Originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of The Quarterly magazine.

By Ann Suk Wang

The True Tragedy

Photo credit: Livestrong.org

Original publication in The South Pasadena Review, “A Stone’s Throw” Column, September 11, 2014

A few weeks ago, our community sighed in relief having averted a potential school shooting. But after the relief, comes reality. This scary scenario points to wounds that not only exist in our city, but among many teens around the US.

I don’t know why the arrested boys planned an attack on the high school; and I’m not going to guess. But this does make me wonder about the stress many teens face: mounting schoolwork, social pressures and complexities, home life, bullying, anger, depression, suicidal thoughts…

Consider some statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health:

– About 11 percent of adolescents have a depressive disorder by age 18.

– Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24.

– More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, combined.

Sometimes a teen’s problem may solely be a chemical imbalance; but often it’s combined with social factors or simply social-emotional.

“Every teen wants to be connected. Clearly, these teens [the arrested boys] did not feel connected to their community,” states Natasha Prime, Special Education Counselor at South Pasadena High School and founder/Executive Director of “The Place,” a teen center in South Pasadena.

Prime adds, “Lots of kids not associated with traditional school activities (like band or sports) can still be a part of a group. [At “The Place”] they have somewhere to go, a place to belong and be connected.”

Elizabeth Haeger, South Pasadena’s Young Life staff associate, shares from the book Hurt by Dr. Chap Clark, “The average American teenager has less than 2 minutes a day of meaningful, personal interaction with an adult, including their own parents.”

Haeger adds, “As someone who spends a lot of time with teenagers, I can tell you, a lot of kids are in a darker place than many adults realize… They feel hopeless and unknown.”

When I was a teen, I remember being verbally ridiculed by other kids for things like: my name, using a tissue for my nose, winning a contest, and reading a book in the “wrong” spot – all innocuous things. I’m sure kids have to endure far worse! But what made a difference for me was a considerate adult or a thoughtful and apt word from a peer.

Whether or not an unpleasant interaction is “deserved,” many kids (and might I add, adults) can be cruel. For some, it takes one incident and the internal damage is done. For others, decades of abuse can render one to believe they are unworthy; but they can still emerge as decent human beings.

It is not our job to determine what result a mean word or action will have on a person. Rather, it’s everyone’s civil duty and common decency to treat others with respect. Yes, be respectful even to the one causing the pain, without giving them the power to continue the venomous hate that really just makes them miserable people.

Those who harm verbally or physically need to be held accountable for the part they play (by calling them on it or bringing in professionals.) And hopefully, that will help them take a step toward betterment. No one is beyond help.

But before a person starts down the wrong path, each individual around them can make a difference. It’s easy to say or do a mean thing or judge a situation quickly. What’s infinitely more challenging is to go beyond instinct and replace the mean word or action with a gentle, sincere and healing one.

Go even further and be fierce in caring for people. Go up to someone who was just handed a blow and pepper them with a kind truth. The irony is: the one who hurts the most is the one who spreads the hurt. So be a person who intervenes and stops that cycle.

I don’t say these things because I am this ideal caring person. I write this because I sometimes judge and spew venom (if only in my head and spilling out at times). But with the help of God and good friends, I must strive for better. And I’m guessing, no matter where we are on the care meter, we can all make improvements here.

I was angry with the two boys who were arrested because they allegedly meant to inflict serious harm. But then the anger turned to sympathy for us all: the boys, their families, those who can help prevent tragedies and those who are still being victimized.

The problem was thwarted but the pain persists. Are you the one causing pain? Are you the one taking it? (Don’t give up on seeking help, you will find it!) Are you the one watching it happen all around and doing little to nothing about it? All of us can probably answer “yes” to each.

The true tragedy would be moving forward like nothing ever happened. We can all take a moment to creatively imagine what can be done to turn a community-wide scare into a more healing future. We can recognize the underlying pain that exists all around and do something about it.

Resources to connect teens to peer communities and people who care:

http://www.theplaceofsouthpas.org (a safe place after school for 13-18 year olds)

http://www.greaterpasadena.younglife.org (Wyldlife is for those in middle school and Young Life is for high school students. YoungLife and WyldLife groups meet in various cities. Meetings are a fun, energetic and thoughtful place for teens.)

Raising Monarchs

Step 1: A monarch feeds on milkweed and lays her eggs
Step 1: A monarch feeds on milkweed and lays her eggs

This past spring I witnessed the beauty and mystery of monarch butterflies in my garden. At first, I was skeptical any would flutter by. How would they find my two small milkweed plants?

When they did find it, I was concerned about my lack of ability and time to raise them. Now that I’ve come out the other end, I can say for certain that with a little guidance and effort, anyone can do this. And it’s worth the effort!

As autumn approaches, the western monarch butterflies migrate south, from parts of Northwestern US to various forests along the coast in California, where they overwinter, bundling together to stay warm for survival.

This is not the season for raising monarchs, but rather, it’s a time for preparing your milkweed for the spring mating season and migration back north. You may also choose to buy more mature milkweed plants in early spring.

The western migration pattern for the monarchs differ from the more well-documented eastern migration from Canada and northern United States to the oyamel forest in Mexico. Though the butterfly species are the same, the ones on the West Coast overwinter in different areas than their eastern counterparts.

The overwintering sites are at their peak from about October-February. There are hundreds along the California coast, from Mendocino County to San Diego. According to Dr. Francis Villablanca, Professor of Biological Sciences at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, Director and research advisor for Monarch Alert, “Two of the most spectacular sites are Elwood Main in Santa Barbara, and Pismo Beach State Park.” Another popular site is around the Pacific Grove Museum. For more information, visit: xerces.org/where-to-see-monarchs-in-california/

But if you would like to experience monarchs in your own home, begin by growing milkweed in your garden. By spring they should be full and at least 1.5 feet tall (or purchase two or more 5-gallon container plants). This way, the monarch larvae have plenty to eat. Native varieties are best. But an easier plant to maintain is the tropical milkweed. It’s a beautiful water-wise plant, too — though poisonous to ingest, like most milkweed. Just make sure to cut it down during the off season (starting in late July and August) to help minimize passing on disease to future monarchs and allowing for a more natural migration pattern.

Step 2: A very hungry monarch caterpillar (larva)
Step 2: A very hungry monarch caterpillar (larva)

When spring comes, the overwintering monarchs will be ready to mate and head north. Their migration is truly a unique phenomenon that is still a mystery to many scientist. It will take at least 3 generations of monarchs and about 4 months to make it all the way up. And it is during this time when the monarch-raising fun begins!

1) In late spring especially, stay vigilant every day (even just 15 minutes in the afternoon), visiting your milkweed plant, killing aphids with a swab on a stick dipped in alcohol, and watching for drifting monarchs. Chances are, these monarchs will land on your milkweed and leave eggs behind. If you’re patient and watch closely, you may even see the monarch actually lay the egg. When I first encountered this, I was moved by the life that was being formed before my very eyes! When you see a white ellipsoid dot on a green stem, you’ve got an egg.

2) 3-4 days later, a tiny caterpillar (larva) will emerge. Keep searching for them daily under leaves and near flowers. When you find one, cut off a small area of the plant, where the larva is hanging on for dear life and bring it in. Be warned… I wanted the larva to live naturally in the garden; but for me, that meant 100% of them being eaten by predators! I was so sad because I felt like the worst monarch mommy. It was time to bring in new hatchlings. And if your plant is healthy, 100% of your larva could successfully emerge as butterflies!

(Note: You may not have time to take care of caterpillars; don’t panic! Just having the milkweed to feed passing monarchs is good! And if you have eggs, you can try to leave them in the garden. You may not have especially dangerous caterpillar snatchers like I did! But if you bring them in…)

mesh dome
mesh dome

3) I put the cut plant (like a straw) into a water-filled plastic cup with a lid, like the ones you get at coffee shop. This helps keeps the plant fresh.

4) I covered the cup/plant/larva with a mesh picnic dome. Whenever the plant looked munched down to nubs, I replaced the plant and gently allowed the caterpillar to crawl onto the new plant. Note: the larva goes through about 5 instars, shedding it’s skin and emerging bigger each time.

In the last few days the larva eat so much, you need to clean their area (to reduce disease) and replace the demolished plant nearly every 18-24 hours. This took the most time in the monarch raising process. Note: Cleaning requires removing the frass (larva excrement) and wiping the flat surface with a natural disinfectant like an equal parts vinegar and water mixture.

5) After the larva can eat and grow no more, they inch their way to the top of your dome and hang upside down in a “J” shape. Try not to disturb the larva from here on! After about a day or two, they will do a circular dance while hanging upside-down. Within minutes a chrysalis will form around the larva. If you happen to catch this process, you will be amazed by the instant transformation. IMG_1173

6) For the next 10 days or so, a dramatic and amazing transformation is taking place inside the chrysalis. (I even felt like my monarchs were teaching me life lessons…  Like sometimes I need to slow down in order to experience deep change… but that’s another article.)

7) When the butterfly is ready to emerge, the chrysalis turns black and then translucent. The shell cracks open and moist wings unravel while fluid is gradually pumped into them,expanding as they dry. Within 10 minutes to a couple hours, the monarch is ready to take flight. You may want to admire the beautiful creature for a day or so; but whatever you do, release it (preferably in the morning or the cool of the day, not at night).

Step 3: jewel-like monarch chrysalis
Step 3: jewel-like monarch chrysalis

8) Often they land on your hand or clothing, as if to say “thank you”  before their final goodbye. And when they leave, you ‘ll feel proud knowing you’ve saved a life and helped the great monarch migration, a natural phenomenon that is still being studied and understood. (Stay tuned for my next post about the monarch migration as it appears in The Quarterly magazine, Fall issue.)

Please share your monarch adventures or misadventures here. I will do my best to answer your questions; but honestly, I am barely scratching the surface on raising monarchs. For a more detailed look into caring for monarchs, try visiting sites like http://monarchbutterflygarden.net and borrowing related books from your local library.

If you’re not sure whether or not you’re ready to raise monarchs, consider the benefits (invite a lovely display of nature into your home, plant a water-wise garden with milkweed, become a feeding and breeding way station for migrating monarchs, produce much needed pollinators, help save the monarch migration and the monarch itself…) These far outweigh the costs.

Note: Photos are by yours truly. I hope you enjoy them!

Parents of South Pasadena Students React to Planned Shooting

10602716_10152269377106850_588848138_n For the background story, go to SouthPasadenaNow.com

We hear about school shootings around the US and are angry and sad for the pain it causes. When the threat comes directly into our own community (for me, less than a block away), the concern deepens. As with any small town, people share meals, soccer matches, and school events; we seem, at most, one degree away from each other.

So after tragedy was averted on Monday when two South Pasadena High School students were arrested because of the very real threat of a shooting attack on staff and students, a collective sigh of relief came from parents who realized how bad this could have been. Even the potential of what could have been shakes us up.

A community is left stunned, relieved and thoughtful about what else lurks and how to avoid the worst of it in the future.

Jon Primuth, President of the South Pasadena Educational Foundation (SPEF) said, “My daughter (a senior) and son (a sophomore) would have been on campus at the time, so my emotions are a huge tangled knot of fear and relief. I am deeply grateful to our school administrators and police for their alert response and quick action.”

“I do believe that the culture of ‘community involvement’ in South Pasadena contributed to this being detected early. We are one big family looking out for each other, not afraid to speak out when something doesn’t look right,” says Gina Chang, parent of two elementary-aged children.

A sense of gratitude was certainly felt among people. But many other feelings followed.

“After hearing about the incident, I told myself to drop down on my knees and just pray. If a small community like South Pasadena can have kids that are this troubled then we must pray for those two boys and protection over all the schools. I feel so helpless. Violence is everywhere,” says Josephine Sin, a parent of two (one at the middle school and another at Arroyo Vista Elementary.)

Dayna Cahoon, wonders, “How do I communicate to my young children, all under the age of eight, that things like this happen, without creating fear in them?… Are children so desperate for attention and a feeling of notoriety that they are willing to cause such horrible tragedy?”

A parent of three (two high school students and a newly graduated high school senior,) Hollin Liu says, “We thought we lived in a safe neighborhood. With something like this, even South Pasadena gets to be listed as ‘dangerous.’ It’s scary just thinking about it. And about the fencing-in situation in all our schools, if there were a shooting frenzy, wouldn’t it be harder for kids to run?”

The very thought of extreme violence makes people consider the policies and practices in place, refining safety measures and making them better.

“…It’s not enough to ban guns or ban media that romanticizes violence and vengeance. We need more positive adult role models in kids’ lives,” Primuth adds. “As for SPEF, we have the same disaster planning as SPUSD in all our summer schools.”

As a parent of children at the middle school and elementary school, this situation has caused my own family to talk about what may be considered “suspicious” and what to do in light of it. My kids mentioned that they didn’t want to “tattle,” so that lead to a discussion on what is and isn’t tattling.

And each child responds differently, so parents need to be sensitive about how to discuss such topics. If you or your children have concerns regarding the recent threat, counselors will be available at all SPUSD schools.

Though a stream of questions and thoughts bombard the brain of a parent in cases like this, the thread that unites us in this particular situation is our thankfulness to community members and authorities who kept this situation from turning into a nightmare.

A prayer vigil will be held on Wednesday, August 20th, at 7:00 p.m. on the front lawn of St. James’ Episcopal Church, for students at all five South Pasadena schools.

Fun and Fascinating School Creatures

Originally from my column “A Stone’s Throw” in the South Pasadena Review (June 2014)

Throughout the school year, students learn best by experience. This is especially true of live creatures in the classroom; and I’m not talking about the kids.

It’s good to study about the world from a book; but bring it to life to observe and touch and the learning increases that much more.

When I was growing up my parents would travel with me, making the most of my time away from school. They would say “You learn more when you do.”

In the same vein, my kids and I continue to “do.” Beyond going places, we also “do” at home. Currently we live in a zoo/laboratory, or so it feels like such. We have 2 spunky boys (Thing 1 and Thing 2), a bouncy dog (Bree), 2 hardy water frogs raised from tadpoles (Hop and Hoppity), soon to be released butterflies, ladybugs in their pupa stage and praying mantises in their habitat getting ready to live in our garden. And I must admit it involves a little money, a little time and a lot of fun.

Living things can respond to your actions and sounds. They eat, have antics, poo, molt, hang upside-down and evolve. You can spend a day together and learn its habits. Now that’s education!

In the South Pasadena elementary schools, we have rabbits, ducklings, chickens and turtles. Some teachers introduce their classes to hairy tarantulas that are fed live insects, frogs that are placed in makeshift ponds, and caterpillars that miraculously metamorphose into butterflies released to the skies.

Dawn Tull, a 4th and 5th grade teacher at Monterey Hills Elementary has in her class (and will have in her home over the summer): 3 guinea pigs, a gecko, tree frogs, fire belly toads and an insect habitat – Oh my! “The reason I have animals is… to reinforce all the eco system studies we do.”

Even at the middle school, the library has two birds and an escape artist hamster. An assortment of insects and reptiles like snakes and lizards also find their way into our academic environment – it’s natural!

When Colette Carbonare, a second grader at Arroyo Vista was asked what she learned about the ducklings, she said, “Whoever takes a duck has to take two because they get lonely.” Apparently this is a crucial element in a ducky’s social existence, but may not be fun for the “lucky” parent who gets to clean twice the mess.

This brings us to the question: “where do all the creatures go,” now that the traditional academic season comes to a close? Like Pete Seeger’s old political folk song in the 60s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” the creatures come full circle.

They get adopted into student’s homes everywhere. Teachers find they have new pets for the summer. And some get released into nature to continue the life cycle.

Wherever they go, somehow, when the new school year rolls around again, future generations of creatures find their way back into the classroom and into the minds and hearts of those fortunate enough to behold and enjoy them.

To try some of these in your own home, borrow a pet from your child’s classroom for the weekend or summer. Or go to insectlore.com (for caterpillars/butterflies and ladybug larvae), fascinations.com (for an ant farm and praying mantises) and growafrog.com (for see-thru tadpoles). Or to keep the critters contained in a story, try a fun tale about “Humphrey,” life from the perspective of a classroom hamster.

Whatever you do, make sure you “DO” something. Get out of your comfort zone and get dirty. Those precious years of wonder and discovery tend to fade over time. So don’t miss it!