Happy Galentine’s Day: The Best Day of the Year

February 13th: Galentine’s Day AKA The Best Day of the Year, at least according to Leslie Knope.

Seeing as Leslie Knope is partially my spirit animal, with other parts Ron Swanson, April Ludgate, Ben Wyatt, and Donna Meagle, I too believe it’s one of the best days of the year. Also, if you didn’t notice, I’m fluent in Parks and Recreation. I’ll refer you to my quote about my incredibly talented bestie (scroll to the quote about her that is lengthy and obviously from me). So, yeah.

And this is the perfect segue to say, “Thank you” to the wonderful gals in my life. A few, close…OK, very close, gal pals have really helped me make it through life.

Cheers to my gals! Poway, CA. (New Year’s Eve 2017/2018) PS-that’s club soda

You have all brought overwhelming joy and endless love and true kindness and deep-bellied laughter and heartfelt tears. You are my emotional back-brace: you help me stand with confidence. When I’m down, you pick me. When I’m sitting in a hospital bed for weeks at a time, you wash my hair and pretend I’m not acting insane. You drop everything to help me submit my PhD applications when I’m tethered to an IV. You keep me grounded. You lift me up.

 

Deb showing me that New Year’s Eve is better outside the ICU. Poway, CA. 2017/2018.

 

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Lauren brining me hot chocolate in the hospital. La Jolla, CA. Winter 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thank you to the wonderful lady-friends who have kept it real forever. To the ladies who’ve known me the longest (and spent the most time in a car with me), thank you for putting up with me.

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Elizabeth, me, and Paige road-tripping through California in my bug, Jada (another powerful female). Yellow-jacket Ranch, CA. Summer 2010.

To the women who will shamelessly quote children’s movies, thank you for keeping me young at heart.

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Ramona and I acting more like kids than the kids around up. Escondido, CA. Summer 2017.

To the gals who have proven that enemies can become besties, I’m incredibly grateful for your unconditional love and open-mindedness.

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Laura and me. San Diego, CA. December 2016 (in between ICU visits).

To my nerdy women in science who will critique my papers, grovel with me when I’m frustrated with my projects, and high-five me when I achieve success.

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Me, Michelle, Holly, and Keiko at the Southern California Marine Mammal Workshop. February 2017.

To my family of strong, beautiful, empowering women who help me to laugh at the little things when I’m struggling to get up in the morning, thank you for giving me strength.

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My cousins: Lisa, me, Katie, and Lauren with our grandmother, Edith. Seattle, WA. Thanksgiving 2017.

To women who overcame the odds and instilled self-determination as a fundamental value, thank you for never giving up.

Me, my mom, and my grandmother. Whittier, CA. July 1993.

To my fellow female adventurers who fuel my whimsical ideas, thank you for embracing wanderlust with me.

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Katie and me exploring…and getting a little lost. Somewhere on the Pacific Crest Trail, CA. November 2016.
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Me and Bryanna on our way to more fun. Actually in the USA. October 2015.

To my sisters from other misters and adoptive mothers and grandmothers, thank you for being my found family.

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Me and Brie at dinner with my parents. Sacramento, CA. September 2010.
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Elizabeth, Kati, and Brick at my high school graduation (making fun of my senior photo). San Diego, CA. June 2010.
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Abigail riding around on my back (this is the most “normal” photo of us). San Diego, CA. July 2017.
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Kimmie and me at our college apartment. Davis, CA. 2013-ish.

 

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Erin, Natalie, me, Haley, and Melinda at my high school graduation. San Diego, CA. June 2010.
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Me, Chelsea, and Kody (2nd cousin-ish in-law) post-wedding celebrations. North Carolina. May 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To the women who mentor me, thank you for guiding and encouraging me in the face of adversity.

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Jazzy (former TA/lab supervisor/friend) and me. Sonoma, CA. Summer 2017.

And, to all the women who I didn’t mention because I’m spending way too much time writing this instead of working, you are my life blood. You give my life meaning. You ease my pain. You experience life with me. You rock.

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Bads$$ women I met on a beach. Bermuda. 2008-ish
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Eva, me, and Amanda. Dead Sea, Israel. December 2017. Photo: Kasey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the words of Leslie Knope, “You are a beautiful, talented, brilliant, powerful musk ox.”

~@

 

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Dance Dance Evolution

Dancing. I think everyone who knows me, knows I LOVE dancing. My soul dances instead of speaks. It’s how I communicate, learn, and listen. It’s me. Any form of dance, I’ll try it and I’ll enjoy it–guaranteed. What does this have to do with my trip to Israel? Only everything. (Justin Timberlake gets me).

At the beginning of the trip, we spent a night learning Israeli dance. The teacher asked for three volunteers, so naturally my hand shot up. It’s an instinct at this point. Making a fool of myself is a favorite past time if it involves dancing. I was instructed to put on a long, fuchsia dress and a head covering. Then, I was shown how to dance the Yemeni-Israeli dance called the Temani. The following two volunteers were shown dances with origins in Europe and Africa. Together, we saw how dance brought the people of Israel together; they spoke different languages, but would gather and dance because it was universal. So, by the end of the night, all forty of us danced in a very warm, bomb shelter below the main floor of our hotel/hostel (casually dropping in the fact that every hotel has a bomb shelter).

Me dancing and smiling.

A few days later, in Tel Aviv, we were given the opportunity to go out to a club. This was a gift for us because we had a packed schedule that was strictly abided per the rules of the trip. This was my time to shine. I got dressed up and brought my A-game. We got sweaty, we got our booties shaking, we laughed, and we had a fantastic night. I hope it’s a “we” at least.

Ready to dance in Tel Aviv, Israel!

As I mentioned, our days were full of group activities–one of which was learning an Israeli pop song and choreographing a dance. We got to bring in our style and modern music–while *attempting* to understand the Hebrew that we would be singing and performing.

This was our song:

And this is our group (Video: Denise B.):

Then, it was time for Jerusalem, the city known for its current political controversies, and yet, beloved by so many religions and cultures. I was hesitant to be in a city well-known for being deeply religious and conservative, when, here I am, secular and liberal-ish. Fortunately, the group I was traveling with (my mispacha), bonded together; we were a diverse group of people–in terms of religion, culture, ethnic backgrounds, political affiliations, sexual orientation, etc. We visited the Western Wall–the Kotel–on Shabbat (Friday evening, when the city shuts down for a time of rest as part of a Jewish tradition). At the Western Wall, men and women are split by a large fence divides the Western Wall into two sides (and yes, there were discussions on gender equality). All of the women from our group shuffled to our side in what I can only describe as a sea of people. The Kotel was jam-packed because of Shabbat–when even more people come to the wall to pray. We were surrounded by the unfamiliar faces of women, and also, an equally comforting feeling that we were all there for some common reason–to worship, to respect, to see–this incredible place with a rich history. So it was no surprise that, with the help of an Israeli friend, Noa, we started dancing. Soon, concentric rings of women–some with elaborate head-coverings, some with gray hair and smile-lines, others with youthful innocence–all from different countries, joined in song and dance.

This is one of my favorite Hebrew songs–and one that we sung many times, including at the Kotel. Be sure to listen after 0:30 because that beat and feeling is what the song is all about. Because we were there on Shabbat, no electronics were used and I didn’t film out of respect. We sang everything from Salaam (Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu) to Hallelujah. Mind you, I don’t speak Hebrew. I now know a few songs and a couple of phrases, but that didn’t matter. We all joined arms, we all danced, we smiled, we hugged. It was beautiful. This made me feel like I was in the right place. I had made the right decision to join Birthright and journey to Israel.

Back at the Kotel (Western Wall) a few days after Shabbat. Jerusalem, Israel

During one of our many check-ins on the trip, I shared that these experiences of dancing and singing without having language as a barrier were the highlights of my trip. It was a full circle moment.

There was more dancing on this trip than I can even describe, but here’s a peek into a “Mega Event” with thousands of Birthright participants around the world. Please notice the dancers…us…the people who brought the party (Video: Meir C.).

And finally, to really tie everything together, I took on a Hebrew name. You’re probably thinking, “Huh? Wait, what? I thought she’s not religious. How does she choose a Hebrew name? What does that have to do with dancing? Explain.” Gladly. In Judaism, it’s customary for a child to be given a Hebrew name. See, I never had a bat mitzvah, nor was I given a Hebrew name because my family is non-practicing and does not identify as Jewish. I’m the only one in my family who, although secular, identifies with the Jewish culture (and is also genetically Jewish). In many parts of the world, it’s customary for a Jewish girl at the age of 12, to become a bat mitzvah (for a boy it’s age 13 and a bar mitzvah). It’s a concrete point of adulthood in Judaism when the person becomes accountable for his/her/their actions.

On our trip, a rabbi gave us the opportunity to have a bat or bar mitzvah. As he said this, the song “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John immediately popped into my head and I proceeded to cry tears laughter. I was hesitant to have one, until the moment at the Western Wall when it all clicked. I was going to have a bat mitzvah and I would choose a Hebrew name that translated into something about dancing. After searching, I found the name “Mahola” (Ma-ho-lah) which means “one who enjoys dancing”. It’s uncommon, but can be found dating back to ancient times when the Jewish people danced and rejoiced. Sounds fitting, right?!

The rabbi addressing me as I’m given my Hebrew name, Mahola. (Photo: Michelle M.)

As part of the bat mitzvah ceremony, I was asked how I would help others using my skills. Without hesitation: through dance. Since being back at grad school, I’ve introduced people to socializing, to letting go of worries, to being free through the power of dance.

All of use who chose to have a bar or bat mitzvah.

So there you have it: my dancing evolution. Me and dancing and Israel, all wrapped up in one package of jubilant rhythm!

~@

Israel: A Trip of Self-Discovery (And dancing. There is always dancing.)

This December I was given the opportunity to discover a land in a faraway place that is laden with a rich history, a diverse group of people who call it “home”, layers of intricate controversy, and more hummus than you can ever imagine: Israel.

Just landed in Israel and our first stop was the beach at the ancient city of Caesarea. Note: the airplane hair.

There is a program called “Birthright” or “Taglit” that gifts people, who identify as Jewish and are between the ages of 18-32, a trip of discovery to Israel. Prior to this trip, I referred to myself as Jewish, light on the “Jew”, heavy on the “Ish”. I am secular (not religious) and only discovered the Jewish culture in the past 8 years as a college student. But, I still qualified and took the leap. I signed up for a trip led by Israel Free Spirit (which is run through the Orthodox Union) that was specifically for “Young Professionals” AKA people in their mid-20s.

Fast forward to a Saturday morning in December. It’s 6am and I have 6 hours to pack everything into my backpacking pack, shower, submit paperwork for my scholarship, send out last-minute emails, and eat lunch. I preface this by telling you that the official packing list includes, but is not limited to: 12 shirts (long-sleeved recommended), 2-3 nice going-out outfits, 4-5 sweaters/sweatshirts, bathing suit, pants, shorts, 3+ pairs of shoes, 2 scarves, then all the usual. Therefore, you can imagine me cramming, literally cramming, clothes into my pack the morning of, and making many executive decisions about which pants were not going to make it. After that arduous process, which involved more internal struggle than I was prepared for, I made my way to a hotel nearby LAX International Airport. On any other trip, I would simply commute from San Diego to Los Angeles the day of my flight. But, here’s the catch: we had to meet at the airport FIVE hours prior to our flight…which was at 7:40AM. Do the math. That meant a 2:40AM check-in with the group at LAX. So, I chose to get in a quick 5 hour nap at a hotel for my sanity.

So, at 2:40AM on a balmy, Sunday morning in LAX, I met 32 new people. These 32 people would morph into 32 new chosen family members who would know more about my life than people I’ve known for years because after traveling with them for 13 days, I think we’ve seen and heard it all.

This is my mispacha (Hebrew for family).

The whole fam-bam.

I debated whether or not to make one REALLY long post about my trip or a few more manageable posts…I’ve decided on the latter. With that in mind, you can look forward to hearing stories/seeing photographs about: dancing (obviously, this is me, after all), learning, friendships, Judaism, the Middle East, and so much more.

~@

 

 

What a difference a year makes

Today I’m writing from an airport, on my way to visit a country far, far away. My life consists of grad school, outdoor activities, and laughter. If you see me, I look healthy and happy. Candid laughter while snowshoeing in Oregon.

It’s hard to imagine a life where I’m not snowshoeing or hiking and smiling ear-to-ear (or actively laughing, like I am in this photo). The PhD program I’m in feels natural–like I’m meant to be here with a bunch of outdoorsy nerds and their respective pets.

But, a year ago, I wasn’t. A year ago, I was fighting multiple infections in my wrist incision that became septic. I was delirious with a high fever (I faintly remember being asked who was president and the date, but not being able to answer), I was bedridden in the Intensive Care Unit with central lines and IV medications infusing 24/7, and I was trying to apply to graduate school. I was a mess.

As you can tell by my face, I was frustrated, generally pissed off, and in pain. This, by the way, is a gorgeous photo of me in the hospital when compared to every other one. I look like a million bucks here–and I’m not being sarcastic.

After months in the hospital, where I fluctuated between fully conscious and borderline comatose, I made it out. I was weak, I hadn’t eaten in weeks, and I was nervous about my future. And yet, today I could be a model for REI complete with backpacking pack, hiking boots, and down vest. I’m at peak fitness, I’m healthy (minus a torn meniscus), and I’m ready to explore.

From the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX,

@

World AIDS Day: Why it matters.

December 1st: Today is a very special day. I’m not talking about the first day to break into those advent calendars for those who celebrate Christmas nor the last day of classes before finals for those of us in school. Today is World AIDS Day.

At first glance, strangers wouldn’t guess that HIV/AIDS was a disease that would impact me–directly or indirectly. It’s 2017 and I’m a middle-class, caucasian, American, heterosexual female in my mid-20s with privilege (education, resources, community, money) coming out the ying-yang in comparison to others. I’m not a young, homosexual male, living in Southern California in the 1980s, having unprotected sex. But, my uncle was.

My uncle and I loved Hawaii, Hawaiian prints, and each other. (And we’re in Southern California). Photo circa: early 1990s

My Uncle Brian was the life of the party. He was the epitome of a class clown. He was the master of elaborate gag gifts. He was an incredible chef. He was a people-person. He loved a good Hawaiian shirt, especially when worn in Hawaii. He had incredible friends. My Uncle Brian was “my person”.

Kissing my uncle while vacationing on Maui, HI. Photo circa: early 1990s.

I didn’t even know my uncle was gay until I was in middle school. I grew up with my uncle’s partners being part of my life, but I never knew they were his partners. I thought he had really good friends who would vacation with us and come to our family events and who would buy me presents. Being gay wasn’t something I understood. I didn’t get it because it was never a point of conflict. Gay was just a thing. Akin to being white or having brown eyes or having attached earlobes. It really didn’t matter to me as long as that person was happy. So, when I was 11 and on my way home from a Christmas family reunion at my uncle’s home in West Hollywood (now it all makes sense), I sat in the backseat staring out the windows and asked my parents if Uncle Brian was gay. They replied, “yes”. I think I probably shrugged and continued staring out the window. Nothing changed. No big deal. But, what I’m getting at, is my uncle never told me he was gay. He was my person and he didn’t tell me. I don’t blame him, I blame society.

My uncle hugging me when he was visiting for Thanksgiving. Photo circa: early 2000s.

Flash forward a few years, and I’m in high school where I’m heavily involved in my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance: participating in the Day of Silence, protesting Proposition 8, volunteering for LGBTQIA events. Then, it’s the summer of 2009 and I’m studying to raise my SAT scores from good to amazing. And, it’s then, that I had an eery feeling. My intuition told me something was wrong with my person. I spent the day trying to contact my Uncle Brian, only to find that he was in the Intensive Care Unit at a top Los Angeles hospital. I dropped everything and drove four hours to find him gasping for air, his body consumed by Pneumocystis pneumonia, among other infections. My uncle was frail, but still managed to smile and open his eyes wide when I walked into his room. Between breaths of oxygen being pumped into his lungs by the BiPAP, he whispered to me how proud he was of me and then he thanked me for loving loving him for who he was. THANKED ME FOR LOVING HIM FOR HIM. This was what mattered the most to him in the end: unconditional love. Isn’t that what we all want and deserve? (The answer is yes). I was the last person to hear his voice. I spent the following weeks driving up to see him, sitting at his bedside and reading books by Atul Gawande and Jerome Groopman or studying SAT vocabulary. I spent my 17th birthday beside his shell of a body ridden with infection. My Uncle Brian, my person, died from an AIDS-related infection and I never even knew he was HIV positive.

Both sides of the family with healthy college football rivalries. Front row: Uncle Brian and my dad. Back row: maternal grandmother, me, my paternal grandparents. Photo circa:  early 2000s.

My uncle was not perfect. To err is human and he was human. But, he did not deserve to die in pain with people hating him for being himself: a beautiful soul, a wonderful friend, a jovial spirit, a gay man who was HIV positive. AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) is the most advanced stage of the HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) when the immune system becomes so weak that it cannot fight off infection. It was not discovered until the 1980s when it was still greatly misunderstood in terms of transmission and treatment. It really was a death sentence back then. Now, people know how it is contracted and therefore preventable, in addition to being more treatable. It can be managed and patients can live without the same imminent fears.

I say all of this because now we know. Now we can inform others on measure to prevent transmission, free HIV testing, and resources for treatment. There should not be shame associated with a disease. We should treat others with kindness. So, no matter your political, religious, and/or personal leanings, I share my story of my Uncle Brian, in hopes that you can imagine what you would want if “your person” was in the same position as “my person” was.

I mentioned that we like Hawaiian prints, right? Photo circa early 1990s on another trip to Maui.

Even though I write this through tears of sorrow and joy, I’m happy. Today, the world is a different place. Identifying as part of the LGBTQIA, specifically as a gay man, is not a death sentence. HIV isn’t a death sentence, especially if you live in first-world nations where treatment and testing is available. According to HIV.gov, there are more than 1.1 million people in the USA who are living with HIV today and 1 in 7 don’t know it yet. Worldwide, there are an estimated 37 million people living with HIV and 2.1 million of those are children. All of them matter.

Taking my Spring break in college to spread my uncle’s ashes off the Maui coastline. (2011)

Tonight, I’m wearing red in an effort to shine light on World AIDS Day. You’ll find me at a dance night with proceeds going to charity that helps in providing testing and treatment for people with HIV/AIDS. So, I’ll be on the dance floor, throwing my hands in the air like I just don’t care, smiling from ear to ear, and living like my uncle would have wanted: to the fullest and loving people for who they are.

Dancing and bringing attention to HIV/AIDS treatment.

~@lexa

Meet the Matriarchy

“The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.” ~Nia Vardalos, My Big Fat Greek Wedding

There are many animal species who live in strongly, matriarchal societies. The first to pop into my head is the orca (commonly referred to as killer whale). Orca form extremely tight-knit family groups that are dominated by an older female, frequently the “Grandmother”. For those of you who follow marine science news, or if you live in the Pacific Northwest of the USA, then you’ve probably heard about the story of “Granny” or “J2”, the esteemed matriarch of the J-pod of southern resident killer whales. Granny was beloved by the people of Puget Sound and afar. Although her age was disputed, it was estimated that she lived to be somewhere between 65-105 years old (yes, I realize that is a wide range). Her legacy is living in what the J-pod is today.

I am lucky that one matriarch in my family is still alive. Better yet, she lives on the land surrounding the waters that J-pod calls home. She sends me newspaper clippings about the southern resident killer whales–and, often these articles quote my colleagues. She had children and her children had children (more specifically, her children had all daughters). Although, we, the granddaughters, are all at ages where conceivably we could have our own children, that’s not in the cards at the moment. So we haven’t made it to four generations, like J-pod, but we’re crushing it with three generations of strong, independent, future matriarchs.

The matriarch and her grandchildren. From left to right: Katie, Lauren, Edith, Lisa, and Alexa.

When you see this photo you might see an astrophysicist, an educator, a Jill-of-all-trades, an engineer, and a marine scientist or maybe you see a family. We may not look alike or have similar career paths, but we all take after our grandmother Edith: determined, intelligent, and a wee bit stubborn. She’s our McGill-side matriarch and we’re the future. So watch out, because there’s a clan of badass (sorry for swearing, Grandma) women who don’t take “no” for an answer and are here to run the world. Cue: Beyoncé. We’re definitely not orcas…too many of us don’t eat meat. But, we’re pushing out the patriarchy in favor of the matriarchy.

And if you want to hear about my lab family at Oregon State University, which also has a matriarch as its leader, one could say, then read my recent blog, aptly-titled “We Are Family”!

~@lexa

Flipping the Focus: Looking face-first into the lens

Some days you need to revel in your accomplishments. For scientists, that often means that much-needed grants were awarded (hold your enthusiasm; that isn’t what I’m blogging about today). Today’s accomplishment was something on a much more basic level. After undergoing countless hand and wrist surgeries to repair sports-related injuries, I was able to take a selfie with my camera. You’re probably thinking, “Wait, don’t you do that daily?”. Yes and no. Yes, with my phone I can take a decent selfie. But, I haven’t been able to balance my Canon 7D in a single hand with the lens facing me and a finger on the shutter in years. Years. This camera isn’t for taking selfies. The lens I have on it right now is an 18-135mm–definitely not an ideal “selfie-taking” focal length. Additionally, I’m never the photographer and the subject without some sort of timer as a buffer. This isn’t some Hogwarts magic trick (gosh, don’t I wish!).

However, I have been waiting for the day when I’d finally be capable of doing this. After countless hours of weekly upper body workouts, patience, and sheer determination, I finally managed to get that darn selfie. So, I present you with the selfie that captured my moment of success.

Me.

Your photographer-turned-model for the day,

@