My Hawaii connection

March 30, 2014

My dad once showed me a letter from his great (X4) uncle Lorenzo Lyons to his sister Betsey Lyons Miner, my great (X4) grandmother. The letter was dated about 1860 and sent from Hawaii where Lorenzo worked as a congregational missionary. The letter expressed how much he missed his home in Massachusetts and reminded me how privileged I was to be able to live in Sweden and fly over to visit my parents in the US every summer.

I didn’t think much more of it at the time. I had never been to Hawaii, never planned to go, and besides, missionaries in Hawaii don’t have a great reputation, do they?

All that changed years later when I waited in the lounge of a Waikiki hotel with my daughter who now calls Hawaii home. I spotted a photo of Lorenzo in an exhibit about missionaries who helped develop a written form of the Hawaiian language. Beside the photo was a quote written by him in 1878:

“It is one of the oldest living languages of the earth, as some conjecture, and may well be classed among the best . . . the thought to displace it, or to doom it to oblivion by substituting the English language, ought not for a moment to be indulged. Long live the grand old, sonorous, poetical Hawaiian Language.”

Lorenzo Lyons

Lorenzo Lyons

His words, his respect and admiration for the Hawaiian language told me that Lorenzo did not deserve the bad rap missionaries have had.

I learned from my brother that not only did Lorenzo learn the language, he also wrote songs in Hawaiian, including one that is something of a classic. Hawaii Aloha is sung in Hawaiian and English. The chorus is:

“Happy youth of Hawaii, Rejoice! Rejoice! Gentle breezes blow, Love always for Hawaii.”

The Samoan playwright, John Kneubuhl, wrote a play about his life called The Harp in the Willows, referring to the story in Psalms about the Jews who were captives in Babylonia.

From his arrival in 1832 to his death in 1886, Lorenzo founded and led 14 churches on the island of Hawaii, including the Imiola church in Waimea where he is buried. My sister Carolyn visited the area and described it as “cattle country, complete with lush rolling pastures, cowboys and horses, and big Dodge-Ram pickup trucks navigating the narrow roads.” The dormant volcano Mauna Kea, considered sacred by the Hawaiians, loomed in the background with a fresh cap of snow. She wondered if the landscape reminded Lorenzo of his home in New England.


Imiola congregational church, Waimea, Hawaii

The 159 year-old Imiola church is very Spartan on the outside, but inside the walls, floor, pews and altar were made of the rich reddish-brown Hawaiian koa wood that is known for its lovely swirling patterns. After visiting the churchyard she walked into the village of Waimea and bought some honey from a Hawaiian woman at the farmer’s market. Carolyn asked the woman about the area and got a pithy social and political history from the first settlements (by Polynesians around year 500) through the missionary era (“they demonized the Hawaiian language and culture”), on to statehood (1959) and Obama (“born in Hawaii but not really Hawaiian”). When Carolyn admitted she was there to visit the Imiola church her face lit up. “Oh that is a good church, a Hawaiian church,” she said, meaning it was one of the few churches that embraced local culture and language.

That peaked Carolyn’s curiosity and she decided to return for a Sunday service. Not being a regular churchgoer, she sat unobtrusively at the back and observed as the church filled with about 80 people of different ages and ethnicity, and two dogs. She felt a genuine warmth among the congregation, from the time they entered the church and greeted each other and throughout the service as they interacted with each other, hugged and held hands, laughed and sang. Songs and prayers were projected on a screen with powerpoint (no dusty hymnals here!) in Hawaiian and English. Two women acted out the story of one song with hula gestures. Fortunately for Carolyn, the sermon was in English and dealt with forgiveness, humility and being non-judgmental, themes that my sister could easily relate to and appreciate.

Carolyn left Waimea, and I left the hotel lobby, feeling a warm respect for our great (X4) uncle. Despite his homesickness, Lorenzo embraced his new country and the people and language in it. A review of the play about his life summed it up thus:

“His youthful certainty which was expressed in moral terms gradually disappeared and in its place came the love of a people and a sense of oneness with them.”

Postscript 2015:

Anna, André and I got to Waimea to see the church for ourselves. The church and its setting were truly lovely. For a recent rendition of the hymn Hawaii Aloha look here.


Imiola church with two snow-topped volcanoes

Lorenzo Lyons grave, Waimea, Hawaii

Lorenzo Lyons grave, Waimea, Hawaii


Koa wood interior


I met the happiest person in America

February 21, 2014

Every year thousands of Americans are interviewed by telephone. They are asked questions about their family, income, religion and characteristics associated with happiness, such as optimism, anger, depression and stress. In 2011 this so-called Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index identified a list of characteristics associated with happiness. The characteristics included being male, aged 65+, a resident of Hawaii, Asian American, married with children, owning a business and earning more than $120,000 a year. They also identified being religious, with observant Jews ranking highest.

The New York Times set out to find if such a man existed. Living in Hawaii limited the search. Being Asian American and an observant Jew further narrowed the field. With the help of a Honolulu synagogue, they found Alvin Wong. As a scientist I must point out that having all the characteristics of a construct does not necessarily mean that an individual displays that construct. However, I can honestly attest to the fact that in this case, they do. I can also attest to the fact that happiness is contagious. The next time I go to Hawaii I will make sure I get to see Alvin and his lovely family. I will even try to wrangle an invitation to one of the Sunday brunches they have regularly in their Manoa Valley home.

It was at a Sunday brunch that I identified some of the other characteristics that may contribute to his happiness. His wife Trudy is a warm and bubbly woman from North Carolina who works part time as a stewardess. She has the energy to come home from long distance flights and welcome strangers to her door. Both Alvin and Trudy are engaged in a variety of organizations and volunteer activities. For years they have had contact with the University of Hawaii and hosted foreign and out-of-state students. They have ‘adopted’ some of these students who stay in touch and reappear years later for brunch. At least three continents and several states were represented when I was there.

Of course, as a scientist I am compelled to question the causality: does having a wonderful wife and a home open to the world make a man happy or does a happy man find a wonderful wife and open his home? Whatever. Being with them made me happy. And especially happy that my daughter who lives in Hawaii is friends with their daughter and consequently has garnered an open invitation to their brunches and their warm love and enthusiasm for life.

Olympics? Bah humbug.

August 13, 2012

I’m so glad they are over.

Such a display of xenocentrism, flaunted nationalism, political over- and undertones, and blatant lack of sportsmanship! Hardly an amateur in the entire flock of athletes. Young people who have dedicated years of their lives for a few short minutes of what is, essentially, a game. Blood, sweat and tears, for what? So that countries can attempt to prove their superiority over other countries. So businesses can display their brand names. So media consortiums have sixteen days of easy entertainment instead of real news.

I don’t even find the Olympics entertaining. When I watch the female gymnasts in their gracefully balanced routines, I see shoulder injuries, back problems and knee surgery. Not to mention twenty-something women who have neglected their education (often separated from their families) for the sake of a chance to compete for a round piece of metal. And forty-year-old women who have multiple surgeries to repair worn-out joints.

Last weekend a newspaper debate article had the headlines: “For more (Swedish) Olympic medals, we need to invest in local sports”. While I agree with investing in local sports, I disagree with using Olympic medals as a sign of success. The real success in local sports would be reflected in wider participation and a healthier population. I also object to my tax dollars being used to support elite athletes. Schools in Sweden, both public and private, have not been allowed to focus on specific academic areas. For example, a school cannot have math or language tests as entrance criteria. That would be discriminating. But schools that focus on sports, admitting only the best athletes, have long been run by the Swedish state. Special schools for skiing, soccer and dance spare no expense in providing the latest equipment and best possible facilities. Meanwhile, obesity among school children increases.

I would love to call a moratorium on the Olympics. Let the world come to its senses. Let us invest in sports for health, not as signs of national superiority. Which countries have the lowest infant mortality rates? Now that is worth a medal! Which countries have the lowest rates of diabetes, cancer, obesity? That’s the kind of competition we need. That’s the kind of investments we need.

When we are ready, when the majority of the world’s population is able to participate in healthy sports, we can bring the Olympics back. And when the games begin, the countries will not parade in their teams. Instead all the archers will come in as a group, all the gymnasts, all the sprinters: all the athletes will enter with their competitors. Then perhaps we will have begun to live up to the beautiful words of the Olympic Charter:

“Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining . . . the qualities of body, will and mind . . . to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.

… to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.

The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.

Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”

Medical angels and enemies

January 14, 2012

When I realized I was facing a serious health challenge that was going to put me in the hands of doctors and nurses for the coming months, one of my strongest reactions was anger. I was, once again, going to be at the mercy of people who saw me as a piece of meat on an assembly line. Traumatic experiences in medical care, involving severe pain and callous degradation, bubbled to the surface and left me breathless with resentment and fear. They sit deep in my tissues. For years after a particularly painful—and unnecessary—procedure, I could not lie on my back because it evoked the pain of the original event.

Given the angelic nature attributed to the profession, medical personnel are often surprised to be met with distrust and anger. Allow me to forego rationality and put it bluntly:

You (insert any medical profession) could have prevented (or detected earlier) this (insert medical problem). By ignoring or trivializing my symptoms, you missed important signs of impending illness.

You identified this (insert diagnosis) in me and now see me as a (diagnosis).

You will administer the (insert treatment) that entails an endless list of side effects and usually includes pain, discomfort, sick leave, etc, etc.

You are the ‘we’, I am the ‘them’. Subject, object. Reverse the perspective, and you are the enemy.

There’s a myth that people go into the medical field because they want to ‘help’ people. But many go into it so they can be experts and tell people what to do. This is so much easier than working together with someone to help her regain health. Working together involves listening, really hearing and processing, what is being said (or not said). There’s no training for that in medical schools.

While some people are born with compassion, most of us need to learn it through experience. It’s ironic that medical school is so demanding that only very healthy people even attempt it. I find myself wishing every practitioner would be afflicted with some vague and chronic condition entailing pain and fatigue. Or at least one life-threatening medical event. There is much to be learned.

So now, again, I step onto the conveyer belt of medical care. I will try to find the compassionate care providers (they are out there!). When I meet the enemy, I will gird my loins, which is not easy with a colostomy, and do whatever I can to protect myself.

Suggestions from my readers are gratefully accepted.

Giving thanks on my very worst Thanksgiving

December 30, 2011

Thanksgiving is my favorite American holiday. I’ve had many wonderful Thanksgivings, in the U.S. and abroad, with family and friends, and always with good food. My plans for 2011 were promising. The weekend before was the GSA conference in Boston, then I had a train ticket to Exeter, New Hampshire to spend Thanksgiving weekend with my aunt and uncle.

I missed most of the conference and Thanksgiving Day found me in a hospital bed feasting on chicken bullion and cranberry juice. I had just upgraded to clear liquids after surgery for bowel obstruction two days earlier. I had woken up to a long incision, a colostomy, and a frightening diagnosis.

I’m still recoiling from the shock, struggling to get my strength back, and learning to live with a new body part. And trying not to dwell on the treatments that lie down the road.

Amidst the trauma, the cornucopia of generosity that my illness generated has been overwhelming.

As soon as it was clear that I was going to need surgery, my best friend flew up from North Carolina. My daughter arrived the next day from Seattle. When I was to be discharged, my sister flew down from Alaska and my husband from Stockholm. A cousin drove us up to New Hampshire, where I stayed with my aunt and uncle.

Then there was the hospital staff who gave the phrase “patient-centered care” real meaning. (If you need surgery in the Boston area, check out the New England Baptist Hospital.)

Back in Sweden, I’m getting stronger each day. Friends and colleagues in Sweden have rallied with cards, flowers and chocolate. Work, and life in general, is on hold, probably for the next six months. My focus will be on healing. My calendar is now booked with appointments for various examinations and procedures at Stockholm hospitals.

The strongest medicine, however, will be my deep gratitude for the love and support that my illness has elicited from family and friends.

Confessions of a former Google geek

October 15, 2011

From the first time my daughter introduced me to the beta version of g-mail I was hooked. The clean work surface, the subtle advertising on the sidebar and no flashing or scrolling banners. Okay, so they ‘read’ my letters to target advertisements. I could live with that.

The Google search engine quickly surpassed AltaVista. Then Google Scholar provided an academic search engine that included not only journal articles but also books and reports from governments and international agencies. I became an avid Google fan.

At the same time, critique of Google was emerging. People wrote that they were too big, too powerful and that the risk of abusing that power was great. I tended to discount such criticism as paranoiac rambling.

The censuring scandal in China made me think. Google, like the other big IT companies, made compromises with the Chinese government. Google pulled out and I thought, see, they’re different. The family of one of their founders emigrated from Soviet and had experience with a totalitarian regime. So they do have a different mindset, I thought.

Then Google held my g-mail account hostage.

Without warning, they froze my account and threatened to delete it in 29 days unless I either gave them credit card information or sent a copy of a government-certified identification card. There’s an important lesson here for anyone who has a Google account, so I’ll describe the sequence of events.

I open my computer and log in to g-mail. A window pops up and asks for my birth date. The reason? To target advertisements to my age group. I don’t want to give my birth date, but there is no way to get past the window, it blocks me from my account. So I write in random numbers. No go. It must have a real date. So I write in the first thing that comes into my head, which happens to include the year 2000. Mistake! I am now told that I am too young to have an account. Google will now delete my account in 29 days unless I prove to them that I am at least 13 (or 18) years old. The only way to do this is by providing credit card information, with a fee of 30 cents, or to send a copy of a government-issued ID with my birth date on it.

At this point I suspect phishing or fraud. I enlist the assistance of my daughter and computer support at my workplace. On the Google support forum I see that I am not alone. Children, and adults who mistakenly wrote in a wrong date, have had their accounts deleted without warning. Google’s responses to their posts are to the effect, “them’s the rules”. Awareness dawns: this is no fraud; this is the Google giant throwing its weight around.

I give in. I decide to give them my credit card details and pay the 30 cents. Perhaps I can at least avoid giving them my DOB. No. In the process of bailing out my account, I must “agree” to this friendly reminder from Big Brother Google:

“I understand that if Google discovers any of my statements to be inaccurate, it may disable and delete the listed Google account without notice.”

So if they notice that the DOB on my Facebook differs from my g-mail? Click. Delete. There goes my address book, e-mails from the past seven years, and access to my writers group site. Poof.

Google is back in China, now based in Hong Kong.

Not only does Google read my mail, now they also have my credit card details and DOB. Does this make me uneasy? You bet it does. And the way they went about it really made me uneasy.

A friend reminds me that their “service” is free. I disagree. I pay a price every time I log in. They take information from my personal and business correspondence. I knew that was the case from the beginning and accepted it. What I didn’t know was that they would, without warning, lock me out of my account until I coughed up more information than I wanted to give.

Anyone know how to start a class action against Google?

Lesson: If Google asks for your DOB, write in a date that makes you over 18. And remember, Google can, and may very well, disable and delete your account without notice at any time.

Twisting words. Research in the media.

October 1, 2011

This week I had the unpleasant experience of having my words, and intentions, grossly twisted by an editor. In response to an op-ed I co-authored in the major Swedish newspaper, an editorial appears in a competing newspaper. To spout her own political views, the author ascribes to us conclusions and opinions  that were false and offensive.

Judge for yourself. The last paragraph of our article: “The quality of eldercare must be improved. However, it is obvious that the economic market-driven model that works for toothpaste and restaurants cannot work in the same way for eldercare services. Even the oldest and frailest people should have freedom of choice (of provider). But we remain critical of the current belief that increasing freedom of choice will automatically improve quality.”

The editor titles her piece, “No age limit on choice!” (Well, yes, didn’t we say that?) She writes that our conclusion is that older people should not be allowed to choose their care providers, and that we consider frail elderly people second-rate citizens. (What did Freud say about projection? No, I won’t go there.)

Our first reaction is to ignore it. Why attempt a rational debate with someone who writes something so totally off the wall? Then we read the online comments. Perhaps it’s the comment referring to us as fascists that spurs us into action.

In the U.S., I would contact the university lawyers. In smearing our names and work, she smears our academic institution, and research in general. In Sweden, there’s not much to do except write a reply and hope the chief editor will take it in.

We send in a reply the very same day. The chief editor writes back that replies are limited to 950 characters including spaces (by comparison, this blogpost has three times that). The following day, the editor writes again, giving the example of a 96-year-old woman who moves to Thailand to join her son. This, she writes, contradicts the conclusions of researchers who hold that elderly people cannot make wise choices concerning care.

We slash our reply further and this time it is published. The editor wrote no commentary on our reply, as is customary in Swedish newspapers. Either she has found new targets, or she is gathering steam for a stronger attack.

Researchers are often criticized for not spreading the results of their work to the general public. For one thing, we’re too busy writing grant applications. (The academic career path ensures that no researcher is permanently employed for the first ten years after getting a Ph.D.) For the other, we—and everyone—are defenseless in the face of this kind of public defamation.

Ubiquitous noise

September 19, 2011

I’m recently back from a trip to the United States. While I often miss things about life ‘across the pond’ (the good food, the easy conversations with strangers, my family . . .), one thing I do not miss is the noise. Everywhere. All the time.

Someone must have done a study once to show that people buy more and eat more if they are exposed to music. In any case, every store and restaurant has piped music. Now I’m not totally opposed to music in the background. I even have a high tolerance for muzak, except on the telephone when I’m put on hold. But many places don’t understand the concept of background in background music. They play loud, in-your-face, can’t-ignore-it, can’t-talk-over-it noise. At one restaurant I went to the ladies’ room in the hopes of escaping the onslaught. But no, four speakers blasted above the toilet stalls.

Perhaps I’m over sensitive. I have poor hearing. What is strange with hearing loss is that it’s not just that sounds are muted. Sounds are distorted. It’s difficult to ‘sort’ the sounds that you do hear. Since one ear is worse, I don’t hear in stereo and cannot localize sounds. They come at me from all directions. And some sounds become downright painful.

But I’m not alone. Looking around restaurants, I see many patrons straining to carry on a conversation. People lean over their plates and raise their voices, adding to the cacophony. Why do you go to a restaurant? I go 1) to be social with the people I’m with and 2) to eat. In that order. I don’t go to a restaurant to listen to music. I’m willing to bet that’s the same for most people. But the restaurateurs haven’t cottoned on to that yet.

On our last day in Seattle we headed for a café our daughter had recommended. It had a French name and the menu was in French, with English explanations under each item. They were obviously trying to cater to French ex-pats or Americans who longed for Paris. They got the small, dark wood tables right. The service was slow and not very friendly, just like Paris. And the coffee was good. But the large screen televisions over the bar and the piped music didn’t let us forget we were in the U. S. of A.

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven (Or Wherever I’m a Stranger)

April 13, 2011

Take two Ivy League graduates who don’t know each other very well and who have more hubris than common sense and plop them into a Shanghai hotel with cockroaches and cold running water. Have them interrogated by Chinese officials and chased by doctors with rusty syringes. Put them on long train and boat rides with crowds of people who speak only Chinese, sometimes a local dialect not found in the guidebooks. Present them with communal toilets consisting of a wooden plank over a hole in the ground. Add some fevers, food poisonings and the barely breathable air of Beijing. It’s no wonder that they begin first to quarrel, then to unravel. That’s the gist of Susan Jane Gilman’s page-turner memoir of her trip to China in 1986.

My own travels pale in comparison. China was not an option when I was young. But I had a few scary moments and challenging toilets when I hitchhiked with a girlfriend in Spain and Morocco in the early seventies. And I can easily relate to the tensions of being together with a new friend all day every day under stressful conditions. But fortunately we had (some) more common sense and less bravado than Gilman and her travelling companion.

Hitchhiking in Spain, we were picked up by a young man who stopped at scenic spots along Costa del Sol. The coast was barely developed then and the views were magnificent. We were so grateful, until he pulled over at a remote spot with no view, turned around and asked in high school English, “Would you like to do something with me?” There was nothing to do but get out of the car and walk to the next village.

In Morocco, we exchanged our thumbs for cheap bus tickets. On the way to Fez, the bus stopped in the middle of a large dusty field. The men went off to one side of the road, the women filed behind an adobe shed on the other. We decided we could wait. We spent the night at a private home in Fez. When we made our needs known to our hosts, they gave us a stub of a candle and showed us down to a dark, empty cellar. We searched until we found a small hole, smaller than a billiard pocket. We took turns holding the candle while the other squatted and aimed. At least there were no gawking onlookers like in Gilman’s China.

We befriended an American man who offered to drive us to Ceuta to get the boat back to Spain. We stopped in a small town on market day. My friend and I explored the stalls selling spices and fruits. But our new friend found something more interesting: a gambling stall. After only minutes, we began to hear loud voices. Our new friend was in the midst of an angry group of men. They realized my girlfriend and I were with him, and surrounded us as well. Three lone foreigners in a mass of angry men in a small town somewhere in Northern Morocco. Suddenly, like a guardian angel, a tall, dark-skinned Berber woman appeared, the only woman in the marketplace. Dressed in pristine white robes, she flashed a gold tooth as she yelled at the men. This woman commanded respect. She waved toward our car, and the crowd, disgruntled, let us climb in. “But I was having a lucky streak! I didn’t get my winnings,” our male friend protested. Inspired by our guardian angel, my girlfriend and I shouted, “Drive!”

Susan Jane Gilmore wrote her memoir from the distance of twenty years, many of them spent in foreign countries. From this perspective, she understands how foreigners are infantilized, especially in a culture as different as China. She and her companion weren’t just undressed, they were stripped: of their language, social competence, and about everything that constituted their identities. You don’t have to go to remote China to experience that, just ask the nearest foreigner in whatever country you live in. With the wisdom and humility of hindsight, Gilmore describes the process in fascinating, and frightening, detail.

You can find Gilman’s book on Amazon and vist her website ( and blog (

The search for discipline

April 3, 2011

The members of the Stockholm Writers Group have various strategies to encourage and coerce each other to write. The strategy of deadlines is the backbone of the group. You have until midnight Saturday night to post your manuscript when it’s your turn to be critiqued on Wednesday. Then there’s the buddy system. We pair up to support a ‘buddy’ writer. This takes different forms, from breakfast meetings to what can only be described as Internet harassment by e-mail and Skype.

The most effective strategy has been March madness. We challenge each other, and ourselves, to write at least 15 minutes every day during the month of March. Writing 30 minutes every other day, or 3 hours on a weekend, doesn’t count. Fifteen minutes every single day.

The competitive aspect is one part of its success as a strategy. The ‘do-able-ness’ of fifteen minutes also helps. Many of us wait for that elusive block of time we think we need to work on our manuscript. But we are surprised at how much can be done in a quarter of an hour. Or we wait for the creative muse to arrive on our doorstep swathed in sunlight, to step lithely in, place the pen in our hands and guide it across the page. Hogwash. It’s blood, sweat and tears. Or, at least, lots of ink-stained fingers and crumpled papers, or mouse-arm as the case may be.

The regularity of the March madness strategy is perhaps its greatest strength. When I visit my characters everyday, I carry them with me throughout the day. My writing challenges simmer on a back burner, in a big pot of characters, setting and plot. They mingle and stew as I go about my day. When I sit down for my minutes of madness, I don’t need to read over my last entries to see where my characters are in the plot. I just lift the lid, inhale, and I’m ready to carry on where I left off. More often than not, the quarter hour morphs into an hour.

My writing buddy and I exchange Internet chats. We refer to our periods of ‘madness’. It must be madness: putting so much effort into an endeavor with a distant and unlikely payoff. And it’s also our escape: an escape from our day jobs, our everyday lives. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we have boring jobs or wretched lives, quite the contrary. Writing is a form of meditation, it takes us both into ourselves and outside ourselves. Things happen when I write, ideas appear and connect in a way that they don’t if I just sit and think. Some people call it therapy and I agree that, like therapy, it is both painful and healing at times.

Like meditation or therapy, writing demands discipline and regularity. With a smug sense of accomplishment, I e-mailed my fellow writers that I had written at least fifteen minutes each day of March. One of them writes back, “Me, too! Who wants to join me on to Midsummer? Aprayjune Madness!”

My smugness dissolves and I reply, “Blast you! Are you trying to make writers out of us? I’m in.”