Legacy

Legacy

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

—John Lennon, Beautiful Boy.

Early in December I decided to write a Christmas blog. I envisioned a happy, funny piece for the holidays.  In January in honor of my mother’s birthday, I planned to write a blog for her. Neither of those things happened. I had only just begun to flesh out the Christmas blog when my sister called me and asked if I was sitting down. She gave me a chance to respond and then said, “Uncle Garry has died.”

What?

My Uncle Garry was the youngest of my mother’s siblings and, as far as I knew, was in good health. How could he be dead? No one really knew. He had not felt well for a couple of days but didn’t want to go to the doctor. My cousin found him after he didn’t respond when she called to see how he was feeling. It was December 5th.

My grandparents had six children—three boys and three girls. My mother, the third child, was the oldest of the girls and was 10 when Garry was born. My mother had a small camera when she was growing up and loved taking pictures of Garry. Sometimes someone else was behind the lens, and then the picture of Garry usually had my mom close by. Although she moved to Little Rock after she married, she and Garry remained close. Even after my sister and I were born, she frequently drove the 50 miles back to Morrilton to see her parents and baby brother.

Young Garry with his sisters. Left—with my mother, Betty, in an undated photo. Middle—(L-R), with Linda, Betty, and Brenda in 1958. Right—(L-R) with Brenda, Linda, and Betty in 1955.

Garry lived in Morrilton, Arkansas, his entire life, while my family eventually moved to Mississippi. When I was younger, I’d see him over the holidays when we would make the long drive north. Garry was 10 years older than me, and by the time I was a teenager, my sister, cousins, and I tended to spend more time at his house than with our grandparents. He was older but not old. We’d watch TV or play games. We played epic rounds of the card game Rook that often went long into the night. Garry and my cousin Ray were both “caution to the wind” type players and took big risks, bidding high even when their hand was weak. They sometimes got frustrated with the rest of us and said we were too conservative. As a team, Garry and Ray won a lot despite their recklessness.

Garry was also an excellent chess player, and he and I played whenever we had the chance. In all the years we played, I only beat him once.

Over the years, my life got more complicated. College, career, marriage, children—all the usual stuff that take up our days and keep us busy. As a result, my visits with family in Arkansas have been far fewer over the last 20 years. Although my sons, Kendrick and Keaton, met Garry once or twice, I doubt they would be able to describe him.

My Uncle Garry was tall and thin and always wore cowboy boots. He drove a Ford F150, loved the USA, God, and football. Now that it is too late, I realize how unfortunate it is that my sons spent so little time with him. With the benefit of hindsight, I see the similarities between my uncle and my youngest son. Like Garry, Keaton is tall and thin, a ruthless Rook player, loves football, the USA, cowboy boots, and playing chess. Just like my uncle, Keaton makes his chess moves quickly and is often frustrated with me when I take too long to make a move. He always wins. In my mind’s eye, I can see Garry and Keaton playing a rapid game of chess, but I have no idea who would have won.

Garry was what the Bible calls “the salt of the earth.” He got up, went to work, went to church, and always did what he thought was right. He wasn’t famous. His name will never appear in any history book, but he still leaves a legacy. His legacy is in the lives of those he touched, and, like so often happens, the mark he left on us is only fully appreciated now that he is gone.

Garry was briefly married when he was in his thirties and never had children of his own. Perhaps for that reason, when he wrote his will he was generous with his extended family. After his death, I found myself in possession of his beloved Ford F150. Without hesitation, I gave it to Keaton. Although he’s not Garry’s son, he’s still part of his legacy. I think Garry would be pleased with my decision because Keaton will love the truck the same way he did. I can easily imagine Uncle Garry looking down from heaven and smiling as he watches over Keaton behind the wheel of his F150.

Keaton with Garry’s 2004 Ford F150.

Top Photo: A recent photo of my Uncle Garry.

Garry Wayne Coffman—October 19, 1954-December 5, 2022. May he rest in peace.

Reflections

Reflections

Recently Vanderbilt gave me a gold pin that recognized my having worked there for the last 25 years. Apparently they only started counting after I joined the school as faculty; however, I received my first paycheck from the University in October of 1989.  That means I have spent the better part of 33 years at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee.

A lot has happened in 33 years.

In 1989:

George Bush (the first one) was sworn in as the U.S. President

Margaret Thatcher began serving her last year as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Daniel Radcliff—whose name for many of us will always be synonymous with Harry Potter—was born.

Cell phones were expensive and rare. They were also huge!

The internet was in its infancy and the World Wide Web was just an idea.

The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989.

In 1989 I was 25 years old living in my hometown of Grenada, Mississippi, trying to figure out what to do with my life. I decided to move to Nashville, but I really didn’t have much of a plan beyond that. I knew I needed a job and easily found one waiting tables at O’Charley’s on 21st Avenue. It had opened in 1971 and was the first one in the country. The restaurant would eventually become a chain and spread across the Southern U.S. The original O’Charley’s on 21st Avenue is long gone, the building torn down sometime in the nineties. The next business didn’t last either, and, as I write this, a shiny new Starbucks sits in that coveted spot across from Vanderbilt.

I worked at O’Charley’s for about six months before landing a job as a research assistant working with Dr. Clark Tibbetts in Vanderbilt’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology. With Dr. Tibbett’s help, in 1992 I matriculated into the graduate program and received my PhD in reproductive pathology from Vanderbilt a few years later.

The Wildhorse Saloon on 2nd Avenue in downtown Nashville.

On the weekends my grad school friends and I would go to downtown Nashville, which back then was struggling to be relevant. Parking was free, food was cheap, and the music was amazing. In 1994 the now-famous Wildhorse Saloon opened, and we were among the first to try out the dance floor. I learned I couldn’t line dance, but we had a lot of fun trying.

Fast-forward three decades, and Nashville is now a major tourist destination crowded with people from all over the world. Nashville is THE city for bachelorette parties that last all weekend. Drunken bridesmaids in pink cowboy hats lean out of open-air party buses and shout “Woo” in unison as they pass by. Nashvillians call them the “Woo girls.”

Even before the throngs of tourists were common—back when the Nashville airport rolled up the tarmacs long before midnight—Nashville had a fireworks display on July 4th. Hundreds of people would bring chairs and picnics to the banks of the Cumberland River to watch the show. I’ve never had a desire to fight the crowds, and so back in the grad school days some of us would watch the fireworks from the seventh floor of our research building where we all worked at Vanderbilt. At that time there was an open-air mezzanine that had largely been abandoned. The huge room it was attached to held big, whirring machinery and random office items with nowhere to go. We weren’t supposed to be there, but once we discovered the mezzanine, it became a favorite place to eat lunch and get away from the lab for a while. It was also our private spot for viewing the fireworks.

These days the Nashville fireworks display is one of the largest in the country. Last year the event drew more than 250,000 people to the banks of the river. Although the mezzanine and machinery on the seventh floor of my building have been replaced with new and spacious research facilities, you can still see the fireworks from enormous windows that now cover the northeast side of the building.

A recent photo of downtown Nashville taken from my research building. Although the mezzanine has been replaced, the view is amazing on a clear day. In the distance you can see the AT&T Building, which Nashvillians call the Batman Building. (Photo credit: Sherry Ameli)
Satco on 21st Avenue across from Vanderbilt in Nashville.

Nashville and Vanderbilt have changed a lot since I first arrived in 1989. Over the years most of the businesses along 21st Avenue have been replaced. One that remains is the San Antonio Taco Company, which everyone just calls Satco. The building was a bit dilapidated way back when I was a student, and time has had little effect on it. Then, as now, the wooden deck is huge and inviting, the food is good, and the beer is cold. My friends and I spent quite a few lunch hours and many a Friday night on that deck and it remains a favorite of the current crop of students. Although I rarely get to Satco these days, I like that it’s still there. Change can be good, but there is something comforting in having a few things that remain the same.

The gold pin I received from Vanderbilt in October of this year.

Thanksgiving is a day to reflect on our past and be grateful for what we have. As I look at the gold pin that Vanderbilt gave me, it’s hard for me to believe I have been in Nashville more than half of my life. When I moved here 33 years ago, I never imagined that I would stay so long, and I could never have guessed the life that would unfold for me in this city. It’s a good life—and I am thankful.

Top photo: The Vanderbilt University ID I was issued in 1992. I have blurred out my social security number. Identity theft wasn’t a thing back then.

Rescue

Rescue

Years ago when I was still in college, my roommate adopted a puppy she named Sandy. She was a blondish cocker spaniel with the sweetest disposition, and I completely fell in love with her. I decided that I too wanted a cocker spaniel just like Sandy. I started watching the ads in the paper, and before long I found a breeder with a litter of cocker spaniel puppies. I went for a visit and met the breeder and the canine family. The puppies came with papers that listed the names of their purebred mother and father and guaranteed their unblemished cocker spaniel pedigree. Not just anyone could adopt one of these puppies. I was required to pass a background check and, once approved, had to hand over a chunk of cash before I could take my puppy home. I was approved, paid the breeder, and named my puppy Sasha.

Six-week old Sasha (far right) with her littermates a few days before Kaylon adopted her.

Sasha and I quickly bonded, and she and I were nearly inseparable for more than a decade. She was with me through my best and worst days, and, after developing a blood disease, she died in my arms shortly after she turned 13. That was nearly 15 years ago, and the pain of her loss has barely diminished over time. I have no regrets over having Sasha in my life and cannot imagine the day will come when I won’t miss her. However, she is also the reason I will never again buy an animal from a breeder.

You see, an unexpected thing happened when I got Sasha. Suddenly, I was far more aware of other dogs. Whenever we went for a walk or to the park, if I saw a dog off a leash, I found myself worrying about them. Do they have an owner? Have they been abandoned?  Do they need help? I wasn’t just Sasha’s mom—I wanted to take care of all the dogs. Even more important, Sasha’s papers became completely irrelevant. She was my baby no matter her pedigree.

By the time Sasha died, I was married with two young sons. When we were ready to open our home to another pet, they both wanted a kitten. Instead of a breeder, we went to a shelter called “Love at First Sight.” A decade before that same shelter had taken a litter of puppies I ended up with after a friend and I rescued a pregnant, abandoned dalmatian. I was so grateful that I promised I would adopt from them if I ever decided to have another pet. The day I returned to fulfill my promise, they only had two kittens. They were siblings and the last of their litter left at the shelter. How could we leave one behind? I easily convinced myself that since I had two boys, we should get two kittens.

Kendrick and Blackie (left) with Keaton and Stormy (right) shortly after we brought the kittens home in 2009.

Shortly after we brought Blackie and Stormy home, my youngest son made a new friend at school. Alex lived in our neighborhood, and Keaton wanted to try and find his house. We did and Alex’s mother and I soon became good friends. The first time Alex and Christina visited our house, they couldn’t get enough of the kittens. Christina had recently lost her cat, and she was thinking it might be time to adopt another. I mentioned that my sister lived on a farm in rural Mississippi and that she frequently found abandoned animals at the “pitch-in.” The pitch-in is a dumpster down the road from their farm, and, sadly, some people dump more than their trash.

The pitch-in dumpster near Leana and David’s farm in Vaughan, Mississippi.

Christina asked me to let her know the next time Leana found a kitten. “We might be interested,” she told me. If Christina thought it would be a while before Leana found another stray, she was mistaken. Right about the time I was telling Christina about my sister and the pitch-in, Leana found two tiny, flea-covered kittens huddled next to the dumpster. Less than a month later, my mother happily drove to Nashville to see her grandsons. She brought with her the now flea-free kittens and handed them to Alex. He named them Zeus and Athena.

Alex with Zeus and Athena on adoption day.

In the years since she found Zeus and Athena, Leana has rescued more cats and dogs than I can count and at least one duck. Sometimes she can find them homes, but, if not, she and her husband, David, add them to their menagerie.  At the moment their farm is overflowing. In addition to their own animals, which includes four dogs, two cats, and five horses, they have recently taken in a litter of six puppies that they found at the pitch-in. Not only did they have fleas, but they also all had varying degrees of mange. She took the whole group to the vet and immediately began treatment to get them healthy. One puppy, a little girl named Dolly, has found her forever home, but, at least for now, the rest remain with Leana and David. Unfortunately, the puppy count soon returned to six. Almost as soon as Dolly was settled in with her new family, another puppy was found wandering near the road by their farm. Leana didn’t hesitate. Lucky for the pups, their farm is nearly as big as Leana’s heart for animals.

The puppies at the pitch-in immediately before Leana and David brought them to their farm.

Not everyone is in a position to rescue lost and abandoned animals, and I am thankful for those who do. I’m also grateful for the many veterinarians who offer their services at a discount to those who rescue animals or who offer at-cost spay and neuter services. I wish I was able to do more to help the cause, but I am not a veterinarian and I do not live on a farm. I can assure you, though, that every animal I adopt from now until the end of my days will be a rescue. He or she will come from a shelter or perhaps from the pitch-in in Vaughan, Mississippi.

Top photo: Dolly at the farm shortly before being adopted. Although she is no longer available, four others are. If you are looking to add a new member to your family, please email me at kaylon@kaylonbrunertran.com and I will put you in touch with Leana and David.

Car Trouble

Car Trouble

Something that you may not know about me is that when I buy a car it is a long-term commitment. I will drive it into the dirt before I buy a new one. In July of 2022, I was driving a 2016 Mazda CX-5 that I absolutely loved and had no intention of replacing. I bought it right before my oldest son turned 16 and got his driver’s license. Once I got the Mazda, I gave him my 2008 Nissan Altima. The Nissan was a good car and being nearly 10 years old made it a perfect first car.

By the time Kendrick started college, the Nissan was a bit beaten up. The back side panel was dented, the trunk bore the scars of having the garage door close on it, and the driver’s side mirror had been knocked off half a dozen times. Kendrick didn’t really need a car at college, and so the Nissan stayed home with his brother. When Keaton left for Auburn two years later, he took the Nissan with him. By then the car had more than 150K miles on it, and I crossed my fingers hoping it would last until he graduated.

It did not.

This past summer when my car was in the shop, I had to drive the Nissan. It was a bit terrifying because sometimes the transmission would hesitate. You know how sometimes you need to accelerate quickly to pull out into traffic? Well, the Nissan frequently just said, “No. I’m not doing that.” I asked Keaton how long the car had been hesitating. He just shrugged and said, “A while.”

I took the car to the mechanic who had worked on it previously. He said the transmission was on its last leg but didn’t think the car was worth enough to replace it.  I couldn’t send my child back to school in a car with such a lackadaisical attitude, so I started looking at used cars. Unfortunately, my knowledge of cars is fairly limited. I know to change the oil and rotate the tires, but do I feel confident that I can pick out a gem of a used car? No. So I did exactly what Dave Ramsey tells us not to do—I bought a new CX-5 and gave Keaton the old one.

I knew Keaton wasn’t thrilled to be driving the Mazda. When I bought it years before, both the boys called it a “Mom car.” However, when I handed over the keys, Keaton wisely chose to just be grateful. Not cool is better than no car, right? And it was a good car. Not only did the transmission work, but everything worked, unlike the car my sister and I took to college. Our hand-me-down was a 1967 fastback Mustang. Sounds cool, doesn’t it?

It wasn’t.

For starters, it was puke green. Although I am reasonably certain that wasn’t how the Ford brochure described the color, “puke green” was an accurate description. By 1976 when my sister and I inherited the car from our parents, it already had a few eccentricities. It leaked oil so much that anytime we put gas in it, we also had to top off the oil. The A/C didn’t work in the summer, and the heat didn’t work in the winter. As an added bonus, the driver’s side door would freeze shut in the winter, and we had to climb in from the opposite side.

By the time we took the car to college, the car had also acquired a few dents and dings. The most significant of which was the result of Leana driving into a basketball goal. After that, the green machine always looked like it was snarling, and occasionally the hood would fly open while we were driving.

Perhaps the most annoying of the car’s idiosyncrasies was that somewhere along the line it stopped being able to drive in reverse. Not being able to back up made parking a real challenge. 

Eventually we got rid of that car. My sister graduated from college, got a job, and bought her first new car. I was given another hand-me-down. It was big and ugly, and I referred to it as “the tank.” Since it had a bench front seat, the passenger side didn’t adjust on its own. I’m on the short side and had to keep the seat shoved close to the steering wheel. Unfortunately, all my college friends were tall. Anytime someone rode with me, they sat in the back and I sat up front by myself. But I never complained. The car was reliable, had both heat and air conditioning, AND could even be driven in reverse.

I’m glad I was able to give my children better cars than what Leana and I had in our early driving days. I am also glad my parents never gave me a new car. They gave me the privilege of buying my first new car myself. And it was a privilege. It was the most adult thing I had ever done in my life. It was both exciting and terrifying, and I wouldn’t want to deny my boys that experience.

Photo: Although I didn’t have a photo of the Mustang Leana and I drove, the one above is a good representation–all it needs is the snarl on the front end.

Midnight Writer

Midnight Writer

By the time this article is in print, I will have published three novels. I never planned to write a novel, let alone a trilogy, but my brain just woke me up one night and gave me no choice.

Isaac Asimov, a famous scientist-turned novelist, has been credited with saying, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” but “That’s funny …” As a scientist for nearly 30 years, I can attest to that. When things go exactly as planned, breakthroughs are rarely made. However, when something unexpected happens and you are able to figure out why, that’s when science leaps forward.

Many times I have lain in bed pondering some unusual result and trying to understand what the data meant. Occasionally my sleeping brain will put the pieces together and wake me up with a crystal-clear understanding of the surprising findings. When that happens, I am instantly awake no matter the time, and I must write it down lest I forget. In January of 2021, I woke in the middle of the night with a solution to a very different problem.

Three years ago I bought four AncestryDNA kits for my family. I thought it would be interesting to see our genetic makeup since my children are a mix of Asian and Caucasian. A few months after we received our results, I was contacted by a man from California. He had recently and unexpectedly learned he was part Vietnamese. AncestryDNA told him he was related to my children and their dad, and he reached out to us hoping to find his birth mother. Over the next few months, my newfound relative’s story began to unfold. What we learned was fascinating, but many questions were left unanswered. I often found myself lying awake in bed wondering how things had happened—what events had led his birth mother to make the choices she had made? But even if the answers were known, it was none of my business. I had no right to ask, no right to probe for more. It wasn’t my story to investigate.

Then in the middle of the night, I woke up and instantly knew that I should write my own version of my new relative’s story, a novel inspired by the one told through his DNA. That very night I wrote the first two chapters of Time Intertwined. Over the next few months, I would often lie in bed thinking about events that needed to happen in my novel and wonder how I could make the story develop in a realistic way. Just like my previous experience with our research data, if I later woke with the answer, there was no going back to sleep. For this reason, much of Time Intertwined was written in the wee hours of the night.

Midnight Writer by Kaylon Bruner Tran was originally published in the October/November 2022 Issue of The Relatable Voice Magazine.

It was also in the dead of night when I realized I should weave a bit of science into Time Intertwined. Like so many soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, it occurred to me that one of my characters should be exposed to Agent Orange, the deadly herbicide used during the war. It was supposed to be harmless to humans, but it wasn’t. Much of our lab’s scientific research focuses on understanding the generational effects of Agent Orange exposure. Although many still dispute that the children and grandchildren of those exposed can be affected, our data and that of others proves that it can. 

After Time Intertwined was published, I continued to find myself lying awake and thinking about my characters. I missed them and wondered what happened to them next. I also felt I had not said enough about Agent Orange and the devastating effects that chemical continues to have more than 50 years after the spraying stopped.

And so, one summer night a few hours before dawn, the Agent Orange Trilogy was born.

Lucky

Lucky

Today is my older sister’s birthday. I could have gotten her a gift, but public embarrassment sounded like something she would really enjoy. So here we go.

Growing up, people always said I was the smart one while Leana was more athletic and adventuresome. Here’s an example. One of my earliest memories of my sister was on a road trip with our parents. I was around five years old, so she would have been around seven. We were probably driving from Mississippi to Arkansas to have Thanksgiving with extended family. We had a big station wagon with a roof rack over the back end. My parents were in the front seat, and I was in the back seat. My sister should have also been in the back seat, but she wasn’t. I suppose she got bored and looked around to see what she could do to entertain herself. Being the adventurous one, she rolled down the back window and climbed out. She stood on the back bumper while holding on to the roof rack. Again, road trip. Interstate. I have no idea what the speed limit on I-40 was back in 1969, but I am positive my dad was exceeding it.

I watched my sister for a moment, and, being the smart one, I decided she really shouldn’t be doing that. I tapped my mom on the shoulder and said, “Mom.” She didn’t even look at me. Just told me she was talking to Dad. It took three tries before my mom got irritated enough to look at me. That’s when she saw Leana and made Dad pull over. My memory gets a little fuzzy after that, but I like to think I saved her life that day. And it’s a good thing, because she has pulled my butt out of the fire more than once since her highway adventure. She has also pushed me and encouraged me through many difficult days. She is even the reason my youngest son exists, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

School days. Kaylon (left); Leana (right). Taken about the time of the highway incident.

The first 10 years of my life I spent in awe of Leana. She could do anything and seemed to have no fear. She wasn’t much bigger than me, but if someone tried to bully me at school—well, you forgot she was little. To me, she was larger than life. And to anyone who made her mad by messing with me, she probably seemed larger than life to them too.

She could talk me into anything. One Saturday when I was in the first grade, we were looking for something to do. Although our mom was home, it was the seventies and we typically spent the day outside. Unsupervised. Our house had a detached garage. Behind the garage there was a large pile of hay and miscellaneous pieces of lumber. I’m pretty sure the matches were my idea, but it was Leana who decided we should set the hay on fire. Being the smart one, I asked how we would put the fire out, and she said we could just smother it with a piece of lumber. That plan actually worked pretty well until it didn’t. Not knowing what else to do, I left Leana tending the fire and went inside to tell our mom. You’d think after the highway adventure, she would take me a little more seriously when I tried to get her attention. She didn’t. By the time I got her outside, all of the hay was on fire. Mom called the fire department while a neighbor turned a water hose on the hay. Even though the fire was out by the time the firemen got there, we still made the local news the next day. Mom was not amused, and we got in trouble all over again.

Leana during college.

The second 10 years of my life, I just wanted to be Leana. She seemed to have everything. Pretty, smart, athletic, popular, talented. Guys were always vying for her attention. When I was finally old enough to try out for softball, I naturally wanted to be on Leana’s team. She was an excellent and versatile player. Shortstop, catcher, even pitcher when needed. The coach was THRILLED to have Leana’s younger sister on the team and didn’t even make me try out. He just accepted me thinking I would be just as athletic as Leana. He likely never made that mistake again.

When I was 15 or so my dad taught me how to drive. Neither of us enjoyed the experience. A couple of years later, when I wanted to learn to drive my mom’s car, a five-speed MGB, it was Leana who taught me how to drive a stick shift. She also taught me how to multitask while driving—no easy feat when you need one hand dedicated to shifting. Her talents never ceased to amaze me.

After I graduated from high school, I never seriously considered any college other than Delta State—my sister’s school. We didn’t spend much time together during those days, but I felt better knowing she was nearby. After she graduated, I finally had to figure out life on my own. I managed, but even before the days of cell phones, I knew she was only a phone call away.

Kaylon (left) and Leana (right) as twenty-somethings.

When I got married, my husband thought he wanted a large family. He grew up the oldest of five and always expected to have as many children as his parents. I was not fully committed to a big family, and so we decided to start with one and “see how it goes.” After Kendrick was born, my husband decided maybe one was enough. He loved Kendrick so much and felt we could take better care of him if the family stayed small. Well, having grown up with the best sister in the world, I could not imagine my son being an only child.

A recent photo. Kaylon (left) and Leana (right).

Although Kendrick and Keaton fought a lot when they were younger, they also had plenty of misadventures together. Still, I’m not sure they would be friends if they weren’t brothers. I know Leana and I would be friends even if she wasn’t my sister. I guess that makes me the lucky one.

Top photo: Leana (left) and Kaylon (right) in 1966.

Moving Days

Moving Days

It’s the start of a new school year, and while most of my neighbors are sending their children off to one of the nearby middle or high schools, a few of us are shipping ours off to college. This year I have a sophomore at Auburn University in Alabama and a senior at High Point University in North Carolina. The fact that these schools are nowhere near each other and multiple hours drive from Nashville complicates moving day. The only thing that saved me is that classes at Auburn start a week before classes at High Point. For this reason, I was able to help them both move into their dorms.

Auburn, Alabama: Child #2; Trip #1, 240 miles

Keaton worked 40-hour weeks all summer long and was clearly tired of it. He was anxious to go back to school and didn’t complain when we packed the vehicles the night before we left. He was even ready to go the next morning at 7:20 A.M.—10 minutes ahead of schedule. He’s never ahead of schedule, and so I wasn’t ready. I had built a 30-minute cushion into the schedule anticipating Keaton being slow. Of course, I wasn’t about to admit that, so I quickly threw a few things into an overnight bag and we hit the road right at 7:30.

Thankfully, the drive was uneventful. Although I worried incessantly that one of the soft-sided car top carriers that each of our vehicles sported would come flying off, neither did. We made it to Auburn in time to grab lunch prior to his pre-arranged move-in time. We pulled into the parking lot, and I asked Keaton, “Are you sure this is the place?” He was. All I can say is that dorms have come a long way since I was in college. The dorm he will be living in used to be rented as apartments. I’m guessing they weren’t cheap because they are spacious with lots of amenities. The school recently bought the property and now uses it for student housing. I’m glad he has nice digs, but good grief. I expect it will be several years after he graduates before he can afford an apartment that nice. No wonder so many kids these days seem to be on the five-year college plan. When I was in college, living in a dumpy room and sharing a bathroom down the hall with a dozen other people was motivation to graduate early.

Keaton standing on his balcony that overlooks the pool.

Keaton spent the night in his apartment-like dorm while I stayed in a local hotel. The next morning, I stopped by to see him before I headed back home. Leaving him was harder than I expected. I reminded myself that he is in a good place and is happy—exactly what we as parents want for our children. We have to let them go, but dang is it hard! I hugged him one more time, and then as I was leaving I remembered I wanted to see the view from his balcony. Yes, his dorm has a balcony. No, mine did not. I stepped outside and looked down at a lovely view of a pool. A pool? What the heck? I’m paying for a POOL? Suddenly, leaving him wasn’t nearly as hard as making myself go home and go back to work. Instead, I wanted to be back in college, jump in the pool, and not think about where the money comes from to pay for it all. Adulting is hard. Is this cushy college life really preparing them for what is to come in the real world? I have my doubts.

High Point, North Carolina: Child #1; Trip #2, 374 miles

A week later it was Kendrick’s turn to go back to school. There was less to pack since most of his stuff stays in storage near the campus over the summer. He doesn’t take a car to school, so even though there is less stuff, it all has to fit into one vehicle. Once again, I wanted to pack the night before. We started with the soft-sided carrier, and although it was probably overkill since we had no issues on the Auburn trip, this time I added a couple of ratchet straps for extra peace of mind. Neither Kendrick nor I had ever used rachet straps, and we probably could have saved some time and foul language had we just watched a YouTube video first. By the time we had the top of the car loaded, we were both tired and cranky, and he wanted to wait and finish loading in the morning. Since it is a seven-hour drive and we lose an hour, I wanted to leave at 6:00 A.M. Thus, I reasoned, we should finish packing that night. We compromised by putting everything in the car except his computer and a few things he hadn’t packed yet. I went to bed, and he promised to have everything else ready to go by 5:00 A.M.

Let’s just say our definition of “a few things” is not the same. We had left space for his computer but not the dozen other things he couldn’t live without. He looked at the nearly full car and the numerous items left in the foyer and dejectedly announced that there was no way it would all fit. Well, back in the early days of computer gaming, I was a master at Tetris. I took his proclamation as a challenge. It took two hours, but I remain a champion. Everything fit. We left at 7:20 A.M.

Kendrick on the porch of his HPU apartment.

Nearly eight hours after leaving home, we pulled onto campus. Like Auburn, High Point University has a lot of really nice housing. For the last three years, Kendrick has shared an on-campus suite with other students. The accommodations were rather upscale and far nicer than the dorms available during my own college days. This year, Kendrick’s time slot to pick housing was later than usual, and, like Keaton, he ended up in a university-owned apartment adjacent to the campus. However, unlike Keaton’s recently built apartment that has as many bathrooms as bedrooms, Kendrick’s apartment dates back to the fifties. It has two small bedrooms and one tiny bathroom that he will share with his roommate. Despite its shortcomings, Kendrick loves it because it feels like a real apartment instead of a dorm. I love it too. It has everything he needs, but there is absolutely nothing fancy about it. It’s exactly like something he might be able to afford when he gets that first job after college. It seems like an appropriate transition to help prepare him for the real world. Maybe Auburn has something similar for Keaton next year. I think I’ll ask.

Not Quite Shakespeare

Not Quite Shakespeare

Life is full of unplanned moments. We are told to be prepared and to expect the unexpected. This advice pairs well with knowing how to improvise. It’s an important skill and one I was lucky enough to learn long ago. Growing up, both of my parents were active with the local amateur theatre, and it didn’t take long for my sister and I to get involved as well. Both of us learned to love being on stage. We also learned to improvise.

The budgets of small, amateur playhouses are always tight. Consequently, everyone working both on and off stage had to help build the sets. Some of us weren’t very good at it. One time during the opening scene of a live performance, one of the characters was supposed to storm off stage after an argument with her husband. The actor was supposed to jerk open the door and slam it behind her on the way out. Instead, the doorknob came off in her hand when she yanked on it. Without missing a beat, she turned to the actor playing her husband and yelled, “You’re such an idiot! You were supposed to fix this!” She threw the knob at him as though she really were mad. He ducked but still managed to catch it. Perhaps not knowing what else to do, he tossed the knob onto the couch. Two scenes later my sister, who was playing a friend of the bickering couple, inadvertently sat on the knob. She pulled it out, looked at it, and then turned to the husband and asked, “Weren’t you supposed to fix this?” The play continued the rest of the night with actors throwing in random lines about the doorknob. The audience never knew they were watching improv, but they were.

Learning to improvise on the fly has served me well in multiple ways over the years both at work and at home.

As a scientist, I’ve given hundreds of talks in my career, and I still get a little nervous in the few minutes right before I go on. I think it’s because when you are live on stage you simply never know what’s going to happen. You can plan. You can rehearse. But it is impossible to prepare for the unexpected. Sometimes things go wrong, like the doorknob, and you just have to improvise. On one such occasion, I was the second of four speakers who were each supposed to give a 10-minute talk. As I was approaching the podium, the moderator whispered to me, “The third speaker can’t make it. Can you talk for 20 minutes?” I stared at him blankly for a moment. Stretch a 10-minute slide presentation to 20 minutes? I wanted to shake my head no, but instead I smiled and nodded and wondered how I would manage it.

Normally, in a scientific presentation you give only the best parts of the research. You start with your hypothesis and then present the studies that proved it in a neat little package. Of course, that’s not how it really happens. Scientific exploration is generally a little messier than that.  Sometimes it’s a lot messier. There are usually mistakes along the way and a fair amount of trial and error. The motto in my lab is “Experiments never fail. They either work or I learn something.” In 30 years of research, I’ve learned a lot from experiments that didn’t go according to plan.

In order for my 10-minute talk to last 20 minutes, I decided to throw in a couple of stories about how things had gone wrong before they went right. The audience had several good laughs at my expense, and although it probably wasn’t what the moderator had in mind, I did manage to take up the full 20 minutes.

That wasn’t the first time I had been put on the spot unexpectedly. The last week of my senior year in high school we had final exams. If you had an “A” in the class, you were exempt from the exam. If you were exempt from all of your exams, you had permission to miss school the entire week. I was exempt from all of my exams except math. Therefore, I was not excused from any class. Wednesday of that week it was raining hard, and as I got out of the car I stepped into a huge puddle of water that soaked my shoes and clothes up to my knees. There was nothing for me to do in school since I had already taken my math exam. Wet and miserable, I made a decision. Screw it. I didn’t care that it would be unexcused. I was skipping school. I got back in my car and headed home. Since this was a decade or two before cell phones, I decided I should stop by my mom’s work to tell her I wasn’t going to school. My mother, a local radio personality, happened to be doing a remote that day. That meant she would broadcast live commercials throughout the day from a local business. That particular rainy day she was at the Piggly Wiggly, a grocery store that had just reopened after being renovated. I saw her as soon as I walked in. She was live on-air telling listeners to come by and see the new and improved store. Most mothers would be upset to learn their child had ditched school. Not my mom. She just looked at me and told her audience, “Now here’s my daughter to tell you about today’s specials.” Then she handed me the live mike and a newspaper. I read a few specials and then handed the mike back to her. She had improvised, and I went with it. Expect the unexpected.

Nowhere do I expect the unexpected more than as a parent. Most of the time I have no idea what I am doing. Not surprisingly, this leads to a lot of improvisation.

When my sons were two and four, they shared a bedroom with a huge walk-in closet. The closet was so large, we used it to store all the stuff we bought in bulk at Costco. Although I always put the boys to bed in their own room, more often than not one or both of them eventually crawled into bed with me and my husband. One night when the boys hadn’t come to our room, I went to check on them. Their beds were empty. I looked under the beds. Not there. I checked the bathroom, the living room, and the kitchen. No boys. I was starting to panic, and I ran back to the bedroom to wake my husband and call the police, but then I heard something and stopped. It was coming from their closet. The unmistakable sound of giggling. I opened the door, and there were my boys. It was summer, but the closet looked like a winter wonderland. Kendrick had opened every box of baby wipes and pulled every one of them out. He was throwing them into the air and watching them fall. Did I mention we shop at Costco? Hundreds of baby wipes were piled high and surrounded my sons. Not to be outdone, Keaton had found several boxes of Desitin—a thick, white cream used to prevent diaper rash. He was painting the walls with it. I knew that I should have been mad, but 30 seconds before I thought they had been kidnapped, so more than anything I was relieved. Instead of getting angry, I laughed. I laughed so hard I cried—and then I improvised. I covered my face and pretended I was crying because I was upset. I didn’t want them to know I was laughing. I don’t remember what punishment I handed out, but I know we used baby wipes out of plastic baggies for a long time after that.

I think Shakespeare had it right when he said “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Unfortunately, most of the time I feel less like one of Shakespeare’s characters and more like I belong in a Saturday Night Live skit. Oh well. At least it’s never boring.

Note: The newspaper clipping above is from an article published in the Daily Sentinel Star, the Grenada, Mississippi, newspaper, on February 4, 1980, after my sister Leana and I were cast in the Grenada Fine Arts Playhouse production of Bells are Ringing.

Everyday Heroes

Everyday Heroes

Many years ago when I was still in college and thin enough that counting carbs wasn’t something I needed to worry about, I was a frequent visitor to McDonald’s. Despite being in my twenties, I always ordered a Happy Meal. To me, it was the perfect amount of food, and I could usually find a child who was delighted to have the toy. Giving those toys away added to my love of the Happy Meal.

One day as I stood in line to buy my lunch, I watched the two people in front of me. It was a lady and a little boy around four, who I assumed was her son. The lady ordered only a small hamburger, and her son cried, “Why can’t I have a Happy Meal?” The lady leaned down and whispered, “I only have money for a hamburger.”

Without thinking, I tapped the woman on the shoulder and held out the $5 bill that was in my hand, “Ma’am, you dropped this.”

She looked at me confused and shook her head. The man in line behind me spoke up, “Yes, I saw it fall from your pocket.” Finally the woman understood and nodded to us gratefully. She bought her son a Happy Meal, and a little while later I gave him the toy from my own meal.

It was a small gesture of kindness on my part, but it made me feel good to help someone else. Many more times, though, I have been on the receiving end of someone else’s kindness.

One day long before cell phones, I was driving home from college when suddenly one of my tires went flat. I pulled to the side of the road, grabbed the can of Fix-a-Flat from the trunk, and walked around to check the tire. It had a hole in it the size of my fist—the Fix-a-Flat didn’t stand a chance. Although I am quite familiar with the mechanics of changing a tire, I’ve never had the strength to get the lug nuts off. I had no choice but to start walking. Less than five minutes later, a police officer pulled up behind me. I explained that my car had a flat and I was walking to the next exit to call home. Instead, he took me back to my car and changed the tire for me. When I got home, my mother asked if I had gotten the officer’s name so that I could send him a thank you note. I told her no. That never even occurred to me. She shook her head and replied, “I thought I taught you better than that.”

Well, yes, she had. Unfortunately, in a moment of crisis, it’s easy to focus on your own trouble and fail to really notice the people who bring you through it. When my first child was born, I was in labor FOREVER. Sixteen hours. My husband was antsy in the hospital, and so I sent him home to take care of our dog. He took longer than I expected, and I was getting more and more agitated. A nurse came by to check on me and ended up sitting with me all night. She was young and patient and soothing. She talked to me and gave me ice chips and made me laugh despite my discomfort. Eventually, it was time for Kendrick to make his appearance, and the nurse slipped out of my room. To this day I do not know her name, but I will never forget her kindness.

Several years later, I had two sons and continued to work full-time. Those were hectic days, and I often felt pulled in multiple directions. One day I was the last parent to pick up my kids from the YMCA summer camp and, feeling guilty, agreed to stop at a convenience store so the boys could get the kind of drinks I normally didn’t let them have. At the store, I helped them pick out their sodas and opened them as we walked to the counter. That’s when I realized I didn’t have my wallet. It was probably in the car, but I wasn’t sure. I looked at the teenager behind the counter and apologized profusely. I told him I would check my car, but he said not to worry about it. He pulled out his own debit card and paid for the drinks. Thankfully, my wallet was in the car, and I was able to quickly repay him. Of course, he couldn’t know that at the time—he only saw my distress. I hope he understood how much his generosity meant to a tired and harried mom.

A few years after I moved to Nashville, I had gone home to Mississippi for the weekend. As I was getting in my car to leave, my mom tried to give me gas money. I politely refused, but she insisted. Anxious to get on the road, I quit arguing, took what I thought was a $20 bill, and shoved it in my pocket. Several hours later, I stopped for gas and went inside to pay. I handed the young lady my mom’s money and waited for my $2 in change. Instead, she gave me $82. I told her she had miscounted because I had only given her a 20. “No,” she said. She held up the $100 bill that I had handed her. I was shocked and told her that my mom had given it to me, and I wouldn’t have taken it if I had realized how much it was. Still thinking I shouldn’t have taken the money from my mom, I simply thanked the cashier and left. It was only when I was back on the road that I realized I should have tipped her. The young woman could have easily kept the money after I told her she had made a mistake, but she didn’t.

These are only a few examples of people who have gone out of their way for me. Sometimes in today’s world it is easy to become jaded and mistrustful. We need to remind ourselves that the world is full of everyday heroes—people who are just trying to be the best person they can be and trying to help others along the way. That’s the kind of person I want to be. Sometimes I fail, but I’ll keep trying.

In a future blog, I would love to share stories from others. If you have an everyday hero story you want to tell, please email me the details at kaylon@kaylonbrunertran.com. Let me know if I can use your first name or if you prefer anonymity. I might email you back if I have a question, but I won’t spam you. Nobody has time for that.

Photo: My sons Kendrick and Keaton dressing up as fictional superheroes for Halloween in 2008.

Transitions

Transitions

I live in a large neighborhood in a suburb outside of Nashville. It’s a wonderful neighborhood that has been a great place for my sons to grow up. There’s a creek that runs along one end and a trail that encircles it. I’ve walked that trail more times than I can count and never grow tired of it. On a recent trek along the trail, I walked past a neighbor’s house and noticed a new addition to their backyard. It was a kind of obstacle course made of rope suspended between two trees. When I looked closer, I saw the label “American Ninja Warrior.”

I couldn’t help but smile. My sons had been obsessed with that show when they were little. If you don’t know it, it is a reality competition show that started in Japan but now has fans and competitors all over the world. Athletes must run, jump, climb, and swing through a crazy obstacle course. Although the courses frequently change, the “Spider Wall” is a regular. The contestants use a trampoline to jump and plant themselves between two walls. Using strength and skill, they must shinny their way to the end of the wall where another challenge awaits. If they fall, and many do, they land in the water and are eliminated. Those who can hang on through the course must hit a buzzer before time runs out. Athletes with the fastest times move on to the next level.

My sons never missed an episode of Ninja Warrior, and they were anxious to be old enough to compete. I made elaborate courses for them that ran through the house and into the backyard. We even had a spider wall complete with a small trampoline. They would each take their turn on the course as I timed them.

Keaton (age 5) takes a turn on the spider wall.

Back then the house was always a wreck. In addition to the homemade ninja course, there was always a partially built puzzle or LEGO masterpiece on the dining room table. Tents made from blankets were a common sight in the living room. The noise could be deafening. One day school was out for some reason, so I was home with them but trying to work. I had been in my office for a while when I realized the house was quiet—always a bad sign. I rushed out to find them rappelling off the second-floor landing down into the living room. For “safety” they had piled every pillow and cushion they could find on the floor to catch them if they fell.

Those were crazy and exhausting days. It seemed that I was constantly in demand by one or both of them. They always needed me for something, and sometimes I couldn’t even get five minutes to myself. Nearly everything either of them said started with, “Mom, can you…?” I’ll admit, there were times I longed for them to grow up and be able to take care of themselves.

Fast-forward a decade and my wish has come true. My boys are now 18 and 20. Although they are both home from college for the summer, things are nothing like the days long ago. Even when all of us are home, the house is often quiet. No more running wild across a homemade ninja course. The house is a lot cleaner too. They don’t have to be reminded to put their shoes away or put their dishes in the sink.

These days they rarely need my help with anything. Instead, they are the ones reaching up high to get something for me or bringing in a heavy box so I don’t have to struggle with it. Kendrick built the website I use to post these blogs, and Keaton teaches me how to use my phone whenever I get a new one. It’s a strange feeling. Sometimes it seems I need them more than they need me.

As I walked past the store-bought ninja obstacle course, I was a little sad. I realized I missed my younger boys and those crazy, hectic days. I missed being needed.

I finished my walk and returned home to find Keaton sitting on the couch with his computer. He had started his summer job and had paperwork to complete. “Mom, can you help me? I don’t know some of the stuff they are asking me for.”

I’m sure I smiled as I sat down beside him. Okay, I thought, they aren’t completely grown yet. The transition to independence may be well underway, but it isn’t quite complete.  I took the laptop from my youngest son and promised myself that I would savor these waning days of childhood.

Top photo (2010): Kendrick (standing) and Keaton (in water) at the creek that runs by our neighborhood. Every time we went, Keaton “accidentally” fell in.