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.

Moments

Moments

There are moments in life that stay with you forever. Sometimes their significance goes unnoticed when they are happening, and it is only later when you realize the memory of that moment has wormed its way into your soul and will never let go.

For me, one of those moments came in 1975 in the middle of fifth grade. Another occurred much more recently in March of 2019. Unexpectedly, those two moments would collide.

In 1975, several months after the American war in Vietnam ended, a new student arrived at my elementary school. Her name was Tam. She and her family had come to Mississippi as refugees from Vietnam. Of course, I asked her why and I was embarrassed by her answer. That was the first moment.

Tam and I had been born in the same year, but our childhoods were markedly different. I had grown up oblivious to the conflict that had been the backdrop to her entire life. I was fascinated by my new friend and wanted to know more about the place she used to call home—the place where more than 56,000 Americans had died. My parents, the library, and Tam herself were all great resources and helped me in my quest to learn about Vietnam and the war that brought her to the U.S. It was through my conversations with Tam that I first learned about Agent Orange.

Agent Orange was an herbicide that the U.S. used extensively in Vietnam to destroy the jungle and food crops of the enemy. It was supposed to help our troops. Much later I would come to understand that Agent Orange was also contaminated with dioxin—one of the most toxic compounds humans have ever produced.

In 1995, two decades after meeting Tam, I completed my dissertation studies examining mechanisms associated with the development of endometriosis, a gynecologic disease. These studies earned me a PhD in reproductive pathology. Two years before receiving my degree, the first paper linking dioxin exposure to the development of endometriosis was published by another laboratory1. Although I couldn’t know it at the time, that paper would set the course for the rest of my scientific career. Over the last two decades, my research partner, Kevin Osteen, PhD, and I, along with a myriad of students, fellows, and colleagues have contributed significantly to the current understanding of the long-term and generational effects of dioxin. It was because of these studies that in March of 2019 I first met Ken Gamble. The second moment.

Ken did two tours in Vietnam with the Brown Water Navy. In recent years, he established the Orange Heart Medal Foundation and has worked tirelessly to ensure veterans of America’s most unpopular conflict are recognized for their suffering due to Agent Orange exposure. Ken learned of our research and asked if he could visit the lab.

As it happened that day in 2019 when Ken came to Vanderbilt to learn more about our dioxin research, my 17-year-old son, Kendrick, and his friend were also there. It was senior “shadow day” at their high school. Seniors could have an excused absence from school if they spent the day visiting someone who worked in the field to which they aspired. Kendrick cared nothing about becoming a scientist; he just wanted a day out of school. His friend, however, hoped to become a physician and relished the thought of spending the day at a medical school.

After showing Ken the labs, we returned to my office. Kendrick was there and I introduced him to Ken. They shook hands, and Ken said to Kendrick, “I was your age when I went to Vietnam.”

Really?

I was born in 1964, and thus every American veteran of the war in Vietnam is at least 10 years my senior. By the time I knew enough about Agent Orange to be appalled by our government’s decision to use it, veterans of the Vietnam war were well into their fourth and fifth decades. In other words, they were long past their teenage years.

I looked at the 70-something-year-old man in front of me and could easily accept that he was a veteran. Vietnam veterans had always been older than me, and I never really thought about the fact that they were young once. As I looked from Ken to my child, the juxtaposition created a stark contrast and made me think. I could not possibly imagine Kendrick as a soldier carrying a rifle in a foreign land. Kill or be killed. At 17 he was already much taller than I will ever be, but he was still my little boy. My child. Ken had been a soldier at his age. I had trouble comprehending it.

That’s when those two very disparate moments collided.

Tam came to the U.S. as a refugee. I was born in this country. Both of us are here today because of men and women like Ken who fought and too often died so that the rest of us can live our lives in freedom.

I love America and understand to my core how lucky I am to be an American. I have always appreciated the men and women who are willing to fight to defend and protect us and our allies and am entirely sincere when I say, “Thank you for your service.”

Our research is dedicated to helping America’s Vietnam veterans, their children, and grandchildren who may suffer due to our use of Agent Orange in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, it has been easy—too easy—to have a clinical detachment to the work. Although my care and concern for Agent Orange-exposed Veterans and their children is genuine and always has been, I must admit, it was only when I looked into the eyes of a veteran and saw my own child reflected there that the mission truly became personal.

Ken Gamble during his Navy days (Ken is on the far left in the two outside photos). Circa 1962.
Left: A recent photo of Ken Gamble wearing the Agent Orange T-shirt and hat he designed. Right: Kendrick Tran (age 17) in May 2019 immediately before his high school graduation ceremony.

1Rier SE, Martin DC, Bowman RE, Dmowski WP, Becker JL. (1993) Endometriosis in rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) following chronic exposure to 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin. Fundam Appl Toxicol. Nov;21(4):433-41. doi: 10.1006/faat.1993.1119. PMID: 8253297

The Orange Heart Medal Foundation website: http://www.orangeheartmedal.org/about/index.html

3 Stars

Three Stars

I grew up in the seventies and eighties long before the internet and the endless number of online streaming options we have today. In my free time, I read books. Lots of books. I loved how they could take you anywhere and you could experience life in another country or another time. Not surprisingly, my first job was as a library assistant at the Elizabeth Jones Library in my hometown of Grenada, Mississippi. The other teenage library assistant at the time was Donna Tartt. She and I played a writing game of sorts.

Donna bought a steno notebook, and each week one of us would write a few pages of a story. The next week the other would pick up where the first left off. Neither of us knew what the other was thinking. For my part, I had no idea what I would write until I wrote it. This silly game clearly revealed to me that Donna was a gifted writer. Whatever ridiculousness flowed from my pen, she made it make sense. Like it had purpose. A few years later, it came as no surprise to me to learn that Donna had received a book deal from a well-known publisher. I was genuinely happy for her. She was talented and the world needed to hear from her.

More than four decades have passed since our library game.  Donna is now a famous author, and I am a medical research scientist at a major university. Our paths have never crossed again, and I doubt she even remembers me. Like Donna though, I have my share of publications. My most famous work appeared in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, a medical journal that won’t be found at any grocery store and can’t be ordered from Amazon. That’s okay. Writing about our scientific findings is one of my favorite parts of the research process, even though I know my audience will be rather small.

Last year I decided to try my hand at writing a novel. I was nervous and insecure. Would it be any good? Would anyone be interested in the story I wanted to tell? The first complete draft was just under 40,000 words. It seemed short for a novel, but I felt I had said everything I needed to say. I sent it to my sister, Leana. She LOVED it. I was happy but also cautious. She’s my sister—of course she liked it. It’s a bit like your mom telling you you’re pretty. It’s not exactly an unbiased opinion.

The next person to read that first draft was my close friend, Christina. She liked the story but said she needed details. “Tell me more about the people and the places. I need you to paint a picture.”

Oh, I thought, I can do that. Before long Time Intertwined had expanded to more than 70,000 words, and it truly became a novel and not just a story. Leana and Christina both read it again and assured me it was good. I gave it to my brother-in-law, an avid reader who warned me he wouldn’t finish it if he didn’t like it. He read it in a weekend.

Feeling more confident, I proceeded with having the book professionally edited. Then I self-published with Amazon and waited. Would anyone buy it? If so, would they like it?

Although there is no danger of me making the bestseller list anytime soon, I sold more copies than I expected. Even better, the people who read it liked it. Nearly every review was five stars. Not bad for a first book, right?  I was elated and more than a little relieved. The feeling didn’t last, however. Insecurity and self-doubt began to creep in again, and I wondered if all those reviews were written by friends and family. I needed more validation. With trepidation, I submitted Time Intertwined for professional review. There was no guarantee that my book would be reviewed, and no guarantee that if it was it would be positive. All I could do was throw my book into the reviewer ring and wait.

After nearly two months without any communication, I received an email telling me the book had been picked up by a professional reviewer. More waiting. Another two months dragged by. Finally the email I had been nervously waiting for arrived. The long-awaited review. My hands were shaking as I opened it. “Five Stars. A must read.” The reviewer wrote a long and effusive review and said I should keep writing. I felt amazing. But I wanted more. Good reviews are addictive. Kind of like crack. The more you get, the more you want. The more you need.

By the time I received my first professional review of Book One, my second book, Lives Intertwined, was live on Amazon. Fewer sales than the first book, but every review was five stars. And so, with a little less anxiety than the first time, I threw Book Two into the professional reviewer ring. Two days later I was told the book had been selected. Less than a week after that, the review was back. Wow, I thought, they must have loved it since they read it so fast.

I was wrong. Three stars.

Three?? I was devastated.

I was so upset it took me two days to read the full review and even then insisted a friend sit with me while I read it. It turns out the reviewer didn’t hate my book. He just didn’t love it.

Lives Intertwined tells the story of two soldiers who meet during the American War in Vietnam and remain friends over many decades. Only two chapters out of more than 100 can be considered war scenes, but those chapters annoyed my reviewer. He had been there—in Vietnam. Apparently, my characters’ experiences didn’t mirror his own. He called my descriptions of battle “Rambo-esque.” Okay. I can’t disagree. I wanted my soldiers to be tough guys and somewhat larger than life. I wanted them to be heroes who my readers admired and loved. And I wanted my readers to remember that these men were young once, even though they grow old across the pages of the book.

In the end, despite the three-star rating, my reviewer said that he “felt a visceral connection to much of the story,” and he recommended it to his readers. Those words made me feel a tiny bit less devastated.

Somewhere deep in my psyche I know that my books aren’t for everyone, and I should be able to accept that. Surely most creative people have experienced a less-than-stellar review of their work. Maybe even Donna Tartt. Maybe between her Pulitzer Prize and her movie deal she received a review that felt like a gut punch to her soul. I hope not, but, if so, I am glad she kept writing anyway.

I think I’ll do the same. Writing makes me happy—and, if I am very lucky, my words will make other people happy too.

Notes: Donna Tartt is the award-winning author of The Goldfinch and other novels. The attached photo is of the actual steno notebook she bought in 1980 that we used for our writing game. My mom found it in her attic when she moved in 2020.

Not My Type

Not My Type

I love the word game Scrabble. Growing up my dad was kind of a jerk, but he was something of a wordsmith and we played a lot. When my sons were little, we played the many little kid variations of Scrabble, but as they got older they lost interest in game night, and I had no one to play with anymore. Then one of my sons told me about the phone version of Scrabble—Words with Friends—probably because he thought I could use some friends. And maybe he was right.

I married late in life, and it didn’t work out. For a long time after the divorce, I had no interest in dating. Life was just too busy. Demanding job, two kids, two cats. I didn’t have time for anything else. Then my oldest went to college and life was a tiny bit less busy. About that time a friend asked me to foster a cat that had special needs. Okay, I thought. It’s only temporary. Or so I thought. Squeaky turned out to be such a sweet and funny cat, and I couldn’t help but fall in love with her. Anyway, let’s just say “foster fail” is a real thing. So now I have three cats. How many cats does it take before you’re the crazy cat lady? I really didn’t want to find out and decided that maybe it was finally time to start dating again.

Several of my friends had been successful with online dating, and so one of my girlfriends and I decided to give it a try. We looked at the various sites, including the ones for “mature” singles.

And before you ask—no, I didn’t mention that I had three cats. I’m not a complete moron.

My friend and I decided to sign up for three months, and, depending on how it went, maybe we’d sign up for another three months. She went with one site, and I tried another. It did not go well. We both canceled after one month.

Apparently when you list your preferences, the algorithm completely ignores them. College degree a must, you say? The algorithm responded with a high school dropout who still lived with his mother. Must be a non-smoker? This guy only smokes cigars, so he’ll be perfect for you. I’m 5’2 and said that I would prefer a guy who was taller than me. I guess that was a really high bar, because whatever algorithm they were using managed to find me not one but two guys who were shorter than me. In retrospect, I probably should have given them a chance.

In the one month that I was active on the site, there were three men who I thought might be worth communicating with. I was wrong on both counts. There were only two actual men and neither were worth my time.

The first guy was good-looking, very tall, lived close by, and owned a successful business. He sounded perfect. We began communicating via the dating website. We exchanged three messages within 30 minutes. It wasn’t the most erudite banter, but it was fine. Then he told me he was well-off financially and, well, the PG-13 version of what he said next was, “When can we have sex?” Uh, never. I mean, call me old-fashioned, but I prefer to get to know someone first. Maybe, you know, actually meet in real life.

I blocked Mr. Oversexed and looked around to see if anyone else had shown interest in my profile. There was and he seemed promising. Attractive and although not as tall as the first guy, he was still taller than me. He was recently divorced but not so recent as to be a concern. He lived a little less than an hour away. The first message he sent was several paragraphs long and incredibly well written. It was thoughtful, funny, and interesting. I responded with a message that I hoped was equally interesting and funny. It took him two days to respond, and I wondered if I had somehow offended him. Or maybe I wasn’t as funny as I thought? Finally I got the notification that Mr. Recently Divorced had responded. I’m sure I was smiling with anticipation as I clicked open the message. It was only two short sentences, and they were so poorly constructed I had to read them twice to understand what he had said. Disappointed, I tried to think of a reason for the change. Perhaps he was just in a hurry and sent the message without rereading it? I responded with a short note hoping that Mr. Recently Divorced would get his act back together.

Instead, the next message I received was from the dating website itself. It turns out Mr. Recently Divorced wasn’t a real person but a group of scammers preying on lonely old ladies. I’m not sure what hurt my feelings more—being duped or being called an old lady. Either way, it was time to move on.

The third guy I communicated with was not what I would call my type physically, but he wasn’t bad looking and he was funny. Really funny. I like funny, so I gave Mr. Not My Type a chance. We sent multiple emails via the dating website back and forth over a couple of weeks. It was fun and I was enjoying it. Fortunately, before either of us suggested we meet in person, he asked me who I followed on social media. Hmm, I thought. I don’t really follow anyone other than my friends. Certainly no one who I would call famous. He was surprised that I didn’t and suggested several people that I should follow. I had never heard of any of them, so I looked at their websites.

It turned out that Mr. Not My Type was an atheist. Not a “you do your thing and I’ll do my thing” kind of atheist but a radical, activist atheist. A “no one should have religion” atheist. I’ll be honest, it scared me. I blocked him.

Then I closed my account. I was done. I went back to playing Scrabble on my phone and started wondering if I should get another cat. Crazy cat lady didn’t sound so bad after all.

Some Gave All

Some Gave All

As most of us know, Memorial Day in the United States is a day set aside to acknowledge and remember our servicemen and women who have lost their lives while serving in the U.S. military. This is an important and appropriate tradition. But is it enough?

There is a phrase I have seen many times posted online and even on T-shirts that states, “The Vietnam War killed me. I just haven’t died yet.” This sentiment refers to the long-term and far-reaching effects of Agent Orange exposure.

Agent Orange was a chemical herbicide used extensively by the U.S. military during the war in Vietnam. Its purpose was to destroy enemy food crops as well as the dense jungle the Viet Cong used so effectively to ambush Western troops. Unfortunately, there were unintended consequences.

The manufacturing process associated with the making of Agent Orange, a combination of two different herbicides, also produced dioxin. Dioxin is considered the most toxic man-made compound ever created. It has no commercial value and is not manufactured intentionally, but it was present in Agent Orange.

Millions of gallons of herbicides were sprayed across the South Vietnam landscape over more than two decades of war. Agent Orange wasn’t the only one. There was also Agent Green, Agent Pink, Agent Purple, and Agent White. These so-called rainbow chemicals took their names from the colored stripe on the black barrels in which they were shipped. Agent Orange was the one most widely used. It was also the most toxic.

The initial consequences of exposure were rapid. Within 24 hours of being sprayed, leaves would begin to wither and die. Birds and other small animals would also quickly succumb to the chemical’s toxic effects. Eventually whole forests would be destroyed, wildlife killed, and the land ruined for farming. Yet, somehow, it was thought that Agent Orange had no serious effects on humans.

We know better now.

We now know that the dioxin in Agent Orange affects the human immune system, the endocrine system, and the reproductive tract. Cancer, a wide array of birth defects, pregnancy failures, diabetes, and many other conditions have been linked to dioxin exposure. We also now know some of its effects can be transmitted across generations affecting the children and grandchildren of those who were initially exposed. Another unintended consequence. This is what we know today. What have we not yet learned?

Memorial Day is a day to remember and honor those who have fallen while in service to our country. But I ask, should this be expanded to include those who died because of their service even though their death may have been years later?

Sadly, the example of Agent Orange is only that—one example of how our military members may be lost because of their service long after they have been discharged. We now know that the burn pits so often used to destroy military waste produced dioxin and many other chemicals that together created a highly toxic cloud that was eventually linked to the increased risk of cancer and numerous other diseases in our veterans. To my knowledge, we have not yet demonstrated that the children of military personnel with burn pit exposures may suffer the same fate as the children of Agent Orange-exposed Vietnam veterans—but has the question even been asked?

Finally, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common among America’s veterans, but these invisible scars are often overlooked. Of course, the families of these veterans see and feel the long-term effects of war. Although PTSD may not cause disease the way Agent Orange or the burn pits have, the emotional toll can be just as great. When PTSD leads to death by a veteran’s own hand, is the loss any less great?

This Memorial Day as we remember the many members of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard who have died during their service to our country, I will also take a moment to remember those who came home but ultimately died as an unintended consequence of their service. These men and women have given us their all and deserve to be honored for their sacrifice.

Photo: The Agent Orange Memorial in Springfield, Tennessee, USA. For more information, please visit them on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AgentOrangeMemorialProject/