Un-hip in Chicago

Bernie and I went to Chicago last weekend for another meeting (read: cocktails, yummy food, and plastic surgery pow-wow-ing). Ostensibly, these mavens of microsurgery were assembling to discuss research and stuff. Could they have hammered out logistics over a conference call? Maybe. But thing is, these incredible surgeons–the reconstructive geniuses you need when a shark bites you, cancer ravages you, or when you literally fall on your face—is a tight knit group. Over the years, we’ve logged many hours in hotel lobby bars, guzzled gallons of mediocre wine at “gala” dinners, and attended scientific meetings at finer resorts everywhere to keep abreast of an ever-advancing field. The plastic surgeons I know are wicked smart and quite a bit of fun, and I was only too happy to see a handful of my favorites.

So Bernie and I flew to one of my fave cities where they put us up at the tragically hip Virgin Hotels. We knew right away we were two decades too old for this scene. After our eyes adjusted to the nightclub-dark check-in desk, we were greeted by young men with alarming facial hair, giant ear holes, and man buns. The couple in front of us was dressed for Burning Man and had two skittish dogs wary of the funereal foyer. Behind us, another dude with a messy, high ponytail and a large guitar case waited to be greeted with how awesome it was that we were there, no worries, alright, niiiiiice, etc.

Bernie and I giggled the entire wall-to-ceiling carpeted elevator ride to our room. Virgin Hotels beds are ultra modern, white leather creations with a raised lip at one of the corners. Our inner 8 year olds immediately imagined Superfly Snuka. I suggested it was for lounge-reading; Bernie proposed something more… gymnastic. I doubted they ever Chlorox wiped the leather. Moving on…

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After a grown up dinner at Smith & Wollensky’s, we braved the roof deck bar back at the hip hotel. I love chatting up strangers. So I did. Chicago is really the best. Sharing cocktails in an upbeat, cooler-than-us spot with a racially diverse crowd doesn’t really happen in Boston. What struck me the most were the ladies. Oh, the ladies. I’d forgotten what it was like to go to a bar on a Friday night in my 20s: hair up, body perky, the swagger of youth and beauty. Back then I loved chatting up strangers, too. So I did. But these gals? No engagement at all.

“You look gorgeous,” I said to the 14th flawless millennial attempting an identical selfie as her parade of friends at the very same railing. She looked at me like I had just asked her for a tampon. Oh, dear. I’m old, hideous, and embarrassing. But I am me, so that thought didn’t take hold for very long and I continued making more friends out of strangers. We closed that place down.

The next morning, Bernie was off to be bow-tied and collaborative at the meeting, so I grabbed my book and attempted to nurse a minor, but still-needing-hash-browns Prosecco hangover at Miss Ricky’s, which is like a diner that spent one semester at Parsons. Outside, young people sat in actual swings as they ate avocado toast. I ordered coffee. The wait staff couldn’t have been nicer, but were more likely hired for their cool cred and sleeve tattoos than any sort of, you know, wait staff experience. Here’s how it went:

Waitress: Anyone help you yet?
Me: Hi! Nope. But I just want the breakfast sandwich. Scrambled egg.
W: Did you want The Wabash?

*scans menu where there is no such thing*

Me: I don’t know what that is.
W: Oh it’s like the breakfast sandwich but it has this kind of hot sauce.
Me: Got it. It’s not on the menu, though.

*still scanning menu where there is no Wabash but there is a breakfast sandwich*

W: So did you want The Wabash?
Me: I don’t really know what that is.
W: Oh, it must be on the lunch menu or something. Do you want me to get that?

Me: No, it’s alright, I’ll just have the breakfast sandwich that’s on the menu.

W: Ok. With the fried egg?

Me: Scrambled.
W: Oh, right. Should I put the hot sauce on the side?
Me: … sure.

A few minutes later: an oozing fried egg topped with sausage on an enormous hamburger bun. And two bottles of hot sauce. On the side. This would be decadently delicious for most, but I abhor fried eggs. Hated them since I was a kid. Not changing. They’re gross. Giggling, I ordered the check and laughed louder when it arrived:

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I swear, The Wabash is nowhere on the menu. But I paid for it and left a weirdly large tip because sometimes that is fun to do. Moving forward, I’ll probably call any restaurant blunder a “Wabash.” She should get royalties for that. Maybe I’ve already become an odd anecdote in Veronique’s life: the blonde mom who laughed at her uneaten breakfast and left a wad of cash.

Virgin Hotels didn’t really want us to eat. (Maybe most guests are too busy with, um, that bed.) The next morning I ordered oatmeal that said it would arrive with “all the trimmings.” Sadly, “all the trimmings” meant “just raisins” which are only a half step above fried egg on the gross scale. Luckily, Chicago is bursting with incredible restaurants and we never leave there without going to the Slurping Turtle. Only the Lees would go to Chicago to eat sushi and ramen instead of pizza pie. But Slurping Turtle never disappoints. And after slurping, we saw all of the things that make Chicago so fun to visit.

And later… a yummy dinner that wasn’t a total Wabash. Love you, Chicago!

Lee Family Goes East: Part 1

It was never going to be Spring in New England. The dashboard thermostat read 47 degrees at 5am as I packed the car for the Lee Family trip to Taiwan. I could see my breath as I lugged four roller boards into the SUV to brave all of the morning traffic from Boston to JFK on a workday. We Lees are very talented packers, get to airports early, can navigate a foreign city, and even barter with its weird coins. But travel planning? We suck at that.

Drive from Boston to fly to Taipei from NYC all in one day? Somehow we landed on that plan. It might have had something to do with trying to find seats with AMa and AGong and arranging return travel that could accommodate my sister-in-law’s family who would be joining the gang in July. It took hours of swearing at screens to figure out how to coordinate everyone. I lamented the good old days when people hired some gum-smacking gal in a glass cubicle on Main Street to arrange the whole thing with click clacking shellacked nails and bossy phone calls to the airport. (Not sure if that’s a fair assessment of 80’s era travel planners, or something I totally just made up.)

I had been warned it was going to be… hot. I couldn’t wait. Those who live in these parts know that Memorial Day Weekend was too chilly for any pool, and last day of school parties were thwarted by frigid temps and threatening skies. I had to remember to turn off the goddamn heat before we left. On June 8th. It was dinnertime the following day by the time we got to the Grand Hotel and unloaded into gigantic rooms with huge terraces that we quickly learned should NOT be used. Opening the doors to the elements on a summery eve in Taipei we met a wall of unbreathable heat and subsequently invited every blood-sucking insect into our sleeping spaces. Future panoramic pics were taken through the glass.

Nearly everyone in Taipei knew some English. Bernie spent 5th and 6th grade there learning Mandarin while his classmates were dutifully slogging through our impossible English verb conjugations. The locals were all sweet enough to brave a few sentences before my in laws took over in Mandarin or Taiwanese to make sure we got the spinach-y greens with garlic (NOT TOO SALTY!). I know y’all want the skinny on White Girl in the Orient. Some of you sent private messages to wonder how I was handling the immersion. It would be just like me to start making fun of everything right now. But my biggest take home from travel to see the people we (!) call family was this: it’s all about the food.

After we got married, Bernie and I lived in Manhattan, just a jog away from his parents in Flushing. If our schedules aligned and we weren’t on call, we often went to dinner with them. Over the years, these meals have been very similar… for me. To them, it’s possible the variety of restaurants we frequented were as vast as Chipotle to Peter Lugar’s. But I always experienced the same sort of Lazy Susan evening of shared dishes, many pots of tea, and a meal that started and ended with soup.

Those who have known me forever are familiar with a life long peccadillo I’ve never truly shaken: I don’t like sharing food. Clearly, this was going to be an issue going forward as a Lee. Before I became accustomed to the cold, fatty chicken appetizer, the mini fish with the heads still on, the bony knuckles of pork, or the occasional plate of jellyfish or liver or tongue, I would sit through these meals and pray for noodles. Oh, please let there be noodles– or those medallions of soy marinated fried pork. I always wanted to snatch a whole plate of recognizable food off of the spinning tray and gobble it up myself. But that’s not how it’s done.

“Have you eaten?”

This is how aunties and mothers and grandmothers often greet their (grown) children. It baffled me as a newly married. Finally I asked Bernie why his mother would call at 11pm and ask if we had had dinner. Did she think we’d forgotten to eat? Was it a late night invitation? He laughed and said that is the equivalent of “hello.” And now I get it. Like it is in many cultures, I suppose, food is love.

To be honest, I always thought my in laws were a bit exasperating with restaurant wait staff. I mean, if we were essentially ordering the same kinds of things every time (one chicken, two or more vegetables, a beef, a seafood, noodles or rice, never both) why was there so much discussion? It was always happening in another language, so I didn’t see that they were trying to curate a beautiful, coordinated meal. Didn’t matter if it was lunch on a Tuesday or AGong’s retirement dinner. When you assemble with people at that Lazy Susan there is an endearing respect for the process. And those choices were made like this could be our last meal together… or at all. I endlessly made fun of it in my head. But now I see it differently. And I love them for knowing all of these amazing foods and remembering which ones I like, ordering extra portions of those, and spinning them my way.

The spinach-y garlicky dish is so delicious it deserves its own paragraph. So does any gigantic platter of snapper swimming in gingered broth (even though someone always eats the eye). The beef falls apart in salty, fatty mouthfuls. Beans are snappy and spicy. We moaned over the dumplings. A simple chicken soup is a smooth, winy concoction that takes like it cures things. And across all of this wonderful food—a nourishing togetherness. Bernie’s parents came to this country in their early 20s, leaving behind a multitude of cousins and aunties and uncles, parents, grandparents, friends, teachers, and probably a few beloved restaurants. Having grown up with all of those people and logging thousands of hours over shared meals of savory foods, I cannot fathom the homesickness they endured encountering Roy Rogers and Pizza Hut.

During the week we were there, we ate with a multitude of relatives. There are many pictures that look just like this:

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So. Many. Lees.

Some of them were impressed at how very un-American my boys’ stomachs seemed to be. I hope AMa and AGong got the credit for their culinary bravery. We realized that the myriad restaurants they have dragged us to over the years here in the states are the ones that best mimic the classic dishes made in the homeland. The fact that my kids love dow guan (no idea how to spell that) is only slightly less surprising than the fact that their white mom knows how to cook it. Nothing was terribly unusual… except maybe the liver masquerading as “beef.” But the boys gobbled it up even after the menu was translated into English.

Brodie and Teddy were really excited about the famous Night Markets of Taiwan. Many streets are lined with dollar stores that peddle bubble teas, fried squid, horny fruits on sticks, oddly delicious candies, weirdly dusty cakes, and some very unfortunate clothing.

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We begged him not to buy it. And now every travel photo is besmirched with Teddy in a Pikachu hat.

We had been warned by local friends that no matter how much dow guan the boys had eaten in their little lives, their virgin stomachs would not be quite ready for street food. They were right. I’m not writing the paragraph about those moments.

We were absolutely spoiled by every single person we encountered, whether they were old friends or close family. I hope we show visitors to our home a fraction of the generous hospitality we were given. Friends we hadn’t seen since our wedding now had their own children. I’m not sure what they told them about us, but this one climbed into my lap to say hello. We’d only known each other for five minutes before this picture was taken:

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Instant friends.

 

When I asked her if I looked like her Queen Elsa Barbie, she masked a giggle with her tiny, perfect hand. Subsequent pictures have shown Brodie with this cutie on his hip all over town.

After a week, it was time for Bernie and me to leave. The impetus to make the Lee Family Trip East was the World Society of Reconstructive Microsurgery meeting, taking place in Seoul. And so quite bravely and impossibly, we left our children in the very capable and loving care of their AMa and AGong to attend a meeting that deserves its own essay. And then we flew home. To the states. Without the boys. Where it is finally… hot.

More to come, friends. xoxo

 

Lees on the Road

We’ve been gone for 10 days. Two consecutive plastic surgery meetings required four flights and long hours wasted in airport security lines. In Phoenix, the retractable barriers separating switchback lines of shuffling travelers boasted “The Friendliest Airport in America!” which was contradicted by exasperated staff barking at us to empty our pockets and remove clothing that might beep. As we padded through the fucking garbage hateful scanner, I fumed at the futility of this pre-boarding nonsense. “Not one of us is a terrorist!” I didn’t scream, because then everyone would think I was a terrorist. I blushed at uniformed strangers getting a glimpse at my implants in the name of national security. “Hey, these contain MORE than four ounces!” I didn’t joke because the security line doesn’t like jokesters. Finally aboard the plane—fondled, humiliated, and bathed in the breath of strangers—it was two to four hours of restless, foodless discomfort. Hats off to those of you who travel frequently and don’t offer a constant stream of more-annoyed-than-thou tweets about the experience.

I might be a grumpy traveler, but I’m a darling meeting attendee. Honestly, I’m so darned impressed with anyone who stands up in front of a huge audience of peers to talk about what they do. Especially when what they do is restore women to pre-cancerous normalcy, even beauty. Also, there are always new people to meet and I love love love new people to meet. Isn’t everyone amazing and smart and delightful? I think so– especially when meeting them happens during cocktail hour.

I also “met” a broader tweeting community, as Bernie and I launched the Journal of Reconstructive Microsurgery into the social media sphere. I’ve been playing with Twitter for years: following the funny people, writing little nothings, and getting to know @JustinGuarini all over again. (He’s delightful. Go see.) With a handful of new plastic surgeons following, my feed is full of facelift facts and why you might want your implants to be textured. This community has only a small toehold in the virtual world of opinion-shouters, but it’s growing thanks to charmers like @OlivierBranford and @danielzliu. And now that I have two more #SoMe sites to monitor, I’m more attached to my phone than an Instagrammer with an Etsy, new kitten, and a kitchen remodel project.

Monitoring social media is more of a time suck than deciding what to watch on Netflix, and I have stuff to do. Or, maybe I don’t. Between these two meetings I was asked 163 times if I’m ever going to be a surgeon again. Some are genuinely wondering if that is a thwarted dream on temporary hold. Other inquiries gently imply that my days are spent waiting for repairmen and searching for delicious crockpot recipes. Which is ridiculous. I hardly use the slow cooker at all during the summer.

Once again, I found myself defending my days, recounting hours spent on “pathological volunteerism” and reminding them that submissions to the Journal are read and vetted by me first. So there, you little misspellers and Oxford comma omitters… I’m judging you!

At long last the meetings had ended and it was time to race back through airport security to attempt a standby flight to see our little boys even one hour sooner. I wanted to be home instantly. Ten days is forever. I was sure they were taller and better at math. There were missing teeth to appreciate, stories to hear, snuggles to give. We were miraculously awarded the last two seats on the plane. Squished into middles… in separate aisles… bathed in the breath of strangers. Couldn’t have been happier.

It’s nice to be home. HVAC guy should be here any minute.

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Bow tied Bernie and me. Lees on tour, now happily home.

 

 

 

Tips for Flying the Infected Skies

If you’ve been in an airport lately… well, I’m sorry. I loathe traveling by plane. Like, blech. And it has nothing to do with a miniscule probability of plummeting to a fiery death, padding sock-footed through scanners that herald the quality of my implants, or being asked for the millionth time if my husband and I are, in fact, together. It’s the proximity of strangers that tests my nerves and immune system. And if you’ve been in an airport lately, then you’ve heard every nervous titter, hackneyed joke, and armchair theory about Ebola. And if you haven’t, all of the big screens will be tuned to CNN’s Scare Loop, ensuring your participation in the hysteria. Should you want the real skinny on the transmission of this deadly virus, here you go. But if you want tips for travel from someone who hardly travels at all… sally forth, dear reader.

In spite of every single doctor type and infectious disease guru telling us it’s really really really difficult to contract a virus that does not fly through the air with any sort of ease, we’re Americans… and we’ll make up our own minds, thank you very much. We’re going to be a bit uneasy about flying around the country right now. This hardly means we’re going to, like, stop flying around the country. That would be bonkers. We’re very very busy. And important. We will, however, harbor murder fantasies about anyone who risks pulling out a hanky. So to safeguard your in-flight reputation, and to put your traveling companions at ease, maybe a bit of subterfuge is in order. Three tips:

Are you feeling feverish? Well, here’s an idea: stay the fuck home. But since you’re very very busy and important, you’d better have a ready excuse for those flushed cheeks. When you push a damp armpit past my face to aim that jetted air of concentrated microbes at your sweaty mug, I’d better be hearing lots of disclaimers about The Change. “Whew! Hot flashes! Goodness. Should’ve known better than to have that merlot. Whew!” Loud and clear, hot lady. With lots of hand waving incredulity regarding the temperature of the cabin.

Are you nose-drippy, sneezing, and snorting? Well, here’s an idea: stay the fuck home. But since your pseudoephedrine hasn’t kicked in and because you’re very very busy and important, please give us the courtesy of fake allergies. “Do you have a cat? I’m very sensitive to dander. Well… this is going to be a long trip.” Or maybe a bit of talking-to-yourself blather about tree pollen and climate change and how Obama won’t pay for your seasonal immunoglobulin therapy. Really, we’ll believe anything. But speak up, sniffly Sal. And Purell those filthy, filthy hands after every blow. After Every Single Blow.

Tickle in your throat? Is your cough a deep rattle that is unearthing pasty chunks of bacterial debris hardly contained by your filthy, filthy hands and aerosolized for the rest of us to share? Well, here’s an idea busy, important guy: stay the fuck home. But until your codeine knocks you out cold, you’d better fabricate a 25 pack/year smoking history. Loudly lament the good ol’ days when smoking was permitted in the plane; joke about the ease of disconnecting the bathroom alarm. Accompany those phlegmy sputters with boozy stories about the Grateful Dead, twitch nervously, chew gum. Slap on a patch mid-flight. Whatever, dude. Just pretend for our sakes you’re not a tuberculoid avain flu SARS Ebola typhoid carrier. Launch a convincing case that your lungs aren’t brewing a sludge cocktail of death pathogens, but are innocently (and un-infectiously) suffocating from exposure to inhaled poisons. This will make us feel much, much better.

So if you’re feeling under the weather, and not too Busy and Important to risk exposing fellow travelers to your shedding germs, then crawl back under those covers, sickie. But if you must fly the infected skies, you’d better summon a plausible alibi for your disgusting symptoms. We don’t want to share an armrest with anyone right now, but your best menopausal, cat-hating, Marlboro Red-sucking impression will assuage the fears of your traveling companions while you unwittingly dose them with your bug-addled breath.

Me? I’m not going anywhere.

Bon voyage, friends!

You'd better have boozy reasons for using this bag...

… and you’d better have vodka-related reasons for using this bag…