Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Dear Reader

Dear Reader,
            This is my last column of the semester. This means most of you are too busy to read it, having higher priorities like studying for finals or writing papers. This is fine; I’m not offended. There is a time and place for everything.
            For those of you who do have a few spare minutes to spend with the Daily Lobo, I am glad that you are taking a breather. It is important to slow down from time to time. Still, I will be brief.
            Before I leave you for several weeks, I just want to take a moment to acknowledge you, whoever you are, reading this. It is an odd feeling, writing for  unknown readers. I never know whose eyes are scanning my words, how and where my thoughts land, whether you find them interesting, irrelevant, helpful or boring.
            Perhaps you are a student at the end of a long semester, or a staff person on a break. Maybe you are having coffee and a Frontier roll, or waiting for a bus, or putting off grading papers for a few more minutes. Possibly you just grabbed a newspaper to line your bird cage or pack up your belongings.
            When I was a child my mother read to me and my sisters from Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. Kipling wrote as if he was speaking, and he referred to his reader as “O’ my best beloved.” When I heard that, I always felt specially acknowledged. Writers write for their readers, after all, so thank you for reading.
            What I most want to say to you is that I hope you acknowledge yourself. Whoever you are, there is only one of you in this universe. You are the definition of unique. Nobody else has your experiences, your struggles and accomplishments, your exact take on the world. You have your own preferences, habits, quirks and your very own style.  Your strengths have saved you; your weaknesses have cost you. Life has hit you in the gut, one way or another, leaving you a little wiser and a little stronger each time.  You are a changing, growing human being, shaped by your changing, growing life.
            Between nature and nurture, the forces that mold us are endless and varied. It takes every single one of us to complete the complex, wondrous picture that is life on earth. I personally find it fascinating that there are no two of us alike anywhere, and I thank you for your contribution to the landscape.
            Have a good winter break.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Take a Flu Shot for Raymond

Raymond Plotkin was a freshman at UNM in 2009. A native of Texas, he was one of 18 freshman accepted into the Learning and Living Community for Engineering. He planned to become a nuclear engineer, and he was very happy here. He loved living in Redondo Village and eating at La Posada. He was a friendly young man who liked his roommates and got involved in student engineering clubs and the local Hillel House. He kept in close touch with his parents and older brother in Houston. His mother Elaine said, “Raymond fell in love with UNM. He really connected with his School of Engineering advisors and did very well in school. He made good friends and was having fun. Everything was falling into place for him and the future looked bright.”
The Fall semester was going well. Raymond carved a jack-o-lantern for Halloween and reveled in his first snow experience, even saving snowballs in his dorm room freezer. When the time came, he got a flu shot. Sadly, that was the year that the H1N1 flu took the nation by surprise, and the regular flu shot, the flu shot that was available to Raymond, didn’t include protection from H1N1.
In early November, 2009, Raymond got his first symptoms. He came to the Student Health Center and was treated for flu. A few days later, on a Saturday, he got much worse and his roommates took him to UNMH where he was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit. For four days the doctors did everything they could, fighting to save his stricken lungs and heart with all that modern medicine has to offer. Tragically, nothing worked. On November 11, just weeks shy of his 19th birthday, Raymond died from H1N1.
A week before his death, Raymond posted a quote on his Facebook page. “Life’s challenges are not supposed to paralyze you, they’re supposed to help you discover who you are.”  Raymond’s parents, rather than allowing themselves to become paralyzed by the terrible grief that losing a child brings, have become passionate advocates of influenza immunization. They don’t want anyone else to lose a son or daughter to flu if it can be prevented. “Take One for Raymond” is the name of their initiative that has now become a foundation, spreading the word about influenza immunization.
Writes Elaine Plotkin, “All we ask is that everyone considers taking a flu shot, and if you’re on the fence about it, please think about it again. No family wants to hear that a loved one is sick in bed with the flu. It is our intent to educate and inform everyone about the importance of flu immunization. We do this because we wouldn’t want any other family to have to go through what our family has … without our son. That is why we will do everything we can do to ask each of you to take the flu shot, if you are able to do so.”
Stu­dent Health & Coun­sel­ing (SHAC) and UNM Hos­pi­tal part­ner to offer free “Take One For Raymond” flu shot clinics for the UNM com­mu­nity. The influenza vac­cine will be offered to UNM stu­dents, staff and fac­ulty (any­one 18 years old or older) Tuesday-Wednesday, Sept. 25–26, and Tuesday-Wednesday, Oct. 23–24 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Stu­dent Union Build­ing atrium.
  Elaine and Ronnie Plotkin, Raymond’s parents, also established a scholarship in his name, starting the fund with a generous donation the same year they lost Raymond. Each Fall, the scholarship is awarded to an incoming freshman engineering student. Recipients so far are Paul Gilbreath and Sean Chavez. To contribute to the scholarship or for more information, contact the UNM School of Engineering at 277-5064 or visit .
For the past two years, Elaine Plotkin has written an article like this one for the Daily Lobo. This year the honor is mine.  I take this task very seriously because, you see, I have a son almost Raymond’s age.  And that same year, my son also contracted H1N1. To my profound relief, he survived it. So every Fall when flu season breaches the horizon, I imagine the pain Raymond’s parents have endured, and my heart hurts. And every Fall I find inspiration in the courage they have shown by moving beyond the paralysis of unimaginable challenge, and I go “take one for Raymond.”
I hope you will too.

Sunday, September 16, 2012


Last week I had the great good fortune to attend a meditation retreat in the high country of northern New Mexico. For three days I sat for many hours on a cushion, silently bringing my attention back to my breath over and over again, or walked slowly upon the earth, soles alert to every pebble on the path. During the breaks I savored delicious food, wandered flower-bedecked meadows, and immersed my senses in fresh air, stars and running water. There was no phone service, no internet connection, no television. By the end of the retreat I felt a depth of rejuvenation and calm that still sustains me.

Why am I telling you this? Beyond wanting to share my joy, I thought you would be interested to know that meditation is actually good for you. For starters, it can improve your GPA. Meditators have more gray matter. This has been measured. Gray matter is what does your homework for you, so presumably more is better. More specifically, the gray matter growth that has been observed in mediators occurs in areas associated with learning and memory, sense of self, empathy and stress management. Further, long-term meditators have more folds in their cerebral cortex, which allows for faster information processing. “Sitting” makes you smarter.

Meditation is also good for your health, both physical and mental. Scientists have studied this, in typical scientist fashion, by plastering electrodes all over the heads of meditating Buddhist monks, surveying thousands of people with a smart phone app, and of course using more conventional methods like basic lab measurements. Meditation can lower blood pressure and pulse rates, improve your immune system and decrease your experience of pain. People who meditate have less anxiety, depression, and insomnia, and respond better to stress. If you have a chronic illness like AIDS or cancer, meditation can help manage the physical and emotional symptoms. Meditation and exercise are the only two activities proven to prolong brain function in old age. And perhaps most importantly, meditators are happier and more resilient in times of stress.

What is meditation anyway? In the simplest sense, it is the practice of relaxing the body and clearing the mind. Another way to describe meditation is focused attention on the present moment with awareness and without judgment. There are different kinds of meditation, but they all have the same goals. Mindfulness meditation uses awareness of the body and mind to bring the attention to the here and now. Other traditions use an object or an image for focus, and some use a prayer, a mantra, or a wish for widespread happiness. Yoga was traditionally a way to prepare the body for sitting meditation, and can be used as a kind of movement meditation. There are many choices. The concept of meditation is simple, but that doesn’t make it easy. The nature of the mind is wild and wandering, and getting to even a few moments of calm, present-moment awareness can take years of practice.

Sakyong Mipham, a great Shambala Buddhist teacher, likens the mind to a wild horse that gallops off at every opportunity. Jack Kornfield, an internationally renowned meditation teacher, writes that meditation is like training a puppy to sit and stay. The puppy always gets up and runs away, and you just pick it up and put it back down over and over again. If you have never tried it, meditation might sound mysterious at best, useless at worst. But more and more people are trying it, liking it, and keeping it up. It is sweeping the globe. In fact, just last weekend people in over 100 cities around the world held a special meditation for peace. This included 100,000 meditators in Buenos Aires alone.

If you think you might be interested in meditation, you could start with some reading. In addition to the teachers mentioned above, I recommend Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron, The Dalai Lama, or Jon Kabat-Zinn. These are just my personal favorites: there are many others. You could also check out a DVD, find a meditation center near you, or take a class.

Amy Gross, former editor in chief of O, the Oprah Magazine, retired from her highly successful career to become a full time meditation instructor and practitioner. She writes, “As you meditate, the grip of your history loosens and you get a little saner, lighter, less entangled.” Maybe that is what I was feeling up in the mountains last week. It’s somewhat indefinable for me at this moment. All I know is that it felt good, and right, and if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to my cushion.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

De-stress a little at a time

From my Ask Dr. Peg column in the Daily Lobo newspaper.

Take Time to De-Stress

Flu Shots

From my Ask Dr. Peg column in the Daily Lobo newspaper:

Should I Get a Flu Shot?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Consider NOT Considering the Source

Consider the source.

That is one of those truisms for critical thinking we learned in college. Before you accept something you hear or read as truth with a capital T, look at who is saying it, and decide if they are worth listening to or not. Is this person an expert? Is this article peer-reviewed? Was the study double-blinded? Could this person be biased? Do I even like this guy?

It's a good idea, to an extent, but I submit it can get carried too far. Do you ever consider the source before you listen to what they have to say? I know I do. Oh, that guy is a Republican. I know I won't agree with him. Her? She said something nasty and untrue to my friend the other day. I know I won't believe a word she says. My husband? I'm pissed at him for something he did this morning, so anything he says today I'll take personally.

The thing is, if you filter stuff before it even gets to your brain, like this, you can miss out on a lot of good information. That Republican guy might have something reasonable to say about the gulf oil spill. The nasty gal might have just been on the rag the other day and have a great tip for sale dresses today. My husband making an observation about my behavior might just be right (I cringe to admit).

I've been practicing NOT considering the source. Try evaluating the message on its own merits. Forget the messenger. Whether it be someone's take on current events or feedback on how I come across, I'm trying a "just the facts, ma'am" approach. Is the message valid, interesting, worth considering? If so, it doesn't matter where it came from. I can learn from the message, even if I'm too biased to learn from the messenger.

If the message is worthless, let it go. Push the eject button and get it out of my mind. Easier said than done, but worth a try.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Saturday, January 16, 2010

"Did you kill anyone over there?"

This is one question it is NOT okay to ask an Iraq war veteran. I know this, although I've never been exactly sure why. Best I could figure, it is because a) that is an intensely personal question, kind of like asking a stranger if they've ever had an abortion and b) because the answer is most likely "yes" and I should know that and they probably don't want to talk about the war.

Recently I have become acquainted with an army veteran of some thirteen years, multiple continents and numerous conflicts, including Afghanistan and Iraq. Thanks to his courage to look within and work hard, he has done a lot of healing from the inevitable psychic wounds of war, and thanks to his generosity in sharing, I am learning a lot from him.

I asked this vet why the question is so taboo. He explained that, during the conduct of war, you have to do things that, in our civilian society, are unacceptable. In peacetime, killing another human being is murder, and it's wrong. In war, it is the business of war. You do it because you have to, because they are the enemy. You kill people, you see people killed, you witness horrible destruction and suffering. It is what you do in combat, yet part of you whispers that if you're doing this, you must be a bad person. Sometimes, that part becomes convinced.

When you come home, you put those things, the events of war you have lived through, into a fragile compartment in your mind and protect it carefully.

If you try to answer the question, "Did you kill anyone?," all of a sudden you are forced to dig into your mind, expose that fragile compartment, and relive it. Whether you have personally killed anyone or not, you have been at war. You have participated in the conduct of combat and now you have to look at yourself in the mirror. You want to be a good person, you try to convince yourself that you are a good person, but when you see again the scenes of combat and feel the contamination of war's aftermath, you feel like a bad person. The conflict is excruciating.

I have never, thank goodness, asked a vet that question. Now I'm sure I never will.

The Authors of "50 Ways" Interview on KCHF TV

50 Ways to Leave Your 40s TV interview with Phoenix' Pat McMahon