Sunday, June 19, 2011

Reflections on the greatest gift of all -- from a daughter to her dad


(Originally published September 11, 1994)           

It's never to late to be thinking about Father's Day.

It's one of those Hallmark holidays that leaves a grown woman feeling pretty small. After all, what do you give a man who has more tacky ties (thanks to his kids) than Dolly Parton has colorless wigs?

Each holiday my sister and I look at each other with that "Got any bright ideas this year?" look, and then we resort to the usual tried but true alternatives to genius -- a box of Walnut pipe tobacco, or some peanut chews.

The notion that there's anything a kid could ever give a parent to even the score is unrealistic.The years of sacrifice and heartache that go into parenting are priceless -- not as in precious and adorable; as in costly, beyond measure.

Or so I thought.

I was flipping through this week's Time magazine when an article caught my eye. And I read with an unexplainable emotion the story of Chester Szuber, a retired Michigan Christmas tree farmer. In short, after 20 years of suffering with heart disease, living through three open-heart surgeries and enduring four years on on organ transplant waiting list, Szuber's new heart arrived on Aug. 18.

It wasn't technically his turn.

But a twist of fate brought his name to the top of the list. His 22-year-old daughter, Patti, had turned up in the University of Tennessee Medical Center, brain dead following a freak automobile accident during her vacation in the Smoky Mountains. Patti was a nursing student. She was the youngest of Chester's six children. She was a loving daughter who had probably given her dad a fair share of tacky ties and novelty gifts over the years. And she was a card-carrying organ donor.

I don't know about you, but I've never seen my pancreas. I'm not even sure if I could pick it out of a line-up on America's Most Wanted Internal Organs. I know that my kidneys look something like the beans in chili, and that my heart looks nothing like the shape of the Valentines I send every Feb. 14.

But unlike other human guts, the heart is symbolic. It is more sentimental to us than any other part of our anatomy. We regard it as much more than a squishy, pulpy mass with ventricles and arteries that get clogged from too much butter and bacon.

Our hearts rule us. They gauge our love. We are defined by our heart in degrees of feeling. Sometimes our hearts break. With any luck, they mend. And when it comes to big decisions, we either use our whole heart or half of it, in the follow through.

But these heart conditions are medically unrealistic. We know our hearts are basic biology. They pump blood through our bodies. If they stop, so do we.

I can only imagine what Chester Szuber thought about during the time it took for his daughter's heart to be transported the 600 miles from Tennessee to Michigan. What he said, according to the article, was: "It would be a joy to have Patti's heart."

The parent in me has trouble with Chester's joy. I have placed my hand over my 3-year-old Billy's chest, on demand, to feel his "heart beep." The rhythmic thump has always reminded me how fragile his life – all life – is. Little more than skin and bones seem to separate our physical life from certain death. I would sacrifice myself to preserve his tiny heart.

And yet, it is the daughter in me that was so moved by Chester Szuber's story. Death came to Patti Szuber too soon. She would never get to say good-bye. No more family Christmases in Michigan. No more well-intentioned Father's Day gifts.

But for every day Chester Szuber lives, he will rely on the steady pulsing of Patti's heart. He will never have to feel the permanent void felt by most parents at the loss of a child. The empty cavity in Szuber's chest, where the imperfect heart of a parent once beat, has been filled with the loving heart of his own child.

Chester Szuber's joy, as I try to comprehend it, is something too sentimental for science to explain. As a daughter, I've spent my whole life trying to give an adequate piece of my heart to my parents. But it never feels like enough.

And so it is for her final gift that a part of me envies Patti Szuber. More than the physical pumping of life-sustaining blood, Patti was able to give back to her father the precious gift of life he had first given her, 22 years ago.

I know in my heart, the real joy in that exchange between father and daughter belongs to Patti.

Postscript: June 19, 2011

I never spoke to Chester Szuber when I wrote the original column. It was harder 17 years ago to track someone down than it is today.

Over the years I have wondered about Mr. Szuber and his heart, so today I looked him up. It was easy. I dialed his number and got his answering machine, which included his cell phone number. So I dialed again, and Chet, as he prefers to be called, picked up on the third ring.

First, I wished him a happy Father's Day.

Then I had to ask him how he and his heart were faring all these years later.

"I feel like a million bucks. I pretty much woke up from surgery feeling great, and I have felt great every day since," he said.

I also asked him if it's true, what I've read, that sometimes a heart recipient finds that they take on some of the qualities of a donor.

"I don't know if it's from Patti's heart, but I have a lot more patience for people than I ever did, before getting her heart," he said.

He is back to Christmas tree farming, and still as grateful as ever for his daughter's ultimate gift.

"Bottom line is I'd much rather have this heart beating in Patti's chest, not mine. But she's taken good care of me over the years."

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Unrefined Art of Raw Food

             If you are what you eat, then eat something full of life, 
                  says raw foodie Mary-Ellen Hedrick, of Derry.
Eating in the raw: Mary-Ellen Hedrick has discovered the benefits of a raw food diet, and is ready to teach others. Here she whips up a batch of watermelon soup using fresh fruit, agave nectar
and cardamom, an aromatic spice.
By Carol Robidoux
DERRY -- It's encouraging to those in the local "raw food" trenches that First Lady Michelle Obama is talking about what Americans are putting on their dinner plates.
Last week the familiar USDA food pyramid was dismantled in an effort to adjust our bad eating habits. The push targets childhood obesity, but is meant to teach everyone some new ways of thinking about how we eat, and how what we eat affects our health.
On June 2 the First Lady introduced "My Plate," a straightforward approach to eating -- a dinner plate with four color-coded sections. Half is designated for fresh fruits and vegetables.
Mary-Ellen Hedrick, a dedicated raw foodie, would say that's about half right.
Hedrick truly believes that we are what we eat. Food that is eaten "raw," or without processing, additives or cooking beyond 112 degrees Fahrenheit, provides all the live nutrients a body needs to thrive.
Raw ingredients will become a no-cook 
marinara sauce in minutes.
"I realized sugary sweets were impacting me. I had no energy. I felt like I needed to take naps in the middle of the day," said Hedrick, who began seriously exploring the world of raw food about a year ago. "It's been a natural progression. In spite of myself, my palate has changed. And I can't argue with how I feel -- I have this mental clarity, and my energy is back."
What she's learned is that cooking food destroys enzymes which makes it harder for the body to digest. She says the process of digesting cooked food actually depletes our own enzymatic reserves, diminishing the natural energy and antioxidants in living food.
"And that depletion is what causes aging and disease," Hedrick said.
She is a middle school social studies teacher by day and now a certified raw food chef, by choice. Combining those two skill sets, Hedrick has launched a new business, Raw Kitchen, and is looking forward to spending her summer teaching others the benefits of raw food. 
During a recent cooking demonstration Hedrick whipped up a summer meal within minutes, using only fresh ingredients and a food processor, including watermelon soup, summer squash "linguine," macadamia nut and raw cashew Alfredo sauce, zucchini angel hair "pasta," and chilled marinara sauce, using tomatoes, sundried tomatoes, olive oil, dates, fresh parsley, garlic and cayenne pepper.
Raw food, as a movement, is growing, not only here, but across the globe, Hedrick said. With more attention being focused on what we eat, how our food is produced and the health risks associated with certain foods, she expects more people to explore the benefits of a raw food diet.
Which is not to say that she's a purist.
She has occasional lapses that may include pizza night or meat off the grill, especially when eating away from home. But Hedrick admits one deterrent has been the resulting "food hangovers," which leave her feeling sluggish and cloudy. She considers her current diet about 80 percent raw.
Zucchini angel hair "pasta" with marinara sauce.
"When you think about how much Americans rely on Fryolators and food that comes in boxes, you can really understand why eating raw can make you feel so much better," said Hedrick. "Sometimes I think about what was considered 'normal' eating when I was a kid -- a bologna sandwich on two pieces of Wonderbread covered in mayonnaise, and a glass of soda -- the thought of feeding that to my daughter, given how much more we know now about good nutrition, isn't an option," Hedrick said.
Despite its expanded raw food factor, reaction from hardcore food experts to the new USDA dinner plate quadrants have been mixed.
Vegan proponent Dr. Neal Barnard, who is president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, remarked that with all due respect, isolating a quarter of the plate for protein is not necessary, since many whole grains and vegetables have sufficient amounts of protein.
Hedrick agrees.
She has found that raw nuts are no more expensive than meat, and way more versatile. She has learned to sprout wheat berries and lentils, which she uses to create a slew of recipes high in protein and enzymes.
When it comes to food prep, she relies heavily on her food processor, spiral slicer, and dehydrator. Her microwave is obsolete. Her oven, mostly in the way.
The greatest health benefit has been boundless energy,
said Mary-Ellen Hedrick, a raw food enthusiast.
"My next step toward 100 percent raw will be changing over from coffee to this," said Hedrick, reading off the ingredients from a bag of organic coffee substitute that included carob, barley, chicory, dates, almonds and figs.
"For me, the journey began because I have such a sweet tooth. I couldn't resist sugary desserts. But then I learned that there really are so many dessert options that are free of caloric impact, using nuts and fruits and agave nectar. From there, I just started to expand my raw food list," Hedrick said.
Her urge to change her eating habits coincided with the awareness that what she ate was affecting how she felt, for better or worse.
"Even before raw food, I was already becoming more aware of things like consumption of animals and animal byproducts. I was trying to opt for free range chicken and eggs, striving to be more considerate of the animals and buy those raised sustainably, rather than in cages," Hedrick said.
"At first, people who change over to a raw diet actually experience degrees of detox -- anything from rashes to nausea -- our bodies have accumulated so much stuff in the way of additives and chemicals. Once you get over that, you feel the difference, every day. Even starting off slow and eating raw for one or two meals, you feel a difference," Hedrick said.
"After that, your body tells you what it wants you to eat -- whether it's going to be a fruit kind of day, or maybe you are craving a handful of nuts. You let that drive you, and really start listening to your body, and there's no doubt you'll naturally start to change your eating habits," Hedrick said.
For more information or to schedule a cooking lesson contact Hedrick: or  603-732-2425.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star . . .

“It doesn’t matter who my father was;
it matters who I remember he was.” – Anne Sexton

Perception is everything.

For example, several years ago my sister and I planned to gather up some childhood memories and present them to our dad for a milestone birthday.
After a few days of mental gathering, we conferred.

I’d come up with a boatload of happy dad stories.

Meanwhile, Jean’s Titanic collection of moments had left her with a strange, sinking feeling.

"I remember one time I was sitting on Dad’s shoulders and he was singing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle,’ to me and I couldn’t stop crying,” my sister recalled.

"Why were you crying?” I asked.

"I was sad,” said Jean in a tone that implied I just wasn’t getting her.

"Why was it sad?” I pressed.

"I don’t really know. But every memory I came up with was depressing," my sister said. "I’m no good at this.”

How could this be? We breathed the exact same evergreen Glade-freshened air, ate the exact same sugar-frosted breakfast cereals and shared the very same wonderful dad.

But her memories were evidently skewed by her own unique internal sentimental, little-girl perception of things.

Perhaps “Twinkle, Twinkle” evoked in her little preschool brain a twinge of man’s constant puzzling over the enigmatic nature of space and supernovas.

Or perhaps she likened herself to a twinkling star, high above the world from atop her father’s shoulders, and feared that no one would ever really understand her.

No matter.

Because the point here is that my sister’s inability to think happy thoughts about our dad made me wonder what my own little kids were storing in their memory banks about their good old mom.

I decided to take a survey:

Me: Billy, what will you remember about me when you grow up?

Billy: How should I know? I’m just a little kid.

Me: I know that. But what will you tell your children about me someday?

Billy: Will you be dead?

Me: Not necessarily. I just mean how will you explain what kind of mother I was, you know; what kind of memories will you have?

Billy: (swallowing hard) Do you think you are gonna die before Dad? What will happen to me if you die before Dad? I don’t want you to die.

Me: Nevermind.

I smiled to myself and hugged my sentimental son, assuring him that I was going to live forever. Just then, Julianna came over, wondering what all the commotion was about.

Julianna: Why’s Billy crying?

Me: I asked him what will he remember about me when he’s all grown up.

Julianna: So why’s he crying?

Me: Because it made him think about me getting old and dead.

Julianna: Why don’t you ask me? I won’t cry about it.

Me: OK. What will you remember about me?

Julianna: Well, I’ll remember when you weren’t an old gramma and when you didn’t have gray hair and wrinkles and I’ll remember that you were funny and nice and soft, and how you always looked at me with love in your eyes. But will I have to push you around in a wheelchair?

Me: Only if you want to.

The moment was oddly reassuring.

You see, my kids have been breathing the same air, eating the same breakfast cereal and loving the same scatter-brained mom for their whole lives.
Despite their different reactions I know they will end up on the same page, just like my sister and me.

Because, concrete memories aside, when Jean and I look at our dad we see a tall, dark-haired, dependable, funny man, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound; a man of much integrity and few words.

We see a man who can sing “Twinkle, Twinkle” with enough feeling to make a little girl cry.

And even though that little girl may not know it at the time, eventually she’ll figure out that what made her so sad was the accompanying thought, that one day she might grow up to be too big to sit on his strong shoulders, or to simply get lost in the sweet sound of her daddy’s song.

Roving Reporter: Email scams, friendship and computer insecurities

Roving Reporter Carol Robidoux
Maybe this has happened to you: You sit down with a cup of coffee, open your e-mail and scan the in box for something worth reading when you see “HELP NEEDED” with no fewer than 10 exclamation points, sent from someone you actually know.
You gulp your coffee as you click open the email, further concerned to learn that your “friend” is writing with tears in her eyes, having been mugged in a hotel park during her brief vacation to the UK. Bad guys took all her money and credit cards and now, to catch her return flight which leaves in a few hours, she needs money to settle her hotel bill. No one at the embassy or foreign police department is being particularly helpful.
She will take any help – as in money – you can wire. She'll pay you back when she returns.
She signs her name. It feels like a genuine cyber SOS. So what do you do?
That all depends on how familiar you are with the increasing sophistication of e-mail scams infiltrating our personal email and social networking accounts. I know this because last Wednesday my personal email account was hijacked and several hundred people, ranging from relatives and friends to law enforcement officials and Derry town employees, received a virtual shake down from an invisible bad guy pretending to be me.
Screenshot of an Amazon scam.
In the week that followed, I learned a lot about the nature of people, the fragility of email security, the boundaries of friendship, and the network of cyber crime stoppers working to prevent the good-hearted yet somewhat gullible masses from falling prey to such scams.
Like the group of Derry town employees waiting for me on the third floor of the town hall, just hours after my email account went AWOL, most of them relieved to see I wasn't going to miss the appointment after all.
“We took up a collection for you,” said Town Administrator Gary Stenhouse, jingling the change in his pocket. Hey, it was better than nothing, I figured, given the normally hostile reception reporters get from municipal employees they scrutinize in print.
I also heard someone from the newspaper alerted the editors of my faux plight. I later found my bosses were unanimously put off that I failed to file stories in advance of my UK vacation for the next day's paper. Even Union Leader Publisher Joe McQuaid took the time to let me know that he'd gotten two internal emails and an anonymous phone call from people wanting to help me.
He said he was personally still weighing the pros and cons of donating to the “Save Robidoux” fund.
After recouping what remained of my virtual identity – and dignity – I lapsed into reporter mode and learned that this particular scam continues to swindle people across America of their cash – so far hundreds of thousands of dollars have been wired to a nameless, faceless bad guy an ocean away in the name of friendship. It's so prevalent the FBI has added “The Stranded Traveler Scam” to the Internet Crime Complaint Center's alert log.
Jeannette Toscano of IC3 explained they are sort of cyber hero justice league, a partnership between the FBI, the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C) and the Bureau of Justice Assistance, all committed to fielding complaints from scam victims and shutting down the cyber villians.
“Once you opened that email, there could have been a worm in the background that allowed the scammer to get access to your contacts, which is how they perpetuate the scam,” said Toscano.
Most likely to respond are the kind-hearted friend or particularly vulnerable grandmothers and marginally computer-savvy relatives. You know them as those who regularly forward notoriously annoying emails detailing political injustice or medical calamities or warm fuzzy animal photos that can be stopped, aided or enjoyed just by resending an email to every “strong woman,” “equally fed-up American,” or “someone in need of a smile” you know.
Still a little shaken from the feeling of vulnerability, I wanted answers. I called academic cybersleuth Gary Warner, a University of Alabama at Birmingham professor whose virtual street cred includes being a card carrying member of the FBI’s Digital PhishNet and Team Leader of the Phishing Incident Reporting and Termination Squad.
I asked The Terminator how this happened to me, one who regularly refers others to to debunk email spoofs and never falls for promises of money from Nigerian diplomats.
He seemed to want to blame the victim, who in most cases have inadvertently given up password information through ignorance. He was puzzled to learn I use Gmail, since just about all of the 1.5 million daily spam emails he mines with his spam-catching software originate with Yahoo or Hotmail accounts.
Then he asked me if I'd received an Evite lately – that's a popular online invitation site that has pretty much eradicated the need for paper party invitations and postage stamps.
I had. But told him I hadn't had time to respond. I'd been too busy fielding responses to my spam email and changing all my account passwords to think about developing a social life.
“Just last week Evite spam was responsible for a huge amount of malware – 11,000 copies came into my spam collector alone,” Warner said. He went on to inquire whether I'd opened anything from Target or Amazon lately – two more unexpected sources that, just last week, delivered unwanted malicious software to unsuspecting computer users everywhere.
He sent me a screen shot of the Amazon scam. It didn't look familiar to me, but it also didn't look suspicious.
“The Amazon scam says something like 'thank you for verifying your new email address. Please verify it belongs to you.' Then it directs you to click a little button in the center, and if you click to start the verification process, it steals your password,” Warner said.
He wanted me to remind readers that protecting your email password is probably the single most important safeguard to preserving the integrity of your virtual identity.
“People tend to not think about their email password being important, yet the most common password people choose for their email account is still 'password.' Think of what the bad guys could do with your email password. How do you reset your bank password? By requesting help, which comes to your email, including a link back to your bank site, where the bad guy, who now controls your email, can easily reset the password,” said Warner.
“If a criminal has your email account, he can access your bank accounts, your credit card accounts,, any site you shop from, like Amazon or Best Buy. All those accounts are set up with the same singular point of failure. If I have your email password, I can reset every password in your life,” Warner said.
Masking the paranoia I was now feeling over my computer insecurities, I asked Warner if paranoia is a plausible response to the real risk here. I was thinking about the ease with which so many of us use our email and Internet accounts for work correspondences, document sharing, online banking and Christmas shopping.
“People ask me that all the time. As much as I know about online crime, do I still use online baking? Of course I do. Honestly, we are still far more likely to have an account stolen by the waiter who takes our credit card into another room at the end of a meal than by some unseen, online predator,” Warner said.
Needless to say, I've learned some valuable lessons in all of this. For one, that all my hard work building journalistic bridges in the town of Derry are enough to see me safely home, should I ever find myself stranded abroad and in need of airfare. Also, that email scams happen, and everyone can be a victim.
And most of all, I've learned that the next time someone delivers a meal tab to my table, I will be the one paying with cash

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The power of a wilted 4-leaf clover through 16 years of marriage

What do you figure the odds are of finding a four-leaf clover without even looking?

I know -- but I'm not telling, just yet.

But I will tell you it's been more than 20 years since I plucked one from the yard at my mother's house.

And wouldn't you know, there was one sitting on my washing machine in the kitchen this morning -- just in time to remind me how lucky I was to have been in Mr. Nelson's ninth-grade honors English class at Woodrow Wilson High School back in 1974.

We were in the midst of a fascinating rotation which included Greek mythology, Shakespeare, Hemingway and public speaking. And we were just getting our final pep talk on how to speak effectively to a bunch of ninth graders (talk fast and use a visual aid), when I noticed the kid sitting next to me looked a little green about the whole prospect.
"Whassamatter?" I asked him.

"Nervous, I guess," said the quiet kid who lived down the street, whom I had known casually since seventh grade.

Since it was my nature to be helpful, I had a brainstorm. I reached into my 14-year-old bag of tricks. It took a minute of sifting through some other good stuff -- notes passed to me by my friend Irene in science class, pencil stubs with big rubber erasers, loose lunch change and a broken cigarette -- but I found it.

It seemed as if I had pulled a stubborn sword from an ancient stone.
"Here. Maybe this will help," I said, offering a little green clover encased in Saran Wrap to my jittery friend.

"What's this?" he asked, perhaps thinking I was peddling some unrefined drug.

"It's a four-leaf clover. I found it the other day in my back yard -- without even looking. You can keep it. Really."

And my token was just in time.

"Jimmy Robidoux -- you're up," Mr. Nelson bellowed in his best baseball umpire voice.

And thanks to the lucky charm, Jim hit a homerun that day.
"I got an A," he mouthed the words to me, once his heart had found a normal pace again, following his dynamic speech on biblical truth and the end of the world.

Later that day, he even had the courage to stop by my house and thank me again, this time with sound.

"I thought I'd better return this -- in case you needed it for your speech tomorrow," he said politely.

I shrugged it off and told him to keep the clover. I guess I had more than enough confidence in my knowledge of surrealist painter Salvador Dali, my topic of choice.

And besides, I had a really cool visual aid prepared -- a decent reproduction of Dali's "Melting Clocks" -- just in case I didn't fascinate my peers for three minutes with the content of my research.

And I would have invited Jim in for a Fresca, at that point.

But he said he'd better get back to his girlfriend, Jennifer, who was busy digging her toes into the gravel at the bottom of my driveway.

Anyway, it only took us about three more years and a few failed attempts at finding true, teenage love with other partners until we were able to fully comprehend the power of a wilted weed.

Five years later we were married.

And this Friday will be our 16th wedding anniversary.

So when I saw the familiar little rectangle of Saran Wrap surrounding a green, four-leaf clover on top of my washing machine, naturally, I had to ask my husband, "Where'd this come from?"

"Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you. Aimee's friend, Kira, found a bunch of them. She said she was getting out of Aimee's car right in front of the house and she saw one -- a whole bunch of them, in fact. I wrapped one up for you. I have one in my wallet, too," said my husband, marveling, "What do you figure the odds are of finding a four-leaf clover, let alone a whole bunch of them, just like that, without even looking?"

I suppose it was a rhetorical question.

But as I said, I suddenly know the answer.

The chances of finding a four-leaf clover, just like that, without even looking, are probably once in a lifetime.

Unless God decides to send a simple anniversary present to a couple of impulsive teenagers who survived ninth-grade English class and went on to find each other eventually, against all odds, like a tiny miracle in a field of clover.

Originally Published June 5, 1995
Bucks County Courier Times