May 10, 2017

Random Acts… When your mother is gone

Posted in Health, Women at 6:36 pm by dinaheng

My mother passed a few weeks ago.

She fought stomach cancer for more than two years, going through radiation treatments and chemotherapy to eek out one more day with her children and grandchildren.

My sisters and I did our best to take care of her, so that she would be able to die at home when the time came. For the last six months, I have been flying back and forth between Los Angeles and Houston to help out, spending more and more time with her until the end. It was the best thing I’ve ever done.

You never really know what it means to lose a parent until it happens to you. If we’re lucky enough to have parents who are still living, we usually take their presence for granted. Mothers and fathers, after all, are supposed to be the ones whose lives revolve around us.

But when we realize that time with the ones we love is truly limited, everything changes. Suddenly, losing income is not as important as losing precious moments with Mom. Losing the “normalcy” of everyday routines doesn’t matter when you’re needed to take her to the emergency room, again and again.

Losing sleep doesn’t matter when your body instinctively wakes up at 4 a.m. to check and see if Mom needs help to go to the bathroom. Losing your appetite means little when you watch your mother become unable to eat anything that’s not thinly pureed or liquid.

Together, we went through the ups and downs of remission and the return of cancer. I held her hand as she made moaning sounds, unable to talk about her fears, and watched her struggle to get into the wheelchair when she was too weak to walk anymore. Through it all, she never gave up hope of living… one more day.

The week she died, I left Houston on Wednesday, telling her I would be back in two days. She passed the next day. I guess she couldn’t wait for me to return.

The days have been a blur since then. I cry whenever anything reminds me of her. I am grateful that just as she brought my sisters and me into this world, we were able to help her pass into the next.

This Mother’s Day, a friend — who also recently lost her mom — and I will be having lunch together to celebrate our mothers. I’m sure we’ll both have plenty of memories to laugh and cry about.

That’s what happens when you live life to the fullest.


January 23, 2017

Random Acts… Everyone should attend Festival of Human Abilities

Posted in Art, Diversity, Entertainment, Health, Travel at 5:37 pm by dinaheng

Why does an aquarium have an annual festival featuring performances that showcase the creativity of people with disabilities?

“It’s all part of our outreach to many communities,” explains Peter Martineau, marketing events manager for the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif. “Our mission is about taking care of the animals, the ocean and the ecosystem by getting people engaged to accomplish that mission.”Dinah Eng

So in addition to cultural festivals that celebrate people from diverse racial backgrounds, the Aquarium decided to create an event highlighting the talents of those with disabilities. The great thing about these events is that people from all walks of life attend and learn from each other.

This year, the Aquarium’s 14th Annual Festival of Human Abilities (Jan. 28-29) will feature hip hop wheelchair dancers (Auti Angel, The Rollettes, and Infinite Flow); a sign language choir; Kodi Lee, a singer who is blind and has autism; Dat Nguyen, a guitarist who is blind, and other inspiring performers.

Along with music and dance, the event will include art demonstrations, like the making of mouth-stick art by local artists with disabilities. Diveheart, an organization that takes people with disabilities scuba diving, will do a talk and take divers into an Aquarium exhibit.

Free creative workshop classes, lasting 30 to 45 minutes, will teach participants how to sing in sign language, create wheelchair art, paint a hat, or try hip hop wheelchair dancing. The Aquarium will also give audio tours for guests who are blind.

Auti Angel gives a wheelchair dancing performance at the 13th Annual Aquarium of the Pacific's Festival of Human Abilities. Photo courtesy of the Aquarium of the Pacific.

Auti Angel gives a wheelchair dancing performance at the 13th Annual Aquarium of the Pacific’s Festival of Human Abilities. Photo courtesy of the Aquarium of the Pacific.

“We all have challenges in our lives, and whether you have a disability or not, you’ll find yourself inspired by these performances,” Martineau says. “We usually get about 7,000 attendees each day, and one of the most powerful things is the opportunity for people who don’t have disabilities to feel comfortable around those who do.

“The more you can talk to someone and hang out with them, the more you realize that that person’s a human being you can talk to. Everyone at the festival is getting the ocean conservation message, and it’s going to take a diverse world of people to make it happen.”

Admission to the festival costs $29.95 for adults (12 years and older), $26.95 for seniors (62 and older); $17.95 for children 3 to 11; and is free for children ages 3 and younger. Members of the Aquarium are admitted free of charge.

For more information, check out




November 29, 2015

Random Acts… Angels live among us

Posted in Health, Spirituality at 10:46 pm by dinaheng

When my nephew Mark was born, most friends would look delighted at the news. Then, when they learned that he had Down Syndrome, the first words they’d utter would be, “I’m sorry.”

After it happened two or three times, I started getting angry. I knew that people were trying to express sympathy for a child who would face many challenges in life, but they had no idea of the joy that lives in his heart.

As a toddler, Mark would stand and hold onto the side of the sofa, swaying to the beat of whatever music he heard. Before he could utter a word, he was dancing.Dinah Eng

Every holiday season, this is the child who reminds me that angels live among us. Down Syndrome can cause speech difficulties, and we can see Mark’s frustration when he’s trying to communicate and can’t get his point across to us. Many people just give up trying to understand others when there’s a communication gap.

But Mark rarely gives up. He keeps talking and talking, and usually finds a way to let us know what he’s thinking. When we just don’t get it, he just sighs and moves on to something else, forgiving those of us with “normal” speech for being too dumb to understand.

You see, Mark is one of the smartest people I know. At 11 years old, he understands sign language, English, Chinese, and a little Spanish. He loves music, and while he’s totally tone deaf, he sings everything with gusto. A couple of years ago, while sitting in a restaurant, he heard Idina Menzel singing “Let It Go,” one of his favorite tunes from the movie “Frozen.”

Without missing a beat, he stood up on the bench seat and starting belting out, “Let it go! Let it go! … Here I stand, in the light of day. Let the storm rage on. The cold never bothered me anyway!”

Everyone in the restaurant turned to watch, with a smile on every face. Living life with unbridled joy is something Mark teaches every day.

There is so much to admire in my nephew. He’s the kid who wears compassion on his sleeve, wanting to help Grandma put on her socks to stay warm. His sense of humor is constant, telling anyone who asks his age that “I’m 15.” When I asked why he wanted to be 15, he said, “So I can sit in the front seat in the car.”

That’s not to say that challenges don’t exist. When his cousins were younger, they didn’t know what to make of Mark, so would ignore him until an adult urged them to include him in their play. I could see the hurt on Mark’s face, and I hurt inside, too.

Over time, his cousins learned to accept Mark for who he is. Now they play and watch TV together without hesitation.

As he grows older, I know there will be others who don’t take the time to get to know Mark, and it will be their loss.

Angels have a lot to teach us, but only if we recognize them.

December 19, 2014

Random Acts… How we ignore the cancer epidemic

Posted in Health at 4:04 am by dinaheng

A close relative and I have a running joke that we always eat the same things, so we have no idea what to make for dinner. But over the last few months, my relative has been eating less and less.

She found it hard to keep food down, and it became increasingly hard to swallow. After trying acid reducers to no avail, she decided to see a doctor. The diagnosis was stomach cancer. We’re now waiting for her test results to be evaluated, and a treatment regime to begin.

No one wants to think about scary diseases like cancer – until it happens to you, or someone you love. In the last three years, one of my aunts had liver cancer, another aunt had breast cancer; a male friend was diagnosed with prostate cancer, a girlfriend with ovarian cancer. The day I told my friend Jonelle about this latest relative’s cancer, Jonelle told me that she has colon cancer.Dinah Eng

Is it just coincidence, or is cancer the epidemic we’re quietly ignoring?

Based on rates from 2009 to 2011, nearly 41 percent of Americans born today will be diagnosed with cancer at some time during their lifetime, according to the National Cancer Institute. Forty-one percent.

We screamed in panic when victims of the Ebola virus came to the United States for treatment for the disease that has no known cure. Three months later, when the country was declared free of known Ebola cases, two victims had died, and the public uproar quickly subsided.

Are we so used to hearing about various cancers that we’ve become blasé about their existence? Do we now ignore the rigor and side effects of cancer treatments like chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery because we’re not the ones having to endure them?

Forty-one percent of the U.S. population will not be able to ignore the ramifications of cancer in the coming years. If cancer has not touched your life, it will probably affect someone you know or love. Researchers say there are many potential causes for the disease – a polluted environment, poor diet, genetics, and the ever-present “unknown” factors.

I’m a huge believer in the mind-body-spirit connection. In order to stay healthy, we have to take care of ourselves mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. If any one of those areas is out of whack, we’re more likely to get sick. Yet trying to stay healthy as an individual isn’t enough when many businesses are focused on making profits, often by ignoring the ways their practices and products affect our air, water, and food supply.

I have no idea how close we are to finding the cure for various cancers, but I have no doubt that drug companies don’t want to lose the profits made from drugs currently on the market, and take every opportunity to charge what the market will bear for new treatments.

For example, in a recent 60 Minutes interview with Dr. Leonard Saltz, chief of gastrointestinal oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering, Saltz noted that in 2012, the leading cancer center rejected the use of Zaltrap, a drug for treating advanced colon cancer, because the new drug’s cost was twice that of Avastin, another drug already on the market.

Research showed that when given with chemotherapy, Zaltrap’s results were the same as Avastin, with no fewer side effects or particular benefits to explain its cost of $11,000 per month, more than twice the cost of using Avastin at $5,000.

After the Sloan Kettering decision was reported in The New York Times, the manufacturer of Zaltrap cut the drug’s price in half.

Yes, companies need to – and should – make a reasonable profit, no matter what they sell. But controlling the cost of medicine and hiding behind phrases like “the high cost of innovation,” is simply preying on sick people who have no choice but to pay the price, or die.

Why is cancer so prevalent now? The reasons are many, including the fact that we’re living longer, and our bodies tend to break down over time. Dealing with this is not easy – for the patients, their caregivers, or the medical community. If there is a blessing in all this, it is the opportunity that cancer creates to look deeply at ourselves, as individuals and as a society.

“My personal journey has taken me through the dark night of the soul to a deep gratitude for all of life’s blessings,” says my friend Robin, who is currently undergoing treatment for uterine cancer. “This unwelcome life class has taught me many things – particularly about what courage means, and the importance of being positive and helping yourself through the practical aspects of illness.”

The more cancer pervades our society, the more we will be forced to confront what our priorities really are. What can we do to address this illness and not just cure it, but prevent its occurrence? More than 41 percent of us should be asking that question. We all should be talking about the changes we have to make — as individuals and as businesses — to stem this quiet epidemic, before it’s too late.

November 26, 2013

Kids Vision for Life gives eyeglasses to needy students

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Health at 11:41 pm by dinaheng

If a student can’t see the blackboard, it’s likely to affect his or her ability to learn.

Through Kids Vision for Life, a project initiated by the Essilor Vision Foundation, students in a growing number of states are getting access to free vision screenings and free eyeglasses, which educators say is making a difference in the classroom.Dinah Eng

The project, which launched in 2008, is backed by Essilor of America, a division of the world’s largest eyeglass lens manufacturer, the Alcon Foundation, Safilo, Lions Clubs International, and other partners.

“It’s incredible to see the need,” says Patrick Esquerré, a board member of Kids Vision for Life and founder of La Madeleine, a chain of French bakery-restaurants in the United States. “People make the connection between literacy, good education, a safe society, and a productive economy, but few people make the connection between having good vision and literacy. You have to be able to see to read.”

According to a 2002 report by the American Optometric Association, 20 percent of all school age children in the United States needed glasses, and 90 percent of those who needed glasses, didn’t have them.

Esquerré says he was tapped by Hubert Sagnieres, chairman and CEO of Essilor, to help launch the student outreach project because of La Madeleine’s involvement in various community volunteer efforts, ranging from support for PBS to local food banks. Today, Esquerré, chairman of the development and expansion committee, travels the country, putting together local coalitions with community and vision-related organizations under the Kids Vision for Life umbrella.

Kids Vision for Life mobile clinic. Photo courtesy of Kids Vision for Life.

Kids Vision for Life mobile clinic. Photo courtesy of Kids Vision for Life.

The project began operating in Texas, with local partnerships organized in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and nearby areas, then expanded to include Southern California and the Atlanta and St. Louis areas. A push to establish a cluster of communities in the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore corridor is also underway.

“We go to schools with mobile clinics, which have two optometrists who take care of the children at the schools,” Esquerré explains. “After their exams, the kids can pick out cool frames for their glasses. We make 60 percent of the glasses in the mobile clinics, and 40 percent go to a lab, which makes higher prescription glasses.”

In some areas, community centers may host an event, where 10 to 15 area optometrists will be on-site to examine the children’s vision. More than 56,000 pairs of eyeglasses have been distributed to needy students to date.

Esquerré says the effort has been praised by educators, who notice that getting eyeglasses benefits more than just the student who sees better.

“The principal at an elementary school in Dallas noticed that fourth grade test scores went up two years ago after students received their eyeglasses,” Esquerré says. “In most schools, nurses screen the kids for vision problems, but parents can’t always afford the eyeglasses. We’re excited about bringing this project to everyone who needs help.”

For more info on Kids Vision for Life, check out

June 24, 2013

It’s all a matter of ‘Perception’

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Health, Television at 5:34 pm by dinaheng

How we see the world depends on our point of view. On TNT’s hit drama “Perception,” Dr. Daniel Pierce is a professor of neuroscience and a paranoid schizophrenic, who sees the world in ways that help the FBI solve crimes.

Pierce, played by Eric McCormack, has a brilliant mind, able to see patterns that most of us don’t. At the same time, he experiences hallucinations that cause him to behave in odd, irrational ways.Dinah Eng

“Initially, the challenge for me was to get it right, to portray the mental disorder with its symptoms correctly, and to get the neuroscience right,” says McCormack, perhaps best known for his roleas Will in NBC’s “Will and Grace.” “I also wanted to make the character someone you want to spend time with. Reading Elyn Sach’s book, ‘The Center Cannot Hold,’ really helped me achieve that.”

The show, which starts its second season at 10 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday, June 25 has been acclaimed for bringing the issue of schizophrenia to light, and putting a human face on a condition that is not easily understood.

Through the character of Pierce, viewers have met an intelligent, unpredictable crime solver who has an underlying vulnerability and warmth that all can relate to. Despite the professor’s fears and need to cling to his Sony walkman, inside, he wants the love and approval we all want.

Eric McCormack plays Dr. Daniel Pierce on TNT's "Perception." Photo courtesy of ABC Studios/Trae Patton.

Eric McCormack plays Dr. Daniel Pierce on TNT’s “Perception.” Photo courtesy of ABC Studios/Trae Patton.

“Mental illness is the great unknown,” McCormack says. “It’s one of the last taboos —  after race, the sexual revolution and sexual orientation — the one thing we’re afraid of. To the guy on the street, muttering to himself; in his mind, someone exists. He could be your father or your brother.

“When someone picks up a gun and kills several people, we say he’s crazy, like the act  couldn’t have been avoided. But it could have been, with more attention. We need more compassion for those who are mentally ill.”

The audience drawn to this show is an intelligent one, he notes, wanting mysteries that have an extra twist and turn. The hero, in this case, is not just a damaged man, but a complex, passionate person whose battles often mirror our own.

McCormack gives some clues to what’s in store for Pierce this season beyond solving more crimes with FBI Special Agent Kate Moretti (Rachel Leigh Cook), who’s also his  former student. At the end of last season, Pierce struggled with whether to take medication for his disorder, and discovered that his imaginary best friend Natalie Vincent (Kelly Rowan) was based on Dr. Caroline Newsome (also played by Rowan), a  woman he’d developed an infatuation with while in college who is now Pierce’s psychiatrist.

“Beyond solving a crime, Pierce is now navigating a love life with his disorder,” McCormack says. “A lot of people have responded to the Pierce/Moretti relationship, but it’s a risk with the teacher-student relationship. Now that he has Caroline, he’s facing that question of ‘What if you could have your fantasy girl? Which would you choose?’ “

Tune in to “Perception” on TNT to find out.

April 25, 2013

Giving aid to homeless becomes a passion

Posted in Between Us column, Health, Spirituality, Women at 12:41 am by dinaheng

About 20 years ago. Pearl Huber would take her sons — then ages 3, 5 and 7 — to a Los Angeles neighborhood park to play. While the kids ran on the playground, Huber noticed that homeless families were living there at night.

That December, the Hubers decided to bring Christmas to two families in the park, so Pearl, her husband Terry, and their sons wrapped up food, toiletries and some gifts to take to the families who had none.Dinah Eng

“It made quite an impact on the boys,” says Huber, who was a stay-at-home mom at the time. “After that, we starting doing things at Thanksgiving, Easter, and other holidays, and it made us aware of how many homeless are out there. We started keeping sack lunches in our car to give out. We’d make a peanut butter sandwich, and put it with an apple, a toothbrush, and a bar of soap.”

In 2008, Huber decided to establish a 501(c)(3) non-profit to expand the family’s outreach to more homeless people, and HopeMill, Inc. was born.

“HopeMill’s named after my mom,” explains Huber, executive director of the organization. “My maiden name is Hope, and her name was Mildred. Her brother always called her Mill. She was born in China, where her parents were Lutheran missionaries, and lived there until she was 12. She returned to China as a missionary in her 20s.”

Clearly, the desire to help others was passed down to Huber, who shows what one woman can do to make a difference in the lives of many whom society ignores. From two families in a park, HopeMill has grown to help an estimated 2,000 homeless people a year.

Volunteers with Adat Ari El in Valley Village, Calif. assemble Hope Mill CarePacks for a Mitzvah Day project.

Volunteers with Adat Ari El in Valley Village, Calif. assemble Hope Mill CarePacks for a Mitzvah Day project.

Based in Encino, Calif., the non-profit puts together backpacks filled with essentials that are distributed to homeless individuals, missions, and shelters in California. Essentials include items like non-perishable food, water, hygiene packets with toilet paper, laundry detergent, soap, bandages, toothbrush, blanket, and more.

“It’s the kind of things you’d need if you were suddenly without a home,” Huber notes. “People assume there are resources, and if people wanted to get off the street, they could. But that’s not the case. Here, there are probably fewer than 900 shelter beds available in the San Fernando Valley, and more than 7,000 homeless people in need.”

She says while there’s a stereotype of the homeless being drug addicts or alcoholics, most do not fall in that category, and would love to find a way out of their predicament. Homelessness affects families with young children, teens, veterans… in other words, everyone. The reasons run the gamut from job loss, foreclosures, domestic violence to you name it.

“It doesn’t take much to make someone homeless,” Huber says. “A house could burn down, or a medical catastrophe could bankrupt you. We carry a couple of backpacks in our car, and one day, I met a woman in a gas station who was clearly trying to wash up there, so I gave her one. She started to cry, saying no one had ever given her anything before.”

Hope Mill CarePack includes donated essentials.

Hope Mill CarePack includes donated essentials.

Giving to the homeless, wherever you are, could be such an easy thing. All it takes is noticing a need, and stopping to help. Not everyone will care enough to start an organization like HopeMill, but every act of kindness makes a tangible difference.

“I know we’re not going to change the world by doing this,” Huber says. “But if we can help someone a little, it matters. It’s a small thing that can touch many people.”

To make a cash or in-kind donation to HopeMill, check out

December 29, 2012

Less-expensive vascular screenings fill niche

Posted in Between Us column, Health at 5:27 pm by dinaheng

With an aging population looking to stay healthy without depleting their wallets, the business of offering preventative screenings at affordable prices is growing. But how helpful such screenings are depends on many factors.

According to an IBISWorld Industry Report, released in September, revenue for the diagnostic and medical laboratory industry has grown at an average of 2 percent annually to $48 billion during the five years leading to 2012, and is forecast to increase at an average rate of 4.5 percent per year to $59.8 billion by 2017.Dinah Eng

More than 700,000 strokes a year occur in the United States, many without warning, says Dr. Andrew Manganaro, chief medical officer for Life Line Screening of Independence, Ohio, which offers mobile vascular screenings in the United States and the United Kingdom. For those who have health issues that can lead to a stroke, taking the proper drugs and behavioral changes may help prevent one, if the issue is discovered early enough, he said.

“But a person can also walk around with problems and show no symptoms,” said Manganaro, a retired cardio-vascular and thoracic surgeon from the Dayton, Ohio, area. “These problems can be identified immediately with a non-invasive ultrasound, but in general, these screenings are not covered by insurance companies because most won’t cover testing unless a person has symptoms.

“So physicians are in a quandary. If you have a patient with risk factors, you can’t order that ultrasound and have it paid for by insurance. Patients may have problems with the carotid artery and not know about it.”

Manganaro said Life Line Screening offers a battery of tests starting at $139, which would cost thousands if done in a hospital. Instead of going to a medical facility, Life Line mobile units go to a community location, such as church halls or recreation centers, and set up testing there. The company screens a million patients a year, and test results are reviewed and interpreted by board-certified physicians.

“Part of the reason we can do it so affordably is because of volume,” he said. “Also, the efficacy of performing these tests outside insurance companies means the costs are less. These are screenings, and not diagnostic exams, so the savings can be passed on to the patient.”

Whether vascular screenings are useful or not depends on the patient and the risk, says Dr. Daniel Stone, medical director of Cedars-Sinai Health Associates in Beverly Hills, Calif., and a practicing internist.

“There are people who can benefit from these screenings, but it’s like the law of unintended consequences,” Stone said. “With healthy people, you want to be sure you do no harm. Back in the 1980s, when CT scans became popular, you saw a lot of body scans offered, but you don’t see that anymore.

“The scans ended up leading to more tests and procedures that weren’t helpful and sometimes even proved harmful. Once people get on a medical test treadmill it can be hard to get off. You have to look at the implications downstream, which are not always apparent.”

Stone says carotid artery screening is one of the most controversial topics in medicine. In the United States, he notes, there are many unnecessary carotid surgeries done because patients are afraid of getting a stroke.

More than half of the 140,000 carotid surgeries and stent procedures performed in the United States each year are done for patients without symptoms, according to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services in a 2010 report.

Many blockages, Stone says, can be addressed with diet, exercise and the proper drugs. For those who have no symptoms, risk factors should be assessed before getting a screening.

“If you’re a man who’s a smoker, age 65 or older, and have hypertension, screening for an abdominal aortic aneurysm makes sense,” Stone said. “In women, the risk is very low. For a woman who has normal blood pressure and doesn’t smoke, that screening makes no sense.”

He says those who are interested in assessing their 10-year risk of having a heart attack can take a free online survey offered by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute at

“Most people who have no symptoms would be better off addressing the risk factors, rather than getting a screening,” Stone says. “Stop smoking, address cholesterol issues, exercise more. Patients should always talk to their doctor first to see if a screening is worth doing.”

(By Dinah Eng. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

November 20, 2012

Blissful relaxation comes with getaway

Posted in Between Us column, Dining, Health, Travel, Women at 4:08 pm by dinaheng

Nothing defines a weekend getaway for me more than having no plans, no deadlines, and no pressure to be anything but lazy.

On the second day of a girlfriends’ weekend at the Arizona Biltmore, my friend Jonelle rose with the sun while I stayed in bed till 8 a.m. When I finally join her in the Ocatilla lounge for breakfast, she’s going out on the patio to feed a stray cat some milk. After I get some juice and danish, I join her at a table outside.

It’s a beautiful fall morning, and work is the farthest thing from our minds. Instead, our conversation centers around the meaning of our lives. Both of us have had near-death experiences, though we didn’t really share them until this weekend.

At 18, I was driving in the rain when a school bus stopped suddenly. The car behind it stopped short of hitting the bus, but I skidded into the back of the car. I felt myself rise out of my body, and looked down at my body, covered with blood. I heard a voice that said, “It’s not time for you to go yet. There are still things you have to do.”

I was then jerked back into my body. I’ll never forget the feeling of being encased in skin again. The experience set me on a path to explore the meaning of life, why we are here, and how to heal our wounds.

For Jonelle, the experience happened at age 20 on her first mountain climb.

“I got hypothermia climbing Mt. Rainier, fell in the snow, and didn’t want to get up,” she shares. “We were in a snowstorm and set up a tent. It was a group climb, and we were at 11,000 feet. I experienced being above the storm, and could see my body and the others in the group. I felt it was perfectly fine to move on without being involved in the scenario below, but also knew that I could complete something within this body, if I could hang on.

“I had to calm my heart down to regulate it, and force myself to breathe. There was no separation between me and the universe. Meditation’s the only thing I’ve done that’s expanded that. If I lose my life tomorrow, I can say I’ve found my true nature, even if it is just a baby glimpse.”

Not many people can say that, particularly since our daily lives usually keep our focus on what’s right in front of us. For the last six months, Jonelle’s focus has been on recovering from her hip surgery.

“I had to put things in perspective,” Jonelle says. “By focusing less on myself, I naturally opened myself to the rest of the world. When I was focused on my pain, I had to remember that pain is not a permanent state, just like happiness isn’t permanent. When you’re happy or suffering, both have ebbs and flows.”

Fire pit outside Ocatilla lounge

After a long, thoughtful conversation, we decide to focus on our surroundings and take a walk around the hotel. The property, which boasts two 18-hole golf courses, tennis courts, life-size lawn chess and other recreational activities, feels like a playground you would never tire of enjoying.

We poke our heads into a row of boutiques off the main building, which offer everything from sunglasses and apparel to jewelry and gifts. The stores are filled with fun finds, but none that cause us to open our wallets.

After lunch, we enjoy the highlight of the day — massages at the Biltmore Spa. Built in 1998, the spa, fitness center and beauty salon offer an array of services designed to pamper and relax.

After changing in the women’s locker room, we wait in a relaxation lounge for our massage therapists to come get us. Both of us choose to get the Hands of Healing Massage, a 50-minute treatment combining Swedish movements with other techniques for relaxation and well-being ($135).

Spa at Arizona Biltmore

Yunven, the massage therapist who works on me, is amazing. Not only does she work out all the knots in my body, she shares insights and health tips that make me grateful to have met her.

“In the last couple of years, I’ve seen more men come for treatments than women,” she notes. “Women have taught them to take care of themselves, yet we don’t always take care of ourselves enough.

After our massages, Jonelle and I lounge a bit in the steam room area before dressing. While the treatments were wonderful, the spa itself is in need of renovation and expansion, so we didn’t linger.

For dinner that evening (and lunch the next day before leaving), we eat at Frank & Albert’s, a lovely restaurant that serves comfort food with organic produce from local suppliers. We’re seated in the outdoor patio area by a warm fire, and take a deep breath, the weekend nearly over.

Jonelle orders Garlicky Hummus ($11.65) and Angel Hair Pasta ($17.85), while I get the Crispy Salmon Filet ($32.55) and a side order of Mac & Cheese ($6.75) and the Waldorf Gala Apple Salad ($11.55), a different version from the original recipe, to taste.

The salmon was delicious, as was the Waldorf Gala Apple Salad. Unfortunately, both Jonelle and I found the angel hair pasta and Mac & Cheese too salty for our taste. Since we both have sweet tooths, the best part of the meal came last, as Jonelle swooned over the Butterscotch Pudding ($7) and I finished all four of the miniatures on the Sundae Tasting Menu, with the Caramel Banana and Butter Pecan Brittle my favorites ($7).

Frank & Albert’s

Service here is exemplary. For lunch the next day, Jonelle craved a Portobello Burger and Sweet Potato Fries ($14). While it wasn’t on the menu at Frank & Albert’s, the wait staff got it for her from the kitchen that handles guest room dining, where it was on the room service menu.

It’s that kind of care that has no doubt given the Arizona Biltmore its “Jewel of the Desert” reputation. Before leaving, I take a history tour of the hotel, which is offered every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 10 a.m., complimentary for hotel guests.

Becky Blaine, the resort historian and public relations and marketing manager, gives a fascinating glimpse of the landmark hotel that opened in 1929. We visit the Biltmore History Room, once the hotel library, that holds items ranging from a wake-up call clock for hotel operators to an original desk designed by Warren MacArthur, one of the hotel’s original owners.

“Irving Berlin wrote ‘White Christmas’ when he stayed here in 1939, and Marilyn Monroe called the Catalina Pool her favorite,” Blaine shares. “Every U.S. President since Herbert Hoover has stayed here, and we’re working on getting President Obama to come.”

When it’s time to pack up and leave, Jonelle and I are both sad — to leave the Biltmore, and each other. Even though it was a quick weekend trip, we are nourished by the time spent together. We know we’ll stay close, even when far apart, because our hearts are connected.

It may be time to get back to work, but living a meaningful life means spending time with  the friends and family you love, speaking from the heart, and feeling what connects us as human beings.

As Jonelle puts it, “What’s in your heart will always be heard. Maybe not by the people you want to hear it, or expect to hear it, but it will be heard. It just has to come from the heart. If something remains intellectual and never becomes part of your heart, how can anyone hear you?”

So stop procrastinating, and plan your weekend getaway.

Rates at the Arizona Biltmore change seasonally, and range from $99 to $229 for classic guest rooms. Ocatilla rates range from $149 to $299. For more information, check out

November 19, 2012

Girlfriends’ weekend feeds the soul

Posted in Between Us column, Dining, Health, Travel, Women at 6:16 pm by dinaheng

My friend Jonelle and I are sisters of the heart. We’re both single, we’re both writers, and we both hold spirituality at the center of our lives. At the same time, I’m a city gal and she’s a country girl, so we each have different things to share.

Six months ago, Jonelle had a hip replacement — apparently due to a hereditary condition, the hip didn’t fully form, and after years of athletic activity, it needed to be replaced. Since we hadn’t seen each other in seven years, we decided to have a girlfriends’ weekend in Phoenix to celebrate her recovery from the surgery.

So one Saturday, I flew in from Los Angeles, and Jonelle drove up from south of Tucson. As  she picks me up at Phoenix Skyharbor Airport, we share a quick hug before she warns me that there is hay in the trunk of her car.

“I’ve got two goats and a horse,” she reminds me. “I couldn’t clean out the stall after my surgery, so I left it a couple of days, and the horse learned to clean it out himself. He just kicked it out of the pen, and it’s dooty-free. So I told him, ‘I’ll buy the feed, and you take care of everything else, because this is all I can do.’ “

In the same way, she notes, that’s how she looks at taking care of her physical body. “I say, ‘I’ll take you to the doctor and get surgery, but you’ll need to heal yourself, too, because I can get along without you. I’m not just this body,’ “ Jonelle says.

This weekend, though, we agree that we’re going to pamper ourselves — body, mind and Spirit — as much as we can while enjoying each other’s company. For our retreat, we chose the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, a luxurious resort designed in the spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright, who served as the consulting architect.

Driving up to the lobby, we’re struck by the unusual look of the “Biltmore Block,” pre-cast blocks made from desert sand on-site, that are interwoven with blocks of glass in the walls, bringing natural light into the hotel. Framed by lush greenery and palm trees, the hotel is an historic oasis in the desert.

Set on 39 acres, the Biltmore has guest rooms and suites spread across several wings, a residential complex called the Villas, and Ocatilla, a “boutique hotel within the hotel.”

We check into Ocatilla, which has numerous additional amenities, including its own concierge service, a club lounge with complimentary continental breakfast, beverages during the day and light fare at night, daily newspapers, and WiFi Internet and computer access.

Our room is spacious and comfortable, done in soothing desert colors of sage, paintbrush and copper tones. The sensibility of Craftsman design can be seen in the built-in media wall with flat-screen TV and work area, and an enchanting Art Deco touch is found in the embossed translucent blocks of glass that light up in the paneled wood headboards. My only criticism is that there’s no mirror in the guest room, which makes it harder to get dressed when the bathroom (where the mirrors are) is occupied.

The first order of the afternoon is a cabana lunch at the Paradise Pool, one of the resort’s eight pools. We sit at a table for four under a shady awning outside the cabana, which sports a full bath, refrigerator, phone, TV and robes. Rock music is playing over the sound system for a lively crowd that’s enjoying the pool and the nearby 92-foot-long water slide.

Paradise Pool

For lunch, Jonelle orders White Bean Hummus ($11) and a Very Veggie Rice Paper Roll ($13), while I try the Turkey Wrap “Waldorf Style” ($15). Jonelle, who’s a low fat vegetarian, pronounces her meal perfect. I have to say the same about mine. I love the combination of cubed turkey bits, crunchy lettuce, nuts, and sweet grapes in the wrap.

As we talk about our daily lives, we agree that people work too much and hurry too much to really appreciate the things we have. Stress contributes to ill health, and when we don’t take care of ourselves, well… we all know where that leads.

“I got more upset with my computer crashing than I did with the diagnosis of my hip,” Jonelle says. “You take care of your computer and your car. When your body’s working well, you don’t pay attention. But when it doesn’t, you suddenly realize what you could have been doing all along to remain healthy.

“When my body was in pain, I had to ask, what is the most helpful thing in this situation?  The answer — to not be cranky with an arthritic body.  How do you do that? By getting acquainted with who you really are. You can use pain as a focus to keep your negative thoughts from taking over your mind.”

Jonelle, who does Tibetan meditation, would focus on her pain in meditation and ask that her pain take away the pain of all beings — people and animals, both.

“All of a sudden, my pain is useful, and if you have faith in that, it’s extremely helpful,” she adds. “If you ask Christ or Buddha to help, it helps even more. I received a steady confidence that what I was going through was okay, and everybody goes through things like this, so why not me?”

After lunch, we decide to rest in the room a little, then head to the Ocatilla Pool for some exercise. The sun is getting lower in the sky, and the guests at this pool are much quieter than those at the Paradise Pool. We swim for awhile, and Jonelle enjoys the hot jacuzzi spa.

Before long, it’s time for dinner. As we walk through the property toward the main building, we pass beautifully landscaped grounds and gardens, framed by the evening silhouette of the mountains.  Outdoor fire pits are lit as we walk past The Wright Bar patio into the main lobby, which feels like a blend of Wright influences and modern conveniences.

The hotel’s signature restaurant, Wright’s at the Biltmore, features fine dining that has reimagined classic dishes like Beef Wellington and Veal Loin Oscar, adding trendy accompaniments like lemon scented asparagus and wild mushrooms. Large and small plates are offered for everything, which is a nice touch.

Jonelle chooses the small Waldorf Salad ($11.25), based on the original 1896 New York City recipe, with sliced apples and celery, candied walnuts and grapes, and the Root Vegetable Risotto ($18.50). I order the Filet “Au Poivre” ($41.50), which comes with blue cheese au gratin potatoes, buttered root vegetables, and broccoli rabe.

A server comes to the table and makes the Waldorf salad, sharing information about the preparation, and a little entertainment along the side.

As we ate, I could imagine being a guest decades ago when guests like Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, and George Burns walked the lobby, and Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. might give an impromptu concert in the piano bar.

Wright’s Bar

Today’s Wright’s at the Biltmore was designed with wonderful little touches that remind you of days gone by — whether it’s the globe lighting that hangs from the ceiling, or the stained glass oil lamp holders on the tables. The service, as expected, is impeccable.

Jonelle and I talk about the future of food, and the issue of genetic engineering. While intellectually, I understand the need to grow food efficiently for a growing world population, I can’t stomach the thought of eating food that may have long-term side effects we know nothing about today. Happily, Wright’s utilizes fresh ingredients for its menu, including herbs from the Chef’s garden outside the dining room.

For dessert, we indulge with a signature dark chocolate souffle ($17.50) and a chocolate trifle ($12.75). The chocolate trifle turns out to be layered chocolate with the look of a Frank Lloyd Wright building — creative in design, but more candy than a trifle.

The surprise ending to the meal is freshly-spun lime cotton candy. As Tom, our server notes, “Whether or not you order dessert, we like to leave you with something sweet.”

One of the nicest bonuses to dining at any of the Arizona Biltmore restaurants is getting the recipe for any of its dishes. Jason Allen, Sous Chef at Wright’s, was happy to give us the restaurant’s Root Vegetable Risotto, which we both aim to try making at home.

Dinner over, Jonelle and I walk back to our room, totally satisfied. It’s impressive to find a restaurant where nothing is overly salted or too heavily seasoned, and Wright’s offerings are exemplary. Jonelle’s only wish is for more vegetarian options on the menu. While servers say anything can be made vegetarian by removing the meat or seafood from the dish, vegetarians know that’s not as satisfying as an entree designed with vegetables as the focal point.

At 9 p.m., Jonelle is yawning, but stays awake with a book while I check e-mail and do a little writing. When I tell her I’m usually up until 11 p.m., she says she’s usually in bed by 8:30 p.m. and up at 4 a.m.

All I can say is, I’m glad we’re on vacation.

Next: Relaxation comes from sharing

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