And just like that, I became a dad

December 30, 2011 in Best Of by pacejmiller

You may have noticed the lack of action on this blog lately.  In fact, 10 days is probably the longest I have gone without a single post since I started this blog almost 3 years ago.  Ironically, while this is a ‘personal blog’, I generally try to stray away from the personal as much as I can, but today I’ll have to break tradition.  The reason I’ve been away recently is because, for the very first time, I have become a father!

It’s a strange feeling.  The baby arrived three weeks early, and while doctors and books and websites tell us that after 37 weeks it can happen at any time, it was nonetheless a huge surprise.  From the moment I found out my wife was pregnant, I began to have all these fantasies about how things would play out, and inexplicably, and stupidly, expecting reality to conform to those fantasies.

Of course, nothing ever turns out as planned.  We had packed our hospital bags weeks in advance and left them aside, never thinking that we’d need them until around a week before the due date.  We were intent on spending our last few weeks as a ‘couple’ by going out as much as we could, eat at nice restaurants, shop and go to the cinemas.

Then one night, at our new apartment, my wife woke me up.  “I think my waters broke,” she said.

The words hit me like a lightning bolt.  She had felt some strange pains a couple of nights before, but we had put that aside as being just another ‘normal’ part of pregnancy.  And now this.  Everything I had learned from reading books and websites and attending pre-natal classes and speaking to doctors just flew right out the window.  In a panic, I turned on the lights and flipped over the blanket.  She was right.  A big wet patch in the middle of the bed.

Amazingly, my wife was calm as steel.  She got up to go to the bathroom and to get changed, and told me to call my parents and “get packed”.  She said she felt nothing at all and it would probably be a while before she would give birth. What happened next was a blur, but I think I did both of those things.  My parents said they’d meet us at the hospital, and I called a cab and told the driver to come straight into the underground parking garage to pick us up.

The ride over was a mixture of stunned silence, hand holding and nervous laughter.  Could it really be happening right now? was the thought that kept churning in my brain.  Despite having expected this moment to arrive for the last nine months, suddenly I was not ready at all.  Could I really do this?  Am I ready to be a dad?  Whereas before the answer was always a definitive ‘yes’, suddenly I wasn’t so sure any more.  Movie scenes where screaming mothers gave birth in the back of cars kept flashing before my eyes.

It was a rainy night, and because it was almost 3am, the driver went down the wrong side of the road so he could drop us off right in front of emergency.  We calmly took the lift up to the maternity ward and they took my wife in for a check-up.  Sure enough, her waters had broken and she was now 0.5cm dilated (for those unfamiliar with the lingo, for a natural birth, you need to be 10cm dilated before the baby is ready to come out).

After signing a bunch of the hospital’s ass-covering paperwork (hey, I get it), they put us in a ‘waiting’ room, and that’s what we did — wait.  Every two rooms was separated by a mere curtain, but we were lucky the room next to us was empty, so we essentially got two rooms and two beds (one for me).

I knew it was going to be a wait, but I didn’t expect it to be long.  After all, every time a woman’s waters break in a movie, the next scene they’re already giving birth.  Waters breaking = imminent birth, that’s how my brain had been configured.

As it turned out, it took a lot longer, especially for a first birth.  Supposedly, each extra 1cm dilation took around two hours, and by my calculations that meant around 24 hours of waiting.  I tried to sleep but couldn’t, and by around 5am the contractions had kicked in.  To me that was great news because it meant things were moving along, but not so much for my wife, who had to endure the pain of the contractions.  The contractions (to her it was like a bad stomach cramp) would come and go and be of varying lengths, but they had to be regular to suggest genuine progress. (By the way, I am no doctor, so take it easy on me if you want to point out glaring medical errors.)

Unfortunately, progress was painfully slow.  Our obstetrician came to see us early in the morning and said they would monitor progress, but chances are it was going to be a while.  I bought a breakfast sandwich nearby around 7am, and that would turn out to be the last decent meal for a while.  I tried to do some freelance editing work I had accepted a few weeks ago, but found it impossible to concentrate.  To make matters worse, there were ongoing renovations at the hospital on the floor directly below us, so every now and then we would be bombarded with deafening drilling or hammering.  And whenever they drilled into the ceiling we would feel the floor shake beneath us.  It was the last thing we needed.

But the worst noises were not the renovations.  It was the groaning and screaming of the other women on the floor.  When you’re already in significant pain, the worst thing you can hear is the sound of people in more pain than you are, because you know you’re going to be getting to that point eventually.  To try and block out the noises, I put my noise-cancelling earphones from my iPhone on her and bought a pair of ear plugs for myself.

Despite several hours of contractions, my wife had only progressed 0.5cm to 1cm. To speed things up, the nurses gave her these tablets she would have to take every hour (for five hours) to give the labour a kick in the backside.

She took the tablets diligently, hour after hour, and we waited.  And waited.  Still nothing.  Then they added more ‘speed up’ medicine directly into her IV drip.  By this time the contractions were starting to get fairly strong, so bad that each time they arrived she would have to clutch the sides of the bed (or my hand) to brace herself.  At that point I started to worry — contractions are supposed to get a lot lot lot worse, and if they were already this bad now, how could she possibly stand it?  And could she even last for however long it was going to take for her to get to 10cm?

Thankfully, medical science gave us the epidural, which is supposed to reduce labour pains by 50-80%.  Supposedly.  When we decided on a natural birth we knew the epidural would be used.  There was never any question about it.  So we spoke to the nurses and they said it was fine.

More ass-covering paperwork ensued, but being an ex-lawyer and current editor I of course had to read every word.  This was a mistake because it reminds you of all the things that can go wrong, and it’s always a nasty list.  So full of fear, I signed the papers, and the little anaethetist dude (try saying that three times quickly) came in with his big needles.

For a lot of people we’ve spoken to, the epidural needle is the most painful part of the entire process, because once you get it, labour becomes a (relative) breeze.  First you have to get into the foetal position and stick your spine out as far as possible and push your knees up to your chest, which is of course extremely difficult when you have a massive belly in front of you.

The little fella (as like I to call him) then applied a local anaesthetic to the spinal area to numb it a little.  That hurts, but not as bad as the big fat hollow needle he would use next to wedge between the blocks of your spinal column.  Only once that needle is in can the epidural be inserted.

The problem is, my wife’s back became quite swollen and, combined with a naturally tight spinal column and inability to get into the correct position, the needle would not go in at the right place.

The pain from the fat needle made the pain from the contractions pale in comparison.  I had never seen my wife in so much pain, the type of pain where your entire body scrunches up (which of course makes it harder to get it right) and moans and tears seep out involuntarily.  I tried my best to assist the nurses to try and get her to relax, but the pain must have been unimaginable.

After three unsuccessful tries (including twisting and turning with the needle) and lots of blood, the nurse told me to go out of the room, and a second nurse came in to take my place.  While my wife continued to moan in pain, I paced the corridors with clutching my white hands and digging my fingers into my skull.  I couldn’t sit, I couldn’t stand.  I had never felt more helpless in my life.

After what felt like a lifetime, the painful moans had not stopped.  So I decided to head back in, and the moment I stepped through, the doctor (finally!) successfully put the needle into the right place.  At last, the worst was over.  Or so we thought.

The epidural supposedly takes around 20-30 minutes to kick in, but even an hour later, my wife was still feeling the contractions.  And they were getting stronger and stronger.  Even bracing herself for the pain did little good now.  Worst of all she was still only 2cm dilated.  The little fella came in and upped the dosage, but it did virtually nothing.  He was certain he had put it in the right place and the fact that my wife’s blood pressure had dropped was an indication of this.

We were at a loss.  How could the epidural, the one thing we expected to save us from the true horror of child birth, not work?  How could my wife be one of the few of people in the world for whom the epidural had no effect at all?  And how the hell did people throughout history cope before the epidural was invented?

The little man suggested that he try again, this time aiming the needle at a higher spot than last time.  Understandably, we were more than a little hesitant.  Who’s to say it will work the second time around?  And we hadn’t forgotten the fact that it took around six brutal stabs before he got it ‘right’ the first time.

And so we had a dilemma on our hands.  It was clear that, at 2cm dilated (still), my wife would not be able to get through to the end of labour without some sort of pain relief.  Plus it was generally recommended that they get the baby out within 24 hours of waters breaking.  But I wasn’t sure either of us could go through another experience with the epidural like last time, and besides, there was no guarantee it would work.

Our obstetrician had gone home for the day, but I demanded that the nurses call him to come and take a look.  First they got the doctor on the floor to come take a look, but he could not give us any truly constructive guidance.  We had always said that the one thing we wanted to avoid the most was to go through the torturous pains of labour for hours and hours before having to get a caesarian in the end anyway, but now this nightmarish outcome had become a distinct possibility.

At last, around 7 in the evening, 16 hours after we were admitted into the hospital and more than 12 hours of pain (much of it serious), our obstetrician finally arrived.  We explained to him our dilemma, and god bless him, he was very quick to say that he was willing to perform a c-section and that it might be the best option (reportedly totally against his usual stance) given the lack of effect the epidural had on my wife.  However, if we decided to go ahead with a natural birth, he estimated that it would take at least another 24 hours, significantly more unrelieved pain, and a chance that a caesarian might be necessary anyway.

They exited the room to discuss it over and to give us some time to think, just as my wife started experiencing another jolting contraction.  At this point, she broke down.  She said she wouldn’t be able to take another 24 hours of this, and I knew it too.  Watching the person you love more than anything in the world be in that kind of devastating pain and distress without being able to do anything about it is the most heartbreaking feeling I have ever experienced.  I always tell my wife I love her but at that very moment I knew I wouldn’t be able to exist without her.  I wished anything more in the world to be able to take her place, but I guess that’s the way nature works (well, except if you’re Arnie in Junior).

We informed the obstetrician we would like to proceed with the c-section, and they began prepping the operating room immediately, though it took another half hour before they were ready to roll.  During this time, I signed a whole bunch of other forms.  If I thought the epidural disclaimer was frightening, the caesarian disclaimer was practically coma-inducing.  Though considered quite routine these days, a caesarian birth still carries significant risks, including death in a dizzying array of ways — especially if you have to get a general anaesthetic (which my wife had to get because the epidural, even in concentrated doses, had no effect).  That was one thing I couldn’t get out of my mind.

My son was born less than an hour later.  He is a precious little thing, with a tiny head (a miracle considering the mammoth size of my melon), a mini-body and stick-like limbs, but strangely large hands and feet and a pair of huge, wandering eyes.  I know they’re all supposed to look like aliens at birth (especially premmie babies), but mini-me looks totally awesome to me.  Even though I knew he couldn’t see me yet, the first time I held him in my arms and looked into his eyes, I felt a wave of emotion splash over me.

A week later and I am practically a zombie.  As you know, a caesarian birth takes much longer to recover from than a natural one.  Even getting out of bed for the first time is a momentous occasion.  But my wife is a trooper and she improved remarkably over the first few days.  Thank goodness nothing went wrong in the operation.  Between massages, expressing milk, helping out, running errands and everything in between, I’ve also had to do a fair bit of work (I signed up to edit a poorly translated travel book for an HK publisher).  Since babies need feeds every three to four hours, being able to function on virtually no sleep becomes imperative.  Lucky I used to work in a law firm, so it was practically second nature anyway.  But I know the fun is just getting started.

They say that parents will do anything for their children.  I get that now.  I’ve developed a deep respect not only for my own parents but for all good parents around the world who ever lived.  I was always worried that I would feel somewhat detached, emotionally, from my child when he arrived, but those fears were completely unfounded.  The unequivocal love you develop just happens, whether you like it or not.  It’s a beautiful thing, a miraculous thing.  It’s a thing you have to experience for yourself to truly appreciate.  The pain, distress, helplessness and heartbreak — nothing matters in the end as long as mother and child are both healthy.  It was a long, and brutal journey, but ultimately well worth it.  And just like that, I became a dad.

1885 Burger Store (Taipei)

December 19, 2011 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

Taipei has a surprising number of burger joints, and I am determined to try them all.  According to my research, one of the ‘must tries’ is 1885 Burger Store, located near the Shida Night Markets.  The store is standalone and spacious, with US cafe-style decorations, comfy lounges and wooden tables and chairs.  It is almost always packed, and in peak times expect long waits.

Named after the apparent birth year of the hamburger, 1885 has a varied menu of over 20 burgers split into “Hand Made” and “Special Made” burgers.  Almost all burgers have cheese, and while some are your run-of-the-mill type burgers (Swiss Cheese, Cheddar Cheese), there are also some jumbo burgers (Jumbo Double Cheese Burger, BBQ Pineapple Cheese Burger) and more unique burgers you might not see elsewhere (Special Jam Burger, Smoked Salmon Havarti Cheese Burger, Mexican Tartar Cheese Burger).  The burgers all come with fries and price range is between NT$130 and 340, though most are roughly around NT$200.

On this day, we ordered the Mushroom Cheese Burger (NT$210) with extra honey mustard sauce on the side, plus a BBQ Chicken Burger.

Both burgers were very good.

For the Mushroom Cheese we chose a square bread roll.  There was fresh lettuce on the bottom and melted cheese on top of the thick beef patty, topped with chopped mushrooms.  The honey mustard didn’t really go with it for some reason but that’s my fault.

For the BBQ Chicken (grilled), we chose a wholemeal burger bun.  The chicken was drenched in thick BBQ sauce and the chicken breast was surprisingly tender and juicy.

Extra lettuce, tomato and Spanish onion rings, as well as pickled gherkins, are placed on the side for those who are selective about their vegetables.  Noticeably, there is no sauce in the burger unless otherwise specified.  Each table has its own tomato sauce and mustard, which you can squeeze to your heart’s content.

The fries were a highlight.  The photo is deceptive as the bucket looks deep, but it’s a lot shallower than it appears.  That said, the fries were magnificent — piping hot and super crunchy, with just the right amount of salt and spices.

On the whole a very pleasurable experience and it’s easy to see why 1885 Burger Store is such a popular place.  I have had better elsewhere but given the variety and the overall quality of the burgers and the awesome fries, it’s a burger joint I will definitely revisit some time in the future.

8 out of 10!

Details:

1885 Burger Store

Website: http://www.1885burgerstore.com/

Address: No. 24-1 Pucheng Street, Da’an District, Taipei (Nearest MRT: Taipower Building Exit 3)

Phone: (02) 2367-8258

Opening Hours: Mon-Thurs — 11:00-22:00; Friday — 11:00-23:00; Saturday — 9:30-23:00; Sunday — 9:30-22:00

Movie Review: Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (2011)

December 18, 2011 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Talk about an unexpected early Christmas present.  I have always liked the Mission: Impossible series but never considered myself a huge fan, but I must admit I enjoyed the fourth film (does that mean it’s a ‘saga’ now?), Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (let’s called it MI4), immensely.  In fact, I think it is the best film of the entire series, and by a not inconsiderable margin.  How rare is it that the fourth film of a franchise is the best of the lot?

MI4 is crazy.  No, not jumping on Oprah’s couch crazy, but crazy good.  Given that no one wants to produce Tom Cruise films any more, Mr Scientology decided to produce it himself (he has the money, so why not?), along with JJ Abrams (director of the third film) and Bryan Burk.  The director?  Brad Bird, a strange choice considering he directed only animations, such as The Incredibles, Ratatouille and the Do the Bart Man music video, but it turned out to be the right choice because he made the impossible somewhat believable  (at least while you’re in the moment anyway).  The partial use of IMAX cameras also allowed some spectacular shots in a film packed with riveting action and intrigue from start to finish.

There’s nothing particularly clever about the plot — secret missions, double crosses, an evil genius determined to destroy the world, and only Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his desperate, isolated, back-against-the-wall team can save us.  We’ve seen it all before, but as they say, it’s all in the execution.

And that’s where MI4 delivers big time.  High tension, white-knuckle action, explosive chase sequences, insane stunts, cool machines and gadgets, scaling buildings and the film’s trademark: flat-dropping down deep vents.  Yes, even within the context of the MI franchise we’ve seen a lot of these things already, but there’s always a twist that makes it fresh, and frankly, it’s simply done better than before.  You may have already seen a few of the more iconic scenes in the trailers, but if you haven’t, even better.

The cast that plays the newly assembled team is awesome.  Tom Cruise is older, wrinklier and eye-baggier, but still fit and charming enough to pull off the role of super agent Ethan Hunt.  Alan Thicke’s (the dad from Growing Pains, remember him?) daughter-in-law, Paula Patton (she married his son, musician Robin Thicke) is a sexy yet kick-ass agent, and Simon Pegg returns as the bumbling computer hacker to provide the laughs.  I was very impressed with the latest recruit, a mysterious analyst played by Jeremy Renner.  I knew he could do reckless loner (The Hurt Locker) and intense badass (The Town), but I didn’t expect him to play the role of super agent this well. No wonder Renner was selected to take over the Bourne franchise after Matt Damon’s departure.

Michael Nyqvist (the original Mikael Blomkvist from The Millennium Trilogy) is somewhat underused as the crazy baddie (though noticeably better than his performance in Abduction, also as a crazy baddie), but on the whole the cast is super.

As far as action blockbusters go, MI4 is one of the best of the year.

4.5 stars out of 5

Toasteria Cafe (Taipei)

December 17, 2011 in Best Of, Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

I love a good toasted sandwich or panini, and Toasteria Cafe reportedly has the best there is to offer in Taipei.

Owned by an Israeli dude who lived in New York then married a Malaysian woman then moved to Taiwan, Toasteria is a mix of all those cultures — Middle-Eastern (Mediterranean), American, Malaysian and Taiwanese.  It’s quite an unusual blend of flavours but undoubtedly a spectacular one.  They offer a range of more than 40 sandwiches and paninis and many other delights, including grilled cheese toasted sandwiches, teppanyaki grills, fish and chips (!) and salads, as well as an all-day breakfast selection.

Here’s a grab of their more unique samples from their Facebook page: Grilled Salmon Filet in Miso Sake Sauce, Mediterranean Style Grilled Salmon Fillet, Grilled Sirloin Steak Teriyaki, new decadent Red Wine Butter sauce with grilled Sirloin Steak, Philly Steak Toast, Sichuan Style Sesame Chicken Toast, two kinds of Lamb Burger Toasts, Mediterranean Eggplant Toast, and Apple Brie Cheese Toast.

Don’t expect the meals to be particularly healthy at Toasteria, but expect them to be good.  Their proud motto is: No Diet coke, no skim milk, no low fat cheese, no credit cards..ONLY THE GOOD STUFF!

And it is indeed good stuff.  Great stuff.  Some of the  best toasted sandwiches and paninis I’ve ever had.  It was extraordinarily difficult to choose (as is usually the case with a new restaurant), but in the end we went with the Cubano on toasted ciabatta bread (slow roasted pork, ham, caramelized onion, house pickles and good mustard, with grilled Swiss cheese) for NT$210 and the Kalifornia Chicken on toast (chicken, lettuce, onion, tomato and honey mustard).

The Cubano

They also have a lot of drinks and sides, and we naturally went with the fries (how can you not?) at NT$60 a pop.

Both orders were phenomenal.  I loved the ciabatta that came with the Cubano, and the roasted pork was so juicy and tender, and when you mix it with the caramelized onions, pickles and mustard, it’s like a salty explosion in your mouth, balanced by the silky textures of the melted Swiss cheese.

The Kalifornia Chicken

The Kalifornia Chicken was also very good, more traditional but you just can’t go wrong with honey mustard sauce.  It was more sweet and sour, a nice complement to the saltiness of the Cubano.  And the fries was unexpectedly awesome, extremely crispy on the outside and soft and moist on the inside.  Simply amazing.

Sadly, I forgot my camera and the photos were taken with a phone.  They look enticing enough.  I feel like going back already.

9 out of 10!

Details

Toasteria Cafe

Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=58670231236

Opening Hours:  Daily, 11am-11pm (midnight on weekends)

Price: approx NT$200-$350 a head

Contact:

Shida Store — No. 1, Lane 72, Yun-He Street, Taipei; Nearest MRT: Taipower Building; (02) 2365 3051

Zhongxiao Store — No. 2, Lane 248, Section 4, Zhongxiao East Road, Taipei; Nearest MRT: Zhongxiao Dunhua (02) 2731 8004

San Kwai Tang Cafe (Taipei)

December 15, 2011 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

One afternoon we went to this tiny little cafe near the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall MRT station called ‘San Kwai Tang’ (三槐堂).  It’s tucked away in an alley on Roosevelt Road, so inconspicuous that you’d never notice it unless you knew it was one of the most popular places for coffee and cheese cake in all of Taipei.

San Kwai Tang is in this little alley

The cafe itself is neatly decorated with only a few tables for guests.  There is a cool bar with jars and jars of cookies, walls adorned with clippings and chic decorations and artworks.

San Kwai Tang boasts a very comfortable interior

I love their bar

For afternoon tea we ordered their famous cheesecake (NT$70), an assortment of cookies (NT$50) and a tea or two (their coffees are very popular but we’ll have to try them another time).

The cheesecakes are freshly made on premises and very eater-friendly — creamy but not too creamy, a little sweet, a little sour, and the base is a perfect biscuit.  The blueberry jam on top is a wonderful complement.

The four cookies we got (in a set) were also excellent — crispy and flavoursome without being too sweet.  No wonder people often come in to order them by the dozens.

In all, a very satisfying and enjoyable afternoon tea.  I’d definitely recommend it to those in search of a good cheese cake or gourmet coffee.  Check it out if you are in the area or need to rest your legs after a long walk around Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall.

Details:

San Kwai Tang (三槐堂)

Phone:   (02) 2321 3429

Address: No. 2, Lane 72, Section 1, Roosevelt Road, Taipei

Nearest MRT Station: Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall (Exit 2 — just walk straight along Roosevelt Road and it’s one of the small lanes on the right about 5 minutes away)

Opening Hours: 12pm-10pm