Daily Prompt: Facing The Inevitable

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about mortality. Specifically, when you realize you weren’t immortal and how you reacted to it. This actually happened to me a couple of times when I was growing up, the first of which when I was still a child. When I was in elementary school, I’d always spend my Christmas vacation at my grandparents’ house. It was a tradition that involved weeks of decorating the house, wrapping presents, and cooking yummy desserts. But 1995 was different; my grandfather had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and was rapidly declining. I’ve already written about watching him die, so I’ll skip straight to the aftermath. That was the first time I’d ever been so close to death, and the realization that yes, it is a thing that happens. But I never cried over it; I never knew my grandfather as a person, but as an old man who gave out laughs and tickles whenever possible. When the adults awkwardly asked me if I had any questions about death, I shrugged and said no. He’d been sick for almost a year, and the writing was on the wall. With it came the understanding that death was an inevitability – it was just a matter of how and when – and that I’d have no choice to accept it. So I did.

Yeah, I was kind of creepy as a kid.

The second occurrence happened a few years later when I was in high school. I was walking onto the campus when I witnessed a car speed through the red light right next to me…and into a kid who happened to be in the crosswalk. I’ll spare you the details – pretty sure I’ve mentally blocked out the worst parts – but I’m sure you can imagine it. I pride myself on being a fighter now, but back on that chilly, bloody morning, I couldn’t do anything. I stood there, utterly transfixed by death’s proximity and brutality, and I watched a dozen or so people run to assist in what was already a hopeless cause. I knew it was already over, that other people were taking care of it, that I’d just get in the way. I slowly turned away, hands slightly trembling, and numbly walked to my first class. I don’t think I spoke that entire day, even when they announced the accident and death on the PA system.

It was then I realized that death wasn’t reserved for just the old and sick; anyone can die anywhere. What made more of an impression was the sheer randomness of it; there was no dramatic build-up, no final family farewell, nothing but a big hunk of metal zooming into an unsuspecting victim. And if could happen to some kid crossing the street, it could happen to me. If you look at the mortality rates provided by WHO and do a little math, that roughly translates to two people dying every second. Yeah, think about that. I’ve had that stat burned into my mind for years. It’s a sobering reminder that my – and everyone else’s – days are numbered. I don’t fear death, though; I’ve embraced my mortality head-on as I’ve grown older. I’ve come close to dying myself three or four times now, so I’d like to think we’re on good terms. I’m more afraid living a disappointed and unfulfilled life; there’s far too much to see and do, and I refuse to be just another statistic in a history book.

The acceptance of mortality is a double-edged sword, though. It’s a very liberating experience, but it can lead to a slippery slope of some rather grim philosophical pondering. Death is an inevitability; you cannot escape it forever. Most people try to ignore it by distracting themselves with whatever they can. The advent of social media has certainly ensured that people desperate to be remembered and acknowledged won’t (for better or worse) be forgotten so easily. For others, particularly anyone severely depressed, it underscores how vapid and pointless daily life can be; death is ever-present, so why bother sticking around? For me, I’ve come to realize that life’s inherent meaninglessness isn’t a bad thing; as Nietzsche once explained, you can give life your own meaning. Skipping out early is an option, but there are so many, many better ones to try first. Since death is coming regardless, might as well do – and be – something awesome to pass the time. It’s not easy to do – I still have moments when I feel the exact opposite, and I do not look forward to growing old – but it’s more fulfilling than the alternative. My problem is finding happiness and fulfillment, but that’s a whole other issue.

As for death, it’ll stop by and visit eventually. I intend to make the wait worthwhile.

Daily Prompt: Polymathic Playlist

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about music. Specifically, the kind of mix tape/playlist you’d make to introduce yourself to someone new. This one took a while to make, mainly because I was raised with a really eclectic music selection. I’ll just let the playlist do the talking. Happy listening! EDIT: For the sake of simplicity, I made a playlist on YouTube.

Daily Prompt: Zip-Lining In Puerto Vallarta

Hey, folks. Yesterday’s Daily Prompt was all about stories. Specifically, the story behind your appearance in a recent photo. This actually ties in with my trip to Mexico a couple of weeks ago; I’d promised to write about the zip-lining excursion separately, and this prompt is perfect for it.

I’m not going to post the photo for various reasons, mainly because I’m not sure if the other people in my group want it displayed, I’m shy, and that I look ridiculously awkward. Considering how many photos I’ve posted, you may have noticed that I like being behind the camera, not in front of it. Pictures of me are few and far between (especially online), and I dislike all of them; for some reason, I never look good enough. This time, I’m standing amongst a group of six by a rock in the middle of the jungle. We’re outfitted with harnesses, bandanas, and helmets, mere minutes away from making the first of many zip-line runs. It’s just a generic photo taken by the company’s staff, something you’d put up on Facebook after getting home.

What the photo doesn’t show, however, is the exhaustion. Before getting to this point, we woke up at dawn, ate breakfast, got ready, and had to ride out to the El Eden zip-line. That involved us taking a taxi to a nearby OXXO (think 7-11, Mexico-style) and waiting for the tour truck to pick us up. The truck itself was a strange blend of pickup and flatbed; the back was decked out with half a dozen rows of benches and topped with an open-air canopy. It’s surprisingly good for taking photos, as long as you don’t mind the smog and noise of Puerto Vallarta’s early morning traffic. The ride was pleasant enough in the city – our driver made an amazing three-point turn on a hill when his normal route was blocked by construction – but things changed once we left the streets. As we thumped over the first pothole and onto the dirt, we realized there were no seat belts, and seemingly no shock absorbers. To call that hour-long ride into the jungle “bumpy” would be a gross understatement. By the time we reached the zip-line, several passengers were sore and glad to be on solid ground again.

One of the neat things about El Eden (aside from it being the filming set for Predator – they even have a statue of the alien!) is its natural waterfall and pool. After spending an hour climbing through the sweltering jungle, the water seems so tempting. Or you could go their well-furnished restaurant and enjoy some food. We’d planned on doing both, as this was supposed to be an all-day excursion. However, we failed to read the fine print; our tour scheduled us doing the zip-line, relaxing for half an hour, climbing back into the bus, attending a tequila factory presentation, and going back to the hotel. Of course, we didn’t find out about the plan until it was too late. We’d come out there with towels, beach stuff, and were wearing our swimsuits under our clothes. Yeah, imagine traversing the jungle with layered clothes and climbing gear.

Unsurprisingly, I was struck with heat exhaustion near the end.

Let me preface this by saying that I’m in reasonably good shape for a 30-year-old. I don’t have a six pack (it’s more like a one-and-half-pack at best), but I eat healthy, and I’m not diabetic. I swam for hours at the hotel’s pool, and walked for hours every day on the beach. I run up stairs. My sprints to catch subway trains are the stuff of legends. I used to hike and camp all the time as a kid, and I can still walk all day without any trouble. I walked 11 miles across San Francisco on a random whim not too long ago. But that doesn’t make any difference when you’re deep in the jungle, weighed down by clothes and gear, and don’t have any water with you.

I’d had a couple of cups of juice in the morning before leaving, but I somehow completely forgot to rehydrate myself before starting the course. I’d done zip-lining before in Maui last year, but that had only 3 lines. This had 12, all of which required some uphill climbing to reach. There were cups of water handed out after every four or five lines, but it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t enough. My steady pace devolved into weary stumbling, my face paled, and my skin went cold with sweat. I couldn’t even remove my helmet, which suddenly seemed tight enough to choke me; it was an older model, which meant I couldn’t adjust the straps by turning the mechanism of the side. The body harness was digging into me, and the drawstring on my swim trunks was shoved into my gut. The staff were pros at these kinds of situations, thankfully; it took about 4 cups of water and 15 minutes of rest to get me back into fighting shape, but I decided to call it a day.

It’s not like I was missing much, either. I’d keeled over after the 10th line, right before the steepest, toughest one on the entire course. It required you to have a decent mastery over the zip-line’s braking system; you basically had to shift your body and the metal handlebars side-to-side, thus increasing friction and reducing speed. I understood it from an academic standpoint, but putting into practice when you’re zooming above the trees is something else entirely. I saw plenty of people practically crash into the landing areas because they were coming in with too much momentum. If you couldn’t get braking down well enough by the 11th line, the staff would tell you to skip it for the sake of safety. Since I was too fed up and/or embarrassed about the whole situation, I followed their advice and waited for everyone at the last last line. I wearily sat down with the rest of my group for lunch, found out about the limited schedule, and had to wolf down a platter of fajitas someone graciously ordered for me. The fact that we were being rushed for the sake of visiting a tequila factory annoyed me. I don’t drink – I took a single shot of mandarin tequila and nearly spit it out – so I had no interest in the tour. I had just enough time to finish the meal and snap a few photos of the waterfall (which I’ll post later) before making the bumpy ride back.

That reminds me: They don’t let you use your own camera to record the zip-line action. I’d hauled my DSLR all the way into the jungle, only to be told to stow it in one of the lockers they had available. It’s a liability thing; no tourist wants to drop their camera (kinda hard to record when you’re supposed to be holding on with both hands), and the company doesn’t want to have to deal with that kind of mess. Instead, they offer special helmets mounted with GoPros. You record the action, they download it onto their computers, then charge you for whatever bundles/prints/etc. you choose. It makes sense – they are running a business, after all – but as someone used to having full control over my cameras and what’s being shot, it irked me. While I love a good adventure, I left El Eden feeling rushed, annoyed, and tired.

That’s okay, I’ll make up for it on my next journey. Where, you ask? Heh. Let’s just say that Fall 2015 is going to be…epic. Stay tuned.

Daily Prompt: LEGOs For Life

Hey, folks. Yesterday’s Daily Prompt was all about toys. Specifically, the ones you played with as a child, and the ways they affected your adult life. I could spend all day writing about how video games have shaped me; I learned how to use an Atari 2600 joystick around the same time I learned to walk, I could speed run through Mega Man X like a record-setting pro, and I’ve played just about every Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and major fighting game released in America. I don’t play as religiously as before – though I have a tendency to play Tetris as I’m watching Jeopardy – but the 90s gamer geek culture is thoroughly engrained in my personality. However, it’s not all that I am, nor is it my only influence. Besides, video games aren’t actually toys; they’re part of an emerging medium, much like films were in the last century. When it comes to toys, I can think of only one thing:

LEGOs.

I don’t think I need to expound of the virtues of those amazing building blocks; it seems like common knowledge. It even got its own feature length, award-winning movie in 2014! It makes you think and create, limited only by the extent of your imagination and patience. Unlike video games, it allows you to play and build with something tangible; you can see and physically touch the fruits of your labor, and thus feel accomplished for it. On my fifth birthday, I was given the Black Seas Barracuda. Even by modern LEGO standards, it’s an amazing, massive piece of work: 865 pieces, eight characters, cannons that actually fire, the folding stern that lets you see inside…So good. The adults apparently didn’t care that it was supposed to be for kids aged 9-12; they just set up a table, opened the box, handed me the instructions, and let me work. It took a couple of weekends – my parents were divorced – but I built that ship myself before I started first grade. It’s still sitting in storage somewhere, a remnant of a childhood long past.

Needless to say, building it (and many others to follow) played an important role in how I turned out. For me, it was another puzzle to solve; I grew up noticing the little pieces that made up life. When I read, I could understand things like characterization and theming long before I knew those were even words. When I drew with crayons, I didn’t just choose random colors; I asked how we knew that the colors we saw were the real ones. Yeah, I’m pretty sure I freaked out a few adults with that. The more I learned, the more pieces I found, the more I could understand reality and how it all tied together. As an adult, I have so many interests in both nature and the sciences; I love a great sunset, and even more because I understand the physics and astronomy behind it. I can walk on the beach and feel the sand between my toes, and imagine the time it took for the waves and wind to grind the particles down. There’s so much out there, and so few see it…

By the way, I never outgrew LEGOs. No one should. I have a few vats of assorted pieces at home, and I’ve made a tradition of getting one of the Architecture sets every Christmas. A shelf in my room has the Empire State Building, John Hancock Center, Seattle Space Needle, Burj Khalifa, Sydney Opera House, Big Ben, and Leaning Tower of Pisa. They’re not quite as grand as the old sets, but they’re a nice reminder of my travels and places I’ve yet to see. In that sense, LEGOs are inspiring me in a completely different way now. It doesn’t get any better than that.

From Morocco To America: One Rug, Many Memories

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about the surreal. As in, one of the most surreal experiences you’ve ever had. I’ve had more than my share; pretty sure I’ve at least mentioned almost drowning in Thailand, fighting a house fire, sleeping overnight in a deserted LAX, going to the top of Gibraltar, and going on a 900-mile road trip around Hawaii’s Big Island. But aside from a single photo – my only functional camera back then was an iPod 4 Touch – I haven’t mentioned my brief time in Morocco.

Back in early 2011, I was lucky enough to take a trip with my mother to Málaga. Most tourists traveling to Spain would rather spend their time in Madrid, Barcelona, or Seville. While we got to see that last one, I didn’t particularly mind. It was only my second time in Europe, and it was Pablo Picasso’s home town. No way I’d turn that down. If anything, I was more concerned with Mom. Back then, she and I approached vacations quite differently; she was typically spur-of-the-moment and incessantly pestered locals with questions, while I was a methodical planner and standoffish. We’ve both mellowed over the last few years. She’s far more willing to listen to my advice and navigation, and I’m bolder and more random in my adventures. But back then? We could barely agree on where to go for dinner.

Tension mounted when Mom found and signed us on with local tour group going to Morocco. I chafed at the idea; we’d been in Spain for only a day and a half, and she already wanted to visit another country? It was a foolish sentiment in retrospect – these days I’d kill for a $50 trip to another continent – but I was more concerned with logistics. How long would it take to get there? What would we see? Can the people running this tour group be trusted? Where is the American embassy in case something happens? Our cell phones didn’t work; how would we find each other in case we got separated? These questions are kind of important. This was happening in May 2011; the Arab Spring was just getting underway in Morocco. Mom just shrugged and said to roll with whatever happens, and I inwardly cringed and prepared for the worst.

The bus arrived around dawn. Two hours later, we were on board a ferry at Tarifa – a serious contender for the Windiest Port Ever – and en route to Tangier. For all you curious San Francisco Bay Area commuters out there, it was comparable to going from the Ferry Building to Jack London Square; nice accommodations, a little crowded, and far too brief. After taking another bus into the older part the city – the protests hadn’t reached that far yet – we stopped and had lunch. Not only was there live belly dancing, but the host generously gave me a little bundle of their spices after I asked and complimented the food. Didn’t declare that when I went through customs…

Afterwards, all that was left for the afternoon was exploring the medina. Take your favorite farmer’s market, multiply it by a hundred, and you’ll get a sense of what it was like. I could spend months exploring all the nooks and crannies. Everywhere you turned, there was another ancient arch, mosaic, stairs, and art. It’s more than a shopping area; this place has survived more than 2,000 years, maintaining the heritage and culture of its people. Like any typical American kid raised on Safeway and Costco, I was pretty sheltered when it came to shopping abroad. This section of Tangier rocked my world. It seemed to stretch on infinitely, each stand and counter crammed with every food and item imaginable. To this day, I still recommend the medina for anyone looking for fresh food; it may not be shrink-wrapped, but you’ll never find such an amazing and delicious selection anywhere else. I looked at Mom to see how she was taking it.

That’s when things started getting weird.

Like I said, Mom wasn’t exactly the planning type. But I didn’t know the extent of it until I realized she’d traveled to Africa fully decked out in heels and jewelry. It was like having a big, neon, “Look at me, I’m a rich American!” sign on her back. The local peddlers certainly noticed; we had a small group of people trying to sell her stuff the moment we were outside. Unlike other tourist-driven places, these vendors didn’t give up when we walked away; they kept following us. That’s worrisome, as my mother is about 4’10” and could be easily confronted or even grabbed by an aggressive passerby. I’m normally spared that kind of attention; aside from being a guy, my olive skin tone usually lets me pretend to be a local. But not here. I was bombarded with offers, especially for cigarettes. After being turned down, one grizzled old fellow just laughed and said, “Do not worry! I know America! I come to Alabama with a banjo on me knee!

I didn’t fully appreciate how weird that moment was until later. I was halfway around the world, deep in a foreign port, trying to keep an eye on my mother, surrounded by merchants, and being heckled by an old man singing the lyrics to Oh! Susanna. It was quickly forgotten, though. Mom had to use the restroom, and the only option was to allow one of our guide’s assistants escort her to one nearby. I could only watch in silent apprehension as she disappeared around a corner, and hope I was just being paranoid. I stayed with the tour for another half an hour, but she still hadn’t returned. I was about to talk to the guide, when we entered a stylish rug showroom. The Moroccan rug industry is huge; vintage works go for thousands online. But there I was, right at the source. In middle of it all, my mother was haggling with the merchant. Apparently, she’d decided to skip ahead of the group, went shopping, and wanted to buy one of the most expensive souvenirs ever.

I understand why Mom wanted it. It was a beautiful piece of handwoven art. The intricate patterns of browns and blacks were absolutely stunning. It could’ve been put on exhibit in a museum. However, it was also bigger than any floor in her house; at best, she’d have to hang it on a wall. I briefly tried talking her out of it, but she hadn’t spent all of that time negotiating with the merchant for nothing. They offered a special shipping service to America – for an extra fee, of course – but Mom politely turned him down and said we’d take it back ourselves. And by that, she meant me. How much she spent on it was her business, but getting it back home was suddenly mine. The merchant was kind enough to get the rug bundled, but nothing else. So, I awkwardly lugged 50-plus lbs of luxurious, authentic Moroccan rug through the bustling streets of Tangier, onto the bus, across the Strait of Gibraltar via ferry, and another bus back to Málaga. It was kind of like backpacking…if your backpack was huge, off-balance, and didn’t have any practical use. I got quite a few confused stares and questions from fellow travelers, but I could only shrug wearily and say it was Mom’s idea.

Getting the rug out of Morocco was tricky enough. But getting it to America required some Tetrisstyle puzzle solving. You think getting bags checked is tedious? Try smuggling a rug sometime.The only feasible option was to somehow cram the rug in Mom’s rolling luggage bag, but there wasn’t enough room for her clothes and toiletries. I tend to pack light, so there was just enough room for her stuff in my bag. It took a few tries (and a sacrifice of two boxes of chocolates, sadly), but we got it to work. At the end of the week, we got our hidden treasure through customs in Madrid and checked in with the airline without any extra charges. We thought we were home free…until we got back to SFO and discovered that the rug had gone missing in transit. Because it just couldn’t be that easy. I think I was more livid than Mom at that point; I hadn’t hauled that thing all the way from Africa for it to simply disappear. It was eventually found and delivered the next day, and my mother finally got the rug she’d wanted.

…It’s currently sitting in storage, bundled in the same rope it came with. Four years later, and she still hasn’t touched it.

That used to annoy me, of course. But in the years since, I’ve come to appreciate that surreal, wonderful trip for the sake of experience. If it weren’t for Mom diving headlong into things, I don’t know if I’d ever set foot in Africa, let alone make such a bizarre adventure otherwise. I’m thankful for it; sometimes the greatest adventures are the ones you never expect.

Daily Prompt: Fight Or Flight, Or: A Day In The ER

Hey, folks. Yesterday’s Daily Prompt was all about flight or flight. You know, that reaction that everyone has to stressful situations? It reminds me of the time I helped fight a house fire, but something similarly stressful came up recently. You might’ve noticed that the updates this past week were kind of sparse. It wasn’t because I left the country again (though I wish it were), but I spent an entire day at the local ER. Not for myself, though. I got a call early in the morning from my aunt. My grandmother’s knee has been worsening over the past year, but she’s been too stubborn to see a doctor. Eventually, it got so bad that she couldn’t even stand up anymore from the pain. My aunt wanted to help, but she’s just gotten out of the hospital herself, so she wasn’t in any condition to do anything. I hadn’t left on my commute yet, and I was the closest one around. I got there as quickly as possible, consulted an advice nurse over the phone, and had her call an ambulance. They got her out of the house surprisingly fast – they had to haul her down two flights of stairs and part of a hill – and let me ride in the back of the ambulance.

Never had that on my bucket list…

Anyway, I oversaw her admittance from start to finish. I’ll spare you the personal and gory details – I’m pretty sure that a knee tap is the most agonizing medical procedure I’ve ever seen – but it basically boiled down to me stepping up and handling things personally. I’ve done it before countless times in the office (I was nicknamed The Boss Man, after all), but never in the thick of a medical emergency. There was this immediate realization and acceptance that okay, this is all up to me now. It must have been the adrenaline, but I never lost focus on what had to be done or what information needed to be communicated. I took notes, asked and answered questions, worked on logistics, and managed conference calls with family members over the phone in order to keep everything organized. Some of my relatives were surprised that I was the one in charge; I’m notoriously quiet and shy in most social and family situations, so seeing my all-business, no-nonsense persona was a shock. I had too many other problems to care.

In the end, we had to talk her into temporarily going to a nursing/rehabilitation facility. It’s the lesser of two evils; no one wants to lose their personal freedom, but they have trained staff and more physical therapy resources than she’d get at home. She’ll be there for another two weeks, but at least she’s getting regular visits from family. In the meantime, I’ve spearheaded Operation Get-Grandma’s-House-Prepped for her inevitable return. Handling someone else’s livelihood and personal business can be a hassle, but it’s necessary. I didn’t realize it until later that first night, but I’d spent the entire day without eating or resting; I had been running on adrenaline. Once I got back home, I collapsed into bed and slept better than I had in years. Amazing how much the fight can take out of you.

One last thing. If you have elderly family members, take the time to call them up and see how they’re doing. It’s easy to get caught up in the daily grind and overlook the important things. Don’t let loss be the only reminder of what you have.

Daily Prompt: Literature And Caffeine

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about teachers. Specifically, the ones who have had a significant impact – good or bad – on your life. This one’s actually kind of tricky; I was on decent terms with all of my instructors, but few of them ever stood out. I’ve always been an overachiever in academic settings – yeah, I was that kid – so teachers focused more on helping the struggling students. I got the (quite wrongful!) impression early on that they didn’t really care about what they were teaching, and were only there for temp work or couldn’t find employment at better schools. Just show up for class, finish the assignment, get the A, and move on. Nothing personal or mind-blowing.

That all changed when I transferred to a university for my upper division coursework. In my first semester, I had a class on Renaissance Literature. I was expecting the instructor to be an bland, cranky, grandmotherly type just like nearly every English teacher I’d had before. This professor, however, was full of energy, enthusiasm, and cracked tons of jokes throughout the lecture. She was so intense and ridiculously over-the-top, it was infectious. I later found out that she had a venti triple-shot Starbucks concoction before showing up every morning. The caffeine made her the life of the party, and it gave a serious boost to her presentation. Some students don’t like that kind of loopy personality (I certainly would’ve tired of it under different circumstances), but no one could deny its effectiveness. The only time it backfired is when she misread the syllabus and assigned the entire Book of the Courtier to be finished in a single overnight reading. It was insane, but we got it done. As an apology, she dropped the final exam from the course. Coincidentally, that extensive reading helped inspire my current world view.

Woe to anyone who underestimated her, though. There was a good reason she was in charge of the department’s graduate program. As goofy as she was in lecturing, she was absolutely ruthless when it came to grading, structuring, and editing. Not doing an assignment in perfect MLA Format was an insta-fail. Don’t craft an argument well enough? Be ready to get called out on it. I pride myself on my writing, but I wouldn’t be nearly as good without her turning my work into a jumble of red marks and annotations. Some of my finest papers were written in her classes. She challenged me to improve, something no other teacher even tried. This is on top of her bringing in extra books, movies, plays, and artifacts she’d collected over the years. She cared enough about what she taught to make it interesting, and spent plenty of one-on-one time with each of her students. She wanted us to be at our best, and nothing less.

Needless to say, that Renaissance Literature class wasn’t the last I saw of her. I ended up taking her courses in Shakespeare, Milton, 19th Century British Literature, and Critical Writing On Drama. I improved with each passing course, eventually becoming one her top students. She gave me her personal copy of the Bedford Companion to Shakespeare, as well as a film version of Hamlet. It eventually culminated on my graduation, as she was the one who shook my hand and nodded as I crossed the stage. That was such a long time ago, but I can remember it so clearly. I miss those strange but oh-so educational times. Maybe someday I’ll get a chance to thank her for what she did…maybe with a Starbucks gift card.