Death And Life In The Family

Hey, folks. You might have noticed I’ve been incommunicado for part of this week. I wish I could say that I was on some wonderfully epic adventure, but my near-600 mile road trip down to Bakersfield was for something much more personal. If you were following my blog a couple of months back, you’ll probably recall a post I wrote about my grandmother. Just before the end of January, the inevitable happened; her body could no longer keep up with her iron will and spirit. She died just as we all thought she would: tending to that rose bush in front of the house. She had just finished watering and pruning it, when a neighbor saw her suddenly lay down. My relatives and emergency responders did everything they could, but it was over far too quickly. And that’s the best anyone could hope for. Aside from dying in your sleep, a fast, peaceful death is preferable to an agonizingly dragged-out hospital drama. While I’m sad she’s gone, I’m actually happy, too; her injuries in 2013 made daily life incredibly painful, and she must have despised being so limited. It’s only fitting that she died doing the one of her greatest passions.

She died almost exactly 19 years after my grandfather, and they were buried next to each other. I had the honor of being one of her eight pallbearers. It’s an tradition dating back to the Middle Ages, though not all coffins are covered with cloth anymore. I won’t go into details about the funeral out of respect for my family; it’s excruciating to see the important people in your life emotionally broken. What I will say is that my grandmother earned the love and respect of every person she ever met. I heard so many stories about her life in the last week. How she met my grandfather – a valedictorian with hopes of becoming a lawyer – in high school. How they in their mid-20s survived the Japanese occupation of the Philippines in World War II. How they once owned a coconut plantation. How she had a dozen kids, and became a master seamstress just to make ends meet. How the family suffered through floods and famine, starving and barely scraping by with nothing. How she sacrificed so much to keep everyone alive and well. How she taught her children how to kill and butcher a chicken the old fashioned way, to garden, to cook, to sew, to tell time by looking at the sun, to be disciplined, to be appreciate what little they had. How my grandparents took in stray kids and helped them survive to become pillars of their communities today. How much she loved to travel, and how she could be up and walking miles before sunrise. How the family came to the States in the 70s, resulting in multiple real-life American success stories. How her willpower was the stuff of legends.

To quote my cousin: “It’s a good thing Grandma died before the zombie apocalypse, because you know she’d have slaughtered every single one of us.”

Judging from what I’ve seen, that’s probably not an exaggeration.

I spent a lot of time with my extended family. I don’t get to see them very often – some of which I haven’t really visited with in 19 years – so it was very good to catch up. Religion is a huge part of our parents’ lives – it’s the reason they came to America – but it’s only one aspect of ours. I may be considered strange and rebellious by the older generations, but I discovered that all of us grandkids are far less straitlaced than we look. In a good way. I’m relieved to know that introversion, sarcasm, and geekery run in the family. My cousins are programmers, civil engineers, chefs, bakers, entrepreneurs, cosplayers, video game geeks, fashionistas, teachers, bankers, athletes, aspiring scientists, and so much more. Some like to go barhopping, while others prefer Disneyland, Comic-Con, and Austin City Limits. Others love Magic: The Gathering, Creepypasta, and Vocaloid. One of my cousins vowed to get all the kids together and throw me a Dirty Thirty birthday in Vegas this October. I haven’t decided if I’ll take them up on it yet.

Thank you for everything you’ve done, Grandma. Not just for all you’ve taught me in life, but for helping me become closer to my family even in death. I’ll miss you.

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A Fire In Five Minutes

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about being bold. As in, stepping in and helping someone in danger. I have a few experiences like that, but the one that sticks out the most (and is the least graphic) is when I fought a fire in my neighborhood. It was a few years winters ago, but I can recall it clearly. I was playing Street Fighter III when my uncle came barreling through the room.

“THERE’S A FIRE NEXT DOOR!”

As he ran for the phone to call the fire department, I dropped the controller and made a beeline for my shoes. I needed to get out there, and fast. I couldn’t see the fire directly from where I was standing, but I could already smell the smoke. It was close. There wasn’t time to look. Okay, I thought. it’s the weekend. Someone has to be home! I bolted for the nearest house and desperately rang the doorbell. I pounded on the door, yelling for help. A few heart-pounds later, an older man answered the door.

“What’s wrong?!”

“The house is on fire! Over there! Help!

My neighbor grabbed his extinguisher and sprinted across the street. I didn’t join him just yet; I knew we would need more people. So I went around to more houses, banging on doors, begging for help. Luckily, a few neighbors were actually home. We all met in front of the fire – it was still limited to a single room facing a back alley – and let the extinguishers loose. I’m not sure how effective it was – none of us had any fire fighting training – but it was certainly better than just standing there and watching the place burn down. Given the proximity of other buildings and trees, the fire would’ve spread across the neighborhood within minutes. I noticed a side door was open, so I ducked inside to make sure there wasn’t anyone trapped. There was nothing but searing heat and smoke. When I heard the sirens, I ran back out onto the corner and waved the fire trucks in the direction of the blaze. I returned to the front lines and kept my extinguisher going until the water started flying.

As the professionals shunted me aside, I focused more on keeping people organized. As a precaution, my power and gas were turned off. I guided the workers to the breakers, answered their questions, and paid close attention to everything they told me. The temperature was just below freezing, so the house was going to get cold really fast. I didn’t want my family shivering and huddling in blankets as night fell. So I kind of hounded the workers and made sure that everything was getting done as quickly and accurately as possible. I’m sure they thought I was annoying. Just as we were lighting candles – very carefully – the lights came back on. Everyone was too shaky to cook anything, so we all opened a can of beans fell back on the microwave. The stench of smoke and burnt wood choked the neighborhood air for days, but that was fine. The house and people next door were safe, and so were we.

The time between me putting down the controller and the fire department arriving was less than five minutes. But in that tiny stretch of time, I moved and thought faster than I’d ever done before. I didn’t even realize until an hour later that I had been standing in subfreezing temperatures in only shorts and a t-shirt. I had been too focused to even notice. Adrenaline can do funny things to you. I don’t know how much I helped, but I did everything I could. And considering that the house is still standing, I guess it was enough.

Death And Fish: A Grandmother’s Determination

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about precious. No, not the ring, but a person who just can’t seem do you wrong. This one actually took me a little while to figure out, because I recognize that no one is infallible. People aren’t perfect; perspectives are subjective, so even the very definition of “perfection” makes it inherently impossible. It really boils down to what’s perfect for each individual. For me, it’s my grandmother.

Now, this isn’t because of spoiling me as a child or anything like that. Quite the opposite, in fact; she’s a tough, but fair old woman that values hard work and discipline. She’s lived nearly a century, 2/3rds of which she spent in various houses in the Philippines. She worked as a seamstress, and made clothes for her family for years. She married young to an up-and-coming church minister, and she had at least twelve children. There may be a few more; information from her early days has always been kind of hazy. Not because she’s forgotten any of it – she’s still as sharp as steel trap – but because she barely speaks English. She’s been here in the United States since the 70s, but never fully adapted. Her Tagalog is terse, but her voice is crystal clear. She’s pretty stoic at a glance, so her hearty laughs and twinkling eyes can catch you off guard in the best way.

When you first meet, it’s easy to underestimate her. She looks like a 4’9″ mass of wrinkles and bones. At 95 years, she seems frail, like an old porcelain doll. But if you stay around long enough, you’ll realize she’s the toughest person in the room. By far. Witness this little old lady getting up at the crack of dawn and taking her dogs for a walk. She used to do miles every morning, but now she settles for laps around the garage. Not long after, she’s in the kitchen, making breakfast for everyone. Her homemade lumpia is legendary. She’ll ask for help if you happen to be awake, but only for reaching something on a high shelf. Once the food is served and and she’s done eating, she’ll don a gardening hat and some gloves and go to work in the backyard. That old porcelain doll you met? She’s hauling dirt, pushing pottery, and looming over flower beds. She might ask you to carry a shovel for her. She works slowly and steadily, coming in only around lunch time with a fine layer of sweat on her forehead. A meal and a couple hours of napping later, she’s up for another round.

…At least, that’s how things used to be.

Earlier this year, my grandmother had a couple of bad falls. That’s not good news for anyone, especially when you’re 95. A few of her ribs cracked, and one of her arms was rendered useless. She could’ve had surgery, but the procedure and its fallout ran a high risk of killing her. Her spirit was strong, but her body was just too old. So she turned it down. Despite the advice and warnings of the doctors and the pleadings of her children, she accepted the inevitable. She went home with her busted arm cradled against her body as if it a handbag. She couldn’t even lay down to sleep anymore. When the wheelchair was delivered to the house, she dismissed it with a single line:

“I will not be using that.”

When the doctors tried to explain how to use the oxygen tanks:

“If I cannot breathe, I will die. It is that simple.”

When we tried to reassure her by saying that she’d live to be a hundred, she practically facepalmed.

“I do not WANT to live to that long! Being old is very hard!”

She put on a brave face, but it felt so terrible. Within a few months, she admitted that she probably wouldn’t live much longer and asked for my mother and I to visit. We brought her a whole cooler full of seafood and bags of homegrown fruit to cheer her up. To our amazement, this crippled old woman grabbed a huge fish and began preparing it literally single-handedly. Having a useless arm and chest pains didn’t seem to slow her down in the slightest; her grip on the knife was firm. However, she did ask for more help than she used to. As the three of us ate fish with rice and steamed vegetables, she nodded to a row of flower bushes outside a window.

“I work on those every day. Without them, I would be dead by now.”

It’s heartbreaking to think of her. She’s still alive – I’ll be seeing her at New Year’s – but how long she can hold out is anyone’s guess. It’s hard to see someone so tenacious, so tough, so utterly full of life be brought down because her body can’t keep up with her spirit. While I recognize that her pride keeps her from accepting help, her determination in the face of death and not succumbing to despair is admirable. If this 95 year old woman with a crippled arm and ribs can rise every morning to tend her flowers and still cook delicious fish, then I have to do better. She deserves it.

A Dozen Years: The Rise And Fall Of The Boss Man

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about loss. That one’s really relevant to me because I lost my job not too long ago. Without getting into specifics, I worked for a dozen years for major company. It started as a summer internship, then a part-time position during college, then a full-time thing after I got my degree. I had the unfortunate timing of graduating just before the recession hit. As in, weeks. Since the employment market was terrible, I fell back on my old standby position and dug myself in. I loathed the thought of going back to my former job, but it was the safe, logical choice. I developed more on a professional level, using my experience to transition from an aloof part-timer into a leadership role. I was very good at it. It didn’t pay much, but I was earning enough to recover what I’d spent on my education and save for retirement.

And it drove me nuts.

Aesop once wrote that familiarity breeds contempt. It’s very true, and it goes both ways. I learned a ton about leadership, procedures, and on-site training, but I loathed how dehumanized and empty I felt every single workday. The younger staff respected me for my years of service, insight, and refusal to play office politics, but eventually they took my responsibility and competence for granted. Even though I was still in my late 20s, I was nicknamed the Boss Man. I even mentored some of my higher-ups! I didn’t fit in with this newer generation of corporate worker; what they teach in seminars is what I learned the hard way, through hands-on experience and patience. Good work ethics had been watered down into statistics. I had too much pride to just phone it in for the sake of meeting quotas. You can’t quantify the human connection with a pie chart. I voiced contempt for the new corporate atmosphere several times.

Too many times.

When I got the call at home, I wasn’t entirely surprised. I had an inkling I was going to be replaced; why keep a mouthy old-timer when they could just hire and train someone new for a fraction of the pay? The possibility of transferring to another position was dangled in front of me like a carrot on a stick, and I played along for months. But at some point, someone decided I was more trouble than I was worth. So it ended with little fanfare. A simple, impersonal telephone call from HR stating that I’d been terminated and that the necessary paperwork would be sent to me. Twelve years of service, and that was that. I jotted down the notes, thanked the HR representative for informing me, and hung up the phone. I sat there quietly for about a minute. Some of my family was in the room. I said, quite clearly:

“It’s over. They cut me loose. I can’t go back now. But it’s okay. It’s okay. I’m just trying not to panic. I’m trying…not to panic. I’m trying not to panic. I’m trying not-

Then I started crying. Hard.

I’m not the emotional type at all. I’m the clever one, the one people go to for insight and advice. But in that moment? I was in free-fall. I’d read about panic attacks when I studied psychology. Never thought I’d have one. But within seconds I went from sobbing to gasping for air. My arms went numb, and my head was in agony. My heart felt like it had aged a decade, and the room was spinning. But about all else, it hurt. Regardless of how much I hated my job, a dozen years is a long time. It felt like a chunk of my body had been ripped away. I had put so much of myself and my life into it, and now it was gone. It wasn’t just a place to work, it was a place to go, to meet new people. Now all I had were the memories and skills I had developed. After all those years of service, I’d be nothing more than a footnote, someone quickly forgotten and replaced. It felt like a betrayal, even though I’d practically walked right into it.

Eventually, I stopped crying and focused. I’m great at looking things from a critical, logistical perspective, and this was nothing different. Looking at the calendar, I realized that my health insurance would end in a week and a half. Thanks, HR! I scrambled to get appointments for both my dental and vision care. You think fitting a check-up into your schedule is hard? Try getting an appointment during Thanksgiving week. It’s even harder than you’d expect. With a lot of searching and phone calls, I managed to squeeze in both appointments before the month ended. Now my teeth are all sparkly, and a new pair of nerdy-but-hopefully-attractive glasses will be on my face next week.

I might even post pictures.

After that, it’s more basic stuff. There’s filing for unemployment, and taking care of the arrangements for my 401K. I’m getting the paperwork organized. I’m going to be doing a résumé for the first time, and it’s going to look pretty weird. I don’t think employers expect to see someone holding a single job for a dozen years. There’s health insurance to consider too; now that my safety net has been burned away, I’ve got to find some to tide me over. I’ve heard the phrase, “Everyone has to have health coverage in 2014!” so many times, it’s annoying. It’s like a survival mantra or something. Of course, not everyone’s going to get it; try saying that to the next homeless dude you see. Go on, try. He’d probably laugh in your face. As for me, I already know I need it; I just need to figure out out which one. I’m holding off until January, because paying premiums twice is something I’d rather avoid.

After that? It’s…murky. I don’t know what other job I’d be suited for. Just have to take these uncharted waters one day at a time. I’ve come close to failure and managed to overcome it before. I intend to do so again.

Fighting The Fire Within

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is about anxiety. Now that’s a subject I’m all too familiar with. It’s really weird with me, because I don’t panic in the face of direct danger. When one of my neighbor’s houses caught fire a few winters ago, I went into full-on confrontation mode, rallied as many people and extinguishers as we could find, and fought the fire. Granted, the firefighters showed up like three minutes later, but I kind of surprised myself looking back. I was so focused that it took me an hour to realize that I was outside wearing nothing but a t-shirt and shorts in subfreezing temperature.

Adrenaline is funny like that.

That situation just serves as a contrast to what I’m really anxious about: the future. Not dying, but living. This is my first winter in a dozen years (and in my adult life) that I’m unemployed, and it’s surreal in the worst way. I had to literally ask people what to do, because this is entirely uncharted water for me. There’s this underlying sense of guilt and shame. I don’t want to leave the house, I don’t want to spend anything, I don’t want to be a burden. I try to avoid turning on lights because I don’t want to cause a huge spike in the electric bill. Christmas – what little remnants of the tradition remain in my family – has been canceled. From an objective standpoint, I know I’m doing okay. I’ve been in worse situations. I’ve always been the type to save up and only rarely splurge, so it’s not like I’m going to starve.

And yet.

Late at night, there’s always that sense of dread, those vague little whispers that seep into the cracks of my foundation and try to topple me from the inside out. The fires of doubt and self-contempt burn within and try to consume me. Notions that I’m a failure, that I’ll never get anywhere, that my writing skills are useless, that I’ll be reduced to eating out of cans like I was in college, that my tastes and proclivities make me too unconventional for others, that I’ll never find a well-paying job that makes me happy, that I’ll end up alone and destitute, that the old concept of the American Dream – that family and house – might as well be from another planet. That I’m completely lost. That what little I do have is slipping away from me, just one day at a time…That maybe it’s not worth it after all.

But I will not give up.

Daily Prompt: I Have Confidence in Me, Or: The Paradox Of The Shy, Adventurous Writer

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is about confidence. Specifically, what you’re good at, and what you’d like to be better at. This one’s actually hard for me to explain. I understand that I’m good at writing; it comes naturally to me. I’ve only improved over time and effort. My standards are much higher than they were a decade ago. The words flow from my fingers like a river, and the ideas therein are the rocks and rapids. You know how most students loathe writing essays? I thrived on that in college. A good piece of writing is like a puzzle; each word is an individual (but essential) component of a more complex structure. It’s just a matter of examining each piece and arranging it correctly to convey your message. Oh, and the key to developing a writer’s voice? Just read what you’ve written out loud. If it sounds weird, then you know you need to change something. It’s that simple. Unless you want to sound like a space alien pretending to be human or blatantly show off your thesaurus-perusing skills, but that’s an entirely different issue…

Going on a tangent. Sorry.

From an objective standpoint, I know I’m good at this. Getting the words together on paper (though it’s more on-screen these days) is really easy. Dealing with my internal critic, however, is a struggle of epic proportions. You probably know what I’m talking about. It’s that little voice in your head that just loves to sow doubt and undermine everything good you believe about yourself. Typing again, huh? It’s not even worth your time. Who’s going to read it? You think anyone will actually care, let alone notice? Where’s the money? Writing is your greatest skill? What a joke. Why can’t you get a real job, and be like everyone else? Failure! You don’t have a future. You’re never going to make it. You’re going to starve, man.

…Yeah, I need to work on the confidence thing.

For the longest time, I bought into all of that. On my really bad nights, I still do. But if you get me motivated and focused, I will be on fire. It’s all about the situations and objectives. The last time I did NaNoWriMo, I burned through 20,000 words in a single sitting. When I found out that that I might miss the deadline for my college graduation, I buckled down and scheduled more than a full course load, aced every single class, and got my degree on time. You give me a goal I’m interested in, and I’ll show you what tenacity and willpower can accomplish. Resolve is one of the greatest and most terrifying qualities a person can have.

My skills aren’t limited to writing, though. I’ve got a critical eye with regards to pretty much everything, so I’m good at picking up details. You know how kids are capable of absorbing tons of information? It’s kind of like that. Facial expressions, vocal tones, languages, accents, structural designs, philosophical concepts, colors, anything. It’s pretty handy when you’re tasked with reviewing something; I can take a game/story/whatever apart quickly. I can read and predict others easily. People think I’m insightful, but my observations seem really obvious. Anyone who’s ever played against me in fighting or strategy games knows what an utterly ruthless tactician I can be. It’s not about thinking outside the box; it’s about thinking outside the room the box is stored in. I’m capable of memorizing lengthy procedures and scheduling around them; I used to have my college commutes calculated down to individual steps. I’d like to think it was practicality over OCPD, but I know better.

I’m also a really good traveling companion. Whenever I travel in a group, I’m usually the one with the map or an idea of where to go. Give me a little time to figure out the layout of a new place, and I’ll quickly adjust to it. I explored Paris on Le Métropolitain, and I didn’t speak a word of French. Someone even asked me for directions! The pigmentation of my skin is ambiguously olive enough that I can pass for a local most of the time. Since I’m good at reading facial expressions, I don’t always need to verbalize to communicate. I’ve also got a cast-iron stomach; I’ve eaten local cuisine that have left others bedridden for days.

Huh. It’s surreal reading the last few paragraphs. I know I’m good at all of that, but it clashes with my personality. I’ve mentioned before that I’m introverted. It’s not a flaw (no matter what social expectations say), but it’s completely the opposite of adventurous side. Wandering a foreign city? I’m fine. Stuck in a crowded room? I’m lost. I’m really shy and uncomfortable in social situations. It’s tiring and awkward, and it makes me look arrogant and aloof. I don’t want to talk about my interests, because I just end up confusing the other person. People are sometimes intimidated by my use of direct eye contact. It’s a tactical measure; people know I’m paying attention, which puts them more on edge and gives me the advantage. I’ve also been accused of being a charmer, which always seems bizarre to me. I’m not trying to be charismatic; I’m trying to survive the conversation without making a fool of myself. You’d be amazed how far a smile, a joke, and polite conversation can get you. I’m always taken aback when women (and men, with surprising frequency) try flirting with me. I never know what to say, and I just want to back away as quickly and gracefully as possible.

Ye gods, I’m actually blushing now.

I need to work on the social skills. I get that. I’m not good at connecting with people beyond a purely academic level. It’s just scary, awkward, and unnerving. I wish I had a stronger voice, too. It’s annoying when people can’t hear you because your indoor voice is apparently a whisper. I can hear myself just fine. I wish I was more physically coordinated, too. I can hike for hours at a time, but I’m not good at conventional sports. I did pretty well in jujitsu, though…There are so many other things I wish I could do better. When I have the time – I’m heading out to a party now, incidentally –  I’ll make a list. It’ll be a long one.