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.

Opera At The Ballpark 2015

Yes, you read that title correctly. I spent last Friday evening watching opera in a baseball stadium. The San Francisco Opera performed Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at the War Memorial Opera House. The show was simulcast for free at AT&T Park, the home of the Giants. Wait, you exclaim. How can something as classy as opera work with something so low-brow as baseball?!

Incredibly well, surprisingly.

I should preface this by saying that I’m not a music critic. I’m geek when it comes to multiple subjects, but I’ve never studied music. I sing poorly, don’t play any instruments, and can muster little more than a shout. The latter is why I find opera fascinating; The quote, “opera singers are the olympians of the music world” is the most apt description I’ve ever read. How much raw talent, dedication, and training does it take to reach those vocal plateaus? My exposure to opera is above average at best. My mother was part of a church choir and loved singing along to Phantom of the Opera on cassette (which I brought to school once, and was promptly ridiculed for it). My father constantly listened to Andrea Bocelli every time I visited, and once had me watch the entire performance of Les Miserables: The Dream Cast In Concert on tape. You know, the one with 17 Valjeans in the encore? I’ve only been to one show in person, which was Phantom at the Curran for a Christmas gift in 1997.

Yeah, I was that kind of kid.

Appropriately enough, it was my mother who told me about the event. We met up after work and walked to the ballpark. I hadn’t been inside since Labor Day weekend in 2000 – during the summer in which it originally opened – so I was interested to see how it changed. We were under the impression that we’d be able to sit on the grass, but were rebuffed by security once we reached ground level inside the stadium. Only visitors who came in through the side marina gate – and sporting the green wristbands to prove it – were allowed onto the outfield. Getting that far would’ve required us climbing back up to the main area and walking to the opposite end of the stadium. I was a little ticked about that (the staff in charge of the lines out front should’ve explained and guided newcomers accordingly) but decided on something better:

Yeah, that’s right. I got seats next to home plate at AT&T Park!…While the Giants were out of town. Heh. It was perfect for what we needed: good chairs with solid backs and beverage holders, and a stone’s throw from restrooms and restaurants downstairs. It exemplified the advantages of watching opera in a stadium; it’s more comfortable, you don’t have to dress up, you can take your kids, and there’s food, accommodations, and friendly staff at the ready. You’d be surprised how well garlic fries and a cold drink go with the opera. Just kick back, relax, and enjoy the show. Putting it on the jumbotron is a great idea as well; not only does it do split-screen to display multiple singers at once, but subtitles as well. That’s a huge benefit for those who don’t speak Italian or have trouble following what’s being sung. That way, the spectators can enjoy the plot and comedy without much confusion.

There are a couple of drawbacks, though. Traditional opera houses are renowned for their phenomenal acoustics, but ballpark loudspeakers and big screens can’t quite replicate the experience. It probably doesn’t matter to 99% of the visitors, but there is a difference. Also, attending an opera means you’re actually inside a building, not an open-air stadium. Summer evenings are pleasant in San Francisco; the temperature is still decent, and there’s a slight breeze by the water. Skip forward to 10 or 11 PM, and things have gotten chilly, misty, and the gorgeous dusk sky has been devoured by fog. If you’re going to stay for the whole show, bring a couple of extra layers to keep warm. I was fine, but my mother was shivering under a sweater and jacket. Also, if you’re taking BART, keep in mind that you’ll need time to walk back to the station. After the awesome curtain call, we had to duck out in front of most of the crowd in order to make our train.

As for the show, it was hilarious and amazing. Opera is often stereotyped as being some stuffy, serious, incomprehensible, yawn-inducing thing exclusively for snobby old people. That’s unfortunate (more like absolutely ridiculous), because The Marriage of Figaro is essentially an 18th century romantic comedy. It’s got witty writing, romance, scandal, intrigue, snark, slapstick, likeable protagonists, a scene-stealing drunk gardener, and (of course) killer vocals. I could spend all day watching Philippe Sly and Lisette Oropesa bicker as Figaro and Susanna. Or Nadine Sierra constantly – but narrowly – outsmart Luca Pisaroni‘s Count Almaviva, for that matter. I heard 30,000 people laugh out loud at the look on Susanna’s face during the “Su madre?!” scene, and pretty much anything Angela Brower did as the oh-so lecherous and gropey Cherubino. No matter how old you are, watching a lovestruck idiot awkwardly hide under a bed sheet is somehow the funniest thing ever. If nothing else, this will make you believe that 18th century servant women could Judo-throw their foolish husbands.

The fun wasn’t limited to the show, either. During the intermissions, they displayed some classic Looney Tunes that involved the opera. All of us cartoon geeks in the audience recognized and laughed along to excerpts from Long-Haired Hare and Rabbit of Seville. Val Diamond of Beach Blanket Babylon took the stadium by storm with a rousing rendition of “Take Me Out To The Opera.” There was also a marriage proposal on the jumbotron, and apparently he said yes.

It’s interesting how it’s come to this. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Quite the opposite. Mozart composed The Marriage of Figaro 229 years ago. I wonder if he ever imagined his music would survive this long, or himself playing to a crowd the size of a baseball stadium. The fact that there was such a huge turnout is not only a testament to the opera’s appeal, but to the performances as well. If something’s great, people will come to see it. It’s also thanks to the San Francisco Opera engaging the fans in a direct and modern way. They were very active on Twitter, encouraging viewers to make comments and displaying them on the jumbotron. I tweeted throughout the show (only during the intermissions, because it’s the polite thing to do), and got some great responses from the staff, performers, and fellow viewers. I even got a response from Susanna, which prompted me to geek out in the best way. This kind of approach is perfect for younger generations who’ve gotten used to sharing everything on social media.

You know what the best part was? There were lots of kids. Sure, some of them probably thought they were coming to see a baseball game. But they got the chance to experience something new and different. Something that they may not appreciate now, but they will later on. That’s how opera – and all other aspects of our culture – survive; we pass it all down in as many ways and influences as we can think of, and hope it sticks. Judging by the success of Opera At The Ballpark, we have nothing to worry about.

A Week In Nuevo Vallarta

Hey, folks! I’m baaaack!

*Crickets chirp*

…Ahem. Unlike my last couple of adventures, my trip to Nuevo Vallarta was planned for about six months before my departure. I went as part of a group of six family members, all in a two bedroom/bath timeshare at Paradise Village. Also unlike my previous adventures, it was made abundantly clear that this was going to be a relaxing, “traditional” vacation; going with family meant less opportunity to go exploring on my own, thus focusing more on the resort, beaches, and various tourist activities.

I was both relieved and disappointed; as much I love wandering around, Mexico is not the place to do it. In the weeks leading up to the trip, the US state department issued travel advisories for various areas of the country. In my apprehension, I took the time to look up the locations and contact information of the consulates, hoping that I’d never have to use them. This wasn’t my first rodeo in Mexico, though. In fact, I’ve been there more times than I have any other foreign country; I’ve been to Mazatlan, Cabo San Lucas, Cancun, Chichen Itza, as well as Puerto/Nuevo Vallarta twice prior to this trip. I also narrowly missed a trip to Acapulco, but that’s a story for another day. However, these all happened back in the 90s; Mexico has changed, and this was my first time going there as an adult. In the end, I resolved to enjoy the trip as much as I could within its limited scope.

To achieve that, I packed only the bare essentials: enough clothes, my DSLR, and a few books. I left my handheld gaming device behind for the first time; while it’s great for killing time on flights, I’ve come to realize how much of a distraction it can be. Same goes with smart phones; while nearly everyone else in my group was glued to their Internet and Skype, I purposely turned off my roaming and arranged for only texts to be available in case of emergencies. I’m not much of a phone person, so it’s not like I was missing anything. Without its temptation, I had to find a way to make a week revolve around little more than sunny weather and gorgeous beaches. I spent whole afternoons walking up and down Nuevo Vallarta’s shoreline, going barefoot on its flawless white sand and getting drenched knee-high in the surf. It’s something that everyone needs to do at least once in their lives; the seemingly endless horizon, the sound of the waves crashing, the cool sea breeze on your skin…that’s real living.

Paradise Village’s beach terminates with a long, rocky pier with a lookout on its tip. I made a daily habit of visiting it twice: once in the mornings to do some reading and watch the passing boats, and in the evening to photograph the sunsets. I took several great photos on that pier (you’re going to see some in the near future), and I wasn’t the only one. I was asked by at least a dozen other sightseers and/or families to take their pictures amidst the spectacular night skies and splashing waves. It’s remarkable how nature’s beauty transcends language barriers; everyone loves seeing a great sunset, no matter what country you’re from.

The same goes with wildlife; the beach had numerous gulls wandering around, waiting patiently for visitors to leave their food unattended. The hotel has about half a dozen parrots and a small group of Bengal tigers on display in its central hub. Every time I passed by, there would always be a small crowd of people trying to get some decent photos. The tigers were usually lazy and unresponsive, but I managed to catch one bathing one evening. The birds were far more friendly; I happened to find out when their cages were being cleaned, and got some nice, iron bar-free macro shots. During the hotel’s bird show (think of Letterman’s stupid pet tricks), I decided to embrace my inner tourist and had my picture taken with a scarlet macaw on my arm.

Speaking of touristy stuff, I took a city tour of Puerto Vallarta. It was a day’s run-through of the city’s marina, romantic zone, souvenir stands, the coastline near Mismaloya, and a tequila tour. The latter was rather uncomfortable for me; I don’t drink – the strongest thing I have is occasional root beer- so I was totally out of my element. I took a shot of mandarin tequila and struggled to swallow it down. It tasted like tangy cough syrup; seriously, what’s the appeal?! I also went zip-lining again (just over a year since Maui!) but that deserves its own entry/review. While most of my companions stuck to the hotel’s services – Paradise Village has its own shopping mall, complete with McDonald’s, Subway, Domino’s, and Starbucks within 3 minute’s walking distance – my mother and I took a bus out to the local Walmart, stocked up on groceries, and cooked in the hotel room. Any place that makes it affordable to eat three mangoes a day is a paradise indeed.

There’s more to write about, but I’ll stop here for now. It was a fun, relaxing week, and I’ve got tons of photos for you all to see. Stay tuned.

Mother’s Day Watermelon

Mother's Day Watermelon

Whenever we travel together, my mother and I always stock up on fruits and vegetables. Good food makes a good trip, and Mother’s Day is no different! Large version available here.

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.

The Unintentional Rebel

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about rebellion. Specifically, times when you’ve tried to stick it to “the man” or whatever the terminology is these days. I should preface this by saying that I don’t consider myself a rebel. I really don’t. As long as everything is working fine and beneficially, I’m perfectly fine. If anything, I’m usually the one who ends up in positions of authority; for whatever reason, people seem to defer to me as a leader. I still don’t understand why, and my therapist says it’s a quality that I need to further explore. I think it’s partly because I treat those who are supposedly of a higher status than me as real people; rankings and titles mean little when compared to actual skill and capability. I have zero interest in politics. No amount of catchphrases and glad-handing will win me over. The reactions to this attitude are usually either appreciative candor, or resentful fear. Those who’ve tried to lord their position over me learned quickly that, despite being quiet and shy, I’m made of sterner stuff. And those who’ve tried to physically threaten me…well, let’s just say I’m not always quiet and shy. In the end, we’re all just human beings. Mortals. Fallible. Nothing more, nothing less. I’ve long lost the patience for people arrogant enough to believe themselves otherwise.

And yeah, you’d better believe it’s gotten me in trouble before. I’ve already written about my decision to grow out my hair, and the consequences that came with it. Still worth it, though. Some clashes aren’t limited to family life; when you question things while working in a corporate environment, conflict is inevitable. I lasted a dozen years in banking. I’ve dealt with bosses mishandling records, screwing up procedures, and attempting to cover it up to make themselves look better. Since these problems typically involved audits and logistics, they usually came at the expense of my time and effort. You know what’s worse than having inept management? Having inept management that knows it’s inept and refuses to admit it, then pushing the blame on others. If I catch something like that happening, I will point it out. If the higher-ups won’t listen, then I’ll just go higher and get HR involved. I can’t go into any details without getting personal, but I developed a reputation for being all-business.

Even early on as part-timer, I had that kind of thing going on. Without going too deep into it, there was a time in which smart phones were just starting to become popular. Some of my coworkers used them too much, causing the management to decide to confiscate them and leave them in our lunch room. If we didn’t comply, we’d have to resign on the spot. That was a big problem for me, as I had an old-fashioned flip phone that I kept for (highly likely) family emergencies. I rarely used it, but as a caretaker, I needed to have it on hand. The assistant manager tried to round up the phones – a few workers quit immediately – and came over to me. The following exchange happened:

Manager: Okay, your turn.

Me: No. I’m not giving you my phone.

Manager: Why?

Me: I need this on hand for my family. It’s strictly for emergencies. You know that.

Manager: …Yeah. But it’ll be in the lunch room. They can call the office.

Me: You know how terrible our incoming call menu is. The time it’ll take for a call to actually get through could mean life and death. Also, leaving it in the open lunch room? Where it could be easily stolen or looked through for important information? You really think I trust you or anyone else on this staff that much? No. Not happening. I’ll have it right here in my pocket, out of sight, and hopefully never used.

Manager: Give me your phone, or you’ll be terminated for breaking company policy. We can fire you anytime, you know.

Me: And private property laws supersede company policy. There’s no way you can legally confiscate my personal belongings. (Back then, there wasn’t…) You’d better do some reading before you lose any more of the staff.

Manager: This isn’t a debate!

Me: No, it’s not. We can agree on that, at least. I’m going on break.

I went to the lunch room, fuming and mentally preparing myself to walk out. One of the workers came back there in tears, apologizing profusely for letting the situation get out of hand. I just gave her a calm look and told her not to worry. I came back from my break to find that management had given up and punished the individuals actually responsible for the whole debacle. The management eventually gave me a halfhearted apology, but I think it had more to do with the fact that about 3/4 of the staff was willing to quit. I might’ve just triggered the others’ desire to stand their ground, and management decided to stop being foolish. If it happened today, I’d probably be fired on the spot. Either way, I was glad to do it. It wouldn’t be the last time.

Maybe I’ve been a rebel all along, even if I never intended to be.

The Inevitability Of Age

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/03/10/weekly-writing-challenge-golden-years/

Age. It’s one of the inevitable aspects of our lives. It’s like breathing; it happens to everyone, yet no one notices until you point it out. We try not to think about it too much – our society is very much focused on youth – because of all the implications and associations involved. We live day to day in unspoken denial, with the belief that, unlike those that came before us, we will enjoy boundless energy and health. That we are infallible and invulnerable. That we can mock and dismiss our predecessors for their supposedly outdated perspectives. That mortality – the ultimate equalizer – is of no consequence.

I know better.

Just a quick show of hands: How many you reading this care or have cared for an elderly person? I can’t be the only one. Due to the way the cards fell during the 2008 recession, I ended up staying with and assisting some of my older relatives. It’s been a learning experience just from a medical standpoint. Non-functioning immune systems, cancer, diabetic comas, blood sugar, blood pressure, tumors, growths, astigmatism, partial blindness, weak bones, failing organs, infections, sores, memory loss, muscle spasms, loss of balance, twisted ankles, dental work, infusion clinics, nurses’ clinics, pharmacy pickups, heart problems, depression, sleeping problems, bad backs, bad hips, bad joints, bad everything…Most of the problems are hereditary, so I know growing old will not be pleasant. I’ll be turning 30 this year, and I’ve spent more time in hospitals than any non-medical student should. Do you have any idea what it’s like coming home every night and seeing your family grow just a little weaker?

It eats me up inside.

The same goes for how elders are treated on a daily basis. The slow driver holding up your precious commute? Maybe he’s is too physically weak to drive, but he doesn’t have any friends or money to get him where he needs to go. That old lady at the grocery store that smells funny and is cranky all the time? Yeah, she has a life, just like you. Except that hey, maybe she doesn’t get to see her kids anymore. That her family doesn’t care about her, and they only show up at Christmas in a sense of grudging obligation. Maybe her family is dead, and she has to subsist on what little peanuts her social security provides. That, despite all the government policy claims to the contrary, she has to choose between groceries and medicine. And that maybe she lies awake in her bed at night, wishing her body wasn’t aching and her husband was still alive. Wondering how she’s going to pay the bill next week when she’s out of cash. That maybe she might die in her house and go unnoticed for months, simply because the world forgot about her.

That might be you someday.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t fear death; I’ve come close enough times to know how quickly and easily it can end. It will happen, and I’m at peace with it. The prolonged suffering that leads up to it, however, is something else entirely. It’s hard getting old. If you’ve got the love and support of family and friends, you’re much better off. I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Rather than disregarding our elders, we should spend even more time with them. There’s a belief that age begets wisdom. It’s not necessarily true; everyone is flawed and capable of mistakes no matter how old they are. Some of the most immature people in my life are twice my age, and I’ve grown wary of those who use years as a mark of superiority. If anything, age gives you experience; the extra time is filled with possibilities and opportunities, and it’s just a matter of learning from them.

And passing them on, for that matter. I’ve written before about one of my grandmothers, and how she was easily the strongest person I’d ever known. Not physically – her body was badly broken and warped before she died – but mentally and spiritually. She taught me the value of determination; she lived her last agonizing year with nothing but sheer willpower. If a nearly 100 year-old woman can raise her frail, shattered body up to cook and tend to her flowers every morning, then I know I can do better. That’s the kind of thing you can learn only from your elders; It doesn’t matter how badly you age, but how well you live. I just wish more of my generation (and parents) would bother to listen and understand.

If you have an elderly person in your life, tell them you love them. They’ll probably appreciate it.