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.

Well, It’s About Time.

So, the United States Supreme Court finally decided in favor of same-sex marriage. It’s not surprising, really; it’s been a foregone conclusion for a couple of years now. It was like a poorly-paced novel or show; the outcome is inevitable, but it drags on for so long that you almost don’t expect it to happen. But when it finally does, it feels like the most satisfying thing ever. That kind of statement probably warrants the assumption that I’m neck-deep in the politics at hand, but I’m utterly apolitical; if you’re looking for a debate, don’t bother posting. I lack the time, patience, and energy for that kind of thing. I doubt I’d change your mind regardless.

For me, it’s not a question of parties or other inherently limiting affiliations. Anyone can make promises and tell you what you want to hear. People can change sides and make concessions whenever it’s convenient. All that matters to me is if it works. I consider myself a student of all subjects, though history is among my favorites. I find traditions fascinating, but I’d be foolish to ignore how society changes with times. Knowledge, technology, expectations, roles, beliefs, goals, prejudices, businesses, friends, enemies…It’s all connected in one huge, ever-shifting reality. All we have are the memories from which we can hopefully learn.

If I traveled back in time 20 years and told 1995-Me that same-sex marriage would be made legal, he’d…Well, he’d probably grab a kitchen knife and chase me – the 30-year-old stranger that suddenly appeared – out of the house. That aside, he’d likely be confused and uncomfortable. At that point, my only exposure to anything remotely homosexual were Uranus and Neptune, the lesbian couple from the Sailor Moon anime who were infamously dubbed as “cousins” in the American broadcast. I’ve always been amused by younger viewers saying how “groundbreaking” recent shows like Adventure Time, MLP: FIM, and The Legend of Korra have been with regards to their implied same-sex romances. Japan has had that market cornered for decades; there are whole genres devoted to them! It’s just that mainstream American media – until quite recently – has had a huge, often hypocritical hang-up when it comes to portraying sexuality. What we have now is not so much a leap forward as it is slowly playing catch-up.

Sorry, went on a tangent. Point is, back in 1995 I was just a child a San Francisco Bay Area suburb. I was a classic latchkey kid, the kind who’d spend afternoons watching TV, finishing homework, reading, and doing chores before (hopefully) seeing a parent at dinnertime. I still get surprised reactions when people – mostly women – find out I know how to run a household. Not exactly quantum mechanics, folks. Being isolated so much never struck me as odd. What did, however, was how the other kids were treating me. I’ve mentioned how much of a bookworm I am; even as a child, I was intelligent, short, effeminate, shy, awkward, lacked confidence, skipped a grade, wore glasses, and was a late bloomer. That’s some prime bullying material, and everyone seemed to know it. But it went beyond that, and I didn’t understand what it was until much later:

I was different.

It wasn’t something that could be pinned down to just intelligence and whatnot; the others could sense that something was “off” – and therefore wrong – about me. I think it had mostly to do with my appearance; I still get mistaken for a woman sometimes. I’m now awesome and confident enough to roll with it. But in 1995, I was a nervous, quivering, prone-to-crying wreck who was bullied all the way through freshman year of high school. California might have a reputation for being progressive, but that doesn’t work so well in real life. I got crude jibes about shaving my legs, putting on makeup, my time of the month, you name it, they said it. I’ve been called every homophobic epithet you can possibly think of, usually from kids on bikes or passing cars as I walked home every day. I’ve had stuff thrown at me, been beaten up, all of it. Unlike the supposed politically-correct era we live in today, nobody – adult, kid, or otherwise – stepped in to help me. There was no “It Gets Better” for me. People only cared when I started fighting back; a ruthless temper can end a fight very quickly. It can also isolate you, and not in a good way. I was respected as a potential valedictorian for the rest my high school days – I was even nominated for the Every 15 Minutes Program and to give a speech at graduation – but I didn’t make any friends.

The problem wasn’t limited to school, though. Much of my family are devoutly religious; my grandfather was a minister, and his emigration here to preach was the reason I was born in America. I went to Sunday school, attended church twice a week, the whole bit. I’m still pretty good when it comes to Biblical topics on Jeopardy.  Growing up like that isn’t too bad; there’s a sense of family, community, and purpose. It’s all fine…as long as you follow whatever you’re told. That’s a real problem when it comes to someone like me, who constantly searches for answers, questions explanations, and strives to see the bigger picture. Or someone who so blatantly doesn’t conform to gender roles and sexuality, for that matter. There’s a lot of guilt involved with that kind of upbringing: the constant fear of disappointing your elders, the paranoia of being caught and judged, the logic that God doesn’t answer your prayers to stop the bullying because you’re a sinner, hating yourself for not wanting to be masculine etc. Never mind being smart, responsible, and having perfect grades; if you don’t conform, you’re a rebellious outcast. Needless to say, I wasn’t popular with the kids my age, either.

I’m not going to deny the importance of religion – people need to believe in something to survive, be it spiritual, philosophical, technological, whatever – but I can’t abide by it. The human mind is far more stubborn and creative than any religion can fully encompass, and we’re just starting to understand how it works on a psychological level. The centuries of violence, bloodshed, and oppression, all for what? They’re all the same stories, told in different ways. It’s like the human race; many branches, one tree. We should be learning from and helping each other survive. Yeah, I know it’s naive and it’ll probably never work; we as a society are still too foolish to make it happen. We’ll probably never find whichever beliefs – if any – are accurate. That’s a two-way street, by the way. Extremism is bad regardless of what side it’s on, and the messages from some well-meaning social media groups outright terrify me. I’m celebrating the same-sex marriage victory with the rest of you, but remember, popular beliefs and morals change over time. In another 40 years, we’ll be the ones considered old-fashioned and mocked accordingly.

Think about it.

So, where does the legalization of same-sex marriage leave me? Pretty much where I was yesterday, honestly. Despite numerous assumptions to the contrary over the years, I’m not gay. I’m 1.5 at most on the Kinsey Scale. I’m not too keen on the whole categorizing thing, though. I’m far more interested in gender fluidity; biological sex and gender are now considered separate, and the latter has its own spectrum. That explains a lot for me, even if the concept is still being developed. 1995-Me could’ve really used that term and had a better childhood. The human mind is too complex to be limited to society’s expected gender roles, which is something that our culture is only beginning to understand. As for all those lost, bitter years? I’ll never get them back. But I can take solace in the fact that while I may be different, the times have (temporarily, at least) shifted in my favor.

As for the rest of you, congratulations. You’ve earned this victory.

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.

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.

Mathematical Awkwardness

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about confusion. Specifically, confusion involving school subjects. This one’s kind of a tricky, because I was the kind of student that always got straight A’s. It didn’t matter what the material was; English, Chemistry, History, Economics, Art…if it was something I could read, I could pick it up pretty quickly. If I couldn’t, I’d just study harder. Physical education, however, was like a daily ritual of awkwardness and humiliation. It wasn’t that I was out of shape – I walked four miles a day to get to school and back, and hiked regularly on weekends – but I was just really uncoordinated. I could run a 7-minute mile and do a hundred sit-ups, but I couldn’t throw a basketball in a hoop to save my life. Nor could I catch a baseball, return a volleyball over the net, etc. I was the quiet little geek with the big glasses that always got picked last for teams. You know how there’s always the one kid in the class that would always get hit in the face with a frisbee or something? Yeah, that was me. I was a little better when it came to sports that involved handheld equipment; I could play tennis or badminton for hours. I just never found the groove/mindset/whatever that was necessary to do well in sports. Even in my Freshman year in college, I remember taking jiu-jitsu (I needed it for General Ed) and apologizing profusely for screwing up the techniques we were learning that day.

But those failures pale in comparison to my most hated subject: Math.

It’s kind of ironic, coming from someone that likes learning about science and whatnot. I’ve gotten much better at it in my adult years. The banking industry has that effect on people. But way back in high school, it was a foe unlike any I’d ever encountered. I had no trouble with algebra and geometry; I even helped my mother relearn it when she was finishing her degree. But something was lost in the transition from algebra to precalculus. The equations seemed much harder to memorize; so many more symbols, so many more rules…it all kind of bled to together in a massive jumble of lines and numbers. How could anyone keep track of all of that?! I could understand how things worked by just looking at them, so why do I suddenly have to prove it? But I couldn’t be deterred. Like any good overachiever, I stayed after school every day and attended the math lab, because I knew I needed the extra help. For the most part, it succeeded. I managed to keep my perfect GPA, and did well on the college entrance exams. I did so well, I was immediately bumped up to calculus as a Freshman.

…Without ever taking trigonometry.

No, seriously. I tested well enough into a college course without learning a huge chunk of the necessary coursework. You want a humbling experience? Try surviving a calculus class for two weeks without knowing most of the subject material. It was as bad as it sounds. For the first time, I was faced with a subject that I wasn’t properly prepared for. And man, did it show; I’d never gotten a C grade, let alone flunk anything. After a couple of disastrous tests, the instructor took me aside. After hearing the problem, he told me in no uncertain terms that I should withdraw from the class before it could hit my record, study on my own time, and retake it the next semester. I tearfully gathered up my things – including the $300 calculus book – and did as he advised. I fared much better the second time (a B was plenty fine), but I never wanted to take such a class again. My degree didn’t require it, so math and I parted on bitter terms.

In retrospect, I should’ve stuck to it. English will always be my favorite subject, but math is far more awesome then most people realize. It’s just that the advanced stuff is really hard, and I don’t understand why. Now that there are programs like the Khan Academy, I’ve been thinking about going back and relearning everything with a clean slate. I think I’ll do better this time.

Two Term Papers And A Wedding

Hey, folks. Yesterday’s Daily Prompt was all about pressure. Specifically, how well you perform under it. Despite my preferences for planning and making sure stuff gets done, my best work comes when I’m faced with impending deadlines, crazy odds, and possible death. I’ve fought a neighborhood fire and paid for college out of my own pocket, so I know I’ve got a focused, determined streak a mile wide. I’m like that with most projects; once I start writing an article, reading a book, or solving a puzzle, I sometimes won’t stop until it’s finished. But if I know there’s a time limit, I’ll buckle down and bust out something completely on the fly. The results are usually better than my better-paced work; some of my finest reviews were written in a single perfect draft somewhere between 1 and 3 AM. On my second run through NaNoWriMo, I burned through 20,000 words in a single sitting, mainly because I was running out of time. When I worked in banking, my end of day closing and auditing procedures were legendary for their speed and accuracy. All because I wanted to catch my train home, and any mistakes would’ve cost me extra time.

The stakes have been raised to ridiculous heights a few times, though. In my senior year at university, my schedule included a combination of of Pre-1800 Literature and Shakespeare courses. They were back-to-back every other weekday, and taught by the same professor in the same lecture room. It was an academic marathon that spanned several hours, but it was very much worth it. Towards the end of the term, we were given instructions on the papers we’d need to write. One covering the Greek tragedies, and the other an in-depth compare/contrast amongst three Shakespearean works. They were pretty long, but nothing mind-blowing. I figured I could do both and have time left to spare…

Then I looked at the due date. Friday.

Oh, no. No. NO. They were both due on the upcoming Friday. The very same Friday in which my cousin was getting married, and that I was supposed to attend. The one where I’d have to stay in a hotel on Thursday overnight? How was I going to get these two term papers written, printed, and handed to the professor in person when I was scheduled to be at a wedding ceremony several cities away?! The professor wouldn’t take emails, and I didn’t want to be penalized for turning stuff in late. When I got back home, I started typing up a storm. There wasn’t time to panic. I managed to get both papers done by late Wednesday night, but it still left me with the problem of printing and turning it in. How could I get this done and make it to the campus in time?

I had a crazy idea.

Before leaving town on Thursday morning, I emailed all the documents to myself. I traveled to the hotel and helped get things set up. I didn’t go out partying with the other guys or anything like that; I needed to be awake and alert in the morning for this to work. Before dawn on Friday, I showered, dressed, and left the hotel. Luckily, I wasn’t that far away from the local BART train station. The ride to the university would take nearly two hours, though. I needed to get there early enough to catch the shuttle to the campus, which is about as serious business as it gets. I barely managed to make it on time, but I knew I had to make this quick. I leaped up the campus stairs, dashed into the library, printed out my documents, and sprinted to the lecture room. I wearily set both term papers down in front of the professor – she gave me an impressed nod – and left the classroom. I raced back down to the shuttle terminal and got aboard just as it was starting its final run back to the train station. I didn’t relax until I was safely riding back to the hotel. I returned to my room, scrubbed up, and got my suit on with just enough minutes to reach the wedding on time.

When I got there, I was faced with another task. One of the people scheduled to be in the procession was MIA, and the ceremony was supposed to start in less a minute. So I – the stressed-out traveling student that had been up since before dawn – was promptly made the replacement. Before I got a chance to protest, the music started. I awkwardly shuffled forward, trying to keep a calm look upon my face. I don’t think my heart stopped pounding in my ears until the reception. By that point, I just wanted to go home. But at least I managed to get everything done. I’d done such a good job as an impromptu processioner, I was volunteered at the last moment a second time at another cousin’s wedding a few years later.

Oh, and the term papers? Perfect scores. I thrive under pressure.

Somewhere Between X and Y

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about generations. Specifically, what you don’t understand or possibly learn from the generations that come before or after you. I have the unfortunate privilege of falling into the oft-maligned Millennial generation, and thus get to deal with all the little assumptions that come with it. I loathe being scrutinized and stereotyped based upon my age; you’re defined by your actions and experiences, not just decade in which you were born. No one ever gave me a trophy just for showing up. No one cared when I was being bullied. My parents were divorced and rarely around, so all those other happy, supportive families seemed unreal. You want to really teach a kid responsibility? Make them earn it. I paid for my college education the old-fashioned way: getting jobs and saving every last penny, barely scraping by until I earned my B.A. No parents or student loans to back me up, either. Yeah, it was miserable and rife with anxiety, but I got it done. I held a job for over a decade, and rarely bought anything extravagant. At 29, I’m still saving up for my eventual M.A. People think I’m insane for not owning a smart phone, tablet, e-reader, or any of that stuff. I get the most out of what little I have, and I’m not fueled by desire to constantly spend.

…Unless I’m in a bookstore. You know how that goes.

And for a long while, that was good enough. But now that I’m unemployed for literally the first time in my adult life, I’ve realized that everything has changed. I’m in this weird social limbo where my values, efforts, and independence have lost meaning. There’s an overbearing sense of shame and guilt in not going to work every day, simply because I know I can do so much more. I’m nowhere near starving, but I can’t idle around and eat into my savings. I’m not content with just sitting here reading; it’s very comfortable, but devoid of any real effort or personal development. And worst part? A lot of people out there think it’s normal. But I don’t. I’ve learned and experienced too much from the previous generation to just forget about things like being a breadwinner or the importance of interpersonal, non-computerized communication.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t learn new things.

While no Skype screen will ever trump a one-on-one conversation, the Internet and and its fast-paced technologies are undeniably helpful. I remember studying in a physical library, and (if I was lucky) with Encarta 95 at home. Encarta 95! Grade-schoolers like me would’ve killed for something like Wikipedia, JSTOR, or iTunes. There’s so much more stuff to learn, and it’s only within the last couple of years that education has caught up with the medium. We’ve got dedicated YouTube channels for all educational matters; the best I ever got as a kid was the Discovery Channel, National Geographic magazines, and Bill Nye.

However, not everything you learn comes from an educational program. Social media, for better and worse, has allowed people to become closer. Not necessarily in an emotional context, but through the communication of ideas. A lot of what we see in mainstream popularity is mindless drivel, but occasionally something clever or interesting shines through. Stuff like Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Stanley Parable would’ve been impossible 30 years ago. Not just due to the development of technology, but because now it’s much easier to blend concepts, influence each other, and question expectations.The younger generations have it far easier in terms of collaborating and quickly sharing opinions, but seem to be losing out when it comes to real world experience. These days, there’s this huge emphasis on safe and utterly, ridiculously politically correct topics. You know, how we as a culture supposedly abhor sex and violence yet revel in their fictional portrayals? Yeah, that’s not hypocritical at all. Despite all our new communication tools, conversations about some issues – particularly sexuality, gender roles, and mental health – are swept aside. Because not talking about problems makes them go away.

Wouldn’t want to offend anyone, right?

Ugh, this generational thing is complicated. What’s a guy stuck between two extremes supposed to do?

Being The Weird One

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about being an outsider. This one’s such an omnipresent theme in my life (and probably in everyone’s in some respects), it’s harder to pinpoint parts where I’m not an outsider. You know how every family has that one strange relative? The one you always shake your head at and tell stories about during holiday dinners? Yeah, that’s me. I’m the weird one. On both sides. On one side, I’m the second oldest in my generation, and the only one with a university degree and who reads, writes, and studies regularly. On the other, I’m one of the older, quieter kids with an apparently rebellious, anti-religious streak. Never mind all that fancy know-how about science and the arts; why don’t I do all the stuff normal guys do? Family gatherings and birthday parties are ripe for awkward questions and confused stares. Conversations typically include gems like:

  • Sooo…do you have a girlfriend? Boyfriend? Any romance whatsoever? No?…Oh.
  • Uh, are you gay? Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
  • When are you going to get married and have kids?
  • You still go to church…right?
  • Did you see what so-and-so posted on Facebook?!
  • Ugh, you still have that long hair? I’m gonna cut it while you sleep!
  • Whatcha reading? …Oh, never heard of that. I loved Twilight, though!
  • Still doing that writing thing, eh?
  • See any good movies lately?…Who the Hell is Hayao Miyazaki?
  • Traveling again, huh? I…um, went to Las Vegas recently.
  • You still play video games?
  • You don’t watch football?! Uh, what sports do you watch?
  • Whatcha doing here in this room all by yourself? It’s too quiet! Don’t you want to chat with everyone?
  • What do you mean, you don’t drink alcohol?!
  • Hey, I can’t figure out this puzzle! Let’s see YOU do it!…showoff...
  • Oh…hi, cousin! Didn’t know you were here! I’ll be, uh, over there with everyone else. Bye!

Yeah, it’s so much fun being the weird one.

I think it has a lot to do with the way us kids are grouped together. Both sides of my family have always had their own little cliques based on siblings, proximity, age, and petty drama. I’m older than most of them, and I live pretty far away. I’m also the lone one raised as an only child, which means I didn’t get the benefits of sibling interaction or anything like that. Many of them attended the same schools and made the same friends – they’ve literally had the identical groomsmen and bridesmaids for their weddings – so they’ve already had years to build strong foundations. As for me, I’m the quiet loner from out of town that shows up maybe once or twice a year. Since I’m the clever and artsy one, I’m apparently too strange for normal interaction. At least some of the kids think I’m cool.

It’s not limited to just family, either. There are people at church who won’t even look me in the eye. I’ve been nearly excommunicated a couple of times. I could regale you with dozens of stories about being the “strange” one at the office. Apparently, bringing my homemade lunch is absurd when I can spend dozens of dollars per week on local fast food. And that there’s something inherently wrong with not owning a smart phone and checking its messages every free second. And that not going out for drinks on Friday nights is a sign of mental instability. Someone incredulously asked what planet I was from. It was very surreal being the only one on the staff who bothered to read books, news, and anything at all. I once had to explain to a college-aged worker that yes, Germany is, in fact, a country.

No, seriously. That conversation happened.

I wish I was exaggerating. I really do. Maybe I really am just too weird for people to accept. I know that I’m part of the problem, too. I’m shy and introverted, so it’s not like I’m going out of my way to talk to people. I should probably cultivate more mainstream interests. It’s just that I’m so much more used to doing and experiencing things alone. It’s not about superiority or anything like that. I just have different interests. And I usually enjoy being the mysterious loner…until the awkwardness sets in. I guess I should keep looking. Maybe I just haven’t found the right place yet.

A Hairy Idea

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about ideas. Specifically, the best idea you’ve ever had. This one’s kind of tricky, because it’s not always clear whether the choices you’ve made are good or not. The old saying that “hindsight is 20/20” is totally right. You just don’t know. What seems like a good idea at one point could backfire spectacularly down the line, and some of the worst moments you’ll ever face may have some unexpectedly good results years later. Paying for college by myself felt like chopping off a limb with a butter knife, but it forced me to develop the discipline and focus that I needed. And though I’m currently unemployed, all the savings and lack of loans means I’m doing much better than countless others my age. Since I’ve already talked about it for another prompt, I’d rather talk about a less obvious great idea:

Growing out my hair.

No, seriously. I grew up in a devoutly religious and conservative household. Very traditional…except for being raised by a single mother who was always working. You might know how that goes. I was required to run the household and adhere to the rules and high expectations thrust upon me. And I totally bought into it. I was the golden boy; I always turned in perfect grades, maintained a part time job, and could have the house spotless and dinner cooking on time. I was praised for being so on top of everything. But questioning anything was…well, out of the question. Oh, I asked questions. I’m curious and tenacious by nature. But I paid for it dearly. You obey the rules, all is good. You fail to meet expectations, and you get tons of screechy criticism and passive-aggressive shaming.

It didn’t help that I was shy. I consider myself really introverted now, but I used to be a full-blown shrinking violet. Yeah, it’s not so cute when you’re one doing the shrinking. I was so drawn into myself and afraid of people that I had no social life whatsoever. I was the quiet, smart kid who aced his classes, went home, read books for hours, and did it all again the next day. I was awkward, wore glasses, and skipped a grade. And when you’re a boy growing up like that, it makes you a prime bullying target. You know how a lot of media focuses on the bullying epidemic and how terrible it is? Yeah, no one cared about that 20 years ago; not a single adult helped me. My feminine appearance made it even worse. I was (and still am) frequently mistaken for being female. Physically, I was a late bloomer; kind of short, a soft voice, and a head of thick curly hair. I still hesitate to wear shorts because the other kids used to accuse me of shaving my legs. There were people who’d shout slurs and throw things as they drove past while I walked to school.

My entire childhood and adolescence was like this.

Eventually, I started standing up for myself. Since trying to be nice and praying to God for a good day weren’t working, I began fighting back. And I was vicious. I was suspended exactly once, and it took at least three teachers to physically drag me to the office. Even now, years later, I’m still trying to get my anger under control. Work in progress, believe me. But lashing out didn’t solve the bigger problem: the repression of my personality. I lived to please and meet expectations, but I ignored my individuality and wants. I didn’t ask for much; I was never the kind of kid that demanded everything under the sun. And I was too busy schooling and working as it was. But I had to change something…I had seen some anime where the male characters could pass as women. Since everyone kept mistaking in a similar way, maybe I could do something about it…

Like my hair!

Yeah, I got the idea from watching anime. Feel free to laugh. But it was obviously more than that. So, I decided to refuse getting a haircut. Since my mother was the one that typically did it, she was shocked and possibly disgusted. I had to physically stop her from raising the scissors to my head. I went through years of her berating me for it. She screamed and moaned about how disobedient I was, and why I couldn’t be a better child, why couldn’t I just be normal, and that I’d never make it in the professional world. When I went to church with my hair tied back, I was openly mocked and came close to being thrown out. Rather than supporting me, my mother simply shook her head and said how sinful I’d become. My extended family were no better; I was – and still am – the subject of many jokes and incredulous stares. Some of my relatives occasionally threaten to cut my hair while I sleep. My coworkers just chalked it up to me being eccentric, but I had too many years of seniority for anyone to make a fuss. So I just kept letting it grow.

Skip forward to the present, I’ve got two feet of thick and wavy curly hair. I think it looks awesome, and lots of women – and men – certainly agree. I get questions about it at least a few times a month. Ever have someone ask if they can touch your hair? It’s kind of funny. I’ve got this weird Captain Hook/Kirk Hammett/young Robert Plant look going for me. People ask if I moonlight in a rock band. I’ve never even touched a guitar. And while I’m not exactly tiny, I still get mistaken for a woman constantly. Unlike before, however, I take it in stride. My decision to grow my hair was one of the few decisions I’ve made for my sake. It helped make me a much more confident, assertive person; I’ve been told that I come off as regal and intimidating. That’s a far cry from the mousy bully magnet I used to be. People see my style as a mark of individuality and act accordingly. I’m not afraid anymore; I carry myself with the understanding that this is part of who I am, and not some expectation imposed upon someone else. I may have never been the most masculine guy ever, but that’s okay. If I can’t be handsome, then I can certainly be beautiful.

Weekly Writing Challenge: Ghosts of December 23rds Past, Or: The Christmas Cancellation

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/12/23/writing-challenge-ghosts/

It’s December 23rd, 1989. It’s a late night. Much later than I’m normally allowed to stay up. I’m spending the last half of December at my Grandma’s house. The American one, not the Filipino one. The house is bustling with activity; it’s the place everyone in the family visits on Christmas Day, so we’ve got to get ready. My Grandpa and uncle hauled in a real, 10-foot tree a couple of days ago, and it’s still not completely decorated. The angel on top is beautiful, like a big hazy star that’s somehow floated into the room. Some of the ornaments higher up – the ones made of metal and glass – shine and sparkle against the flickering lights. Grandpa lit up the fireplace a few hours ago, and the heat feels wonderful. I could watch the flames dance for hours, but I’ve been tasked with an important duty: dusting.

They said I didn’t have to do it all in one day, but I want to do my part. Besides, there’s only this living room left. But there’s so much to see! All the old paintings from someone’s previous adventures, the relics of family members long past, the treasure trove of books lining a wall, the new crack near the ceiling from the earthquake, the huge garland they somehow managed to string from one end of the room to the other…and the stockings. There are so many stockings, each with their own design and hanger. Mine is fuzzy penguin with a winter cap and red earmuffs. It’s hanging from the hook of a tiny, smiling Eskimo. The stockings are empty and flat; no one touches them until Christmas morning. The grownups keep telling me that filling the stockings is Santa’s job, but I don’t believe them. How’s Santa supposed to get down the chimney if a fire is going? Won’t that burn him and all the presents? It doesn’t make any sense. The smell of freshly-baked cookies wafts in from the kitchen, and I run off in hopes of a dessert.

The dust rag is forgotten.

It’s December 23rd, 1994. Late night. I probably should be in bed, but I’ve got too much energy. I’m back at Grandma’s again. As usual, it’s really busy. My grandma and a couple of aunts are working feverishly in the kitchen, bringing forth tray after tray of cookies. I’ve stopped try to keep count. A couple of hours ago, I helped clear off the dining table and put the huge green table cloth over it. It looks so different with all the fancy dishes on it, and I’m proud of how it looks. I set the table all the time at home, and I finally got the chance to show off my skills. If I stand on a chair, I can almost reach the upper part of the tree. The top is still beyond me. It’s okay, at least they let me handle decorating all by myself. I’m granted access to half a dozen large boxes crammed full old ornaments. Each trinket has a story, and I ask about everything that looks interesting. A crystal sailboat from Carmel. Aluminum stars from the 1870s. An old watch my great-great grandmother found while traveling through Southeast Asia. A garland of what resembles dried Froot Loops. Now that I have glasses, the angel at the top actually looks like an angel instead of a star.

I wonder if I’m asking too many questions, but the grownups don’t seem to mind. Everyone’s been nice to me since my sister left a few months ago. I’ve been tasked with putting wrapped presents on display, and most of them are already done. I’ve been told not to touch mine – I know the sound of shaking LEGOs – but I can guess based on the size of the boxes. One of them is the size of a Super Nintendo cart. It’s probably Donkey Kong Country. I’m also holding out for some Pogs. I just hope I don’t have to wear that nasty sweater Mom gave me early; it’s this red, white, and black wool monstrosity that makes me itch and sweat. Someone turns on the cassette player in the next room, and a soothing voice starts singing about chestnuts roasting on an open fire. I’ve run out of decorating room on the tree. I eagerly hop off the chair and run to the kitchen, hoping to show someone what I’ve done.

It’s December 23rd, 1995. It’s getting late. The work has stopped for the night. We’ve already got the majority of the chores finished. The cooking and presents are done. The process seems more subdued. Everyone is tired, and I know why. It’s Grandpa. He’s been sick for months. He’s in a big bed installed a couple of rooms over. They say there’s something called a tumor growing in his brain that’s making him sleep more and more, so much that he barely stirs when you talk to him. It’s so quiet and somber in the house now; the tree lights have been turned off early, and no one bothered to put on music. I’m already in my Charlie Chaplin pajamas, but I don’t want to go to bed yet. I’m watching an I Love Lucy rerun on Nick At Nite, the one with the chocolate factory. Grandma appears in the doorway, and something’s wrong. I can see it on her face.

“It’s Grandpa. We think…he’s dying.”

Her voice breaks on that last word, and it occurs to me that I’ve never seen Grandma cry before. I numbly get up and walk the twenty feet over to Grandpa’s bed. I peer at his face – there’s only one dull overhead light in this room – to see for myself. No movement, as I’ve come to expect. But now he’s not breathing. There’s no sound in the room except for my Grandma sobbing in a chair in the corner. I mumble some kind of prayer in hopes that I’ll see him again someday. I’m then ushered back to the bedroom. I’m put under the covers and told to go to sleep. No one else does. I can see light from the next room pouring in the doorway, and the sounds of what can only be paramedics. I don’t think I’ll ever sleep again, but I do eventually.

It’s December 23rd, 2000. It’s getting late again. Everything’s down to the wire this year; even with my help, all the preparations are just going to be done on time. I’ve just finished putting up the stockings – I’m the only one with a memory good enough to know which belong to whom – and I’m taking a moment to enjoy my handiwork. Everything is centered, with an equal number on each side. Good. Even though I and the rest of my cousins are all teenagers now, we never got rid of our old stockings. My penguin is where it normally is, first stocking on the right side of the mantel. None of them are filled yet, but that’s okay. Everyone’s too busy to show up at the same time on Christmas Day, so we’ve got a few hours of leeway. It’s so cold in here. The fireplace has been empty for years, mainly because no one knows how to properly maintain it. It’s okay, we don’t need it.

My uncle pulls up in the driveway, and I go out to help him bring in gifts. He asks about my father, who suddenly had enough of America, packed up, and left for Malaysia earlier in the year. No, he’s not going to be here for Christmas this year. Or any Christmas. I don’t know if he’s ever coming back. It’s okay. In the deep, secret part of my heart, I don’t miss him. I take a moment to look at the sky. It’s a clear, crisp night, and I can see stars for the first time in weeks. I quietly walk to the side of the house and turn on the outdoor Christmas lights. Three floors lined in shiny white, a simple but elegant attempt to celebrate like our neighbors. Besides, it’s 2000; we had to do something special this time. There’s a vague notion that something is changing, but I don’t know what it is.

It’s December 23rd, 2011. I’m so tired. My head is aching. It’s been a long, exhausting week at work. I stagger in the door and shuffle off my coat, forgoing dinner for at least a few minutes. The recession has hit my family hard, and I’m one of the few that still has a job at this point. There’s no tree this time. No one’s interested in buying gifts. Nor does anyone want to visit for Christmas; why spend the time coming to an old house like this when they can stay home? All of us kids have grown up and made their own families – except for me, of course – so they’ve got their own plans. Everyone’s health problems have flared up, too; my aunt’s been and out of the hospital a couple of times just this past year. Grandma’s got it worst, though. Diabetes, lymphoma, cataracts, and breast cancer. It’s like dominoes. She had surgery earlier this month, leaving her practically bedridden. She’s had an infection and fever since yesterday, and no one knows if she’s going to live through the weekend. She could die in that bed, 20 feet from where her husband died long ago.

I quietly fix a plate of leftovers and take out my passport. It’s about to expire, and Mom said she would pay for its replacement as my gift. I flip through the pages of faded stamps and symbols before settling on the ID page itself. I stare at the picture and come to a terrible realization: I don’t recognize the person the picture. What happened to me? When did I become like this? How have things changed so much? Why doesn’t anything seem magical anymore? How much worse is this going to get? What am I doing here? I stand up and wash my dishes, but everything seems to be going much slower than it should. My hands are shaking, and for some reason I’m breathing hard. A chill creeps through me like a winter breeze, and it takes me a minute to calm down. I turn off the kitchen light, head to my room, and put on a movie.

Christmas has been canceled.