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.

Hey, Younger Me.

Hey, you. Yes, just you. Put down that Stephen King book for a minute and read this. Don’t freak out. No, this isn’t magic or telepathy. And no, this is most certainly not a joke. Just, look. I know you. I know all about you. Don’t ask how. I’m here because you need to know something. A lot of things, actually. Much of what you believe and perceive is wrong. Not all, but most of it. Your teachers say how smart and insightful you are, and they’re mostly right. But that doesn’t make you an adult. Don’t be too arrogant. You haven’t had nearly enough life experience yet. Don’t believe me? Okay. Try this: When was the last time you actually spoke to another human being? Forget stuff like school dances or birthday parties you never attend; have you even talked to anyone at all outside of class? Of course you haven’t. You’re too scared of getting hurt and bullied again. Besides, you spend so much time studying that a social life is nonexistent. You might think you’re weird, but normality is inherently subjective. Everything’s relative. Weirdness doesn’t make you a bad person. Nor does it make you deserving of all the guilt, stress, and abuse.

Yeah, I know all about that.

You’ve got to work on that anger, kid. I don’t mean by way of getting into more messy fights. Oh, I know what you can do. But it’s not going to help. You already know this deep down, no matter how cathartic being vicious feels. You’ll just wake up each morning with that rage and sorrow building, and it’ll slowly devour you inside out like a cancer. It’ll become all you think about. You’ll go so crazy that you won’t even recognize yourself anymore. Everyone around you will be terrified. It’ll be just like Wuthering Heights; do you want to end up like Heathcliff?!

No, didn’t think so.

So, what do you do instead? Avoid fighting, but never, ever be a doormat. Be assertive and confident, not frightening. Also, talk to people. It sounds really cheesy, but it’s true. You’re like Fort Knox; so many barricades and minefields to cross. Oh yeah, it’s so safe. No one can hurt you if they can’t reach you. They can’t help you, either. I know things have gone horrendously so far, but not everyone is horrible. Healthy relationships do exist, and they require work from both sides. People need each other. And you’re different, no matter how ridiculously responsible and independent you’re forced to be. Walling yourself up is akin to suicide; it’s like if Fortunato willingly entombed himself in The Cask of Amontillado. You can accomplish much more in life, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Speaking of which, I know you’re afraid. It’s the reason you’re sitting in your room right now with a pile of books. It’s called a comfort zone for a reason. Getting lost in a story is easy when you want to forget about your own. But you can’t, no matter how much you want to believe otherwise. Books are indeed awesome and you should continue reading wholeheartedly, but they won’t solve everything. You’ve got this fixation on the status quo; you don’t want things to change, because it’ll make things more complicated and you might lose what innocence you have left. You’re not afraid of death; you’re afraid that the rest of your life will be just as meaningless. The future is terrifying because your past was awful. You often ponder over how bad things are going to get. Even worse, you don’t let yourself live in the moment; you’re just observing at best. You’re so eager to please, you’ve gotten great at acting exactly how you’re expected. It’s all a character, and you know it.

Do something for yourself.

I don’t care what it is, as long as it’s something that you honestly want to do. Something that actually makes you happy, for once. As for the future, it’s already here. It’s not just some set date where everything will magically, automatically change. It’s an ongoing process, and it’s happening right now as you read this. There are so many choices and opportunities at your fingertips, and you don’t even notice them. Not yet, anyway. You need to start looking around more. There’s so much out there. Do not settle for the status quo. You can do better. Contrary to what you believe, life is worth living. Yes, it is meaningless. But that’s what makes it interesting. You must find your own meaning. It’ll be hard, but it can be done.

Don’t you dare give up.

Six Months In San Francisco

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about–Oh cool, they chose one of the prompts I submitted! Anyway, it’s about doing something new. It’s actually hard for me sometimes. I’m really shy and uncomfortable around people, but I’ve got an adventurous streak a mile wide. I don’t just step out of my comfort zone; I have to shove myself. It’s usually awkward and potentially dangerous, but it ends up being a worthwhile experience.

The last half of 2013 was one long foray into new territory. I hate being out in my neighborhood – it isn’t safe even in broad daylight – but there’s something alluring about traveling and exploring. It doesn’t matter if it’s the city, mountains, beaches, etc. Just as long as it’s someplace different and memorable, even if it is just a temporary escape. This time, circumstances required me to regularly visit San Francisco a couple of times a week. A short meeting downtown, with hours of daylight left and no plans whatsoever. I couldn’t just let the time (and the commuting costs) go to waste; I was in one of the greatest cities on Earth. So, I tackled it like I would any other trip: I began exploring.

You might have seen some of the results.

The walks started small, but I branched out with each passing trip. I visited the Metreon for the first time since 1999. I wandered around AT&T Park and beyond, crossing over to the China Basin and checking out the preparations for Oktoberfest. I got a membership at the San Francisco Public Library and checked out their historical and art exhibits. I drifted over the specialty stores on Market and kindled an appreciation for gothic lolita fashion via Angelic Pretty. I spent far too long in the Alexander Book Company. I stunned crowds of shoppers at the Microsoft store with my Killer Instinct demo skills. I attended Litquake, even though timing forced me to choose only one event. I stumbled across the BMX Dew Tour completely by accident. I infiltrated the Salesforce Expo on a whim. I walked all the way down to Japantown, discovering an arcade, awesome figurines, and tons of anime. I visited museums galleries (the Cartoon Art Museum was particularly great) whenever they had free fares. I hiked the Nob and Russian Hills, and climbed Lombard Street and Coit Tower three times. I drifted through Chinatown even more, visiting Ying’s Hobbies and Toys, Jack Kerouac Alley, and City Lights Bookstore whenever I could. I saw sea lions at Pier 39 and piles of candy at Ghirardelli Square, and did a complete run-through of the Exploratorium. If I was in the neighborhood, I’d end the journey at the Ferry Building and get a loaf of freshly-baked sourdough from the Acme Bread Company.

Yeah, it was all amazing…But now it’s over.

My meetings there are done; I don’t have to go to San Francisco anymore. And I want to, so badly. But I need to find work first. It costs nearly 20 bucks of commuting, and I refuse to spend that kind of money unless I have a good reason. Now that I’m back at home, I have to constantly remind myself that I need to get out and explore. It’s safe and warm in here, but it’ll only get me so far. My six months in San Francisco doesn’t have to be an isolated journey. I may be shy and quiet, but I still have the heart of an adventurer.

Zero To Hero Day 3: What’s On Your Mind?

Hey, folks. Today’s Zero To Hero assignment is all about thought. As in, what I was thinking when I started this blog. In a single word: frustration. I’m very shy, so I rarely talk to people. Writing has always been my preferred communication method. Problem was, I wasn’t writing; I was burned out and depressed. I was sick of the online communities I knew. Polymathically is actually my seventh attempt at creating some kind of online journal/communication medium. The first – and still ongoing – is my list of video game reviews. While it’s remained my most popular venture (standing at 1,691,719 hits as of this hour), it felt limiting; it took me years to realize I was worth more than that list. I tried expanding my efforts to a couple of blogs and a Tumblr, but they never went anywhere. I started a deviantART page for my photography, but its success has been minimal. Since fewer people read text-based reviews, I thought I could start a YouTube channel and do presentations…only to discover that my voice was way too soft.

I needed to write.

Or at least, do something new. On my birthday, I decided to take another plunge into the world of blogging. I’d never used WordPress before, but I’d read good things about it. I went in with the understanding that this wasn’t going to be just about video games; I’d spent too long focusing on one hobby. I could do so much more than that. My initial posts were fueled with frustration; I was sick and tired of being the only one bothering to actually look at my surroundings. There was also lingering doubts about how I’d be perceived; some of my interests are socially stigmatized, so I didn’t want things turning into a lurid escapade. But I couldn’t just sit back. If I wanted others to start wondering about their world, then I needed to inspire them. Two months later, I’m still going strong. I’m not some huge name (yet), but at least I’m doing something productive with my anger.

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.

What’s Outside Your Window?

The Prompt

Hey, there. Yes, you on the other side of the computer screen. Could you please do me a favor? It won’t take very long, I promise. If it’s safe and possible, I want you to go to the nearest window and look out for a minute. Seriously. Really, I’ll wait.

…Back? Okay, good. Thank you for doing that.

So, what did you see? Please, tell me. Did you see the sun or moonlight filtering through the trees? A mountain looming on the horizon? A parade of cars and trucks flowing noisily down the street? A squirrel on a telephone line? The side of building, with chipped, faded paint? Did you hear sounds of children playing? Was there music on the wind? Tell me, and hold nothing back. For as you look out that window – and as you read this sentence – over 7 billion people exist simultaneously. They are living, dying, starving, thriving, and merely getting through what is supposedly a daily existence. Those are the untold stories of life. The struggle to find comfort and relevance amidst the distractions of our world. Those countless dreams, fears, tragedies, and experiences all confined to a single planet which amounts to nothing more than an inconceivably tiny speck floating in a seemingly endless cosmos.

But that does not make our lives meaningless.

I wish I had all the answers. I wish I wasn’t afraid. It would make things so much easier. But I don’t. All I know is that you must find your own meaning in life. Live with purpose. And not just for your sake, but for the benefit the lives of others as well. No one else can do it for you, but they can help find the way. It’s not something that happens overnight; it’s the result of how you grow as a person. It might even be excruciating. It’s far easier to die than it is to fully live. Don’t just cling to the idea of your meaning, but grasp it firmly and strive to make it yours. If you haven’t found it yet, don’t you dare give up; I don’t have a dream, either. It may sound cliche, but you’re not alone. So keep looking.

The window is a good place to start.

Daily Prompt: Sink or Swim, Or: Canned Peas – College Education The Old-Fashioned Way

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is about perseverance. As in, dealing with a seemingly overwhelming situation on your own. This one hits really close to home, because it’s been such a huge factor in my life. I’ve got several stories to use – that’s the disguised blessing of being a loner and growing up in a broken home as a latchkey kid – and one is even ongoing as I type this. Hint: it’s not fun being unemployed. I’ll get into that story later. But this time, I’ll focus on something a little bit older:

College.

Aside from all the academic aspects, your college years are normally associated with things like partying, socialization, and developing as a person. You’re backed up by your parents, you meet people, and you just might learn a life lesson or two along the way. For most people, this process of changing from a young adult to being ready for the “real world” is typically a slow but steady process.

For me, it was a headlong plunge.

I’ve always been a great student. With my grades, I could’ve gone straight into places like Berkeley or Stanford. But I didn’t have the money for it; I didn’t have a college fund growing up. When I applied for financial aid, I was turned down because my parents’ salaries at the time exceeded the application’s quota; there was the underlying assumption that they would help me. But they didn’t; since I already had saved up money from working part-time as a high schooler, I was expected to foot the bill myself. My mother even lost her job shortly after the application filing period ended. I could’ve applied for student loans, but even back then I was savvy enough to know that would come back to haunt me. Same with credit cards. Considering the current debt and student loan financial crises, I’m glad to know I made the right decision. Thus I did things the old-fashioned way: I just took on part-time jobs, saved up, and focused on my schooling. Let me repeat that more simply: I paid for my college tuition myself. Let that sink in for a minute.

For those of you that have parents that pay for your education, thank them. Profusely.

Do you have any inkling of how hard it holding down a full course-load and working enough part-time jobs to make ends meet? It’s excruciating. But it is doable. I discarded my goal of going straight to a university and took all my lower division coursework at a community college. It wasn’t prestigious, but it saved me thousands. I couldn’t afford a car, so I simply walked and took public transit. I had to throw myself into my studies and make it count, because I literally couldn’t afford to fail. I didn’t sleep much during those years; I’d stay up late putting finishing touches on papers, only to wake up four hours later to get ready for my morning commute. I learned how to study and work in trains and buses instead of libraries. You’d be surprised how comfortable a pillow a hard plastic seat can be. It didn’t matter. All I cared about was the next assignment, the next class, the next objective. The requirements for a university transfer were spelled out in plain black and white; all I had to do was finish everything.

It took me a bit longer than most kids, but I got it done. My transfer was finished, and I was finally off to the university to tackle my upper division coursework. My first few weeks on the new campus, I felt like some of kind of impersonator. I was surrounded by people with backgrounds far better off than mine. A good portion of them (and instructors, for that matter) already knew each other from previous classes. I had to dig in and get adjust to the new setting. Some of those early lectures – particularly Renaissance Lit and Shakespeare – were the most technically demanding courses I ever took. They were the most rewarding, too; I was always a huge bookworm, but my literary and philosophical repertoire skyrocketed. I devoured information as if I were starving. My writings and eagerness to learn made me become the professors’ favorite within weeks. It’s not because I curried favor, but because I tackled the work with a no-nonsense but laid-back attitude. I did extremely well in this environment, and it seemed that finally, finally I would be able to make it through okay.

But I wasn’t. Not yet.

After some time, I had a consultation with one of my professors. She was actually spearheading most of her department’s graduate program, and offered advice to anyone who asked. She took one glance at my transcript and said, very plainly, that I might not graduate on time. Not because of the grades – I was acing every class – but because I didn’t have nearly enough coursework done. The revelation was utterly gut-wrenching. Due to the way the university’s scheduling worked, I might’ve missed out on vital courses and had to wait a whole year to take them. She explained that I could still pull it off, but I’d have to really step up my game.

So I did.

I walked out of that office with the determination that I would graduate on time. Looking back, it was probably one of the defining moments of my adult life. I realized that I had let myself become complacent after I had transferred; I had gotten too comfortable in my element, and it was catching up with me. I cast away all distractions. What little time I spent with my hobbies was used to study. There were no relationships, no parties, nothing else. When it came time for the quarterly registration, I doubled my course-load without a second thought. As a result, I had to reduce my working time to only a single day a week. Can you imagine doing that? Just scraping by with tiny paycheck every too weeks? Carefully budgeting out every last cent? Eating out of cans for months because you can’t afford anything else? Paying tuition was like cutting off a limb. I watched my savings crumble like an old wall with each passing quarter. But I knew that I couldn’t give up. I had come too far. I needed to finish.

And I did.

Obtaining that degree was one of the most exhausting and fulfilling challenges in my entire life. Not from an academic standpoint, but from a logistical one. When I triumphantly walked across that stage in my cap and gown, my account was nearly empty. I had almost nothing left. But I didn’t have a single cent of debt to my name. I may have been broke, but I now know that I’m in a better financial situation than the millions of others mired in loans. It taught me the value of focusing on the important things, responsibility, and the understanding that your essential, practical needs will always trump desire. You’d be surprised how much you can learn to love canned peas and bread when it’s the only thing affordable. I’ve also come to realize that it broke me emotionally; I didn’t have a single relationship – romantic or otherwise – in those years. Compared to most people my age, I’m terribly maladjusted. I still feel ashamed and guilty whenever I want to buy something for myself. And that sense of responsibility can be crushing. I need to work on those.

But whenever I feel weak, I look back and realize how determined and capable I can be.