Soundtrack Saturdays: Metal Gear Solid V – Love Deterrence (Acoustic)

I haven’t had much free time to play video games lately, but I’m finally starting to dig into the backlog I’ve accumulated. The first title on my list was Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. You might recall that I’m a huge Metal Gear fan, and for good reason; the series has some of the best cinematic storytelling and cleverly designed gameplay mechanics in the industry. Ground Zeroes wasn’t a full game; it was essentially an early-release prologue for The Phantom Pain, which came out months later. It’s set in 1975, and you’re tasked with infiltrating an American black site in Cuba – a not-so-subtle commentary on Guantanamo Bay – and rescuing two of your allies imprisoned inside. Despite being a playable preview for the bigger game, Ground Zeroes more than proves its concept; you’re allowed to freely explore this massive map, discover its layout, and evade dozens of guards the entire time. The interactivity with objects and vehicles, the use of lighting and perspective, and the acoustics of the rain and voices are amazing.

What I enjoyed most, however, was the music. The series has always been known for its killer soundtracks, but only a handful of the games let you change the background music during gameplay. This time, you can listen to different cassette tapes – again, this is 1975 – thus giving your spy mission a little more flavor. One of the unlockable songs is this acoustic version of Paz’s character theme, “Love Deterrence.” She’s one of the prisoners you have to save, and the somber, romantic guitar melody sums up her relationship with Big Boss perfectly. Explaining the details would spoil the story of Peace Walker, but let’s just say there’s a good reason why a young woman like Paz would be locked up in a military prison…

If you want something a little more lighthearted, you can hear the original J-Pop version of “Love Deterrence” from Peace Walker here. If you want more Metal Gear Solid V, you can find the full OST here.

Good gaming, good music.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Pompeii Forum

Pompeii Forum

This week’s photo challenge is all about time, and there’s nothing that captures it quite like the city of Pompeii. It was famously destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius (seen looming in the background) in 79 AD. It was completely wiped off the map, and it wasn’t until 1599 that traces of it were unearthed. It wasn’t properly rediscovered until 1748, and it’s been a major archaeological site ever since. Its preserved remnants – victims and their culture, forever frozen in time – are both beautiful and tragic. A larger version is viewable here.

Go Set A Watchman Review

Like countless other children, I read and watched To Kill A Mockingbird in a grade school classroom. I could spend hours writing about how it introduced me to the concept of racism, illustrated the importance of compassion, the complexities of its theming, and Gregory Peck’s phenomenal performance as Atticus Finch. You probably know all of that already, though; Go Set A Watchman has been a bestseller since its release, and for good reason. Be it for Harper Lee’s legacy in the literary world, talk of the scandalous publishing circumstances, or the morbid curiosity in regards to a fallen hero, readers are interested in going back to Maycomb. The reunion is bitter, but worth the trip.

SPOILERS

Before getting into this, one thing above all else needs to be understood: Contrary to what might’ve been marketed to you, Go Set A Watchman is not a sequel. It started as an early draft that eventually led to a famous novel. It featured a 26 year-old Jean Louise Finch coming home to visit, finding out how messed up everything is, and dealing with it while accompanied by flashbacks to her supposedly idyllic childhood. Those flashbacks – and advice from Lee’s editor – are the foundations of To Kill A Mockingbird. Any transition from first draft to book is fraught with changes, and Harper Lee’s work is no exception; the continuity errors and lack of editing are obvious. Tom Robinson was acquitted (the iconic trial is only mentioned in passing) in this version, which makes one wonder if this story can even be considered canon. Jem is dead and Dill is likely traveling through post-World War II Europe, thus depriving her of  some much-needed friends/confidants. The cast is limited to only a handful, and even fewer get any kind of development. Rather than a fully fleshed-out novel, it comes off as a character study strung together with a series of anecdotes.

It seems fine at first. Scout has grown into a confident, successful young woman. Not only can she afford to live in New York and visit Atticus annually, but approaches her hometown’s seemingly old-fashioned traditions with open contempt. She has a passive-aggressive war with her Aunt Alexandra (who serves as the embodiment of Maycomb’s values as opposed to a fully-realized character), and considers her Uncle Jack as eccentric bookworm. With her peers gone, the narrative focuses on Scout’s relationship with Henry Clinton, her not-quite fiance and Atticus’s protege. It’s a charming story until Scout finds out about their participation in the local Citizens’ Council. Rather than taking a step back and trying to figure out what’s going on, she immediately assumes the worst and spends the latter half of the book having a meltdown.

This is nothing new for her. We get to see Scout’s childhood and coming of age via flashbacks, and they all foreshadow her problem. She tends to believe whatever she sees or is told without question, makes assumptions, lets her issues build up, and either gets caught or has to be bailed out of trouble by her companions. These passages blend often comedy and tragedy; we get a glimpse of a clueless Atticus turning to Calpurnia for help with Scout’s first period, which is a reminder of how Mrs. Finch is long dead. Scout also gets French kissed on the playground, thinks she’s gotten pregnant, secretly harbors the guilt for months, culminating in a half-baked suicide attempt. Not to mention insecurities with her appearance,  which nearly ruin her experience at school dance, and how it leads to her near-expulsion. With stories like these, it’s not surprising why To Kill A Mockingbird became its own thing.

Scout’s misunderstandings and awkward stubbornness are endearing when she’s a kid, but not so much when she’s 26. When attending a coffee luncheon with her former classmates, she spends the entire time musing how they have nothing in common and how she despises Maycomb’s expectations of women. She never makes an attempt to see them as actual people instead of walking cliches.There are over 100 pages between her finding about Atticus and confronting him about it, and she spends them either reminiscing about her childhood, dismissing other people, or inwardly fuming. The narration explains it immediately: Scout worshiped her father, but never realized it. It’s one thing to respect your parent, but holding him up as an idealized bastion of moral perfection is not good for you. Parents are flawed just like you, and you won’t always agree with them. Scout’s near mental breakdown and falling out with her family shows how bad such a character flaw can get.

“She was extravagant with her pity, and complacent in her snug world.”

Surprisingly, Atticus is written more sympathetically. Make no mistake: His view of African Americans is offensively patronizing at the very least. To modern audiences, his anti-integration stance is disgusting. By no means is he the frothing, manic, lynch-happy racist Scout thinks he’s become (she compares him to Hitler in one eye roll-inducing moment during her lengthy, bitter speech), but his brand of bigotry is more subtle. Unlike his daughter, he argues his side calmly; he hates what happened with Brown v. Board of Education and its relation to the 10th Amendment, and loathes the idea of NAACP affecting Maycomb. His heritage is deeply intertwined with the town; of course he’d want to protect its values and keep things unchanged for as long as possible, even if (to us, anyway)  they are horrifying. It’s no coincidence that Atticus is 72 and crippled with arthritis; he, like the town, embodies beliefs that are on the verge of death. He’s not necessarily evil, but merely a product of his time.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast didn’t get the same attention. Calpurnia, now withered and confined to a rocking chair, shows up for one incredibly sad and guilt-ridden scene. Aunt Alexandra only shows a hint of depth when Scout makes her cry during their final argument, which makes their interpersonal spats look juvenile in retrospect. Henry seems primed for character growth; he’s the scion of one of Maycomb’s “trash” families, worked his way out of poverty, and done well under Atticus’s wing. He admits that he’s just going along with the Citizens’ Council because he’s trying to live according to others’ expectations, and is desperately afraid of being shamed by the community and losing everything he’s worked for. It would’ve made for an interesting arc, but Henry slips into irrelevance soon after the reveal.

Uncle Jack, however, steals every scene he’s in; he’s savvy enough to understand that a confrontation is inevitable and tries to stealth-mentor Scout via exposition and literary quotations. She ends up so angry and confused that he has to physically intervene and slap her just to keep her from walking out on them forever. He then has to spell out Scout’s personal failings – and a major theme of the novel – because she’s too dense to understand them. The fact that he considered Scout and Jem to be the children he never had – and the revelation that he was in love with their mother – is practically tacked on as an afterthought. Uncle Jack’s lack of character development is unfortunate, because his sarcasm and eccentric personality makes him such a great contrast to the straitlaced Atticus:

“”Listen, girl. You’ve got to shake off a twenty-year-old habit and shake it off fast. You will begin now. Do you think Atticus is going to hurl a thunderbolt at you?”

“After what I said to him? After the-”

Dr. Finch jabbed the floor with his his walking stick. “Jean Louise, have you ever met your father?”

No. She had not. She was terrified.

“I think you’ll have a surprise coming,” said her uncle.”

There’s a scene in which Scout, desperate for something welcoming and familiar, returns to her childhood home. It’s been replaced with an ice cream shop, and it takes only a few pages before she vomits up her vanilla and realizes that everything has irrecoverably changed. While I doubt Go Set A Watchman will provoke such an extreme reaction from its readers, there’s no denying what it means for To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s easy to dismiss this novel for its lack of proper editing, continuity errors, and questionable background, but its messages are worth considering. Just like Scout, we’ve spent decades worshiping Atticus Finch as a figure of ultimate moral integrity. It’s so easy to forget that perspectives and values change over time, and not everyone will be on the right side of history. Our heroes aren’t as great as we thought…and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. They are not perfect, but they are human. Maybe it’s more interesting that way.

RIP, Satoru Iwata

Yesterday, Satoru Iwata passed away. For those unfamiliar with his work, he was the president and CEO of Nintendo. But he was so much more than that; unlike countless other businessmen and executives, he earned his success the old fashioned way: starting from the bottom and working his way up. He studied programming in the 1970s, when video games were still in their infancy. He began as an unpaid intern for Commodore, then became a freelancer for HAL Laboratory while in college. After graduating, he worked full time and rose up its ranks in the early 90s. He had a hand in founding Creatures Inc., the folks responsible for bringing Pokemon to the world. He didn’t wasn’t just some guy in suit, either. He took over programming for Earthbound and saved it from developmental oblivion. He programmed the original Pokemon Red/Blue battle mechanics into Pokemon Stadium without any reference documents, using just the Game Boy’s source code instead…in one week. He famously compressed the all of the original game into the Gold/Silver cartridge, just to surprise and reward players for beating the regular quest. When Super Smash Bros. Melee was facing a delayed release date due to programming issues, he – already Nintendo’s General Manager of Corporate Planning – went downstairs and personally debugged the game hands-on, all in less than a month.

Yeah, he was that good.

He was in a unique position of growing alongside his industry; unlike many of his peers, his insight into game design came from the effort of making games the old fashioned way, with a focus on the fun experience while dealing with the hardware limitations. He understood that focusing so much on flashier graphics and processing power wasn’t necessarily the answer, and that appealing to people beyond hardcore gamers was incredibly important. Nintendo is often derided for appealing to kids instead of adults, but he was proud of it; he argued that children have an instinctual understanding of whether a game was good or not. He refused to let the company stagnate, constantly pushing them to try new things. He was initially mocked for bringing forth the DS and Wii – both consoles had unorthodox designs and admittedly terrible launch lineups – but was eventually vindicated via record-breaking sales numbers and some of the finest games in the last decade.

What was more inspiring is what Iwata did when the company wasn’t succeeding. Nintendo fell into a slump when it released the Wii U, mainly due to its high prices, strange design, and lacking lineup. The company was losing money, and he was being roasted by both gamers and corporate shareholders alike. Instead of stepping down, he voluntarily cut his salary in half to make up for it! That was the second time he did it, too; when the 3DS’s sales went poorly, he took the same action. When corporate demanded why he hadn’t fired employees for the sake of profit, he absolutely refused to do so, saying that it wouldn’t work well long-term, and that it’d wreck the company’s morale. If you look around online, you’ll find countless stories of people meeting Iwata and saying what a passionate, candid, and kind guy he was in person. When Ocarina of Time was released, he even went out and bought a copy on the way home from work. His hilarious “Direct To You” presentations and sense of humor have become the stuff of Internet memetic legend. The hundreds of thousands of tributes pouring in – even from Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo’s business rivals – shows just how loved and respected Iwata was.

I wish I had a personal story about meeting him. I wish I could say that we crossed paths at a convention, or that we shared an elevator, or that I pitched an idea and worked for him. But I can’t, and now I never will. Instead, all I have are the games he made, and the memories of how he helped shape my childhood. Yes, I caught all 151 of the original Pokemon, played almost every Kirby game, and spent countless hours fighting in Smash Bros. My gaming library is full of titles made with him as the Executive Producer; I wouldn’t be the same person without Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and other Nintendo franchises influencing me. While I don’t play nearly as much as I used to, gaming is still very much a part of me. It reminds me of something Iwata once said:

“On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer.”

Thank you for everything, Mr. Iwata. We understand.

RIP, Monty Oum

Today, it was announced that Monty Oum passed away. For those unfamiliar with his work, he was the mind behind web animation series such as Haloid, Dead Fantasy, Red vs Blue, and RWBY. He wasn’t just some random YouTube personality; in an Internet full of creative people struggling to be heard, he was one of the few who really showed what could be done with hard work, dedication, and ideas. He set an example that others should strive for. I’m not going to pretend that I knew him, but I understood and agreed with his world view. His work was awesome and inspiring. I wish I had some funny story about meeting him at a convention, or that I could’ve had the chance to collaborate with him on a project. But I don’t.

And now I never will.

What I can do, however, is follow the Rooster Teeth crew’s advice and do something creative. I’ve been a fan of RWBY since its debut (think Harry Potter meets Final Fantasy by way of Wuxia) , and I had originally intended to do a review log of every episode as a lead-in to the Season 3 premiere in July. But now, I think I’ll move it up in my schedule. February is already going to be a busy in terms of gaming and reading, but I’m sure I can fit the reviews somewhere in there. In the meantime, I’ll just end this with an old quote from Monty himself: “Never let anyone tell you that something is impossible.”

Godspeed.

Robin Williams, And Why We Need To Talk About Depression

When I started writing this, I was going to focus on the death of Robin Williams. But looking over all the coverage in the last 48 hours, I’ve realized that such an article would just be repeating the same stories already out there. I could talk about watching Mork & Mindy reruns on Nick at Nite as a kid, or how I saw Aladdin, Jumanji, and Mrs. Doubtfire enough times to memorize every line. I could talk about how legitimately creepy I found him in One Hour Photo and Law and Order SVU. I could talk about how the phrase, “It’s not your fault” still makes me tear up. But you’ve read – and likely experienced – all of that already. It’s amazing how one man can bring together millions of strangers with a common experience of laughter. I wish I had a better story to tell you, that I was trapped in an elevator with him for an hour, or that he held a door open for me one time. But I don’t. I’ve lived in the Bay Area for 30 years, but I never met him.

And now I never will.

If there’s anything positive that can come out of this tragedy, it’s that more people are talking about depression and suicide. It needs to be discussed. Our culture has many proverbial elephants in the room, but depression is one of the biggest and deadliest. Psychology has developed leaps and bounds over the last century, but there’s still so much we don’t know. Lobotomies aren’t a form of treatment anymore, though all the medications and their innumerable side effects aren’t much better. Most folks haven’t bothered to learn anything about depression; if something’s uncomfortable, it’s much easier to sweep it under the rug. There’s an unspoken stigma – especially for men – about mental health. Oh sure, we all know it’s there, but who wants to think about that? It’s so much easier going about your daily life, catching a movie, playing a video game…whatever it takes to keep you distracted from the darker, lesser-known aspects of our existence. Because there’s no way anything like that could happen to you, right?

I know better.

I know what it’s like having that little twinge of doubt consuming your every action and decision. It builds with each passing day, filling and weighing your down like molten lead. I know the burn of stigma and shame, that sense of worthlessness and isolation. That no one could possibly understand. That you’re different, broken, maybe a lost cause. That you shouldn’t bother asking for help, because it’s nothing, it’s all your fault, and no one would want to help you anyway. That you have to pretend and put on a smile, and how exhausting it is. That you can’t fall asleep sometimes, because your brain is spinning like a tire stuck in mud. That you occasionally dread getting up in the morning because it’s yet another day bereft of meaning. That every aspect of your life is conspiring to make you more miserable. That things are so bad now, and the future is a terrifying prospect.

Look, I know you’re out there. You’re sitting in front a screen somewhere, and you’re feeling trapped and alone. I don’t know you, your background, age, sex, gender, ethnicity, circumstances, none of the above. I’m not going to pretend that I get everything about what you’re going through, but I know enough. Depression isn’t just a habit you can kick; it’s there, and it’s a serious, potentially deadly problem. It doesn’t make you a bad or weak person. But leaving it untreated is like putting a rock in your shoe and running a marathon. So, let me ask (and you don’t have to answer, but just think about it): What’s stopping you from getting help? Is it fear of rejection? Insurance coverage costs? Guilt? Whatever it is, are there ways around it? Also, let’s make one thing clear:

There is nothing, nothing wrong with asking for help.

I’m not going to romanticize therapy, either; it’s difficult in ways you’d never expect. It makes you take a long, hard look at yourself, and there’s no instant cure. For some, a couple of pills a day isn’t going to solve your problems. But if you’re going to do anything, then at least talk about it. If you can get therapy, go for it. If not, talk to your trusted family and friends. If not them, support groups and hotlines. Possibly all of the above. If you need to call someone, there are plenty waiting to listen. People can and will help you, but they’re never going to know unless you tell them. And for those of you who know someone in need, be there for them. It’s not about politics, taboos, or whatever else; someone you care about needs your help. I don’t think you’re going to leave them hanging. If you want to learn more about depression and suicide, there are several resources online. Try starting with the entries on WebMD, Wikipedia, and TV Tropes.

I don’t know if this post is going to make any difference. If it helps someone struggling out there, then I’d consider it a success. I’m typically reserved and quiet, so all of this preaching about seeking help from others and whatnot might sound hypocritical. Despite that, I am living proof of my argument; I wouldn’t be here otherwise. I’m not an optimist, but I’d rather fill an empty life than throw it away. Look, I’m not idealistic enough to think that we can change everything about depression overnight; despite all our advancements, we’re barely scratching the surface. But the first step is talking about it. Too many people have lost their lives in the silence already.

I’ve been on the soapbox long enough. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be on a Robin Williams movie binge.

Weekly Writing Challenge: Blog Your Block: The Hill After Sunset

It’s getting dark. It’ll be another half an hour before the sun sets below the Bay Area’s horizon, but it’s already vanished behind the hill of my neighborhood. A few remnants of daylight peek between the trees up the street, but it won’t last long. The streetlamp just beyond my driveway flickers to life, bathing a small circle of sidewalk in pale yellow. It’s not enough.

This will have to be quick.

I shuffle down the brick steps, swatting a cloud of gnats out of my way. The wooden railing on the stairs is chipped on one end, and there’s a fresh spiderweb on it. I wish our front walk could produce as many flowers as insects. The only things growing right now are small patch of wildflowers by the sidewalk. They’re tiny, but look beautiful close up. Most have shriveled in the last week or so; the heat hasn’t been kind. The weeds don’t seem to mind, though. Most of the pavement on this street is cracked or warped, and green leaves are sprouting everywhere. The breeze kicks in for a moment, and a plastic bag drifts down the sidewalk like a tumbleweed. I quickly grab and drop it into a nearby garbage can. Good thing pickup is tomorrow.

I turn left and stride up the hill at a steady pace. It’s an easy, familiar climb; if I’m home and have some free time on Sundays, I do 10-20 laps up and around it. This time is different, though; I’m doing this without the benefit of sunlight, and that makes a world of difference. I’ve written before about how dangerous my neighborhood is at night, and even now I’m mentally kicking myself for going out at this hour. No one else is out right now. All of the neighbors are home, but the shades are drawn and the porch lights are off. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that the buildings are all abandoned. When I was a child, I imagined houses as living creatures, with the windows and doors as eyes and mouths respectively. But now? Each of these Victorian-era behemoths stand dark and quiet, like massive tombs of a bygone civilization. Shadowy entryways, unkempt grounds, and unnatural stillness. Houses are reflections of our own mortality; some age with dignity and grandeur, and others rot and fade into obscurity.

A hundred years ago, this area used to be a high-end neighborhood. These sprawling, wonderfully lavish homes were a far cry from the relatively low-budget places built after the end of World War II. I’m not sure what happened in the last sixty years, but the decline has been evident. I’ve seen old reel footage from what this place used to look like in the 50s; it was still safe enough to have street parades without having to worry about drive-bys. What changed? Was it the influx of people who couldn’t afford to live in Oakland or San Francisco? Was it corruption? Poor planning? All of the above? Whatever it was, this place has been perpetually broke since the turn of the century. This side of town has borne the brunt of it; all the modern establishments are far off in the hills. The schools here have a 30% dropout rate, crime is common, and even Starbucks won’t dare come within three miles of this area. The old Main Street is just a couple of blocks away, but aside from the local tavern, most of its storefronts are abandoned. It’s not safe – both physically and financially – to have a business in an area like this.

I pass by a rusted pickup truck and look at a neighbor’s window. The shades are drawn, but the sound of baseball on TV barely filters through. A police siren fades off into the distance, and I quicken my pace. The night is still young, after all. The top of the hill is there in a few seconds, and I lean against a decorative rock wall. Three trees grew for decades on this corner, but now there are only two. About a month ago, one was toppled in a storm, cutting off the street from two directions and nearly flattening the stop sign. It took almost a week for all the wood to be chopped and cleared out, leaving only a gargantuan stump in its wake. As I stare and reminisce, a cacophony of barks and howls brings me back to the present. A neighbor across the street has three dobermans, all locked up behind high and thickly-veiled fences. No one can walk by that house without getting an earful of snarls and yaps.

Not wanting to be mistaken for a prowler, I make an about face and head for the alleyway that runs back down the hill. I spare a glance down the adjacent street and freeze. There’s a seedy drugstore and adult novelty shop on the far corner, illuminated by a single streetlight. I can see the silhouette of someone leaning against the building in the shadows. Could be waiting for an escort, could be getting high. Maybe both. No one just stands out there idly at this hour. Not long ago, a man was killed in broad daylight in the middle of the street here. Hoping that I wasn’t seen, I duck into the alley and start circling back to my neck of the woods. The areas back here are in even worse shape than the front. Faded green paint chips away from an abandoned house, and weeds have consumed a backyard and part of a chain link fence. A window was broken recently, but it was boarded up and left unfixed. There were wisterias blooming here months ago, but they’re long gone. As I pass by a thicket, I notice a trash bag, empty bottles, and a single, muddy shoe. Those weren’t there last week; a homeless person must have camped out. I take the time to inspect the back fences that connect our properties. The barricades and boarded sections are still undisturbed.

Good.

I practically jog the rest of the way down the hill and round the corner. Weathered sedans and jeeps roar by on the main drag, radios blaring and headlights already on. I pass by my block’s lone palm tree, a odd landmark that was originally planted sometime around 1900. If anything of this place will survive, it’ll be that. The few remaining blackberry bushes are still months away from producing anything, though. The wooden fence running alongside the pavement is starting to sag under its own weight; if the trees and shrubbery are removed, the entire thing will likely collapse. The paint has long faded into a murky, curdled white, peeling away one tiny strand at a time. It needs to be fixed. Everything needs to be fixed.

I make it back home and lock the door behind me, not looking back once. It’s time for dinner, and for some reason I really need some food and a Giants game right now. I just got back from my vacation this week; it’s time to settle in and return to the daily grind.

I can’t wait to leave this place again.

Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here (Feat. Stéphane Grappelli)

Video

Wish You Were Here is one of my all-time favorite songs, so I was immensely pleased to come across a rare recording featuring Stéphane Grappelli. It sounds amazing. Thank you for the link, Open Culture.

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.

Weekly Writing Challenge: Haiku Catchoo! Five Haikus A-Syllabling!

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/11/25/challenge-haiku/

Haiku #1: Monday

Late, insomnia.

The world beyond my bedroom

Does not exist. Sleep?

Haiku # 2: Tuesday

Jobless, no future.

How will I survive this cold?

Lonely holidays.

Haiku #3: Wednesday

Dentist appointment.

Surprise: Minor cavity?!

Must brush and floss more.

Haiku #4: Thursday

Slept in; no parade.

Delicious smells through my door.

Stomach rumbles now.

Haiku #5: Friday

November is gone.

The cold winter grips my heart.

Please get better, life.