Archive | Pulp Non-Fiction

Stuff about me.

Surviving Death


(Photo Credit: Uploaded by ZaNuDa)

What does it feel like to suddenly lose someone you love?

Like when my friend, in her first pregnancy, asked me what childbirth felt like, I have no words to accurately depict what one goes through in such an event.  But unlike childbirth, experiencing the death of someone close to you can be predictably said, across the board, to be some degree of excruciation.

Over the past 25 years, I have been on the other side of grief: I have seen people lose their loved ones, and I’ve remarked on how they displayed such a  civilized mourning.  They silently suffered, or gracefully grieved, and then they picked up the pieces, careful not to cut themselves in the process.  I would stand back and witness such functionality with awe.

When my brother died, there was no grace in my family’s grieving, we did not send him gently into that goodnight, and the casualty was 5 out of 1.  I’m sure there were people around trying to support us – I remember the mountain of flowers and wreaths piled upon his mound after the funeral.  And cards.  So many cards from people we didn’t even know.  In retrospect, we had a lot of kind people in our community that reached out to us, although we were a close-knit family that kept to ourselves.

But what I remember most was death (I had developed a heightened awareness of death and its potential triggers), fear (everywhere I turned, the ambush of sudden death threatened to strike again), pain (more pain than all the Catholic lectures about hell had me imagine), confusion (there is nothing as disorienting as having to replace every pore of your existence where your beloved once occupied, with nothing; this is absolutely outrageous to the psyche).

How much fear, pain, and confusion one experiences following a loss may vary, but for us, there was just such a dastardly amount that:

my father’s successful construction business folded;
my parents’ once-happy marriage dissolved;
my parents lost their house;
my solid father lost his way;
my fractured mother started losing her mind;
my young, surviving brother got into gangs;
I attempted suicide numerous times, and ended up in an abusive relationship that would take a decade to escape, and nearly another one to completely be free from.

It took us 20 years, each in his/her own hell, to finally start healing.  20 years.  I know this is not normal.  Nothing has been normal for my family since my brother died, and we were knocked so out of orbit that we did not know how to regain footing.  We were spinning, and everyone saw our spinning.  Some tried to help, but many moved away because they didn’t know what to do with a spinning person.

Then we stopped spinning on the outside, but inside, we had still not found equilibrium.  We walked around, each going our separate ways, in feigned normalcy.  If people got close enough, they could hear the whirring of fear, death, pain, confusion.   It scared some, disdained some, and made us easy targets for yet others.

But our season in grief, though long and relentless, has finally passed.  We have survived, albeit in pieces as a family, but individually, fortified.

In retrospect, clearly, we went about it all wrong.  I cannot, however, beat down that broken-spirited family further by blaming them for dying.  We loved so deeply and thoroughly, and grieved accordingly.  Grief, after all, is a story about love.

Yes, I can find the meaning and purpose for my brother’s death, or rather, the role it played in who and where I am today.  But would I go through it again to learn the lessons?  Unless it is part of my story to save the world, no.

It is not even worth having gone through it once unless it could be turned into something positive, healing, to help others, and to restore grace to our own lives.

And so, here I am.


Days Like This

It is a beautiful, crisp, sunny fall morning.  Outside my window, the long, morning shadows stretch across the grass, drenched bright green with sunlight.  Usually on beautiful days like this, my mood is high.  But today, it is still sunken from an issue I’ve been wrestling with very recently.  I would be fully transparent with you, but it involves a family member, and I don’t want to disclose his/her business.  But it makes me sad; in fact, I’ve been sad for a few days, and I’ve been going through waves of “just move on” and “why??”  It’s a stupid, superficial thing that happened, but in it are deeper, more meaningful issues that fetter my mind and leave my heart slightly cracked and oozing.

That, along with the worry for a family member that I can disclose: my little brother.   He has struggled with many demons since the death of our brother, and I’m afraid he is struggling still.

And to top it off, I had a dream with a heavy undertone.  In one part of my dream, I was sitting by a beach with large rocks and stones, but I was sitting more by the edge of a kind of cliff that sloped into the water.  There were 3 of us sitting and talking.  Suddenly, the tide started coming in, and when I looked down, the water was already to my knees.  We clambered away towards higher ground – the sands had started rolling away into the sea, leaving us standing in even deeper water.  I reached up to grab the sandy incline, and I could see a large, smooth stone jutting out, but I knew that if I grabbed it, it would dislodge into my hand, so I had to grab the sand as I turned around and reached to help my friend with my other hand.  It was a senseless attempt in my mind: How could I help my friend when I had no firm grasp of something solid myself?  I dug my hand into the sloped ground, and instructed that we pulled both legs up over the edge and rolled onto the new cliff.  Somehow, senselessly, we made it.  In my mind, I insisted that we make it, and so we did.

So I woke up this morning with the weight of my worries and the tarry residue of my dream.

After dropping off my little one to school, every song on the radio, which I would normally be jamming to, just felt inappropriate, and I found myself feeling frustrated with my inability to connect to the sense of joy and gratitude in which I’ve been residing.

But as I look out my window at the sparkling jewel-toned leaves and bright stillness of the world beyond the cloud that I’m steeping in, I’m thinking, I must remember this.  I must remember how hard it is to feel happy when something clasps at your heart and hangs on, like a cold pendulum – everywhere you go, however you move….so hard to not fell the tug and swing, weighing down your desire to jump for joy for the many other wonderful things in life.

I thought of a friend of mine who was going through a painful situation recently, and to whom I had tried to transfer some of my strength and joy to help her deal with her situation, but I could see that she was unaffected by my efforts.  I have not been in this space for a long time, and I shirk at every insinuation of it, but sometimes you cannot help but pass through it, especially when it involves someone you love, and especially-especially when you are like me, who feels in full saturation.

So I am going to steep for just a moment longer, to connect with those who cannot shake off the pendulum, and think of how I can help them when they are feeling like this.  I think I may already have the answer.


The Eff, You Say?


(Stock photo found online; photographer unknown.)

So I thought about this topic today after having had a friend come over with his associate to share a business venture with me.  Towards the end of the meeting, we started talking about a business partnership that I had that went sour, and naturally, my olden days corporate straitjacket stray threads completely unraveled, and I threw out the F-word.  I didn’t think about it until after they’d left, but the conversation replayed in my head, and I realized that yes, I plopped the bomb, all rich-and-buttery-fingered-like, and rolled on.

So, most of my circles of friends don’t know this, but I am a recovering cursaholic. I had to clean up my act before my children became preteens—just in the nick of time—but I still dabble in the habit.  I’m not going to lie, it feels great when I can freestyle expletives.  It’s like, “Home sweet home, muthafuckas!”  It really is.

I never really felt the badness of it.  To me, it’s always been like making hand gestures (though not necessarily that one) while speaking – you’re shaping your ideas, punctuating your points, expressing your splashes of emotion.

“Are you fucking shitting me?!”

“No fucking way!”

“What. the fuck. are you doing, damn Asian driver?!”  (What can I say – my mom’s a terrible driver…)

Still, it’s not generally desirable, I know, because when I hear someone cuss in public, I can’t help but think, “You are one vulgar bastard.”  So, I try not to do it either, because I don’t want to be a vulgar bastardette, but at the same time, I don’t mean any harm – I just get excited sometimes, and when I do, my excitement flings out from every pore and crevice (and by the way, one doesn’t need curse words to be vulgar).

To me, cursing is just exclaiming.  Sometimes, you can’t exclaim quietly.  I personally don’t believe in quiet exclamations, except if you’re in danger and hiding.  Or in church or the library  (and who’s exclaiming in the library, no matter how good the book is?), but that’s it.

Curse words are just sounds representing an emotion from a plethora of unutterable thoughts.  Like in this scene from “The Wire”:

ImageScene from “The Wire”

See? No harm no foul (except for the murder they were investigating).

I don’t even think that calling someone an “asshole” is necessarily offensive.  First of all, it’s clearly figurative, because a person can’t literally be an anus – it’s ridiculous to even try to imagine it. Secondly, such a name is usually earned by the dubbed person having done (or perceived to have done) something bad to someone else.  It’s mud-slinging but not blood-drawing.

I think what is more offensive is the use of socially accepted words that are, in context, meant to be judgmental and/or degrading.  I know someone who had a girlfriend who would call him a loser because he didn’t finish college.  This really cut into his self-esteem, and that seems to have been the goal.  (Such use of non-curse words surely earns the utterer to be dubbed the B- or A-word, yes?)  And this is one of many non-curse words that can be used with meaning and motive to hurt in ways sticks and stones could never reach.

If expletives were no longer sensationalized, insults might be much more creative and eloquent:

“He had delusions of adequacy.” — Walter Kerr

“He loves nature in spite of what it did to him.” — Forrest Tucker

“Way down deep, he’s shallow.” — Various

(I chose these, by the way, because they are still usable today.)

Nonetheless, certain modern situations require more:

You’ve been tailgated in traffic for the past few lights. The car behind you is honking and flashing his lights, and you are already driving 15 above the limit.  Suddenly, your tailgater swerves around your car, gives you the finger as he screams expletives (and you are not my mother, by the way), then speeds up to cut you off. 

Clearly, a “fuck you, asshole!” is in order here – quick, explosive (goes perfectly with shouting, as is required in fleeting exchanges through opened—and sometimes closed—windows), and no fillers. (By the way, I prefer “motherfucker” in this instance – much sharper and more appropriately aggressive in such a situation; using “asshole” here sounds like your feelings are hurt – weakness is unfitting in road rage battles.)

It is not for everyone, I know.  But for those with particularly burstful emotions, cursing is almost a necessary evil.  In fact, for such individuals, cursing saves money and curbs physical violence.  I don’t know how many things in my “yoot” didn’t get broken because I could fuckity-fuck it out of my system.  I wasn’t a mean or crazy person – I just happened to feel and think in light speed and vivid colors, and I was very physical = I’m just glad I had the sense to find the buffering grace of violent verbiage.

Still, I have evolved to cut back.  Everything is softer with me now because I have children, and I don’t want to inadvertently hurt them with my sharpness.  Besides, society is not kosher with public cursing, and it is more important to me to not offend others in everyday interactions with something that might be mistaken for vulgar bastardness.  It’s nice, actually.  Nobody bastardizing everywhere you go.  I suppose it is like making out:  people do it, but nobody wants to see it out in the open.  I can eff with that.


Opportunity of Conflict



I have always been very near-sighted, so when I was younger, school was difficult because I could never see the board, and somehow, my parents never realized I needed glasses (maybe I didn’t mention it to them?  who knows – as a kid, I was too hyperactive and imaginative to let something as trivial as legal blindness bother me).  This went on until high school, when I finally got contacts so I wouldn’t have to feel along the hallways to find my locker.

Meanwhile, at around 12 years of age, I started taking piano lessons (because every proper Asian kid has to have either piano or violin skills under his/her belt).  I dreaded class with Mrs. Quyen Diao (pronounced “gwin yow”) every week, not because she was a terrible teacher or anything, but because I struggled with the lessons due to my inability to see a single note on the music book just a foot from my face.  (It should be noted here that my nearsightedness required that I hold any given book literally an inch or so from my face in order to read the characters. Which means, I would have had to hold it close enough to almost cross my eyes, and then only see a few words at a time. I know, how sexy is that?)

So Mrs. Quyen Diao would tap her pencil (at least my ears thought it was a pencil) as a metronome, as I leaned forward and squinted with all my savvy might to play notes I couldn’t see…  I must have been the most untalented student she had ever had.  But I solved the problem within the first few lessons.

I started (painstakingly) learning the assignment in advance, memorizing where each note should be and every place in the song that required a page turn, so when the following week’s lesson rolled around, I was ready.  Mrs. Quyen Diao must have thought I was the quickest learner.  I saved my family’s honor, AND I developed a good memory and a very good ear for music. 

As a preteen to teenager, I would write down the sounds of the sung words from Chinese (which is not my native language) songs, with my own system of markings, so that I could sing the songs later for myself (I just liked Chinese music and I liked to sing, so I made it happen).  It wasn’t until college that I learned that I was transcribing phonetically (this realization was why I went into linguistics for my MA).

One could argue that because my native language, Vietnamese, was already a tonal language, I could better hear and thus imitate Chinese, another tonal language.  Perhaps to a degree, but the tones are different (even if we look alike–in good fun, I jest–you may find distinctions in the musicality of our spoken languages to be quite different).  Even within the same language, the dialectal differences are markedly distinguishing and not necessarily easy to mimic among fellow patriots.  I will have to credit my very poor vision for my very rich hearing abilities.

But it was not only my poor vision that catalyzed a good ear.  Quite frankly, it was my resolve to make something happen using what I did have.  It was the opportunity of conflict, in which its overcoming tapped into and developed greater skills and assets.  I can look back now and see a stream of opportunities, some incredibly challenging and creating demon-facing beyond a necessary lifetime’s worth, but my being here today, speaking to you about adversity as opportunity, should tell you how those turned out.  🙂

By the way, piano lessons ended after about a year, when my fidgety, unstructured nature wanted to get off the bench and start doing martial arts instead.  As a fighter, being unable to see sharpened my ninja-spidey senses in interesting ways.  That’s a whole other story.   😉


Everything is a Disclaimer

“I have had no professional training…” – William Hung, 2004 Contestant of “American Idol”

What makes William Hung so endearing is his unblinking disillusionment or otherwise disconnection, by default or design, from society’s view of him.

Over the past decade, I have created several blogs with unsuccessful follow-thru, and I realize now why I was afraid to commit:  I was scared.

What if I fail miserably because I have had no professional training and am disillusioned by what I think the world wants?  What if I let my audience down because I do not execute perfectly orchestrated, eloquent performances? What if my subject is too intense, my language too simple, my grammar too ungrammaticable?

What if I come across as too negative (the only times I was inspired to write were when I was pissed off), too vain (after all, who cares what I think?), or shamefully ignorant to what everyone in the world OBVIOUSLY knows, that I, as a blogger, should be a reliable source of? 

What if they hate me for ending my sentences in prepositions?

Although William wasn’t textbook talented, polished, or in any conventional standards, a magnetic force, he was simply being himself without harming anyone, enjoying what he did with reckless abandonment, and therefore getting the point.

I’m not William Hung.  He’s a tough act to follow.  I know what you’re thinking.

What can I expect from someone who quotes William Hung? 

That she will give it her best and have no regrets. You can quote me on that.  😉


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