Pork Chops on Christmas

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Christmas came and went.

We ate deep-fried greasy everything and saw just how far we could sink into our respective couches. We stared or didn’t stare at the TV. At dinner we sat around the table fact-checking each other’s know-it-all claims about something or other, each refusing to give in because we were all equally right.

Then it happened.

It began just as any of my dad’s depressing-to-us-but-normal-to-him-tales typically do—out of context.

Just what we were laughing and chatting about I can’t remember. A mispronounced word perhaps? An errant booger?

Whatever it was, it went a little something like this:

Me: Pork chops, am I right? Man, do I love me some pork chops!

Dad: Speaking of pork chops… it was 1992, and it was time to enroll you three into your first American school.

[My sister, brother and I exchanged knowing looks, “Here he goes again.” Franco, an experienced awkward-moment provocateur, perked up.]

Dad: We’d arrived in the US just months before. Your mom and I decided to take you to a private Catholic school a couple blocks from our apartment. I remember talking to you in the principal’s office in Tagalog, and the lady at the front desk—

Older Sister: She was mean!

Me: What did she look like again?

Older Sister: A mean old lady!

Dad: She snapped at us and said, “We speak English here.”

[This led to my parents telling us to speak English at home so we could get rid of our accents as well as minimize the inevitable discrimination we’d experience elsewhere. This also led to us losing fluency in our native tongue… whoops.]

Me: I remember leaning on her desk as a little 8-year-old, 3-foot-nothing, and she said, “Before I begin, how about no elbows on my desk?” And I was like, bitch please….

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[Author’s note: That may or may not have happened.]

Dad: All the immigrants they’d previously admitted had trouble catching up and had to take remedial courses. The school even suggested we enroll you in public school instead. Imagine that, public school!

[Lest you think my dad was some kind of elitist snoot, remember that this was early ’90s NYC in Da Boogie Down Bronx. We eventually made friends with people who did go to public school, but they were noticeably less, um, geeky and lame than we were. In short, we totes would have gotten our faces punched.]

Dad: I was like, Nah, homies. I want them to go to school here. The school said, “They should take ESL (English As a Second Language) classes first.” They were held in these trailers parked in front of the school.

I told them you all could speak English! So you took a test to prove it. Then, when you passed, they came to me with another problem: “They’re older than the kids in their grade! They need to be in their proper age group, but I don’t think they’re ready for that.” So I told them, “Well, I suppose they could take summer school if they end up struggling.” The school begrudgingly let you three take an assessment quiz.

Older Sister: I remember it being really simple. They asked us to spell words like “cat” and “dog.”

Me: Meanwhile, in the Philippines, I was already spelling four-syllable words.

[Author’s Note: bowdown.gif]

Dad: Of course this was all reflected in your test scores, but the school came back and said, “We have another problem.”

“What now?” I said.

“Well,” they said, “it seems they’re actually quite advanced for their grade level. Would you  mind if they skipped a grade?”

“Wonderful,” I said. Then I thought, “What about letting them skip two grade levels?”

“Mr. Bolipata,” they said. “Now you’re pushing it.”

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***

Epilogue:

My mom, wanting to show up our doubters, incentivized us by promising to shower us with presents should we get first honors. This method proved way too effective—we asked for TVs, our first desktop computer and dial-up internet, a dedicated phone line, film cameras, video cameras, books. My mom soon dreaded report-card season, while the nerd monsters she’d created grew into even bigger nerd monsters.

Angela Chase Is My Homie

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I’m always in my head.

Whenever something big happens, I imagine Future Me reflecting on that very moment years later in full-on Angela Chase mode, narrating every furrow of the brow, out loud and angst-filled—all while I’m living it.

That’s what happens when you grow up on The Wonder Years. And Blossom. And Clarissa Explains It All. And, the great overthinker’s bible, My So-Called Life.

It also does a couple things to a young person’s underdeveloped brain:

One, you decide talking to yourself, out loud and often, is acceptable.

Two, overanalyzing becomes your default way of thinking.

And three, you kind of miss out on some things.

You preoccupy yourself with trying to figure out what everything means before it even has a chance to become anything.

You even set some ground rules.

Big moments, you decide, come with symbolic tchotchke like streamers and cake to let oblivious you know that THIS IS A BIG DEAL, IDIOT, PAY ATTENTION.

Little moments, meanwhile, have an easier time slipping by unnoticed.

In most cases, it’s fine. I mean, they’re usually boring and lame and why waste brain space on what kind of pants your neighbor was wearing this morning unless he was wearing, like, MC Hammer pants, because, AMAZING.

What complicates things is when big moments disguise themselves as little moments, only to reveal their true selves long after they’ve passed.

I’ve tried to remedy this by always carrying a camera or a notebook and pen. It helps me relive everything, over and over, the good and the bad, with the benefit of hindsight that I use to craft neat narratives in order to make me sound much wiser and well-adjusted than I actually am.

Those otherwise inconsequential MC Hammer pants? Now they’re a symbol of my lost youth and spontaneity and inability to say, “Fuck You, slacks. I’m wearing MC Hammer pants to work today.”

But just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, a transition rears its ugly head.

Neither big nor small, transitions are merely preludes to either.

Nowhere are transitions more apparent than in New York, where your favorite noodle joints, jobs, and friendships dissipate overnight, sometimes without saying bye. The city conditions us not only to accept it all with a stiff upper lip but also to expect them.

It’s why when the rare transition that you recognize as a transition passes by, in its really fucking beautiful kind of way,

you go outside

and take a picture.

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Hamsters

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I shared a room until I was 18.

It’s a great recipe for insanity—one I plan to gift my own hypothetical offspring.

After all, with all this talk about future generations growing far more entitled, information being far more accessible, and the interwebs rendering state boundaries obsolete (and thus, expanding the pool of people you might meet in real life), there remains the one thing I still can control: physical space.

And in this space, its inhabitants will learn as I did, early and quite often, that what’s mine is not necessarily just mine,

what’s normal for me is probably weird to others,

and, most important,

that I have to share my fucking space whether I like it or not.

Just how these things can be achieved will be quite murky, as the great Space Enforcers (aka Mom and Dad) will be way too busy with their own shit (aka paying the billz) to hold anyone’s hand.

But achieve them everyone must if they want peace in Bedroomdonia.

Plus, for you skeptics, there are valuable life lessons to be had: ones about collaboration, compromise and, perhaps the one most conducive to succeeding in this modern world, subterfuge.

Because hell hath no fury like a sister scorned.

In the embattled landscape of my space-deprived youth, the lone desktop computer was a coveted thing. So was the blowdryer. The lone television.

Bathroom privileges hinged on the desirability of the anticipated activity. Most mornings it spawned the Bowl of Pasta special: fighting to the death to see how long we could stay burrowed in our beds until our dad ran into our room screaming because we were running late for school and, by extension, making him late for work.

Our most epic fights played out in ridiculous bloodbaths via a stab of the fingernail, bitch fits and, for the worst of the worst, The Silent Treatment. Couples on the verge of divorce are notorious for the last thing, but I suspect the ones who do it best shared a room with a sister.

It all taught me the art of tolerating interpersonal differences as a form of survival. Dealing with subsequent roommates became a breeze.

It did something else as well.

Even now in large spaces, I feel swallowed whole.

Just recently I had an entire house to myself while working in a different city. I felt like at any moment, someone could kill me and get away with it.

Perhaps that’s the paradox of it all.

I like my own space. But not too much.

I want to know I can read in a corner, undisturbed, and still have someone within earshot to listen to my favorite passages or, at the very least, rescue me from closet monsters.

Of these corners I’m very territorial.

For a while I’d even accepted I was meant to live my life like a hamster, hoarding all my shavings, marking them with my scent, dissuading intruders from trespassing, and biting a chunk off repeat offenders.

But once in a while, as I learned through years of owning 30 hamsters simultaneously (More on that some other time), a second hamster can be introduced to an occupied habitat and peacefully coexist.

And, if the first hamster permits, colonize somewhere new together.

IMG_0404IMG_0407IMG_0428_whiteoutIMG_0434IMG_0443IMG_0445IMG_0483IMG_0484IMG_0494Note: Pictures taken shortly after moving in. Don’t worry, we’ve cleared the crap since. For the most part.

A Queens Kind of Party

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A friend asked what Franco and I do these days.

I said, “Nothing really. Just read and drink coffee. Sometimes we see other humans, but mostly we just read and drink coffee.”

Gone are the days of drinking until 4 a.m. (though we’ve had nights like that). Or lying around recovering from nights like that (I guess one can’t exist without the other). Or riding planes, trains and buses en route to and from each other (because, hey, we live together now. WOO.).

Which means we have more time to do the things we do by ourselves, together.

I know what you’re thinking.

You’re in New York! Aren’t you supposed to have lofts and go to parties in lofts and know people who know people who have parties in lofts?

Sorry, my friend. It’s not that kind of story. This is a Queens kind of story. An I’m-livin’-in-the-same-apartment-as-my-invisible-Greek-landlord-who-lives-next-to-some-gruff-but-nice-older-Greek-Italian-gentlemen-who-hang-out-on-the-stoop-all-day-talking-all-kinds-of-politics-and-societal-situations-but-still-remember-to-say-hi kind of story.

And in my story, we party, all right. We just do them alone. Or with one other person. Preferably somewhere quiet. Definitely air-conditioned.

At our parties, instead of drugs, we got sandwiches. Instead of kegs, we got coffee.

And for entertainment, we got them all. Fiction! Nonfiction! Sometimes with pictures.

So, hang onto your trousers. I’m about to show you a weekend in the life of us.

It doesn’t get any more exciting than this.

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After two years of writing, I’m in a period of consumption.

Often, it involves super important current events. Like, did you know Rachel Bilson and Hayden Christensen are dating? And Andy and April got married? And Miguel exists?

What a hoot.

When it comes to writing non-work-related stuff, though, I’ve totally hit a wall.

Hence, the DSLR.

It makes me feel like I’m making stuff.

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On this day, we’re about to watch Guardians of the Galaxy.

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After growing up reading 800-page books about dragons and saving his lunch money for comic books, Franco’s 11-year-old self is finally vindicated.

Take that, super cool classmates with your super cool social lives! When you’re 30, you too will enjoy these delightful works without all the angst.

Hm. Well.

Moving on.

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After buying tickets, we sat across Kaufman Studios.

We sipped coffee. We people-watched.

Then we lined up 30 minutes early.

At 3 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, I thought it was excessive.

gotgI was wrong.

In a distant theater, my brother was also watching the movie.

The following conversation took place some days before, but it gives you an idea of just how big a deal this was.

(He’s in grey.)

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The movie, by the way, was awesome.

I loved it. So did Franco.

We wanted to discuss.

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IMG_0247We Yelped.

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But ended up stumbling upon a quiet bar on a quiet street, and decided to go inside.

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With a name like Snowdonia, how could we not?

IMG_0271We had a table by the window I didn’t want to leave.

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So we stayed until the sun went down.

IMG_0274The next morning, we walked by the swankiest laundromat on the block.

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The lady at the counter told us she’d be there at 1. Maybe.

It was 12:50.

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Eventually, she did roll in. The maker of delicious sandwiches.

“You look 18!” she told me.

“You must get carded all the time!”

If she weren’t so damn delightful, I’d still eat her banh mi.

But I wouldn’t be happy about it.

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OK, I’d still be happy.

Because look at that banh mi.

Just look at it.

Happy Tuesday, friends.

I’m back


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I.

I got yelled at.

I’d been back in New York for good, or at least as long as “for good” can be guaranteed by someone who moves a lot, for barely 20 minutes.

And I got yelled at.

Technically it was Franco who got yelled at because he’d been the one driving.

But I’d been the one who had said, YES! Drive over that spikey thing that could potentially damage our rental car in plain sight of the rental-car people just before we return our rental car because YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, NAMSAYN?

We hovered over the spikey thing for a second – I kid you not, a second – when the man driving the bus in front of us got out of the bus, noting our confusion, and said, ever so tenderly:

IT FUCKING SAYS “ENTRANCE.” WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU WAITING FOR? GO GO GO.

What a dick, I thought.

I was home.

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II.

The most valuable thing I learned in grad school is good work has to be true.

It’s something everyone knows to be true and believes they seek, but ridiculously hard to do.

Too often we’re too dazzled by bells and whistles and pretty things to recognize that what’s below the surface is nothing.

That we would have found the real shit, the more interesting shit, a couple of layers below that surface had we just dug a little deeper and racked our brains a little harder.

Like writing, it can’t be taught.

We can be guided to it. We can look at past truths and deconstruct them. We can ooh and ahh. But because each piece of work requires its own truth, whatever we learn from the past can’t always be applied to the present.

But what makes it really hard, what keeps us from striving for it, isn’t that it’s this nebulous thing only a genius can come up with.

It’s because no one really demands it.

Sometimes it takes too long and requires a lot of what looks like sitting around doing nothing when what you’re really doing is turning your thoughts over and over in your head until they form something cohesive that resembles an idea.

It’s hard because it’s much easier to stop before we find it. We can get by with much less.

So, why seek it at all?

Because it’s the only thing that fulfills. Not money, not reward, not external validation.

For a writer, it’s what sustains after writing hundreds of shitty lines, spending weeks on a project only to throw it away, and releasing a beloved something to an empty room.

You pat yourself on the back.

Think it’s a piece of shit.

And start over.

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III.

I’m drawn to truth.

I like exposing truths and making people uncomfortable. Or delighted. Or surprised. Or sad. Or whatever.

It’s why I’m drawn to New York.

It’s a place where you can find the most beautiful things – theater, art, food – and no one shies away from the struggle that makes them possible.

People are open about it. They talk about the hustle. The rent. The shit pay.

They not just talk about it, they live it.

It’s the kind of mentality that others might see as cynical, rude and unpleasant. To me, it’s the kind of mentality that breeds optimists.

It acknowledges life can at once be brutal and ugly as well as beautiful and great.

It comes from a place of truth, and it binds us.

In New York City, it happens every day.

It’s when the richest and the poorest stand next to each other on the train and think: I’ve got to make it to the end of today.

We Went To Oregon

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“Are you saying the greatest creations are manmade?”

“Of course,” said I, making sweeping motions with my arms. “Cities are amazing.”

Lucas was dubious. At least I think his name was Lucas. A Swede, he probably spelled his name with a K. And Lukas with a K was the unwavering sort.

Logical and devoid of passion, he made it hard to tell just how much he believed in the things he said. He made jokes using the same delivery someone might use when saying, “My dog got hit by a car today.”

“Nature,” Lukas went on, “is the greatest creation.”

We were obviously not going to agree. But this was normal. This was what we did for fun.

Well into a semester at the University of Barcelona, Lukas and a couple of others and I gravitated toward each other because of our inability to fit in anywhere else. My particular study abroad group was made of a bunch of fellow Americans who spoke mainly to each other and traveled to a country a weekend.

I was broke. And I wanted to learn Spanish. My idea of fun consisted of eating dinner with my homestay parents (Lola and Eduardo) and drinking café con leche with other café con leche enthusiasts who were also broke and didn’t fit in elsewhere.

There was the Armenian from California who could make friends with a plant (and the plant would love her). The Swedish Ecuadorian with an affinity for the ladies. The 40-year-old Taiwanese man who’d left home to learn Spanish for a few months. The amazingly sweet French girl from Bordeaux. The thirtysomething-year-old American who married a Spaniard and had just moved to Barcelona. And Lukas, the sometimes-friendly Swede.

Because only some of us knew English, or didn’t trust our English, we felt best speaking in clunky Spanish.

It was the one language we all equally didn’t know.

On this particular day, Lukas and I were disagreeing about what made countries interesting.

‘Tis the cities! I said, pointing my index finger to the heavens. Cities are culture, art, people, learning, innovation and architecture.

NAY! said Lukas, punching the air. ‘Tis nature! Lakes! Mountains! Purple majesties!

For years I thought he was wrong.

And then I went to Oregon.

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Fort Klamath en route to Crater Lake.

Our campground mom at Joe’s, after our third or fourth water bottle: Where are you guys from?

Franco: San Francisco.

Campground mom: I knew it.

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On our way up the Pacific Northwest coast, we stopped by Florence, land of many, many sea lions and endless seas.

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Five hours across, the trees and lakes disappeared. We saw desert, nothingness and abandoned shacks. Every couple of hours, we saw another human. We waved.

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Lake Trillium (Note: same place as first picture), the best part of Mount Hood. Which we never would have gone to had our cab driver, a proud Oregonian, not told us about it in Portland the night before.

And dassalligot. For now.

Much more to tell and just as many pictures. Some of them in FLAS.

Graduation beckons.