Obituary

Chen Fangyao passed away two evenings ago, September 17, 2016. He was just a few days short of his 91st birthday. Chen is survived by his son, two daughters, and four grandchildren but, to his frustration until the day he died, no great-grandchildren. This was primarily due to one particular grandson’s abject fear of growing up and assuming adult responsibilities, but let’s get into that another time.

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Much earlier in his life, Chen was a professor of Classical Literature at Shanghai University of Engineering Science, a fact of which his grandson was woefully unaware while he downloaded campy TV romcoms for Chen to spend his precious hours watching. Unfortunately Chen spoke little about his earlier days in his later years, as multiple strokes in the mid-aughts had robbed him of his speaking faculties.

He lived through the last World War, the Chinese Civil War, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, Reform and Opening Up, and a recent modernization that saw his country transform into a nation utterly unrecognizable to what it was as recently as 20 years ago. His father was killed by the Nationalists, and his stepfather by the Communists. During a sordid era of Chinese history when academics and scholars were routinely imprisoned, he taught the classics to college students. Yet for over a decade until he passed away, Chen was unable to share any of those experiences and his thoughts on them to anyone.

His youngest grandchildren barely knew a grandfather who could talk. His eldest, on the other hand, simply lives with the regret that he’d never bothered to ask when he still had the chance.

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Chen’s last moments were unkind to him. Every labored breath was a chore, and he had run out of energy to keep taking them. Every time he fell asleep, he stopped breathing, and his family and caretaker would vigilantly shake him and yell into his ear until he’d wake back up with a frustrated groan. It was sleep deprivation torture masquerading as an act of love and familial responsibility.

His final moment, regrettably, was spent alone. His son was running an errand, his eldest daughter was taking a nap, his eldest grandson was dawdling after a late lunch, and his caretaker had just stepped outside to grab a bowl of soup. This gave Chen just enough time to fall asleep, and no one afterwards could wake him.

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As movie quotes about ancient civilizations would have you believe, there is only important question to ask about Chen Fangyao upon his passing: Did he have passion? Of all the members of Chen’s current family, he would be the most resounding Yes.

Even in the last two-plus years of his life that he spent living in a hospital bed, he wasn’t afraid to laugh, to cry, or to throw a fit and smack somebody with his one remaining good hand. He loved his family, but he wasn’t afraid to completely cut out people he’d been close to for decades. He lived with a passion, and he drank with an even greater one, a trait that he notably passed on to a few select descendants, for example, one who still blacks out and makes an ass of himself at company office parties, even though he’s way older than his coworkers, not going to name any names, just going to leave that one out there.

Chen’s passing is neither a mystery nor a surprise–it was long foreseen by those closest around him–yet it is a tragedy nonetheless.

When I came to Shanghai to visit my grandfather in the hospital almost exactly two years ago in 2014, I thought it was going to be the last time I’d see him alive. Instead, I got to spend every week with him for the next year and a half. Yet when I moved to Beijing, he became very ill, and when I took a little longer to get back from lunch, he died. Obviously, it’s egocentric to believe one’s presence could significantly delay the inevitable, but there is a distinct feeling here of turning around to find something that has always been there no longer being there.

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I regret the moments I didn’t spend with him when I could’ve, and I regret the moments I did spend with him when I could’ve done more. I knew and feared all this when he was still here, but there’s a despair in the finality of this moment. I spent every second with my grandfather fighting against these regrets, but now I have no choice but to accept that all I did is all I’ll ever do. There’s nothing more to say or share or finish next time. It’s done. We move on.

So as not to conclude on a fool’s self-pitying soliloquy, let’s put the attention back on Chen Fangyao. His physical form is gone, but he lives on in his children, his children’s children, and hopefully one day those children’s children as well. However, he also lives on through the students he taught, the friends he touched, and the family he loved. Chen lived 91 grueling and intense years, a longer lifetime than most, surely replete with both regrets and fulfillment, and now, finally and mercifully, with his work done, he may rest.

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A Year in Shanghai

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It was barely light out when Desmond woke up. The sun always took a while to choke through the blanket of haze that enveloped Shanghai most mornings, leaving Desmond–and this is the first and last pun, I swear–in the dark about what time it was.

He reached across his bed stand, picked up a half-empty glass, and took a sniff. It was warm, stale wine. Desmond gagged, though he was glad it wasn’t more whiskey. He put it back down and squinted around the room, looking for signs of water.

The girl was up and looking around the floor for her bra. God, how old was this one? She was on winter break from Juilliard, where she was studying piano or cello or something else that Chinese parents could really get behind. Desmond was pretty sure he graduated college before she hit puberty. She told him the oldest guy she’d ever been with was 40 though, so he was only the silver medalist in creepiness.

Desmond had a type: he liked girls with confidence. These 22-23 year old girls, they had confidence in droves. It was the myopically optimistic kind based on faulty logic and false reasoning, but the confidence was nonetheless real.

These girls hit 24, and they entered the panic zone. What am I doing with my life? Why am I the only one of my friends not getting married? Should I freeze my eggs? All while the Facebook and WeChat highlight reels of their peers slowly eroded away their self-esteem as they entered and passed their “ideal years.” Ideal for what, aside from panic and depression, Desmond was not sure.

Then the 30’s hit, and those callously deemed in Chinese culture as “leftover women” tended to re-collect themselves. They were educated. They were successful. They had a clearer idea of who they were, who they weren’t, and what they want for themselves. Their confidence was now built on a foundation of wisdom and experience, and they saw a loser like Desmond coming from two continents and an ocean away.

He remembered he postulated this theory to the girl the night before, some time between his fifth and sixth glass of overpriced pear-flavored Grey Goose. She wasn’t impressed by the insight. Or his choice in beverages.

Whatever, still got them panties off.

“Hey, you leaving?” He regretted asking such a redundant question as soon as it slipped out of his mouth.

“Yeah, I’ve got a thing tomorrow,” she said in a tone that sounded uncomfortably close to sympathy. She snapped on her bra and was now pulling her hot little, black dress on over her head.

“Let me call you a cab.”

The cab that showed up at the front of Desmond’s apartment complex was not the cab indicated in his Kuaidi app, but the driver could tell Desmond which cab was supposed to show up and where the girl was trying to go. After a year in this country, Desmond was slowly acknowledging “close enough” as an acceptable customer service standard.

The girl could not have cared less. If the driver had told her he was going to chain her to the drying rack in his basement apartment where he hid his third child from the state tax bureau, she would’ve at least thought it over before deciding to spend one more minute with Desmond waiting for another cab.

She offered Desmond her cheek for a final kiss goodbye and then climbed in the backseat.

“Let me know when you get home,” he said.

“Okay.”

“Oh, and, uh…Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas.” She forced out the meekest of smiles. Desmond watched her give directions to the driver and then take off. She didn’t turn back to look at him once. It was alright. He couldn’t have afforded a second date anyway.


The next time Desmond woke up, an hour later that morning, was from his usual alarm at 7:30am. He was a godless man, but he spent most of his self-aware existence accepting that Christmas was the most sacred of holidays and that not working on Christmas was a basic human right. Unsurprisingly for a country that struggled with basic human rights, China did not acknowledge this one as well.

Thus Desmond had to promise his supervisor that he’d show up to the office on Christmas Day. On the other hand, he’d also promised himself he’d stop using Tinder, since his local Chinese salary was essentially room and board and a bag of rice, and that promise went unfulfilled, too. The key to disappointing others was to disappoint yourself first.

The first WeChat message from a coworker came three hours later:

今天还来办公室吗?

Desmond had heard that in Korea it was perfectly acceptable for men to call off work because they were hungover. Lacking that option here, he decided the best response was no response, at least until he could think of something more tactful than “I’m fucked up, and it’s Christmas, bitch.”

The girl from earlier Christmas morning might’ve been taking the same approach. Desmond had sent a few short but emoji-laden messages to her that hadn’t elicited any response. She did, however, post nine selfies to WeChat and captioned them all “Merry Christmas Eve!!” He was glad she made it home safely at least.

He suddenly got another message.

Hey, I’m at the hospital. Can you come today, or are you working?

Shit. His cousin Stella had messaged him the night before to let him know she’d arrived in town and was going to see their grandpa on Christmas morning. Unfortunately, when he got his cousin’s message, he was trying to get some 23-year old girl drunk.

Stella’s son was spending their first post-divorce Christmas with his father’s family in Pittsburgh this year, so Stella decided to spend it with her grandpa and delinquent cousin in Shanghai. She was two years younger than Desmond and, at some point in their past, might’ve even looked up to him. He was a writer. He gave up his job and moved out to LA. He was chasing the dream. She got married, had a kid, and bought a house in Cleveland fucking Ohio.

Yet in the past couple years, reality hit hard for both of them. He wasn’t the screenwriter he thought he could be, and she wasn’t in the relationship she thought it would be. He ultimately ran away to Shanghai. She had to stay, pick up the pieces of her life, and put them back together. In Cleveland.

Just come. Fuck your job. It’s Christmas.

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Their grandpa didn’t live far from Desmond’s apartment. It was a quick walk to his hospital, and Desmond made the trek at least every week. Grandpa had suffered several strokes of various severity throughout the past decade and lost the ability to speak and use the right side of his body. About a year and a half ago, he just couldn’t handle living at home anymore, even with a full-time personal caregiver, and had to move into the hospital. That was why Desmond came back to Shanghai in the first place. Lately though, he’d often questioned why he stayed.

Stella was already in their grandpa’s hospital room when Desmond dragged himself in. She turned and grimaced at his gray sweatpants and UCLA hoodie.

“You look like shit,” she greeted him. “Are you trying to relive your glory days dropping out of grad school?”

“Hi Stella. How’s my favorite middle-aged, divorced woman?”

“I’m not middle-aged.”

“You are in Cleveland.”

They embraced. It’d been years, and both were perhaps the other’s favorite cousin. Per Desmond’s usual custom, he got the week’s update from Grandpa’s caregiver, a woman in her 50’s from a remote Chinese town now working in Shanghai for a cot at the hospital and just enough cash to send her son and grandkids back home. She reported on Grandpa’s health, his eating habits, his every outburst of anger, and way more gossip about the romantic lives of patients and hospital staff than Desmond ever cared to know about.

“Where’s Bobo?” Desmond asked Stella later while playing his grandpa in Chinese Chess on the iPad, a game which Desmond was about to lose for about the 52nd time in a row.

“Who’s Bobo?”

“Grandpa’s roommate. The old guy over there.” Desmond motioned to the empty bed next to his grandpa’s. The caregiver furtively ducked out of the room.

“Oh that guy? That guy’s dead.”

“What?”

“Yeah, he was dead when I got in this morning. His whole family was here. The daughters were just wailing and crying for hours. Then they put his body in a blue bag and wheeled him out.”

Desmond stared at her dumbfounded. He turned to his grandpa.

“那个伯伯去世了啊?”

Grandpa nodded gravely. Desmond sat back in his chair. Bobo was five years younger than Grandpa and had been his roommate since September. Recently, he’d developed a nasty habit of crying and talking all night in his sleep. His three daughters rotated nights looking after him, and each would have to get up multiple times a night to shush him.

All of this kept Grandpa awake every night, and his own health deteriorated to the point he had to be put back on medication drips. The week before, Desmond had gotten into a three-way shouting match with one of the daughters and the nurses about this, which meant the nurses and Bobo’s daughter had an argument while Desmond yelled a bunch of shit that no one else could understand.

Had Desmond’s Chinese not been so pitiful, he would’ve communicated that he understood it wasn’t anybody’s fault. Bobo was old and sick. So was Grandpa. So was everyone in this hospital ward. Many of the people who checked in took a few weeks to recover from illness and then left. Some took months. Some took years. Yet for some, this was their last stop. Grandpa had been here for a year and a half, and Desmond had accepted that Grandpa was most likely falling into that final category.

He had just wanted to resolve the problem and give his grandpa some respite. Now the problem had resolved itself.

“嗯,嗯…” Grandpa motioned to the iPad. It was Desmond’s turn.


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Stella and Desmond ducked out for a coffee afterwards. They sat down at one of the many cafe chains in the city that allowed expats and wealthier locals to satisfy their craving for overpriced caffeine. Desmond ordered an Americano. Stella got one of those foamy things with the cream in the shape of the fucking leaf.

“Twenty-three?” Stella was thoroughly unimpressed. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“We both swiped right; what do you want me to do?”

“Not date 23-year olds. Let me see a picture of this girl.”

Desmond pulled out his phone and showed Stella the girl’s WeChat Moments.

“Wow, she’s pretty.”

“I know, right? She does those sexy Asian girl playing the piano videos on YouTube and Meipai. Also, she asked me maybe two questions about myself all night and took 100 selfies.”

“She’s 23. Her whole life’s a selfie. That’s how you spent Christmas Eve? I don’t feel so bad spending mine on a plane anymore.”

“Christmas Eve was great. It was this morning that was depressing.”

“Why’s that?”

Desmond shook his head, sipping on his coffee.

“Because I woke up, and I’m still an idiot. What about you? How’s Tiger?”

“Okay, first of all, that’s racist. His name’s Eli. And he’s fine. Confused though. Doesn’t understand why I’m not spending Christmas with him and his dad.”

“He’ll get over it. Or he’ll be fucked up for life. I don’t know, I guess both are possibilities.”

“Thanks. You always know just what to say.”

“I’m sorry. I’m trying to be empathetic, but I’m too hungover to pretend like I understand anything about that. My friends with the kids, they get together, start talking about seven-seat minivans and shit, and I’m just hoping there’re enough Instagram photos I haven’t looked at yet. Shit, what’s this?”

His phone buzzed with another WeChat message.

VR电影报告发给团队了吗?

“What is it?”

“They want to know if I delivered some PowerPoint.”

“What’re you doing, by the way? Are you still teaching that hot actor?”

“Sean? No, I don’t teach English anymore. I’m back doing films.”

“Weren’t you doing films with him?”

“I was on set teaching English to an actor. That’s not doing films.”

“You were working directly on a movie set. Now you’re in an office making PowerPoint presentations.”

“Yeah, and hopefully one of those PowerPoints turns into a movie. There’s no career mobility in teaching actors English. What am I going to be, 40 still hanging out with production assistants sitting on plastic stools eating my lunch off a cafeteria tray?”

“You’d meet more 23-year olds.”

“Yeah, pros and cons I guess.”

“Are you still writing?”

Desmond groaned and clunked his head down on the table. Stella smirked.

“That’s how I feel when people ask me if I’m going to get remarried. Not how I look; I’m a lot more dignified than you are. Just how I feel.”

Desmond checked his phone as it buzzed again.

Henry not happy. You come to company?

“Damn,” he said.

“What?”

“Still haven’t gotten a reply back from the girl yet,” he sighed.


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So it was that Desmond finally fingerprint scanned himself into the office at 2:00pm on Christmas Day. He considered going in his sweats as a silent protest, but he chickened out, took a shower, and put on a raggedy winter sweater and old jeans. It was an outfit he considered just slovenly enough to say “I don’t give a fuck” yet also appropriate enough to say “But seriously, don’t fire me though.”

“天啊,你终于来了!Henry已经等你很久了!”

His coworker Priscilla ran up to him, grabbed his arm, and started pulling him toward their CEO’s office. She was a short but determined young lady who’d just graduated from Tsinghua University that year and moved down to Shanghai to join this production company.

In fact, the majority of Desmond’s coworkers were also female and recent college grads, though most didn’t have Priscilla’s pedigree. In this company, Desmond was considered ancient. However, two things helped him fit in. First, he had no family of his own and was incredibly immature. Second, the girls loved him.

Desmond was tall, worked out, and wasn’t a bad-looking guy, but he’d never before been in a situation where he was that dude. That dude whom all the girls knew and gossiped about. They didn’t even know his name, and the ones who did usually couldn’t remember it. They just called him The ABC, which was a total misnomer.

In America, ABC meant American-Born Chinese, which Desmond was not. In China, ABC meant you looked like you could be Chinese, but your Mandarin sucked and you didn’t know shit about Chinese culture. He fit that bill. For a skinny, nerdy Asian kid who grew up in the Midwest, all this adoration was a strange and awkward yet enjoyable feeling. And it filled him with confidence, the kind that put thoughts in his head like, “Fuck it, date that 23-year old chick. Look at all these other 23-year old chicks who love you!”

“你怎么穿这样的衣服来公司啊?”

Priscilla was staring at his raggedy sweater with such aversion that he might as well have just worn the stinking sweatsuit. If she also had a crush on Desmond, today was giving her all sorts of reasons for a second opinion. She herself often looked like a teenager trying on an aunt’s clothes that were just a little too mature for her. It was kind of cute.

Desmond told her that once. He wasn’t sure if it was the language or the culture barrier that turned the compliment into an insult, but she yelled at him and then didn’t talk to him for an hour. Again, he was lucky they adored him, because this kind of shit happened daily.

“我宿醉了,” he said, trying to buy sympathy with his hangover.

“我的妈呀!Henry让你今天报告我们的VR电影状态,你还出去喝醉了啊?哦,是不是那个Tinder上的23岁美女啊?怎么样?成功了吗?”

Desmond rubbed his temples and sighed again.

“好好好,算了吧。算了,” Priscilla decided not to prod. “Henry is waiting you.”

She pushed him into Henry’s office. Henry Chan was an old school Chinese boss. He was a stocky man from Anhui with a short haircut who wore a traditional Mandarin collar suit and black Prada shoes at all times. The guy always kept a trunk of new iPhone 6S Plus’s behind his desk, because he’d inevitably throw at least one a week across the room in rage. The office had grown accustomed to it. He told everyone that he flipped out by default. If he was yelling at you, everything was fine. If he was quiet, something was wrong.

As Desmond and Priscilla entered, Henry leaned back in his giant, antique wooden chair behind his giant, antique wooden desk. He held a lit cigarette in one hand while the fingers on the other tapped on that day’s iPhone. He motioned to the two wooden chairs on the other side of his desk, and Desmond and Priscilla sat down. Desmond pulled his laptop out from his bag and began setting up. Henry stared at him. Desmond cleared his throat. It was very quiet. Very, very quiet.

“Uh,OK。所以,uh,我们的VR电影,我们想出了几个很有意思的 ideas。”

To his credit, Desmond’s Chinese was vastly superior to what it was when he landed in Shanghai a year ago. He’d diligently been taking classes, going to language exchange meet-ups, and adding as many local Chinese girls as he could on WeChat so he could message them to practice his reading and writing. Among other things.

“我们的…首先我们的第一个创意,it’s like,比较 surreal。Priscilla,surreal怎么说?” He turned to Priscilla for help.

“我们的第一个创意比较超现实,” she clarified.

“Right right,比较超现实。”

Learning languages often just seemed like a lot of memorization. It was natural to assume the more grammar and vocabulary you learned, the better your language abilities became. But if you charted your progress, it didn’t look like a straight incline. Maybe it did at first, where every step you took helped you up a level. But eventually your progress would plateau for long periods of time until you hit a certain checkpoint, and then you’d rocket up to the next level.

The first major checkpoint was being able to string sentences together into concepts and ideas of your own design. In other words, you hit the first checkpoint when you could have a conversation outside of the ones you regurgitated from your language book.

As soon as you could converse with a stranger in a foreign language, the doors on your exposure to an entire culture just blew off the fucking hinges. You previously were limited to academic books, classes and maybe a few basic TV shows, but now every living speaker of this language became your potential teacher. And you soared up to that next level.

Added enough Chinese friends on WeChat to hold multiple Chinese conversations? Next level! Could read a Chinese newspaper or magazine? Next level! Got a job at a Chinese company? Next level! Got a Chinese girlfriend? Next level! Moved in with her? What the fuck were you thinking? But next level!

“一开始的时候,这个…这个这个这个…protagonist,主角!对,这个男主角,he,I mean,他…他站在…ledge怎么说?”

The problem was, if you were truly improving and trying to improve at the same time, you were also always frustrated. You kept raising the bar on yourself, and you could always speak just enough not to be able to say everything you thought you should be capable of saying. You knew something was wrong, but you didn’t know how to fix it. You could see how high the next plateau was, but you couldn’t tell how long it’d take to get there as you were walking on this one.

It was a shitty feeling, and it always discouraged Desmond until a very good Chinese teacher let him know that it wasn’t a wall that he hit. It was just a long stretch of road, and as long as he saw it for what it was and kept moving forward, he was on the right track.

“然后这个主角,他跳楼。He,like,jumps off…他跳楼。Um,然后,Priscilla, how do you say ‘life flashes before his eyes?'”

The other problem was that Desmond was too old. Not too old for this Earth, but too old for many things. He was too old to learn how to dunk a basketball, he was too old to become a master pianist, and he was too old to start a new language without incredible struggle. You know those foreign exchange grad students who went to America for college, and all the assholes made fun of their accents? That was the maximum limit to what Desmond could become, and he wasn’t even close to it yet.

If he’d gone down this path ten years ago, it’d be a completely different story. But he didn’t. So now he struggled presenting a PowerPoint to his boss and looked creepy hitting on girls.

Desmond stopped talking and stared at the presentation on his laptop, the one on which he’d slaved away for days so he could bounce off work early to go on a date on Christmas Eve. Henry stared at him, then looked to Priscilla. A slight panic had started to build in her.

“是这样。” Priscilla explained. “我们的——”

“等一下,” Desmond held up his hand, asking her to give him a moment.

It would’ve been so much easier for Desmond to learn Chinese if he were ten years younger. But ten years ago, there was no Baidu Maps. There was no Taobao. There was no Dianping. There was no Pleco or Youdao or the dozens of other translation apps available at Desmond’s fingertips. There were no revolutionary devices in everyone’s pocket that let a noob expat like Desmond go to any major Chinese city, find a decent bar, and hop on the metro to get there.

Even more importantly, ten years ago he didn’t possess the hubris to leave everything he was familiar with behind. He didn’t have the desperation to stick to a plan when he knew an easier life was just a plane ride away. But most of all, ten years ago Desmond didn’t have the wits or the balls to talk a girl out of her panties in a foreign language. And if you didn’t have that, kid, then stay the fuck in America.

“不好意思,” Desmond restarted. “让我重新开始。”

Henry nodded, motioning with his cigarette for Desmond to continue. Desmond took a breath. Giving a presentation in Chinese usually required both his mental and physical preparation. Now he was hungover, he was tired, he was stressed out, he was distracted, and he’d barely spoken any Chinese all day. Each of these things significantly reduced his language skills. Combined, they were a nearly impossible blend for him to overcome.

Yet sometimes when life hands you lemons, you just hold onto your balls and chew your way through all the tears and pain.

“我们的团队想出了很多很有意思的创意。然后我和 Priscilla narrowed down to 三个。我们觉得VR电影的重点是让environment讲故事。所以我们选的故事都有恨丰富的环境。虽然每个片子只有两三分钟,但是用户可以看好几次。每次他们可以看到 a different perspective on 我们的故事。”

Henry nodded, lighting up another cigarette. Desmond glanced over at Priscilla, who looked back at him with an “everything seems legit” expression on her face. He continued, slowly pacing his way through the three VR film ideas his team had put together, occasionally pausing to dab the hangover sweat off his forehead and ask Priscilla for a better translation of what he was thinking.

He’d completely exhausted every iota of Chinese ability he had by the time he’d finished, so the next ten minutes of Henry giving his feedback in his thickass Anhui accent were basically in vain. Desmond just nodded and plotted to get a summary from Priscilla later.

At the end, Henry offered Desmond a cigarette, which he took despite the fact that he didn’t smoke. The three of them all lit up together and chatted and laughed about…movies? Life? China? It didn’t matter. Desmond showed up to work at 2:00pm, gave a presentation in Chinese half-hungover, and seemed to still have his job. This was a win.


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The bars on Yongkang Lu were packed on Christmas night. It was one of the biggest nights of the year for going out anyway, and this street of bars catering 100% to Shanghai’s expat community was a like a nexus for those seeking an appreciation for coniferous plants, fake Santa beards, and Mariah Carey on repeat.

In truth, Desmond hated this place. The best advice he’d received when he was struggling through his first few months was to localize as soon and as quickly as possible. That meant stop hanging out solely with the other foreigners from his Mandarin school, stop only going to restaurants with pictures of its food hanging on the walls, and insist on speaking Chinese even when you’re with a local who spoke English.

YKL was basically the hangout of everyone who didn’t follow that advice. If you sat in a bar and looked outside, you were no longer in Shanghai. It might as well have been Munich or Montreal or Minneapolis. Basically, Desmond thought there were way too many white people here for a Chinese city.

Yet today was Christmas, so why not? Also, Stella had brought her friend Cheryl, who was an ABC that’d lived in Shanghai for nine years, worked at a Chinese ad agency, dated a local Chinese boy, spoke Chinese fluently, and absolutely loved this place. As he didn’t want to be the douchebag who screamed “Gentrification!” next to someone who’d been in the neighborhood nine times as long and didn’t feel the same way, Desmond just kept his mouth shut about that opinion.

The three of them sat around a bench table at a tequila bar towards the end of the street. Cheryl and Stella were working on a couple of margaritas while Desmond was getting housed on that most festive of holiday drinks: Patron. Cheryl was inspecting his phone.

“Yeah, she’s definitely hot,” she concluded. “Just like every other 23-year old chick in Shanghai.”

Cheryl and Stella were old business school classmates, except Cheryl didn’t saddle down with a husband and a kid in Ohio. She came to Shanghai, and like many highly-educated, successful women in a city flooded with young, hot little tarts throwing themselves at every guy with a car and/or foreign passport, she struggled to hold down a meaningful relationship. This was actually her third try with her current boyfriend.

Desmond’s phone buzzed in Cheryl’s hand. He perked up like a dog who’d just heard the word “treat.”

“You want your phone?” she furrowed a brow at him.

“No, I’m good.”

“You want to know if it’s her?”

“Eventually.”

Cheryl rolled her eyes and handed the phone back to him. He tried to check his WeChat as casually as possible. Wasn’t her. Damn.

“Stella,” Cheryl changed the subject. “You need to try Tantan while you’re here. It’s basically Chinese Tinder. Find yourself a Chinese boy for New Year’s.”

Stella looked like someone just suggested she take up smoking crack as a new hobby.

“Ugh, do you use that? Those apps make me want to put on sweatpants and go to bed at 8:00pm.”

“Of course I don’t use it, but I live here. I actually have to deal with the consequences of my mistakes. You’re on vacation. Just watch out for your cousin, because I’m sure he’s on it.”

“I’m on all of them,” Desmond replied, toasting his Patron to the ladies before tipping it back.

“Least surprising discovery of the night,” Stella said. “Cheryl, I love how you’re pushing this on me when you’ve never even tried an online dating app before.”

“I haven’t,” she thought about it. “But if I’m being honest, that’s how I met my first boyfriend. Back when we could still get on Facebook, everyone who lived in Shanghai would add each other. And then we’d all hit on each other. Man, Shanghai really has not changed. Only the buildings and the apps have.”

“So I didn’t miss out on anything the last nine years?” Desmond asked.

“Well, a shitload of better job opportunities for expats. Plus me when I was younger and dumber, but the pipeline is endless if you’re looking for those kinds of girls. How long have you been in Shanghai now?”

“A year.”

“Do you like it?”

“No.”

The answer was intentionally curt. Stella and Cheryl stared at him and waited for an elaboration that wasn’t coming.

“Should we ask you again in a week after you’ve forgotten about the 23-year old?” Stella asked. She and Cheryl both snickered.

“My first day in LA,” Desmond explained. “I knew I made the right choice. I loved it there right away. But here? I spent the entire last year trying to decide if I made the right choice coming here. I still don’t know. Maybe I’ll never know. But I’m not a fan.”

“Why not?” Cheryl sat up in her seat. Desmond was sure that, in nine years, she’d heard every stupid excuse to love and to hate Shanghai, and she was clearly ready to pounce.

“It’s a shitty reason,” he evaded.

“What is it?”

“It’s an embarrassingly pathetic reason.”

“Stop dragging this out. What’s the reason?”

“It’s hard,” Desmond shrugged. All his cards were on the table, and it was a garbage hand. “That’s it. It’s just hard. I know that’s a loser reason, but that’s it. Everything is hard. I want to order some food. It’s hard. I want to explain something to my coworkers. It’s hard. I want to return something I bought online. It’s hard. Much harder than buying the original thing, which was already hard. All these things that I used to take for granted, that I could do without even thinking about it, suddenly it’s hard. And it’s not just the language. It’s the culture. It’s the way of thinking. Okay, hitting on girls, that’s been easy. But even that.”

He tossed his phone down on the table.

“Even when it’s easy, somehow it’s still hard.”

He looked at the two women, not sure what to expect.

“I get it,” Cheryl said.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“It was hard for you, too?”

“Oh, of course it was. It’s hard for everybody, but that’s not what I mean. What I mean is that I get you’re a mopey fuck.”

Desmond laughed, though he wasn’t sure if that was a real insult. Cheryl was about it make it very clear.

“Yeah, all those things are hard. You could look at it that way. Or you could look at the fact that you’ve successfully done all those things plus a ton of actually impressive things. You’ve got a job. At a Chinese company. In the film industry. I’ve seen your resume, Desmond. You were an assistant on a TV show that no one in this country has even heard of, and your Chinese–to be perfectly frank, and I know you’ve studied a lot–it sucks. Yet here you are, fully employed in your chosen industry in a foreign country. That wasn’t all luck. That was really hard, and you did it. You’ve got an apartment. You’ve got friends in the industry. You have a fucking Alipay account. You know how hard it is to set that up? Of course you do, because you did it. I don’t even have an Alipay account. And girls? You want to fucking cry about girls?”

She grabbed Desmond’s phone off the table, opened up WeChat, and started scrolling through his messages.

“‘Desmond 圣诞快乐!’ That’s girl no. 1 wishing you a Merry Christmas. You didn’t reply to her.”

Cheryl scrolled down to the next message.

“‘圣诞快乐!’ And then she used like ten of the bashful, rosy cheeks emoji’s. Didn’t reply to this girl either, Desmond.”

Kept scrolling.

“‘Hoping you all the happiness of the holiday season.’ Nah, this girl sent that shit to everyone. Okay, but this one. ‘Merry Xmas, Desmind!’ She didn’t spell your name right, but your name kinda sucks for Chinese people. Oh, this next one! ‘圣诞快乐~!Are you celebrate tonight, Dezmund?’ From Priscilla. She’s asking you to ask her out.”

Cheryl held Desmond’s phone out towards him, as if challenging him to take a look for himself.

“Even when it’s easy it’s hard? It sounds more like when it’s easy, you make it hard. And why? Are you in love? With a Tinder girl who was just trying to get laid?”

Desmond took the phone back, glaring at it like it’d just betrayed him. He couldn’t meet Cheryl’s gaze.

“You can do better, Desmond,” she said. “I don’t mean better than this girl; I don’t know anything about her. I mean you can do better at life.”

The three of them sat in silence, each staring down at their drinks. Sounds of holiday revelry burst out around and passed over them. A waiter showed up to their table with a tray full of shots.

“Tequila?”

“Yeah, we’ll take that.” Stella grabbed three shots.

“I’m sorry,” Cheryl’s demeanor took a 180, like She-Hulk calming back down into Jennifer Walters. “I didn’t mean all that stuff.”

“It’s cool,” Desmond waved it off with one hand while hiding his other shaking hand under the table. “I…I needed to hear all that, so don’t worry about it.”

“No, it’s not cool. I just–I’ve had a lot a long week. And a lot to drink. Not that those excuse what I–”

“I got it. I’m not mad. Let’s just do these shots, okay?”

“The thing is I feel like–”

“Cheryl,” Desmond clenched both hands together on the table to stop the shaking. “Let’s do these shots first, and then you can keep apologizing if you want to.”

Cheryl picked up a shot glass and raised it to the others. “Deal.”

“Merry Christmas,” Desmond pronounced as he and Stella each grabbed a glass as well.

“Merry Christmas,” replied the others as they shot down the cheapest, fakest tequila that the bar had in stock. Each of them made a face like they just swallowed shoe polish.

“Oh my God, that’s that Mexican gutter shit,” Desmond said, chasing down his shitty tequila with slightly less shitty tequila.

“It’s worse. It’s that fake Chinese shit,” Cheryl replied. “I’m going to be blind when I have to see Jing tomorrow.”

“Where’s your boyfriend tonight, by the way?” Stella asked.

“Beijing on business again. We’re going to do like a post-Christmas brunch tomorrow morning.”

“I feel like Jing is always in Beijing.”

“Yeah, well maybe that’s where his wife and kids live.”

Desmond started to laugh, then cut it off at a snort when he saw Cheryl didn’t have a humorous expression on her face.

“I’m going to use the ladies’ room.” She got up and walked away.

“Hey,” Stella got serious all of a sudden and glared at Desmond. “Don’t sleep with Cheryl.”

“What?”

“I’m serious, don’t sleep with Cheryl.”

“I’m sorry, did you miss that part of the conversation where she called me a mopey fuck?”

“Desmond, I know you’re not an idiot, because you’re a whore. So stop acting like you don’t know what I’m talking about, and just promise me you won’t fuck my friend, alright?”


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It was still dark out when Desmond woke up in Cheryl’s bed. She was lying next to him, shaking him awake.

“Hey. Hey.”

“Huh?”

“You gotta get up.”

“What time is it?”

“Almost six.”

“Am I getting kicked out?”

“I’m sorry.”

“I get it. I know the drill.”

“That’s what makes me feel worse.”

Desmond smiled at her. He brushed a strand of her hair back and gave her a kiss before getting up and looking around for his briefs.

“You shouldn’t,” he said. “I knew what I was getting into.”

“So you’re not going to obsess over me, too?”

“No, you were really straight up with me.”

“I’m kidding. I know you’re not.”

“Well, you don’t have to make us both seem like assholes.”

Cheryl flopped back onto her pillow as Desmond pulled his pants on. She clasped her hands together and held them to her forehead as she stared up at the ceiling.

“What’re you thinking right now?” he asked.

“Nothing.” She shook her head. “What’re you thinking?”

He thought about it. “Nothing.”

Desmond pulled on his sweater, and Cheryl started to get up.

“No, no, don’t worry about it. I know my way out.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, it’s freezing outside. Stay in bed.”

He moved over to her and gave her a last kiss.

“Okay,” he said. “Keep in touch.”

“Yeah.”

“And Merry Christmas.”

“That was yesterday.”

“Right,” he lingered a bit, wondering if he was forgetting to say anything.

“Bye,” she said, helping him out.

“Bye.”

He walked out of the room, turning around to wave goodbye as he closed the door. She was smiling at him.

As he left her place, he bumped into the mother and daughter who lived next door. Cheryl had the one apartment in the building renovated for westerners. WiFi, dishwasher, an A/C unit in every room including the bathroom, nearly all the amenities to which a westerner was accustomed.

This mother and her daughter were bundled up in winter coats and using water from a bucket to flush the toilet in their unheated community bathroom. Desmond smiled and nodded at them. They stared back at him blankly.

He hit the street as the first rays of sunlight squirmed their way through the haze. Street vendors were setting up their booths. City workers were sweeping the dust and garbage off the road with straw brooms. Locals on bicycles slowed down to avoid an expat jogging on the street.

Desmond took a minute to check Baidu Maps, and then started down the street. He popped in a pair of headphones, turned up his music, checked his WeChat, and then walked home.

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A Monster in the Lake

children-walking-by-the-lake-at-stourhead-wiltshire

There was a small town on the edge of a lake called Laketown, and in this small town lived five small friends. Their names were Delilah, Igor, Raja, Noah, and Gretchen.

Delilah, Igor, Raja, Noah and Gretchen were good friends indeed. They’d known each other for their whole lives, all six or seven years of them. Every day during the brilliant, warm summers in Laketown, the friends would rush down to the lake behind all of their houses to play games, laugh at each other’s jokes, and enjoy each other’s company.

Delilah was the oldest, a full eight months older than the youngest of them, and she had the most beautiful singing voice that anyone in the town had heard in a very long time. Grown men had to hide their tears when she sang a sad melody, whereas a delightful one brought out the type of joy usually reserved for mothers upon hearing their own children’s laughter.

Igor was the second-oldest, “The oldest boy though!” as he liked to say, and he was the most clever of them by far. His house looked like a library, and his parents always made him bring a book down to the lake that he’d finish before the sun set. He was the only one of them who could sit at a table with grown-ups, and when he left, they’d always say the same thing: “What a clever boy!”

Raja was right there in the middle, an ideal spot according to him, and he was as energetic as a bear cub. He was always the first one to jump into the lake and the last one to want to go home for supper. No one could swim as long, run as fast, or throw a stone as far as Raja. Some people in town even said he could beat the older boys in a race, though most of the time that was said by Raja himself.

Noah was the second-to-youngest, “Still older than Gretchen!” he’d often remind the others, and a more handsome lad the townsfolk had rarely ever seen. He couldn’t sing like Delilah, but my oh my could the boy perform. He had a presence and a smile that everyone adored, and if not for his five vigilant, older sisters, he’d only have female admirers for friends. The only reason they tolerated his current two female friends was because they loved Delilah’s singing and they thought Gretchen … well …

Gretchen was the youngest, though she’d protest, “We’re all the same age pretty much!” If Gretchen had one unique, defining quality, it was that she had no unique, defining qualities. She was average-sized with an average face and average-length hair. Half the time, the grown-ups around town thought she was a boy. “I’m a girl!” she’d rebuke, and they’d laugh and tell her what a beauty she was, though she suspected they weren’t telling the truth.

Oh, how Gretchen tried to be like her friends, though! She loved to sing, but she couldn’t sing, not like Delilah could sing. Yet she tried and tried, and once her warbling got so bad that Noah’s sisters banned her from their home for a whole month. Still, she tried, and Delilah just smiled and tried not to sing herself after people’s ears had been deadened by Gretchen’s voice.

Gretchen loved to read, but the books her parents gave her were short and trite, and besides she read them all already anyway. Her parents’ books were all written in some strange language she couldn’t understand, so she was always borrowing Igor’s. Yet whereas he could start one of his books on his way to the lake, finish it by the time the sun set, and still have time to play with the others, she couldn’t get through half of one in an entire day even without speaking to anybody. Then one day she lost Igor’s favorite book, a strange one about pigs and windmills, and her library privileges were officially revoked.

If there were somebody who had a fighting chance at beating Raja in any contest of strength or speed, it wasn’t Gretchen. However, fight she did, and every time Raja challenged his friends to anything, she would often be the only one to accept. Raja would roll his eyes, “Not you again!” Yet there she’d go again, not being able to make a bigger cannonball splash than Raja, not being to climb as high up a tree as Raja, or not being able to hold her breath as long underwater as Raja. To Gretchen’s other friends’ pleasure, however, this eventually made Raja bored of challenging them to anything.

Like every girl her age, including Delilah as well secretly, Gretchen was in love with Noah. That smile! That charm! When other girls showed up at his door, his older sisters usually were like a wall–an angry, intimidating wall–blocking their path to him. Even Delilah, whom they loved, they would sweep away to a different room from Noah when they played together and whisper other boys’ names into her ear. On the other hand, they allowed Gretchen as much time as she wanted with Noah. They even laughed about it, though it reminded her of the way grown-ups laughed when they called her a beauty.

Noah was delighted, however, to have a friend whom his sisters allowed to visit him, or more specifically a friend who wasn’t always challenging him to a push-up contest like Raja or trying to explain the phases of the moon like Igor. Gretchen and Noah’s favorite game was playing dress-up, where Noah would put on one of his father’s suits, Gretchen one of his mother’s dresses, and they would have what they assumed was a grown-up conversation.

One day Noah suggested he try the dress and Gretchen the suit, and he played the mother while Gretchen the father. Noah’s impression had Gretchen crying on the floor in laughter, and it was the most fun either had that entire summer. However, when his sisters caught their act, they made Gretchen go home, and the next time she visited, she found herself face-to-face with an angry, intimidating wall.

Down by the lake, though, their time belonged to them, though it passed as swiftly as the summer itself. Soon school would be upon them again, a thought they all dreaded, even Igor, who hated being told he had to put away his beloved novels and to read the flimsy books they had in school that were mainly pictures. The five friends’ time at the lake began to feel even more meaningful as the days themselves grew shorter, though those days were about to get rather peculiar.

The sun was setting on a particularly hot late summer evening when they first spotted the creature sniffing around the grass by the water. Raja later would claim that he spotted it first, although the rest agreed that since Delilah screamed first, she should get the credit. There was nothing terrifying about the creature–Delilah was merely surprised–but it did look strange.

It was just smaller than the typical neighborhood dog, the ones that slept outside, not the ones carried around in ladies’ arms. It had dark, wet skin that looked too fleshy to be fur but too smooth to be scales. Instead of legs, it had flippers, and two nubs protruded from its skull. It didn’t have much of a snout, but it did have a white patch of skin on its chin that looked like a beard as well as the most curious eyes the children had ever seen.

“It’s an ugly platypus,” one of the old men by the lake said.

“Are platypuses pretty?” asked Gretchen.

“Well, then it’s a platypus,” he said and walked off shaking his head.

Igor brought an encyclopedia of animal pictures to the lake, and the friends looked through every page trying to identify it. Then he brought out a book about mythical creatures, and they looked through every page of that book, too.

“Maybe it’s a basilisk,” Igor suggested, “But it’s been staring at us all day, and nobody’s dead yet.”

Gretchen didn’t like the way Igor added a “yet” at the end of that sentence.

“It’s a platypus,” Raja replied. He had stopped paying attention halfway through the real animals and was skipping stones across the lake.

“I know what it is,” Noah said. Everyone looked at him, even Raja. “It’s a lake monster! A giant mommy lake monster laid an egg right here, and now the baby’s hatched, and when the mommy comes back it’s going to eat all of us!”

“That’s stupid,” Raja said, skipping another stone across the lake. “Nobody’s seen a giant mommy lake monster here.”

None of the other friends said anything, but they didn’t seem to disagree with Raja either. They all stopped paying attention to Noah except Gretchen, who watched nervously as Noah got on his hands and knees and slowly crawled towards the creature.

“Be careful!” she said. “What’re you doing?”

“Shh! I’m going to be his friend so when his mommy comes back, she won’t eat me.”

Though no one thought this was a good idea, as they hadn’t yet decided whether this creature really belonged to a race of child-eating monsters, the friends all huddled together and inched forward behind Noah. He got very close to the creature, which stopped sniffing around the grass and lifted its head to stare at him. Its neck was longer than they’d expected, and it stared down at Noah on his hands and knees.

“Easy, boy, easy,” he said to the creature.

“Maybe it’s a girl!” Delilah whispered.

“It’s a platypus!” Raja said, a little too loudly as the others hushed him.

Noah lifted up his left hand, slowly stretching it toward the creature’s head. It looked at his hand, cocked its head to the right, then let out a shrill SQUAWK and furiously flippered away to the lake where it dived in and swam away. Noah was left only with mud on his face and an outstreched hand to nothing.

Eventually the Laketown newspaper caught wind of this platypus-basilisk creature and sent a reporter to take a photograph. The reporter sat by the lake with the five friends all day, but the creature never appeared. However, the reporter happened to be a talented artist as well, and he drew an impressive illustration based on a colorful description by Noah. Igor disapproved of what he considered to be “a lot more fangs and claws and horns than I remember,” but the image nonetheless ran in the next morning’s paper.

So vivid was the reporter’s illustration that the sleepy town was soon overrun with reporters from all across the county, each looking for a chance to get a picture of this terrifying beast. The townsfolk of Laketown came out in droves, and the friends were surprised to hear that every one of them had seen the creature.

“Eight feet long, at least! Razor-sharp claws, too,” one man said.

“It wasn’t eight feet, it was ten feet! And scales tough as steel,” said another man. “I know because I grabbed it by its tail, but it slipped away. That’s how I got this scar.”

“Is it a danger to the children? Do you think the police should do something about it?” asked a pretty young reporter.

“Oh absolutely,” said the man’s wife. “These kids play by the lake all the time. Imagine the horror if it got one of them!”

The reporters all turned and looked at Noah, a look of terrified innocence on his face, and they all melted. Gretchen scratched her brow. Did these people really see the same, funny little creature that she did? Did Noah?

“It had those demon eyes,” said yet another man. “Like a…a, uh…what was it called again, kid?”

He looked at Igor, who proudly declared, “A basilisk. The king of serpents.”

The gathered reporters all nodded, impressed. “What a clever boy!” one of them said, and Igor beamed.

“It was an ugly platypus!” said the old man who had seen the creature. Raja nodded his head in agreement, then added, “And I grabbed its tail, too!”

The reporters ignored them and gathered around Delilah for a child’s perspective on the story.

Laketown was abuzz for a few days. Much to the friends’ disappointment, they weren’t allowed to go to the lake anymore for fear that a giant, 10-foot long, fire-breathing basilisk with steel scales and dragon wings would swoop down from the sky, snatch them up with its razor-sharp claws, and swim away in the lake with its shark tail. The two officers of the Laketown police department sent down to protect the area from this monster weren’t too pleased with their new assignment either.

Despite all the commotion down by the lake, what never appeared was the curious little creature that caused all the excitement in the first place. Eventually the reporters left, the townsfolk went home, the two police officers returned to their lookout point at the doughnut shop, and the friends’ parents decided it was safe for them to go play by the lake again as long as they stayed in sight of their houses and away from any lake monsters.

Sadly for the friends, the summer had now dwindled down to the last day before school started. They spent it quietly down by the lake. Igor read a book on Greek mythology. Raja and Noah floated on their backs in the water. Delilah sang a whimsical song while Gretchen listened and dreamed.

This time it was Raja who screamed as something in the water brushed under his back and swam towards the surface. The creature had appeared again, flippering its way onto shore. All the friends stared increduously. After all the clamor about lake monsters, they’d almost forgotten there was a real creature behind it all. Yet there it was now, sniffing around the grass, its inky skin gleaming in the sun and its head nubs nubblier than ever.

“We should catch it,” Raja suggested.

“I think we should leave it alone,” Delilah said, a little wary and now hazy about what actually was real about this creature and what everyone had just made up.

“I agree with Delilah,” Noah said, remembering his rejected friendship request.

“Maybe I should just get my dad’s camera, and we can take a picture of it,” Igor said. The others murmured agreement, and Igor got up to get the camera when Gretchen stood up.

“No, we should catch it,” she said, turning to them. “Then we’ll be the kids who caught the lake monster! Then we’ll be in the newspaper again, all of us this time!”

Her friends liked the sound of that. They remembered what it was like to be the kids who saw the lake monster, but the kids who caught the lake monster? They’d be famous forever!

“Okay, what we should do is–” Igor started before Raja leapt out of the water and dived at the creature.

“Catch it!” Raja shouted, as the creature squawked and flippered away, much faster than Raja even on land. Gretchen dived at it, too, but missed as it swam out into the lake again. It didn’t go far, though, stopping only a few yards away from shore and poking its long neck out to stare at the friends, as if to see what they’d do next.

Igor convinced Raja to calm down enough to come up with a plan. They took down the netting that Delilah’s parents kept around their garden to keep birds away and fashioned it into a large fishing net. Then Raja and Noah swam out into the water and tried to ensnare the creature, but it was too quick and slippery underwater.

“We’ve got to get it on land,” Igor said.

“Maybe I can make it come by singing to it,” Delilah offered. The others were not impressed by this idea, but Delilah, full of confidence in her magical voice, walked straight to the shore and started singing.

It was a soaring, joyous song, the kind in the movies that made all the birds and animals come out of the forest just to listen. Sure enough, the creature poked its head out of the water again and looked at Delilah. She became excited and sang even louder. Her friends were shocked. Could Delilah’s voice charm a lake monster out of the lake?

“Squawk!” the creature squawked. “Squaaaawwk!”

Delilah was not used to someone interrupting her singing, but she kept going undaunted, singing even more loudly and directly towards the creature.

“SQUAAAAAAWWWK!” it squawked, increasing its volume as well. “SQQQQUUUAAAAAWWWWKK!!!”

“Stop it!” Delilah yelled. She picked up a tomato from her family’s garden and threw it at the creature, who leapt out of the water and caught it in its mouth. It then flipped over on its back, grabbed the tomato with its front flippers, and devoured it in two bites.

Igor had an idea. A few minutes later, they’d gathered all the tomatoes from Delilah’s family’s garden and given them to Gretchen, who took responsibility for luring the creature out of the water onto the grass. The other four would then come up behind the creature and bring the net down on it.

Gretchen walked to the shore and floated a few tomato slices out into the water. The creature swam to them and gobbled each up while warily keeping its eyes on her. She backed up slowly, leaving tomato slices on the shore and then the grass as the creature made its way out onto land and followed her. When it was far enough out, Gretchen laid down an entire tomato. The creature ran up to it, sniffed it, and looked up at her. It seemed to her almost to be smiling, as if it were saying “Thanks, friend!”, and for a moment Gretchen felt a tinge of regret.

That was all the time she had, however, as Raja, Noah, Igor, and Delilah came screaming down on them, covering the creature and Gretchen both with the net.

“We got it! We got it!” Raja shouted and everyone cheered, all except Gretchen who was also stuck under the net and the creature, which was squawking furiously. It then stopped squawking and furiously attacked the netting.

“It’s chewing through the net!” Noah said. Sure enough, the creature quickly chewed a hole large enough to crawl through and flippered past a startled Delilah to shore. Once again, it didn’t flee altogether. It just ran far enough away to keep an eye on its would-be captors.

The five friends sat on the ground, dejected.

“Well, so much for that,” Igor said.

All of them stared back at the creature. Then suddenly, Gretchen rose up, pulled the net off of her, and ran down to shore with it. She dived at the creature with the net, but it easily dodged and flippered away. She got up again and dived again, but again it easily slipped away, this time into the water. Gretchen waded into the water to try again.

“Gretchen, stop! Just let it go!” Delilah shouted at her.

“It’s not worth it!” Raja shouted, his enthusiasm now sapped as well.

Gretchen stood neck-deep in the water, the net floating on the surface next to her, watching the creature that was now way out in the lake. It stared back at her, and then it sank under the water and disappeared.

The next day the friends all went back to school, and their attentions turned to other things. Gretchen’s did as well, but she kept going back to the lake every day, snatching up all her family’s tomatoes until she convinced them just to grow their own tomato garden. Day after day, Gretchen would go back. Some days she saw the creature. Some days she didn’t. She could get it to come onto land again, but her friends were no longer interested in catching it.

Less than a year later, Noah, all his sisters, and his entire family moved away. Gretchen and Delilah were both devastated, as were half the young girls in Laketown. Some time later, they saw him on a television show. Noah was a TV star! He was much more famous now than he’d have been as one of the kids who caught the lake monster. His show was on for a while, and then it wasn’t anymore. The friends never saw him again after that.

A few years later, Delilah’s family moved, too. They took her to a city with a music school where she could sing for more people and maybe become a famous singer. The friends thought they might see her on TV, too, but they never did.

Raja ran away one day, but the police brought him back. No one knew why he ran away, not even Igor or Gretchen. They only saw him at school after that, but they didn’t talk much. One day his family disappeared. They probably moved, but no one really knew.

The only friends left in Laketown were Igor and Gretchen, and they both stayed for a very long time. Igor went to college nearby, where he met a beautiful young woman and got married. They had two children, a boy and a girl, and settled down in Laketown. Not long afterwards, Igor ran for mayor and won. He was the youngest mayor in the history of Laketown, but he may have also been its most clever.

Gretchen eventually found a job teaching at the local elementary school. She stayed in the same house by the lake, even after her parents moved away. She also never stopped chasing the creature. Most townsfolk had forgotten about it long ago, a local myth that crazy newspaper reporters made up. Not Gretchen. Over the years, she’d tried numerous ways to ensnare it: traps, nets, cages. It avoided or escaped each one, yet strangely it kept coming back, and Gretchen would as well.

Every day Gretchen would go down to the lake, a basket of tomatoes in hand. Some days the creature would show up; some days it wouldn’t. It’d been a very long time since she’d actually made an attempt to catch it. It was just habit now for Gretchen to go down there and wait.

One day Igor took his children out to the lake and saw Gretchen on the shore, basket of tomatoes in hand. He went over and greeted her warmly. It had been a while since they’d spoken.

“Have you caught it yet?” he joked.

“No,” she laughed. “Not yet.”

“You know, no one else has even seen that thing since we were still kids. You still see it?”

“Once in a while.”

“Amazing. Maybe I should put together a search party and send it out to find the thing.”

A look of horror crossed Gretchen’s face, which made Igor laugh. “I’m just kidding, Gretchen. It’s all yours.”

She smiled, relieved, then noticed Igor’s children staring up at her. Igor put one hand on his son’s shoulder and another on his daughter’s.

“Kids, I want you meet my friend, Gretchen,” he told them. “In all my life, I have never met anyone as persistent as she is. That means when she sets her mind to something, she’ll never give up. No matter if it’s singing, reading, racing, or even catching a monster. She’s truly one of a kind.”

The two friends spoke fondly of years and other friends gone by, and Gretchen bid them goodnight as Igor took his children home.

It was getting dark, and she was about to head back inside when she saw the creature rising out of the lake. Over the years, it had grown tremendously, and now it towered over her. The nubs on its head had become full-grown horns, and its flippers giant fins. Its neck rose like a giraffe’s, and the white stripe on its chin had turned into an actual beard. Its skin, on the other hand, remained inky dark and smooth, gleaming against the rising moonlight.

Gretchen took a tomato out of her basket and held it out. The creature craned its neck down, and its large tongue scooped it up out of her hand. It lifted its head back up, those giant, curious eyes staring down at Gretchen, and she stared back at the creature.

Chapter 3: Columbus

All characters appearing in this story are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.

When his friend Stew gave Donald the official tour of the house, the room that stood out most was the messy bedroom belonging to Stew’s three-year old son, Michael. What caught Donald’s attention was the twin-size bed in the corner of the room with a plastic frame built to resemble a 2014 Chevy Corvette. This bedframe was surprisingly detailed down to the projector headlights and approximately 14-inch rims. A green dinosaur quilt sprawled over the stiff, synthetic, urine-proof mattress, and clunky brown alphabet pillows dangled along the fringes.

“Yo Stew,” Donald shouted to his friend who was in the hallway behind him. “If I bring home a chick tonight, I’m fucking her on your kid’s race car bed.”

They both laughed. Donald and Stew had not gotten together to hang out for years, Stew due to marriage, a child, and medical school and Donald due to whatever the fuck Donald pretended was keeping him busy at any particular time.

Thus when Donald flew into town, Stew’s wife had taken Michael away to her parents’ place for the weekend to give the boys ample space for debauchery. It was a largely symbolic gesture. Having not long ago come out of a grueling, five-year relationship and also not having been particularly good at picking up women even before that, Donald knew his threat was toothless.

At some earlier point in his life, Donald remembered he had occasionally fallen ass-backwards into bringing random girls home and even introduced a few to a semi-conscious penis. Yet not even in those pitifully halcyon days could Donald declare, “Tonight, sex!” with any credibility.

That rambling thought was not at the front of his mind several hours later, however, as he made out with a Chinese foreign exchange student on the dancefloor of some awful club near The University. Donald was too drunk to remember how he’d met her. One of Stew’s friends might’ve introduced them or might’ve been hitting on her himself, but somehow her tongue ended up in Donald’s mouth.

The girl was from Henan or Hebei or some other bumblefuck Chinese province that probably nonetheless had 100 million people living in it. Was she hot? Donald couldn’t tell. She had one of those effortlessly thin and smooth Asian bodies with a face that was at the same time attractive and unmemorable.

Dressed to fuck, though. Hell yeah. Dressed to fuck.

Her outfit was almost as impressive as her new BMW X7, which she claimed she was too drunk to drive. Whichever bumblefuck Chinese province she came from, her family must’ve owned it. In any case, Stew won the Least Drunk competition and drove his friends, Donald, and the girl all back in her car to his house, where the girl chugged two of Stew’s wife’s wine coolers and asked Donald if he had any condoms.

No, he did not, by the way.

Sometime after Donald popped one of the girl’s breasts out of her dress and asked Stew to judge if he were better at breastfeeding than Stew’s son was, he realized that Stew and his friends had cleared out to leave him and the girl alone in the living room to do their thing. At this point, Donald’s story should’ve concluded with a simple “and then I fucked her.” That certainly was what Stew assumed, but Stew had not hung out with Donald in a very long time.

“Do you want to go upstairs to a bedroom?” Donald whispered into the girl’s ear. She nodded yes, having no clue that this bedroom would have a Fisher-Price drum set and an unemptied potty-training toilet.

“Is this a real room?” she asked when they entered Michael’s bedroom. Donald had left the lights off, but there was clearly something amiss with a child’s bedroom even to a completely intoxicated foreigner.

“Yeah, it’s a real room,” Donald replied, sweeping the alphabet pillows off the race car bed. The girl hesitantly sat down on the dinosaur quilt, and Donald tried to seduce her onto her back with gentle kisses to the neck.

“What the fuck are you guys doing in here?” Stew asked from the doorway as he flipped on the light switch. Perhaps it was the potty-training toilet, perhaps it was the drum set, perhaps it was the 14-inch rims on Michael’s sweet ride. Whatever it was, this girl wasn’t having it.

“We’re going back downstairs,” she said, pulling together her dress and rushing past Stew.

“Goddammit Stew!” Donald said, chasing after her.

It took two more of Stew’s wife’s wine coolers, but the girl was soon back in the mood and more ready to go than ever. They stripped completely naked. She clutched onto Donald’s neck and was throbbing underneath him on the living room couch.

“Do you want me inside you?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Okay, hang on!”

Donald was not one to let dreams die. He scooped the girl up and carried her upstairs once again. This time Stew was waiting for them. He stood next to his bedroom pointing at his bed.

“Donald, if you want to fuck on a bed, you can use my—“

“No thanks!”

Donald’s bare ass blew right past him into Michael’s room, dropped the girl onto that urine-proof mattress, and got on top of her. At this point, she was so horny, she didn’t even care where she was anymore.

Unfortunately, Stew did, and the lights flipped on again.

“Okay, look dude. I’m sorry, but I can’t let you two fuck on my son’s bed.” He stood at the doorway, a solemn expression on his face.

With a heavy sigh, Donald reluctantly carried the girl back downstairs. He had just laid her down on the couch when a towel hit him in the back of the head.

“That’s a $1200 couch! Use a towel!” Stew was now standing right behind them with a look of consternation.

“Are you going to fucking chaperone me through this shit?” Donald picked up the towel, a little too drunk to figure out what to do with it.

“Let’s just do it on the ground!” the girl groaned.

They did not do it on ground. Donald’s consciousness called it a night a little after the towel hit him, but he was fairly confident his penis went to bed even earlier. He woke up hours later next to the girl on separate inflatable mattresses on the living room floor. It was six in the morning, and she was already putting on her clothes.

“Hey, are you leaving?”

“Yeah, I have a busy day,” she said, digging her adhesive bra out from under a sofa.

“Okay, cool. So, uh, can I call you sometime?”

“You don’t live here, so there’s no point, right?” She pulled her dress on over her head.

Donald walked her out to her BMW parked by the curb. It was the beginning of a beautiful summer day. She turned and gave him a pursed smile. He leaned in and kissed stiff, unmoving lips.

“Can I add you on Facebook or something?”

“Bye Donald.”

The girl got in her BMW and drove away. Donald stood at the curb outside his friend’s house and watched her go.

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Forget the universe. If science wants to examine infinity, first explore death.

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Image Credit: Machiavellicro

I had a girlfriend who would ask a rather unique question to everyone she met whom she found intelligent and interesting.

If you could get every world leader together in one room and have them all agree to cooperate on one issue — and only that issue — until it was resolved, which issue would you choose?

As you might imagine, there were some generic answers like world peace or fix the environment. The more specific ones were always more interesting, like vaccinating every child or enforcing basic human freedoms globally. There were some not particularly well thought-out choices, too, like abolishing religion.

By far though, the most popular was space travel and colonizing other planets. It is a sound choice. To preserve the legacy and longevity of the human race, we must figure out a way to get off this rock, before its inevitable demise, and survive on other planets.

I picked finding more efficient ways to desalinate water and transport it to places that need fresh water the most, but I probably just picked that to have a more original answer than space travel. Hey, I was trying to impress a girl. Yet if you actually put me in that room with all those world leaders, I admittedly would have said space travel.

Until now. Now, I believe there is a frontier that is even more important and about which we know even less than space.

There are two inevitable points in every single person’s life: you are conceived and you die. Science knows so much about what happens in between those two points, but, in regards to what occurs before and after, we mostly just have some biological answers about reproductive cells and fertilizer.

Throughout the tens of thousands of years of human history, we have never been able to answer questions like what is human consciousness? How does it develop? When does it start? And, most importantly to me if I’m in that room of world leaders, what happens to it when all the functions in our brains permanently stop.

It’s like we just hit a wall at that point, and so we end up spending all our energy and resources trying to prolong our time on this side of the wall without ever really trying to figure out what’s happening on the other side. Meanwhile, what happens there could be an infinitely larger part of our existences.

We as a race have peered into the beginning of the universe, but we still don’t know what happens to us after we die. We still don’t have answers to questions like that, and it is imperative to me that we also address the reason why we still don’t.

And here comes the opinion that will make me one of the most unpopular people on the planet and probably also one of the most de-friended on Facebook.

We don’t know because of God.

I don’t mean God the higher being who may or may not have brought all life into existence. I mean God the construct that humans have used throughout history to answer questions to which we did not know the answer.

Look at what every theistic religion teaches. God is the truth. God is the way. God is the answer.

And look how we’ve used that answer. Why did my newborn child die? God. Why are my crops not growing? God. Where did this typhoon that destroyed our village come from? God. What are the stars and moon made of? God knows.

God was the answer we accepted to all of those questions until science came along and actually started answering them. Your child died from a birth defect caused by a lack of nutrition during pregnancy. Your crops aren’t growing because a disease is wiping out all the bees in your region. That typhoon came from uncharacteristically warm sea surface temperatures this year. The stars are mainly hydrogen and helium and what we see of the moon is mainly oxygen with silicon and a bunch of metals.

No, the answers that science provides are not always definite or comprehensive, which does make them less comforting. Yet science provides the mechanism that helps us reach the truth because it allows for the most important answer of all: I don’t know.

“I don’t know” is the beginning of a journey. God is a dead end.

God is not an answer. God is an excuse to ignore questions. God commands us not to consume from the tree of knowledge. God, as humans have used God throughout history, is the manifestation of ignorance.

At the same time, I understand why people feel they need God. We as a species inherently find the unknown to be terrifying. Why? Perhaps God, but I don’t know. What happens after death especially terrifies us because we don’t know what happens but all of us at some point must face it. It terrifies us so much that more people would rather believe there is a chance they might end up in a place of eternal suffering than simply not know.

To me, it is time to thank God for holding down this question for so long, but we need to take over from here. We must start testing that wall that prevents us from observing what happens on the other side of life and find a way to go through it, go around it, or make it disappear.

It sounds bizarre to study death, which for so long has been primarily the field of theologians and philosophers. If you look up metaphysics, it’s categorized as a branch of philosophy, not as a science. Yet what 13 episodes of Cosmos has taught me is that much of what we actually know about the universe was conceived by theologians and philosophers and that the early scientists who tested those concepts were more often than not in their era both ridiculed by the mainstream scientific community and denounced by the religious community.

Yet we know what we know because those scientists pressed forward anyway and inspired others to continue their work. The science of self-awareness, consciousness, and death exists. I don’t know or hear much about it, but I think it’s time to explore it. It’s too important to keep leaving it all up to God.


Update 10:05pm

A brilliant friend of mine who’s a Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics read this post and commented that, while there are actually numerous scientists trying to understand the phenomenon of consciousness, there is also a scientific reason why death has not been further studied. The more science reveals about consciousness, the more it comes to a certain conclusion: there is no consciousness after death. The reason why religion dominates the discussion on the afterlife is because science is rather sure that death is the end of existence for one’s self.

That answer did not sit well with me (he admits it never sat well with him either), so I did some more research on the topic of consciousness and was surprised to find some researchers didn’t even believe in the existence of awareness.

I liked one theory in particular (admittedly not grounded in much data) that suggests consciousness is not an individual experience but rather something that exists around us much the same way that light does. Just as concepts like color and brightness don’t actually exist but are rather our brain’s attempts to interpret the presence and degree of light, awareness in this case doesn’t exist except as a mechanism of our minds to process the presence and degree of consciousness. The reason why we haven’t been able to measure it is because we have not figured out how to make observations in the absence of consciousness. Yet.

Following this theory, when our bodies die, we don’t lose consciousness because it doesn’t belong to us any more than light does. Our bodies simply lose the ability to perceive it, but that consciousness remains in the world. That would partly explain phenomenon like global consciousness and why people have out-of-body experiences during cardiac arrest.

In fact, Sam Parnia, the assistant professor of medicine at SUNY Stonybrook who conducted the cardiac arrest experiment even believes that death is a reversible process. If we can resuscitate the mechanisms that support consciousness and all other life functions, could we bring someone back from the dead? Here’s an even more frightening question: if we can create a mechanism that supports consciousness with far lower requirements for life functions (i.e. electricity), could we build an artificial intelligence that is both even more aware than we humans are and much harder to kill?

This theory also raises some interesting quandries. If consciousness is not separate within each individual, that means all experiences by everyone and every thing is shared and perhaps even connected. Thus the human experience, the Earth experience, or maybe even the entire universal experience is actually one infinite omnipresence, and self-awareness is only an illusion that prevents us from recognizing the higher plane of existence to which we all belong.

Of course, that’s a just theory, and right now it has barely more supporting evidence and substantially fewer supporters than the theory that we die and go to a marble palace in the sky. It’s something though, and it’s worth exploring.

The Downfall of Social Media / Why Everyone Unfriended Me on Facebook

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Recently, Twitter has become one of my favorite apps. According to my own Twitter page, I’ve actually been using it for almost seven years. However, I’ve also mainly been ignoring it for six years plus some change. A few weeks ago, though, I did a complete overhaul on my lists and whom I follow, and now Twitter has become a near perfect feed of all the news and information I want to see.

This could not have been possible without one inimitable fact: almost none of my friends use Twitter.

In fact, most of my friends who do regularly use it I’ve had to unfollow or mute. There are so many interesting and useful things on the Internet that I want to see, but usually my friends expose me to none of them.

Take Facebook. My Facebook newsfeed is an unending flood of garbage.

A large part of that blame goes to Facebook itself, which gives so much preference to paid marketing that the top of my feed always ends up being either Humans of New York or George Takei despite my liking hundreds of other pages. I do like HONY and George Takei, but seriously, once in a while how about you show me some of that other shit that I told you I like?

On the other hand, an even larger part of the blame goes to my friends themselves. What I’ve gathered from using Facebook in recent years is that my friends’ lives, thoughts and likes are, for the most part and with few exceptions, either boring or stupid as fuck.

Next comes the part where people start unfriending me. Fuck it.

Earlier this week, one of my friends — a friend whom I haven’t spoken to in over 10 years, though I also have “friends” on Facebook whom I’ve never spoken to — posted a picture of herself wearing a t-shirt announcing her pregnancy. 500 people liked this picture.

Really? 500 people liked this pregnancy announcement? Did she overcome uterine cancer? Is her son the long-awaited heir to the throne?

That’s the other thing. This announcement also included the gender of the baby, which means that she had been pregnant for some time. Thus her husband, her family, and all her other loved ones had already heard the news and gotten their chance to be happy and excited for her, as they should be because this truly is a happy and exciting moment for all of them.

However, that also means this announcement was not for them. This announcement was for all the peripheral people in her life. People like me, who don’t actually keep in touch but now have been served official notice — To Whom It May Concern: I’m Pregnant. Sincerely, Someone You Once Knew.

I know I sound like a bitter little prick right now, but my intention is not to shame this person because there is nothing be ashamed of. This is what Facebook is, or at least what it has become. Everyone’s Facebook page is now this carefully curated and manicured collection of life events that they present to everyone else like some type of social résumé. Here’s my job. Here’s my spouse. Here’s my baby.

Of course, I notice this more than most people do because I have none of those things, and the highlight of my week is still getting blacked-out drunk (though let’s be honest, even if I had all three of those things, the highlight of my week might still be getting blacked-out drunk). My Facebook is just as guilty as everyone else’s, but my social résumé just happens to suck.

Tim Urban has described this phenomenon far better than I ever could, so I won’t delve into it. What I want to discuss, though, is how social media didn’t always used to be this way.

My first favorite social media site was Xanga, to my knowledge the first blogging site to incorporate followers, likes, comments and a newsfeed. Xanga was social media before the term social media entered the common lexicon.

And it was entertaining as fuck. I was in college then, and everyone I knew who used Xanga was just another college student like me. What we posted was honest and unfiltered. Yes, even then some people’s blogs were scrupulously curated to highlight particular topics or a non-stop stream of selfies, but back then reading my friends’ posts was the highlight of using Xanga (minus the ones who posted rote descriptions of their daily lives or just plagiarized popular Internet threads).

To this day, I still remember the evening I came home, opened up Xanga, and discovered one of my friends had written this incredibly long and detailed account about all the ways his ex-girlfriend (who was also a mutual friend) had lied to and cheated on him. My comment on his post was to say that I sympathized with how he felt but that he should consider whether it was appropriate to publically share all that information. In reality though, I saved that fucking post onto my computer because it was probably the most fucking entertaining thing I’d read in years.

The trouble was his parents also read it. And her parents. And basically the entire community of the church that they both attended. Ultimately, her family was ostracized from that church and had to go find a new one.

Church. Fucking classic.

That is part of the downfall of all popular social media sites. If they get popular enough, everyone gets on board, and you soon realize that you have family members, prospective employers, and potential lovers all looking at what you’re putting out there. Then the curating begins, and that’s when your site starts feeling less like a community and more like a bunch of actors each standing alone on stage performing to a dwindling audience of other people on their own stages. That’s when your site stops being cool.

What’re the kids using now, Snapchat? Old people don’t understand why young people love Snapchat. Ironically, that is why young people love Snapchat.

Yet it’s not just a different generation or professional scrutiny that inspires a desire for perception management. A few years ago, my girlfriend at the time moved to an apartment in some little boondock town. I drove out there for Thanksgiving and brought some take-out for our dinner. It was meager but cozy and charming. All the food was laid out neatly on moving boxes, and we even had a special Thanksgiving dish for our dog.

I took a picture and wanted to put it up on Facebook. My girlfriend didn’t want me to. Everyone else was posting photos of grand, homemade dinners with multiple courses and friends and family all gathered together. She thought ours looked lacking. I didn’t even realize our Thanksgiving was lacking anything until she mentioned that.

What had been such a happy moment was ruined. Because fucking Facebook.

Most of my friends don’t understand Twitter. They don’t know how to use it, and I hope they never figure it out. Don’t get me wrong. I like my friends. I like spending time with them and hearing what they want to tell me. I’m just not interested in reading their fucking résumés.

The Mountain

Six years ago, when I applied to the USC MFA program in Writing for Screen & Television for the first time, I had to write an application essay entitled “My Most Emotional Moment.” I chose to write about the happiest moment of my life: the day I got my paternity test results back and found out I wasn’t a father.

Yeah, that’s right. I wrote two pages about how I high-fived my mailman and called all my closest friends to tell them that this poor girl who thought I was her baby daddy was wrong, and I sent that shit to the USC Admissions Office.

I didn’t get in.

The following year, when I applied to that same MFA program for the second time, I had come to accept that my Maury Povich Moment essay—while as authentic and original as I expect all my writing to be—was tone deaf to the desires of its audience.

I needed to pick another emotional moment that exemplified characteristics more meaningful to an admissions board than a perverse fear of commitment. Something that didn’t make me, in the words of a friend who reviewed my first essay, “look like a total asshole.”

Another idea came to me quickly: Kilimanjaro. Back in 2006, my friend Whitey and I decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. He succeeded. I almost died. It was a perfect story.

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In case you’re wondering why we call him “Whitey.”

I ended up writing a two-page ode to resilience and determination highlighting all the traits any academic program that embraced overachieving jerkoffs would love.

I still didn’t get in.

Nonetheless, it was a hell of a story. Unlike the baby momma drama, this one deserved many more words than I could fit on two double-spaced pages and a bigger audience than a college admissions board, so it’s worth telling one more time.

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Like everyone else at the Kibo Hut campsite, Whitey and I woke up at around 11 o’clock the night we were supposed to summit Kilimanjaro. We’d spent the last three days hiking up the mountain, and this was the last leg of the ascent to Uhuru Peak. Everyone started their trek at midnight in order to catch the sunrise just as they reached the rooftop of Africa, and then they’d make their way back down to Kibo.

By the time I opened my eyes, the lights in our cabin were on and some of the other hikers’ guides were already setting up tea and biscuits.

Tea and fucking biscuits. For the last three days, every fucking breakfast was tea and fucking biscuits. Every lunch: apples, carrots and fucking cheese sandwiches. We had to wait until dinner before finally getting some protein from a dead animal.

Obviously I knew how ignorant it sounded to complain about getting three square meals a day while climbing a mountain, when the army of guides preparing those meals, carrying our shit up that mountain and generally keeping us alive were probably eating far worse and less. Yet I would’ve argued that you were the one who was ignorant if you expected no amount of whining from any person that came from a society where he was never more than 15 minutes away from a bucket of fried chicken.

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My new diet wasn’t why I felt like shit when I woke up though. During the hike up the mountain, I hadn’t gotten more than two uninterrupted hours of sleep on any of the three nights. It did get down to 0˚F in our Kibo Hut cabin (and this was summer), but the real problem was the water, and the water was because of AMS.

Acute Mountain Sickness, or “altitude sickness” if you prefer Wikipedia’s generic term, was the real bogeyman on the mountain. It was a sickness caused by exposure to reduced oxygen usually at attitudes above 8,000 feet. Kibo Hut was at 15,520 feet. Uhuru Peak, the highest point of Kilimanjaro, was at 19,341.

Don’t worry about looking up symptoms. I’ll describe all of those in great detail in a little bit.

No one was immune to AMS. The only question was how badly you would get it, and the scary part from all the literature we read was that there didn’t seem to be a way to know. The day we began our climb, we’d heard that a perfectly healthy 27-year old man had just died from it on the mountain.

If you got it, you got it. And if you got it bad enough, you died. These were all parts I left out of the conversations with my parents about going to Tanzania.

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The only thing you could do about AMS was try to reduce its effect on you. First was taking an acclimization day to adjust to the altitude. The Marangu route we chose to take was supposed to be two days up, then one acclimization day starting and ending at the same elevation, and finally up to Kibo on the fourth day before the last two days hiking down.

It was supposed to take six days total, but we had to do it in five in order to catch a flight to Zanzibar. Guess which day got cut from the itinerary?

The second thing to fight AMS was taking altitude pills, and the third was drinking at least a gallon of water every day. Both made us piss like crazy. Our urine was supposed to be as clear as the water we drank, and all those gallons gave us plenty of opportunities to check. Thus Whitey and I woke up every two hours on every night with a sudden urge to go take a piss outside our cabin.

By the way, pissing directly outside our cabin was a typical asshole tourist thing to do. Each camp had toilets, but using them at night meant walking across the grounds in total darkness and below-freezing temperatures to go to an outhouse that looked and smelled like Satan’s asshole.

The outhouses also got worse the higher up we hiked. By the time we reached Kibo Hut, there wasn’t a big rock you could hide behind that didn’t already have a steaming pile of tourist shit waiting for you.

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Those were the conditions leading up to Kibo, where we’d just gotten maybe four hours of sleep before our midnight hike. Next would be a five-hour and very steep climb up 3,208 feet to Gilman’s Point, where our tour company could check off successfully getting another hiker to the “top” of Kilimanjaro. Finally came 1.5 more hours and up another 703 feet to Uhuru Peak, the actual top of Kilimanjaro, to catch the aforementioned most amazing sunrise of our fucking lives.

I looked down from my top bunk and saw Whitey already out of his sleeping bag and dressed in the bunk below me. On the ground next to him was a disgusting pile of used tissues, which had become a common sight with him. He’d been suffering from a cold since the first day of our climb but had toughed it out so far to Kibo, that is if “toughing it out” meant complaining about having a cold every 15 damn minutes but marching ahead anyway.

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He had his camera out to record the final night of our ascent and pointed it at me as I got dressed. “How you feeling, Chendaddy?”

We’d been keeping a video diary of our trek, essentially logging a lot of rambling speeches about the exotic nature of our surroundings and how our day-to-day guided tour was actually quite strenuous. It was supposed to be a smug documentary about our conquest of Kilimanjaro. That night, though, I couldn’t any muster any enthusiasm.

“Awesome,” I replied. “Feel like I’m going to climb to the top of this mountain.”

I said this with only fumes of determination and was, in fact, borrowing a mantra from Whitey. During the entire trip up, through phlegmy sniffles and incessant whining about his sore throat, Whitey kept repeating over and over again how he was going to summit this mountain.

“How do you feel?” I’d ask him. “Like I’m going to summit this fucking mountain,” he’d answer.

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In theory, I held the same belief. I even sang the refrain to Eye of the Tiger approximately a hundred times on the way up, though it stopped being funny to Whitey and our guides around the third time I did it. Yet I never openly declared that I was summitting this fucking mountain as frequently or confidently as Whitey did to myself and to everyone who’d listen.

It’s not that I welcomed it, but I was open to the possibility of failure. I thought about the 27-year old guy that died on the mountain and accepted that as a possible conclusion to our journey.

Not Whitey. Whitey didn’t believe in fatalistic fates. He asked me to make a pact. If one of us stumbled along the way and couldn’t make it to the top of Kilimanjaro, the other one would keep going and still summit. That was so typically Whitey. This was a guy who would rather leave you a note that just said “Meet us in Berlin” than simply wait a couple hours for your flight to arrive in Paris.

As we finished our night breakfast of tea and biscuits, our guide August popped into our cabin to check whether we were ready and geared up for the final hike. He was a tall, patient, Hakeem Olajuwon-looking guy. Whitey had complained about carrying his own day bag early on during our trek, and August obliged by carrying it for him. He ended up carrying it for the entire trip.

I don’t remember if August asked us how we felt that night or what our replies were if he did. I know he didn’t give us any kind of pep talk; that wasn’t his style. However, we did get out of the cabin and hit the trail while most groups were still getting their shit together. We felt good. Like we were going to summit this fucking mountain.

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The five-hour hike from Kibo up to Gilman’s was the steepest part of the Marangu route. The face of the mountain sloped up to a 45 degree angle, so we had to criss-cross back and forth up a narrow trail. Despite our early start, there were still several groups ahead of us, all moving way too slowly for Whitey.

“These slowass motherfuckers are fucking up my pace.” He squeezed his way past them on the narrow trail.

I didn’t know if it was the pace Whitey was setting, but I was tiring out much earlier than usual. I imagined it must’ve been the odd start time and the combined fatigue of spending three days hiking up a mountain, except Whitey seemed stronger than ever despite leaving a pound of himself in snot along our trail.

I was having the opposite experience. Every step was making me more light-headed, nauseous and disoriented. I knew this feeling. It felt exactly like having a debilitating hangover while still trying to go about your day, except my day happened to be hiking up to the top of Kilimanjaro in zero-degree weather.

We’d already hiked for over four hours and were closing in on Gilman’s Point when I couldn’t take it anymore. I sat down on a rock at a bend in the trail.

“I need a break,” I said. Whitey waited but fidgeted anxiously as he saw the other hikers he’d worked so hard to pass now passing us by. I didn’t care anymore. I couldn’t go any further.

I unwrapped an energy bar from my day bag and bit into it. It was frozen as solid as a brick. I chewed at it, unsure if I was grinding the bar or my own teeth into rubble.

Then I pulled out my thermos to get a few sips of water. August warned me that bottled water usually froze at this elevation, and he was quite surprised that my generic Target thermos had kept my water liquid.

What my thermos didn’t do, however, was keep the water at a drinkable temperature. The not-quite-ice-cold water bit into my chest as I tried to force it down my throat, and my body felt more shock than hydration. This was the least refreshing sip of water I’d had in my life at a moment when my life most depended on it.

I gave up trying to eat and drink and looked up to see how much further we still had to go. There was an outcropping not far above us around which we could hear faint cheering.

“Is that Gilman’s?” I asked August. He nodded yes. That was it. I made up my mind. I would make it to Gilman’s Point no matter what it took. I’d reach it on my hands and knees if I had to.

On wobbily legs, I got up and started again. I trudged on ahead of Whitey and August. My breathing turned into gasping, and my face contorted into hideous grimaces of pain like those of an out-of-shape man who suddenly realized he had no business running a marathon and just decided to die at mile 20.

Against modestly challenging odds, I made it to that outcropping, but the remaining few feet would require an actual climb up. Both Whitey and August looked at me concerned, but I didn’t hesitate for an instant. I threw my hiking stick up on top of that rock and dragged myself, exactly as I imagined, on hands and knees until I got up there.

I’d made it. Gilman’s Point. Last stop before Uhuru Peak. I felt such a sense of relief and accomplishment. A sudden burst of adrenaline made me think that I could possibly reach the summit after all. How far was it anyway?

Then I looked up and saw the sign: Uhuru Peak – 1½ hours

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I bent over, threw up, collapsed onto the ground, closed my eyes and just waited for whatever was coming next. August kneeled down beside me and shook me, “Hey, don’t sleep. Don’t sleep!”

I knew I couldn’t stay there. I’d never recover at that elevation, but I refused to move. The sheltered, American side of me popped up first in my mind and told me that they’d send a helicopter up and fly me to a hospital. Rationality quickly prevailed though, reminding me that not only could most helicopters not reach this height but nothing about the two weeks I’d already spent in Tanzania indicated there’d ever be a helicopter in this country just waiting to rescue idiots like me who got themselves into trouble.

Then I thought again of the mythical 27-year old guy who died on the mountain. And I thought to myself this was it. This was how it ended for me. Dead at Gilman’s Point, one and a half hours away from the top and a long way from anything I knew.

I heard Whitey talking to August. He was asking if I was going to be okay. August assured him I’d be fine, which was news to me. They had a discussion about Whitey finishing the hike with our assistant guide, and then I heard Whitey get up close to me.

“Hey Chendaddy, I’m going to keep going, alright? August is gonna stay with you. Hang in there! Eye of the tiger, man!”

Then he was gone. There was only August left, standing over me repeating “Shit shit” while dozens of other hikers passed by wondering whether some dude lying on the ground in the middle of the trail was normal.

August kept trying to get me up. Reminding me that I couldn’t stay there. Telling me that we needed to head back to Kibo Hut. I didn’t care. I would not move. Right then, I would’ve done anything to avoid getting up and moving, even die. I welcomed that option. Anything but to have to fight through this. Anything but to have to keep going.

Yet death didn’t come. In the end, August’s relentless, desperate nagging beat out even my stubborn acquiescence to perish.

“Okay, okay,” I finally said. Draping an arm over August’s shoulder, I struggled up to my feet. I still couldn’t hold my eyes open, but I was ready to make my way back.

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The way down from Gilman’s Point to Kibo Hut was far different than the way up. Instead of the slow, zig-zagging slog upwards, heading downwards was a fast and reckless slide straight down the steep slope.

“Just like skiing,” August told me.

Like skiing with another human being trying to support your body weight while everyone else on the slope was heading in the opposite direction. We fell many times. I’d hear August saying, “Shit shit” to himself some more, and then I’d hear other hikers and guides approaching us to see if I was alright.

After a few falls, I vomited again. My eyes still weren’t open, so I had no idea on what or whom I was vomiting. I just fell on my ass, turned my head to the side, and threw up. August seemed relieved though that I did.

“Good, good,” he said. “Now you feel better.”

He was right. I don’t remember when I opened my eyes and started walking on my own, but I was by the time I saw the sun rise over Kibo Hut. Whitey and I were two of the first up the mountain, so I was by far the first one back.

The camp was nearly empty except for the crews that accompanied the guides up. The sunrise here was beautiful. I knew Whitey was 4000 feet above me on the rooftop of Africa watching an even more triumphant sunrise, but the one I saw was still the most amazing one I’d ever seen. It still is.

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“You look strong now, like you could do it,” August said, pointing back up the way we came. I understood what he meant. It wasn’t an invitation for another try. It was an attempt to reinstill some of the confidence that I’d lost in a pool of puke back at Gilman’s Point.

“I wish I felt like this two hours ago,” I replied, and he nodded.

I took a drink from my thermos. “That’s a good bottle,” August said, still impressed that it kept my water liquid up at Gilman’s. I looked at it. It was a good bottle. I paid $25 for it at Target, crammed it into my backpack and brought it to Africa just to use it for about seven hours from Kibo to Gilman’s and back.

Fuck it.

“Here, you keep it,” I handed it to him.

He was surprised. “Are you sure?”

“I don’t need it anymore,” I said.

“Thank you!” he said, happily tucking it away in his bag.

“Thanks for saving my life,” I laughed, just before I was overwhelmed by a wave of disappointment and shame.

I was asleep in my bunk by the time the first few hikers got back to the cabin. I got up, went outside and looked for Whitey. He wasn’t back yet, so I just wandered around taking pictures of the campsite.

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Part of me wanted to capture the stunning views, but another part just wanted to capture that moment. The times when you know you’re experiencing a defining moment in your life are rare, but I knew I was in one of them then.

Whitey returned a little later, feeling victorious with the photos at Uhuru Peak to prove it. He also had that one of me doubled-over at Gilman’s to record my everlasting moment of failure.

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I barely remember anything about the day and a half heading back down the mountain. None of the magnificent views that enraptured my hike up caught my attention on the way down. Whitey and I joked around like normal, but I was utterly lost in my own head.

As unpredictable as AMS was supposed to be, I couldn’t help but view this failure as a commentary on my life and the way I’d lived it. Namely, I was lacking. I was soft. I wasn’t competitive. I didn’t have the eye of the tiger, I cringed from the thrill of the fight, and I never rose up to the challenge of my rivals. I was a big, fucking failure and didn’t have the drive to succeed at anything meaningful. Like climbing a big-ass mountain.

Sure, it was an overreaction, but it was one grounded in reality.

Somewhere along the way down, I made a commitment to myself. Not a commitment to success, but a commitment never to fail again. At anything. Ever. It was the kind of commitment only the insane would think possible. At the same time, when has anyone other than the insane ever moved the world?

Down at the Mandara Huts, the lowest of the camp sites, we finally stripped out of our long johns and winter wear to the t-shirts and shorts we wore during the safari we took earlier in our trip. Whitey took a piss and proudly announced that it was as yellow as sweet lemonade on a summer day.

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From there, we rushed down to the entrance at Marangu Gate. We were both eager to catch our ride to the airport, and I was even more eager to leave this part of our journey behind me.

Suddenly though, trudging and leaping down the trail became something that before my hike of shame down the mountain would’ve been tiresome and anxiety-ridden to me: a race. I didn’t want Whitey to get to the top of the mountain and finish the trail before I did. I pushed harder, making sure I was always one step ahead of him. Whitey noticed.

“Hey,” he said to me. “Let’s finish at the same time.”

I felt resentful at that suggestion. This guy summitted. Why shouldn’t I finish first?

Because, as angry as I was at myself and as bitter as I felt towards him for succeeding where I couldn’t, he was still my best friend and this wasn’t a competition. This was a journey we decided to undertake together, and just because we walked different paths didn’t mean that we shouldn’t finish the same way we started: side-by-side.

We crossed through that gate together. Then we waited around as our van showed up three hours late and made us miss our flight to Zanzibar.

That’s right, the reason why we didn’t take the acclimization day that could’ve helped me summit Kilimanjaro became moot because our shit tour company—Bobby Tours—fucked up our ride to the airport like they fucked up everything from our start date to every interaction we had with them. Then they argued with us about whose fault it was (August was sympathetic and argued for us; we still love August).

Honestly, if you take nothing else away from this 4200-word novella, take away this: Fuck Bobby Tours.

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That night, after Whitey and I finished watching the Mel Gibson classic WHAT WOMEN WANT on Tanzanian TV in our dumpy hotel room, I lied awake in my bed staring at the mosquito netting above me and kept thinking about my failure.

I thought about it when I woke up the next morning and on the shuttle to the airport. I thought about it when Whitey asked me to hang on to our two certificates: my gold one for making it to Gilman’s and his green one for making it to Uhuru.

I thought about it some more when the flight attendant on our plane called out Whitey and my names over the PA to inform us that we had left our Kilimanjaro certificates at the gate in the airport, but some thoughtful soul had found them and brought them onto the flight for us. I refused to budge from my seat, so Whitey had to go up to get them. To this day, he still has mine.

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And that’s it. That’s the whole story. There is no Act III. There is no ending. Sure, I tied it up nicely with a bright pink bow for the USC Admissions office. Some bullshit about how the whole experience taught me determination and relentlessness. How I may try to summit Kilimanjaro again one day but that gaining the value of self-confidence was even more important. I think I even threw in that I was going to become a screenwriter with or without the validation of their stupid fucking MFA.

But in reality, no ending exists to that story. What does exist is the precipice on which I now find myself standing. After five years in LA and approximately zero screenplays completed, I’m ready to call this one a failure, too. I’m ready to quit. I’m about to do what I promised myself on that mountain that I’d never again do.

That’s the dramatic interpretation anyway. I’m frankly many steps above lying down and trying to die. Yet right now I feel exactly how I felt that morning down at Kibo Hut, unwilling to look back up at the top of the mountain that I couldn’t reach or look at all the people returning to camp who’d just accomplished what I couldn’t.

That morning I didn’t even consider if I’d ever return to the mountain and try again. I just looked back downhill towards my path ahead and the next destination to come.

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Here We All Wait

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Last Sunday was my grandpa’s 90th birthday. Technically, he was born in 1925 and should’ve only been celebrating his 89th birthday, but old school Chinese people tend to count the time you spend in your mother’s uterus as your first year. So 90 it was.

In any case, 90 isn’t 30 or 40, so why wait to celebrate? The progression of feelings towards birthdays as one ages is fascinating. When we’re young, every year is a celebration of how much bigger and more like a productive adult member of society we’re getting. Sometime later in our 20’s, we start developing this morbid fear of aging, and each birthday is just a reminder of how much older and further away from some idiotic, media-propagated notion of our prime we’re getting.

Sadly, this gerascophobia occupies the majority of our lives. We live in a dread of aging so persistent that, in the next birthday stage of our lives, each birthday becomes a surprise to everyone that we haven’t died yet. Whether that’s a pleasant or a disappointing surprise is strictly in the eyes of the one doing the aging.

These past two weeks gave me a long, consistent look at Grandpa’s life at 90. For most of my life, I’ve only known two grandparents: my mom’s mom (外婆 – waipo) and my dad’s dad (爷爷 – yeye). When my mom’s mom passed away several years ago, I developed a strong sense of regret that I didn’t spend as much time with her as I should’ve, not just towards the end of her life but in general.

I was already very much a grown adult by then, but it was the first time that I realized every family required members to pump in time, money and attention; so far in my life I’d only been leeching those three things from mine. I made a commitment then to be around more for my grandpa, so, when I heard over the summer that he’d been in and out of the hospital since April, I flew to Shanghai the first chance I got.

Thus every day for the past two weeks, I’d go to his hospital room, sit between his piss jar and his box of protein, and spend a few hours with him, his caretaker, his two hospital roommates and their families. It was a morbidly fascinating situation there.

For those unfamiliar with Chinese customs, the concept of caretakers is likely foreign. We call them 阿姨 (ayi) in Chinese, which literally means “aunt.” Essentially, they are nannies for adults. They are all older, relatively uneducated women who come to bigger, east coast cities from smaller, often rural Chinese towns and work for cheap. Many of my expat friends in China hire caretakers to clean their apartments and cook their meals. They are so prevalent that Grandpa’s hospital actually hires several on staff to perform some of the menial tasks that normally go to nurses here in the U.S. (no more wiping asses!).

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Fortunately, my Grandpa was able to bring his own, who’s been with him for years. His two roommates did not, yet they managed in their own ways. The younger one, a real estate mogul in his seventies, was a distinguished-looking man even in the hospital’s green pinstripe pajamas. His son visited early on after his procedure, but he maintained most of his faculties and often watched my grandpa’s and their other roommate’s behavior with as much bewilderment as I did.

That other roommate was 86 and had a huge family attending to him: a wife, two daughters, three sons, five in-laws, God knows how many grandsons, and one—to my own grandpa’s sincere envy—great-grandson. Some family member or another was always there by his side; though when there were too many, it sometimes felt like they were holding court around him and laughing at him like partygoers around the blacked out guy on the floor mumbling the secrets of the universe into the carpet. Luckily, dude was nearly deaf and spent 80% of the time I was there either heading to or in the bathroom.

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Without either good health or a giant family around him, my grandpa appeared to be the most miserable patient in the room, which made me even more relieved to be there for him. Seeing me come to the hospital for the first time brought him instant euphoria, which lasted about two minutes. Then he asked me the question he’d been asking me every time he’d seen me the past three years: when the fuck are you getting married and having a kid?

No, he didn’t actually say “fuck.” He didn’t actually say much at all. Long ago multiple strokes had robbed my grandpa’s ability to speak properly, so communication with him was difficult even for native Mandarin speakers and far more so for shitty Mandarin speakers like me. Yet he still managed to communicate this subject to me not just once but pretty much every 15-20 minutes.

Initially, he’d call his caretaker over and trace the characters 结婚 (jiehun – get married) onto her hand and then point at me accusingly. I’d be telling him a story or showing him a movie, and he’d call her over again and do the same thing. After the third time, she refused to keep playing along, so then he’d just point at me and mumble out something resembling the words. I knew what he was saying.

I do have three other cousins who could produce him a great-grandchild, but mine is most important to him. Mine would be the only one to carry his last name. Not having any children, especially sons, means his family name’s lineage stops with me, which frankly is such an epic fuck-up that it just feels inevitable for me to do it.

On the other hand, all that questioning did lead to this enlightening exchange:

Grandpa (slowly): Get married.
Caretaker: What kind of girl do you want your grandson to marry?
Grandpa (slowly): Doesn’t matter. Find a good person.
Old Lady in Room: That’s a good answer.
Caretaker: What about a black girl?
Grandpa (very clearly): No no no no no no…

Yes, racism is just as funny in China as it is in America.

Though his mood was lighter in the two weeks I was in Shanghai, Grandpa’s condition was still lousy. He’d tried to go home from the hospital a couple days before I’d gotten there but ended up vomiting constantly and had to return. By the time I’d gotten there, he was on a diet of nothing but bags of nutritional chocolate goop apparently used to treat diabetes.

Yet he still wanted to be a grandpa to his grandson, so, just as he’d always offer food to me in his home, he did the same at the hospital. Thus my first day there, his caretaker handed me a bag of chocolate goop, and they both watched and waited for me to try it. So I did. It tasted like a warm whole milk protein shake. After that I always tried to get there around lunch or dinner time, so I could pick up something from the cafeteria that was at least a couple steps above chocolate goop.

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Grandpa’s memory had also been slipping for a few years. One day, he kept asking me if I’d be staying at the hospital for dinner and I kept telling him that I had other dinner plans until his caretaker got fed up and told him to stop asking. I think dementia is common in our family. I dread the day my dad gets it, but part of me anticipates the day that I do. I look forward to forgetting quite a few things about my own life. I may even start early, just fake it and live back in the parts of my mind that I prefer.

In fact, I suspect that was exactly what Grandpa was doing: just pretending like he’s forgetting when he really just kept asking the same questions until he got the answer he wanted. I even called him out on that once. He just laughed and then asked me when I was getting married.

However, the mind games he played were trivial compared to the ones being played on him. The thing that disturbed me most about this part of Grandpa’s life was the web of lies being spun to keep him happy, or at least stable. I broke this rule when I answered his first question by telling him I’d broken up with my ex-girlfriend since last I’d seen him, and he wouldn’t be meeting his great-grandchildren any time soon (i.e. ever).

That news upset him so much, he ripped out a tooth that night and woke up with a mouthful of blood. His caretaker, being the gossip-monger all caretakers are, told everyone, and eventually the entire floor knew my grandpa gave himself a dental extraction because his fuck-up grandson refused to get married.

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My family’s concern is that something far worse would happen if they told him about his little sister. Grandpa hasn’t heard from her in years and thinks she’s upset at him. She’s not; she’s been dead since 2011.

Of course, no one has told him that, and I certainly wasn’t going to be the asshole who did. The idea is that he’d have significantly less to live for if he knew, and this is an attempt to keep him alive longer. When I was there, this charade even went as far as sending my aunt out to the bank in the middle of a workday to withdraw money from my grandpa’s account so he could mail it to a sister who’s no longer there to receive it.

Is that what makes my grandpa happier? I don’t know. I don’t know if he prefers to keep trying to help a sister who won’t return his calls. I don’t know if he would’ve prefered to believe that my non-existent girlfriend and I are getting married and soon to be carrying on his family name. I don’t know if he prefers the continuity of ignorance over the finality of truth.

I wouldn’t. I would want to know that someone I loved died. I would want to know if she found peace, and I’d want to make peace with her loss. I would want to know if a dream I was waiting to see is going to be delayed by possibly more years than I have left, and I’d want to judge whether my idiot grandson is capable of fulfilling that dream after I’m gone.

Then, knowing all that, I would want to be the one to decide whether or not life is still worth hanging onto. That’s my own selfish decision to make, not someone else’s.

When you get old, though, those types of decisions inevitably start being taken away from you. At Grandpa’s age, it’s amazing how much the family that you raised starts treating you like the child. Yet why wouldn’t they? Grandpa can barely talk. He can’t walk. He can’t bathe himself or take a dump without help. He’s prone to emotional outbursts. Despite some cheekiness, both his short- and long-term memories are slipping.

But his mind is not that of a child’s. It is one burdened with wisdom and experience and love and regret and responsibilities. This is not keeping someone in the dark; this is ripping out someone’s eyes because the light was hurting them.

It may sound like I’m condemning the way my family has chosen to treat my grandpa. I’m not. I don’t want to be treated that way—at least that’s my opinion as a 31-year old with most of my life likely still ahead of me—but I don’t believe in always treating people the way you want to be treated.

Anyone who has ever been in a long-term relationship should know better than that. You don’t hold other people up to your own standards. You treat people the way they want to be treated, to the best of your abilities. At least that’s what I assume we’re doing here.

I may feel conflicted about the decision, but I accept that’s what my family thinks is best for him. I’m also noting that’s the choice they felt was appropriate in this situation, as I get the feeling I’ll someday find myself in a similar situation with them.

And they’re going to be a lot more social media-savvy and English-proficient than my grandpa, so you won’t be reading any of this shit about them on the Internet.

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By the time I left Shanghai, both Grandpa’s roommates had also checked out of the hospital. He took this opportunity to grab the window bed, and his caretaker was hoping no one would move in over the weeklong National Day holiday so as to have some peace and quiet.

I was hoping for the exact opposite. I wanted two more patients to move in immediately. For all the battles over the air conditioning and the bathroom and the occasional chaos of so many family members in one room, I couldn’t imagine it being sadder than being in a hospital room alone with just his caretaker.

Then again, that was my opinion and not his. Grandpa had spent the better part of a decade alone with just his caretaker in his apartment. My dad’s mom passed away before I was born, but my grandpa remarried, and I’d known a step-grandmother for most of my life. While all of Grandpa’s children moved to America, she still had a decent amount of family in Shanghai. Sometime after his first and worst stroke, they had a falling out and separated. I never got the full story why, but I haven’t seen that former side of the family for 10 years.

It felt like a shame. As he grew older and more unwell, that seemed like the ideal time to have family around constantly. Instead, he chose a quiet, solitary life with just his caretaker and the occasional visits from his family in America. Though at that age, I also would stop giving a fuck about what’s most convenient and would want what gives me the most peace of mind.

Does he regret his decision? I don’t know. The one time I tried to bring up my former grandma in conversation three years ago was met with instant dismissal. However, would his actual family have visited as much this past decade had we known he had the other family there to look after him? I probably wouldn’t have.

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Ultimately, though I know Grandpa always appreciates my presence, the incremental value of each appearance is getting lower and lower now without a wife and a baby in tow. Odds are he will never see that in his lifetime. I’ve known that for years, and now he knows it, too.

So now Grandpa has a choice. He can keep hoping, he can become despondent, or he can just accept that and be at peace with it. My guess is he’ll probably vacillate among all three choices at some point or another, but he’ll settle on the choice he wouldn’t have if someone told him his little sister died. He’d keep hoping. You always do when it comes to family.

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Moby, Stephen King, and the Art of Getting Fucked Up for Your Art

I heard kind of an amazing story about Moby last night from an Uber passenger who’d just seen him at the Improv (I don’t remember the part of the story explaining why Moby was at the Improv, so just don’t worry about that). I’m going to relay the version of that story from my dubious memory without any Google fact-checking, because that’s just how we did it in the old days, bro.

Apparently, Moby was a notorious addict: sex, drugs, alcohol, all the really fun stuff in life. I say “notorious” because that’s the term my passenger used. I had no idea. My vision of Moby was that he was always the bald vegan and champion of indie artists whose music was nonetheless in every car commercial and the end credits of every movie for over a decade.

But no, apparently, Moby also had really good taste in vice. As with many people who suffer with addiction, he sought help and got clean for long periods of time but then also suffered relapses. He drank and did drugs throughout his youth before going sober for the first time in 1993 when he was around 28 (again, dubious memory, the story is correct but I’m probably making up these numbers). He cranked out a lot of work then and started establishing himself as an artist.

Then in 1998 (this date is correct, and it’s important), Moby went through an awful breakup and decided he needed to drink something a little harder than a Diet Coke. He went to a bar, had his first taste of alcohol in five years, enjoyed it, and decided to have another. After his 12th drink (that might be made up), his memory dropped out. The next morning, he woke up hungover in an obese dominatrix’s house surrounded by snakes.

And this is the part of the story that I love, because his first thought when he woke up wasn’t that he fucked up or that he really let people down or that he was so ashamed of himself. His first thought was simply two words:

“I’m back!”

The other fascinating part of this story is when you start comparing Moby’s personal life to his discography during that time (yes, I researched this part, but don’t get too cocky because all I used was Wikipedia). When 1998 began, his most successful album was 1995’s Everything Is Wrong, which had sold 250,000 copies. His last release, Animal Rights in 1996, was a critical and commercial flop, and he’d consider quitting music altogether to study architecture (before you start comparing his struggles to yours, Moby did get calls from Axl Rose and Bono saying they loved Animal Rights) (He also did release a compilation album in 1997 that did better, but we’re not going to let facts get in the way of a good story here) (This is way too many parentheses).

Basically, by 1998, Moby had a lot of reasons to get back on the sauce even without a traumatic breakup. That same year, drunk Moby started working on a new album called Play. Even his own label didn’t want it, so he had to release it through the much smaller V2 Records in 1999. It looked like another flop at first, but eventually coffee shops and retail stores got ahold of it, played it nonstop for its customers, and it ended up selling 12 million copies. 12 fucking million copies. From a previous best of 250k.

Moby’s next studio album, 2002’s 18, while selling “only” five million copies, cemented his status as the god of electronica, and the rest is car commercial and end credits and VMA Awards history.

Around 2008, he got clean again. I don’t know why. I never know the stories behind why people get sober, because they’re usually much longer and more complex than the stories about why people get trashed. The moment someone falls off the wagon always sounds the same: this happened, so I decided to have a drink/do a line/sit down at a poker table/browse backpage.com/etc. Going clean might be triggered by some tragically irresponsible incident, but it’s generally a culimination of years of pain, regret, and shame. Also, unless there’s another relapse, that’s usually the end of the story. The third-to-last scene of the movie before the getting-back-to-work montage and the poignant final conversation with the one you hurt the most to bring closure.

And that’s always the destination, isn’t it? That’s where you want to end up: back to work with closure and without the demons. The alternative seems to be a gun in your mouth or a belt around your neck.

Yet I can’t help but think about the implausibly tremendous success that Moby experienced after he woke up drunk out of his skull in some S&M reptile petting zoo. It reminded me of something I read about Stephen King from his seminal book, On Writing. For those who haven’t read that book, read it. The first part is a brief autobiography, and the second part is a rather spiritual guide to writing where Kings praises authors he loves and trashes authors he hates while providing actual examples of their writing to explain why.

From the autobiography part, King mentions that he got a massive, oak slab desk in 1981, put it in the middle of a spacious, skylighted study, and spent the next six years “behind that desk either drunk or wrecked out of my mind, like a ship’s captain in charge of a voyage to nowhere.” What I don’t think he intended to do with that anecdote was to give 1987 as a demarcation to assess his career both pre- and post-sobriety. Yet he did, since he was drinking and writing before then and has been sober and writing since.

Here are all Stephen King’s original novels in those two eras, according to his Wikipedia bibliography.

Drunk Stephen King Sober Stephen King
Carrie 1974 The Eyes of the Dragon 1987
Salem’s Lot 1975 The Dark Tower II 1987
The Shining 1977 Misery 1987
Rage 1977 The Tommyknockers 1987
The Stand 1978 The Dark Half 1989
The Long Walk 1979 The Dark Tower III 1991
The Dead Zone 1979 Needful Things 1991
Firestarter 1980 Gerald’s Game 1992
Roadwork 1981 Dolores Claiborne 1992
Cujo 1981 Insomnia 1994
The Running Man 1982 Rose Madder 1995
The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger 1982 Desperation 1996
Christine 1983 The Regulators 1996
Pet Sematary 1983 The Dark Tower IV 1997
Cycle of the Werewolf 1983 Bag of Bones 1998
The Talisman 1984 The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon 1999
Thinner 1984 Dreamcatcher 2001
It 1986 Black House 2001
Dude is prolific as fuck. From a Buick 8 2002
The Dark Tower V 2003
The Dark Tower VI 2004
The Dark Tower VII 2004
The Colorado Kid 2005
Cell 2006
Lisey’s Story 2006
Blaze 2007
Duma Key 2008
Under the Dome 2009
11/22/63 2011
The Dark Tower VIII 2012
Joyland 2013
Doctor Sleep 2013
Mr. Mercedes 2014

First of all, I’ve been out in LA pretending to be a writer for five years now, and I haven’t written anything worth wiping my ass with. Stephen King has published more than a novel a year for 40 fucking years, and that’s not including the 13 story collections, six non-fiction books, eight e-books, nine screenplays and innumerable short stories he’s also cranked out during that time. That should make me feel like shit, but actually it just makes me feel like I should be writing. Also makes me feel like I should check out The Dark Tower.

But to my point, let’s compare King’s 18 original drunk novels to his 33 original sober novels. On the drunk side, we’ve got some of the most recognized titles in the history of horror writing: Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand, Pet Sematary, etc.

On the sober side, Misery is an absolute classic and perhaps King’s finest work, though most likely it was published when he was sober but written when he was still drunk. Then there are a few other memorable titles, seven Dark Tower sequels, and a ton of books I’d never even heard of until I looked at his Wikipedia page.

I’m not saying that Stephen King has become a worse writer now that he’s sober. Honestly, I haven’t read the vast majority of these books, so I’m really just judging based on popularity instead of actual quality.  That’s not to mention that the publishing industry today is almost unrecognizable to the one 40 years ago when he dropped Carrie on us.

Still, just like with Moby, I can’t help but notice that King created some of his most timeless classics and ascended to prominence while he was “wrecked out of his mind.” That’s no secret, of course. Artists of every type are notorious for abusing drugs and alcohol, yet they do it for a reason, whether that’s to be creative, productive or just maintain the balance in their lives outside of work.

Some of you may be concerned that I’m careening towards a dangerous conclusion: that drugs and alcohol are not only beneficial but vital to the creative process. That’s not at all what I believe, and I’ve written about my own dilemmas with drinking. However, I do believe they are catalysts to the type of life needed for creative inspiration. A graphic designer friend of mine, who specializes in dramatic generalizations, once told me in college that all the design students who spent their entire lives working in the studio produced the most mundane work. He didn’t believe you could produce inspired work unless you were out living an inspired life.

I agree with him, but there is a thin line between inspired and reckless. Both often result in great stories, but one is not a sustainable lifestyle. One will inevitably get you in trouble if given enough time and opportunities. I know which side of that coin I’m facing right now, the side that makes my parents write me long, concerned emails. Yet, I do know that one day in the future, if I am to have a future, I must embrace the final words in King’s autobiography: “Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.”

Thank you, Mr. King. I’ll keep that in mind. In the meantime, here’s a video of you schooling Edgar Allen Poe in a rap battle:

Genie, I wish you would’ve wished for anything other than to be free.

Like many people this week, I’ve been enamored with looking up Robin Williams stories and rewatching old Williams clips since hearing of his suicide. To be honest, I’m normally in the same boat as the scornful crowd that denounces our obsessive nostalgia over celebrity deaths pushing more pertinent news out of the news cycle (though I like to believe I’m on the rational side of that boat, because there’s definitely also an asshole side, and sometimes it’s hard to tell where one side ends and the other begins). Yet this death felt different from the start.

I don’t know if it’s because Robin Williams was such an iconic figure in my childhood. Perhaps it’s because the manner in which he died felt completely different than the work that I associate with him, which was largely the over-the-top comedies for which he had unfortunately and unfairly been stereotyped (The Crazy Ones didn’t help). But it also could’ve been the stories that I started hearing for the first time after he was gone.

Obviously I never knew Robin Williams personally. I’m sure he’d been a bastard to many people in his life. Who hasn’t? So, although these are stories of generosity and kindess, to me, the more important aspect of Williams in them was his sense of self-awareness. Robin Williams understood exactly who he was and what he meant to people, and he felt a responsibility to be benevolent in every interaction because of that. It’s the anti-“I am not a role model” cop-out that Charles Barkley made notorious. It’s a sense that I don’t get from any other celebrity except Bill Murray.

And of course, Williams did it in his own unique way. Here are the two stories that stood out most to me:

1. Questlove could not believe Robin Williams is a Roots fan.

This was the first one that most people heard, as Questlove posted this to his Instagram very soon after the news broke.

Man. The smallest gesture can mean the world to you. Robin Williams made such an impact on me and didn't even know it. He named checked all of us in the elevator during the 2001 Grammys. I know y'all think I do this false modesty/T Swift "gee shucks" thing to the hilt. But yeah sometimes when you put 20 hour days in you do think it's for naught and that it goes thankless. Grammy time is somewhat of a dark time simply because you just walk around asking yourself is it worth it or not: all the sweat and blood. I just felt like (despite winning grammy the year before) no one really cares all that much for us except for a select few. Especially in that environment in which people treat you like minions until they discover what you can do for them...if you're not a strong character you run the risk of letting it get to you. This particular Sunday we were walking backstage and had to ride the elevator to the backstage area and we piled inside when suddenly this voice just said "questlove.....black thought....rahzel....the roots from Philadelphia!!!! That's right you walked on this elevator saying to yourself 'ain't no way this old white dude knows my entire history and discography'"....we laughed so hard. That NEVER happened to us before. Someone a legend acknowledged us and really knew who we were (his son put him on to us) man it was a small 2 min moment in real life but that meant the world to me at the time. Everytime I saw him afterwards he tried to top his trivia knowledge on all things Roots associated. Simply because he knew that meant everything to me. May his family find peace at this sad time. I will miss Robin Williams. #RIP.

Two things struck me about this story. First was Questlove’s open insecurity about the Roots’ achievements, which tells me he’s a self-aware celebrity himself. He very accurately understood that, for all the critical acclaim the Roots received, they’d never get the public or commercial recognition of some of his lesser-deserving peers (my words, not his, but it’s fucking true).

Second was how it wasn’t enough for Williams to acknowledge the Roots the first time. Every time afterwards, he would try to top what they already thought he knew about them. Do you know how difficult that is? By the second time I meet somebody, I’ve usually already run out of things to say to that person. Robin Williams went out of his way to make sure the Roots never thought that, and it meant everything to them that he did.

2. Robin Williams does inexplicably Robin Williams things to some rookie comic named Norm MacDonald.

Norm MacDonald relayed a long anecdote of his first encounter with Williams over Twitter, which technically I think is a horrible misuse of the medium, but the story is on point. Here it is transcribed below. Go here or just imagine #RIPRobinWilliams after each sentence to see the original.

It was my first stand-up appearance on Letterman and I had to follow the funniest man in the world. I was a punk kid from rural Ontario and I was in my dressing room, terrified. I was on the phone to a friend back home when the funniest man in the world ambled by. There was no one else on the floor. In shock, I told my friend who just walked by. Only the funniest man in the world. I guess he heard me say his name, cause in an instant he was at my side. He was a jewish tailor, taking my measurements. He went down on his knees, asked which way I dressed. I told my friend on the phone that the funniest man in the world was on his knees before me, measuring my inseam. My friend didn’t believe me so I said, “Could you talk to my friend, sir.” The funniest man in the world took the phone and for ten minutes took my friend’s chinese food order. I laughed and laughed and it was like I was in a dream because no one else was there. No one. The place was out of Moo Shoo Pork, and there was nothing he could do about it. He angrily hung up on my friend and I was about to thank him when he said I hadn’t even tried the jacket on. Then the funniest man on earth dressed me, a complete stranger, and i remember he ended with a windsor knot. He spoke mostly yiddish, but when he finished he was happy with his job and turned me to a mirror to present myself to me. No one witnessed any of this. No one. The funniest man alive was in my dressing room a good half-hour and was far funnier than the set I had to do soon. All of a sudden it was, had to. When he left my dressing room, I felt alone. As alone as I ever remember feeling. Until today. Unacceptable. #RIPRobinWilliams


No, he wasn’t saving any lives or solving world issues in these stories, although Robin Williams did devote a lot of energy to charity. He just exhibited a depth of empathy that few people possess and far fewer care to act on. He knew who he was to everyone else, and I wonder if the weight of that knowledge was what crushed him in the end. I wonder if he just didn’t believe he could be free as long as he was Robin Williams.

I always knew Williams had suffered from drug and alcohol addiction, and in a misguided way that always made him seem cooler to me than his reputation as Mrs. Doubtfire or the Genie should have. I’d always tell people to check out Death to Smoochy, claiming it was Williams’s best performance. “This is coked up Robin Williams right here!” I’d tell them. “This is all-out, no-holding-back Robin Williams!” I meant that as a compliment.

Williams was actually 19 years sober when this film was released. This was right after Bicentennial Man, and he actually made a number of unconventional choices around then, appearing in One Hour Photo and Insomnia the same year as Smoochy. The manic Rainbow Randolph was by far the closest to a traditional Robin Williams character, however, and in retrospect the character’s fall from grace feels haunting if not entirely foreshadowing.

In the end though, I prefer to come back to those two posthumous stories. For all his own immense personal suffering and the suffering that those closest to his internal battles must’ve felt, he certainly made a heroic effort to practice his eccentric brand of selfless benevolence as much as he could. One man’s life should never be judged on the words of acquaintances and strangers alone, but I’d be overwhelmingly honored if people came out of the woodworks to tell stories of my selflessness after I died (well, I’d be honored if I weren’t dead).

I don’t know how to tie a fitting bow onto this obituary, so I’m going to steal Williams’s one appearance on Louie as my conclusion (Louis CK is another comedian whose internal struggles I worry about). In this skit, Robin and Louis are the only two people who attend the funeral of a club owner they both knew, despite and, at the same time, because of the fact that the guy was “a prick and an asshole.” It’s my favorite skit out of all Louie episodes, and it’s never felt more poignant than it does now.

Farewell, Robin. Thanks for all the laughs.