Golden Pen

The ride on the donkey-driven cart came as part of the package tour of Tunisia. A few of us sat in the makeshift cart made of rough, splintered wood, taking in the heat and arid landscape with fascination as tourists do. The path wide enough to accommodate our cart only. I was on spring break from a study abroad program in Bath UK. The driver, a middle-aged man who looked much older than he probably was, covered in strips of cloth and various rags to protect his head and body from the heat. We were somewhere in rural Tunisia. It could’ve been another planet or a set from a Star Wars film.

Halfway through the ride, I pulled out my journal and pen and started writing. Probably about a guy back home I’d had a crush on but hadn’t heard from since I left for Bath. The old man turned around and with a flash of his eyes, I knew he’d seen something miraculous. My pen. Once he saw it, he couldn’t stop staring at it. Every few seconds, he’d turn around to glimpse it. I grew self-conscious as I wrote. As the minutes went by, he began to turn around for longer periods to watch me hold the pen in my hand and write in loops and curves, his eyes following every movement of the writing instrument.

“Be careful,” I said. To the right of the narrow path was a steep drop off.

Finally, he pointed to my pen the way you point at something repeatedly to a vendor in a crowded marketplace.

“Je veux ton stylo,” he said. “Pour mon fils qui va à l’école.”

“Oui, bien sûr,” I said. “Quand j’ai fini.”

His son could have it, this clear Bic pen made of cheap plastic, a pen that I could lose or throw away back home and never miss. The kind of pen that came in packs of ten for a few dollars at Walgreens. I knew what it was like to go without—or rather I have secondhand memories of it. My dad had to bring his own chair to school in the Philippines. My maternal grandpa, who emigrated to the US in his 60s, would stop his bike on the streets of East San Jose to pick up broken, run over, chewed up pens and pencils, clean them up best he could back home, wrap them tightly together in a thick rubber band and store them in the closet unused (my siblings and I would refuse to use them). Of course this man could have my pen for his son who goes to school.

It’s difficult to write a long journal entry as someone waits for your pen. I could feel the man’s distrust growing with every word I wrote. At any time I could change my mind. He turned around several more times and we repeated the conversation. He’d grown accustomed to being promised things that never materialized.   

“Je veux ton stylo,” he said. “Pour mon fils qui va à l’école.”

“Oui, oui, bien sûr,” I said. “Quand j’ai fini.”

Without finishing my journal entry, I closed the pen and handed it over to the man. He grabbed at it vigorously, placed it in a pocket near his heart, and held his hand over it as he drove the cart forward in the desert sun.

The Relay

This essay appears in Essential Truths: The Bay Area in Color (2021)

Late 1990s. I ran the first leg of three along Skyline Boulevard in the dark, gripping a baton in my hand, a headlamp lighting the way. To my right, the vast Pacific Ocean I could hear and smell but not see. Ahead of me, a long, empty two-lane road. My teammates had dropped me off at the handoff point, where I jumped out of the van and grabbed the baton from the previous runner: each of us with a hand on one end of the stick for a brief moment as one runner—tired, fatigued—let go so the fresh, well-rested runner could take over. It went like this for 24 hours until our team of twelve made it 192 miles from Calistoga to Santa Cruz to raise funds for charity. On my last leg in Ben Lomond, the lack of sleep, the cold and hunger had taken over me. Just when I thought about giving up, two exhausted teammates who’d already completed their three legs emerged from the van to run alongside me. Because of them, I made it to the handoff station, where the next runner grabbed the baton from me and hurried off.  

* * *

August 2020. I got the call late in the afternoon from Rose, a longtime housing worker and activist. It had been eleven long days since I started helping Anita, an African American houseless mother, and her four children ages two to nine. Her boyfriend, her niece, and her nineteen-year-old son were also part of the tight group that made up their family circle. All of them were living between two small tents in Oak Knoll Park at the bottom of my street near Lake Merritt.

I hoped my conversation with Rose would be the beginning of a months-long effort to get this family housed during a pandemic and raging wildfires that pushed Bay Area air quality to unhealthy levels. However, after listening to my story, she said, “The need is so great. Housing is just one of their challenges. You don’t know them; they didn’t come through “the system.” you don’t know their history, if there’s drug or alcohol abuse. I know this isn’t what you want to hear but I wanted to call to protect you. To make sure you don’t get too involved. The need is so great.”

It took me several minutes to process her advice. A part of me wanted to disagree with Rose, to let her know I couldn’t stop now. A two-year old girl in diapers living on the streets. And then, another part of me exhaled in the deepest way, as if Rose had given me permission to disengage myself from the difficult situation altogether. Something I didn’t think possible at that point, or ethical. A realization I mightn’t have arrived at on my own any time soon.

***

I first met Anita and her kids when passing out lunch bags to the houseless folks in my neighborhood, something I started doing when homeless encampments developed in my immediate area over the past year. It got to the point where I couldn’t run an errand or walk my dogs without seeing people in need in my own neighborhood. I’ve experienced secondhand trauma from my dad’s stories of hunger during WWII in the Philippines; his mother, my grandmother, died from starvation. I didn’t want to be another person looking away.

Each week, using money I would’ve otherwise spent on sushi, I bought Costco lunchmeat for sandwiches, chips, and chocolates. I packed the lunches on Sunday afternoons and distributed them until I ran out. Soon I started to include dog food as well. I asked for donations online so I could expand my operations. Never had I come across any children during my deliveries. That day Anita’s two-year-old emerged from the tent, followed by her four-year-old, followed by her seven-year-old, followed by her nine-year old, I couldn’t make sense of it. What are they doing here? How can they be living here? How can we (neighbors, passersby, the city of Oakland, the mayor) allow this?

Anita and I exchanged numbers. She asked me for multi-vitamins because the whites of her eyes turned yellow, something I’d noticed immediately. She pointed to her shoes to show me her swollen feet and said her boyfriend’s feet also were swollen. When I asked her what she needed most right now, she said a van that seats seven, which I couldn’t provide for her. “You need medical attention,” I said. She looked at me like I’d just said something in a foreign language. Her young kids crowded around me. I asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up. “Basketball player and scientist!” said the nine-year-old boy, with every confidence he could be both.  

Operation Dignity arranged to put the family in a motel for a week. I used the funds I raised online to buy food and water in bulk and delivered it to them along with Anita’s vitamins. She texted to ask for a hot plate for cooking, so I ordered one and brought it to their motel along with a large pizza and quarters for laundry. One generous person on Nextdoor paid for two extra nights when their motel voucher had expired and air quality worsened. I called every nonprofit I could find to ask about assistance for the family. Many said their shelters were full. Some offered food and diapers, and temporary shelter but only for Anita and up to two kids. All of them asked, “Is she in the system?” When I’d ask Anita if she were in the system, she would say ‘yes’ even though the case managers I spoke to at various agencies said she was not.

After intense efforts over a few weeks, the call with Rose woke me up. At the same time, Anita stopped responding to my texts, weary of my insistence that she sign up to a system that can both help and hurt her. “I don’t want to lose my kids,” she would say. I couldn’t reassure her otherwise because I knew it to be a real possibility. I knew the chances were high that they could take away one or all of them, something that needs to change if houseless mothers are to get the help they need without fear. Unfortunately, I never heard from Anita again.

***

My boyfriend once said to me that you can’t help everyone, but you can do small things to help make someone’s day better. I’ve realized that, although I couldn’t help Anita and her family in the way I’d hoped, I and my neighbors did make their lives better for a brief period. That we’re all in a long relay race, doing our part the best we can, and then handing the baton off to the next person who can help as much as they can, and so on. Every leg of the race counts, every gesture, however big or small, matters.

I’ve since left the Bay Area for a small town in the Sierra Nevada foothills. As soon as things open up, I’ll be ready to help again in any way I can.  

Higher Education

Wearing a pair of faded green cargo pants and red Ecco boots with their thick sole to protect from the rain, I notice the man in the seat next to me looking me up and down. “Where do you go to school?” I asked how he knew I was a student. “It’s obvious.” What I couldn’t tell him is that I had to leave my master’s program in Cork due to a breakdown, that I had to get an extension on my thesis, pack my suitcase, and fly home without a degree. It would be the first time, but not the last, that I would put my mental health before school or work. I say this knowing it’s a privilege—not everyone can drop what they’re doing to recover from a break. I also write this knowing that there are readers out there who will try to define me as someone who has broken down. To those people I say, go ahead and judge if you must. I’ve nothing to prove to you.

Before I tell you what happened, you’ll want to know the reason behind the break, the tightly wrapped reason that you can hold and see and feel. I can tell you the main triggering event: a long-term on/off boyfriend in San Francisco announced his engagement to another woman six months into my stay in Cork. That happened in March of 2002. I took the phone call on a land line in the Munster Literature Centre, located at the time in a classroom of an all-boy’s school. The full breakdown happened five months later in August. In between I read When Things Fall Apart twice and wrote critical papers on Irish poets and writers and shopped for fresh produce and fish in the English Market and continued on as a volunteer at the Munster Lit. That June I threw a birthday party that people still talk about today. I published my first-ever essay on racism in Cork in the Centre’s magazine. When my university said I couldn’t write my thesis on an Irish-language poet because I didn’t speak Irish, I travelled down to Dun Laoghaire to meet the poet in person, and she suggested I write about the differences between the literal translations of her work and the creative translations of her work by other poets. My new topic got approved. All I had to was write it.

If only the reason were that simple. A boyfriend got engaged. Today, I don’t even care about this person. There’s nothing I want or need to know. Those seven years of struggle had more to do with me than him. He’s just the person through which I worked out some issues. I know that now. A few weeks ago, I noticed that he’d been on my LinkedIn page, and I didn’t even care enough to block him. If he ever reaches out to me again, I already know I won’t respond. Thank god he married someone else. I always felt not pretty enough or rich enough or accomplished enough around him and his friends. I’m grateful for the lessons taken from that experience because they’ve brought me to where I am today. In all honesty, I would probably find him boring if we were to meet up after all these years. He absolutely hates technology and has built his life and career around it. What a yawn fest that would be.

The real reasons behind the break go so much deeper than him. But that’s not what I’m here to write about right now.

The symptoms started with insomnia and a headache that worsened over several weeks. I went into the herbal shop on Patrick Street for help and wanted to choke the woman behind the counter when she told me the rose hip drops on my tongue would take a week to take effect. I scheduled an Indian head massage on Oliver Plunkett Street but the tightness and pressure around my head didn’t subside. I tried to buy three items at Tesco’s but froze in the produce section holding an empty basket, unable to figure out how to find the items I needed, place them in my basket, and make it to the register to pay. Instead, I rushed out of the store and ran back to my apartment overlooking the weir. I cried on the blue couch. After a good long cry, I’d cry again. When I tried to read an article in the newspaper, the words jumped around on the page. I didn’t know what was happening to me. Nothing like this had ever happened before.

My boyfriend at the time sent me to see his doctor. I’ll always be grateful for that. The doctor diagnosed me immediately as having depression and anxiety. He wrote out a prescription and a letter to my university saying I needed an extension on my thesis. The medication started to work within hours. The feeling of the tight rubber band around my head slowly lifted and I slept and slept for days. After a few weeks on the medication, I tried to resume work on my thesis but still couldn’t concentrate enough. Academic writing confused me. I couldn’t synthesize my thoughts. My topic felt too complex. (Was it too late to just write another thesis on Oscar Wilde?) All in all, I’d lost a lot of weight that I couldn’t afford to lose.

Finally, I called my sister to let her know what I’d been going through. My plan, I said, was to stay in Cork as long as it took to finish my thesis. “I’m not leaving without finishing.” She agreed with the plan, probably because she knew I was too stubborn to come home without a degree. On that call, I broke down and let out a wail that scared even me. I asked her for my brother-in-law’s opinion, and in the background I heard him say, “Come home.”

I booked my flight home that day. I told myself, you can do this, but you can’t do it right now. Take care of yourself first. Your body and heart and mind want your full attention. They’re demanding it, in fact. It’s not so much that I gave up, it’s that I didn’t have a choice. To attempt to stay in Ireland and work on the thesis would’ve been self-destructive.

Back home, with the help of my sister and brother-in-law, I put on some weight over the next several months and recovered enough to start thinking about my thesis again. My mind felt clear, and my thesis topic excited me once again. I submitted it in the fall of 2004 and got my degree with upper second class honors (2:1). When I look at the hard-bound cover on my bookshelf, I feel the weight of that education.

Imperfections

Jeff and I met at a tech company in 1995 when I interviewed for a job I was fantastically underqualified for in sales operations. I’d just graduated San Jose State with a bachelor’s degree in English and had been working part-time in the IT department for a mid-sized global networking company in Santa Clara, the heart, or at least a ventricle of the heart, of Silicon Valley. In fact, half of my family members worked there, which is how I got the job—brother-in-law, his sisters, their brother-in-law, their brother-in-law’s brother, my sister and, eventually, my brother. At work, sometimes people would ask me how we’re all related, and I’d need to get on the white board to map out the family tree.

I knew nothing about computers, nothing about working in an office, nothing at all about IT. But because I felt so behind after having dropped out of high school and running off to upstate New York with Jimmy, I immersed myself in an unhealthy way in the job, learning as much as I could, as fast as I could, volunteering for everything and anything. (So much so that a full-time staff person once expressed shock to learn I was just an intern.) You need someone to work the midnight shift? I’ll do it. You need someone to answer the IT help line for East Coast users at 6 am Pacific time? I’ll do it. You need someone to sit in the frigid server room to monitor the servers for the entire company? That’s me. You need someone small to crawl beneath the floorboards of the server room to fix some cables? I can fit. I was twenty-six years old, starving for experience, recognition, advancement—anything to catch up to everyone else around me. Before I knew or understood that we’re all on our own personal timeline. Long before I knew that one day I’d become a writer, and having a teenage runaway story would be something of a jewel for me.

When I saw the job posting for the systems analyst position in the sales department, I had the balls to apply. No one in my family, with one exception, had dared to venture outside of IT. It was like the Filipinos belonged in the support role, in the building in the back, not in any front-facing roles in the company. Behind the scenes. Unseen. Always accountable if anything goes wrong. This new role would be in Building 100 where the executives and sales and marketing teams sat. The most important and powerful people in the company where all decisions were made. That I had the guts to enter that building thinking I could work alongside them makes me smile today. There’s a reason we’re all naïve when we’re younger; that naivety moves the world, makes the impossible happen.

Jeff emerged from behind his colleague Kevin in the conference room on the fourth floor of Building 100 and shook my hand. I can only describe that moment as a white out, all my senses so activated my vision went blank for a few seconds. As if I knew on the spot my life would be split between pre-Jeff and post-Jeff. He had a dimple, fresh face, fit body. He exuded health and wealth. He was Asian. I hadn’t dated an Asian man in a long while. My current ex at the time was English. My serious boyfriend before him was Jimmy—the white, long-haired, drop out, weed smoking, motorcycle riding boyfriend I ran away with to Hyde Park, NY, his hometown. That men like Jeff existed excited me. That someone like him lived and breathed in the world and intersected with my life on that day felt unreal.

They proceeded to interview me about my skills and background, and I even got up on the whiteboard to show them how I would use software tools to replicate sales information nationwide and globally within twenty-four hours, back when real-time data didn’t exist yet. How I’d be the ideal liaison between the national sales team and IT given my 10-month experience in the IT department as a part-time intern. Later I would learn that Jeff said, “Her voice is mesmerizing. Let’s hire her.”

We’d spend the next seven years on and off in a serious relationship until he’d announce one day while I was studying abroad in Ireland for a master’s degree that he was engaged to another woman. Around the middle of our time together, I’d meet his family and spend time with his sister who had a Black Lab. I didn’t spend enough time with her family to grow close to any of them or their dog, but somehow this animal made a strong impression on me. This dog linked me to Jeff, his family, our connection, our intense desire and attraction, my deep hurt and disappointment. After my total breakdown in Ireland after having learned of Jeff’s engagement, I’d fly home and recover for several months, including gaining the weight back that I’d lost. I needed a dog, a companion, something to take care of, something to ground me in San Jose and the Bay Area, something to think of other than myself. And the only dog that would do was a Black Lab. If I couldn’t have Jeff, I could have a physical being that served as evidence that we’d once shared a life together. Isso started off as that link between me and my ex. And over the years, he became much more than that.

At first, it bothered me that Isso wasn’t a full Black Lab, like Jeff’s sister had had. A Black Lab mix. Mixed with what? Shepherd. Border Collie. His nose longer than a pure bred, his body leaner. Little wings of hair grew out from the sides from his neck. When he was a puppy, I’d try to smooth them back, try to make him look more like a regular Lab. Tried to preserve the image of Jeff’s sister’s dog through my own dog. Until one day, when Isso was a few years old, I sat down next to him, slipped my fingers through the course hair sticking out, and pulled outward to fluff it up, giving him a stately mane that was his and his alone. For the rest of his long life, I’d continue to play with the mane, make it stick out as far and high as I could, accepting him for exactly who he was, loving the perceived imperfections so much he grew to be wholly perfect inside and out. Trying hard to accept my own self-created imperfections.

Higher Education (excerpt)

On the opening night of California Sushi & Grill in downtown San Jose, two blonde college girls, most likely from San Jose State, walked in and said they’d like to sit at the sushi bar. Isabelle, the elderly Japanese hostess, asked them what they were going to order.

“Oh, we just want some California rolls and some sake.”

The only two stools available on the busy night sat empty, chairs number one and two, closest to the sushi’s chef’s toaster oven at the right end of the bar. Not the prime spot—not seats three and four, right in front of Hiro-san and with a front row view of the fresh fish. Isabelle looked at the girls and glanced at the empty stools. Back at the girls, and then the empty stools. And what she did next is something I’d never forget.

“No, thank you,” she bowed.

The girls, confused, turned around and walked out of the double doors of the restaurant while looking back at Isabelle and me and the patrons having fun at the sushi bar. They even looked in through the oversized front windows of the shop as they made their way down San Fernando Street. As pretty, young blonde girls, they didn’t know what to make of the situation. Never in their lives has anyone closed a door on them. Isabelle then walked over and propped stools one and two against the sushi bar counter to indicate the seats were being saved.

“What happened?” I asked.

“They wanted to eat California rolls,” she said, in a tone that said many things about the girls, like ‘How dare they’ and ‘No class’ and ‘Don’t they know the sushi bar is reserved for high spenders’?

Those bar stools stayed empty for the rest of the night. I imagined the college girls telling their friends about what’d happened to them at the new sushi bar. This incident early on in what would be a years-long job showed me how Isabelle deals with people, sizing them up for what they’re worth, their bank account size, whether or not they’re worthy to be in the company of the wealthy and powerful Japanese businessmen sitting at the sushi bar. Is this the restaurant I wanted to work for? I imagined the sushi bar would be a hopping, exciting, and welcome atmosphere, not one of exclusion. I could’ve been one of those girls coming in with a friend for a sushi snack. By turning them down, she dismissed a whole demographic of San Jose State students, even though the university was just a few blocks away. Did the owners know she did this? Did they ask her to do this? What kind of restaurant did they want this to be?

I felt really bad that the girls were turned away and knew how confused they must’ve been. They could see the empty stools at the bar, they could see everyone else eating sushi and drinking beer and sake and having loud, boisterous conversations over the music. They could imagine themselves fitting right in. I felt at once sorry for them and also in awe of how Isabelle handled the situation. She didn’t explain why they couldn’t take those stools, she didn’t say they were reserved, she didn’t say, ‘Come back another time when it’s less busy.’ With three words and a shallow bow, she managed to convey that they weren’t welcome and she was under no obligation to provide them with an explanation, that the house had invisible rules they didn’t understand, and that their business wasn’t needed. It was a masterclass in subtle yet effective communication. I wanted to know how she did that, I wanted to be able to do that. Like with many contradictions, that scene left me both unsettled and intrigued by Isabelle’s actions.

Limp Tail

For my fortieth birthday, I had a pool party at my sister’s house in El Dorado Hills. Friends from the Bay Area made the long drive up to celebrate, but none of us ended up swimming because, ironically, it was too hot. The temperature peaked at around one hundred ten degrees, and no one wanted to be outside. I had Mexican food catered that day, and felt badly about that decision when one of my friends commented, “What, no lumpia?”

Parties have always been a source of stress in my family growing up for the massive amount of cleaning and cooking and prepping that had to be done. Filipinos, including my family, felt the need to put on a big show, to have an impressive spread of everything from lechon and pansit to homemade desserts like kutsinta with fresh coconut and bibingka. Part showing off (we have a lot of money (even if untrue) therefore we can afford to provide this much good food), part cultural (food brings us all together, it’s nourishing, and there have been times in our lives or our ancestor’s lives when food was scarce, particularly during war), part prevention (if we don’t make enough food, which in Filipino culture means enough for people to eat twice or three times and take leftovers home (god forbid anyone leave without a paper plate covered in foil containing piles of food), people will tsis mis about how we’re kuripot). By the time the actual party started, we’d all be worn out.

Determined to end that practice, I kept the party as low maintenance as possible, which meant no cooking by anyone. We almost don’t know what to do with ourselves when we’re not chopping and slicing and frying and baking and boiling and steaming. In making that decision, I was aware that I was having a more Western-style party; white people cater all the time. Why couldn’t I? Why couldn’t I just throw some money at the problem instead of sweating and toiling away near the stove? I had a good job at Stanford, I could afford it. But the uneasiness of the decision, the feeling that somehow I’d let myself and others down by not putting in ten hours of work for a party, stayed with me the entire day. I’d taken the easy way out, the first generation to do so.

Isso wasn’t allowed in my sister’s house (too big, sheds too much) so he must’ve been in the casita with the air conditioning on during the party. (I can’t imagine he would’ve been anywhere else in that heat.) That’s something always difficult to navigate—when your dog isn’t allowed in the house. As if they’re not family, as if they’re not an important part of whatever social gathering or party or celebration. I don’t blame my sister, it’s her house and she can decide whether large dogs are allowed inside, but, still, it’s hard to take knowing your best friend can’t be with you during a milestone birthday. He’s the one who stayed up until 3 a.m. with me as I worked on my stories or critical essays for my MFA program, the one who greeted me with so much love when I returned home from work in the evenings, the one who slept on my bed every night, sometimes at the bottom of the bed near my feet, sometimes right on my legs, preventing me from moving even if I was in an awkward position, and, a few times, right next to me with his head on the extra pillow. How do you describe this bond to a non-dog person? It’s inconceivable to me to leave the dog out of a party or celebration. They are the party, they are the celebration.

Once again, I found myself single on my fortieth birthday. I’d been dating someone casually, superficially, the worst kind of dating for me. Definitely not someone I could invite to the party, someone my entire family would scrutinize. To make myself feel better, I wore cute short shorts—black with a red medieval cross stitched on the back pocket and gold angel wings on the back waistband. I paired them with a shimmering gold bikini top with braided straps, my way of saying, Yes, I’m single but I can still get away with an outfit that some 20-year-olds cannot. That I exposed so much skin that day makes me uncomfortable now. That I felt the need to compensate in that way makes me sad.

The next day, it cooled down enough to spend the day in the backyard swimming. Relatives and a few friends had stayed the night, so, in true Filipino fashion, the party continued. With a dozen kids jumping in and out of the pool, Isso joined right in. He loved to swim, but mostly he loved to fetch. I’d throw a ball in the deep end of the pool, he’d madly circle around the perimeter, staring intently at the ball, blocking out all other distractions, noise, people as he made calculations in his mind on the best way to get at the ball. First, he’d pace back and forth near the deep end, and then sprint all the way around to the shallow end to see if perhaps this was a better way to get it. And then he’d make his way back to the deep end and propel his 70-pound body off the ground and into the water, keeping his focus on the ball the entire time. Once he retrieved it, he’d paddle his way to the pool stairs, jump out, find me, drop the ball at my feet, and assume his fetch position like a runner in crouch pose ready to start the race. If I weren’t available to throw the ball for him, he’d find anyone—a grandmother, a toddler, anyone capable of picking up a ball and throwing it for him. If the person didn’t throw the ball to his liking (not far enough, not fast enough), he’d abandon them in search of someone who could.

I made the mistake of leaving Isso to play with the kids in the backyard while I sipped cocktails inside. I could drink a lot back then, maybe three to four martinis or margaritas, and still hold my own. Never or rarely did I get sick from drinking, and never did I cry when drunk. I’m a happy drunk the whole time, socializing in a carefree way, unable to stop talking, laughing constantly up until the point I fall asleep or pass out. With quite a buzz on that day, I forgot to check on Isso regularly. I could see him playing in the pool with all the kids and knew they would watch over him or let me know if he needed anything.

In the early evening, after swimming all day, Isso’s tail went limp. In the five years since I’d adopted him, I’d never seen anything like this. His long black tail with the slight bend in the middle lay flat against his hind legs. I tried to lift it but it just dropped back into place. He showed signs of pain when walking and couldn’t sit down. I panicked and called the nearest vet to schedule an emergency appointment. When we got into the examination room, the first thing I said was, “His tail’s broken.” To which the vet replied, “His tail isn’t broken.” I felt so relieved. Still, I at once felt worried for Isso, bad that he was in obvious pain, and guilty that I’d been drinking all day and not checking on him. If I were a better dog mom, this wouldn’t have happened. If I were a better dog mom, I wouldn’t have drunk so much. If I were a better dog mom, I’d be a better dog mom.

“He’s got limp tail,” said the vet. He explained the condition as one that large dogs are prone to get when swimming in very cold water on a really hot day. Isso would need pain medication for the soreness and a bland diet for at least a week, which stressed me out knowing I was supposed to leave for Slovenia in a few days for my MFA residency. Do I cancel my trip? How could I in good conscience leave for Europe for two weeks when my dog needed care?

I brought Isso home to Potrero Hill, where I was living at the time with a roommate and her dog, and she promised to take good care of Isso so I could go away. After many hours of travel, I arrived in the small town of Škocjan, population ten, only to learn there was no internet access except at the local library that had very limited hours. So once a day, between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., I’d make my way there to try to get online, sometimes successful, sometimes not, to get status on Isso. It was hard to concentrate and stay present on my trip knowing he wasn’t well. He occupied my thoughts on the plane, in my B&B at night, and during workshop during the day. It hurt being so far away from him knowing how much he needed me, not just for care but for the special comfort I give him by singing personalized songs that have his name in them. Only I could take care of Isso in the way he needed—physically, emotionally, spiritually. That’s the real bond between a dog and their person; the daily feedings and walks are the tip of the iceberg of an extraordinarily deep connection that gets formed.

After a week in Škocjan, I got the wonderful news from my roommate Kyrsten that Isso’s tail started working again! His pain had subsided, he could sit down and resume his normal diet. My Isso was fine. The news made me so happy, and I finally settled into my trip without worry or guilt.

Wake Up (Duck) Call

I started a Google Sheet to track the animals I’ve encountered so far since my move from Lake Merritt in Oakland to rural Cameron Park, a place few, including myself before relocating, have heard of. After sheltering-in-place with my sister’s family in nearby El Dorado Hills for most of 2020, I’d grown used to the expansive space, smaller crowds, and slower pace. The few times I returned to Oakland to check on my place and gather personal items, I noticed my stress level increase due to the noise, crowded lake and concentration of people and buildings. When an opportunity to buy a home in rural Cameron Park presented itself, I put in an offer, had no competition, and closed escrow in three weeks. I realized after I said goodbye to my native Bay Area that I’d actually checked out long ago. The only thing really keeping me there were my clients, and the pandemic made them realize I (and most people) don’t need to be there in person anymore.

Cameron Park is a small town of about 20,000 people you might pass through on your way to Tahoe from the Bay Area, just when you’re about an hour and a half away from the lake and need to rest or eat. In fact, one of the two exits for Cameron Park offers just those amenities—motels, gas stations, a Denny’s, Carl’s Jr., McDonalds, Taco Bell. It’s one of those towns whose names you don’t need to remember after you’ve checked out or filled up and headed back on Highway 50 on your way up to the Sierras. You need Cameron Park temporarily for what it can offer you during your travels—a transactional relationship and nothing more. There’s a man-made lake and a neighborhood with extra wide streets and homes with hangar-sized garages to accommodate the private planes flying in and out of the local airport, but these places aren’t enough to attract tourists.

So far, in my Google Sheet, I’ve recorded:

  • 7 deer
  • 1 coyote (panicked)
  • 4 wild turkeys
  • 1 bald eagle (cried)
  • 4 ducks (3 living on my back porch)
  • 1 black swan (enamored)
  • Descent of woodpeckers
  • Countless squirrels
  • Dozens of turtles
  • The sound of a bleating fawn (YouTubed to confirm)

The number of wild animals caught me by surprise, which I now realize is such a naïve thing to say. Of course, when you have a heavily wooded area, there’ll be animals. I just didn’t realize how many, and close they would be, and that they’d be knocking on my window, peering in as I sit on my couch. In the first month of living here, I did online searches for mountain lion and bear and coyote attacks. I bought mace and a loud whistle for protection. My neighbor is whittling by hand a walking stick to help me feel safe when I take my dog out. I’ve stopped nearly every dog person on the back country roads to ask if any wild animals have attacked their dogs (they haven’t). It’s been months of paranoia and fear and constant awareness of my surroundings. Friends have joked that I was safer in Oakland than Cameron Park.

And then a month ago, about four months into my move to Cameron Park, I had a talk with myself. I’m an animal lover, I’ve studied animal communication and can talk telepathically with dogs and cats and horses, I love nature. How do I channel my fear of the wild into something else, something more accepting and loving? How do I learn to co-exist with wild animals and appreciate them, even befriend them (without interfering in their lives)? I set my intention to embrace the wild animals around me, and suddenly things started to change. I started to research how various animals stayed warm in winter, what they hunted, when they mated. I’ve a lot more to learn but have discovered a newfound commitment to understand their world as best I can and use my tools to communicate with them.

I headed out to North Carolina for three weeks on my first trip since the start of the pandemic. Upon my return, a female mallard duck and two male mallards rested on the shady slope of my back porch. A neighbor had put out water for them and threw breadcrumbs their way in the morning. I knew they’d come from the lake across the street and was surprised to see them looking so comfortable. While sitting in my living room that day, the female mallard walked up to my sliding glass door and peeked in between the blinds of my plantation shutters, her little brown head bobbing up and down to get a better view of me. I caught her on video and posted it to Facebook. Soon after, two male mallards (drakes) decided to play voyeur as well, but instead of just looking into my living room, they began to knock loudly on the glass door with their bills—nature’s way, literally, of getting my attention.

It didn’t take me long to order a large bag of cracked corn for them, the same feed I’d used for ducks at Lake Merritt. Over the past few weeks since the ducks arrived, there’s been some drama. Once, I had to stop working in the middle of a tight deadline to break up a fight between three drakes who were trying to mate with the female (Esmerelda). By break up a fight, I mean screaming, “Hey! Leave her alone!” and opening my door wide to coax the female inside for safety. In my subsequent research I learned this is their mating ritual, and that they mate for a season and the female can get hurt. The next time it happened, I had to stand by and watch without intervening no matter how much I wanted to help the female, reminding myself that she could fly away if she really wanted to. She has plenty of opportunities. Still, I viewed those drakes as abusive monsters for a while before accepting once again that nature must takes its course.

Last week the female went missing for several days. I knew ducks mated for the season, so it worried me that she hadn’t come by. The two drakes fighting for her would turn up and look around, confused. They ate the feed I gave them in the morning, drank the fresh water in their bowl, and waited for her, nothing else to do with themselves when they had no one to fight over. When she turned up after three days, I found myself asking her, “Where have you been?” and “Are you okay?” and telling her I’m so happy she came back.

They’re outside on the grass as I write this. I’ll keep feeding and enjoying them for however long they plan to stay. I’m hoping I’ll wake up to little chicks one day, peeking through my window.

More American Than You

If ‘being American’ is defined as someone who’s flexible, bold, risk-taking, fluid, adaptable, and innovative, I’m more American than you.

Just like you, I attended (public) school here. As a kid, I learned to read through a subscription to Walt Disney books, watched Romper Room, New Zoo Review, Mister Rogers, Might Mouse, Rocky and Bullwinkle. I ate Campbell’s soup from a can, Lipton soup (with rice), made peanut and butter jelly sandwiches, drank soda, chewed Bubblicious gum, slurped snow cones in summer, played jump rope, dodge ball, tether ball, ding dong ditch, swung high on the swings and jumped off at dangerous heights. Played in empty barns, swam in public pools, rode my bike, roller skated all day, played with Barbies. Owned a pet rock. Walked around barefoot.

Just like you, I watched Little House on the Prairie, Mutual of Ohama nature shows, The Brady Bunch. I played monopoly, with yo-yos, hoola hoops, Atari games, foos ball, Centipede, Asteroids, Space Invaders. I studied hard, made good grades, got on the honor roll. Took family road trips to LA, San Diego, camping trips to Yosemite, Lake Camanche, KOA Campgrounds. Had sleepovers, attended sleepovers, had crushes, signed slam books, made prank calls, listened to The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Motown artists like Mary Wells, metal bands, rap, punk rock, ballads. Got addicted to General Hospital thanks to my grandma.

Just like you, I celebrated Fourth of July, President’s Days, recited the pledge of allegiance every morning, know all the words to The Star-Spangled Banner, This Land is Your Land. Jumped off the couch screaming during any Superbowl with a Bay Area team. Worked at a McDonald’s and Carl’s Jr. during high school. Had crushes on Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon and, later, Matt Damon. Hung out at Great America, Disneyland, Magic Mountain, Universal Studios.

Unlike you, I navigated this childhood with immigrant parents, one with a heavy accent and broken English. It once took me hours to explain to my mom that I needed her to sign a permission slip for school so I could join my first-grade class to see bunnies in someone’s back yard. She didn’t understand what a ‘field trip’ was, why I had to leave the school grounds (dangerous), why we needed to see bunnies. It wasn’t until I cried and said I’d be the only one left behind in school if I didn’t get a signed permission slip that she eventually signed it.

Unlike you, I excelled in my kindergarten class even with a racist White teacher excluding me from games and pinning a note on my shirt everyday that read, Teach Your Daughter English. Excelled when a third-grade teacher sat me down to say I needed to slow down on my SRAs, that I was reading them too fast and moving too far ahead of the rest of the class, and I ignored him, and continued to read the stories, answer the questions, and move up to the next level.

Unlike you, I watched my older sister get pulled by her long ponytails while wearing skates as the neighborhood kids called her a ‘gook’ and a ‘chink.’ Unlike you, before I even started school, I watched my dad fistfight with a big White man on our front lawn after he’d been harassing us for months about not parking on the street in front of our Navy housing. Unlike you, I watched my parents pour time, money, energy, and tears into petitions to bring relatives over from the Philippines, seeing my parents wait patiently for five, ten or more years until the petitions finally got approved.

Unlike you, I had to explain to my newly emigrated grandpa that he couldn’t barter for the cost of grapes at Alpha Beta. That I didn’t want any of the broken pencils, run-over combs, rubber bands he’d found on the street while walking or riding his bike.

Unlike you, I had to grab the phone from my mom when bill collectors talked down to her, confused her even more with their lengthy explanations of what was due, only to change their tone completely when I, her daughter with perfect English, got on the phone.

Unlike you, I continued to love bukayo from the Philippines even when I brought a bag full of it to school and all the kids said it looked and smelled gross.

Unlike you, I ate rice with eggs, put heaps of bagoong in my rice to eat with fried fish, grated fresh coconut in the backyard for the kutsinta, crushed the ice for halo halo in summer, ate pigs feet, tripe, and lechon while everyone thought my food was disgusting.

Unlike you, I listened to story after story about the war, starvation, disease, death, Japanese occupation, losing everything, martial law.

Unlike you, I cussed out a Harley Davidson motorcycle rider who told me and my mom to go back to our country after his claim that she almost hit him with her car.

Unlike you, I get up and get to work trying to raise money for low-income communities even when someone at the BART station stalks me after a client meeting and tells me to go back to my country.

Unlike you, I and my Asian brothers and sisters have found a way to be both American and Asian at the same time. If being American means being adaptable and flexible and moving forward even in challenging times, then I, and we, are more American than you.

Make Your Own Rules: On Long-Distance Dating During a Pandemic

After a few months of dating, my boyfriend relocated to North Carolina to be closer to his mother and stepfather, and to leave behind San Francisco—Frisco—his birthplace and where he has spent most of his life in its schoolyards, bookstores, on its streets, on muni and BART. The move had been a year in the making. As a longtime poet and housing activist, he, along with many locals, witnessed his beloved city turn into a tech playground, a place he no longer recognized, a place he could no longer call home. It’d been clear from the beginning that this move would not be temporary, did not serve as a break from the city, but a permanent relocation across the country, never to return except for occasional visits.

The anticipation of his departure two weeks before his scheduled train ride across country proved to be harder than I thought. In fact, the anticipation of his departure was harder than the departure itself. Counting down the days … 9, 8, 7. Not really knowing how things would play out. Whether or not he’d like it out there. Whether or not we’d stay in touch.

For the past year or more, I’d experienced a similar feeling—anticipatory grief. A term I learned from Meghan O’Rourke’s memoir The Long Goodbye about her dying mother. My beloved dog and best friend Isso whom I adopted at eight weeks old had turned sixteen, and although he didn’t have significant health problems, or any health problems, really, I knew the chances of him making it another year would be slight, especially since he’d already blew past the expected life span of a 70 pound dog. I tried to prepare myself for what his decline in health might look like, but it only gave me anxiety. I tried to imagine him no longer around, but I couldn’t. It turned out that all the anticipatory grief I’d experienced didn’t help; that time would’ve been better spent being with my dog in the moment. I embraced each health challenge as I met it. I had to put him down exactly two weeks ago as I write this, just ten days before his 17th birthday.

As soon as my boyfriend got on board the train, the text messages and pictures and audio clips and video clips started to fill my inbox. I’d been wondering about how much we would keep in touch once he arrived in North Carolina, never really imagining that I’d be along for the train ride to his new home. Our communication got stronger with the distance. After a few months, I went out to visit for the first time. The weather in western North Carolina was in the process of turning to fall. He introduced me to his mother and stepfather, his uncle, and a few new friends he’d made. A few months after that trip, he came to visit me in Oakland and we attended a literary festival and took a trip to the ocean, something he missed being in a landlocked place. I got to meet both sets of grandparents at their grave sites, which he cleaned with much respect as he told me about his memories with them. I returned to North Carolina in winter for the holidays. And then again in March to throw a reception for him as the newly named Carl Sandburg Writer-In-Residence.

During the reception, he disappeared for a while. When he came back, I could tell something had happened. We said goodbye to our lovely guests, and on the car ride back to his place, he said his residency got cancelled due to Covid. No reschedule date. No further instructions. Just cancelled.

Just two weeks prior, I had attended a 400+ person gala at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco for one of my clients. It seemed impossible that so much could change in just a few short weeks. That Covid could affect our lives in this way.

When we said goodbye at the Asheville airport in March, I knew that it’d be a long time before we could meet again. No one knew what we were in for. I’d be flying back to the Bay Area on the first day of the shelter-in-place mandate. To make certain we’d meet again, I left behind a rosary my mom gave me, one that I carried in my purse always (if I changed purses, I moved the rosary to the new purse). Wrapped safely in a small leather pouch I’d purchased long ago in Venice. It now sits in his living room near his TV.

For the past seven months, we have kept in contact through Facebook Messenger, SMS texts, video calls, audio clips, email, cards. We send each other small things in the mail. Together we attend readings and workshops on Zoom. We have date nights with sushi and wine. We’ve argued, made up again. Sent each other ridiculous pictures of ourselves with graphics from our phones like two teenagers. In the time since Covid began, we would’ve met two or three times, but events got cancelled and flying became a scary, and even foolish, thing to do.

I’ve been reading up about how other people are managing with a long-distance relationship. Lots of tips about how to keep it fresh, alive. And when I read these tips, some resonate with me and others do not. I’m finding that two people must figure out what works best for them. For example, many sites recommend having at least one meal together every day. I don’t like eating when I’m on video. When I’m eating, I want to focus on my food. When I’m on the video call, I don’t want to be chewing. Other tips say to watch a film together. That’s something we would do together in person, so it makes sense to transfer that to the virtual world. But that hasn’t really worked for us. What works better is reading the same book (not necessarily at the same time) and discussing it. What seems to work for us is spontaneity, not previously scheduled video calls. I get video calls in the morning when I look like hell, and then video calls when he’s on his daily walk through the streets of Hendersonville trying to get home before the next rain, and when he’s picking up a sugar-free dessert at the local bakery on Main Street that we both love and turns the camera around so I can say hi to the staff. Some days like on a Sunday, we might communicate very little or not at all. Even we need a break. For me, this lack of schedule has kept our communication alive. I never know when we’re going to see each other virtually, but I always know it’ll be soon.

Lately, we’ve been breaking down all the different scenarios on airline travel. If we should do it, how we should do it, who should travel, what precautions we’d need to take regarding quarantine once the person who travelled arrives. I’m dizzy from reading articles on the topic, where some experts say the risk level of getting Covid from a plane is low, and other experts say they wouldn’t dare get on one. Every time I read one article that makes me think it’s okay to travel, I read something else that cancels that one out. For now, we don’t have a plan, and maybe not having a plan will end up being the plan. Neither one of us is comfortable flying right now. Winter is coming, the flu season is coming, so travel during those peak months will definitely be out of the question for us both. The desire to see each other is there, and hopefully that’s enough to carry us through this pandemic.

Ghost Candy

This morning, as I sat down at the oversized island in my sister’s kitchen, eating a bowl of fried rice my brother-in-law made, picking out the bits of sausage in the dish—the only dish I’m willing to do that for as a pescatarian, I noticed a handful of Werther’s Originals in a bowl in front of me. Enough to catch my attention. Enough to distract me from my breakfast. The shiny golden foil wrapper resembling the color of 18 karat gold covered in yellow-tinted cellophane. The candy’s unique oval shape. Its recess in the middle where the groove of the tongue fits nicely. The other side smooth as a mirror glaze on a cake on the Great British Baking Show.

I used to carry Werther’s in my purse all the time but stopped a few years ago after I read the obituary of my ex-husband’s girlfriend of two years (may she rest in peace). My ex-husband and I had dated for three years before getting married. The marriage lasted less than two years, the same amount of time it took us to finalize our divorce in 2015. Not because it was contentious, but because neither one of us knew how to deal with the matter at hand. The paperwork from the agency handling the divorce would arrive and sit at our respective places unsigned, unreturned. At one point they checked in with us to see if we still intended to dissolve the marriage. We’d meet up as friends over dinner, sharing meals and a bottle of wine, looking like a couple to anyone who would’ve been watching. Our friendship confused my sister and my family. If you’re still friends, why not stay married? They would’ve done anything for me to stay married. Anything to avoid bringing the disgrace of divorce into our divorce-free Filipino family.

She had passed suddenly. They’d just moved in together after dating for a few years. She was his first serious relationship since we finished. I had yet to have a relationship as serious as his, so I felt behind, as if it were a competition. She came from a famous, wealthy family so unfortunately the gossip columns took hold of the story. My humble, gentle, innocent ex-husband suddenly on the pages of tabloid magazines. Nothing could be more disturbing to me.   

I knew nothing about her. Knew nothing of her personality, interests, likes or dislikes. But when I read about how she was known to carry Werther’s in her purse to distribute randomly to friends, I felt like I knew her. Because it’s something I do, too. Well, something I did. I’d buy a pack of the Werther’s hard candy (not the chewy caramel ones, yuck), a pack of Butter Rum Lifesavers, and would often have a Heath Bar tucked away somewhere as well. My boyfriend says I like old people candy. He does, too. In fact, when we first started dating, he pegged me as a Butter Rum Lifesaver person. Without saying a word, I got up, grabbed my purse in the other room, and presented him with an opened roll of that exact flavor. Once, I offered my niece, a teenager, a Butter Rum Lifesaver. She looked at me and said, “Who buys that??”

My love for old-fashioned flavors must’ve begun in childhood when my maternal grandfather, who’d emigrated from the Philippines with my grandmother to live with us in San Jose, would pull them out of his pocket like a magician and inconspicuously place them in our hands like we held some great secret. He’d cycle to Alpha Beta, the local grocery store, and buy the Brach’s butterscotch candies in bulk. Back home, he’d wrap them in a plastic bag, and then place that bag in another plastic bag, wrap a dozen rubber bands around it, and store it in a dresser drawer. To get at the candies became a small project that took several minutes of undoing and unwrapping and unwrapping again.

Right after my ex-husband and I got married, his mother (may she rest in peace) passed down several items to me from my ex-husband’s paternal grandmother, who had raised him. The items included fur and mink, which I had to respectfully decline given my love for animals. One of the items, to my surprise, was a vintage Heath Bar box that contained jewelry. His grandmother loved Heath Bars too? At the time, I took it as a sign that we were meant to spend our lives together. Without having known his late grandmother, I knew a lot about her through her candy choice.

Just like his late ex-girlfriend who I knew nothing, yet everything, about. People like us who are drawn to old-fashioned candy are nostalgic, (overly) sensitive, domestic, deeply loyal, honest, giving of everything we have, appreciative of small things, aware of the subtle changes in moods and emotions in people when others are not. We can be reflective, interior, grounded, yearning for simplicity, and seekers of silence and solitude. Werther’s and Butter Rum and Heath Bar aren’t just candy, a way to satisfy a sweet tooth; they’re a way of life.

The fact that my ex-husband’s late girlfriend used to carry them in her purse like me shook me enough to stop buying Werther’s. In my mind, the candy has been redefined and in some ways is no longer mine. For now, the ghost of the candies rest in my purse, knowing that they’ll always belong.