Destroying stuff to annihilate yourself

My birthday last October coincided with “No Bra Day,” which alleged support for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Though the origins of the day seemed dubious, I took it at face value and decided to celebrate my birthday with a good old-fashioned bra-burning complete with boob cupcakes, boob balloons, and boob-loving friends. The ceremonial cremation of my undergarments would commemorate the freeing of my tatas in a double mastectomy scheduled for later that month. I would never need to wear a bra again after the surgery and burning the bras, rather than throwing or giving them away, seemed like an auspicious and reverential way to acknowledge the transformation and self-scrutiny and reflection that breast cancer had activated in me.

The bra-burning bash took place on a mild mid-October evening around a fire pit at a friend’s house in the woods along the Potomac River just outside of DC. Once the funeral pyre roared to life, I tossed the first bra into the conflagration and the flames vaporized the polyester and nylon in seconds, leaving behind glowing red wires over which we roasted marshmallows. Laughter and happy chatter filled the air until the final bra was sacrificed into the bonfire and then we stood silently in a circle, each of us lost in thought.

Earlier in the spring of that year, I smashed a cotton candy pink Fender Stratocaster into small bits on the stage at Cherry Blast. A musician friend who liked to smash guitars on his birthdays proposed the idea a couple days before the event and I agreed right away.

The night before the event, my friend taught me enough chords to impersonate someone who knew how to handle a guitar, coached me on proper rock ‘n’ roll style stage strutting, and shared a few pointers on how to protect my eyes and hands from flying shrapnel. I failed to heed his safety tips so my ungloved hands ended up bloodied and bruised, however my eyeballs remained unpunctured even though I forgot to pull down the sunglasses from the top of my head to cover my eyes.

I had been producing Cherry Blast annually for five years for the National Cherry Blossom Festival along with hundreds of other events over the same period and had begun to feel adrift and burnt out and like something was missing. The catharsis of lifting the guitar over my head and smashing it to the ground again and again until the solid, hard body gave way to tiny bits of wood and metal and wire that littered the stage in a mangled mess propelled a little closer to my true and best self.


LIFE PLAYLIST!

I sat on a grant panel at the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities several years ago, long before I was an arts commissioner and when I was just starting to produce large art events as Pink Line Project, when a slightly awkward young woman sang a couple songs and played ukulele as her application for an arts grant. I was so taken with her lyrical wit and charming disposition that I contacted her as soon as the commission would allow it and asked her to perform at one of my early events. That women was Maureen Andary and I have been following her rise with great interest and pride ever since. Our careers in the arts in DC have grown in tandem and I’d like to think we helped each other succeed. After so many years, I am thrilled that she and the wonderful Sara Curtin will perform as The Sweater Set at the live recording of the Women of Uncertain Age podcast at noon on Saturday, July 19 at DCAC’s 25th anniversary event!

In preparing for the podcast this weekend, my co-host Karen and I decided that we would each make a music playlist of our lives and write about the importance role music has played in our lives. Music is memory for me. Songs and albums remind me of a trip or a person (like Maureen!) or a time when I was happiest or saddest. There are too many songs to recount in just one post! I present herewith only a few of those songs that comprise my Life Playlist.

  1. I love long road trips! I have driven cross country three times, and up and down the East and West Coasts on numerous occasions, including an epic journey from Portland to Fairbanks, Alaska, with my dad. I love the freedom of stopping whenever and wherever I want along the way. I love long, meditative stretches of highway that allow uninterrupted hours of thinking time. And music. Lots of music. One of my dad’s favorite singers is Linda Ronstadt. He has had a crush on her since the 70s and still talks about her like a moony, love struck teenager even though he is well over 80-years-old. We listened to “Blue Bayou” more than a few times on that long drive and I gotta admit, sappy though it may be, I sorta like the tune. When I went to make an actual playlist to accompany this blog post, I realized I didn’t even actually own the song, which I have now just added to my collection.
  2. One of my most memorable road trips took place the summer after my first year in law school, before I started an internship in a law office in Caracas, when my ex-husband and I drove around America for six weeks. We were both in graduate school at the time and didn’t have much money so, except for one night at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, we stopped only in places where friends or family would shelter us for the night. Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Denver, camping in Zion National Park, Salt Lake City, then Seattle where we left our car and flew to Alaska to visit my dad, then back to Seattle and down the West Coast through San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, Santa Fe. We arrived in Houston just in time for the birth of a second cousin before we continued eastward through Birmingham and back home to Richmond. I probably forgot some stops along the way. There was no Spotify, Pandora, or even XM Radio at the time. Just a binder of plastic sleeves filled with CDs. Though the binder contained 100 disks, two got more playtime than any of the others: Seal’s “Prayer For the Dying” and Sarah McLachlan’s “Possession”. Those songs remind me of endless miles zooming across the great sundrenched plains of America, and over the pointy Rocky Mountains when a snowstorm slowed us to a crawl in the middle of June, and down a rain-slicked highway near Seattle when a tire blew out, and on a lonely highway that cut through the Alaskan wilderness  and when we looked back and could see the sun behind Denali at midnight.
  3. I spent the summer after my first-year in college with my dad and his fourth wife Shelley in Ketchikan, Alaska. It had been a rough year and I was happy to escape to an exotic destination where no one asked you any questions about your past or burdened you with any expectations about your future because everyone was sort of on the lam from something. I waited tables in a diner and met lots of colorful characters that brought to life every cliché of weird and quirky Alaska. There were other young people like me who were in town only for the summer to make wads of money on dangerous fishing boats and in the stinky fish cannery at the end of the island. I met one such fellow one morning when he was in town for a few days between fishing trips. I noticed him right away, a blond mop of hair, square jaw, and thin, muscle-y physique. The perfect specimen for a summer romance. We flirted and I felt especially flattered that he even noticed me. There weren’t many women in town, though, so I probably looked pretty appealing even in my UVA t-shirt and jeans and hair pulled back in a ponytail. He was the hottest guy who had ever been interested in me up to that point and we spent the rest of the summer together shooting darts and drinking beer and smooching at a scenic overlook on the road to my dad’s house where I lived. At the end of the summer, I went back to college and he went back to California with promises to see each other soon and to call every day. (This was well before texting!) Those calls, filled with lots of silence punctuated occasionally by idle chatter, became less frequent so I decided to rekindle the flame by visiting him over fall break. He picked me up from the airport in San Jose and on the drive back to Santa Cruz, he popped in a cassette tape of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run.” When the title song ended, which we had agreed was one of our favorites songs, I wound back the tape, turned up the volume, and played it again and again. I had been smitten and flattered by his hotness, but we didn’t have much to say to each other when we weren’t both away from home and anonymous and not our real selves.
  4. Last summer, when I was in Oregon during a two month recess from my life, when I started noticing the first signs of ill-health that eventually led to a cancer diagnosis, I wrote a long letter to a dear young friend who asked me what I thought she should do with her life. I sent her the letter with an instruction to listen to “Living Life” by Kathy McCarty on the Before Sunrise soundtrack while reading it. I told her to stop wasting time worrying about what anyone thinks she should be doing with her life and go do the things that make her happy. I cried so much writing that letter to her knowing that I was really writing to myself more than anything, and I cried in my white rental Chevy Malibu on the way to the airport as I left my dad’s place for what felt like might be the last time I ever saw him, and I sobbed at the baggage carousel after landing at LAX in sheer terror, sensing the magnitude of life change that lay ahead of me.
  5. My ex-husband had excellent taste in music, which usually leaned toward the heady. He played the trumpet and piano and loved jazz music and introduced me to Miles, Brubeck, Coltrane, and Byrd. To this day, the unusual tempo of “Take Five” stops me in my tracks wherever I am and forces me to pay attention. He also got me hooked on The Police. “Roxanne” was a personal favorite.
  6. Guys in bands are dreamy and sexy. The ones who are true musicians usually have a wide range of musical influence regardless of whatever genre they play in. One guy I dated for a short while played guitar in a band that sounded like Nirvana, which was not totally my thing. However, he introduced me to M83, Spiritualized, and Sharon Von Etten. Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” accompanied our first make out session. We didn’t last long, though. I think I was too square for him and I might have offended his musical sensibility when Air Supply’s “We’re All Out Of Love” popped up on my iPod one evening when we were hanging out at my place. I tried to explain that the song was just a joke and I didn’t really like it, but things cooled off between us soon after.
  7. Guys who make music mixes for you do so at great risk. I have fallen for guys based purely on their selection of songs and I have lost that lovin’ feelin’ for a guy for the same reason.
  8. Young interns over the years have kept me up-to-date on music so that I don’t get stuck on shuffle repeat with the songs of my youth, classic rock of the 70s and the synthy pop tunes of the 80s. One of my first interns used to bring me a flash drive every couple months of all the best stuff she’d bought recently and I’d load it onto my iPod and we’d play the music over the surround sound speakers I’d had installed in my condo when I first moved in. Whenever Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days” came on, we’d crank up the sound and an impromptu dance party would ensue, a great break from hunching over our laptops for hours. Introducing me to new music became a requirement of the internship.

Have I been an a*@hole?

A young girlfriend emailed me last summer asking for advice about what she should do with her life, whether she should stop doing “random, crazy things and settle down and start a career and take a desk job.” I had just landed in Portland, having spent the previous weeks in Hawaii writing and surfing, when I received her text message. I dashed off a quick “NEVER” and told her I’d write more later. I pondered the question for a week, during which I experienced the complete breadth of human emotion having met a man who would change the course of my life and spending time with my father from whom I’d been estranged for nine years, and during which I imagined the possibility of my imminent death and planned my funeral with playlists and poetry, before I responded with a lengthy, rambling email urging her to stop wasting time worrying about what anyone thinks she should be doing with her life and go do the things that make her happy. I concluded with this:

You don’t need me to tell you what to do. There is no one answer anyway. Trust your heart, love fiercely, hug harder, and don’t be an asshole (to yourself included), and be kind and generous (to yourself included), and be in love with the world. And let the world love you back. (I have a hard time with that last one.)

I wrote that bit of advice during a time when my own life was in drastic flux and in the midst of yet another self-reinvention fueled by a desire to pursue my own creative aspirations. One month later, a breast cancer diagnosis left no room for confusion about the path forward.

Now that treatment and the reconstruction process are almost done, I have been wondering how well I fared in following the advice I had imparted to my young friend. Though cancer has allowed me to excuse myself from many social and business obligations over the past year, soon I won’t have that crutch to fall back on. I have drastically downsized my business, which has given me more time to write, and I have been securing more and more freelance writing and speaking gigs, and slogging my way through writing a book. In those regards, I have fared well.

Have I, however, loved fiercely and hugged harder and been kind and generous and in love with the world? I have tried my best and I learned most of whatever I know from all the love and kindness and generosity that has been heaped on me.

Have I been an asshole? Yes. I have cancelled dates with girlfriends in favor of a guy who asked me out at the last minute, I have talked about people behind their backs, and I have fought dirty with loved ones by using the weapon of silence. I am reluctant, however, to confess the truly epic asshole things I have perpetrated. Too embarrassed! Let’s just say that I finally figured out that I don’t have time or mental space to be an asshole, which requires filling up limited emotional capacity with anger, resentment, and a certain amount of conniving and which leaves little room for love, kindness, generosity and ultimately joy, and makes everyone feel bad in the process. I’d rather spend the time paddle boarding or reading a good book or walking with a friend or having lunch with my niece and nephew or a thousand other things that make me happy.


YOLO, so love more

On the same day that I gave a “Creative Mornings” talk in which I reminded the audience that we are all right now dying so we need to be doing what our hearts tell us we should be doing every single minute of every single day, my ex-husband emailed me to say that his brother’s wife died the same day after having been in poor health for 18 months. He’d dashed off the email to me on his way to the airport to be with his family and did not provide more details. I found out from reading her obituary that she’d died of Stiff Person Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder with features of an autoimmune disease. I recalled that she had suffered various maladies almost the entire time I had known her and I wondered if she’d been misdiagnosed all those years.

I burst into tears on learning of her passing. I had not seen or spoken to her since well before the divorce years ago, and we had not been close when I had been part of my ex’s family. We never communicated with each other outside of family gatherings and our conversations during those infrequent holiday visits lacked intimacy and warmth. She tried hard to befriend me and I rebuffed her amiable overtures until she finally gave up and we settled into a tolerant co-existence. And yet, the news of her passing overwhelmed me with sadness.

I thought of her three children on whom she’d lavished love and of her kind-hearted, loyal husband. They would feel the great void of her sizable personality. Though she and I never bonded, we had nonetheless been part of each other’s lives for nearly two decades and her demise left a small gap in my heart, as well. She was generous and forgiving to a fault, and she was confident and resourceful and optimistic and she expressed love easily.

I possessed little of these qualities at the time, which made me subconsciously jealous of her. I had felt intellectually superior to her and I had been smug about her life choices, which had been much different from my own. I did little to mask my disdain, a disdain that made me feel better about myself and that infused in me a false sense of power over her. I was detached from and dismissive of the demons she’d fought in her young life and self-righteously believed that my demons stank worse. I hid my contempt behind a thin veil and her friendly overtures ceased after a few years as she resigned herself to mirroring my bare civility.

I cringe now at the depth of my immaturity and lack of self-confidence and the agonizing awareness of my inability to compete with her at the time in the ways that mattered most. I could have been happier with my life sooner if I’d let go of all that pride and all those emotional barricades and reflected her virtues. Instead, I wasted years expending emotional energy being annoyed, uncharitable, judgmental, and critical.

She was only a few months older than I, a startling reminder that though I had had my own recent brush with death over the same period and had survived, I was not invincible and we have limited time to learn how to be our best selves. I regret that I had not been better to her when I knew her and I wish it had not taken me so many years to become better, for my own sake. Her death reminded me that living your life like you know you are dying every day is about much more than following your dreams to become a writer or travel the world or live with abandon. Living your life like you know you’re dying means living with compassion, kindness, love, and unfettered generosity. Those are the things that will make you happy and in turn make others happy and make the world a better place for all of us.


#endlesssummer interrupted

Cancer has been one of the shittier things that ever happened to me. At the same time, my year with cancer has also been a magical time in my life in which I learned some mighty lessons about friendship, love, freedom, and how to live like you’re dying (because, you know, we are all dying right now). Nestled among these abstract gifts from the cancer gods was one more palpable and tangible bonus: liposuction!

A few weeks after the second surgery in January when the implants took their place beneath my chest muscles, small divots and depressions began to form as the silicone pouches settled into place. This lovely side effect doesn’t happen to women who get breast augmentation because they still have breast tissue on top of the implants. My plastic surgeon (three words I never imagined I would say together) prescribed a standard procedure: fill in those dents with fat harvested from my tummy.

Even though the imperfections were small and even though perfectly symmetrical and well-shaped breasts are not the norm anyway and even though I had never before considered elective plastic surgery, I figured I could at least get perfect boobs out of this whole ordeal. And though a flat stomach barely redressed the loss of my breasts, I thought it could at least help vanquish nagging feelings that I might never be attractive enough to date again.

The liposuction would take place during the surgery to reconstruct the nipple, which my surgeon had removed from the cancer-ridden breast. He explained that reconstructing the nipple from the remaining areola was like origami. I’d like to think he made that analogy with all his patients and not especially for his Asian patients who might better understand the process by relating it to something they could easily understand.

Ahso,” I nodded cheerfully!

I looked forward to the liposuction and had been feeling physically strong, maybe even stronger than before the surgery. Since being diagnosed with cancer, I had changed my diet to exclude processed sugar. I drank less alcohol, ate less meat and more veggies, and guzzled gallons of green juices. Once given the all clear from the last surgeries, I began exercising again with gusto. Plus, I felt smug telling all my jealous girlfriends about getting medically required lipo … that insurance would pay for!

Optimism filled me until a few days before the final surgery date when the familiar fear and anxiety of cancer and of invasive surgery set in again. The recovery from another surgery would disrupt my #endlesssummer with swelling and bruising well into early fall and there would no exercise more vigorous than walking for several weeks. I plunged into a funk. The impending surgery reminded me of everything I’d suffered over the past year.

I wanted the whole ordeal to end as soon as possible so I considered calling off the lipo, which was the part of the whole procedure that would require the most recovery time. Turned out, insurance would not pay for any liposuction beyond the small amount necessary to fill in the holes. The additional, stomach-flattening lipo would cost nearly $5,000 out-of-pocket (even with the breast cancer discount!). Perhaps it had been wishful thinking, but I had misunderstood the scope of the procedure when my plastic surgeon first explained it to me.

Would it be worth the additional physical pain and emotional torment? I polled several girlfriends who had been jealous of my impending liposuction for their opinions thinking they would talk me into taking out a home equity loan to pay for the much-coveted flat stomach and here’s what they said:

“You don’t even wear make up, why would you pay for liposuction?”

“Why gild the lily?”

“Spend the money on a fabulous vacation instead!”

You don’t need to remove miniscule amounts of fat to be a better writer, rock star, artist, or hottie.”

And so it happened again. Yet another magical gift bestowed on me. The gift of thoughtful, loving, gorgeous girlfriends who weren’t afraid to set me straight when I needed it. Tomorrow, I will undergo the least invasive option  and then I will move on with my wild and beautiful new life and continue with my #endlesssummer.


Fourteen reasons to be half-Asian

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  1. No stress over what career path to follow. Your Asian mother already picked out three choices for you: doctor, lawyer, or engineer!
  2. Keep it all in the family: you can buy Nikes that your second cousin hand-stitched during her 14 hour shift for which she earned the equivalent of two U.S dollars.
  3. You have the superpower to become invisible whenever the menace of racist taunts threatens you. If you think they can’t see you, then they can’t hurt you.
  4. Your family treats you like a weird alien child. You look nothing like them and family portraits prove it.
  5. Excellent physical fitness thanks to working out all the time because you believe you’re huge. And you are! (Relative to your relatives.)
  6. Your Asian half turns bright red when you drink alcohol. Your Irish half orders another Jamison on the rocks.
  7. Good at math AND English!
  8. You can play a myriad of roles including Mexican, Laplander, and vague person of color. (But you can’t play an Asian.)
  9. Not Asian enough for Asians. Not white enough to date.
  10. I’m exotic!
  11. Half-Asian babies are so cute!
  12. Wrinkle-free, easy tan Asian skin.
  13. My English is real good, so I am told.
  14. I may be a mutt. But I don’t eat them!


Over at The Home Beete, Paulette is writing about her body every day for 30 days. She struggles with her weight and speaks beautifully and poignantly about the ways her large size have affected her disposition and even the course of her life. Until my 20s, I wore baggy, boyish clothes that hid my shape because I believed that my body was too big thanks in part to my Asian relatives who have never stopped commenting on my relatively larger size. Eventually I figured out I was medium sized and that my relatives were tiny and I began wearing clothes that fit me and vanquished those perceived flaws about my size, though I am still trying to lose the same five pounds that I was trying to lose in college, which have lately settled into a muffin top that both my grandmother and mother carry around their midsections, so I suspect genetics will thwart my efforts.

Though I recalibrated my perceptions of my body size, I have never been able to completely overcome the negative feelings I sometimes still harbor about my Asian physical features. As a young child, I would pinch the bridge of my nose and lift up my eyelids with my fingertips every day and I permed my hair into long curls as a teenager and later added streaks of blond in a futile attempt at altering my appearance so that no one would mistake me for Asian. I never had any ideas for how to lengthen my legs. I have never, however, complained about my Asian skin. Besides tanning easily, my skin has been slow to wrinkle and sag.

I have spent most of my young life avoiding other Asians, including my family, so that I would not be mistaken for one of them and therefore treated as an outsider. Despite my best efforts, I never felt like I fit in the ultra white, Southern, suburban town I called home. My rag tag band of friends, though all white, each embodied their own brand of misfit. One friend practiced a weird religion, Mormonism. Another friend was clearly a closeted gay and came out years later after marrying and having children. A third friend was South Asian, which was just far enough away from my own Southeast Asian to be acceptable company. A fourth friend was a quiet loner whose alcoholic father beat and verbally abused him and who went on to become a pediatrician.

[to be continued]


More musings on friendship

Whenever I go to NYC, I stay with a former fairly serious boyfriend, sleeping chastely on the couch. He does the same whenever he comes back to DC to visit. We dated for nearly two years not too long after I split up with my husband of 16 years. He helped me heal from the awful pain of divorcing someone I still loved, though not, in the end, in that desirous, passionate way that keeps a marriage pulsing with life and vigor.

He brought me flowers regularly and performed little guy tasks like fixing my stereo system and putting air in my car tires. He gave me thoughtful gifts, like the super cool huge beach towel for two emblazoned with a surfing motif that he’d ordered from The Standard Hotel, and the heavy duty food processor after I complained about chopping vegetables one night when I was making dinner for him. We road tripped to Pittsburgh to explore the art scene one late spring weekend and as usual he found the yummiest places to eat and the neatest old hotel for lodging, and later we went to London and Paris for my birthday and somehow he got a reservation for two at a fancy, pop-up restaurant on the roof of the Palais de Tokio, where Paris and everything that was beautiful and gorgeous in the world laid spread our below us.

A couple years passed after we broke up before we became friends and our friendship deepened as we learned how to relate to each other in this new way. He became one of my most ardent supporters during my bout with cancer, and at the end of that awful year, he posted on Facebook an inventory of things he’d been thankful for in the past 12 months, and the last thing he listed was gratitude for one of his best friends kicking cancer’s ass. I saw that I was important to him and I cried a little and hoped I had shown him well enough that he had been important to me.

So when I texted him a couple weeks ago to ask if his couch was free for a visit, he told me that he’d just started seeing someone who didn’t like that he had so many friends who were women and that he’d have to check with her to see if it was ok for me to stay with him. I advised him to break up with her without delay, not because I was jealous or secretly wishing we would get back together, but because I knew how hard it was to find great friends who take care of you when you need them and who know your weird quirks and still like you anyway. Anyone who would stand in the way of a potential mate’s hard earned friendships was questionable material for anything beyond a passing fancy.

I’m lucky I got to find out who my friends were when I got sick last year and this guy was one of them. I hope he, or anyone else I care about, never has to find out the hard way who his friends are.


Pirates for a week!

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I sailed around the British Virgin Islands for a week last month with five friends. We cohabitated in less than 400 square feet of living space on a 40 foot sailboat with three tiny sleeping cabins each equipped with a triangular bunk that was barely larger than a twin bed. Our Captain assigned me to the port side bunk along with the one other single girl on the voyage. However, the stuffy, claustrophobic conditions below deck nauseated me and I avoided spending time below as much as possible.

Using a cushion borrowed from the galley, I made my bed each night on a narrow bench on deck that was just long and wide enough to accommodate my length and width. I could turn on my side but I could not splay my arms and legs in my usual starfish repose. Nevertheless, I drifted off into deep slumber each night while gazing into a black sky filled with a billion twinkling dots of light, as warm Caribbean breezes wafted over my bare legs, and water gently lapped against the sides of the boat. I awoke each morning just before dawn with a seagull perched on the rail and watched the sun rise into the pale sky in the quiet moments before my crewmates emerged from below.

Each day, we sailed to a different island and anchored in a protected cove or harbor where we paddle boarded and snorkeled around the coral reefs, explored empty beaches, and grilled fish and lobster tails over red hot charcoals off the back of the boat. We whispered secrets into a pink and white conch shell that I found on the beach and tossed it back into the sea. We dunked ourselves in sea pools and spelunked dim grottoes formed by granite boulders that seeped out of ancient volcanoes long before humans set foot on this island cluster. We swung in hammocks under palm trees sipping cold rum drinks that sweated in our hands, lulled into a state of transcendent bliss by syncopated reggae rhythms. We showered in the open air, and then stopped showering after we ran out of water midway through the week.

A couple weeks before leaving on the trip, I learned that we would not have wifi on the boat. NO WIFI for an entire week! And no cellular service either. Shortness of breath and low level panic and dread overcame me as I anticipated the first pangs of withdrawal from obsessively checking all my social media outlets and the number of likes received. I considered numerous options for staying connected. Maybe I would purchase an expensive international data plan or a mobile hot spot. After a couple restless days, however, the anxiety subsided and I resolved to seize the opportunity to unplug myself. I succeeded in doing so most of the time mostly because most of the time, I was without any kind of a connection.

I started each day with a mind uncluttered by the drivel that poured out of my cell phone’s social media apps, which I’d fallen into the habit of checking first thing every morning even before getting out of bed. I ended each night with the moon, and not the cell phone’s sinister glow, bathing my face with soft, soothing light before falling asleep. We visited a couple bars that emitted a WiFi signal where I posted pictures that I hoped would elicit jealous commentary and many likes. For the most part, though, I resisted the siren call of social media without the anticipated palpitations and irritability that usually accompany withdrawal, but then succumbed to its allure like a drug-addled heroin addict within days of my return.

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Blog Tour!

If you dropped in on this blog last November, you would know that Karen Yankosky (www.splatospheric.com) became a critical part of my life last year after nurturing me back to good health after a major surgery. But more importantly, long before that, she helped me become a writer. We have blogged daily together, written daily word prompts together, attended writing conferences together, helped each other think of the right word that was stuck in our heads, and have been cheerleaders for each other. So now we blog tour together. I answer the blog tour questions that she answered last week and then pass them on to Sonia Chintha (http://dream2write.wordpress.com), a writing pal of Karen’s who teaches middle school yet still finds time to write poetry and young adult fiction, and Paulette Beete (www.thehomebeete.com), one of the most beautiful writers I have ever read. She’s a poet and her prose is poetic. I heart her as a writer and as a person.

1. What are you working on?

I am working on two projects simultaneously. I have a feeling they’re going to meld together at some point down the road though they seem vastly different from each other now.

The first project is a memoir that recounts my mother’s family’s escape from North Vietnam to the south in 1954 when the communists took over and began torturing anyone with money and education. Our family lost everything and rebuilt their lives only to have lost everything again in 1975 when the communists then overtook the south. This time, they went to America and rebuilt their lives in a foreign land. They were ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances and survived and thrived.

The second project recounts the magical and shitty time that was the last seven months of battling breast cancer. Somehow, I think the resilience and resourcefulness that defined my family also helped me get through this disease with my sense of optimism and passion for life still intact. Amazing, beautiful things happened to me during this time that taught me great lessons about living and loving and human relationships and I want to share those lessons with the world.

2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?

The format of the second project I described will be vastly different from others in its genre. Think “choose your own adventure.” Though I have written in classic prose form, I also wrote about my cancer experience using numerous other methods of communication and I want to bring all those forms together into one place. I’m in the midst of figuring out how to pull all of those bits of writing together into a cohesive and logical format. It’s an incredibly complex web, much like the connectedness between humans.

3. Why do you write what you do?

I feel compelled to create through words and to tell the world a great story.

4. How does your writing process work?

I wish I had a process! I like to read about the writing process of the great writers that I admire because I wish I could find some magical ideas for how to make the words flow effortlessly out of my head. Turns out many of them had their quirks but writing is hard for almost everyone, even the great ones, and there is no magic elixir. The one thing they all had in common was that they sat their asses down every day and they wrote. No matter how painful it was.

My biggest distraction is Facebook. So I have downloaded an app called “Self Control” on my computer that lets me block myself from Facebook for periods of time set by me. I usually block myself for two hours at a time and then reward myself by gorging on the newsfeed for 30 minutes. Sadly, this is the only way for me to control my addiction. Once I get settled into what I am trying to write after a while, though, my brain becomes laser focused. Stringing the words together is rarely easy. But always exhilarating once they start forming sentences and paragraphs that make me smile when I reread them.


Family vacation

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Last June, 31 members of my extended family assembled on Carnival Cruise Line’s poop ship “Triumph” for a family reunion. This branch of the Pham family, which had lived in American since 1975, had not convened en masse since a cousin’s wedding back in the 90s. We booked the voyage in February, two days before a blaze destroyed the ship’s electrical system leaving passengers adrift in the Gulf of Mexico with non-working, overflowing toilets for days before being rescued. The cruise line assured us that the Triumph would be sparkling clean and fully functioning by the time we boarded. We sailed without incident on the ship’s first departure since the floating PR disaster.

As is probably true for most immigrant families who have escaped war-torn countries twice with close to nothing, exile in a foreign land had made ours a tight knit bunch. When the emails starting floating around about the reunion, I was pretty excited to reconnect with everyone. Though language had been a barrier between my family and me, they spoke Vietnamese whenever they gathered while I spoke only English, and though I towered over most of them having had a 6’ 4” Caucasian father, I had felt loved and cozy in my family cocoon where I was playful and jubilant and spent many after-school afternoons playing with my cousins and water skiing with them every weekend of every summer and eating large family dinners together nearly every Sunday.

Away from the family, in the southern suburbia we called home, I was shy and sensitive and desperate to assimilate. I kept my family life separate from my school life and avoided all public contact with Asians who weren’t my family. Fortunately, for most of my childhood, the only other Asian kid in my school was my little brother, who I was going to avoid no matter what race he was. When our family ventured into public, I felt a twinge of embarrassment. I worried that we would be in the way or that we would make too much noise and that these things would irritate someone and make them dislike us and then by proxy dislike Asians. A tiny bit of that unease and shame revisited me as we gathered for the cruise, but rediscovering a family of just plain nice, considerate, kind, smart people who liked to have fun and who cared deeply for one another crushed those qualms.

After disembarking the boat, we gathered at my uncle’s house for one final family dinner before scattering. Three generations sprawled across the living room after dinner to watch a slide show of pictures documenting our family’s history in America and to listen to the elders reminisce about their life in Vietnam and their escape from the North. The details of their stories varied slightly and they deferred to my Uncle who was the eldest surviving male in our family and therefore its patriarch. One family portrait taken in 1958 remained, in which my poker-faced grandmother perches on a seat in the middle holding a baby, my oldest cousin, and her five then-living children and their spouses flank her. They’d rebuilt their lives in the south and everyone still lived together, clinging to one another through the upheaval of continued unrest and then war again, which forced them to flee their homeland altogether in 1975.

I had felt the strength of our family ties as much on the Triumph as I had felt when I went to Vietnam in 2000 to meet relatives for the first time. I found an elderly Aunt who had been left behind in North Vietnam in 1954 when my grandmother and her four youngest children slipped away from their home in the middle of the night to escape retribution by the communists who had defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu that year. In the aftermath of that victory, the communists were killing and torturing anyone who owned land or education and our family possessed both. My Aunt, the eldest daughter, was married at the time and therefore belonged to her husband’s family and was not allowed to leave and did not see her siblings again until 1996 after President Clinton normalized diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the US. She never again saw her mother, who died in America in 1994. I did not speak Vietnamese and my Aunt did not speak English, but we communicated with each other through touch and facial expressions and I felt the profound and chilling power of our shared legacy and bloodline as we visited our family burial grounds and lit incense to honor several generations of ancestors buried there and the old family home that had been divided into many apartments when the communists redistributed wealth in the early days following Dien Bien Phu.

This Aunt had visited us in America for the first time not long before the cruise and had wanted to join us. However, her granddaughter had gotten engaged while Aunt was visiting us and the wedding was set for an auspicious date during the week we’d booked the cruise. We would probably never see her again unless we journeyed to Vietnam. After the cruise, we all agreed that a future family reunion would have to take place in Vietnam.


Facing down fear

When I was in fourth grade, I won first place in the elementary school category of an essay contest sponsored by our local newspaper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch. My essay, hand-written in pencil on lined notebook paper, was published in the kid’s section of the Sunday edition and displayed in a small exhibit alongside the middle and high school winners. I attribute this early success to having learned to love words from my father, a voracious reader who dropped me off at the library every Saturday where I would hang out in a bean bag chair reading for several hours before checking out a stack of books to take home for the week. My favorite novels were the semi-autobiographical ones starring independent, misfit tomboys, like Jo March, Laura Ingalls, Pippy Longstocking, and Anne of Green Gables, who became a circle of friends to me, a lonely, half Asian girl banished to a sleepy suburb of a slow southern town, and they inspired me to explore and define myself through writing.

I turned to my fictional girlfriends for solace when, in fifth grade, a pudgy boy with bangs shouted “Chink!” at me from a school bus window as it roared away from my bus stop. I walked home stony-faced, pretending I hadn’t heard him before bursting into tears behind my bedroom’s closed door. They comforted me when my parents lobbed vicious words and dinner plates and bottles of ketchup at each other before they divorced. I hid my little brother in a laundry basket and covered him with clothes to protect him from flying shrapnel. I found solace in their friendship when I sat alone for lunch in the cafeteria on the first day of a new school year. My family moved numerous times during my childhood and I eventually learned to adapt and make friends wherever I landed.

I kept an angst-filled journal well into my 20s filled with detailed notes I intended to use for material in future books and I wrote short stories that I stored on floppy disks that can’t even be read any longer. However, my writing waned and, instead, I settled into a more financially reliable legal career in which I wrote about the regulation of soft dollar transactions, wrap fees, and the proper filing of Form ADV.

I ignored my nagging creative writing aspirations until years later when the spirit of those fictional girlhood friends consoled me during my own heartbreaking divorce and I feared growing old alone, and when snobby art world socialites trashed me and I feared that my life’s work was pointless, and when breast cancer struck and I feared dying young. Those terrifying experiences taught me about survival, friendship, love, and living with integrity, passion, generosity, curiosity, and courage and they compelled me to begin writing again to excavate and poke around inside those fears.

I don’t seek approval for my writing from anyone and I ignore criticism unless it is of the constructive sort. I write for myself and for those who may be moved or inspired by it. Plenty of people will loudly dislike what I write, and I almost relish those moments because it probably means that what I have written meant something. Those who malign others usually act out of fear and perhaps one of the greatest things I can hope for in the creative process is to awaken fear, because facing fear is the only way forward.


Where to next?

My dad gave me my first passport a while ago to keep as a souvenir of a well-traveled childhood. A smiley, chubby-cheeked baby appears on the first page followed by colorful stamps from all over Southeast Asia that fill every space in the small book and then fill every space in the accordion-paged addendum glued to the back. Our family’s travels and relocations during my earliest years instilled in me a lifelong wanderlust. These disruptions also made me an accommodating and easy traveler who incongruously demanded stringent structure and control when at home.

Not long before my ex-husband and I split up, we decided to visit Berlin and Krakow. Our marriage counselor instructed us to stay in separate hotels and spend only four hours each day together during the trip. Her logic? She didn’t want us mistaking the ability to travel well with the ability to be married well. I think what she meant was that though I could be demanding, rigid, and unaccommodating in our everyday life together, the moment I locked the front door and walked away from home with a packed bag to explore somewhere new in the world, all the inflexibility melted away, replaced with optimism, pliancy, and resourcefulness. I needed to employ those same qualities at home if I wanted my marriage to work.

When traveling, I rarely make plans beyond booking a flight and figuring out where I will sleep the first night I arrive anywhere and this approach has worked out pretty well for me. I’ve slept in hammocks in the Venezuelan jungle at the foot of Angel Falls, jumped off a tall waterfall in Maui, and paddled a canoe inside the crater of a dormant Costa Rican volcano.  One summer long ago, I was driving cross country when the muffler on my car fell loose and rattled down a lonely stretch of highway in Montana. I unwound a coat hanger and reattached the muffler’s pipe and roared into Billings where I spent the night awaiting a more refined repair before continuing eastward. The most unnerving thing I can remember happening to me on a trip was when a robber smashed my taxi cab window with a crowbar late one night while stopped at a red light in Lima. He reached in and tried to grab my backpack out of my lap, but I clung to my bag and continued on the next day to Cuzco to embark on a stunning four-day hike to Machu Picchu that erased the jitters I’d felt all through the night from the attempted robbery.

After over a decade of marriage, my husband and I had finished grad school and our lives settled into an “adult” routine with the responsibilities of a large mortgage, a successful small business, and dinner parties with similarly situated couples. I saw the whole rest of my life laid out before me and the certainty of it all horrified me. I yearned for improvisation and the unknown beyond the occasional adventure vacation and I longed for freedom from the confines of a conventional life. The divorce returned me to the tumult of my young life, where I had felt most comfortable.


All lookee same

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An Asian girlfriend emailed me a few weeks ago to tell me she’d been at a party where a woman with whom we were both marginally acquainted gave her a big hug and air kisses and exclaimed “Oh, you’re Philippa Hughes, I love the Pink Line Project … blah blah … I know the photographer so and so … blah blah” My friend said she responded with, “Thanks, have a greeeaaat night!” and turned away. My friend’s thick, wavy hair cascades down her back while my thin, straight hair hangs to just below my shoulders. Her angular facial features and round eyes contrast my chubby cheeks and squinty eyes. She is thin and leggy; I have a fuller figure atop short, stout legs. We laughed at this case of mistaken identity and beseeched the Universe, “Do us Asians really all look alike?!”

Parties are prime places for mishaps and miscommunications to occur, especially when alcohol is involved. I myself have mistakenly called someone by the wrong name on occasion when someone I barely knew vaguely resembled someone else I knew probably even less. This incident was not, however, the first time I had been mistaken for another Asian woman.

A few years ago, I attended a fancy luncheon where a myopic fellow guest greeted me by the name of another Asian woman in DC who also happened to be a blogger with a non-Asian name. I had blond hair at the time, for crying out loud! This case of mistaken identity was especially weird considering when I was blond, many people told me they thought I resembled Renee Zellweger, who is of Nordic descent. When I visited Finland a couple years ago, even Finns spoke to me in Finnish assuming that I descended from the Sami people, many of whom have high cheekbones and slitted eyes. The Sami live in the northernmost part of Europe across Sweden, Norway, and Finland and they herd reindeer. I grew up in a suburb of Richmond, Virginia, where I heard people shooting deer.

Another instance of mistaken identity occurred when I was in law school. A classmate confused me for the one other Asian woman in our class, which consisted of only 163 people divided into two sections, each with its own Asian woman, one with a prominent Asian underbite and one without. All three of these Asian women had two Asian birth parents and were therefore more classically thin while I was cursed with my Dad’s western thighs and hips

Other Asians always see me as half, while nearsighted non-Asians feel compelled to tell me about how they had an Asian friend once or how much they love Chinese food. However, even my own people don’t accept me as one of their own! When I went to Vietnam, I visited many places that listed three prices. Vietnamese nationals paid the lowest price. Vietnamese people who lived outside of Vietnam paid a slightly higher price. Asian, and even half-Asians like me, easily discerned the difference between the two. Foreigners, meaning everyone else, paid the highest price. I was lumped into the foreigner category. Besides my blond hair, I towered over the real Vietnamese and outweighed them by a lot, even the men. Not only did Vietnamese people living in Vietnam not believe that I was even a little bit Vietnamese, several asked me if I was Swedish.

Even my own family does not entirely believe that I am really Vietnamese. When I was a kid, an Uncle would stand one of my same-aged cousins next to me and place a hand atop the inevitably smaller child’s head with his fingers poking the part of me that my cousin’s head reached and then remark with wide-eyed awe on the largeness of my height and weight. I developed a complex about my hefty size until one day in early adulthood, I realized that I was a medium-sized person and they were all tiny Asians. To this day, whenever I eat with my extended family, they exclaim surprise at my ability to wield chopsticks and to consume stinky shrimp paste and red hot chili hot peppers, which they believe white people are unable to withstand.

[Insert unfinished personal analysis here.]


Lucky to have gotten the “good kind” of cancer!

I was diagnosed with Stage 0 non-invasive DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) in my right breast on August 29, 2013. My cancer surgeon explained what those words meant and the treatment options, but shock erased my ability to process her words that day. The only thing that reverberated through my brain was the word “cancer.” I soon started to feel like I was sinking underwater and I couldn’t breathe as waves of fear and panic crashed over me, muffling out all the sound and squeezing all the oxygen out of the room.

I’d been dreading the possibility of that day for several weeks having undergone a battery of inconclusive tests over several weeks, including two mammograms, two sonograms, and an MRI. Two radiologists had not seen any threatening abnormalities in the images and had advised me to come back in six months for another round of tests when the malignancy would have finally appeared on the screen. However, the symptoms continued to plague me so my doctor ordered an MRI core needle biopsy, which revealed tiny cancerous growths stretching along five centimeters within a milk duct, barely visible but doubling their numbers every 100-120 days. I was lucky to have gotten the “good kind of cancer” – completely treatable because the cancer cells hadn’t yet invaded the surrounding tissue, and I wouldn’t die and I wouldn’t need chemotherapy or even the weird hormone therapy drug called Tamoxifen, the side effects of which resembled menopause. No, all I had to do was choose between three grim options: lumpectomy, unilateral mastectomy, or bilateral mastectomy. Lucky me!

A lumpectomy preserved breast tissue, but the procedure would mangle the breast into a misshapen blob and the accompanying radiation treatment would scar what remained and damage the skin around it. This procedure  required a lifetime of careful monitoring because breast tissue remained in which cancer could reoccur, which would then require more surgery, more mutilation. A unilateral mastectomy meant removing all the breast tissue in the cancerous breast, effectively removing any possibility of a re-occurrence, but the procedure could not guarantee that breast cancer would not attack the healthy side. It also meant sporting one perky fake boob and one natural boob that would eventually sag and require occasional surgical “lifts” to maintain a semblance of symmetry. I studied pictures of women who’d undergone a unilateral mastectomy and it looked okay, but the blatant disparity between the two breasts seemed like it would be a depressing reminder of what I once had. A bilateral mastectomy meant removing healthy tissue in the unaffected breast, which seemed like a ghastly choice, but it also meant never worrying about getting breast cancer ever again, and enjoying symmetrical breasts, which was not a small consideration.

Another major downside to both mastectomy options: the plastic surgeon would remove the nipple. He assured me that he could reconstruct the protuberance in an additional procedure down the road and a tattoo artist in Baltimore renowned for his 3-D nipple tattoo skills would ink in a shade of brown that would replicate my former nipple. I would have frankenboobs! The possibility of losing the nipples, symbols of sexuality and womanhood that were also points of pleasure, motivated me to seek several opinions on the viability of the lumpectomy, though in my gut I knew that I needed peace of mind. I didn’t want to roll the dice and always wonder when the cancer would return so I chose the bilateral mastectomy. The nipple situation resolved itself two days before surgery when my original plastic surgeon suffered his own health crisis and took an immediate leave of absence, and the replacement surgeon performed a nipple-sparing mastectomy. Huzzah! And therein lay one of many moments during the last seven months when I felt “lucky” despite having been afflicted with cancer.

I know that I am lucky in so many ways. However, anyone other than my doctor or another breast cancer survivor telling me so grates on my nerves and causes my eyes to roll to the back of my head and my teeth to grit behind a polite frozen smile. Survival is more complicated than simply being alive. Survival forced me to face death and the reality of my impending mortality, though I was grateful for the opportunity to see how little time any of us has in this life and to make the most of what little any of us has left. Survival meant always wondering what I could have done differently to avoid getting cancer, blaming myself for drinking too much alcohol or taking birth control pills for too many years or eating too much tofu. Survival meant that my life would be irreversibly changed by an involuntary predicament that required making preposterous decisions for which I had neither prepared nor felt equipped to make in such a short period before plunging forth. Making big changes in your life (job, husband, home, etc.) when you have free will to make those choices is scary enough as it is. However, my Wonder Woman powers activated and I felt like I could do anything if I could do that.  Survival meant that my body would be mutilated and scarred, and fake objects would be placed inside me as constant reminders of my former self, and the perpetual perkiness and symmetry of my new rack was tiny consolation. Survival meant leaving behind my former self and everything I thought I knew about myself, but it also meant leaving behind the parts of me that ever gave a fuck about being “cool” or what anyone thought of me and gaining the capacity to accept love and to love more.