A Running List of Things I’ve Bought During Quarantine, Vol. 1

It’s been seven months of quarantine. I’m doing well with the social distancing. I’m working on my health. With the exception of a getaway to my bestie’s house in Reno back in June, I haven’t gone anywhere.

But I’ve done a lot of shopping. A LOT of shopping.

Here’s a sample of the things I’ve bought online:

  • a new iPhone
  • a phone case for said new iPhone
  • 9V batteries
  • a lock pick set (because I have a habit of locking myself out of my house)
  • a drain claw (I have a lot of hair)
  • Baby Yoda face mask (I just got it the other day, it came from China)
  • two German Shepherd puppy face masks (they came from China, one of them didn’t have a strap)
  • a camera mount “necklace” (for all those cooking videos I planned to shoot and upload to YouTube — guess I’ll get around to it next year)
  • latex gloves
  • wine
  • sun hat
  • extension cord
  • Pilates ring
  • toning belt (it’s this belt that vibrates that’s supposed to melt the fat in your stomach and give you a six-pack… doesn’t work, but I love the buzzing sensation)
  • clothes
  • mic + stand
  • more latex gloves
  • booty bands
  • workout pants/top from Avocado (they’re super cute)
  • a bunch of DVDs and blu-rays (I’m too embarrassed to list them all here because honestly some are pretty terrible movies)
  • yoga towel
  • suede cap
  • gym bag (don’t know why, it’s been closed for months)
  • workout tops (you must have picked up on a theme here)
  • protein powder
  • hazmat suit
  • more clothes
  • Doc Martins
  • bandaids (yes, bandaids)
  • Black Widow hat
  • Captain America hat
  • Captain America shirt
  • a pink cap that says “Squad” on it
  • pumice stone
  • rubbing alcohol
  • even more latex gloves
  • shoe covers
  • a special BLM-inspired shirt from Lollapalooza (which was virtual this year)
  • Ring light (to look better on Zoom calls)
  • digital thermometer
  • Emergency hand crank charger (just prepping for the zombie apocalypse, y’know)
  • adjustable laptop stand
  • plastic face shields
  • RBG figurine (get yours here)
  • gloves (they were out of latex, so I settled for those cheap, oversize plastic food handler ones)
  • mobile hotspot
  • socks
  • calendar sponges
  • a trolley (so I can easily schlep the stuff I buy in person up to my apartment)
  • toffee (it’s not just for corporate gifts)
  • 5-lb. weights (waaaaay overpriced)

… And I’m not done yet.

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A Christmas Story

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Maybe it’s just a part of growing old, or having life beat me down to resignation, but I find myself with loads of patience these days.  I will wait my turn in line at the post office. In December. I have long accepted that living in L.A. means a good part of my life will be wasted sitting on the freeways (which is why the car is stocked with iPod and phone chargers, snacks and reading material.) I’ve learned not to check the mailbox after placing an online order… although Amazon Prime and those drones sure have made the wait almost non-existent. Blockbuster movies? I can wait until they get on Netflix (although that has more to do with not wanting to spend $20 on the same old predictable crap.)

A stark difference from my childhood. Which is ironic, considering that with fewer time left on earth, I am more willing to give out more time than I did when I had the rest of my life in front of me.

My impatience was especially evident at Christmas time.

See, I could never wait until December 25. I always wanted to know what I was getting ahead of time. A shopping bag stuck in the back of my mom’s closet had no chance against my expert snooping skills. Even a wrapped present was not immune; I became an expert at pulling back paper just enough to see what it covered and putting the tape back in place so that no one would suspect the present had been tampered with.

That’s how I learned there was no Santa Claus… A present earmarked for my eldest brother had found its way into his stocking, rewrapped and re-addressed from Santa. The jig was up, but I pretended to believe for a few more years, just to make sure I still got presents from the old bugger.

Sometime in the 1970s, I had just watched and fallen in love with “Ice Castles.” But there were no ice skating rinks in the Philippines back then (they finally built one at a mega-mall, and it opened just after my family had moved to America. Fate is a cruel bitch.)

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So I asked for the next best thing: rollerskates.

One night, my mother had rushed home long enough to drop off presents from her shopping run. After she left to go to a party, I snuck into the planter where she had disposed of the loot. In one of the bags was a prettily wrapped box with a receipt that said “1 pair roller skates” taped to it.

VICTORY!

Waiting out the days until Christmas was torture, but, oh, was I one happy child!

And then Christmas came. The presents were distributed one by one, and as we were nearing the end, my parents handed the box with my rollerskates to my brother. I watched in horror as my brother attacked the paper (I bit back the urge to say this must be some mistake), and then felt a wave of jealousy wash over me as I thought that my parents loved my brother more. Confusion ensued as my brother pulled a basketball out of the box.

Huh?

The presents dwindled as the living room turned into a sea of paper, ribbons and toy boxes. I stomped off to sob on the stairs, upset that my parents would play such a mean joke on me.

Minutes later, my yaya came, “Your parents are wondering where you are.” They wanted me to come out to the living room, there were more presents to open.

“But I don’t want to go back,” I said quietly as I wiped the tears from my face. I didn’t want anyone to know I had cried.

I finally relented and trudged my way back to the living room where my parents handed me a shoe-sized box wrapped in pink-hued Christmas wrapper. Pouting and unappreciative, I slowly opened it, the one present that I didn’t attack with voracious excitement that day.

Lo and behold, staring up at me were the rollerskates I wanted.

Well played, parents, well played.

Why I Hated the HIMYM Finale

Like 98% of the geeky fandom that was devoted to How I Met Your Mother, I found myself severely disappointed at the finale, so I’ll wax poetic about why I’m so upset.

As a writer myself, I can understand things like character development, plot devices and payoffs, and why certain stories play out the way they do. I also know that there are only about a handful of stories in the storytelling world, and the most successful ones are the ones that tell the story well even if we’ve heard them a thousand times before.

Harry Potter? Protagonist grows up to defeat the villain? Not a unique story. What made it work was J.K. Rowling’s talent for telling it. The details, the clever dialogue, the well-thought, intricate and fantastical back story … that’s what made it great. But the series itself is rooted in classic mythology, and everything from plot devices to story arcs weren’t new. I trolled the community boards there for a while (I said I was geeky) and said early on that Dumbledore will die. My comment was met with a lot of resistance. “No way, they can’t kill Dumbledore,” I saw echoed post after post.

But Dumbledore must die, I said. This is classic hero’s journey. The child needs to have something taken away from him, so that he could become the hero he was destined to be. You take away Harry’s mentor, protector and erstwhile father figure, and you give him all the resolve he needs to rise to the occasion.

Like the creator-writers of HIMYM, Rowling had also settled on her ending when the series began. But she had the acuity to change it, despite years of being personally and emotionally vested in her story, to respect that things change. It wasn’t to satisfy the readers, it just had to make sense.

The creators of HIMYM decided that it was always going to be Robin. And that in itself isn’t – wasn’t – a bad thing. If the series ended after three or four seasons, it might have been okay. Instead, they crafted an epic story nine years long, probably about three or four years too long, building the hype for this mythical perfect woman Ted would meet someday. You want to pull for him to get his happy ending so badly because the constant rejection was just too painful to watch. You want that payoff for him. You want him to be satisfied. YOU want to be satisfied.

And then he actually got it. (The payoff I mean.) The adorably quirky Tracy with her sweetness and heartbreaking backstory made the pain and wait worth it.

The episode in which she sang La Vie en Rose? I fell in love with her too.

It didn’t even matter that they killed her off. The payoff was in meeting her, and marrying her, and having the kids he so wanted to have with her. I could have done with her dying or living and in the end neither matters because it’s about the journey. But you don’t send a hero on a journey only to return him to the place where he started.

He found this wonderful girl … and then you give him back to the girl who turned him down again and again and again? How is that satisfying?

You don’t invest that much into character development only to have them regress to the less mature, less wizened versions of themselves. You don’t spend an entire season hyping up a wedding only to rip the marriage apart in five minutes the next episode. Not that it was unbelievable. (I saw way too many posts, in defense of the ending, that this is real life. Well, in real life, most decent people I know wouldn’t go after their best friend’s ex either. Divorce is real, but the bro code is too.)

Besides, this isn’t real life. It’s a sit-com, a show of mostly trite situations punctuated with jokes and the occasional bittersweet moments. If we wanted real life, we wouldn’t bother turning on the TV.

In hindsight, we can see that the storytelling was never about the mother, it was always about Robin. The kids got that right. If it was a show about the mother, then most of the stories would be about her. But the characters evolved, didn’t they? Maybe we pulled for Ted and Robin to make it in the early rounds, but by the end, they clearly weren’t a match (the word “toxic” comes to mind.) So the writers should have realized that using the Mother as a plot device after all this time was just plain cruel.

Not after you make us fall in love with her. (The Mother-centric “How Your Mother Met Me” was the one bright spot in an otherwise lackluster season.) One of the reasons why I loved this show was because it had a lot of heart. Killing the extremely likeable Mother so Ted could return to Robin was just… heartless.

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Returning Ted back to Robin reeked of Ross & Rachel. But there’s a series that handled its finale with integrity and consistency. It worked for Friends because (a) they had a kid together, and (b) he was her lobster. Duh.

Forget for a second that I’m 100% in Tracy McConnell’s corner… the finale, technically, was inconsistent. You have Robin telling her best friend she doesn’t see her as much anymore because Lily’s too busy doing the mom thing, but then has no problem coming over to Ted’s for dinner. Sure, Barney becoming a father was touching (the one highlight of the final hour) but his character morphed from a douchey caricature into a guy changed by love… but to return him to the Playbook in his 40s? That’s just pathetic.

Forget that killing off the Mother is kind of a brilliant albeit sad twist. Reuniting Ted and Robin undermines the values of love and loss, of friend codes and loyalty, of growing up and moving on, that the show spent nine years to build. And that, kids, is why I hated the way it ended.

Another Resolution Bites The Dust

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The tradition continues of being unable to sustain a New Year resolution for a whole year.

That’s why I make several of them… just in case one falls apart, I have backup, and a backup for the backup, and another backup! Just so I give myself a chance to say, at the end of the year, well I got XXX accomplished.

My resolution to do something new each week fell by the wayside after week 3. Week 3’s post would have been all about visiting this cool park in Los Angeles, with lots of hilly fields and a Japanese garden. I drive by it all the time and finally got a chance to dawdle in its prettiness. But then I got too busy to write about it.

Then I got even busier to follow it up with more never-done-befores.

Sometimes, life gets in the way of life sometimes… but I’m not complaining.

Never-befores Week 2: The Carniceria

In my quest to do something each week that I haven’t done before, week two’s conquest was the carniceria.

I’ve long been told to shop at the Latin meat markets… (pause for laughter) but I just never got around to it. This weekend, the BF wanted to replicate those tasty Chipotle rice bowls and insisted on getting a specific blend of cheese that can only be found at the Hispanic markets.

Ironically, we had already gotten our carne asada from Trader Joe’s.

But the man was insistent on getting “real” Mexican cheese. So not only did I visit my first carniceria this weekend, I visited my second and third.

No, we did not find the magical cheese blend, but the rice bowl turned out delicious nonetheless. Sometimes, Kraft does okay.

Never-befores Week 1: The Sandwich

There’s the fast way to get to Reno from LA (I-5 to I-80) and there’s the longer way (I-5 to I-14 to US-395/I-580). That’s the one I prefer… it’s scenic (after you get past the Mojave Desert), it’s less traveled (because you have to get past the Mojave Desert) and I get to have, as a reward for getting through the Mojave Desert, the best jerky ever.

Most people who drive the US-395 through Bishop, CA head straight to Schat’s, that quaint Scandinavian cafe/bakery that’s always packed, but I head straight for the north end of town to the quieter and better-smelling reddish barn-looking building that houses Mahogany Smoked Meats.

Each time I go, always sample a few types of jerky and I always choose to leave with two half-pound bags. (I’d buy more, but at upwards of $40/lb I try not to go too crazy here.) I usually get the sweet and spicy turkey plus one more… and lately that one more has been some kind of beef brisket (we tried the teriyaki a few months ago, this time around, the sweet and spicy.)

It’s worth taking the long way to Reno for this jerky. And that’s knowing that I can also order it online. Now that’s saying something.

As soon as I sign the credit card  receipt, I hightail it out of there… sometimes the clientele sort of scares me a little (in that they need a dentist badly, kind of way) but mostly it’s just to avoid spending more.

But for once thought I’d try the sandwich, to satisfy one of 2014’s resolutions to, each week, try something I haven’t before. These do not need to be big, bucket-list type choices. Just something new to add to my journey (both spiritually and physically.)

So for the never-before Week 1 installment, I tried the grilled “Smokey” sandwich: smoked turkey, ham and bacon with pepperjack and mustard on French bread. It was glorious.

And now I have extra reason to take the scenic route.

Like Riding a … What?

Two years ago, I bought a used 21-speed Mongoose Pro mountain bike from my neighbor Michael. It belonged to his wife, an avid biker who succumbed to lung cancer a few months prior. Grief-stricken, Michael decided to move back to his home country, England, and got rid of everything he and his wife had accumulated
during their 20-year stay in America. He offered me first dibs on the bike because I was the right height.

I paid him $25 for it, which he said was worth a couple hundred bucks at least. He threw in a custom, padded seat, lock and tire pump too.

“It’s a really, really good bike. You’re getting a good deal.”

A cursory search on Craigslist shows a comparable, slightly newer bike selling for $350, but I didn’t need convincing. I needed a bike anyway, and I knew this was something a little more than your average girly pink bike with tassles and a basket. Although, I kinda hoped for one with tassles and a basket. (How else am I supposed to cart around the designer puppy that I plan on getting someday?)

But, the bike stood dormant in the same spot for years, in a corner of my apartment building’s foyer where it collected dust and cobwebs, moving just that one time when Michael insisted I get on it before committing to the purchase.

And it would probably languish there untouched for another few years if my boyfriend Mike didn’t come along. A recent transplant to California and budding triathlete, Mike thought it would be cool to cruise the nearby bike trail that winds its way down the beach, through picturesque Marina del Rey  and the slightly skeezy Ballona Creek trail about a mile from home. (I say “slightly skeezy” because it’s just the kind of place where a dead body might turn up. These are the thoughts that go through my mind when I go for a run at 6 a.m., when only the in-training die-hards would be out on the trails. It’s why I try to always run with my mobile phone. I know, must stop watching CSI.)

Weekend bike rides with a cute boy? Stopping off at neighborhood cafes for an iced mocha or beer break? Pausing long enough to pet the neighborhood dogs out for a walk? Sign me the fuck up! Yay, I can finally use that really good bike that I got such an awesome deal on!

So, Mike, whose father taught him how to fix his own car, took upon himself the project of restoring my ride. After a few trips to Home Depot and some tinkering, he deemed my bike safe enough to take out again, even though the rusty tires were still in need of steel wool. (I still don’t know what that means exactly.)

But before we set out, he insisted I get a helmet, sweetly declaring that he doesn’t want anything bad happening to my head. Or its precious contents. We went to Big 5, which, weirdly enough, only had child helmets even though they sold adult-sized bikes. So off to Helen’s Cycles we went, where I purchased a $70 helmet.

Let’s just take a moment to digest the fact that my helmet cost almost three times what I paid for the bike itself.

“Your brain is worth more than 3x the price of your bike,” Mike said and then I chuckled  an uneasy chuckle because (a) it’s true, and (b) more interestingly, I went with one of the cheaper models.

But for biking aficionados, $100 is almost nothing to spend on a helmet when bikes run in the thousands these days. Mike himself rides a $2500 bike, which he bought at the bargain price of $1200. He would often salivate at the $4000 models that would zoom past us during our walks by the beach.

“Babe, I can tell what a $50 bike looks like, but I can’t tell a $500 bike from a $5000 bike,” I’d say him whenever he stops to admire a “nice bike.”

Then the moment came for us to take our maiden voyage. I got on my newly restored bike and felt that it was a little bit too big for me, and stopping was proving to be a bit of a challenge. (Challenge as in, I couldn’t do it without scraping half my calf off with the pedals.)

Then, a childlike fear swept over me. I felt like I was eight years old again, trying to ride a bike for the first time and scared of falling. Only this time, I’m 40 years old with no training wheels to fall back on. And my guy was watching. I was utterly nervous.

“Um, babe, can we walk the bikes to the beach first?” (I practically live on a highway. The thought of sharing the road with cars scared the shit out of me.)

“Sure.”

“Um, can I do some practice laps around a parking lot first before we get on the trail? I want to make sure I’m comfortable with the bike.”

“Of course.”

A few minutes later, my fears subsided after a few fall-free laps around a nearby parking lot. Mike beamed.

“See? You’re doing great!”

“OK.”

“There’s a reason there’s that saying.”

“Fine. Whatever.”

“You ready?”

“I guess.”

Click, click.

“DON’T CHANGE GEARS UNLESS YOU ARE MOVING! YOU’LL RUIN YOUR DERAILLEURS.”

Huh, what? I have no idea what the fuck a derailleur is, but more importantly, the confidence that I had built up in the last five minutes vanished when I heard the word “ruin.”

“What would happen if I change gears while I’m not moving?”

“Your chain will fall off.”

Great. After a few more laps around the lot to make sure my chains stayed put, we hit the trail. After a wobbly start, Mike did his best to encourage me.

“Babe, you can do this. Just focus straight ahead, don’t look down.”

I was okay for a spell before the sight of a large, oncoming group of what appeared to be seasoned pros (I can tell their combined equipment were worth more than a three-bedroom house in Reno) reduced my nerve to zero and caused me to veer into Mike, nearly forcing him to crash into the group.

“Jesus! You’re gonna get me killed!”

I begged Mike to ride in front of me but he insisted on riding by my side for my own protection. “Please, just ride up ahead. I don’t want to get you hurt.”

His thinking was that the possibility of pushing him into oncoming traffic would scare me into biking straight. Look, you can’t dangle the idea that your well-being rests on my shoulders. You can’t put that kind of pressure on me. Scared that I was going to get this sweet, helpful guy injured, I lost my nerve and the tears welled up in my eyes. Mike, thankfully, had finally pushed on ahead of me and didn’t see my cry. I couldn’t even wipe the tears away; I held the handlebars in a death grip, too scared to lift a hand and dry my wet face.

Now, I’m sure the Marvin Braude Trail has seen its share of people filled with fear while learning to ride a bike. I’m sure it has seen hundreds, if not thousands, of scared humans wipe away tears as they learn to cruise down the path on two tiny wheels. But these were probably five-, six-, ten-year-old mini-humans, not grown ones. I was certain that I was the first 40-year-old in the bike path’s history to cry while riding a bike. The rub was that it wasn’t even my first time.

The thought of getting Mike hurt did scare me into biking straight though and I gained more confidence with each yard we pedaled. Set to one of the higher gears, my bike had a tendency to speed up with very little effort. I worried that I was going too fast but Mike insisted the speed was fine, if a bit slow. (Show-off.)

I had built up some mettle by the time we reached Mariner’s Village a few miles away. The colorful strip of boating offices, restaurants, snack shacks and faux lighthouse plays a big role on one of our favorite shows, “Arrested Development,” and I suggested we take a break to look around. Perhaps one of LA’s best-kept secrets, Mariner’s Village sports a quaint charm and lack of a crowd.

We even spotted a sea lion lazily sunning himself on a nearby dock. I decided, this was going to be our place. We agreed that we would take in a longer break, perhaps brunch, on our next outing.

Our. Next. Outing.

Well, will you look at that? I had gone from scared shitless to ready to take on round two. That whole “riding a bike” maxim really is true, though, as with most things in life, not that simple. The ride home was less shaky, if uneventful, and I felt a little silly for freaking out like a wimp. The tough, sporty Shicia was nowhere to be found, I didn’t even recognize myself, but I can work on that.

And only after I got off the bike to walk it home for the last half mile did I notice what a beautiful sunshine-filled, blue-skied California day it was.

Why We’re Not Facebook Friends

If we’re not friends on Facebook, it’s probably because of one of the reasons below:

  1. I wouldn’t want to spend time with you in person. When I start purging people from my friend list, the first question I ask is: If this person wanted to meet for drinks or dinner, would I want to hang out with him/her? If the answer is ‘No,’ buh-bye.
  2. You’re an opinionated asshole. Having an opinion is great. In fact, I encourage you to have a few, even if I don’t agree. And while healthy debate is one thing, there is something wrong with you if you are so militant about your beliefs that you would spout on a complete stranger’s wall, even if that stranger is MY friend. No matter how passionate you are about a topic, you should never participate in a discussion on someone else’s wall if you’ve never met them. It’s even worse when you berate them. It’s rude and disrespectful, not to mention embarrassing for me, because then I have to come up with a couple of excuses why I’m friends with an asshole like you. I’d rather keep mindnumbingly boring overshares any day.
  3. You never post anything. You are what’s called a “lurker,” friends who never share anything but will gamely talk about what’s going in my life or my posts. If I’m going to share a part of my life, it’s only fair that you share a part of yours. Even if it’s not an even trade.
  4. You don’t contribute (a corollary to #3.) Let’s be honest, I have some FB friends who I would be okay never seeing again. But if you at least contribute something to my day, whether it be telling a funny story, offering insight, or sharing articles/videos/images that are interesting, enriching or humorous, I enjoy having you around even if only virtually. But if you don’t engage with me or compel me to engage with you, what’s the point of being “friends”? 
  5. You are a professional contact. One shouldn’t friend clients or colleagues in the first place, unless they are people you absolutely want to be friends with long after your professional connection is over, which is the general rule I follow. And even then, discretion is called for in choosing who is allowed to see the real me. Besides, Facebook really isn’t the place to make a social connection where business is concerned. Leave that to corporate lunches, sporting events, the golf course and LinkedIn.
  6. You’re an ex. Look, if Facebook wasn’t around, you wouldn’t be around, so why keep you in my life, albeit online only? I think it’s unhealthy to hang onto a connection like this.  If my reason for friending you is to keep tabs on you, I am doing myself a disservice and not allowing myself to move on. If my reason for friending you is to show you what you are missing or how much better off I am without you, I am doing myself a disservice and not allowing myself to move on. Keeping an ex in one’s life means not getting over it. Period.
  7. I’ve never even met you. I used to accept friend requests from friends of friends. Most of them were really nice or funny or interesting. But at the end of the day, they’re still people I don’t really know and I’m exposing my life to them? We are turning into a society that thinks it’s okay for strangers to have this much access to our lives. And that is NOT okay, it really isn’t. Two words: Rebecca Schaeffer.
  8. You’re a movie quote monkey. Okay, we’ve all quoted a movie before but I unfortunately have too many quote monkeys around me that rely on movie quotes as a substitute for original thought. I find it annoying when it takes over a conversation, but downright intolerable when it goes on and on and turns irrelevant (when it goes beyond the original topic or movie and devolves into a quote exchange that only makes sense to one or two people.) When movie quoting, take a page from George Costanza: pipe in with your one-liner, enjoy the laughs and quit while you’re ahead.
  9. It was an accident, I swear! Every few months, when I go on a housecleaning tear, I get a little click-happy and accidentally unfriend one or two people who I really actually like. If you are that .01%, send me a friend request and I will re-friend you. If, however, I ignore your request, then it wasn’t an accident. If I block you, please know I probably hate you. 


Return of the Native

In all my travelling, there is one vacation I least look forward to: going to the Philippines. Although I always invariably have a great time, this trip is always met with lukewarm enthusiasm because I was born there. It’s not new, it’s not unchartered territory.
 
 
And packing for it is a bitch. You’d think it would be easier, as it’s a tropical country and you really need bring only the lightest of clothes and flipflops to match. But there’s the myriad stuff to take home to relatives (called pasalubong) which often takes up more space than your own stuff. And then, because of photo-op moments with the family and world-class tourist destinations, I have to pack three different cameras: my SLR, my pseudo-SLR point-and-shoot and my waterproof point-and-shoot. And because I’m a geek and a writer: my ipad, laptop and writing journal (I suppose I could get away without bringing the laptop, but my writing software is on it, and damn it, I am going to get writing done as I lounge on white-sand beaches drinking mai tais and coconut water. I refuse to tap away at my manuscripts on a tablet.)
 
I started to regret bringing books when the check-in agent notified me that my carry-on was at 30 lbs (or 15 kilos) – double the allowed limit – but mercifully marked it down to 9 kilos anyway. But I’m way behind on my reading list and if I can’t get caught up during a vacation, when can I do it? And curb your judgment, they weren’t available on Kindle.
 
 
 
Another thing not to look forward to is the physical trip itself: a 17-hour ordeal on the national airline my cousin and I were dreading taking because it’s not exactly up to par with Southwest or KLM. On my last trip to the Philippines, I was spoiled by the gracious and superb Cathay Pacific, which had  upgraded me to business class. We were pleasantly surprised that the plane and service were actually quite decent (it was a 747, and it had been a while since I’ve flown on one of these ginormous birds) but coach is not the best place to be when you’re sitting on the aisle seat and the woman in window is an older lady who also happens to be a diabetic. I’d have slept on the actual aisle itself if aviation regulations would have allowed it – there was a time that it was, and I’m pretty sure that was the last time I flew PAL, when getting to the bathroom was like having to do an obstacle course.
 
Good thing for a decent movie list, finally saw “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (sweet and entertaining) and got a second helping of “Pitch Perfect” (I would’ve moved on to “Lincoln” but I needed something peppy.)
 
The #1 thing I dread is the weather. Weather.com had informed me that the temperature was in mid- to high-80s (Fahrenheit) with 78% humidity (87% as of this writing.) Disgusting. If I lock myself in an air-conditioned room or car all day, I would be quite content.
 
And then I think of the creepy crawlies that bugged me as a kid: lizards (you’ll see them scurrying across walls and ceilings), cockroaches (they’re bigger than matchboxes and they fly across the room) and mosquitoes (if the pure annoyance of having them buzz and peck at you like you’re a Vegas buffet doesn’t get you, there’s also the threat of dengue fever.)
 
Then there’s the smog and traffic and ridiculous air congestion. The air is thick with pollution and if you can’t feel it, you can at least see it. Sure, I remember there being a lot of traffic, but it was sort of orderly and people respected the white lines that served as demarcations between lanes. During my last visit, I was shocked to see the chaos that ground transportation had devolved to: sure, there were still lines divvying up the lanes, but a 6-lane street had turned into 10, with motorcycles weaving in and out (I fully expected them to run over the cars James Bond-style.) Once a bus ran a red light without even slowing down as we approached the intersection.
 
And I’m from L.A. so this is saying something.
 
And there are the crowds.  Americans take for granted how much space we have and just how many people are in the world.  Either that or Asians take for granted how much space there is in America. This is evident as soon as you step into the international terminal at LAX. Asians will crowd around you even if there is 10 feet of space behind them. I used to wonder why this was so, until you land in Asia and realize that space is at a premium there.
 
The Philippines ranks as the 12th most populous country in the world (says Wikipedia) and boasts a headcount of 92 million concentrated in a country that could fit inside California. The streets, the malls, everywhere:  they’re positively overflowing with people and in your unluckiest of moments, you’ll be packed in with them like sardines on a 90-degree day with 90% humidity. Thank goodness for deodorant.
 
Then there’s abject poverty.  FDR wanted to make sure that every American had a chicken in every pot and despite the economic tumbles we’ve seen the past few years, Americans can’t ever know what real poverty is until they visit a third0-world country.
 
Sure, there are homeless people littering the sidewalks of any American metropolis but they really don’t have to be. And if you can’t possibly imagine eating on government assistance, imagine that the poor people of my homeland erect homes from sheets of metal that blow off roofs during a typhoon and buy half-eaten leftover scraps in the back alleys of restaurants for food. We’re not just talking about surplus food from the kitchen, this is food left on customers’ actual half-eaten plates and scraped into bins for sale to the starving later.
 
This isn’t to make anyone’s stomach turn or make you feel bad. It’s just the way of the world, and you really can’t spend too much time worrying about it because you are never going to fix it. Maybe donate to Sally Struthers or Alyssa Milano every month, but that will only ease your conscience, not effect real change. Sometimes I think the only thing you can do is be grateful for what you have.
 
And in the face of such adversity, here we were, Filipino-Americans coming “home,” hosted by family in walled mansions with food prepared by hired help awaiting us every time we walk in the front door.
 
We arrived shortly after 6 a.m., picked up from the airport in an air-conditioned van and chauffeured around in a mini driving tour as we traversed the city to our lodging, an aunt’s house not too far from my childhood home. (It no longer exists, by the way, having been razed and replaced with a commercial building when my parents sold it in the 80s.)

 

 
There was breakfast waiting for us, after which we piled into the car for a shopping excursion.
 
Despite the overwhelming chasm between the rich and poor in this country, economy is alive and kicking. There are 53 mega-malls in the greater Manila area alone. This commerce is fueled, I’m told, mostly by external money, by overseas workers and returning natives called balikbayans who make their fortunes in Europe, America and the Middle East and then go on a spending tear back home. (Shopping, homes, business investments… you name it. Look, the country is #3 in the world for call centers – the folks you are talking to when you report a lost credit card are located here. Trump is building a luxury condo tower here. Medical tourism is on the rise, as is regular tourism, especially now that TripAdvisor named two longtime Philippine favorites as the #1 and #3 beaches in the world and a few more spots identified as up-and-coming hotspots for surfing and diving.)
 
Doing our part to help the economy along, we made our way to my favorite flea market in Greenhills, which we were saddened to hear would not be fully set up until the next day. This market is good for knockoff Rolexes and Louis Vittons (I needwantmusthave the iPad carrying case), jewelry and crafts, all of which can be haggled on.
 
The secret to successful flea market shopping is to be able to walk away if you don’t get the price you want. And yes, it does help to be fluent in the local language, but with a couple of cousins who don’t speak a lick – so it is crystal-clear to the hawkers that we’ve got US dollars in our pockets – I will not be getting super great deals. But, there are still deals to be had, and that’s okay with me.
 
If there’s one thing we’ll do more than shop and eat here, it’s that we’ll eat. If there is anything Filipinos do better than shop, it’s food. For all the poverty, you can eat well here. A little too well.
 
We had some “snacks” during our shopping run (I had to indulge in some fish balls, crab balls and lobster balls), lunch waiting when we arrived at the manor, dinner a couple hours later, and then a midnight snack of schwarma after some night sightseeing in the old Spanish section of Manila called Intramuros, enchanting,  half-a-century-old stone, brick and ironwork, some of my favorite architecture in the world. If I thought it was beautiful at night, it is resplendent in sunlight.
 
The city is looking better than my last visit. Looks like measures to curb air pollution (called coding, when cars are only allowed to be used a couple of days during the work week) and seems like a lot of the shanty towns in the city have been evacuated (or moved, I hear.)
 
I still get nervous driving through the streets as there is no such thing as road rules around here. I try not to look out the windows, but it’s hard, because there are a lot of familiar buildings and places, like my old elementary school, now swallowed up by mega-malls, the light rail, Asian Bank and high-rise condos. Back in my youth, there was nothing but open fields and marshes around the school property, the biggest building around was the utility company, itself now dwarfed by the same developments. We used to be able to walk across the main thoroughfare to the shopping center that now houses my favorite flea market, but wouldn’t even dare do it today for two minutes out in the open streets and one is aching for some black lung disease.
 
And on a jampacked first day, we managed to fit in a spa visit too. If there is anything I love, it’s $2 pedicures and $10 quality massages. I’d do this every day if I could.
 
On cue, while I may not have been totally looking forward to this trip, I’m certainly having a grand time now. Not as much as our older relatives, mind you, but we “youngsters” are still having fun.
 
(It’s wonderful to see my 82-year-old uncle’s unadulterated joy at being back home after 35 years. He’s as happy as a kid in a candy store, reminds me of my own Dad on his first trip back here after expatriating. Old people are so cute.)
 
This is it for now. I’d write more, except it’s time to eat breakfast.