The 4 Dumbest Things I’ve Done Around the World

For many years now, I’ve been meaning to sit down and read about astrophysics. Finally, I got around to it. This was no negligible undertaking for a brain the size of mine. It was like vaulting an Olympic bar using a chopstick. Anyway, I come to you with the following takeaways:

  1. If just one physics professor had spent five minutes telling the story about the photon clock sliding along a table beside the photon clock at rest, instead of writing on the board 234 equations with 83749234 variables, I might have performed respectably on my exams instead of drawing lopsided hippos with speech bubbles coming out of their mouths which said in serial killer letters, “i am hippopotamus!”
  2. Science may as well be a religion. Believe in whichever. Or both—there’s no proof they’re mutually exclusive. Whichever way, our creation and existence are equally bonkers. Not just the quantum weirdness everyone cites as bonkers. The quarks that make up a proton. The way relativity causes time to “slow down” or “speed up.” How is it that all these microscopic—and vast—circumstances can collide perfectly to create me, writing this post, and you, reading it, and also stars, refrigerators, and porcupines? Seems to me about as likely as reincarnation; and yeah, Bible’s full of miracles, but let’s not forget that, looking at the way our galaxy and species came about in science terms, plain old life’s a miracle too.
  3. It becomes clearer with every fact I learn, every event I witness, and every day I age that we’re nothing more than sweaty wind-up toys chasing joy and/or recognition, just farting around until our circuits come loose, if they can make it that far without getting nixed via human infighting, bad genetics, etc.

Life’s a miracle and a big fat joke!

Next post, I have a more legitimate subject lined up. But today I’ll just be a joke. We could do with some jokes, I think. I know I could. Lately I’ve gotten so worked up about myself—whether I’ll ever amount to somebody, how I look in a turtleneck, what my clients think of me, who likes me, who hates me—I can’t think straight. And here’s the deal: any brain cell I spend on getting worked up about myself is a brain cell I lose on more important matters outside myself, i.e. people, world, why, how, etcetera.

Turns out, the harder I strive to come across as not-dumb, the dumber I get.

In writing “The 4 Dumbest Things I’ve Done Around the World,” I’m hoping to get a bit less dumb. Remind myself that I’m not, after all, the chic, put-together lady I’ve been pretending and branding myself to be, but just another human twerp screwing around until time runs out. Quit wasting my brain cells and get on with my life.

To hell with this thing!

It’s ten P.M. on a Thursday and I’ve just completed a double shift as a server at a restaurant in Tysons Galleria. I’m hiding by the dishwasher, eating my dinner, an untouched piece of sushi I just bussed off some old guy’s table, when my boss comes looking for me. Instantly, I shoot to attention and swallow the entire sushi at once. In a parallel universe, I go into cardiac arrest and die. But in this universe I just stand there, smiling, choking gently, as my boss says, “Angela, the new shipment of soy sauce just came in, if you could go fill up a few cartons before you head out.”

My boss leaves. I collect myself and go to the part of the kitchen behind the bar. On the counter is a large cardboard box. Inside, I find a bag, made of heavy-duty plastic, filled with maybe five gallons (40 pounds) of soy sauce.

I tip the box over and scoot the bag halfway out. Via the critical-thinking and analytical-reasoning skills I have picked up at the University of Chicago (at this point, I have just completed my first year), I grope around in the box until I find an abnormality on the bag, which proves to be a nozzle with a cap attached. I grope the bag some more. There are no other abnormalities. I conclude that I am meant to unscrew the cap, behind which is, I assume, some sort of device which allows the soy sauce to come out in a thin, controlled stream. I grab the nearest empty Kikkoman carton, clasp it between my knees, and, with some effort, unscrew the cap of the five-gallon bag.

There are no words created in our civilization which can fully express the sensation of having the cap of a five-gallon soy-sauce bag blasted out of one’s hand by an explosive jet of soy sauce, then having said bag tip off the counter with the force of said explosive jet, falling into one’s arms, which are attached to one’s 95-pound body, which has been dashing around a restaurant for nine hours fueled by nothing but Diet Coke and fortune cookies and random dudes’ leftover spicy tuna sushi rolls, while one is squatting, as if over a squat toilet, with an empty Kikkoman carton clasped between one’s knees.

Within seconds, there’s enough soy sauce pooled on the floor to soak into my socks inside their standard-issue non-slip waitressing shoes.

I let the carton drop from between my legs, but both my arms, and actually my entire body, are fully occupied with the five-gallon bag.

The cap is three feet away, floating.

Meanwhile, the pressurized soy sauce is still detonating at full velocity. I try to stop the jet with my hand, but my hand gets blown out of the way. Fortunately, the only casualty is my dignity. Unfortunately, having spent all day secretly eating other people’s leftover sushi in the back of the kitchen, I have no dignity left to bargain with. So I am operating at negative dignity. Which is how, at last, approximately ten seconds after the cap blows off, as the bag begins to slip out of my arms, with soy sauce still hitting the floor at maybe 67 mph, I find myself screaming, “ROOOOOBIN?”

My friend, trainer, and savior Robin comes around the corner, takes one look at the scene, and zooms forward to shove the box back upright, yank the nozzle up out of gravity’s way, grab the cap from me (in the meantime, I have dived onto the floor and rescued it from where it’s floating underneath the counter), and screw it back onto the bag. He does this all at a speed which qualifies him to be Marvel’s first standalone Asian-American Avengers movie.

Then he points at me and doubles over laughing. Which, in my mind, instantly disqualifies him to be Marvel’s first standalone Asian-American Avengers movie.

What a hell of an awful time. What fear. What humiliation. But when Robin started laughing, I had to laugh too. At first, out of peer pressure, but then, out of why-not. If I can take myself less seriously, there’s one more joke in the world. That’s one more reason to laugh.

And it’s always okay to laugh at ourselves.

Second week of study abroad in Senegal, I get thrown headfirst into a metal bar via vehicular accident. Week after that, I’m in class with a (mild) concussion, seething at my professor for still expecting me to write a 15-page paper, seething at my boyfriend for not fulfilling the quota of tender loving attention required by my injury, seething at my classmate for peeling an orange, seething at the door for having a knob instead of a handle, seething at the lights for being on, etcetera. In my rage, I think to myself, Oh, hell, sweep my things into my bag, and exit the classroom in a huff, without informing anybody, including myself, where I am going.

For those of you who don’t know me: I am straight-edge like you wouldn’t believe. This is the single most rebellious thing I have done in my life.

I stalk out of the research center, into the street, and onto the highway, where I decide with clarity that I am going to walk 170 miles to the Gambia, Senegal’s neighboring country in the south. I pick up my pace and continue in what is, unbeknownst to me at the time, the northeasterly direction. After completing two of these miles at a light, angry jog, my body gives up and I collapse on a slab of concrete by a small bar. I’m sitting here gazing around my surroundings in a subtly vengeful manner when a tall man approaches. Stopping a safe distance away, as if I am a goat with the potential of rabies, he says I cannot sit there, as the owner of the nearby bar will return soon and kick me out. I express in mangled Wolof that I am an idiot American on a walk. He says he is a musician and asks if I’d like to sit in on a jam session.

Suddenly, I’m rageless. I jump up and follow him into the neighboring building, where he leads me up a few flights of stairs and into a small, windowless room, where a woman and two men are setting up a sabar, kora, balafon, and guitar. “Me student,” I say in my disappointing Wolof. I am greeted with warm smiles and a lot of kind speaking which I fail to understand.

Christ! The acoustics! In such a small space, we’re all each other’s sound waves. Like beating inside the same heart. It’s the jam session at the edge of the world. By the end of the hour, what I come away with are the address of a hotel they’re performing in next week, and a gem of a memory. Get Lost To Be Found, is what a cutesy stocking-stuffer Office Depot journal cover would say about this. First of all, f*ck those journal covers. But also, sure, I guess.

Sometimes a little foolheadedness goes a long way. Moments don’t get delivered to our doorsteps. Your and my best moments are still waiting for us to discover them. Just get out of the comfort of what you know. Get out of yourself.

Before I knew anything about men, I ended up alone in an abandoned cabin in the middle of a forest with an older prison guard, who I thought was a pal until he turned around and said, deathly serious, “I feel like we should fuck,” at which point I noticed that I weigh about as much as three geese and a bowling ball; in other words, he could, if he wanted to, do whatever it was he felt like doing, meeting only about as much resistance as three geese and a bowling ball can put up. Which is to say, you wouldn’t want to get in a fight with three geese and a bowling ball, but still, you’d probably win it.

Full story to come. All you need to know for now is that, after peeing my pants a little out of terror, I called an Uber behind my back and, upon arriving home safe and sound, instantly booked my first lesson at Krav Maga Force in Chicago.

Which is how I end up, at 6:30am one Wednesday in November, securing the straps of my handwrap sparring gloves beside a yoked, pleasantly violent Russian man named Konstantin. “Pleasantly violent,” as in, he is fairly bouncy and smiley except for, once every few minutes, spinning around with no warning and throwing a furious, full-force punch/kick/elbow into one of the eight boxing bags hanging in a row behind us. With one punch, he can swing the thing a foot. For reference, I can swing the thing a foot if I curl up into a ball and have Coach Tony shoot me into it out of a cannon.

Coach Tony calls sparring round. Having been too busy bandaging my blisters, which are getting blood on my precious $29.99 gloves (“precious,” as in, this is the year I rationed myself to $25/week for food; thus, these $29.99 gloves are worth ~1/50 of my functioning annual body composition), I shove my water bottle into my backpack without drinking and look around until I make eye contact with someone, anyone, and say, as fast as possible, “Sparring partner?” because I got picked late too many times in gym class to deal with that in my adult life.

And Konstantin goes, in his heavy Russian accent, “Okay, sparring partner!” and slaps me a high five.

I wish to take this opportunity to advise that, even if your krav maga class is at 6:30am on a Wednesday, and you have to sprint two blocks to catch the bus at 5:30am after snoozing your alarm until 5:29am, you should still consume water and a snack, and maybe coffee, before requesting a yoked, pleasantly violent Russian man to be your sparring partner. Because what does your body use for fuel if your stomach is empty?

That’s right: your dignity!

So Konstantin and I go to the mat; he picks up a strike shield, which means I’m on offense first. It doesn’t go so badly. I throw fists and elbows and earn a nod of respect. I always have to earn my respect in krav maga since I look like a piece of raw spaghetti wearing black leggings. The issue is, to earn such respect, I have to go 110% on offense—even though I’m only supposed to go 80% and save 20% for taking hits on defense.

Going 110% when you’re supposed to go 80% is what many textbooks call HUBRIS.

I re-Velcro my gloves and take the strike shield from Konstantin. The guy’s bouncing on his toes, cracking his knuckles. “I won’t go easy on you, then?”

“Okay,” I chirp, full of HUBRIS.

I bend my knees, get stable, and lean forward in anticipation of the first blow. Coach Tony tweets the whistle. Konstantin throws his first punch. It doesn’t go so badly. I work with my body weight and press back against the blows, which keep coming like some sort of bouncy, smiley, machine-gun-esque barrage. POW. POW. POW. POW. POW. POW. My brain starts to rattle. POW. POW. POW. A childhood memory gets dislodged and falls out of one ear. POW. POW. POW. I put my weight into my shoulder and lean into the shield. POW. POW. POW. POW. POW.

And then, I don’t blink or anything, but somehow, breaking the laws of relativity, I am instantaneously standing several steps back. Not only that, but Konstantin is rushing toward me to close this new gap.

You know, I spent many of my physics examinations drawing happy animals with speech bubbles coming out of their mouths, but even I understand physics well enough to see that extra momentum means extra velocity means extra force, and—

Impact in three. Two.

Arrival of the elbow of Konstantin.

I’m in the air long enough to register I’m in the air. Then, only my legs are in the air. The rest of me is on my back, and there may as well be a speech bubble coming out of my mouth labeled, “I am a turtle!”

Shortly thereafter, Konstantin is standing above me, winking sweetly, yoked Soviet cupcake that he is. “Next time,” he says, extending a hand, “have some cheese before the class. I always have a cheese and some egg.”

And I take his hand, so embarrassed that I vow to myself that I’ll risk my life to keep this man from finding out that, being lactose intolerant, I am also, alas, too weak, to consume the cheese he has so graciously recommended.

Something I’ve been working on changing: I’m a ho for respect. Let’s face it: most of us are. Why else would people post duck-face selfies on Instagram (a married, award-winning musician I know) or, within the first three minutes of a conversation, manage to work in all their accolades and professional achievements (a Duke professor in his forties)? When we live like that, we’re living on a leash. We’re prone to hubris and apt to miss out on real human connection. As the Daoists say, “He who tries to shine // dims his own light.”

Konstantin never asked me to spar again. What’d I do to lose his respect? Actively try to gain it.

Hey, if you’re like me, let’s stop trying to earn other people’s respect and earn our own instead. That’s what makes the difference. Godspeed—I’ll see you on the other side.

I never got around to writing about the week I worked on an alpaca stud off the east coast of Australia. This consisted of:

  • Scooping alpaca poop into 10-pound burlap bags to sell as fertilizer (start with broken plastic scooper, grow frustrated, use hands instead),
  • Mixing a variety of grains into 30-pound barrels of alpaca feed (gas mask required; here, you may picture a sand storm, except instead of sand, six different types of hay, and sixteen alpacas yodeling bloody murder whilst attempting to forcefully violate the barricade you set up to keep them away from the feed you are mixing as you brandish your rake and shout, “NO, PIPPA, STAY BACK, STAY AWAY FROM THE BARRICADE”),
  • Vaccinating alpacas (euphemism for getting body-slammed into a fence by an alpaca rump as Farmer Katherine yells, “KEEP HIM STEADY!” with two syringes thrust like democracy over her head),
  • Mucking alpaca poop, scooping alpaca poop, fertilizing baby pumpkins with alpaca poop, scooping alpaca poop, cleaning alpaca poop out of my socks, having nightmares about alpaca poop, scooping alpaca poop, texting my family photographs of alpaca poop, washing alpaca poop out of my hair, etcetera.

One day, after five hours of engaging in various activities involving alpaca poop, Farmer Katherine says, “I’m off to my rock ‘n’ roll dancing club in an hour. Want to come with?”

So, I have a bad track record with social dancing. The first time was ballroom, and some jerk got my number and ended up dating me for several years, ongoing. His loss, I guess. 🙂 The second time was salsa, and that was the time I ended up in the middle of forest in an abandoned cabin with the older prison guard who made me pee my pants.

“Social dancing?” I say in reply. “Hell yeah!” And leap from my pile of alpaca poop to go wash the alpaca poop out of my hair and change into alpaca poop-less clothes.

Rock ‘n’ roll dancing club turns out to be a big old blast. A few rock ‘n’ roll vets take me under their wing, which is to say, as long as I move my feet limply to the rhythm, they will spin me about, put me here and there, and guide/yank me into dancing patterns that could earn me a role as an extra in the blurriest, most distant corner of the ballroom in a low-budget Cinderella slasher adaptation.

I get through the dancing alright because there is neither grace nor poise required of me. This is convenient, because as a side effect of spending so much time with alpaca poop, I have become a poop myself, more or less. When I close my eyes, I see poops. After showering, I still smell poops. I move around like a poop rolling down the stairs. And I talk like a poop; in other words, I don’t. As a fairly subpar talker, I require a tremendous amount of energy to deliver a coherent sentence. Such energy is not available at the end of several hours of farm chores.

The dancing is fine because all I need to do is remain a docile poop and get patted around on the dance floor. But then it’s time to leave, and all of a sudden, people are going around hugging each other and shaking hands and saying, “It was so lovely to dance; I can’t wait for next time; how are the grandkids?”

I’m beginning to realize that I should have meditated between farm labor and dance class, or something. I get through most of it via autopilot, relearning mannerisms of civilization with every new hand that I shake.

Then the last guy comes up to me, this old man named Paul. Paul’s got white hair and a square head and, also, a wife standing two feet away. I might be the first Asian lady Paul has ever seen. “It was so lovely to meet you,” says Paul, directly into my ear, via a current of hot breath which smells like an old man digesting the three beers he drank the night before. “I will remember you, always.”

And I am frozen as Paul’s head slingshots toward me. Then I’m counting the Mississippi seconds in abject horror as Paul smushes not only his mouth, but his entire nose and forehead, into my face, and leaves them there, smushed, smushing, immobile, like time itself has stopped, as his wife gazes staunchly and dreamily off into the distance, two feet away. Then he smushes harder. This guy’s making a damn snow angel on my face. Using his face.

Five Mississippi seconds. Count that out loud. Better yet, cut open a rubber duck, fill it with warm beer, and squash that on the side of your face, and then count five Mississippi seconds.

So pay attention. Watch out. Don’t go on autopilot and let life pat you around like a turd on a dance floor.

You never know when an itchy old man’s going to pop out from around a corner, grab you by the arm, and slobber a face angel onto your cheek. Alternatively, you never know when you’re going to wake up and be 60 years old, all of a sudden, as my father, and all my relatives, tell me again and again and again. If you’re already 60: some day you’ll wake up and be 80 years old, all of a sudden, and wonder where all those years went off to. Well, if we don’t make space for ourselves to reflect on every scene of every day, even as we live it, I can tell you exactly where all those years went: you were getting patted around by God / fate / laws of physics / basic human instincts for survival, like a turd on a dance floor. So pay attention. Watch out. Take care.

Took me a whole week to come up with a hoity-toity insight of profundity for this one. And it’s a stretch, I know. Cut me some slack. The state of my brain after those astrophysics books, I could qualify as legally crippled.

We ought to be as smart, good, and respectable as we can—without wasting efforts on how we come across—but if something goes wrong, we have to understand that we’re just pompous little creatures in a great big universe that will inevitably forget about us someday. Make some mistakes. Learn from them. Then yuk it up. Because if you don’t, that’s one precious opportunity to laugh, wasted.

If we’re going to be fools, which we are, let’s try and at least be good at it.

Happy New Year, readers. Big love to you all.

Posts this year to include: thoughts on suicide prevention, thoughts on time travel, thoughts on finding happiness, thoughts on my coming-of-age as a lady, the story of my mafia-boss great-grandfather, the story of my witch-doctor great-grandmother. And more. Stay tuned. Or don’t.

20% of this post’s earnings go to CDC Foundation

I extend my utmost gratitude to the following: Danial Hussain, Edi Danalache, Brandon Na, Will Fuentes, Chris Walker, Alec Zhang, Richard Wu, Camille Thornton, Minna He, Adam Rosa, ZH, NM, PM, AC, DC, MM, WL, LM.

You’re the reason this blog lives on.

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