Short Story: Ziploc Bag

The cold stung my skin as I made my way towards the passenger seat of our grey Toyota. As my mum drove me to the bus terminal, she asked me,“What time are your exams?”

“I have one at two and the other at five.”

She wished me good luck as I stepped out of the car. I closed the door and she drove off.

I got on the Brampton Zum 502 to Square One and  found a seat at the back of the bus. As we began to drive, I stared out the window and glanced at people walking by. An older man sat next to me – he wore a gold ring on his wedding finger and twisted it from time to time. A woman, not much older than me, sat across from the older man – she was applying her makeup. At the far corner of the bus sat a high school girl – she had her hair done up in a bun and she had blue eyes and she listened to music and texted with a smile.

I zipped open my bag and pulled out old exam questions. I put my head down, read, and tried to cram definitions into my brain.

When the bus arrived at Square One, the high school girl exited first; another girl with similar features was waiting for her at the bus stop. They hugged and strutted towards the bus terminal as they talked and laughed. The woman packed up her belongings and dumped them into her Michael Kors bag. She talked on the phone as she stepped off and ran for her next bus. The older man looked down at his lunch bag and adjusted his gold ring. He rose quickly and strolled off to wait for his next bus.

I got off the bus and walked to the stop to catch the 110 North to UTM.

I arrived on campus 15 minutes before my first exam. I put away all my books and walked down to the front of Gym C, where Mellissa, Josh, Marcus, and Esther were waiting. We all kept quiet as we waited for the TA to open the doors to gym and let us in. The TA wore a white hoodie, blue jeans, and white Reebok running shoes. The lights in the gym shone bright and I felt warm.

One of the examiners read out the usual rules and regulations. Melissa sat in front of me, Josh to my right, Marcus behind me, and Esther to my left. I wrote my name down on the paper and scanned through the questions. I had an idea how to answer each, but only had two hours to write three essays. I finished answering the last question with only five minutes to spare. I handed in my paper when time ran out, picked up my bag and rushed over to IB120 across campus where my next exam started in less than an hour.

I didn’t know anybody in this class since I had only been to three classes all semester. I had studied the slides and the textbook so I would be familiar with the material. We shuffled into the dimly-lit IB120; the room had a cold chill and I sat in the middle of the class. I put my TCard on the desk, put my head down, and prayed for an easy exam.

I got my exam paper and flipped it open.

“Fuck.”

I had prepared for an essay and this exam was multiple choice. I read each question as slowly as I could, but there seemed to be at least two correct answers to every one. I thought to myself,  just fill in whatever and hand in this paper. I shaded in what I thought were the right answers and handed in my exam paper. I cursed the professor as I strolled out.

As I got out of the exam hall I reached into my bag and took out my phone. I turned it on and received a text message from Melissa. “How did you do on the exam? Hope it went well.”

“It went fine, how about yours?” I texted back.

I walked to the bus stop to wait for my bus when I felt my phone vibrate. She had texted me back. “Mine was horrible. Come see me. I need someone to talk to.”

Melissa lived at McGrath Valley. I walked over to her residence and the cold breeze of the winter night made my fingers freeze inside my pockets. I knocked on the door. She opened it dressed in a purple robe, and with her hair wet. We started off toward her room. Inside her clothes were on the floor and a white Macbook was propped on the table and a poster of Idris Elba hung beside her bed. I dropped my bag and took off my jacket, sweat pants, shirt, and boxers and I slid under the black sheets. She took off her purple robe and turned out the lights.

I awoke. Breathing deeply, she slept next to me. The sounds of the heater and the cars passing on the street were all I could hear. I sat up in the bed, looking at the bedside clock. 1:30am. I inhaled deeply and rose. I put on my boxers, shirt, sweat pants, and jacket.

I reached into my bag for the Ziploc bag and my iPhone. I had three missed calls from my mum. I should call her back, I thought. I slid the balcony door open and sat on the couch outside. I reached into the Ziploc bag, taking out a lighter and my blunt. I lit it, took a long drag, blew smoke into the air, and stared into the night sky.

Relearn the Word “Mama”

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“Mother” is one of the most uttered words on the planet, yet to me has always appeared distant and alienating. During her pregnancy, my mother became so ill that doctors advised her to abort me due to concern that I might not develop healthily. As soon as I was born I was taken away from my mother because of the complications caused by giving birth to me. Soon after I was returned to her, an explosion at a nearby gas station forced my grandmother to take me home for shelter, separating me from my mother again. It seemed as if my strained relationship with my mother was plotted from the moment of my conception.

This plot was deepened further by multiple cinematic-style events which included my mother developing schizophrenic symptoms and my father having an affair (which my mother suspected and found out about). Just image all these things happening in the late 1980s and early 1990s in rural Red China. With all these problems happening at once, my whole family sat down to fix them. Unfathomably, distance was the only resolution, as it had been with my relationship with my mother. My parents separated and went to live in different households in the same city. For reasons beyond my understanding my dad felt this distance was not enough; he moved to another city under the guise of a promotion. The ever-lengthening distance between my parents resonated in my relationship with my mother. In time the separation so distressed her that her schizophrenia worsened to the point where she could no longer distinguish my dad from her two brothers. I was scared and confused as I sat through my mother’s addled confession, in which she detailed her dedication and love to me not as her son, but as her husband, lover, and trustee. The fear and bafflement I felt at that moment deepened the chasm between us, and I started avoiding her whenever possible. This feeling of dread did not disappear until my dad and I moved to Canada.

I don’t think I could have survived this period in my life without the support I received from my maternal grandparents. They took me in wholeheartedly, providing me with all the love, support, and guidance a child could ever need from the moment that damned gas station exploded to the moment I left them for Canada. I’m no longer scared to Facetime my mother, but I now find myself intentionally shying away from the photos of my grandparents hanging on the wall in front of my desk. This avoidance is caused neither by my being scared or by the scars of my past. Rather, it is derived from the guilt I feel at having left them.

When people ask me who my idols are in life, unequivocally and decisively I say that they are my maternal grandparents. If there is one thing I could repeat in my next life, it would be to live as their son, not their grandson. Now, I feel this answer is unjust to my mother. It has taken me almost 30 years and nearly a Ph.D. degree to realize this.

I have never considered my mom as fitting any traditional description of a mother. The most common adjectives when we describe mothers are “caring”, “protective”, “supportive”, “loving”, and so on. I have not felt any of this for my mother. She rarely and barely cared for me when I was little; she did not know what I like and what my interests were; she beat me when I couldn’t recite my multiplication tables before bed. I often asked myself growing up: why couldn’t I have had Joe’s mom, Al’s mom, Max’s mom, a freaking normal mom? I  cried and raged over this question for a very long time.

My mother had a tough life. She had been really sick while carrying me. Bringing me into this world she suffered severe complications. Only one day after her difficult labor the cursed explosion at the gas station separated us. Hormonal changes, sickness, complications, and that perfect shock wave from the gas station; no wonder my mom had schizophrenic episodes. The divorce only exacerbated her symptoms. However, I remember that despite all these hardships she still took care of me on her good days. She intentionally left me with my grandparents so that I wouldn’t have to see her suffering and have this torment me. She cooked me dinners that were simple but delicious and which I now frequently make myself. She taught me math, literature, and science. She told me there were no monsters around so that I could be brave enough to sleep through the night. While she sat beside me, oblivion overtook me and transported me to dreamland. I’ve thought about where her mind was as she was doing these things for me. Battling with her pain, distraction, and anxiety. She would often sit quietly with no movement that I can recall. Her suffering that I once did not perceive now provides me with the gallantness to tackle the difficulties I face, to be independent but also not ashamed to ask for help, to simply try my best to live my life with no regrets.

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We used to say that mothers and fathers each provide 50% of a child’s DNA. Not to disrespect dads (and I love mine), but scientifically speaking this has been proven untrue. The discovery of microbiota in our body and its genomes has shed light onto the symbiotic relationship between humans and the microbes within us. We are not a mere host-parasite duo; instead, we exist in a mutually-beneficial relationship. The importance of microbiota reaches every niche of our lives, ranging from food digestion to the normal development of immunity. We pick up many indispensable bugs from our surroundings, but it is our mothers who lay the foundation of our microbiota in the womb. In fact, mothers provide the first line of defense for the child as it passes through the birth canal by coating the child with her microbiota, providing more microbial DNA than both mom’s and dad’s DNA combined. Subsequently, the mother feeds her child with breast milk containing the fragile microbes in the child’s gut. In fact, the third most abundant component in a mother’s breast milk is a complicated sugar called HMO (human milk oligosacchrides) which cannot be used by the infant but rather exist solely to feed the fragile microbes in the infant’s gut, helping the baby build a healthy microbiota from the very beginning of its life.

She is still a petite woman easily buried in a crowd; however, she is the statue of liberty in my heart and mind that represents the entirety of who I am, why I am here, and what I do. I love her, but I have not told her yet in words. I miss her, but we are separated by the widest ocean in the world. I want to ask her if she loves me now.

We used to play card games in her bedroom, including one we improvised called “WHO AM I?”. I once wrote “Mama” on the card and taped onto her forehead. She spent the longest time trying to (unsuccessfully) guess what was written on it. She might have lost her sense of selfness with her sickness, but I know that she still loves me and a I love her. It is now my responsibility to let her know that she is still the person I’ve loved since I was little.

Downtown Toronto Tourism Spotlight: Ripley’s Aquarium!

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I know that a lot of U of T students come from all over the world to study here, so it is natural to be curious about what places are cool to check out in Toronto. The city’s downtown core especially has some of the most amazing places to visit. I assure you that if you are interested in playing the tourist in your own city, the Ripley’s Aquarium is a great place to see.

If you are a fan of aquatic life you will definitely enjoy this one. There’s loads of different kinds of fish, seahorses, jellyfish, lobsters, and much- much!-more. It’s an underwater adventure that would be fun to experience will both family and friends!

Students even get discounts on certain tickets, which will help save you money (we students need all the help we can get!) The lines during holiday seasons are pretty long, so I would suggest you plan ahead and buy your tickets online to skip the line.

You can view the entire aquarium walking at a comfortable pace in around one to two hours. It is definitely on the smaller side as aquariums go, but it is beautiful nonetheless. I would highlight recommend it.

Happy exploring!

A Meditation on Cancer, Climate Change, and Life

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Astronaut Piers Sellers recently published an article in The New York Times Sunday Review section. I came across it on Twitter, seized by its audacious title: “Cancer and Climate Change”. With an open mind, I learned that the 60-year-old NASA scientist recently diagnosed with stage-4 pancreatic cancer wants nothing more than to spend his remaining days back at work.

I was once told to be open-minded, but not so much so that my brain falls out of my head. This time, it did. I was shocked to see that Sellers could not find something else to do with his golden years, like conquering Mount Everest or enjoying a permanent spot at a beach resort. I found this bloodlessly macabre. In fact, I closed the tab before I even finished the article.

I was appalled by Sellers’ end-of-life decision because it counters what many others (and myself) have in mind for our own retirements, mostly including checking off those selfish, self-indulgent, and pathetic items on our to-do list before we die. In fact, Dr. Oliver W. Sacks, the renowned neurologist and author, published a series of farewell articles in the NYT and his memoir On the Move when his melanoma metastasized into his liver in 2015. He said “I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at News Hour every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.” Of course, this is not to say that Dr. Sacks is selfish or pathetic. He chose intimacy with his lover and readers instead of taking a stand on global issues when he knew his expiration date was soon to come. Isn’t it only normal for terminal patients to take their remaining time to enjoy the limited clarity of mind which comes with their condition to better face the unfair early death sentence put on their lives?

Seller’s altruistic reasoning and plan on what to do before death shames mine into inferiority. In the next few days, I couldn’t shake his article from my mind, and so decided to resolve my feelings. At the end of the article Sellers reveals his reason for going back to work. He is not just another faceless member of NASA’s staff. Rather, he was an astronaut who walked in space above the Earth and floated alongside the International Space Station. He did what many can only dream of doing, and it was continuing to live this dream which gave him the reason he needed to go back to work, even with cancer.

Like many of you who grind day in and day out for a minimum wage paycheck to survive, you bet that when I face death I will spend all of my time and money doing things I never got to indulge in: visiting foreign lands, skydiving, or just simply being lazy. I cannot even attempt to image what a fantastic life Sellers has lived; however, by finishing his article, I do seem to understand why he chose going back to work as the only item on his bucket list. His life experiences have trumped anything my supposedly boundless brain could ever achieve. Murakami liked to consider people as onions; he said if you peel people layers after layers, what’s left is pride. Reading Seller’s article is like dicing an onion; that burning sensation in your eyes is unmistakable.

I am not writing to condescend anyone’s choices or decisions, but rather to ask the question of how we should live our lives, even without immediate death sentences chasing our rears. Should we push our limits and expand our boundaries to the point that we have little happiness, or should we just be normal and even mediocre so that we can enjoy the present and not worry about how we will become the next Bill Gates or Charles Darwin? Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a 36-year old neurosurgeon, died of metastasized lung cancer. Just before his passing he wrote When Breath Becomes Air in which he said that he postponed learning how to live while he was becoming a neurosurgeon. When he finally stopped striving forward, he ended up spending the last moments of his life learning how to die.

I understand the yearning to achieve success, and surely everyone wants a piece of that pie. The question to ask yourself is: “what are you willing to forfeit and sacrifice for it?” It is not simply about losing a few hours of sleep, but your sanity. Often, our choices can lead us to the brink of collapse.

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Everybody loves poignant tales in which benign madness precipitates success. Van Gogh’s madness devastated his life and killed him, but it allowed him to see colors unlike anybody else before and after him. Depression made Sylvia Plath stick her head inside a carbon monoxide-filled oven, but one can also argue that her sensitivity granted her the ability to write some of the most beautiful and thoughtful poetry in contemporary literature. By the same token, alcoholism took Eleanora Fagan’ s ( Billie Holiday)’s liver and life, but she claimed alcohol loosened her up to produce some of the best of jazz vocals in the recording business.

Today, everyone is looking for this form of ephemeral and intelligent madness so that we too can become brilliant. Some of us work 24/7/365 to  convince this genius to visit us; others cheat their way through drugs,  seeking out-of-body experiences. We no longer take care of ourselves, nor do we pay attention to our surroundings, where love, content, and satisfaction all lie.

The question I have is why we all want to be the greatest when we know that there can often only be one in most disciplines. The Earth revolves around its axis with or without you, no matter who you are. If you don’t believe me, recall Albert Einstein, George Washington, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandel, and more. People often forget that these great figures all stood on the shoulders of giants, as Newton once said. So I ask you: where would that shoulder be if we all want to be the ones standing on top of it?

I am not dissuading anyone from trying to achieve the best in themselves. I am simply saying that to enjoy your life while you have it you must pursue realistic goals, not egocentric ones. Naomi Shihab Nye wrote “I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous, or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, but because it never forgot what it could do.” So do try hard, but also do remember what Charles Dickens said in Great Expectations, “If you can’t get to be uncommon through going straight, you’ll never get to do it through going crooked. So don’t tell no more on ’em, Pip, and live well and die happy.”

Printables: February 2016 Calendar

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February 2016 Calendar now available for print! Instructions on these origami roses can be found below

Introducing the February 2016 calendar! The January calendar was a hit, so I’ll be continuing this line of printable calendars until April!

The calendar is available in two different sizes (click for a dropbox link)

a smaller one

and

a larger, full 8.5 ” x 11 ” one.

I tried to keep this calendar as universal as possible, but I just couldn’t waft away the aroma of Valentine’s Day! Whether you’re single or in a romantic relationship, Valentine’s Day is a day of love and care. You may go with a simple card from your local craft store for your friends, a box of chocolates for your family, or even a bouquet of roses for your special someone. Why not go with something handmade like an origami rose (this one will last you a lifetime!) Check out the pdf here for instructions.

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A stem for the roses can also be made from rolling a small piece of green paper. (Disclaimer: I did not make this rose myself!)

Happy February!

blogUT Reviews: MUJI

A couple of stationary supplies from MUJI
Stationery supplies from MUJI

Muji is a “Minimalist Japanese retailer with a wide range of generic products, including apparel and home goods” (from Google). For this blog post, I’ll be reviewing a small selection from their stationery section.

Muji pens are my favourite product they offer. For a decent price, you can choose from a range of pen sizes: 0.3 mm to 0.7 mm. The 0.3 mm pens are a bit too thin, so I prefer the 0.4 mm. Their pens are quite inky: they don’t spill onto the next page but they do run out of ink fast! It’s been hardly a month into school and I’ve already burned through quite a few  (this being my second haul this semester).

To save space, I went with the tri-pen (is this even the right word for it?) Basically, it’s an empty pen capsule that lets you put in three pen inks, which you buy separately. Pen inks range from 0.3 mm to 0.4 mm and there are three basic colours to choose from: red, blue and black. Blue and black are my go-to colours.

Instead of having to haul three different pens in my pencil case, I can play it clean and simple with a tri-pen (I’m sure this is a word I’ve made up by now). Once the tri-pen’s inks run out, you can easily buy another refill and keep on writing. (I hoard a handful for convenience’s sake)

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The tri-pen I was trying to describe and their pen refills.

There are also a wide range of normal coloured pens to choose from:

Some coloured pens
Some coloured pens

This is actually my first time purchasing Muji notebooks so I can’t say for certain how well they’ll fit my tastes, but they are a bit thin and I’d probably burn through them in a month as well. The biggest incentive to buying these notebooks is the decoration area they have set up right next to the cash register. After you’ve purchased your plain notebooks you can head on over to the deco-area and stamp them up with different designs (yes, the notebooks in the photo above used to be blank)! Here’s a picture of the stamp table from Google:

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So if you’re into cute, simple stationery supplies, Muji is definitely the place for you! Visit their website for more information, products, and prices . Cheers!

Printables: January 2016 Calendar

January 2016 Calendar available below!
January 2016 Calendar printables available below!

Happy new year!

With a new year comes a new semester and a fresh start. To set things off, I’ll be kicking it old school with a printed January 2016 calendar. I have calendar apps on my phone, tablet, and computer, but nothing beats paper and pen. With digital apps comes reminders, but I seem to always to swipe them away with a flick of a finger. With a printed calendar, I’ll have it taped on my desk, staring me smack in the face, a continuous reminder of things to finish and deadlines to meet.

The January 2016 calendar shown above is available for download and print right here at blogUT.ca. It was designed by yours truly. Two sizes are available: a full letter sized calendar and a smaller one as pictured. Personally, I prefer the smaller calendar since my desk is pretty small, but if you’re a busybody with more things to add, the full 8.5 ” x 11 ” is definitely the one for you.

Downloads (click for direct link to Dropbox): 

Small calendar

Full letter sized (8.5 ” x 11 “) calendar

If you’re interested in a February 2016 calendar as well, comment down below and I’ll definitely whip something up!

Cheers.

Welcome, 2016.

Happy New Year!

If you’re reading this, congrats! You’ve survived all 365 days of 2015. Whether last year was a great one, a bad one, or a mix of both, I hope you welcome 2016 with open arms and optimism for what’s to come in this new year. Feel free to leave some goals for 2016 down in the comments if you’d like.

Let’s make 2016 a great year, U of T!

Sadly, I don't have a picture of any fireworks from NYE. I hope this picture I took from this year's Cavalcade of Lights makes up for it!
Sadly, I don’t have a picture of any fireworks from NYE. I hope this picture I took from this year’s Cavalcade of Lights makes up for it!