Lý Trần: House of Sticks

I am glad to see more Vietnamese-American voices in the literary world. The latest is from Lý Trần whose debut memoir is captivating, devastating, and moving. Ms. Trần writes with candid and vigor about her experience of growing up in America as a child of Vietnamese-Chinese immigrant parents, working in the nail salon, worshipping the Buddhas, and struggling with depression. From her complex relationship with her parents to her academic failures to her romantic relationship, Ms. Trần opened up about her incredible journey as she made the transition from an immigrant to an Asian American. Her prose is engaging and unflinching. The book is almost 400 pages, but it’s a fast read. Each chapter is a short story with a clear purpose of what she wanted to convey. Trần is a gifted writer. I hope more Vietnamese Americans will pick up this book. You will find it relatable.

Here’s a scene from the nail salon (p. 136):

I wanted so badly for my mother and me to disappear, to start over. It had started out as a new adventure but I didn’t want to be in a nail salon anymore. Seeing my mother, now in her fifties, hunching over the pedicure bowl, hands trembling, unable to understand, unable to communicate, was almost more than I could bear. I prayed silently for a return of the cummerbunds. Even that was better than this. At least we were all together and we had fun. Where were my brothers now? Where was my father?

“Lý!” my mother called again. “What are you doing? Daydreaming? Didn’t I just ask you to come here? I need help. I don’t understand what this woman is saying.”

I got up from my seat and walked over, reluctantly introducing myself to the client.

“I’m very sorry. My mother doesn’t speak much English, but I can translate for you.” As I apologized, I felt a burning sensation in my chest. This woman would never know who we were and where we came from. We were just a couple of clumsy immigrants working on her toes, not worthy of respect. I hated her. I hated her for sitting above us on that leather chair. I hated her for thinking that it gave her power over us. I hated that it did give her power over us. That money was power in this world and we would never be powerful.

Still, I translated.

Jay-Z: The Gifted Lyricist

It is not a secret that I am obsessed with Jay-Z’s music. I have spent many years listening to his albums and analyzing his lyrics. Without a doubt, Jay has proven to be one of the greatest rappers alive. He has the flow; he has the cadence; he has the delivery; but what made him a lyrical genius is his words. He holds the power of words, in which he has been crafting and developing before he even picked up the mic.

I always loved the story of his writing process. Jay started writing in his notebooks at an early age. When he was out hustling and an idea came to him, he could reach for his notebooks at home; therefore, he started writing on brown paper bags or whatever piece of scrap paper he could find at the moment. Then he would lose those papers. As a result, he wrote them in his head instead. He built longer and more complex verses inside his head. Jay was known for his paperless recording process. He went into the studio, listened to the beats, and just spat his verses without a word written down.

I have been adapting his process into my own writing as well for this blog. I can sit in front of my computer and let the words flow off my head. In twenty years of blogging, I never had an issue where I stared at the blank screen and didn’t know what to write. Something always came up. Whenever I was on the road and an idea started to form, I just started writing in my head until I had access to my computer to type up my words. This piece is a perfect example. While driving to Lancaster, Pennsylvania and listening to Jay, the concept for this piece came to mind and I knew exactly what I wanted to write.

Over his long career as a rap artist, Jay had released 13 studio albums for himself and a handful of collaborative projects. I don’t listen to all of them, but the albums I listened to I often revisited them over the years. In my own perspective, these are the albums that defined Jay as a powerhouse lyricist. Although the albums I am about to mention can be listened to from the beginning to end and I highly recommend them, I won’t delve into each individual track.

Right off his 1996’s debut release, Reasonable Doubt, Jay wasted no time declaring, “Can’t Knock a Hustler,” in which he rapped, “We do dirt like worms, produce G’s like sperm / ’Til legs spread like germs.” In “Dead Presidents 2,” Jay sampled a hot line from Nas (“I’m out for presidents to represent me”) and made it a hot song. Later on, he dissed Nas about it too.

In 1998, Jay released his wildly commercial success Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life with hits like “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” “Money, Cash, Hoes” (with DMX), and “Can I Get a Fuck You?” (with Ja Rule and Amil). This is not one of my favorite albums, but it put Jay-Z on the mainstream map.

A year later, 1999, Jay followed up with Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter, in which he walked the line between a hard hustler and chart chaser. As I re-listened to “Big Pimpin’,” I couldn’t help, but wonder if Jay ever regretted making one of the most misogynist rap verses ever. Although it is so gross, the entire verse is worth quoting in full:

You know I thug ’em, fuck ’em, love ’em, leave ’em
‘Cause I don’t fuckin’ need ’em
Take ’em out the hood, keep ’em lookin’ good
But I don’t fuckin’ feed ’em
First time they fuss I’m breezin’
Talkin’ about, “What’s the reasons?”
I’m a pimp in every sense of the word
Bitch, better trust and believe ’em
In the cut where I keep ’em
’Til I need a nut, ’til I need to beat the guts
Then it’s “beep beep” and I’m pickin’ ‘em up
Let ’em play with the dick in the truck
Many chicks wanna put Jigga’s fists in cuffs
Divorce him and split his bucks
Just because you got good head
I’ma break bread, so you can be livin’ it up?
Shit, I part with nothin’, y’all be frontin’
Me give my heart to a woman?
Not for nothin’, never happen; I’ll be forever mackin’
Heart cold as assassins, I got no passion
I got no patience and I hate waitin’
Ho, get your ass in and let’s ride!

How do you defend the undefendable? I am sure Jay doesn’t need anyone to defend his work, but it took me years to realize that he had thrown a line in there to defend himself: “I’m a pimp in every sense of the word.” This is Big Pimpin’ talking, not Big Jay. Jay just retold the story of a pimp.

On September 11, 2001, the same day American was under attack, Jay released “The Blueprint,” which was filled with lyrical prowess. Right off “The Takeover,” Jay belittled Nas:

You’ve been in this 10, I’ve been in it five; smarten up, Nas!
Four albums in 10 years, nigga? I could divide
That’s one every… let’s say two, two of them shits was due
One was “nah…,” the other was Illmatic
That’s a one-hot-album-every-10-year average
And that’s so (Lame)

Speaking of counting, Jay enjoyed counting his money on “U Don’t Know”:

I smartened up, opened the market up
One million, two million, three million, four
In eighteen months, eighty million more
Now add that number up with the one I said before
You are now lookin’ at one smart black boy
Mama ain’t raised no fool
Put me anywhere on God’s green earth, I’ll triple my worth, motherfucker

On the same track, Jay boasted about his hustle:

I sell ice in the winter, I sell fire in Hell
I am a hustler, baby, I’ll sell water to a well
I was born to get cake, move on and switch states
Cop the coupe with the roof gone and switch plates
Was born to dictate, never follow orders, dick face
Get your shit straight, fucker, this is Big Jay

On November 12, 2002, Jay released his lyrical pinnacle, The Black Album. On “What More Can I Say,” Jay announced his retirement:

Pound for pound, I’m the best to ever come around here
Excludin’ nobody, look what I embody:
The soul of a hustler, I really ran the street
A CEO’s mind, that marketin’ plan was me
And no I ain’t get shot up a whole bunch of times
Or make up shit in a whole bunch of lines
And I ain’t animated like, say, a Busta Rhymes
But the real shit you get when you bust down my lines
Add that to the fact I went plat’ a bunch of times
Times that by my influence on pop culture
I’m supposed to be number one on everybody list
We’ll see what happens when I no longer exist
Fuck this man!

From “December 4th” to “Encore” and “Moment of Clarity” to “99 Problems,” if Jay were to bow out, he would always be remembered as one of rap’s greatest lyricists. Fortunately, Jay couldn’t leave rap alone because the game needed him. His next four studio releases didn’t do much until he collaborated with Kanye West.

Watch the Throne released in 2011. What a pair they made. As “H.A.M” suggested, Jay and Ye went as hard as motherfuckers on every track. “Who Gon Stop Me,” in particular, sums up Jay’s success story:

When you’re growing up worthless
Middle finger to my old life
Special shoutout to my old head
If it wasn’t for your advice
A nigga would have been so dead
I’m living life til these niggas kill me
Turn this up if you niggas feel me
I’m riding dirty, tryna get filthy
Pablo Picasso, Rothkos, Rilkes
Graduated to the MoMA
And I did all of this without a diploma
Graduated from the corner
Y’all can play me for a muthafuckin’ fool if you wanna
Street-smart and I’m book-smart
Coulda been a chemist ’cause I cook smart
Only thing that can stop me is me, hey
And I’ma stop when the hook start, hol’ up

Jay indeed did it without a diploma. He didn’t need the official education to prove that he had what it took to be extremely successful. He did it with literate and literary. He got wealthy through his execute mind, but his words got him there.

In 2017, Jay released 4:44, his most emotionally naked album yet. On the title track he apologized to his wife:

I seen the innocence leave your eyes
I still mourn its death and
I apologize for all the stillborns
’Cause I wasn’t present, your body wouldn’t accept it
I apologize to all the women whom I toyed with your emotions
’Cause I was emotionless
And I apologize ’cause at your best, you are love
And because I fall short of what I say I’m all about
Your eyes leave with the soul that your body once housed
And you stare blankly into space
Thinkin’ of all the time, you wasted it on all this basic shit
So I apologize

I am just scratching the surface here. Jay has more lyrical depth than I can offer in this piece. If you are interested in his work, listen to the albums I have highlighted above. You can also pick up a copy of Michael Eric Dyson’s Jay-Z: Made in America, in which the author examines Jay’s role as a gifted lyricist.

I am not sure when Jay will release his next album, but I am definitely looking forward to listening to it. Until then, I will continue to enjoy his past works.

Pain

Friday morning, I woke up early and drove two and a half hours from Fairfax, Virginia to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to attend a traditional Buddhist ceremony for my homeboy Nate who passed away earlier this week due to a massive heart attack. The place was crowded inside; therefore, I just hung outside. I spotted a few recognizable faces even though I hadn’t seen them in over a decade.

After the ceremony, lunch was served. By the time I went to the line, all the food was gone. Sim, Nate’s older brother, invited me to his house to grab a quick bite before heading to the funeral home to see him for the last time before the cremation. By the time we arrived at the funeral home, which was the same place we chose for our mom, Nate’s family and friends were already there. I took a close look at him for the last time and said goodbye to my dear friend. His eldest sister Phan said a few words about her youngest brother. Nate lived his life to the fullest and he had a big heart. I fully concurred.

Since the cremation was reserved for family members only, I left the funeral home to visit my mom’s grave. I brought her some yellow roses and burned a few incense sticks. I stayed by her side and talked to her for a while. I missed her madly.

I headed back to Sim’s house to hang out a bit. He had a nice entertainment room in the basement with arcade games, a pool table, a foosball table, a gym, and a bar. Since when did Sim start to drink? Other than being an alcoholic, he was the same old Sim. He made me a gin and tonic and we played Street Fighters like the good old days. We took a Patron shot with a few old friends and reminisced about the past. Sim made me a Russian Mule and another one. I had a chance to catch up with their older brother Kumpherk, their nephew Quintin, and their cousins from Massachusetts. The liquor kicked in and I was talkative, especially with the people I hadn’t kept in touch for over a decade.

I left Sim’s house to meet up with my sister, niece, nephew, and Carol (their friend). I tried to eat, but couldn’t eat much. I ordered more drinks. I was planning on driving back to Virginia, but I didn’t think I could make it home. I stayed at my sister’s house just to be safe.

As I was lying in bed and trying to sleep, I started to get emotional. I lost my parents and my close friend within a few months. I thought liquor could help ease the pain, but it made the matter worse. I twisted and turned as the alcohol fucked with my head. I pulled out my phone to write. Then a Kanye verse came to mind: “When we die, the money we can’t keep / But we probably spend it all ’cause the pain ain’t cheap.” Life is short and full of suffering; therefore, we should just live to the fullest like Nate had. Even if we have to leave this temporary earth early, we would have no regrets.

One Lie and Two Truths

I picked up Đán at the end of his summer-school day. As he hopped into the minivan, he said, “I love you, daddy.” I replied, “I love you, too.” He said, “I am surprised that you didn’t say ‘No, you don’t.’” I responded, “Of course, I know you love me. You don’t have an option.”

As I drove home he started telling me a game he played in the classroom. He had to write down one lie and two truths. He wrote, “I have a cat,” which is a lie. Then he wrote, “My brother Đạo hates me,” which is his opinion, not the truth. Then he wrote, “I hate myself,” which is also not the truth.

His teacher got worried and sent him to the principal’s office. The principal told him that she was concerned about our family; therefore, she will call me or my wife to talk about our loathsome family members. He apologized that he got us in trouble. He thought he was being comedic because I kept telling him that being a comedian makes tons of money.

I was laughing the whole way home, but I am not looking forward to the call from the principal. I am just going to pass it on to my wife.

New Category: Goodbye

The news of my homeboy Nate passing away shook me to the core. He had a massive heart attack. He was only 38 years old. I wrote about our complicated relationship. I wish I had reconciled our friendship before he left. I waited for too long.

I do not deal with grief too well. The recent passing of my parents devastated me and now one of my closest friends is gone too soon. The longer I live, the more I will witness deaths until it will be my time to go. Just the thought of that depresses me.

As I was writing about Nate, I went back to my blog archive and found that I had written many goodbye posts for family members, friends, colleagues, and the people I had known over the years. I was able to go back to 2010 with about 21 people, excluding the people I didn’t know personally like celebrities and politicians. That averages out to 2 people I have known die each year.

I decided to create a goodbye category to collect the tributes I had written. It is my own column of obituaries. Writing them down helps me deal with my grief and remember the people I had in my lifetime.

Replacing Flush and Fill Valves

We had a Korky fill valve that made incredibly loud, screeching noise every time one of us flushed the toilet. The sound got louder and louder to the point where I could not stand anymore. I will never buy another Korky fill valve again. I picked up Fluidmaster’s Universal High Performance All-in-One Toilet Repair Kit instead for $32.

The job took me an hour and a half instead of ten minutes or less as the product has claimed. I am not a handyman at all. What took the most time was detaching the tank from the bowl. The screws were tight and rusted; therefore, they were hard to come out. The rest was straightforward and there was no leak. I hated working with water because I always worried about the leaks. This job turned out well.

Getting Back Into Rollerblading

I am slowing getting myself back into rollerblading. I went to skate parks. I dropped into quarter and half pipes, but staying away from higher ramps even with a high ramp I had no trouble in the past. I don’t want to risk hurting my sacroiliac joint again and won’t be able to ice skate.

I want to step away from going down the ramps and develop more rollerblading techniques like 180-degree and 360-degree jumps, backward crossovers, the T-stops, and the hockey stops. I still have a lot to learn. I am going to pick up a few techniques from Flow Skate’s Shaun Unwin as well as Skatefresh’s Asha Kirkby.

I have my goals set out for me. Since these techniques are on flat surface, I can ask Đạo to join me. He doesn’t like skating down ramps, but he is good at picking up techniques. We’ll see.

My Law School Portal

I was assigned to design the landing page for My Law School Portal. The portal is powered by Blackboard. I was given a JSP file to work with. The only way to see how the page work is to upload the JSP file and refresh the page. The page has ton of JavaScript and CSS callings in the backend. I don’t know what are being used for. For the purpose of what I was in charged to do, I just added some custom CSS elements to create the page. It’s like killing an ant with a sledgehammer, but whatever works.

Goodbye Nate Thaing

Dear Nate,

I am deeply sorry that we didn’t have a chance to reconcile our friendship before you leave. I thought we still had plenty of time, but I am dead wrong.

You came into my life when my heart was broken. I lost a girlfriend, but I gained a best friend. You kept me from drowning in my own sorrow. You took me in when I was dead broke. I will never forget your kindness, generosity, and friendship.

When I was at the lowest point of my life, you were there for me. We didn’t have much money, but we had plenty of joy. Reminiscing on the times when we ate Queen 6-Pack’s chicken wings, sharing a 40’s Olde E, and listening to hip-hop puts me to tears. I missed those late nights cruising and pumping 2pac in our rides. I missed those cookouts that lasted into early in the morning. Your parents, brothers, and sisters treated me like a family member. I love them all. I wish we could go back to the good old days. I still have fond memories of our time together.

I wished I could forget the past and move forward, but there was one particular incident that cracked our friendship. You were just kidding around, but it still haunts me to this day and I couldn’t fully forgive you for it. Do you remember the day when we were hanging out at David’s house? It was my first and last time at his house.

David’s stepfather was a gun nut and he had rifles locked up in a case as well as guns laying around the house. You picked up a shotgun on the couch and pointed at my head. I looked straight in your eyes and pleaded with you not to pull the trigger. You must have known that the gun had no bullet in it and I assumed that the gun had no bullet in it, but I was dead serious when I requested that you do not pull the trigger. Then I felt a puff of air on my temple. You didn’t respect my request. You pulled the trigger. I tried to explain to you why I was upset, but you didn’t seem to get it. To you, it was a joke, but to me, my life was in your hands at that moment. We were cool again, but it was never the same when I felt that you had stepped over the line. I am sorry to bring this up, but it was part of our story.

Our friendship broke when you wanted to come hang out with me for the weekend. I would welcome you to my house anytime, but I was so sick at that time. I didn’t want you to hangout with a sick person who would spend the entire time in bed instead of going out drinking. Unfortunately you took it as I didn’t want you to come. I knew you were upset and I wanted to give you some time to get over it. Unfortunately, you had removed me from your contact. I tried calling you several times and leaving you messages, but you never replied.

When my mom contracted COVID, I was in Lancaster for several weeks. I drove by your parents’ house several times, but I didn’t knock on the door. I didn’t think it was a good idea to check on your parents and you when I was living with family members who had COVID. I told myself to wait until the pandemic over to rekindle our friendship. Unfortunately, time had run out on us.

Despite our misunderstandings, I have nothing but love for you. I should have taken a more active role in our friendship. I had my own grief to deal with, but that’s not an excuse. I shouldn’t have taken your love and our friendship for granted. Remember the Nas joint we used to vibe to? AZ rhymed, “Life’s a bitch and then you die / That’s why we get high / Cause you never know when you’re gonna go.” I still can’t believe you’re gone. Once again, I am deeply sorry. Rest in eternal peace, homie.

Vietnamese Typography Supports Dark Mode

I spent my Sunday night realigning Vietnamese Typography. I stripped the site down to just black text on white background. I am heading toward a much more minimalist approach with the focus on readability. I find colors a bit distracting, but I still use red for the hover state.

I also decided to give the site a dark-mode experience for those who prefer reading white text on dark background. To accomplish dark mode, I had to re-export all the SVG files and embed them directly into the pages instead of linking to them using the img tag. The process was a bit tedious, but it was worth doing since Adobe Illustrator improved its SVG export with responsive support and cleaner codes.

I still love this site very much even though it was published six years ago. My original intention was to treat it like a book: publish it and forget it. The site has moved beyond the book format as I continue to add new type recommendations for Vietnamese. The traffic continues to go up and I get more requests for reviewing Vietnamese diacritics. Vietnamese Typography remains one of my favorite projects and I am very proud of it.

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