Today is the last day of 2021, and I’d like to let loose my emotions and share a few personal highs and lows of the year.
A lot of things happened, but none compared to the events of the year’s last few months.
The passing of a good friend
If you had run into my friend Jim Phelan on the street of San Francisco, chances are you wouldn’t have noticed him. And he probably wouldn’t have noticed you, either.
Jim was the type who minded his own business. He carried an indifferent, borderline grumpy look on his face by default. He was never ostentatious and always blended in the background. He appeared ordinary.
But Jim was an example of how we can’t judge a book by its cover. I’m one of those lucky enough to get to know the real him. And to those who knew him, among other things, Jim would always be there when needed — more readily available and at times surprisingly stronger than he’d appear to be.
For years, Jim and I worked together. He filmed and cut most of my review and how-to videos. The recording sections were always the highlights of my days. Jim had a sharp eye for detail and was quick at seeing truth vs bullshit. In many ways, he was my mentor.
Between takes, we talked. Jokes. Serious thoughts. Silly thoughts. Family issues. Work issues. Love. Life. Politics. Racism. Good. Bad. So on and so forth. We laughed a lot and cussed quite a bit, too.
I remember dreading having to do videos initially. I was one of those who’d feel nauseated when hearing their recorded voice played back — I still am. That’s not to mention the comment section which, at the time, was the cesspool of humanity’s conscience. (It’s still is today on some website/social media.)
“You know, I got a lot of negative comments mocking my name and accent,” I told him.
“Screw that racist bullshit, Dong. You’re great!” Jim said. “How about we Ding Dong right back at them?” And that was how the “that’s because I’m Dong Ngo” ending in each video came to life. We had fun with it.
Jim knew a lot. It was always fun and even eye-opening to chat with him on serious topics.
Over the years, Jim and I had many crazy conversations, but I would never forget our very first.
It started with me asking him the mundane question of where he was from as he was preparing the cameras and lighting in our San Francisco studio.
“OK. That’s Oklahoma,” he said. “Have you been?”
“Nope,” I said, “but I’ve heard of it. Are you friend with that Timothy McVeigh guy by any chance?” I asked jokingly and immediately realized it could be offensive, considering we hardly talked before.
To my surprise and relief, Jim laughed and said:
“His bombing put us on the map, ain’t it? And no, I’m not friends with that terrorist guy. That happened close to where I grew up, though. How about you, where are you from?”
“North Vietnam. Near Hanoi. ” I said.
“Oh, the Nam as they used to call it. B52s’ bombing put you guys on the map, too. That horrible war changed everything.” He said.
And right then, we clicked and became instant friends despite our big age gap.
I remember sharing many private thoughts with Jim and, later, finding out that some other co-workers did, too. There was something about Jim that was comforting and reliably trustworthy.
And he shared his with me, too.
“I love the Bay Area, and that’s a good thing. I also love Oaklahoma, but I can’t move back after living in San Francisco for over a decade. They won’t accept me.” He once told me and then went on elaborating the reasons, to most of which I could relate.
“I’ll retire and die here,” Jim added.
In early 2018, when I started this website, Jim offered to help if I wanted to open my own YouTube channel. “You should! You’re really great!” he said.
We ended up agreeing that we would do something on this front together when he retired, which would be sometime in 2022. And we were both somewhat looking forward to that.
The pandemic broke most of our planned gatherings, and we kept in touch through texts and calls despite living relatively close to each other.
In early 2019, Jim was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had to go through some rough treatments. I told Jim things would be OK and that he’d kick cancer’s ass.
“You’ll beat it, Jim. I have no doubt.” I texted him.
“Hell, yes, I will,” he replied with the 💪emoji.
On the inside, I kept my finger crossed. And by late 2021, Jim did kick cancer’s ass — he was cancer-free.
Jim was happy, possibly happiest in his life. He just moved to his favorite neighborhood. His retirement was on the horizon. He and his wife had lots of plans for a new stress-free future. He even got himself a brand-new Apple watch.
In one of our last exchanges, Jim was excited to hear that my wife and I would have a third child. “And then there were three.” He said, referring to a children’s song. “Congratulations! Can’t wait to meet him!”
Life was moving along somewhat expectedly.
Then. It. Stopped.
On November 12, I received a text from a former colleague that Jim had passed the day before.
Immediately, I thought it was still his cancer somehow.
Soon later, I got an agonizing call from his wife. “I lost my best friend.” She said in tears. Selfishly, at the moment, my thought was, “I lost one of mine, too!”
Jim was walking home from a BART train station in San Francisco, and he collapsed on the sidewalk. And that was it. Paramedics and doctors couldn’t save him. The whole thing played out like a horrible prank, a bad dream. He died just days before my baby was born.
Jim was only 64.
To put it in a sentence, Jim possessed a unique human spirit that was kind, caring, genuine, and brutally honest, shrouded in a weird, quick, and great sense of humor.
Jim Phelan had flaws like all of us. But he sure was real, like we all would want to be — some never succeed.
I know many of us will miss him dearly — I feel for his wife and former co-workers who have had to alter their immediate and long-term plans without him. His sudden passing made no sense.
Aristotle was wrong. Not everything “happens for a reason.”
Jim was an organ donor. Part of him will live on in others.
Per his wish, the rest is cremated and scattered in the San Francisco Pacific ocean. For eternity, he will be where he belongs.
Jim was survived by his wife, Lisa, their dog, Max, and the memories we have of him.
With that, let’s move on to some brighter notes.
This time last year, I mentioned how your Ko-Fis had helped me through 2020. That happened during this year, too.
On this front, THANK YOU for the love and support. I appreciate every Ko-fi, little or big, and the accompanying message of encouragement.
Another big THANK YOU to everyone who helped make this website better via anonymous typo reports — that’s the purpose of the floating button to the right of the screen.
I received over 200 corrections in 2021. While not so proud of that fact, I sure appreciated every single one. That’s also to say I’m aware of my flaws, so please keep them coming!
Throughout 2021, I continued my morning-coffee-to-diner daily routine. And things worked out somewhat routinely until the last part of the year — as you can imagine. And there was more.
A new coffee machine
My daily coffee routine recently got a significant upgrade. Last Black Friday, we snatched a great deal on this Breville BES880BSS Barista Touch Espresso machine, and my wife has been happy with it.
With a three-cups-a-day habit, she had been eyeing a good coffee maker for a couple of years. “It would save us a lot of time!” she convinced herself.
But no convincing would have been necessary — the proof is in the pudding, as they say.
The day the machine arrived, we tried it, and she agreed when I said its 120-second-from-start-to-finish cappuccino was comparable to one she’d spend some 10 minutes to make manually with our Moka pot. (And trust me, her hand-made cappuccino has always been arguably among the best.)
So the purchase proved a success. And a well-deserved one, too.
But in all seriousness, my wife deserved way more than a fancy beverage maker. The idea was not even remotely applicable.
A new baby
In mid-November, we welcomed our third child. That was the happy part — and I didn’t necessarily mean the baby himself.
The pregnancy had been hard on mommy. Among many other things, she couldn’t stand the smell of coffee or her favorite food — she’d puke. Yet, on the inside, she craved them and was hungry. It was like torture. No, it was indeed torture since that lasted the entire pregnancy.
The delivery was crazy, too. There’s no word enough to describe the amount of intense pain involved…
(That was not to mention the logistics — we had two toddlers who needed a morning routine, food, showers, taken to and back from schools, tucked to bed, etc., and no relatives nearby. We were lucky to have friends who were there for us. They were the family we chose.)
So, at the time, I was just happy that my wife’s ordeal had a happy ending. Most importantly, it ended. What’d happen next — the parenting — might not necessarily be easy, but at least I could participate in a more meaningful way. Or so I thought.
Take my word that nature is really unfair to women regarding procreation. For every human out there, behind all those beautiful baby pictures, there’s one woman who had to suffer a great deal. And that’s just the beginning of it.
So, if you’re a man, especially one that’s not (yet) a father, keep that in mind. Maybe give your mom a call!
By the way, to those who are about to become parents, make sure to get as much sleep as you can.
The conflicting emotions of having a child vs losing a dear friend and the prolonged stress of preparing for a newborn during a pandemic proved to be too much.
For the first time in years, I came down with a weeks-long debilitating cold of some sort — not COVID-19. For days, I couldn’t speak without coughing uncontrollably — so much for helping my wife with the parenting.
So, 2021 was crazy, to put it mildly. It had many good moments, but overall, I’m glad the year has come to an end.
By the way, I’ve been back in good physical shape for a couple of days. And, like you, I’m ready to start yet another flight around the sun, now equipped with a new understanding of how fragile life can be.
It’s the same trip, but the journey is different every time! I speak from decades of first-hand experience. This round, let’s not sweat the small stuff.
Here’s to keeping it real!