A Fake Man in the NICU

by Elison Alcovendaz

The first time I held Emmy, I was in Bay 101 in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Kaiser Roseville, more scared than I've ever been. The NICU occupies most of the basement of the Women and Children's Center, and as such, upon first impression, felt strangely heavy and dark. The bay held six babies, all of whom were in incubators decorated with colorful name tags. They had spelled her name Amelia instead of Emilia, but I had followed her from the operating room where Patty had her emergency c-section, so at least one of the thousand anxieties I'd possessed before Emmy's birth - babies somehow being switched at birth - was relieved. She did not yet have the GPS ankle bracelet, but she did have a plastic one with a bar code and medical record number that matched the bracelet on my arm. This, and for a while it felt only this, identified Emmy as my daughter, me as her father. 

Allow me a confession: when we first started trying, I wanted a boy. After the miscarriages, that quickly changed (all I wanted then was a healthy baby), but in the beginning, I knew I wanted to raise a son to be the man I always wanted to be but knew I never would become. Someone who: didn't cry so easily at the stupidest of movies, knew how to use a power tool, didn't shy away from confrontation, was comfortable in nature, would not avoid swimming pools for a decade because they were embarrassed to take off their shirt in front of people, was assertive, was physically strong, was self-reliant, was willing to take risks, was not someone who was ruled by their feelings.

When Patty and I first started dating, one of the things she said attracted her was the way I walked into a room. Confident, smiling, making eye contact. I didn't tell her that was something that, to this day, I have to fake. I learned it back in middle school, all false bravado when walking onto the basketball court to show everyone in the gym that I wasn't scared though I very much was. I faked that walk, that way of holding my head high, all the way to adulthood. In a sense, it was the way I faked being what I thought a man was supposed to be. And in the NICU, I felt like that fake man again. 

Emmy was six weeks early and needed to initially be fed by IV. Patty was still in the OR, so I was by myself. I couldn't watch as the nurses tried to insert the needle into Emmy's wrist and, when that didn't work, into her other wrist and, when that didn't work, into her inner forearm. I couldn't listen to her crying. I couldn't look at the wires attached to her tiny chest or, eventually, the cannula hooked up to her nose to help her to breathe. I sat in an uncomfortable rocker beside the incubator, dressed in a Star Wars sweater that made me too warm for the room, able only to focus on Emmy for seconds at a time until I'd be overcome with so much fear I had to look elsewhere. What I saw were other babies, most of them much younger and smaller than Emmy, many of whom weighed as much as your standard hardcover book. Everywhere I looked reminded me that impermanence is a universal constant.

The nurses, all of whom were extraordinary helpful, empathetic, and otherwise just damn good at their jobs, quietly updated their charts and monitored their babies while I sat there for those first two hours. Being in the basement, cell phone reception was terrible. Patty had asked me to follow Emmy to the NICU shortly after the birth, but I couldn't shake the fact that I'd left my wife alone in the OR needing two pints of blood, her abdomen cut open. What kind of husband did that make me? What kind of man? I frantically texted my mom, Patty's mom. My mom said she was okay, but that wasn't enough. I needed more. I needed to see her. But if I left little Emmy there, what kind of father would I be? What kind of man?

"I have a stupid question," I asked the nurse.

"There are no stupid questions," she said.

"Right. How long do the fathers normally stay here?"

"It depends. I've seen fathers leave after two minutes and I've seen some stay here all night. Are you going to go up?"

"I think so. Yeah. Is that okay?"

I went upstairs, and as soon as I stepped into the elevator, the relief that overcame me was quickly swallowed by a wave of guilt. The truth was, I didn't have the inner strength or, in my head, the manhood, to sit there and watch Emmy look so vulnerable. Our journey to this point had been one of "failures" - miscarriages, hospitalizations, hemorrhages, transfusions, rare pregnancy complications - and I had been taught to expect the worst (even now, writing that sentence scares the shit out of me). And I just couldn't watch something bad happen. I needed to see Patty. I needed to make sure that at least one of them was going to be okay.

But when I got upstairs, the first thing I saw was not Patty's face, but the blood. Lots of blood. Unbelievable amounts of blood (at least to me). Earlier, when I saw Emmy being pulled out of her body, I saw Patty's intestines, and that feeling could not compare to the sudden dizziness I felt now. What did this mean? Is everything okay? I latched onto the face of the nurse and managed to ask if this was normal. She said yes. My mind cleared and I finally looked at Patty. 

"How is she?" she asked.

"Fine," I said, then correcting myself, "Great."

She smiled, the pink all removed from her face. She reached for my hand. Her fingers were cold but taut around mine, and we stayed like that for a few moments while we talked. Then she asked me to go back downstairs to be with our daughter. 

 Baby's ankle bracelet.

 Baby's ankle bracelet.

***

The second time I held Emmy, she stopped breathing. Up until that point, the doctors and nurses were amazed how well she was doing. I cradled her in both arms, and in the middle of sucking on a green pacifier, her body went completely limp, arms falling to her sides, her face ghostly. Red lights flashed from the monitor and the alarm clanged throughout the bay. Patty sat in a wheelchair next to me, drugged up and tired, but I couldn't look at her. I opened my mouth to yell for help, but a nurse came around the curtain calmly, put Emmy on her shoulder, and massaged and patted her back until Emmy started breathing again and the alarms shut off. 

I don't want to say what I thought had happened, but in those 20 seconds, I thought it might've been the absolute worst thing. I just knew I had done something wrong. I must've held her at the wrong angle or hadn't appropriately put the pacifier in her mouth. The doctors would explain that Emmy was having her A's, B's, and D's or, in NICU speak, Apnea, Bradycardia, and Desaturation. In other words, due to the immaturity of her brain stem, Emmy would stop breathing, her heart rate would drop to dangerous levels, and so would her oxygen levels. It was common in younger preemies, less so in older ones like Emmy. She would be in the NICU until she could go without a similar episode for five straight days. 

That night, I came down from our room upstairs to bring a syringe of milk Patty had expressed down to the NICU for Emmy. In the elevator, I ran into another dad from a NICU class I had taken earlier that day. He had multiple syringes in his hand and said, with a big smile on his face, that he was going to bottle-feed his daughter for the first time. I learned later that this was his second kid, which might've explained some of his obvious confidence. I had only intended on dropping Patty's milk off for the nurse to feed but I lied and told him I was going to feed my daughter for the first time, too.

"Dad life," he said, laughing.

When I arrived at the NICU, the nurse placed the syringe in the refrigerator and advised me they would have to reinsert the IV in a new place and did I want to stay? "No," I thought, but said "sure" instead. After failing again at the wrists, during which Emmy shrieked in ways that still shake me to this day, they called in a specialist who was adept at working with mini preemie veins. It took her 20 minutes to get it in. The entire time, I sat glued to my chair, telling myself I had to look, I had to listen. If I wanted to be a real father someday, this is the type of thing I'd have to do. Sit there and watch my baby get poked over and over again. 

Over the next few days, we would spend more than half our time in the NICU. I would occasionally change her diaper and sometimes watch over her, but I couldn't hold her. Instead, I watched Patty grit through her own immense pain and fatigue and be the mother I always knew she would be. Instead of doing what a real father might have done, I willingly became a gofer. I went to the cafeteria when Patty needed food. I went to get her water. I greeted our visitors. I went home to get clothes. And each time, I felt that same lack of manhood, that same acidic mixture of relief and guilt; relief to get out of that claustrophobic place, guilt from feeling relief at leaving my wife and baby, even if it was only for a few moments at a time.

***

The third time I held Emmy, it was Father's Day. The nurses gave me a card, a cookie, and a cute laminated paper with Emmy's footprints on it. The other fathers received similar treasures. Emmy had already been cleared of her D's, but was still having her A's and B's. She no longer did it in her sleep, which was great, but she still had them when feeding. She would choke on the milk or formula, lose her breath and drop her heart rate, go limp and pale, but her oxygen levels remained steady. This was progress. This meant that soon, we could go home.

After sleeping in hospital recliners and windowsills built for someone much smaller than me for nearly two weeks, the idea of going home and sleeping in our bed sounded like heaven. But it also meant that we wouldn't have the comfort of the nurses or even the monitors which, while scary, always gave me comfort to know when someone should intervene in her A and B episodes. I asked every nurse who looked at me about monitors we could use at home. They all said with the number of false alarms, they caused more problems than they were worth and advised against them. When we roomed in at the NICU (they let you stay in a "hotel" room there to be with your baby off the monitors before you go home), we slept with the lights on to make sure we could see her breathing. When I wasn't standing over her, I lay in the scratchy bed and researched monitors on websites. I scoured Amazon and mom blogs for reviews. I didn't care that, the next day, the doctor laughed when I asked him the same question. He said what they all said - just watch your baby. Patty had become an expert at knowing Emmy's cues and stimulating her back from breathlessness; I, on the other hand, was glad to mostly be a spectator. Patty and I had decided, however, that later that night, I would feed her again.

Before the feeding, I went out to the waiting room to catch a breather. There was one other person in there, another dad whose baby had just been admitted a couple of days before. He had a brand new Golden State Warriors "NBA Champions" tee shirt on and sweatpants two sizes too large. Like me, he hadn't shaved in awhile. I'd seen him a few times, but he never looked interested in talking, so I was surprised when, as I walked by, he made eye contact and nodded his head as though he wanted me to stop. 

"How's it going?" he asked.

"I guess I shouldn't complain," I said. I'd overheard the nurses saying that his baby boy had been born at 29 weeks and was probably looking at a three month NICU stay. For a moment, it always made me feel better to know Emmy was doing better than the others, but then the guilt at making it a comparison would quickly take over. Eventually, I just hoped we all got out, healthy and alive.

"I know what you mean. What's your baby's name?"

"Emmy. Yours?"

"Logan," he said. 

He stayed silent for a few moments. He looked at his watch and I looked at the door. 

"Happy Father's Day," he said.

"You, too."

Later that night, the feeding went fine, mostly because I kept pulling the bottle of her mouth every five seconds so she wouldn't go limp on me again. Patty remained patient with me the entire time. She talked about what a great team we were. She told me she was grateful for me. The other dad was there, too, rubber gloves on his hands. The only way he could touch his baby was through holes in the closed incubator, and there I was, my baby in my arms, thinking about the man I was supposed to be. 

***

Father's Day NICU

The last time I held Emmy in the NICU was the day of her car seat challenge. Before being discharged, babies born before 35 weeks must prove they can sit in their car seat for an hour with no A's, B's, or D's. The nurse would also need to verify the car seat had been installed correctly into your car. I had long boasted that I would put the car seat in myself, but for a week I avoided it. I didn't want to jinx Emmy coming home, but mostly, I didn't want to get it wrong.

The voice of the stereotypical man in my head said this is something I should be able to do myself, something I wanted to do myself. But after seeing Emmy in the NICU, I felt the best thing I could do was to do absolutely nothing myself. So I made an appointment at a local fire station in Roseville that taught people how to properly install a car seat.

It was 108 degrees outside, and as I pulled into the back of the fire station, I swear I could see the steam rising from the asphalt. A fireman named James waved at me and told me where to park the car.

"She came early," I said, as though this explained why I hadn't already installed it myself. 

"How early?" he asked.

"Six weeks. I thought I had more time. Thanks for letting me come in today."

"It's no problem," he said.

James was tall, built, and wore a pressed fireman's uniform. Despite the heat, he barely broke a sweat, and he had the focused gaze of someone who is used to solving problems. When other firemen passed by, they nodded at James with deference and respect. It was clear that, despite being on car seat duty, he had a leadership role at the station. 

For nearly all my adult life, I've always compared myself to such men. The "man's man." People who know me and my parents know I'm more like my mother - a thinker and a feeler. My dad is a man's man, someone who knows how to fix a car, who is not afraid to climb on top of a roof, the kind of man who, when he's around, you always feel safe. This isn't to say he isn't a thinker or a feeler, too; he is, but he isn't ruled by them the way I am. He isn't afraid of things. If faced with a fire, I'm sure he'd run in right beside James to save whoever's inside. And with all of that, he was always there. I always knew I was loved.

The installation took 45 minutes. James showed me the latch vs. the seat belt methods. We went over safety hazards. We even talked about the Sacramento Kings and fantasy football. When I climbed in to the backseat to pull the seat belt as tight as possible through the car seat, sweat dripping from my forehead, he encouraged me, even when I did it wrong. When we were finally done, he shook my hand and looked me dead in the eye. I was sure I knew what kind of man he was, and I wondered what he thought of me.

***

Since we've come home, I hold Emmy all the time now. Look, you don't have to tell me that my version of masculinity and manhood is wrong. I know it is. Patty lets me know all the time how wrong I am. And I know it comes from traditional social standards, from (as shown in the age of Trump) a long history of connection between manhood and power. And I'm ashamed of it. I'm ashamed at having wanted a boy. I'm ashamed at wanting a son to fulfill the sporting dreams I never achieved and double ashamed that I would put such pressure on a child that hadn't even been born yet and triple ashamed for not intuitively thinking a girl could do the same. 

When I hold Emmy and look at her, I wonder how I could've wanted anything else. Even at six pounds, she is everything. But since she has arrived, in addition to the love and joy and fear, this thing about manhood has once again shoved its way to the forefront of my mind. If I'm not the man I want to be, how can I be the father I want to be? What kind of man will she see in me? 

There's no way to know the answer to that yet, and I know that that's okay. For now, it's enough that she's here. She's here. 

 

Kaeptain America, Common Core, and Debates

by Elison Alcovendaz

I. Kaeptain America

As a diehard fan of the San Francisco 49ers, I’ve seen every play Colin Kaepernick has made in a 49er uniform, so I can tell you with some authority that, as a football player, Kaepernick is, well, not the smartest guy out there. After a great 2-3 year run, the NFL adjusted to his quickness and arm stength, and he didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t learn to read defenses. He couldn’t get through his progressions. He couldn’t sit still in the pocket, even when the situation warranted it. All of his resulted in him losing his starting job to Blaine Gabbert, a quarterback who once, according to advanced statistics, was the worst QB of all time.

So yeah, as a football player, I think Kaepernick is an idiot, which I say only because if there was any person to immediately and loudly call Kaepernick on the idiotic things he does, it would be me. But football and life are two different things, and in light of the increased number of people now talking about police brutality and racial oppression, I can say that the smartest thing Kaepernick has ever done on a football field is to sit on a bench. 

On ESPN, sportscasters are discussing the Black Lives Matter movement and the meaning of patriotism in between touchdown highlights. Athletes across sports, from the pros to high school, are using their right to protest. Acquaintances I’ve never had a deep conversation with are now bringing up race in America over dinner or text messages; on a sports Facebook group I belong to, we talked beyond sports for the first time. We discussed Kaepernick’s protest, why we agreed or disagreed with him, why we agreed or disagreed with each other, and we did it with civility and respect.

Kaepernick explaining his anthem protest to reporters.

Kaepernick explaining his anthem protest to reporters.

You might say Kaepernick started a conversation. In fact, a lot of people are saying that.

But there’s a problem with this, and it’s a problem that no one is talking about – the conversation was already there. It started a long (a LONG) time ago. So why did so many of us need an athlete, especially one who, until now, hasn’t been particulary outspoken about social ills (or much else outside of football), to bring us into the conversation?

Nothing Kaepernick has said is new. People have been saying the same things for a long time, only they’ve said it better. They’ve said it with facts. They’ve said it as people who are at the forefront of BLM. They’ve said it as historians and sociologists who have dedicated their lives to studying racism. They’ve said it as journalists backed with actual research. They’ve said it as people who’ve lost unarmed sons. They’ve said it as police officers. They’ve said it as veterans.  They’ve said it as people who live in Ferguson and other areas where tension between the police and the community are a few sparks away from exploding. They’ve said it as people who have research, facts, and/or lived experience to support their opinions. In other words, they’ve said it as more informed people.

And yet, until Kaepernick took a seat during The Star Spangled Banner, most of us didn’t read this information, even though it has been out there. We didn’t read it because the articles were too long, or were housed on websites we didn’t visit, or because we weren’t moved enough to do a simple Google search. We didn’t read it because we consume our information in status updates, headlines, or sound bites, like Kaepernick in a 20-second interview or a “well-written” meme that succinctly captures the complexity of racism. We didn’t read it because we’ve come to treat information like Wikipedia, where there are no longer such things as “experts,” and that any one opinion is as equally important as another opinion, even if that second opinion might be much more informed. We’ll watch ESPN analysts talk about racial injustice but we won’t read this article or watch this video or download this study or this study because they are too long or too confusing or we just can’t read or watch something that goes against our own beliefs because it’s completely impossible for someone on the other side to have any truth.

In other words, we’re like Kaepernick the football player.

I’m raising my hand here. I’m part of it. I admit that. 

But if you need any proof of our idiocracy, then I submit this to you: we keep talking about racism like it’s its own cause, like it’s not a symptom of some other, deeper problem – ignorance, and not just any kind of ignorance, but chosen ignorance. We exist in a time in history when we have the most access to information, so if you are still a racist, then you are simply choosing to be ignorant. I mean, what kind of people actually believe that because of someone’s skin color, they’re actually a less worthy, less capable human being? Ignorant people, right? Or people that think it’s okay for women working the same job as men with the same credentials to be paid less? Ignorant people again, right? Or that the LGBTQ community should not have the same human rights as anyone else? You get the point. You could take most of the discrimination troubling America today and distill it to one specific disease – ignorance – and yet we keep talking about and treating the symptoms, over and over and over again.

II. Common Core

The other day, I was talking with a friend who, the night before, was trying to help his daughter with her third grade math homework. On this particular homework assignment, his daughter had to show her work, the Common Core way, and if she didn’t, she wouldn’t get credit for her answer. He couldn’t help her. He repeated how stupid Common Core was. He said something like “51+7 is 58 and that’s all there is to it!” I tried to explain that Common Core math is meant to teach the students the structure of math, the inner workings of it, that way they have a more intuitive, analytical way of looking at math than memorization. My friend responded by saying the same thing I’ve heard parents saying all over the place, which goes something like this: “Common Core is so dumb! If I can’t even understand their homework, how can my child?”

Let’s sit on this for a second. If a parent understanding something was the ultimate determinant whether something was worthy of their child learning it or not, none of us my age or older would’ve ever learned to use a computer. Or a cell phone (if you get a text from my mom, good luck to you). Learning about organic chemistry would be completely useless, as would structural engineering, since neither of my parents understand that. I probably should’ve never read Moby-Dick or took a creative writing class because, hey, my parents aren’t really into that, either.

Does this sound a bit ignorant to you? That if we don’t understand something, it must be wrong? Or unacceptable? Or unworthy?

Make sense?

Make sense?

My wife teaches middle school English, and since Common Core went into effect, I’ve seen some changes to her district’s curriculum and where instructional focus should be. For example, one of Common Core’s aims is to move away from rote memorization and to more critical analysis. In her classes, they are reading more long-form writing, such as novels, and she brings in supplmental materials related to the novels but dealing with current events to inspire classroom discussion. They talked about Michael Brown’s shooting in class. They talked about the “Poor Door” and China’s one-child policy. They work in groups so they learn how to talk respectfully with each other about things they disagree about, using information and/or experience to back up their assertions. They learn how to take information from several difference sources, synthesize them, and then make a reasonable argument orally and in writing. They learn how to make an informed opinion.

So if racial oppresion and other forms of discrimination are a symptom of the larger disease of ignorance, then it seems that Common Core is one of the few things that could be treating the disease and not just the symptoms. It’s teaching our future decision makers, the future shapers of our country, how not to be ignorant.

You may or may not know that, on average, the time to complete police academy training is roughly 20 weeks. This means that, in the span of only five months, a police offer is supposed to learn how, in mere seconds, to make a decision based on: what the suspect is or isn’t doing, what bystanders are or aren’t doing, what weapon to use or not use, whether the suspect is a risk to themselves or others, whether to use force, whether to use this weapon or that, where to aim the weapon, what would happen if they themselves get killed, and probably a hundred other things while also working through what could be the most important thing – their inherent biases. We all have them. I say inherent because no matter how non-discriminatory one believes themselves to be, everything we’ve heard from media, our parents, our religious leaders, and from the world works upon us, and it takes work to unpack that. Unless someone has spent their lives understanding and actively using critical thinking/critical analysis technqiues to deal with their inherent biases beforehand, what are the chances those inherent biases present themselves in a decision that must be made in an instant?

This goes beyond police officers of course. What about politicians that set policies? Or managers looking to hire a new employee? Or school administrators deciding on curriculum? How do their inherent biases affect their decisions? Think about going through an educational system that forgoes simple acceptance of what a history book tells you and requires that you think, requires that you question, requires that you pull information from outside your textbook. Imagine if you had to read sources written in the actual time historical events happened. Or if you had to read literary texts from marginalized writers who reside outside the literary canon. How might having an entire educational career focused on obtaining information from differing sources and then critically analyzing them filter into our daily lives, into our relationships, into the way we process information from the media? Might we navigate the world with thought and not just follow what society says? Might that affect the way we view blacks, police officers, or anyone else and, in turn, improve the way we talk to each other, the way we interact with each other in the world? 

Most of us have focused on short-term solutions and rightfully so. Police brutality, killings, racism – it all needs to stop, now. But if we can temporarily look past our anger, then we know simply asking or willing it to happen won’t make it so. Perhaps a long-term solution might embrace Common Core or something like it, and maybe then the "conversations" we're having would actually turn into something else.

III. Debates

Much has been made recently over politicians sending their “thoughts and prayers” in the aftermath of tragedy, since it should be clear that their thoughts and prayers don’t prevent tragedy from occurring. To me, the same thing is happening in the wake of Kaepernick’s protest. People are so happy that people are now having a “conversation” which, while “sounding” good, fails to address that there are two main kinds of conversations, debates and dialogues. Most people are only having the former.

Anyone who watched Trump and Clinton debate the other night saw firsthand what a debate is – when two (or more) people, each of whom has a certain viewpoint about something, try to “win” an argument. For presidential candidates, “winning” means votes. But on internet boards or on social media feeds, what is it that we win when we debate someone? A feeling of superiority? Pride in being more intelligent than someone? Debates are fueled by chosen ignorance, where we simply cannot admit that the person on the other side actually has some truth, but because we refuse to be cognizant of that fact, these conversations usually just devolve into screaming and snideness and further entrenchment into our own beliefs.

Dialogues are different. In a dialogue, both parties come to the table to discuss their side of the argument, yes, but they also come to the table with openness, with a willingness to be swayed by evidence because they are willing to admit that someone might have a more informed opinion. If you're a Clinton supporter who can’t understand why Trump has so many backers, than you are part of the problem. You probably have never watched Fox News and, if you have, spent most of the time thinking how insane they were. You aren’t open. You aren't listening.  If you’re a Trump supporter who can’t see that Clinton is the most experienced presidential candidate we’ve ever had, then you are also part of the problem. If you have watched CNN, you likely spent most of the time thinking how crazy they were. You aren’t open. You, too, aren't listening.

A few days after Ferguson, I wrote that "black lives matter because all lives matter." And when I talked to people about it, I was stubborn about my viewpoint. I refused to be swayed. But it occurred to me that many people I knew, people I thought were intelligent, were telling me to keep reading, to keep searching, and so I did. I finally came to understand that BLM isn't about Black Lives Matter ONLY, they are saying that Black Lives Matter, TOO. This is because we already know that white lives matter, for example. It simply doesn't need to be said. We can look at our society and know that. But we can't look at all aspects of our society and say that we KNOW black lives matter. So it does need to be said, and it took me a long time to get there.

So why is it so difficult for people to participate in dialogues instead of debates? Certainly there is always an insecurity about being wrong (as it was for me), or about our tied-down-ness to our identities. If something we’ve believed for so long is suddenly destroyed by evidence, what does that mean about who we are as a person? But I also believe that the reason for so many debates is that we simply don’t know how to have a dialogue. We were never taught. We were taught to memorize things. We were told to sit quietly in our desks. We were told what history was, so we didn’t pull information from primary sources to form our opinions. We were taught what the literary canon was, so we never read texts from marginalized voices. We were taught to idolize celebrities, so that when they say something, we listen to them, even if other people, more informed people, have been saying those same things or saying different things. And now because we've learned to consume information, not to analyze it, and to consume it from places that align with our own beliefs, we're scared to have a dialogue. We're scared because 1) we learned to believe what we were told and 2) we never learned how to understand the other side.

Ignorance, then, inspires ignorance.

In the first draft of this blog, I used “dumb” instead of “ignorant,” but there’s an important difference. "Dumb" insinuates an incapability, while "ignorant" insinuates an unwillingness or a laziness, as in – the information is out there, but we are too unwilling or too lazy to go search for it. Like Kaepernick’s televised protest, we need it dropped in our laps. Or maybe we are too bought in to our ideologies – as Democrats or Republicans, Christians or atheists, upper class or lower class residents, whites or blacks, or in things like the perfection of the American flag as a symbol – that we cannot be open enough to hear the other side. Our truth is the truth and the only truth.

This – the complete feeling of our rightness and the inability to hear the other side – is ignorance, and it is probably the worst kind.

Kaepernick has brought people into a conversation. This is good. But we need to be aware about the kind of conversation we are having. Are we having a debate, where the point is to convince the other person they are wrong, and which often results in people becoming more entrenched in their beliefs? Or are we having a dialogue, which is fueled by both parties being open to hearing the other side and, if the evidence is compelling, being willing to be swayed, even if it’s just a little bit? Perhaps Common Core – which inspires critical analysis – will help more people come to the dialogue table instead of the debate podium, will help us see that racism and other types of discrimination are symptoms of ignorance, and while we fight in the short term to prevent people from being killed or jailed or systematically discriminated against, we need longer-term solutions for the disease of ignorance, too. Or perhaps we'll continue to complain about it until the government decides on a new educational direction. Until then, I guess we’ll continue to watch people post memes and scream from their social media pulpits.

See you on Facebook, friends.

The Genius of the Unreliable Narrator in Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself”

by Elison Alcovendaz

When one thinks of artistic genius, it is unlikely that pop music comes to mind. From the throwaway lyrics of “Hit Me Baby One More Time” to the recent trend of attaching catchy dance moves to otherwise dumbfounding songs (“Now watch me whip/Now watch me nae nae,” for example), pop music has been the land of formulaic beats, lyrics middle schoolers could write, and the kind of immature relationship angst that Taylor Swift has made millions upon millions on.

            Every now and then, however, a song with subtle artistry graces the pop music landscape. The most recent addition to this rare canon is Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself.” Co-written by master lyricist Ed Sheeran, who famously wrote in “Thinking Out Loud” that he would love you until you’re seventy, “Love Yourself” takes the popular break up theme and, through the use of the unreliable narrator, adds a surprising dimension that is uncommon to find in a pop song. A close reading of the lyrics will elucidate the song’s genius.

 

           For all the times that you rain on my parade

For all the clubs you get in using my name.

 

            At first glance, these lyrics seem innocuous. Bieber is simply saying that his ex, whoever this person is, has benefited from his fame and fortune. But the verbs “rain” and “get in” are in present tense, not past. Either Biebs and the ex are still together or there’s something else going on. Let’s continue:

 

            You think you broke my heart, oh, girl for goodness sake

            You think I’m cryin’ on my own but I ain’t.

            And I didn’t wanna write a song,

            ‘Cause I didn’t want anyone thinking I still care. I don’t,

            But you still hit my phone up.

 

            The first line here is relatively benign, but then the Biebs presents an interesting picture of crying on his own. Why add the “on his own” here? The line would work simply as “You think I’m cryin’ but I ain’t.” Instead, the line seems to indicate that he’s not crying by himself, but instead there’s someone else there with him. But who? We’ll come to that in a bit.

            From there we get to the first obvious statement by the unreliable narrator. “I didn’t want to write a song.” But write a song is exactly what Biebs has done. And then he says he didn’t want anyone to think he still cared about her, but if that was the case, what he should’ve done is exactly the opposite, which would be to not write a song. The reason he gives for writing the song is also unbelievable. She still hits his phone up, but it’s likely the only people who know that are him and the girl, so writing a song isn’t necessary. Perhaps he could’ve also just blocked her… or maybe he couldn’t…

 

          And baby I be movin’ on

          And I think you should be somethin’ I don’t wanna hold back

          Maybe you should know that

My mama don’t like you and she likes everyone

And I never like to admit that I was wrong

And I’ve been so caught up in my job,

Didn’t see what’s going on

But now I know

I’m better sleeping on my own

           

Bieber starts here saying he’s moving on, but the act of writing and singing this song indicates he really isn’t. From there, he moves on to “thinking” (not “knowing”) that he doesn’t want to hold her back and that “maybe” she should know that his mom doesn’t like her and she likes everyone. Well, Justin, if your Mom doesn’t like this mysterious other person, then she, by definition doesn’t like everyone. He then says he doesn’t like to admit that he was wrong, but because he’s so busy with his job, he didn’t see what was happening. Isn’t that admitting that you’re wrong, Biebs? And are you really sleeping on your own? Who is he talking about?

 

'Cause if you like the way you look that much

Oh, baby, you should go and love yourself

And if you think that I'm still holdin' on to somethin'

You should go and love yourself

 

            Google Image Search the Biebs and you will discover that there might not be one person on the planet that cares about the way they look than Bieber himself, so calling someone out for caring about how they look? Hmmm… He then references the title of song, “Love Yourself,” which is obviously a take on “F--- Yourself.” Why not just use the F word here? Why use the word “love”? Justin finishes the chorus off by saying he’s not holding on, but the entire song illustrates the opposite.

 

And when you told me that you hated my friends

The only problem was with you and not them

And every time you told me my opinion was wrong

And tried to make me forget where I came from

 

And I didn't wanna write a song…

 

  For all the times that you made me feel small

I fell in love. Now I feel nothin' at all

And never felt so low when I was vulnerable

Was I a fool to let you break down my walls?

 

'Cause if you like the way…

 

            Bieber continues his brilliant lyrics about hating on his friends and his opinions and making him forget where he’s from (no one forgets you’re from Canada, bro), but we already know that Bieber’s friends and his opinions probably aren’t the greatest influences. Then we find out this mystery person made Bieber feel small and that even though he fell in love, he feels nothing at all (but you wrote a song about it!). He finishes off his song by saying he was at his worst because he was vulnerable with this person, and now he feels like a fool for letting them see the real Bieber.

            The real Bieber.

            That’s what this song is about, the reason why the unreliable narrator is such a key to understanding this song, which is about Justin Bieber and his alterego, Diva Justina, the girl he has such a hard time breaking away from because the girl is a part of him. The girl is him.

            He clues us in already in the first two lines which are in present tense. This isn’t a girl he broke up with. This is a girl he’s still with. And he’s not crying on his own, because Diva Justina is always with him. Diva Justina is the one sending crazy text from his phone (possibly to Justin himself – You’re killin’ it, bro – who doesn’t find them until he sobers up the next morning), Diva Justina is the one his Mom hates, Diva Justina is the one who cares so much about how she looks, Diva Justina is the one who hates his friends (his “real” friends, the ones who try and get him to ), Diva Justina is the one who made Justin feel vulnerable because he fell in love with the limelight and the fame.

            Throughout “Love Yourself,” Bieber’s use of the unreliable narrator points us to the instability of the song, and it’s this instability that compelled Justin to write this. In many places, Bieber sings lyrics that appear to be hypocritical on the face of it, but then Diva Justina compels him to keep writing. This isn’t a song about an ex-girlfriend. It’s about Bieber’s struggle with Diva Justina and trying to come to grips about the person fame has made him. Even when Justin is trying to turn it around, when he’s trying to get away from this girl, Diva Justina is telling him to accept who they are together and that after everything, Bieber should Love Himself.

             

A Hate Letter to Kobe Bryant

by Elison Alcovendaz

Dear Kobe,

You don’t know me, but I hate you.

I hate you because you made me not get enough sleep last night. Your postgame press conference came on live at 10pm and I had to watch. Had to. You talked about how hard it was to give up a game you started playing at three years old. I started playing at three years old, too. Did you know that? Like you said in your God awful “Dear Basketball” poem, I too shot balls into garbage cans pretending to make game winning shots at the Forum. Did you take wire hangers, shape them into hoops, then wedge them between the closet door and the doorframe so you could shoot rolled up socks from the corner of your bedroom? You probably did. You probably slept with your ball in your arms like I did because you were in love.

I hate you because we’re the same age. Did you know that? I bet when I was pretending to be Magic Johnson or Kevin McHale on my driveway, shooting on a makeshift hoop my dad created, you were doing the same thing, but better. When I wouldn’t go inside for dinner until I made 250 jumpers, I bet you were out there until you made 500. Maybe 1000. When I only stayed in the rain for an hour until I got too cold, you were probably out there the whole night. When people wrote in my middle school yearbook that I’d be the “first Filipino in the NBA,” I believed them, but I bet you didn’t need that kind of validation. You had it in you. You had it yourself.

I hate you because I knew about you in high school, even though you went to school all the way in Philly. And it wasn’t because you took Brandy to prom. It was because of your game. I saw you on ESPN. I saw you on the cover of Slam Magazine. I remember having the best game of my life against Rio Linda, 52 points and a near triple double. I remember seeing my name in the Sac Bee the next day and feeling like something was happening. But I bet you scored 60 that day and got an article in Sports Illustrated. My high school career died quietly when one of the Sophomore Studs (who’d lose in the state championship two years later) didn’t pass it to me as the play called for but took the last second shot himself… and missed. I remember crying in the locker room, knowing it was over. You were just beginning.

I hate you because you went straight to the pros and knew you belonged. I was picked second to last in Nike Camp that year. I got cut when I tried to walk on for the Sac State team. You went under the leg in the dunk contest and strutted like you owned the freaking world, while the only time I ever dunked was sophomore year in high school… with a volleyball. For kicks, I sent a letter to the NBA to declare for the draft, some sad attempt at not losing myself. I never got a response.

I hate you because you made multiple All-Star teams, won multiple championships, won multiple MVP trophies. All my trophies are locked up in some dusty box in my parents’ storage. While you were killing my Sacramento Kings (I hate you), I finally found my game. I played on teams that traveled California, earned All-Star honors in nearly every league and tournament I played in. I remember constantly telling myself to pretend to be you. I carried your swagger. Beat my chest. Played fearlessly. But as the years wore on, playing in sweaty high school gyms in front of 20 people (15 of whom were family) grew pointless. Like you, I’d always identified myself as a baller and that’s how everyone identified me. “You still ballin’?” “Where you play college ball?” “Wanna run with us in such and such tourney?” Everyone knew that basketball was my first love, my life, but they woudn’t let me let it go.

I hate you because you did it on your own. In college, I wrote a paper about why I didn’t make it into the NBA despite having “10,000 hours of practice." I said it was because I was Filipino (thus being too “short” for a basketball player), having grown up in a middle class family (a majority of NBA players are from lower class homes), and some odd kind of reverse racism. I tried to convince myself that I didn't get what I'd always wanted because of other factors. What I didn’t write was that I just didn’t want it as much as you.

I hate you because you tore your achilles and it reminded me when I tore mine. Following my own missed shot, which friends will tell you I rarely did. Go figure. I remember sitting for three weeks in the downstairs room at my parents’ house, watching Storage Wars reruns in the dark, feeling absolutely piteous for myself. I knew that this injury for sure was it. No more basketball or, at least, no more basketball at the level I’d always played at. My identity dribbled out of my pores. And all the while, family and friends asked when I’d be back on the court. They had some league they wanted me to play in. I remember reading your rant after your injury and feeling that’s exactly how I felt. How BS it all was. How you could devote yourself to something for so long and then just have it be done. The struggle for perspective. But you had the best doctors in the world and I didn’t even have health insurance at the time.

I hate you because you stayed too long. You didn’t recover from your injury like I thought you would. You were fallible. You were no longer in the conversation of the best active basketball player in the world. I saw you move more slowly, get less lift on your fadeaway. You dunked on someone’s face in Milwaukee and it made the Top 10 on Sportscenter, but it was the last time you’d do that. Did you know that I tried to come back, too? But just shooting around at the gym for five minutes and my Achilles gets tight and my knee swells up. The other day, my doc said it was time to give up basketball. Give up. I looked at him and thought about you, struggling out there on the court, unable to give up your first love.

I hate you because a couple days ago, you gave up. I’m not saying retiring is the wrong choice, but you’re Kobe. A top five player. The baller I grew up with. In your God awful poem, you said your body just wouldn’t allow you to keep going. If you can’t keep going, then what the hell am I doing trying to get back on the court? I guess it’s time to brush off those golf clubs…

I hate you because of an answer you gave in your press conference. A reporter asked what you would do after you retire and you said something with “storytelling.” It was unclear what you meant by that, but being in Hollywood, wouldn’t be too hard to guess. Writing? Directing? I can’t tell you how pissed off this made me. You had basketball, Kobe, you don’t get to be a writer, too! That’s a big part of the after-basketball identity I found for myself, homie, go find your own!

I hate you because I find myself still competing with you. I hate you because your poem (which was God awful, did I mention?) got more reads than all of my publications combined. I hate you because we live in a world where a professional athlete thinks they can be a “writer” but a writer would never delude themselves into thinking they could be a professional athlete. But most of all, I hate you because I know you and countless other basketball players outworked me and because I fear that here, in the literary arena, you might outwork me again.

Sincerely,

Elison Alcovendaz

The Suspicious Man with the Backpack at the Cafe in Rome

by Elison Alcovendaz

I want to tell you a story called, “The Suspicious Man with the Backpack at the Café in Rome,” but before I get into it, I need to set the scene, so to speak. I’ve always been fearful of some things – that spider lurking under the couch, for example – but generally speaking, I was not what you’d call a scared person. So in the days leading up to our trip to Europe in July, it surprised me how nervous I felt about the news of ISIS being just a couple hundred miles off the coast of Italy. Were they targeting Americans? Did we look like Americans? We’re an obvious mixed-raced couple. Will that make us easily identifable as citizens of these United States? Oh, God. I’m fat. Americans are fat. Why did I just eat an animal style In-N-Out Double Double? I’m such an easy target.

I casually brought it up to Patty. “Hey, did you hear about ISIS being off the coast of Italy?” She made a sarcastic comment, seemingly unworried. I nodded in response and told myself that of course I was being paranoid. I mean, I’d checked the Department of Homeland Security’s webpage the night before and the very bad, evil, bloody color red was nowhere near Italy. Neither was it near England or France, our other two honeymoon destinations. Of course, the U.S. Embassy travel warning site did make mention of the somewhat recent Charlie Hedbo shootings, “strongly” recommending U.S. citizens stay “vigilant” and hey, have you ever thought about signing up for the Smart Traveller Enrollment Program (STEP)? If you haven’t, you should, because… safety and stuff.

By the time I came face to face with the suspicous man, a few events had already taken residence in the back of my mind:

·      The day before our departure, I saw on TV a purported suicide bombing at an Armed Forces Day parade in London had been thwarted. Thwarted. Such a strange word to say aloud (try it), and not really a word that makes you feel all comfortable and safe and warm inside.

·      Two days before our train from London to Paris, the Chunnel was shut down. Ferry strikers were setting fires to the tracks. A few days before, the Chunnel had also been closed after some migrants who’d attacked trucks on nearby motorways tried to get into the UK via the Chunnel. The news reported one or two truck drivers had actually been killed.

·      Our hotel in France was in a rather non-descript alleyway a mile away from the Eiffel Tower. There was literally nothing on the street except for two hotels and a grocery store. And yet, one morning, when exiting the hotel to meet our tour bus, we came face to face with three soldiers holding the kind of automatic rifles you see in action movies. They were standing there for no apparent reason, unless the unmarked building across from the hotel was a secret military site.

·      In our first day in Rome, after finding the Trevi Fountain closed for repair, we walked back to our hotel and came upon a beautiful building. I raised the camera to my eye but was stopped by a honking car. I lowered the camera to find a man leaned halfway out of the passenger window, waving his arms and yelling something in Italian. I smiled, snapped my picture, and walked toward the building.

There were no markings on the building to tell me what it was, though tall, iron gates, some covered in green plastic-like material, surrounded it. As I approached, I prepared once again to snap a picture when I heard a siren. A police officer stopped on the street and pointed at me. “You cannot take a picture,” he said. “Okay,” I answered. “You cannot take a picture,” he repeated.  I finally lowered the camera. He nodded and drove off. It wasn’t until our last day in Rome that I discovered the building was the U.S. Embassy. Here I was, snapping pictures of world monuments – the Colosseum, Michelangelo paintings, the Pantheon – and I, a U.S. citizen, was not allowed to take a picture of my own Embassy. If the U.S. government, with all its bravado and all its social conditioning about how un-American it is to be afraid, is scared of the average citizen snapping a photo of their own embassy, shouldn’t I, the individual traveler, be scared as well?

The next evening, we were sitting outside at a café in Piazza Navona. The plaza teemed with street artists and next to us, just a few feet away, a young man played Sinatra on a piano accordion while an inebriated lady tried to dance with him. After a hot day at the Vatican, the sun had finally decided to lower itself, and aside from Venice, the air was the coolest it had been during the entire trip. A perfect atmosphere, one that made me forget about how afraid I was supposed to be, until a man took the table next to us. He was sweaty, looked nervous, and gripped a black backpack in his hand. When the waiter asked what he wanted, he said “Ice cream.”

Okay, let’s stop here. No one in Italy says “Ice cream.” Even if you’ve never heard of gelato, in five minutes in Italy, you’ll know what gelato is. So the fact he said “ice cream” really screwed with me. After the waiter left, he carefully lowered the backpack under his chair, and sat there for five to ten minutes just staring ahead. Not people watching. Not looking at his phone. Not reading a book. Literally just staring ahead. Then he stood up quickly, left his backpack, and walked inside the café.

My chest tensed. If he said “ice cream,” that meant he wasn’t Italian, and no foreigner I’d seen at any point in our trip had ever left their bag unattended, anywhere. Never. I rarely even see this in America. So I was tripping out. Patty was talking about something, but I couldn’t hear her. I looked at the bag. Maybe there were shoes in there? A box of some kind? It definitely looked bulky. But why did he go inside? If what I thought might be there was actually in there, he wouldn’t have gone inside the building, right? No, of course he wouldn’t.

I’m still not sure what made me do it, and in retrospect, it was a terrible idea, but I followed him inside. I didn’t have a plan. He was climbing the stairs in the back of the small café, turning the corner. I smiled at the wait staff behind the gelato bar and followed the man up the stairs.

The staircase ended with a larger dining area to the left, which was empty, and the restrooms to the right. I found him in the men’s restroom, washing his hands. Why was he washing his hands? There hadn’t been enough time for him to have stood at the urinal, done his business, and then get to the sink. Maybe he was just a conscientious guy washing his hands before he ate? I stepped past him and for a moment, our eyes met in the mirror. He held my eyes for what seemed like a minute. No headnod, no acknowledgment. It was so stupid, me in that restroom, having a staredown with a man who I thought, though didn’t really think, might’ve been in the middle of some nefarious plot. What was I really going to do? He turned away from me to grab some napkins. My head burned. Seriously, what the hell am I doing here? I mean, what was I really doing in that moment other than letting some strange fear take hold of me? There was nothing in the backpack. I moved past him, hurried down the stairs, and sat back down at the table.

Thirty seconds later, he arrived back at his table, where a bowl of gelato awaited him. He picked up the backpack and gently laid it on the other side of him, between he and the wall. He didn’t glance at me as he sat down. He quietly finished his food, paid the waiter, and left with his backpack. As soon as he left, the tension in my chest dissipated. Back to vacationing as normal.

You may have noticed I didn’t mention what the suspicious man looked like. While you were reading, did you imagine him in a light, pink shirt, the top two or three buttons undone, revealing way too much chest hair? Did you imagine his khaki shorts and the loafers? The perfect tan? Did you imagine him being husky, with a combover? Did you imagine him as a retired Floridian?

Chances are you didn’t.

The reason for that is we’ve been taught what fear looks like. Maybe it’s a person leaving their bag somewhere when, in reality, they’re just a trusting person who doesn’t expect bad things to happen to them, like someone stealing their bag. Maybe it’s a Muslim. Maybe it’s a black teenager walking down the street with his pants a little low. Maybe it’s the “loner” white kid who doesn’t seem to handle social situations well.            

But these are all wrong, and we all know they’re wrong, and yet many of us continue to carry these fears with us as though rooted in fact. I know I do. While watching the latest Mission Impossible movie the other day, a young man walked in with a black bag and sat in the front row for about ten minutes before leaving through a side exit. I watched him intently, making sure he didn’t leave that bag there. Turns out he was an employee on his way to the dumpster outside but just decided to cut through the theater and chill for a bit.

When we talk about terrorism or war or gun control, the thing that both “sides” don’t realize is that both are usually talking from a position of fear. You want gun control because you’re scared of getting shot up at a theater. You don’t want gun control because you’re scared of getting shot up at a theater and having nothing to defend yourself with. You want to listen in on the phone calls of Muslim Americans because you’re worried about planes crashing into buildings. You think listening in on citizen’s phone calls is despicable because you’re afraid about losing your privacy or about the power of government.

I once heard someone say that fear is necessary. It drives your fight or flight response. It keeps you safe. But the moment you talk about your fear, someone pops out of the woodwork and says “you shouldn’t allow terrorists, domestic and otherwise, to make you live in fear.” In other words, you’re an American and not supposed to be scared. And even though I know, okay, I know, that the media constructs these narratives, I’m still afraid. Afraid that there might be an active shooter at a college a friend teaches at or on a campus my wife teaches at. Afraid of theaters with no metal detectors, afraid of a TSA agent who maybe didn’t get enough sleep, afraid of a random stranger leaving a backpack while he went to use the restroom.

I don't have an answer and I don't think any of us do, not yet, anyway. But I do know that we'll get nowhere until we admit that when it comes to terrorism and gun control, our highly intelligent opinions aren't based on some deep love of the Constitution or some high moral ground or an unwavering belief in the sanctity of human life... it's usually based on fear. I just admitted it. My question now, is, will you?

 

The Closing of Beatnik Books

by Elison Alcovendaz

I pull into a parking space in front of The Boxing Donkey, an Irish pub in Old Town Roseville. Two men in black tees and tats up and down their arms lean over a motorcycle. They don’t look up as I get out of the car. To my right, a woman with a cane sits on a green bench in front of the train station, flipping through a magazine. The entire area is quiet, the air is cool, the sun is soft. I look to my left and see what could be a town in the mid to late 1800s, the kind of railroad town that sprang up everywhere… if you ignore the modern architecture of the now defunct nightclub.

I’m here for the closing of Beatnik Books, a small bookstore a couple of doors down from a space that’s only used on Tuesdays for AA meetings. The familiar rolling bookshelves stand beside the door, though they are emptier than I remember. The bicycle that normally sits out front is gone. I walk through the door and see an older woman in the middle of the room holding a vacuum. I’ve never seen her before. Is she the owner? I smile and she smiles back, though her eyes are distant, tired.

“Welcome,” she says.

  Courtesy of www.beatnikbookstore.com

 

Courtesy of www.beatnikbookstore.com

*

In May 2013, Patty and I moved to Roseville. I’d just graduated from the MA Creative Writing program at Sac St. and was filled with words and wonder. I wanted books. I wanted them badly. I scoured the internet for any place in or near Roseville that sold books and visited them, one by one.

In the Creative Writing program, I’d always felt myself unfitting, as though the residue of capital clung to me like mud. I’d been a business major, marketing concentration, and held jobs where I sold things to people that they didn’t need. I gambled. I craved money. Most of the people in the program were the opposite. They listened to indie music and watched foreign films and though money was important, it wasn’t the thing, like it had been for me for so long.

When I walk into a place like Barnes and Noble, I feel like I fit. A mixture of literature and unabashed capital. A mixture of business and art. Every time I walk through Barnes and Noble, someone eventually asks if I work there, if I can assist them with a book they’re looking for. I belong.

Then you have the larger indie bookstores like Powell’s in Portland, which I love, don’t get me wrong, and though you can tell by the dusty shelves and the used trade paperbacks that they’re not B&N, the trace of profit still lingers. It’s a business, of course, and businesses are there to make money. But you’ll see a beaten up book for $12, one you know you could get at a garage sale or a thrift store for much less, and yes, you want to support your local business, so you buy it, even if you don’t feel great about it.

Then there are the small indie bookstores. These are the places where lit majors who can’t fathom a job away from books work until their 40s (if the stores stay open that long). They have books you’ve never heard of. And the people who shop there are generally the same kind of person you’d see in a creative writing program – smart, artsy, sometimes counterculture.

I’m not this person, and so when I go to these types of bookstores, I usually feel uneasy. Like I’m trying so hard to be someone I’m not.

*

After our exchange of smiles, the woman disappears in the back. Where once an area for kids and classic books and records existed, now there are empty shelves blocking the path to the far half of the room. The cash register sits unmanned. I sidestep to the nearest section. Philosophy. I grab a tattered hardback of Plato’s Poetics and skim. The book is only 50 cents, but I already have it, so I set it back on the top shelf and keep looking.

*

I spend a good portion of my free time looking for books. On a typical Saturday, I might wake up early and chart a path from one estate sale to the next, a garage sale or five (or a community sale if I’m lucky), and end up at a thrift store (or two), an antique store (or two), and a used bookstore (or two). The main thing I’m searching for is something I know I’ll want to read at some point in my life – in truth, I’m close to a 1,000 books now and I’ve only read 300 or so of them – and though I’ll never catch up, I always want that possibility. You never know if that one piece of knowledge you’ll glean from a book will be available to you at the library or online… better to have it immediately available at home (at least that’s what I tell myself).

But I also search for a book’s value. Value in the capitalistic sense. Monetary worth. Sometimes, at lunch, I’ll walk to the nearby Goodwill and search for valuable books. Last week, I found a 1918 Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and an 1876 compilation of The Tales of Washington Irving. As soon as I saw them, I Googled them. They range from $40 to $100 online. Not bad for books that cost $2.99 each.

I also “invest” in the hope of appreciated value. Last week, at the same Goodwill store, I also found a first edition, signed copy of Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl. Not a popular book…. Yet. The film treatment of the book just got rave reviews at the Sundance Festival and so hey, it’s the author’s first book, if he gets popular, maybe it blows up and the book becomes worth a lot more than the $2.99 I paid for it someday.

Maybe.

The problem is, I never sell. I convince myself to buy books based on its value, or its potential value, and yet they sit in the shelves of my den, unsold and many unread. I just can’t part with them. Something about selling a book for profit makes me feel guilty, like I’m seeing a part of myself I don’t want to see.

*

I stroll into the second room of the store where they house most of their fiction. Between the current fiction and the children’s lit sections, a woman in her early 40s sits on the floor with one leg crossed under the other. Beside her, a stack of books rises to her shoulder, one breath away from toppling over. A wrinkled copy of Faulkner’s Sanctuary sits open on her lap while her young son pulls books from the shelves.

“Mom, have I read this one?”

She looks up, reading glasses perched on the edge of her nose. “I don’t think so.”

“Can I have it?” he asks.

“Of course,” she says and pats the floor beside her. “Why don’t you sit down and start reading it now?”

I wait until he sits down before I move to where he stood, looking through the children’s books. I can tell by the depletedness of the shelves that all the good stuff is gone. Still, I riffle through the titles of books I’d never heard of. On the pages, drawings and scribbles. Names. B-O-B-B-Y written in nascent penmanship. On one book, a note written from a father to his daughter, telling her he loves her.

Books are valuable for a lot of reasons, I think. And bookstores are magic. Bookstores are soul.

*

The term Beatnik, generally used to describe those who followed the Beat Generation (authors like Ginsberg and Burroughs), is definitely not a word anyone would use to describe me. Or Roseville for that matter. So I saved Beatnik Books for my last stop in my tour of area bookstores. I had a feeling that I would feel uncomfortable, that I’d find a bunch of hippies sitting around peddling ephemera so esoteric, so counterculture, that I’d immediately be made for a poseur. But their books were cheaper than any other bookstore – nothing over $4 – so I decided to give it a try.

It was a Saturday night and music spilled out from The Boxing Donkey and other nearby restaurants and bars. Just inside the doors of Beatnik Books, a group of older teens in oversized hoodies and skinny jeans circled around two similar aged dudes playing guitars and singing. I didn’t recognize the song. I stood outside the threshold, wanting to check out the books, but feeling as though I should stay outside. The song ended and I was still standing there when a soft voice said, “You can go in if you want to.”

I turned to find a short white dude with rastafarian hair looking up at me. I had no idea who this guy was, but he looked calm as though he either just had the most pleasant thought in the world or had just partaken of the ganja.

“If you want to,” he repeats.

He says it like he’s a monk. If you want to. What is it that I want? Why am I here? I thank him and wait until the next song ends before entering the store. It’s packed with people who obviously know each other, and yet I find myself talking to someone about doing readings, overhearing a conversation about Derrida, telling someone else why I like, but don’t love, McCarthy. More songs are played and people sing along. I stand among them in my Polo shirt and Cole Haan shoes and Michael Kors watch, thinking that maybe I am not only capital, maybe I’m something else. Someone else. Maybe I actually belong here.

*

I skim through the poetry books when another woman appears from the back. This one is younger and more slender than the woman I saw when I first arrived. She’s maybe in her late twenties or early thirties. Dark blonde, lightly reddish hair barely touches her shoulders. A bright, plaid, long-sleeved shirt hugs her arms. When she sees me she smiles and says hello, though much like the other woman, her eyes betray the preoccupation of her mind. She’s physically here, but she’s also somewhere else. I know, even though I don’t know, that she must be the owner.

She passes me and calls out to a man who stands in the other room with a wooden 4x4 over his shoulder.

“Do you need help, Dad?” she asks.

He shakes his head and says something I can’t hear, though the woman follows him out of the store. On the other side of the bookshelf at my side, the woman with the child reads to her son. She giggles when he giggles, which makes me giggle, too. I can’t remember the last time I giggled and it feels good.

*

For weeks, Beatnik has advertised their closing on Facebook. Sponsored ads. It’s odd to know that they paid for ads that will only benefit them for the short term. And plus, their books are down to 50 cents each. But the story is a familiar one. Even in a slightly rundown place like Old Town Roseville, with spaces vacant all around, the rent is being raised to untenable levels. You’d think the landlords could’ve done something, especially for a place that added value and traffic to the area. On one post, they mention that the store and everything in it is on sale for just a few thousand bucks. I call out to Patty, who's brushing her teeth in the bathroom.

"I have a hypothetical for you," I say.

"Okay," she answers.

"If I could buy a bookstore for just a few thousand dollars, what would you say?"

"What would your business plan be?"

"Well obviously I'd keep my job," I say, "but we could keep it open, have some kids who love books run it."

"Then I'd say yes, if you really wanted to, you should do it."

But do I? It's not a serious thought. It's not a serious question. I'm not going to buy this bookstore. But I feel sad. I feel sad because if you walked into Beatnik Books, you knew the owner was in it for the love of books and not just for profit. They sold their books cheaper than any other bookstore, pictures of Tom Petty in cool frames for $3, vintage clothes and records and book ends and other cool stuff. They held open mic nights for aspiring poets and writers and musicians. You read the comments on their Facebook ads and there are sad faces galore. The store was a big part of those in the area who loved books. And with Beatnik closing, that’s what we’re losing, a part of the community that offered acceptance, a place that had something for everyone, even me.

*

I find a book to buy. It's by Sandra Cisneros and called Have You Seen Marie?. It's a book about loss. In it, she writes, "We didn't say much to each other, but that said everything." That’s how I feel as I approach the owner. I want her to know, but I can't say it. She stands behind the cash register, having just sold a dollar’s worth of books to another customer. I want her to know that I understand the struggle between art and business, between doing what you love and doing what you have to. And I want her to know that Beatnik Books, this dream of hers, did a lot for the community, did a lot for me. She tries to smile as I approach, and the words business and books and capital and art converge in my head. She tilts her head a little, as though maybe she can read my thoughts, but then she snaps out of it and says:

“50 cents, please.”

I pull out my wallet and realize I don’t have any cash, and I know no retailer will run a debit card for such a small amount. I pat my pockets in the hope of hearing the clink of coins. I glance up apologetically.

“I don’t have any cash on me,” I say.

“Don’t worry about it,” she answers. “Just have it.”

“Really?” I say, but she’s already around the counter, heading for the front door. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” she says.

But it’s not okay. I walk to my car, where I know I have coins in the cupholder. Lucky enough, there are exactly two quarters. I grab the coins and glance out the window to see where she is. She’s standing beside a black truck, saying something to her dad. Wood and shelving from the store is piled in the truck bed. And that’s when I realize the first woman I saw might've been her mother. Her parents have come to help clean the place out. I sit there, watching this soundless conversation between father and daughter. I think of those words I saw in the book, where the father tells his daughter how much he loves her.

Maybe I’m still too capital, or maybe I just know what real value is: dreams, magic, soul. Things I received, the community received, that I can’t repay. I place the coins back in the cupholder and, with one last glance back at Beatnik Books, drive on home to place my new book on the shelf. 

Running Away from Bumper Stickers

by Elison Alcovendaz

Okay. I see you getting in shape. I see you training for marathons. I see some of you completing half marathons. I see some of you even completing a full marathon. And I'm impressed. I'm impressed with your toned body. I'm impressed you're comfortable enough to wear shorts that short in public. I don't mean that facetiously. Unless it's on a basketball court or toward a second plate of chicken adobo, I'm not running. I hate running. So I am thoroughly amazed at anyone who not only wants to run, but also pays to do so, and then actually goes out and completes the race. 

But can you stop running for a moment so we can talk about the stickers? You know which ones I'm talking about:

 

13.1.png

Or, if you're truly hard core:

 

If you didn't know, 26.2 is the length of a marathon and 13.1 is half of one. People who've completed those distances sometimes put a sticker on the bumper of their car to, oh, I don't know, motivate themselves? At least that's the rationale I've heard from my friends whose cars wear such stickers proudly. But let's be honest. Yes, perhaps you were in terrible shape and lost some weight and found running and now you've completed your first half marathon. And if you're said person, I'm genuinely happy for you. I would've liked to have done the very same thing. Post about it on FB and at least it's only for your friends, people who care about you, who see it. Your friends should be happy for your accomplishment. But putting it on your bumper so the entire world sees it? That's not really about motivating yourself, is it? It's not like the symbolism of your tattoo, which means something to yourself. This is for everyone else to see. I DID SOMETHING AWESOME. LOOK AT ME, STRANGERS. 

I can't speak for the entire population of runners, but of those I know, I can split into two camps:

CAMP A:

These are the people who run because they have to. It's the only thing that keeps them sane. Or they do it to stay healthy for their spouses or their kids. Or they live off that runner's high. These are generally the people who run marathons but won't voluntarily tell you about it. They're doing it for the love and for themselves and for their families and that's about it. You won't see posts tracking their time or miles. Maybe they ran track in high school. They probably follow track and field in between the Olympics. CAMP A runners will not have bumper stickers on their car, and not just because they possibly ride a bike everywhere. 

CAMP B:

The preeners. Is there any sport or exercise more public than running? Everyone is fighting for attention now, whether on YouTube or Instagram or hey, how about the public streets? They love their taut bodies and they want people to see it. Or, they love how much weight they've lost and want you to see it. Whatever the rationale, the result is the same: BE SEEN. Anyone in Camp B will tell you there's a certain pride to running in public. You'll see these dudes running with their shirts off in the cold, the girls with low cut sports bras and perfectly done make-up. Not only do people get to see them run, but they also get to look at themselves in the mirror afterwards! CAMP B runners are not only likely to have 26.2 bumper stickers on their car, they are likely to show up to your party wearing some really tight shirt they received when they paid to run in a race. 

I'm obviously being narrow-minded here and perhaps a bit hypocritical. I mean, I am, in a sense, writing this blog to also BE SEEN. I get that. But I once heard that if you took an average person and trained them to either run a marathon or write a novel, either would be just as difficult, just "difficult" in different ways. That being said, how acceptable do you think it would be if novelists all over the place started having bumper stickers tracking their word counts? 10,000. 50,000. 100,000! Or maybe where you've been published. "School Literary Magazine." "Local Magazine." "The New Yorker." "Book contract." "New York Times Bestseller!" Yes, I think everyone would find that quite pretentious. 

Could you imagine if teachers had stickers for how many of their students went on to be successful adults (or maybe just added a gold star to their car for each one)? Or if social workers had stickers for how many people they've helped? Or if surgeons had stickers for how many successful surgeries they completed? Or lawyers for how many cases they've won? Or business owners for how much money they've made? Or your everyday worker for how many promotions they've had? Or readers for how many books they've actually read? Or stickers for how many degrees you have? Or for how many long words (palaverous, periphrastic, magniloquent) someone knew? If your answer is "that would be completely obnoxious," then I think you get where I'm going with this. 

Everyone should be proud of their accomplishments. And people should be celebrated for their accomplishments. My beef isn't with that. My beef is that as Americans, we are obsessed with the physical. We value physicality more than other things that should be just as important. Advertising how many miles you run, or how much weight you've lost, or how many mornings you got up super early to go to the gym, is not necessarily the issue for me; again, those are wonderful things. The problem is that those are socially acceptable and more "valuable" than other things. Jumping high and shooting a basketball well is more valuable than teaching a student. Running long distances is more desired than developing empathy by reading a book

Maybe this is because the physical - sports, running, the gym - happens in public while other things - teaching a student, reading, working on improving yourself as a person - happens in private. The rewards for a toned body are easily seen. Any TV commercial or magazine cover or advertisement will prove that. Or just look at all the people looking in the mirror when they work out at the gym. When you are more fit, people look at you differently. They take you more seriously. You are desirable because you've proven that you have strength and willpower. But how can someone "see" if you've put in the work to be a more generous, educated, creative, kinder person? Or instead of focusing on themselves, focused on helping other people as well. That takes work, too. And many would argue it's a more difficult kind of work as well. 

Despite all this, I know that I need to get in shape. I need to get healthy for myself, yes, but for Patty and also for any future family we may have. But if and when that happens, one thing you can be sure of is you won't see on my car a sticker showing how much weight I've lost... well, unless it's exactly 26.2 pounds. Those stickers are everywhere. I'm sure I can find one.

 

 

 

 

 

A Case for Literary "Snobbery"

by Elison Alcovendaz

It's like clockwork. I'm at a social event. Somehow or another I end up talking with someone who knows or finds out that I write. They mention such and such book, because, OMG, they loved it. It was just, like, the best thing EVAR. I've practiced my face in response to such questions. I'm a nice guy. People know me that way. But when I hear that Twilight was the best book a person ever read, or that Fifty Shades of Grey was the most well-written story since, well, Twilight, my natural inclination is to check my watch and politely walk away. But instead I brace myself, make my face look happy, and nod a lot. Uh huh. Oh yeah. Just great. Yeah, when Edward... OMG, when Christian Grey did that one thing? 

Literature has a unique place not only in society but even more narrowly within the arts. If we take a look at some general "genres" of art, we'd acknowledge most of us really don't know that much about them:

1) Painting. Any idea if this could be one of the best paintings ever?:

  Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (Dutch, 1606 - 1669) St. Bartholomew, 1661, Oil on canvas 86.7 x 75.6 cm (34 1/8 x 29 3/4 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

 

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (Dutch, 1606 - 1669)
St. Bartholomew, 1661, Oil on canvas
86.7 x 75.6 cm (34 1/8 x 29 3/4 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Well, shoot, I mean, it is a Rembrandt, so yeah, I mean, maybe it could be one of the best paintings ever? Possibly? 

2) Music. Any idea if this is some of the best "music" ever played?:

Well, you know, this appears to be just stupid pretentious artsy fluff that a lot of people who think they know about music and like to spout something about John Cage would say is really good, probably some of the most innovative music ever, I mean, he's playing a cacti for God's sake, but well, I don't know, maybe it is, or, well, maybe it isn't? 

3) Film. Any idea if this is one of the best scenes ever in cinema?:

Man, I, uhh... what the hell was that? Was that actually part of a movie? 

Most of us don't paint and most of us haven't studied painting and most of us aren't musicians and most of us haven't studied music and most of us aren't filmmakers and most of us haven't made movies, but most of us know Garibaldi's art is not better than Rembrandt's, or that Britney Spears' music isn't more innovative than John Cage's, or that M Night Shyamalan isn't a more artistic filmmaker than Terrence Malick. We get that because we believe the word of people who know more about those topics, which we do because most of us don't know the first thing about brushstrokes or dissonance or when's a good time to use a jump cut. But we know words. We use them. We learn them from when we're in kindergarten. We learn how to put them together in a sentence. How to use them to communicate. To get things we want. To make our emotions known. We might even know about proper semi-colon usage (chances are this is not true; don't use them). And so when it comes to books, which are filled with those words we use everyday, we feel we know enough about them to say they were SO AWESOME. Sure, yes, Gone Girl was so good, such a good twist, I couldn't believe it! 

I'm being a little bit of an ass here, but you get the drift. People don't like people who know more about words than they do because everyone is supposed to know about words. Thus the hate on the grammar police. Thus the reason why an old co-worker told me she was nervous to send emails to me because she didn't write as "well" (never mined tuns of my correspondance had typos galore.). Thus the reason why I can hardly ever have an honest conversation with someone about books.

You might call this "snobbery." I'd call it the one thing in my life I (hopefully) know enough about (other than basketball or poker) to be able to speak passionately and intelligently about it. We all have these things. For example, being a parent gives you some knowledge about being a parent that I don't have. Going to take my word for it on what to do when your little one is fussy? Probably not. Another example: a friend recently graduated with a PhD in biogeochemistry. Bio geo whatta? Yeah, exactly. When I talk to him, I like to hear his passion about his subject, I like to learn more about something he obviously knows way more about than I do, I like to give him credit for the work and study he put in. But even if I thought I knew something about biogeochemistry - say something about the optimal temperature for the decomposition of organic matter to reduce the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere - and he basically told me, even in the nicest of ways, that said opinion was perhaps not the most informed, would I then call him a "biogeochemistry snob?" 

Of course not.

This is why I think English nerds/literary "snobs" get a bad rap. Yes, everyone knows words. But we've probably studied them a little bit more. We've probably read more. We probably know that when you say something is the "best," we know you don't actually mean the "best":

adjectivesuperl. of good with better as compar.

1.of the highest quality, excellence, or standing:

the best work; the best students (dictionary.com)

We know when you say "best," you don't mean "of the highest quality," you mean the thing that made you feel happy or excited or thoughtful or made you cry. It made you feel something. And in most cases, that should be enough. But a literary "snob's" mind doesn't think that way. The snob wants to know how the writer made you feel that way. What words did they use? What types of words? What character development? What plot elements? What narrative voice? What did the author do differently than other authors before her? What invariably happens is you ask someone why something was so great and they say they just "liked it" and that's fine, that's great, but if that is a bit frustrating to us, then try to be understanding. We aren't trying to be "better." We want to discuss the timing of that one scene that made you bawl your eyes out, or the aspects of that one character that made you remember your first love. Let's figure that part out. For us, it's not what happened that's interesting; it's how what happened that is. 

I'm not begrudging Stephanie Meyer or E.L. James. They wrote books that people loved and sold a ton in the process. If I'm being honest, I'd love to have that kind of success someday. But they are not the "best" books and I'll bet even the authors themselves don't think their own books are the best ever or even one of the best books of the last fifteen years. So when you corner a literary snob at a party to talk about books, and you mention that one book that was just the best thing you've read, well, since you can remember, be receptive to his desire to figure out why it was the best thing you can remember ever reading. And if he asks you that, and you respond with "I don't know" or  "I just liked it" and he then makes a polite smile and steers the conversation somewhere else, take his politeness as politeness and not as some elitist act simply to try and make you feel bad. I can promise you that is not the case. We just want our little extra knowledge to have some currency, just like doctors and painters and teachers and biogeochemists get credit for the extra stuff they know and dedicated their time to...

...but then again, I do tell foodies that, OMG, Spam is the best food EVAR, especially with ketchup and egg and rice (YUM), and they respond with faux-vomit faces and expressions that plainly communicate how low of a person they think I am, so please stay tuned for my next installment: DOWN WITH THE FOOD SNOBS!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marshawn Lynch, Bullying, and The (Old) American Dream

by Elison Alcovendaz

Marshawn Lynch is likely the most physical running back in the NFL. He runs over people. Bulldozes them. Carries defenders into the end zone. His nickname is "Beast Mode" for a reason. Here's an example:

But for however powerful and present he is on the field, he is the opposite in front of media. He is noticeably uncomfortable. He responds with one word answers. Case in point:

If you watched that, then yes, that's how most of his interviews lately have been. NFL players, you see, are required to make themselves available to and cooperate with the media. That's the literal rule. The spirit of the rule is what you see every other player do - they actually talk to the media, who, despite however annoying they might be, have a big role in keeping athletes relevant and in the landscape of the fans' minds. The NFL, being a business, knows this. They have fined Lynch to try and make him converse with the media that helps athletes like Marshawn Lynch make millions of dollars to play a game. 

Several reasons have been discussed. Lynch himself has said he acts this way in front of media because it isn't about him, it's about his team; he doesn't want to be famous, he does it for the love of the game. Admirable, sure. But this is his job. He's contractually obligated. It has also been said that Marshawn Lynch has social anxiety disorder, though at this point, that's based more on what people see than what people know (if he does, then this is a different story). But it has gotten to the point where people have called the way media "treat" Lynch - and by that they mean "asking him questions" and "helping him stay relevant" - and the NFL making Lynch talk to said media, as bullying. The 12th man, the very unique moniker for Seahawks fans, has started a petition to have the NFL stop "bullying" their star running back. While the petition was started by one fan, over 20,000 people have signed the petition, which means that over 20,000 people actually think Marshawn Lynch is being bullied. 

You might see Marshawn Lynch running over a bunch of poor defensive backs and think there's no way this guy could be bullied. You'd be wrong. Bullying can happen to anyone of any size of any profession. But it does encapsulate the way we think about bullying now. I recently had a conversation with a friend who is a father of two young daughters. He was talking about an older teenage girl he knew who threatened to slice her wrists due to being called fat. According to him, it wasn't a repeated thing, it wasn't something that happened often on Facebook or anything, just a passing comment by a classmate jerk (obviously her reaction indicates a deeper issue, but this isn't about her). My friend said if anyone ever called his daughters fat, he would put his boxing lessons to work on their father. Teach them a lesson. Teach them to be a better parent. 

What he didn't say was that he would teach his daughters that their identities and self-worth comes from within. That what people say about you doesn't define you unless you let it define you. 

Here's another anecdote. I have a friend who coaches middle school football. He told me about a kid who was messing around in practice and so was made to run sprints near the end of practice. At about the same time, the kid's dad pulls up in his car and proceeds to grill the coach about making his son run? Huh? I was on several sports teams growing up, and when we had to run laps because we messed up, our parents got angry with us, not the coach. You can Google stories about people beating up coaches due to their kids not getting enough playing time. Is it no longer important for kids to know that it's okay not to be good at something? That people will be better at some things than you your whole life? That after a certain age, you don't get a trophy or credit just for trying? 

And not just kids, but adults, too. A recent article stated that there were two things college students wanted from their professors: to challenge them (great!) and to care about them, to, in a sense, be parental guides to the replace the parents they left behind (what!?). When did we get to a place where a college student's learning wasn't their responsibility (no matter how uncaring or soporific the professor)? When did professors have to be caring people in order for us to learn something? When did we get so, for lack of a better word, "soft"?  

It seems that at some point in the last 20 years or so, there has been a social paradigm shift away from The (Old) American Dream. When I say "old," I mean the ones our immigrant parents believed in - that the individual was still important, that the individual could pick themselves "up by the bootstraps" and make a good life for themselves. Since this ideology centered around the individual, personal accountability was paramount. It also meant that if you didn't make it, it was your fault. 

Of course, The Old American Dream worked because it created systemic inequalities that benefited privileged groups  - institutionalized racism, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, learning deficiencies based on socioeconomics, continued patriarchy, etc. So we as a society did the right thing. We told The Old American Dream to get lost. We moved away from an America that valued individuality and moved toward community, equality. We elected the first black President. We sat in Wall Street and coined "the one percent." We passed gay rights laws in several states. We did a lot of very necessary things. Great things. But what we also did as we moved to community and nurturing was we lost how important the common individual could be. We lost personal accountability. We started expecting the world to do things for us. 

One cannot stress enough the impact of technology here. As things became available at the push of a button, our brains started to slowly become programmed to understand that we really didn't have to work that hard for things. A common complaint of the Millennials, who grew up with this technology, is that they are lazy. That they expect things to happen instead of making things happen. This is all probably a little overblown, but if there's some truth in it, it's because you don't have to go into the world to buy a shirt or a book, you don't have to endure possible rejection by going out and trying to meet someone and see if you're a match, you don't have to go to a library and sort through tons of books to do research; seriously, when was the last time you had a paper cut at work? That doesn't mean these things are bad. In fact, they can be great. But it does mean things are easier. And we get really comfy and cozy with easy...

...which also means we're not as tough. It means everyone has to be PC so people don't get offended. It means kids can move on to the next grade even if they have Fs. It means someone can hide behind a gun and go on a rampage when girls don't like him. It means a parent would rather fight a teaser's parents than maybe teach his kids to have a self-worth that comes from within. It means that we put "my kid is on the honor roll" bumper stickers on our cars. And it means that we expect the world to be nice and kind to us all the time.

In my last blog, I tried to write an honest post about what I've been feeling about this writing thing. But it came across as whiny. It sounded like I expected people just to like me and my writing because I write stuff and try hard. And that's how I sometimes feel. I think we all probably do from time to time. But when a about story gets rejected, or a workshop group tells me how terrible my story is, does that mean I'm being bullied? I think you know the answer.

There is real bullying happening out there. You read about it all the time. Kids getting bullied because they're gay, or poor, or any other number of things. What we probably don't want to do is trivialize what "bullying" is by saying a football player who doesn't like talking to the media is getting bullied, especially when it's part of his job. Is this the same as saying that bullied kids should "toughen up"? Definitely not. It's saying that while we try and make the world kinder, gentler, fairer, we also need to make sure that we're not failing to teach about personal inner strength, that internal self-worth that doesn't always require trophies or pats on the back. It is okay to lose. It is okay to be rejected. It is okay to not be the best at something. And it's certainly okay for someone not to like you. As my Mom always said, the only person who has the authority to make you feel badly about yourself is you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Story(ies) I Tell Myself About Being (a "Writer")

by Elison Alcovendaz

"The only thing standing between you and your goal is the bulls$%# story you keep telling yourself..." - Jordan Belfort

Recently, a friend and I had been discussing the difficult parts about pursuing writing and I realized I wanted to write a blog about it. But if you've read my blogs then you know I always try and look at the positive side of things. The problem is, this wasn't a "positive" topic. We'd been discussing loneliness, rejection, feeling things too much. I didn't think I could write about it without people thinking I was soft. I decided to pursue writing and had to deal with the consequences. Man up. But my friend challenged me to write a blog that centered on how I truly felt, no punches pulled. And so I started to.

The problem is, there's no way to write this without sounding like a whiner. And certainly no one wants to hear someone whining about something they made a choice about. In fact, upon reading an earlier version of this blog, Patty said the same thing. She didn't like it. It was unlike the things I'd written before. Self-indulgent and self-piteous. And she is right. But let's face it - everything we do online is self-important. Every blog. Every status update. Every photo. We want people to think we're clever, smart, politically active, funny, pretty, that our kids are cute or hey, look at what my child can do because I'm such a good parent! Probably the things we do in real life, too. The jobs we have. The clothes and makeup we wear. The houses we own. The bumper stickers we put on our car. The ways we feel we "make a difference." So fair warning - this blog is probably self-indulgent and a bit self-piteous and I'm sorry for that. But if I'm going to write truly about what this blog is really about - the story(ies) I tell myself about being a writer (and other things) - then it kinda has to be. Because I hope that, by the end of this, you'll think I'm honest.

***

From Anne Bradstreet's "Contemplations"

O Time the fatal wrack of mortal things
That draws oblivion's curtains over kings,
Their sumptuous monuments, men know them not;
Their names with a Record are forgot,
Their parts, their ports, their pomp's all laid in th' dust.

Nor wit, nor gold, nor buildings scape time's rust,
But he whose name is grav'd in the white stone
Shall last and shine when all of these are gone

***

The other day, Patty and I were at BJ's with a group of people for a friend's birthday, and sitting across the table from us was a couple that we chitchatted with. You know, so how do you know so and so, did you catch such and such game, what are you going to order, yada yada? The woman taught at the same school as the birthday girl, but the husband was a research scientist with a PhD doing incredible work dealing with soldiers coming back from war with motor injuries. He talked for a while about his job, about his PhD program, and his dissertation, then after fifteen minutes or so he stops and asks, "How about you? What do you do?"

Stop, I tell myself. Think. A few weeks before I told myself that when people ask what do I do, I was going to say "write." I write. I'm a writer. This was the first time I'd been confronted with this question since I'd made this covenant with myself, and I knew the awkward conversation that could soon follow. "Oh, have I read anything of yours?" for example, to which the answer was usually "Probably not." And so I took a moment to respond to my confabulator with an added qualifier or two:

"I work in an office during the day, but if you ask what do I do, the answer is write. It isn't paying the bills yet, but I have been published several times but in smaller magazines and, well, you know."

"Ah," he answers, and I can't tell if his expression is one of amusement or derision.

I smile and sip a strawful of strawberry lemonade.

***

Here's a trailer for the new movie Whiplash:

"There are no two words more harmful in the English language than 'good job'."

***

Art is always and everywhere the secret confession, and at the same time the immortal movement of its time. - Karl Marx

Here's my secret confession: I want to do something great, or more specifically, write something great. I want to write at least one thing that would be read centuries from now. I want to write something that makes people hold their hands to their hearts or, upon finishing, set the book down slowly, already lost on a pathway of thought they'd never considered before. I want to write something that the most astute readers would complete and wonder how in the hell the author accomplished that, just the way I've done with so many stories. I know. It's self-centered. It's self important. And yet, as much as I try to ignore it, I feel it under my skin, haunting all the time.

Is it immortality I want? No, not technically. Physical immortality seems like the worst thing anyone could want. But to think that someday, your name or your deeds and maybe your whole life would fall into one last whisper, or get blown away on a piece of dust, I... I just don't know. But this is why many of us have children, isn't it? That there's something inside us that makes us want to have pieces of ourselves out there when we're gone? To have our blood live on? To make sure that we have our fingerprints on this earth? If we really looked down deep into ourselves, would we admit that this is at least part of the reason?

But flesh is flesh and flesh rots. Well-told stories don't die. 

***

I once heard the following, though I can't remember where:

Nine out of every ten people thinks they have a story to tell. Of those people, one out of ten will actually start writing that story. Of those people, one out of ten will try to turn that story into a book. Of those people, one out of ten will actually finish writing that book. Of those people, one out of ten will actually try to publish that book. Of those people, one out of ten will actually publish the book. Of those people, one out of ten will make a profit from their book. Of those people, one out of ten will be able to write full-time. 

***

Picture from Wikipedia.

Picture from Wikipedia.

So why has the Mona Lisa's popularity persisted for centuries? Here are a few reasons:

1) The mysterious smile. 

The most famous smile in the world has been called inviting, innocent, sinful, and a countless number of other adjectives. Several studies have been done to determine why the smile creates different emotions in the viewer but to no consensus: maybe it depends on your angle, your height, the noise in the room, the stuffiness of the room, or maybe, it's the stories we tell ourselves about the painting, which invariably, are stories we tell about ourselves.

Do we want Mona Lisa's smile to be emblematic of a secret affair because we enjoy salacious stories? Do we buy into the secret of Mona Lisa really being a self-portrait and smiling as though a joke or maybe Leonardo coming to an understanding about himself? Or do we want, as we stand in the Louvre, wishing our kids would behave themselves, to think that Mona Lisa to be wearing a weary smile because she finally was able to get away from her kids and sit down and rest?

2) History

On August 11, 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre. The investigation lasted for two years (even Picasso was questioned!) until the thief was finally found after attempting to sell the portrait to a known art collector. Some say the Mona Lisa wasn't very well-known outside of the circles of art historians and critics until this theft, which made it widely recognized.

3) Technical Brilliance

By all accounts, the Mona Lisa is a damn good painting. According to the Louvre's website, the Mona Lisa is the "the earliest Italian portrait to focus so closely on the sitter in a half-length portrait." It goes on to explain that this was a new "artistic formula," which included being generous enough in the space of the frame to include the model's upper body without the shoulders touching the edges. At the time, this was unheard of. In addition, the Mona Lisa is known as one of the best examples of sfumato, a Renaissance technique that added smokiness to a painting, allowing colors and tones to blend into each other. If you look at Mona Lisa's eyes or even the background landscape, you'll see it. 

4) The Painter

Leonardo da Vinci was known famous during his time, which as any art historian will tell you, is rare. Most artists become famous in death. But during his lifetime, Leonardo was known for what he's known for now: being a great inventor, architect, mathematician, and artist. The church and wealthy patrons commissioned him for paintings, murals, and inventions and he was close friends with royalty. Rumor has it he even died in the arms of King Francis I of France, as depicted by the French painter Ingres here:

from Wikipedia

from Wikipedia

Such a person, in this day and age, would be known as a celebrity. And so it seems that while Leonardo was one of the most technically brilliant painters we've ever seen, that wasn't actually what made it stand the test of time. Stories did that. Stories about Leonardo the man, about his intentions with the painting, about the theft, about the smile, and ultimately, about the stories we tell ourselves upon gazing at the portrait. 

***

I sometimes wonder what is too much to desire from the world. If you have a spouse you love deeply, a spouse who supports you, healthy kids, a house to live in, a not-that-bad-job that pays for food and the occasional vacation, and you live in a country not plagued by war, and you have the ability to have a generally happy and positive outlook on life, can you ask for more? Is it okay to do so? Are you crazy to think it? 

I've spoken to several friends who fit the above and it seems the advice mirrors Hazel's. Get to the next day. Do what you can. Know the difference between what you can change and what you can't. When the kids are out of the house that will be your time (because that time is guaranteed...). I had a professor who said it was pretentious to say "I'm a writer", that it's better to say "I am writing" or "I am not writing." But what to say when people ask? If I say "I'm a writer", do you think me pretentious? Do you think me false because it isn't paying the bills? Can I say "I'm a writer" if I have been published in some magazines? Or do I need a book deal? Or is it enough to sit at a desk writing then furiously erasing because that voice in your head tells you no one is going to like it, no one cares, that even though you want to write something great, deep down you know you probably don't have it, you care too much about what others think, you got too much other stuff going on, and besides, those rejection letters told you you suck. Would that be enough? Could I say it then? When would I know (and could I know?) that I've actually done a "good job"?

***

There's a scene in the film The Fault in Our Stars where the two protagonists are sitting in a park, watching kids play. Both are teenagers with advanced stages of cancer, though the girl, Hazel, is currently successfully being treated while the guy, Gus, has recently found out that he is going to die soon. Here is a snippet of their conversation (courtesy of screenplay found here):

GUS:... I thought I was special.

HAZEL: You are.

GUS: Yeah but... you know what I mean. What?

HAZEL: I do know what you mean, I just... I don't agree. This obsession with being remembered --

GUS: Don't get mad --

HAZEL: But I am mad! I think you're special, is that not enough? 

GUS: Hazel --

HAZEL: You think the only way to live a meaningful life is for everyone to love you, for everyone to remember you. Well guess what, Gus, this is your life. This is all you get. You get me, and your family, and this world. And if that's not enough, well I'm sorry, but it's not nothing. Cause I'll remember you, I'll love you --

GUS: You're right --

HAZEL: And I just wish... you'd be happy with that. 

GUS: You're right. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. 

Hazel was wrong about two points:

1) It's not about being remembered, necessarily, it's about knowing you impacted the world in a way that lasts, otherwise, why are we here? If you look at Adam and Eveit's ultimately a creation story. God solely had the power of creation, but when Adam and Eve ate that apple, they now became creators, too. They were aware of their bodies, of their ability to procreate, to create new life. And they also were now filled with knowledge, which would allow them and their ancestors to create everything we now have in the world. I just want to create something that lasts. 

2) Gus wanting to do something great does not mean he's unhappy with his life. "This is your life. This is all you get." Patty and I discuss this every now and then. When I'm down about the number of rejections I'm getting, or when I'm frustrated because I can't seem to write or when I do write nothing good appears on the page, or when I'm too tired from work and the crap life sends our way, I like to check in with her and make sure she knows this does not mean anything about how I feel about her or our relationship. I hope she believes me. No, I know she does. 

***

One of the first things I discovered about fatherhood was that my father was right: it was hard, and it kicked the S&$* out of your life plan - Lev Grossman

You may or may not have read my blog about the fear of fatherhood. If you didn't, here's a synopsis: I'm worried that I will lose myself. I worry that this great thing I'm supposed to write will never happen, and as I move up at my day job and we have kids and life continues, I'll have less time and energy to do so. Every post I've read on FB posted by young parents happen to be about how tiresome it is, how crazy it is, how sleep-deprived it is, and oh, by the way, it's also the best thing I've ever done! People have told me all the time: now's your time to write. Once you have kids, it's going to be so difficult. Soooooooooooooooooooo difficult. You don't even have time to sleep, much less write! Get to it! But it's just not happening now. I've written a lot over the last few years, but none if it is earth-shattering.

And so I think, maybe I should write something that could just bring some money in to lower the pressure from other aspects of life. So I'm writing a satirical novella I hope to self-publish and bring some money in. Even if it's a $100 a month. And then I think, well, maybe I need to feel fulfilled by how good my life is. I know it's good. Beyond good. This itch do do something special, maybe it's like Hazel said, I'm special to those in my life, that should be enough. And then I think, maybe I need the experience of fatherhood to get me to this great story I'm supposed to write. Maybe it's not about losing myself, but finding a "new myself." I even bought a book entitled, When I First Held You - 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk about the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood. There are some legit writers in there. Lev Grossman (see above quote). Anthony Doerr. Rick Moody. Benjamin Percy. And then I think, if they could do it... 

***

I've spent more time at doctor's offices and more time getting tests in the last two years that the first 33 years of my life combined. I've got more strange things going on in my body than I care to admit. It's true, I'm not the best at taking care of my physical body. I'm unsure how to navigate cultivating bodily health and brain health. 

Here's a picture of one corner of the room I'm currently writing in:

On the shelf at there far end of the photo are 210 books. On the table, 54 books I don't have any place to put. On the floor by my feet, another 30. On the shelf behind me, another 250. On the three shelves to the left, 214. On the console table near the front door, 17. Upstairs, 22. At work, 8. Being housed at my parents' house until I have more shelf space - 80. 

Out of these 885 books, I've read 267. An aunt once walked into the den and asked me if I'd read all of these books. Upon hearing I hadn't even read half, she asked why did I have them? It didn't occur to me then, but now I've realized having these books so close to me represents all there is to know, all there is to learn. I read and write every day. Reading and writing takes time. How do you fit in going to the gym? Cooking a healthy dinner? There's only so much spare time in the day. A finite amount. Yes, make time, but where? The only two people that come to mind when thinking of people who are really fit and also who I'd consider to be really learned, widely read people are two professors, but they're professors. They've dedicated their lives to words and books. What about the rest of us? 

If this sounds like an excuse for my high BMI, then you'd probably be right. I made these choices. But, given a finite amount of time in the day, it seems there are two choices: give my body as much time and health as possible to write this great thing or actually try and write the thing. 

***

I'm afraid this has turned into a self-pitying blog post. Has it? I hope not. Someone told me the other day my blogs were too happy; they always resolved things in a positive light. They wanted to read about some kind of internal struggle. So here you are, though I can't promise it won't end positively. That, too, is a choice. 

***

Nine out of every ten people thinks they have a story to tell. Of those people, one out of ten will actually start writing that story. Of those people, one out of ten will try to turn that story into a book. Of those people, one out of ten will actually finish writing that book. Of those people, one out of ten will actually try to publish that book (I am here). Of those people, one out of ten will actually publish the book. Of those people, one out of ten will make a profit from their book. Of those people, one out of ten will be able to write full-time. 

And once you can write full-time, I tell myself, you can write that great thing you've always wanted to write. 

***

There's a different story of the conversation at BJ's that I constantly replay in my mind. I'm drinking a glass of strawberry lemonade. My confabulator is talking about his job, where he researches ways to help soldiers who've come back from war without the ability to move certain limbs. I nod a lot, tell him how interesting that is, because it is, and then when he stops and asks "What do you do?" I'll say "I'm a writer" and when he asks "Have I read any of your work?" I'll smile and say, "Possibly."

 

 

 

Crashing

by Elison Alcovendaz

Yesterday morning, we did what we always did. We woke up, listened to Taylor Swift's "Shake it Off" (okay, maybe that was just me), brushed our teeth, showered, dressed, made lunches, set our alarm, got into our car, backed out, closed the garage, got on the freeway, and then, 20 minutes away from work, this happened:

We did what we were supposed to do: we panicked for a second, looked at each other, made sure each other was okay, carefully pulled to the shoulder, called 911, called our insurance, took pictures of damage, and waited. When the police came, we explained what happened. He took everything down on a mini notepad, while the other officer talked to the driver who hit us and another car. Then we waited for the tow truck. We waited for about an hour and a half on the side of the freeway. Then we hopped a ride with the tow truck driver to the body shop, signed some paperwork, got into a car with an 80-year old man who dropped us off at the rental car office, where we signed more paperwork, drove home, rested, then, as our bodies got more and more and more sore, we went to see the doctors, were prescribed some medications which we picked up at the pharmacy, ordered some food, came home and ate the food, took our medications, welcomed my parents, who had come to visit to check up on us, ate the brownies they brought, bade them good night, went to bed, very uncomfortable but medicated, read a little bit, then went to sleep.

I look at that picture above and think how crazy it is how much trust we put in strangers every single day. You may have read my fictional account of this in a previous story I wrote called "The Clothes in the Hamper," but let's follow what happened yesterday and determine how many times something important (health, safety, even our own lives at times) were put in the hands of people we didn't know:

1)  We brushed our teeth with toothpaste that the FDA said was safe to use. You might read the chemicals that go into a tube of toothpaste and never even think about those long scientific words for things that you're putting into your system. Did you know there's such a thing as toothpaste overdose? No wonder there are "Do Not Swallow" warnings on toothpaste. 

2)  We showered in water provided by our local municipality, who says the water is clean. We have two water sources: the clean water which goes to our faucets and showers, and recycled water which is for our lawns. A sign just a street away from our house states that recycled water is Non-Potable, Not Drinkable, HAZARDOUS. Okay, it doesn't say the hazardous part. But you wouldn't want your kids running through the sprinklers with their mouths open. And you certainly wouldn't want your clean water and hazardous water lines mixed up when your house was built. 

3) We made our lunches, which consisted of Yoplait yogurt and a banana for breakfast and a bagged salad for lunch. Much like the toothpaste, the chemicals and additives listed on the yogurt were declared safe by the FDA. The banana was not organic, but even if it was, how would I really know? Who knows what was sprayed on the kale in the bag. I didn't. But those salads sure are tasty!

4) We set our alarm. Some of us trust our windows and our doors and our walls and our fences are enough. For those of us a little more paranoid (like me), we have alarms. The alarms warn us if there is an intruder in the house. When we leave, we push a button and that is supposed to protect our home. Who knows if it actually comes on? Or if someone actually did break-in, if the alarm would actually call the monitoring service? I don't know, but it certainly makes me feel that much safer!

5)  We got into our car. We bought the car because we believed Mazda made a quality car. Quality as in it would last for a good, long while, get us good gas mileage, and not break down unexpectedly. We believed it would get us to work, to our parents' houses, to any place we needed to go. Those workers in those Mazda factories; man, do they make a quality car!

6)  We closed the garage. One time, we closed the garage, and came back with the garage open. Nothing was stolen. Weird. Modern garage door openers work by transmitting a specific, one-time code to the operator (that big boxy thing attached to your garage ceiling). In the past, garage doors operated on only one code that would be used over and over again, so thieves could capture that code and then open your garage while you were gone. Does my garage opener work the modern way? I don't know, but I assume so. 

7)  We got on the freeway. We pay taxes for infrastructure, so I'm sure things like the Bay Bridge and the freeways I drive on are perfectly safe. CalTRANS workers and those contractors and engineers, they went to college for these things, so they know. 

8)  Let's skip the accident for now.

9)  We called 911. It rang twice. The lady answered and asked immediately where we were. I told her, hoping that she knew what I meant. She asked some questions then said she would dispatch people immediately. 

10) We gave the police officer an account of what happened. I couldn't see what he was writing, and he actually wrote very little, so I assume police officers have shorthand for the entire narrative and description we gave him of how we were hit. One of the officers said our car was peeled like a sardine can and then laughed, as though Patty and I were not shaken humans but a pair of small fish. They gave us a small piece of white paper with a number on it and said we'd have the report in a couple of weeks. We were not at fault, and I really don't see how anyone could argue we were, but who knows what's going to go in that report? Who knows what the driver who hit us said? I guess we'll have to wait and see.

11)  We filed a claim with the insurance adjuster, who I'm sure will offer us a fair settlement and a fair offer for our car if it's totaled. I mean, I am absolutely certain of it. 

12)  We waited on the side of the freeway for nearly an hour and a half. The first tow truck that came wasn't a flatbed. I'd heard stories of people who'd gotten into accidents after pulling to the shoulder of the freeway or trying to fix a flat tire. But we waited in the car. Someone was supposed to come and take us off the freeway to be safe, but he didn't arrive until a minute after the second tow truck came. We rode to the body shop in this stranger's tow truck. He made racist comments about other drivers. He answered his cell phone while driving. I was too happy to get out of the truck when we arrived at the body shop.

13)  We spoke with the body shop worker. She made a spiel. The spiel took five minutes. There were a lot of hand movements. She used the word "honest" a lot. We signed some paperwork. She took us out to get stuff from the car and immediately gasped at the damage, then said she couldn't tell us what she thought. She said they would dismantle the car and let us know today what their original estimate would be. It's 7pm, and we haven't heard from her.

14)  We rode in a compact car to the rental car company, driven by an 80-year old man who complained that he couldn't see a car coming when we drove off the body shop parking lot. He was a nice guy and talked a lot when he should've been paying more attention to the road. He probably could've taken us anywhere, but lucky for us, he actually took us to the rental car office.

15)  We rented a car. They gave us a car smaller than what had gotten into an accident, but he assured us that's what our insurance policy would cover. It would've been easy to check, but hey, we were completely sore and tired and stressed. We gave him a credit card for a security deposit. Then we signed some paperwork. I hope I didn't sign away my esophagus, my spleen, or other part of my body. Or my first novel. Then we drove off in another car that we'd never driven before. A Nissan. I'm pretty sure those workers in that Nissan factory are superb workers. I'm sure Nissan has security controls to ensure faulty parts don't make it into the actual vehicles. Yeah, it's a good, quality car, and I'm sure the rental car place checked the oil and tires.

16)  We went to the doctor. We told them what happened. We listened to the doctor. We listened to their expertise about what was going on inside our bodies. They told us about how much more sore we'd be tomorrow. They gave us some prescriptions.

17)  We went to the pharmacy. We picked up these pills that people in white lab coats on the other side of the counter put in bottles for us. These are the medications the doctor ordered. There can be no mistakes here. My name is on the bottle, so they are my medications and not someone else's. We listened to the pharmacy intern tell us about what to do and what not to do with the medications. She sounded very serious.

18)  We ordered some pho at a restaurant. We gave them a credit card, which they slid through a machine that sent our information somewhere. They came out with cartons of meat and sprouts and soup and some fried shrimp we ordered. We took the food home and ate it. It was delicious.

19)  We ate dessert, brownies my parents brought from a local bakery. They, too, were delicious. In fact, I'm eating one now:

Yum. Hopefully there's no poison in here!

Yum. Hopefully there's no poison in here!

20)  We took the medications and went to sleep.

21)  Back to the accident. The response we received from friends and family were overwhelming. So first, thanks for the love. It's true what many of you said, we're alive when we easily could not have been. It's crazy how, while driving, we constantly have our lives in the hands of people who we will likely never meet. Are they mad? Temporarily crazy? I once had a guy shoot me with a finger gun when I came a little too close to him after he cut me off. I once had a guy dump things out of his sunroof at me because, well, I'm actually not sure. You've been to the DMV, as have I. We trust those people to make sure only the right people get licenses. Are the tests hard enough? Are people obeying the rules? Are their cars operating properly? It can be stressful to think that one wrong move by a stranger and your life could just end. How can we continue to trust? How can we continue to move forward when anyone - a government agency, a home builder, an alarm company, a car maker, a drug maker, a doctor, a driver, a tow truck, a body shop, an insurance company, a cook, a pharmacist, a police officer, a civil engineer, a rental car company, and a million of other people who have no vested interest in us as individuals can make us crash at any time?

Well, because the police came in ten minutes. Because our home builder corrected all the mistakes they made. Because the body shops I've worked with have always done quality work. Because the insurance adjusters I've dealt with have mostly been fair. Because I've been driving on roads and bridges my whole life. Because I've eaten food prepared at restaurants and am still here. Because the water that comes out of my sink is clean. Because our car was running great. Because the I can see the doctor's eyes when he talks to me. Because I used to work at a rental car company, and not everyone there is an a-hole. Because my Lola, who died one month ago today, trusted with her entire being, even when she lost her sight and had to rely on others to show her the way. Because we're humans, and as such most of us care about one another, because even when people are taken away from you, and you had a near death experience, and your back hurts and ribs hurt and your unsure what the near future will hold for you, there's really nothing to do but shake it off and let Taylor Swift teach us the way:


The Enemy - a Flash Fiction

by Elison Alcovendaz

I've been sitting on a blog about Robin Williams for three days now. I wanted to connect his death to thoughts about whether or not the supposed connection between creative genius and madness was legitimate. I had anecdotes from my past. I had statistics from scientific and sociological studies. I had at least three different drafts. But then I read an article about irresponsible writing when it came to things like depression and suicide and I realized that's what I'd be doing, writing irresponsibly about things I really knew nothing about. So, for this next blog, I want to post something I do know something about: stories. Here's a flash fiction to read about a topic that might be timely:

For Thomas there is nowhere else but his room.  The bedsprings that stick through the top.  The window that doesn’t open.  The motionless ceiling fan.  For life, the flicker of the TV.  The click of thumbs to controllers.  The splats of boots to the enemy’s face and the gunshots through the enemy’s belly and the screams of the enemy run over by tanks.  

Thomas often forgets about The Sergeant downstairs.  The Sergeant sits on the edge of the couch as though waiting for something.  But he is only watching the news.  With a cup of cold coffee an inch away from spilling on the rug.  For a week The Sergeant has not called out Thomas’ name.  He does not see Thomas, except at noon and midnight, when Thomas tiptoes down the stairs and crawls across the living room to avoid the windows and opens the refrigerator to make a sandwich.  At midnight, The Sergeant slides behind the pillows and watches Thomas from the edge of the couch.  He is proud of Thomas.  He is proud of Thomas for walking down the stairs without making a sound. 

Sometimes The Sergeant will read the front page.  He checks all the windows before snatching the paper from the front door.  Then he sits on the the couch and unrolls the newsprint across the coffee table.  He reads about Afghanistan.  He mutters to himself and shakes his head and looks through the windows again.  Then he closes the curtains and tosses the papers into a box and watches the news.

Sometimes Thomas looks outside his window.  He ducks under the windowsill and peeks out to make sure the outsiders don’t see him.  He surveys the park across the street.  He finds all the good hiding places, like up in the big tree in the middle or behind the dumpster.  Sometimes a girl sits on a picnic bench near the batting cage and draws.  Other times, she talks on the phone and cries.   He stares at her with one eye closed and wonders if he has good aim.

One early morning, The Sergeant gets off the couch and tries to ascend the stairs without noise.  But when he reaches Thomas’ door, Thomas is already staring at him from the edge of the bed.  The Sergeant points outside, down to the group of Thomas' schoolmates getting on the bus.  He asks Thomas a question.  Thomas stares at the kids then turns back to the TV.  Thomas presses a button and picks up a rifle and slides a bullet through the enemy’s head. 

The Sergeant stands in the threshold and smiles.

 

Pride and Prejudice: Living in Roseville

by Elison Alcovendaz

I have a secret to tell you. It embarrasses me to say it, but…

I have never lived in Elk Grove.

I know, I know. When we first met and you asked me where I lived, I said Elk Grove. I told Patty this when we first met. The truth is, where I called home for most of my childhood sat just blocks away from the Elk Grove/Sacramento border, but technically in South Sac. Outside of the house, I spent most of my time where my friends lived and where my schools were - on Fruitridge, where I witnessed a kid on his bike get jumped by a gang and get nearly beaten to death by aluminum bats; on Florin, where a 30-year-old-man in the arcade at old Florin Mall wanted to beat my 10-year-old self for "looking at his girl," who happened to be a cashier at the mall hot dog stand where I'd just ordered a corn dog; on Stockton, where a party I was at got shot up and I got pepper sprayed in the face because the police decided everyone was a suspect, even though I'd never touched a gun in my life; on Elder Creek, where a kid I tutored and who taught me origami got killed in a drive-by.

So yeah, whenever I met people I never wanted to say I was from South Sac. I was always from Elk Grove. I was always from the suburbs. I was always from a place where prostitutes didn't prance openly in the streets, where you could play basketball in a park without having to run when someone talked too much smack and the other guy ran straight for his car to grab who knows what from under the driver's seat, where guys didn't reach into the waistline of their pants to demonstrate their toughness when you shaved your head and wore the wrong color to the wrong party. I didn't want South Sac to define me because I didn't want to start out at a disadvantage.

Now, I live in Roseville, nearly as far away from South Sac I can be while still being within driving distance of my family. When I tell people I grew up with that I moved to Roseville, many of them smirk and make faces and think that I must think I'm better than them. "Don't become one of those stuck-up d-bags" I've heard on more than one occasion. I've heard jokes about being white-washed. I've heard how uncomfortable they feel as minorities when they go to The Fountains. They say it as though I've now become one of "them." I've been asked why wouldn't I have chosen to be around my family? My friends? Questions sometimes true, sometimes veiled as an accusation. Telling them about property values and schools and starting an independent life only makes me seem more like that white-washed d-bag. When I tell people who I've come to know more recently about living in Roseville, I don't need to say anything. They nod their heads and say things about houses keeping their value during the recession and safety statistics. What they don't talk about is how your scenery, your environment, changes you. 

It happened so quickly. A couple of months ago, I happened to be at the Goodwill Superstore on Franklin and Florin. I hadn't been at that shopping center in a decade but remembered the shopping center clearly. The anchor used to be a Mervyn's, where I'd go with my mother when it was time to buy Christmas gifts. There used to be a Mexican restaurant there, too. Costa Azul. I remember seeing it as we drove by, hearing the drumbeats spilling onto the street at night when it transformed into a club. I always said I'd go there when I was older but I never did. Across the street there used to be a thriving Auto Mall, and now there's an empty lot, surrounded by a chain-link fence. The adult store, Suzie's, is still going strong, though. 

I'd been at a nearby family party and decided to stop in to look for some books. But everything else distracted me, even just parking the car. Gum and dead cigarette butts and empty soda cans littered the parking lot. The shattered remains of a smashed beer bottle glinted feebly near a tree that looked like it hadn't been watered since I was a kid. The oily handprints all over the glass entrance doors. The dirty tile floors. The boxers of teenage boys who wore their pants too low. The general malaise of the shoppers' facial expressions. The sloppiness of many of their outfits. The ease with which strangers cursed in public. 

In Roseville, we spend some of our free time at The Fountains, a somewhat "upscale" (but not really) shopping center across the street from the Roseville Galleria. There's a Mikuni's there that we love, and a Zocalo's, and on the cooler summer nights they have bands that play hits from the 50's and crooners that sing Sinatra. My first impression of The Fountains was: this is exactly why third world countries hate us. At the entrance, a large fountain sprays water into the air 24/7. At the main crossing, there's yet another fountain that shoots water to music, like a mini-Bellagio or something. My first trip there I felt misplaced. I didn't see many people with my skin color. I didn't hear anyone using the slang language I had grown up with. 

It reminded me of the first time I set foot in El Dorado Hills, which is where Patty grew up. I'm still astonished when I think about how Patty's graduating high school class was 95% white. Seriously? I couldn't believe there were actually places like that because it wasn't my reality. On our way to her mom's, we stopped at the supermarket to pick up some bread and I, once again, felt immediately Other. No Filipinos, no Mexicans, no African-Americans. I was certain people were staring at me. They knew I'd come from somewhere else and didn't belong. Later dinner parties where people joked about the cultural tendencies of their Filipina hairdressers only served to confirm this bias, as did the way matter-of-fact way people spoke about the lives of those in the lower socioeconomic classes, as though they actually knew what living like that meant like.

On Patty's first trip to South Sac, she didn't speak at all, and those of you who know her know how ridiculous that is. We drove down Florin to get her car serviced and I wanted to show her some spots from my childhood. She'd never stepped foot on Sacramento land south of Sac City. There was no reason to. I rolled down the windows, blasting Dr. Dre from the speakers, and I saw the sudden Otherness in her face. She didn't belong here. It was the same face I had when I was walking through that supermarket in El Dorado Hills, wondering if I'd see brown skin. 

Both of our visits to our childhood neighborhoods were colored by things we'd heard in our own environments. Everyone in El Dorado Hills was white and racist. Don't go to South Sac because you'll get shot. Since that's what our environment said, that's what we saw. 

When Time Magazine declared Sacramento America's most diverse city in 2002, South Sac would've been a perfect microcosm of that (though I certainly recall that our white neighbors weren't the same white people I'd seen on TV). El Dorado Hills might've been the antithesis. But if you walked outside my childhood home on an early summer day, you'd see kids of all races running and biking up and down the streets or playing ball on the neighborhood basketball court. You'd smell the flavorful odors of world foods and you'd hear the unique rhythms of foreign languages and you'd see families in different shades of skin and different cultural clothes and you'd think absolutely nothing of it. But still, as you got older, you grew cautious. To hear Patty tell it, they could go anywhere they wanted without fear. They played Midnight Flashlight Tag, running around the cul-de-sac and hiding in people's property until a flashlight shone on their bodies. They didn't lock their doors to their cars or their homes, no matter what valuables were held inside. There were no minorities in her neighborhood (though there are now). 

This is all to say that our environments often trickle into who we are, which might've been what the friends and family I'd grown up with were so worried about happening because, hey, it did happen. After living in Roseville and going to South Sac, I always saw how dirty it was. I saw the homeless people. I found myself becoming more fearful around the people I'd grown up around. It was so amazing at how quickly Roseville became home, how quickly I became so proud to say, "We bought a house in Roseville" when people asked where we lived. It meant something. Like I'd graduated to something better. 

I was wrong. We both were. 

Sure, Patty understands that South Sac isn't the safest place to live (I certainly understand that). But she's been there enough to know that she can be comfortable. Not everyone is looking at her just because she's white. There's diversity there, a realness (for lack of a better word), that we might not find in El Dorado Hills or Roseville. All the stuff I said in the beginning of this blog? Yeah, those things happened, but great things happened, too. That's where my family grew up and where most still live, filled with success stories. College degrees, strong relationships, great jobs, a close family. Most of my closest friends are people I grew up with. South Sac is a place where the phrase "giving the shirt of your back" is literally not a cliche. People just help people there without having to be asked. And the diversity, can I mention that again? There might not be another place in the world that will teach you better about empathy, about learning to live in someone else's shoes.

And I know that El Dorado Hills isn't the most diverse place on the planet. But I also know that most folks there aren't looking at me just because I'm brown. And there are loving people there, too. People who care, people whose wealth hasn't transformed them into the elite snobs we like to think they are. We think of these affluent suburbs and think of cookie cutter stereotypes because almost none of us have ever gotten to know them. We often think so much about the barriers that, in essence, we help create and reinforce those barriers instead of bringing them down. Yes, there are other differences - socioeconomic class difference will do that. But we often get mired down in what we don't have have that we forget about the individual. We tend to judge people as groups - by how much money they make, how low they wear their pants, by where they live. If they live in El Dorado Hills they must be part of The Man! They must be racist! If they live in South Sac they must be uneducated! They must be "ghetto"! Any day on Facebook will show you people being judged for being a Democrat or Republican, a Catholic or Mormon or atheist, a feminist, a homosexual. We always forget that people are individuals, that people are people.

Having this understanding has made me view things differently. How quickly I noticed the Hmong, Filipino, Mexican, Indian, and Korean families just on my street. How quickly I noticed the minorities in the supermarkets at El Dorado Hills. How quickly I became proud again to say "South Sac" when people ask where I'm from. I visited that same Goodwill store two days ago and was astonished on what I'd noticed - the flowers near the trees, the small businesses nearby owned by local residents, the geniality of the guy with gold teeth who smiled as he held the door open for me. There's nothing inherently better about Roseville or South Sac or El Dorado Hills, just differences. But we decide how to privilege those differences, if we privilege them at all. We decide what to embrace, what to discard, what to allow to become a part of who we are. While our environments can have the ability to shape us, if two people from as disparate environments as South Sac and El Dorado Hills can be together, then maybe, in the end, it's about the people after all. 

 

 

 

 

 

A Year of Marriage: Slowing Down Time

by Elison Alcovendaz

I started writing this blog at:

 

Back to that later.

Patty and I are different people. Those of you who know us well know this. But this is good, I think. In order for a relationship to work, the people can't be too similar. At least that has been my experience with all the couples I'd consider happy and successful, including my parents. They share common interests, sure, but common personalities? No.

One of our biggest differences is the way we perceive (and like to perceive) time. When shopping, she loves to go in, pick something out, maybe try it on real quick, and buy it. I like to meander, flipping through racks, people watching, calculating clearance rack deductions in my head. I like to try on clothes I know don't fit me, especially since this stupid Slim Fit craze is in full-force (what happened to clothes for regular people?). When driving, she's in the fast lane, going, well, fast. The GPS is an important tool. Let's get to where we're going and let's get there early. When I'm in the fast lane, kind of just looking at the passing scenery, singing very loud, trying to kind of just find my way to our destination, wondering where the journey will take us, I usually don't realize I'm going fifty-five until I see that old lady in the old, battered car storming past me. I tend to be late to things. I know this is bad, but it's just never changed. It's something we've accepted. Unless we're holding hands, I'll tend to drift behind while we're walking, caught by a nearby conversation.

A month ago, Patty and I recently celebrated one year of marriage (thank you, yes, it has been great!) and we of course were told by someone who'd attended our wedding: "I can't believe it has been a year! It seems like just the other day I was watching you walk down the aisle."

Patty concurred. Time had moved very fast. After all, this is what happens when you're having fun. 

And then I did something wrong. I said the first year seemed like it had taken five years. All the women in the room looked at me, eyes slightly wide, not sure whether my tone of voice was sarcasm or just the tone of a new husband who hadn't yet learned what and what not to say. I tried to explain, but with each word the hole below my feet grew deeper and deeper until I was completely submerged below the wooden floor, saying, "Five years? I meant five months! No, five weeks!"

Why the difference? When you experience an event or a series of events, countless neural processes in several different parts of the brain all work together to create a story that makes cohesive sense to you. Things may not be "filed" in the linear order in which they occurred, and  in most cases details not considered important for the story won't even be filed at all. This makes time appear "fast." David Eagleman, a best-selling author and director of the Laboratory for Perception and Action at the Baylor College of Medicine, has spent much time researching the way the brain perceives time. In his article "Brain Time", Eagleman provides a simple exercise that demonstrates how time appears to move quickly:

Try this exercise: Put this book down and go look in a mirror. Now move your eyes back and forth, so that you're looking at your left eye, then at your right eye, then at your left eye again. When your eyes shift from one position to the other, they take time to move and land on the other location. But here's the kicker: you never see your eyes move. What is happening to the time gaps during which your eyes are moving? Why do you feel as though there is no break in time while you're changing your eye position? (Remember that it's easy to detect someone else's eyes moving, so the answer cannot be that eye movements are too fast to see.)

Much like this experiment, we live much of our lives moving from event to event, the destination the goal. I once had a professor who tried to rally his students against living this type of life. He also used to say that he could slow down time. He never mentioned any specific "trick," but if you listened to his other stories, which often seemed tangential to what we were studying - the art of writing - you learned that his stories often had one major point - time is a gift that we can give ourselves. By committing to being in class to improve our writing, we were giving ourselves that gift of time. 

Sitting in those classrooms dissecting stories and discussing literary theory made time go very slow. It's one of the things I miss most about grad school. Since then, life has certainly picked up. There is a mortgage and student loans and other bills and responsibilities. It's one life step to the next, the in between phases all about planning that next step, wondering if should make this big purchase or save, sell the house and make use of our equity, get this job or not, have a child now or later. Life is moving very, very fast. 

To combat this, I just try to be more aware. One thing that works for me is, whenever I catch myself looking at at clock, I spend some time attuning myself to my body and my surroundings. For example, it's now:

and since I started writing this blog, I've felt or noticed: the heat of the laptop, a tightness in my calf, the cool air of the ceiling fan, Catherine Zeta-Jones' weird accent in The Legend of Zorro, the way Patty's bangs curl off the side of her face as she naps on the other end of the couch, the dry annoyance in my throat as I fail again to beat level 341 of Candy Crush, the light resistance of the letters on the keyboard, the faint glare of the kitchen lights on my computer screen, the tight comfort of the wedding ring around my finger, the satisfaction of a few spoonfuls of Ben and Jerry's Chocolate Therapy Ice Cream, the deeper satisfaction of seeing this blog progress into something that might actually be readable. 

I guess you could call it "mindfulness." If you Google "slowing down time," the first article you'll see will tell you about research that demonstrates the speed of time is controlled by us. Even those of us with "faster" personalities can slow time and lessen the anxiety of moving from event to event by consciously adding details to your memories simply by noticing things. It's a thing writers probably do automatically, but try it. Next time, instead of just moving through an event, choose to pay extra attention to the details. When you're at a new restaurant, don't just sit down and look at the menu and order your wine. Notice the color and scratchiness of the seats. Notice the shine or dullness of the forks. Notice the hair of your server. Notice the music playing. Notice the chatter of people around you. And of course notice the person you're with. I don't mean just sit there and talk, I mean really notice them. Notice how their glasses lean on their nose. Notice the way their face contorts when they talk about work. Notice the way they sit at the table. Notice their clothes, their eyes, the way they use a utensil when they eat. Basically, notice things. Make yourself do it. You probably do it already, anyway, but as our brains get used to more and more quick in-and-out inputs (like a Facebook news feed, or scrolling Twitter updates, or a million TV channels to change to when you hit a commercial), it's likely that you notice these things but just let them pass in-and-out of your brain.

So when I said the first year of marriage seemed like it took five years, I meant this as a compliment. It meant that I wanted to capture every detail of every moment of our marriage as much as I could. But this is why I believe Patty and I work well. She helps me get to things on time, keeps me on my toes, makes sure I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing, like actually writing instead of just talking about writing. And hopefully, I help her stop for a moment and take a look around. 

 

Estate Sales: Why I Don't Own a Kindle

by Elison Alcovendaz

The first estate sale I went to was almost the last. It was in a senior community in Roseville. I saw a sign and went on a whim. I was probably the youngest person in there. An older lady sat at a table near the door with a flimsy cash box and an email sign-up sheet. She smiled and wished everyone who walked through the front door a good morning. 

The house remained basically how it was before the sale. China in display cabinets, the old TV on a just-as-old TV stand, Ethan Allan furniture from the 1990s. Someone had vacuumed and dusted. I was able to walk through the house, pick up items, open drawers and cabinets, riffle through closets. They had set up additional tables in the backyard and garage, all packed with the stuff we never realize we accumulate. What caught my eye the most was a built-in bookcase filled with old books. As I sorted through the books, I heard someone choking back sobs.

I turned to find a man in his sixties crying into the shoulder of what appeared to be his wife. Estate sales are generally quiet - you hear people whispering, you might hear someone asking how much something is - so the sobbing was poignant. He was crying so hard the brim of his golf cap dug deep into the shoulder blade of his wife. His mom was the one who had passed. I suddenly felt like an asshole. A trespasser. I was looking for a good deal. A random stranger peering into this man's mother's stuff. The man and his wife were blocking the path to the front door so, feeling guilty, I put the four books I'd chosen back into the shelf and walked out to the backyard. 

I casually looked through the items and soon realized the man's mother was an eclectic woman. There were stacks of romance novels, old records, glassware from Sweden, puzzles, purses, gardening tools, not to mention the Beanie Babies and World War II paraphernalia. And you won't get away from it at any estate sale - Christmas decorations: ceramic Santas, plastic reindeer, some hand-sewn stockings. I found myself touching everything, running my fingers across the chips in plates, the frayed ends of tablecloths. I stayed out there for at least twenty minutes, then walked back inside. 

I stopped again at the books. For some reason, every estate sale has books by Leon Uris and James Michener - thick, thick, books that most of us wouldn't have the patience to read, much less hold in our hands. There were Bibles, Self-Help books, books on medicine, and the books that originally piqued my interest - four William Faulkner hardbacks from the 1950s. 

Four Faulkner books from the 50s.

Four Faulkner books from the 50s.

 

"See something you like?"

I glanced sideways and found the man next to me, a smile on his face. 

"I think so," I said. 

"My mom would be glad," he said. "She was a voracious reader. Definitely not something I inherited!" He placed his hand on my shoulder as we laughed. He lingered for a moment, staring at the books, then began to talk to all the strangers in his mom's house.

I've been to many estate sales since then. After that first experience, I feel utterly compelled to just go. I wake up early on Saturday mornings and map my route for the day. There are always cool things to see - old coins, stamps, yearbooks, cigar boxes, Elvis stuff… links, at once, to our own history as seen via the history of another individual. Usually the surviving family is there. Even if you can often tell that they've been crying recently, they sometimes offer stories about those passed. If you're lucky, you'll feel connected to a human being you never knew.

Recently, I've found myself involved in discussions, both online and in person, regarding why I don't own a Kindle. Without delving too much into Postmodern thought, one of the major concerns about the increase of technology is the loss of the human body, the decline of the senses of the human body. Technology requires less touch. Almost zero smell and zero taste. We'll likely always need to see and hear, but our senses of touch, smell, and taste are being used less and less. We can "like" instead of hug. We can text instead of kiss. We can manage relationships wirelessly, slowly forgetting what real intimacy, real physical human connection feels like. 

Books are one of the last remaining bastions of the old world that requires touch. Sometimes, if you flip through the pages of an old book, you can smell the history, too. Hands have touched that. Invisible fingerprints are on those pages. You actually need to press your fingers to the page and flip. You have to figure out a way to hold the book in whatever position you're in. You might argue that you have to do these things with a Kindle, too, but the one big difference is that the tactile experience of reading a Kindle will be the same with every e-book. Each physical book is a different physical experience. Some are big. Some are small. Some are old and need to be handled with care. Some have print you need to squint at, so you need to hold the book close to your face. Part of the reading experience becomes how you hold it, where you read it. Reading a heavier book and need to adjust? Maybe the heavy book forces you to lie down, supporting the book with a pillow. Need to find a place where there's appropriate light? Maybe you sit in a new place. Maybe you stand up and open the blinds to let the sunlight in. Maybe you walk to the park and sit on a bench. Maybe you grab a night light. What you don't do is increase the brightness of your screen's backlight.

From an estate sale. How would you read these heavy books?

From an estate sale. How would you read these heavy books?

You will argue for environmental reasons and you'd likely be right - a recent study reported on by the New York Times showed the carbon footprint of one book to be much, much more than that of an ebook. But this is a duh moment, right? Not really. In another article, a writer calculated the carbon footprint of using an e-reader for a year versus reading books for a year and discovered that, when taking the entire average energy output of the e-reader itself (not just the process of reading the ebook on the e-reader), the carbon footprint of the e-reader is almost five times as much. I also didn't mention the easier recyclability of books, the often improper disposal of e-readers, etc., but that's okay. 

You will argue for convenience and you would be right. You can carry thousands of books on one device. I won't say anything about your machine dying, or files getting corrupted, or breaking, because those are rare occurrences - but books, no matter what you do to them, don't die, get corrupted, or break for no reason. You will argue for space and you would be right. Kindles take up less space. They are easy to hide, put in a box or place in a drawer. You probably won't stick the e-reader on a shelf where everyone can see it because no one thinks e-readers are beautiful or physically-pleasing to look at. No one thinks they should be visible in the "home," you know, that place where humans live. I bet you have books in shelves, though. 

And yes, there's a business side to estate sales too, and a business side to book collecting. Whenever I come home with new old books and see Patty's face wondering where exactly I'm going to put those, I tell her that first book club edition of The Old Man and the Sea I bought for a dollar sells for $50-$75 online. She says I'm never going to sell it. And she's right. It's not about that, really. It's about the humanity of it.

Beautiful, yeah?

Beautiful, yeah?

Perhaps I'm not making a good enough argument, so I'll let someone else speak for me. I recently bought a 1976 edition of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein at an estate sale. In it, a woman named Cindy wrote:

"To: The Verdon Family

Always, when I am in your home, I feel so comfortable and at ease. This is the one of my most favorite books. It seemed most fitting for me to share it with you all. You happen to be a favorite and special family of mine. It can be quite a conversation piece as well as leave it's message lingering in your thoughts. Thank you for giving of yourselves to me. You're all very generous and kind people. Merry Christmas."

Cindy shared herself, her being, via a book. She was able to physically write in it, physically hand it to these people she cared about so much. She gave a piece of herself to someone else. At estate sales, this is what happens. You get to know someone. You carry the weight of their lives not in the things themselves, but the sense of touching those things, knowing that human hands once held them.

There's so much good that technology does. It allows us to communicate across distances, instantaneously exchange information, carry our books and documents wherever we go. I'm writing this on a laptop. I do own a smart phone. But the book, the physical book, is the last straw. Books require us to be physical. Books require us to use our sense of touch, to not forget what the physical world feels like or even smells like. Technology erases touch. It evaporates smell. It makes us two-dimensional creatures, seeing and hearing in 0s and 1s. And, above all, it eradicates intimacy, placing our human closeness into the cold plastic of electronic devices instead of the warm touch of our own, living hands. 

 

 

 

 

The Woman at the Top of the Stairs (a Senior Prom memory)

by Elison Alcovendaz

I've you've eaten at a restaurant over the last month or so, you know it's prom time. Kids in tuxedos and dresses that don't fit, girls in mom's overly gaudy jewelry, cheap limousines without the bubbly, and the hormones. Prom seems so important when you're in high school, the pinnacle of your social life, a chance for magic to happen… or in my case, whatever the exact opposite of magic is. 

Memories of my high school dances play like a blooper reel. There was the Helmet/Coconut Shell Haircut Incident of Homecoming Freshman Year. Then there was the Trying to Kiss Your Date Goodnight but Since You Have a Toothpick in Your Mouth Because You're Trying to Be Cool You Poke Her in the Face Instead Event of Homecoming Junior Year. And then, of course, the infamous The Woman at the Top of the Stairs Fiasco of Senior Prom.

I was a shy kid in high school. People closest to me might not tell you that, but deep down inside, I was. For most of my high school years, I had a crush on a girl named Jordanna. I'd met her on some pre-Freshman year field trip those of us trying to get into a special academic program took to a ropes course. I hate ropes courses. I embarrassed myself trying to climb this gigantic ladder where the rungs were ten feet apart (I was stuck on the first rung for twenty minutes while my partner, a five foot two girl with no seeming athletic ability was already at the top) so instead of making myself seem more uncool, I claimed motion sickness (because, yeah, that made sense) and sat on my ass the rest of the trip. Jordanna was the only one who came up to me to ask if I was okay. She didn't say anything else, but I was fourteen and any girl talking to me was like WHOA.

Anyhow, over most of the four years of high school, people tried to get Jordanna and me to go to dances together. For some reason, I was always too scared to ask her. Mutual friends told me to ask her, promising she'd say yes, but I was pretty sure they were playing tricks and so I never did. Until Senior Prom, that is. It was after school on a typical day, the parking lot crowded with juniors and seniors in their hand me down or brand new cars (nothing really in between), and I was driving home with one of my best friends, Marco, in the passenger seat. As we're leaving the parking lot, Marco sees Jordanna throwing some stuff in her trunk. "El!" he says. "Go ask her!" I'd already convinced myself I would, and so I turned the steering wheel (with Marco's help, who probably saw my hesitation and thus yanked the wheel to the right) and immediately drove straight into a Mercedes Benz.

The crunch of metal to metal reverberated all around me, which is interesting since it was a minor accident with no scratches to the other car. But I didn't know that at first. All I noticed were about fifty of my classmates running over, surrounding both of the vehicles. Apparently, I'd driven the wrong way on a one-way section of the parking lot. "Dude," Marco says. "Get out of the car." But I can't. Jordanna is at the far end of the parking lot, looking in this direction, and I'm pretty sure she can't see it's me. But there's the lady getting out of her car. My first thought is she looks like a lawyer in her black business suit and diamonds in her ears and she's going to sue me when the next thing I know, she's walking towards the car, yelling at me to get out, and Marco keeps telling me to get out, but he's laughing now, and the woman is getting closer, and the classmates all around me are laughing now, too, and the woman is finally at my window, so I roll it down about a quarter of the way and see her red, angry face staring at me, when finally, she says:

"Elison?"

I've never seen the woman before, but turns out she's one of my basketball teammates' moms. She must see my face because she laughs, then, tells me not to worry about it, she won't tell my mother (who she apparently talks to in the stands at the games), there's really no damage to her car, though there might be a little to mine. I say thank you and roll the window back up. The crowd disperses and there's Jordanna, still near her car but staring in this direction, laughing and shaking her head. When I call her later that night to ask her to Prom, she says someone already asked her about half an hour before I called. I want to say, "But did he get into an accident for you?" but instead I say okay, make some chit chat about homework, and hang up the phone.

It's a few weeks before prom and I don't have a date. A good friend said she has a good friend who really wants to come to our prom and could I take her as a blind date? The idea of taking a blind date to prom seemed like a bad idea, especially since the first blind date I had (from an AOL chat room, yikes) ended up being some girl who really just wanted someone to take her to IHOP and pay for a short stack of pancakes. So I asked my friend if I could meet her friend first and she said sure, so we set up a "meet" at Downtown Plaza.

Everything went well at first. She was cute (whew), we tried on stupid hats at the stupid hat store, ate some food, joked, and so yeah, things were going pretty well… until I saw my classmates on the second floor. Now these two classmates were two people I NEVER spoke with. Not even a word. Not even a head nod. But they were cool and popular and, wanting to appear cool and popular myself, I waved, yelled "Hey!", and proceeded to run up the down escalator because you know, if I could do that, I'd be really cool. Or something. 

I was still waving as I ran and I was almost to the top, maybe three steps away, when I slipped and fell flat on my face. There were many things I could've done in this situation, but I chose to play it off by lying down on the escalator the whole way down, where it deposited me back to where I started, at the foot of my friend, my cousin, and my would-be date, who, to her credit, rushed to me to help instead of running away. 

I had a big cut on my leg (it bled for almost an hour straight), but somehow I still convinced her that a date with me would at least be silly and adventurous, if nothing else. So we went to prom together. The prom itself was as good as I could've planned it - we took a horse carriage in, were the first ones on the dance floor, took funny pictures, and generally had a good time (at least I thought - we never spoke again) - but after getting lost for hours trying to find a house party, we ended up back at my house. I'd already spoken to my parents and my mother agreed that it would be safer for us to be there than to be anywhere else. So the girls slept downstairs in the guest room and the guys slept upstairs in my room.

We thought we were slick. We didn't expect anything to happen, but we knew we had to at least try. So we waited until the house was quiet and slowly opened the door. My room sat at the far end of the hallway, so we had to pass my brother's room, the den, and my parents' room to get downstairs. We tiptoed down the hallway, safely passing all rooms, until I heard a sound. We stopped. There was the sound again. I looked down and there, right at the top of the stairs, blocking the path, was my mother, sleeping (although I'm pretty sure she wasn't sleeping) with a blanket and a couple pillows. 

"Are you kidding me?" my friend asked.

If you know my mom, you know the answer to that question. 

We briefly assessed whether we could step over her, jump down, make a rope real quick, but nothing we could think of would've worked. So we went back to our room, dejected. After a few days, Senior Prom became a memory, but now that I think about it, even if it wasn't very magical, I should probably thank my mother. 

While I'm at it, any good prom stories out there? 

 

 

 

 

 

Where the Asians Live

by Elison Alcovendaz

You've likely not read (if you're not Filipino and not in California) about the criticisms of the Cesar Chavez film that debuted in theaters last month. First, let me say that Cesar Chavez was a great man, certainly worthy of a film, and this blog post doesn't seek to take away from that. Since the film was about him, it follows that he would be the central figure; however, several critics have pointed out that Filipinos who played a central role in the farm labor movement have essentially been erased from the history the film portrays.

Google the name Larry Itliong and you will find this: he was leading farm labor strikes up and down the West Coast long before Chavez enters history. He led the mostly Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, the group that started the famous Delano grape strike. Sources state that Itliong had to convince Chavez to have his mostly Mexican National Farm Workers Association join the strike, for Chavez mistrusted that growers would negotiate fairly. The growers typically pitted races against each other - if Mexican laborers went on strike, Filipino scabs were brought in, and vice versa - so the union of both groups into the United Farm Workers was a significant event in the farm labor movement. Itliong served as Assistant Director to Chavez and was beside him at the negotiations table with the grape growers, though in that scene in the film, Itliong is reduced to a bystander, which critics say is the role Itliong plays throughout the whole movie. I haven't seen the film, so I can't confirm whether Itliong and other Filipino leaders of the farm labor movement were pushed to the side, forgotten, made Other, but honestly: do I really need to watch the film to know if Asians were once again relegated to the realm of the invisible?

I don't. 

Itliong and Chavez. From http://www.cetfund.org/node/1452.

Itliong and Chavez. From http://www.cetfund.org/node/1452.

As I'm won't to do, let's start with Facebook. I look at my news feed and see many Asian-American friends. This is atypical of most of the country - most of these Asian FB friends are family, people from the Filipino club in college, or people I knew from the Asian basketball leagues I played in most of my life. But content? Status updates? Articles? Nope. The only posts I see that even sniff at anything Asian are photos of sushi and satirical articles about North Korea. This is why I was completely floored when a couple of Asian-American men recently rose from the vast reaches of the Internet and appeared, as content, on my news feed.

In the first, a "plain-looking" (we'll discuss later) Asian-American young man most of us wouldn't grant a second look reminded us, via slam poetry, that Asians do deal with racism:

 

In the second, another "plain-looking" Asian-American young man wrote an article about how he had spent his American youth feeling unattractive.

The video and the article reminded me of when I student taught an introductory fiction class at Sac State. I read about 50-60 student papers that semester. Looking at the paper, essay, story, etc., there's the main content at the center of the "white" page. This is the necessary, the part that draws your eyes and your attention. To provide feedback, you had to write in the margins. What I wrote there pushed back at the content, seeking to fight their way to the main page, fighting for change. These are the marginalia - immigrants, LGBT, non-whites, females, disabled, etc. Eventually, some or all of the marginalia ends up on the page as main, necessary content, worthy of being looked at, discussed, thought about. But even if you looked all over that page with a microscope, even if your scoured the margins, studied the other side of the page, you would never see any Asians.

Let's start with some facts: Asians are generally small. This is not a stereotype. The average height of Asian men is around 5'6" or 5'7" and Asian women around 5'2" or 5'3", depending on which source you consult. Physically speaking, Asians are the easiest to forget. We can stand behind another human being and you probably wouldn't see us. If you're standing next to us and glance sideways, you might look right over our heads. We generally have brown eyes and straight, black hair. Therefore, we generally don't have the "must be looked at" height, stature, or skin/eye/hair color that society suggests MUST be noticed. This is why people say all Asians look alike. This is a facetious argument. This is not a facetious argument.

Another fact: Asians only make a little over 5% of the American population. Math! No wonder Asians are so forgettable! Take a guess at what % of the population African-Americans and Hispanics comprise. Go ahead. Yes, 13% and 17%, respectively. African-Americans comprise  a little more than twice of the population as Asians and Hispanics comprise slightly three times as much. And yet, what percentage of the media, social, and political attention do African-Americans and Hispanics have over Asian-Americans? Ten times? Twenty times? Fifty times? Maybe more? 

Let's continue with some arguable-but-not-really truths: many Asian cultures value respect, which often presents itself in quietness and deference. An Asian man performing a slam poem is almost unheard of. You likely have at least a few Asian co-workers who generally don't speak too loud, who pass through the hallways without making eye contact for too long, who get their work done, often requiring minimal supervision. Another arguable-but-not-really-truth about many Asian cultures, they value education. You know about the good grades stereotype, only, is it a stereotype? As a personal statistic, probably 81.7 percent of my Asian friends had parents who droned on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on about a B on a report card. SAT scores (even though we know standardized tests suck) show that Asian Americans outscore other racial classifications, sometimes by a wide margin. It's not a stretch to say that Asians often value education more than other cultures, so they often do better in school. I know there are myriad other factors that could explain why some population groups do better in school then others - all I'm saying is that cultural values play a huge role. On a recent trip to Boston, most of the Asians I saw were students attending any one of the 50+ universities in the area. Asians make a statistically larger percentage of the population at "top" schools (16% at Ivy Leagues, according to this report) than they do of the country, so it shouldn't surprise that technological/IT companies and several hospitals have populations of Asian workers that more than surpass the 5% of the American population that Asians comprise. Have Kaiser as your health insurance? Take a look at the roster of available Primary Care Physicians. Calculate the percentage of doctors that are Asians. 

And then there's the point of the aforementioned article, another reason Asians are rendered forgettable: we're not sexy or worthy of pop culture attention. Again, we're "plain." Think of all the Asian celebrities you know. After five minutes, all you've come up with is Bruce Lee, Lucy Liu, and Yao Ming? Can you imagine an Asian man as People's Sexiest Man Alive? An Asian woman as Esquire's Sexiest Woman? How about a Bravo show that follows Asians (you KNOW they have shows for every other group of people)? An Asian winning Best Actor? A Grammy? When Asians are sexy or stand out for their looks, it's because we're Exotic. We're Other. Otherwise, we're invisible.

This is all to say that generally, Asians assimilate well, so well in fact that they blend so fully into the white page that they disappear. There's the physical stature, which probably, even on a subconscious note, plays a role in people often not accepting an Asian in a dominant role, especially in an American culture where size (of burgers, of breasts, of houses, of muscles, of almost everything) is king. Do we need to discuss the stereotype of Asian men "being small?" Because of quietness and deference, Asians may not make waves, challenge authority, or speak up often. Because of their value on education, they navigate the education system well, often excel in math and science, end up in jobs that society has determined should pay well but aren't the most public. 

You hear that's it not kosher to use the N word or call someone a "wetback" or call someone a "fag" but you never hear it's not cool to call someone a chink, or to ask them if they're eating dog for lunch, or to talk with a staccato "FOB" accent that always ends with "One dollah, too dollah." I grew up with such comments, but didn't hear them as much as my friends and cousins. This is because, as someone once told me, I was "lucky." I'm 6'1" and have some white and Portuguese mixed with my Filipino genes, so I never felt like I was fully Other. I didn't feel ugly or unattractive to girls outside of my race. I wasn't picked last for sports because I was short. But I did have many of these friends who were not only passed over by taller girls and picked last on teams, they were often not considered for leadership positions because they lacked an "authoritative" stature. And the girls, well, they were overlooked, too, unless someone thought they looked exotic. And still, most of them got their good grades, ended up going to good colleges, getting good jobs, having good lives… or did they?

To compare one group's experience with another's is dangerous, so I'm not comparing the Asian experience to those of African-Americans, Hispanics, the struggles of the LGBT community, or other groups, to say discrimination towards Asians is the same. It would be unfair to compare. Still, I do believe that being treated as Invisible is a terrible kind of racism. Because Asians are supposedly doing well, we're pushed aside. When people see Asians as graduate students and doctors and computer engineers, they say it's cool, they have what they need - even if that means, at once, that we cannot be actors, writers, musicians, athletes, or anything where we're put in the public eye. To say we're smart also means we're not artistic; to say we're good workers means we're not aggressive enough; to say we're respectful means we're docile. This is the binary view of nearly everything in American society. If you're one thing, you can't be something else.  

This doing "well," this "they don't need help," this is why when people talk about socioeconomic struggles, when political pundits debate racial gaps, when government decides on public policies, Asians are almost always ignored. They've forgotten that Asians also populate low-income schools, that Asians are also homosexuals, that Asians deal with gang problems, that Asians deal with immigration issues, that Asian women often face even stronger patriarchal issues than other American women, and on top of all that, Asians have little or no clout in media and thus, almost no presence in the national conscience. To say we're doing well is an easy way to not have to deal with us. But the kicker is, we're also at fault. While other groups are willing to speak up and fight to be seen and heard, we're often too content to sit back and remain silent. We play a big role in our own invisibility; we're the biggest agents in creating our residences outside of the marginalia, where we sit quietly, leading our American lives. 

 

 

 

 

What I Learned at Harvard

by Elison Alcovendaz

When Patty and I first started talking about a trip to Boston, other than meeting several of my in-laws for the first time, the thing I was most excited about was going to visit Harvard. When I graduated from high school, I didn't know much about colleges or how attending one college might set you up differently than another. I applied to several places, got in to most of them, including Sac St., my admittance approved after a three minute interview done on the spot in the Christian Brothers College Counseling office that wasn't really an interview but instead a check of my application, my grades, and a stamp of approval. Just like that, I was a college student. I ended up choosing Sac St. because it was cheaper, close to home, and a good portion of my friends were going there. I graduated with a Business degree a few years later and went to work. A few years after that, feeling a little bit lost, I went back to Sac St. (for that story, please read this).

While obtaining my MA, I was introduced to complex literary texts, cultural and sociological theorists, and literary criticism. My mind became open to invisible threads, ideologies, structures, and fallacies that had shaped my existence. One such fallacy was in the seemingly inherent nature of capitalistic worth - that a CEO is worth more than a teacher, for example. So, while I knew that going to one college versus another didn't necessarily "mean" something in terms of my own self-worth, when applying to PhD programs, I aimed very high: Iowa, Denver, and other well-known Creative Writing graduate programs in the country, and Cornell, Berkeley, Stanford, among others for PhD programs in Literature. Oh, and Harvard. I did this in spite of myself, even though I knew it was mostly what you did afterward that counts. I still wanted that reputation. I bought in to the hype. And I didn't get in.

So as we drove toward Harvard Square yesterday, all of the thoughts came flooding in: the grand, brick buildings; the walking in the footsteps of history; the being in the aura of the most intelligent minds in the country; the seeing if, even though I didn't get in, if I measured up, if I could hang; and, of course, the glorious, magnificent Harvard Library. I imagined myself lost in the aisles, pulling random books, reading pages I never would have had access to, the rarified air, soaking in the knowledge that just being in the Harvard Library would certainly provide. Even if I wasn't a student, I could just benefit from being there. Perhaps, by some magical osmosis, my writing would improve. 

But first, the tourist stuff. We went to The Coop, where after mulling over several items, I bought a zip-up hoodie despite feeling strange buying clothing for a university I did not attend and did not have a rooting interest in any of their sports teams:


A tourist trap, mostly. 

A tourist trap, mostly. 


We walked around Harvard Square, watched some street performers, ate some Thai food, snapped some pictures of old but pretty, important but unknown buildings (like this one):


Probably a dorm? 

Probably a dorm? 

On campus, we took a photo with the John Harvard statue, being rushed in and out of focus by a horde of Asian tourists. We paraded around the paths, guessing which people were Harvard students and which ones were tourists and which ones were professors. After meandering for half an hour, we reached the main Harvard Library (there are like, a million of them, but one "main" one).

The long, concrete steps blazed (even in the cloudy grayness) like some pathway to knowledge. Students milled about on the steps, eating lunch, flipping through paperbacks. It occurred to me that with my backpack on, I could've easily been one of them. I walked up the steps and no one noticed me, as though I belonged. Patty caught up about halfway, and at the same moment, a good friend who actually will be doing postgraduate work at Harvard and was traveling with us, called us out for a photo. We turned around and found him at the bottom of the steps, a camera raised to his face. It happened in a flash. Patty whispered in my ear that she hated taking these kinds of pictures, and I replied that it represented a lack of pride, and when those students who didn't notice me before now stared at us, one or two rolling their eyes, I knew I didn't belong. I had been rejected again. I was Other. 

The moment now memorialized, I told Patty I was going to try to get into the library. I'd come this far. I wasn't going to be stopped. I'd been told you needed a Student ID, but friends had told me that they'd gotten in just fine. I reached the doorway and a sign confirmed that yes, you needed a student ID. A separate door to the left was for all non-students requesting access to the library. I ushered myself away from the main door, the door for the accepted, and found myself in a small room where an uninterested woman looked up from a computer and said, "Can I help you?" Not "How can I help you?" but "Can I help you?" as though, perhaps, I might've simply been forgone, beyond aid. I hadn't realized yet that I could've told her I was a writer doing research, which could've gotten me a pass, so I simply told her I really loved books and would love to take a look around. She said "Sorry" and glanced back down at her computer. 

For the rest of our time in Harvard, I strove to find something to pick me back up. I walked into a random building and just so happened to be standing in front of the Graduate English Studies office, the office that had likely rejected my application. A woman dressed in a stained ITALIA shirt and sweatpants came storming out, cursing loudly about the errand she was just assigned. I peeked through the glass of a study room door, where three students had, on the projection screen, a Powerpoint slide with at least three grammatical errors. Somewhere in Harvard Yard, we watched a student with absolutely zero charisma UH and HMM her way through a speech that I guess was meant to protest against Harvard's timber plantations. I looked at books people were reading, Intro to Greek Tragedies, Leaves of Grass, the same Foucault book sitting on my nightstand. All items I'd read. None of this fit the vision I'd had of Harvard. Not the overpriced food trucks, not the students chattering on their cell phones about some sorority party they attended the night before, not the grounds that had seemed to barely survive the winter. Not the reading, in the Harvard Book Store, by an actual Harvard professor, that only had 20 attendees (Sac St. gets greater attendance for alumni readings):

 

A "well-attended" reading at Harvard.

A "well-attended" reading at Harvard.

None of it met the expectation of grandeur or importance I'd carried for so long. This was the place I didn't get into. 

Recently, The Washington Post declared Christian Brothers the most academically rigorous high school in the Sacramento area, the 51st toughest private school in the country, and for a long time, I regretted not using that as a jumping board to a greater collegiate experience.  I thought that I needed to get a PhD at a "great" school to fill that hole, to make that part of me fulfilled, to fix that blatantly jealous thing inside me that made me feel inadequate for not doing the great things or going to the great schools many of my high school classmates had done. 

But now, I've realized that my romanticized view of Harvard, a view implanted by society, is incorrect. This is the same society that tells you if you pull yourself up by the bootstraps, and work hard enough, and are willing to play the game, you can have the spoils. A society of conflicting messages. Harvard is full of them:

 

This is a biblical verse, from Isaiah, and almost seems an invitation, a welcome to Harvard, THE place for truth. The Doric columns are militaristic and speak to knowledge as power. At the bottom of the photo, you'll notice the gates, the pointed tips ready to pierce any wannabe scholar who may try to enter the place of truth. And yet, seeing the students read what I read as a Sac State student, to be bothered by the same teenage/young adult dilemmas of collegiate parties and lighthearted activism, to see the same books in the Harvard Book Store as you'd find in almost any Barnes and Noble, to find professors reading to sparse crowds, to see frisbees flying about, I realized it was my acceptance of the social myth, my own privileging of Harvard as THE place of truth that prevented me from finding one actual piece of truth, something I'd already learned and hadn't realized I'd learned, and that's that truth is everywhere. It's at Harvard, it's at Sac State, it's in your bookshelves, the Internet, in nature, your parents' memories, your emotions, your body, your senses, your stanzas, your language, your songs, your ideas. If you need an Ivy League school, or a job on Wall Street, or a well-paying profession to teach you about life, to teach you about truth, then you're learning the wrong thing.

The Harvard sweater is in my suitcase, ready to fly. Someday, I'll put it on and remember that Harvard did teach me something. It taught me that maybe the Sac State library (and maybe the Harvard one, too) will house one of my books someday, but it's up to me to make that true. 

 

A Brief History of Time, or Turning 35

by Elison Alcovendaz

A couple weeks ago, I turned 35. On the same day, I also finished reading Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time.

I've never been well-versed in science. I'm the guy who took Astronomy in college thinking I was going to meet girls and look at stars (even though my class was in the early afternoon), but ended up drowning in so many complex equations that all I could do was get a C and call it a day. But reading A Brief History of Time, I felt like I had become one with the cosmos, a collection of particles intimately connected with the rest of the universe, like a little piece of truth had been made known to me.

At a point in the book, Hawking ruminates about the possibility of a "Theory of Everything," an explanation of, well, everything. At least everything physical. General relativity and quantum mechanics are generally considered to be the two closest theories to this, and a large part of the book explores how to bring the two together. But it got me thinking, if we are approaching a Theory of Everything, and humans are a part of Everything, might there be some really complicated set of equations that could accurately predict human behavior? Surely, if there are rules guiding the way electrons move (with a certain amount of uncertainty, of course), and if there are rules guiding the way massive pieces of matter interact gravitationally in space, then there should be rules for how other pieces of matter (us) exist, right? Or, at the very least, guide the lives we lead?

There were three concepts that really hit home with me. First, the idea of time dilation. This is probably beyond my mental capabilities, but time dilation basically states that the faster you're moving, the slower you perceive time to happen to you relative to someone else. For example, if you were to get on a spaceship and fly at a very, very, very, very fast speed into space, circle the solar system a few times and then return to earth, you'd find that we mere Earthlings would have aged more quickly than you, you lucky astronaut! Or, at least, that would be the perception. Is that weird? I probably explained that incorrectly. Perhaps a video explaining the Twin Paradox will help:

I'm not here to butcher cosmological physics, so let's get to how a similar idea of time dilation affects us. A few years after high school, I'd hear about peers from my class who were doing great things: getting PhDs and globetrotting and working for worldwide firms and living in New York and Paris and basically doing things I'd dreamed of doing but just never did. For them, moving from event to event in their lives was happening at a much quicker speed. From my vantage point, because I saw them moving more quickly into the future, my life, relativistically, seemed slower (or "normal") even though the post high school years remained the same for both of us. Same thing happened when people my age started getting married and the same thing is happening now that everyone I know in my age range already has kids. 

"Relative" to everyone else, my life has moved more slowly. What I've been thinking about lately is the benefit of having kids earlier versus having them later. If things go according to plan, I'll likely be 37 by the time Patty and I have our first child. My mother had me when she was 22. Several family members and friends had children sooner. Cons? Maybe less financial stability, less life experience, less time to do things for themselves in the earlier years. Pros? Maybe a better physical ability to care for a child (less toil on the physical body, for gravity affects time, too), more energy, and the kicker, of course, which is the appearance of more time. Though I'm passed the point of choosing, the decision of when to have kids can be treated as a condition of time dilation. If you wait, you watch people move more quickly into the future and thus experience your life more slowly, having the benefit of slower time when you're young.  If you have them early, when you retire and the kids are out of the house, everyone else will be moving more quickly into the future, and thus, you can enjoy slower time when you're in your retirement. Here's to hoping that, for Patty and I, anyway, we've made the right decision.

The second concept that really struck me was the anthropic principle, or, as Hawking writes, "We see the universe the way it is because we exist." There's a "weak" anthropic principle and a "strong" one, but for my purposes here we'll deal strictly with the "weak" one. Essentially, the world as we observe it can only be as it is because if it were any different, humans wouldn't exist to observe it. So even if 99.99999999999999999999999999999999 percent of the universe is uninhabitable for humans, the fact that we're here, on Earth, makes our location in the universe extremely special.

If that all sounds divinely inspired, or destined, well, you wouldn't be alone. If there was any part in the book that begged God as explanation, this was it. But science would explain that in the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, otherwise known as the multiverse, even if it were one in a quintillion that all the necessary components would occur to create a place where life would exist to observe the universe, in the realm of possible universes, it is likely to happen somewhere at sometime.

Our lives operate in much the same way, in ways that make us feel as though things were destined to happen. When we are born, there are an infinite number of events that could occur to us and an infinite number of choices we could make to said events that create the person you are right now, right here. I mean, there are literally an infinite number of possibilities. Instead of giving it to destiny, though, which is easy enough for us to do, what I learned was the importance of every decision. A few years ago, I had quit a job I thought would be a career, moved back in with my parents to pursue writing, and went back to school. Not exactly a prime "boyfriend" candidate. And then I met a woman in my first class and we talked a bit and then the last day of class came and, still convinced I wouldn't be worthwhile to everyone, even more convinced when she figured out the state of my residential and financial situation, I'd have zero chance of even sniffing a first date, I debated (rather fitfully), if I was going to ask for her number. Eventually I did and she saw something in me and we got married and it's easy to call that "destiny," or even God's plan, but really it was a choice. A series of choices. If anything, the anthropic principle should teach us about the importance of our own agency.

The biggest impact for me, however, came from the idea of singularities. A singularity, in the terms of science, is a point at which some cosmological measure becomes infinite. The most well-known example is the Big Bang singularity, a point at which the curvature of space-time was infinite. Another are black holes, where density becomes infinite. I personally don't fully understand the concept of infinity, so you can read about it here and then explain it to me.   The important thing to know about singularities is the rules we know no longer apply. No scientist knows what happened before the Big Bang because the rules of general relativity and quantum mechanics no longer work (many say this is because pre-Big Bang is God and we cannot understand God, but that's another blog for another day, maybe by an alternate me in another universe!). You may have read about a recent discovery that within a blink after the Big Bang, the universe experienced an exponential, yet instantaneous rate of growth faster than the speed of light (which according to relativity, isn't "supposed" to happen) and scientists just found evidence of this. Sometimes, even in science, the rules break down. Sometimes, the rules change.

If you take a look at your life, it is likely filled with singularities. When someone died. When someone was born. When you lost a job. When you gained a job. When you got married. When you got divorced. When you got sick. When you got healthy. When you read a book and it changed your life. There are events that happen and you know you'll never be the same. The rules that applied before can never apply now. The problem is, we often don't know it at first and we continue with our lives as normal, as though nothing has changed. We might still be reeling from that initial explosion, that event that knocked us from the comfortable and made us feel as though we were floating aimlessly in space. And yet, eventually, you find your feet on solid ground, you have the distance and time to observe clearly, and you can see the previously invisible threads of events and choices that made you who you are, right here and right now, and armed with that information, you can make the choices that lead you to a bright future filled with possibility.

When I look back, turning 35 is going to be one of those moments when my world changed. If there's anything that Hawking has taught me, it's this: neither you nor I are at the center of the universe, but the fact that we are here, living, is so ridiculously special that we need to stop giving away our agency. Our lives are not pre-destined. Our loves are not pre-destined. Our health, our happiness, none of it is a part of anyone's plan but our own. Let's make our own choices, acknowledge when it's time to change the rules, and by God, let's fly, no, let's soar, into the the finite space-times of our lives with curiosity, eagerness, and joy. 

Or, as one astronaut put it, To Infinity, and Beyond!