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. 

 

 

 

 

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 Love Letter to Literature

by Elison Alcovendaz

Dear Literature,

Courage to Love.jpg

You probably don’t know me, but I love you. It wasn’t love at first sight; actually, I avoided you for most of my young life. And it wasn’t like you didn’t try. I know that you tried and I want you to know that I know that. In my preschool years, you had parents and teachers and teachers aides read to me that wonderful poetry by Dr. Seuss and Silverstein and the stories of Winnie-the-Pooh, but I was too busy picking my nose and looking at what came out to understand. In the elementary grades, you tried to scare me into noticing you; you put Goosebumps in my way, but I was too busy chasing the girls around the playground for no apparent reason that I just didn’t have time for you. In middle school, you sent me those trusty buddies, Frodo and the Narnians, but I was too busy figuring out that hormone thing that I stopped listening to you after the first chapter. You deserved more attention from me then. I’m deeply sorry for that. 

In high school, you called to me in different voices – Orwellian and Steinbeckian and Whartonian and Hemingwayist – but I think you were trying to teach me something about the Iceberg Principle, because you were so subtle that I didn’t even notice you. Then you tried to Shakespeare me, with your sonnets and iambic pentameter and star-crossed lovers, but I was too busy hanging out with your evil cousin, Cliff, who always told me your stories in easy-to-understand Notes so I never actually had to spend time with you. You tried to enchant me with The Count of Monte Cristo and Cyrano de Bergerac; you tried to teach me with Homer and Plato; you tried to challenge me by making me enter the Heart of Darkness and the Inferno; and still, I stuck with Cliff because he was, well, an easy guy to hang out with and wasn’t that demanding of my time.

In college, you got angry and disappared and I should’ve noticed (you have no idea how much I wish I would’ve noticed). Instead, I was spending time with your long lost cousins, learning how to go from Good to Great and trying to figure out Who Moved My Cheese. I spent time with case studies of businesses; I even went over to the dark side and took Math out on a couple of dates. I should’ve known she would be too calculating for my tastes. There was a semester I could’ve come back to you, too, but when I visited your sister, Theater, I couldn’t think about anything except how she talked too much. So I went back to your Rich Dad, Poor Dad and they taught me The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which pushed me so far away from you that I never gave you a second thought.

When I went to work, I met your mortal enemies: sales manuals and insurance contracts and privacy disclosures and profit margin printouts. In the past I’d at least visited your house every now and then, but for those years I didn’t step foot in the library. As time wore on, I got more and more acquainted with the modernized usage of your blood (your words) lol j/k :) WTF? Even if I’d remembered you, even if I’d had the time, I would’ve cast you away. I became conditioned to 140 characters and scrolling status updates. I lost my mind (literally metaphorically). My brain changed. I wouldn’t have had the capacity or the patience to see you again. In a way, I’m glad you stayed away. It wouldn’t have worked.

And then you sent the kid with the lightning scar my way. It was almost an accident, a gift for my roommate. It wasn’t your best work, of course, but it was one of your better ones, and in one night, I remembered you. I went back to college to find you. I learned so much. I slayed a monster with Beowulf and got Paradise Lost; I travelled with Candide and hunted Moby-Dick. Then when I didn't understand right away, you got mad. You turned me into an insect in The Metamorphosis, took me to The Waste Land, and taught me what it meant to be an Invisible Man. But just when I thought I was so close to understanding you, you confused me via Deconstruction; you Marx’d me as capitalist; you made me fear the Panopticon and Said something about my own hybridity. And just when you were about to lose me, you pulled The Great Gatsby on me and that was it. I would've traversed a million Labyrinths to find you. I would've Love(d) (you) in the Time of Cholera. This wasn't a House of Leaves or a Catch-22 or an Infinite Jest. I fell in love with you with something more than a Pale Fire. This was real. I was yours.

And now that I've come to know you, I want you to know that I understand your pain about people not understanding. They say you are an escape and to some degree, that’s true. We live lives that get boring, sad, tedius, angry and sometimes, coming to you provides an escape from all that. But more than that, you’re an example. You teach us about life, the world, people, ourselves, so that when we go back to that sometimes boring, sad, tedious, angry world, we know how to handle it better. You build us up. You show us War and Peace in A Handful of Dust - you lend us insight to the unexplainable.  When we are asleep, you shake us with The Awakening. When chaos rules, when our minds are filled with The Sound and the Fury, you guide us to The Road. You show us the truths that sometimes need 100,000 words to be felt, absorbed through the skin, and filtered through our blood. You break down our walls. When Things Fall Apart, you bring us together and show us The Power of One. And the best part about it is, you are always there, even when we forget you.

So my promise is this: when life gets busy as it always does, I will always come back to you. I will treat you with care and respect. I will continue to get to know you as deeply as I can and I hope, one day, you will get to know me too.

Love,

Elison 

 

Writing About People You Know

by Elison Alcovendaz

Disclaimer: In the following blog, any similarity or reference to real people in the real world is PURELY coincidental and is not intended to be disparaging, slanderous, defamatory, or any other adjective for “an adjective you could use to sue me.”

A famous writer (whose name eludes me) once said that a writer is able to walk past an open door and intuit all there is to know about the people in that room and their situation. Okay, maybe the quote isn’t verbatim, but the idea is clear: writers need to have a keener, deeper sensitivity to the world than others, and not the type of senstivity that makes people say “Sticks and stones may break my bones,” but sensitivity in the actual root of the word: “sense.” Good writers (like all artists) can “sense” things that other people struggle with; they see personalities, relationships, and emotions in words, objects, and hand gestures; they make previously invisible connections visible; they discover secrets about the human condition; they, to put it simply, “see.” And not only can writers “see,” but they can put what they see into words.

I am probably million written words away from being a decent writer, much less a good one, and I have no crazy ideas about being an “artist” (so let's get that straight) but one of the nicer things someone ever said about me was that I was able to understand them more deeply, more quickly, than other people (although this is not necessarily a good thing; I’ve had more creepy-ass people tell me their life stories than I care to remember). I don't know how true that compliment was, but I have seen this trait with my writer friends - yes, even those stereotypically depressed, rage-against-the-man, indie rocker/hipster lookalike, skinny as hell writers. Even if they don’t apply their insight in beneficial ways (even to themselves), and even if they would rather twitch and run off to get a tattoo of a vampirous unicorn on their eyelid for some kind of symbolic expression of innocence, death, and immortality rather than sit down and have a conversation, they still “see” humanity clearly. They can cut through the artifice, cut through language, cut through politics and ideologies and your own hardened heart and see the something in you that you’ve worked years and years to hide. Good writers have to. You can’t tell a good story if you don’t understand your characters.

This presents a dilemma, though. “Write about what you know.” You’ve heard that, I assume. Other than yourself, what you know most about are the people around you: parents, siblings, friends. These are people you care about, maybe that you see everyday. Not only have they probably entrusted you with stories, you’ve used that writerly mind of yours to “see” between the lines. How can you write about these people? How can you not? What’s the rule about writing about people you know? I Googled it and here are some of the responses:

1)   “There are stories I cannot tell until my parents die.”

2)   “Write about people you hate. That’s always more fun, anyway.”

3)   “If you write people you know into monsters – even if they are monsters – be prepared to do some explaining.”

4)   “Change the timeline, change the name, change the situation!”

5)   “Don’t be friends with writers! They can kill you in a story!”

Well, that wasn’t helpful.

The first time I published a story about my family, I had dinner with my mom (not my real mom, the one in this blog!) to tell her about it. I’ll spare you the details, but it didn’t put my family in the best light. She’s the greatest mother on earth, but, like the rest of us, we aren’t always at our best and the story portrayed her in her human, imperfect self. The story wasn’t about her, of course; the story was about me and how certain situations affected me, but she was a main character. Anyway, I waited until dessert to bring up the story. I told her about my reservations and I apologized deeply if I’d hurt her, but it was a story that I had to write. She listened and she eventually said that if I ever had that same feeling, to come ask her. No harm in asking.

That seemed sensible enough, but now that I’ve started another story about my family, I feel torn. And it’s not just this most recent story either; I have million stories to tell that involve my parents, cousins, Patty, siblings, acquaintances, in-laws, neighbors. Patty says that if I am truly understanding of other people, I will also understand how they would feel about writing stories that include them. But if writers create stories while being worried about what others think, the stories will never be real enough to connect. What responsbility do writers have here? Are we free to write about anything? Are we free to write about anything as long as we call it “fiction?” If we add a disclaimer? Or do we have to get approval?

We discussed this in a Creative Non-Fiction class and the consensus was (or at least what I took from it), is that a writer’s job is to write stories that approach and seek truth (only approach and seek; anyone who tells you that you can “capture” truth is a liar or an idiot). I think this is accurate. Writers seek to help themselves and people understand. That's all. If you do it in an honest way and come from an honest place, you're probably okay. We all know we aren’t perfect. The imperfections are what drive great characters and stories; the imperfections allow us to connect. Besides, aren't the best stories the ones we connect with on some kind of unspeakable, yet understood, human level?

I hope you're all cool with that! :)

Why I Hate Orlando Bloom (aka the Death of the Athlete)

by Elison Alcovendaz
This is such BS! All the training and sacrifice just flew out the window with one step that I’ve done millions of times! The frustration is unbearable. The anger is rage. Why the hell did this happen ?!? Makes no damn sense. Now I’m supposed to come back from this and be the same player Or better at 35?!? How in the world am I supposed to do that??
— Kobe Bryant

There was this movie called Troy that came out a while ago with Brad Pitt playing Achilles with streaked blonde hair and the strangest accent you've ever heard where, after a whole war of killing armies with precise abandon, Brad falls to an arrow flung by Orlando Bloom that just so happens to pierce the area above his heel (yes, Orlando Bloom!) I hate Orlando Bloom for this criminal act (never mind that in the actual Greek myth, it's Achilles' mother who is to blame - she dipped Achilles into the River Styx to give him invulnerability but failed to realize she held him by the heel, thus preventing the miraculous water from touching that part of his body). Did I mention that I hate Orlando Bloom? I hate Orlando Bloom.    

When I was five years old, long before I'd read any Greek mythology, I was reading another mythology - the legend of Dr. Julius Erving. My dad had noticed I loved basketball and bought this book for me. I read it twice and copied everything Dr. J did. He slept with his basketball. So did I. He said you needed to walk onto every court and every room like you owned the place. So did I. He said you needed to play - basketball and life - with fearlessness. I certainly tried to.

From that point on, I knew myself as a basketball player. It was my thing. Everyone knew me that way as well. Over the next 26 years, I'd play basketball at least four times a week, sometimes shooting 500 jumpers a day, practicing post moves until the mosquitos outside had bitten every inch of skin. When people know you as something - and you know yourself as that thing, too - you own it. Soon, most of the people I knew were from basketball tourneys across California, others from basketball class and intramurals, dudes from the Filipino and city leagues. 

This is the problem with being singular - when you lose it, you really lose it. Not lose it as in go crazy, but lose yourself. At least for a while. On August 18, 2011, I dribbled to the three point line on a fast break, stopped, jumped, shot, landed, saw the shot was going to be short, so when it clanged off the rim, I took a step forward to grab the rebound and felt a pop on the back of my right leg. Orlando Bloom shot me. I didn't know it at first. I thought someone had kicked a basketball against my heel. After I learned my Achilles had snapped, I spent three months holed up in a dark room watching Storage Wars and watching my lower right leg dwindle to half the size of the left. I knew I would never be the same player, which meant I would never be the same guy.

Almost two years later and I haven't played a game. Some of it is physical, most of it is mental. In the back of my mind I try to reconcile how you can lose such a big part of yourself so quickly.  When I look at my Facebook friends, there are five times more people who know me from writing or the lit program at Sac State than from basketball. It's been a strange but difficult transition. I avoid my cousins' and friends' basketball games because I have a hard time watching. I tell people I don't miss it when sometimes, it's the only thing I think about. 

There are many middle-aged or becoming-middle-aged people losing this part of themselves. My brother suddenly has back issues. My cousin, who's one of the most in-shape people I know, constantly battles ankle, knee, other leg issues. Professional athletes just cannot retire. Even if you're in tip top shape, you cannot be that athlete you were before, yet you still go out there, the weekend warrior, trying to do moves your mind thinks are possible but your body knows isn't. Why? Because it's who we know ourselves to be. We are basketball players, weight lifters, golfers, softball players. If we stop, if we give in, we won't know who we are anymore. 

I know, this all very maudlin. I know, first world problems. But there is a common theme that runs throughout much literature and sports, and that's this: in order to be new, to be reborn, you must shed the old skin, you must "die." When MJ got old, he changed. He worked on his fadeaway jumper. He learned to pass up on the game winning shot. He improved his defense. When Kobe wrote the quote that started this piece, he had just snapped his Achilles and was staring at a future where he would no longer be who he and the world knew that he was. He, too, will learn something about himself and hopefully become better for it. Maybe he will even become a better teammate (yes, it's possible).

As for me, even without basketball, I've never felt happier or more fulfilled. Without the injury, I may have never found writing, books, a deeper part of myself that I never knew existed. Actually, now that I think about it, Legolas was pretty cool. Maybe I don't hate you so much, Orlando Bloom.  


 

The Ring

by Elison Alcovendaz

When I hear "The Ring," I think of two things: 1) the scariest movie I've ever seen and still refuse to watch on DVD because HELLO that is way too meta for me and why test the hell and horror gods and risk having nightmares for a decade? and 2) this new, metallic, circular object strangling my finger - at once a symbol of love and commitment (see how pretty they are!?) and a connection to history and tradition.

 Photo courtesy of JSA photography (jsafoto.com).

Photo courtesy of JSA photography (jsafoto.com).

Through much of our wedding planning, I thought a lot about tradition. In my first lit theory class, we studied the fallacy of tradition - doing things because "this is the way it has always been done." It's a simple way the "rulers" keep the rest of us in check; it's a simple way the "rulers" keep their industries thriving. The professor used weddings as her example - the woman taking the man's name, the giving away of the bride by the father, the need for a lavish ceremony - all ideas that, at once, keep patriarchy going strong and keep the humongous wedding industry afloat. When someone jokingly asked me if I'd take Patty's name, I scoffed; that's just not the way it works, it's not "tradition." We started off wanting to elope, then maybe having a small wedding, but the lure of tradition pulled us into having the typical one. We wanted a wedding day. The wedding band could be used as another example - a mark of ownership and a mark of ownership that just happens to be really, really expensive.

Has it always been this way? Many sources agree that the wedding ring can be traced as far back as ancient Egypt, where lovers created rings out of flowers and reeds found near the Nile. Pretty inexpensive if you ask me. The Egyptians believed in the power of the never-ending circle and believed the "ring finger" had a vein that connected directly to the heart (aww, how romantic). Male Romans used the ring to claim women they sexually desired; some early Middle Eastern men created collapsible rings that only they could put back together - if the women they possessed had taken their ring off, the men would know (okay, not as romantic). As soon as people mastered metallurgy, gold and silver became both a way for men to show they trusted their brides with property and also to demonstrate their wealth. Then there were diamonds and then, during WWII, when men wore bands to remind them of their wives back home, male wedding bands became popular.

In that brief history, a narrative becomes apparent - one that was once rooted in love somehow became one of possession and then became both. The possession part is true to some degree - we don't need to wear a ring, but for many it's a way to claim ownership, to let all the single people of the world know that we are taken. A married man takes off his ring when he walks into a bar and well, you know. Women like to ask other women to see their rings, as though the carat and cut and clarity somehow can measure how much a guy loves you. I can't count how many female strangers have asked Patty to see her ring when I was standing right next to her. I have one too, random lady! See, I am committed!

All facetiousness aside, the whole ring thing for me, at first, was all of the above. I even asked Patty if I could just wear it around a necklace, tucked in my shirt. We all know how that conversation went. When I first tried it on, I reflexively screamed "Oh, F*$$!" in the middle of the jewelry store. I don't like the way it physically feels on my finger. If I want my middle, ring, and pinky fingers to touch near the knuckles I want to have that ability, dammit! But then I remembered something I taught in an introductory fiction class at Sac State a while back, something called "the objective correlative." It was a term popularized by T.S. Eliot and described how writers could use specifics (usually an object) to illustrate something abstract (usually an emotion).

The exercise called to write a scene in which a person is using an object, and in that object the reader must be able to discern who gave that object to them, what the history is, and what emotion the character is feeling. The idea is to "show" and not "tell," to activate the text into scene, to let the reader "experience" the scene instead of being told how to think and how to feel. It's a way in which a writer can get a reader engaged and establish reader trust. This is what the wedding ring is - not a fetish, not a simple symbol, but an objective correlative between Patty and me. It is not only a reminder of our vows (the "text"), but a way to keep us actively engaged in the relationship. Every time I see it, whether I'm in the middle of writing or working or just sitting around, I remember how lucky I am. I'm reminded of needing to "show" and not "tell" my love on a daily basis. I'm reminded to "activate" the vows, to live them and not just say them. It keeps us engaged, it keeps us present. But most importantly, it demolishes tradition. We get to inscribe the ring, we get to tell the story.

And no, the next chapter does not involve babies, but that's another blog for another day...

 

Telling people you're a writer...

by Elison Alcovendaz

inevitably comes down to the "What do you write?" question and you want to scream "Words!" but instead you say "fiction," which leads to the next inevitable "what kind of fiction?" question so you say "young adult" because that's easier than explaining what "literary fiction" means since no one knows what literary fiction is anyway and you do write young adult fiction which you then explain is for teenagers and when they ask if you've been published you say "yes, in several publications," never mentioning their names because they expect you to say in The New York Times or some other publication you and everyone you know personally will never be published in, and when they ask "Have I read any of your work?" you will want to say "shouldn't you be asking yourself that question?" and "how am I supposed to know what you read?" but you just smile and shrug and say "probably not," and then there is a long silence, the kind where people check their wrists even though the watches have long been gone and then they ask, "have you written any books?" and you will say yes and before they ask something about finding it on Amazon you say that an agent is looking at it, which always sounds like a lie even though it's true, and they nod sympathetically as though they understand what getting rejection letters every other day is like, and you begin to feel sad, the inside layers of your eyes peeling away like onions, wondering when it will happen, that big break, wondering if you even want it, that big break, and then your thoughts are interrupted by "So what did you think of such and such book?" and you glance sideways, their eyes raised expectantly as though your response will validate their aesthetic compass, and you try to hide that you hate the book because it is trite and boring and formulaic, but you've learned that even though it is stupid to question doctors because they have studied medicine and it is stupid to question lawyers because they have studied law, your more informed opinion about books, which has been shaped by years and years of detailed study, is not considered expertise but instead elitist and snobby, so you say "it was great" and they smile and say something about how they loved the characterization or plot or some other word it is very easy to throw in a conversation about books, and your eyes peel back even further, tears stinging the inside of your face, because this is what it is now, this is what people think is great literature, this is the extent of your writing "career," these random conversations, and this is when you realize the world doesn't care about what you care about, so you politely say you have to go, and you drive home, greeted by the cursor on that blank screen, and when you start to crawl your fingers across that keyboard, you'll think of that conversation and wonder what kinds of funny things you can do to him in that new book you're writing that three years later will become the number one New York Times bestseller and when someone asks "What do you write?" you will have something very specific to say.

An Untitled Writer

by Elison Alcovendaz

In my first creative writing class, back in the summer of 2008, Professor Stanley began the class with BHAGs - "Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals."  We went around the classroom - very amateur writers, all of us - and talked about the stories we wanted published, the writing careers we wanted to establish, the books we wanted to see on the shelves of Barnes and Noble. Not one of us had researched the odds of any of these things happening, not one of us had any idea what trying to make it as a writer in America actually meant. We wanted to write our fantasy and sci-fi novels and get published and make money and never have to work a "real" job ever again. 

A few months before, in the middle of a home poker game, my aunt arrived with a gift for my cousin - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows . I hadn't read any of the previous books - in fact, I hadn't read much of anything - but I fell in love right away and decided, right then, that writing was something I wanted to do. Deep inside, I felt it was something I actually needed to do, a warm, growing sensation that maybe, in those pages, I had discovered   who I was supposed to be.

It's a strange thing to say, even now, but true nonetheless. While sitting at the poker table, I read three chapters; later that night, I stayed up with my light on, eyes fighting this new activity, reading until I fell asleep. That was a Sunday. On Monday, I faced my life until that point - a corporate sales management job, working 60 hours a week in my off-colored white shirt, discount bin ties, dealing with the public, floundering purposelessly in a sea of profit margins, ringing phones, and customer service scores. Yup, super exciting. I'd been there for five years, knowing I was on my way - to what? I couldn't tell you. A house, a wife, some kids, a dog - the American Dream, I guess? 

We are indoctrinated to this once we are born. Our TV shows glorify those in big houses and nice suits, our schools measure success by test scores instead of curiosity, college degrees are for "jobs" and not for "knowledge". Even more so for a first generation American whose family moved here specifically for this reason - success, yes, but success measured by financial viability.

Until that summer, for the first 28 years of my life, I had been surrounded by business people. My parents and each one of my aunts and uncles had earned accounting degrees in the Philippines and moved here shortly thereafter. In my family, all 80 of us who lived within three miles of each other, there hadn't been one person who had become, or even dreamed of becoming, a musician, a painter, an actor, a writer. I'm sure this is the similar situation for a lot of people. It's just America. It's just what we're supposed to do - participate in industries that American capitalism has defined as worthy; there's a reason a lawyer makes 2 to 3 times that of a teacher, a reason why real estate is a more financially viable profession than, say, the musician playing gigs in local, sweaty bars for 50 years. You get a job that America says is worthy enough so you can buy a house, have kids, maybe send them to college, raise them so they can find a job that provides enough stability so they can buy a house, have kids, maybe send them to college, raise them so they can find a job that provides enough stability so they can buy a house, have kids, send them to college... 

Overwhelming desperation filled me. I couldn't name it. I didn't understand it. I just kept thinking, There has to be something more than this. If this was all there was, getting the paycheck, putting money into retirement, doing this for half of your awake adult life, just so your kids could live the same systemic existence... I just needed there to be something more. I'd heard too many stories of elderly people who had this epiphany too late, of those who had found God in their later years because they wanted their life to be part of something greater. So I did something which, at the time, seemed extremely courageous. A knockout punch to The Man. One month after reading that Harry Potter book, I walked into my Area Manager's office and handed him my resignation letter.

No one understood. Not the Vice President who came a day later to show me how much money I would be making in the next two years, not the friends who had been there for the parties in Vegas, not the family. How could they? I didn't even understand myself. It turned out not to be courageous, but stupid. Idiotic. Probably insane. I had bills to pay. Rent. Instead, I moved back in with my parents, sat at their kitchen table, and for the next six months wrote nearly 200,000 words of the terrible, terrible, terrible first draft of The Jack of Heartland , the novel that now, after eight more drafts and four years, I'm finally trying to get published.

I eventually found myself in the graduate creative writing program at Sacramento State. Very different, to say the least, from the BS in business I had already earned. No one wore ties or dress shoes, no one talked about balance sheets; in fact, the only time the writing students and faculty talked about money was when they complained about how little of it they had. Faculty had no problem talking about the miniscule amount of money they made; classmates embodied the "writer's" stereotype  - glorifying the miserly life, getting in touch with nature, railing against capitalism at all costs (even as we hoarded books and commodified them neatly into our shelves), as we sat in desks built for middle schoolers and discussed words and theories made up by people like ourselves, not realizing that specialized language is often a marker of capitalism and industry. I didn't fit in. Not with my new Calvin Klein shirts and DKNY peacoats. For the most part, I hid my past - I felt like a leftover piece of the "system" that we were so intent on "deconstructing."

It's funny how a new scene can change you. I became a little Marxist. I eschewed my Kenneth Coles for Vans and flip flops. I stopped using gel in my hair. I scoured thrift shops for cheap books. I judged my friends and family with their poster middle-class lives, with their mortgages and trimmed lawns and cute babies in their Polo Shirts and Air Jordan shoes. I wondered how anyone could succumb to the game like that, scraping by just so they could stay in the comfy confines of the ethereal prison of the American Dream.

Man, I judged. I analyzed. I criticized. We did it all day in class and it spilled out into my daily life. I couldn't watch a movie for fun anymore. People who thought Twilight was the best thing they'd ever read became idiots in my mind. My old friends who were still going to clubs instead of dive bars, other friends who were still working 50-60 hours a week instead of reading, my family who listened to the local pop stations instead of NPR - I felt bad for them; how could they not see? In the classroom, I learned the lingo - throw in "ideology" here, a little "social construction" over there, maybe call that thing "homosocial," and just for good measure, toss in some "hybridity." I threw in Foucault and Said into conversations outside of the classroom, and when people looked at me like I'd lost my damn mind I just laughed in my head and knew they would just never get it. 

In the midst of all that, I did learn something, a small thing that I now realize changed my life. It's the Golden Rule about the craft of writing - everything is a choice; every word, every sentence, every image, and every punctuation mark will dictate whether or not the larger work (the book, story, poem, etc.) is successful. And not success in terms of book sales, not whether your reader "gets" it, not whether your workshop says it's the greatest thing they've ever read, not whether or not it's published, but whether or not the story is actually "whole."

It's an easy analogy to make. Story. Life. Much like the choices we make in a story, the choices we make in life dictate whether or not we can be "whole." America doesn't make it easy. I started my life wanting to be in bed with the system, with business and money, only to find myself among a group of people who wanted to throw that bed out the window with the people still on it. By the end of the program, I felt more lost than I had before. I had found writing, I had found my passion, yes, but I didn't believe the people who said that should be enough. Much like I didn't believe that those who said raising your kids the right way and being financially stable and getting married was enough. As if either of those was all there was to life. All I knew was I wanted to write, I was tired of living in an apartment, I wanted to write, I was tired of living paycheck to paycheck, I wanted to write, I was tired of praying my car wouldn't break down.

It's a choice many artists in America have to make. Be the "commercial sell out" or be "true to the craft." We see it all the time. The "indie" band makes it big and all of a sudden they are sell outs. Conversely, the writer of genre fiction cannot be taken seriously when they write literary fiction. It's always one or the other. America says you cannot be both. You cannot work 40 hours a week, dealing with mundane business crap, and go home and be creative enough to write. You cannot, okay? You cannot.

Ah, but choice. Since graduating, I have reconnected with my old friends, rekindled relationships with family. I found a 40-hour a week job that pays decently enough to buy a house. I'm getting married to a woman who is too good and too beautiful for me. We plan on having nice furniture someday. We plan on buying new cars. We plan on having kids. We plan on sending them to college. We plan on having grandkids. But we are also committed to my writing, on not making excuses on why there's no time, on not falling into the mutually exclusive buckets America says we must fall in. All choices we have made. But will it work? Living here, in the middle? Who knows? But we are choosing to try, and it is in the choosing that makes us whole. 

 

So, here I am...

by Elison Alcovendaz

starting a blog. I hear there was once a time when all a writer had to do was write. I also hear unicorns and leprechauns once roamed the earth, mating and giving birth to humans. Those were the good old days. Now, if you talk to current day writers or Google how to become a writer, you'll hear and see words such as "market" and "platform." You'll read articles about what is normally an introverted group of people who must now step out from behind their laptops, from behind their stories, and go forth and connect, much like the unicorns and leprechauns did so many years before.

Here's part of the problem: writers starting out don't have the cash necessary to start professionally created blogs, to fund web advertisements, or even self-publish their books (for those who decide to go that route). I certainly don't. All I have are my eyes, my heart, and my words. That's what this is. This here, this first blog, is hopefully a way of connecting to a reader I've never met, a fellow author who wants to discuss the liminality of innocence in The Cat in the Hat (English majors, unite!), or just someone who had a thought they wanted to share. We don't kill dreams here, so maybe it'll eventually lead to finding someone who wants to publish one of my novels (I know, I know).

I plan on writing about the author's journey to publishing their first novel, about books I've read, discussions I've had, thoughts on anything. I hope this blog will be a crossing of intellect and creativity, progress and presence, sarcasm and love.

Let's see if I can keep this up. I certainly hope so. After all, if we did descend from unicorns and leprechauns, there's gotta be some Magic in there somewhere.