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?

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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:


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. 

 

 

 

 

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!

The Time I Was Fat Jesus and Lost Mary Over It

by Elison Alcovendaz

We all "know" Jesus wasn't fat, but in the 7th grade, I was on the chocolate cake and Fishstick Friday side of pudgy. I'd never eaten very healthily, but a series of well-time growth spurts kept me rather svelte. Unfortunately, by 12 years old and already about 5'11", I'd pretty much stopped growing (maybe two more inches into the first half of high school), and my "baby" fat really started to settle in.

My school at the time, the now defunct St. Peter's Catholic School near Stockton and Fruitridge, held a Stations of the Cross play every Christmas season. For you non-Catholics out there, the Stations of the Cross is a series of fifteen events from Jesus being condemned to death to Jesus' resurrection. It's normally depicted in some kind of artistic form, and if you ever entered a Catholic Church and wondered what those carvings/paintings on the walls were and why they were marked with the Roman Numerals I to XV, well now you know.

The "play" wasn't so much a play as much it was a bunch of 8th graders standing still on the dusty stage of the school's auditorium for a few minutes per Station, illustrating, in human form, what those artistic representations might've looked like if a group of multiethnic middle schoolers from South Sac had actually participated in said events. Let me make this clear - the Stations of the Cross play was for 8th graders only. Yet somehow, none of the 8th grade boys wanted to take on the iconic role of Jesus. Maybe they didn't feel they could live up to it. Maybe they didn't want to carry the cross (yes, there was an actual cross, but more on that later). I don't know. What I do know is that Sister Esther, the kindhearted nun in charge of the play, had asked me to stay after class, where she tried to guilt me into taking on the role of Jesus.

I said no at first. Playing Jesus? Are you kidding me? Talk about pressure. But after more guilting from her, the Sister Principal, some other teachers, some talking-me-into-it guilt trips (ahem, discussions) from my mother, and thinking maybe this would absolve me of some of the sins I'd already accumulated (like stealing chocolate milk from the cafeteria fridge), I said yes.

Rehearsals started immediately, a week before showtime, and I really didn't mind initially because there was an 8th grade girl I'd had a gigantic crush on. We'll call her Julia and she had two roles - Mary Magdalene and Veronica (the woman who wipes Jesus' face in the sixth Station). Julia was different. She was bold enough to rock the pixie haircut while the other girls were still Aquanetting their bangs to high heaven. She was bold enough to eschew cheerleading and instead played softball, volleyball, and basketball and rolled up those ugly, uniform plaid skirts just enough to seem rebellious. During rehearsals, she kept smiling at me and giving me the eye. I'd find her and her gal pals, two girls of the giggling genus, on the stairs below the stage, looking at me and giggling while Julia's face turned red. It was the stuff of innocent YA novels. It was the beginning of something special.

Or not.

You see, Jesus has to take his shirt off. It hadn't occurred to me that maybe that's why the 8th grade boys didn't want to do it. As a group, they were not the in-shapest bunch I'd ever seen. Robed for the first nine Stations, the tenth is generally entitled, in one way or another, "Jesus is Stripped of His Clothes." So that's what happens in the play. From Stations Ten to Fourteen, I learned in rehearsals, I'd be standing on the stage for about 20 minutes, being faux-nailed to a cross, dressed in nothing but the faux crown of thorns (which somehow did manage to cut my forehead) and a shaggy, brown cloth that wrapped the basketball shorts Jesus certainly wasn't wearing.

The thing is, until The Moment, I didn't even know I was fat and that's probably because I really wasn't. Again, I'd classify it as barely on the wrong side of pudgy. (Oh, right, the cross. There was a cross, a real one, made of wood, about 30-40 pounds, that I had to carry on my shoulder for most of the play. For the Crucifixion scenes (Stations 11-13, for those keeping track at home), Sister Esther ingeniously came up with a plan that would make it look like I was actually nailed to a cross. She took a heavy wooden box that stood about three feet high, cut a slit in the top of it the exact size and shape of the base of the cross, slid the cross into it, and told me to stand on the box with my arms outstretched along the arms of the cross.) When (un)dress rehearsal came, one day before Opening Night, I took off my shirt without much thought. I climbed up on the box, outstretched my arms like I was told, and immediately heard Julia and the gals giggling again by the stairs. Even Julia was giggling this time. I overheard one of them say, "Jesus wasn't that fat." He wasn't Filipino or thirteen years old either, but sometimes you need to suspend disbelief.

The actual day of the play was worse. I was playing Jesus, see, and I had to look bloody at the right moments. Sister Esther had decided to stage the play as glow in the dark, meaning most of our costumes were white and there were big black lights facing the "actors" from the front of the stage. This also meant I would be wearing strategically placed bandaids that had been colored with highlighter ink to produce the appearance of blood. Two of these bandaids were placed on my upper abdomen, one on the left and one on the right, so that in the dimness of the auditorium, and the black light shining on me, the location of those two bandaids looked like nipples for extremely sagging breasts.

By the time the resurrection scene came, and I stood on the box where the cross had been in, swathed in brilliant white clothes, my right hand raised high over my fellow actors and even higher over the audience, who would soon be clapping and cheering after finishing their prayers (people praying while you're portraying Jesus - another weird experience I'll have to write about later), all I could think about was Julia's giggling. She stood in front of me either as Mary Magdalene or Veronica, I'm not sure, her head hooded but face turned up to me. Whether she was looking at me or not, I don't know, because I made sure to keep my eyes on the Exit sign across the auditorium, shining green like some kind of emerald pathway to salvation. Whoa, whoa, whoa. That was too serious. Let's try that again…. shining green like some kind of emerald pathway to the parking lot outside, because even though they were serving punch and cookies and the refrigerator in the kitchen was filled with chocolate milk, I really just wanted to go home.

Julia couldn't look at me after that without giggling. She graduated a few months later and I never saw her again. I've spent years in shape, feeling good about myself, and I've spent years doing just the opposite. But there's one thing that has remained a constant - I had an opportunity few in this world will ever have. I got to play Jesus, even if my bandaid nipples were hanging a little bit low.

A Moustache for a Day

by Elison Alcovendaz

Dear Reader,

You are an intelligent, beautiful, necessary person. But more on that later. First, I want to talk about my moustache.

For one glorious day last Movember, I had a wonderful, beautiful, bountiful moustache. Movember was created as a way to raise awareness for men’s health issues, such as prostate cancer. To raise awareness, men grow moustaches. It’s kind of simple. It’s also kind of awesome.

I normally rock the beard and haven’t had a moustache since college. Reasons? 1) My face looks fatter without the dark frame of my beard and 2) my wife hates it. HATES it. But after some discussion about the reasons behind it (not sure this actually happened) and just feeling like I needed to do something to pick me up from the not-feeling-so-great-about-the-way-I-look-doldrums (yes, guys have this, too), I somehow convinced Patty that it wouldn’t be such a bad idea. So, this happened:

 OMG. A selfie!!!!!!!!! 

OMG. A selfie!!!!!!!!! 

Guess how many people loved that wonderful, beautiful, bountiful look? One. Yup. Just me (crazy, right?). It was Thanksgiving, the day when, you know, people are thankful and full of gratitude and nice and stuff, but when I arrived at my aunt’s house, after having had several hours of trying to soothe Patty’s visceral hatred for my exquisite ‘stache, I was compared to the following by several members of my family (in no particular order):

1) 70s Porn Star

2) Hitler

3) 80s Wrestler

4) Pedophile

5) Creepy Old Guy

6) Carl Winslow

Yes, this happened:

 Zero resemblance. 

Zero resemblance. 

Now you have to know my family to understand that this was all light-hearted teasing, the kind of lovable sarcasm that makes you feel right at home. So no issues there. But it did make me think about how easy it is for us to discuss the way a person looks. I’ve struggled with my weight my whole life, for example. When people haven’t seen me in a while, it’s the first thing they mention. “You’ve gained some weight” or “you’ve lost some weight.” Get a haircut? Someone will mention something about it. Wearing a new dress? Someone will tell you it’s beautiful and another person, behind your back, will probably say you shouldn’t be wearing something so tight or so short or so cheap. Of course there’s not always intention of harm or ridicule, but what about other stuff?

A person’s intelligence, for example. Absent learning disabilities, language barriers, etc., we all know people who are just, well, kind of not there. Why is it not kosher to talk about a person’s ability to think critically, for example, or make good life choices? Why is it not okay when said person walks into the room to say, in a joking manner of course, “Hey, so and so, breaking up with that guy or girl was a really bad decision, huh? That job you quit and now you got kicked out of your apartment? And now you’re lonely and credit card companies are after you? Man, that was smart. Oh, and you think the world is only 6,000 years old? Good job.” Instead, we tend to show these folks empathy. Or, what about people who just aren’t nice? You know these people – the world revolves around them, they call only when they need something, they indulge in easy stereotypes. Why, when said person walks into a family gathering, we don’t say, “Hey, asshole. Try and be nice today, okay?” Or disrepectful people? Or lazy people? Or any other kind of person that has nothing to do with their appearance? What about society has made it so easy to comment on a person’s looks, but not the more important aspects about them?

When someone talks to me about losing weight, I want to say, "You should read more." When I hear someone talking about another person’s wardrobe, I want to tell them, "Have you ever heard of kindness?" I want to tell them to learn how to listen. Or learn how to count to three before overreacting. Or learn self-acceptance. Or learn how to have a conversation or learn how to do any number of things that are more important, things that are so much harder, so much more worthwhile, things that tell us so much more about a person than whether they can put an outfit together. I can think these things but will never say them because it’s not okay, it’s not acceptable, and the fact that I’m admitting I sometimes think these things has already made me an asshole, so maybe I should stop.

But I don’t want to be an asshole. What I want to do, if I can, is try and give compliments to nice people. Smart people. People who listen when you talk to them, people who take time to get to know you, people who help you out at work, people who have empathy, people who can make you laugh. Can you imagine how it would feel to have someone tap you on the arm and look into your eyes and say, “You’re so funny” or “You’re a really intelligent person and I just want you to know that” or "You have a great spirit about you" instead of, "Hey, bro, dope tatt!" or "Hey, girl, nice purse!" or "Hey, Fat-Ass, You're Fat!" Do you think this is something I could do? That we could do? Is it possible? Is it possible to try and give compliments beyond the way a person dresses, how their makeup looks, how much they weigh, the brand of their purse, the jersey they're wearing?

It’s a simple thing, really, but then again, it isn’t. To give a true compliment about a person’s character, personality, mind, requires us to make an actual commitment to get to know someone, to show vulnerability, to step outside of ourselves and past the superficial, to pass a person in the hallway and comment on something more than how much you like their new boots. It’s even more than “How’s your weekend?” or “Did you see the game?” Most of us live lives on the roller coaster of self-esteem. We second-guess what we say, what we wear, what we eat, what job we have, who we are as people. So with that in mind, I just want to say: you are an intelligent, beautiful, necessary person… even with that creepy 70s porn star ‘stache on your face.

           

            

Richard Sherman: The "Classy Thug"

by Elison Alcovendaz

Let’s get this out of the way now: I’m a diehard 49ers fan. I’ve been a fan since I was six years old, through the glory days and through the we’re-the-definition-of-mediocre (a title now held by the Cowboys) days, and so, yes, I despise Richard Sherman. As a player. He made one of the greatest defensive plays I’ve ever witnessed and this DB (defensive back, of course) singlehandedly pushed me into a state of depression for about two days. I hate Richard Sherman, the player. But Richard Sherman, the man? Well…

In case you haven’t surfed the internet, logged into Facebook or Twitter, or watched TV in the last few days, this happened:

So what did we just watch? Well, basically this: a pretty good black football player was interviewed after the game by a white female reporter, and said black football player, probably amped up on adrenaline and testosterone and also probably egotism and self-importance, bragged (very energetically) that he was the best DB in the league while putting down his opposing WR and simultaneously scaring said white female reporter, who fumbled to ask her second question and then abruptly “sent it back” to the lead reporting team because she had no idea what to say or do.

I bring up race because it has been the center of the national conversation on Richard Sherman, whether people know it or not. Do you think if the white reporter hadn’t flinched or looked so flustered it would’ve appeared so bad? Do you think if Ray Lewis had been the sideline reporter instead of Erin Andrews, it would’ve appeared so bad? Do you think anyone would’ve called Peyton Manning a “thug” if he was, say, calling Russell Wilson a “sorry quarterback”?

When a person, especially a black man, speaks in a way that we deem unacceptable, people (and not just white people) get uncomfortable. It’s called the Angry Black Man syndrome (not sure if that’s a thing, but if not, you’ll get the gist). One of the traditional narratives about black-man-ness is their supposed tendency to be angry and violent. Don’t think this is true? Look at these pictures that were used of Sherman as entry points to online articles:

 Dailymail.co.uk

Dailymail.co.uk

 blog.zap2it.com

blog.zap2it.com

In every picture he looks angry. Compare, instead, these pictures:

 Seahawks.com

Seahawks.com

 NFL.com

NFL.com

See how a “narrative” can affect the way we think?

It’s this type of media spin and our willingness to accept it that allows people to call Sherman a “thug” without knowing the guy. I’m pretty sure no one who has used the word “thug” in the last few days knows what it means. People act like Sherman killed somebody. Actually, no – he said he was the best at what he does and called Michael Crabtree “sorry." Wow, that’s just… violent talk. And yes, there’s a “thug life” subculture (the kind glorified by Tupac), but I’d argue that’s more rooted in socioeconomic status than it is race and either way – just because a few people ascribe to something, does that mean anyone who looks like them ascribe to the same thing?

The anti-Shermanites who weren’t throwing the “thug” word around instead used a softer word: class. “That wasn’t classy.” “Sherman was classless.” “He needs to learn to win with class.” Let’s try this honesty thing again. Have you ever, and I mean ever, saw someone with dreads on his head and thought, “Ooh, he’s classy”? And if your answer to that question is yes, make him a complete stranger, take the suit off of the dread-locked man, put him in baggy jeans and a baseball cap, or even a football uniform. Now? Likely not. The idea of having “class” (and it’s very obvious connection to social class) is also, if sometimes vaguely, a sort of racism. Does that mean everyone who said Sherman had no class is a racist? Of course not. What I’m saying is when we think of class, we generally think of a lighter-skinned man (probably in a suit) who speaks well when faced with adversity. Sounds absurd, but it's true. Sherman just missed out on the lighter-skinned part:

Interestingly, many of the online folks who called Sherman a thug and classless spit so much vitriol that they actually looked quite classless themselves. And this was days after a game they didn't even play in, much less a few seconds after a player in the actual game (who presumably didn't have time to calm down), was supposed to be classy on the spot. Um hmmm.

So that’s one side of the story. Let’s take a look at the other. You also might’ve heard this about Sherman: he grew up in Compton, got a 4.2 GPA in high school, and went to Stanford, where he graduated with a 3.9 GPA. This narrative has also been pushed by media who want the public to stop judging Sherman. What irks me about this is that what does any of this have to do with his behavior here:

Was Sherman “classy” in this situation or in his interview with Erin or when he ran off the field making the choke sign around his neck? Of course not. Back story isn’t some go-to get out of jail card when you screw up, it should be something that stays with you, informs the decisions you make, guides your behavior. So what he got a 4.2 GPA in high school? Is that impressive? Sure. Does this mean he can act however he wants? Nope. 

And here's a question that people ask all the time: why does it always have to be about race? It's a legitimate question and while the common (and correct) answer has to do with minority groups having to constantly fight and speak so the public is conscious of things such as institutionalized racism, there are the idiot victims, too. These are the people who will call you a racist because you don't know Sherman's background but guess what? They don't know about your background either, so… who's the bigot? These are the people who will play the race (or gender or sexual orientation or other) card because they've heard someone else do it but don't have the ability to back it up. These folks don't help foster anything positive and can't think for themselves. While calling out people for ascribing to cultural stereotypes, they are actually doing the same thing.

So what did the Sherman incident tell us? Well…

1)  If you didn’t need reminding, the legacy of slavery still rears it's ugly head. The need to ascribe negative words to anyone, but especially black men, is rooted in our country’s history of ownership. The legal power is gone, but hey, we can still enforce our symbolic “ownership” with language from the anonymity of an internet comment board, right? We can still feel powerful, right?

2)  A lot of us, including myself, might still be subtly racist. And all of us see color. Someone who says they don't see color is either blind or a liar.

3)  The media drives stories however they want. You have Narrative A – the angry black man and Narrative B – the nearly perfect kid who overcame a ridiculous amount of obstacles and succeeded. Neither of them are actually correct.

4)  Sports rivalries are crazy… and awesome. Go Broncos.

Oh, right, Richard Sherman, the man. Honestly, I have no opinion on it. I don’t have enough information. And neither do you.

Now if only he would sign with the Niners…

 

 

What's a "Good" Person?

by Elison Alcovendaz

Sitting at BJ’s the other day and, as I’m wont to do, am listening to another group’s conversation near our table. There are two older people, probably husband and wife, hair just beginning to go grey, sitting across what I guess to be their twenty-something son and his girlfriend. They’re in the midst of an animated discussion about a cousin the son used to be really close to. The mom’s going on about how the cousin cheated on his fiancee, who he was going to marry in two months, with the married Matron of Honor. The cousin was the godfather to the MOH’s daughter. Disappointment and anger drips from the mom’s mouth while the son chews on his fries, nodding and nodding to his mom’s tirade while the fiancee’s eyes widen to the point of caricature, until finally the son interrupts his mom and finally says:

“We all make mistakes, Mom. He’s still a good person.”

QUIZ:

A)   Yes, he’s a good person.

B) No, he’s a bad person.

Back to the quiz later.

I’ve heard and participated in many of the aforementioned conversations. The nuances of the situation are discussed, the people who were hurt, what we might’ve done, and then some good-hearted person or maybe someone who feels guilty for gossiping will pipe up with some form of the “good person” comment. The point is the same: we all make mistakes, we all make bad and selfish choices that hurt other people, and we’re still all (or most of us are, anyway) good people. But what how do we know what is “good” and how do we choose to be “good”?

This question, one of a moral identity, has been an issue explored by social theorists and philosophers for some time. How and why do people choose one moral decision over the other? Kant might have argued that it comes down to duty while modern sociologists might argue that it comes down to ego control, that we all have impulses and some of us are just “better” at controlling them than others. Others suggest that it comes down to our “self-imposed” idea of an authentic identity – are we being true to ourselves? More recently, there has been a focus on the self and whether moral personality (similar to our idea of personality, but focused on baseline moral codes) and moral centrality (whether we believe the world and society as moral) plays a role in our choices. And yet others argue it’s evolutionary – we want what’s best for others over what’s best for our individual selves because it ensures a better chance of survival for the group.

The point is there’s a billion theories out there, and none seem to fully address the question of where we get the beliefs that guide our moral identities. Perhaps that’s because it’s an easy answer: our definition of “good” is based on our ideologies. If you’re a Catholic, being good means not using God’s name in vain and not coveting your neighbor’s wife (or husband – that’s in the Commandments too, right?). If you’re a Democrat, you likely believe in government responsibility to care for all of its citizens and you’re likely opposed to capital punishment. If you’re American, you probably believe in some version of “equality” whereas people from other countries might say “equality” is a manmade ideal that can never be achieved. This is overly simplistic, but you get the idea. We’re not born with a sense of “good” and “bad,” but we certainly learn it based on ideologies imposed on us by parents, schools, religions, governments, media, etc.

If we all ascribe to different ideologies (and different combinations of ideologies)  why is it, then, that we all tend to overuse the term “good”? Maybe it’s disguised as “they can’t help it” or “they have good intentions” or “people deserve a second, third, fourth, millionth chance” and yet, despite repeated selfish choices that hurt other people, we still want to believe in their goodness. Why is this? Does our humanity make us delusional? Is it that we think in black in white, in good and bad, and don’t allow for the grey? Is it because we’re too scared to call a spade a spade and instead we want to call it a beautiful rose? Is it because we are naturally forgiving? Or is it because we want to think that about ourselves, that no matter how selfish we are, no matter how often we repeat the same harmful choices over and over again, we can still be good.

I admit, I’m one of these people. I want to believe in the goodness of everyone, and I think it’s because I want to believe it of myself. The other day, I asked Patty if she thought we were good people and she said, “I think we’re average.” I was offended at first, but by the next day, I knew she was right. I’ve never served dinner to the homeless on Thanksgiving, but I do give my full attention when people are talking to me. I’ve lied and lied and lied and I certainly haven’t kept holy many a Sabbath, but I generally think about other people when making decisions. I’ve made fun of people and told racist jokes and have never joined a march or parade or any kind of show of unity for any kind of cause, but I’ll send money to charity. I don’t make time for a lot of needy strangers, but I do make time for my family and friends. I’ve hurt people. I’ve been selfish. But I forgive people, too. I’m not good and I’m not bad, and most likely, you aren’t either. When it comes to goodness, most of us are probably just average.

So, back to the quiz. Did you answer “A”? Really? Okay, so what if in addition to cheating on his fiancee with her best friend, he got drunk and ran over a bunch of people? Oh, you answered “B”? Okay, so what if the cousin works at the local homeless shelter, cooking and serving meals every morning? Or, what if he runs a rehabilitation clinic for abused animals? Or, what if he also adopted a bunch of poor children and gave them a loving home?

The real answer is “C”: I need more information. This is reason #1 why the overuse of the word “good” to describe people irks me much. Rarely do we have enough information to call someone “good” (or “bad” for that matter). In addition, there isn’t much in the world that’s innocent anymore, especially the words we say. Calling people who aren’t good “good” isn’t good or even nice, really; it’s cowardly and dangerous. It perpetuates inconsiderate, selfish behavior. And keeping these people in your life is even worse. No one is divorced from goodness, sure, and sometimes people need some help, but you know what? Sometimes people don’t stop f’ing up. Sometimes people don’t stop being selfish. Sometimes people just aren’t good. Tell them or let them go. Maybe, sometimes, “good” starts out by not being “nice.”

A Sacrifice for the New Year

by Elison Alcovendaz

As we approach the door to 2014, it seems important to give a sacrifice to Janus, the god of the new year. In Roman mythology, Janus was the god of beginnings, passages, and transitions through time. This is probably why the Romans named January (Januarius) after him. Classic mythology portrays Janus with two heads, one facing the past and one facing the future. It is this feature - Janus' two-headedness - that I want to keep in mind as the new year hits.

 

  The Arch of Janus - courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

The Arch of Janus - courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

The idea of the New Year's Resolution has always interested me. Why do we wait to make a change? The year itself is an arbitrary marker of time, so really we could become a vegan or start donating to charity any time we choose. And yet, the end of the year possesses some kind of power over us, as though when the ball drops, we can immediately discard the person we've been and be reborn into someone better.

Better. I've found myself thinking about that word a lot. Remembering my previous resolutions, I realize they've mostly been centered around my health or appearance. Lose 25 pounds by summer. Stop eating McDonald's. Limit yourself to one serving at a time. Most of the resolutions I hear from people sound similar. There's a reason you have trouble getting a machine at 5pm at the gym in January and February.

What drives these types of resolutions? The obvious answer might be self-esteem. We want to be able to wear a bikini in the summer or not be scared to take off our shirt by the pool. You want people to think you're attractive when you walk into a bar. This is, of course, driven by societal standards and usually not our own, but that's a blog for next year. As I get older, I've realized that most of us make these resolutions because we are afraid of mortality. We want to live longer. We want to live as long as possible. This is why some of us read obituaries and why some of us pay for gym memberships we haven't used in months (maybe even years). We need something to spur us on to get off our asses and live longer. Some of us might even dedicate ourselves to the gym, spending 2-3 hours there almost every day, counting our calories, reading labels, sweating in super hot rooms to stretch and pose in puddles made with our own perspiration. We want to live longer.

You might say, NO I WANT TO BE HEALTHIER. I want to be healthier for myself, for my kids, for my grandkids. Not to be facetious, but you know what that sounds like? Wanting to live longer. Or you might say, IT'S TO IMPROVE MY QUALITY OF LIFE. Well, there are a lot of things we can do to improve our quality of life other than just being lighter on the scale or looking good in a dress.

This year I'm sacrificing "live longer" types of resolutions. Putting them in the fire. It is my sacrifice to Janus, and I hope you will do the same. 

Instead of making resolutions to live longer, let's resolve to live better. So in addition to the losing weight and getting to the gym and eating more nutritiously, all of which is important, let's resolve to improve the other aspects of ourselves as well. Let's listen more. Let's laugh more. Let's read more books. Let's stop being so judgmental or angry. Let's be kind when no one is watching. Let's go to a museum. Let's make comments on each other's FB feeds. Let's take more pictures. Let's turn off our phones at dinner. Let's smile at strangers. Let's make up with our family members. Let's be sad at those terrible things that happen to us, but let's give that sadness an expiration date. Let's take a walk. Let's pick up an instrument. Let's donate our time. Let's look past our ideologies, religious and political and otherwise. Let's get to know ourselves better. Let's be honest. Let's be patient. Let's be vulnerable. Let's be real. Let's tell each other we love each other if we love each other. Let's follow our passions. Let's share memories, especially of those who have passed. Let's take responsibility for our actions. Let's touch some trees and feel the wind in our hair and kiss with passion and hold hands and embrace our enemies and not wait until some guy in a tux on TV tells us it's finally time to celebrate.

We do not have the two-headedness of Janus, able to look backward and forward at the same time. If we look to the past, we take our eyes off the future. If we look to the future, we lose sight of the past. It seems what Janus was missing, but what we have, is the ability to be in the present. When that clock strikes midnight, it is only one moment in a collection of moments, each with the possibility of becoming a better person. 

Cheers for 2014!

 

 

Christmas Lights and the Loss of Manhood

by Elison Alcovendaz

Ladders and I don't get along. They're tall and wobbly and slippery and let's face it, when I'm not planted on my feet, I'm pretty much useless (I can't ski, skate, and don't even ride a bike that well). But it's Christmas time and I grew up in a household where tin statuettes played "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" all night and inflatable snowmen were tied down to a roof and Santas were painted on walls and miniature ceramic, snowy, New England-ish towns spread across the hearth and laughs bounced around the walls until they were drowned out by karaoke contests where only Christmas songs were song (I even made the finals once).

 

 My old room, decorated for Christmas. 

My old room, decorated for Christmas. 

As a result, I love this time of the year. I love corny Christmas songs. I love having the fresh scent of pine fill my nostrils when I walk through the door. And I definitely love Christmas lights. So now that we're spending our first Christmas in our new house, Patty and I wanted to put lights up. Nothing fancy. No icicle lights or flicker-to-music lights, just normal, get at Walmart and string-'em-up lights. It was the day after Thanksgiving, only one house on the surrounding three streets had lights up (and just on their bushes and trees) and we would be the first on our street and we would be proud. The problem? Ladders. Balance. Heights. She wanted lights along the trim of the second story, a good twenty-five feet in the air, and I could only think about falling off the roof and breaking my neck. I said no (I'm pretty sure it was F$%@ No!!!! but this is a family show).

I'm pretty sure she didn't understand my hesitation. I'd heard her childhood stories of her father putting up a twenty-five foot Christmas tree, leaning off the top rung of a ladder at least that tall to tie wire from the top of the tree to the wall, of once hanging from the gutter, more than fifteen feet up, when the ladder slipped while nailing the lights in place outside. And my own expectations from my father, who seemed to make a Do-It-Yourself Show every Christmas. Did I mention he placed a twelve-foot tall inflatable snowman on the roof? He put a twelve-foot tall Santa next to it. And reindeer. Maybe I'm making this up, but I'm almost positive he built a manger for a nativity scene. He wallpapered the whole house in Christmas gift wrapper. Every weekend after Thanksgiving, he carried box after box from the spider-filled attic and the weekend after New Year's carried those boxes back up (while my brother and I "helped" by watching and making jokes). This is the manliness factor I had to live up to - swinging from gutters and building shelters for the Savior of the World. Certainly, I could hang lights up on the second story eaves.

So I researched. If you Google "How to string Christmas Lights on the Second Story" you will find mostly articles about safety. If you read the comments on those articles, you will find that most people don't actually hang lights up there and those that do are firemen, marines, lumberjacks (okay, that's not true). Some people said they use a ladder to climb atop the second story roof (not doing it). Some people used a kind of forklift contraption (not doing it). Others just stood on the first story roof and tiptoed (and slip and die? Not doing it). I went to the window upstairs and tried to imagine myself negotiating that roof and my Achilles snapping and tumbling to the concrete straight on top of my head. Nope, not doing it. 

Patty was disappointed at first but she got over it. I didn't. I still don't own a ladder, so my father came over to let me use his and ended up putting the lights up on the sides of he roof, which were higher, because he didn't feel I looked sturdy enough on the ladder and he was worried I would fall. I held the ladder for him and listened to my manhood drip onto the concrete and trickle down the driveway and into the gutter. I put up the rest of them, though, and even that I couldn't get quite right: the lights are not spaced equidistantly from each other, some point up and some point down and some point in any random damn direction they want to. 

 

 So beautiful, right?

So beautiful, right?

I've never been the physical type. Even when I played basketball, any success I had came from the mental side of the game. I was never going to outrun or out jump anyone, but I could figure out how to trick them into fouling me, how to shoot at a proper angle to avoid getting blocked, how to talk trash into their ear and get them off their game, how to no-look a defender and create space for an open teammate. Most of me, of who I am as a man, exists on the mental side. I can be creative and speak well and think critically at times, but damn if I can't use that fickle-ass Stud Finder to find where to drill an F'n hole. 

After we put up those lights, the neighbors followed en suite. I'm happy to say that most of them did not hang lights on the second story. But a couple of weeks ago, as I was getting the mail, our neighbor, a twenty-something man whose father bought the house he lives in so he and his garage band friends can sonically kill all the dogs in the neighborhood, was on his first-story roof, setting a ladder on the slippery tiles, and, without a spotter and the ladder shaking, climbed fifteen feet to the ultimate top of the house. What a bastard. I didn't want to seem too in awe, so I semi-hid behind our SUV and peered through the beginning-to-fog windows as he slid himself up and down the slopes, half of his body hanging over the edge as he spun hooks underneath the gutters and slid the lights' cords over them. That's a man, I thought, like my father-in-law and my father, and I'm the guy writing about them, sitting at the Ikea desk he had trouble putting together, wondering how in hell he got emasculated by some dumb lights. 

 

 

Paul Walker, Cory Monteith, and Celebrity Deaths

by Elison Alcovendaz

We had just arrived at my brother’s house, and all the cousins were gathered around the dinner table, each person locked onto their phones. Paul Walker died. Was it a hoax? Was it legit? My Facebook feed quickly filled with R.I.P. quotes and sad faces (the kinds with the teardrops) and links to articles that confirmed Paul Walker’s death. I looked around the room and the reaction was split: some of us, including me, were making crass jokes, others appeared completely distraught, as though someone really close to them had passed away. This was before we knew about his teenage daughter; this was before we heard the way those who knew him spoke about how humble and real he was; this was before a song was written about him. At that moment, all we knew was that he had appeared in movies we enjoyed, he was 40 years old, and he was gone.

Why did I make that joke? It was inappropriate and ill-timed and just not funny. But I said it. It came out of my mouth. And why did people cry? You might say it was because he’s so young, or you might say that this is the way all people deal with death – they make jokes to forget and they cry because they can’t. We’re humans and when humans die, we deal with it the way we can. But random young people die every day; you see them on the news and you might think about how sad it is, but you’re probably not wiping your eyes or making a clever remark or posting beautiful words on Facebook. Why does the emotion come ten-fold with a celebrity, a person none of us ever really knew?

Is it because of what a professor once said, that we believe that the celebrity knows something about culture, sexuality, style, happiness, etc. that we don’t? He argued that we make celebrities experts about the way we should lead our lives. We read Star Magazine and People and Us Weekly in the hope we will learn something about their secrets. We watch their movies, their games, listen to their music and interviews, and after a while we begin to feel connected to them. When you got dumped, maybe a Beyonce song lifted you out of your funk. When you lost your job, maybe Joe Montana in the Super Bowl made you forget. After a while, it almost feels like you know them. When asked why Michael Jackson’s death made you so sad, you might say, “Because I grew up with him.” With the advent of Twitter and a million cable channels and instant information, the celebrity is more powerful (even if they are an unwilling participant); they are not only in our homes now, they’re at work, in our cars, at our bedside – they live in our pockets and on our nightstands. Even if you’re the anti-celebrity, someone who likes when celebrities fail, someone who wants to make examples of say, Miley Cyrus’ twerking, the fact you are making an example of them proves the point: Celebrities are worthy of making an example of – celebrities are somehow greater than the rest of us.

After Cory Monteith died, Patty and I sat silently on our couch and watched the Glee episode dedicated to his character, Finn Hudson. Neither of us are avid Glee followers any more, but in the beginning of our relationship, we were. We DVR’d episodes and dedicated an hour every week to sit and watch and laugh and sometimes even sing with each other. We were amazed at the impact it had in our country in terms of acceptance, amazed that we lived in a world where Glee could be cool enough to be a top rated show. Glee, and Cory Monteith, had, in a way, become part of our relationship. In that tribute episode, as Monteith’s co-stars sang and acted (though you can tell they weren’t acting), we just sat there as we did early in our relationship, this time tears coating our eyes, just being sad together. For days I tried to figure out why I had that reaction, but it wasn’t until I saw my cousins react to Paul Walker’s death that I realized why I had been that emotional over Cory Monteith – it felt like something that had been a part of my early relationship with Patty was gone, poof, just like that.

Paul Walker had become a part of my cousins’ lives. We all loved The Fast and Furious movies; some of the cousins routinely spit lines from the six films in the franchise. We watch them together when they come on cable TV. We didn’t know the guy – of course – but our relationships with each other were made stronger by him. I think this is what makes the death of a celebrity so difficult. Celebrities can bring people together – people dancing to a Lady Gaga song in a club, or watching LeBron in an arena, or watching Paul Walker in a movie theater, or debating the latest Lindsay Lohan drama on an internet comment board – celebrities help forge relationships, they encourage conversations (did you see the VMAs?????), and hell, when you’re sitting at a concert or at a football stadium, just look around and remember that they help foster communities, too.

I’m the first person to tell you the way we commoditize our celebrities, the way we value them more than those in our own lives, is wrong. And yes, there is something to be said about driving too fast and doing drugs. But I’ll leave that to the rest of you. For now, I just wanted to say that Paul Walker and Cory Monteith, I thought you both were cool. I liked your movies and your TV show. I liked that you always seemed genuine. But more than that, I wanted to thank both of you for, above all else, helping to bring people together.

RIP.