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. 

 

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!

Trust (or The Clothes in the Hamper)

by Elison Alcovendaz

You wake up in the morning to your alarm clock. The time on the phone is right. It's smart, after all. You know it. You'd put your career on the line to that clock. You go take a shower and let that water into your mouth and eyes because you know - you know - that water is safe. The city said so. They got testers. They pay people for that. You watch your wife put on her make-up. You brush your teeth with that toothpaste you bought at that store, you put on that deodorant, that lotion, and nah, of course none of those things have long-term effects. The FDA said those things were good. If not, some other official organization. Official, like, they report to people. They report to leadership. Those experts about stuff that work in that building somewhere.

You put on warm clothes. The meteorologist said it would be cold. You set the alarm to your house. You lock your doors. You see the fence but you don't ever think about it. What's there to think about? It's a fence. It keeps people out. Before you get to your car you wave at your neighbors. Those neighbors you've said three words to in six months. Those neighbors respect that fence just like you respect their fence. It's six feet tall and has splinters in it. No one would climb that fence. People don't do that. Just like people don't break windows. 

You kiss your wife before she gets into her car. You get in your car. The one those guys at the dealer you always go to serviced last weekend. Those guys know cars. They even listed them on the receipt they had you sign. There was proof they knew stuff. It was right there. You start the car. It works of course. All those parts working together like that is just amazing. You put your kid in his car seat. They said it should no longer be rear-facing - I mean, they said it. You buckle him in and then buckle yourself in. You drive. You see other drivers. All those people who have been deemed worthy to drive because they understand the rules of the road are driving those multi-ton machines built by that factory in that country over there and are whizzing by you and your child, everywhere. You stop at that light. You see a cop. You see a green light. You drive. 

You drop your kid off at a babysitter. Nothing can happen there. You have vetted this babysitter. Your friend said she was good. Or if your kid is older, you will drop him at school. He will be taught all the right things by people who love their job and are good at it, too. He will read books. There are a lot of books he will read. Books that a group somewhere decided were the best books all kids should read. He will play with other children who will not do anything to him. I mean, these are other kids we're talking about. He will learn things that some agency that was put together to decide stuff said was necessary to learn. He will learn these things even though there are 35 other kids in his classroom with him. Taxes fund these schools. You pay your taxes. He will learn these things.

You get to work. You won't get paid until the end of the month but you know you will get paid. I mean, it has happened for two straight years now. The money is just there and then you start on the next month. You work on a computer that is protected. It has things like firewalls on it. Only you and your IT staff can see it. That's the way it is. You lock your sensitive documents in that locked drawer. It stays locked when you go to lunch. There's another key somewhere, but, well, no one does those kinds of things.  

At lunch you got to that cool new spot and check-in on Facebook and order the sandwich, the one with the meat and vegetables and bread that came from that place that collects these things and delivers them to the restaurant. You order water. You drink it. While you are waiting for your food you get a text. It is from your wife. It is from your wife because it says so. I mean, who else would be texting you at this time and you know her phone number, they assigned it, its right there on your phone - there's even a picture that pops up! - it is her. You text for a while then you get your food and you eat it. It is delicious. You give the waiter your credit card and he goes to the back to run it. You drink more water. You get the bill and sign it and leave the receipt there on the table with your signature on it. You go back to work.

When work is done, you pick your son up. He isn't crying. Everything is fine. Or, he says school is fine. Everything is fine. You go home. The fence is there. You wave at your neighbors. You go inside. It was hot all day so you shower again. Your son is playing a game on his computer. Your wife isn't home yet. You put a microwave dinner into the microwave and you heat it up and you cut it and you give it to your son. Then you make one for yourself. It is the perfect temperature.

You watch the news. They are talking about Syria. They are telling you about Syria. You watch another channel. They are also talking about Syria. They are telling you something else about Syria. We shouldn't intervene, you think, or we're talking to long to intervene, you think. You go online. You read some articles about other things. You didn't see the game but your team won. The score says it right there. You read about an animal that's going extinct. You read about a scientific discovery they made. You read about how to prevent skin cancer. You read about why GMOs are bad. You read about the hundred new healthy diets that all purport to do what exactly you're not quite sure. You read the mainstream news. You read the not-so mainstream news. You check Facebook. You get unsolicited life advice from your friends.  You see a person you haven't seen since middle school. You add them, even though it doesn't look like them. You put your birthday on your profile. What an easy way to connect. Your wife still isn't home.  

Your son is still playing that game, the one those people made. That one agency rated it a PG so you know it is okay. Your home phone rings. Someone is calling you. It is not your wife. She would not call the home phone before calling your cell phone. You know this. You let it go to voice mail. The voice mail will take the call for you. That's how it works. That's what it was built for. You listen. It is a damn telemarketer. The telemarketer is selling you something. You hate telemarketers. You delete the message once the person stops talking.  

You put your son to sleep and turn on the baby monitor. Those things are genius. Or, your son is still playing that game. You check your phone. No calls. No texts. It is an old phone but it works. She has not called. She has not texted. You go online and the computer boots up just like that. You connect to the internet just like that. You have a firewall too. And a password for your wi-fi. You go to that website and buy that shirt you were looking at last week. You put your credit card in and hit send. The same credit card you gave to the waiter earlier that day. You check your emails. She has not emailed. You know she hasn't because there is no email from her in your in-box. Or in your spam. She has not communicated at all. She has not texted, called, or emailed because your phone and computer said so. You check your phone again. 

It is late when your wife arrives. You are already in bed reading a book about the Gulf War. She opens the door and you see her hair is messy. Her clothes are wrinkled. Her hair looks askew. She tells you a story. She tells you how her car broke down on the way home and her phone died and no one would stop and help so she walked the whole ten miles home. You ask where the car is and she says some street near her office. You wonder if you heard a car pull up before you heard her open the front door. She goes to the bathroom and takes a shower and brushes her teeth and gargles with mouthwash. She tells you what she heard about Syria. She tells you she loves you. You look at her and tell her you love her too. When she falls asleep, you go the bathroom and reach into the hamper to check her clothes.

 

 

 

 

The Fear of Fatherhood

by Elison Alcovendaz

FACT: Of the 90 or so members in my extended family, I am the oldest one without a kid.

FACT: Of the 50 or so members of my friend groups, I am the oldest one without a kid. 

FACT: I am scared of being a father.  

 

People are amused when I say this. They look at me as though I am a child who said something funny, like the time I asked my mother why I couldn’t grab the little people in the TV. For many men in this position, it has something to do with their fathers being terrible. Not so with me. My father has been consistently great, from birth to now (see picture below). So what, then? Is it because, as a recent  Time article suggested, in order to "have it all," you shouldn't have a child?

 Me and my dad, mid 1980s.

Me and my dad, mid 1980s.

I don't know. My thought process goes something like this: I want to be as prepared as possible – emotionally, mentally, financially, etc. – to give the child the best chance of becoming a successful, happy adult. Or, to put it more truly, I want to be as prepared as possible to lessen the opportunity that I will do something to screw the kid’s life up.

Here are some of the responses I’ve received when I mention my fatherhood fear:

“There's no point to waiting. There’s never a good time.”

All you parents out there are nodding your heads. I can see you. But while I agree there is probably never a “good” time, or what people probably think as a “perfect” time, isn’t there a “better” time? Isn’t it better, say, to be able to provide health insurance for your child? Or, say, to have a dependable means of transportation? Or a stable job? Or, hey, any job? And those are just the financials. Isn't it better to be in a supportive, loving relationship rather than be in an abusive one, or be alone? Isn't it better to have found a way to take care of yourself before you take care of someone else? Isn't it better to have more life experience than none? 

There might be some truth in that, Elison, but you know…

"Nothing is ever perfect." 

Well, unless you believe in God (but that's for another blog, sorry). I would answer this the same way I answered the first statement. Of course nothing is ever perfect, but does that mean you shouldn't try to make your life as great an environment for a child as can possibly be?  

Well, I'll grant you that's probably logical, Elison, but... 

You have always been an overthinker.”

This is absolutely true. I think about things way too much. No argument there. But would most of you agree that having a child is probably the most important decision a person might ever make? If so, shouldn’t it be thought about? And not just thought about, but thought about a lot? I’ve known people who do more research deciding what outfit they're going to wear on a Friday night then thinking about their children’s future. I don’t mean to sound judgmental. I’m really trying to understand. 

But you are sounding a little judgmental, Elison. Still, I think...  

“You just figure it out as you go.”

I am absolutely positive that this is 100% true. No parent preparation book, no amount of thinking, no amount of advice from all the parents in the world can truly prepare you for what you will have to do. But this is not a parenting quote, it's a life quote, right? It's a... duh...  quote. Again, I think most people would say having a child is the most important decision you might ever make. So, are we just going to rely on the little trite saying to get by? The quote itself suggests zero preparation, zero thought process. I don't know where everyone gets their confidence from. If I'm going to prepare for a Powerpoint presentation, I should probably at least try and prepare for raising a child.

You're sounding a little bit more judgmental now, but I'll forgive you. I can see why you are thinking so much about this. Let me ask you a question:

"Are you willing to give up everything for your kids? If not, you're not ready. "

Now we're getting somewhere. I've heard this many times and I'm not sure I fully understand it. I mean, I understand the concept, I just don't understand the necessity of it. Is it really necessary to drop everything for your children? There are many individual passions and ambitions I want to pursue, a lot of which will take lots of time, energy, and money - time, energy, and money that won't go to the kids. Eventually getting a PhD, writing books, traveling the world. My worry is that if I do this, my family will suffer for it. My worry is that if I don't do this, I will carry resentment in my chest, probably forever (or until I have that epiphanic release in old age I keep hearing about). 

I had lunch with an old friend recently who was going through a messy divorce. Her main complaint was that her soon-to-be-ex had personal ambitions that took up some of his spare time - he was trying to start some kind of car business, which was his passion - and that had gotten in the way of time with his children. The whole time, I couldn't stop thinking that, even if your day job is something that you do just to pay the bills, it's probably good for your kids to see you pursuing something that makes you happy, that life doesn't have to be about punching in a clock just so you could perpetuate that existence for your kids, and their kids, and so on. Maybe I'm crazy.

I'm starting to think you are. But seriously, Elison:  

"Do you even want kids? "

I do. The problem is, I can't think of a reason that isn't selfish. I've asked numerous parents why they had a child, and most of them said some version of: I. Want(ed). To. Maybe it was a natural feeling, a biological clock; maybe it was the next step in a relationship between two people who cared about each other; maybe it was wanting someone to love who will love you back; maybe it was because of societal pressure; maybe it was because your religion says this is what you are supposed to do; maybe you had a passionate night that ended up in the miracle that is currently annoying the crap out of you because he/she won't stop crying. I honestly believe that every child is a miracle, but that's not the point. I want children, but why?

Even if I say it's because of my religion (which it isn't), it's still because I. Want. To. Please. My. Church. Even if it's because you had that night of hot sex, it's still because I. Wanted. It. Or if I wanted to have one with my beautiful wife (which I do), it's still because We. Want. One (or two). There is no reason out there that isn't some version of an "I" desire. It's about me. It's about us. It's not about the would-be children, and I believe that, to some extent, it should be.

You're off your rocker.  The ultimate truth of it is... 

"Having a child changes you." 

Okay. I see. No, really, I've seen it. The people who say having children isn't going to change them are the people who it changes the most. As the childless friend/family member who has seen countless friends and family disappear once they've had children, I know this to be true. But that is a superficial point. What people are saying is that it changes you internally. It changes your core. Life suddenly becomes not about you at all, but those little darlings who are now in your charge.

But, what if I don't want to change? And, how can I trust that when I hold that baby in my arms for the first time, the man I've been for this long will suddenly be different, somehow be "better"? It's the proverbial leap of faith. A leap over a widening chasm. I'm scared of losing myself. I don't want to give up those ambitions. I don't want to put them on hold (which is something else I've heard). So... what happens if this doesn't happen to me, or, if it does, I fight it?    And if I fight it, and it somehow affects the kids, how will I be able to deal with that?

You shouldn't worry about that too much...

"Every parent screws up their kids somehow. Most of us still make it just fine."

So that's what I have to hang my hat on, huh? Why am I thinking about this so much? What does it mean? 

Well, Elison, it probably means one of two things. It means you're not ready, or it means...

"The fact you worry about it so much means you'll probably be a good dad." 

I certainly hope so. If not, can I use the "reproduction for human survival" argument?

You could, but the earth is already overpopulated as it is. Good night, Elison.

Good night, Elison. 

 

 

 

  

  

 

 

  

 

A Teacher's Spouse

by Elison Alcovendaz

Early in our relationship, Patty and I watched a movie called Freedom Writers. It starred Hilary Swank as a young teacher in a low-income school who dedicated a big part of her life to kids who faced so many other life issues that education was not a priority. The movie scared me. Patty and I hadn't become real serious yet, but I saw her dedication to her students. In the film, Swank's husband couldn't take the late nights, the constant focus on kids, the major extent of her emotional capacity spent on worrying about her students. I was scared because I could see this happening. And it made me feel like a real ass.

A couple of weekends ago I attended the wedding of two middle school math teachers. My wife, who teaches middle school English, and I sat at a table with four other middle school teachers. When I find myself in such situations, I like to play a game: how soon will they start talking about work and students and Common Core, how long will they talk about it, when will they decide to stop talking about these topics, and then when will they start talking about them again. This is a facetious game that I play in my head, but in truth these aren't teachers who are complaining about their job, these are teachers who love their job so much, care about their students so much, that even on the summer break everyone admires, they talk, read, lesson plan, bounce ideas off each other, attend trainings, all to help kids develop into successful people. 

Not all teachers are like this, of course. There are bad teachers like there are bad people in any profession. Bad teachers aren't the ones who necessarily get bad test scores, they are the ones who are checked out, no longer care, or are in it for the wrong reasons. To be a spouse of a teacher like this would probably be much easier. When tax time came, you wouldn't have to worry about figuring out how much in Teacher's Expenses you can write off (not that it really matters, since you can only write off $200 anyway). You wouldn't have to worry about your spouse coming home late because a kid with a rough home life had something horrific happen to them after school, or planning your wedding and vacations and possible pregnancies around summer break because to do otherwise would hurt students, or your spouse going in to work when they can hardly walk because hey - one day with a bad substitute teacher can cause weeks or months of delayed lessons.

I am not married to such a teacher.

We carpool. I have an eight hour job. Sometimes, when I get off work, I have to find something to do for 1, 2, 4 hours because of some unplanned emergency that always seems to happen in middle school. We no longer worry about keeping receipts throughout the year - kids need books, pencils, notebooks, and sometimes even food - so we just mark our allotted $200 on our 1040 and go on our merry way. When you are constantly around teachers, you hear stories - parents who never call you back about a kid's failing grades but scream at you when you take their kids' bubblegum away, kids for whom calling CPS is a common occurrence, about staying after school with your classroom open so kids whose parents can't afford day care have some place to stay for a while... oh, and on top of being a surrogate parent, psychologist, coach, mentor, babysitter, club leader, dance and field trip organizer, they also teach! Crazy, huh?

Which is why I often feel like a jerk. For a lot of the students, teachers are the only adults that students connect with. The role of the teacher in a person's life cannot be overlooked. I know this. I understand this. And yet, when so much of Patty's energy and time go to her students that when she gets home, she doesn't even feel like talking anymore because she has been doing so all day, I get annoyed. When Patty didn't want to take more than three days off for our wedding because it was STAR testing (and 100 PERCENT OF KIDS HAVE TO BE PROFICIENT BECAUSE THAT'S SUCH A REAL, LOGICAL EXPECTATION), I tried to understand. Sometimes, the students have to take precedence. But I still felt like a jerk. I felt like a jerk when she took some of the books we bought for ourselves to her classroom. I felt like a jerk when she took on a bunch of extracurricular duties. And yet, I love her because she is this person. I wouldn't want her to ever be anyone else. We are friends with our wedding table mates because they are these people, too. They are the teachers you would want your kids to have.

Whenever something newsworthy happens in education, I read the online news articles and scroll through the comments. It's amazing how many idiots (yes, idiots) think teachers are overpaid or are the reason kids are entitled or are one of society's biggest problems. Teachers have these kids for a couple hours a day, tops, and they are supposed to battle TV, the internet, their home life, a world of instant gratification, Facebook, smart phones, poverty, lack of resources, dwindling community support, uninvolved parents, gangs and drugs and abuse in the home, a government and system that values test scores over learning, language and cultural barriers, poor pay, administrative difficulties, hormonal puberty, and myriad other issues. It's amazing what people can say behind the anonymity of a comment board. But after reading all of this idiocy, I just look across the couch and see Patty, marking up a novel she's going to teach, and I think of all of our friends at that table, using their own cash to attend trainings during the summer, trying to be innovative with new technologies, updating their lesson plans, and I somehow know the future - and our future - will be just fine.

The Ring

by Elison Alcovendaz

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

 Photo courtesy of JSA photography (jsafoto.com).

Photo courtesy of JSA photography (jsafoto.com).

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Soulmate Problem

by Elison Alcovendaz

"From forth the fatal loins of those two foes / A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life; / Whose misadventur'd piteous overthrows / Doth with their death bury their parents' strife"

                                                                                                                  - Shakespeare, "Romeo and Juliet"

With the wedding coming up in exactly 29 days, my mind has turned more seriously to the vows I need to write. For some reason, as trite as it may be, my mind keeps arriving at the word "soulmate." It is an old idea, one that goes back to the ancient Greeks, where Zeus, fearing the four-limbed early humans would overtake him, split them into male and female, forever wandering the earth to find their "soulmates."

Transient

That might seem more grotesque than we would typically think. Many of us have instead been conditioned by the romantic idea of the soulmate found in "Romeo and Juliet" - the ONE person for us, the ONE person we "literally" cannot live without, but perhaps more importantly, a person we can actually find. Centuries later, this idea of the soulmate persists. Think Edward and Bella (unfortunately and undoubtedly one of THE most popular soulmates of our time), think every final scene of every rom-com over the past, oh, I don't know, twenty years, hell, even think about ChristianMingle.com, where you can find "God's Match For You."

The soulmate has been a cornerstone of modern romance. It's not just a word we use in middle school poems we write before we know poems don't have to rhyme; deep down inside, we, adults, believe, even with just a small flicker of hope, that we will find that ONE person who is meant to complete our lives, to give meaning to our existence, or we hope hope hope until we believe believe believe that the person next to us checking their texts while we read this blog IS that ONE special person who has completed our life and given meaning to our existence.

You've noticed I've been capitalizing the word ONE. It's an important number, obviously. There are 7,000,000,000 people in the world. Let's say that in your lifetime you'll meet 100,000 people, or a little bit more than 1/10th of 1% of the people in the world. Some of these encounters will be one-second glances in a public restroom, some of these will happen when you are in a bad mood, some of these will occur when you're in a relationship, some of these will be when you are two months old. So 25,000 encounters? 10,000?

If the soulmate exists, the math says that meeting them is, at best, extremely highly improbable. You have a better chance of drowning in a bathtub (sorry, morbid). I mean, you have a better chance of winning an Academy Award (that's more positive!).  Even two Academy Awards (start working on that costume design!). And that's just meeting them. How many times do you say hi to people you come across? 1 out of every 20? 50? 100? Now you are in the world of "microchances." Now you have a better chance of becoming president (need a speech writer? I'm available!) or an officially canonized saint (start practicing those Our Fathers!). What if your soulmate is one of those people you didn't meet because they lived on the other side of the world? What if your soulmate lived in another time or hasn't been born yet? Estimates say over 100,000,000,000 people have ever lived on the earth. Man, how much would it suck if your soulmate was a cavewoman? Or Napoleon Bonaparte? Or won't be born until Year 10,123? 

Okay, you're right, math and logic have no place in a discussion of soul mates. Let's take a look at romance. The general idea of the soul mate is that some "thing" - Zeus, God, world spirit, kismet, etc. - has placed that special somebody somewhere in the world, accessible RIGHT NOW. Let's ignore that the Earth's surface area is 510 million square kilometers. What are you going to do to find this person? Take a trip to Timbuktu? Go to that one Starbucks on that one corner at the exact moment when your soulmate spills their venti Caramel Macchiato on your shirt and you end up saying some cute things to each other and end up living happily ever after? Probably not. For most of us, aside from some cliche sayings of "putting yourself out there" and "making yourself available," we assume we will just happen to come across our soulmate at one point or another. This means that our soulmate is out of our control. If we are "meant" to meet them, you will, even if you are Emily Dickinson, holed up in your house writing poems with so many dashes that people will automatically think they must be brilliant, come across your soulmate's path. Doesn't this seem completely un-Romantic to you? That we have no choice? That all we have to do is just kind of hang out and we will find the ONE? And guess what? If it doesn't work - well, it's not our fault that we were disloyal, narcissistic, abusive, stupid, selfish - nope, it simply means "they were not the one."

Seems kind of lazy to me. Seems that we shouldn't put love in the hands of anyone other than ourselves. Seems much more romantic to know that 100,000,000,000 people have lived on this earth, that 7,000,000,000 are currently living on this earth with 510 million kilometers of surface area, and that despite all of that, you are choosing to be with that one person. You choose it on a daily basis. You know the numbers, you know the odds, and you do not care because you choose to be with this person. You fight, you argue, you make mistakes, but you choose to work through it. You want to be with this person, but not because of some forever, unexplainable, lack-of-agency emotion, but because they are generous, beautiful, funny, respectful, smart, cute, understanding, supportive, etc. I don't know, that just seems 100,000,000,000 times more romantic to me than Zeus splitting me from my other half.

Maybe I'm being too Sheldon Cooper. Maybe I'm being naive. Maybe I'm overthinking it. Maybe those of you who have been married for years will tell me I'm an idiot who needs to get knocked a few times off this high horse I'm riding on. All I know is I have 29 days to explain this in a much more romantic way.