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.

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. 

 

 

The "i" in Facebook

by Elison Alcovendaz

You are spread out on the couch with the laptop. Or you are out somewhere, bored, and pull out your cell phone. You log in to Facebook. You are going to say something funny. Or smart. Or controversial. Or you are going to post a picture of your kids. Or an article you read. Or one of those postcard thingies that got old last year. But before you hit the "Post" button you: check your grammar, make sure it's as funny as you think it is, check to see who might be offended, make sure certain people won't see it, or if it's a picture of yourself, you make sure you don't look fat, or that you are making one of those ugly faces you tend to make, or that the photo wasn't taken from the wrong angle. And if you pass all these checkpoints (and tons more), you will hit the "Post" button. Maybe.

Louis Althusser, a French philosopher who died in 1990, would have loved dissecting Facebook. Althusser believed that because ideologies (consumerism, patriarchy, whatever you want to throw in here) already are entrenched in society, we are already subjects (to these ideologies) once we are born. Then, as we go through life, we become complicit in our own domination by said ideologies. This is Althusser's theory of interpellation at work. However, Althusser's theory also suggests something interesting about identity. In Althusser's example, a man is walking along a crowded street when a police officer says "Hey, you there!" and an individual, thinking he or she is called, turns around. It is in this turning around that the individual confirms they are a subject.

How often does this happen? You see someone on the street and they call your name. Your identity is thus confirmed. Or, for most of your young life, you sit in a school desk and, several times a day, hear your name called to which you respond with a raised hand or a simple, "Here." Again, your identify is confirmed. Or you get a text, email, call, etc. and you text, email, call that person back. Two identities are thus confirmed. 

These examples are reductive, but Althusser might suggest that interpellation only shows that we are subjected to a higher power, an authority, that our own identities are not controlled by us but instead by other forces. For example, ideas of what it means to be a man, a woman, American, an immigrant, black, white, straight, gay, a parent, and a million other things are already preordained by the society we are born into. There's a reason why, conventionally, a baby boy's clothes are blue and a girl's are pink, why the traditional business garb for women includes heels, why we have certain holidays but not others, why we use certain textbooks and not others, why mothers and fathers traditionally have had different roles in the family. Althusser might suggest that all of these are ways to keep us subjected. While we think we're in control, in reality these ideologies, these "proper" ways of being and living are constantly and invisibly acting upon us, shaping our choices, actions, and behaviors. 

Facebook appears to be a relief from this. Finally, we can control our identities after all! We can choose what Profile Picture to use! We can easily show people what we like and what we don't like! We can choose the company we keep! We can filter the information that the world learns about us! In the real world, we used to have this power. We wore clothes, cut our hair, used certain language, befriended certain people because it said something about who we were. But what happened when you went to the store for a quick grab and didn't wear your best clothes? Or when you were having that conversation and what you meant to say came out wrong? Or you befriended the wrong person? Not a problem on Facebook. Change the picture if you don't look good, or better yet, never post it at all! Flubbed something you said? Edit it! Made friends with someone who turned out not to be so great? Delete them! 

This is Facebook's greatest strength - the idea that we can participate in society and actually control and shape the way that people see us. Most of us post pictures that don't really look like us on an everyday basis. On Facebook, we can make ourselves funnier, more intelligent, more compassionate; in general, we can be a better, more beautiful version of ourselves. Because we can control the information, because we can edit our mistakes, we finally have the opportunity to be the best us that we could ever be and we don't even have to really work at it.

And yet, if Althusser was correct, we are essentially participating in an even more dominant ideology: we are being pulled away from Althusser's street to Facebook, where interpellation happens on a second-by-second basis. No longer do we have to go out and participate in the world, endure the crowded street and wait for someone to notice us or call our name; no longer do we actually have to shake a hand or pick up a phone. We "like" someone's status update. They "like" our status updates. Our identities - our funny, genius, controversial, caring, awesome, beautiful, relevant identities - are being confirmed so quickly it becomes a drug. How many of us have tried to quit Facebook only to return? We cannot get this kind of identity confirmation out on the street. Of course it doesn't matter that we all established our profiles using the same template, with the same colors; we are all individuals in control of our selves.

I admit it. I like Facebook. I like when someone likes something I said. I like putting my best version of myself out there. I can only hope that I'm not Narcissus, staring at an image of myself that isn't the real me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

excerpt from "The Mortician's Son"

by Elison Alcovendaz

 - original version featured in Under the Gum Tree, Issue 7: April 2013

 

 

One week before St. Peter’s School’s end-of-year Mass and I, a mere sixth grader, had been chosen to read and write my own Prayers of the Faithful. Sister Luz Eugenia wanted six of them. Creative but traditional, she said. The first five prayers came easy:  something about the poor, the hungry, the sick, the tired, and of course a vocational one for more nuns and priests. But I wanted the last one to be different. Something I’d never heard before.

“What’s this?” Sister Luz Eugenia asked when I gave her my first draft. She stared hard at the scrap of paper with that weary, burdened expression all nuns possess. 

“What’s what?”

“This last one. The one about the mentally retarded.”

I shrugged. I wasn’t sure what she was asking. It occurred to me that they needed prayers just like everyone else.

“Come here,” she said. I stepped around the teacher’s desk. She placed her hand on my shoulder and smiled sympathetically. I could see my confused reflection in her thick bifocals.

“Your heart is in the right place,” she said. “But there are some things that, well, when you get older, you will realize there are just some things that are… difficult to talk about.  They just make people uneasy. Well not they, but the topic. Would you mind writing another one?  You might try something about the poor.”

Perhaps she’d forgotten I already wrote one for the poor. She handed back the paper and offered a clumsy pat on the back. When I got back to my desk, I wondered why it was okay for the poor to get two prayers when the mentally retarded couldn’t even get one.    

I’m sitting at a dirty table in the Sac State library, staring at the white Google page on my laptop. The words mentally retarded flash in the search box. I know there are hundreds of books in the rows of shelves behind me that I could read. Better information. More expert information. But I’ve already taken my shoes off and the wooly cushion has already contoured to my ass. 

My middle finger hovers over the Enter buttonI’m not sure where my hesitation comes from. Even as I type this paragraph, my hands shake as though they want to write something else. Something comfortable. Sister Luz Eugenia was right – even now, 23 years later, there are things that are difficult to talk about, much less write about. I know the term “mentally retarded” has become politically incorrect. But “mentally handicapped” cannot be much better, can it? Perhaps I’m lengthening this paragraph to stall.  Perhaps if I hit Enter, I will become aware of my own bigotry, a discriminatory subconscious conditioned by decades of silence. Not just my own but of those around me. Elephants made larger by an unwillingness to engage the invisible discourse. 

For most of my teenage years, I lived next to the mortician. I called him ‘the mortician’ because no one knew his name, but we did know that he smelled like formaldehyde and drove a hearse that always looked one more mile away from exploding. The mortician hardly spoke. Once, after getting my driver’s learning permit, he stormed out of his front door and yelled, “How dare you park so close to my driveway!” Another time, we met at the community mailbox. I tried to ask him how his day was going, but he just grumbled something about the stupidity of today’s youth and slammed his mailbox shut. I stayed up many a night, writing horror stories about the lonely mortician who killed kids and buried them in the backyard.

Every Fourth of July, my extended family would come to my parents’ house for a huge celebration. While my father barbecued in the backyard, my cousins and I spent the day in the street playing basketball and football. At night, we gathered on the driveway and watched my uncles light up fireworks. The mortician never came out on those days – unless someone parked too close to his driveway – but we would sometimes see a ghostly face in the second-story window, watching us from behind a flimsy curtain.

In 1996, just before my uncles started the fireworks show, the mortician’s garage door opened. A gigantic man in his early twenties came walking out.  He was hunched over and pudgy, his mouth smiling and slobbery, and wore a thick black coat that brushed his black, floppy boots. He lumbered across his lawn and mine in five long strides.  None of us had seen him before. He sat down on the sidewalk next to my younger cousin, Janelle, and anchored his arm around her neck. Janelle shrieked, threw his arm off of her, and ran to hide behind her dad.

“Where you going, Janelle?” some of my cousins and I teased. “You finally found someone dumb enough to like you!” 

My mother narrowed her eyes at us but said nothing. The huge man got to his feet, turned to us, and saw us laughing. With a deep and somber voice, he began laughing too.

 

For more, please purchase Under the Gum Tree, Issue 7: April 2013  here