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.

A Love Letter to Literature

by Elison Alcovendaz

Dear Literature,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,

Elison 

 

Writing About People You Know

by Elison Alcovendaz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, that wasn’t helpful.

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

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

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

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

The End of Talent

by Elison Alcovendaz
McKayla and the POTUS are not impressed.

McKayla and the POTUS are not impressed.

Forget McKayla Maroney (maybe you already have), my wife is not impressed. I admit, I am Captain Hooked to reality talent shows: So You Think You Can Dance?, American Idol, The Voice, etc. I am on top of it like nastiness on quinoa (or whatever else you eat that stuff with). But Patty, she just doesn't get it. Any time she happens to be watching such a show with me, she gets visibly annoyed. Eye rolls and sighs galore. Finally, last week, as two wonderful singers belted out "Light it Up" on The Voice, she said something that perfectly explained her reality show distaste:

No one is talented anymore. 

How can this be true? was my original thought. If anything, the proliferation of reality singing, dancing, cooking, comedy, design, home building, and bunch of other talent-showcasing shows automatically disproved Patty's theory. After watching these shows over the last decade, I was still amazed by how many talented people are out there in the world. Just check out a few YouTube videos, and you'll see - the world is full of talented people. 

But what is the definition of talent? Not even looking at a dictionary, most of us would agree that talent means being able to do something well that most other people cannot do well. Typically, you would hear a song on the radio, or see an actor perform, or read a book, and you would know that person was talented because you couldn't find anyone else like them. This is what I call "The Old Model of Talent." Industries everywhere acted as gatekeepers for what talent would actually get into circulation. In the music industry, these would be the major record labels; in the film industry, the major production companies; in the book industry, the major publishing houses. We trusted that these institutions would filter out the talented from the talentless, put those talented people into circulation, then, by way of our spending dollars, we would, as the public, decide who in that talented group was talented enough to make a living showing the world their talents.

Another example: if you attend any English program at any college in the country, you will eventually discuss "The Canon." The Canon is a term used to describe the collection of literary works throughout history that has been decided upon to be "the best writing" or "the writing done by the most talented authors." You will learn, however, that the people who decided on the The Canon are OWMs, or as we in the know call them, Old White Men. The idea is that The Canon cannot be the "best writing of the most talented authors" because there was a bias against female authors, black authors, Asian authors, etc. The idea is that, while much of the The Canon we know today is great writing, there are actually multitudinous more literary works by traditionally minoritized (if this isn't a word it should be) groups that need to be included as well.

That accurately, I think, describes The Old Model of Talent. The New Model of Talent, for the most part, dispenses with gatekeepers. Take self-publishing, for example. Now, those trusty publishing houses are no longer in charge of what authors and what books enter circulation; anyone who can write something and has access to the Internet and  a little bit of money can publish a book. This isn't talent, you say, and I agree. However, I've scoured plenty of self-published ebooks and let me tell you, there is an infinite amount of more talented writers out there today then there ever was. There is crap out there too, of course (there always was, just more of it now), but the fact remains that without the gatekeepers, the literary world has been flooded with more talent.  

The same goes for the music industry. The abundance of reality singing shows, while still managed by gatekeepers (hello Simon Cowell), has put into circulation tens of thousands of regular Joes and Janes who would never have been able to showcase their talent before. Or, better yet, YouTube. It is unfathomable how many talented singers and musicians and rappers are on that site, many of whom have established careers just based on a few videos (case in point). The whole "indie" scene is no longer really an indie scene in the true sense of the word if we can be honest; authors and musicians and actors considered to be "indie" are some of the richest, most widely read, listened to, and watched people of our time. 

So, back to the wife. Her point about the end of talent is an important and, I think, poignant one. Talent can only be talent when not a lot of other people can do it. But this isn't actually a problem of talent, really, but one of technology. I would argue that there have always been countless people who could sing, play the guitar, act, write, do makeup really well, interior decorate a house, etc., we just couldn't see them. The gatekeepers and the lack of technology kept them away. Now, with the rise of cable channels and the Internet and YouTube and mobile devices and iTunes and iPods and Amazon and a million other things, millions of these talented people have been brought to our front door. If there are millions of good singers and authors and directors and comedians out there, how can there still be talent? How can we still be impressed?

Easy: marketing. After all, a reader wading through the bookshelves of the Internet has much more work to do than a reader scouring the bookshelves of your local bookstore, much like a listener scouring YouTube has much more options than the local Camelot Music store selection (maybe I'm dating myself here...). How do you get someone's attention? The common answer is: you make good music, write good books, produce good films, and the audience will follow. This is the advice people give when they don't want people to know the truth - that having talent is only the beginning. In the Old Model, "talent" carried a lot more weight. Marketing was always a part of it, but in the New Model, marketing is exponentially more important. There are so many more options for the public to sort through. You need to catch their attention. You need to be scandalous. You need to "go viral." Most of the great self-publishers and YouTube sensations are marketing geniuses. They know how to get "hits." 

Have you heard this stupid, racist song or read this stupid, stupid book? Even if you haven't, millions of other people have. It's hard to imagine that this would happen so often in the Old Model. I'm glad that talented people have the opportunity to enter the market now without being at the whim of some unseen gatekeeper, but there's also more occurrences of the crap becoming more successful than the talent. The goal now is to heavily market yourself or do something so terrible that the media talks about it. Or, in the case of reality TV show contestants, an "emotional story." Most of these are so contrived (you mean they actually air the "emotional story" about the single mom who overcame bullying and an eating disorder when she was a child and went to Afghanistan during the war and is now living on food stamps and this is her one and only chance to show her twenty kids that you can achieve your dreams BEFORE she actually sings for the first time?), that they're borderline unbearable. Of course there's room for rapping Panda Bears and for dinosaurs to satisfy themselves sexually with girls in bikinis and singers with dramatized sob stories in the market, but is this "talent"?

Of course not. 

There's probably a blog to be written on how technology has changed our attention spans (and thus our capacity for deep, attentive, creative, critical analysis), to make songs and books and stories like those above profitable. And in the end, without the gatekeepers, the result might be the same. We get to decide who can survive making a living performing their "talent" by how we spend our dollar. Should someone who spends a month in the studio recording songs on auto-tune make a living when that actually talented band doing gigs at bars and clubs and podunk festivals cannot? Maybe technology has made us so mindless that we want movies that only blow things up and that flash edited screens across our eyelids every second; or maybe we want overly repetitive synthetic beats that some DJ "sampled" from someone else; maybe we want books only to escape, not to learn something. Maybe there's a reason commercials went from being informational to just trying to be "catchy." Maybe the entire world suffers from ADD. I don't know. What I do know is that even if we have reached the end of talent, even if the market is flooded with billions of contenders, we are still the ones with our hands on our wallets and in our purses; we are the ones in control. 

Perhaps I shouldn't say that we've reached the end of talent. Maybe, having talent just isn't special any more. And in case you were wondering, in regards to the reality TV shows, I'm voting for contestant #8. You know who I'm talking about - she's the 10 year-old who wanted to be a singer and sell out stadiums all over the world her "whole life..."

  

Howl

by Elison Alcovendaz
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Barkley ran around the backyard, pooping in the corner, pissing in the other, and I followed him around, a taut hand on the leash, trying to lead and not to be led, when he finally began to doze off on a pile of leaves I had neglected to rake the last two weeks, and since it was only 10am on a Monday, and the suburbs were quiet, I went back inside and grabbed my guitar, moved a picnic chair to the middle of the backyard patio, and began to run my fingers across the fretboard, but something wasn’t right and at first I didn’t know what it was, but then I realized it was off tune, and since I’m tone deaf I couldn’t tune it by ear, I decided not to play, but then Barkley woke up and began to howl, and soon all the dogs in the neighborhood were howling, and I began to howl too, but inside, and by the pitch of the collective howls I tuned the guitar, and started to pluck the strings, and sing a song about being free, and by the time I was done all the dogs were silent and Barkley was sleeping again. 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Inisheer

by Elison Alcovendaz

- For Mom and Dad

The old home - photograph courtesy of Marco Alcovendaz.

The old home - photograph courtesy of Marco Alcovendaz.

In the picture, you see the siding bent and decaying, carrying splintered traces of what was once grey or light blue paint. You see cobwebs that fill the crevices of everything – the garage door, the windowsills, the cracks in the brick façade, and you can imagine the daddy-long-legs and black widows wrapped up tight in their silk, waiting. There are the Christmas lights of course, five, maybe ten years old, dangling from beneath the gutters, those trusty gutters that caught the rain and dispelled it back to the earth, keeping your ceilings and hair dry. You see the pebbled driveway, the concrete cracked in several places, the wooden joints between the slabs alive with weeds too green to be weeds. You see the pine tree you planted, the Japanese maple that started as a simple twig and grew into something big and beautiful. You see the remnants of fireworks. You see the lawn upon which the blow-up Frosty and Santa stood and waved in the wind, ready to greet you. You see the pathway you built, the flowers you nourished. There is the speed bump some city worker put in a few years ago, the same speed bump you never wanted to park on but did anyway. You see the Sentra, the Galant, the Scirocco, the UPS van, the Sonata. You see the broken address light, the corner split into shards, but the 8782 still shines there for those that remember.

In the next picture, you see the garage, all three spots filled with junk, and it is junk, you know it’s junk, but it’s yours. Wow, you think, there are tons of golf clubs everywhere, and not one helped your golf game, not even a little. You see the Ping-Pong table, where you played and called yourself the best in the family, where you bounced small, white balls into red, plastic cups while your cousins drank beer and pretended to be rappers. You see countless boxes and locked up drawers and chests, the same boxes and drawers and chests you spent whole summers looking through, hoping but failing to find an adult magazine. You see the jacks you used to raise your car and change the oil when you thought you knew what you were doing. You see the pool table and the Win/Loss columns on the whiteboard. There are tools and bags of clothes and baseball cards and tires and the garage sale signs and parts from all the cars you drove and three license plates from other states that you knew could be the beginning to an awesome collection someday.

The backyard is next, a series of photographs of the spa that you never understood why no one really used, the pool that you constructed and deconstructed every year, the spots where all the dogs pooped, the fences bent and broken by misthrown balls. You see the weird, blue plastic tiles that somehow turned into the family basketball court. And there’s the hoop of course, the one you practiced your free throws on, the one you practiced your step-back jumper on, the one the family played H.O.R.S.E. on, the one you lowered for dunk contests, the one where you and your brother played one-on-one and you learned of victory and defeat and competition and brotherhood. You see the orange tree you planted, the tiny rubber balls scattered over the dirt that the dog forgot about. If you look close enough, you see the wasps, the patio table tucked in the back corner, the fire pit around which guitars were played and songs were sung and whispers and secrets were shared.

The next photographs are of the inside. Through the open front doors you see the triangle where your mom always placed the Bible or a prayer or one of those corny sayings about home that always made you feel warm, though you would never admit it. Next to it, that strange, forgotten plant that weaved through the bannister bars, the tile upon which piles of confetti (and sometimes cash) fell every New Year’s Eve. You see the spot where you always took your prom pictures, the same spot you practiced your between-the-legs-dribble and spin move when it was raining or too cold outside or you just had a basketball in your hand and felt like you needed to do something with it. You see the rows and rows of shoes. You see piles of dirty clothes your sons dropped from upstairs. You see the cage, the green and yellow birds that annoyed you when you were on the phone talking to your girlfriend, the birds that found ways to escape and you’d find chillin’ on the bathroom sink. You see the stairs where the older cousins sat on Christmas, feeling like children but too cool to be by the tree with the kids.

The family room is next, with its ceiling that always reminded you of a paper plane. There is the old baby grand it took almost the whole family to move, with its ivory keys bent and torn, and though it was never tuned, you remember its harmonious sound. There are the picture frames with your headshots, every year from kindergarten through high school. You see the furniture you moved when you throught you were breakdancers and needed space to practice your windmills, the piles and piles of gifts that looked like Santa’s workshop, and of course, Santa himself, you and your brother and your cousin and your uncle and your other cousin and your other uncle, lipstick making your cheeks red and shiny, the cotton balls stuck to your face, the pillows under your stomach you had to hold in place, the babies that cried when they had to take a picture with you.

In the next photograph, you see the formal dining room, the one Japanese cabinet that held figurines and china you knew existed but never actually looked at, the table with the bench with the broken arm. You see pocket rockets, poker chips in the middle of the table, cousins and usually one uncle shuffling cards and betting and bemoaning their bad luck. You see the patch in the ceiling that was the spot you/your brother/your son threw a golf club into. You see that framed painting of Sacramento you always stopped and looked at, even though no one knew you did. You can almost hear the games: those stupid name a one word movie that starts with ‘M’ games, those stupid "and this is a pen, a what?, a pen” games, those Black Magic games, those games you knew were dumb but loved anyway. You see the mounds and mounds of food, the boxes of cheap pizza and sinigang and adobo and teriyaki chicken and suman and lumpia and your auntie’s famous spaghetti.

The kitchen comes next, the old wood cabinets and white ceramic tile and the ceiling that was replaced when you clogged the toilet and came home to water pouring from above. You can almost smell that sweet but sour, thick odor of the Filipino household, vinegar and Spam and fish and that damn rice cooker that never seemed to cook enough rice. You see the burnt pots, the same pots you used to make everything taste like beefsteak. You see that alarm that alerted you when doors were opening, and you wanted to destroy that alarm because doors were always opening. You see the photographs on the refrigerator, the ones of your nephews’ and nieces’ birthday parties, the same refrigerator where you drank orange juice straight out of the bottle, and when your mother admonished you, you drank even more. You see the grandmothers/mothers/mother-in-laws tossing mahjongg tiles across a pink, foldout table. You see your Lola sitting at her normal chair, the one blocking the way to the small refrigerator that held all the drinks, the same chair that you sat in those eight months after you quit your job to write a book. You see aunts and uncles sitting at that round breakfast table, the top stained with who-knows-what, crying about marital problems and health problems and financial problems and the mistakes their kids made and the mistakes they made and the deaths of loved ones, and after all that, finding ways to laugh and smile and push through because that’s what brothers and sisters do.

Next, you see pictures of the living room where boyfriends and girlfriends came as strangers and left hours later as family. You see that alien-looking TV, the karaoke words streaming across the screen, several tone deaf people (and maybe two or three divas) shouting lyrics into the microphone just to score that rare 100 from that random judge in the karaoke machine. You see the Kings beating the Lakers (then you see Robert Horry and hate him), the early seasons of American Idol, the tense countdown of 24, Eat Bulaga!, the Wimbledon matches your grandfather/father/father-in-law watched when he wasn’t guffawing at the absurdity of Judge Judy. You see the family rooting on Pacquiao and those three Mexicans who always happened to be there rooting for the other guy and egging you on. You see the floor you slid across when you were Dancing to the Oldies with Richard Simmons, the beginning of all those times you lost weight. You see the couch you did your homework on, the couch where you tried to kiss your girlfriend when your parents went upstairs for a minute. You see that rocking patio bench that was, for some reason, inside the house. You see a huge, framed photograph of your trip to Canada. You see your mother/wife on the phone and you can hear those rapid-fire Tagalog words, that big laugh that always told you you were home.

You see pictures of the downstairs bathroom, the one where the fan went out a long time ago, the easter-colored plaid wallpaper that always made you shake your head. You see the floor your Lola/mother coated with Baby Powder when she lived with you. You see the crossword puzzle your dad always started but left unfinished, as though an unspoken agreement existed for you to finish it. You see the mirror you looked into, all those times you held a comb like a mike and pretended to be a star. You see those books and magazines in that wicker basket that you wanted to read but didn’t want to touch because you knew how many different people used that bathroom. You see the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit magazine, the one with Kathy Ireland on cover, and you couldn’t remember if you, your brother, your dad, or your son hid it there under the sink behind those old shampoo bottles.

The next photographs are of the downstairs bedroom, where your parents put you up and you slept for a month in the dark when you ripped your Achilles and realized you’d never play basketball the same ever again. You see the room your/your brother’s/your son’s friend stayed in when his life got turned upside down. You see the room you moved into when you became a teenager and wanted your privacy. You see the room your Lola stayed in, when it became the go to spot for random visits from the family. You see the room your other Lola stayed in with your Lolo, the room Lolo spent many of his last days laughing and good-natured as he always was.

The photographer moves upstairs, and you see the master bedroom, where you argued and made up and argued and made up. You see runs in the carpet, those spots where you swung golf clubs and banged them against the floor. You see the massage chair, the recliner you slept in when your back got worse. You see the old bed, the bed where you talked about how proud you were of your sons and how they drove your crazy, the bed with the dips in it, those dips contoured to your body because there were days your arthritis was so bad you couldn’t get up, much less walk. You see the dirtier spots on the walls, where your nieces and nephews sat cross-legged on the floor, leaning their oily hair against the wall when they came just to talk to you. There is the spot on the floor your younger son slept on when he had nightmares. There is the door you kept ajar when your older son started clubbing, those nights you pretended to sleep so you could see him creep up the stairs at 2am and know he was okay. You see the wedding picture above the bed, that picture with your face turned to your spouse, when you were in your early twenties and full of youth, when you were on the precipice of a life you never knew could be so wonderful.

In the next picture, you see the den, the desk you crunched numbers at and paid bills and did your taxes and sat scratching your head when the numbers didn’t make sense. You see the unsteady iron board you spent hours at, making sure those pants were ironed perfectly at the seams. You see the old wall units, filled with photo albums and yearbooks and books your parents got before you even knew you liked to read. You see the closet filled with the clothes you hope to sell in the store you hope to open. You see the old desktop where you wrote late night papers and chatted on AIM, asking for people’s age and gender and location, long before you knew a face and a book could go so well together.

In the next photograph, you see the other spare bedroom, the room you slept in when you moved back in the first time and your younger brother took over your old room. You see the white shelves you put up, the pencil markings on the wall that made sure those shelves were put up perfectly. You see your old high school books, that weird collection of encyclopedias you always intended to read but didn’t. You see the bed your Lola and Lolo slept in before walking up and down the stairs became too much trouble. You see your old notebooks, that old Ikea furniture, the hats hanging on the walls that you never did know who they belonged to.

Then there are pictures of the hallway, the Olympic Dream Team puzzle you put together with your dad, your brother, your son, and the pictures of those high school basketball teams you always tried to flex your arms in. You see the spot in the corridor, right at the top of the stairs, where you slept on Prom Night to make sure your son and his friends didn’t sneak down to the room downstairs where their dates were sleeping. You see the floor your older brother ran across (probably from a spider), and being as heavy as he was, knocked all of your trophies down in your bedroom. There is a picture of the bathroom, the mirror dotted with toothpaste, where you and your brother, for a little while, shaved side by side and put gel in your hair and took each other’s deodorant and cologne when the other one wasn’t looking. There is the shower with that ugly wallpaper that seemed to peel as soon as you put it up, the cushioned toilet seat that somehow still remained cushioned all those years, the shower you spent hours singing in, thinking you sounded like Bon Jovi, or Daughtry, or Justin Timberlake (and maybe you thought you danced like him, too).

And then there’s the last room, that big room where you spent many wee hours talking to the girlfriend that you would end up breaking up with, and you’d spend a whole year fighting the tears, and when you got back together you lit up again because you knew you’d be married and happy all those years later. In those pictures, you see the red guitar, the glow in the dark stars and galaxy you made, the timeline of Jordan’s shoes, your trophies, your SB shoeboxes, the dartboard, the basketball hoop you once set a record of 73 swishes on. You see the signed cast, the signed graduation animals, the game consoles you played Madden and Guitar Hero with your cousins on, the things the kids broke when they were running around, the window you would sometimes just stand in front of and watch the world outside. You see the room you grew up in, where you learned about yourself, the room you became a man.

And then it’s done and there are no more pictures, and you close the photo album and you feel like laughing and crying at the same time, you feel like saying farewell to the house that became everyone’s second home, the house where it seemed like you might have lost something but then you’d see your son or your brother or your mom or your dad or your wife or your husband and knew that you could never really losebecause even though pictures fade and children move out and homes are sold, memories are not bound by doors or walls or ceilings or the edges of a photograph, and though that 8782 may belong to someone else, you realize that family, life, and memories are not bound by addresses either.

 

Loaves and Fishes and Pocket Rockets

by Elison Alcovendaz

I used to play poker a lot. Almost every weekend I would find myself at the north end of 16th street, between Downtown Ford and Big Al's Furniture, sitting at an old, green felted table, playing poker with the oddest collection of human beings you would ever exchange money with. Back then, Capitol Casino only held poker tournaments on Sundays, and in order to assure a spot in the action, you had to get there early, so I did, usually around 7am. I'd put my name on the list, order the steak and eggs, and count the cash in my wallet. The most I ever had in there was a couple hundred, maybe, but by the end of the night those two bills just might be ten bills or more, and a lot of nights, they were.

Around the corner (literally) from the casino was Loaves and Fishes, a private charity that feeds the hungry and offers shelters for the homeless. Every morning, around 7am, you will still find masses of homeless people waiting in their central area, Friendship Park, for coffee and pastries. They lean against the half chain-link fence, bags slung over their shoulders, some standing apart but others laughing and slapping each other on the back. Each time I drove in to the casino, I would see them lining up and I would pray I didn't hit that light. If I did, I had no choice but to look. They were everywhere, especially on Sundays. I felt strange in my car, wanting to protect my cash, my gambling money, and I had thoughts of homeless folk assaulting my car, robbing me, breaking windows, stealing those hubcaps I bought for $30 at Wal-Mart. It was all mine, dammit, and why wouldn't the light just turn green already!? 

At that time, I'd been working in Lodi, right on Kettleman Lane, and every day at 8am and 3pm, a homeless man and his dog would trudge down the sidewalk in front of our office's floor to ceiling windows. He looked like Forrest Gump in his running across America phase, red trucker hat and a knotty, long brown beard. The dog was a golden retriever, but dirt and grime coated so much of its body the gold had all but disappeared. Every week, I gave the man money. $5. $10. Once, after winning a couple grand at the casino the weekend before, I gave him $50. Then, one day as I was driving down Kettleman, past the car dealerships toward nothing but dirt, I saw the homeless man and his dog in an abandoned lot, getting into a Honda Accord that was so new that it didn't have its plates yet. He wiped the dirt of the dog, took off his hat and fake beard, tossed it into the trunk, and drove off.

A couple of other incidents with homeless people made up my mind. They had all done this to themselves. No one forced them to shoot heroin. No one told them not to finish school. Sure, maybe a few of them were mentally ill, had a rough childhood or marriage, had been born into poverty through no fault of their own, but whatever the reason was, it damn sure wasn't my fault.

Because of the location, homeless people often loitered outside the casino, and it’s no wonder why. At any time, there could be fifty grand in chips on those tables, and probably at least four times that at the cash cage. On nights I won big, I made sure to take the roundabout way to my car, making sure to avoid being accosted by some guy who wanted a dollar or two. Usually, the loiterers would get escorted off the premises by the security guards; that is, unless they were inside, playing poker with the donations they’d saved. I couldn’t blame them; a couple of good pots and you had rent, a new suit for an interview. Or maybe they just wanted another score. I didn’t care. They were just another fish in the pond, giving up their money.

There was one guy in particular, an older, hunchbacked man who showed up once every four months or so. I’d seen him standing on the corner outside Loaves and Fishes several times in that tattered, olive green Army jacket. I’d only played with him once before, briefly, and remembered that smell – that odor of the outside world settling upon you and not washing it off for months. He had more than a couple teeth missing and when he spoke, you could only understand him half the time.

One night, I ended up at the same table as him, a $3-$6 limit hold ‘em game where most people played every hand because the costs were so cheap. I was doing alright, up maybe fifty bucks, and he had maybe a rack in front of him, $80-$90. The next hand was dealt and I flipped the corners of my cards to see pocket cowboys, the second best starting hand in poker. It was a kill pot, so the bets were double, and I raised to $12. A few people stayed in, the homeless guy raised, I reraised, and he capped it. Before the flop, there were four people left and around $120 already in the pot.

The flop came 2, 2, 8, a relatively safe board for my hand. I bet, he raised, the other two people folded and I smooth called to get more chips from him on the turn. The turn card was a 4, another harmless card to my two kings. I let him bet, checkraised, and eventually got him all in. He flipped over his cards revealing pocket rockets, two beautiful aces. I had two outs, the other two kings, a 5% chance to win.

When the king of clubs hit the river, and I raked in the almost $250 pot, the homeless guy stood up, said “nice hand,” and left the casino. I hadn't realized it at the time, but that was the quintessential moment, the fact that I had won and he didn't. It's common to say that we need to remember how lucky we are, but seriously, I mean luck, odds. We don't choose what families or homes we are born into, whether those homes are filled with drugs, abuse, absentee parents, poverty. We don't choose to be born with a mental illness. We don't choose to have addictive personalities. We don't choose for economies to crash and lose our homes and jobs as a result. And yet, some of us are those two-outers. Some of us are lucky, and you're damn right we need to be grateful. 

Don't get me wrong. I am still a big believer in personal responsibility, that when you become an adult you have choices, that you can't go forever blaming your life on bad luck. I'm just saying that now, when I'm walking Downtown and my friends tell me not to look because when you look they will talk to you, I make sure to look the homeless people in the eye, smile, exchange words even if I don't have a dollar to give. 

I don't visit Capitol Casino very often any more, but with the new job I drive by Loaves and Fishes every day. Almost every time, I hit that red light. They are still there, waiting for their coffee. I see them coming in from all directions, from the bus stop, the light rail, random buildings. They are mostly new faces, I think, though sometimes I'll look for my poker buddy. Then the light turns green and I step on the gas, looking up just in time to see the Capitol Casino billboard going by. 

 

 

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. 

 

 

 

  

  

 

 

  

 

The Cordova Golf Course Lesson on Human Relations

by Elison Alcovendaz

We are only leasing their space, one errant golf swing at a time. - Anonymous

Golf.jpg

Hole 3:  Male/Female Relations

Under the shade of a pine tree a peahen nibbles on a glistening patch of green grass.  When we approach and plop down on the red wooden bench just a few feet away, she makes no unfamiliar motion, no nod of acknowledgement.  Through a copse of dogwoods a peacock emerges, cocking his head as regally as a king – or a cocky ex-boyfriend.  He struts across the tee box, his trail of blue and green and gold feathers tucked close to his body as if he knows he’s handsome and doesn’t need to prove it.  He nears the peahen and tries to eat some of her grass, but she looks up, and before this man can invade her space, she leaps forward, snapping her beak at the arrogant trespasser.  He hurtles backward and stands a few steps back, watching her.  More peahens arrive, plump and brown-feathered, forming a circle around their sister peahen, each sharing this small patch of grass with the other.  The peacock, defeated by his ex-girlfriend and her support group, struts back across the tee box where two of his friends have been watching the scene with as much interest as I.  I cannot tell if they are laughing. 

Hole 6:  Man/Nature Relations

Muddy puddles from last night’s downpour fill the expansive fairway, which is fenced in on the left by a line of bald maples and to the right by a row of cherry blossom trees.  The air smells sweet – as all sunny days after the rain are – but also pungent with the bleach-y smell of the cherry blossoms.  My errant tee shot falls far to the left, next to the trunk of a lone pine among the maples.  I start for my golf ball, noticing a squirrel to my left, scrunched up on the trunk of the first maple I pass.  Once I pass he darts forward, awaiting me on the second maple.  He rears up on hind legs, staring at me, eager and defiant, his tail erect and angry.  He snatches a fallen leaf and scurries to the third tree and then to the fourth, sitting on the root and chewing his food while never taking his eyes off me.  Finally I reach my ball, but before I do, he runs up the trunk of the pine in circles, letting me know that even though I am here, the pine tree – and in fact all the trees – belong to him.  After my next shot veers off course, I swear I can hear him laughing high atop the tree.

Holes 10 and 17:  Black/Brown/White Relations

Connecting holes 10 and 17 is an oval-shaped pond, the home of crabgrass, turtles, mishit golf balls, and countless brownish-black geese.  On the west side of the pond – hole 10 – geese wander freely, making homes beneath cherry blossom trees or in the deeper puddles of water from yesterday’s rains.  Every now and then, a couple of geese will take flight, hovering just high enough to fly over the tallest maples and sycamores.  On the east side, hole 17, however, they huddle closely, at least twenty or thirty milling around, looking up to no good.  Just then, a flock of purely white seagulls hurtles downward from the aqua sky in a semicircle, landing on the pond with nary a splash.  The geese begin to holler a warning symphony to their infiltrators but their enemy responds with nonchalant silence.  Nevertheless, the next few moments are the fastest peace reconciliations I have ever seen; just a few blinks later, they are sharing the space and the pond, a picture of brown and black and white, all previous transgressions not forgotten, but at least forgiven, if only for a moment.  Their ensuing honks unite in the air.  I can tell they are laughing.   

 - originally published in Calaveras Station, 2011

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 "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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

The Ring

by Elison Alcovendaz

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

Photo courtesy of JSA photography (jsafoto.com).

Photo courtesy of JSA photography (jsafoto.com).

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

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

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

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

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

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