The Genius of the Unreliable Narrator in Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself”

by Elison Alcovendaz

When one thinks of artistic genius, it is unlikely that pop music comes to mind. From the throwaway lyrics of “Hit Me Baby One More Time” to the recent trend of attaching catchy dance moves to otherwise dumbfounding songs (“Now watch me whip/Now watch me nae nae,” for example), pop music has been the land of formulaic beats, lyrics middle schoolers could write, and the kind of immature relationship angst that Taylor Swift has made millions upon millions on.

            Every now and then, however, a song with subtle artistry graces the pop music landscape. The most recent addition to this rare canon is Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself.” Co-written by master lyricist Ed Sheeran, who famously wrote in “Thinking Out Loud” that he would love you until you’re seventy, “Love Yourself” takes the popular break up theme and, through the use of the unreliable narrator, adds a surprising dimension that is uncommon to find in a pop song. A close reading of the lyrics will elucidate the song’s genius.

 

           For all the times that you rain on my parade

For all the clubs you get in using my name.

 

            At first glance, these lyrics seem innocuous. Bieber is simply saying that his ex, whoever this person is, has benefited from his fame and fortune. But the verbs “rain” and “get in” are in present tense, not past. Either Biebs and the ex are still together or there’s something else going on. Let’s continue:

 

            You think you broke my heart, oh, girl for goodness sake

            You think I’m cryin’ on my own but I ain’t.

            And I didn’t wanna write a song,

            ‘Cause I didn’t want anyone thinking I still care. I don’t,

            But you still hit my phone up.

 

            The first line here is relatively benign, but then the Biebs presents an interesting picture of crying on his own. Why add the “on his own” here? The line would work simply as “You think I’m cryin’ but I ain’t.” Instead, the line seems to indicate that he’s not crying by himself, but instead there’s someone else there with him. But who? We’ll come to that in a bit.

            From there we get to the first obvious statement by the unreliable narrator. “I didn’t want to write a song.” But write a song is exactly what Biebs has done. And then he says he didn’t want anyone to think he still cared about her, but if that was the case, what he should’ve done is exactly the opposite, which would be to not write a song. The reason he gives for writing the song is also unbelievable. She still hits his phone up, but it’s likely the only people who know that are him and the girl, so writing a song isn’t necessary. Perhaps he could’ve also just blocked her… or maybe he couldn’t…

 

          And baby I be movin’ on

          And I think you should be somethin’ I don’t wanna hold back

          Maybe you should know that

My mama don’t like you and she likes everyone

And I never like to admit that I was wrong

And I’ve been so caught up in my job,

Didn’t see what’s going on

But now I know

I’m better sleeping on my own

           

Bieber starts here saying he’s moving on, but the act of writing and singing this song indicates he really isn’t. From there, he moves on to “thinking” (not “knowing”) that he doesn’t want to hold her back and that “maybe” she should know that his mom doesn’t like her and she likes everyone. Well, Justin, if your Mom doesn’t like this mysterious other person, then she, by definition doesn’t like everyone. He then says he doesn’t like to admit that he was wrong, but because he’s so busy with his job, he didn’t see what was happening. Isn’t that admitting that you’re wrong, Biebs? And are you really sleeping on your own? Who is he talking about?

 

'Cause if you like the way you look that much

Oh, baby, you should go and love yourself

And if you think that I'm still holdin' on to somethin'

You should go and love yourself

 

            Google Image Search the Biebs and you will discover that there might not be one person on the planet that cares about the way they look than Bieber himself, so calling someone out for caring about how they look? Hmmm… He then references the title of song, “Love Yourself,” which is obviously a take on “F--- Yourself.” Why not just use the F word here? Why use the word “love”? Justin finishes the chorus off by saying he’s not holding on, but the entire song illustrates the opposite.

 

And when you told me that you hated my friends

The only problem was with you and not them

And every time you told me my opinion was wrong

And tried to make me forget where I came from

 

And I didn't wanna write a song…

 

  For all the times that you made me feel small

I fell in love. Now I feel nothin' at all

And never felt so low when I was vulnerable

Was I a fool to let you break down my walls?

 

'Cause if you like the way…

 

            Bieber continues his brilliant lyrics about hating on his friends and his opinions and making him forget where he’s from (no one forgets you’re from Canada, bro), but we already know that Bieber’s friends and his opinions probably aren’t the greatest influences. Then we find out this mystery person made Bieber feel small and that even though he fell in love, he feels nothing at all (but you wrote a song about it!). He finishes off his song by saying he was at his worst because he was vulnerable with this person, and now he feels like a fool for letting them see the real Bieber.

            The real Bieber.

            That’s what this song is about, the reason why the unreliable narrator is such a key to understanding this song, which is about Justin Bieber and his alterego, Diva Justina, the girl he has such a hard time breaking away from because the girl is a part of him. The girl is him.

            He clues us in already in the first two lines which are in present tense. This isn’t a girl he broke up with. This is a girl he’s still with. And he’s not crying on his own, because Diva Justina is always with him. Diva Justina is the one sending crazy text from his phone (possibly to Justin himself – You’re killin’ it, bro – who doesn’t find them until he sobers up the next morning), Diva Justina is the one his Mom hates, Diva Justina is the one who cares so much about how she looks, Diva Justina is the one who hates his friends (his “real” friends, the ones who try and get him to ), Diva Justina is the one who made Justin feel vulnerable because he fell in love with the limelight and the fame.

            Throughout “Love Yourself,” Bieber’s use of the unreliable narrator points us to the instability of the song, and it’s this instability that compelled Justin to write this. In many places, Bieber sings lyrics that appear to be hypocritical on the face of it, but then Diva Justina compels him to keep writing. This isn’t a song about an ex-girlfriend. It’s about Bieber’s struggle with Diva Justina and trying to come to grips about the person fame has made him. Even when Justin is trying to turn it around, when he’s trying to get away from this girl, Diva Justina is telling him to accept who they are together and that after everything, Bieber should Love Himself.

             

A Hate Letter to Kobe Bryant

by Elison Alcovendaz

Dear Kobe,

You don’t know me, but I hate you.

I hate you because you made me not get enough sleep last night. Your postgame press conference came on live at 10pm and I had to watch. Had to. You talked about how hard it was to give up a game you started playing at three years old. I started playing at three years old, too. Did you know that? Like you said in your God awful “Dear Basketball” poem, I too shot balls into garbage cans pretending to make game winning shots at the Forum. Did you take wire hangers, shape them into hoops, then wedge them between the closet door and the doorframe so you could shoot rolled up socks from the corner of your bedroom? You probably did. You probably slept with your ball in your arms like I did because you were in love.

I hate you because we’re the same age. Did you know that? I bet when I was pretending to be Magic Johnson or Kevin McHale on my driveway, shooting on a makeshift hoop my dad created, you were doing the same thing, but better. When I wouldn’t go inside for dinner until I made 250 jumpers, I bet you were out there until you made 500. Maybe 1000. When I only stayed in the rain for an hour until I got too cold, you were probably out there the whole night. When people wrote in my middle school yearbook that I’d be the “first Filipino in the NBA,” I believed them, but I bet you didn’t need that kind of validation. You had it in you. You had it yourself.

I hate you because I knew about you in high school, even though you went to school all the way in Philly. And it wasn’t because you took Brandy to prom. It was because of your game. I saw you on ESPN. I saw you on the cover of Slam Magazine. I remember having the best game of my life against Rio Linda, 52 points and a near triple double. I remember seeing my name in the Sac Bee the next day and feeling like something was happening. But I bet you scored 60 that day and got an article in Sports Illustrated. My high school career died quietly when one of the Sophomore Studs (who’d lose in the state championship two years later) didn’t pass it to me as the play called for but took the last second shot himself… and missed. I remember crying in the locker room, knowing it was over. You were just beginning.

I hate you because you went straight to the pros and knew you belonged. I was picked second to last in Nike Camp that year. I got cut when I tried to walk on for the Sac State team. You went under the leg in the dunk contest and strutted like you owned the freaking world, while the only time I ever dunked was sophomore year in high school… with a volleyball. For kicks, I sent a letter to the NBA to declare for the draft, some sad attempt at not losing myself. I never got a response.

I hate you because you made multiple All-Star teams, won multiple championships, won multiple MVP trophies. All my trophies are locked up in some dusty box in my parents’ storage. While you were killing my Sacramento Kings (I hate you), I finally found my game. I played on teams that traveled California, earned All-Star honors in nearly every league and tournament I played in. I remember constantly telling myself to pretend to be you. I carried your swagger. Beat my chest. Played fearlessly. But as the years wore on, playing in sweaty high school gyms in front of 20 people (15 of whom were family) grew pointless. Like you, I’d always identified myself as a baller and that’s how everyone identified me. “You still ballin’?” “Where you play college ball?” “Wanna run with us in such and such tourney?” Everyone knew that basketball was my first love, my life, but they woudn’t let me let it go.

I hate you because you did it on your own. In college, I wrote a paper about why I didn’t make it into the NBA despite having “10,000 hours of practice." I said it was because I was Filipino (thus being too “short” for a basketball player), having grown up in a middle class family (a majority of NBA players are from lower class homes), and some odd kind of reverse racism. I tried to convince myself that I didn't get what I'd always wanted because of other factors. What I didn’t write was that I just didn’t want it as much as you.

I hate you because you tore your achilles and it reminded me when I tore mine. Following my own missed shot, which friends will tell you I rarely did. Go figure. I remember sitting for three weeks in the downstairs room at my parents’ house, watching Storage Wars reruns in the dark, feeling absolutely piteous for myself. I knew that this injury for sure was it. No more basketball or, at least, no more basketball at the level I’d always played at. My identity dribbled out of my pores. And all the while, family and friends asked when I’d be back on the court. They had some league they wanted me to play in. I remember reading your rant after your injury and feeling that’s exactly how I felt. How BS it all was. How you could devote yourself to something for so long and then just have it be done. The struggle for perspective. But you had the best doctors in the world and I didn’t even have health insurance at the time.

I hate you because you stayed too long. You didn’t recover from your injury like I thought you would. You were fallible. You were no longer in the conversation of the best active basketball player in the world. I saw you move more slowly, get less lift on your fadeaway. You dunked on someone’s face in Milwaukee and it made the Top 10 on Sportscenter, but it was the last time you’d do that. Did you know that I tried to come back, too? But just shooting around at the gym for five minutes and my Achilles gets tight and my knee swells up. The other day, my doc said it was time to give up basketball. Give up. I looked at him and thought about you, struggling out there on the court, unable to give up your first love.

I hate you because a couple days ago, you gave up. I’m not saying retiring is the wrong choice, but you’re Kobe. A top five player. The baller I grew up with. In your God awful poem, you said your body just wouldn’t allow you to keep going. If you can’t keep going, then what the hell am I doing trying to get back on the court? I guess it’s time to brush off those golf clubs…

I hate you because of an answer you gave in your press conference. A reporter asked what you would do after you retire and you said something with “storytelling.” It was unclear what you meant by that, but being in Hollywood, wouldn’t be too hard to guess. Writing? Directing? I can’t tell you how pissed off this made me. You had basketball, Kobe, you don’t get to be a writer, too! That’s a big part of the after-basketball identity I found for myself, homie, go find your own!

I hate you because I find myself still competing with you. I hate you because your poem (which was God awful, did I mention?) got more reads than all of my publications combined. I hate you because we live in a world where a professional athlete thinks they can be a “writer” but a writer would never delude themselves into thinking they could be a professional athlete. But most of all, I hate you because I know you and countless other basketball players outworked me and because I fear that here, in the literary arena, you might outwork me again.

Sincerely,

Elison Alcovendaz

The Suspicious Man with the Backpack at the Cafe in Rome

by Elison Alcovendaz

I want to tell you a story called, “The Suspicious Man with the Backpack at the Café in Rome,” but before I get into it, I need to set the scene, so to speak. I’ve always been fearful of some things – that spider lurking under the couch, for example – but generally speaking, I was not what you’d call a scared person. So in the days leading up to our trip to Europe in July, it surprised me how nervous I felt about the news of ISIS being just a couple hundred miles off the coast of Italy. Were they targeting Americans? Did we look like Americans? We’re an obvious mixed-raced couple. Will that make us easily identifable as citizens of these United States? Oh, God. I’m fat. Americans are fat. Why did I just eat an animal style In-N-Out Double Double? I’m such an easy target.

I casually brought it up to Patty. “Hey, did you hear about ISIS being off the coast of Italy?” She made a sarcastic comment, seemingly unworried. I nodded in response and told myself that of course I was being paranoid. I mean, I’d checked the Department of Homeland Security’s webpage the night before and the very bad, evil, bloody color red was nowhere near Italy. Neither was it near England or France, our other two honeymoon destinations. Of course, the U.S. Embassy travel warning site did make mention of the somewhat recent Charlie Hedbo shootings, “strongly” recommending U.S. citizens stay “vigilant” and hey, have you ever thought about signing up for the Smart Traveller Enrollment Program (STEP)? If you haven’t, you should, because… safety and stuff.

By the time I came face to face with the suspicous man, a few events had already taken residence in the back of my mind:

·      The day before our departure, I saw on TV a purported suicide bombing at an Armed Forces Day parade in London had been thwarted. Thwarted. Such a strange word to say aloud (try it), and not really a word that makes you feel all comfortable and safe and warm inside.

·      Two days before our train from London to Paris, the Chunnel was shut down. Ferry strikers were setting fires to the tracks. A few days before, the Chunnel had also been closed after some migrants who’d attacked trucks on nearby motorways tried to get into the UK via the Chunnel. The news reported one or two truck drivers had actually been killed.

·      Our hotel in France was in a rather non-descript alleyway a mile away from the Eiffel Tower. There was literally nothing on the street except for two hotels and a grocery store. And yet, one morning, when exiting the hotel to meet our tour bus, we came face to face with three soldiers holding the kind of automatic rifles you see in action movies. They were standing there for no apparent reason, unless the unmarked building across from the hotel was a secret military site.

·      In our first day in Rome, after finding the Trevi Fountain closed for repair, we walked back to our hotel and came upon a beautiful building. I raised the camera to my eye but was stopped by a honking car. I lowered the camera to find a man leaned halfway out of the passenger window, waving his arms and yelling something in Italian. I smiled, snapped my picture, and walked toward the building.

There were no markings on the building to tell me what it was, though tall, iron gates, some covered in green plastic-like material, surrounded it. As I approached, I prepared once again to snap a picture when I heard a siren. A police officer stopped on the street and pointed at me. “You cannot take a picture,” he said. “Okay,” I answered. “You cannot take a picture,” he repeated.  I finally lowered the camera. He nodded and drove off. It wasn’t until our last day in Rome that I discovered the building was the U.S. Embassy. Here I was, snapping pictures of world monuments – the Colosseum, Michelangelo paintings, the Pantheon – and I, a U.S. citizen, was not allowed to take a picture of my own Embassy. If the U.S. government, with all its bravado and all its social conditioning about how un-American it is to be afraid, is scared of the average citizen snapping a photo of their own embassy, shouldn’t I, the individual traveler, be scared as well?

The next evening, we were sitting outside at a café in Piazza Navona. The plaza teemed with street artists and next to us, just a few feet away, a young man played Sinatra on a piano accordion while an inebriated lady tried to dance with him. After a hot day at the Vatican, the sun had finally decided to lower itself, and aside from Venice, the air was the coolest it had been during the entire trip. A perfect atmosphere, one that made me forget about how afraid I was supposed to be, until a man took the table next to us. He was sweaty, looked nervous, and gripped a black backpack in his hand. When the waiter asked what he wanted, he said “Ice cream.”

Okay, let’s stop here. No one in Italy says “Ice cream.” Even if you’ve never heard of gelato, in five minutes in Italy, you’ll know what gelato is. So the fact he said “ice cream” really screwed with me. After the waiter left, he carefully lowered the backpack under his chair, and sat there for five to ten minutes just staring ahead. Not people watching. Not looking at his phone. Not reading a book. Literally just staring ahead. Then he stood up quickly, left his backpack, and walked inside the café.

My chest tensed. If he said “ice cream,” that meant he wasn’t Italian, and no foreigner I’d seen at any point in our trip had ever left their bag unattended, anywhere. Never. I rarely even see this in America. So I was tripping out. Patty was talking about something, but I couldn’t hear her. I looked at the bag. Maybe there were shoes in there? A box of some kind? It definitely looked bulky. But why did he go inside? If what I thought might be there was actually in there, he wouldn’t have gone inside the building, right? No, of course he wouldn’t.

I’m still not sure what made me do it, and in retrospect, it was a terrible idea, but I followed him inside. I didn’t have a plan. He was climbing the stairs in the back of the small café, turning the corner. I smiled at the wait staff behind the gelato bar and followed the man up the stairs.

The staircase ended with a larger dining area to the left, which was empty, and the restrooms to the right. I found him in the men’s restroom, washing his hands. Why was he washing his hands? There hadn’t been enough time for him to have stood at the urinal, done his business, and then get to the sink. Maybe he was just a conscientious guy washing his hands before he ate? I stepped past him and for a moment, our eyes met in the mirror. He held my eyes for what seemed like a minute. No headnod, no acknowledgment. It was so stupid, me in that restroom, having a staredown with a man who I thought, though didn’t really think, might’ve been in the middle of some nefarious plot. What was I really going to do? He turned away from me to grab some napkins. My head burned. Seriously, what the hell am I doing here? I mean, what was I really doing in that moment other than letting some strange fear take hold of me? There was nothing in the backpack. I moved past him, hurried down the stairs, and sat back down at the table.

Thirty seconds later, he arrived back at his table, where a bowl of gelato awaited him. He picked up the backpack and gently laid it on the other side of him, between he and the wall. He didn’t glance at me as he sat down. He quietly finished his food, paid the waiter, and left with his backpack. As soon as he left, the tension in my chest dissipated. Back to vacationing as normal.

You may have noticed I didn’t mention what the suspicious man looked like. While you were reading, did you imagine him in a light, pink shirt, the top two or three buttons undone, revealing way too much chest hair? Did you imagine his khaki shorts and the loafers? The perfect tan? Did you imagine him being husky, with a combover? Did you imagine him as a retired Floridian?

Chances are you didn’t.

The reason for that is we’ve been taught what fear looks like. Maybe it’s a person leaving their bag somewhere when, in reality, they’re just a trusting person who doesn’t expect bad things to happen to them, like someone stealing their bag. Maybe it’s a Muslim. Maybe it’s a black teenager walking down the street with his pants a little low. Maybe it’s the “loner” white kid who doesn’t seem to handle social situations well.            

But these are all wrong, and we all know they’re wrong, and yet many of us continue to carry these fears with us as though rooted in fact. I know I do. While watching the latest Mission Impossible movie the other day, a young man walked in with a black bag and sat in the front row for about ten minutes before leaving through a side exit. I watched him intently, making sure he didn’t leave that bag there. Turns out he was an employee on his way to the dumpster outside but just decided to cut through the theater and chill for a bit.

When we talk about terrorism or war or gun control, the thing that both “sides” don’t realize is that both are usually talking from a position of fear. You want gun control because you’re scared of getting shot up at a theater. You don’t want gun control because you’re scared of getting shot up at a theater and having nothing to defend yourself with. You want to listen in on the phone calls of Muslim Americans because you’re worried about planes crashing into buildings. You think listening in on citizen’s phone calls is despicable because you’re afraid about losing your privacy or about the power of government.

I once heard someone say that fear is necessary. It drives your fight or flight response. It keeps you safe. But the moment you talk about your fear, someone pops out of the woodwork and says “you shouldn’t allow terrorists, domestic and otherwise, to make you live in fear.” In other words, you’re an American and not supposed to be scared. And even though I know, okay, I know, that the media constructs these narratives, I’m still afraid. Afraid that there might be an active shooter at a college a friend teaches at or on a campus my wife teaches at. Afraid of theaters with no metal detectors, afraid of a TSA agent who maybe didn’t get enough sleep, afraid of a random stranger leaving a backpack while he went to use the restroom.

I don't have an answer and I don't think any of us do, not yet, anyway. But I do know that we'll get nowhere until we admit that when it comes to terrorism and gun control, our highly intelligent opinions aren't based on some deep love of the Constitution or some high moral ground or an unwavering belief in the sanctity of human life... it's usually based on fear. I just admitted it. My question now, is, will you?

 

Marshawn Lynch, Bullying, and The (Old) American Dream

by Elison Alcovendaz

Marshawn Lynch is likely the most physical running back in the NFL. He runs over people. Bulldozes them. Carries defenders into the end zone. His nickname is "Beast Mode" for a reason. Here's an example:

But for however powerful and present he is on the field, he is the opposite in front of media. He is noticeably uncomfortable. He responds with one word answers. Case in point:

If you watched that, then yes, that's how most of his interviews lately have been. NFL players, you see, are required to make themselves available to and cooperate with the media. That's the literal rule. The spirit of the rule is what you see every other player do - they actually talk to the media, who, despite however annoying they might be, have a big role in keeping athletes relevant and in the landscape of the fans' minds. The NFL, being a business, knows this. They have fined Lynch to try and make him converse with the media that helps athletes like Marshawn Lynch make millions of dollars to play a game. 

Several reasons have been discussed. Lynch himself has said he acts this way in front of media because it isn't about him, it's about his team; he doesn't want to be famous, he does it for the love of the game. Admirable, sure. But this is his job. He's contractually obligated. It has also been said that Marshawn Lynch has social anxiety disorder, though at this point, that's based more on what people see than what people know (if he does, then this is a different story). But it has gotten to the point where people have called the way media "treat" Lynch - and by that they mean "asking him questions" and "helping him stay relevant" - and the NFL making Lynch talk to said media, as bullying. The 12th man, the very unique moniker for Seahawks fans, has started a petition to have the NFL stop "bullying" their star running back. While the petition was started by one fan, over 20,000 people have signed the petition, which means that over 20,000 people actually think Marshawn Lynch is being bullied. 

You might see Marshawn Lynch running over a bunch of poor defensive backs and think there's no way this guy could be bullied. You'd be wrong. Bullying can happen to anyone of any size of any profession. But it does encapsulate the way we think about bullying now. I recently had a conversation with a friend who is a father of two young daughters. He was talking about an older teenage girl he knew who threatened to slice her wrists due to being called fat. According to him, it wasn't a repeated thing, it wasn't something that happened often on Facebook or anything, just a passing comment by a classmate jerk (obviously her reaction indicates a deeper issue, but this isn't about her). My friend said if anyone ever called his daughters fat, he would put his boxing lessons to work on their father. Teach them a lesson. Teach them to be a better parent. 

What he didn't say was that he would teach his daughters that their identities and self-worth comes from within. That what people say about you doesn't define you unless you let it define you. 

Here's another anecdote. I have a friend who coaches middle school football. He told me about a kid who was messing around in practice and so was made to run sprints near the end of practice. At about the same time, the kid's dad pulls up in his car and proceeds to grill the coach about making his son run? Huh? I was on several sports teams growing up, and when we had to run laps because we messed up, our parents got angry with us, not the coach. You can Google stories about people beating up coaches due to their kids not getting enough playing time. Is it no longer important for kids to know that it's okay not to be good at something? That people will be better at some things than you your whole life? That after a certain age, you don't get a trophy or credit just for trying? 

And not just kids, but adults, too. A recent article stated that there were two things college students wanted from their professors: to challenge them (great!) and to care about them, to, in a sense, be parental guides to the replace the parents they left behind (what!?). When did we get to a place where a college student's learning wasn't their responsibility (no matter how uncaring or soporific the professor)? When did professors have to be caring people in order for us to learn something? When did we get so, for lack of a better word, "soft"?  

It seems that at some point in the last 20 years or so, there has been a social paradigm shift away from The (Old) American Dream. When I say "old," I mean the ones our immigrant parents believed in - that the individual was still important, that the individual could pick themselves "up by the bootstraps" and make a good life for themselves. Since this ideology centered around the individual, personal accountability was paramount. It also meant that if you didn't make it, it was your fault. 

Of course, The Old American Dream worked because it created systemic inequalities that benefited privileged groups  - institutionalized racism, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, learning deficiencies based on socioeconomics, continued patriarchy, etc. So we as a society did the right thing. We told The Old American Dream to get lost. We moved away from an America that valued individuality and moved toward community, equality. We elected the first black President. We sat in Wall Street and coined "the one percent." We passed gay rights laws in several states. We did a lot of very necessary things. Great things. But what we also did as we moved to community and nurturing was we lost how important the common individual could be. We lost personal accountability. We started expecting the world to do things for us. 

One cannot stress enough the impact of technology here. As things became available at the push of a button, our brains started to slowly become programmed to understand that we really didn't have to work that hard for things. A common complaint of the Millennials, who grew up with this technology, is that they are lazy. That they expect things to happen instead of making things happen. This is all probably a little overblown, but if there's some truth in it, it's because you don't have to go into the world to buy a shirt or a book, you don't have to endure possible rejection by going out and trying to meet someone and see if you're a match, you don't have to go to a library and sort through tons of books to do research; seriously, when was the last time you had a paper cut at work? That doesn't mean these things are bad. In fact, they can be great. But it does mean things are easier. And we get really comfy and cozy with easy...

...which also means we're not as tough. It means everyone has to be PC so people don't get offended. It means kids can move on to the next grade even if they have Fs. It means someone can hide behind a gun and go on a rampage when girls don't like him. It means a parent would rather fight a teaser's parents than maybe teach his kids to have a self-worth that comes from within. It means that we put "my kid is on the honor roll" bumper stickers on our cars. And it means that we expect the world to be nice and kind to us all the time.

In my last blog, I tried to write an honest post about what I've been feeling about this writing thing. But it came across as whiny. It sounded like I expected people just to like me and my writing because I write stuff and try hard. And that's how I sometimes feel. I think we all probably do from time to time. But when a about story gets rejected, or a workshop group tells me how terrible my story is, does that mean I'm being bullied? I think you know the answer.

There is real bullying happening out there. You read about it all the time. Kids getting bullied because they're gay, or poor, or any other number of things. What we probably don't want to do is trivialize what "bullying" is by saying a football player who doesn't like talking to the media is getting bullied, especially when it's part of his job. Is this the same as saying that bullied kids should "toughen up"? Definitely not. It's saying that while we try and make the world kinder, gentler, fairer, we also need to make sure that we're not failing to teach about personal inner strength, that internal self-worth that doesn't always require trophies or pats on the back. It is okay to lose. It is okay to be rejected. It is okay to not be the best at something. And it's certainly okay for someone not to like you. As my Mom always said, the only person who has the authority to make you feel badly about yourself is you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crashing

by Elison Alcovendaz

Yesterday morning, we did what we always did. We woke up, listened to Taylor Swift's "Shake it Off" (okay, maybe that was just me), brushed our teeth, showered, dressed, made lunches, set our alarm, got into our car, backed out, closed the garage, got on the freeway, and then, 20 minutes away from work, this happened:

We did what we were supposed to do: we panicked for a second, looked at each other, made sure each other was okay, carefully pulled to the shoulder, called 911, called our insurance, took pictures of damage, and waited. When the police came, we explained what happened. He took everything down on a mini notepad, while the other officer talked to the driver who hit us and another car. Then we waited for the tow truck. We waited for about an hour and a half on the side of the freeway. Then we hopped a ride with the tow truck driver to the body shop, signed some paperwork, got into a car with an 80-year old man who dropped us off at the rental car office, where we signed more paperwork, drove home, rested, then, as our bodies got more and more and more sore, we went to see the doctors, were prescribed some medications which we picked up at the pharmacy, ordered some food, came home and ate the food, took our medications, welcomed my parents, who had come to visit to check up on us, ate the brownies they brought, bade them good night, went to bed, very uncomfortable but medicated, read a little bit, then went to sleep.

I look at that picture above and think how crazy it is how much trust we put in strangers every single day. You may have read my fictional account of this in a previous story I wrote called "The Clothes in the Hamper," but let's follow what happened yesterday and determine how many times something important (health, safety, even our own lives at times) were put in the hands of people we didn't know:

1)  We brushed our teeth with toothpaste that the FDA said was safe to use. You might read the chemicals that go into a tube of toothpaste and never even think about those long scientific words for things that you're putting into your system. Did you know there's such a thing as toothpaste overdose? No wonder there are "Do Not Swallow" warnings on toothpaste. 

2)  We showered in water provided by our local municipality, who says the water is clean. We have two water sources: the clean water which goes to our faucets and showers, and recycled water which is for our lawns. A sign just a street away from our house states that recycled water is Non-Potable, Not Drinkable, HAZARDOUS. Okay, it doesn't say the hazardous part. But you wouldn't want your kids running through the sprinklers with their mouths open. And you certainly wouldn't want your clean water and hazardous water lines mixed up when your house was built. 

3) We made our lunches, which consisted of Yoplait yogurt and a banana for breakfast and a bagged salad for lunch. Much like the toothpaste, the chemicals and additives listed on the yogurt were declared safe by the FDA. The banana was not organic, but even if it was, how would I really know? Who knows what was sprayed on the kale in the bag. I didn't. But those salads sure are tasty!

4) We set our alarm. Some of us trust our windows and our doors and our walls and our fences are enough. For those of us a little more paranoid (like me), we have alarms. The alarms warn us if there is an intruder in the house. When we leave, we push a button and that is supposed to protect our home. Who knows if it actually comes on? Or if someone actually did break-in, if the alarm would actually call the monitoring service? I don't know, but it certainly makes me feel that much safer!

5)  We got into our car. We bought the car because we believed Mazda made a quality car. Quality as in it would last for a good, long while, get us good gas mileage, and not break down unexpectedly. We believed it would get us to work, to our parents' houses, to any place we needed to go. Those workers in those Mazda factories; man, do they make a quality car!

6)  We closed the garage. One time, we closed the garage, and came back with the garage open. Nothing was stolen. Weird. Modern garage door openers work by transmitting a specific, one-time code to the operator (that big boxy thing attached to your garage ceiling). In the past, garage doors operated on only one code that would be used over and over again, so thieves could capture that code and then open your garage while you were gone. Does my garage opener work the modern way? I don't know, but I assume so. 

7)  We got on the freeway. We pay taxes for infrastructure, so I'm sure things like the Bay Bridge and the freeways I drive on are perfectly safe. CalTRANS workers and those contractors and engineers, they went to college for these things, so they know. 

8)  Let's skip the accident for now.

9)  We called 911. It rang twice. The lady answered and asked immediately where we were. I told her, hoping that she knew what I meant. She asked some questions then said she would dispatch people immediately. 

10) We gave the police officer an account of what happened. I couldn't see what he was writing, and he actually wrote very little, so I assume police officers have shorthand for the entire narrative and description we gave him of how we were hit. One of the officers said our car was peeled like a sardine can and then laughed, as though Patty and I were not shaken humans but a pair of small fish. They gave us a small piece of white paper with a number on it and said we'd have the report in a couple of weeks. We were not at fault, and I really don't see how anyone could argue we were, but who knows what's going to go in that report? Who knows what the driver who hit us said? I guess we'll have to wait and see.

11)  We filed a claim with the insurance adjuster, who I'm sure will offer us a fair settlement and a fair offer for our car if it's totaled. I mean, I am absolutely certain of it. 

12)  We waited on the side of the freeway for nearly an hour and a half. The first tow truck that came wasn't a flatbed. I'd heard stories of people who'd gotten into accidents after pulling to the shoulder of the freeway or trying to fix a flat tire. But we waited in the car. Someone was supposed to come and take us off the freeway to be safe, but he didn't arrive until a minute after the second tow truck came. We rode to the body shop in this stranger's tow truck. He made racist comments about other drivers. He answered his cell phone while driving. I was too happy to get out of the truck when we arrived at the body shop.

13)  We spoke with the body shop worker. She made a spiel. The spiel took five minutes. There were a lot of hand movements. She used the word "honest" a lot. We signed some paperwork. She took us out to get stuff from the car and immediately gasped at the damage, then said she couldn't tell us what she thought. She said they would dismantle the car and let us know today what their original estimate would be. It's 7pm, and we haven't heard from her.

14)  We rode in a compact car to the rental car company, driven by an 80-year old man who complained that he couldn't see a car coming when we drove off the body shop parking lot. He was a nice guy and talked a lot when he should've been paying more attention to the road. He probably could've taken us anywhere, but lucky for us, he actually took us to the rental car office.

15)  We rented a car. They gave us a car smaller than what had gotten into an accident, but he assured us that's what our insurance policy would cover. It would've been easy to check, but hey, we were completely sore and tired and stressed. We gave him a credit card for a security deposit. Then we signed some paperwork. I hope I didn't sign away my esophagus, my spleen, or other part of my body. Or my first novel. Then we drove off in another car that we'd never driven before. A Nissan. I'm pretty sure those workers in that Nissan factory are superb workers. I'm sure Nissan has security controls to ensure faulty parts don't make it into the actual vehicles. Yeah, it's a good, quality car, and I'm sure the rental car place checked the oil and tires.

16)  We went to the doctor. We told them what happened. We listened to the doctor. We listened to their expertise about what was going on inside our bodies. They told us about how much more sore we'd be tomorrow. They gave us some prescriptions.

17)  We went to the pharmacy. We picked up these pills that people in white lab coats on the other side of the counter put in bottles for us. These are the medications the doctor ordered. There can be no mistakes here. My name is on the bottle, so they are my medications and not someone else's. We listened to the pharmacy intern tell us about what to do and what not to do with the medications. She sounded very serious.

18)  We ordered some pho at a restaurant. We gave them a credit card, which they slid through a machine that sent our information somewhere. They came out with cartons of meat and sprouts and soup and some fried shrimp we ordered. We took the food home and ate it. It was delicious.

19)  We ate dessert, brownies my parents brought from a local bakery. They, too, were delicious. In fact, I'm eating one now:

Yum. Hopefully there's no poison in here!

Yum. Hopefully there's no poison in here!

20)  We took the medications and went to sleep.

21)  Back to the accident. The response we received from friends and family were overwhelming. So first, thanks for the love. It's true what many of you said, we're alive when we easily could not have been. It's crazy how, while driving, we constantly have our lives in the hands of people who we will likely never meet. Are they mad? Temporarily crazy? I once had a guy shoot me with a finger gun when I came a little too close to him after he cut me off. I once had a guy dump things out of his sunroof at me because, well, I'm actually not sure. You've been to the DMV, as have I. We trust those people to make sure only the right people get licenses. Are the tests hard enough? Are people obeying the rules? Are their cars operating properly? It can be stressful to think that one wrong move by a stranger and your life could just end. How can we continue to trust? How can we continue to move forward when anyone - a government agency, a home builder, an alarm company, a car maker, a drug maker, a doctor, a driver, a tow truck, a body shop, an insurance company, a cook, a pharmacist, a police officer, a civil engineer, a rental car company, and a million of other people who have no vested interest in us as individuals can make us crash at any time?

Well, because the police came in ten minutes. Because our home builder corrected all the mistakes they made. Because the body shops I've worked with have always done quality work. Because the insurance adjusters I've dealt with have mostly been fair. Because I've been driving on roads and bridges my whole life. Because I've eaten food prepared at restaurants and am still here. Because the water that comes out of my sink is clean. Because our car was running great. Because the I can see the doctor's eyes when he talks to me. Because I used to work at a rental car company, and not everyone there is an a-hole. Because my Lola, who died one month ago today, trusted with her entire being, even when she lost her sight and had to rely on others to show her the way. Because we're humans, and as such most of us care about one another, because even when people are taken away from you, and you had a near death experience, and your back hurts and ribs hurt and your unsure what the near future will hold for you, there's really nothing to do but shake it off and let Taylor Swift teach us the way:


The Enemy - a Flash Fiction

by Elison Alcovendaz

I've been sitting on a blog about Robin Williams for three days now. I wanted to connect his death to thoughts about whether or not the supposed connection between creative genius and madness was legitimate. I had anecdotes from my past. I had statistics from scientific and sociological studies. I had at least three different drafts. But then I read an article about irresponsible writing when it came to things like depression and suicide and I realized that's what I'd be doing, writing irresponsibly about things I really knew nothing about. So, for this next blog, I want to post something I do know something about: stories. Here's a flash fiction to read about a topic that might be timely:

For Thomas there is nowhere else but his room.  The bedsprings that stick through the top.  The window that doesn’t open.  The motionless ceiling fan.  For life, the flicker of the TV.  The click of thumbs to controllers.  The splats of boots to the enemy’s face and the gunshots through the enemy’s belly and the screams of the enemy run over by tanks.  

Thomas often forgets about The Sergeant downstairs.  The Sergeant sits on the edge of the couch as though waiting for something.  But he is only watching the news.  With a cup of cold coffee an inch away from spilling on the rug.  For a week The Sergeant has not called out Thomas’ name.  He does not see Thomas, except at noon and midnight, when Thomas tiptoes down the stairs and crawls across the living room to avoid the windows and opens the refrigerator to make a sandwich.  At midnight, The Sergeant slides behind the pillows and watches Thomas from the edge of the couch.  He is proud of Thomas.  He is proud of Thomas for walking down the stairs without making a sound. 

Sometimes The Sergeant will read the front page.  He checks all the windows before snatching the paper from the front door.  Then he sits on the the couch and unrolls the newsprint across the coffee table.  He reads about Afghanistan.  He mutters to himself and shakes his head and looks through the windows again.  Then he closes the curtains and tosses the papers into a box and watches the news.

Sometimes Thomas looks outside his window.  He ducks under the windowsill and peeks out to make sure the outsiders don’t see him.  He surveys the park across the street.  He finds all the good hiding places, like up in the big tree in the middle or behind the dumpster.  Sometimes a girl sits on a picnic bench near the batting cage and draws.  Other times, she talks on the phone and cries.   He stares at her with one eye closed and wonders if he has good aim.

One early morning, The Sergeant gets off the couch and tries to ascend the stairs without noise.  But when he reaches Thomas’ door, Thomas is already staring at him from the edge of the bed.  The Sergeant points outside, down to the group of Thomas' schoolmates getting on the bus.  He asks Thomas a question.  Thomas stares at the kids then turns back to the TV.  Thomas presses a button and picks up a rifle and slides a bullet through the enemy’s head. 

The Sergeant stands in the threshold and smiles.

 

A Year of Marriage: Slowing Down Time

by Elison Alcovendaz

I started writing this blog at:

 

Back to that later.

Patty and I are different people. Those of you who know us well know this. But this is good, I think. In order for a relationship to work, the people can't be too similar. At least that has been my experience with all the couples I'd consider happy and successful, including my parents. They share common interests, sure, but common personalities? No.

One of our biggest differences is the way we perceive (and like to perceive) time. When shopping, she loves to go in, pick something out, maybe try it on real quick, and buy it. I like to meander, flipping through racks, people watching, calculating clearance rack deductions in my head. I like to try on clothes I know don't fit me, especially since this stupid Slim Fit craze is in full-force (what happened to clothes for regular people?). When driving, she's in the fast lane, going, well, fast. The GPS is an important tool. Let's get to where we're going and let's get there early. When I'm in the fast lane, kind of just looking at the passing scenery, singing very loud, trying to kind of just find my way to our destination, wondering where the journey will take us, I usually don't realize I'm going fifty-five until I see that old lady in the old, battered car storming past me. I tend to be late to things. I know this is bad, but it's just never changed. It's something we've accepted. Unless we're holding hands, I'll tend to drift behind while we're walking, caught by a nearby conversation.

A month ago, Patty and I recently celebrated one year of marriage (thank you, yes, it has been great!) and we of course were told by someone who'd attended our wedding: "I can't believe it has been a year! It seems like just the other day I was watching you walk down the aisle."

Patty concurred. Time had moved very fast. After all, this is what happens when you're having fun. 

And then I did something wrong. I said the first year seemed like it had taken five years. All the women in the room looked at me, eyes slightly wide, not sure whether my tone of voice was sarcasm or just the tone of a new husband who hadn't yet learned what and what not to say. I tried to explain, but with each word the hole below my feet grew deeper and deeper until I was completely submerged below the wooden floor, saying, "Five years? I meant five months! No, five weeks!"

Why the difference? When you experience an event or a series of events, countless neural processes in several different parts of the brain all work together to create a story that makes cohesive sense to you. Things may not be "filed" in the linear order in which they occurred, and  in most cases details not considered important for the story won't even be filed at all. This makes time appear "fast." David Eagleman, a best-selling author and director of the Laboratory for Perception and Action at the Baylor College of Medicine, has spent much time researching the way the brain perceives time. In his article "Brain Time", Eagleman provides a simple exercise that demonstrates how time appears to move quickly:

Try this exercise: Put this book down and go look in a mirror. Now move your eyes back and forth, so that you're looking at your left eye, then at your right eye, then at your left eye again. When your eyes shift from one position to the other, they take time to move and land on the other location. But here's the kicker: you never see your eyes move. What is happening to the time gaps during which your eyes are moving? Why do you feel as though there is no break in time while you're changing your eye position? (Remember that it's easy to detect someone else's eyes moving, so the answer cannot be that eye movements are too fast to see.)

Much like this experiment, we live much of our lives moving from event to event, the destination the goal. I once had a professor who tried to rally his students against living this type of life. He also used to say that he could slow down time. He never mentioned any specific "trick," but if you listened to his other stories, which often seemed tangential to what we were studying - the art of writing - you learned that his stories often had one major point - time is a gift that we can give ourselves. By committing to being in class to improve our writing, we were giving ourselves that gift of time. 

Sitting in those classrooms dissecting stories and discussing literary theory made time go very slow. It's one of the things I miss most about grad school. Since then, life has certainly picked up. There is a mortgage and student loans and other bills and responsibilities. It's one life step to the next, the in between phases all about planning that next step, wondering if should make this big purchase or save, sell the house and make use of our equity, get this job or not, have a child now or later. Life is moving very, very fast. 

To combat this, I just try to be more aware. One thing that works for me is, whenever I catch myself looking at at clock, I spend some time attuning myself to my body and my surroundings. For example, it's now:

and since I started writing this blog, I've felt or noticed: the heat of the laptop, a tightness in my calf, the cool air of the ceiling fan, Catherine Zeta-Jones' weird accent in The Legend of Zorro, the way Patty's bangs curl off the side of her face as she naps on the other end of the couch, the dry annoyance in my throat as I fail again to beat level 341 of Candy Crush, the light resistance of the letters on the keyboard, the faint glare of the kitchen lights on my computer screen, the tight comfort of the wedding ring around my finger, the satisfaction of a few spoonfuls of Ben and Jerry's Chocolate Therapy Ice Cream, the deeper satisfaction of seeing this blog progress into something that might actually be readable. 

I guess you could call it "mindfulness." If you Google "slowing down time," the first article you'll see will tell you about research that demonstrates the speed of time is controlled by us. Even those of us with "faster" personalities can slow time and lessen the anxiety of moving from event to event by consciously adding details to your memories simply by noticing things. It's a thing writers probably do automatically, but try it. Next time, instead of just moving through an event, choose to pay extra attention to the details. When you're at a new restaurant, don't just sit down and look at the menu and order your wine. Notice the color and scratchiness of the seats. Notice the shine or dullness of the forks. Notice the hair of your server. Notice the music playing. Notice the chatter of people around you. And of course notice the person you're with. I don't mean just sit there and talk, I mean really notice them. Notice how their glasses lean on their nose. Notice the way their face contorts when they talk about work. Notice the way they sit at the table. Notice their clothes, their eyes, the way they use a utensil when they eat. Basically, notice things. Make yourself do it. You probably do it already, anyway, but as our brains get used to more and more quick in-and-out inputs (like a Facebook news feed, or scrolling Twitter updates, or a million TV channels to change to when you hit a commercial), it's likely that you notice these things but just let them pass in-and-out of your brain.

So when I said the first year of marriage seemed like it took five years, I meant this as a compliment. It meant that I wanted to capture every detail of every moment of our marriage as much as I could. But this is why I believe Patty and I work well. She helps me get to things on time, keeps me on my toes, makes sure I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing, like actually writing instead of just talking about writing. And hopefully, I help her stop for a moment and take a look around. 

 

Estate Sales: Why I Don't Own a Kindle

by Elison Alcovendaz

The first estate sale I went to was almost the last. It was in a senior community in Roseville. I saw a sign and went on a whim. I was probably the youngest person in there. An older lady sat at a table near the door with a flimsy cash box and an email sign-up sheet. She smiled and wished everyone who walked through the front door a good morning. 

The house remained basically how it was before the sale. China in display cabinets, the old TV on a just-as-old TV stand, Ethan Allan furniture from the 1990s. Someone had vacuumed and dusted. I was able to walk through the house, pick up items, open drawers and cabinets, riffle through closets. They had set up additional tables in the backyard and garage, all packed with the stuff we never realize we accumulate. What caught my eye the most was a built-in bookcase filled with old books. As I sorted through the books, I heard someone choking back sobs.

I turned to find a man in his sixties crying into the shoulder of what appeared to be his wife. Estate sales are generally quiet - you hear people whispering, you might hear someone asking how much something is - so the sobbing was poignant. He was crying so hard the brim of his golf cap dug deep into the shoulder blade of his wife. His mom was the one who had passed. I suddenly felt like an asshole. A trespasser. I was looking for a good deal. A random stranger peering into this man's mother's stuff. The man and his wife were blocking the path to the front door so, feeling guilty, I put the four books I'd chosen back into the shelf and walked out to the backyard. 

I casually looked through the items and soon realized the man's mother was an eclectic woman. There were stacks of romance novels, old records, glassware from Sweden, puzzles, purses, gardening tools, not to mention the Beanie Babies and World War II paraphernalia. And you won't get away from it at any estate sale - Christmas decorations: ceramic Santas, plastic reindeer, some hand-sewn stockings. I found myself touching everything, running my fingers across the chips in plates, the frayed ends of tablecloths. I stayed out there for at least twenty minutes, then walked back inside. 

I stopped again at the books. For some reason, every estate sale has books by Leon Uris and James Michener - thick, thick, books that most of us wouldn't have the patience to read, much less hold in our hands. There were Bibles, Self-Help books, books on medicine, and the books that originally piqued my interest - four William Faulkner hardbacks from the 1950s. 

Four Faulkner books from the 50s.

Four Faulkner books from the 50s.

 

"See something you like?"

I glanced sideways and found the man next to me, a smile on his face. 

"I think so," I said. 

"My mom would be glad," he said. "She was a voracious reader. Definitely not something I inherited!" He placed his hand on my shoulder as we laughed. He lingered for a moment, staring at the books, then began to talk to all the strangers in his mom's house.

I've been to many estate sales since then. After that first experience, I feel utterly compelled to just go. I wake up early on Saturday mornings and map my route for the day. There are always cool things to see - old coins, stamps, yearbooks, cigar boxes, Elvis stuff… links, at once, to our own history as seen via the history of another individual. Usually the surviving family is there. Even if you can often tell that they've been crying recently, they sometimes offer stories about those passed. If you're lucky, you'll feel connected to a human being you never knew.

Recently, I've found myself involved in discussions, both online and in person, regarding why I don't own a Kindle. Without delving too much into Postmodern thought, one of the major concerns about the increase of technology is the loss of the human body, the decline of the senses of the human body. Technology requires less touch. Almost zero smell and zero taste. We'll likely always need to see and hear, but our senses of touch, smell, and taste are being used less and less. We can "like" instead of hug. We can text instead of kiss. We can manage relationships wirelessly, slowly forgetting what real intimacy, real physical human connection feels like. 

Books are one of the last remaining bastions of the old world that requires touch. Sometimes, if you flip through the pages of an old book, you can smell the history, too. Hands have touched that. Invisible fingerprints are on those pages. You actually need to press your fingers to the page and flip. You have to figure out a way to hold the book in whatever position you're in. You might argue that you have to do these things with a Kindle, too, but the one big difference is that the tactile experience of reading a Kindle will be the same with every e-book. Each physical book is a different physical experience. Some are big. Some are small. Some are old and need to be handled with care. Some have print you need to squint at, so you need to hold the book close to your face. Part of the reading experience becomes how you hold it, where you read it. Reading a heavier book and need to adjust? Maybe the heavy book forces you to lie down, supporting the book with a pillow. Need to find a place where there's appropriate light? Maybe you sit in a new place. Maybe you stand up and open the blinds to let the sunlight in. Maybe you walk to the park and sit on a bench. Maybe you grab a night light. What you don't do is increase the brightness of your screen's backlight.

From an estate sale. How would you read these heavy books?

From an estate sale. How would you read these heavy books?

You will argue for environmental reasons and you'd likely be right - a recent study reported on by the New York Times showed the carbon footprint of one book to be much, much more than that of an ebook. But this is a duh moment, right? Not really. In another article, a writer calculated the carbon footprint of using an e-reader for a year versus reading books for a year and discovered that, when taking the entire average energy output of the e-reader itself (not just the process of reading the ebook on the e-reader), the carbon footprint of the e-reader is almost five times as much. I also didn't mention the easier recyclability of books, the often improper disposal of e-readers, etc., but that's okay. 

You will argue for convenience and you would be right. You can carry thousands of books on one device. I won't say anything about your machine dying, or files getting corrupted, or breaking, because those are rare occurrences - but books, no matter what you do to them, don't die, get corrupted, or break for no reason. You will argue for space and you would be right. Kindles take up less space. They are easy to hide, put in a box or place in a drawer. You probably won't stick the e-reader on a shelf where everyone can see it because no one thinks e-readers are beautiful or physically-pleasing to look at. No one thinks they should be visible in the "home," you know, that place where humans live. I bet you have books in shelves, though. 

And yes, there's a business side to estate sales too, and a business side to book collecting. Whenever I come home with new old books and see Patty's face wondering where exactly I'm going to put those, I tell her that first book club edition of The Old Man and the Sea I bought for a dollar sells for $50-$75 online. She says I'm never going to sell it. And she's right. It's not about that, really. It's about the humanity of it.

Beautiful, yeah?

Beautiful, yeah?

Perhaps I'm not making a good enough argument, so I'll let someone else speak for me. I recently bought a 1976 edition of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein at an estate sale. In it, a woman named Cindy wrote:

"To: The Verdon Family

Always, when I am in your home, I feel so comfortable and at ease. This is the one of my most favorite books. It seemed most fitting for me to share it with you all. You happen to be a favorite and special family of mine. It can be quite a conversation piece as well as leave it's message lingering in your thoughts. Thank you for giving of yourselves to me. You're all very generous and kind people. Merry Christmas."

Cindy shared herself, her being, via a book. She was able to physically write in it, physically hand it to these people she cared about so much. She gave a piece of herself to someone else. At estate sales, this is what happens. You get to know someone. You carry the weight of their lives not in the things themselves, but the sense of touching those things, knowing that human hands once held them.

There's so much good that technology does. It allows us to communicate across distances, instantaneously exchange information, carry our books and documents wherever we go. I'm writing this on a laptop. I do own a smart phone. But the book, the physical book, is the last straw. Books require us to be physical. Books require us to use our sense of touch, to not forget what the physical world feels like or even smells like. Technology erases touch. It evaporates smell. It makes us two-dimensional creatures, seeing and hearing in 0s and 1s. And, above all, it eradicates intimacy, placing our human closeness into the cold plastic of electronic devices instead of the warm touch of our own, living hands. 

 

 

 

 

A Brief History of Time, or Turning 35

by Elison Alcovendaz

A couple weeks ago, I turned 35. On the same day, I also finished reading Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time.

I've never been well-versed in science. I'm the guy who took Astronomy in college thinking I was going to meet girls and look at stars (even though my class was in the early afternoon), but ended up drowning in so many complex equations that all I could do was get a C and call it a day. But reading A Brief History of Time, I felt like I had become one with the cosmos, a collection of particles intimately connected with the rest of the universe, like a little piece of truth had been made known to me.

At a point in the book, Hawking ruminates about the possibility of a "Theory of Everything," an explanation of, well, everything. At least everything physical. General relativity and quantum mechanics are generally considered to be the two closest theories to this, and a large part of the book explores how to bring the two together. But it got me thinking, if we are approaching a Theory of Everything, and humans are a part of Everything, might there be some really complicated set of equations that could accurately predict human behavior? Surely, if there are rules guiding the way electrons move (with a certain amount of uncertainty, of course), and if there are rules guiding the way massive pieces of matter interact gravitationally in space, then there should be rules for how other pieces of matter (us) exist, right? Or, at the very least, guide the lives we lead?

There were three concepts that really hit home with me. First, the idea of time dilation. This is probably beyond my mental capabilities, but time dilation basically states that the faster you're moving, the slower you perceive time to happen to you relative to someone else. For example, if you were to get on a spaceship and fly at a very, very, very, very fast speed into space, circle the solar system a few times and then return to earth, you'd find that we mere Earthlings would have aged more quickly than you, you lucky astronaut! Or, at least, that would be the perception. Is that weird? I probably explained that incorrectly. Perhaps a video explaining the Twin Paradox will help:

I'm not here to butcher cosmological physics, so let's get to how a similar idea of time dilation affects us. A few years after high school, I'd hear about peers from my class who were doing great things: getting PhDs and globetrotting and working for worldwide firms and living in New York and Paris and basically doing things I'd dreamed of doing but just never did. For them, moving from event to event in their lives was happening at a much quicker speed. From my vantage point, because I saw them moving more quickly into the future, my life, relativistically, seemed slower (or "normal") even though the post high school years remained the same for both of us. Same thing happened when people my age started getting married and the same thing is happening now that everyone I know in my age range already has kids. 

"Relative" to everyone else, my life has moved more slowly. What I've been thinking about lately is the benefit of having kids earlier versus having them later. If things go according to plan, I'll likely be 37 by the time Patty and I have our first child. My mother had me when she was 22. Several family members and friends had children sooner. Cons? Maybe less financial stability, less life experience, less time to do things for themselves in the earlier years. Pros? Maybe a better physical ability to care for a child (less toil on the physical body, for gravity affects time, too), more energy, and the kicker, of course, which is the appearance of more time. Though I'm passed the point of choosing, the decision of when to have kids can be treated as a condition of time dilation. If you wait, you watch people move more quickly into the future and thus experience your life more slowly, having the benefit of slower time when you're young.  If you have them early, when you retire and the kids are out of the house, everyone else will be moving more quickly into the future, and thus, you can enjoy slower time when you're in your retirement. Here's to hoping that, for Patty and I, anyway, we've made the right decision.

The second concept that really struck me was the anthropic principle, or, as Hawking writes, "We see the universe the way it is because we exist." There's a "weak" anthropic principle and a "strong" one, but for my purposes here we'll deal strictly with the "weak" one. Essentially, the world as we observe it can only be as it is because if it were any different, humans wouldn't exist to observe it. So even if 99.99999999999999999999999999999999 percent of the universe is uninhabitable for humans, the fact that we're here, on Earth, makes our location in the universe extremely special.

If that all sounds divinely inspired, or destined, well, you wouldn't be alone. If there was any part in the book that begged God as explanation, this was it. But science would explain that in the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, otherwise known as the multiverse, even if it were one in a quintillion that all the necessary components would occur to create a place where life would exist to observe the universe, in the realm of possible universes, it is likely to happen somewhere at sometime.

Our lives operate in much the same way, in ways that make us feel as though things were destined to happen. When we are born, there are an infinite number of events that could occur to us and an infinite number of choices we could make to said events that create the person you are right now, right here. I mean, there are literally an infinite number of possibilities. Instead of giving it to destiny, though, which is easy enough for us to do, what I learned was the importance of every decision. A few years ago, I had quit a job I thought would be a career, moved back in with my parents to pursue writing, and went back to school. Not exactly a prime "boyfriend" candidate. And then I met a woman in my first class and we talked a bit and then the last day of class came and, still convinced I wouldn't be worthwhile to everyone, even more convinced when she figured out the state of my residential and financial situation, I'd have zero chance of even sniffing a first date, I debated (rather fitfully), if I was going to ask for her number. Eventually I did and she saw something in me and we got married and it's easy to call that "destiny," or even God's plan, but really it was a choice. A series of choices. If anything, the anthropic principle should teach us about the importance of our own agency.

The biggest impact for me, however, came from the idea of singularities. A singularity, in the terms of science, is a point at which some cosmological measure becomes infinite. The most well-known example is the Big Bang singularity, a point at which the curvature of space-time was infinite. Another are black holes, where density becomes infinite. I personally don't fully understand the concept of infinity, so you can read about it here and then explain it to me.   The important thing to know about singularities is the rules we know no longer apply. No scientist knows what happened before the Big Bang because the rules of general relativity and quantum mechanics no longer work (many say this is because pre-Big Bang is God and we cannot understand God, but that's another blog for another day, maybe by an alternate me in another universe!). You may have read about a recent discovery that within a blink after the Big Bang, the universe experienced an exponential, yet instantaneous rate of growth faster than the speed of light (which according to relativity, isn't "supposed" to happen) and scientists just found evidence of this. Sometimes, even in science, the rules break down. Sometimes, the rules change.

If you take a look at your life, it is likely filled with singularities. When someone died. When someone was born. When you lost a job. When you gained a job. When you got married. When you got divorced. When you got sick. When you got healthy. When you read a book and it changed your life. There are events that happen and you know you'll never be the same. The rules that applied before can never apply now. The problem is, we often don't know it at first and we continue with our lives as normal, as though nothing has changed. We might still be reeling from that initial explosion, that event that knocked us from the comfortable and made us feel as though we were floating aimlessly in space. And yet, eventually, you find your feet on solid ground, you have the distance and time to observe clearly, and you can see the previously invisible threads of events and choices that made you who you are, right here and right now, and armed with that information, you can make the choices that lead you to a bright future filled with possibility.

When I look back, turning 35 is going to be one of those moments when my world changed. If there's anything that Hawking has taught me, it's this: neither you nor I are at the center of the universe, but the fact that we are here, living, is so ridiculously special that we need to stop giving away our agency. Our lives are not pre-destined. Our loves are not pre-destined. Our health, our happiness, none of it is a part of anyone's plan but our own. Let's make our own choices, acknowledge when it's time to change the rules, and by God, let's fly, no, let's soar, into the the finite space-times of our lives with curiosity, eagerness, and joy. 

Or, as one astronaut put it, To Infinity, and Beyond!

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 

 

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..."

  

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 Cordova Golf Course Lesson on Human Relations

by Elison Alcovendaz

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

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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

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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...

 

IKEA, A Vitruvian Man, and a Yellow Elephant

by Elison Alcovendaz

The first time I went to IKEA, I was in the OC with about 50 college friends. We'd just had one of those "ultimate" college experiences - after playing Olympic (not really) style games with a bunch of other college kids from around the country (mostly just an excuse to play with water balloons and buckets of water with holes in them), we partied at the House of Blues, played Truth or Dare in hotel rooms, club-hopped in Hollywood, and somehow ended up in front of that Big Yellow and Blue. At the time, there weren't any IKEA stores in Northern California, so we didn't know what to expect. One of the older guys - the one who'd be married in a year with a good job and very stable life - looked at me and said, "This is going to rock your f'in world."

It did (yes, a furniture store). I was 18 and a few months out of high school, which I felt at the time had been a relative success. I'd had a high GPA, a pretty good high school basketball career, a couple girlfriends - but when I stayed back in Sac and some of my classmates were getting scholarships to Ivy League schools and studying in D.C. and backpacking east Asia and playing college baseball up in Oregon, I kind of felt that living at home and seeing the same people at the under-21 nightclubs every Friday was just, well, not the business. 

So when the escalators placed me under those big, white lights, every HEMNES bookcase and every KLINGSBO coffee table became the keys to growing up, to making it. Living in 528 square feet looked pretty awesome to me, even if your toilet and stovetop were too close to seriously do any "healthy" cooking. I chatted up the employees. I grabbed those paper rulers and measured couches I couldn't afford. I jotted down the aisles and the rows of cabinetry for kitchens and bedrooms for a house I imagined would come right after college. Under those lights, I had dreams of crazy things. Playing basketball in the NBA. Becoming an actor. Owning a house with ten bedrooms. I was this close to the big time. I was excited. With the $20 in my wallet and smiling like a fool, I bought a pack of mini picture frames, a mini Vitruvian-Man-mannequin thing, and a couple of mini hot dogs. When I got home, I put the frames above the wall and the Vitruvian guy on the desk across from my bed, his head and hand raised in respect, as though he knew I was on my way.

I've been to IKEA many times since then and I've accumulated a lot of stuff, a few of which have been donated or sold at garage sales but most of which are still around in their ratty, discolored states. Contrary to popular belief, most of their products will last longer than your dreams (wow, that was melancholy) - as long as you can follow those pictographic directions - so they're hard to get rid of. I remembered this when, a week ago, we moved into our new house and I was looking at the den and the nearly 500 books on the floor that wouldn't fit in the IKEA shelves that were already many, many years old and something told me I didn't want IKEA any longer. It wasn't good enough. We had a nice new home and we needed some real furniture. Sturdy. Oak, maybe. The kind of furniture that made you think of leather armoires and random globes and old men sitting around smoking pipes inside their offices for no reason. Something to replace those wild, 18 year-old dreams I'd started having that day at the OC IKEA. I know this line of thinking is mostly a commoditization-based ego thing - I believed IKEA was the thing you got in college or just out of college when you were renting that apartment with the roommates you ended up hating and wished would just disappear and you wanted to look cool only you wouldn't realize until later that EVERYONE had that same EKTORP sofa. It wasn't the type of thing grown-ups did. I didn't want to be that college kid anymore. I wanted to be the guy who had a house and was proud of it. I wanted real furniture to symbolize real reality. I wanted to be the adult. 

But those $3000 limited edition shelves I wanted were "slightly" out of our price range (which Patty rightfully and annoyingly reminded me of every five minutes as I stood there drooling over them) and, knowing the Big Yellow and Blue had cheap, faux-wood shelves that would match the ones I already had and would do the job for awhile, I drove over to West Sac, parked my car, and ended up under those lights that had only gotten bigger and brighter since my first stop in the OC.

I hated it. I hated being directed on how to live in 328 square feet. I hated seeing fake TVs. I hated seeing every single book used only for decorative purposes and probably never touched or read. I hated seeing furniture that would destroy your back in half an hour. I hated seeing bookcases you had to screw to the wall. I hated seeing boxes that I knew held those terribly designed screwdrivers that always threatened to break your thumbs. I hated seeing the hipsters who would spend 30 minutes trying to get that box into their Prius. I hated those damn meatballs. I hated all the geometry and the pretty little rooms and all the younger twenty-something couples who argued over a dresser like it would make or break their relationship. But above all, I hated that I wanted those bookcases, that couch, that frame, that print, that rug, those curtains, that shower caddy, that GRUNDTAL, that lamp, that fake plant, that sweet-looking cinnamon roll.

Now that we own a house that needs ceiling fans and landscaping in the backyard and enough water for the sod and sealant for the tile and a couch for the great room and chairs for people to sit in and a lamp for the bedroom and blinds for our windows and shelves for the garage and a hose for the washing machine, I realized that there is way too much of that kind of adulthood going on. We have enough of that crap to deal with. Instead I bought the metallic shelves the teenage me would've loved. I got an awesome print of a yellow elephant. I'm not saying I don't want to grow up, that I don't want these responsibilities, but I am saying that sometimes, your 18 year old self knows a little bit more about growing up than your 34 year old self does. I can't permanently get back that naivete, that careless hope when adulthood is on the precipice, but I know that when the grass dies and the dryer fails and the pipes leak and the windows break, I'll be able to sit on the ground, cross my legs like a youngster, stare at the yellow elephant and know that, at least for awhile, not everything gets old.  

Telling people you're a writer...

by Elison Alcovendaz

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

The Soulmate Problem

by Elison Alcovendaz

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

                                                                                                                  - Shakespeare, "Romeo and Juliet"

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

Transient

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving

by Elison Alcovendaz

Patty and I have spent the last three days packing. Our apartment lease is up tomorrow, and our home won't be finished for a couple more weeks, so we're moving in with my parents until then. She is currently watching Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence debate the sexual orientation of their dead father. I am currently sprawled across the couch, fingers to the keyboard, thinking about boxes.

They are so convenient, these boxes. Along the wall from our front door and across the kitchen counter, several boxes are stacked in even rows, edges held in perfect angles with shiny, tough tape. We did our best to keep the boxes coherent; one is all china and glassware, another is all books, yet another has a pencil, a fortune cookie, Yu-Gi-Oh cards, and socks without pairs (so maybe we didn't do so well). We do this a lot, I think; we compartmentalize sections of our lives, of ourselves, only that never really works so we end up in a jumbled mess of scattered crap, immobile, waiting for someone to pick us up, open us, and put us back together again.

I've always hated moving. If anyone ever asked me what my pet peeves were I would always respond 1) moving and 2) moving. Being 6 foot 1 and 250+ pounds in a Filipino family means that whenever there is some heavy lifting to be done, you eventually get a call. Maybe that's not it. Maybe my hatred for moving comes from its apparent pointlessness. By an informal count, I've lived at 14 different addresses in my 34 years of life. Each time I have tossed every piece of me into boxes, put them in a bed of a truck, and reopened them at a new location only to pack them again either months or years later. Each time, I'd pull off the tape, tear open the folds in the hope that something else - no, someone else - would be there, someone different, someone who had his stuff together.

Patty and I laugh often about how our new house will be so empty for awhile. And yet as I stare at the 30 plus boxes - not to mention the garbage bags, luggages, and backpacks filled ith stuff we're not quite ready to give up - I wonder how could that be? Everything is so full, so heavy. Each box bulges to the point of spillage. Surely we can fill a house up with our stuff, make it feel lived in, make it feel like home.

Only that's not what makes something a home, right? It's something else, something that can never be found in a box. And it's that thing - love - that makes this time feel different. Don't get me wrong, living with my family, my friends, my cousins, there was always love, but this is different. This time, these boxes aren't just filled with my stuff. It's our stuff. Yu-Gi-Oh cards sitting on top of Banana Republic skirts. A basketball wedged against a Victoria's Secret bag filled with makeup. Faulkner making friends with middle school grammar books. 

Patty has gone to bed. Martin Lawrence and Chris Rock are turned off, the ceiling fan is spinning, and I'm taping one more box together. There's a canvas of white tulips in there, a cooking pan, poker chips, a box of basketball cards, lovey-dovey birthday cards we've written each other. I will always hate flowery art, cooking, and corny Hallmark cards, but at least I no longer hate moving.