Saturday, July 18, 2015

All This Life

Joshua Mohr's fifth novel, All This Life, begins in traffic. On the Golden Gate Bridge. In a car.  A father and a son. Both broken and searching for something to break the tedium of their lives. The father, recently divorced, ponders,"How can he tell his only son that being an adult is learning to live with your failures?"

A miraculous event during the traffic jam of this opening scene becomes the catalyst for the rest of this beautifully crafted and perfectly paced novel. The characters are trademark Mohr. Each one flawed in his/her own way, but this time around, each character is more vulnerable and likable because they each reflect our own insecurities about living in the modern age. Although the characters vary in age, gender and class, they are united in their yearning for the things that make life more than an endurance test. They each remind us of what it means to live.

By parading a cast of broken characters,  Mohr shows us the many ways that, "Everyone swims in the earth's dirty broth." This time, however, he also tenderly reveals moments of grace and hope.

While tackling a wide range of theme and topics like parenting, Twitter, relapsing and addiction, growing old,  or the gentrification of his beloved Mission District, Mohr operates with a deliberate and thoughtful prose which dare I say sounds like poetry.This is the kind of novel you will want to read in one sitting, knowing that you might start it from the beginning as soon as you finish.   

All This Life is Mohr at his best and most hopeful. I wish I had more to say about this remarkable novel, but I would rather you unpack it yourself. This book deserves your time and attention, if for no other reason that to remind you that, "We will always be lost. We are the walking wounded and there's love in our hearts." 

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Complexities of Change

I don't know how to start this post. I don't want to make it a bigger deal than it is, but seeing as I have written about drinking and addiction on this blog so many times in the past- here, here and here and probably a bunch more, I feel the need to make some kind of statement, if only to myself to make what I am about to do feel real.

Today marks my ten years of sobriety. Not a drop of alcohol in ten years. If I were a different man, I might celebrate with one of these:

Maybe I would thank god for granting me the serenity for knowing what I can change and what I can't change and the wisdom for knowing the difference. But before you start congratulating me, let me say that on this momentous ten year anniversary, I have decided to start drinking again.

I am serene and I understand the complexities of change. And I can assure myself that I have changed. I am no longer that angry, reckless, self-destructive person sniffing out oblivion. I am a middle-aged school teacher with two kids who might want to occasionally enjoy a chilled glass of white wine with friends during a pool barbecue. Or a beer with my wife as we enjoy a veggie burger at a waterside restaurant. Perhaps, a smooth Scotch, well because it tastes good and that is what most adult can do. Enjoy a drink.

There is no fear of a demon. Or some downward spiral into chaos. Most people can have a drink or two and simply live their lives. I want to be one of those people.

I've used and abused alcohol in many different ways in the past. For reasons I have come to terms with, I needed escape in my youth, and alcohol was my one way ticket to blackout land. I used to say, "I don't understand why anyone would drink if their main intention is not to get drunk." For me there was never one or two drinks. It was always-drink until everything was gone. Vomit. Black out.

Moderation seemed absurd. But now, it makes sense. I want to give it a try. This is not some spontaneous decision. I have thought about this anniversary for months, and I have set up some basic parameters:
  1. No more than three drinks.
  2. No drinking alone. 
  3. Drunkenness is not the goal.
So many people have supported me in my sobriety, that I feel I am letting them down, and who knows? Maybe I am wrong. Maybe I will quickly realize that I really do have a real drinking problem and that I will not be able to maintain my three simple rules, in which case I will need to quit completely- this time for life.

But I would like to think that time can change us. And with age comes wisdom and happiness and our desires wax and wane and are better controlled by our impulses.

I am not planning some big event, and I am actually a bit nervous to pull the trigger, but I am now opening the door to say that next time I am out to dinner or with friends, I might order a drink. I will sip it slowly and enjoy the fruity after tones and the clanking of the ice. I might enjoy a Mojito with friends as they celebrate some joyous event. Not because I want to get wasted, but because I feel that I am in control.

Will keep you posted. Stay tuned.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Purpose of Literature

Crushed. Assaulted. Broken. Pulverized.

I am not sure the purpose of literature. What do we expect from books? Where do we hope they can take us? Who do they reveal us to be upon completion? Do they make us think? Feel? See things we never knew existed? Are they meant to tear our hearts out, burn them to ash and force us to choke on the ash? Are they supposed to reconfigure every molecule of our being and leave us exhausted and unable to piece ourselves back together? Is obliteration the purpose of good art?

If so, then A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara will not disappoint. I started this 700 page plus tome last Sunday and quickly buried myself in its world. I fell in love with its characters, while also loathing them for their inability to give me any answers.

This post is not meant to be a critical review. I will not tell you about who these four men are or how their lifetime of joy and suffering is a testament to our human ability to endure unimaginable pain. There is no need to look at the plot, that spans decades and covers a nation, but rests in New York City. All you need to know is that this book will haunt you.

I was going to write that I have not read a book of this magnitude in years, but I can honestly say, excuse my hyperbole, that I have never read a book that made me feel this uncomfortable. I am at a loss for words.

I often ask my students to tell me what a book is about without mentioning plot or character to see if they have a basic understanding of the themes. A Little Life is about:

Pain and redemption. Forgiveness and self-acceptance in the face of abuse and trauma and self-hatred. It is about victim-hood and friendship. It is about rape and sex and sexuality. It is about a more imaginative look at masculinity. It is about what we demand from each other and what we offer and call love. It is about the fragility of childhood and how we can never escape our past. It is about self-harm, suicide and fear. It is about how easily we are broken and how long it takes to heal.

I am not sure the purpose of literature, but I suspect that at the very least it should shatter a small part of our universe and force us to diligently put it back together. And what we recreate, will never look like the original. The broken shards will leave scars and we should be prepared to hurt.

But it is fiction after all. The stories of men and women who have never existed.  We see glimpses of them in the mirrors we look into everyday, but through literature the hurt and the pain and the scars are self-inflicted. We can put a book down. Walk away. Contemplate. We can learn.

To be more loving to ourselves and the ones who we love and who love us. We can be more kind to strangers, seeing that we are all suffering in our own small ways. We can be more grateful and patient and understanding. 

This book is a dark scary alley. Not one I recommend exploring light heartedly. But sometimes your entire being needs to face its fears. You need to grope around in the darkness and feel the terror of  real pain. If for no other reason than to remind you of the beauty and warmth of life. We can allow literature to remind us that the world is more complicated and just as simple as we need it to be. We can allow it to change us. Crack us open and shift the light. Letting some in and some out.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Magnitude of Depth

It's dark
save for the light of the moon.
And a batch of stars.

You are alone.
It's nearly midnight
you are in the middle
of the ocean.

Two birds- chirping. dancing. playing
in the cool milky light.
The sea a mirror of constellations and melted silver.

You think about a camera and preserving this moment.
Your hat tight on your head.
Your finger tips curled into tender fists.
Your mind dripping from your eyes. Out. Into the melting sky.

Where did these birds come from?
Boasting of their freedom. Exalting in life. Rubbing your face in it.

There are no cameras,
but some of these words, like "You are alone," begin to imprint on your psyche.
You hope you will remember them.
Does life happen alone in your mind?
The moon lower now.

It's hard to tell the magnitude of depth when the ocean reflects the sky.
So much above. So much below.
And you here with those birds and that moon and this shimmering.

You breathe deep. Your nose red and cold. Alive. Salt in the air. On your lips.
You are made of this. You are everywhere.
In the darkness and the light.
The heavy sickle moon on the horizon, yawns and disappears.

There will be no photographs, unless you count these words,
this memory,
fading as soon as it was hatched.
Never to be as bright as when it began.

Somewhere in the darkness,
you can still hear the birds,
they are nowhere.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Daraja Here We Come!

Tomorrow night, Friday morning, at 2:00 am I will be boarding an airplane to fly to Kenya. I will be leading a school trip to The Daraja Academy for girls. I have been to this school twice before. The first time I went, Kaia was only this big...

The other time I went, we were literary painting the walls...

...and hiring teachers...

There were no students and the campus sat expectant, heavy with ambition and promise. I remeber sitting on Jason's (the founder and my best friend since we were 15) deck talking about how I might be able to help him design a Wordpress blog to promote the school. We were so naive and innocent. Well, I was. Jason had a fire in his eyes and a vision that must have been crystal clear, because since that first trip, not only did the school open, but it is now filled to capacity with over 250 girls from grade 9-12 and has graduated at least one class. Their website is stunning and they are a fully sustainable and operational school. We will be arriving a few weeks before Daraja's fifth anniversary.
You can look at more pictures here or read previous posts for some context here.
Daraja is the opposite of the slums and poverty from which her students will come. It is beyond politics and good intentions. Daraja is the realization of a dream. Hope actualized and made real. Hands in soil, trees planted. Seeds sown. It is beyond donations and charity. Daraja is a place where regular people like you selflessly give their time, money, and energy in the hope that change begins within each of us.
 I can't pin-point what excites me most about this upcoming trip. Will it be...

...seeing this guy again, after so many years.

And relaxing on his deck and talking about what it feels like to be forty and sitting on the grounds of a school that was born in our dreams. Together. Talking about the students he has hand picked from across Kenya. He will tell me about the tough young women his school empowers everyday to make a change in Kenya and beyond. Perhaps we will reflect on the work I have done at UWCSEA to stay connected to Daraja. I will relish the fact that I managed to pull off this trip after years of hoping. I will tell him how five teachers paid their own way to make it happen, and how Claire and Joy worked tirelessly not to let this trip sink. We might discuss the strange magic that has followed us for most of our lives. Directing us to moments exactly like the one described.

Perhaps we will be in the kitchen watching his students interact with ours. While there are only five from our school, we will discuss how the beauty of Africa will infect them to maybe create schools of their own in the future. I will introduce him my friends. Worlds will collide.

Maybe I will talk to my friends/colleagues, beautiful women in their own right, under these stars...

We might pontificate on the immensity of the universe and the forces that might have brought us all to this spot on planet. We will shed the stresses of big school big city life and remember why we do what we do. They will thank me. I will thank them. We will be thankful beneath the stars. Paula will take stunning photos. Jen will keep us grounded. We might make a movie, write a book, scream at the universe. Be noticed. Be ignored. We will be alive and we will know it, and we will remind the people around us of the intensity of life. The intensity of our  awareness.

Maybe I am most excited by the quiet walks I will take looking for light like this...

Finding the nooks and crannies of the campus for my quiet contemplation. I will remember and reconnect to the unnameable unmistakable gravity of Africa. I will remember the afternoons I spent in Mozambique. I will envy Jason for the fact that he can live in this place all year, every year, for years. I will promise to be back and bring another group next year.

I am excited to walk each of our students to their rooms...

and I will think about the thrill they must be feeling-- so far away from home. I will be excited to think about them contemplating their place in a continent advertised as so wild, knowing that they are there, alive and safe.We will shatter stereotypes and build worlds on experience. We will hug and love and befriend strangers. We will never see people as charity cases or recipients of our pity. We will learn to see people for who they are. We will learn respect and honor dignity. We will listen and listen and listen. Then we will record and scribble and draw and then...we will shout and share and create until we heard. We will make promises to bring others here.

I am excited by walking down roads like this one...

With the red soil beneath our feet, the metaphor of the path not-taken not lost on any of us. We will be excited by the not-knowing. What will we see? What will we learn? About the school? Each other? Ourselves? We will walk. We will breathe.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

On The Hike Beneath The Sea of Green

Wow! This was quite the weekend. My wife was at an EAL conference in Bangkok, so I was home alone with the girls. It began with the three of us going to a junior school play, then a viewing of Spinal Tap with a friend at Singapore's new art house theater on Friday night. Saturday found me at an all day PD session with Penny Kittle followed by me returning to The Projetor with the girls to see Yellow Submarine. Sunday morning we woke up and went on a three hour hike through Mac Ritchie Reservoir and the Tree Top walk. At home we chilled for a bit and headed to dinner and new shoes for us all.

Below are tidbits of the conversations from the weekend:

Me, "What did you think of that movie?"
Skye, "It was weird. Why were the blue guys so mean?"
Me, "I'm not sure. What did you think the movie was about?"
Skye, "That music and love make people better?"
Kaia, "I liked the Hiliary guy"
Me, "You mean the Nowhere Man?"
Kaia, " I didn't like how they were so mean to him? I also liked when that guy ate everything, including himself and then there was nothing left."
Skye, "I liked the songs. But I didn't like that glove."


On the hike: 

Skye, "Can we watch Ever After when we get home?"
Me, "I don't really like that show. I said we can check it out a few times,  but I don't like you watching it."
Skye, "But we love it."
Me, "That doesn't make it good for you."
Kaia, "You know how daddy feels about Barbie."
Skye, "But this is not Barbie."
Me, "Do you know why I don't like these characters?"
Skye, "Because they wear make-up?"
Me, "Not just that. I don't like to see girl characters who are so worried about being girls. Always worried about what they wear, who they like, and gossiping. I see girls as so much more complicated than that"
Skye, "What is gossip?"
Me, "It is when you are always talking about other people, instead of worrying about yourself. I like to see girls on TV who are like the real girls I see everyday. Smart, funny, brave, tough. Girls like you.  You like many different things. You play with boys and talk to them about things you are good at and things you love. Like the girls in Wildd Kratts. You don't see the girls on that show, worrying about how they look or trying to impress boys. They are too busy learning about animals and making cool machines.
Skye, "Like Ruby Gloom?"
Me, "Exactly. I want you to see girls on TV that inspire you and make you think about cool things. I want them to be strong and funny. Because that is how I see you two.

Skye," I'm tired."
Me, "That's good. You should be. You are exercising and spending a lot of energy.  Try not talking so much and just breathe deeply. Sometimes when you get tired, but you have to keep walking. There is no other way to get home. Complaining only makes you more tired. So enjoy yourself. Think of every step and keep moving. Look around. We are not going anywhere, so there is no getting there. We are just walking, spending time together and enjoying the nature.
Skye, "I'm still tired."


Kaia, "There's something in my shoe." 
Me, "Yeah? What do you want m to do about it?  Stop and take care of it. There are two kinds of people Kaia, those who complain and wait for other people to fix things for them, and the kind of people who just suck it up and solve their own problems. I would love it if you were the second type of person."


Kaia, "Can we explore that creek a bit off the trail?"
Me, "Sure." 
Kaia, "Will you come with us?"
Me, "No. I think I will just lay here a bit and watch the clouds."
Kaia, "But we want you to come."
Me, "Sometimes Kaia, it is good for kids to explore away from their parents. Go see what you find and just keep it your secret. I don't need to always be there behind you. Take Skyelar, be careful and see what is down by the creek. Kids need time for adventure without their parents approval or supervision."
Skye, "Come on Kaia, let's just go?"
Kaia, "Can we get our shoes wet?"
Me, "If that is what you want to do, just don't complain later when your socks are wet."


Me, "Wow. Guys we did it! I'm so proud of you both. It's pretty amazing that you just walked all that way. I am so impressed you could do that. You can also bike to East Coast Park, paddle board, you can snorkel. There are some kids your age who would complain the whole way. It makes me happy we can do these things with you now."
Kaia, "Can we climb that volcano in Indonesia soon?"
Me, "You keep doing the stuff I mentioned and we can definitely climb that volcano."


There was some less profound and less inspirational stuff too. After buying new shoes

Kaia, "But I want to wear them for PE."
Me, "If you are not a bit more grateful I will take them back right now! I am so tried of you being such an ungrateful spoiled brat! Take some time to enjoy what you have before you start complaining about what it isn't!" 


Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Flooded When We Can

The crazies in Syria threw a man they believed to be gay from a building and when he didn't die upon impact, others stoned him to death. This made me sad, then slightly angry, then numb. Apathetic and mildly annoyed. I didn't know where (how?) to start even thinking of a world where things like this occur. I knew that perhaps, I had heard of something similar on a TV show or another newscasts. Reality is too bizarre- some Japanese dudes were recently beheaded and now the Japanese president is angry.

I had no choice but to move on.
The news.
I am flooded.
A vessel draining and filling.
Never sure what's coming in or going out.

Sufjan Stevens is bothered by Miley Cyrus's grammar. I mulled over the line, “Hold my place in line while I take your turn," while listening to the  new Modest Mouse song. Fidel Castro is an old man. Some people are excited for McDonalds in Havana. Other people are not.

I am afraid of apathy, but do not have the energy for much else. Next week, I will go to Kenya. This feels useful and "compassionate." I will see my friend and spend time beneath the stars and in the wild and reconnect and disconnect.

They are talking about MOOCS again and social media and ethics and journalism and things that will be obsolete by 2020. The CIA and Google. Student Effectiveness. Spain and energy. Palestine and Ukraine. Today I sat with a boy and talked to him about effectively arguing his claim and explaining his evidence. I cam home and passed out.

Played Uno with the kids...(I'll soon eat some grapes and dark chocolate. I will savor the flavors and pretend to be living in the present. It feel good for a few seconds. I will remember the dead gay Syrian and know that nothing ever changes, we just enjoy our fruits when we can.)

...and now. These words. Each night feels the same in this brave new world which is not new or brave and barely considered a world. But guitars continue to make new sounds and this has to me something.

I listen to Sleater Kinney full blast and it helps:

We win, we lose
Only together do we make the rules

We live — say goodbye to your old way of life
I can breathe way up high, now it’s our turn to fly

There was an error in this gadget
Related Posts with Thumbnails