Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Past Lives

At work I feel like I'm climbing a rope, and the bottom of the rope is burning. The flames are climbing the rope behind me. I'm ahead of the flames now, and I've kept ahead of the flames for a while, climbing steadily, building some distance, but the flames keep climbing. This week at work, I effectively stopped climbing. Things are building up, the flames are getting closer, but I'm not climbing. I'm not working. I've paused, and the flames haven't.

I walked home from work today with those untended flames, those duties I've consciously failed to address, burning in the back of my mind. I felt both panicked and hopeless during my walk. This is the principle way depression manifests itself in me.

When I got home I drank a beer, and sat in the back yard. I started thinking about a writer I know named Tony Carrillo. He posted in his blog today that two of his stories are being published in a magazine, and one of his stories won the Leo Litvak award. I have never heard of the Leo Litvak award, but I have read several versions of the story that won the award. Tony gave me copies of it at a few different points in its development. He wanted me to read it and give him feedback. I tried to arrange to get together with him, to talk with him about the story, but he and I never found common time to get together. In all honesty, I gave up on arranging a time after only a few tries. I gave up because I've given up on Tony in the past. When we used to get together he'd tell me all about his dreams, his hopes and aspirations. He'd fill my ears with commentary on his favorite movies and favorite books and all the crazy adventures he was having as a newly out-of-the-closet gay man in the bear scene. He'd shove stories into my hands and ask me to read them, and ask for feedback. But he wouldn't read my stories. He wouldn't offer feedback. He wouldn't ask me about my favorite books. There was no give and take. So I gave up.

In my back yard, drinking that beer, I thought about the story Tony had written that was receiving the award. I didn't think it was a very good story. The idea that this story won an award made me feel like there is no point in writing at all. If awards are given to stories like the one Tony wrote, if stories like his are considered great stories that deserve awards, then I probably shouldn't even bother to write.

I realize that I am exposing a certain smallness of my character by revealing these thoughts.

My girlfriend called on the phone while I was drinking my beer and thinking those thoughts about writing. She asked me what I wanted to eat for dinner. I didn't know. Nothing sounded good to me. She said she was leaving work and we'd figure out what to eat when she got home.

My girlfriend calls every day to ask what I want for dinner. I never know what I want for dinner. Nothing ever sounds good to me for dinner. Usually my girlfriend decides what to eat, and she cooks it, and I eat it with her and then wash the dishes. I often feel guilty about not helping her think of something to eat, and not helping her cook, so today I started looking through a cookbook after talking with her on the phone. I decided on a dish: Hummus Ma'Sabanegh. When she got home, we went to the market and bought the ingredients. I laid the ingredients out on the kitchen table, and started cutting up onions. I was trying to work quickly, and the knife slipped on an onion and I cut my finger. I stopped cutting onions and put a bandage on my finger. Then I started cutting onions again. Within minutes, my eyes were stinging so badly that I could hardly keep them open. Later, when I went to start one of the stove-top burners, I couldn't get it to light correctly, and when it finally did light there was a burst of blue flame that scared my girlfriend and made me flinch.

While I cooked dinner I listened to Lole y Manuel and drank a glass of red wine. While we ate dinner we listened to The Smiths and I drank another glass of red wine. After we finished dinner my girlfriend started washing the dishes, and I went to the computer to check my email.

There was an email from my friend Will. He's a friend I met while living in Edinburgh, and I hadn't communicated with him in nearly two years. I was excited to get this email from him. It made me think of the time I spent in Edinburgh, and that made me think of the time I spent in other places, doing other things. It made me think of all the jobs I've had, all the people I've met, all the places I've been. They seem very distant, these places and things, very distant and hard to remember, like dreams of past lives. While I read the email, I wanted to visit Will in Edinburgh. I wanted to reclaim some of those past lives, which seem all but forgotten to me now.

I used to live in Madrid. I used to live in Plymouth. I used to live in Barcelona. I used to live in Perth. I used to work on a boat. I used to play in a band. I endured chemotherapy and a stem-cell transplant. I had relationships with different people during each of these times in my life. I had daily routines specific to each time. And now it's all gone and nearly forgotten. Now I live in San Francisco, have lived here for several years, and I'm stuck on a burning rope.

There were good things about those lost parts of my life, and there were bad things too. There were things that existed in my life only in one place, during one brief period of time. There are things that I felt and did and had then that I also have now, today, with my current life. But one thing that I always had when living abroad and that I can't have in San Francisco, or any part of California, is a cohesion between where I am and how I see myself.

I will attempt to explain.

I have always, at every point of my life, had this feeling that I am not one with the people around me, that I am not like them, that I don't fit. This feeling was cultivated by different people when I was a boy and a young man. My grandmother told me, while I was a small child, that I was a special boy, with special gifts. I could unite people, make them see their differences, help them see the other side of the story. My father also told me that I was different. He based this difference on my dual citizenship, my possession of American and Spanish passports. None of these people are like you, he told me, because you are not American. You are Spanish. You have Spanish blood in your veins. My friends seemed to think me different too. They called me crazy, shook their heads grinning. They thought I had far out ideas. They thought I saw things differently than everyone else.

It all seems pretty silly now. And I think my sense of being different comes from more than just those childhood influences. In any case, the fact remains that I have always, throughout all of my life, felt out-of-place. When I lived abroad, and only then, that sense of being out-of-place was made more actual by my status as a foreigner. I don't have that now. My sense of self is not reflected by my surroundings, it is countered by it.

This is not entirely a good thing.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Running the Numbers

I finally got around to doing my taxes last night, and this morning I was so depressed I could barely drag myself to work. Turns out my total earnings for last year were just over $18,000. According to a 2005 article in the SF Chronicle, you needed to earn about $52K a year in SF to live as well as someone earning $28K anywhere else. That report is three years old, and we've had three years of inflation and increased housing costs in this city, so I'm pretty sure today's numbers are even worse. If we guess that today's ratio would be something like $60K a year in SF to $30K anywhere else, then my $18,000 earnings allowed me to live as well as someone earning $9,000 in Boise, Idaho.

In other words, I'm fucking poor.

It's not that I'm not used to being poor. I've been thoroughly mired in poverty since I left home at 18, and even when I lived with my mom and her husband, who actually made decent money, we lived as if we were poor. Poverty is familiar to me.

But I'm distressed now because last year was the most job-related year I've ever had in my life, and I'm still broke at the end of it. For the first time ever, I spent the whole year in one city, without going to school or involving myself significantly in any other pursuit (I did fiddle around in two bands, and do a little writing, but WORK took the lion's share of my time and energy). Like usual, I quit a job during the year, and I worked part-time at another job before they forced me into a full-time schedule, but even considering all of that, I'd estimate that I was fully employed (40 hours a week) for around 10 of the 12 months in 2007.

And what happened to that $18K, which I sold the last year of my life for? First off, taxes got at least 20%, leaving me with around $13,500. My rent accounts for $540 a month, or a total of $6,480, which reduces the previous sum to $7,020. Another $600 for the cell phone, and $440 for rent at the studio where my drumset lives, leaves me with $5940. We can easily strike another $300 a month for food and groceries (which is probably a gross underestimation, seeing as how a lousy burrito costs $7 in this city), knocking my cash down to $2340. Various other expenses, like car repair, insurance, registration, and gas, as well money spent on plane tickets (4 short trips last year) handily take care of whatever was left.

So, obviously, there isn't any room to enhance my life. I couldn't dream of owning a house on what I'm earning (average house cost in SF is $750,00, and that's after more than a year with a failing housing market), or raising a kid.

Of course, I guess I could always give in, and focus my life around getting a better job. I'm a college graduate, with good references, so I could probably make more money if I committed myself to it. For a long while now I've lived with the dream of producing worthwhile writing, and I'd probably have to give that dream up if I'm to have a chance of making a decent living. In all honesty, the last year of my life wasn't very productive in terms of writing, anyway. Some people say you need to focus your passions and energies on what you're most driven to do, on what you'll do even when you're exhausted and hopeless when you get home from work. I manage to write a couple sorry poems after work, and a blog entry every now and again, but I don't feel like I'm producing a significant body of art. After work, all I consistently feel eager to do is drink beer.

Maybe I should become an alcoholic.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Questions

Can you believe this is the way we spend our lives,
in closed rooms
with air pumped in by machines
and windows that do not open?
Can you believe that the years keep passing
forever
forever
while we are doing this?
How little are our lives worth
and how much should we sacrifice
for a loaf of bread
and a bed?
Can you believe that this
has been going on for
longer than--
Do you believe in god?
Which one?
Do you believe in one of the
major religions,
one of those that has been around
for thousands of years?
Thousands of years
with divine knowledge
and we're still
this dumb?
How can it be
that today
right now
we are at the pinnacle
of human evolution?
All of history
every countless moment
has come together
to bring us here,
and this is all we have?

This is all we have to show for it?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Declining Literacy: Yet more evidence!

I work at the testing center at a State University. For every test we give, we have to offer accommodations for students with learning disabilities, difficulty concentrating, etc. We mail all of these students a letter two weeks before the test, telling them where the test will be, what accommodations they qualify for, and how to confirm they're coming. The first thing the letter says, in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, is that the student must call and confirm they're coming.

This weekend we've got an accommodated English placement test. (You don't even need to take the English placement test--accommodated or not--if you score 550 or above on the english section of the SAT. Scoring 550 or higher on the SAT doesn't seem that hard, yet thousands of students sign up for every offering.) Most of these students, still in highschool, have their parents sign them up. Of the five students signed up for the accommodated English test this Saturday, two called to confirm. This morning I started calling those who hadn't confirmed. Two of the numbers were invalid. The third number worked.

The student's mother picked up the phone. I told her who I was and why I was calling. She said her daughter was definitely planning on coming to the test. I asked if she'd received the letter. She said she had. I didn't bother to ask why she hadn't call to confirm. She asked me when the test was scheduled, and where to show up for it.

The letter we sent is three sentences long. One of those three sentences says when the test is scheduled, and where.

I imagine this mother picking the letter off her hardwood floor, near her front door, where it fell with the other mail that day. I imagine this mother tearing the envelope open with a silver letter opener. I imagine this mother unfolding the paper inside. I imagine her holding the paper in front of her face, on hand on either side, the page about fourteen inches from her nose. I imagine her eyes tracing over the words printed on the page, but her brain never truly decoding the meaning of those words. I imagine that her eyes did in fact process 100% of the words on the page, but that her brain captured maybe 10% of the meaning.

Statistics show that the number of funtionally literate High School students has fallen to 35% (prison planners now estimate their future populations by researching the number of illiterate 4th graders, by the way). Apparently, those students' parents aren't doing so well either.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS, by Dave Eggers


I've reached the halfway point in this book, and am starting to doubt that I'll make it the rest of the way through. At the start I was impressed. The first chapter especially felt poignant, with its focus on the death of the author's parents: authentic tragedy, rich with emotional meaning. From there we dive into the author's self-obsession, a veritable celebration of himself; ego-stroking at it's most blatant. Almost makes me think of Rock of Love, which my girlfriend sometimes watches, in which a desperate has-been sets up an entire television show just to feed his fragile sense of importance, and pouts like a petulant child whenever his pawn-like cast-members fail to reinforce that shallow fantasy. Eggers uses his family tragedy and his supposed "care-taking" of his pre-adolescent brother as props, hoping to provoke feelings of affection and sympathy, but the humanity of those props is compromised by the author's transparent desire to bask in glory. After a while, reading this novel feels like a way of belittling yourself, giving your attention and time to a primadonna set on using you for personal aggrandizement.

I've found myself wondering, as I turn the pages to this tome, how it ever achieved bestseller status (not to imply that bestseller status is indicative of quality). I suppose part of the explanation lies in its gimickry--such as the upside down and backwords rear cover (to give the impression of a second book); the writing in areas not normally given over to authorial influence (like in the copywrite info at the front of the book, in which Eggers assures us that we don't have to worry about the size of the publishing house or other major corporations because they have "very very small" influence over quirky individuals such as ourselves); or the rambling "Acknowledgements" section, which includes various charts and graphs, a cost breakdown of what the author was paid for the book (which omits the 1.5 million he got for paperback rights), and ends with a random drawing of a stapler. All that clever playing-about might have charmed a lot of the stodgy New York book reviewers, inundated as they are with more orthodox works, and convinced them to pen laudatory blurbs--and we all know that blurbs sell books. Maybe the general reading public was similarly affected. Maybe this book attained bestseller status from quirk alone.

It's also interesting to note that Eggers oftentimes becomes apologetic or defensive for using these novelties, claiming that "It does not mean that someone is being POMO or META or CUTE...it has no far-reaching implications for the art...it should not make you angry," and yet he uses these tricks so relentlessly, so compulsively, that there isn't any significant portion of text untouched by them; the gimickry is practically inseperable from the "art" itself. If you do try to block out the slight-of-hand, what you're left with is generally uninspired writing: lots of telling (instead of showing), relatively little scene-setting, words and words in a babbling stream, with little eloquence or sense of economy. You spend this book locked within Eggers mind, your ears filled with his thoughts. Rarely are you given an environment to inhabit, a view to contemplate, a paragraph of description focused on the way something looks instead of what Eggers thinks about it. That's why I'm so fed up now, approaching the halfway mark. The effect is cumulative, claustrophobic. Reading this book makes me feel like I'm tied to a plank, being water-boarded by a flood of Eggers' persona.

Eggers offers a few apologias for this self-obsessiveness, too. He takes a few half-hearted cracks at himself (usually in the form of dialogue, in which he uses other characters--his little brother, an MTV interviewer--as puppets that point out his manipulations of the story; in the case of his little brother, offered initially as a reason to feel empathy for Eggers' story, this invasion feels particularly sinister), but those cracks feel more like a way of covering his ass than true expressions of concern. They almost come across as more manipulation: I'm telling you how it is, I'm an honest and forthcoming guide through this story, you should therefore give me unrestricted authority; I'll do the questioning and analysis so you don't have to. At the point where I had to put the book down, and start writing this review, Eggers (in a mock interview with MTV, to get on the Real World) had just finished saying that self-obsessed people are the only interesting people. The irony of this statement should be obvious. To Dave Eggers (of which this memoir is a monument of self-obsession, possibly making him the most interesting person in the world) his self-obsession makes him interesting. I have no doubt that he is interesting, to himself most of all. But when people are primarily interested in themselves, they cannot truly engage with other people. And a man who can't engage with other people is hardly capable of producing engaging art.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

this book is a bomb

this book is a bomb
it will blow
your motherfucking world
apart
this book is a bomb that
garners its destructive
force
from a collection of words
meticulously assembled
like grains of gun powder
packed
into a pipe
this book is a bomb
motherfucker
set to detonate
upon successful
assimilation
within your gray matter
there is no way to
escape
this bomb
once it has been armed
you cannot escape this
bomb
you cannot escape
your mind
if you read these words
you arm the bomb
and you are reading
you are reading them
the bomb is armed
there is no escape