Monday, April 29, 2013

More Than She'll Ever Know



It was late summer, and I had stopped in at my parents’ house on my way home from my dead end, department store security job when my mother suggested I apply to be a teacher.  This was a remarkable suggestion for a number of reasons.

One, my bachelor’s degree was not finished after almost five years.  I still had one, three-unit class to complete.  I was already registered for the class that fall on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 4:20 in the afternoon.  Surely this would interfere with any teaching position.

Two, my mother was never one to encourage.  She was so much better at discouraging, or bringing out in excruciating detail all the ways I would fail in any given situation.

Third, we did not get along.  This rift was especially bad that August because against my parents’ wishes, I had gotten married.  Worse, my ceremony was not in the Catholic Church.  My mother did not like my wife just because she was my wife.  She hadn’t liked her any better when she was my girlfriend.  I was her oldest, and this woman was taking me away from her.  My mother felt shamed in front of other family members and their friends because we were married by one of our college professors in the Congregational Church.

It was a miracle we were even speaking, my mother and I.  And here she was actually encouraging me to take a leap.  My mother, a woman who had always played it safe.

My mother and father did not go to college, and they were decidedly lower middle class Irish-German Catholics who believed nothing was impossible with hard work and frugal living.  They scrimped and saved and attended church on Sundays, my father mumbling through the mass with his half-remembered Latin responses, even though the liturgy had already been reimagined in English by American Catholics after Vatican II.  My parents clung to their faith like a life raft, and they dragged us to church every Sunday.  When I was older and was allowed more independence, they would let me choose what Sunday mass I attended based on my work schedule.  I rode my bike to the church and dutifully ducked into the dark interior, but I did not linger long before ducking back out and heading to the Winchell’s Donut Shop.  My father suspected as much, and would drive to the church and search the bike racks in the parking lot for my ten speed.  When he didn’t feel like making the effort, he would call the rectory and ask who was saying the mass so he could question me when I returned in the hope of catching me ditching.  So no matter where I ended up for the hour, I had to stop in and identify the priest and wait for the gospel to finish before hurrying to buy my glazed donut and chocolate milk.

I am the oldest of four children, and money was tight with all of us going through Catholic elementary and high school.  Going to public institutions was not an option, so beginning in ninth grade, I paid my own tuition by working full or part time wherever and whenever I could find work.  I did not start out wanting to be a teacher, although it was always in the back of my mind.  I originally went to college to be a musician, but two years in, I realized I lacked talent and discipline to make a go of it.  I loved performing, but hated practicing.  My friend, Karl, a trumpet player who was also struggling, suggested English because we both shared a love of reading and writing.

The first semester, I received some of my lowest grades ever—straight Cs.  My mother intercepted my report card from the mailbox.  “I’m so disappointed in you,” she said when I arrived home that night from working an eight hour shift.  “I knew you’d fail.”

I didn’t fail; I got Cs.  But to her it did not matter.  I had fulfilled her prophecy of doom.  My mother did not go to college.  She did not know what it was like to work forty hours a week, go to school full time, and keep up a four hour per day practice schedule on the piano.  I was also playing in two bands, one of which performed on the weekends in a dive in the basement of a hotel downtown.  I was burning the candle at both ends and in the middle, all with a blowtorch.  I could not keep the plates spinning.

Things became angry and tense at home, often erupting into screaming and threats on the part of my mother.  “You need to pull your weight around here,” she would yell.  “You’re always off somewhere.”

Because space and finances were so tight, I practiced piano at school or at my grandmother’s house.  I would leave school, work my shift at whatever job I had at the time, and go to my grandmother’s house or to a school practice room for a minimum of four to five hours of piano study.  Then it was home to do homework, where I usually fell asleep on my books well into the early morning hours.  To add to all of this, I was also trying to have a social life.  I began seriously dating, which enraged my possessive mother all the more.  From her yelling I gathered that as her oldest child, I was expected to live at home forever.

So we were at each other’s throats, and when we were not out-and-out battling, we conducted stealth fighting.  She would make my favorite dinners knowing I was going out that night, or had to practice late.  At one point, I moved my study (and later my sleep) area to an old camping trailer on our driveway to get some peace from the screaming and tantrums.  The tiny house was ready to burst at the seams with six people crammed into three bedrooms and a single bathroom.  The quiet of the trailer did not last; she encouraged my brothers to shoot baskets on the driveway right next to my study space, and the ball slammed and bounced on the metal roof and sides completely destroying my concentration.

She demanded that I keep to a curfew, and then kept moving up the time.  At one point, at the age of 20, I had to be home and checked in by her before 11 o’clock PM.  My insistence that I was a legal adult fell on deaf ears.  “As long as you live under our roof, you’ll do as we say,” she trumpeted.

Finally, I’d had enough and moved completely out of the house and in with my cousin who had a room available in her two bedroom, two bathroom apartment.  My mother was livid.  I’d never make the rent each month and would have to come crawling back, she predicted.  It irked her to no end that I would be paying $250 a month for the room while she only demanded a hundred dollars for me to live in the trailer on the driveway.  “It’s worth the additional 150 to not have to hear you or put up with your curfews and demands,” I told her.

I don’t think she ever forgave me for pushing beyond the boundaries of her narrow world.  She wanted me to be a success on her terms, in a way she could own and manipulate.  Having never worked outside the home, her only measure of success was her children’s exploits, and once I was gone, she was left out of anything good that I did on my own.  What would my grandparents say, she worried?  What would she tell my aunts and uncles?  And my grandparents, aunts and uncles all enjoyed grilling her about me knowing how much it bothered her.  I was happy to be free of the whole mess.  Finally, I could concentrate on trying to keep up with my runaway life.  I switched my major from music to English and I never looked back.  I did continue to play in bands whenever I could, but I also began seriously writing.

So my mother’s motivation that hot summer day was probably rooted in her need to tell the relatives something when they asked what I was doing.  If I got the job, she could say that I was teaching in a Catholic school.  Hopefully, that might ease the sting of losing a son.  And if I was able to get a position at the church they attended, she might even be able to continue to meddle in my life.

“So why don’t you apply to a Catholic school?” she suggested.  “St. Genevieve’s might be hiring.  You never know.  What have you got to lose?”

“I haven’t finished my degree yet,” I said, already mulling over the idea.

“Still, it never hurts to try.”

This was the woman who wanted me to quit school and work in the aerospace firm that offered me full time employment if I would agree to put my degree on hold.  This is the woman who never forgave me for giving up playing the accordion at family gatherings like a trained monkey in favor of the piano.  She wanted me to remain loyal and make her proud on her terms and in ways she could access and understand.  She wanted me to live at home and be the good boy I was in elementary school.  When I refused, she poisoned the well with my brothers and sister, sulked and sobbed on the phone, and when I told her I did not want to talk to her for a while in order to cool off, she screamed into the phone “We’re here when you want us!” before slamming down the receiver.

Living with her was impossible.  It was more than just the screaming and the manipulations.  It was the way she saw failure in every opportunity.  It was the way she promised destruction of every dream she did not comprehend.  If I were Icarus, my mother assured me the fall to earth was the only possible way for my story to end.

I sent out resumes and cover letters to all the Catholic schools in Los Angeles that August, and then settled in to wait to see what would happen.

My mother and I never came to an understanding.  We never truly found our common ground.  She never found relief that I was in love, or that I was happy.  She remained angry, disappointed, jealous of my wife and the time we spent with her family, and unable to find satisfaction with the praise and accolades her children received.  Nothing was ever good enough for my mother.  We were a two person tug-of-war across the years.  She sank into debilitating health problems, depression, and prescription drug abuse.  And then she was gone.

Someone did call in response to my resume, and in that moment, everything changed.



Thursday, April 25, 2013

Trust Wisdom and Experience



I have been watching a lot of NBA basketball lately, mainly to try to relax at the end of a hectic day.  I’m following my two hometown teams:  the Lakers for the drama; and the Clippers for their high flying, high energy entertainment.  The Lakers, according to those in the know (and anyone else with eyes and half a brain), will not go far in the playoffs with an aging team and an injured force of nature that was Kobe Bryant before tearing up his Achilles tendon.  The Clippers are a younger, more athletic team, and I root for them because they get no respect and are considered the underdog to win the conference, much less the championship after so many years of irrelevancy.

American culture has an age bias, and the Lakers are an example of what happens in the real world.  Sports writers and fans bemoan the team’s creaky old-timers and their lack of athleticism.  Never mind that combined, the team’s veterans bring thousands of games played to the table.  These are crafty athletes who must rely on experience to try to keep up with the young guns in the league.  Will this be enough to carry them to a championship?  As I write this, they are about to lose their second playoff game in a row to the San Antonio Spurs. If only they could find the right combination of experience and youth the way Kareem Abdul Jabbar, a wily veteran, was invigorated by the young rookie Earvin “Magic” Johnson all those years ago.  Still, I’d hate to see the Lakers’ failure this season attributed to the players being too old; age does not breed irrelevancy, and it would help if the team had some decent coaching, but that is another essay altogether.

The more important question is, why does society favor the young and energetic over the older, wiser veteran?

In teaching, the veteran used to be valued.  Wisdom and experience counted for something in the administrative office and in the classroom.  Students responded differently to an experienced teacher as opposed to a fresh college graduate who was closer to the students’ age.

The paradigm has shifted.  Principals are looking for the young, energetic teacher.  They can pay these newly minted teachers less, and they can utilize their abundant energy and lack of political knowledge to spread them oh-so-thin across the school.  Teach five classes, moderate a club, plan activities, coach a team, and stand on the playground for thirty minutes in all kinds of weather playing traffic cop when the school day ends, all for a salary half of what the school must pay a veteran.  No problem.  More experienced teachers know their place is in the classroom teaching, grading papers, planning lessons, providing extra tutoring, and working to educate students to the best of their ability.  Is it really the best use of teachers to have them stand on the playground directing traffic in a bright orange vest?  Veterans know it’s not.

Often, the extra tasks shoveled on teachers involve hours of unpaid labor.  My wife, a middle school teacher, has been up to the wee hours of the morning over the last two weeks completing the school’s yearbook by the publication deadline.  The yearbook at one point was cancelled due to lack of funds, but was revived twenty days before the final deadline.  She put in 18-20 hour days trying to complete the project and keep her sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students learning and moving forward in their language arts and religion curricula.  How did she make her deadline and keep all the plates spinning?  She is a veteran teacher with 27 years of experience in first grade to college classrooms.  Could a newbie pull this off?  Possibly, but is a less experienced teacher able to combine wisdom and quick thinking to create an action plan where tasks are completed without her teaching being diminished?  I know when I was a rookie, I pulled all-nighters to get things done and before I learned the ropes through trial and error and an excellent mentor, my teaching suffered.  Eventually, I learned techniques to conserve energy for what’s important—teaching—while maintaining the integrity of my preparation and classroom instruction.  And that mentor teacher who taught me so well?  Forty years in the classroom!

So when I hear that this 39 year old point guard can no longer do the miraculous things he used to do, when I hear people doubt that a 35 year old former phenom may not come back from a season-ending injury, or that a veteran shooter may not have anything left in the tank, I get defensive.  Don’t discount wisdom and experience.  And don’t forget determination.  Tennyson said it best:  “We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are; / One equal temper of heroic hearts, / Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

I love the Clippers because they are young and athletic and fun to watch.  They soar high and dunk with authority.  But it is interesting to note that the team’s second unit often opens a wider scoring margin and plays better at times than the starters.  Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom, Grant Hill, Jamal Crawford, Ronnie Turiaf:  all veteran players with years of experience.  And they’re damn good.  Because of them, this might be the Clippers’ year.

When I was a younger man, I once saw a senior citizen park his car in a mall parking lot on a slight incline.  He forgot to set the parking brake, so as he walked to the store the car began to roll.  I rushed over and stopped the car with my body, saving a row of parked cars from damage.  As a bystander fetched the man from the store, I congratulated my 25 year old self on my heroism.  The man returned and quickly backed the car into his former space and this time, he set the brake.

“That was really stupid,” I said in a tone of grating self-righteousness.  “You could have caused a lot of damage.”

The man stared at me.  “Youngster, I’ve lived longer than you, and I’ve already forgotten things you have yet to learn.  I do know this.  Only an idiot jumps in front of a moving car to stop it with his body. Sure, I would have hit a few cars, but that’s what insurance is for.  No policy can restore your life.  Keep that in mind.”

The wisdom of the years, indeed.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Something Rather Than Nothing


The first thought I had upon starting to read Jim Holt’s book, Why Does The World Exist?  An Existential Detective Story (Liveright, 2012), was that my working class father and other men of his generation worked and lived through their days without this question ever crossing their minds.  It was irrelevant because you did exist, and it was sink or swim.  There was no time for thinking about how you came to be in the water paddling for your life.  You were born, you went to school, you found a nice girl, married and settled down, had children, and in my father’s case, you worked ten hour shifts at the brewery seven days a week to keep bread on the table for your growing family.  Then, you retired at 65, and in retirement, depending on what had happened in your life, you might wonder what it all meant.  So Holt’s questioning might be seen as a tad bit precious, but it’s not.

Outside of the academy, it is rare for any human being to put as much contemplative thought into this question—Why is there something rather than nothing?—as Jim Holt does.  Most of us today are still, like my father’s generation, just trying to survive.  But Holt tugs at you and shakes you up; the ethereal nature of the ideas he presents, well, there’s the mind candy.  He brings science, philosophy, and theology to bear on the question, and presents credible and intriguing theories about the nature of existence even though absolute answers remain elusive 309 pages later.  The book is well worth the trip, and the journey is its own reward.

His trinity of science, philosophy, and theology is necessary and integral to the discussion.  These disciplines also present a broad discussion for a single book.  Holt dives into select theories in each field with skill and precision, and there is something for everyone here.  If you are lost in discussions of physics and string theory, then Holt offers up Sartre working in philosophy or John Updike hard at it in literature in an interview only days before he died.  He also includes snippets of history, biography, and anecdotal stories, and these brief interludes are just as interesting as the deeper thinking.

We see Sartre scribbling on his tablet at the CafĂ© de Flore in Paris during the war, writing Being and Nothingness.  He ordered tea with milk, Holt tells us, and gathered cigarette butts of departing patrons to “stuff into his briar pipe” and smoke.

In his travels to London, Paris, and the U.S., he interviews scientists, philosophers, and theologians, and they are presented as fully drawn, multi-layered characters who have equally intriguing theories about why we are here.

Admittedly, the terrain can be challenging, but Holt is an able guide.  He takes great pains to parse apart the origins of this world.  “Science may be able to trace how the current universe evolved from an earlier state of physical reality,” he writes, “even following the process back as far as the Big Bang.  But ultimately science hits a wall.  It can’t account for the origin of the primal physical state out of nothing.”

The crux of Holt’s investigation is that even an empty container has the form of the container itself.  It is not nothing, so it must be something.  Absolute nothingness, if it can be imagined, would then be something.  Imagining brings into existence, even if it is only a diagram or an equation on paper.  This plays with the notion of cause and effect.  If a science fiction writer can imagine human beings exploring other planets using nuclear powered vessels, it is as if we have the answer and now must work backward to solve the problem of how to create such a vessel.  And this has been proven out time and again when a writer, artist, or even a scientist imagines, and later the fruits of his imagination become reality.

This is relevant to the study of death and the afterlife.  Death is the absence of life.  Yet, if a body decays, is that not a life process in itself?  Are not the microbes and bacteria that break down organic matter alive?  Does this mean one kind of life is swapped out for another?  I am reminded of Walt Whitman’s line that we should look for him under the soles of our boots.

Holt quotes Cicero’s famous dictum, “To philosophize is to learn how to die.”  He writes, “It is not the prospect of unending nothingness as such that makes death terrifying; it is the prospect of losing all the goods of life, and losing them permanently.”  So our fear of death is a fear of lost material goods, all the trappings of this world separated from us at the moment of our departure.  Yet Holt knows firsthand it is also about losing the people we love.  He recounts in vivid images the death of his mother who passed during the research and writing of this book.  At the moment of her departure, while Holt stands next to her bed, her eyes “opened wide, as if in alarm.”  She stares at her son and appears to try to speak.  “Within a couple of seconds, her breathing stopped,” he writes, and she is gone.

Just like that, we pass into nothingness.  Only theology tells us otherwise.  And to have faith means to believe the gods will deliver on their promises.  Existence is infinite and only the stages shift.  But what are these stages?  Other dimensions?  Some constructed new reality, a sliver of the multiverse that is the product of physics?  Whatever the next life will be, there has always been something, and there will always be something more.  But as nothingness cannot begat something, something cannot be reduced to nothingness.

“The world is like a dream,” Holt concludes with a dash of poetry, “an illusion.  But in our thinking, we transform its fluidity into something fixed and solid seeming.”

One of Holt’s memorable interviews is with physicist Steven Weinberg.  He quotes from Weinberg’s book, The First Three Minutes (Basic Books, 1993):  “The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.”

Why do we exist?  Because we do.  Why does the world exist?  Because it does.  Why is there something rather than nothing?  Because there is.

These are end of journey questions.  Right here, right now, we simply need to live well and look to the conjugation of the verb to be for a simple, clear answer:  I was, I am, I will be.  Past, present, future.

In short, we keep traveling.