Objects in Mirror are Closer Than They Appear

 

Drip. Drop. Sizzle. Pause….Drip. Drop. Sizzle. Pause. I licked my dry lips. They tasted like whiskey sour. Only then did I remember I woke up even earlier in the morning with a headache. Memory seeped into present. The headache had not faded.  Reluctantly I opened my crusted eyes. A late morning sun creeped through my blinds. Drip. Drop. Sizzle. Pause. The scent of coffee filled my apartment and drew me out of bed toward the kitchen. I pulled the coffee pot away from its heated nest. I’d carelessly placed it off-center, just enough to let small tributaries of coffee seep down to the maker’s burner.

By the time I reached my car, the headache had subsided and the taste of whiskey had been replaced with toothpaste. I took a deep breath of fresh air, exhaled, and sat down in my car. I let myself delve into the silence for a few moments. A soft, soothing whine creeped in through the closed windows. Wind proves to be a powerful flute player on rooftop lots. The moment passed. I then decided to fill the airwaves while I waited for one of my companions to arrive. I turned the key in the ignition. “A safer car. Sleeping well. No paranoia.” My speakers boomed the computer generated voice from Radiohead’s “Fitter, Happier”. The track timecode was bookmarked since I was last in my car. Survival instincts kicked in. Reflexively I reached for the volume dial and ripped it counterclockwise. I took a deep breath of stale air. The car had been sitting there untouched for a week. I rolled down the window and took another deep breath. Better. Much better.

I sat for a few more moments. Movement came from my driver’s side sideview mirror. I glanced over, nothing. No one yet. I looked over to the navigator’s sideview mirror. There was no mirror. The frame was still in place, but the mirror that used to be inside it was gone. Even the plate that serves as the mirror’s adjustor was still in place. I sat there, puzzled at what could have happened. I checked underneath and beside the car. Nothing. Because of the strange nature of the disappearance, I chose to believe it was the strong winds that ripped off the mirror and carried it away. It caused me less anxiety.

I gazed endlessly at where the mirror used to be. My thoughts drifted to the mirror count in my apartment. The bathroom mirror, which doubles as a toiletry cabinet, is the only one I have. I cannot remember a time when I’ve had fewer ego reflectors in a place I’ve lived. It’s refreshing. A friend once mused to me that one of humanity’s greatest weaknesses is self reflexiveness. That desire to understand one’s self fully, independently, and in relationship to others and history is often times counterproductive. The time we spend looking in a mirror, whether literally, or figuratively, halts working on ourselves and living in the moment. With more mirrors present, it’s tempting to watch and dissect life, rather than live it.

These thoughts flowed through the cortexes of my head, clinging to walls and planting seeds as I weaved in and out of large crowds at a food festival in Oakland. College’s “A Real Hero” played on repeat in my brain, expanding the self reflexivity in my thoughts. “And you have proved to be…a real human being.” After seeing “Drive”, the beat, voice, and lyrics haunted me. Three friends followed close behind me in the Saturday morning festival crowd. What was their definition of me, I thought glancing back at them? What kind of human being was I? Friend? Coworker? Thoughtful? Intelligent? Guarded? Witty? Goofy? Restrained? Quiet? I halted my line of questioning. Let’s take down these mirrors, I thought to myself, and live life rather than dissect it.

Little Kids, Big Heads

1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10. “Knock out! You win!” Digital confetti plummeted my Wii Sports avatar. I breathed heavily in contentment. Winning felt great, but that wasn’t my primary goal. Back when Anne read my aura, she suggested boxing as a means of letting out my anger. I took her suggestion. Landing as many right hooks to the face on the computer’s highest level and unleashing my anger on Nintendo’s little kids with big heads was my goal. With each jab in the air of the wii remote and conjoined joystick, I imagined a person or obstacle in the recent days that sparked my anger on the receiving end of the television screen. Although the small bursts of anger in random moments of frustration have not completely subsided, they have decreased in numbers and length since taking up Wii boxing.

Fully exhausted, I laid down on my bed. Looking out the narrow window above my bed, I could see the lines of windows going up and up on the Kaiser Hospital building. How many people are on the otherside of those windows, I wondered, stuck in a bed, too incapacitated to go out and build more upon their lives? Next my thoughts turned toward myself. Why am I not going out and enjoying the city more and building a strong base for myself in this city? I paused. Again I asked myself, this time ridding the question of its rhetoricalness. Why? Fear, I thought; fear of disrupting a safe, predictable, and comfortable routine that was already in place, and fear that a new, unknown routine would not provide the amenities that my current one does.

For a time, I had the same routine as I do now in Los Angeles. Work, sleep, gym, free time reading, surfing the web, or watching something rented on netflix, work, sleep, and so on. Eventually I cut the habit because I could not take the lack of social, physical, and intellectual stimulation. My routine had become dull, repetitive, and depressing. Not only that, I was still caught within the walls I’d built around myself (see my post All My Rage in These Walls) originally intended for protection against emotional damage.

With an interest in becoming a teacher, I began volunteering at an elementary school close to home and work, one I’d seen on walks in the area several times. I started working in the library, but eventually made my way into a 2nd grade classroom. I set my roots there. I enjoyed the teacher in her style, her intelligence, her sense of humor, and I felt she put me to good use, setting me often with special needs students. Quickly I realized I was very fond of this age group, as well as this particular group of kids. As my mother, a long time teacher and resource specialist put it, 2nd graders are old enough to have distinct personalities and a strong intellectual curiosity, but are still young enough to love you unquestionably. I experienced that love in the moments leading up to my Thanksgiving break last year.

Dry macaroni and beans lay atop paper plates at each table, ready to be glued down to a cutout turkey. During lunch I’d prepared the plates carefully, making sure everyone had equal tools to manifest their gobbler. Click, clunk. I glanced over at the clock. 1:49p.m. Knowing a long drive back to Sacramento lay ahead of me, I tried to make eye contact with the teacher as I inched toward the door. Once our eyes met I let her know I was leaving. My vacation was beginning a little early, and it would be two weeks before I’d be in the classroom again. She brought this up and told the kids to say goodbye to Mr. Littman. The sounds of feet by the dozens hitting the hollow floor filled the portable classroom. Three quarters of the kids rushed over to me and gave me hugs intended to keep me from exiting the classroom. A half smile spread across my face.

Walking back to my car I paused inextricably when a revelatory thought struck me. I had not accepted the love of those little kids. I’d come to the conclusion, almost concurrent with the event, that this was in the nature of these children. It was their age. I’d done nothing to earn their love. The prolonged containment inside the walls I’d built severely warped my self perception. It was a revelation. This meant that I could take any positive reflection on my being and turn it into a negative one. I’d finally become aware of what the walls were doing to me, my confidence, and my ability to love and be loved.

Months later, a progressive moment occurred involving one student in particular, an autistic boy. A substitute was filling in for the day and the boy’s aid/therapist was out for a conference. This left me as the only adult in the classroom that knew his habits, his learning process, and how to deal with some of his behavioral issues. Of all days for a standardized 2nd grade math testing, this had to be the worst. I could see a storm brewing from miles away. The sub passed out the exam. I watched from the kidney table in the back, as the boy wiggled around uncomfortably in his seat. After a few instructions, the sub instructed everyone to begin. As I expected, the boy worked on the first two pages, then retreated to drawing, his favorite (and all consuming) activity.

The sub was apparently instructed to make sure the autistic boy finished a certain amount of his test. Once she realized the boy was avoiding the test, she asked him calmly to finish. Then sternly. Then consequences became a factor. She threatened to make him stay in during recess if he did not finish to a certain point. Giant tears formed behind the glass of the nine-year-old’s spectacles. Because the boy wore long-sighted glasses, his tears were put under a microscope. The sub placed him alone at a table in the front of the classroom then came back to consult me. He couldn’t stay in during recess, his sulking would just continue. He needed to know there was a definite end to the overwhelming work, otherwise it would be a wash.

The bell rang. Recess was over. Under my advice, the sub had let the boy have his recess. Looking around the portable after lunch I noticed everything was in order, except an empty seat. The boy had not returned. Out I went into the school yard, knowing what was on the boy’s mind. Returning to class meant he had to deal with that test and the discipline.

I found him swinging on the basketball hoop’s pole. “It’s time to go back to class,” I said. The boy moved further away from me. “No,” he replied. I followed, slowly and calmly. “We’re working on thank you notes for Nancy.” She happened to be a coworker of mine who was their grocery store field trip guide a week ago. I knew the boy loved video games. Super Mario characters and levels were practically all he ever drew. “You can draw Mario in your thank you note. I know Nancy would love that”. No response came from the boy. Better than a no, I thought to myself. Then: “Have you ever played Mario Kart”. “Yeah,” I answered. “It’s one of my favorite games”. As our conversation progressed, I corralled him toward the portable at the other end of the blacktop. The more I went into detail about levels and eventually other Mario games, the closer he physically came to me. By the time we’d reached the onramp to the portable, we were side by side. At this point the video game conversation was one sided. I was merely listening to what the little kid with a big head had to say about Nintendo’s plumber in overalls. As he spoke, I stared into the classroom, now only half paying attention to what he had to say. A step before the ramp I felt the warmth of a small hand cling to mine. In that moment, I let myself be loved.

I need to get back to REAL little kids with big heads. The digital ones are serving their purpose, but the ones in the real world positively affect a wider scope of my emotions.

Tell Me (Less is) More

Siddhārtha sat in the corner, comfortably meditating on a twenty by twenty inch square cut artificial turf. He’d been accustomed to doing his meditation outside, atop moist dirt, where he oft felt the slight sensation of ground insects burrowing beneath and between his toes and thighs. Somewhere inside himself, he missed the outdoors and the real dirt that rested against his black as stone exterior. He tried not to think about it too much, although he accepted that he had this desire. Long ago he uncovered deep within that it was normal, basically human, to long for something else, something more. But he knew that with longing also came suffering. This is why he came to eternally meditate; to stay in the moment and extricate himself from weighty cravings.

Thirteen years ago Siddhārtha was sitting in a beautiful garden, filled with carefully carved stone figures, exotic and expertly grown flowers, and stunningly refurbished wooden seating. He was content. It was a peaceful environment. Then he was singled out and chosen. His meditation would continue elsewhere, in another garden. Although it took him some time, Siddhārtha eventually came to appreciate his new home. He now sat on the damp soil of a sloped hill, looking across a pebble graveled backyard, and into a pond filled with fish. Every so often an older man would come out and attend to the yard. He’d feed the fish, check on the electric line surrounding the pond (used often in vain to keep the raccoons from fishing), and water various flowers around the yard. Siddhārtha liked it best when this man would prune the roses beside him. The attention he paid to the cutting was soothing. Through this minute exercise, Siddhārtha could tell that the old man found enlightenment in everyday activities. It was inspiring. He had a kinship with this man.

One day the old man’s visits ended. Siddhārtha knew he would never be coming back. For a time, sadness swept over his psyche. He tried to rid himself of the longing for times past, but he found no such relief. Months past, and the feeling faded, as did his stone exterior. Turquoise rust tattooed his nooks and crannies. The hair atop his head turned to white. A day nearly five years later Siddhārtha peeked through the window into the home he’d known now for thirteen years. There he saw the old man’s widow, and only her. The furniture and decorations were now gone. She clutched her walker and surveyed what once was. Soon a younger woman came into view. She put her hand silently and softly on the widow’s shoulder.

__________

I returned to my apartment in the middle of the afternoon on Sunday. After the arrival ritual of setting my keys, phone, and wallet beside the black globe on my bedside table, I sat myself on the rug in the center of the room and began to think. Five with no returns so far.
Something inside told me I should not be counting my dates, but another part of me needed to count to keep in perspective that five dates in the course of four months was significant, considering there had only been one in the prior sixty. The date had gone as well as it could have. It was pleasant, but I just didn’t feel anything, not a spark. I shifted my body and turned toward the meditating stone Buddha I’d placed in the corner of the room. I began to think about the core beliefs in Buddhism and how they could help me cope with my current predicament. Craving. I craved for something more, someone more to fill what I perceived to be an empty space. Applying Buddhist thought, I wondered: was this an empty space that needed to be filled or could I transform it into a space of satisfying calm? In love and romance, can less be more?

My phone buzzed several times while I sat in contemplation. Friends were texting me, wanting to know how things had went. I wasn’t entirely sure how to answer them. Later that night at work I spoke to a friend about my date. I asked her if I was crazy, because everything went smoothly, but I still found myself disinterested. She assured me my feelings were normal and that I shouldn’t settle on someone that does not spark overwhelming feelings inside me. Settling for less is not going to get you the type of more you are looking for, she told me.

“Summer lovin’, had me a blast. Summer lovin’ happened so fast.” The voices of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John drew my attention while working on the sales-floor. “Summer days driftin’ away, to uh-oh those summer nights.” I sighed incessantly at the thought of it. Screw Buddha’s teachings, less is not more. My thoughts turned to my friends, as though they were singing the chorus. “Tell me more, tell me more, did you get very far?” I remembered a conversation I had with a family member earlier on in the week while on a hike in Saratoga. She mentioned that the great thing about having kids, and grandkids, is that you get to relive life’s moments through them. You get to see every exciting, enthralling detail again through their eyes, she told me. Even though I am far from being the son of any of my friends, I couldn’t help but think that my friends were reliving their first romances and first moments of romances through my new endeavors. That is why they demanded “tell me more, tell me more.”As the song reached its apex, so did my emotions. “It turned colder, that’s where it ends. So I told her we’d still be friends. Then we made our true love vow. Wonder what she’s doin’ now. Summer dreams ripped at the seams, but oh, those summer nights.” I longed for the lyrics to be my reality. My friends demanded one last elongated time (with a clear longing for a true happy ending) “Tell me more, tell me more.”

__________

For Siddhārtha, thirty days of uninterrupted meditation followed after the widow left her house. On the thirty-first day, the widow’s grandson pulled up in his silver ’04 Toyota Camry. A studio in San Francisco lay on Siddhārtha’s horizon. Another rebirth was at hand.

All My Rage In These Walls

Fog swirled around the lit lampposts at Cole and Waller as I waited for the 43. It was 11:00pm and nearing the end of a long day that began with a call from my mother at 9:00am, letting me know she was in Berkeley and 25 minutes from reaching my new home.

I invited her two weeks prior to come see my studio. I’d been describing it to her in great detail in the months leading up to my lease and was excited for her to finally see it. A shy sunlight peaking through the small window over my bed nudged me out of my post slumber daze and my bladder soon reminded me that I drank a tall glass of water at 2:30am before drifting off. Without a choice in the matter, I pushed the heavy covers off my body and headed toward my tribal-themed bathroom. I stared at the wooden mask above my toilet. She always gives me privacy; her eyes are always shut. Now that I was in the bathroom, out of convenience I turned on the shower and stepped into my day.

When I first left Los Angeles four months ago I stopped in Sacramento for a week. Through divine intervention, or fitting coincidence (whichever best suits your belief system), my mother’s aura reader, Anne, was in town during my stay. It felt like a natural fit to go get my aura read: I had just ended one era of my life and was about to begin another. Why not gain a little insight, I thought to myself.

Click. The picture was being taken. A large black box was perched in front of me atop a wooden tripod. Decorated on its sides were polaroid pictures of what I assumed must be others who had their auras read. Cold metal plates the size and shape of my fingers were wired to the box. I kept my fingers on them, palms down, while looking straight into the camera as instructed. Fifteen seconds passed. Anne pulled out the polaroid, ripped off the white protective covering and began shake it, encouraging the picture to develop. After my image revealed itself she sat down next to me and began her reading.

All the things that came out in my aura made perfect sense, many of them related to transformation. However, the one element that stood out was anger. The area above my shoulder on the left side of the picture came up dark red. Anne described this as held, pent up, and ignored anger. She told me I needed to let it flow freely in order to release it or else the anger would explode at an inconvenient moment or, even more likely and even more devastatingly, its festering would cause physical harm to my body (in the same way that stress makes our bodies susceptible to illness).

Anger is a natural emotion and is an evolutionary tool used for survival. It surfaces when we profoundly dislike the events or results presented before us. Anger clarifies what we consider to be our obstacles and, inversely, what are our true desires. Instead of embracing my anger and placing it onto an activity or letting it blow over in the moment, I always try to mute it. Recently, my pent up anger manifests itself when small unexpected things occur; someone cuts me off on the road, a machine at the gym acts up, the internet connection fails, a dog startles me with a bark while on a jog. My reactions are like little explosions, and are hardly necessary under the circumstances. I curse in frustration, knock something over, or spit angrily in the direction of what causes my rage.

Ever since I made the conscious decision that I wanted to improve my romantic life, I’ve held this anger. Over a decade’s time I’ve built tall, thick walls around my deeper self. They were originally intended to make me emotionally invulnerable, but they began to hold me captive. We’re social animals; we need trust and intimacy with others, and this is most potently found in a romance. The walls I’d built left me invulnerable to love. The anger that bubbles inside me is a reaction to a desire, yet inability, to break down those walls to let people in.

At the end of my mother’s visit to my new home we ate at Harry’s Bar on Fillmore. Over dinner we talked about our dating lives. It was the first time we had this conversation since her and my dad separated three years ago. There had been no men she dated since the separation. She asked me when was the appropriate time to tell me she was dating someone: 1,2,3, more dates? I told her the right moment was when she knew she wanted to continue dating a guy, and when she knew he felt the same way about her. Before moving to San Francisco the last real date I’d been on was back in sophomore year of college, five years ago. Since the move, I’ve been on four dates, all par or subpar, and all lead nowhere. It made me happy to know I could have this conversation so easily with my mother. It was a sign I’d established an identity as an adult with my mother. But more even more so, it was a reminder that the walls I’d put up were not so dense anymore.

Later that night I went to a roller derby match with some new friends. The Bay City Bombers were playing the New York City Chiefs. Early on it became clear the league was closer to WWF than professional roller derby. Even though I knew these were only players loosely keeping to a script, I couldn’t help but wonder if they held true rage inside the barriers of their wooden track. The Chiefs played the bully. They taunted the Bombers and their fans after scoring or knocking down their opponents on a “dirty” play. Was there rage inside those walls? There was definitely rage outside of them. Close to 200 fans yelled, screamed, cheered and booed during the entire match. One of the friends I went with shared in the spirit of the crowd. He suspended his disbelief for two hours and completely immersed himself in the drama of the match, with attention especially paid toward the antagonistic New York Chiefs. Could this help anger flow? I tried as best I could to see for myself, but only felt a small taste of it.

The Bombers won in dramatic fashion, scoring a set of game winning points in the closing seconds. Our group exited Kezar Pavilion into the night. The fog had rolled in even thicker since the match began. I pulled out my smartphone from my pocket, checking which bus was best to take home. It told me the 43 at Cole and Waller which would arrive at 11:10p.m. Rounds of hugs were given and soon my new friends disappeared behind me into the fog as I made my way to the 43’s stop. While waiting I snapped a photo of the lamppost in the fog. Photos tend to look different than what you see, especially when they’re taken in the dark and in the fog. Lights come up much brighter and more saturated than they actually are, and fog goes underrepresented. I took a mental snapshot of myself in this quiet, still moment, after this day, and after all the events that happened leading up to my move to San Francisco. The walls I’d built were lower and thinner than they had ever been, and they were continuing to be brought down. All my rage was like the fog, underrepresented in my mental picture, but still I knew it was there. And, unlike the fog, I knew it provided a clearer view to a better life.