Tuesday, December 29, 2015

About Tamir

I have been thinking recently, beyond this Tamir Rice verdict, of the distance between the good hearts I believe most Americans have, and the ways the violences of inequality, what is structural and historical and persistently unjust, remain distant and theoretical, a burden they refuse to consider, the responsibility of their ancestors or someone else.  And I suppose I might have been that way, except that the two years I spent in the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta and the voices and lives of the children I taught made it impossible for me to remain blind to my privilege, just as the ten years I’ve been teaching young adults now at the university who are low-income and first gen have affirmed the lessons I learned back in Mississippi in human terms, through the body of their shared stories and experiences.  I think maybe the ways we make our appeals now, in this age of social media clicktivism, are too easy to turn away from and too seemingly didactic, too self-confirming in the echo chambers of the like-minded, ignoring what is there first, which is humanity.  How can we ignore what went into making and raising a twelve-year-old boy, who like me and many of my friends, like my young nephews, wanted just to play in a park with a gun?  Who cares if that twelve-year-old boy ‘looked older’ (shall we say it was good enough to shoot a boy of 13, 14, 15, 16)?  What might that boy still be and have become, those hopes and dreams and longings, that life which was and whose absence now we ask his family to carry with dignity only for forever?  I think of a boy named Tyredious, the twelve-year old fourth grader I taught back in Mississippi, of his heavy-shouldered, swaggery sway the day he ‘dressed for a dollar’ and could finally wear the outfit of his choosing, puffy vest in May heat, jeans pooling around white white shoes at his ankles, of his loud bravado, of his crowing joy at a good kick on the kickball field, of how he celebrated the biography of Michael Jordan when he finished it, the longest book he’d ever read.  I can hear his voice, and so that is a twelve-year-old black boy, little different than any twelve-year old, than this twelve-year-old, and we should not have to ‘make a case’ about justice or race.  This loss should be near and unbearable to all of us.  

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Holiday Wishes

The holidays are a time of happiness for many, a chance to return home to loved ones, family, and friends, to open presents, nick pie, perhaps attend Star Wars a second time and watch the excitement on the faces of the child, daughter or son or nephew, and see how one once was. But not all are so lucky. A few days ago I read the end of The Hobbit to my nephews, and when I came to the moment in the final battle when all was lost and then, from the suddenly lit sky, came “The EAGLES!” to descend upon the evil army and save the day against all hope, and I choked up, had to stop. Not for the reprieve, but for its frequent absence in this world, where eagles are solitary birds and there is no adequate foe to strike a blow against. This morning my aunty Shichan from Hawaii, who is troubled and paranoid and estranged from all now and hasn’t left her apartment in a decade, was found on the floor of her apartment where she’d lain for days by my aunt who still brings her groceries each week and sees the rent gets paid. Likely a stroke; no knowing if she will recover. She was kind to my brother and I as kids, would take us to Chuckey Cheese at the Waianae Mall and fill our hands with quarters and laugh from deep in her chest at our eyes wide as saucers, but I made no effort to visit her the last time I was on Oahu, and now may not speak to her again. Many of my friends have gone too early to the grave, by their own choices or illness or accident; many of my friends have lost, and lost dearly, children, lovers, sisters, brothers, parents; for some the losses mount, the holidays are a time of revealed wounds, of absences, old fears and hurts, or of not being able to go home, or ever having had a home to go to—for many there is only the dark apartment, or there is no apartment, only the alleys or open streets, only the boundless cold. It can feel that way for everyone. And the only way to live is to hew to the fierce, willful courage it takes to love those who love us back as openly and generously as we can sustain, knowing that we will inevitably lose and then risking anyway, which is grace. I wish joy to all this season, wish you each bands of eagles or at least the useless love that I tender as best I can, that I mean even if I never visit, never say so, never know you well enough to know the best part of you. Please carry on as best you can.

Monday, December 07, 2015

A Diverse Diversity

Over at the Rumpus, I review Tom William's wonderful new collection "Among the Wild Mulattoes and Other Tales."

"Despite its persistent engagement with race and identity, there is nothing ideological about Williams’ approach—he is not writing to convince us or impress us, nor is he particularly concerned with the political ramifications of his unifying theme. Rather, he embraces the absurd and irreal, as doppelgangers arrive to take over one character’s life, a talent agency finds that literary impersonators are far preferable to writers themselves, and an enthusiastic couple helps makeover a stodgy academic so he can make a true “Movie-Star Entrance.

 "Williams’ stories feel new, and if their plots are oriented toward the disoriented hybridity of the “mulatto,” their concerns are universal: what it means to be human, to seek belonging, to err, to want, to long, to feel the impossibility of finding happiness or a home in the world. Surely Williams has had to live his entire life in his own uncertain skin, but this collection never feels autobiographical. For me—a multiracial fellow who’s spent much of his life in a two-box world, people-less—these stories resonate, but not because they embody my particular experience. Williams leaves us richer by implicating all of us in these stories. Here, at last, is literature’s diverse diversity.http://therumpus.net/2015/12/among-the-wild-mulattos-and-other-tales-by-tom-williams/

Saturday, December 05, 2015

To Cut

This piece originally appeared in Gulf Coast in the Spring/Summer 2011 Issue
In the spring of 2009, former Oregon wrestler Kenny Cox sold his house, gave away the last of his belongings, and took a plane to Kauai.  From the airport, he caught a bus to the remote Kalalau Valley.  Carrying enough food for ten days, he walked into the jungle determined to stay. As his supplies ran out, he gathered fruit and edible plants, ate grass to dull the hunger and drank from volcanic streams.  He slept on the ground in the open air, under the stars.  On the 70th day, tanned and gaunt, his halo of hair bleached white by the sun, he left the wilderness.  He found a payphone, called his parents in Oregon and begged them to come to Kauai.  He wanted to show them the peace he'd found.  When they arrived, he was in high spirits and terribly ill: weakened by starvation and exposure, his immune system had been severely compromised. He fell into a coma, and en route to the hospital over the rugged backcountry roads, he died of acute hemorrhagic pneumonia.  He was thirty-one years old. 
Kenny Cox taught me the art of cutting. He swore by Saran-Wrap, which he used to wrap his feet—it helped him shed an extra pound an hour, but left awful blisters. By the age of seventeen, Cox was the best prep wrestler in the United States. He was the Asics Tiger All-American chosen for the Asics poster his senior year, and he won five Junior National Titles.
Kenny carried a cookbook with him when he was cutting weight; he read the recipes while resting.  He focused on hunger because it was easier to endure than thirst. His senior year, at Nationals in Fargo, he cut to 114.5 pounds from 130. He and I cut about the same amount that year, and were workout partners throughout National Training Camp. I was proud of that; I remember thinking I'd arrived.
            Kenny ate strange things: dry, instant oatmeal straight from the package. Sunflower seeds with barbecue flavor. Artificially sweetened chocolate syrup smeared on Melba toast. Only after weigh-ins would he really eat. After his weigh-in for Nationals one year, at an all-you-can-eat buffet in Vegas, he ate nine plates of food, puked in the bathroom, and returned for six more.
            As for me, I weighed myself twice a day on the doctor's scale I had in the basement, and recorded the results on a chart. In a notebook, I listed every mouthful of food I'd consumed and how many calories it contained. I broke energy bars into twenty or thirty pieces so that they would last longer. I boiled heads of cabbage and ate them with salt and pepper just to experience a full stomach. 
Fasting was supposed to an ancillary discipline.  The numbers we needed to achieve were arbitrary, but magical on the tongue: 100 pounds, 105.5, 106, 112, 114.5, 119, 125, 126, 127.5, 133.  I made all those weights in different years.  The numbers meant freedom and release, that I was all right, I'd made it.
At the 1997 Junior National Championships, I made 105.5 pounds.  In a picture taken of me at the tournament, I stand alone at the center of a white and black wrestling mat. I am sixteen years old and too small for my green Team Oregon Nike warm-ups; they drape and pool about me. My eyes are sunken and my cheekbones protrude; my mouth is pinched as I attempt a smile. Beneath the warm-ups, I look like an anatomical model, tendons and veins straining against my skin. Weighing in, I'll register 105.4 pounds, down from a hundred and twenty-seven the month before.  Within a mere three weeks, nearly 20% of my body has vanished.
The first five or six pounds of water weight weren't hard to lose. In a silver plastic suit and sweats and a wool hat, I shed them in practice drilling and wrestling around for an hour and a half. A bit warm inside, but otherwise easy.  (When fully hydrated, the body loses a pound of water every fifteen minutes of vigorous exercise.)  After a while, I needed to change clothes: the sweat was leaking from the sleeves and legs of the plastics.
            After stripping them off, I took a break and let my skin breathe a bit in the echo-chamber of the locker room as the plastics dried. Plastics were illegal, but everyone used them, and nobody would rat me out. After a time, I put them back on with new sweats and a fresh hat, then ran indoors where it was warm, circles and circles around the wrestling mat. The first ten or twenty minutes weren't bad, though I had no wind. Then the weakness set in, rendering my muscles sluggish and unresponsive. It was hard to breathe, and moving my legs was difficult—the body doesn't work well without water.  Eventually the heat became unbearable, all-enveloping, distorting my vision, a state like a high fever. That was when the thirst began.  My throat dried up, and all I could think of was water. I panted, let out little whining grunts of effort, staggered a little. Within two hours, I lost another five pounds. Afterward, in the shower, I stuck out my tongue and let the water course over it, careful not to swallow. My skin was dry and papery, and my muscles felt shriveled and shrunken.
            Many high school wrestlers stop at that point—at ten pounds. But the best, those of us who were winners, cut more. Our will was stronger, or at least, that was how I saw it. I scoffed at the wrestlers who “spit off”-- chewing gum and spitting the saliva into a jar—any of their first ten pounds. But once I'd gone beyond the first ten, cutting that was “effortless” began to sound good. That was where the sauna came in.
            I'd put on the plastics and a down winter jacket, take a few packs of gum and a cup to spit into, and go to the sauna at the YMCA. Some guys jumped rope, but I preferred to run and jump in place. The body fought for those last pounds, and time stretched into a nightmare of heat. My skin burned and my stomach ached and twisted, as though my guts were being torn out. The gum summoned only a little spit, which eventually dehydrated and surreally drifted as a mist through the hot, still air. Once I got the sweat going, I stopped moving; I had to, for it was a strain by then to stand. The air felt thin in the lungs, and the edges of things went dark. Once or twice I passed out, though I don't remember losing consciousness, just waking on the sauna floor.
            When I was within a pound or so, I was assured of making weight. The body, hydrated or not, loses a pound of water weight for every ten hours of respiration.  But the night before weigh-in was agony.  The slightest touch was painful to my skin.  I lay in the dark with an empty, aching stomach, meditating on different flavors of Gatorade, Powerade, Crystal Light and fruit juice. The most seductive was blue-green Powerade, a color that embodied ocean depths, vast, cold pools of refreshment.
            Wrestlers know well that water is more essential to life than food. The first drink after weighing in, the wet on the tongue, the feel of it on the throat—it is better than anything I've felt before or since. Only from the depth of suffering and deprivation can you taste the ecstacy of reprieve.  My God: water.
            The food, too, was gratifying, but I had to pace myself after days of starvation. My main objective was to fully rehydrate.  If I went slow and steady, over the course of three hours I could recover enough to compete. But if I wasn't careful, too much cool liquid too soon could overwhelm the body's core temperature: my lips would turn blue and I'd shake even beneath three or four sweatshirts.
            My lifetime prep record was 137-13, and most of those losses came my freshman year.  The truth was that the wrestling itself was easy, at least for me. Yes, there was the jittery anticipation of the match, and the demands of competition: instinct and execution and all-consuming focus. But I had natural ability and agility and balance.  The training and the actual matches didn't demand half the will and devotion that cutting weight required. Cutting was the essence of the sport.
The change in the NCAA Weight Class policy was inspired by the death of three college wrestlers the year before. All had died cutting weight. One was wearing layers of sweats and plastics while riding an exercise bike in a sauna. After cycling for two and a half hours in temperatures exceeding a hundred and fifteen degrees, he suffered heat stroke.
The other two died of a condition called rhabdomyolysis, a failure of the kidneys. Both were working out in plastics; neither had eaten for several days. Dehydrated and starved, their muscles began to consume their own tissue for energy. The waste products from that process proved fatally toxic.
I cut harder in high school than any of them.  And as it happened, I was luckier.
            The new policy mandated competition within an hour of weighing in, leaving no time to rehydrate sufficiently. I tried. I went on wrestling scholarship to Stanford, was behind an older, much-decorated veteran for two years.  Then a week into practice my junior year, I tore a ligament in my knee. In my absence, a freshman stepped in and became a star, finished high in the Pac-10 and returned the next year ranked.  Good as he was, I was given a chance to compete. The problem was that I weighed a hundred and forty pounds.  

I was in the Stanford wrestling room the midnight before the UC Davis meet, and I was hurting. There was no sauna to use—Stanford didn't have one; they were illegal after NCAA reforms.  I'd run off twelve pounds, and had just three to go—an hour if I could get the sweat coming. The overhead halogens threw long, deep shadows in the empty room. When I tried to run, my pulse became thunderous, pounding in my ears; after a few staggering circles about the mat, I tripped and fell, lay panting. I hadn't broken a sweat. I'd pushed beyond that point before, had done so perhaps a hundred times, but that night in the dim gymnasium, twenty-one years old and nearly half my life given to a sport I'd loved and had come to hate, I couldn't go on. I stood, stripped off the plastics and went to the water fountain and drank.
Kenny Cox couldn't keep it together in college either. He'd been the most decorated prep wrestler in U.S. history, the most celebrated recruit ever to come to the University of Oregon. But he never wrestled varsity. The reason was clear: with the altered weigh-in rules, he could no longer cut weight as he had. 
Kenny took the failure of his college career hard. For a few years, he tried competing in other styles, where he could still cut for a single weigh in. He didn't do well, not well enough to satisfy him. For a while he coached at my old high school, then I learned he'd quit, had decided to hike the entire Pacific Coast Trail starting in Washington. That was the last I heard.
            Last Fall I was walking in downtown Eugene when someone called my name. I didn't recognize the fellow: his blue eyes glittered from behind a Jesus beard, and he had a great tangled mane of blond hair. His arms and hands were tanned, and his clothes were faded and full of holes. It took me a long time to realize it was Kenny. When we embraced, I felt how slight he'd become, this man who once had been solid with muscle. I asked him how the Pacific Crest Trail had been.
            “Great,” he said. “Pretty easy. But then I kept going in Mexico, and got robbed.”
            He explained that after those thousands of miles on foot, after all that country, he hadn't been ready to stop, hadn't known how. He kept walking the coast, on roads, trails, along the playa whenever possible. Then in a little fishing town one night, he was held up at gunpoint, stripped of his cards and driver's license, his money and gear, everything but his shoes. He thought of quitting, then realized how relieved he felt that the last of what he'd had was gone.  He kept walking, dove dumpsters in tourist areas, begged pesos, picked up occasional work on fishing docks and construction sites. He made it all the way down the Baja archipelago over the red dirt and yellow sand, reached the end of that land and stood looking into the vastness of the ocean and wished he could keep going. But there was nowhere else to go, so he turned back. It had taken him a long time to return, a lot of strange towns and strange jobs, a lot of good and bad people and lean, lean living.
            I stood there taking it in. Finally I asked, “What were you trying to—get to?”
            He thought for a while, shook his head. “I don't know. Something. Just—something.”
I didn't ask any more questions; I didn't need to. And when I heard what happened to Kenny in Kaui, I wasn't surprised.  I understood.
I understand. 
Sometimes I run ten miles in the heat of the day, just for the exertion and the first water after.  Though it is no sauna, and while the first drink is cold and good, it's not the same. When I hiked sixteen miles of the Rogue River Valley this past August, I took no water or food, and by the end I was hungry and thirsty, but it was insufficient. Cutting weight was religious, like a fast and then the feast and mass: you abstained from something essential until the experience of it became heightened and holy. 
What haunts me about Kenny isn't his death, but the idea that he finally went far enough and found a relief I never will.  I've retreated too far from such extremes, abandoned my place at that altar.  But that's a loss as well, a sorrow that's finally inseparable from my sorrow over Kenny, so that I will always mourn them together: the sport that showed me how far I could go, and the friend who confirmed the necessity of turning back.

Why I Teach

When you're exhausted, after a long Fall, and the last paper is by this first-generation Mexican kid from East LA, and you start, and it's good. And then it gets better. And it's only a five page paper, and the kid writes twelve pages. Growing up poor, but getting a ride to Catholic school; trying not to be Mexican. Being seen as too white by Mexicans. Striving, trying to fit in, letting racist jokes go. Coming here, and losing the pretty blonde girl of his dreams to the whispers when they went out, to her parents who wanted her to 'do better.' Taking strength anyway, finding a way. His parents, who worked their whole life for him to have this opportunity. And this, at the end, making my whole quarter worth it:


  On the last day of class, as I often do in my identity personal essay unit, I was reading parts of a poem and then part of an essay and then an example paragraph, and reciting the lines without holding the book or handout aloud. And the third time I did it, this girl in the front row who's animated about everything threw her hands in the air and exclaimed, "HOW do you do that? Every time?!!!" 

  And the rest of the class, a wonderful, engaged, joyful group who have carried me through the long afternoons of a difficult fall, clamored to know. And I thought about telling them how I've pared and bolstered the unit over eleven years of teaching this class to only my favorite essays and poems (Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Maxine Hong Kingston, Junot Diaz, Natalie DiazBich Minh Nguyen, Jacquira Diaz, Lois Ann Yamanaka, Blas Manuel De Luna, Sherman Alexie, Andre Dubus, and most recently, Warsan Shire) and how, after a hundred repetitions, every line is in my heart and so has a short distance to my tongue; I thought of telling them that the anonymous passage on the handout teaching controlling description, which concerned a stern and driven father, was my own prose. And then I smiled, and waited for them to go silent in anticipation of explanation at long last, and said earnestly, "It's simple MAGIC!"

  They groaned, as I would have done in their stead, thinking that here was a deflection, a lie and obfuscation.  But I hold that it is magic, what can happen in a classroom when you share of yourself and become better than you were by way of others sharing and generosity and efforts.  This class this quarter-- the kid who wrote this note, five or six other students whose stories moved me and whose easy, loud, engaged cameraderie in class discussion made the whole experience a kind of wonder, even the four Chinese nationals (who are easy to conceive of as monolith but who were this quarter quite discrete and interesting and engaged, painters and designers defying their parents expectations, a dancer and a journalist, a future educator)-- all of them were an unexpected blessing, a magic in sum that exceeded and included me.  I am thankful for that, and stand in wonder of it-- a much greater wonder than they feel, on hearing a couple memorized lines.   

Thursday, December 03, 2015

You Are The Gun

Guns don't kill people. People kill people. With guns we need so we can kill the people with guns who kill people. The people who kill people are mentally ill. Or many are mentally ill. Or many gunmen are mentally ill and they band together with other mentally ill gunmen to use guns to kill people. Or to cry for help. Or to right wrongs. Or to seek glory or infamy. Or in the name of religion or ideologies, which then might kill people. Or is it that ideologies weilded by leaders and demagogues and 4Chan trolls kill people? Or hegemonies and ideologies create leaders who deny people bread and safety and justice. Or there is no justice, only the gun. The gun for the people who are not like you who are brown skinned light skinned something else who are most of them are rapists and murderers who are coming for what's yours who never give you the time of day who want to take what you deserve who are whores fags crackers chinks wetbacks infidels niggers thieves sluts who deny you justice so you use your guns to kill people. So you kill people. You are the gun. Your logic is steel. Your method is trigger. You kill and kill and kill and don't feel anything. This couldn't be prevented.

Waxwing nominates "Lessons Learned," for a Pushcart

So honored to have Waxwing nominate my essay "Lessons Learned," for the 2016 Pushcart Prize.

La Boheme Portlandia up at The Rumpus!

Over at The Rumpus, my essay "La Boheme Portlandia," considers race, gentrification, and the new bohemian.

For a quick minute, it appears that piece caused enough reaction to create #LaBohemePortlandia, a little run on Reddit, and this bizarre reaction over at The Billfold.

Friday, March 20, 2015

"Mystery," at The Harlequin

My essay "Mystery," about myself, my father and grandfather, has received lovely treatment at The Harlequin.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Pieces in Waxwing

I am honored to have two excerpts of my memoir, tentatively titled "Faces Bright, Voices Loud: Two Years Teaching in the Mississippi Delta," here today at Waxwing:

"Lessons Learned"

"What Remains"