On Story and Captive Dolphins

Bunny Gratis

Photo Courtesy: gratisography.com

Humans don’t have memories, just stories we’ve been told or told ourselves until words form prosthetic experience we carry inside in order to understand what happens outside of us. They form our experiences as our experiences form our next story.

Stories are our cipher, our codex, our record of what must be known and the tools we use to comprehend that record. Stories remember for us who we are and from where we come. But they are more than that. Stories are the air we breathe.

As a storyteller, I have a recurrent nightmare. Alzheimer’s disease. In broad terms, I can think of few potential terminal diagnoses more frightening than reaching the point at which my body continues on, in a biological sense, but my life ends, in the most practical sense of the words “life” and “ends.”

You see, without story there is no meaning, without meaning there is no hope, and without hope there is no life. This is not metaphorical. Hope extinguished is life’s cessation.

Note the discovery made of dolphins in captivity. At a certain point, some marine biologists contend, dolphins realize they are being held in a small tank rather than experiencing the freedom of the ocean. When they do, they just stop breathing. Respiration is a choice for dolphins, and, without hope, they choose to stop. Permanently.

I’d argue the same thing happens to humans when we cannot see a way for our story to continue. This is a massive claim, so let me reiterate: we live until our stories end.

And yet, we almost always take storytelling for granted. It’s a diversion or a pastime or, at most, something we do to communicate important information in a more accessible or entertaining form. But life-sustaining? That’s a bit much, right?

Here’s a challenge: turn to the nearest person and tell them about your childhood. The challenge? Do it without telling any stories. Really get them to understand where you came from and how it shaped you without painting a series of pictures that puts them there.

Better yet, try to clearly relay to that same person what it is to be human without resorting to narrative.

I am well aware that one may, via the means of scientific observation, make material claims as to the biological processes that comprise the collective meaning of the word “life” as applied to the human species. And yet that very word—life—is a story. Or, at present, more than seven billion stories intersecting and diverging every second of every day. The world is large, too large to know fully even with our best technological advances.

In the seminal 20th century novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez captures this dichotomy perfectly in the mystical gypsy elder Melquíades. Early in the story, he claims that, “Science has eliminated distance. In a short time, man will be able to see what is happening in any place in the world without leaving his house.” One might add that science may eventually make it possible to see what is going on inside anything in the world as well.

And yet, Melquíades then spends the rest of his life writing the story of the Buendía family, which the reader and even the characters of his story discover is really the process of writing the world of the novel into existence. Or, while science is murdering distance, that murder is merely a construct of the story being told about it.

In shorter form, meaning is the providence of story more than science. And in a fashion no data can replicate alone, stories convey the ways in which the parts of the world we will never experience personally are intimately similar to our own and the ways in which they could not be more different.

In essence, they allow us to live more than one life while simultaneously making the one life we are living fuller. Stories embed rather than explain, engage rather than instruct, influence rather than force change.

I understand freedom better because Frederick Douglass shared his slavery. Human bondage becomes experience through Alice Walker’s Celie. Golgotha’s footpath leads me to sacrifice. Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes reminds me of my desperate need for someone to make a sacrifice on my behalf. Neil Gaiman’s stories hold potential futures I may live to see. Joan Didion’s essays and memoirs remind me of the present I must fight to remember I’m living. Gay Talese’s exhaustive profiles make characters of real people I’d like to meet but likely won’t. Cormac McCarthy’s invented characters are more real than most people I know.

What I gain through all of these stories is the hope that humanity’s story, “the powerful play” as Walt Whitman referred to it, continues in such a way that I may not only understand it better, but contribute my own stories to the collection. For what is more hopeful than the thought that my stories—stories that in my head seem so particular to me and me alone—may actually create hope for others?

So I tell stories, to anyone who will listen. I commit them to paper and screen with ink and code. I encourage them in others by begging them to look at their lives, at their words and images and very breathing, as a story they are in the midst of authoring.

It is in the telling of these stories that I have found (written?) the best response to the nightmare I described earlier. In it, I may have been robbed of my memory, but not of my stories. Rather, I imagine myself sitting in a chair, one of my children or readers or former students telling me a story, not merely for my benefit, but for their own as well.

In this way, my memories are safe in that they don’t really belong to me. Rather, they become the property and shared experience of anyone who comes in contact with them.

 

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Wedding CakeWe are both creatures of perfectionism carrying so many things we wish we could take back in life so we could be perfect for each other. So many jagged edges the results of our pride and fear and silence and words we could have smoothed with better choices. Not for ourselves. For each other.

This is why we work. This is why those regrets are not anchors but balloons that float us even as we’d rather they didn’t exist. In fact, what I have learned in twenty years is that I prefer your mistakes to any perfections you could possibly create.

I don’t love who you wish you were. I love who you actually are. I love our scars because they mean we stayed long enough after falling to grow new skin. To be grafted back together when we were sure we’d cut each other so deeply our gashes wouldn’t heal.

Every stitch it’s taken to pull us back together has only bound us more tightly.

When we were 19, I told you I wanted you to marry me. Let’s just see if we make it through the summer, you said.

When we were 20, I told you I loved you more than I love myself. We won’t make it if that’s true, you said.

When we were 21, I told you I was afraid. Me too. Doesn’t that just mean this is important to us?, you asked.

When we were 22, I told you I was yours for life. I’ll never leave, you said.

When we were married, we made a number of promises. In the life we’ve lived since, these are the vows I carry most:

Christ in us, love in every moment, forgiveness without limit, truth especially when its hard, laughter in the face of darkness, and our hands in each others’ no matter the path we must walk.

I have been able to keep these vows because you have kept them too. Because you inspire me to get up when I fail, stay soft when I want to be hard, abandon my fear of being alone even when you are not with me. Every choice you’ve made is what allows me to be inspired this way.

I love you, not a version of what you could or might be someday. I love the flawed, real, perfectly genuine version I spend every day with. I don’t need you to change the past because the past is us. I don’t need you to become something different in the future because the future isn’t real.

All I need is you here in every moment, fingers between mine, laughter just behind the beautiful smile that is my sunrise, eyes looking to find me.

All I need is all you are. That’s all I’ve ever needed.

Re: Re:place

One of the coolest aspects of teaching what I do is the chance to work with young artists in new and interesting ways. The most recent version of this is a project I just completed and launched with eight grad students in my sorta bonkers digital literature course, Re:place.

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A collaborative and genre-crossing project, Re:place revolves around the ways the places we find ourselves—Los Angeles in our case—draw us in and push us out, shaping how we see the rest of the world in the process. The final product was collaboratively conceived, planned, and executed over the course of the term and I am particularly proud of how it all came together.

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Consider this, then, your formal invitation to come check out Re:place and consider your own in the process. After all, home visits us as much as we visit it.

On the Death of Rashaan Salaam

 

The news came in a text first. Then a couple tweets filtered into my timeline, the first from ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

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Rashaan’s dead. I guess as you get older, these moments happen more often. Mortality does not discriminate, and when someone like him dies, the rest of us, if we’re paying attention, take personal stock. At least for a moment.

When I say “someone like” Rashaan, I think that’s what’s kept him on my mind for the last 24 hours. I’m not going to claim we knew each other more than we did, which was to say we had a passing acquaintance as guys who ran track in the same league, though by virtue of talent, that league was not actually the same.

The most extensive conversation I can remember having with the guy was about the relative merits of the song “Check the Rhime” on A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory while we waited for a race to get called.

The thing is, Rashaan exists in a weird space between someone I knew and a hero, two boxes I would never place him in. Rather, he exists between, a shining satellite I came into orbit with simply because we ran that same races. That seems to be the case for many people trying to make sense of how he died.

He was neither my peer, nor my nemesis (that honor is taken by a guy named Ron Allen). No, I’d have had to have been faster for that to be the case. Because Rashaan was fast. Really fast. But that’s not the part of his story that gets told.

In the pre-internet world of the early 90s, Rashaan was an eight-man football phenomenon who drew national attention without the aid of YouTube, Vine, or the high school scouting apparatus that exists now. And it was warranted. Dude was crazy.

In a game against my high school, he ran a sweep to the left and one of our best players hit him perfectly below the knees, kicking his feet up over his head. Normal runners are happy not to have been injured by a hit like that. Rashaan put his free hand on the ground like he was doing a handstand, swung his legs back underneath himself, landed on his feet, and ran another 30 yards on the play.

What?

And that was not atypical. But I didn’t play football. So, when he went from tiny La Jolla Country Day to the University of Colorado Boulder to the Heisman Trophy to the Chicago Bears in the first round of the NFL draft, I watched as I had in high school: impressed to have seen him in person but not quite a fan, because he played for the other team.

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Rashaan with the hardware. Image from ESPN.

Lost in the high school football legend and the perception of his unfulfilled pro potential is the fact that Rashaan could fly on the track. He wasn’t a pretty sprinter, like Carl Lewis or Usain Bolt. He ran like that yoked-up guy on the field, just faster without the pads to slow him down, as if he needed the unencumbering.

If he hadn’t been running in San Diego, in the early 90s, he’d have been touted as one of the fastest guys in his region. Unfortunately for him (and more so for me), that stretch from 1990 to 1998 was a golden age for high school sprinters in San Diego.

For a little context, Rashaan ran a 10.8-10.7 second 100 meter dash. That’s blazing. That kind of high school speed translates to a Division 1 scholarship for many runners (and could have for him had he wanted to focus on track). But that made him one of the second-tier runners when it came to the guys around him.

Guys like Darnay Scott (10.77), Johnny Robinson (10.77), Paul Turner (10.49), and Vince Williams (who would go 10.45 in 1996) all prevented him from being seen as a premier sprinter, not to mention the six other guys in the section running under 11 seconds I haven’t named. And then there was Riley Washington, who still holds the CIF state meet record with his ridiculous 10.3 obliteration of the previous mark and the seven fastest guys in California not named Riley.

San Diego was home to several high schools that seemed like speed factories when I was coming up—Morse, Kearny, Lincoln Prep, Southwest, El Camino to name a few—so Rashaan’s freaky speed was, well, kinda ordinary in an extraordinary era. To get a sense of this, check out the 1991 state 200 meter final here, with Darnay and Riley in the race NOT winning.

But let me assure you, there’s looking at a runner’s time on paper, there’s watching them stop the watch on the screen, and then there’s the peculiar sense of having that speed imposed on you by someone who’s just gifted in ways you are not. That’s my clearest memory of Rashaan Salaam.

A brief bit of history, when Rashaan was a junior and I was a sophomore, I ended up running the open 400 against him at a meaningless dual meet . For the first 250 meters, it was very much like he was running and I was barely moving. But I’m fairly certain he was not training for the 400 at that point and he broke down physically, hitting what runners call the wall not once or twice, but three times, allowing me to reel him in and cross the line in a virtual tie.

Reminder: This was a meaningless meet. He would still go on to win the Heisman. I would never reach the CIF meet in the open 100 (his race). I only slightly celebrated in the moment, knowing that if he had cared at all or put in any time training, he would have smoked me. Then I forgot about it.

Apparently, he did not.

The next season we ended up in the same heat of my race, the 200 meter dash. As a junior, I was running just outside fast enough to make the open field at CIF sectionals, but just inside fast enough to end up in races with guys like Rashaan and Darnay. It was, as I’m sure you can imagine, not good for the ego.

This was the first time Rashaan and I had run against each other since the 400 the season before. What happened, I’ve never forgotten.

Rashaan started in lane two while I was in five, which meant I had a stagger of several meters when the gun went off. Also, I was stronger at the tactical thinking of running the curve than the brute speed of the straightaway. And, for once, I came out of the blocks quickly, which was unusual given my relatively tall 6’3” frame.

None of that mattered. The moment I was up and running, all I could hear was the sound of Rashaan’s feet striking the track once for every two strides of mine and his grunting with each footfall. He made up the stagger in the first 20 meters and THEN put the hammer down, rolling past me like I wasn’t even trying. It felt like he picked up a stride on me for every two I took, and no amount of digging deeper made any difference. With 50 meters to go, he was so far ahead he could have jogged the rest of the way.

I wish he had.

Instead, with 20 meters left, he turned and ran backwards, staring at me all the way through the finish line. I crossed about a half of a second later, but it might as well have been a year. I swear, it felt like he had time to pop a soda before I got there.

And that was it. No handshake or high-five or acknowledgement of any kind beyond the utter thrashing he gave me on the track. I only ever saw him again in the 4×100 relay (which we won). And then he was swallowed, by football first, and time after that. I hadn’t really thought about him much recently save on the rare occasions I ended up reliving my track days with old friends.

At least, that was true until yesterday, when they found his body in a park in the Boulder area, the one place he seemed to have been happy, or so I’ve read.

That’s the thing about guys like Rashaan. All we really know about them is left in that 21-second race, a quarter century ago.

New Short Story

Hey all. My short story, “Crossover,” is out today in Angel City Review. Here’s how it opens:

Nobody beat Ancient Jay to the court on Saturday. Billy knew this was true. He’d tried four times, once setting his alarm so he could get there before the sun came up over the houses on the hills that horseshoed Glen Park. It didn’t matter. Jay was there first.

Ancient Jay wasn’t really ancient. Probably late-thirties, forty tops. People called him ancient because he’d been playing pick up ball at the Glen longer than anyone else and because of his face. His sun-browned skin was creased like moist smoked jerky. Worse was the way Jay sweated. His pores were like little mouths drooling salty ooze that dribbled more than dripped. They never played shirts and skins and most guys called it the Jay Rule to his face. But Ancient Jay was a part of the park, constant like the swing set or sandbox or cement path winding through the two acres of grass and trees that smelled like pine and Pacific when the breeze blew through from the beach just across the Coast Highway. So the stories grew up around him. Billy knew the morning Jay wasn’t there would feel like someone took down the monkey bars and left up the slide….

You can find the rest of the story, and all of the stellar work in the winter edition of Angel City Review free at http://angelcityreview.com/.

 

A Roadmap or a Vacuum

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I teach writing. Even when I’m teaching literature, I’m teaching how it was written as a way of seeing why it matters. Words matter to me, because they’re never—never—just words.

A simple message of hearing and speaking critically is this: never view rhetoric as empty. How people argue their point is never merely an intellectual construct. It’s a roadmap or it’s a vacuum.

When you line up what people believe with why they believe it, you get one of those two possibilities in terms of how you can assess where their thinking will take them. Remember, words are never just words.

In some cases, you can see how an argument will play out in action. The sources and, often, the fallacies an arguer draws on to claim authority carry in them behaviors and message shapes the careful listener will find instructive in anticipating where this will go.

Hence: roadmap.

Example: Your friend tells you about a time a person of differing political views tore up a political sign they had posted in their yard. Your friend then points you to four separate Facebook posts describing similar behavior from “the same type” of people and, without pause, uses that in addition to their own experience to characterize all people they suspect as holding even similar political leanings as (fill in the negative characterization most employed by your friends/family/neighbors).

This, as we say in the business, is a fallacious two-fer. The first is the logical mistake of extending one’s own personal experience too broadly in relation to the complexity and diversity of experiences found even in the limited world of yard sign destruction. Your friend’s story becomes broad proof of their own feelings about “those people.”

But everyone, even the most stubborn individualists, know their story isn’t enough. Thus the second fallacy—a carefully cultivated mechanism for bias confirmation—becomes important. By linking to a few other friendly examples/perspectives, their own assertions are validated exponentially (in their heads, anyway). And that gives the confidence in their sweeping (and almost always wrong) generalizations-as-facts views.

And this becomes your map. This person will make their own opinions a truth stretched across an issue and act accordingly. It doesn’t always tell you what they will do, merely how they will justify themselves after the fact (and yes, that is as scary to type as it is to consider in practice).

But a map is always better than the other option: the vacuum.

Taking the same sign vandalism, the vacuum rhetorician tells you the story and says, “That was wrong, the people who did it are bad, and I will never trust them again.” And that’s it; they’ve built a solid wall of certainty you can’t see through to their reasoning.

These are not logical structures, they are the results of submerged processes that could hinge on all forms of fallacy or irrationality or even deep bias. But who knows, because this is the rhetorical equivalent of a kid responding to a math problem without showing his work. Right or wrong, you have no idea how that kid ended up where he did.

That’s the vacuum. In terms of a math problem, it’s confusing and counterproductive. In terms of the sign vandalism, it’s problematic.

In terms of where we are in America today, it’s terrifying.

Post-Election Conversations…

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Photo Credit: presbylutheranism.com

A follow up on yesterday’s post. You can find it here.

I went to bed last night knowing that my son’s fears had been realized in the election, and also that he didn’t know yet. I found him sleeping in our room again because of his agitation.

I didn’t sleep well, and then my alarm went off. He wasn’t even fully awake when he asked:

“Who won, Dad?”

A note before pushing on: this isn’t likely to go where you think it will.

I answered honestly and held him as he tried to figure out—out loud—what it means now that what he was afraid of is real. I did the same with all three of my kids. It was a tough morning.

Here’s what we have decided so far. This election is over, but its challenge is not. What has been exposed by the process is ugly, but ugly has always been with us. And there is no option of checking out as if we bear no role in responding to what we see.

So we will:

  • choose hope over despair;
  • look for those who are hurting or afraid and respond with love;
  • listen to what to the words and stories of those who are usually silenced;
  • speak truth into the vacuum of bias and division we live in;
  • refuse to limit who we are because of who others want us to be;
  • and refuse to allow injustice to pass in silence.

If there is a mandate in this election, it’s that this country needs to find its heart. If we do, we need to use it rather than guard it. Ours is the sin of believing the world can only be only right when it resembles our version of how it should be. The suffering that myopia causes and has caused is enormous.

I’m looking to atone out loud for the sake of my kids and my country.

Post Script: Two incidents of note happened after I finished writing this that I think speak to what I’m working on here.

First, when dropping my sons off at school this morning, my parting words were, “Choose hope and look for people who need help.” As they walked away, another parent pulled into the loading zone and as his kid got out I heard, “You tell people how wrong they were and how Donald Trump made those idiots see.” They both laughed.

And second, I’ve already heard from six students trying to figure out how to understand their world in light of this paradigm shift. All have been openly harassed this election season for the color of their skin or their sexual orientation.

If you have said, “Make America Great Again” at any point, start by fixing these.

 

An Election’s Eve Note…

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I shouldn’t be writing this. I have other things to do. And yet…

…last night I walked into my bedroom to go to sleep and found my son curled up on the floor next to our bed. On our covers, he’d left a note.

“Please don’t move me….I’m worried about what will happen tomorrow.”

That’s not the whole thing. You don’t need the rest of his fears about today’s election.

You need to think about the role you’ve played in them.

My boy is nine and deeply empathetic. He gets it from his mother. His antennae are more sensitive than most, his words incapable of capturing yet what he’s picking up. But he’s catching our transmissions. And he’s drowning in what we all know about these politics as unusual.

We’re not ok. We should be worried. And we should be better.

The characters we should be impugning are our own. The values we should most fear have been on full display. And the fear in my son’s note is right now our legacy.

I’m old enough to know our country will move on after the votes are counted and that the terrifying shit show we need to address as a culture began well before the clowns took over this particular rodeo.

But what I think my son in most scared of is the conclusion I’ve come to at the end this long national failure of character.

We lack empathy. All of us. We can’t see each other.

How many think pieces on racism, classism, sexism, partisan-ism, and dogma do we need to see we’re growing increasingly blinding to who we’ve become?

How many polls results do we need to see the grand canyons we’ve so willing dug between ourselves?

I wish I felt more hopeful today, had some semblance of civic pride. History will be made one way or the other. But no candidate can step into the void we’ve created inside ourselves. No law will begin the hard, generations-long work needed to draw us together in ways we’ve only ever experienced in faulty rhetoric and nostalgia.

And no amount of worry on our part will fix this either. Worry is why we’re here in the first place. Worry about ourselves, our needs, our wants, our place. We won’t share because we’re convinced only we can see the world and what it needs clearly.

Clearly, we cannot.

Consider my son as I have: one small canary in a coal mine we should have abandoned long ago.

Go ahead and vote your conscience. But make sure you’ve found it first.

 

writing difficulties…

Remain Namless

An observation:

Writers make difficulty by design. At least, the ones who make the most sense to me.

An explanation:

Writers, it seems, must find complications in life in places they could, ultimately, ignore if they weren’t cultivating a sense of struggle. Some might call this a pose, an air, a mantle tossed over their shoulders to approximate weight they don’t always actually carry. To be sure, writing is to accept a very privileged position in culture: an intersection of time, affluence, attention, and the assumption people need and want the results of those three things. Toward that end, they complicate living.

A (personal) metaphor:

This posture is faintly akin—metaphorically, of course—to the act of cutting, though not as externally damaging. Life is not controllable, and those things I actually cannot control are much scarier than the affectations that accumulate in my collection of what makes me “difficult.” Small phrases like incisions applied with precise control dissipate my unimpeachable sense of being unable to stop the world’s spin when chaos threatens to swallow me.

An amplification:

The world screams for our attention, to grab us by the ears and eyes and skin and impose itself. It seethes through broken teeth curses in broken children sold to satiate its anger; in hate masked as “common sense” and “heritage;” in losses made invisible by the uniquely human desire to turn away in order to protect our comfort.

A diagnosis:

However, good writers—by nature and by nurture of difficulty—cannot turn away. They need not even see the whole picture in order to extrapolate out the worst of cases in the best of circumstances, but they keep looking anyway. It’s their gift, if one can call it that. More, it is their responsibility.

A prognosis:

The cost of that privilege is so often a writer’s self-imposed debt.