Miss California

 

Due to inclement weather and road conditions, all West Ada Schools in Idaho are closed today; which means, I am not teaching today.  They do not have snow days like this in California.  At least not in the Central Valley where I was born, raised and taught for four years. 

“Poor people in California!  They are missing out on all this fun!” says my daughter Analise over her homemade blueberry oatmeal at breakfast.

We are held captive by the snow’s steady fall and the accumulating inches growing into feet.  Growing up in the Central Valley, I never saw snow unless my family traveled to Yosemite and that was only a few times.  One year it snowed in Merced.  That was too long ago.

I miss California.  When I speak of California, I only have the Central Valley in view because it is to me what the rough South is for other writers; it is my world, for nothing can ever stand against born and raised.  However, when I do feel estranged from my home state, I say to myself, “Miss California?  Are you out of your mind?”  I start to list everything wrong with the valley: the water crisis, high unemployment, crime, poor air quality, and thanks to Forbes, a notoriety for being one of the most miserable places to live.    

In spite of these imperfections, I am loyal and my allegiance remains.  I have Stockholm syndrome.  I am fully aware of how bad the valley is and how its mismanagement and dysfunction is an abusive lash beating and wearing its resident-captives down.  I hoped the valley would get better the way a battered wife deludes herself into thinking the little goodness in her husband may one day overcome the cruelty causing him to smash her with his fists.  I stayed as long as I could.     

But nothing can be done about my affections for the valley because of the circumstance of place.  Buccal smear the inside of my cheek.  There are no DNA traces of my father and mother there unless you count the chicken processing plant they have worked in most of their lives and the marriage I hoped would have lasted; there are traces of school hallways I walked down, quinceañeras I waltzed in, handcuffs I wore, blood I spilled, a teaching career born and traces of a little brown boy leaping off the pier at Lake Yosemite, crashing into the water, intentionally submerging himself because it is enchanting to look upon a bright, blurry sky from below the water.

I doubt I will ever be able to speak from my heart about any other place not only because there I find my origins, family and friends but also because I feel I have left things undone.  I should have done more.  I should have been adventurous and scoured the state for money and gold hidden by Joaquin Murrieta.  I should have trekked the John Muir Trail.  I should have made the Point Reyes Lighthouse more than a day trip.  I would go back and break into the lighthouse lens room and watch the sunset and sunrise.  I would go back and walk more of the Pacific Coast.

I would go back a giant, visiting the San Andreas Fault and running my hand over the sutured earth, feeling it in a way nobody else could.  I would stare down into the fault and defy it.  I would mock it.  It would not make me feel my own insignificance.  I should have been like Huell Howser, traversing the state like a tramp with deep pockets, becoming intimate with all of California’s gold and not just the valley’s.    

For now, all the adventure I could have experienced in California, I could experience in Idaho.  There is so much I have not seen or done even after living here three years.  I will make a list of places we’ll go and things we’ll do.  I will fight against my recluse tendencies and seize adventure.  Only none of that is happening anytime soon.  Not with this snow.

 

Writing Well – Meaning, Sense and Clarity

In MentorTom Grimes writes about the genesis and history of his friendship with Frank Conroy, author of the memoir Stop-Time, novel Body and Soul and former director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  Although some have not seen Grimes’s book in a favorable light, I found the book very valuable.  But that’s probably because I’m a know-nothing aspiring writer.

Nevertheless, if one is to write well, the writing must have meaning, make sense and be clear.  Simple wisdom enough for a writer but not always easy.  I’m speaking for myself.  Early on in Mentor, Grimes takes us into one of the workshops at Iowa, room 457 where Conroy is about to begin class.  Grimes writes

Frank didn’t take attendance.  Instead, he went directly to the blackboard and picked up a piece of chalk.  He wrote: meaning, sense, clarity (Grimes 24).

Conroy then tell the class, “If you don’t have these, you don’t have a reader” (24).  Next, Grimes writes, Conroy

Moved sideways and drew an arc.  At its bases, he wrote: writer, reader.  At the top of the arc he wrote: zone (24).

Conroy's Arc
The arc described by Frank Conroy in Mentor by Tom Grimes.

Grimes writes how Conroy breaks it down

The writer cocreates the text with the reader.  If a writer gives the reader too much information, the reader feels forced to accept whatever the writer says and eventually stops reading (24).

Grimes continues citing Conroy

If a writer gives the reader too little information, the reader feels compelled to search for whatever the writer says and eventually stops reading.  So, you want to meet the reader halfway (24).

Conroy's Arc-1
Reasons why a reader may disengage.

Conroy then, according to Grimes, circled the word zone and said to the students, “That’s where you want to be” (24).

Opinions will vary obviously on the best ways to arrive at meaning, sense and clarity in a piece of writing.  To talk about how to perfect each of these in a writing seems an endless and monumental task considering how many resources and opinions are available.  For now, I just want to look at meaning.

First of all, meaning may differ depending on genre. How is infusing fiction with meaning different from the meaning required in nonfiction whether it’s a memoir or essay?  For example, one meaning in a short story may be directly related to a character’s fulfillment of some particular need.  Secondly, what is the meaning behind what a character says or does?  What is the meaning in the events that happen?  Is the meaning, a life lesson?  For example, in my short story “Blank“, there is meaning in the ending.  It’s not just about a guy who gets hit in the head with a baseball and loses his memory.  No.  It’s really about appreciating people in your life before it’s too late, before they’re gone.

Meaning, in nonfiction, may be related to a particular question or problem the writer attempts to solve.  For example, author Eula Biss, responding to the question, “How do you define creative nonfiction?” says, “I guess I could say that I pursue questions that interest me in ways that interest me on the page, but that’s awfully vague.  Phillip Lopate once wrote that part of the pleasure of reading a personal essay is the pleasure of watching a well-stocked mind grapple with whatever questions or problem it encounters.”

When asked if she returns “to a similar set of questions with each project” Biss says, “I think there is a preoccupation, in all three of my books, with what it means to lead a good life.  ‘Good’ in the sense of rewarding or fulfilling, but also in the moral sense…the question of what constitutes a good life is there in all of them.”

 

Trying to answer a question or deal with a problem can certainly give your writing meaning.  It’s a good reminder.  For example, if one is writing a memoir, should that memoir try to answer a question or problem about one’s life?  If not, what guides the writing?  Or is a memoir merely a series of random life vignette’s?  If we tell them, why?  Are they connected in any meaningful way?

In later posts, I hope to touch on sense and clarity along with trying to answer what a writer must do to get and keep a reader in the zone.

 

 

Harvey

For a time, my father carried around a little palm notebook, spiral bound at the top.  I can’t remember how old I was because memory is like a terrorist, extremely uncooperative with divulging exact details and facts.  If only we could waterboard our memories – to get them to talk, to clear up what we have wrong.

They were inseparable.  Him and the notebook and the notebook and him.  He studied from it all the time.  I mostly remember him holding it open in one hand as he ate dinner while the other, pinched a tortilla to scoop up some beans.  What he studied I wasn’t exactly sure but I sensed, as much as a child can, that it was important.  It had something to do with the end of handling guts and innards from disemboweled chickens at the Foster Farms chicken processing plant in Livingston.  He studied to do something else at the plant; something more that would give his wife and three children more.

Before and as he studied for this possible new position, my father didn’t have a proper uniform.  He wore whatever he had and, I’m assuming, something he did not mind getting dirty: jeans, old pants, a shirt; anything conducive to helping machines rip chickens apart.  There was a white hard hat, yellow ear plugs to drown out the machines inside the plant and knee high, black, rubber boots.  One day, all of that went away along with the spiral, palm notebook.  He now had a proper uniform: dark blue pants and a light blue shirt with a name patched and stitched on the left breast.  It read Harvey.

Dad

*

Everyone wanted a scooter during that time.  This was years ago.  None of this razor scooter stuff.  These were real scooters: big wheels and handlebars and a footboard strong enough to support a husky boy like me.  How he knew I wanted a scooter I couldn’t say.  However, I’m positive I employed subtle or not so subtle manipulating strategies used by children for millennia, hints dropped hoping he’d pick up:

Daddy, did you see so and so’s doll?  It’s nice isn’t it?

Daddy, I’m getting too big for this baseball bat.  And, these gloves are tight.  My hands can’t breathe!

Oh Daddy!  I’m having so much fun riding cousin’s scooter!

We drove across town in his 1985 red Ford Ranger to Kmart.  It was the Christmas season and I didn’t know why were going there at first.  Now, looking back, I have no idea why he would’ve asked me to go with him but he did.  Was he crazy?  I knew Kmart sold scooters because one day I showed him a green one I liked.  I also knew that my father was in the habit of putting things on layaway; a helpful alternative, alleviating any sense of being below the poverty line.

“We couldn’t be going there to get my scooter, could we?” I remember telling myself as we drove into the parking lot.  He circled round and found a spot quite a distance from the store’s entrance.

“Quedate aqui,” my father said.  “Ahorita vengo.”

I waited in the Ranger with my thoughts.

“This is the worse possible way to surprise somebody with a gift,” I thought.  “Why would he bring me with him to pick up my Christmas gift before Christmas?  Wasn’t he afraid I’d see it or suspect what he was up to?  And how was he going to unload it without me seeing?  What?  Was he going to put it in a garbage bag?”

Moments later, I felt something heavy fall into the truck’s bed.  It was a large brown box.  The empty back of it faced up.  Dad got in the Ranger.

“Vámonos,” he said.  We crossed Merced again, heading home.  Two blocks away from the house he says to me, “When you get inside, bring me out a garbage bag.”

*

I was supposed to be home at 10:00 p.m. but didn’t leave the house until midnight.  I was at Lisa’s house on M Street between Buena Vista and Yosemite Avenue, kicking back with other kids.  I was a 7th grader with no business being out that late.  Why he let me go I’ll never know.  Perhaps he trusted me when he shouldn’t have.  Perhaps he thought I would be responsible and disciplined enough to obey his command to be home by ten rather than do what I wanted to do.  Kids.  I left the party and walked through a residential area at night, headed toward a path leading into one of the fields of Rivera Jr. High.  Walking through this darkened field gave me cover and from it, I could see Buena Vista Drive, heavily lit and brightened by the high street lights.  Suddenly, the red Ford Ranger drove down the street, slowly.  My body dropped without knowing.  I watched, my face in the wet grass, as he prowled the streets like a lion.  I imagined him inside, cursing me in Spanish, frustrated with where I might be, worried even for my safety.  I knew what the morning would bring and I deserved it.  He drove toward M Street and disappeared behind the homes while I walked the other way, headed for home and fully aware that I was in trouble.  I ran through the school, reached R Street and ran into the black of Fahren’s Park, again, headed for the darkened Black Rascal path to keep me sheltered and invisible.  I ran the path, all the way until I reached Biscmark.  And then I walked, worked at catching my breath, and began testing out lies in my head.  I crossed Sacramento and prayed he wouldn’t be home.  I passed the corner house and eyed my house.  The Ranger wasn’t there.  I ran to my bedroom window and slid it open like my plan had always been.  I climbed inside, changed my clothes and pretended sleep.  The Ranger’s lights shot across my room like searchlights.  The engine died, a door opened and closed, keys rattled, the house door opened  then closed.  Down the hall he came.  My door opened and then the lights in my room came on.

“Me la vas a pagar en la mañana,” he said to me.

Boy did I.

*

If it was Saturday morning, sometimes I would wake up and my dad wouldn’t be there.  Coffee would be made but he’d be nowhere to be found.  Because we’d seen this before, we weren’t worried at all.  He would eventually return with one or two white bags full of Mexican bread from La Michoacana or somewhere else I can’t remember.  Or sometimes, he’d already be back, stirring his coffee, spoon clanking his mug, enjoying his “café con pan dulce” while reading the Sun-Star at the kitchen table.  I drank coffee young.  I never got any of it’ll stunt your growth stuff from him as I pulled up a chair, looking for a pumpkin empanada inside the bag.

*

I missed something like forty days of school in sixth grade.  A truant officer came to the house once during the I Love Lucy hour on TBS when I should’ve been at school, feeling way behind and out of place in a sixth grade GATE class.  I watched the truant officer from the peep hole.  Closer than that she never came.  He found out about my truancies and made it a point to come to school unannounced whenever he felt like it just to keep me on my toes.  I passed sixth grade.  And seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth.

*

Where M Street and Child’s kiss there are four apartments, two stacked on top of each other on the left and right.  The bottom one on the right.  That one.  I lived there.  One.  In front of the airport, V Street crossing Child’s, until it runs into dirt.  A house over there.  Two.  Castle Apartments in Atwater.  Three.  Sequoia Gardens near Pine Cone.  Four.  Seville Drive off Child’s when Alicia Reyes was just a field.  Five.  The country house off of Stretch.  Six.  An apartment off Canal Street, 18th or 19th Street, not sure, there was a church or something across the street.  Seven.  Juneau Court, eight.  We zig-zagged Merced trying on shelter the way a person tries on clothes, looking for the perfect fit, migrating and moving at every prospect of something better, something cheaper with more.  Never homeless, never unprotected from the elements, always a bed somewhere even if we shared it.

*

Once he thrashed a man for insulting my mother.  What are you gonna do?

*

A little goes a long way.  No motorcycles, no boats, no ATVs, no toys for him.  But if he could and when he could, he removed us from inside our walls and took us beyond any park entrance fee.  At Lake Yosemite, at about three or four in the afternoon when it’s windy and the water is high and choppy, that was the best time to jump off the pier or off the bridge into the dark, bluish water.  For a second, the water felt better than what Merced deserved.  He took me there.  Swimming across Barrett’s Cove gave me confidence as a swimmer.  He took me there too.  McConnell was fine, a wide river with a steep ravine, from there I jumped all day.  He took me there.  I couldn’t swim at Henderson Park, never tried, it was prohibited.  He took me there too and all the while, like everywhere, he stood near a barbecue like a sentry, guarding carne asada, chicken and hot dogs with a beer in his hand, checking and double checking everything was in order for us to eat whenever we took breaks from being kids.

*

“How far did you walk?” I might have asked him.

“Oooohh,” he would begin, as if you’d never believe what he was about to tell you and with that face only a Nicaraguan would know, “Hasta McKee!” he’d say, which was a long way by foot from Juneau near Loughborough Drive.

“Y de allí, I walked to Bear Creek y me vine por el Applegate y después, el path detrás Wal-Mart, cruce Olive y me regrese por el Black Rascal.”  I call it the Harvey Soza loop and he did this all the time after coming home from work.  He’d wear shorts probably shorter than I’d be comfortable wearing (he does have buff legs), black sneakers, white tube socks pulled all the way up and on top of his black curly hair, some random hat to keep the sun away.  He’d come back drenched with sweat and would guzzle down water like a wanderer finding a refreshing pool.  He returned tired but refreshed and energized by endorphins and numb to the pain in his knees or stiffness from his notorious back.

At the time, I might have thought, “What’s so neat about walking?  Why does my dad enjoy it so much?”  When I run, I get my answers.  I run with my father’s endurance for walking.  You don’t just run.  You think and run.  You figure things out and run.  You think about your family, your past, your future and you run.  It can’t be helped, it’s self-therapy.  And so, somehow I believe this is what my father experienced, therapeutic reflection and practicing endurance.

*

 A visiting professor asked us one day:

Where do you come from?

While others stared into space, I was three or four lines in talking about a man.  Not place or city or country.  But my father.  And then I thought about his machete, how I imagined him using it in Nicaragua, how he became one for his family, how he kept it under his bed as protection for his family and how it now lays underneath my bed.

Who would like to share?

So I went, but not far before what I admired about my father choked my voice and turned everyone’s head towards me.  I paused, composed myself and finished the little bit I had written.  I learned nothing is real until you say it, until you’ve infused it with life from your lips and others hear.

Months later, I waited for him in the parking lot of Geno’s Pizza in Livingston one afternoon.  He was about to start his shift.  I waited for him with a small stack of Sacramento Bee’s from October 2008.  I’d taken what I wrote that day in that college class and stayed with it.  I sent it to the Bee for publication as an article.  For one day, in the State newspaper, anyone could read about what I already knew about my father – that he was a good father, hard-working, sacrificing, heroic for making lemonade out of lemons.  Bright sunny day.  He reached the parking lot.  We talked a bit before I gave him the newspapers.  He took them and drove less than a block away to the plant.  I imagined him showing the article to his co-workers, telling everyone his son wrote with the same zeal Rudy Ruettiger’s father had when he proudly tells everyone at the steel plant over an intercom, “Hey guys, my son is going to Notre Dame!”

I wonder where those newspapers are now.  Probably under his bed where his machete used to lay.  Maybe he goes to them for assurance, for validation and proof of a beloved fatherhood.  A proof his children never doubt.

If We Were Having Coffee

If we were having coffee, we wouldn’t have a lot of time and we would already have an established line of questioning being this isn’t the first time we’ve had coffee. 

“How’s school?”

And I would say

“43 days left.  But who’s counting.”

And we’d laugh.

I would tell you how much I enjoy coaching little league for the first year and that the learning curve is higher than Mt. Everest for someone who has never coached before.  I’m coaching against guys who have done this for years and whose experience is far beyond mine.  And to help you understand what I mean I’d say

“A first year teacher has nothing on me; not that they couldn’t be a better teacher than me but I’ve been in the saddle longer.  I know where the bumps are and can anticipate what a student will say, or how someone might react.  It’s a kind of foreknowledge you only get by repetition.”

Experience is the ultimate sensei.

“What about mistakes?  We learn a lot from our mistakes too.”

I briefly consider all of mine and lose count quickly but I wouldn’t mention this.

“Yeah, they’re a’ight.”

You ask about my knee.

“It’s fine.  I’ve been running a lot, six miles, ten.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.  But I haven’t ran in five days and I’m feeling like a loser.”

“You’re good.  Don’t be so hard on yourself,” you’d say, consoling.

And then I’d confess, sighing

“And I had Panda today.”

You tweak your lips, your eyes roll thinking.

“Well, sometimes you just have to have Panda I guess, you know.”

We nod heads in agreement, take from our coffee.

And then I’d ask you about everything because it would be the first time we’ve had coffee.  I’d start with your name because you’d be a stranger to me because, in reality, I don’t have coffee with anyone.