Do yourself a favor and watch Minding the Gap, the documentary by Bing Liu about his skateboarding buddies from Rust Belt Illinois and their stepping into (and out of) adulthood. Your reasons for not watching this skateboarders’ documentary are exactly why you should watch this skateboarders’ documentary. It is about skateboarding, and it’s about friendship, love, race, class, masculinity, family, and violence.
It’s on Hulu right now, which is where I watched it with gratitude that the same subscription bringing us escapist sitcoms and NBA games also serves up some media that actually feels like a medium… a conduit between lives that I wouldn’t otherwise feel nearness and empathic connection with.
The thing everyone says about this film is that it’s about skateboarding but it’s not about skateboarding. I think there’s something to how we perceive skateboarding— particularly skateboarding that’s being filmed— that screams all the reasons certain segments of “us” don’t want to pay any attention to certain segments of “them.” Skateboarders, if you aren’t one, obnoxiously shred up ledges, fly through our same sidewalks and public spaces with reckless, child-threatening speed, and generally carry an affect of total disregard of you for the sake of their thrills. And when a camera is involved… oh, you better believe I’m not interested in hanging around with those guys and what they’re up to. I’ll be over here, protecting my daughter as she rides her bike.
It’s exactly because of that distance– the separation from our assumptions– that skateboarding itself is integral to this story’s power for us viewers on the other side. Because Bing Liu, the documentarian, cinematographer, fellow skater, and friend of subjects Kiere and Zack, is also able to gently show through his camera what they run from when they flee to their skateboards, why they might find such release from coasting on the open road or grinding the city or landing an inconceivable leap.
And what they skate from is the stuff of American lives in the mid-2010s, especially that part of the country that feels most distant from my West Coast, Silicon Valley surroundings. Economic insecurity. Generational violence. The sense of narrowing opportunities in post-industrial middle America.
For me, it was especially intriguing to meet Liu, who puts himself, his family troubles, and his mother in the documentary alongside the skating friends he grows up with and depicts. He is not voyeuristic about others’ pain. He is there as well, part of the painful subjects in question. But his documentarian’s tone is searching, compassionate, willing to probe uncomfortably but unwilling to look away at his subjects’ humanity, even as he does not shy from their dark sides. Liu renders them, and himself, with a wondrous kind of observer’s eye. It’s not static, it moves as the subjects move, and it is ready to for a crash. But it’s also ready for the bracing beauty of people coasting along, trying to find their way to peace, to wholeness, to the freedom of the wind.
Instead of mountain walking up
I circulate a lake
this year my birthday quest ends in
a journey I can’t make
For once imagining my years
more behind me than before
I contemplate my daughter’s stay
Where I’m just a visitor
I opt to live with wiser stakes
In how I eat and live
Creative time and dancing nights
Determined to forgive
Days move fast, they barrel quick
And plunge toward a quick fate
I walk in circles, don’t look up,
And now I’m thirty-eight.
Mold and Moving
The last four months have been the most stressful of my life. It’s culminated in an October where we’ve had to move from the rental home that we’ve loved and our daughter’s grown up in. Mold. Parts of our family unit stopped being able to breathe at night and in the house. The scary lingering of mold spores meant we had to divest of much of our furniture and possessions. Not sure where to go, trying to reach a settlement with the owner while feeling very unsettled in ourselves, and worst of all, fearing that we had to say goodbye under sad circumstances to a house and area we had grown to love.
When we moved here, we were fleeing an underwater mortgage post-financial- and housing crisis. Stress had layered on stress and our family, new kid only a little more than a year, had to get out of our first beloved home, the one we owned in the town where we taught. This house was a refuge. Larger than we thought we could get, a rent that we could afford despite my graduate student’s poverty, walking distance from a great library and downtown, every bit a dream house for us. We could not imagine leaving it.
Suddenly we had no choice but to.
Instability and Schooling
Somewhere along the way of taking time off work, bleaching all the non-porous things we determined we could take with us, shuttling to and fro from my blessed father’s house far several towns away and our vacating house, we forgot to attend to my daughter’s second grade homework the way we normally did. She didn’t do great on a quiz. Didn’t do horrible, but didn’t do great, given all the instability. It was a reminder, just how this tiny instability– we are relatively well-off, and most importantly have very generous and resourced friends and family to hold us up and help us– could so drastically change a kid’s school experience. How much more those kids for whom ongoing instabilities compound their challenge week upon week, year upon year.
It makes me all the more awed and moved by the kids and families I’ve taught, whose “instability” became a norm. Separated by immigration policies. Captive to the criminal justice system. Shaken by violence. Tense with economic insecurity. And yet these kids, while stress ate their edges, did not lose their hearts, their hopefulness, their longing for actualization, their ambition to do good. Their families persisted too.
While we were unloading our home of furniture, a friend helped us locate a refugee family from Southeast Asia who was happy to receive some of our beds, shelves, and chairs. Their circumstances considerably different– our new rental equates to the size of maybe three of the four small homes their lived in, four full families, maybe five or six times the number of people in our little trio. The kids played outside, looked with curiosity at what we brought, clearly looked out for each other like family. They’d traversed the world and left behind all kinds of instability.
I thought about how much we own and how little it means. I thought a lot about what we really need to provide for our kids, and how much we fool ourselves about that.
It’s been painful. But I realize something I’ve been pleading for desperately, for years, now has an opportunity for a pivot, a point of inflection. For years I’ve been caught up in an increasing and out-of-control accumulation and spending habit.
I don’t know much, but I know enough from other addicts of other things that you don’t shed your pathologies so easily. This remains an issue for me. For life.
But I’ve been given an opportunity to clear the decks. This weekend, I have to finish cleaning out the old house. Sell, donate, dump. We have a chance at a fresh start. I’m trying to carry into the new place a sense of that simplicity and freedom. We lack nothing. We’re free.
The other day, leisurely, we wandered into Books on B, a treasure if there ever was one, which we’d heard about and long wanted to visit: a real, live, brick and mortar book store.
Being an English teacher in Hayward since fifteen years ago, watching bookstores come and go, this was something precious. We had to buy something. All of us.
I remember the bookstore that used to be on B Street. You can still see the remainder of its old sign. I remember riding into there when EJ was very little, her on a trike with a handlebar I’d push, which somehow seemed acceptable at the time, to just ride in with a baby girl. We bought a pile of books, stuffed them into the rack on the back of her red bike, rode out. Felt like the last time.
During this summer, I’ve taught English Methods at Cal State East Bay, the Hayward hills, where EJ’s school is, right by the flatland areas where Elaine teaches and where the school’s community lives. (I work in Southwest Hayward.) Given the chance to assign a text to plan lesson around, I chose the first one I taught, thirteen or so years back, English 9, hoping to find something to pave the expanse between my kids and me.
I saw it there, at Books on B, but in translation. I want to get better at Spanish, to learn to speak without flinching at my sentences, to add subtlety to my replies when someone graces me with their comfort in Spanish.
Reading The House on Mango Street, or La casa en Mango Street, with my frail and forgotten Spanish, is a teeny bit like living in those thirteen year old’s shoes when they sat in my class, unaware that their insecurity was deep but mine was old and wide and also gaping and hungry.
Somehow, again with Esperanza Cordero/Sandra CIsneros’ tender frankness, I’m entranced again.
“Una vez, cuando vivíamos en Loomis, pasó una monja de mi escuela y me vio juganda enfrente. La lavandería del piso bajo había sido cerrada con tablas arriba por un robo dos días antes, y la dueño habia pintado en la madera SÍ, ESTÁ ABIERTO, para no perder clientela.
“¿Dondé vives? preguntó.
“Allí, dije señalando arriba, al tercer piso.
-Cisneros, traduzca por Poniatowska, La casa en Mango Street
That longing, those aspirations, that dissatisfaction, that restive desire that comes from the mix of shame and pride, those dreams. Esperanza says of her family/self, “éramos seis,” we are six. The distinctions blur and maintain at the same time, and the same will be true of her and this neighborhood.
And I start to feel it to be so with us three and Hayward.
I once thought I was a decent writer. Then I tried to write my dissertation.
While I believe I can adapt to writing a variety of kinds of papers, this is the only kind of dissertation I can imagine writing. You want the work to stand for who you are and what you’ve learned, how you study and what you have to offer the world. I’m drawn to, and now I come from, qualitative research, social research, research into culture and human phenomena, research that attempts to speak alongside people and practitioners, that invites subjects to talk back to the research, that winds down unexpected paths and has to be reined back in. The description is thick, the theory is too, and the ambitions far outpace the funding, let alone the comfortable boundaries of positivist certainty.
Writing this dissertation has been a cruel slicing, again and again. It’s a necessary cutting process, cutting away until I make sense, until the pie is small enough to consume, until the writing is not a firehose that no reader has the patience for. I try to do justice to people I’ve spent hours, days, months with; try to do justice to a diversity that stays animated and irreducible in the varied kids I studied; try to be methodical, and reasoned, and balanced, and curious, and pragmatic. One paper cannot please all of the people all of the time.
Three things I take away as essential to my writing:
1. A community. As much as I want to hole away and face the solitary task, bearing my own cross for the writing choices I make, each time I’ve had a watershed revelation, a point of inflection in my slow toil towards the right decision, it came with an audience of incisive and generous peers. Foremost, my advisors. Sometimes, my wife. Often, my peers in writing and research groups, stretching to think my arcane thoughts with me, offering incisive questions and generous speculation. I still have to face the lonely keyboard myself, but my good ideas have all been birthed (or stolen? borrowed?) from contact with thinking partners, even if they were just a listening forum for me to clarify myself in front of, but often as a fount of fertile ideas and clarion thinking. And when the community motivates you by the intense quality of their own writing and work, it’s possible to get intimidated and feel inadequate, but impossible not to feel wiser for having spent time with them as thought partners.
2. Tools to “Notecard” My Ideas. I recently became a convert to Scrivener. Before then, I was repeatedly falling apart under the weight of any revision, so that pieces disappeared into the ether or held on stubbornly to their shape and position, refusing to budge from their lodged positions, like recalcitrant homesteaders before my hurricane of rethinking. Now, not only can I not imagine writing without Scrivener, I am excited to create just because of the invitation to architecting ideas and stories that Scrivener’s tools affords me. Moving seamlessly between the “notecard” birds-eye view, where chunks can move as needed among each other, and the lost-in-the-sentences text view… it affords a wonderful executive control. I still have a lot to figure out how to use probably two-thirds of its functions. But even with what I’ve acquired, the tool has reshaped the user.
3. Forget it. I have to be able to forget it. I have to be able to let it go. I have to take naps. I have to walk away. I have to submit pieces, discontented as I might be. There’s always another pass I could do. Always another frontier of improvement. Always a better turn of phrase, a more complete reassessment of structure and rhetorics, of evidence and presentation. But I just have to forget it. I’ve been lost for weeks in paragraphs that ultimately wound up ruthlessly cut– and am still likely bargaining for more of that. I’ve given hours that have no count to analyses that might burn like fire in my mind, but they will bloat the final product, so they’re left in the memo that won’t fit in any chapter, the paper that might one day spin off, the faint hope of a future project or forum to see the light of day.
I’m not done yet, which I’m relieved for, to be honest. As relieved as I’ll feel to finally be done, I just know there are parts of this process that haven’t finished their work on me yet. I feel great insecurity about my writing, and the scary thing is, it’s not just my writing. It’s my voice. It’s my contribution. It’s great insecurity about my belonging in this work that I’ve been doing for years.
But that unbearable hopefulness must succumb as well to the ticking hands of time, and soon my deadlines will defy me and my accumulated wisdom, and I will scamper to submit My “Good Enough” Dissertation, submit it to my mentors who have ridden this writing rollercoaster a million times more than me, who will offer the loving shatterings that will return me gasping to these chapters. Somewhere out the other end, I have faith a better writer waits. He will laugh at my hand-wringing. He will forget that he earned who he is.
No, I have not been a very impactful, focused scholar.
Thanks to the heavy lifting of my advisors and colleagues, who have carried me every step of the way, I am nearing the end of these eight years of my PhD program. Early in my program, I envisioned myself racing across this finish line, head held high. Instead, I find myself scrambling, crawling. Ashamed I didn’t accomplish more for my years in academia so far. Still struggling with the writing and study, the reviewing and revising, the presenting and attending that should be the schedule of a scholarly life.
The reasons are many and those who know me have heard them plenty, even dutifully repeat them back to me when I confess this embarrassment.
But I hope this last Lenten season has represented a pivot for me, an inflection point, when my halfway presence (“half” is being too generous) as a scholar stops being my apology and starts being my identity. I’ve not earned the grants and won the fellowships. But I’ve been granted chances to struggle beside teachers, to await the end beside my mom, to read to children, to enjoy the fellowship of a spiritual family. I’ve not attended the association meetings and submitted for the conferences. But I hope I’ve associated with the unattended and submitted myself to the inconvenient. I have been a poor colleague and co-researcher, which is what I regret the most. But I have remained richly curious and the glad beneficiary of others’ intellectual fruitfulness.
So stop apologizing, Paul. You didn’t do all the scholar things because you were doing the teacher things, the father things, the son things, the husband things, the follower things, the cultural worker things, the part-of-a-community-of-faith things.
Whatever that means for my academic prospects, I am coming to terms that it matters less to me than doing some good in schools, serving in the niche I can to enrich our literacy and language learning for life, love, and liberation.
I do feel like I’m crawling to the finish line. But it’s a good vantage point from here on the ground, by this dust and these feet.
Bao Phi’s Thousand Star Hotel is poetry I’ll give to friends who aren’t into poetry. That’s not an insult; it’s a tactic he employs. For some reason, I know a lot of Asian American guys, immigrants who came when they were little (or close enough, one way or the other), and now raise daughters, think about their parents and ancestral roots, feel all kind of ways about the racism they’ve faced and the stories they could tell about dancing with white women while others giggled in the back, or being pushed down by truckers’ sons grasping for the entitlements they feel slipping, or being side-eyed about the legitimacy of our oppression or racial animus. His poetry is playful and moody, introspective and rebellious, some of it more deserving to be the spoken word it originated as, others that do a favor to the page. But it has rhythm and energy and nervy-ness that I like a lot, and I think the people I hand it to will too.
Throughout, few big or obscure words mask or grandstand. Phi’s poetry is composed of confessional frankness, sensuous moments laid with bare truths and the twists of human sentiments, and a dogged survival sense that makes his bluntness elegant. That’s why Asian guys I know who have no patience for poetry will feel at home, and challenged the way they like.
For all that accomplishment– and he accomplishes a lot, finding expression for fleeting sentiments and gnarling ambivalences and overwhelming beauties, like the “Thousand star hotel” of the title that I’ll leave for you to find– there is a marker throughout all of it of illegitimate inheritance of English. Granted in many places, his status as a deliverer of words is the sword he defends himself with, and brandishes against threats to his always assaulted identity. But in vulnerability, he also says in the first poem proper of the text (there’s sort of a prefatory poem that’s actually germane to this discussion as well), how language keep eluding him:
And I wonder
if I ever will find a language
to speak of the things
that haunt me the most. (6)
The stanza ends a poem entitled “Vocabulary” about an encounter with a coworker also gathering shopping carts admitting in guy-speak to his flush feelings for a girlfriend, who seems embarrassed by his own emotion and his words getting ahead of himself. Or as Phi puts it, “the vocabulary to overcome himself.”
This portrait of a man whose emotions get the best of him and spill out in an utterance of crude fervor is set against the busywork of “Maintenance,” lining up rows and rows of carts you manage and move like a train you have to test to see if it will hold so it doesn’t overtake you, and can get steered right enough to put away. This image of management, keeping your stuff together, lining up your words in a row. And then, they get ahead of you. They overcome you. Raw and tough as they are, they somehow capture you, and grab more out of yourself than you really knew how to manage or maintain within you.
Phi seems envious of that kind of language. Not those words to capture those experiences, those aren’t what he wants. But the access to those words that overcome you, rather than ever groping for the words, the language, the vocabulary to talk of things you’ve never heard talk of, trying to find the ways to say something that doesn’t feel like it has been said, or said quite right for you, or said quite true to your world. If only there was that language, that vocabulary, for our experience.
And that’s what Phi is up to, perhaps what any poet is up to. Looking for that place where you grab hold of the words that run you over like a train of carts, carrying you careening to expose yourself, or at least to unearth what’s there and not done, barely even begun, getting out.
All of which makes me appreciate Bao Phi for what he makes me want to do: not just to read, but to write too.
Was watching “This Is Us” the other night with the wife. It’s not a perfect show: I get a little annoyed with the Jackie Robinson of the Pearson family that Randall has to be, the subsuming of all issues to the togetherness of the family. But then again… then again, I’m still a believer in family.
Anyway, Chrissy Metz’s character Kate sings “Landslide,” the old Fleetwood Mac song that I consumed in my adolescence through the weird Smashing Pumpkins B-side tape of my brother’s that I played until I wore it out. And then, a later episode, Randall remarks that he’s ten years old (obviously, in one of the flashbacks that are the show’s great gimmick, and I maintain, the show’s great profundity). And suddenly I remember a time when I turned ten years old, when I realized I was ten years old, and that seemed to be something extraordinary. My consciousness of that moment of self-consciousness, a memory that wasn’t just composed of the photographs that have since grown familiar and replaced my actual memories, struck me by being something completely new, though it was of course 27 years old. I hadn’t thought about thought that I had since I thought it, at ten years old.
The layering of memory in our perception makes our consciousness one place where a certain kind of relativity of time happens.Where we exist in what we consider past, present, and future, all at once.
I’ve been sick today, and anyway, it happened to be a day my daughter’s school had off, so I was planning to take her somewhere fun. Being sick made “somewhere fun” our living room, and sometimes me napping while she worked at a desk next to me, or when we snuck off to Denny’s while still wearing our pajamas. (She kept asking, “is it really okay for us to go out in our pajamas?”) We practiced some magic tricks she’d been wanting to try, ate frozen grapes, watched “Avatar the Last Airbender.”
You should’ve seen the magic show she ended up doing for her mom when she got home. What a show!
I have another soft dissertation deadline I’m not sure I’ll meet. I keep staring at my own worsening “self-care,” or whatever you call it now– bad eating habits, weighing too much, sleeping too little, easy injuries and persistent back pain– and I realize how fully I’ve changed these seven years. These seven years where I’ve completely lost the ability to keep track of myself, try as I might.
The excuses are many, because the changes have been many. Graduate school. Changing jobs. Moving. Mom’s cancer. The election. But really, actually, despite all those changes, nothing has utterly altered my life anywhere close to this: my little girl was born. And I am her father. And not a thing in the world is nearly as important.
I wish I could explain to people how strange this is, and how bad I feel about it. People are really sympathetic to child-raising changing your life, and they will often feel that’s “nice” and “sweet” that a father cares about being a father. But so many things constrain and confine the expectations here, so that I feel unrecognizable, unintelligible to people. First, I’m a man. I’m not supposed to tear up every time I’m away from her, thinking about her, wanting to be home with her. I’m not supposed to have trouble pursuing my career because I just want to teach her things and explore things with her. Read books with her.
Second, we only have one kid. If you’re a busy dad because you have three, well, of course you are! If you have two, it makes sense that just when you feel satisfied serving the one, you’ve still got to service the other, right? Or if you’re either of my grandfathers… TEN children! Forgetaboutit. A father is all you are. But me, I just have the one. That’s simple, right? Just like having a buddy around. Only had to do the diapers thing once, and once you get ’em walking and talking, they can start doing chores and making things easier on you, right?
Third, I’m not a single dad. I’m the OPPOSITE of a single dad. Her mom is an extraordinary mom. Working to sustain our income AND to make a difference in the world in a tough job. Emotionally available and very present at all of her big life events. Involved in taking care of the home, food, physical needs. Mom is still MOM, the one she goes to when she has a rash or a gash, the one she can be herself around the most, the one who teaches her to dance and get creative, the one who plans her trips and camps and parties. My wife is about as good a mother as a man could ever hope for to raise the child he loves with all his heart.
So what’s the holdup? Why am I still having such difficulty moving on, getting my work done, dedicating myself to other things, still so attached to spending so much time hanging around with his kid?
I don’t know. I don’t have a good excuse. By all healthy, socially-endorsed indicators, I should have already figured things out so that I’m prioritizing her future college savings fund (ie my career), my other projects and relationships (ie my aging parents, my many incredible friends), and that oh-so-important self-care (ie eating right and exercising so I’m still around in 30 years for her). But I’m not, I’m too slow to change.
I still feel like I have to be there for every pick up after school. Still want to wake up and eat breakfast with her every morning, make sure she eats at least some of her egg yolk. Still want nothing more than to spend many afternoons with her, lounging around or eating snacks or doing homework or reading out of curiosity. Still want to be there for her in every new step, though I know that soon enough, she’s going to need space and individuation and she’ll tell me she doesn’t want me hanging around all the time. (I teach teenagers and study adolescent development. I know.)
And can I be a little vulnerable and honest for a second? Just as I cried when I first dropped her off at preschool, shattered to pieces, not in the way that was selfishly possessive, but in the way that wanted to take in all the splendor and pain of it all… just in that way, every time I think about how much I need to move on and readjust, it’s terrifying, since being her dad has so eclipsed anything else I do, since she has totally eclipsed everything else in my life.
So for years, even not having heard that song, the layered memory of Billy Corgan or Stevie Nicks singing “Landslide,” singing:
“Well, I’ve been ‘fraid of changing cuz I’ve built my life around you.”
That’s where I am. Afraid.
“But time makes you bolder, even children get older, and I’m getting older too.”
That’s also where I am. Getting older, as she gets older.
“Oh, take my love, take it down/
Oh, climb a mountain and turn around/
and if you see my reflection in the snow-covered hills/
Well the Landslide bring it down.”
It feels like my world tumbling down. And I suppose, that’s what it has to be. I just hope that maybe, even faintly, what was there is not so buried in the fresh snow that it ceases to reflect who I was to her someday, when I’m not there anymore, when all she can see is a fraught season, a mysterious horizon.