Thursday, September 24, 2009

Unlike Fatherhood

It’s rare when someone gets punched in the face and doesn’t seem to mind. Darryl was rare and in rare form. He’d taken down much more than his usual five Jack and Cokes, the evidence of which was more on his breath than in the way he walked. He brushed his dirty blonde hair out of his eyes. All the regulars at the Wettest Whistle knew how well he could handle his liquor. It didn’t occur to him until just before the knuckles made contact with his eye socket that this might be a bad sign in the long run.

Belligerent drunks seem to overflow with alcohol, spilling on the ground, their shirts, and the girl next to them. He wasn’t overflowing. It was more like he was absorbing it all. Not a drop hit the floor, his red flannel, or the overweight blonde girl next to him wearing a cheesy silver crown that said HAPPY BIRTHDAY with each letter getting its own shiny pipe cleaner antennae.

Jesus, that looks fucking ridiculous, Darryl thought to himself.

Cora was her name. She was celebrating her birthday in jeans, cowboy boots, and an unflattering blank t-shirt she wore instead of the white tank top because it was black, and that was supposed to be slimming, wasn’t it? She had bright pink hair that looked like it might have been many colors since its original hue.

The chorus of Happy Birthday was just coming to a close and most of the bar responded with a round of applause. Most.

Darryl turned to her and said, “Happy Birthday.”

As she was about half way through a bright smiled “Thank You,” he interrupted with “It’s clear you got some meat on your bones, but since it’s your birthday, I’d be willing to take you out to my car and screw you.”

She glared back at him. “Go fuck yourself, asshole.”

He wasn’t exactly sure what kind of response he was expecting and he didn’t really care much about the one he got. He went to turn back to his drink when someone accidentally bumped his arm on his way to the bar. Darryl’s drink spilled.

“Hey!” It came out even louder than he meant it. “The fuck’s your problem?”

“Calm down buddy.”

“I’m not your buddy,…jackass.”

Darryl pushed. The stranger pushed back. He cocked back and landed a right hook right to Darryl’s face. He saw the fist coming and didn’t move. He watched it come right at him, make contact with vibrating impact, and send him right to the floor. The birthday party moved to the other side of the room as fast as they could. He stood right back and looked the stranger in the eye. He didn’t move. The stranger paused for a second, not sure what to do,

“Cocksucker,” Darryl said, and then watched another right hook come right at his face, shake his whole body, and drop him to the floor again. He stood up and stayed stock still again.

The stranger stared at him, sizing him up the way most people do before a fight. He wasn’t getting anywhere. “What the fuck is the matter with you?” The stranger asked. Darryl breathed slow. The stranger paused, and then walked out of the bar. Darryl went back to his drink and wiped the string of blood from his face with a napkin.

It was 20 years ago that day. Shit, no, 22. And that fucking girl had to have her fucking birthday today and rub it in.

He’d replayed it in his head 100 times. They were just out of high school. Helen wasn’t supposed to get pregnant. Ofcourse she was going to get an abortion. That’s what you did if you got pregnant young. Right?

She didn’t. Darryl remembered how when she told him she was going to keep it, the sky and horizon turned into a ceiling and walls and started closing in on him. He pitied himself so much then. How could he have gotten into a situation like this? How could she keep it?

That was lifetimes ago. Now, he thought, Christ, it? I had an “it.” Not a son. Not a daughter. An it. The old story about women giving up children for adoption is that it’s easier if you stay distant. Don’t get attached, because it gets harder to let go. This didn’t feel easier. The utter distance just meant it was that more impossible to make it back to being a decent human being. He didn’t pity himself anymore. He didn’t deserve it, he thought.

20 years ago to the day he received a letter. No return address. In the envelope was a small white piece of paper that read, “You have a child. Goodbye.”

Darryl sat at the bar in the Wettest Whistle and took the last sips of his drink which seemed to dull the pain in his face just a little. He was an asshole. He knew that. But he would give an arm just to be a decent human being again.

He stood up from the stool and walked over to the birthday party, and looked the plump girl right in the eye.

“For what its worth miss, I’m sorry I said that.”

And he walked out.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Don't Worry, Be Happy Part 2

My dad’s strangeness may have saved us until then, but there’s no “not worrying” before a little league Championship game. Everyone is scared shitless, not wanting to be the one to cost everyone the game. Doesn't matter how many times you play "Don't Worry, Be Happy". I went to bed that night, trying to play out the whole thing in my mind, and mostly just trying to breathe. My entire baseball bag completely packed and repacked with extra pairs of everything, just in case. Somehow I fell asleep.

I woke up nervous. I could feel it in every inch of my body and every breath I took. I was so relieved that at least I wasn’t gonna be pitching. I wasn’t at the center of it. I at least had the comfort of being a part of the supporting cast.

We got to the field early for warm ups. Harry’s van pulled up, and he got out to talk to my dad. My dad looked confused. Ian huddled in the passenger seat in the van.

“He sneezed,” my dad said.

“What? So?”

“So, you’re pitching. Apparently Ian sneezed last night and threw his shoulder out,” my dad said, letting on about his doubt about the validity of the injury.

Ian was 12. He was just scared. Great. I was 12. I was scared. And now I had to fucking pitch.

I was outside of my own body with anxiety. This was too much. This was more heat than I wanted. But there was no way out. My nose wasn’t the least bit itchy.

Fear had become anger. I felt so out of my league and the stakes so high, and I felt my blood boil at being let down by Ian, our batshit crazy leader, that all I could think was “If you’re gonna coward out of this and make me do this, then damnit I’m gonna do it.” I don’t know where I found it in me, but it was there.

I gave up only two runs on an error by our shortstop. After 3 innings, the most you were allowed to pitch in one game, we were down just 2-0. We were in it. I moved to catcher and one of our younger pitchers came on in relief. He didn’t have it that day. I sat behind the plate catching ball after ball, as the game was slowly given away to the better team. At first I tried to calm him down, to be a leader, but once I saw it was to no avail I resigned myself to sitting back there and biting back the disappointment in my throat as I had to keep throwing the ball back to the pitcher after another walk.

Losing stung. Debilitating and complete like a bulls-eye Jellyfish hit. The injury felt complete and final. I looked at Ian and I just felt sorry for him, and sorry for myself that I had put all my faith in him.

In the car ride home I was in pieces. “You know, I’m really proud of you. The way you got in there and pitched. That took guts,” my dad said.

The words made me itch. They felt consolatory. What you tell a second place finisher. Which is what they were. They were the last words I wanted to hear. I just wanted to crawl into a ball and wait until I got drafted again.

I’ve since grown up and moved away from the Bay Area. I never got to play for Kevin. I never won a championship. But I did have Bobby McFerrin.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Don't Worry, Be Happy Part 1

I wasn’t supposed to pitch. When they walked over to me and put the ball in my hands, Bobby McFerrin could have been singing right in my ear and I still would have worried and been unhappy. Really, really unhappy. All season long I had been the fourth best pitcher on the team, third if you felt like being generous. And maybe another day it wouldn’t matter, but this was the championship game against the Astros.

“Why isn’t Ian pitching?” I asked.

The Astros were more like an All-Star team than a little league team. Erik Johnson towered over all of us and struck out hitter after hitter with such consistency that it was like he was working a turnstile at an amusement park. Daniel Crzernilovsky had a cannon for an arm at third base, and at the plate could tattoo the ball to either field.

Coach Kevin Burndt would have been the perfect cliché of the superior and evil opposition’s coach if had he been a cold dictator that made the kids on other teams happy they only had to see him a few times a year.

In reality he was a decent guy with a kid on the team, but he was so good that whatever he team he was coaching was instantly the favorite to win the championship. I can’t say what it was actually like to be on his team, but I would have traded my Super Nintendo, all of my baseball cards, and possibly one or both of my sisters if it meant I could have played for him.

On draft night, the managers in El Cerrito Little League individually called up the kids they had drafted to welcome them to their new teams. The draft was a process filled with politics and scheming that determined the next two years of little league. And to a twelve year old, it was the most important phone call that you would ever get. It might as well have been the President, or even a Major League owner calling. Every time the phone rang that night I sprinted from the living room, bumping into the walls, on my way to go answer.

When I finally got the phone call after the little league tryouts, it was from Mike, not Kevin. I was going to be a Twin, not an Astro. Each age group in El Cerrito little league was two years, so it would be another two years before I would reenter the draft. I was a Twin, and that was that.

Still, I remember the pride the day the hats and the uniform came. The black jersey with the yellow printed plastic and the black hat with a yellow embroidered “T”. They were cheaply made and simple, but they were the grandest of the grand. The black was cool and sleek, and the yellow shone brighter than anything I’d ever seen. I threw off my shirt and replaced it with the jersey, tucked the hat down over my hair, and looked in the mirror with wide eyes. I was a Twin, and that meant something.

Ian was the stud of the team. Catcher was my best position. Ian was both the team’s best pitcher and catcher. He was a big kid with a big nose and a bigger temper. He was chunky around the waist but could throw the ball faster and hit the ball harder than anyone around. It was a crapshoot on any given day however, whether he’d be ready to play, or be ready to throw a tantrum and end up pouting in his dad’s van. It was a crapshoot we had to bet ours seasons on, and to a 12 year-old boy, that meant betting absolutely everything.

Our second year in the league, we weren’t so bad. Actually we were pretty damn good. Ian was leading the way with his dad as head coach, and I wasn't so bad either.

We might have had a bunch of head cases, but we had a good team.

We also had Bobby McFerrin.

My dad, who was the assistant coach, decided that everyone was too nervous before the game, and it was making us play worse. His solution was to cart out a boom box to every game and blast “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” while we were warming up. Over and over again. Every game.

Other kids on our team wondered why the hell we were listening to this weird a cappella all the time. Other teams hated us.

Whenever I’d make it to second base, the opposing teams’ infielders would invariably tell me, “Your dad is fucking weird.”

“I know,” I said.

The other teams really did hate it. In fact so much so that it started to distract them and make us laugh, once it had become white noise. We stopped worrying. We started getting singles, and RBIs, and wins.

We made the playoffs. We made the championship game.

To be continued...

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


The first afternoon in D.C.
I sit outside a closed coffee shop
watching construction workers lay cement.

They trudge and shovel in the slush of the mess
and it's tough to think that this will harden,
hold shape,
and become impenetrable.

But I know it does. Time and time again.

The eight men work
and I wonder whether any of them
write poetry or cry outdoors
as they smooth out the surface of the sidewalk into
the shape that will shortly
be as hard and dependable as their masculine stares.

The Return of Underwear

I walk in the door, half undo my tie and pull the loosened
knot over my head.
I throw it on the table, think maybe I'll cook dinner,
go for bike ride,
go photograph,
i wonder if there are any good art shows open,
what should i do this weekend?
Coming home to an empty house, with her out of town,
my mind wanders.
I go to the kitchen to get a glass of water
and when I return
my breath stops for a moment because
I mistake my tie for
her black underwear
thrown haphazardly on the table in the living room.
I imagine the lace and the intent.

Yes, I love her. Miss her voice
and her company
going to the movies alone.

but, I miss her underwear too.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Jade Shames and The World Stage in Leimert Park


When I was 16 I went to Los Angeles for the first time. I went with Youth Speaks to be a sacrificial poet at the National Youth Poetry Slam. I had no idea what part of Los Angeles I was in, or even that clear of an idea that there were different parts.

I performed in a hot crowded little venue that was filled with energy and history. When I say hot, it wasn't unhip, but there was one tiny fan and a lot people. To put it another way, we were sweating our butts off. I had a great time performing there, and then left. I hadn't been back in seven years, even though I just graduated from UCLA a year ago. I've learned that LA does have parts, and you have to mean it to get our your bubble. And it's worth it.
My writing mentor Noel Alumit invited me to go to a poetry reading by his friend Jade Shames at some venue called the World Stage. I had heard the name before, but didn't know much else about it. I showed up last wednesday. My jaw dropped. It was the same place I had been in high school.
The night was ridiculous. First of all, Jade is an amazing poet. He gave a great performance and I had to buy one of his chapbooks. His storytelling style and patience with developing images and narrative were so fresh. I was stoked to hear him read and meet him after the show. Check him out at
And then there's the venue. Jawanza runs the World Stage poetry night every Wednesday. It opens with a workshop at 7:30, followed by a feature performer, and then an open mic. It was hot that night. Jawanza said he'd "put on the air conditioning" and he opened the curtain to the back room. It was just how I remembered it. Hot, crowded, and filled with amazing energy. If you're looking for great poetry, or just a great time, go. Trust me. 5$ at the door. Worth 25$. Go.
4344 Degnan Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90008
(323) 293-2451

Family History

A boat sits off the coast of Japan
in early August 1945, when
Little Boy and Fat man light up the sky.
The ground sits under a mushroom cloud
and 220,000 people die.

Victims to the American villain,
the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
have long been recognized as the
single worst use of weaponry,
the most costly
man on man attack on record,
the greatest cautionary tale of what can happen
when super powers escalate conflict.

A boat sits off the coast of Japan
in early August 1945
holding American soldiers.

I brought up the subject with my dad.
My dad,
The hippie that stayed in the commune to raise a family after everyone else left,
who got married naked,
who argued time and time again with his mother that Muhammad Ali
was a hero and not "uppity."
My progressive Berkeley in the '60s dad looked me
dead in the eye and said,
"I don't regret the dropping of the bombs on Japan."

what? What?

This is beyond stepping outside of the liberal script.
Further out there than ignoring the PC say this or believe that
I can't believe, won't believe these
words are coming from my dad.

He responds simply. clearly.
"My dad was in a boat off the coast of Japan. If they don't drop the bombs, he's in the
first wave of troops on the ground. He probably dies."

A boat sits off the coast of Japan
in early August 1945
holding my grandfather.

His hands must have trembled.
He must have fought to keep them still.
Mustered up whatever courage he could.

He must have known
why they were so close
to hostile land.
Gulped down his fate like
a brick in his throat.

a near certain death mission into Japan.

first waves don't go home.
they leave children behind to grow up alone.

He looked like such a young man in his uniform
and he must have felt like a boy.

I'm so proud of him.
If I were alive during WWII I know I would have served
with the same certainty,
a young Jewish-American fighting the Nazis.

But no matter how brave he may have been,
the news of the war's end
must have been such. sweet. relief.
Like heaven on earth.
Time to go home.
Like water to a desert wanderer
or more like the fulfilled promise of
stable safe ground
to an American in a rocky boat of the coast of Japan.

The gulp in his throat must have finally cleared after months
of breathing like it was a negotiation.

I can't tell my dad anything.
I understand.
What can I say to him as we drive to the supermarket together?
It's his daddy, and I get it.

I crumble under the weight of wondering
how many died so that his dad survived.

Grandpa I love you.
And I don't know I could choose that.
I didn't. He didn't either.
A sequence of events he couldn't control
turned his boat around in 1945 and sent him home.

Then I do the math.
3 years later in 1948, my dad was born.
38 years later, I was born.

What can I say to my dad?
I understand where he's coming from.

Still, there's this truth
that if my grandpa's boat doesn't get turned around
my dad is probably never born.
And neither am I.

A lineage dependent on
being on the lucky side of terrible history.

I love my grandpa and my dad.
And this all feels so American.
This privilege just to be born at all.