Tuesday, August 12, 2014

And then there was that time when....

....when CF came home early, brought a couple beers out to the pool and said to me "Screw it, I'm gonna sleep with her." It was summertime, I had just quit my job in anticipation of moving in a month's time, and I was filling my time with "nights like this" stories, scattered reflections and aimless speculation about where we'd be in 20 years.

Somehow, those years of childish, aspirant histrionics that mimicked adulthood had translated into the reality of what we were living. I took it in, realizing that I wasn't doing any of it ironically, or out of social necessity--I'd actually grown to appreciate some of these themes of "what-it-means-to-be-a-young-guy-living-in-the-city" that we'd plagiarized for our own.

Consciousness is mystifying like that from time to time. You force yourself to live by a new set of principles for long enough, and you're bound to become them. In with the new, out with the old. Finding yourself. It's a transference of consciousness without the presence of mind to know that "transference" is, in fact, what it really is.

All this from a ragamuffin band of kids that used to wander like strays under highway bridges, venture to gas stations in their Sunday clothes and spend their allowances on slurpees and Slim-Jims. Did moments like that really even exist in the past? They're still clear as the light of day in my mind: the lawn of the old office building rented by the church, the gnarled trees and warped cinder blocks leading up the block to the Chinese Culture Center, the hot asphalt open lots parching under the summer sun. Sometimes for shade, we'd sit in a spot under a small awning at the building entrance. And then, so we wouldn't have to sit on the burning concrete, we dismantled and carried out the back seat of our pastor's old, unwanted mini-van, propping it against the hot brick walls so we could have a proper stoop seat.

Then a few times, when one of us got busted for something we weren't at fault for, when even the small injustices of our lives seemed so inadequately explained, and practice wasn't what they preached--maybe then we went off and did some things in protest. Maybe things like stealing wine coolers from the Stop-N-Go, vandalizing street signs with pocket knives, things I'd do with a combination of fear and thrill, realizing that I'd now found that incredible power to both destroy and self-destroy. But they were small rebellions in the grand scheme of things, rebellions I stopped when I realized my sole objective was to point out the hypocritical imperfections in the world--a world which I already knew in my heart to be implicitly imperfect.

These are the things that come back to you, during those chance moments that are so painfully candid about the current state of your being, but seem otherwise inconsequential. These are the things that you recall, the things that have permanence and likewise confer permanence to those new moments, solidifying more deeply with each recollection. What's paradoxical about it is how clearly events can be recalled, yet how utterly dissimilar they can be to the character of events in the present, as if they were from a different life altogether.

Here in the present, two of those ragamuffin kids are now lounging by the pool, drinking, talking about women, lamenting on work and what it takes to make money. They are years removed from that old mini-van backseat in the shade, and the old lessons on accepting the world's imperfections are now laughably obvious. Summer is passing again, and there are more mediums for enjoyment but also more restrictions. "Those who don't work, don't eat," for example, was not a concept shared between this life and the last. But then, the thrill and mystery of stepping into a new nightclub, for example, is also here but not there. Did these two points in time really happen in the same plane of existence? Does the mere fact that we remember these moments prove their existence?

We say time is a linear construct. We believe it with all the known argument of human intellect. We see that belief in the way we've modeled society: You start at point A and move to point B. Things you do at point A include I, II and III, things you do at point B include IV, V and VI. So then this transference of consciousness, from point A to point B, is like a living testament to that notion of linearity. But sometimes, the mind takes flight, the heart opens, the impercipient soul snaps awake to action, transcends our customary bounds.

Here's what I think--maybe time isn't really linear; maybe we've simply fooled ourselves into thinking that it is. Maybe you actually see it in a circle, point A to point B, but then point B never for a moment unbound to point A--time moving forward but consciousness always circling back. We call it memory, that construct that allows us to circumvent time. We diminish its value because we've always had it, and because we reason that, for the simple fact that it only ever lives in our minds, it therefore can't be real in the present. But is that the correct thinking? Isn't it possible that memory is something real, something tangible? Isn't it possible that memory is as material as the earth we walk on, the food we taste, the air we breathe? Isn't it possible that memory is actually a sensory experience, rather than a metaphysical one? Isn't it possible that moments spent in memory are actually moments spent circled back and lived again?

And then, ask yourself, if that were the case, how much differently you might tend to your life, how much happiness you could relive, in place of regret; or love, or cherishing, in place of sorrow. For isn't it possible, in this world, that we might find within ourselves, in the immortal passages of our memories, the very secret of our being?

Isn't that a hope worth having?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Every day I'm hustlin'

It's times like this that med school bothers me--when I want to do something different, think about something different, but find it hard to derail myself from medical hodgepodge. Huff.

My father once told me, while poring over a stack of scientific journal articles as a post-doc, to never pursue a life in research. Tomorrow I move further away from that advice. In the course of trying to find extra cushion for my resume after college, I somehow managed to become a freak about analytics. Now, 4 years removed, I've completed a Master's and have a trail of data crumbs behind me. After I left the West Nile project in Houston to start med school, I didn't have it in my mind that I'd return so soon. And now I'm riding a project into another one of Kristy's mad-scientist discoveries. West Nile causes chronic kidney disease. Who knew? Well, I guess we did (ha!).

But it was a frantic hustle to get to today. When I left Brownsville back in 2010, I didn't have a single achievement to my name. Jess and I were co-authors on two swine flu papers that we weren't even sure would be accepted. But she had a ticket to med school by then. Me? Different story. Then I entered SPH as a full-time student and RA right around the time the administration was in upheaval. Kristy's lab was much smaller and low-tech back then. And me? Still hustling. Trying to pull together grades, MCAT scores, research, schmoozeable professors to back me and bam! Two years later, I wake up in a funk after a big-ass cardiology exam, Angie's getting ready for work, and my West Nile poster is due at 4:00. It feels like the last 4 years have been a constant hustle--never running ahead of the game, always frantically racing to catch up.

I turned in my poster 5 minutes past the 4:00 deadline last Tuesday, and it's on display in the auditorium as I type.  Now Kristy's talking publication, authorship, the works. She got tenure a few days ago. So all's well that ends well, I suppose. Except we can't say the end is well until we actually reach some perceptible materialization of "the end," can we?

Well. Death or retirement. Surely one of those will fit the mold.

To my future kids:

Daddy is about to go get his 4 hours of sleep, now that the apparent "end" of his research project/Tuesday has arrived. Daddy isn't looking forward to the day you guys come along. Read this blog post whenever you feel Daddy is being a sour, crotchety grump, and you'll understand why that is. Cheers.

Thursday, July 19, 2012


[Sometime back in May]

Sometimes a train passes through, my father says, and suddenly you find out it's your train.

Turn the tables, wind the clocks, and we're not talking about good fortune anymore. Now we're talking simply about destinations. The idea that you're not waiting around for opportunity or that bit of luck you've dreamt about. That you're simply waiting to be carried off to the next place. If you strike it rich, is it really that you're lucky? Blessed? Or are you just on your way to wherever you were supposed to be next? And is death really the end, or is it just on the way to whatever is ahead? Suddenly it's not so much just a ride to a temporary fortune or misfortune as it is an inevitable passage forward, and finally everything along the way matters more.

Is there a place after this? My grandmother asks.
Yes, there is, my father says.

Let's not talk about what we believe to be real tonight. One day we'll be old, and things that we thought were important won't be anymore.

Above all, God tells us, love one another deeply.

A man sits beside his mother's bed.
He tells her there is a place after death:
whether it is called "Heaven" is uncertain,
but there is a place. And because there is a place,
there will be a time.

Monday, January 23, 2012

7 minutes

I have 7 minutes to write.

This is life. I throw a load of laundry into the wash, clean up the sink, read through a lecture and call home. It's New Year's in China, my parents are telling me about who is gathering where overseas, what's on the dinner table and who is wearing what, cooking what. My grandmother is dying, my father is going home to see her for what may be the last time, I'm eating dinner and thinking of home, a friend is no longer speaking to me, my girlfriend calls and tells me she loves me. This is life.

We live in a world where there is so much to fear and yet we can't be any less than bold. The distance between success and failure is not so far as we would want ourselves to believe. Some days we wake up and conquer ourselves, other days we wake up alone and are struck by how finite everything is. This is life.

A day passes and it's coffee, lectures, meetings, ramen, basketball stats, dirty dishes, misplaced car keys. A week passes and it's an extended argument over the phone, a dismissal of useless meetings, a search for remaining drinking water in the apartment. A month and it's a drink among friends for a job well done, an important decision made, an "I love you and I'm sorry," a new calendar and a batch of emails about deadlines saying "I would get to work on this very soon if I were you." God, it all adds up so quickly. I have 7 minutes, and always, I use more than I have, expecting the price I pay later to amount to something much less than it always is.

I have so much but lose so much along the way. We celebrate our being, our dignity and our pride while we have it, a testament to how we want exactly what we have in some moments, and despise so much of ourselves in other moments. Living and dying, hoping and hating, this is life, and within the unknown scheme of God and whatever other great beyond there is, we are all we have.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

"Medium coffee, please"

There was a period in my life not long ago when I regularly spent 12 hours on the road each week. 6 hours from the valley to Houston, 6 hours back. My meals were taken in the parking lot of a Valero somewhere off highway 77, my car was covered in dust and dead bugs, my jeans smelled like cigarettes and B.O., and my best friends were John Mayer, Jimi Hendrix, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

I drove 6 hours in the dead of night to get to Houston, then 6 hours at the crack of dawn to get back 2 days later. A lot of people thought I was crazy, my mother most of all. My father thought I had a secret girlfriend in Houston. My boss thought I was a freeloading slacker.  My friends thought I was searching for something, and I wasn't sure what to make of that at first. Then later on, I thought, yeah, ok, we'll call it searching. Life seemed like an amorphous sea of shit, and I was looking for an anchor. Friday afternoon, I'd sit down in lab meeting, grind my teeth for a couple hours, and roll out without a second look back at the office. Throw some clothes into a bag, throw the bag into the car, and pull out of Sugar Tree Lane, saying "Hey I'll see you in a couple days" to my roommates, not knowing whether I'd hold true to that. So I drove the hell out of my car, which earned my respect and gratitude as the most reliable thing I'd ever owned in my 25-year lifetime.

And what did I find? What did I learn? Well gas ain't cheap, for one thing. Cops trying to make quota at the end of the month don't let you off with a warning, for another. Spend enough time alone and eventually you'll either start talking to yourself or to God. Having a destination motivates you to keep going, even if trivial. The return trip always feels longer than the departing trip.

Finally, truck stops are the best place to see stars on the road at night, other than unlit, grassy shoulders. My favorite ritual during night drives was buying a coffee from Valero, heading down the road a ways and pulling into a truck stop. Turning off the car, stepping outside, lighting a cigarette and promising myself I'd never be too good to drink shitty, leftover gas station coffee. Looking back on that time, I still can't decide if I was searching for a way out or a way in.

Anyway, went to Valero and bought a coffee tonight, and that's what brought all this about. So I'm drinking to that and whatever stars I can see from the balcony in my new digs.


Thursday, August 11, 2011

OBD, Ethics, and Ray Carver

The Author of Her Misfortune
-Ray Carver

I'm not the man she claims. But
this much is true: the past is
distant, a receding coastline,
and we're all in the same boat,
a scrim of rain over the sea-lanes.
Still, I wish she wouldn't keep on
saying those things about me!
Over the long course
everything but hope lets you go, then
even that loosens its grip.
There isn't enough of anything 
as long as we live. But at intervals
a sweetness appears and, given a chance,
prevails. It's true I'm happy now.
And it'd be nice if she 
could hold her tongue. Stop
hating me for being happy.
Blaming me for her life. I'm afraid
I'm mixed up in her mind
with someone else. A young man
of no character, living on dreams, 
who swore he'd love her forever.
One who gave her a ring, and a bracelet.
Who said, Come with me. You can trust me.
Things to that effect. I'm not that man.
She has me confused, as I said,
with someone else.

Week 2. OBD, or "On Becoming a Doctor," lectures are spaced in-between our hard sciences. They're a varied mixture of ethics discussions, clinical skills and applications, and introductory psych material. Today, for our ethics discussion groups, we read a short story published by a former faculty alum: Abraham Verghese, an infectious disease specialist who found his niche during the peak years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the early 90s. His patient in the story was Ed Maupin, an American working class homosexual brought in for a severe respiratory infection after developing AIDS. I read the story at 3 AM last night and tried to picture myself in Abraham Verghese's shoes for a moment, speaking to Ed's family of construction workers and his lover outside the hospital. Ambulances pulling up to make drop-offs, paramedics, agitated working class stiffs smoking in huddles on the curb, and one lone gay pariah sobbing amongst a gang of red-blooded Americans. 

We're not treating immortals, after all, he writes. And that, I think to myself...that's why I signed up for this whole thing in the first place. I'm here, finally, after 3 years of waiting and fixating, and this concept of mortality in the dregs of the world still seems tragic to me. 

So I started reading Raymond Carver again. Poet voice of the working class American drunk, died of lung cancer the year I was born. What strikes me over and over again about his work is how his staple theme of losing hope shows you this immensely vulnerable yet somehow redemptive existence that he's navigated for a lifetime. You read it a couple times over and after you get past the initial feeling of wanting to drink yourself into a stupor and then maybe contemplate slitting your wrists, you can't help but feel like he's got a real heartfelt longing to be a better man. And so, ladies and gentlemen--I give you blue-collar America at its finest: the tragic yet self-redeeming men and women I've dreamed of serving since my college days. Or really, blue-collar anywhere. Mortals and filter-feeding scum of the earth, I'll be honored to treat you one day.

"For the world is the world
And it writes no histories that end in love."
-Stephen Spender
(Tagline to Carver's poem)

Friday, July 1, 2011

The derivative of thursday with respect to drank is J Dilla and a G. Rap album

People aren't supposed to live like this. I watch True Blood until the crack of dawn, nap, wake up, nap again, write, nap, and teach some calculus to a kid 7 years younger and with twice as much potential as I ever had.

Thursday, I'm awake for once before noon, feeling my way down the freeway to Sugar Land. Enter my dented Honda Accord blaring Bone Thugs and Notorious BIG into the 'burbs, complete with automated gate and manicured lawns. It's like driving back into my adolescent years.

So 20 minutes into explaining derivatives to Zach, I realize I'm basically winging the lesson of the day and grasping at straws when I try to prove the product rule of derivatives on a blank sheet of wide rule. Thankfully, FBISD still uses the same textbooks as they did 7 years ago--Appendix A saves the day. Bingo, twelve o'clock comes and I'm up another 50 bucks as I head to Yangtze with Matt for the $3.50 lunch special.

Matt and I hound the soup bucket for three rounds, then relocate to the organic tea house to work on summer projects and get a pint (of tea, mind you). A couple hours in, Matt's got sound effects lined up for his game production and I'm half-assing a track for some cut scenes, Peter calls up and mentions that it's "Ho Thursday" (our little joke about Cafe 101 happy hour). ("Yeah, it IS Ho Thursday.") One Ho Thursday later, we're in the car rolling around Hong Kong City Mall, honking (literally) through all the parking lots and looking for sushi.

When we finally make it home, I pass out for a bit and when I wake up, it's 1:44 AM. It occurs to me then that this, this was my day. Somewhere in the back of my mind, there's a voice saying stuff like "Don't y'all niggas got anything better to do? Don't y'all niggas got jobs?" But it's all drowned out by another voice doing a 2Pac impression, throwing up fake gang signs and yelling "THUG LYYYFE!!!"

So it's 3:45 AM, the world's asleep, I'm running J Dilla and G. Rap on my playlist, wondering about my next calculus lesson plan for Zach, and watching some video clips from my 25th birthday. I have to laugh as I watch Peter hobbling around the video in his crutches, Andy rocking out on my guitar singing Third-Eye Blind, my pneumonia meds sprawling across the coffee table. My thoughts stray back to New Orleans, and the future career doctor in me is incredulous at these memories. There's an overwhelming sense of guilty pleasure involved in all of this.

Life should not be this obnoxious.