the circular runner

Posts Tagged ‘Mission District’

my heart is hardening, a step by step guide to burn-out….

In life, observations, teaching & education, Uncategorized on August 6, 2012 at 4:00 am


So here’s the scene and it’s not a pretty one.  I’m teaching a student the other night–a student who is schizophrenic, obese, homeless, and reeking of pot.  Though I would only use the word, loser, on myself. N. would probably make very few winner’s lists.  None of this matters to me.  My GED class is typically made up of students who vary widely, personally and academically.  N. is a special challenge.  I think her parents were or are profs. at Yale.  She is probably a genius; she can do Algebra and I bet she has an instinct for geometry, but she has these weird blocks when it comes to long division and fractions.  She gets how to do them, but she gets lost.  Partly, it’s the pot that she’s using to self-medicate herself with.  Partly, it’s the problem in her brain that makes her want to self-medicate.  I’m a pragmatist when it comes to teaching.  N. is an adult, and if she wants/needs to get high, I’m not going to scold her.  I usually just suggest that she “treat” herself after class.  She usually listens.

Like a lot of my students, attendance is not always consistent.  Again, I try to be pragmatic or am I being defeatist?  I wonder this when I encourage that at least they come once a week, or if not that, that they text me.  Usually, I find this works.  Make someone do something and rebellion is always the option.  Empower students by reminding them that they are adults and they always have a choice, and they usually come around.  Usually.

Now, do you sense it?  I’m putting it off. The description of my ugliness.  It’d been a couple weeks since N. had come to class.  No text.  Nothing.  And when she walked in, her voice way too loud for the small room, she asks if there are any snacks.  It’s not a bad question.  I usually do have snacks, but at that moment, I was annoyed by her.  I took it as another sign that this person is just not serious.  Maybe my face showed the disgust I was feeling, though I hope it didn’t.

N. eventually sits down and we begin, but not before I lay into her about her attendance and her not contacting me.  I tell her that especially with math, consistency is everything.  And then I tell her that she needs to reach out if she doesn’t show because I can’t keep teaching her the same thing.

Now, this isn’t really that ugly.  I’m saying something I’ve said to a lot of other students, but I know I’m being a little edgier than usual with N. because I’m annoyed–not with her, but with the job.  Earlier in the day, I had to deal with a young woman who is dyslexic and functionally illiterate; I had to eal with her mother, who yells at her daughter and distracts her when she’s trying to learn.  I had to deal with a co-worker who is half-angel and half-out-of-control raging asshole.  All of that’s ugliness, I think.  But with N. I try to focus on the fractions in front of us.  I try not to look at the clock, but everything in the room seems like it’s going too slow–N.’s mind, my empathy.  I want speed, though I don’t know where I’d go.

I’m thankful/saddened that at some point in the session, I see N.’s hands.  They are shaking.  She’s not doing well–worse than usual.  She’s hungry and she needs a cigarette.  So we stop math and she gives me her eating schedule, which is tied to food kitchens in town and Temple (she’s Jewish and goes to services for her soul and for the food.)

I’d like to say that this brought me back to a better place–that our talk made me realize I was being an ass, but the truth is that after I got her something to eat and a cheap (relatively speaking) pack of smokes, I got out of there.  To get home, I walk up a hill, and there was a part of me that felt like I was ascending a pit of despair and sadness.  Behind me was the hood; in front of me was my humble middle-class flat and my wife and baby boy.

Who am I to condescend to the people I try and teach or to their neighborhood?  I don’t know.  But for the first time since I started this job four years ago, I didn’t want to go back down the hill.  I wanted to stay in my flat and let the craziness and shit flow downhill.

I have no conclusion for this.  So, I’ll leave it at that.  Tomorrow’s another day.  Good night.


i’m a loser, i’m a genius, i’m a loser: a writer’s dilemma

In criticism, humor, observations, Uncategorized on July 28, 2012 at 11:37 am

It’s a sign of age that things are not one extreme or the other. When I was younger, if I failed at something,  I would almost certainly tell people I sucked.  I didn’t mean, I suck at this or that.  I was trying to make more of an existential statement, as in I am a person who just lives in a state of sucking, i.e., a loser.

I was never so confident or clueless to say I was a genius when something went my way.  But I’ll admit that somewhere in the back of my head, I was hopeful I might find that thing I was amazing at. If I’m really honest, I’d add that I wanted to find something I was amazing at without having to put in bone-crushing effort needed to make amazingness.  Of course, even geniuses put in effort–I’m assuming this though I cannot say for sure since, if you haven’t figured it out on your own, I am no genius.  (I know. Big surprise.)

I bring all of this up because a couple weeks ago, I experienced a pretty big failure and a nice success back to back.  The first was a screening of my second short film (the trailer appears above).  The screening happened here in SF at a big theater as part of a festival that happens out here regularly.  As part of the festival, after the screening of each movie is over, the crew and cast go down in front and take questions.  Often the questions are pretty slight, i.e., why did you you use that logo for your production company; do you think you’ll make a sequel to that romantic comedy with the happy ending that couldn’t possibly go anywhere else because it is a short with a happy ending; I love chocolate, and the main character was eating some in that one scene, what kind of chocolate?  You get the point.

But when Cherise, my strange little Cinderella story in reverse, was done, it was like ghost town silence.  We went up and looked out into the vast audience (over 600 people) and you could feel the rampant indifference. What I would’ve given for a question about chocolate?

On later reflection and because my director reminded me of this, I realized that we made the movie we set out to make.  We wanted to make something that was lovely to look at.  We wanted to tell a story with dance and music and through minimal dialogue. We wanted a visual experience more than we cared about story.  Well, we hit those marks.  But still, there was a part of me sitting in that theater harkening back to my younger days, the younger me that often told himself, Jesus, dude, you suck the big one.

A day later, I had a reading. It was the first time I’ve ever been asked to be a featured reader, and I was excited.  But there was also a part of me that was fearful.  Would I suck at this, too?  Would the crowd, mostly poets, look at me and my little fables/fairy tales/ urban micro fiction about old ladies popping happy pills and would they reject what they saw? Would they get all aggro the way poets at spoken word events often do?  What is the opposite of snapping fingers and saying, groovy, man? As it happens, they did not hate me.  In fact, they were very enthusiastic. Some people might have even  snapped some fingers.  And for a moment or two that night, I felt like like I had arrived. I was a writer.

I’m no genius. That thought never crossed my mind even with the snapping, but I’m ok with that. The violins will never soar as I write the great American Novel. I’m no Mozart.  I’m not even Salieri. But with practice, I hope I write something that gets close to great. That’s a realistic goal–I hope it is.

As for the sucking part, the truth is I know I don’t suck, either–not in existential way.  But ironically, that’s almost more disappointing than not being a genius.  If you tell people you suck and you believe it, there’s always a way up.  There’s always room for improvement. And more importantly, if you fail at what you’re attempting, you can wrap yourself in the Sucky Blanket of Low Expectations.

You think I sucked that night?  You think my movie was shite?  Well, of course my dear man/woman, I suck.  I suck the big one.

NO MORE!  It’s time to grow the hell up. I’m just too old to be carrying the Sucky Blanket around. I need to work and not worry. I might die with nothing to my artistic record, but I’m not going down sucking, goddammit.


the Batman shootings: evil, revenge, and me

In life, observations, teaching & education on July 20, 2012 at 2:08 pm

I don’t usually post on Fridays, but I just saw some footage from the Colorado shooting, and I wanted to write something. I needed to.

I will admit that about the same time James Holmes decided to enter a theater in Colorado guns a’blazing, I was watching a Korean revenge film about  sociopath and about a cop who decides to break all the rules in order to seek revenge.  Usually, revenge movies are a guilty pleasure for me, and Asian revenge movies are so over the top that I wouldn’t ever say I am moved by them intellectually.  But this Korean movie, called, I Saw the Devil, was different.  It was over the top and sometimes, the characterization of the sociopath was akin to those old silent movies when the villain wears black and twists his mustache, but the thing that kind of made me stick with the movie was that it focused less on the criminal than it did on the police officer.  If I had to summarize the movie, I’d say it was a look at the fact that there is no solution for evil, or if you prefer, against a person completely devoid of morality.

Ironically, this movie reminded me of The Dark Knight, which also dealt with the same notion.  Heath Ledger as the Joker, you say what you will about his acting, but that character is truly horrifying–not because of what he does, but because he feels nothing about what he does.  You can imagine that the Joker would give as much thought to breathing as he would to brutally killing a person except that brutally killing someone probably gave him some pleasure–but then again, maybe not.

There’s a scene in The Dark Knight when the Joker talks to Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and lays out his thoughts on violence.  Watch this scene and tell me if this isn’t scary.

It’s scary because there is no ideology, no firm ground to share. There is only randomness, violence. It makes me shiver, and yet as a movie-goer, I’m drawn to it because there is something awesome about it–awesome in the Biblical sense of the word.  Awesome in the sense of being awestruck with horror because there is nothing one can do to fix this kind of person.  Revenge is not a prudent motivating force, but part of the reason we like revenge movies is that they restore order to the world–at least they attempt to.  They give us a sense of justice.  But the randomness of the Joker, the randomness of this shooter in Colorado, is just that, randomness.  And revenge does not bring about justice.  The immoral person does not feel, cannot feel, guilt, which is kind of the point of seeking out justice, isn’t it?  That’s the lesson of The Dark Knight and I Saw the Devil.

And yet, the answer is not apathy.

Earlier this week, right outside the projects in which I teach my GED classes, there was a drive-by shooting.

this does not look like the site of evil, does it?

No one was hit, though there were dozens of children at the playground across the street and young couples with their dogs were there, too.  The shooters, no doubt, are not evil, even if what they were doing could be called that.  They were not being random.  They were going after a kid for some reason no one knows exactly.  The only reason I bring this event up, apart from the fact that I have not really talked to anyone about it, is that the responses of my young students was almost all the same: indifference. The shooting, the bullets and all the harm those bullets can do, has been internalized by the young people I work with, and they don’t see much point in getting upset by it.  I don’t think my kids are evil for their apathy.  But I do think it shows that they have been harmed by the evil I’m describing.  They do not feel.  They don’t imagine that there are places where random violence is not a daily thing to witness.  Or maybe they do, but they don’t see themselves living in those places.

And maybe they have no reason to. I’m not sure I believe in the devil, at least not as certain religious people like to describe him, but if he did exist, last night, a little bit of hell was visited upon the town of Aurora, Colorado and those people in that theater saw a glimpse of the devil for themselves.

My Crime Against the Rich and Famous

In humor, life, observations, writing on February 20, 2012 at 6:41 am

I’m old. It’s official. It’s not just the achy back or the sore legs after a long run. It’s the little mental habits I’m inheriting from my parents, namely my dad.  The latest mental tick is my complete and utter disdain for litter bugs.  My anger at seeing litter is context-driven, admittedly.  I certainly don’t like seeing litter on the beach or in the redwood forests that I have been forced to hike through with my wife.  But I don’t feel angry when I see litter in those places.  My anger, my wrath, comes out when I walk to work in the projects. Often, I see some young guy in a hoodie walking ahead of me eating something, and when he’s done, he just tosses the wrapper down onto the ground like it’s no big thing. He probably thinks that his neighborhood is already full of trash, so what’s one more wrapper?  Or maybe he’s not even aware.  Probably the latter.

Either way, I can’t tell you when this feeling took over, but at some point, I started feeling it. My father is a neat-freak. When I was a kid, he had this habit of walking into my room at random times with two cards in his hand.  One had the word, “cosmos” on it, the other had “chaos” written on it.  He’d drop the former on my bed when the room was neat enough, the latter when my room wasn’t.  I almost never got the cosmos card. What can I say? My dad is nuts, and I’m not that neat and orderly.  But still, I get pissed when I see people litter where I work, so maybe I am.

My father, I’m sure didn’t think he was being nuts. He’s told me that he wanted to instill in me a sense of appreciation for neatness.  Maybe that’s at play for me when I see the young guys littering.  And then again, maybe it’s just sadness—sadness that the young men I see don’t care or haven’t been taught to care for their neighborhood.  It may not be the most beautiful place in San Francisco, but it’s a hell of a lot more beautiful when it’s not covered in trash.

Which leads me to my crime against the rich and famous.  It’s not really a crime. It’s a silly thing on the face of it, a minor act of rebellion.  (My dad was also a bit of a minor rebel.) As I’ve mentioned previously, I spend much of my weekends working in some very wealthy neighborhoods.  Another habit I should mention here, though no one inherited from my father: I always chew gum while teaching, and I always chew the same gum—DoubleMint.  When I leave a house, I often, not always, but often, throw that piece of gum out onto the street.  It’s tiny. Another habit: I only chew half a stick of gum at a time.

So I chuck the tiny piece of gum, I litter in my own way, in these very beautiful neighborhoods. And I’m not being absent-minded. I’m intentionally doing it.


I can only imagine that I’m seeking revenge for the young men in the hoodie. I’m evening the playing field.  Trash in the inner city, trash in the suburbs.

I said my dad was nuts, right?  I also mentioned I’m becoming him in my old age, so what do you expect? At least I’m not showing up with index cards and Greek words printed on them. At least, not yet.  For now, I’m fighting for social equality one half-stick of Wrigley’s at a time.

Young People Fighting & Other Ugly Things I’ve Been Thinking About…PART 1

In life, observations, teaching & education, Uncategorized on January 17, 2012 at 7:42 am


Ugly Thing #1

I have a student. Heavy-set, bad skin, completely and utterly awkward and sweet and smart as all get out. Notice the way I just described her. I almost rewrote the sentence because I thought it made me look like an ass,  but then I stopped myself. There’s something important to notice about the order I put these descriptions in without even thinking about it. Something, I’d argue, that is ugly. But let me backtrack for a second. The ugly truth that if you have eyeballs, you are likely to overlook or put less importance on what’s inside a person than what’s outside is something we will discuss in a moment. First, let me say that this student who I really like is also a brawler.

I have taught enough “bad” students to see the tell-tale signs of anger and frustration that they try not to show me because I am “the teacher.” These super-sweet students, when they come up on something they don’t know how to do, completely close up. That alone would not be unusual. No one likes things they don’t know how to do, especially if they have come to believe they are dumb or chronically untalented. As a teacher, there is an intensity to the silence you face when you work with a student like this. It’s like an invisible physical force pushing out at you, and you have to know when to weather it and when to give in and walk away and come back to it another day.

Part of the reason this force is so intense is that it is powered by a sense of shame and self-hatred–forces that could power city blocks if someone could invent a way to harness them. For now, the power of these forces gets harnessed in personally destructive ways. In the case of this young woman, these forces move her to fisticuffs. From what I hear (she never lets me know this stuff herself) she is a good fighter. Like any good fighter, she’s been moving up the ranks, taking on more and more powerful opponents. Last week, she took on a dude, a tough dude from what I hear, and she beat him up pretty bad.

She isn’t a bully. Again, from what I hear, she gets into fights because she wants to help her so-called friends out of the jams they put themselves in. On one level, this worries me because from what I can tell, these friends are using her, and she is letting herself be used because she wants to be liked and appreciated.  Put this way, she is not really different than any other teenager who does silly things for the sake of acceptance. But for my student, the stakes are substantially higher than popularity. This young woman does not live in a neighborhood where fights are just scuffles. Respect is currency, and, as you can imagine, the homie she beat up feels pretty disrespected, which means that things can only escalate, which means that my student is in danger of something quite horrible happening to her.

a teacher’s quandary: when’s the right time for tough love?

In life, observations, teaching & education, Uncategorized on June 14, 2011 at 9:19 am

teaching in the Mission is full of but's

I hate waking up early when I’m up late the night before.  (The fact that I’m always up late basically means I always hate getting up early.)  But this morning, I got my tired butt up so that I could take a student to her last exam of the GED.  This student can be, for lack of a better word, a piece of work.  She has cursed me out for helping her, she shows up to class often after partaking of her “medicine”.  (This being the Bay Area, medicine is code for pot.)  And though she can be sweet, she has some pretty radical mood shifts when faced with variables and radicals.

Still, I have love for this person because I feel like she’s one of those damaged people who just needs an extra hand.  This is why I was willing to get up and give her a ride, and why I have put up with her.  (Though I did kick her out one time when she was too much–even by her high standards.)

Because I know she is deathly scared of writing, and this morning, her exam required her to write an essay, I knew she needed some support.  I also should’ve known things weren’t going to work out when I called her to make sure she was up.  She was groggy and she was kind of annoyed, but I pushed on and told her to be ready.  When I got to her house, she was all set, but something told me to ask her if she had her ID.  (The state requires ID for her to get into the test.)  She said no, and then went back into the house and didn’t come back.  Minutes passed.  I called her, and she told me she couldn’t find her wallet and that she was mad.  Then the line went dead.

There was a not-so small part of me that wanted go up her door and give her a curse-out.  I wanted to tell her to stop being such a f*ck up.  She’s pushing forty.  She needs to get her life together.  I’m not paid to be her chauffeur, etc. etc.

I said none of these things, of course.  I drove off, went to a bakery near my house and bought an orange bun, which I will spend the evening having to run off.  Tomorrow or Friday, I will text her and remind her to come back to class.  I’ll also go sign her up for a make-up test, and she’ll take it in July and pass it.  And if you’re thinking that I’m being a dumb-dumb about this, and that if not yell, I should at least have a serious talk with her, I’d say I can see your point, but…

But sh*t happens, and anyone can misplace their wallet.

But I am her teacher, not her parent.  And as such, my job is to get her to achieve this elusive goal of finishing something–anything–she started.

But she actually has the following signature on her text messages: “motivate in 2011”, which means she knows she’s struggling, and piling on is not going to help.

But my anger is personal and a little selfish. Though I want her to pass so that she can move on, I also wanted to add her to my pass column so I can show my boss and my funders in City Hall that I run a great program.

But, but, but, but.

My life as a teacher of people who struggle to do what many of us take for granted is full of buts.  But (yes here is one more) it is full of joy and hope.  I like what I do–even when I have to get my tired butt (another but, but different) up out bed only to eat an overly-caloried piece of goodness.  Tough love sounds good.  It is sometimes necessary.  However, (note: I avoided yet another but) at least for me, it is a tool of last resort.

why are people poor? no answer here…

In life, observations, teaching & education, Uncategorized on May 27, 2011 at 12:16 pm

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When I first started working in the Mission District here in San Francisco, the woman I was replacing–a woman who I think had no business working as an educator–asked me why I thought people were poor.  That, I think, was the first question out of her mouth.  No, “how are you?”  No small talk.  Just an impossible question to see if the the new guy was really “down with the people.”  I can’t remember what I said exactly.  I was closer to my days in grad school then, so I probably spoke about “systemic inequalities” and “the oppression of the downcast” and other jargon-laden ideas that are true and and not quite true at the same time.  I mean I do believe that the system is rigged, at least for some.  But as the years have gone by and I continue to work with “under-served” communities–more jargon, I know–I feel myself systematically becoming doubtful about “systemic” explanations.  Or maybe, I just don’t trust them completely.

I can’t be systematic in my dismissal of systems, mind you.  I just prefer stories.  Examples.  I trust examples.  Here’s my latest.

Every Friday in San Francisco, men and women who did not receive their high school diploma go to a test center near the Richmond in order to take the math section of the GED exam.  For many of my students, this is the last step, and it is the hardest one.  In some cases, it’s so hard that I have to go pick them up from their homes in order to make sure that they get there.  This week, I had four students taking the test–and out of those, I knew two would pass, one would flake, and the other would at least try the exam and if not pass, get an idea of what he had to work on for the next time.  This last guy is smart–no doubt about it–though he is not a very good student and is even worse a student when it comes to math.  He’s been in and out of our program for two years now.  Not all at once.  He was in jail for a while, an then he had a kid, and then…I have no idea.

I like him.  He is likeable.  I can say this and at the same time recognize that he is a bit of a schemer.  He’s always got something going–though rarely is that something something legit.  This is why he’s been in in and out of the program for two years already.  Still, there are moments, days, weeks even when I can get him to come and work and learn, and lately, I’ve even been able to get him signed up for the test.  But then something happens–his life happens and just right before the test, that something he was working on or some other thing he didn’t have anything to do with comes up and bites him on the butt.  A couple months ago, the week before he was to take the test, someone put a few rounds into his bedroom window and my student fled to Vegas until things got more mellow (yes, even kids go to Vegas to flee reality).

Things calmed down. He came back.  No explanations necessary.  And this time, we managed to get to the morning of his test without incident.  I saw him yesterday and worked with him for a while.  I was all set to pick him up when his aunt texted me that he’d been picked up by the police.  We are still waiting for details.

What is the moral here?  I have no idea.  I don’t take lessons from my student’s situation.  I am sure that there are many–let’s call them the Psychology Bunch– who might say that he’s setting himself up to fail.  Others–like the woman I replaced who fall into the Activist Camp–will cry out that the “system” is failing him.  Tough-hearted, law & order conservatives will say he needs to reform himself, and that’s all there is to it.  I’m sure there are other interpretations.

For me, I guess I’m a bit silly or too close to the kid.  Or maybe because when I’m not teaching, I spend my time trying to publish quirky, fantastical fiction, but there is just this part of me that wonders if the answer to why this kid can’t get himself out the hole he is in has something to do with what you might call bad luck or bad vibes or something else.  I know this sounds ridiculous.  Bad things happen at inopportune times all the time to all kinds of people.  And there is an explanation and it probably is much simpler than what I’m getting at.

Whatever it is, it’s hard to see.  Harder yet to understand.

group therapy at the workplace…

In observations on October 23, 2010 at 10:00 am

some therapists just make me mad

OK, so here it goes. The non-profit I work for recently hired a couple therapists to come in and consult about the dynamics of the organization, which in theory, is not a bad idea, actually. There’s a lot of overlap and a lot of territorial thinking, and like every other workplace, there’s a lot of ego and insecurity. But here’s the thing: in practice, I’m not sure what to make of the meetings that we have with these therapists. The staff has been broken up into small groups that meet bi-weekly. I’m tempted to describe these get-togethers as being group therapy sessions, but that’s not quite right because then there would be an obvious goal of some kind. As far as I can tell, the therapist has some plan for us. She really wants us to move in a certain direction, but she just doesn’t want to come clean about it. She wants us to believe that we have come upon this direction on our own.

Maybe the best way to show you what I mean is to show you what I mean. As the writing teachers of the world say, “show, don’t tell.” So, imagine, if you will, a therapist who speaks in calming tones sitting in a dimly lit, dingy rec-room at a long table with four employees who probably should be doing something else with their time apart from sitting in said room with said therapist. (We work with under-served young people in the Mission in San Francisco, by the way.) Now, imagine the following exchange:

Therapist: I thought we’d start things off by going over some of our wish-list for how to improve the way the organization functions. Would that be ok with everyone?
(SILENCE. Employees look down at their papers. A couple braver souls look up but avoid eye contact with therapist at all costs.)
Employee #1: I guess I’ll start.
Therapist: Good. Great!!
Employee #1: I guess because of who I am and because of my interests, I’d like to start a birthday calendar. I think it would be good for morale if every month, we’d do something special for each other.
Therapist: OK, yes. Nice. (Big, calming smile.) So what I’m hearing you say is that you’d like to help people feel special because of your interests and because of who you are. Would you say that that is a fair interpretation?
Employee #1: Umm, I guess. I guess that’s what I mean.
Therapist: Good. Yes. And not to put you on the spot, but would you feel comfortable coming up with an action statement for this very worthwhile project?
Employee #1: I guess. What’s an action statement?
Therapist: Oh, it’s just a way of breaking down your goals into manageable chunks. We don’t want anyone here to be overwhelmed. (Bigger, more calming smile.)
Employee #1: So what are you asking for, exactly?
Therapist: We just want to know if you can come up with–oh I don’t know–a way of cutting up this really wonderful goal into smaller goals. Do you think that would work for you?
Employee #1: I guess I could go and find out everyone’s birthdays?
Therapist: Yes!! Yes, that’s a great first step.
Employee #1: And then I could make the calendar and put the dates in.
Therapist: Yes. That’s wonderful Now, tell me: I’m hearing that you are going to find out everyone’s birthdays and then you’re going to record those days on a calendar?
Employee #1: Yeah.
Therapist: Great. That’s really great. I think we’re really making progress here. Let’s go to the next person. Would that be ok with everyone?

Maybe you’re wondering if this therapist gets paid for this? I imagine so, and though we are a poor organization, we are probably paying her well to hear us out, and to repeat what we say with slightly different prepositions prefaced by a cooing-therapeutic-support voice. And she does this for each of us until our hour of power is over. I’m trying not to complain. I mean, I am complaining a little, but it’s difficult to listen to a voice that sounds like the female equivalent of Hal from 2001. It makes me feel like I’m being manipulated, actually. I mean, Hal was trying to sound calm as he was taking over a ship that was about to blow up, and in a way, the therapist is doing the same thing. For all her language of open exchange, the fact is that she has an agenda. I just wish she’d admit it. That would make me feel relaxed. All I’m feeling now is tension. For the whole hour, I’m constantly hoping my face won’t twitch, or worse, grimace.

This situation, of course, could be one serious cliche. The therapist is all touchy-feely, and I, being a man and not in touch with that softer side of myself, want to run away and hide in my man-cave. It’s possible. But then again, maybe the therapist is just lame and I need to rant. My colleague who feels that the best way to help the organization is to have a little b-day party for employees every month has every right to believe that. And if he is willing to go out and get other people interested in helping him set these things up, then I say, “Great. Have at it!” But did we need to pay someone to tell him that she heard him saying what he said and that she suggested (never pushed or cajoled) that he should then go out and do what he said he was going to do anyway? I don’t think so.

I won’t bore you with the details of my wish. I’ll just tell you that my action plan for the next week is to write my boss an e-mail (my boss was there at the meeting, btw) in order to remind her to send other staff an e-mail asking them if they can come to yet another meeting in which we all tell each other what we want and hear each other out, and, more than likely, repeat back what each of us just said to each other and look pleased while doing so. Is this what therapists do? Is this community building in the workplace? Let me tell you, if the road to community is paved with more and more meetings and soft, computer-sounding tranquility, and therapists keeping us happy and underwhelmed, then please hear what I am saying to you now: I’m going to go out and find myself a cave, and I’m going to do it soon.

can bullets fly forever?

In observations on September 13, 2010 at 9:58 pm

A little more than three weeks ago, I witnessed a shooting in the Mission. It was a Friday evening and I was working late helping a student with Algebra when I heard a popping sound come from somewhere across the street. There’s a park across from the community center I work at, and there are always lots of people there. It’s one of those parks that changes depending what time of day it is. During the day, the park is a place for out-of-work Latino migrant workers to congregate, play cards or a pick-up game of futbol. In the evening, true to the neighborhood’s mixed demographics, more affluent people (mainly white) come out to walk their dogs. The shooting happened somewhere between this daily changing of the guard when both community’s kids were out on the playground enjoying the strangely warm weather we’ve been having here this summer.

At first, I thought it was a car, though at some level, I knew it wasn’t. Then the sound repeated in rapid succession and when I turned to look, I saw a kid in a red hoodie pointing his gun at another young man. I don’t remember what either looked like. I told the student I was working with to get behind something and I did the same, not that it mattered. The shooter was, after all, a kid, and like a kid, once the shots were fired, he ran away. I never saw his face, but I could tell by the way he was running that he was as scared as the kid he was shooting at.

Since then, I have thought a lot about that day. For some time afterward, I caught myself making the same dumb remark over and over again to the people I work with or to the kids I taught or to the locals who usually hang out at the center. “I’m glad the kid was a TV shooter,” I kept joking. I don’t know why I kept making the same dumb joke over and over again. I mean, in a way, it’s true. The kid in the red hoodie didn’t hit anyone, in large part, because he held his gun at a sideways angle the way the thugs do on TV, which is good for style, but thankfully shitty for hitting things or people. But still, even if my comment were true, I don’t really know why I felt I needed to repeat it as I often as I did. I still don’t know. Better to be quiet than to be dumb is a motto I’d like to think I live by, but obviously I don’t.

The people at the center where this happened are all numb,or at least they seem like it sometimes. I mean they were horrified right when it happened, but then they moved on. Maybe there was a part of me that was pretending to fit in by being analytical and non-emotional about the situation. Crackin’ funnies, as they say, pretending to be numb. But there was more to my comment. In a way, I am numb and I don’t want to be. I’m not numb because I have seen so many horrible things, but rather, I think, because like with any experience, no matter how horrid, if you are still around after the dust has settled, you have to move on. There’s no choice. And I hate that. I don’t want to just move on. I don’t know what I want. It’s not that I want to understand the violence, though I can see how it comes to pass. The young men hanging out on the stoop in this neighborhood don’t have much. History is full of battles for land, and a block in the city may not seem like much, but it’s something. I get that.

So why do I want to keep the memory fresh and go over it?

When the shots rang out, I looked on at all the people in that park flee, and then, when the coast was clear again, I watched those same people and their loved ones flood the space. Flood may not be the right word. Maybe it was more like a tide. After the shot, people disbursed and then, within seconds, there were fifty people where there’d been two, all adding their commentary, all with their different stories. Yeah, better to say it was a tide because like the ocean, this cycle of shooting followed by people trying to make sense of the violence is as inevitable as the ocean.

Do you know what I did after the shooting? It weirds me out. As people came back into the park and police cars lined up, I knew my student and I were as safe as you could be anywhere. So I turned back to this guy who had grown up in those projects and told him we should continue. He agreed without hesitation, and that’s what we did for another hour. We continued working on linear equations and Y-intercept formulas as if that was all that mattered while police detectives got nowhere with locals who don’t trust cops and/or don’t want to get involved.

Here’s another math problem I keep thinking about: if gravity was not an issue, would a bullet fired by a scared kid at another scared kid over four square feet of a city block keep flying forever? The eleven rounds that the kid in the red hoodie let off didn’t hit anything, or at least, they didn’t hit anyone that day. So where did the bullets go? This is not a great neighborhood, let us say it now. So there will be no CSI people coming around to reimagine the crime or to map out bullet trajectories. The realist in me knows the answer to the question I am asking. Those eleven bullets are probably lodged into the wall of some house, or maybe gravity finally overpowered some of them and brought them down in the alley that opens out into the park. But there’s a part of me, I’m not sure what you’d call it, but this part of me wants to say that those bullets have kept going on and on. They have with me at least. I think about them and what they mean for the community I work with, but that I leave every day.

I do not give much thought to the safety issue, though I know my wife thinks I’m a fool for this. But the honest truth is that the neighborhood is like any neighborhood. It’s not Afghanistan, it’s not a war zone. It’s just a neighborhood where there are some poor and some not-so-poor people. So I don’t carry the bullets around with me because I am scared that they could’ve accidentally hit me. No, I do so because it seem disrespectful or inhuman to move on from that evening as if it had not happened. I’m not sure that’s what I mean. But inhuman is the word that comes to my mind and it’ll for do for now.

Though I can’t be clear about why I’m holding on to that evening, there are some advantages to thinking hard about the event. Here’s an example of what I mean: it is an image that makes me laugh and that makes me cringe at the same time. A minute after the last shot was fired, after everyone had fled the park and the block was left eerily quiet, an old man came riding by on an old hoopty-bike. I can’t remember if the bike had a basket, but it should’ve if it didn’t. And the rider–one of those older men you see a lot here in SF, probably vegan and well acquainted with various yoga studios with legs long and gangly–reminded me of some kind of strange bird with wheels for feet. He was clueless as to what had just happened. He was riding by, probably going home from work or his yoga class, and maybe he noticed the quietness of the park and thanked some God for it (probably the Buddha), or maybe he was just listening to Wilco on his I-Pod and grooving out. Either way, he was oblivious. Seeing him made me happy then and it continues to make me smile when I’m feeling good. (When I’m not feeling so great, I think that if that man had ridden by a minute earlier–hell, 30 seconds earlier–he probably would’ve been shocked and troubled like I am.)

City blocks are resilient things. People say that about nature, but city blocks are amazing to me because they are completely neutral–they are created and recreated daily by the people who live on them. After the police were gone and people stopped making dumb comments like the one I made for that week after the shooting, the block has returned to being the same kind of ugly/beautiful urban block it had been before. Or maybe the truth is that the block is numb like the people who live there. Either way, I hope there are no more shootings even though I know that there will be. Maybe I’ve been wrong. Maybe even the realist in me has to admit that the bullets do keep flying, if not on that block in the Mission, then on other blocks like it close by and on the other side of the world.

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