Thursday, August 22, 2013

Thoughts on Work (or Sometimes I Wish I Was Stoopid)

"None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free."
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“What good is freedom if the structure of work makes it so there is almost no time in which to be free, that is, no time to pursue your interests, have friends, enjoy a book or movie, or even a hobby…” – Karla Mantilla (writer)

This week, I started a 9-5, 40 hours (at least) per week job. It’s been a long time since I’ve had such a regimented gig; five years, to be exact. Last time I had one, I experienced an existential crisis beneath the fluorescent lights of an office after only two weeks on the job. (True story, no hyperbole.) My way out of that existence was to flee toward graduate school.

Barely past Day One at my new gig in downtown San Francisco, I couldn’t help but get hung up on some numbers. You see, I love numbers. I love statistics. Numbers can be legitimate, irrefutable morsels of truth. So here’s the numbers I couldn’t help but bounce around my tinker while I cycled home to my apartment in Oakland last night after my first day at work:

In our Gregorian calendar system, there are:
• 168 total hours per week,
• If we sleep exactly eight hours per night, that amounts to 56 hours per week, which leaves us with 112 total waking hours,
• Each week, a full-time job such as mine stipulates a minimum of 40 hours of work, which amounts to 36% of our waking life per workweek.

But I woke up just before 8 a.m. on Wednesday to ready myself for work. I didn’t begin to work until 9:30 a.m., and since I took a half-hour break for lunch, I didn’t leave the office until 6 p.m. which is why I didn’t arrive home until 7 p.m. so it’s inaccurate to state that only 40 hours of our waking lives is devoted toward working. For me—and I don’t think I have a bad commute—I devote about 11 hours of my waking life, five out of seven days of the week, toward work. That adds up to 55 total waking hours, which leaves me with five hours per day for 5 out of 7 days every week to have to myself. With the weekend figured in, this means that about 49% of my waking hours per week are divided toward generating money (or what I often prefer to call, “earning bananas” to remind me of our place and where we’ve come from).

Is this what we were born for?

Is this what modern civilized life is supposed to be?

Is this why I allowed cytotoxins to be pumped into my veins? For thirty more years of this way of living?

For years, I have felt that a 40-hour workweek is inhumane. The past five years, either working part-time while attending school, or balancing two flexible jobs that amounted to 30-37.5 hours per week only strengthened these beliefs. And worse—not to sound like some fucking well-traveled individual—but everywhere I’ve gone on this vast planet: places like Mexico, Cambodia, Spain, Uruguay, or the Czech Republic—I have never met a person who disagreed with me when we somehow or another spoke about how dandy it would be if we humans didn’t work 40 or more hours per week. Never. And yet, in general, we all go along with it. Or much worse.

Lately, the overriding concept of a 40-hour workweek infuriates me more and more because the older I’ve gotten, the easier it is for me to comprehend how this simple variable pervades our lives, our culture, and political society. The more we bound our waking lives to work, the less time we have to read, to debate and jest with our friends, to inform ourselves on the vast intricacies of modern life, especially the ways in which we lower and middle-class folks are reamed every single day of our lives by the rich and powerful who are running this game: the people who own our television stations, our newspapers, and our political machinery. Our governments do not want us to be educated. They do not want us to figure this shit out. Instead, they want us to be in perpetual debt of some sort or another—to a mortgage, car payments, or student loans—so we will inevitably have to work a shit job(s) for the majority of our lives—mind you, the physically best years of our life—in order to pay off our debts. They want us to watch the news, find satisfaction and justification for our life choices via materialism. And they want us to read the tabloids and give a shit about reality show stars instead of reflect on the systems that contain us.

Our governments do not want us to be educated?
What kind of fucking bullshit is this, you might be asking. Well tell me this: if we’re told, ever since elementary-school age that we can be anything we want if we put our hearts and minds to it, why is higher education not free or reasonably affordable for all segments of society to attain without agreeing to accrue a significant to disproportionately large amount of debt? Why are there so many socio-economic barriers for children born in our ghettos and poor communities? Why is the federal minimum wage $7.25? And why have Republicans—the one major political party that overtly caters to the wealthy—opposed raising it, without fail, the past four years?


Friday, August 9, 2013

Fantasmas de San Francisco - Bus stop: Corner of 29th and Mission

What would a mental-emotional geography of my ghosts in San Francisco be without one borne of heartache and regret?

Let’s call the last girlfriend I had while I lived in San Pancho “Paola.” (She asked me to change her name for my memoir so I’ll try to be a good boy and keep it consistent aqui.) She was a bright, mildly nerdy mexicana who was a transplant to the Bay Area. When we were introduced by one of her former colleagues, Paola was also attending graduate school for creative writing. Before we began dating, we met at cafes in Bernal Heights and the Mission where we read books and wrote together. We often asked each other’s opinion on a line, paragraph, or word in the pieces we penned. Back then, I felt at peace sitting beside or across from her, immersed over our books and workshop manuscripts. In short time, once we began dating less than two months before I was diagnosed with lymphoma (the absolute worst time to begin a romantic relationship, let me tell you), I fell in love with this dream of us being a brainy, driven duo of writers—like a Latino version of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. (It also helped that she looked stunning in a red dress and heels when I saw her give a reading at her school.)

While we were together, I often spent the night at Paola’s home. During weekdays, she would awaken in the mornings and prim herself up for a day at the office. Oftentimes we would walk together, hand in hand, to the 24th Street BART station. If she was running late, she would walk a few blocks over to the bus stop by the corner of 29th Street and Mission to catch the 14 or 49 to the BART station.

With bicycle in tow (usually), I would wait with Paolita at this stop until the bus would arrive. In my life, there have been a handful of occasions when I have picked up my mom from the elementary school she worked at, and seeing Paola off on her bus felt like that for me. Giving her a goodbye peck, then cycling off to my home after her bus rode off was always a quiet, lovely way to start my day. Without fail (if I remember correctly).

In the end, Paola and I had a trying and often tormentous relationship that lasted—off but mostly on—for about a year and a half. When I think about her, or on the rare occasions when I browse at a particular picture of her smiling at me while I photographed her (the perils of writing a memoir is the past you have to re-dream), sometimes my lips tighten and I can feel tears forming from my eyes. After all this time since we finally parted and went our ways, I am still filled with sorrow and useless regret because I wish I could have been a better person to her then. This wouldn’t have salvaged our bad relationship, but those regrets are still there and probably always will be for me—like some emotional law akin to the conservation of matter.

After all this time, I still remember one morning we had in her bedroom. I remember laying in Paola’s bed, the morning sun trickling through the blinds behind me. I smiled as I watched her walk about the room in her pink bathrobe, a white towel wrapped in a bun over her wet hair as she dressed for work. When she stood in front of her mirror, dabbing make-up on her face, I rolled out of bed to come up behind her. I wrapped my arms around her and kissed her cheeks. She smiled, turned her head to kiss me.

I thought every morning with her could be like that.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Final Round

An excerpt from my memoir:

On my calendar, December the 4th was marked: “Chemo #12 – the last one!”

That day had come.

As usual, I left the house with Metallica’s Of Wolf and Man blaring from my headphones. The morning sun had lifted above the Victorians on tranquil Fair Oaks Street. Birds chirped in the trees. Kids stepped out of their houses with their mothers following behind. While I walked up the hill to the bus stop on 24th Street, my feet didn’t have the determined bounce, the I’m-gonna-fuck-you-up, Hodgkins gusto that they had for the previous infusions. I was tired of that dance. I was going the full twelve rounds. I thought I had fought well. The day before I cycled to and from school, something I never thought my body would have been capable of before I began treatment. I never missed a class during the fall semester. But I was done. Done fighting. Done pushing myself. Done putting on a game face every two weeks, lacing up those imaginary gloves on my way to 4C where I would sit on a chair and rest my arm, clench my hand into a fist—hungry to live, ravenous for rebirth—and stare ahead as though I was toe to toe with Mr. Hodgkins.

Two hours later, I was zonked out from the Benedryl and Ativan. I sat on a reclining chair that faced the doors into the infusion room. An IV was pricked into my right forearm, the inflatable cuff of a blood pressure monitor strapped around my left bicep. Vilma gently nudged my arm. “Juan,” she said. I startled awake and saw her standing beside me.

“You have to sign off on the authorization,” she said with her Filipina accent. She held out a clipboard and pen. “Just sign right there.”

Barely able to keep my eyes half-open, I signed off on the release.

“Thank you,” she said, taking them back. A woozy glimmer of glee surfaced within me. It was the last authorization I would have to sign. No more infusions to schedule. As she scribbled something into my file, I jolted in my chair once I remembered the card I had brought.

“Vilma,” I said, “before I forget, I have a thank you card for you and the nurses.”

Turning her head to the side, she smiled in a you-shouldn’t-have way.

“Oh, thank you Juan,” she said as I handed her the card. She held the white envelope up and said, “Nurses! Nurses, we got a card.”

Vilma walked out of the infusion room toward the nurse’s lounge. I fell back asleep.

An hour and a half later, I woke to find Vilma sitting on the stool beside me. She wore a medical mask that covered her nose and mouth. The inflatable cuff over my left bicep inflated tightly as it automatically did throughout my infusion to ensure my blood pressure was not at a dangerous level. She was attaching one of the chemo push syringes into my IV.

“All right, Juan,” Vilma said. “Your last one.”

I peered down at the syringe, at the clear liquid being pushed into my bloodstream. I managed a grin because I felt I should for The Last One.

My parents were not standing against the wall like they had throughout my other infusions—including Round 11, in which I handed them my digital camera to take pictures of me during my infusion. (I wanted cancer mementos. Photographic documentation of a perilous juncture in my life, a place I did not wish to physically revisit.) They weren’t even in the same area code. At that moment, they were somewhere in Cabo San Lucas of all places. My mom—who didn’t even like to go out to eat because she thought it was too expensive—had found a budget deal for a four-day trip to Sammy-Hagar-Land. Before she bought the tickets in early November, she asked me if it was okay that they left. The deal was only valid during the weekend of my final infusion. I told her, “Of course. You guys should go! I’m going to be okay.” And I was genuinely excited for them. Throughout my life, they had never taken a getaway vacation. (Well at least until the year before when they took a similar package trip to Cancun.) I was pleased my mom was finally allowing herself to use her well-earned pay to indulge herself so she and my dad could see places they had never seen. (Throughout my life, she has worked to send much of her earnings to our grandma and family in Peru.)

The blood pressure monitor deflated as Vilma squeaked her stool closer to my arm.

“You know, I read your card,” she said, raising her head to look at me. “And it made me teary.”


“It’s hard—” she said, before she looked away, then stared down at the syringe. I murmured. I presumed she was referring to her job in response to what I had written.

Here’s what I wrote:

Doreen, Shannon, Vilma, Marva, Consuelo,
Dolores, Raquel, Faina, and anyone else at 4C I’ve
forgotten (forgive me, please)

Where to begin, when words like these will always fall short of what I want to express, namely the gratitude, the deep admiration I have for each of you. I am so grateful for the care, for the support and positivity you’ve given to me and the other patients at 4C. I have always, always known that I can expect this from you; you may shrug it off and think, “That’s my job,” but in this trying time of my life, it has been beyond comforting to know that I could always
count on you.

So this is my teeny-tiny way of saying thank you to each of you. I wish I could give you all a big, big hug. Each of you are sweet and caring in your own ways and I will always wish you much joy. I’m writing a memoir about this strange period in my life and I promise you that after I dedicate it to my parents, you all will be the ones I dedicate it to. I’m devoted to writing this book, getting it published someday so I can give you a copy and more thanks. I don’t think it’s an effect from the chemo (my fix!), but you’re angels to me. Thank you, with all my heart.

Very sincerely,
Juan Alvarado Valdivia

I glanced over at Vilma while she pushed the chemo into me, then turned away. It was always an intensely intimate act to witness—as though man were watching God give him life with a touch from his fingertip. I closed my eyes through The Last One.

Soon after, Connie walked by on her way to attend to one of her patients. She beamed at me, said I was “graduating.” I smiled and bowed my head in the oh-shucks way I had done since I was a boy. Though I felt a quiet woo-hoo inside of me, I didn’t think it was fitting to celebrate my final infusion in front of the other patients: the middle-aged Russian lady; the vigorous-looking Asian man in his mid-forties; the blue-collar guy who was joking with the nurses for his first infusion; or the old Chinese woman with the gray knit hat whom I had seen wheeled into the ward since I began my infusions. I couldn’t celebrate in front of them because I didn’t know how long they had to go with their treatment. Or if they would make it through okay. Though I believed I would survive, I could not be certain at that moment, either, so there wasn’t much to truly celebrate.

Vilma took off the inflatable cuff, the IV needle from my arm, and bandaged it.

“You’re done!” she said.

“Thank you,” I said, as I bent over to slip my shoes back on. I stood and teetered over to the bathroom a few feet ahead of me. Once inside the airplane-sized bathroom, I slid the folding curtain door behind me. I unzipped my fly. I felt a bad cough coming. My stomach felt sour as it always did right after treatment. But I could feel that it wouldn’t be a typical nauseous chemo cough. I bent over the toilet just as I heaved. Some of it splashed on the black slacks I was wearing. It was the one time I vomited right after an infusion. I tried to muffle my post-retch coughs since the other patients or nurses could easily hear through that thin door.

“Are you all right? Did you throw up?” I heard Vilma say.

“I’m okay,” I said, turning the faucet on to splash my face and gargle. Fuck. The new guy must have heard. Quite a welcome to ChemoLand. After I cleaned myself up as swiftly as I could, I looked in the mirror. My face was unhealthily pale. Bags under my eyes. I shook my head and made a faint grin, grateful this nasty-ass shit was over when it was beginning to take a toll.

Once I stepped out, I grabbed my shoulder bag. There were no nurses in sight. I opened the door into the infusion room and closed it behind me. (That was the one time the doors into the infusion room were shut.) In the hallway, I found myself hesitant to leave without saying goodbye to someone. Then Vilma stepped out from the nurse’s lounge at the end of the hall.

“Big hug?” she said.

I walked over to her. During my eleventh infusion—which she also administered—I had learned that Vilma had worked at San Francisco General for twenty years. I embraced her tightly, rested my chin on her shoulder. “Thank you,” I said, then left before I got teary.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Tips for BART Union Workers Who Might Strike Again

Since I was raised in a working-class family and am cognizant of all the financial gains the top 1% in this country have made over the past 30 years at the expense of our poor and middle classes, I am naturally prejudiced toward favoring workers in a labor dispute. In a capitalistic system like ours, where there tends to be a lack of regulations to prevent the greedy rich from getting richer, labor unions are essential toward countering the power that management tends to have—and often abuses. Like my ex-girlfriend who works at the San Francisco Business Times wrote in a recent article, I have much respect for labor unions and their contributions to workers like myself. With another looming BART strike around the calendar corner, I figured now would be a good time to write up this post.

Before I provide my tips to BART union workers who might strike come Monday, let me share with you an overview of my experience as a BART rider. Ever since I graduated high school in 1997 (that was another century!), I have ridden BART—with the exception of a few years—on a near weekly basis; 2002-2004 was the only extended period of time in which I did not use BART on a daily or weekly basis to get to school, work, or to visit my family. Since September 2008 I have utilized BART to attend graduate school in Moraga, work in West Oakland and downtown San Francisco and to visit my parents. I ride BART so often that my life feels peculiar when a period of time—say, a week— passes without riding BART. The experience of being a rider has become as automatic as tying my shoes.

I mention all this to convey the breadth of my experience as a BART rider. There are only four BART stations I am not familiar with: El Cerrito Plaza, South San Francisco, North Concord and Pittsburg/Bay Point. So when I tell you that I know what I’m talking about when I speak about my experience as a BART rider, I have a substantial amount of experience to substantiate my opinions on this labor dispute.

Back in early July when BART’s two unions went on strike, I read most of the local newspaper articles covering the strike; I was mildly addicted to it, to be honest. I also caught my share of television news coverage of the strike with a particular interest in hearing from the striking workers. Since then, I have been keeping abreast of the continuing labor dispute since my girlfriend commutes into San Francisco. From these observations, I’ve come up with a couple of tips for BART union workers who might go on strike again if they have any hope of garnering sympathy from the general public:

1) Consider training your conductors and station agents on this term employers call “customer service.”

When BART is running, your train conductors and agents at the 44 stations are the public face of the SEIU Local 1021 and Amalgamated Transit Unions. Over the years I have run into my share of station agents who seem to almost pride themselves on being malcontent dickbags on the few occasions I have needed their assistance with a ticket/Clipper issue or when a machine was out of bus transfers. I have also ridden my share of trains where conductors take an unnecessarily harsh and booming tone with riders on the platform or in the train. This is unfortunate because many conductors and a few station agents (I’m thinking of the ones at the MacArthur, 19th Street/Oakland, and Fremont stations) have displayed patience and a helpful attitude to BART patrons who can be difficult to deal with. (I’m thinking of the drunkards who board the trains from the Mission and downtown San Francisco stations on weekend nights.) But they seem like the exceptions from my experience and from what I hear from most of my friends who ride BART on a daily to semi-regular basis.

The 2013 BART strike—like never before—brought to the public’s attention the paltry qualifications train conductors and BART station agents need in order to be hired. Every BART rider—400,000 of us on a workweek basis—probably know at least 1-2 people who work some of sort of customer service job in which it is imperative for them to interface in a positive manner with the general public if they wish to keep their jobs which pay far, far less than BART union workers. With an average BART worker salary of $79,800 with an average benefits package worth $50,800 in 2013 according to, why don’t you try telling your train conductors and station agents to be more helpful, tactful, and maybe even pleasant with the general public? You just might garner a wee bit more sympathy from the public the next time you decide to go on a strike that will impair commutes for many commuters in the San Francisco Bay Area.

2) If you go on strike, make sure you do a better job of getting union workers who are capable of being on point about the union’s contract disputes to participate in television news interviews.

Back in July, my girlfriend and I watched the local evening news on a daily basis when the BART unions decided to go on strike. (It’s worth mentioning that we rarely ever watch the news.) I saw one or two quick interviews with striking union workers in which they were asked what the key issues were in negotiations with BART management. After the second or third day of the strike, I noticed that employees were stressing “safety issues” for these television interviews. During an interview with Channel 2’s Julie Haener—who I would not consider a muckraking reporter—a BART union worker was given two opportunities to further explain what the key issues were for the unions. And twice this employee failed to elucidate exactly what these safety issues. I had to search online to see what these safety issues were.

I do feel the news media slanted their headlines and coverage in favor of BART management; this Alternet article makes some key points to illustrate this. However, if these safety concerns are a key issue separating both bargaining sides, you have to have union workers who are a smidge more eloquent and on point in explaining an issue like this that could help to garner more public sympathy.

3) If you’re going to claim employee safety as a key issue that BART management is unwilling to work on, then provide statistics and anecdotes to illustrate your need for additional safety.

Clearly, this suggestion is in conjunction with my previous one. Again, it is a call for specifics, not vague generalities. Judging from what I read in the Alternet article I mentioned before, I am very willing to sympathize with BART unions on this issue, so you need to do a better job of illustrating it.

4) Don’t make stupid picketing signs.

Below are pictures of a few signs that your union workers made for the early July strike:

“Safety First”? And “Workers and Riders Deserve Better”? Fucking really? HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! You expect BART riders and Bay Area commuters affected by the transit strike to believe these sentiments? It’s insulting to our intelligence and knowledge about the labor negotiations to expect the public into being fooled into believing that these are truly the key issues behind your strike.

If the differences in negotiations with BART management is truly about “Safety First,” well whose safety are you talking about? For BART union employees only, or also for the public? That one is not nearly as bad as the “Workers and Riders Deserve Better” picket sign. Just how exactly is your transit strike supposed to be about riders deserving better? In the newspapers and in television interviews with BART union employees all I kept hearing and reading was how union workers wanted a 23% salary raise over the next four years; there was no mention of how this was going to improve the riding experience for BART’s 400,000 weekly riders.

Until these points are honestly addressed by BART unions, please don’t insult our intelligence by having ridiculous, misleading picket signs like these. Going on strike for a generous, generous raise over the next four years on top of
the generous salaries your union workers enjoy and then holding up picket signs that read “Workers and Riders Deserve Better” is about as hilarious as Orwell’s jingoes in 1984 such as “War is Peace” or “Freedom is Slavery.” It is on that same level. Do not deceive yourself about that. Please get your heads out of your asses when you proclaim such sentiments and expect the general public to sympathize with your cause.

Hope these suggestions were helpful. Questions and comments, as always, are welcome.