Thursday, May 28, 2015

Memoir Outtake: Never Underestimate the Healing Power of a Super Soaker

Mariana and I sipped stiff cuba libres in our parents’ backyard. We stood beneath the patio roof as my brother-in-law, Rick, and my dad prepared the grill with lighter fluid and charcoal. The first drink I slurped down produced an immediate giddying effect. I’d slept for shit the night before which is why I thirsted for that caffeine-liquor kick. At some point, while we flashed the gab, Rick mentioned these Super Soakers he had in their car trunk. He bought them to shoot around with his four-year old nephew. He typically left the water guns in their garage but he figured I might want to have a showdown with him on a hot, summer afternoon in Fremont.

I said hell yeah.

Before long, Rick stepped into the backyard through the living room’s sliding screen door holding both Super Soakers. He looked like a Mexican Terminator with those big guns in hand, small backpacks containing water slung around his shoulder. Rick belonged at a pool party in Tijuana with that beer gut and white sun cap of his. He handed me one of the water guns.

“You can make it shoot like a shotgun if you pull back on it like this,” Rick said, pumping the handle on the gun barrel, then pointing it at the patch of lawn beside us. He pulled the plastic lever at the top of the gun. It shot a gorgeous gob of water.

“Whoa, cool!” I said, pumping the gun’s handle. I pointed it at the side of the house, a few feet away. I pulled back the lever and chortled with mischievous glee when I saw the splatter of water on the wall. Then I yelped as I felt a cold wet sensation on my side. I peered down at my shirt, saw a wet spot, then looked at Rick. He was grinning boyishly. His water gun was pointed at me. He hit me with another stream of water.

“Aaaaaaaahhh!” I screamed, raising my gun to shoot him in the face.

It was on!

We stood our ground, frantically pumping the handle on our guns while we soaked each other, filling the backyard with our screams and laughter. I retreated back into the lawn, bobbing behind one of the wooden beams that supported the patio roof. Rick rushed over in my direction, ducking and scurrying around a small table while shooting in my direction. I quickly pumped the gun a few times and ran over at him, stepping into his line of H2O-fire in order to blast him, point blank, with a shotgun blast to his chest. He groaned dramatically.

Rick scampered off, disappearing in the side alley on his way toward the front lawn. I dropped my gun, slung off the backpack, and managed to wrench off my soaking-wet T-shirt.

“Your ass is mine, Hernandez!” I roared, running out into the front yard. He was nowhere in sight. I crept along the side of the house, pointing my gun toward the driveway.

“You can’t hide for long, you cock fag!” I shouted. (Back then, it was one of our favorite inappropriate insults; it was the only time I used that “f” word—sober that is. In Life Outside Rick-land, I immediately dislike anyone who utters that word.)

He stepped out and into my line of water-fire. We retreated back to Mariana’s car, parked in the driveway. We blasted it out, ducking, bobbing around the car, roaring insults that could be heard throughout the residential street (mostly me), shooting rainbows of water over the car until we ran out of ammo. Rick fled, giggling on his way to the backyard. I darted over to the hose by the front door to load my gun with water.

In the backyard, Rick cowered beside Mariana. He was hosed—soaked head to toe. I continued to shoot him without dousing my sister. Vanquished, he stepped back, covering his face. I walked up to him and delivered a shotgun blast. Rick staggered away, his back to me, while I aimed low, drenching his rear. He flopped on the lawn and rolled up into a protective ball. “Stop! Stop!” he said, laughing, holding out a hand while I soaked his crotch.
It had been some time since I had laughed with abandon.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Memoir Outtake: Beatling

Lafayette/Moraga Regional Trail
Here’s a transition I excised from a chapter titled “Made Me Nuclear.” This cut comes between a perilous nighttime bike ride I took on St. Mary’s Road without my front bike light and Charlie Lustman’s amazing musical, Made Me Nuclear, in San Pancho. This is the extended version with 302 words I later pared down to 180 words, which I ultimately cut (boohoohoo!):

Once I made it onto the flat part of the trail, whose fissures and bumps I was familiar with, I turned my iPod on. I rang my bicycle bell a couple of times and made a tooting sound while I scrolled through my songs. A righteous Beatles tune to sing along to was needed. I picked one of my all-time Lennon faves, “I Am the Walrus.” I had memorized the song since I was seventeen when I became enamored with John. (Lennon was one of my first heroes. For his songwriting genius; the fearlessness he demonstrated in playing from his heart no matter how vulnerable or dark his emotions were; his open-mindedness; his wit; his self-deprecating sarcasm; and his belief that celebrities should utilize their power for what he believed were righteous causes.) I sang aloud to the song. I went to these noise-making lengths because that part of the trail had deer. They hid amidst the thicket of bushes, behind the trees that lined the path. During the previous school year, I rode the trail one night and nearly hit a deer that darted in front of me. Since then, as a precautionary step that happened to be joyous for me (though assuredly abominable to hear if anyone were around), I often sung aloud while I cycled through those deer-populated areas. That way, they knew I was there and wouldn’t freak out and jump in front of me once they saw my shrouded figure and the curious white light on my steering handle as I hurtled down the path like a glowing phantasm. (This strategy seemed to work because I never had another deer-in-bicycle-headlight encounter.)

And so, I goo goo g’joobed and hello-goodbyed my way onto the residential streets of Lafayette, beatling away. I made it to the station on time.

These Are a Few of My Favorite Beings - My 25 Favorite Animals

Photo by rasputina2
From an early age I have always had deep affection and fascination for all the animals we share this world with. When I was in grade school my mom would take me and my sister to the Irvington Library to load up on books and video cassettes to nourish us. I used to gingerly walk out of the library with a stack of books and tapes tucked beneath my chin. Back then, I almost exclusively read books about dinosaurs, Ancient Egyptians, and animals—especially sharks and predatory animals like hawks and snakes. Over time—though my parents didn’t believe me—I read all the animal books from that tiny library that interested me. My earliest career aspirations included becoming a zoo veterinarian, marine biologist, or archaeologist.

Last week Maria and I were watching Kangaroo Dundee on PBS. I had never seen an episode before. Our television showed Chris Barnes (a.k.a. Kangaroo Dundee) caring for two adorable joeys whose mother was killed in a vehicular accident. As we sat on the couch I mimicked the nurturing sound he made to the joeys while he held them on his lap in their pillowcases (which mimics their mother’s pouch). They also showed footage of Kangaroo Dundee slowly driving around Alice Springs at night, searching for female kangaroos who had been struck down by a vehicle. At one point, Mari said she could see me being someone who did something like that. I was touched. I could imagine myself being content with a simpler life devoted to caring for animals. I think I have always had far more compassion for animals other than humans.

Speaking of Homo sapiens sapiens, before I dive into my list of favorite animals I thought it would be worthwhile—since it’s related—to note my least favorite species. Here’s my top five in order:

Humans: Like my homeboy Justin put it: we invented genocide. We also invented racism, homophobia, religious persecution, and enough nuclear weaponry to destroy most life on this planet. Sure, I’m solely focusing on the negative, but fuck humans. It makes me happy to think that someday we’ll be wiped off the face of Planet Earth.

Mosquitos: There are few animals I will gladly kill but mosquitos are at the top of that list. I know that in the grand scheme mosquitos are important pests that spread disease (i.e. death) but I hate them!

Silverfish: I don’t like them! Seeing them move almost always makes me squirm.

Leeches: Ugh, leeches creep me out like few animals do. Years ago, I took a “hike” by myself at Khao Yai National Park in Thailand. (It’s worthwhile to mention that the park is home to wild boars AND TIGERS! Their roadside signage warn about cobras crossing the road.) I slipped on a ridiculously muddy “trail” near a stream and got a couple of leeches stuck on the anti-leech socks I wore. Back in my cottage it was incredibly hard to kill those little suckers. Watching them wiggle about in search of skin to suckle on made me shiver. They’re. Fucking. Gross.

Cockroaches: I’ve been fortunate to live in homes that never attracted cockroaches. I’ve seen a few in my life. I think they’re kind of cool. They’re basically mini-tanks on six legs, but they’re still yuckers.

Fun fact: cockroaches can’t walk backwards—which is why, long ago some clever and wonderful humanitarian decided to use cockroaches as a form of torture; they would threaten to insert cockroaches into a captive’s ear since, you know, they can’t walk back out of the ear canal.

Like I said before, humans are supremely fucked up, man.

But anywho, let’s step back to the light. Let us step away from the squalid, the foul, the wretched. Let us bask with awe and wonder at these twenty-five creatures we are fortunate to share this planet with. My list is teeming with beautiful animals. Some are ferocious. Some are brilliant. Some are majestic. Some are ridiculously brave. Many of these animals have made extraordinary physical adaptations to their environments. I found myself particularly drawn to animals with unusual physical characteristics. (Surprise?) In researching these animals I watched my share of videos that captured these species in their daily grind for survival. My jaw dropped a lot of times. My eyes probably popped out a bit. I laughed out loud a couple of times in sheer joy at what I was witnessing from my laptop screen. It makes me happy to know that, as long as I live, I will never lose the childlike joy and wonder I feel when I watch these amazing animals in action, or read about what they do in order to continue on. I will always be profoundly humbled by all the diversity of life this planet of ours has created. (Consider this my shout out to carbon.)

Enough soliloquies. Here’s my list of favorite animals in no particular order:

1. Crow: A while back I took a silly quiz on Facebook that purported to have the ability to identify my spirit animal. I got a wolverine, which made me grin. I shared the quiz result with my sweetheart, Maria, and she told me a crow would have been more apt. I agreed. They are the most intelligent birds on Earth; they’re the only non-primate species known to make tools. A recent study by the University of Auckland found that crows have a reasoning ability that matches that of children aged between five and seven. Crows can be mischievous. And playful, too. I think they’re beautiful—and there’s something to be said about a bird family species that is found on every continent except Antarctica. Crows are masterful at adapting to various environments.

I hope crows survive the age of humans to evolve into the dominant species on Planet Earth.

2. Hummingbird: In recent months I’ve been crushing hard on hummingbirds. You will too if you watch this outstanding documentary:

They’re extraordinary creatures. Teeny ounce for teeny ounce, I humbly believe hummingbirds are amongst the toughest animals. From a design standpoint they’re astounding creations. During the day they are incredibly active, driven by a high metabolism and a body temperature of 40oC (107o Fahrenheit) that requires them to consume an abundance of nectar. At night their body temperature drops to 18oC, which allows them to survive cold nights. Hummingbirds can live a surprisingly long time; their average lifespan is 3-5 years though a few have been reported to live up to 12 years. One of the ways many of their subspecies survive is by migrating an incredibly long distance, especially in comparison to their minute stature.

The Mayans revered hummingbirds. I love those little guys a lot, too.

Photo by QImage Photos
3. Orca: If you ask me, orcas are the mightiest creatures roaming the ocean. It’s weird to think about that thanks to Sea World and the shows orcas imprisoned in captivity put on with their trainers, but orcas are not to be fucked with out in the ocean. Unlike solitary hunters like great white sharks they live and hunt in packs. And they’re amongst the most intelligent animals on this planet. With their simple swirls of black and white they’re beautiful creatures to behold.

4. Dog: A list of my favorite animals would be incomplete without dogs. I love ‘em, and they seem to like me! In my adulthood I’ve come to love cats for the ways they are unlike dogs, but dogs are incredible. They’re incredibly loyal. (I’m thinking of HachikĊ the akita who waited nine years at a train station in Shibuya, Tokyo to be reunited with his owner.) Affectionate. And adorable (well the majority of them are). Dogs rule. We’re fortunate to have such trusting companions.

5. Flying squirrel: Remember that moment in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight when Batman glides through the dazzling skyline of Hong Kong? Everyone loved that movie, and everyone loved that breathtaking scene. That’s just a typical day at the office for a flying squirrel:

Photo by Paul Jones
6. Gray jay: Okay, I didn’t even know gray jays existed until a few weeks ago when Mari and I saw a PBS documentary about winter life in the forests of Ontario. Not only are they beautiful, but gray jays are bad asses. They’re one of the few bird species who do not migrate south when the harsh winter envelopes the land. That’s hardcore in my book. One of their methods for surviving the long winter is by living off thousands of pieces of food they hide throughout the summer “behind flakes of bark, under tree lichens, or in any other nook or cranny that won't be covered with snow later on” according to a webpage about Algonquin Park in Ontario. Before it hides each food item, the gray jay coats the food with sticky saliva secreted from its enlarged salivary glands. Many months later, probably through memory, they fly about their wintry forest surroundings to unearth all the chunks of food they hid. It’s pretty impressive.

7. Mongoose: Mongooses are wild! Sure, they have immunity to small dosages of snake venom but I still think it’s crazy that Indian gray mongooses will hunt highly-venomous snakes like cobras. They’re ninjas of the plain, man! Just check out this “Matrix-style” move at the 2:25 mark. ¡Que locura!

Photo by Vittorio Ricci
8. Wolverine: Wolverines, man! They’re fierce motherfuckers! Pound for pound I think they’re in the top 1% percentile of animals with major cajones. There have been reports of a lone wolverine taking on an entire pack of wolves, even taking on a black bear. The dictionary entry for “brave” could have a picture of a wolverine (or badger, too).

9. Anglerfish: Man, deep sea creatures are gnarly. The depths of our oceans are truly our unexplored frontiers on Planet Earth. How could I not dig the anglerfish?—those nasty fangs adept at capturing prey, their profoundly grisly appearance, and the fact that they adapted to their pitch dark environment by developing a luminescent organ called the esca to lure prey to them? Dude, nature is whack. The anglerfish is proof.

Photo by Janys

10. Donkey: Most people would probably pick a horse instead but that’s too obvious of a choice for me. I’ve always liked donkeys because they seem like undercover buddhas to me (along with tree frogs). And I think they’re cute.

And they’re incredibly loyal to humans. Since young adulthood I’ve joked about growing up to have one or two and I’d never use them to transport any goods on their sturdy backs. I’d just one want to kick it with me.

11. Three-toed sloth: So I admittedly admire unusual animals, and sloths are a good example. Sloths have evolved from humungous, slow-moving land animals to languid animals that live up in the trees. Just watching sloths move makes me smile. What other mammal is like them, perpetually caught in slow-mo? It’s like they were built to chill.

Couple of cool facts about sloths: they’re solitary animals. Males and females primarily get together to, you know, get together. And sloths take a crap once a week—which is probably a wise evolutionary adaptation since it is a hazard for them to descend and trudge along the jungle floor with jaguars, snakes and osprey lurking. I have respect that sloths will go to the ground to take a proper crap; it’s like they have manners, or hygiene standards to uphold instead of just taking dumps from up in the branches.

Photo by Marsel van Oosten
12. Namaqua chameleon: There is something to be said about a species that can survive extreme environments like deserts and rain forests. As you probably know, chameleons can shift their coloration and pattern for the purposes of camouflage and to communicate with other chameleons. (For example, they tend to show darker colors when angered or when attempting to intimidate others.) And those eyes, that exceptional vision, and those long tongues. Chameleons are wizard lizards!

13. Siberian tiger: What would a list of my favorite animals be without one from the cat family? Few animals were built to be such masterful predators. The muscular, flexible bodies. The exceptional reflexes. The sharp retractable claws. The powerful jaws. And their excellent vision in the dark. Cats are beautiful killers. In my humble opinion, the Siberian tiger is the most beautiful. Check out this fascinating documentary of ecologist Chris Morgan trying to capture video of Siberian tigers out in the wild. They are amongst the largest cats. Their striped orange and white fur is exquisite. With the exception of humans, tigers are the kings of their land.

14. Grizzly bear: Speaking of exceptional killing machines, few animals can top grizzlies. They’re massive! And powerful. They’re the George Foreman/Sonny Listons of the animal world: one well-placed swipe from a full-grown grizzly can be game over. Adults can weigh over 500 pounds and still be clocked at speeds of over 25 mph once they gain momentum (which is why The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook advises running in a zigzag pattern if ever confronted with a bear).

With the exception of mothers and cubs, grizzlies are solitary animals. Few scenarios in life are as dangerous as encroaching upon a mother bear, which is why this video of ecologist Chris Morgan sitting within feet of grizzly cubs is absolutely intense to watch:

15. Beaver: Beavers are neat! They have incredible incisors and a natural tenacity to chop down trees that are significantly larger than them. And their tails are brilliant evolutionary mutations that allow them to be vigorous swimmers and alert their kin of danger. (Beavers will slap water with their tails to signal a predator, then subsequently dive into water for safety where they can hold their breath for up to fifteen minutes.) And their dams and lodges are strokes of simple genius, too.

I took this photo!
16. Llama!: This is where my Peruvian prejudice is apparent. Over a month ago Mari and I drove through Pescadero. I rolled down my window and yelled with glee the first time we drove past a farm with llamas chilling on the grass. Llamas are cool in my book because of their importance to Andean cultures. Their wool is exceptional. They’re hearty pack animals. And I really like that they can be surly, known for kicking and spitting when antagonized. I love you, llamas!

17. Mountain goat: Mountain goats are wild, man! They’re like a mammalian version of the flea, capable of leaping twelve feet in a single bound. Despite weighing between 100 to 300 pounds they willingly climb along absurdly steep, rocky slopes. With rough inner pads that provide exceptional grip and cloven hooves with two toes that spread wide for balance, they’re equipped to be the daredevil ninjas of the Rocky Mountains. Just check this shit out:

18. Jabiru: I saw one or two of these large storks stalking around a vast grassland while I camped out in Brasil’s Pantanal many years ago. With their large beaks they remind me of pelicans but they’re more elegant and beautiful.

And they’re huge, the tallest flying bird in Central and South America. And they have a cool name.

19. Aye Aye: ¡Ay caramba! What a peculiar creature! A nocturnal primate with one elongated finger used to tap along trees in search of hollow channels where yummy grub lie in wait. Coupled with batlike ears and an unseemly face, aye ayes are kind of creepy when they are hunting for prey, which is why I dig them:

(And isn’t it impressive how National Geographic put this footage together!)

20. Stargazer (not the epic Rainbow song): Stargazers are gnarly motherfuckers. The sucker punchers of the sea. If Gollum were an amphibian or sea creature he might call them “tricksy” creatures, burying themselves beneath sand to ambush unsuspecting fish who mosey past them. Their bites are venomous, and a few subspecies can deliver electrical currents.

Nasty motherfuckers, man.

21. Moray eel: Like stargazers, moray eels rely on surprise attacks to sustain themselves. Instead of attempting to appear like any typical patch of sandy sea floor these creatures hide within the nooks of a coral reef to strike at fish swimming by. The surprise attack is a common tactic in the animal world; several spiders and land snakes lurk in holes waiting for prey. It’s an excellent (but frowned upon) tactic in multiplayer shoot-em-up video games.

But giant moray eels—man. Reaching lengths of nearly 10 feet and weighing over 60 pounds, they are huge. Their jaws are powerful. In coral reefs, they’re the Boogeyman lurking in the shadows. Just see what nearly happened to this poor whitetip shark.


22. Whale shark: When I was a kid I loved sharks; makos, hammerheads, tiger sharks, and, of course, the great white were my favorites. Great white sharks are still the most captivating species but whale sharks are my favorite now.

They’re the largest fish in the world, capable of reaching a weight of 21.5 metric tons. With their spots and stripes and their languid swimming pace they seem so beautiful and majestic.

23. Black mamba: A snake had to crack my list since I’ve always liked them. (When I was a kid, I wanted a ball python for a pet but my parents said no.) With apologies to the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, coral snake, spitting cobra (aah!) and the reticulated python, I chose the black mamba because: 1) they’re the fastest land snake, capable of reaching speeds over 12 mph, 2) can stand tall in a physically imposing manner, 3) can reach lengths of 14 feet (which is not shabby considering the king cobra, the longest poisonous land snake, is capable of reaching lengths that are not much longer), 4) their venom is crazy-potent (two drops can kill a human), and 5) I happen to think they’re beautiful creatures, especially with that vicious little smirk. This is all easy for me to write, far, far from Africa.

24. Kangaroo: With apologies to the koala and Tasmanian devil, kangaroos are my favorite marsupial. Most animal babies are probably cute but joeys are ridiculously cute with their disproportionately large feet. Although they derive from only one continent a mama kangaroo’s pouch is popularly known. Like llamas, I like how male kangaroos can be feisty bastards when full grown. Even when they’re “boxing,” I still think adult kangaroos are super cute.

25. Tarsier: “High bouncing gremlins of the jungle” is an apt description for these big-eyed primates, these bug hunters of the night, the only primates that are entirely carnivorous. Ninja Gaiden has nothing on these little guys!

What are your favorite animals? Please feel free to let me know in the comments section. I hope you enjoyed this gallery!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Memoir Outtake: Cycling through the Shitstorm

Here's the first of my memoir outtakes I am going to post on this blog. Like deleted film scenes, I thought it’d be fun to show what didn’t make the cut. Hope you enjoy this outtake from a chapter now titled "The Freak Show":

During our therapy sessions, I used a lot of analogies to explain myself to Akhila, the attractive woman with curly brown hair whom I had chosen as my therapist. For example, one day I tore out of my home on Dolores Street to make it to our evening session on time. I had less than fifteen minutes to cycle to their office in Hayes Valley, which was almost two miles away. A few minutes into my ride, it began to hail. Bicyclists were pulling off of Valencia Street, ducking beneath awnings, huddling in doorways with other pedestrians who stared out to the street. The pavement was doting with pebbles of hail. They thunked off my helmet. A few of them hurt as they panged off my knuckles even though I was wearing cycling gloves. Shit, I said, waiting at a red light as I got pelted from the icy mini-meteor shower. Once the signal turned green, I squinted and lowered my head to protect my eyes. I pedaled on.

Cold and sweaty with pieces of hail lodged into my sweater, I stepped into Akhila’s private study. I closed the door behind me. With a smirk, I wiped the sweat on my forehead with a hand towel.

“Sorry I’m late. I got caught in that hailstorm,” I said, nodding toward the window.

I dropped my shoulder bag and helmet beside my chair. I took a seat opposite Akhila, then stared out the window at the dark gray sky. The hailstorm had passed. I couldn’t stop grinning. Akhila watched me with a curious grin. Perhaps she sensed all the energy bouncing inside me like billiard balls after a thundering break. I felt like I could run for miles.

I chortled.

“That’s how the past year of my life has been,” I said, placing the hand towel on my lap as I tried to rein myself in. I explained that it was my first ride in the hail, that other cyclists pulled off the road. I brought up chemotherapy. “If I wanted to live, I had no choice but to just lower my head and keep going and going through that shitstorm, just like the bike ride I had now.”

I held my head high like a boy who just completed his first multiplication table. I was pleased with myself—how simple yet perfect the analogy was. Akhila nodded as though she was saying “Right on.”