I approached the theatre on Lavalle y Esmerelda with the intention of seeing Gatsby. I’d heard reviews both raving and hating and wanted to glimpse the glam myself. However upon scanning the billboard, I couldn’t find any listings.

“Ya se fue el Gran Gatsby?” I asked the man in line in front of me, friendly-looking, in maybe his early 50’s.

“Si, solo quedó por dos semanas,” he replied, holding something in his hand.

“Que rápido, quería verlo!” I said.

“Claro, no sé… Bueno, si no podés ver el Gatsby, querés ver Rapido y Furioso 6? Tengo este boleto que es, como, dos por uno— nos daría entrada por treinta pesos.”

I re-scanned the billboard, checking out the other options. I didn’t recognize anything else, and this guy was saving me money, so I decided to go with it. He paid, I paid him, and then I followed him into the theatre lobby where I found myself being presented to a group of people.

“Mira, esta es mi familia.” The man— Roberto— proceeded to introduce me to a woman who I think was his wife, and then to each of his four children, two younger, two older. The younger kids were a smiley bunch. The teenagers were also smiley but they wore those embarrassed smiles of ‘Dad’s doing it again’, a smile I remember quite well myself. I kissed cheeks and shook hands, bemused, as they asked me questions about who I am and why I exist and what part of Brasil I’m from. “Estadounidense, de Boston,” I replied. Apparently my accent sounds Brazilian. OK, I’ll take it, maybe I’d be good at Portuguese.

I learned that the rest of his family was going to see a different movie, a comedy, so Roberto and I would be seeing the Fast and the Furious 6 together, alone. Fine by me. This was all very random, I thought. Roberto interrupted my thoughts by shouting, “Foto! Foto! Un foto!” So I posed with his family while he took a picture of us grinning near a cutout of Iron Man. He told me that his daughter would share the photo with me on Facebook. She overheard, seethed. “Papá!” More exasperated smiling, and then it was time to enter the theatre.

We sat next to each other, squarely in the center row. It was a pretty full house, with the seats in front of us occupied by two couples who were far more interested in making out than watching the film. We shared a pack of tropical flavored mentos, and he offered me a piece of gum. I accepted. The movie started.

It was cheesy but awesome. Come on, it’s the Fast and the Furious SIX— at this point you know what you’re in for: impossible action scenes, hot chicks, unbreakable bones, absurd explosions, and the classic Vin Deisel one-liner melodrama. Perfect. Exactly what I paid for.

But there was something else familiar about this situation. There was a man next to me; laughing when I laughed, wincing when I winced, caught in the same predictable sequences of suspense and relief. He, taking up the entire arm rest, leaning forward during the car chases, letting out that roar of gladiatorial bloodlust as the bad guys are stopped in their tracks.

I know this feeling.

I didn’t realize I was crying until I tasted my tears. And then I realized, and realized, and felt that rigid rage build as my body went stiff and my fists shook fast and furious in time with the explosions onscreen. A car flying through the air narrowly misses Vin Deisel’s head and I hear that familiar cackle and realize that it was me, not him, and then realize, and realize, and feel my rigid body clench anew and tears spout like oil from when BP fucked up.

I know this feeling. I remember having felt it so many times. Rambo. Conan the Barbarian. Blade. True Lies. All the Terminators. Van Helsing. Hellboy. Marvel everything. Judgement Day. LOTR. Hidalgo. Hell, even the Three Stooges. Lost in Space. Watching fucking Raffi with my father. Cookie monster singing, “healthy food, tastes so good…”

I miss this feeling. It is so painfully familiar and bountiful in my memory, but now so uncommon. It’s not the same as being with friends, male or female, regardless of the activity. It’s not even a particularly social or interactive feeling, as most communication was conveyed through grunts and yells or perhaps the rare ‘whoop’. But it was part of the bond that I shared with my father, and it is gone and irreplaceable, and I miss it dearly.

The movie ended without Roberto realizing anything about my condition. I wrote down my name on a napkin so that his daughter might be able to facebook me that photo. We started walking out of the theatre, exchanged a few remarks about the movie, and got out to the street, where I stopped him—

“Una cosita” — “Si?” — “Bueno, sobre su familia. Es muy linda. Guárdala.”

Essentially, I told him to value and protect his family. I then told him in one quick sentence that my own father had passed, and (building off of a Vin Diesel one-liner from 10 minutes earlier) delivered that damn cliche that you never know what you have until it’s gone, which I’m not sure I always agree with, but it was a busy street and we were on our way. He gave me his card. I smiled. We shook hands and parted. I walked off and cried.

For the Squirrels

I remember that windy morning, dragging the blue tarp up a mountain of leaves, straining with all of my might until he noticed my struggle and flourished the leaves away. He wore a red and black patagonia, and blue jeans with a thick leather belt and boots. Real boots, “that could be run over with a truck and still last you a lifetime.”

I got tired so he told me to pick up acorns. The oak tree in the corner always managed to distribute its hard-hatted offspring evenly through the entire yard. I squatted and began a collection, dropping a handful-a-second into the bucket, first making a hollow gunshot noise, until the bottom was covered and I could safely relish the swift “thunk” of acorns on acorns. Dad never picked up acorns, except to show me how to do it, and then he picked them ferociously, challenging me, “what, you can’t keep up? I’m gonna get ten times as much as you in one-tenth of the time— how do you like them apples?” He loved that movie.

Eventually the red-gold yard turned green, and the first bucket had long overflowed into the second and third. Three mountains of nuts. “That’s a lot of nuts.” I said. “That’s a lot of nuts,” he said. “What are we going to do with all of these acorns?” I asked, staring up, eyebrow raised. He surveyed the buckets and bit the inside of his cheek. “I’m not sure, let’s clean up and go inside for dinner.”

We gathered the leaf blower, and the blue and the red and the bamboo rake, and the trowel I had been using to dig for worms, and hung our manly equipment on the garage wall. We bent down together to take off our boots.

But then he spotted the recycling bin, pink and full next to the downstairs freezer. Lying on the top of the bin was a partially smushed gallon milk container. He thought for a second, turned his head, picked it up, and blew forcefully into the top so that the carton assumed into its original form. He tore off the label, whipped out his pocket knife, and cut from the rim, down and around and up again, so that the carton become scooplike and open. “What are you doing?” I asked, confused.

“For the squirrels!” he exclaimed.

“For the squirrels?” I questioned.

“For the squirrels!” he exclaimed, again, jumping to his feet with his boots untied, clunking as he bounced his way to the barrels on the other side of the garage.

“For the squirrels!” I exclaimed, understanding. I leapt to my feet with my boots untied and scurried after him. I squatted next to him as he threw massive handfuls into the carton-scoop.

“This is BRILLIANT” he announced, throwing one last handful into the carton and bounding out the garage door, headed for a corner of the yard where the squirrels roamed free and hungry.

“Mhmm, now the squirrels will NEVER go hungry during winter!” I trotted after him, laughing as my boots threatened to come flying off. I arrived as he finished half-burying the carton so that the acorns were at ground-level. He padded the dirt back into place with a trowel. “Come on, we’ve gotta make DOZENS of these!”

We made dozens of carton-scoops, each brimming with enough acorns to make the most stone-faced squirrel faint with delight. We embedded them around the yard, and come winter, we even made sure to shovel the snow off of each of them so that hungry squirrels might be able to find them. “For the squirrels!” we laughed together, again and again.

* * * * *

It’s now ten years and one tragedy later, and I, wearing the red-and-black patagonia and blue jeans, stumbled upon an original carton-scoop. It was hardly concealed and full of soil, and its sight brought this memory into the corners of my eyes. It’s a relic from a reality that has long changed, now fuzzy and gilded with time.

But it is not a sad memory, rather, it is brimming with joy and love and poignance; it is crisp and untouchable and permanent, and it will always be with me. For me, it illustrates the importance of perspective, that life is the way that you perceive it to be. There is no reason that yard work or shoveling or tedious problem sets must be tedious or offensive. There is similarly no reason why a golden sunset or a gathering of friends must be joyous. Our existence is governed by interpretation— how we associate event with sentiment. This is not necessarily a subconscious occurrence: we do have agency in interpreting each of the facets of our life. Crumpled plastic in a bin does not in itself feed a squirrel — until you let it! So in the grandest sense, redefine the boundaries of your life. How might you reinterpret garbage into happiness? Where is your sadness merely a result of diseased perception? Look carefully— it is often a choice. Find new perspective. Acceptance is a cardboard prison. Knock it down and look around; do any squirrels need feeding?

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Reflections— and new directions.

It is time that I write concretely about my recent past, my present state, and my intentioned future. Partially as a cathartic establishment of my place in time, and partially in order to hold myself accountable for the words I am about to write. You see, for the last five-months-or-so, I have actively shirked responsibility, reduced expectations, avoided any-and-all future obligations— a ghost of my former state. This is to be expected, as great tragedy demands great change.

This year has seen unprecedented highs and most destitute lows. To be true, 2012 has erred somber, with the memory of my father’s death tainting even my most exalted victories. One might think that the fresh and whipping air at the summit of Mt. Jefferson would provide the grounds for untarnished joy, or those many nights laboring single-mindedly at the organ in Memorial Chapel might allow me to set the sadness aside. But the mind is cruel, and my thoughts yet run their course unthwarted.  And as I have often been present in situations where the prevailing emotion is not morbid, I have too-often experienced what I now know as emotive dissonance, where my environment and my emotional state are painfully incongruent. This has been rather difficult, and has precluded me from being quite present during most college parties, concerts/shows, classes, and most commonly, routine human interaction. So if I have been distant, or distracted, or entirely rude and blunt — I am moderately apologetic.

And so you’re getting a sense of my modus operandi over the last months: complete only the necessary minimum, do only what is fundamentally essential, interact with only those close friends who are also proximate and well-informed, and avoid any unnecessary LIVING, or life experience.

The day after my father killed himself, I found out that I had been accepted into the Startingbloc Boston ’12 Institute for Social Change. At the time, I was like, “great, now I’ve got to go talk to hundreds of people and act all professional and be motivated and happy.” I wasn’t even sure that Startingbloc was right for me- I was only 19 and hadn’t started any companies or accomplished any great feats of “social innovation.” But it was months away, and even under my sorry storm cloud, I was still excited about my future in some distant sense. So I paid tuition to obligate myself to actually go (SMASH FEAR) and continued my grieving-ghost-living.

I made it through the school year, finished my final exams, made it home, and had about a week to collect myself before Startingbloc. I went hiking for three days in the White Mountains in NH with some of my best and oldest friends. I watched some stars, ate some ramen, listened to the quiet of the mountains, and reconnected with some roots, with who I was pre-tragedy. I felt more control over my own destiny than I had in months.

So I approached Startingbloc with wide-open-eyes, – partially in bewilderment of the passionate and high-achieving cohort I had joined, but more importantly, with a receptive outlook than I had not felt even once during my ghost-living. I realized that my passion for life- my vital energy that I had long felt distinguished me from most others- was merely in hibernation, and could be reawakened mindfully. After every day of Startingbloc, which were each intense and socially demanding 9am-9pm experiences, I felt myself slowly reaquainting with my prior self. In others, I (quite obviously) saw the passion that I used to relish, the kind of energy that keeps you up until 5am learning- every night. I saw the excitement that I used to feel when I would finish a blog post or get that precious inspiration-from-the-gods’ inexplicable motivation to suddenly write down an idea. I remembered. I remembered! I remembered.

One of the most important moments for me (I will share more about SB in later posts) was a conversation I had with my friend, Ngozi Nezianya. I had just met him, really- we had known each other no more than half-an-hour. And we stumbled on to discussing a topic about which I have thought long and hard. He asked me (something semblant of) “… in life, would you pursue Joy, or Happiness, and how?”

My father had many sources of happiness in his life. He loved his (immediate) family, and he derived great happiness from his “toys” including guns (he was a hunter), knives (he was a hunter) and too-many-pairs-of-boots (he had a masculinity complex). But he was not a joyous individual. As I have come to understand the important difference, joy is from within. Joy emanates from within oneself- perhaps it is some glorious and deep satisfaction, perhaps it is the result of true contentment with one’s situation— but joy has very little to do with one’s “toys” or one’s accomplishments, or and is not even immediately fulfilled by having a family

I have thought much about this, and will always still think more— but I believe that Joy is intimately related to one’s purpose, and can be fulfilled only be aligning oneself accordingly. Purpose is the most difficult to define. What is the “purpose” of a life? Is it something more than the biological mission to procreate and evoke new life?

We are unique animals, humans. I do believe we carry a mission greater than procreation. Why? Because we canDefine your purpose. Why? Because you can. Aim HIGH. Why? Because you are SO POWERFUL. Startingbloc is a strong believer in Marianne Williamson’s quote: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”

My father never defined his purpose (for a host of socioeconomic and personal reasons) and thus never found life-sustaining joy from within. But I will define mine. This summer, I will take active steps to learn about myself in this sense.

  • I do not have a “job”. No internship, no café-barista, nothing resume-friendly— intentionally. I will first focus on completing the immediate grieving process, which, though lifelong, can be tackled in phases.
  • I will then read, and learn, and become educated on ALL of the topics that I find compelling. Find me a willow tree, and beneath thee I shall sit. For a long, long time. I can’t wait.
  • I will learn some sort of code-related skill: Ruby (on Rails), HTML5, or Python. Advice on which to choose?
  • I will write (blog) intermittently- perhaps biweekly. Quality over quantity.

I am ready to stop shirking life, and will instead greet it and learn from it all that I can. Here’s to moving forward.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and reflections— via email, or phone, or in the comments below.

All the best, Alex

Death of a Man(tis)

Tragedy must come in pairs. At the moment, I am without words. I don’t know what to write, say, or do, so I’ll let pictures do some  talking for me.

Goodbye Arachne, and goodbye Dad. I cannot yet express what I feel, but I ache, and I already miss you so, so much.