How little we know
We walk by Ti’s house, the light is on, the dogs are quiet for once. Thunder, aptly named, normally has a fit as we walk by and Chico taunts him sometimes, but all is quiet now. It’s really strange how little I know about her, but I can’t help but think about her in the bed at the hospital. Chico and I walk by her house twice a day and she walks by mine at least twice a day. We’ve talked, and her English is pretty good, even if she looks at me quizzically often. She has two teenage kids raised here in America. She brings food to her Dad each day, and often walks with him or her mother back and forth between the two houses, on either side of me. Ti’s house is three down from mine and her father lives right next door along with her brother. The rain has stopped, and leaves silent the sidewalk. When we get back to my house, I swing open the gate and Chico runs from behind where he has just marked the corner of our property again, and up to the porch to be let in.
I am not thinking and open the door and he walks right into the house. I am sure he knows by now that if his paws are wet, then he needs to wait for me. I might just start making him wipe his paws each time he comes in. But he walks into the house crosses the wood floors and stops at his food dish to point out that it is empty.
“God damnit Chico. I know you know better than this.” He looks at me from behind eyebrows grown too long now. For the last week he has started to hold his head higher in order to see my face.
“I am sure by now, you must notice that I am taking off my shoes and I tell you to stop each time we come in the door and it is wet outside.” That probably isn’t true, but I am sure I am a good enough liar to full my dog, or fool enough to believe that.
I pull off the neoprene slip on boots I had learned to love in Alaska by watching, and Utah after purchasing them, that they make life easy in inclimate weather when you are going in and out of the house. Mud rooms really make the most sense. My teacher is always telling me how I have to frame in the porch, and then extend a second porch out. It could be a good mudroom. But, I probably should just learn to walk around through the gate to the backyard.
I don’t write often about my teacher. My martial arts teacher, Ti’s brother. And while I am no great student, that is for sure, he is my neighbor and has become family to me. I moved here, partly because he is my neighbor, fully knowing what I was getting in for. Well, I should rephrase that, fully knowing that I was entering into something I don’t know fully about. And that is the point, sort of.
I don’t write much of the stories down yet about him because I know he wouldn’t like me writing about him. And most of my life knowing him, now about 15 years or so, I thought most of the stories were bullshit, but I am learning not to.
Tomorrow he heads down to Sacramento with his wife and brother to talk to the doctor about his sister in the hospital.
I am kind of late getting to the office, but I don’t have any official hours per se. Part of that is because my teaching has a lot of grading and I can grade from anywhere or do it at other times too. The flexibility of teaching is wonderful that way. And I might be giving that up soon.
I sit down, open up my laptop, the office is a mess, filled with boxes from another professor, retired, who has gifted me his life of work in some ways. He has been a force for the Park program at Chico, and most of my friends took classes from him and think of him fondly. I knew him from stories other people would tell before actually meeting him. He sees me as someone that might carry the torch for the program. I am in, but I don’t see that happening. I am not really sure what to do with a lot of it. It is mostly for environmental education teachers. And a lot of it is really good stuff. In some ways, I think libraries in schools should house a lot of this stuff. Put it into an archive of sorts for the people who once taught here, and gave their lives to these institutions. When our recent college president left, he donated to the school in exchange for them naming the new performing arts building after him and his wife. It is strange the things we sell, and the ways we hold on to hope that we won’t be forgotten completely by history. Save these boxes of manuals, and lesson plans, and books. Hooper was a recent fellow of the National Association of Interpretation. And more than anything, he has been teaching environmental education for over 30 years at the University level, training other teachers, and still seems excited each day to be with his students.
My phone vibrates in my pocket and I know who is calling. My teacher is pretty much the only person that calls me directly these days. The phone actually says, teacher or curtis lamalfa. I am guessing that Curtis’s number is stored in my phone as my teacher’s number, and that story, of why that is, is a longer story that tells a bit about my relationship with my teacher, or another student’s story really.
I answer the phone, “hi, sir.”
“Nate.” sounds always more like Ned. “Are you at work?”
“Yes sir, just got here.”
“I need you to drive me and my family down to Sacramento.”
“When can you do that.”
“Oh…” I kind of hesitate, wondering what I am getting roped into doing now. “I have maybe a few hours of work I need to do then I could probably take off.”
He interrupts me, “my sister had an aneurysm, and they sent her on the helicopter to UC Davis Hospital in Sacramento.”
I snap to from my selfish thoughts, and tell him actually, I am just sitting here all day to collect student drafts of essays. I have promised to read them all and comment over the weekend and return them on Monday. I will leave a box, send an email to my students explaining, and I will pick up the papers later tonight. He has a car and can drive, but he tells me he wants someone level-headed to drive and help at the hospital to ask questions.
He tells me, “it doesn’t look like she is going to make it.”
I ride home quickly. When I get there, he is waiting, a dark blue Ford Explorer is in my extra driveway space behind the gate. My teacher has all the keys to my house and everything. I am not worried. He tells me that he needs me to drive with his brother, Son, to the hospital. He is not going; he isn’t well. I tell him I will just drive my car, but he says no. I tell him they might end up wanting to stay over-night and I can’t stay overnight sir. But I will do it. I usually voice my concern with his plans and tell him that I will do it his way, but I registered my complaint, so to speak. We do this often, usually while building things on his house.
I don’t know his brother, and I have never met him before, but I know the story, sort of. His brother moved here first, their father was a banker in Vietnam and knew this American guy that lived, or maybe retired to Paradise, CA. So, when Son was able to get out of Vietnam, out from the refugee camps, he came to Paradise, and slowly the whole family has come here now.
My teacher’s Dad and Mom, I know already, and Ti, of course too, and her two kids a very little bit, but not very well. I think they all know who I am quite well. I am over at the house with my teacher most days.
The rivers are rising right now. Flood warning all over the valley. I am curious to see it all. Chico and I walk into work and stop at Little Chico Creek. It is as high as I have ever seen it. I imagine jumping in the river to ride it down to the Sacramento River. I think about Muir in a pine tree riding out a thunderstorm. I get that. There is something about the unpredictability of life that excites me. Maybe, it is humbling to feel nature in wrath and destruction. To watch landslides and erosion, and buildings torn away. I watched a recent video of a landslide falling onto Highway 299, a highway I have driven lots of times, and still I wanted to see the destruction. I wanted the see, not the boulder, but the force of nature humbling man. And next to the landslide was a tractor. It looked like a tonka toy next to the mountain. The side gave way, the dirt falling, until an avalanche of soil and rock, with one large boulder cleaving from the mountain, it rolls and crushes onto the pavement before rolling off towards the creek. I wanted to see it take out the road, or dam the river and watch the river swell up over the road, and erode it from underneath. I have always imagined the earth in all her power. I think I love surfing so much is because you are riding the energy waves of a storm. The spinning yell of merging pressure systems and temperature gradients, a tantrum from earth, and with it moves mountains, carries water deep onto land, hammers the coast lines, and washes away the earth, dragging it back into itself. Not scared of earthquakes, but wishing I could have felt it, rode it...witnessed it. Bare testimony to power. But there is death.
Aleppo worries me. Any situation where a more compassionate and obvious method seems like it must exist, but none that don’t require power to relent power, the right by power to admit being wrong to the weak, to attempt real remorse and forgiveness. Do large groups of people really want death to others? And if we head towards a projected 9 billion people on earth before maybe leveling out even if we all decided to do that right now, we are going to have to live together and in closer proximity to each other. And yet, I see these images of a city decimated, beautiful cathedrals and stone walls, and intricately laid tiles, turned to rubble. Then you hear the people, crying out that their city is about to fall. I don’t know what to do, because I feel that so much of the military advancements that have allowed this level of destruction came from our country and the people who lived here. Not that killing, or slaughter, or genocide was ever an American invention or thought...that seems to be as old as humankind, it is biblical and mythical.
Chico and I walk the cold night, the front past, the cold trailing the storm; I think about all the water, using the sun to dry now; the water is mostly just passing through. I put on the heavy down jacket, and walk out into the night. As I walk by my teacher’s house, I see that his sister, Po, I think that is her nickname, left a stack of blankets sitting on the sidewalk. I saw them earlier today, but assumed they were picking them up, or taking them somewhere, but now I wonder if they sat them out for the homeless on this very cold night. I hope someone comes by and sees them and takes them. Usually two homeless people sit on the stoop in front of their house, often with a drink in their hands. I am learning a lot about life watching the homeless each and every day living across from the Jesus Center. My teacher has lived here for over 20 years now. He has mostly fortressed himself in. My teacher’s other sister came down from Seattle to help take care of the parents and wait for news. His Mom, Dad, and sister are living in the front house now. Ti is still in the hospital, breathing on her own, in a coma.
You know, JFK supposedly had a big turnaround in his thinking about nuclear war and weapons, and such. He gave a speech, The American University address, and it was that something changed, I think it had to do with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the fear the created in so many people, the thought of annihilation, and winter, a dark winter. He said this:
“What kind of a peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace – the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living – the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children – not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women – not merely peace in our time but peace in all time.”
He won election being hawkish and promising to be tougher. And maybe, if not Obama, than maybe Trump could see this and change too. Maybe, for once, down from his golden tower, he will be forced to really see things like Aleppo, and realize that the world is looking to him now for help. People are dying and you have some of the most power on the earth now if used right. It is like melting the grinch’s heart or something. It seems not fathomable, but I am hoping for that Xmas miracle.
When I drove down with Son and my teacher’s parents to the hospital, my teacher told me he wanted a white person to go because he thought the doctors would try harder. He didn’t go with us. He said, he couldn’t. He was a mess. He said, the whole family has PTSD from the Vietnam War, and the worker’s camps, the refugee camps, being split apart for so long. He said, I needed to go just to be a calming voice. I did, but as I told him, they aren’t going to invite me back to talk with the doctor. Who am I? When the doctor came out after surgery, I stayed with the parents in the waiting room while Ti’s ex-husband, her kids, and Son, went into the room to talk.
After it all, after the sobbing, after my teacher's mother was admitted to the ER and then released, we all drove down to the Vietnamese section of Sacramento to look for a pho restaurant they knew and liked. We sat around vinyl topped sticky table together in a vietnamese market and restaurant together. The mother, between her pulsating sobs, would look up and make sure I was eating, or had tea, or tried another new strange food. I kept thinking about everything this family has been through, and thinking about Syrian refugees. I looked around and everywhere there were Vietnamese people, the products and heritage of a war torn country.
My teacher would later tell me, maybe this is all best for Ti. Life has been so hard for her, she has worked like a slave her whole life, maybe this is best. I told him, I emphatically disagree. Yes, it should have been better. Maybe it isn't that I like seeing wrath and destruction upon humanity, it is that afterwards, humans come together, in empathy and love. These outstretched hands give me hope. I have always been a positive person. I have always assumed that people can and will. People will see the value in protecting water, or trying to use renewable resources. That people will adopt a land ethic if they just get out and see it. That war is not inevitable, and that dictators will change, and billionaires will donate, and that even when the doctor says there is a 1% chance, that it is better than no chance at all because you are saying that it is possible.