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Earth on Us: A review of Kate Gray’s “Carry the Sky”

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

Carry the SkyCarry the Sky by Kate Gray

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In her debut novel, award-winning poet Kate Gray breaks the surface of a calm New England boarding school to tell a breathtaking tale about honor, violence, and responsibility.

Set in 1983, in the days after Taylor Alta loses her best friend and beloved to a rowing accident, she arrives at St. Timothy’s as its girls crew coach, grieving and unprepared for the curiosity of eighteen-year-old Carla. Carla’s interest is uncomfortable and hyper-sexualizated, a behavior rooted in her dark history. It’s a past whose consequences also blur the teacher-student boundary with Jack Song, a Korean science teacher who tries not to fall for her.

These narratives connect to the bullying of brilliant oddball Kyle Harney. Taylor, Jack, and Carla have secrets that shame them, and each finds a brief moral balance in their concern for bullied Kyle. What they can’t know is the weight Kyle himself carries, burdened by the threat of nuclear annihilation: a threat he understands all too well from his mother, a Japanese woman scarred in the bombing of Nagasaki. The leitmotif of origami pays off well as the diverse planes of each characters’ suffering begin folding together around the shape of Kyle’s ultimate plan for getting back at his tormenters.

For all Jack Song’s concern with honor, it is Kyle who feels like a moral axis. Secrets and injustices drive the story (as does the insider’s look into the world of competitive rowing; Gray is a former crew coach). Yet Kyle is the only character who keeps no secrets, and is unable or unwilling to be anyone except himself, even when it earns him brutal retribution from the school bully. He harms no one, and he felt sometimes to me like an existential ideal: a fully aware, moral being who chooses what customs to follow, and who sees his own life as a choice. It’s a painful irony that in choosing nonviolent retaliation, the people who end up suffering most are himself and the people who loved him.

While the story itself is robust, Gray’s attention to language makes the writing one of the novel’s most important elements. It sometimes competes with the story itself, but at its best, the characters’ distinct voices resonate with their different notes of pain; and in Jack’s chapters, the writing riffs between the world of science and the mysterious realm of the heart—with surprising, ingenious effect.

Kate Gray is amazing.

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The Fat Lady Sang

Monday, September 15th, 2014

I was sitting up and angry, which was a good sign. The old lady who’d hit me with her Prius was standing next to my bike in the middle of the street, and a few inches away from my bleeding leg were her feet. She was dressed all in taupe, and from her taupe summer heels, all twenty of her painted toenails were lined up beside me on the pavement. She was standing with her feet very close to each other, and offering me her hands.

“Just would you stand up? So I know you’re okay?”

Her gnarled joints were right in my face and I was still tangled up in my bike and disoriented. Standing up was the last thing I wanted to do. I lifted my bike a few inches, and more blood gushed out of a cut on my knee. It was deep enough that beads of the fatty subcutaneous layer protruded along the edges. Great. Let’s assume I was in shock, because I only felt annoyed and sort of dismayed.

I’d turned around early on this particular training ride because I was still recovering from food poisoning. The heat wasn’t doing my stomach any favors, so that is why I was riding alone. I stopped at the stop sign, checked the map. I started rolling again, beginning a left turn onto Tice Valley Road, and saw the Prius gliding up to the stop sign–and not quite stopping. An old woman in big black sunglasses looked left and right–and kept rolling. I yelled and tried to speed out of her way. She sped up, too, looking straight at me, and hit my leg and back wheel.

And now she was eager for me to get up so she’d know I would be okay, “Because I’m on my way to the opera.”

My knees felt wrong, but not too wrong. I didn’t want to get up yet, though, because not only did I not care about her urgent need to arrive at the opera house on time, but running through my head was this weird memory of an interaction I’d had with another old woman when I was sixteen and working retail in a chain of department stores called Lazarus. She was shopping in the junior’s section, browsing but clearly just drifting through the store, looking for someone to talk to. Her hair was dyed very black and she walked with a cane, and talked with a labored curl of her lips.

“I used to be beautiful,” she said. “Don’t ever get hit by a car, honey. It’ll ruin your life.”

Almost twenty years later, I still dread car accidents. Maybe it’s from that old woman. Maybe it’s from hearing too many horror stories about bike crashes–from the guy who looked fine until he turned his head, and his vertebrae snapped, paralyzing him; to Melody Gardot‘s beautiful, horrible song about her near-fatal crash; to my wife’s own broken jaw incident. California’s three-foot law just came into effect, but there’s not a law in the world that will save you from someone’s rush and inattention. When a driver hits a cyclist, they always say they didn’t see you; yet in may case, it was broad daylight, we were at a stop sign, and I was wearing neon green and yellow. (The Oakland Triathlon Club kit could only be more visible if we added strobe lights.)

I say all this by way of repeating, yet again, a wish for caution. Slowing down for a cyclist only delays you by a few seconds. Please pay attention. Most of us are responsible–as most drivers are. We just weigh a whole lot less, and are a lot more vulnerable. We go to great lengths to stay out of your way, choosing routes that you don’t normally use. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, though, and even if you find us annoying, neither one of us wants to be involved in a crash. All of that self-righteous posturing goes away real fast when there’s a bleeding person on the pavement.

Anyhow, I’m grateful to be okay. A few stitches might be in order. My knees still feel weird, but I can ride and run. And whether the old Prius driver made it to her opera or not, my wife and I now have a new household joke: “Gotta go, babe. Gonna be late for the opera.”

Urban Space, Hometown Race: Report from the Oakland Triathlon

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

I’ve been afraid to admit how much I was dreading this one. Maybe it was the timing: a comedown from a busy year followed by buying a house. Maybe it was my training: I felt like I’d missed or shortened one too many bike rides. But mostly it was mental: I’d set the Oakland Tri as an A race, feeling like I needed to have a strong race on home turf; but then I put pressure on myself, got anxious, realized once again that stress wasn’t doing me any favors, and sort of checked out from the whole thing. With Erin injured and my mom just finishing a summer of radiation, I decided just to show up and be grateful for the experience, whatever it was.

Saturday’s 7 a.m. practice swim on glassy water improved my attitude. And five races into the season, preparation was habit. I had my gear and bike ready in 30 minutes, measured out my nutrition, and chucked it in the fridge the afternoon before. I focused on nothing but enjoying a relaxing Saturday with Erin, and half a loaf of banana bread.

Estuary

Oakland Estuary, at Jack London Aquatic Center

Sunday morning, I cruised down a dark and quiet Market Street with Chris, Trish, and Erin. We rolled into the transition area, only for the OTC racks to be crammed full. So much for being an early bird. I set up my bike on an unmarked rack even farther into the area, and headed across the tracks for the swim start. Erin kept asking if I was okay, but the god’s-honest truth was the same every time: “I feel like I’m just here for a workout.”

Swim (1.5K, 22:17)

I hopped in the Estuary, warmed up according to plan, and realized that at that moment, there was nothing on Earth that I wanted more than to go for a swim. As luck would have it, it was 7:03 a.m., and my wave was lining up between the buoys. The horn sounded. I stayed as far left as I could and avoided the scrum, trying to draft where possible, but mostly I swam alone. The weird zigzag course was tough to follow at times, leaving me uncertain and sighting a lot. Near the end of the swim, purple caps began passing me, and I hopped into their wake for 10-15 seconds, getting a little rest. I didn’t know where the exit was, but suddenly saw a bunch of volunteers hauling swimmers onto carpeted rocks; not the most graceful swim exit of my life, but I was on land and happy to be in the middle of a race.

Bonus: Erin was working the Amtrak station, and seeing her made me even happier. Bonus #2: As I approached the bottom of the stairs, another athlete slapped the elevator button and the doors opened. As far as I knew, the elevator was a legal way to get to the bridge. Three of us hopped on and high-fived. The woman beside me was so happy about this development that she even offered me half of her Gu. (I politely declined.)

We ran the stairs at the Amtrak Station. Erin says I just missed seeing the homeless priest self-flagellating with a palm frond and dried pigeon wing.

We ran the stairs at the Amtrak Station. Erin says I just missed seeing the homeless priest self-flagellating with a palm frond and dried pigeon wing.

 

Bike (40K, 1:14:02)

The closed streets were something out of a dream. When I started my ride, there weren’t a lot of cyclists on the course yet (or at least we were really spread out), and flying down an empty Broadway made me giddy. I passed a handful of people and focused on keeping my cadence over 95 rpm. At times this felt too easy, but by the second loop, I was glad to have kept a smooth, fast rhythm. I averaged 20.1 mph, which wasn’t my best pace of the season, but there were over forty 90-degree turns in the course, as well as potholes, train tracks, and scummy puddles to avoid. I even got off-course for a few blocks at one point, having mistaken some garbage men for volunteers, and took a wrong street. Oops.

Run (10K–maybe, 48:56)

My training runs had been going particularly well, and I hoped for a fresh, fast run. I didn’t get it. My legs were fatigued and I didn’t have much oomph for the first two miles. Yet it was wonderful to be racing on such a familiar route around Lake Merritt, and I took joy in telling the other pedestrians good morning, in the group of huge white pelicans feeding in the shallows, and in the suddenly clear sky. I was surely going to get passed by a lot of runners, but I figured I shouldn’t make it easy for them. I picked up my pace, and realized that fast and slow felt equally uncomfortable, so I might as well go fast. I felt strong all the way back to the Amtrak station, where Erin was volunteering. She clutched her chest as if I was way behind schedule, which made me wonder just how slow of a race I was having.

I ran the stairs and felt fine, but started to lose steam as the course looped back to the swim start, rounded a bunch of cones in a parking lot, and meandered toward Jack London Square. I couldn’t hear a finish line, and had no idea how much farther it was. Just then, I saw some athletes wearing finisher medals, and someone shouted that the chute was right around the corner (and added, “C’mon! Finish strong!” What’s that supposed to mean, I thought. I’ve been going as fast as I can for two and a half hours!)

The clock read 2:37:something as I crossed the line. Subtracting four minutes for my 7:04 a.m. start time, I ended up with a PR of 2:33:56.

Finish line pic

“Las Esposas,” taken by fellow OTC-er, Christina Grijalva.

Lessons Learned

It’s good to be at home. And it’s good to race with a team. I saw so many OTC kits on the course that it was impossible not to enjoy the day. Thank you to everyone who showed up at the start line with me, who cheered me on, who raced with Oakland pride, and who stuck around until the very last athlete crossed the finish line. The Oakland Triathlon Club is truly a class act, and also consists of just about every single friend I have in this town. Thanks for sharing this season with me, and your friendship, and I can’t wait to see you at Rancho Cordova 70.3 in October. Safe, happy training, everyone!

The Year of the High Bar

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

JK Rowling quote

It was a classic case of “be careful what you wish for,” and probably inevitable. At the end of last year, I wanted a couple of things. I wanted to get back into triathlon shape. I wanted my Arabic to be good enough to write academic papers in it. And I wanted to become a better writer–a published one.

And in January, I got the chance to achieve everything I wanted. A slot to train with the Oakland Triathlon Club’s elite team, a seat in Arabic 402, and one of the best agents in the publishing industry. It felt like Christmas and a birthday and a lifetime achievement award all rolled into one–except rather than giving me a big head, after seventeen years of writing and getting rejected, it was just healing. I knew I’d have to work hard to live up to these privileges, but had no idea just how far I would have to stretch myself to just barely get by.

As summer wraps up, I look back on the last eight months of frantic, sometimes panicked efforts to keep up with everything. At times, I no longer felt like the person who’d been capable of getting to this point in my life. Day-to-day tasks sometimes felt no less than a kind spiritual crisis: how to be a whole human being and not just a list of responsibilities.

I am still in the middle of that hard work, but as I am finally getting a handle on the revisions to my manuscript, I realize that more than just opportunity, I got something else I’d always wanted: a master class in fiction. Writing a novel is solitary, and some days you feel like the best writer in the world, which inevitably means you’re due to feel like a hack by Friday. Real feedback from industry pros gave me perspective on my storytelling habits, and how to get better.

I ended up with a passing grade in the Arabic class; I can write a paper, but can’t speak it to save my life. I got back into triathlon shape, but really, training (for me) is never going to be about real speed. It’s about having made a bunch of new friends in a new city, and loving the camaraderie in an otherwise solitary sport.

This perspective was hard-earned, but in the words of an old friend who taught me how to ski: “If you’re not falling, you’re not trying hard enough”; and god knows I’m grateful for the chance to keep trying.

Turf Wars

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

I am officially a homeowner now. All these years I’ve seen houses with tiny lawns and thought I’d like to have one, because I could trim it with one of those quiet, quaint little push mowers with the spinning blades. Maybe I got the idea from a Sunday comics page in my childhood. And I’ll say in my defense that I’m not the only one with this notion, because our real estate agent perked up when she first saw the house, exclaiming, “Oh! You can cut it with one of those old-fashioned push mowers!”

Blades versus blades.

Blades versus blades.

Fast-forward about a month to the garden tools aisle of The Home Depot. Erin and I went back and forth for a few minutes–I wanted the $80 quaint push mower. Erin wanted the $200 lawn mower. “Are you nuts?” I asked. “Why make all that noise and waste gasoline on a lawn the size of our living room?” Grumbling, she pushed the cart and me and said, “Fine. Get what you want.” Note: It’s bad when your wife tells you to just do what you want. So I put the mower in the cart. Note #2: Don’t actually do what you want, unless you haven’t realized that you’ve already lost the argument.

Fast-forward to Saturday. I fiddled around on the porch for about twenty minutes and got my new, green Scotts push mower all put together. Lifting it high, I carried it to the grass, admiring how light and simple a machine it was. I set it in the corner of the lawn and aimed it across the twenty feet of high grass, ready to set off toward the garden. Erin was pulling weeds by the fence with her back towards me, indifferent to the machine’s maiden voyage.

I gave the lawnmower a push. It didn’t go. I backed up and gave it a running start, and the handles folded me in half at the gut.

Erin finally turned around, now that there was something interesting to watch. I turned the machine to the side and checked the blades, which whirred easily when there wasn’t four inches of wet ryegrass to slice through. I set the machine down, braced myself, and starting shoving it back and forth all over the corner of the grass and managed to hack a square foot of it down to respectable length.

Fast-forward one final time. After sweating, swearing, stomping off for a while, enduring an I-told-you-so, reengaging with the lawn in a spirit of cold-blooded competition, and at last activating Erin’s native stubbornness in the face of a challenging task, we got the fucking thing cut by Sunday afternoon.

I learned in this process that when it comes to yard work, “quaint” means time-consuming and difficult, and cutting a lawn this way has no redeeming spiritual dimension unless you’re Amish. Also that we have good friends, because our buddy Chris is going to give us his electric lawnmower on extended loan.

 

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