What I’m looking forward to this morning

I hope you enjoy your new year’s parties. I’m off to Berkeley this morning. I won’t be posting any updates until I return on the 9th.

I’ve been thinking about all the things I’m looking forward to on my short trip this morning. Here are a few:

I bought Jonathan Franzen’s novel “The Corrections,” along with David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas,” and I hope to read either one or both of these novels on the trip. There’s going to be lots of dead travel time on buses and trains and an hour on the plane. I decided that I should finally buy some books, and so I did, starting with “Never Let Me Go.” I’ll be doing a lot of reading this week.

I get to see my friends and engage in lots of random activities.

I’m going back to Berkeley to not only see friends, but to hopefully see a professor of mine who greatly supported and inspired me in my writing during my time at Cal. I owe him lunch and I think I owe it to him to tell him what has happened to my writing during the last six months. That should be an interesting story.

I get to leave Los Angeles for more than three days, which is an enormous pleasure for me. I hope to leave here permanently by the end of 2010.

I get to meet a new person. Thanks N, I look forward to meeting another writer.

I’m also going back to a cafe I used to frequent, where I spent time reading and writing. It’s one of my favorite places.

I suppose that’s a good list for now. When I get back, more interesting stories will be told. I should mention that I’m slightly nervous about flying and the associated dread it brings with regard to identification and security. Hopefully nothing will happen. I do have the advantage of being a white male whom no one considers dangerous or suspicious.

The MFA application season is upon us

Time is going by so fast. I just graduated, god damn it. It hasn’t been nearly six months. Today, Seth posted a new post on the MFA Blog about where people are applying, which prompted me to think back towards what I was doing this time last year.

All I remember is the Honors Thesis class, and the brutal workload of taking six classes, being in class for 23 hours each week. My relationship was dead. We barely saw each other. I learned how to think. I impressed people with my writing. Bharati Mukherjee provided excellent commentary on my essays and treated our class like professionals. That was refreshing. I made progress. Some weeks I only saw J once in seven days. I wasn’t yet starving. I wasn’t yet alone.

Moment of some sort of pride

I received my Berkeley diploma today. It was rather underwhelming. I guess I’ll eventually need to buy some sort of nice frame for it, otherwise I’ll lose it for sure. Are diplomas even relevant in the digital world?

Non-sequitur of the moment:

Tall Russian girls who surf seem strangely interesting. And now I am off to sleep.

Please read this article

Two weeks ago, Newsweek ran this article, by an undocumented student who was forced to drop out of Berkeley after one semester because of financial hardship. I wish there had been more interaction between undocumented students at Cal. While there was probably nothing anyone could have done for her, at least she would have had support from those of us who were in the same situation. I know what it’s like to want something so badly and then to have to let it go. I did spend three and a half years at community college before transferring to Berkeley.

The good thing about this article is it shows how driven undocumented students are. We are not here to steal your wages or destroy your country. We’re here to make a life for ourselves which includes the possibility of going to college, falling in love, getting married, and everything else Americans take for granted, including the right to a driver’s license and federal aid. I’m sure that this girl will eventually return to Berkeley to earn her degree, and that she will succeed.

Every immigration related article or post or youtube video that has enabled comments inevitably receives comments from people who are afraid of immigrants, notwithstanding the fact that most Americans are descended from immigrants. How ironic. Most of these posters know few arguments besides the argument of “invasion” and “ILLEGALS ARE TAKING OUR JOBS!!!!” It’s disheartening to see so many people swayed by fear. I’m definitely going to get some bigot commenting about how I should stop stealing his job and go home, much like I did when I posted something about the DREAM act a couple of months ago.

Then there are those who think that becoming “legal” is as simple as following some sort of quick, painless, but expensive process. Most of these people have no idea how much time I and other “illegal” and undocumented immigrants have spent trying to figure out this supposedly “easy” process. Think before you speak, that’s all I ask. Look through immigration procedure and tell me how easy this process is. Tell me that if you were in my situation, you’d have already figured it all out, or would have gone back to your country. It’s easy to say something like that when you don’t have to make the hard decision.

The value of education

Graduating from Berkeley gave me no special skills. I’ve come to the conclusion that the two years I spent there have not benefited me as considerably as I would have liked to believe earlier. Whatever prestige I receive from its name recognition, the school has provided little advantage, not only in the job market, but in my estimation of the skills I learned while being a student there. The two most important skills I learned at Berkeley were how to think critically and how to avoid ending sentences with prepositional phrases (which I still do, ironically). You might find that surprising, but the combination of those skills has engendered greater benefits than anything else at school.

I’m ambivalent about college degrees in general. What is the point of having an English or Russian or Spanish or Religious Studies degree? Maybe I should be asking, what is the point of a humanities degree? After graduation, I’ve been doing what I love, writing. Did I need a degree to write? I don’t believe so. The only thing I believe is that the friends I made at Berkeley and the mentors I got to work with influenced me in ways I could not have imagined. The degree itself, the idea of going to “Berkeley,” is overrated, but the experience is not. Am I the only one who sees a slight distinction here?

I went to Berkeley for several reasons: I wanted to impress someone, I wanted to go to the “best school,” I wanted to be able to get a good job after graduation, and right before I chose to apply there, I wanted to go there to be an English major. None of those reasons are good reasons to do something, except maybe perhaps the desire to be an English major and to write.

The one reason having a degree from Berkeley (and particularly an English degree) is good is that when I advertise my tutoring services, I can advertise that I am a Berkeley grad. This is my biggest selling point, besides my 800 score on the old-style Verbal portion of the SAT. I don’t think that having a degree from a well-respected institution automatically gives you credit for being a good teacher, and I always try to live up to that standard.

I made good friends, and I think I became a better writer through reading the writing of those friends, and through their feedback. Compared to the writers I met at community college, the writers at Berkeley were far better, which is also ironic because we were all transfer students. In general, I think writers at community colleges will not impress anyone but themselves, with the exceptions being those writers who move on to be serious in their art.

Sadly, there were people at Berkeley who didn’t care about writing. These people took up valuable workshop space and wasted the time of those of us who had tried to do our best in order to improve our art. These people viewed workshops as “easy grades,” no more, no less. Let me put it this way: for them, writing was a form of entertainment, something they could do on occasion, not something they’d work at every day for the rest of their lives, like some of my classmates.

The same goes for people who took part in the English Undergraduate Association on campus, and some people who participated in the Berkeley Poetry and Fiction Reviews. They thought it would be “cool” and would enhance their resume.

Arguments? Opinions?

A lack of focus


From downtown Oakland, the Pittsburg Bay Point and Richmond trains leave in tandem at night. After reaching MacArthur, the lines diverge, the Richmond heading North through Berkeley, the Pittsburg Bay Point heading Northwest through Rockridge and the Caldecott Tunnel. I forget the number of times I caught the last train from the city, alone and sober, or drunk with Chris. We’d board the Pittsburg train at the Embarcadero, catching our breath from running to get to the platform before 12:25, when the last train left the station. Sometimes we missed it, like the time we ended up taking the overnight bus over the bay bridge, hanging out on the corner of Broadway and 12th for half an hour, waiting for a connection that didn’t end up saving us any time. A couple of cops had been patrolling the neighborhood, chasing off hookers and being berated by a homeless man.

When I first moved to Oakland, I tended to take the BART more often than the bus. I lived just under a mile away from MacArthur, on 34th and Market. Cal was about four miles away, and I walked there once, taking Telegraph, because the buses weren’t running on schedule. When I did take the train though, a half hour bus ride turned into a picturesque ten minute BART ride. The distance between MacArthur and Downtown Berkeley is covered by a section of elevated track between MacArthur and Ashby, from which you can see San Francisco and the Golden Gate to the left, and the Berkeley Hills to the right.

At Ashby, the train descends into the tunnel, a steep descent that feels more like a controlled fall into darkness. We are now just three minutes and one stop away from disembarking at our destination.

Trieste Two

“Hey buddy,” he says each time I walk into the cafe.

The building is situated on the southwest corner of Dwight and San Pablo with a column supporting its front corner. It’s a rather awkward architectural design, because you have to avoid the column on your way in and out. Outside, on San Pablo, there is a bus stop directly adjacent to the building, and also the aforementioned sex shop and fancy restaurant. Across the street is Cafe Gratitude, or some other such liberally named establishment. On the opposing corner diagonally across the street is a liquor store, where Teddy usually takes an old shopping cart to buy ice by the twenty pound bag.

Cafe Trieste has several tables lining the San Pablo side of the building where the usual locals (a tall older man with a cap who looks like a disheveled construction worker) smoke and drink house wine. The tables are next to several bay windows which are often open in warm weather.

The cafe itself seats thirty people at most. On days when Papa Gianni is present signing opera, there is a standing-room-only crowd which spills out onto the sidewalk. People stand inside, some with cameras, listening to Papa Gianni (who must be at least 80) belt out traditional opera and watching him down cups of espresso. Whenever he’s there, I tend to walk in and order a quick vanilla latte to go before heading back to my apartment. Papa Gianni’s appearance always deters me from studying at the cafe.

I come to the cafe late at night to read and watch people sit around and drink wine. The cafe also has a delectable assortment of pastries and cakes. My favorite is the white chocolate cheesecake. When I started to run out of money and food, Sam would give me free coffee and food whenever I showed up. I’m still amazed at his generosity.

Dreaming

I dreamt about JJ a couple of days ago, woke up and thought I’d actually seen her. Then I realized it had been a dream. The subconscious is a powerful element. How else do you explain a vivid dream where everything she says sounds perfectly logical, where I hear her laugh and see her smile and feel her hugs. I don’t even know how many weeks it has been since we’ve spoken. Like X said, I’m in the moment of remembering the good moments now.

Dreaming reminds me of Murakami. More importantly, dreaming reminds me of the DREAM Act and immigration reform, which I’ve mistakenly stopped mentioning on this blog. Please do some research on immigration reform and support the DREAM Act. For many undocumented students such as myself, it’s the only chance for a better life. At the rate my immigration petition is moving through the system, I’ll be 30 years old by the time I get a green card. I’d have been in the US for 20 years; two-thirds of my life would have been spent in California.

A couple of my Bay Area friends stopped by on the way home from the San Diego Comic Con. It’s been several months since we’ve seen each other. The last time was the Tuesday before I left Berkeley. I’d gone to San Francisco to see them and we ended up going to a Ramen restaurant in Japantown, on Post and Laguna, then drove to the Sunset to go to a Japanese dessert cafe. Today, we went to Subway and had a good hour all together before they left to drive the five hours to SF. It’s a shame Richard went to Japan and didn’t come to SDCC. Chris and Luke more than made up for his absence though. They’re wonderful people and they make me realize how lucky I’ve been to meet them.

Trieste

Once, I’d have walked out of my apartment, turned left down Bonar Street (don’t even think about making that joke again), turned right at Dwight Way, walked three blocks to San Pablo Avenue, and I’d be there – Cafe Trieste, on the west side of San Pablo. It’s a tiny place often filled with locals.

The original Cafe Trieste was opened in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco by Papa Gianni, an Italian immigrant who came to the US in the 1950s. It’s still open today, just one block up Columbus from the City Lights bookstore, on Vallejo Street. The Berkeley location has been open for a while; it is filled with photographs of famous people, as well as Papa Gianni himself – standing on a Navy ship in the 1940s, singing opera at the San Francisco location – some days there’s a low key jazz band or Papa Gianni himself, singing opera on special occasions.

Fridays through Mondays, Sam runs the counter. Sam is a Sri Lankan who goes to college in San Francisco. He’s been working here for seven years, and he’s the one I always greet. When I began frequenting Cafe Trieste in February, the locals were intimidating, crowding around the old-fashioned wooden counter, shooting the shit. Gradually, I made friends with Sam and Teddy, a Massachussetts transplant who also works at a fancy restaurant two doors down. In between Cafe Trieste and the fancy restaurant is a fancy sex shop, windows covered with white film for privacy. If you walk by and look inside, it looks like a sort of library, completely unlike a sex shop.

Every time I walk in, Sam grins from behind the counter and reaches over to shake my hand.