LJ Idol Season 11: Week 32 - Why I/My Opponents Should Win

Link to the song

kittenboo, Kittenboo
I'm admitting to being smitten with you.
You've written your truth into existence,
commiting through the pangs of resistance
so pensively and candidly.
The lens of your pen is grand to see:
converting the micro into the macro,
subverting what has become de facto
with staccato sensibility—
what an ability
to strike where the hurt lives
to find new perspectives
and design new objectives.
Life takes; your work gives.

I wanna serenade you
with accolades!
You made the grade!
You're a first-rate LJ Idol.
You're worth every title.

dadi, Dadi
I laud and applaud your prosody
embodying time frames in concurrence,
thoughts reaching new peaks of convergence
so artfully and gracefully.
Your heart makes such ardent masonry,
building bridges to souls who need them,
distilling truths to those who read them
with mindful veracity—
what a capacity
to lead where the heart dares
to make us more aware
and lay the lessons bare.
Life spurns; your work cares.

I wanna serenade you
with accolades!
You made the grade!
You're a first-rate LJ Idol.
You're worth every title.

I congratulate you two
and celebrate you, too.
Ain't too proud to say
you're first-rate LJ Idols.
You're worth every title.
Good luck in the final!

As for me—
as for me?
I'm just thankful
it's not too hard
to love a bard.

__________________

These meager verses simply cannot encompass the breadth and reach of the impact that these two dazzling writers have had this season.

Kittenboo has been fiercely courageous week after week, exhuming the depths of her psyche and experience, then boldly and unapologetically brushing the core of that self-work across the canvas for all to see. It's admirable, intoxicating, and a marvel to behold. She can twist a flurry of flitting fragments into a unified gut punch that doubles one over in aching and raw beauty. Her knack for teasing grandiose revelations out from her relation to perfunctory objects causes the reader to undergo their own restructuring of perception. Her words burn with fervor and tenacity.

Dadi captivated me with the pen of a novelist, the heart of a humanitarian, and the ease of a friend. The warmth of her tone, even in the direst of circumstances, makes the reader feel like a confidant rather than an outsider. She can invoke her settings with such lucid detail and precision that a portal is opened, spiriting us into a memory or a faraway land as if it were an adjacent room. So often, she plucks the heartstrings of what resonates within each of us, finding universal truths in the ephemeral and magical bonds of human connection. And can we acknowledge, for a moment, that English is not her mother tongue? So humbling.

It's an honor to be in this moment with you two. My sincere and raucous applause for your tremendous accomplishments this season.

Please forgive me for not singing my own praises. I have always hoped that my work and words would speak for themselves. Now more than ever, I have the divine and blithe sensation that yes, my work—my expression—stands on its own merits, far better than I could espouse it here.

And that is the best prize.

Above all, I want to say thank you. Thank you, everyone. Thank you, Gary. This is my fourth time participating (which pales in comparison to many, I know), but it has been a constant presence in my life for the past five years—a constant, in times of great personal upheavals, transitions, undoings and remakings of self. I have always felt that writing was one of the most fundamental aspects of my being, as if it was the first, easiest, and most genuine method I had to connect with this life and the people within it. But I ignored writing for years, and my truest self went starved and stagnant.

When my dear friend tonithegreat introduced me to LJ Idol, I had no expectations or presuppositions of having a place here. I simply thought it would be a great way to kindle my young friendship with her, and maybe to write a thing or two that could scratch a dormant itch. I heard from her and others that poetry was a hard sell in the Idol-verse, so I figured it would be a fleeting experience.

Here I am, five years later, extracting new turns and articulations out from these bones and this brain.

Rebirth.

It is such a gift to have this space where I am free to experiment with form and function, and for my creative gambles to not only be accepted, but earnestly welcomed and encouraged.

I am immeasurably proud of the pieces I have written this season. I am a better person for having written them. None of them would have come into being without this space.

Thank you, Toni, for pulling me into this glorious cacophony. Thank you clauderainsrm for creating it, cultivating it, and keeping it alive.

Thank you alycewilson for supporting me since my first year, in our partnership in LJ Idol: Friends and Rivals. Thank you halfshellvenus for vouching publicly and unequivocally for my poetry at the end of my run that mini-season.

Thank you viagra and marlawentmad for being such inspiring intersection partners.

Thank you karmasoup for our back-and-forths.

Thank you alexanderscttb for urging me to become more accountable for the music production of my songs.

Thank you static_abyss for your wonderful gesture.

Thank you all for each comment, each minute and monumental kindness.

Thank you for seeing value in poetry. Thank you for seeing value in songwriting. Thank you for being with me in my forays across genres. Thank you for being here.

Thank you for this—I needed it.

LJ Idol Season 11: Week 31 - Open Topic

The Last Piece



“Put it on the ground.”


Her small frame belied a tacit might, the folds of her skirt and eyelids unmoving in the seconds beyond the demand until, after the space of the sounding and dying of an unseen dog’s shrill, doleful moan, her left foot evenly slid backwards, allowing her knee to meet the crackled asphalt with a stoic silence. She did not kneel in deference. As her weight lowered, she kept her head and torso ever lifted towards the man, her eyes fixed on the opaque gleam in the plastic eye holes of his gas mask. She would not bend at the waist—would not drop her gaze and attention to the floor, and in so doing give him a moment of unfettered authority over her. She was competence made palpable.


Her weathered knuckles unfurled a humble paper parcel onto the concrete, yielding no pause of doubt, nor remorse. She stood fluidly, the ease of so simple a thing made mystic by her apparent age. She waited.


“Walk twenty feet back.”


She did not. She countered, unblinking, “show it to me.”


The veiled shade of a man seemed to twitch in agitation, but acquiesced, stooping towards an oblong curiosity wrapped in matted bits of trash bags and muddied newspapers. He set to uncovering the thing, face and back turning in evident disregard to any threat the seemingly meager woman could represent to him.


She waited.


After some moments, the kayak was untangled from its patchwork shroud, the aggressive yellow of it too pristine, too manufactured a color when set against the mottled ruins and molding debris of what was once a serviceable city street. The man stood from stooping, grunted, and turned back toward the woman.


“Walk back.”


“Does it have a paddle?”


His hand disappeared behind the kayak, lifting a paddle to the height of his chest, and pointed its curved yellow tip to the woman.


“Does it have holes?”


The man grunted. “No.”


“Show me.”


He made some swearing noise that died in the nozzle of his gas mask, but nonetheless hoisted the kayak into his arms with a baleful exhale, then plodded off-kilter towards the maw of a sinkhole that years prior had burst up from porous limestone below the street, eventually pulling massive slabs of pavement and topsoil into its insistent embrace. The crateral sinkhole had since expanded without reserve; it was now brimming with a stew of tidal runoff and groundwater laced with sewage. The man brusquely dropped the kayak into the mire, then went about the inelegant process of inserting himself into the wobbling vessel. Eventually, he sat within; the kayak was undeterred by his weight, and gave no sign of slipping into the fetid waters, even after a full minute by the woman’s internal count.


“So?”, the man barked.


“It will do.”


“Walk back twenty feet.”


She walked backwards ten feet, toe to heel, never turning her back. He gave a great groan of exasperation, then wrangled himself out of the kayak and onto the ground. He approached in accusatory strides, bent, and snatched the parcel, untying its twine knot to find the expected stack of bills. He counted and recounted them, then called out to her.


“Do you have a gun?”


“No.”


“A knife?”


“No.”


A bitter laugh of disbelief and pity came from the clenched walls of his throat. “Lady, what’s stopping me from taking the money and the boat?”


Her pupils blazed a line of malice straight through the lenses of his mask as she lowered her own cloth one off of her nose and below her chin.


“You don’t want to see this face of mine when your time comes.”


They stood, unspeaking. Somewhere, the dog brayed.


He rolled his neck back, eye holes to the sickly sky. “It’s yours.” He turned to leave, but stopped after a step. “Can you even move it, grandma?”


“I’ll manage.”


She waited for him to leave, waited minutes after he left her field of vision, then took a step towards the sinkhole.


____________________________



The paddle slid in and out of the untouchable waters, bringing with it gritty layers of film and putrid sediment upon the yellow paint of its blades. She made a slow, gliding advance through what had been Flagler Street. The tops of the hulking skeletons of long-abandoned condominiums disappeared into an unending haze, stemming up from the oily waters like massive support beams to bear aloft the frothy ceiling of sky.


A jay called out, its question lingering unanswered on the wind. There are still birds, Charlotte, she told herself. There are still birds.


She thought back to her adolescence in Miami, driving through this street in a nearly busted Honda Civic with her brother in the passenger seat, yell-singing “O-Bla-Di O-Bla-Da” through the giddy heat of a summer day and swerving just a little in the lane. They would inevitably end up at the Mall of the Americas every Friday, inventing extravagant stories about the housewives pushing baby strollers around the food court while splitting an Auntie Ann pretzel. Then the classic double-feature maneuver at the AMC.


Maybe they weren’t living like the elites along the shoreline. But they were living.


The Miami of 2059 was irreconcilable with those memories.


As the years went on, and as the shoreline became less of a purchased lifestyle and more of a present threat, they saw more construction around their ragged neighborhood. Condos. Office buildings. Mansions. Originally, people like her family were pushed out and away from the beaches, leaving them inland and far from the glitz of the coast. Later, it became clear that the string of governors who erected the beach’s towering seawall had done so for public image and not for public safety. Scores of science advisors would warn that Miami’s porous bedrock rendered such a wall meaningless, but policy hinged upon public perception—not science. Before the shore fully finished its steady march around the wall and up through the ground itself, investors became afraid. There was an exodus of wealth from the sand to the land.  And boy, how the family’s land was worth something again. Developers contacted their mother with a deal. It was a very attractive offer to the single mom: a tidy sum that she could never have fathomed, complete with a relocation package to a beautiful beach home with bay windows.


The rich wanted the higher ground, so they bought it.

.

______________________________


When Charlotte reached her mother’s old house, the floating kayak hit the front door three feet up from its base. She peered into the water, and with a grimace swiveled her hips to drop her shins into the slosh. Shuddering at the feel of it, shuddering at the cold, she leaned forward, flipping the kayak as she stood waist-deep in things unmentionable. She tried the door knob, though it was locked, and doubted she could open it, regardless, with the force of the water pushing it shut. She sighed as she reached for the paddle, and with a twist of her ribcage and the shocking resultant force of torque from her small body, she brought the blade to bear upon the weary pane of a bay window. The shattering glass shards gasped in bell tones as they pierced the water’s surface and slipped through to the other side. After a moment, she slipped through as well.


It was not an ideal homecoming. The stench and taste of molding wallpaper, books, and polyester couches attacked the sinuses, the tongue, and the mucus of the eyeballs. Dislodged picture frames and dishes floated about, knocking her thighs. All the memories that could have occupied this physical space—awash.


Thank Truth that Mom died before the flood.


Oh, Mom...


Her objective was upstairs. She waded through the remnants of the living room to the staircase. The wooden steps at its base were a ruin of rot, but she managed to latch onto the banister and laboriously tiptoe to higher, drier steps. She palmed the banister throughout her ascent, the wood beneath shrieking in anguish and threat.


She found the second floor to be better preserved. In the hallway bathroom, a dry towel beckoned to her, thoughtfully hung on the rack, awaiting her need. She pulled off her shoes, socks, then her soiled, soaked skirt. She wrung out its bitter contents into the bathtub, and hung it on the shower rod. She turned the faucet to wash her hands, but laughed openly at her naive presumption when no water came. She took the towel and soothed her slick, gnarled legs, then wrapped it around her waist. .


She paused at the threshold at the end of the hall—her brother’s room.


She waited. The house lamented in whispers of need.


She sighed.


It’s time to do this.


She entered Ricky’s bedroom.

______________________________


It was all too easy to date Charlotte’s last phone call with Ricky. It happened in late August, after his birthday but before hers—that loving, illusory interval of time when the gap between them lessened. Even these decades later, she knew too well that it happened in 2020.


(She hovered by the bookshelf in the closet, thumbing the bulging discrepancies of spines, from thin plays and poetry collections to bloated graphic novels and photo reference books).


It had to have been 2020. It happened during that first outbreak year of the then-novel Coronavirus Disease 2019. Ricky had driven back to Miami in March to spend the quarantine supporting their mother, but Charlotte was stuck in New York, the first red zone in the states, and would have posed a threat of exposure to the both of them.


(She opened the chest at the foot of the bed, sifting through faded charcoal figure drawings, matted paintings, and a stack of black sketchbooks).


When he called her that August afternoon, his tone was buoyant, lilting upwards after months of conditioning for a new normal.


Hey, Char! You doing okay?


Yeah, most days. I even went berry-picking with friends yesterday.


(She rifled through a box of loose papers, finding unfinished stanzas of discarded poems, old tax returns, and worksheets from highschool Latin class).

Whoa, nice! Seems like you’re living it up!


Heh. Maybe. Laney made a pie and everything. Hey, how’s Mom?


(She crouched and looked under the bed, finding a volleyball, rollerblades, and a trash-bag full of junk).


In her happy place—at the big table doing a puzzle with a cat in her lap.


Awww, yay.


Hey, listen—can you do me a favor?


What’s that?


(She pulled open the drawers of the dresser, then peeked behind it).


Well, I’m working on this thing. Something I’m writing.


Oh?


Yeah. Would you take a look at it?


What?! Wow! You’ve never asked me to before…


(She skimmed the top of the desk).


I know, I know. It’s for this big writing thing I’m doing. Anyway, I really just want another opinion. I kind of love it and I kind of hate it.


Okay, yeah. Sure. Sure! Yeah, I’d love to.


Thanks, Char! I really appreciate it. I need your eyes and ears.


Ears?


Oh, it’s a song.


(She opened the top desk drawer and pulled out a hand-held voice recorder).


I’ll send it to you in a couple days, okay?


Okay!


Thanks again, Char! Love you.


Love you too, KyKy.


Ugh, let that one go, will you?





She stared at the dull plastic thing in her hands.


Ricky never sent the song. He died suddenly of a stroke, days after their call. He hadn’t displayed any symptoms of COVID-19, but he died anyway. Just died. For nothing. They wouldn’t understand until years later why, in the first year of outbreaks, there had been a rash of healthy young adults dying from severe strokes—the kind who typically befell victims with a median age of 74.


She stared and stared at the thing, chest unmoving.


When she learned that her childhood neighborhood had finally flooded, she knew she was out of time. She had been putting it off for decades. This last favor. This last conversation.


Her thumb pressed the power button, without her intent or consent. Shockingly, the tiny green screen lit up, its old-fashioned batteries holding some charge after all this time.


Her lungs ached. She pressed the play button.





A voice, unbidden:



It's a trick of the lightning,

lightening my load


She clutched her throat as it loosed a wail—a hoarse, splintering cry pressed out from the weight of 39 years. She turned it off.


“I can’t do it, KyKy. I can’t.”





She waited. There was no answer. No shift in the prickling dust-laden air. No angelic breeze.









“Come on, Charlotte..”


“Come on…”


“This one last thing.”













She restarted the recording.





It's a trick of the lightning

lightening my load.

It's too quick to be frightening,

no things told.

If I wait here

through a thousand more years,

will I be a sage

or a marigold?


It's a trick of the lighthouse

housing my first hope.

Is the beacon inside doused?

The day won't show.

If the night comes

past a millenium,

will light be unblocked

or the rocks below?


It's a trick of the lightness

nesting in my mind.

It's too thick to be slight lest

it subside.

If you find me

in eternity,

will we be unmoored

or enduring time?












Coarse fingertips softly pushing lips closed in the gasping quiet.


“I don’t know, Ricky.”


“I don’t know.”

LJ Idol Season 11: Week 30, Portfolio / Redo

I chose to write on the two topics that I avoided with my byes: "Failure" and "Solvitur Ambulando".

Cafe Bolan


One humid March day of 2019, I was standing on a 15-inch ledge some 65 feet above ground level.


I was not contemplating the view from said ledge, though I'm sure the sweeping crest of the treetops blanketing the contours of Nam Pha Pa Yai, Thailand would have captivated and astonished. Rather, I had driven my torso and hips into the face of the cliff, anchoring my center of gravity forward in a bid to rest my embattled arms and fingers; to flush the adrenaline, cortisol, and lactic acid from my system; to keep from plunging backwards like a dislodged boulder into that very crest of treetops; and to breathe.


A rope hung from a harness loop mid-waist, not so assuringly. Rather, the heft and vector of it reminded bluntly where gravity would have me. My chin craned upwards, neck muscles indignantly protesting as my sun-beleaguered eyes traced, retraced, and retraced tiny granular protrusions of rock in dire search of a path upward that had a whiff of feasibility. The last bolt (a metal loop affixed to the rock in which I placed gear to attach the rope) was about seven feet below me, so a fall from the ledge would be about fourteen feet until arrested by the rope. The next bolt was conspicuously far above, about 20 feet away by my estimate. If I were to climb to the next bolt and fall before securing the rope, it would be a staggering drop of over 50 feet. I scanned every speck of the gold and silver-splotched wall above, longing for an interim bolt I somehow had missed. There was none.  


The weight of my skull on my arching neck, when added to the solemn rope pulling ever downwards and backwards, proved too much for the stabilizers in my inner ear. My chin shot down towards my chest, helmet slapping the rock as my eyes clenched involuntarily.


I began to count hyperventilating breaths to one hundred.


At around sixty-three, my belayer shouted quizzically up from the ground, "Hey! Uh...are you okay?"


"...Hold on."


I restarted the count. I would start climbing again at one hundred.


...ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one hundred.


I restarted the count.


Why did I choose to be here?


Why would I do this to myself?


_______________________


In April of 2014, I left Moscow, humbled, defeated, low. The view from the privately chartered shuttle ride to the airport exposed a foreign foreign terrain: my mind had painted its image of Moscow with a coarsely bristled horsehair brush, soaking my memories of the place with a gauzy scrape of hues from numbing frost white to mud-slush brown; yet now, after what had felt in my marrow to be an interminable winter, speckles of verdant growths pierced through the frostbit miasma of the countryside along that anonymous freeway.


There were no verdant growths in my thoughts. Just beige and white and grey and brown unyielding.


I had used a pre-existing medical condition as the pretext for breaking my teaching contract before it reached its proper termination of a calendar year. A woman from my agency had escorted me to a general practitioner, acted as my translator, and related that indeed, the doctor recommended for me to seek medical care back in the US immediately. They didn’t need to know that I was already aware of the issue, that I knew there were no valid treatment options, and that the concern was mostly aesthetic and not threatening. I just wanted to leave, and I didn’t have the character to say so.


I would rendezvous with the woman from the agency again, as she heralded me to a bank to help resolve my last affairs in her country. Those few hours in waiting rooms with her would be some of the most genuine moments of human connection throughout my 8 months in Russia. She asked about my health, politely dancing around the parts that would be too intrusive. She asked of my experiences and impression of her country, and I clumsily offered some broken thoughts I hoped would honor our cultural exchange. She tiredly divulged some of her grievances with our agency, seemingly thankful to have a momentary, sympathetic confidant. We talked about art, and our passions. We envisioned a scenario wherein, maybe a decade later, we would find ourselves seated next to one another on an international flight. She asked if I would recognize her—if I would remember her. I said I would.


Despite how fraying and debilitating the teaching circumstances were, how quickly I drowned in the emotional and mental labor of teaching, and how thickly the guilt of utterly failing at the start of my career weighed upon my lungs, I do believe the most difficult part of the experience was the winter. It was too obvious an externalization of my depression, too direct a metaphor for my brand of self-imposed entropy. Trapped for months in a Soviet-style apartment, in which the heat of pipes of boiling water radiated out from the walls, blistering at all hours without the tenant’s control...my brain coped by swathing itself in a numbing malaise. It disconnected from my body. I ate indiscriminately and without concern for consequence, consuming any paltry comfort that could be afforded to me. I relived a kind of cocooning that I hadn’t experienced since the obesity of my childhood. Working to address my life-long body dysmorphia was far too far up Maszlow’s hierarchy of needs. How could I climb a pyramid if I couldn’t bring myself to leave the apartment?


When I arrived in Orlando, Moscow felt like a fever dream, but my stasis born there felt all too tangible. I was greeted by family and friends as an intrepid world-traveler—a seeker. Perhaps, though what I found was an arcane emptiness. I was jobless, and without prospects. I crashed on a friend’s couch—for months. The linear narrative of a prosperous American life whittled a little more of my sense of self-worth away each day. My job applications went unanswered. My limbs went listless.


Through the haze of lethargy and self-loathing, all that I could understand—in a primal, subconscious way—was that I needed to move.


_______________________________


March, 2019

Nam Pha Pa Yai, Thailand


I needed to move. I lost count of how many hundreds of breaths I had used to stall.


My poor belayer bellowed up, “You need to try now!”


And so I did. I had been rehearsing a possible sequence of movements in my mind’s eye to confront the sparse limestone wall with the meek defense of an educated guess.


Left toe into a shaded divot. Right pointer and middle finger into a sharp pocket. The smallest tug on the right bicep as the hips rock their weight over the left toe, then a bold stand-up through the left leg as the left arm inverts, flipping the elbow skyward, to push the left palm against a smooth bulge to stabilize through opposition, turning the torso to the right. Wedge the right toe hard into a vertical crack. Release left toe, swing the leg under and to the right for counterbalance. Free the left hand, extend through left obliques, push the ribcage low and to the left to bring the left hand into the vertical crack. Stand from the right leg.


I managed to execute my choreography, fingers relaxed and breathing even, until standing within that thin vertical crevice. All of my planning and orchestrations, though effective, had only bought me an 8 foot gain. The next bolt loomed unimpressed 12 feet above on a low-friction dihedral, and the resource of the crack in the wall would soon peter out into nothingness. My neck seized with the onset of panic; my joints froze at the prospect of the fall. Typically, falling while rock climbing is much less dangerous than the general public would believe. That, however, doesn’t override primordial, evolutionary fear. And unfortunately, this spot was an exception: the very ledge that granted me as much rest as I needed also presented a very real hazard through my fall trajectory.

There were three options: continue, climb back down, or fall. I suppose the fourth would have been to stay until overcome by fatigue and raging fear, then fall.

  

I wiggled my left foot higher to rouse myself onward, then almost immediately retracted it in a tumult of anxiety and disappointment. I tried to breathe. I hastily set to imprinting this new, higher perspective in my mind, absorbing any helpful shadowed knob or slippery bump to form the next sequence of visualized choreography. When my body was on the verge of giving out, I climbed back down to the ledge, wheezed, and eventually climbed even further down to the safety of the last bolt.


“Ok, I’m done. Lower me.”


The shame.


I failed even at failing, not granting myself the necessary experience of falling.


The rest of the weekend at Nam Pha Pa Yai was lined with small victories, people watching, and late-night play with one climber’s oddly thorough collection of glow-in-the-dark poi and juggling paraphernalia. Despite the ease and social comfort that pervaded our cabal of climbers and the lush Thai topography, my mind incessantly returned to that route, Cafe Bolan, and the sequence.


Left toe into a shaded divot. Right pointer and middle finger into a sharp pocket...


__________________________________


Tallahassee, 2015-2017


Always leaving. I left Orlando behind, and with it, I hoped, a version of myself that wouldn’t be representative of my future. As I started climbing in Orlando in the summer of 2014, my body brought forth truths that I had consciously neglected. Change was necessary.


In Tallahassee, I had a new teaching job, and a chance to amend past failings. That was the hope, anyway. Though the next run-in with teaching would become its own matted tangle of failures to unravel, the city came with a heartfelt circle of friends that would lead me out of my cocoon and into adventure.


I made a friend my first day climbing at Tallahassee’s gym. We watched each other grapple with a delicate, balance-oriented problem, and soon found ourselves egging the other on with pretense-less enthusiasm. She adopted me into her inner-circle of friends, and they took me out to Tennessee for my first outdoor-climbing trip. I had never even been camping as an adult, and discovered with great woe that flip-flops are not suitable attire for rocky terrain. They taught me the ropes, in all senses of the phrase.


As they took me climbing outdoors more frequently, I began to build a relationship with the rock. What was first illegible and painfully demoralizing slowly became the hallowed floor of my dance studio.


The waving helix of my spine rolled through the negative space,

hoisting my hips above my head

as the framework inverted,

unfolding my heels into a crook

of unrecorded history

which freed my hands

to dangle,

tickling the atoms

left twirling

by the echo

of a past self.


I was my body.


I was glorious.

______________________________


One rainy March day of 2011, I stood on the top of a campus parking garage, some 35 feet above ground level.


It wasn’t a crisis so much as it was customary. I got on the 3-foot ledge and spent a long while watching the onslaught of raindrops hurtling towards the inevitable asphalt. I envisioned joining the raindrops.


I had spent too much of my life here. Too much time with this noise, without cause or direction. Too much time subtracted from a future that didn’t belong to me, nor I to it. Too much time as this person.


The raindrops knew their way.


I failed to fall.

_____________________________


The following week of that March, 2019, I returned with my crew of Bangkok climbing friends to the campgrounds of Nam Pha Pa Yai, far from the clangor and exuberant chaos of the city. It would be my last trip with these friends, and my last outdoor climbs of a year spent working and living abroad. It felt like a lucid dream, conjuring images of rocks and routes from France, Thailand, Laos, and Malaysia, clutching to images of the faces that supported and spirited me away.


Though there were other routes to climb, I found myself once again at the base of Cafe Bolan, rehearsing in my head the sequence after that lonesome ledge.


Left toe into a shaded divot. Right pointer and middle finger into a sharp pocket. The smallest tug on the right bicep as the hips rock their weight over the left toe…


The bottom three-quarters of the route were familiar, though tiring. There’s a treacherous series of moves where one has to span the body across an airy gap to two opposing and slippery perpendicular faces, then make miniscule balance corrections up the faces, until finally daring to pivot the full bodyweight off of one side and over to a whisper of a lip far off to the other.


I reached the ledge, panting openly and shaking my fingers loose. I had been over-gripping, I noted, and had expended a fair amount of endurance unnecessarily. Thankfully, I had the ledge. I started counting breaths to one hundred. At one hundred, I would climb.


...ninety-nine, one hundred.


I put my left toe into the shaded divot, my right pointer and middle finger into the sharp pocket, gave the smallest tug on the right bicep, and pushed off of the ledge.


I made it into the vertical crack that had been my high point the previous week. I took a long inhale, eyes on shadowed knobs, slippery nubs, and granular protrusions.


Come on. Execute.


I wiggled my left foot higher in the crack, then put my full weight on it, releasing my right hand and inverting the right arm so that my fingers could latch the underside of a rocky rim. My right heel came higher than my waist, pushing down hard on a knob to bring me fully out of the crack, left hand coming out and pushing down against the wall to bring my center of gravity over my right heel. My hips spiralled left as the left toe shot out to a slippery nub, then the left knee bent and turned down and into the wall, stretching my torso up, up, up. My left hand bounced up to a hidden pocket, then my right hand came too, letting my right leg come up and out wide in a triangulating stabilization.


I was at the bolt!


I spotted a crack in the dihedral and jammed my left hand in, giving me the full support of the arm without any strain to the fingers. Both feet came up high and directly under my pelvis, granting a position where my right hand could be free to attach gear to the bolt.


Panic.


My left hand, though well-jammed, blocked me off from the bolt, which was to my left. My right hand stretched across my torso like a straight jacket, awkwardly bumping my gear against the bolt, but not attaching it in.


One attempt. Two attempts.


Terror.


Twenty feet above the ledge. There’s no down-climbing from here. Get this right, or take the massive fall.


Three attempts.


On the fourth, I managed to attach my gear to the bolt. But the rope still wasn’t in. My right hand awkwardly grasped the rope billowing from my harness. Having brought almost the entire length of the rope up with me, my bicep screamed at the heft of it as it pulled against gravity.


Get in. Get in!


GET IN.





It was in. Disbelief. Relief. Release.


The levity of stupefaction almost hauled me above the overhung dihedral by itself. As I lurched above the bolt, I found myself in generous, gentle terrain. The last 12 feet of the route were fluid jubilation.


I rigged the anchor system at the top of the route, forearms numb and dense with lactic acid, fingers twitching. My shoulders heaved as my lungs swelled and contracted greedily.


Far below, the tiny figure of my belayer screamed up, “FUCK YEAH!”


I smiled.


A breeze across my cheek turned my regard out to the valley. The outpouring of the afternoon sun set the rustling contours of the canopy ablaze like a pointillistic kaleidoscope. Exultant towers of gold and silver-splotched limestone pierced the azure sky to tickle fine wisps of vagrant clouds.


I was my body. I was glorious.

LJ Idol Season 11: Week 30 - Portfolio / Champion

I am honored and elated to have the incredible Andrew Zhou contribute his work to my portfolio. His piano performances have left me brimming with unnameable emotions, and his acute insights always lead me to new discoveries.

I dabbled in an abstracted idea of musicology this week, but please follow the link for the real deal—a fascinating and humanizing look at Ann Silsbee, one of America's lesser-known composers, and her piano duet entitled Letter from a Field Biologist.

http://andrew-zhou.com/essay3/

This piece was previously unrecorded. Be sure to listen its premiere recording at the bottom of the essay, credit to Andrew Zhou and Richard Valitutto on pianos.

LJ Idol Season 11: Week 30 - Portfolio / Musicology

“Do you know this trick?

You can recontextualize

any note of the scale

pretty quickly.”


“Oh?”


“Yeah.

Just take any scale degree,

imagine it’s the new tonic,

and then go to its V chord.

You’ll find yourself

somewhere new.”


And I do.


Isn’t that

a small mercy

we can afford ourselves?


So often

this sequence of life

whether ascending or descending

feels so given,

so granted—

                    do

                  ti    ti

               la         la

           so              so

        fa                     fa

    mi                          mi

 re                                 re

do                                      do


There’s some

ancestral rule

that we absorb as an absolute

because it sounds good,

and it makes sense of things tidily:

do is the root of the world,

and the rest

(despite all its variations,

major and minor)

is a journey of tension and release.


Maybe that’s true.


But the gift,

the absolution,

is that do

is what we choose it to be.


It can be

between

what’s natural

and what’s not.


It can be

a frequency

with no name.


So

if you’re stuck on ti,

so achingly close to do

but not yet there,

so painfully unresolved,

don’t forget:

the key is

you’ve already found it

if you just shift

the root.

LJ Idol Season 11: Week 30 - Portfolio / Lifeboat

link to the song.

I'm not

the captain;

I'm a captive

actively practicing

my octaves.


I'm not

the captain;

I'm a hapless

victim of his

and all his actions.


I’m not

the first class;

I serve

the crass fat cats

mostly a list

of Mozart and Lizst.


I'm not

the first class—

cursed to worst class,

first to drown

and last to be found,

lifeless.


O,

sainted patron

of the arts,

you’re on board

until

the moment comes

to throw me overboard…


Gimme that lifeboat.

Gimme that lifeboat.

Gimme that lifeboat.

Gimme that lifeboat.


I’m not

the preacher;

I’m your kid’s teacher

in reach of her

and her germs that breach.


I’m not

a creature,

nor just a feature

you’re sure to

refer to

within your campaign speech.


I’m not

a hero,

didn’t sign up to be zeroed out

the way your income taxes

disappear annually.


I’m not

a hero,

didn’t barter to be martyred

for the sake of slaking stakes

in barren bear economies.


O,

gilded nation,

education’s your concern

until

you thrill

in watching how the schoolyard burns.


Gimme that lifeboat.

Gimme that lifeboat.

Gimme that lifeboat.

Gimme that lifeboat.


We’re not

the one percent,

nor the one person

to send our friends

to their end.


We’re not

an expense,

nor an experiment

to implement

at our expense.


We’re not

a herd of sheep

with immunity,

fodder to slaughter

with impunity.


We’re not

deterred, asleep,

nor cowed at your feet,

kowtowing mousily.


O captain, our captain,

a fearful trip you’ve run.

So take the helm

and drink the waters

that you’ve won.


Give us that lifeboat.

Give us that lifeboat.

Give us that lifeboat.

Give us that lifeboat.

LJ Idol Season 11: Week 29 - Milkshake Duck

“Milkshake Duck” is a milkshake duck.


Forgive the tautology, but it seems noteworthy that the term "Milkshake Duck" did not age well. In fact, it hardly aged at all.


Despite small waves of meme-ery and quippy internet journalism since it hatched from a 2016 tweet, and despite being considered by several word-of-the-year lists (and ultimately obtaining said honor through the Australian Macquarie Dictionary in 2017), it remains a term that is largely forgotten and unused in 2020. Its usages appear limited to self-referential listicles that finally answer the all-unimportant question—What is a Milkshake Duck?


Those listicles mostly died out in 2018.


Curating language is an odd thing. In some cultures where a majority is bent on preserving an immaterial overarching identity, it becomes a dull tool against the implacable march of globalization, or far worse, a sharp blade against the advancement of social reform. In France, the idea of a national identity, of an innate French-ness, is such a prized and embattled conceit that law and language hinge upon its manual preservation. Almost four centuries ago, the Académie Française was established. To this day, the forty-member council (dubbed les immortels) are charged with upholding the sanctity and purity of the French language. They dictate the correct spelling, definitions, and grammar usage of words through ever-updated editions of their in-house dictionary, which is considered to be the ultimate linguistic authority.


Where’s the issue? Well, les immortels (mostly of a singular demographic type) are often at odds with the zeitgeist, scorning the French that’s commonly spoken for being too...anglicized. For every tech-centered term of Silicon Valley and every buzz word at Buzzfeed, the Académie Française creates a more palatable French alternative, so that French people can speak properly. E-mail? « Courriel. » Fake news? « Infox. » Coming out? « Jour de courage. » The Académie fought “hashtag” tooth and nail, adding it to a list of some 5,000+ English words that they deemed should not be used in official documents, in media, or in schools. However, there was a change of heart for “hashtag”, and many others. In recent years, the Académie has been less fervent in fighting the endless onslaught of English words at the forefront of public thought and the tip of the collective tongue.


Of course, subtractive language curation can have more pernicious effects. France has a staunch position of racial color-blindness. The notion could be egalitarian at its core, in that it derives from the assertion that all French citizens are equal. However, in attempting to make the language of the law match this ideal, the French government erased the word « race » (a cognate) from its laws in 2013, and then from its constitution in 2018. Should the law treat all people equally, regardless of race? Of course. Problematically, the result is that large swaths of the French population who are of foreign descent (a not so surprising consequence of being one of the world’s fiercest colonial powers) now have no lawful context with which to fight against the systemic racism embedded throughout the supposedly universalist society. The minority can be swiftly and wittily rebuked by the majority for foolishly playing the game of American intersectional identity politics. Want to wear your burkini at the local swimming pool? Sorry—France is a secular republic. That’s too Muslim, too foreign, too threatening. It’s not French.       


What does subtractive language curation look like in the US? According to university scientists and state employees of the Department of Environmental Protection, in 2015, then-governor of Florida Rick Scott imposed an unwritten ban on any words pertaining to climate change (e.g., climate change, global warming, sea-level rise, sustainability, etc.)—it was of little importance that Florida was and continues to be one of the states at the most severe risk of the most harrowing consequences of global warming. These terms were flagrantly absent in policy, communication, and interactions with the media during the years that followed—years of hurricanes, record high temperatures, and a president who would cut funding for every federal scientific organization. Though Ron DeSantis would reintroduce these crucial scientific terms to the Floridian lexicon when he became governor in 2019, he leaves little hope for Floridians who pine for a reunion of policy and respect for science. Rather, he continues his predecessor’s legacy in willfully ignoring the words of the country’s leading scientists, plunging the state into one of the nation’s worst coronavirus outbreaks in a bid for commerce over decency.


In the case of “Milkshake Duck”, this language curation feels additive, like fast-fashion internet news journalists caught wind of a vaguely viral locution, then bet too much money on the wrong pony. If enough people tweet it, then it must have merit! We’ll repeat it back into the echo chamber for clicks and posterity!


Why didn’t "Milkshake Duck" find its place in our hearts, minds, and dictionaries after its 15 seconds of internet fame? One can only speculate. At first sounding, “Milkshake Duck” strikes the ear as utterly dadaist—wholly unnerving and nonplussing in its total incongruity, with two nouns cut from distant corners of the brain with no neural pathways in between. I applaud the dadaists for attempting to dissolve the perceived structures that bind us, but in the end, society marches on with its rigid structures and framework mostly intact, leaving behind their plea for cogent randomness. Perhaps “Milkshake Duck” was predetermined to meet the same fate.


The more likely cause of its demise could be that “Milkshake Duck” is simply too pleasant, both for our times and for its purpose. A cursory search for contemporaries of “Milkshake Duck” brought me to new terms that succeeded in becoming dictionary entries between the years of 2016 to 2020: non-apology, clicktivism, microaggression, fake news, to ghost, to mansplain, deepfake, to self-isolate, etc. Each of these words much more directly and succinctly encompasses nuances of the dark social quagmire we’ve endured throughout this most recent presidential cycle. “Milkshake Duck” is a bit too chipper and a bit too cleverly obfuscating to resonate.


On that chipper tonality—let’s consider the meaning of the term. If a “Milkshake Duck” is a person with some level of media attention that was once perceived to be benevolent, but in fact is ethically problematic, then who are the people that we would name as Milkshake Ducks? Is convicted serial-rapist and former Hollywood elite Harvey Weinstein a “Milkshake Duck”? Would you call J.K. Rowling a “Milkshake Duck” as she single-handedly besmirches and dismantles the legacy of inclusivity that she created in her quest to shame, demean, and marginalize transgender people? How about legendary song-writer and abusive husband John Lennon? Michael Jackson? Picasso? It's too cute to be tasteful or impactful.


“Milkshake Duck” fails to approach the gravitas of a culture thoroughly disillusioned by its leaders and idols. It does, however, perfectly encapsulate a certain American spirit reminiscent of the 50s: the cognitive dissonance of our societal woes doesn’t weigh so heavily on our minds after a milkshake brain-freeze.


If we are to curate our language, then let’s not mince words. Saccharine euphemisms won’t persist. The truth will. 

LJ Idol Season 11: Week 28 - Sawubona

link to the song

The Two Men of Pompeii

Salve, amāns mei.

Be well on this day.


I saw you see

the black pumice tree

defile the chariot of Sol.


I felt you feel

the crash of its wheel

upon our hallowed Terra's knoll.


As Pluto erupts in anger,

don't flee, my heart; let's linger.


Prized of Venus,

say, has she seen us

crawl beyond this garden gate

through the ashes

and blaze as it catches

upon our knotted threads of fate?


I saw you see

the final fight in me

to catch both a breath and your eye.


I felt you feel

a lilting wilt surreal.

We clutched both my back and your thigh.


Though the dark ferryman calls us,

stay—no matter what befalls us.


Prized of Venus,

say, has she seen us

slip into this sallow state?

Through the pyre,

we're remade and retire

to become a knotted thread of fate.


My love,

let’s lie in our last hello.


My life,

let’s make our love concrete.


Salve, dea mea.

Dona nobis tempum.

Dona nobis tempum.

_________________________________________

The song is inspired by The Two "Maidens" of Pompeii.

Translations of the Latin phrases:

Salve, amāns mei.
— Hello, my lover.

Salve, dea mea.

Dona nobis tempum.

Dona nobis tempum.
Hello, my goddess. Give us time. Give us time.