“Quarter” [25th Birthday/2016 Reflection Poem]

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Money on my mind in more ways than one.

Happy New Year! Can’t be any less unhappy than the last year, some would argue… though I already made my balanced stance on that the other day. In any case, while 2016 was pretty solid for me personally, ups and downs bundling into one are a fact of life. Nowhere did that arise more prominently than with me turning 25 years old: the big quarter-century! (DOB: 11/04/1991. Only 90s kids will remember this.)

With that in mind, I promptly set about slowly reflecting–not on the past itself, but on how I was handling what that past meant for who I am and where I’m going. I’d aimed to finish this by 12/31/16, but I realized it was more about my time than the time. And as the holiday season officially waned and the workweek peeked back around the bend, I had a feeling–for better or worse–I would realize some more to say in the fresh light of 2017.

I did. What didn’t change, though, was the new perspective I’m grateful to have honed over these past couple of years in particular. Life is full of regret and want and uncertainty, sure… but we’re only human. And other humans can be here to help.

It’s making myself remember that last part–and what it means to stay confident in the face of time itself–that I hoped to capture here.

 

Quarter

1/16

One down,

three to grow.

 

A hoarder, I feel—

of lessons, stressors, and misadventures

unfit for mixed company.

Because the past is a dream come false:

Every day, we may as well be born anew,

and each second we live becomes another figment

in our children’s past.

 

So please, go easy.

This is my first time getting old,

and so I can’t help feeling like success

has an expiration date, and my hour to sour

is just around the cardboard bend.

You never know what’s the window

to when you’ll win, though.

I’d peer through, but it’s so hard to see

everything again;

to punch out the 2D screen of my memories incarnate

and beckon forth new avenues of inspiration from under the dust—

turn maybes to musts,

just decide instead of deify

my ambitions.

 

When I went home, my fear wasn’t that I didn’t belong there anymore,

it’s that I did.

And yet the posters stayed up,

pictures lingered in a padded hard drive,

and adding any new detail felt like fruitless betrayal:

The end of the world as we show it,

coming to terms with the fact that life is linear

but living hits every dimension.

I made the world

around me a story, immutable

after an arbitrary absence, as if

the repositioning of a picture, a sticker lifted, was going George Lucas—

a match dropped, to let scorch my origins for revisionist history.

 

Now, is writing the symptom or the cure?

Because I ask only that my fantasies be others’;

I want the worlds in my head not to wither,

whether they’re worth it or not—

a Wikipedia page people update, debate over

and over;

I need what I thought I was to survive

who nobody knows I am yet.

I may not be immortal, but

maybe I can be

part of forever.

 

Though, not all is lost.

I’ve improved, to be sure.

I don’t fetishize photocopies,

imprinting stencils of the hundred-and-one that got away

onto every –elle until I’m unable to feel

anything but myself.

I can’t carry a tune, but I won’t keep dragging ones behind me, either

(the kind of songs you don’t listen to

so much as use).

I see there’s a difference between what we want to hear

and what we want to know.

The perpetual emotion machine slows at last,

and I anticipate The Next:

What scents will I associate with where?

What tastes, textures, relevant where never before?

What beautiful threat will I one day want

to hide from?

Even pain can be promising if it’s a change of pace.

 

Until then, dressed to compress

my passions and predilections into the offtime

I can find, in this Art Deco ghetto—

I bide.

As soon as I wake, I check my phone

to see what’s broken

in the world.

As soon as I clock in, I’m already gone.

It’s not resignation if you never sign on.

 

1/8

In second grade,

when change meant nothing

and cheering was a bodily function,

I built a Lego spaceship:

A jagged prism of wings and plastic.

I thought it was so great, I didn’t want anyone

to take it, or break it.

So I secreted it, beneath a craft-supplies cabinet,

and went about my play.

 

I wonder, sometimes, back to it;

whenever I’m taking stock of what matters, what I’ve made.

Is it still there?

Against all odds, it’s not,

but I need that faith,

that privilege of infinity childhood provided.

That I can look back, kneel on primary tiles

in my designer slacks, and extract imagination.

Please don’t let it be just dust and rubber bands.

I’m made for more

than a pithy obituary in the local paper.

This won’t be how I go, much less how I come

to be remembered.

 

3/16

I sleepwalked, is all,

more than just after heavy dinners and big tests.

I didn’t realize it was on me to know this place

I got plopped into—not just putter through

like a Disney dark ride, every day-glo whoa

and manufactured satisfaction.

I thought it made me stable, but perhaps I can’t be any more

than the next schlub with a dream.

I just pray I’m not too late

 

to not just ask questions

but listen to the answers.

Where are my ancestors from?

What were the Fifties like?

Where did you buy that painting in the piano room,

the one that looks like Venice is burning

upon earth’s edge?

And so on, and on and on.

 

I only hope, in always pressing forward,

I didn’t become the caricature of cowardly indifference

in which I painted my past loves.

A tiny tombstone, an emoji-free text,

an oath to be taken between beats of an atrophying heart:

My world is dying, and I need someone alive

to smile when I wonder out loud.

Why won’t what passes for my soul suffice?

 

1/4

So take my hand—callous, callused,

knuckles busted from brick-wall punches

that were only mostly accidents.

Sell me on this life, on change

in the face of bills and sense.

 

I’m ready to give instead of take.

I’m ready to understand.

And to learn what to do

 

if that’s still not enough.

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2016: A Year in Stuff

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Forget 2017, already–let’s party like it’s 1986!

It has been, by all accounts, a year of unmitigated death and depravity. If it weren’t for finally getting out of college and having super-awesome friends and family who’ve been with me for some amazing moments, 2016 would’ve been a total loss. Still, as an unrepentant pop culture geek, I feel a duty to briefly roll up my sleeves and dig deep for a silver lining in the media ephemera of the last 365 days. Onto the TOP STUFF LIST!
 –
–Best TV–
(1) Stranger Things: A fantastic homage to the idealized 80s in all its rad glory, this at once nailbiting and heartwarming supernatural tale can’t hit season two soon enough.
(2) Black Mirror (Season 3): Chillingly plausible story hooks and a diverse cast of characters made the return of this peerless techno-satire essential viewing.
(3) Westworld: Obtuse yet epic, it managed the impossible task of having me enjoy cowboy shootouts one second and ponder the depths of consciousness and free will the next.
(4) Channel Zero: Its reimagining of one of the most famous creepypastas in “Candle Cove” struggled with pacing and direction at times, but was still a cracking good start to anthology horror for a new generation.
(5) The X-Files: An “E” for effort, admittedly (it was never going to be *fantastic* after over a decade), but Mulder & Scully’s chemistry still shines, the paranoia still pops, and the middle ep is a series classic.
–Best Movies–
(1) 10 Cloverfield Lane: Mixing a claustrophobic setting with big-name actors, this slow-burn scifi flick provided more thrills on $15 million than most studios do with five times that budget.
(2) Hardcore Henry: The dictionary definition of an R-rating, this Russian rampage through knifings, shootouts, decapitations, and motorcycle chases is first-person adrenaline in a Blu-Ray.
(3) Arrival: Adapted from a story by the underrated Ted Chiang, Dennis Villeneuve’s taut, moody stylings lent a mindbending yet emotional air to an alien invasion.
(4) Captain America – Civil War: It’s more like Avengers 2.5, but who cares? Seeing all these insane characters duke it out on-screen after almost a decade of buildup is as close to a rollercoaster as theater gets.
(5) The VVitch – A New-England Folktale: Despite a Sundance screening in ’15, this humble horror movie really made waves with a wider release this February–and for good reason. With a painstaking attention to period dress and dialogue, it depicts the ultimate nightmare of 17th-century Puritans with spectacular subtlety and unrelenting dread.
–Best Games–
(1) Uncharted 4 – A Thief’s End: The adventure game, perfected. While it may lack the instantly iconic setpieces of its predecessors, this end to Nathan Drake’s saga packs a gripping plot, heart-pounding action sequences, and some of the best graphics I’ve ever seen into one disc.
(2) DOOM: Third time’s the charm with the latest reboot of the granddaddy of gory FPSes. The place: a demon-infested Mars. The mission: If it moves, kill it. On a busy schedule, that’s a goal I can get behind.
(3) INSIDE: The long-awaited sophomore release from dark Danish devs Playdead, INSIDE follows the eerie mystery of its predecessor LIMBO with a world of mind-control, parasites, and scientists dead-set on discovering… something.
(4) Layers of Fear: Naysayers call it a bunch of cheap jump scares designed for PewDiePie and his ilk–but for me, this was possibly the most terrifying game I’ve ever played. Like Jacob’s Ladder meets The Haunted Mansion, time, space, and object permanence mean nothing as you journey through the home of an insane painter desperate to finish his greatest work… even if it kills him.
(5) Pokemon Go: Need I say more? Sure, the hype only lasted a few weeks, but for that glorious midsummer time, 90s nostalgia and cutting edge AR tech joined forces to turn a good chunk of the urban populace into the pocket-monster hunters we always wanted to be. Just do not trespass while playing.
(Honorable Mentions): Hyper Light Drifter and The Last Guardian: I haven’t finished these yet, but the former is a gorgeous love-letter to SNES-era labyrinthine fantasy action games, and the latter is a legendarily delayed tale of a boy and his enormous killer furry pet (but really, it’s finally out!!).
–Best Albums–
(1) David Bowie, Blackstar: Perhaps it’s the freshness of the wound from his premature passing talking, but the choice was obvious. Prophetically or deliberately, Bowie portrays a stirring vulnerability across these seven jazz-tinged tracks like never before.
(2) Dance with the Dead, The Shape: It takes a lot to stand out among 80s-electronica throwback acts these days–anybody with a synthesizer and neon on their cover can ape John Carpenter. How does DwtD earn its stripes? By bringing dance-floor-ready beats and goosebump-inducing chants and guitar solos into the mix.
(3) Radiohead, A Moon-Shaped Pool: Cool, creeping, and cerebral as ever, Thom Yorke and company reassert their the radio-unfriendly art rock cred with monochrome majesty.
(4) Yeasayer, Amen and Goodbye: From mandolins to child choirs to funky beats, you never know what you’ll get with Yeasayer, but it’s sure to get stuck in your head. Underrated!
(5) Panic! at the Disco, Death of a Bachelor: Frontman Brendon Urie never met an abrupt genre change he didn’t like, but this mashup of glam-rock and swing is still unmistakably P!atD: Raucous, cocky, and Hot-Topical.
–Best Other Songs–
(1) “Light Tunnels,” Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat. Mike Slap: Selling genuine awe and being starstruck is hard when you’ve already topped the Billboard charts, but somehow Macklemore manages it on this breathless opening track.
(2) “Famous,” Kanye West feat. Rihanna and Swizz Beatz: I just wanted you to know.
(3) “Tiimmy Turner,” Desiigner: Straight, unintelligible fire.
(4) “Campaign Speech,” Eminem: Shady goes a capella–but anything but apolitical–and doesn’t let off the gas for eight minutes. If this is any indication of what his next album will be like, both Marshall Mathers LPs have some serious competition coming down the pipe
(5) “Exist,” Avenged Sevenfold: What else can you ask for in a prog-metal song but a Neil deGrasse Tyson cameo outro?
(6) “Starboy,” The Weeknd feat. Daft Punk: The inimitable hairdo may be gone, but electro-R&B’s golden boy goes for the triple and then some with this infectious title track.
–Best Books–
Embarrassingly, I can only recall one book published in 2016 that I read for pleasure this year: Atlas Obscura. But for anybody into world travel, pick up a (hefty) copy and start marking your maps for the most bizarre and/or fascinating sights the seven continents have to offer!
 –
And that’s about it! Best wishes for a bright(er) 2017. We can have no illusions of it being sunshine and roses, but neither should we resign ourselves to things just getting progressively worse. Every era has its own phase where folks think “it’s all downhill from here,” but self-fulfilling prophecies are the hardest ones to heed. Make the changes you want to see in the world in your own life, and let that conscience motivate you. Let it drive you pursue your goals, whether you want them taken care later today or in ten years.
And remember: this world can still make sense, if you don’t force it to.

The Bar Prep Poems

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From a rainy day in Buffalo.

I return! While another hiatus from this blog pained me, it was necessary in various ways. First I was studying for the bar exam, then I was taking the bar exam (results pending, could go either way)… and then I spent two weeks abroad for the requisite “barcation”! A trip with family to England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland was just the (plane) ticket; every day was full of exciting moments and Instagram-worthy sights like this:

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A final night near Stratford-Upon-Avon.

But for better or worse, the first of those pictures is more relevant here. For the opening weeks of bar prep, I tried to keep to the Poem-of-the-Week schedule. Eventually, though, my free time didn’t allow for even that, and I was compelled to spend the majority of my time inside nearly all day, nose to the grindstone. Still, I managed to produce a handful of comparatively short poems over a month and a half. Some were, quite honestly, “filler,” but into others I poured with relieving clarity my frustrations about life changes, the prep process, and contemporary world events. For convenience’s sake, I’ve consolidated five of the best “bar prep poems” for this post.

[1] Days

Like a path from campus to a mountain

on the horizon, the only thing separating me

from the past is days.

 

You see me in scenes, a scrapbook clasped shut when backs turn,

but life isn’t a film that ends,

that eclipses with a resolution, then back

on the shelf next to a new time and place

and cast of characters to select,

bound together by glue or gigabytes.

There’s no dividing line between baby teeth and a jaw clenched mid-final

but the one burned by sunsets.

 

So in my head, ten thousand times laid to bed,

I’m still just the kindergartner puzzling over how to count change,

smashing controllers over bad videogames,

screaming atop the stairs when I don’t get my way.

I’m still only the middle-schooler who can’t talk to a crush,

who says gay to complain,

who bullies one boy and punches another sitting down.

I’m surviving high school as I write,

plowing into puberty like a retaining wall,

cradling a pillow when I skip out on the dance,

doodling a dozen would-be book ideas like a whip to ward off the lion of writing them.

Undergrad runs in the background of my mind like a bassline:

Trudging cool Seattle streets alone,

mouthing lines of plaintive pop songs into a smog-lit sky;

always tired, never satisfied.

Sandwiched across square miles

between interchangeable exchange students

and liberal arts darlings who think heartbreak perpetuates the patriarchy.

And higher education still echoes

with every lesson but the ones I paid 100k for:

Nobody actually cares what you do for fun.

If you think they’re too good to be true, you’re right.

Maturity is not taking breaks for weeks straight and still wanting more.

A beautiful view, but no perspective.

 

We can look down that path

and plan a hike.

Boots. Trail mix. A mortgage and diverse portfolio.

Contemplating the climb is tiring enough,

but History isn’t the mountain—

it’s the backpack.

The burden we shrug and slouch under,

of expectations, adulation, admonitions, prescriptions and proscriptions

spilling out of every pouch and zipper.

Every day, every name learned and forgotten,

every skill taught and taken away,

every to-do and what-if determined or discarded—

absent a crack to the head, it’s going nowhere.

Held hostage by memories, there’s no talking down

trying to measure up.

And looking up, to another sunrise

Past the peak,

 

we can shift our legs, try to redistribute the weight—but in vain.

The load only grows,

and this trip, in the end, is solo.

 

[2] Enough

It’s never quite.

Upper back ache, slumped over

the monitor, mind strays—

the key-jangle of studies to come

and Wikipedia search possibilities.

Snap to, for another MCQ,

only to drift again,

shift like the apartment foundation

on leather under summer heat summoning swampass—

as if there’s time for laundry.

 

Preview, view, review,

and still not comprehend it all.

Breaks bend, extend into building a bookshelf

or Swiffering the kitchen.

My mind is a ball on a slight slope, always

in need of nudging to keep it from rolling away.

But I can be distracted by distractions

or by the thought of them;

either way, progress gets put on hold.

 

Surely normal people pay more attention, I say.

Maybe.

Maybe I got this far on charm and chance, a roll of the loaded dice.

Maybe less disciplined parents would’ve put me on Ritalin since middle school.

It’d be cool, in a sense, to pretend my trials are extraordinary,

to install a glass ceiling for my work ethic

and laud those who run across it.

But I have everything I need,

 

for better or worse. The curse

of competence is discontent with just that.

Get a higher percentage. Run another drill.

Reread that sentence. Give me an example.

Every second, an opportunity

to move on, home in, bone up, flesh out,

and doubt, doubt, doubt.

If it turns out I fail, I know who to blame,

 

but it’s the same guy I’ll thank if I win,

until I reach another challenge again.

 

It’s the perfect cycle of panic, a silent fire alarm:

Everything will be okay

as long as I don’t think it will be.

Everything I try will suffice,

as long as I don’t think it’s enough.

 

[3] Catchup

There is confidence in when.

Consecrated delay, a prayer

for the future: another person, inverted

from this one: willing, able, stable.

The invisible blood blister of a torqued shoulderblade

rejuvenated to soft unobtrusiveness;

the paper-eyed dry gaze given a new coat

of sleep, to glaze over anew at the sight

of bullet points and blank lines to fill—

they’ll make more sense tomorrow.

 

Not postponed, just prejudged:

an assumption, wishful unthinking,

that this internet-addled eight-track mind

will digest it like fiber, when experience bangs on a sliding glass door,

mouthing in vain

to prepare for a restless nesting doll

of double-checks and jotted notes.

 

But it can’t all be blamed—we must maintain, whatever break it takes.

Vacuum judiciously. Clean the countertops. Do the dishes.

One wishes for a reason to season the day with chores,

those classic domestic dalliances,

and leave but a peppercorn of practice before bedtime.

All of the withdrawal from a sweaty slump before the computer,

none of the toothache-type guilt

from filling that gap with games.

 

I’ve seen this before,

the weekend’s allure. And sure,

it’s predictable, but that doesn’t mean it’s the same.

Variety is the prize we crank a crane to catch after work,

because that goal won’t come cheap.

But if I can give myself permission to take one evening off,

the rest don’t have to follow.

 

[4] 2016

I know how it feels.

The rush of division.

The high of mighty.

Every catastrophe erupts a pyramid in our midst, and we all tumble down the sides

to make a point with the pain still fresh.

No war without retort anymore,

no riot without secondhand rhetoric,

and the Conversation inflates hate and cowardice until ambiguity asphyxiates.

 

They can’t be blamed.

Terrorism is a natural disaster,

police racing headcases to see who can kill faster,

and so it’s satisfying to put on our passive war paint,

lament the end of humanity and order

from our middle-class palaces.

Pity is mechanical, the sickening cyclical,

as if God ever cared to let hashtags be prayers.

 

But there is peace

in the median, when mean is the mode.

It may not make a great thinkpiece, hitpiece, or placard

thrust aloft in the background of a montage

of martyrs and marauders,

but ambiguity is a luxury long lost.

We can say “ok.” Meh. Maybe. I can see that

both sides have a point, but I’ll sit this one out.

The world has always begged for salvation, sagged at its four corners.

I can all but guarantee the same souls who say “Silence is violence”

crank their earbuds when they pass a homeless person.

 

I understand.

It’s the fear—deep, a hard seed in a bitter fruit—

that the labels we claimed as our base are just ornaments.

That anyone can kiss, kill, donate, or decimate

in the name of a cause we wanted to die (for).

That all we thought was solid is air.

 

It scares us, and so we compare

and contrast: root out the True Scotsmen,

trumpet excuses and exceptions.

Better to err on the side of spiteful

than admit that behind every title,

every Twitter handle or burnished badge, is

a person. Private. Finite. Tired. Trying.

 

We’re lying

when we act like this is as bad as it gets

or as bad as it’s been.

We have the power now to be patient—

to toe the line, keep more than two sides in mind,

and check our facts.

 

I know.

It’s alright.

But this world can still make sense,

if you don’t force it to.

 

[5] I Earn

my inertness.

Tell myself the difference is in the buildup—

a prog rock prelude, not a poppy count-off.

But the end is the same

four chords.

See? Easy enough.

 

Such is hindsight. One’s mind

might perspire—mental hyperventilation—

knuckles digging into bunched-up sweats…

only to lift this skin out of bed and have nothing to hold onto

now that the trial is passed.

 

The perspective, reflected in an invisible thought bubble:

Anyone can play games all day, but I worked for it.

Sure, I can backslide

on diet and discipline,

but at least most folks’ to-do is my back-then.

Burdens buoy me; I tell myself

the effort was there. The obligation was a station

I sat down and refueled at;

not a brick wall I blew through—drive first, take painkillers later.

 

It’s a temperamental tightrope, this balance

between decompression and depression.

A flat affect could be calm or sloth, depending on the audience.

Good thing I’m getting better at social cameras,

though the blooper reel never closes.

 

Don’t tell me I don’t deserve this,

I insist. I could list

everything I went through to get here, but it’s self-imposed.

No more external than drug abuse or loose morals,

just the converse.

Gotta spend money to spend money.

And it’s funny:

 

The less I work, the less there is to work out.

Time decides our priorities for us,

so when I want to do nothing

that matters, the choice falls

to the black-lit sharpened strips of digital time.

 

Let them be

kind.