Monday, August 31, 2015

Floating: A chance encounter

I feel like I've been floating all summer. Longer, even.

I was splashing in Lake Burien in June with my kids, when I noticed they'd lost their kick board. Despite my admonitions, they followed me as I swam after it. They're good swimmers for their age, but I've got to be ready to go full-on Hasselhoff when they're in over their heads, which is always at grandpa's lake.

As I grabbed the blue board and handed it to my son, I noticed the only other people on the lake, two women, were pedaling toward us on a paddle boat. As I handed the kick board to my son, one of the ladies in the two-woman paddle boat said, "Are you a Baker?" Busted. But I wasn't sure for what.

"Uh. Yes."

"Which one?"

"Which what?"

"Which Baker brother are you?"

The Baker boys didn't have the most fabulous reputation during the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations. I wasn't sure where this was going.

"I am Eliot. Son of Gordon. Son of Edward. Our tribe has swum these waters and hunted these lands for generations, as my children shall for generations to come." Okay, I didn't say that. But I've always wanted to say something like that. Actually, my family ancestors are from New Jersey and California. And I'm dork, and it's late. But anyhow.

I told the mysterious women in the boat that I am indeed Eliot Baker. And then one of them introduced herself.

"I was your ninth grade English teacher."

Uh-oh. Double busted. I wasn't exactly teacher's pet back in those days. "I swear I'll turn in that Harper Lee paper. It's going to be so much better now that her new book is coming out." OK, I didn't say that either.

But what followed was the conversation one hopes, upon graduation, to have with a teacher 20 years after high school (C / O 1995, go Pirates!). Turns out I was considered less of a schmuck by my teachers than I'd anticipated. One of them, at least.

But then, I should have known that. She used to let me write book reports for extra credit on novels I wanted to read, from Anne Rice to Dean Koontz and Stephen King, and she'd let me put creative spins on assignments that were otherwise so tedious they'd drive me to doodling inappropriate cartoons in the margins. Somehow, all these years later, she said she remembered several of them. The writing assignments, not the doodles. And, somewhat to my surprise, she had liked me.

It all came back to me, floating and chatting about old times. Using her powers as the girls' volleyball coach, she used to set up a volleyball net for me and a group of outdoor volleyball bums a couple times a week after school. Washington State doesn't fund organized boys indoor volleyball, so we played sand and grass and didn't play other sports; it was kind of punk rock at the time. But her going out of her way, sacrificing her time to play volleyball with us, enabled something of a volleyball career for several of us after high school. I stopped playing after college, but some of us still play and coach.

But more than the volleyball, I remember how she told me, as early as 9th grade, to keep writing. That gesture of confidence helped enable a writing career for me.

"You really stood out," she told me there in the lake, 20 years older and wiser, smiling at my kids. "I knew you'd be a writer. You had a gift."

We chatted a bit more. I promised to come to her class and talk about writing and being an author. She asked if I'd written any novels since The Last Ancient.  I replied the way I have been replying to that same question over the last year. "Got a couple projects that stalled. Just so busy. Had to focus on other things for a while. But I'll get back to it." She gave me a look that only a teacher can give to a former student.

"Keep writing," she said. "Whatever you do, keep writing."

The kids got tired and started swimming back to shore. My teacher and I agreed to meet up again before I flew back to Finland with my family. Didn't happen. But...

If you're reading this, Ms. Legate: Thank you. You have no idea how much I needed to hear that. I've been writing at my new job, and it's great, couldn't ask for a better gig, but it's not my soul's work. When I put down the manuscript I've been working on, I thought it would be just for a month, just to get my head clear before coming back to it. But one month became two, which accumulated more and more days to become a 9 month black hole. Having just picked it back up, I know my manuscript has miles to go before I sleep. But I have promises to keep, and so on and so forth and all that jazz.

Because fuck the metaphorical woods. They aren't lovely. Giving up and letting the Dark and the Deep consume you isn't lovely. It's a slow march into a kind of paralysis of the soul. It just gets so easy to not write. There are so many reasons not to. They all slide over you like a ton of water and next thing you know, you've sunk.

Along that unique connection between teacher and student, certain messages travel with particular electricity. Ms. Legate's refrain of "Keep writing" was a much-needed jolt to remind me I'd been putting off doing what I loved for way too long.

Anyhow. Back to floating.

Sometimes we float in life. There's no escaping it. The trick is to stay afloat, and not let the tide carry you out to sea, or let the waves push you into the deep. The trick is to learn how to float well, how to take in all the things happening below you and above you and around you so that you can come back to shore toting a few more treasures than you had before you got wet.

I watched my kids learn to float in the ocean not long after saying goodbye to Ms. Legate. I was terrified. There they were, these tiny, fragile beings kicking their skinny legs inside a great big ocean full of waves and eels and sea turtles. My daughter is a mermaid, she took to it immediately; my son's a little younger, and he was terrified when he first felt the sheer power of the ocean, so much scarier than the pools and ponds he's used to. But within a day they were both floating without life jackets or kick boards, looking through their masks at tropical fish, pointing and laughing through their snorkels. "Daddy! I can float! I don't need the board!" It's an indescribable feeling, to watch your kids float in the ocean the first time.

When they were done floating, they came back in, full of miracles and beauty and memories. By floating, they'd allowed themselves to grow in a new way.

I've been floating for some time now. I've seen -- and heard and tasted and learned-- some amazing things, some noteworthy things; but it's been a long time out floating, gathering, watching, and not writing. It's time to come in now. Time to keep writing. Just keep writing.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Robin Williams and the Strange Lament of Losing People We Never Knew

So long, Robin Williams. I’ll miss you. Which is rare.

See, I’m tepid on celebrities. Their tabloid lives never interested me, and news of their falls from grace and (often tragic) deaths rarely affect me.  But a few celebrity-news-flash no-effing-way moments have left me staring out the window to reflect on life’s passing as though I’d lost a dear loved one. Williams’s suicide was like that. I feel like I knew the man, having as a kid watched him mature from Mork and Popeye to Sean Mcguire and Aladdin’s Genie. Now that he’s gone, I realize he kind of won the 1990s’ comic entertainment title for me, and then followed that up with some unbelievably relevant standup comedy/political philosophy in the 2000’s. We’ll get to that.

But this isn’t all about Williams. It’s about celebrity death in general, and how it can impact us. At one time or other, I think we all have had a prolonged moment of silence for the passing of a childhood icon or an adult inspiration.

The first no-effing-way moment for me was Magic Johnson’s announced diagnosis of HIV. On November 7, 1991 my fellow high school freshman sports nut neighbor, Andy brought me the news. It took a few swear-to-God’s before I believed him, but once I did we went silent and just stared at my basketball court, empty and cracked beneath an overcast Seattle sky. We couldn’t process the big picture. It felt as though every basketball court in America had just burst into flames, succumbed to ash, and disintegrated into the Earth; and we were falling with them into that gray sinkhole full of things that only adults, not kids, were supposed to understand. Seeing Magic claimed by the era’s most stigmatized disease numbed me to all further sporting world shocks and scandals: from baseball’s steroids to the NFL’s TBI-induced suicides; from Tiger Woods’ hormones to OJ’s and Aaron Hernandez’s murder; even to Jerry Sanduskie’s absolute horror. I was too scarred by that 1991 moment to ever take sports so personally again. I had to listen to some Nirvana, my favorite band at the time, and shoot some free throws to temper the bubbling well of emotions.

Fast forward to April, 1994. I’d grown into a dedicated grunge kid with a ponytail and goatee and flannels and Doc Martins, a cliché suburban Seattle high school junior, when Andy knocked again. It was early in the morning and I knew, just freaking new, that something terrible had happened from the look on his face.

“Kurt Cobain’s dead,” he said, bewildered.
“No. No way. No no no no no.”

I had no words. Kurt and Nirvana were more than music to me. They had found me at a very vulnerable time, a few weeks after losing my mother to cancer. Rocking to Nevermind daily for three years straight was like a daily sanity pill whose side-effects included lifelong hard rock passion and teenage angst sublimation. Dead? Kurt? You mean, he’d never growl out another song? He’d never team up with Michael Stipe as promised? Just… gone? And he freaking shot himself in the head? It was like losing a best friend. I actually got dizzy. In no way do I wish to trivialize historical events, but Kurt’s death helped me empathize with my parents when they’d ask their friends, “Where were you when Kennedy/Martin Luther King/Lennon was shot?” Cobain’s suicide, and Courtney Love’s nearly-as-gruesome-elegy at the Seattle Science Center, numbed me to all the many future deaths of my favorite musicians, from Layne Staley to Michael Jackson. (And yet still, like an immortal cancer culture preserved in a laboratory, Courtney Love lives).

And the last no-effing-way celebrity death (before Robin Williams): The good doctor, Hunter S. Thompson.  Shot himself. Right when I/we needed him most, in February of 2005, as the political shitblizzard thundered loudest around George W. Bush’s presidency. People recall Thompson for getting twisted on exotic drugs in Vegas and with the Hell’s Angels. People’s memories are incomplete. Thompson started off as a great sports writer and evolved into a uniquely skilled counterculture reporter and a passionate political journalist. I wonder if his passion ultimately killed him. For a whole week, I blamed Bush for Thompson’s suicide, figuring Thompson just couldn’t handle a political evil he decried as worse than Nixon, who Thompson believed was the nexus of ethical degradation and moral bankruptcy.

"Richard Nixon looks like a flaming liberal today, compared to a golem like George Bush. Indeed. Where is Richard Nixon now that we finally need him?" Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

Thompson killed himself while half of America watched in horror as the other half voted a second time for George II, after he’d crushed and snorted the electoral college in 2000. We needed Thompson, or someone like him (Maureen Dowd?), to bring some clarity to a fundamentally insane situation and time. A few vintage Thompson articles were pumped out to such effect. He seemed to be regaining form at exactly the moment when an asymmetrical country stuck in an asymmetrical war needed some geometry. And then he offed himself. Damn. The same man who inspired me to be a writer—by doing things with words and stories that Nirvana did with guitars and lyrics, and Magic did with a basketball; the man who turned me on to politics--that guy put the gun on his chest and pulled the trigger. Just like Kurt. No no no no. I drank five fingers of bourbon that night in H.S.T’s honor.

Around that time I watched Robin Williams do standup in San Francisco, all of it hilarious and much of it political. The routine was a big risk considering that comics, musicians, and journalists alike were being hung with flaming tires and branded as subversive communist Sharia puppy-killers for saying anything other than HOW HIGH??? no matter how idiotic or repulsive the order to jump.

“Some men are born great, some men achieve greatness, some get it as a graduation gift.” – Robin Williams, Live on Broadway.

So now Williams is gone. I waded yesterday morning into the river of Facebook elegies, and I found it to be a stronger current than I recall following the passing of Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffman and almost even Michael Jackson, amongst others, and I get it. Robin felt like someone we knew. We grew up with him and watched him change, struggle, succeed, mature. He evolved from an untethered goofball to a comic genius and dramatic powerhouse. There was something comforting about his bearded face in a sensitive movie, and something exciting about his crazed grin in a wacky one. We grew up watching him like he was our talented but wacky uncle everyone rooted for, but worried over.  

So long Robin. You’ve joined the small family of celebrity souls who reside in my heart. I’m sure you guys will get along great.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Review: Obscura Burning, by Suzanne van Rooyen

The exquisitely written and deftly plotted Obscura Burning, by Suzanne van Rooyen, delivers readers into that dreamlike state immediately proceeding shattering emotional trauma; the kind that forces you to pick up the event’s fragments and piece them together with a sense of shutter-eyed fascination over “What really happened?” tempered with “Do I really want to know?” I met the author at a book reading at FinnCon 2014 in Finland and I’m so glad I did, otherwise I’d have missed buying her exquisite novel.

My reading experience made me recall Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing process for The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The two authors and their works share little resemblance (Obscura Burning’s plot is more reminiscent of dark urban fantasy millennial movies like Butterfly Effect and Vanilla Sky, mixed with Donnie Darko, Melancholia and Groundhog Day), but the purgatorial sense of being trapped between realities and mental states until a difficult choice is made recalls how Stevenson reportedly conceived his classic tale from a nightmare, and then he revisited and nurtured his nightmare night after night into a coherent narrative—dream-drafting, you might call it. Indeed, the dream logic rabbit hole that Obscura Burning launches readers into steadily transmutes into a freight train chugging along crooked tracks of well-researched science fiction logic and real world emotion towards impending apocalypse, as we follow protagonist Kyle comprehend the details of a tragedy that killed his lover, or their best friend, or neither or both, depending on the periodicity whims of the mysterious planet Obscura that rose in the sky the day of the tragedy.

Upon turning the final page of Obscura Burning, I found that the story, its characters, and especially its climax lingered, haunting me all the way to my own dreams the following night, when I had an Obscura-inspired nightmare. Folks, when a novel drills that deeply into your psyche, you know that something rare and excellent has been achieved.

In reading the sad, thrilling, enigmatic, and deeply psychological scenario of competing realities, I was lulled into a state of consciousness that straddled dream, nightmare, and vivid fantasy by Rooyen’s beautiful, elegant writing style – replete with cliché-free imagery and metaphor and analogy – and her masterful plotting. The novel’s philosophical underpinning is powerful but subtle, and it corkscrews so effectively that its plot twists are both unexpected and satisfying.

At first, the novel seems to slide more into psychological horror territory with its preoccupation on grief and the notion of free will and choice. Kyle, the protagonist, a closeted gay pyromaniac from the wrong side of the tracks and with a penchant for self-harm, is racked by guilt guilty over the (on-again-off-again) deaths of his lover and their best friend, the details of which are hazy to him and them both. As he learns that a momentous choice he and they made coincides with the date that the time-warping mysterious planet, Obscura appeared in the sky, his feelings are further complicated. He realizes that the fate of  his friends-and perhaps the world-- rests on his choices, past and future. In short, he recognizes that it’s not all about him; that even though his life is hard, people around him are still affected by his choices. It’s a powerful moment we all face at some point in our late teens, and it’s rendered with powerful clarity here.

But then Obscura Burning corkscrews, the way a dream can shift in one night. Now it’s not all about choice. It’s about science and time travel and the multi-verse. And then it’s not all about that, either. It’s about love and friendship, it’s about redemption and responsibility, and something else and then something else again that would be a spoiler to mention.  Through Kyle’s dark, poetic soul we must figure out what is most essential in love and life in order to stop a cataclysm promised by the burning blue planet that will rise closest to Earth on July 4th. The sense of doom is nerve-wracking as the calendar pages flip forward and backward, closer to and further from that date.

The characters are in their late teens and dealing with death, sexuality, poverty and impending apocalypse, so this novel is for the older set as well as for anyone who appreciates good writing and a good psychological mystery within their dark urban fantasy. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Free Fiction: The Fellowship of the Chicken: or How not to Climb a Mountain

 I climbed Mount Kinabulu when I was twenty-one years young with two buddies from Semester at Sea. The part about it almost killing me is true. The rest is basically Lord of the Rings fan fiction. I laughed out loud while writing this. Enjoy.

Fellowship of the Chicken:
How not to climb a mountain

            We should have killed the chicken.
            Sure, we’d made other sacrifices to climb Malaysia’s Mount Kinabulu, the highest peak in Southeast Asia at thirteen thousand four hundred thirty-five feet. But in retrospect, they were all far too metaphorical and full of empty overtures to abstinence to suit the occasion.
            The gods prefer blood. Otherwise, they’ll take your sweat, your tears, your pride-- even your mind.
            It had seemed like the will of the gods when, after agreeing to reunite my band, The Phat Hobbits on a Japan tour with some old buddies who’d made it big, my Southeast Asia tour book fell off my coffee table and cracked open on my apartment floor to a picture of Mount Kinabulu. As I gazed into the image of Kinabulu’s sharp, other-worldly stone peaks veiled in crimson ghost clouds, my three-man punk brigade watched me grip the cursed gold ring dangling from a chain around my shoulders. We all murmured, “Mount Doom,” knowing what must be done. We were in Seattle, our shire. We had to go to Malaysia, our Mordor.
            Flying from Kuala Lumpur by way of Osaka, we hitched a ride at the Kota Kinabulu airport with a local wearing an old school Supersonics hat. We Seattleites interpreted it as a sign. As he weaved through streets crammed with rickshaws and street vendors, we broadcasted our intentions to conquer Kinabulu (without mentioning the cursed gold ring dangling over my chest). Nodding reverently, he described the mountain’s beauty, its power--and its danger.  Some time ago, three Englishmen climbed the mountain and were never seen again.  Intrigued, I asked for wisdom that would preclude such a fate.
            “You must sacrifice a chicken.”
Nick the drummer and Tyson the bassist shrugged awkwardly, eyes pressing me, their front man, to lead on. I asked if the chicken had to be a virgin in earnest, but my friends snorted. An almost fatal mistake. The warm evening went immediately cold inside the van. The local slammed his brakes, veered onto the grassy shoulder, and scolded us through crooked, angry teeth that Mount Kinabulu is a mystical place, its gods to be respected.
            Go to the sacrificial chicken ranch.  Buy a chicken.  Slit its throat.  Only then could we begin our journey. 
In that moment we became more than tourists. Nodding silently, we looked out the window of the mini-van with our best thousand yard stares.  Blood, sweat, death… it was on. 
Outside the van at the hostel, Nick broke the spell when he suggested just pouring a bowl of chicken Panang onto the ground, ghetto-Shire style; one for the gods, one for the Hobbits.  We laughed. An even dumber almost fatal mistake.
            The gods do not tolerate japes--and will punish the infidels who dare.
            After a long night of dancing, karaoke, and drinking the Malaysian eight-point-five infusion, Anchor Special Brew, we and our hangovers set off on a two-hour bus ride for the hike of our lives, a non-technical but extreme-inclined five-mile ascent we’d been told was more challenging than Yosemite’s legendary fourteen-mile Half Dome hike, which I’d once completed with little difficulty outside of the marmots that stole my summit sandwich.
            The awesomely terrible kung-fu movie blaring on the bus’s TV monitors cut off in mid-spinning-helicopter-death-kick as we hissed to a stop. Peering through beer-soaked eyes out the window, I experienced a species of dread only the gods can instill. Shrouded in slash-and-burn farming smoke, the looming god mountain’s glowering stone head and crouching green bulk suddenly made me nervous about upsetting local deities. Bumping off a chicken seemed within bounds; breaking eggs to make omelets, I reasoned. Even Tyson, a recently converted Buddhist, rationalized it as not killing but cultural observation in an admirable display of moral contortionism.
            At the Timpohon Gate park headquarters we received our mandatory guide, whose unpronounceable name contained a “G” so we called him Gandalf. The lean and quiet man could have been thirty but was probably fifty considering the wise glint in his eyes. First thing, I asked where we could get our hands on a live chicken.
            Surprised, Gandalf informed us in broken English that usually only locals perform the ritual and we were too late to locate and kill a chicken properly. Tyson the Buddhist cursed.
            “Dudes, the shire leaf has addled your minds,” said Nick, a blonde marathon runner and rock climber. “We’re only twenty-nine. Let’s stick it to this Malaysian mountain god.” Tyson and I glanced at one another’s developing paunches and said, “Hellz yeah,” but with about as much confidence of success as Faramir riding to meet the Orc legions.
            Our fears proved justified. Within seconds of passing through the trailhead we realized that this wasn’t so much an inclined path as it was a suicide run on a stair climber at level twenty. The steep trail quickly transformed into earthen stairs, each step requiring a hop to surmount. Within fifteen minutes I was sucking air, and begged my friends to slow down. Regroup. Reconsider?
            After thirty minutes my legs began to wobble. I paid no heed, figuring they just needed to warm up.  Determined to reach the overnight camp as quickly as possible (fast hikers like we once were could beat four hours) I ignored pain, fatigue and nausea as I’d done on countless northwest hikes up Mount Si and Granite Mountain and around Mount Baker.  Hell, I’d even done Ranier, a god in its own right named Tahoma by the local tribes. Gradually my place in line dropped from leader, to middle, to last--to dead weight.
            Soon, it was not the pain in my quads and lungs that unnerved me, but the boiling sea of Anchor: Special Brew raging within my belly.  Noticing my pale complexion and my hand upon my chest, Nick asked if the Eye of Sauron was upon me.  Turning, I began, “Guys I don’t feel so--” before doubling over, convulsing. 
            Leaning over a wooden rail, I unleashed a flood of acidic Malaysian lager upon the green ferns and bulbous orange carnivorous pitcher plants surrounding the trail.  My compatriots turned their heads respectfully on their fallen comrade.
            “King’s Foil, Fro?” asked Tyson, holding out a bag of salty nuts.
            “We must get him to Rivendell,” said Nick, doing annoying bouncy stretches on the cursed mountain steps. “The ring has taken its toll.”
            I tried to respond, “The fellowship is unbroken--” before succumbing to another yellow waterfall. The Lord of the Rings references were all that stood between abysmal despair, but I wasn’t sure how much longer the idiomatic dam would hold against the flood of F-bombs and goddammits I so wanted to unleash.
            My digestive system emptied itself along another mile of the incline we hobble-hiked up before I collapsed against a tree, chest heaving and sweat stinking of booze and failure. I apologized to Gandalf for desecrating his mountain.  He didn’t seem to judge me.  Sitting down, I wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into as the ring hung heavy around my shoulders.
            Getting up was when things really got ugly.  Hiking’s cardinal rule is to always stay hydrated.  Binge drinking at the discotheque followed by heavy vomiting constitute an automatic violation of that rule.  I quickly learned why as steel braces locked my quivering legs in place.  Attempts to remove them from the cramped position were futile; no such position existed.  My leg muscles twitched and convulsed in grotesque waves beneath my skin, eliciting horrified oohs, aah, and stop that!’s from the Phat Hobbits.
            And two and a half vertical miles still remained to the overnight camp.
            “Maybe you’re more of a dwarf,” Nick accused, performing a few jumping jacks for good measure. “Natural sprinter. Over short distances, very dangerous.”
            I looked to Gandalf for counsel. The man of the mountain shrugged and smiled, sweat-less in his white sneakers and faded jeans.
            “You maybe no die if climb,” said Gandalf. “But getting dark. Go back good idea.”
            My hand went to the ring beneath my shirt. The years in thrall to it had weakened me, but I refused to let it drag me back down to the bottom. Not again.
            Willing myself to stand, I said, “Certainty of death. Small chance of success. What are we waiting for?”
            Unable to speak intelligibly, I tried to make my heaves and grunts sound optimistic as I lurched along like a wooden puppet, jerking my spasmodic legs up the mountain one at a time. The pain was excruciating, but I was starting to feel like kind of a badass.
            Then, strapped into a woven basket stuffed with potatoes and dead chickens with lolling heads, a wispy-haired, ninety-pound porter woman literally jogged by us in sandals for what Gandalf said was her second trip that day to the summit camp, Laban Rata. Before I could ascertain whether my manhood still remained, a British woman with a gray ponytail and her adult son passed us and said, “Sure feels good for an old lady like me to pass a young buck like you!” 
            I groaned. They chuckled. And the gods positively guffawed.
            At a jungle clearing I peered into the smoky green valley from which we’d ascended, drinking cold canteen water and breathing the fragrant ancient wood and the purple and gold and red exotic flowers. It was beautiful. The base of the mountain looked small beneath us. Hope bloomed in my heaving chest. 
Until I discerned the granite peak above the tree line. Formidable, mocking: An impossible distance. The gloom of the mountain’s shadow crept into my heart, made darker by the gold ring swinging over it.
            Repentant thoughts pierced my brain. Be merciful, ye gods!  I’ll mock thee not. I’ll sacrifice a wilderness of chickens. Show pity!
            Then I remembered--I’m an atheist.
            Game on, Kinabulu.
            And so I continued into increasingly thinner air, cursing and muttering at the ground, the sky, even a pretty blond passing hiker whose vague familiarity ignited a pleasure-pain burning in the ring.  There was no joy in this push.  No communion with nature, no appreciation of my excellent company, and certainly no productive inner reflection.  It was a battle, vicious and primal: Me vs. the Gods-I-Don’t-Believe-In, winner-take-all.
            At long last I glimpsed Laban Rata at the far edge of my tunnel vision. There, upon that great wooden deck suspended over the misty green jungle abyss nearly eleven thousand feet above sea level, we could shower, gobble Tylenol and nap before commencing the one-and-a-half mile final push to the summit for a fabled Kinabulu sunrise. 
Nearly in tears, with over four traumatic miles and seven excruciating hours behind me, I hobbled up the last few steps towards sweet, level ground. 
Cramping, sweating and dizzy, my body escalated its insurrection to blind vengeance: Take that (spasm)! And that (contraction)! And THAT (spasmspasmcontraction)!
            I collapsed against a boulder, legs rippling as though in mid-electrocution.  Nick poured water down my throat and worked my legs like a corner-man, unlocking enough circulation that they momentarily stopped rolling on themselves like hungry corn snakes.
            Nearby, the graying ponytail lady and her son played hopscotch. They pointed at me, waving. I crutched along on Nick and Tyson’s shoulders to the lodge, somehow keeping my other four fingers extended in my return wave.
            My friends dropped me into a wooden deck chair like a sack of moldy apples.
            “You look freshly violated by Boromir,” said Tyson, wiping his sweaty bush of black curls from his eyes.
            “And micturated upon by orcs,” said fair-haired Nick, groaning at the sudden twitching in my right quad. Walking away with deliberately evil springy steps to the food kiosk, they asked loudly where they could get in on some hopscotch. 
            Unable to bend my knee to remove my steaming Timberlands, I looked up and noticed a tallvblonde lady was leaning against the deck’s wraparound rail and staring at me. We locked eyes. With ginger steps she treaded towards me, staring at my ruined legs. Grave concern darkened her long, angular face, elfish and pretty despite its salty sweat streaks.
            “You alright?” she asked in a pulse-quickening Australian accent.
            “Would you believe yes?”
            “No. I passed you an hour ago on the trail. I’m a Doctor of Physical Therapy. Mind if I look at your legs?”
            Hallelujah! Damn the chickens and the gods they fed, the summit was as good as conquered! And with it my curse, left to wither and die in that cloud of purple smoke below us.  I mouthed a thank-you to the blue Malaysian sky as the Aussie angel pulled up a chair beside my knees.
            But the Gods had been saving their greatest prank for last, I learned, as her name rolled off her tongue and past her straight, white teeth to shake me like thunder in a dungeon.
            Somewhere above I heard chortling, deep and malicious as cracking glaciers. The golden burden around my shoulders sagged as her expert fingers kneaded my flesh.
            Nick and Tyson were questioning my capacities as a hiker and a man when they stopped behind me, dumbstruck. Sally introduced herself, and Tyson’s hand froze in mid-extension, aborting his handshake. Nick dropped his water bottle, and didn’t pick it up as its cold clear liquid bled onto the wooden deck. Sally instructed them to procure electrolytes and bananas. Nick followed orders in a daze, jaw agape, but Tyson narrowed his eyes.
            “All that glitters is not gold, Halfling,” he said.
            “That’s William Blake, retard. Tolkien said, ‘All that is gold does not glitter,’” I said.
            “Stay the path, ring-bearer!” Tyson said.
            The ensuing silence swelled with a life-long friendship’s worth of crippled promises and kidney-punched dreams. And Sallies. So many Sallies. Tyson kept looking at us long after the silence grew awkward.
            “What?” Sally and I said together, as though we’d been doing so for years. Something about our vocal harmony injected fear into my friend’s heart.
            “Not again, Fro. We’re here to destroy the ring, not to wield it.” Tyson marched off towards Gandalf.
            Sally continued pouring electrolytes down my throat and rubbing the vipers out of my legs in my infirmary-like room. A warm, drowsy blanket of helplessness and attention enveloped me as I rested against my pillow, marveling at her. We’d showered off the Kinabulu grit and she emerged beautiful in that severe, calculated way that Sallies always are. There was a knock at her door.
            “Hey Fro, lights out. We’re summiting in a couple hours,” said Nick, poking his head into the doorway. Tyson joined him and they entered the room.
            Sally nodded at me with the stern prompt of a nurse, and I said, “Guys, I’m done. Dr. Sally says it’s too dangerous. Bad things could happen to me. Things with lots of syllables.”
            “Is Dr. Sally staying bedside?” asked Tyson.
            “Yeah, I got some wicked blisters.” Sally wiggled turgid pink bubbles on her big toes. “Go on. I’ll take care of your friend.”
            Awkward silence, then, “What?” Sally and I said in unison.
            They chanted, “Come back, come back, to Mordor she’ll take you.”
            And they wouldn’t stop chanting, not when I threw my pillow at them, or my shoe, not until I threw a half-empty Gatorade bottle that bounced against the door frame did they leave.
             “You’re a lot more mature than your friends,” Sally said (as Sallies often do), straddling my knees to rub my thighs. “Is Fro really your name?”
            I groaned at the exquisite pleasure and pain of her touch.
            “Sort of. It’s Fernando. Long story short, we’re Lord of the Rings dorks. Hence, our band name, The Phat Hobbits. We got kind of quasi-big locally back in the day after high school. I’m the front man so people started calling me Fro. Oh, and I’ve got a pretty sweet afro if you didn’t notice. Anyhow, we’re reuniting to dive head-first into early mid-life crises. Kind of lucked into a last-minute gig opening for some old friends around Japan. Could be our big break.”
            “I admire you artistic types. Never had much imagination myself. But I find that fantasy stuff kind of stupid. Here, how’s that? Does it hurt when I press here?”
            Of course it didn’t. Like her predecessors, she knew nothing would hurt until my final, inevitable amputation from her life. Then the pain would explode all at once.
            Each Sally--all four of them since middle school, like some many-headed preppy serpent, each my older, smarter and wealthier better--nursed me after a bizarre injury. The last Sally--Professor Sally, seven years and three university degrees my superior--rushed to the stage after Tyson knocked me out with an ill-advised samurai-bass-chop.
            The timing was catastrophic. We were opening for a band whose label promised to sign us after the tour. Tyson had quit his cushy video game programmer job and Nick had left his neuroscience lab. Saying adios to Starbucks wasn’t exactly tearful for me.
            But within a month, Professor Sally and I were innocently saying “What?” in unison to questions like: You’re not making the tour? And you’re leaving the band? And you’re moving in together? You’re getting married? And moving to Boston? And going into Sally’s father’s real estate business?
            She’s leaving you for a divorced tax attorney with three kids and a hairpiece?
            I lied when I said I was an atheist. I believe in goddesses, and their names are Sally. But like Galadriel, with a ring they’re Beautiful and Terrible as the Morn: All shall love them and despair! Well, me at least. Tyson and Nick tried repeatedly to bludgeon me back to my senses with foam swords, but I just blabbered, “She’s a professor you jamokes! She knows what’s good for me!” Gives us the precious!
            “Ever been to Sydney?” said Dr. Sally, unwinding the piano wire-tight IT bands stretched between my knees and hips with her strong thumbs. “We’ve got an ace music scene. I’m heading back in two days to move into my new place. You should come. Here, how’s this?”
            “Oh. Oh, wow. That’s good. Why would a girl like you be moving into a new place alone?”
            Dr. Sally began confessing things to me, many of which I’d heard one Sally ago, concerning fatigue of academic types and of men being intimated by her brains. Then it progressed to deeper insecurities, like how Dr. Sally had started wearing turtlenecks to cover up the deepening wrinkles on her neck. Wrinkles she was pulling down her shirt collar to display, allowing a glimpse of the white pink wonderland beneath. I understood this signified her intentions to wear me for similar purposes for at least two years, maybe five. The glands of failed musicians are renowned amongst Sallies for their anti-aging properties. Grinding our guitars into paste yields a potent aphrodisiac.
            “Down under?” I said, eyes closing, submitting to the power of the massage, the glory of her will. “Never even thought of it until now. But… Maybe?”
            Part of me knew that things would go south soon after going down under. That I would feel compelled to explain why her taste in music, movies, and art was so shockingly awful it precluded friendship with cool people. She, in turn, would castigate my dreams while milking dry my own urban insights until the night when, years or months later, she would regurgitate them at a gathering of shiraz-drinking pseudos that would include an older, established, unattached professional standing inappropriately close to her.
            As Dr. Sally massaged my thighs with her palms, I knew I would sacrifice everything for her while guzzling a Mickey Finn of admiration, sexual gratification, and deep pity for the frozen hole in her core. Gradually, my testicles would vanish and I’d shrivel into a hunched and spiteful thing, religiously polishing the ring to which I would be bound. But who am I, a Phat Hobbit, to refuse my fate as ordained by a Goddess? 
            “I live alone in that big house. And my dad always needs top salesmen for his mining equipment business…”
            My name is Fro, and I am a Goddess addict. Each drop of suffering on Kinabulu obviously represented the final stages of Goddess withdrawals. I’d heard those can be deadly. Perhaps the expedition--the whole tour even--was merely the cruel joke of a divine bully with a magnifying glass atop a mountain. Perhaps this Sally would be different. This Sally was my savior. This Sally was my fate.
            My finger ached for the ring. And the numb relief it promised.
            Dr. Sally removed her shirt. Crawled into my bed. Her door blew open. Drawing the covers to her chin, Dr. Sally screeched as Nick and Tyson entered, followed by Gandalf, who was holding a plucked chicken carcass wrapped in ketchup packets like a profane suicide poultry bomber.
            “Come on Fro,” said Tyson, tall and hefty. “I can’t carry it for you. But I can carry you!” He pulled me thrashing feebly from Sally’s arms.
            “Kill the chicken, Fro,” Nick said, handing me a metal butter knife on which he’d scribbled in black marker, Sting. “The mountain demands sacrifice!”
            As Sally hollered, Gandalf solemnly laid the naked avian offering on the plastic bedside table. Holding my eyes with ageless Malaysian wisdom, the man of the mountain nodded while my band chanted like Elmer Fudd: Kill da CHI-cken, kill da CHI-cken, kill da CHI-cken, killdachicken!
            I raised the butter knife, but paused when Sally screamed beside me, “Your friends are idiots! You can’t reach the top! Come back to bed you moron!” My hand wobbled.
            I drove the knife deep into the chicken’s ketchup-packet heart, over and over, splattering red upon the white walls, over my face, even on Sally. I stopped when I heard no more screaming or chanting. Only my ragged breath. The chicken resembled a slashed and battered red heart with a ludicrously grinning beak.
            Gandalf nodded as my friends dragged me from the room. Sally made to get up, shirt or no shirt after me, but Nick held out the mangled chicken carcass like a talisman, stomped his foot, and bellowed, “None shall pass!” Sally stared on, pulling the white sheet back tight against her chest. Darkness filled the expanding space between us like the rush of ocean between a freed sailor and his siren. The pain returned to my legs as I hobbled back to my own room.
            Exhaustion clubbed me into dreamless space.  Waking up sucked. Every cell in my body--my very soul--begged to stay in bed.  But succumbing to such trivialities as altitude sickness, sleep-deprivation, alcohol poisoning, severe cramping, chronic dehydration, depression, and, quite possibly, post-traumatic stress and a re-fractured heart was no longer an option.
            My friends hauled me into my stinking boots as my quadriceps bubbled and writhed in protest. Gandalf led us on, pensively chewing on grass. 
My memory of that final climb is vague.  Thin, elusive air. Some ropes; slipping on bare rock; surprising cold; a sensation of floating high above other living things.  For a few hours we were suspended within the stars, our chorus of labored breathing the only indication of things besides the mountain and the gods. 
            And then we reached the highest peak in Southeast Asia for sunrise.  As the eastern sky reddened in crisp flame, a full moon descended on the opposite horizon.  Silhouetted against the rising sun, Mount Kinabulu cast the shadow of an ethereal pyramid directly beneath the moon, a geometrically precise rendering of the all-seeing-eye on dollar bills.  The Eye of Sauron, come-to-God. Staring into that big silver orb, I stopped cursing.
In that superimposed image of setting moon and rising sun on the eternal mountain, all of us climbers intuited cosmic balance, a truth. The English lady shared her M&Ms with me, laughing. I casually removed my old gold wedding band from around my shoulders and flipped it to Gandalf, who smiled and playfully punched my shoulder for the gift, worth roughly his year’s salary. Nick and Tyson just breathed with me in synchronicity.
Every cramp, every humiliation, every drop of sweat was forgotten in that moment.  Sitting in the freezing winds at the peak, I did not feel cold.  I hated no one, nothing.  For a brief moment I was at total peace, humbled before the eyes of the gods.

            And somewhere in the heavens, I heard laughing.