Lying Flat in the Park

Lying Flat in the Park

(A One Act Play)

[Lying Flat (tangping; 躺平) is a social movement happening now in response to China’s post-industrial period. The movement grows out of youth protest against a brutal work culture, often referred to 9-9-6, from 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week, by not participating in it. By “lying flat”, you are physically, literally, and metaphorically detaching yourself from the demands of late-stage capitalism. A fascinating synopsis can be found here. The following is a monologue, an introspective journey, flowing from thought to thought, on the exegesis of academia and the viability of its future through the act of Lying Flat, as our protagonist acknowledges the pain in his upper shoulders, in one act]

PLAYER(S)

MANUEL, a loose anagram for the word “nameless”

ECHO, in the voice of MANUEL

My View While Lying Flat

ACT I

SCENE: A park, populated by Querces and Magnolia trees, their leaves on the verge of turning brown, and a community center made of several buildings, enclosed in black iron gates. It is late in the afternoon, with the sun in position to set in several hours, surrounded by scattered clouds. The clouds are not lowering the temperature precipitously, but a light breeze is adding to the temperature drop. Manuel, often referred to as Manny, is lying on a plaid park blanket in the park, with his vision pointed towards the tress above him, periodically rocking his head back and forth, laboring to prevent himself from vocalizing the internal exchange he is having. 

MANUEL: So why am I here? Focus, focus…

(the sun moves one minute closer to sunset)

MANUEL: It’s cold. The ground is a lot harder than I anticipated. I’m trying to isolate myself from all of the noise. Yeah, this is good- there’s greenery, there are birds chirping. All of my problems should just melt away.

(the sun moves three minutes closer to sunset)

MANUEL: NOTHING IS HAPPENING!! This is infuriating. No…wait. No, it’s good. I’m trying to be mindful. I’m here, and everything is quiet. The answers should just pour out of this experience. (a light breeze coming from the northwest passes) It’s colder than I thought here. Okay, just focus…why are you here? Why did you come here? I came here to…my back hurts. So goddamn much. And I don’t know why. (Manuel shifts his head to the left, nose pointed towards the ground) I don’t know what I’m doing. And I don’t know how long I can keep going. Towards a place I don’t want to go.

(the sun moves one minute closer to sunset)

MANUEL: Think of a metaphor. Try to think of a symbol or something to really hone into how you are feeling. It’s like…it’s like a guy who has worked his whole life towards a goal that was always in this ephemeral state, and as he gets closer to reaching it, the goal becomes more and more elusive…Wait- that’s not a metaphor. That’s you. Described exactly by you. DAMNIT. Gotta think….what works? No, wait, just be honest…how do you feel?

(the sun moves one minute closer to sunset)

MANUEL: I feel like….I need to do something different. But I can’t figure this out. It’s because I’m stuck. I’m stuck in this mode where my choices are no longer mine. I feel like….I’m no longer passionate about what I do. What happened to that spark? What happened to that thing that made me want to do great things? What is this weird thing I do? I write, and grade papers, and read what other people tell me to read. This is no longer fun. This is no different than the menial labor I was trying to get away from. I don’t want to be a cog in some wheel. This isn’t for me. There’s this- (a rustle is heard about twenty yards away) What was that!? Christ, I’m really on edge right now. No, it’s worse. I’m at the edge of this pit, where everyone’s hopes and passions get dumped into in order to keep marching along in their routines. I don’t want to be on this ledge. This isn’t good for me. What is…this?

(the sun moves thirty seconds closer to sunset)

MANUEL: I feel like…if I roll over, I’ll fall of a ledge, falling into an abyss where I will no longer be myself. This abyss where everyone’s hopes go to evaporate. I’ll end up in some job I hate, paying for a house I can’t afford to live in, trapped in a cycle of expenses, becoming invisible, a shell of myself, to the point where the words I say lose all value. I’ll no longer use language. It’ll be a code that communicates solely designed for what I need to buy. I’ll be reduced to a robot that works at an Amazon warehouse, built for getting things based on a list of things someone else decided I needed. I’ll be detached from my body, seeing it work, completing tasks, shutting down at night, powering up in the morning to complete a new series of tasks. My body will no longer be my own. I don’t…like…feeling this way.

(the sun moves twenty seconds closer to sunset)

MANUEL: So how do I feel…right now? What’s happening on the inside? I hear…a lot of rain. And water. And wind. And violence. And everything is dark. (a breeze passing through the leaves of the tree next to Manuel, producing a rustling akin to the sounds of rain pattering on glass) There’s a boat. The kind you’d see in a history book from the early 1920s. It’s caught in a violent storm, with only one person steering and controlling the sails. As the ship tries to navigate the storm, the sailor has an expression that is a combination of angry, scared, and determined. The only marker of time is the clothes he’s wearing, worn down to scraps hanging from his body. He has a beard that is all but attractive looking, frayed and unpleasant to look at. He’s swearing at the Gods of the Sea at the top of his lungs, demanding an answer for these circumstances. But there are no responses. There’s no sight of land or other boats anywhere. It’s just violence, screaming, and the ocean.

(the sun moves ten seconds closer to sunset)

MANUEL: I’m really worried about the future. What options do we have in the face of corporatization? What’s the point of fighting an impossible task like climate change? Why work so hard for a future with no prospects? Is this what every person on the cusp of entering a new stage in life feels? Or is this stage of human civilization so awful, hope is now rendered meaningless? I seriously don’t know….and I hate not knowing. Like…what am I doing? Is this the right thing to be doing? Is this where Young and Idealistic Manny wanted to be? I wonder how he’d feel if he saw what this direction led to. I feel so detached from him, that it’s hard to tap into that mindset. It feels like I’m at the mall, and my kid, who I totally thought was holding my hand, suddenly isn’t, and now I’m frantically looking for him. Where did he go? Is he hurt? What’s going to happen to him?

Wait…am I the adult, or am I the kid?

(the sun moves four seconds closer to sunset)

MANUEL: I’m asking myself these questions, and I’m still not sure where the answers are. I don’t hate what I do, or think it’s pointless. I actually really like where I’m at. I think what really brought me here, and all of my questions, is being so goddamn exhausted. I’ve been here for what feels like hours and I’m still really tired. The kind of tired where you wish you can go to sleep, except even that’s difficult since putting yourself to sleep still requires effort. I got this pain in my lower back, creeping throughout my body. Laying flat feels good, but I’m positive it’s terrible for my back. The creeping leads to more questions. Why do this? Why do something that is so taxing on your body? How is it possible to love something when it’s the cause of so much pain? I’ve heard of people who get massages that dig into their muscles so thoroughly, they feel compelled to cry. Maybe that’s what my body needs right now.

(the sun moves three seconds closer to sunset)

MANUEL: It’s getting colder. I’m glad my body can still feel something. I came here to rest, but my muscles are so mangled, where just lying flat puts me in pain. I feel like letting something out. Some kind of scream. A most violent utterance. A yawp. But I have no words. I pull deep from my larynx, only to find my vocabulary exhausted. I keep pulling, pulling, like pulling rope through a winch. What happened to my words? What am I without them? What’s left of a writer when his cupboards are empty, leaving him destitute from his stories? Words were always my salvation, making sense of the senseless, curating the best sentences. My words are no longer mine. Where have they gone? My screams emit no sound. They are all sucked into the pit I’m overlooking, one nudge away from falling into. Falling into a space where sound does not exist…sounds pretty good right now.

(the sun moves three seconds closer to sunset, with a thick cumulus cloud beginning to block it out, dropping the temperature in the park approximately seven degrees Fahrenheit )

MANUEL: Yelling into a pit is a strange thing. There are no stenographers or scribes recording the words uttered. It’s just you and your echoes. Even the echoes are unreliable. They develop their own personality. Soon, they even interject with their own words. It’s a void where no notifications come through, no gossip, no judgement. I can say whatever I want.

EHO: So say it.

MANUEL: (slightly startled)….what?

ECHO: Say whatever you want. You’re in a void. What are you thinking?

MANUEL: What do you mean? Like….what can I say?

ECHO: You wanted answers. You have them. You just have to say it.

MANUEL: But I don’t…have the answers.

ECHO: Yes, you do. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

MANUEL: But…like…it can’t be that simple.

ECHO: It is. Just say it.

MANUEL: But where do I…I didn’t know if…I can’t just-

ECHO: (frustratingly) Damnitall, WHAT DO YOU WANT?!!!!?

MANUEL: I….just…want to help people. (Manuel says this phrase, punctuated by a long sigh of relief)

ECHO: There we- see? All you had to do is say it.

MANUEL: I just want to help others. Be in service of others. I seriously just want to make the world a better place.

ECHO: Good.

MANUEL: (with a slight tremble in his throat) Yeah?

ECHO:. Yes. Now…go do that.

MANUEL: Yeah…I think I can do that.

(the sun sets two seconds closer to sunset, with the cumulus cloud continuing to move, no longer blocking the sun, gradually raising the temperature up another three degrees Fahrenheit )

MANUEL: I just want to help people. I can feel my words rising out of this pit. I’m remembering where I’m at again. My eyes open, still covered in shades, as if protecting me from all of the truths I’m tapping into. I can feel the cloth of the blanket I’m on, down to the stitch pattern. I can feel the air on my face, carrying the scents of the park, a bit of dried leaves, fresh air, tree bark, a slight touch of dog excrement, all overpowered by the scent of the grass around me. I can feel the warmth of the sun on my face, reviving my emotional state from a cold blue to a blushful red. I can hear children running around, feeling the vibrations of their running from the ground, some stumbling, or sitting still. (Manuel’s gaze moves from the ground to the sky, rolling his neck, leading to a rolling of his shoulders) My back no longer hurts. I don’t feel exhausted anymore. All I had to do is say it. It really was that simple.

(the sun sets three minutes closer to sunset)

MANUEL: I think I get it now. I’m here to help people. This whole time, I’ve been building my own skillset, trying to make the most of it. I’ve met so many people, I’ve traveled, I’ve made money and had so many strange jobs. All that has been great. But it’s my skillset, to use how I see best fit. I want this skillset to go to where it is needed most. I want to fill a need where this skillset is best suited. I want to listen to the stories of those who really need to share it, of those who are one telling away from true catharsis. I want to help people tell their stories. The kind humanity really needs to listen to right now. I feel like all of life’s secrets are waiting to be shared, like small truth reserves. Maybe…my job then isn’t to go drilling for it, but if someone wants to share their story, I can help them with that. Yeah….let’s start there. I love my studies, and being a teacher, and reading, and listening, and writing, and helping others, and…there’s so much to love in the world. And I love all of it. I’m no longer waiting for the demands from voices no longer interested in helping people. I am grounded now. Grounded in a kind of goodness. I know what I want. All I had to do was listen. Or say it…Or…I’m not sure. But I like how I feel right now.

(the sun sets three and a half minutes closer to sunset, with the sky in the east increasing its shades of blue)

MANUEL: I think of the sailor and the boat. I can see him, no longer trapped in a violent storm. The waters are calm, the sky so blue, as if pulled from Van Gogh’s palette. He’s using a sextant to navigate the gigantic ocean. He still holds a hard grimace, except for a slight curl at the right corner of his lips. We’re all like the sailor, I suppose. We are all trying to figure out where we’re going, hoping for smooth waters, bracing for the next storm. We may not all be in the same boat, but we all live in the same ocean. If I see someone who needs helps, I have no problem steering my ship towards their direction. If I see someone polluting our waters, I will not hesitate to call them out on it. We all have our own compasses, our own star maps- it’s up to us to us to find our own ways. This ship has survived storm after storm, but is still at sea, still in search for its next dock. I have no idea when or where that will be, but the boat is very much not lost at sea.

(the sun sets one minute closer to sunset)

MANUEL: It’s a little colder now. But it’s okay. I’m ready to stand up. My back is no longer in pain. I feel like I’m ready to get up, walk, and do the work I want to do. I feel enthusiastic about my work again. I’m looking forward to the work, to do work I’m proud of. And I’m looking forward to engaging with the world, searching for the place I’m needed most. And I want to work. I want to put my hands to work, laboring away in the service of others. It’s what grounds me. I want to seek these places, wherever they take me. (blood rushes to the muscles in Manuel’s legs, readying themselves to stand). But not yet…I’ll go when I’m ready. Right now, I’m lying flat. (muscles relax)

CURTAIN

(what late-stage capitalism resistance looks like)

Studying for Candidacy Exams During a Pandemic (Or, Why I Love the Show Community): Part 1 of 3

I just finished my third year of my doctoral program at Ohio State. There’s so much to write about, like teaching online during a whole year of quarantining, studying for candidacy exams, and moving into the phase of dissertation writing and the academic job market search. I’ve also been meaning to write about my academic focus on my blog for a long time now. Medical Humanities is a really interesting study, but I’ve always felt like I can’t just “write” about it, as if I’m describing what I had for lunch. I want people to feel what it’s like to study this field. For that, I’ve decided to write about my experience with all of this in a three-part series of blog posts. I hope this series gives my readers a sense of how my program is going, and I’m happy to chat about it if you have any questions. This is Part 1 of 3

After finishing coursework last year, I moved into the candidacy exam phase of my program. I complied a list of over 150 books that reflect my major and minor fields. (Major: Medical Humanities; Minor: Post-1945 American Literature, with an emphasis on graphic narratives) This sounds treacherous to some, but for me, this was one part of my program I was really looking forward to. Ever since I became a full-time student (by “full-time student”, I don’t mean starting my program at OSU; I mean back to when I decided to quit my job to pursue a career in writing, and taking Intro to Literature classes at my community college), I’ve always felt like I was years behind my colleagues when it came to being familiar with the literary canon. It feels like not that long ago, I didn’t know who William Faulkner was, or even what the word “canon” meant. Every summer, I would spend hours on hours at libraries or parks, sitting at a bench, reading the classics and other books that I felt I should be familiar with. I actually really enjoyed it! It felt like I was enriching my knowledge, climbing to the top of the shoulders of giants I’m supposed to be standing on. Now, I get to gain the specialization I’ve always wanted through doing just that. I am now posed to apply my strengths while in my program.

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First Day of My Second Academic Year, 8/21/19

It’s morning, mirrors fogged up, as I stand in front of my bathroom counter, shaving, with small traces of spice in the air. It’s my second year at Ohio State University, and today is the first day I teach Freshman Composition, a class I’ve taught dozens of times, only with different course objectives, and in a different state. I’m moving my face around to get a good shave, while muttering the things I wish to tell my students. I go back and forth about the information I wish to share with them. Do I talk about my background? That I’m a grad student? Maybe I need an opening joke to put the class at ease? I’m on the edge of a doubt spiral, until my cat jumps on the counter, giving me a look of affection. I pat him on the head, then, in Piece Brosnan’s voice, he says, “You’re going to be fine”. Then it hits me- I don’t have a cat. I look to him, then spot a red lever mounted on my bathroom wall that I’ve only noticed until this moment. It says “PULL” in large red letters. I pull the le-

7:08- I’m awake, exactly seven minutes before my alarm goes off. Do I try to salvage these seven minutes, and try to get a bit more sleep, or get an early jump on my day? Hmm….umm……Oh, I have to shave! I jump out of bed, and start getting ready.

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Guess what…..?

I GOT IN!!!!! I am writing this post after receiving my letter of admission, meeting the faculty and campus, and attending the Open House for incoming Grad Students in the Fall. Ladies and Gentleman….

I will be attending Ohio State University in the Fall as a PhD Candidate.

(Go Buckeyes!!!)

My New Campus

I cannot begin to express how all of this feels. A goal I have worked for ten years in the making is now coming into fruition. Every doubt that ever crept into my thoughts, every day that I told myself it was futile , every voice that told me to stick to what comes easy to me- all of these naysay moments have now been silenced. About five years ago, while I was working on my undergraduate degree, I was working at a local bar, and someone vomited near the back entrance. It took about half an hour to clean up. That night, on the way home, I asked myself, Is this career path worth it?

Yes, young Rolando Rubalcava- I can definitively say that it is.

I’ve been waiting so long to wear a badge like this.

Last weekend, I met the OSU English Department faculty and a few other incoming graduate students. (I guess they’re part of my cohort?) They were so supportive, and made the experience really special. My Department Chair and Graduate Advisor were very affable people, making me feel acclimated. It was a flurry of new experiences, and I took it all in, every moment, every face, every gesture that made me feel welcomed. I’m constantly asking myself if this is actually happening. A part of me genuinely doesn’t believe this is happening. During one of the days of the Open House, snow began to fall- I reached out my hand and real snow fell on my palm. It landed in my hand, melted, passing its coldness unto me, and for the first time, I felt snow fall on my skin. Yes- this is happening.

Life, up in the air, at approximately 30,000 ft.

In a few weeks, I will select the courses I will take and make the move. I guess that means I have to find a place to live. Wait- do I move all of my things? What about my job? Will I just quit and that be that? How will I get around? Where do my buy my groceries? Will I be ready to live in Columbus, Ohio by the time I move? Do I keep this blog going? I guess what I’m asking is…..

now what?

Proverbs

You got this.

This year, I applied to doctoral programs in American Literature. There was a time when this phrase was frightening, or distant, or inspirational; today, it is a fact. I’m writing this at the close of my last application. All applications are in- all twelve. This process wasn’t easy, and I didn’t come out of it unscathed. But it’s done, and I’m happy to state that.

My cat, telling me to finally step away from my computer

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Midnight Postscript  

Hello readers! I’m writing this micro-post at about Midnight on a Monday in December. Santa Ana winds are stampeding through my neighborhood, and the cold snap of December is kicking in. I’m currently at a bar, finishing up my first drink, in the thick application submission. I submitted my first application this morning, wondering all day if there was anything I missed. I ask myself, Is this one going to be it? I don’t have an answer. My intuition sees it as misplaced will. It’s done, and there’s no going back. I also took the GRE exam today. Once the gatekeeper of my fate, I now see it for what it is- a formality. It’s just one part of this process, and whether I’m good at it or not, I have to do it. I did my best, and I owe this exam nothing. What matters is that it’s not deterring me from applying. Not again. Now, we wait.

I spent the last few weeks working on my application essays. How do you fit your entire academic history in two pages? This has always eluded me, until this year, when I decided to do what I’m good at- pouring my heart into every word, down to the last character. I printed it out it out, and it felt like it weighed ten thousand pounds. Like a marble statue, I have most of it done- now, I’m working on those last final detailed touches that will make it perfect.

Negroni by candlelight

The majority of my applications will be submitted in the next two weeks. This means I will do nothing but work on making them as immaculate as possible. A part of me already sees me celebrating. Another part of me wants to crawl into a hole, hoping to escape the outcome. Doubt lingers, bleeding through the words of support from loved ones. I want to do well, but at this point, it’s no longer up to me. I’m eating, sleeping, and dreaming application season, putting my future in the hands of graduate departments.

I’m in a Lyft, on my way home, and the song playing has a chorus that most appropriately speaks to the next couple of weeks:

I can not give you everything, you know I wish I could
I’m so high at the moment
I’m so caught up in this
Yeah, we’re just young, dumb and broke
But we still got love to give

While we’re young dumb
Young, young dumb and broke
Young dumb
Young, young dumb and broke

On My Way to Work…

I take the train to work just about every day. On my way to work, two songs come on from my music playlist periodically.

*********************************

Song I: Almost Was Good Enough by
Magnolia Electric Co. (to listen, play link below)

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The Academic Conference (Or, How I Learned to Love Myself, and, Consequently, Others)

His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy
There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti
He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready
To drop bombs, but he keeps on forgettin’
What he wrote down, the whole crowd goes so loud
He opens his mouth, but the words won’t come out
He’s chokin’, how, everybody’s jokin’ now
The clocks run out, times up, over, blaow!

-from Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”

This excerpt is potentially the best representation of what it’s like when presenting your research at an academic conference. For grad students, scholars, and other professionals at varying levels, conferences are the best (or worst) places to go and discuss your research emphasis and getting feedback from like minded people in your field. Earlier this month, I attended the Graphic Medicine Conference, taking place at the Seattle Public Library, (for more info, click here) the same city where I completed a brief internship a few years ago. It was both a homecoming and a discovery as I continue to pursue my research interests.

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Negroni

That is what I want to do. I want to write the words that will guide the waters away from fear, towards goodwill, hope, and what’s right.

That was the final thought I had in my last blog post while sitting on a park bench. Today, I’m sitting at a desk, grading stacks of essays.  At that time, I was teaching a composition class during the winter quarter (sometime during the months of January and February). Teaching this class….was brutal. Three-hour class sessions, meeting

Negroni Cocktail

Negroni
I oz. Gin
1 oz. Campari
1 oz. Sweet Vermouth
Pour all ingredients into mixing glass with ice; stir; pour into chilled glass (over ice or straight up); zest orange peel into drink, then add as garnish

four days a week. Every evening consisted of me and a small mountain of work. Technically, I’m writing, and, technically, this is the job I’ve always wanted, teaching students about writing and exposing them to great authors. Yet, it doesn’t take much to remind me that this is a job, which means you wake up, go to work, go home once you’re done, then do it all over again the next day. I don’t know if Faulkner or Melville ever found themselves in  this position. What I do know is that one thing we three have in common is that we knew we had opinions and wanted to write about them. (well, they did- I just write in a silly blog) Near the end of that semester, I heard about Paul Auster, one of my favorite authors (as mentioned in one of my first blog posts) doing a public speaking event in San Francisco. On the train ride home, carrying another pile of essays to grade, I thought, You know….maybe this is just what I need. Maybe letting my thoughts ruminate away from all of this for a bit can help me put this semester into perspective, putting away this existential dread. Shortly after, I bought a plane ticket, an AirBnB (my last AirBnB, if I may be glib for a second), and took off. Once I was on the plane, I thought to myself, Teaching this course made me really value time and learning how to pack as much in a day as possible. This is a post on my three days in San Francisco.

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Morning Renaissance

 

View from a Park Bench

View from a Park Bench

I’m sitting on a park bench after a jog. It’s cold, the air is misty, and January still feels new. This has been my jogging route for years. It grounds me. When I jog, I only hear my feet pounding on concrete and the gasps of my breath. I reach a small  park, making sure I stop to rest and catch my breath. Next to the play area and soccer field, there’s a small bench where I like to sit. On cold mornings, I can see the steam rise from my skin. Here, I get to sit there and think, endorphins and dopamine rushing through my brain, sweating, steam rising. These are the thoughts in my head:

(Song playing in my head while I jog: Some Time Alone, Alone by Melody’s Echo Chamber; click below to listen)

we resigned the light to someone/And handed to the righteous/We will walk into the right motion/Some time alone, alone to wonder/Change your mind and talk/Waiting around/
While everyone else is moving on and on, and talk Continue reading