Saturday, May 18, 2013

Peeking through the Window at Today’s Events in Ska or Pure Voice

Leda saw the familiar parking space in front of her house on Jasper Street, but the Ukrainian bilyj holos (literally ‘white voice’ or ‘pure voice’) singing emitting from her speakers preoccupied her. Introduced to bilyj holos, she played various recordings of it in her car on this occasion to nourish her curiosity about open throat singing. Bilyj holos emerged from peasants herding livestock who needed to make sure that their sound could travel long distances with no strain.

Like a fish trying to climb a tree, when Leda tried the style, she felt like she was singing punk or death metal and preferred it didn't travel far.

Village music exudes a spirit lacking in so many formulaic pop songs found on the radio. The song of bilyj holos is controlled screaming with close-knit harmonies. Field hollering essentially or maybe a variation of folk meets punk.

She remembered hearing recordings of bilyj holos in her childhood, but couldn't stand the style musically in her teens. As far as she could remember, no one provided her insight on their appeal among the Ukrainian elders she knew; rather they spoke more about the trendiest of Ukrainian singers. She could claim no direct familial tie given her closed wounded heart on behalf of family history that included the culmination of disruptiveness of war on her grandparents’ lives.

A bewildered Leda acknowledged that bilyj holos suddenly sounded enjoyable —just as edgy as the ska and funk that presided over her teens.

The private suffering found in the timbres and the raw, open throat tone composition perplexed her. Leda shook her heavy head to return to the moment. She parked in front. She was supposed to pull into her garage to charge her Nissan Leaf for tomorrow. The foggy day drank her concentration obliviously. She still had her jade and cream pencil wiggle dress on that made her feel great, but she was ready to relax. Still, the song’s melancholy seeped into her bones and tightened. Caught in a haze of a Ukrainian village only her grandmother may have ever intimately known, she turned the key to her second generation condo.  

Did this feel like home? Suddenly, she didn't really think so; even Jasper Street memories weren’t strong enough to keep this nagging feeling down. She felt overwhelmed by a deep longing inside that crept to the apex of her throat threatening to keep an eye on her, not for the sake of keeping her composed, but to permit her to unleash. The longing wasn't satisfied anymore by Ukrainian Christmas dinners every year that she learned from her grandmother’s recipes and adapted to include a small piece of her own spirit.

Her neighbor Claudia stood out front of her condo directly across the street from Leda and appeared completely miffed that Leda didn't wave. Claudia was about to walk across the street to hand Leda the edited minutes for the next condo board meeting, but she hesitated. Leda had ignored her. Oh, for heaven’s sake.

Mentally, Leda compared her ska rocking days momentarily to her grandmother’s experience in a rural village during the onset of war. Her grandmother survived an interrupted life, but she never could regain the knowledge that she would have gained living there. Subsequently, her escape recovered some possibilities in America. Leda reflected on her attraction in her teens to ska and funk turbulently inlayed into the fret board of her academic and social life. Ska and funk paraded itself as more available to stirring a kind of social change that politicians and governments seemed incapable of generating than did bilyj holos.

Were the every day occurrences that were being explored in such Ukrainian traditional music and counterculture music in DC similar? Or were these songs similar in style as controlled screaming as sung scars cut from the same neglected vulnerable skin tissue, but offered in a different sensibility that provided community catharsis?  

She sat down on her couch, convinced that her new-found appreciation converged with her reaction to the decadent 80’s.  For the past month, not feeling like herself, Leda felt like something needed to change, nonplussed by the boredom of suburban echoes.

In the decadent 80’s, Leda tacitly expressed herself through every black laced dress and hushed ankle length tight skirt. When she wore torn jeans, she figured the holes might add to Tipper Gore’s list of items worthy of a warning sticker. Except to Leda those delectable surprises inside a song wouldn't be surprises with a warning sticker, so they killed the rush that came from the surprise. 

Was the warning sticker campaign to increase consumer information in the marketplace the real endgame? Why not give fans a little credit to handle the flood of uncoded images? Did the jeans come with the holes? Leda wore the jeans out without making fake holes, so that might confuse Tipper.

Sitting on the couch, a stray brown hair ruined the look of Leda’s pencil wiggle dress. She strummed it off. 

“Was the need to increase consumer information in the marketplace really about explicit lyrics—those hidden succulent pleasures?  Was it similar to the push to label foods going on today,” thought Leda. It wasn’t similar, she figured, because who invited a lab coat to produce food that cultures have enjoyed making since the dawn of time through the use of their own cultural methods and practices? Who asked a lab scientist to trample cultural symbolic references to natural growth? A labcoater was willing to seize all the culture and spirit out of every culture and substitute it with lab grown food. What Ukrainian Christmas dinner menu should now ignore the food culture of our predecessors and be made from fingered and needled food in a lab?

Somehow the mystery of modern gardening—natural, smaller and moving beyond the unbridled wastefulness of the industrial revolution—seemed defiled by these monodominant notions.

Claudia still stood on her front stoop wondering when she should come over to Leda’s condo to share her important minutes and the date for the next meeting.

Leda preferred to get lost in her memories lately, slumped in her Leaf where she often found herself parking and reparking to properly parallel park. How could anyone on the condo board bear it if her front possibly balding tire wasn't exactly an inch and a half from the curb?  Any neighborhood cat hanging out beside the condo meeting room windows would see that Leda sat quietly at the meetings, more often than not. Leda might even prefer feeding the cat, given the choice.

Normally, she tossed her keys on the film noire entryway table. She still held them in her left hand. Not feeling like myself, thought Leda.  She grabbed a CD  to listen to some music, maybe shake the bilyj holos. Bjork or They Must Be Giants, Garbage or the new indie band her friend sent her on Twitter, GoodBye Lenin.

She clicked on GoodBye Lenin and wanted a Vox amp.  As she let her mind wander, it was almost like she was holding the same classic B-side 45 of Fishbone in her hand she held after returning from the 9:30 club in DC. She wished for that exhausted feeling she always felt after dancing in a mosh pit the night before.

The night Leda saw Fishbone at the 9:30 Club, it was June 1987 right before the Beastie Boys hit the stage. During the concert, her brain animated and she felt unity, wondering nothing about Ukrainian recordings of bilyj holos, but shouting Fishbone lyrics within a crowd, just the same. She participated in a feast of chemistry that ran through the club that was simultaneously enlivening, reckless and loudly calming.

Ah, Fishbone! Party at Ground Zero. Similar emotions coursed through her veins right now, as skulking outrage over the news of the day circled her mind. Molly Ivins said, “What you need is sustained outrage...there's far too much unthinking respect given to authority."

In recent years, every day, Leda read about drones in the skies with a debate brewing weighing the appropriate levels of reliance on them along with fading civil liberties. At the moment, there was no one to run into and bump into repeatedly. There was no good reason to run through the room straight-leg kicking a ghost a few feet in front of herself like a pretend soccer ball around the room, one kick after another. She used to mosh with feeling.

A ska-listening Leda, sometimes, to show her personality with layers of manically applied shirts, would exhibit opposing lines of stitching only to be sure there was no way to detect a clean line. Often she wanted to be seen like someone might perceive a random series of apostrophes, periods and semicolons – jumbled without the letters these marks meant to punctuate. She would dress this way on days when she felt cluttered and chaotic, so as to send a signal that captured her current state of mind. In ways, her choices served as a personal fashion equivalent to flag semaphore exhibited onto the runway of her fleet of thoughts. 

Now, she was expected to act like other people on the condo board and roll with the emotion, maybe brush it away, maybe go for a short run, or maybe sing in her car at the top of her lungs. She was supposed to consider the news of the day simply outside of her reality, as one of her overly contrived neighbors might suggest. She wondered if a Ukrainian village expected everyone in the village to act the same and bury their emotions. 

The news of the day the year she moshed while Fishbone performed Party at Ground Zero involved nuclear scare tactics. Maybe nuclear scare tactics were something a reader of a newspaper could read and follow up with a crossword puzzle hoping to score some trivia pursuit points from the latest news.

Conversely, for Leda and her friends who watched the Party at Ground Zero music video and saw the guy pull off his mask only to bring about a nuclear explosion, the gravitational pull was toward the mosh pit  Not acceptance or blind faith that it would all be alright. The mosh pit made more sense than a pursuit of trivia.

In the mosh pit  Leda experienced an immediate remedy when her body imported adrenaline from glands to boost her supply of oxygen. She could breathe.  Leda and her friends needed a place to vent and to react to the crazy world and all of its dangers.  The music made them think. At the same time, they vented in a way that didn't involve yelling at a loved one in verbal circles.  She gained awareness of the human experience through weekly circles in a mosh pit.

Although the last seconds of GoodBye Lenin drowned out Leda’s humming of Party at Ground Zero, she opened her eyes like a firefly still lighting up in a kid’s plastic cup, illuminated by the thought of a ska mosh pit  She realized something. She realized that she wished that she had written Fishbone’s lyrics. She remembered reveling in their reactive expression and understood them, but she never thought to take a chance and react herself about every day life. She’d played it safe.

Likewise, she had never sung a Ukrainian song in public, only in her head or in limited company. Did her grandmother ever try her voice at bilyj holos? Had she also lived as a spectator and learned how to express herself in other ways for fear of persecution? Her grandmother was a great cook, but had she ever hollered in the fields as the news of global ethnic tensions reached her?  Was she too highbrow?

On the sunny-side down side of the egg, nothing in the news seemed to bother Claudia, but gossip could keep her restless for hours every day. She turned a deaf ear equally to the rising cost of gas and to the neglect and contempt society cast on science. Despite her detachment, she would talk endlessly about her recent exploits as a troublemaker but her problem solving skills lay dormant. Last week, she shoved herself firmly between her sister and nephew Joseph as she took on his problems. Out of the fire and into the frying pan, Leda entertained the possibility of a bilyj holos song about Claudia’s gossiping.

Claudia gleaned what she needed from everyone, but managed to be busy if one of the neighbors needed a hand. She had even taken out her bad mood on a neighbor parked in her spot, never once considering it was uncharacteristic.  Unluckily, the neighbors had had an even thornier day after their home flooded from a frozen burst pipe forcing them to move that day. Even after Leda informed her of the reason days later, neighborly Claudia couldn't be bothered.

A massive storm warning had been broadcast earlier that afternoon and neither Claudia nor Leda knew about it for very different reasons.  The sky filled with cumulonimbus clouds. It’s possible that Leda might notice the lightening when it arrives, but she might also be deep inside of herself desperately trying to sew up wounds from being homesick for her roots. Claudia might still be obsessing about her nephew.

It’s worth sharing Claudia’s troublemaking masked as problem solving with her nephew Joseph. “I tell you Leda, last year Joseph was really into architecture. He hasn't been into it lately. I figure something must be going on.  So, I called him after I had spent weeks reading every Architectural Digest I could get my hands on and talked his ear off.  He must have complained to his mom, because Nancy calls me, she actually calls me, and asks me what I think I’m doing interfering. I told her it wasn't any of her business. She said it was, and now I figure that he’s not going to be very useful to me in my hobby. I mean I need to pick his brain.”

Claudia dissected cluelessly every person like a dehumanizing prying mantra in the weakening lights of suburban boredom sung by a chorus of busy bodies and meddlers the likes of which Mark Twain personified in Widow Douglas in Huck Finn. Huck fled from the constantly meddling Widow Douglas who couldn't stop telling him what to do rather than prepare him to develop his own conscience and social compass. Claudia emotionally blackmailed her way into people’s lives by acting like she had a right to paint people into a corner only to blame her suffering on them, as if her life depended on it. But reacting to the news? Never.  

As Claudia walked across the street, she evaluated her disapproval of how Leda came home. She saw Leda not park her car exactly as it should have been only an inch and a half away from the curb.  There must have been even an angle to the car, because it seemed to be sticking out a few inches more near the trunk! Anything unusual irked Claudia. The idea that Leda might change anything visible to Claudia, without Claudia’s approval muddled Claudia’s feeling of entitlement. She looked at her house every day so obviously she had to have a say. Claudia demonstrated recurrently how conformity arranged itself onto a foggy day like a dark cloud.

“What was that,” thought Claudia, reacting to a new noise emerging from Leda’s home. This is not American culture, she felt. America does not have noisy neighborhoods blasting music out of condos. Condos are for quiet respectable types! Claudia ran across the street and looked closer at Leda’s window. Was Leda dancing? Was that even dancing, thought Claudia.

Leda danced to her Fishbone album in broad daylight in her own living room. She used her bilyj holos technique to belt out Party at Ground Zero. She experienced revival. Her grandmother or other Ukrainian villagers may have sung in fields, but they also wanted their sound to travel. To whose ears?  To the deaf ones, that they secretly resented?  She was tired of fail-safe definitions surrounding how to convey one’s thinking.

Like a traveler learning how to discriminate between what may or may not fit into one’s ideas of self assembly, Leda never fully integrated into the Ukrainian traditional subculture in her teen years or even as an adult. She had somewhat rebelled against it, in fact, since it often felt insular. Her life was not an app that she could download and learn how to stage-manage as she answered her own questions. In her search, she’d run into other Ukrainian-Americans who were also borrowing some of the traditions they learned, while appreciating the underground pop counterculture that reacted to the social and political issues of the day. 

Claudia wasn't privy to Leda’s soul searching, especially since Claudia in response would have volunteered Leda her definition of what an American was and it wouldn't have included a hyphen. It would represent only trucks, barbecues  Fourth of July, baseball, Honey Boo Boo, giant discount chains and fewer immigrants. It wouldn't include any of the greatest accomplishments in various fields of study and the many immigrants who helped shape it.  It wouldn't include the intersections of all the cultural exchanges that happen here every day that involve people from many different religious and cultural backgrounds in an extremely diverse population that feels lurked upon by narrow-minded representations of America. It wouldn't represent the attempts of crossing cultural divides. It would feel like a coloring book that was by design difficult if not impossible to draw outside the lines.  

Leda wasn't sure if she wanted her days in the mosh pits back, but she did want to feel that same feeling among peers. Leda felt empty when she saw someone substitute virtues with endless pastimes and time fillers. She wanted desperately to feel the same feeling she had felt in a mosh pit where communally they raised their social and political awareness and tried to release their energy collectively. 

And not as a cross-purpose, she also sought to better understand what Ukrainian was supposed to feel like.  As Leda danced to Fishbone, she wondered if in her child’s mind she would ever have imagined that she would mosh pit to Fishbone and learn something.

Leda continued to dance to Fishbone.  It’s possible that Leda might realize in a few minutes that she wasn't actually reacting to the lyrics. Listening to a band like Fishbone that stayed on top of social and political issues of the time and reacted through music made sense.  Claudia did not make sense.

Her grandmother likely sang bilyj holos songs rarely. She appreciated them, because Leda remembered her playing them after watching TV soap operas. A question popped into Leda’s mind. Bilyj holos songs originated in everyday life as subjects in individual songs. It’s possible her grandmother never voiced her own opinion about current events outside of certain suitable topics, considered Leda

Leda threw her eyes open and sang louder. Time to change the song, she thought. As Leda ran to her cd player, she heard a knock on the door.  She considered ignoring it.  She didn't  It was Claudia, mouth gaping open with a look of terrible dismay. Leda felt immediately judged and anticipated some form of third degree. Would she drop hints, or would she address Leda straightforwardly, wondered Leda. She considered preempting Claudia with some ghastly news, but didn't.

 Claudia handed the minutes to Leda, while mentally sizing her up. If asked, she’d deny appraising her like she might a dirty rag. Leda still wore her jade and cream pencil wiggle dress, but looked as disheveled as a creek bank after a storm.  The color in her cheeks warranted Claudia’s first remark.

“You’re horribly red faced Leda! It isn't from the jazzercise video I lent you, is it,” said Claudia in a hushed voice.

“No. Good to see you Claudia. How are you? Hope things are well.”

“Well, the music on the jazzercise video is clever. Terry put it on there. She’s so avant garde!,” said Claudia. By the time she mentioned Terry’s name, her voice was at a normal speaking level. “What were you listening to?” 

“Not anything very avant garde, I suppose.”

“Anyway, here are the minutes for the condo board meeting next Wednesday. I've got my eye on you, great things I see…saw…I mean see, well, you know I should explain…I was considering having you chair the next meeting, for practice you know. I've come to realize I’m tired of hearing myself talk. But now…well, I can’t really say, I’m not sure why, but I’m wondering, maybe you've got other interests I suppose,” said Claudia, back in her hushed voice. Claudia didn't look Leda in the face until she said ‘maybe.’

Claudia’s snide comments usually made Leda chuckle inside as she noticed that her pretensions seemed to drip from her lips like the social utility of hacker humor.

Leda raised her eyebrows at Claudia and said, “You’re kidding right? Are you in a roundabout way saying that my choice of music to dance to is influencing whether I can chair or not? I don’t remember that being part of the board’s purview.”

This was the first time Leda ever confronted Claudia, since Leda wasn't a confrontational person. Claudia shared on many occasions how happy she was about confronting neighbors on personal issues, although she always shied away from letting anyone call it a personal attack, per se, since she used a hushed voice when she did it.

Claudia retorted quickly, “Leda, you know that people who listen to certain types of music are more prone to being violent and angry and not very, well, mannered. You know I don’t even call rap music, it’s just ranting and I’m afraid of it, you know, what does it mean?  I mean, well, of course, it’s just not been done before to have anyone on the board who, well listens to that sort of music that makes a person act wild and who knows what! What will people say walking down the street when someone on the board is seen dancing wildly from the window by anyone just passing by?  What a terrible impression!  I mean imagine what I would have to do, if say, I had to warn anyone at the meeting about well, you know….,” Claudia laughed and seemed to be making an appeal with her facial expression for Leda to accept that she agreed with being more reasonable.

Leda, emboldened by her mood and her outrage, told Claudia, “No, what do you mean? On second thought, forget it. I of course shouldn't have to consider how to warn other people that you snoop in people’s windows and that’s what all your friends on the board authorized you to do.” Now completely mocking Claudia, “I mean see, well, you know I should explain…I might, for practice you know, propose a code of conduct at the next meeting, just to keep YOU in line. But, maybe you've got other interests, I suppose.”

Claudia asked, “What has gotten into you Leda?”

Leda said, “I’m tired of you manipulating me, when we could really make some good board decisions to improve our neighborhood and stop this micromanaging. Especially, when you’re standing here snooping in my windows and then blackmailing me based on what you saw me doing in the privacy of my own home! Of course, maybe you didn't look in the window, right Claudia?” Claudia turned a redder shade of red than Leda had when she answered the door.

Leda ripped the minutes in half, told Claudia she would talk to the other board members without her supervision in the near future. Leda put on her best fake smile and asked Claudia to step a few steps back on the walkway, because she wanted to show her something. Claudia perked up, figuring that Leda might just have had a tantrum, but would return to her easier-to-push-around self in a minute.

In a state of shock mixed with wishful thinking, Claudia stepped out of the condo alongside of Leda.  Leda stalled for a moment, pointed at the door, smiled and went back inside, leaving Claudia staring at the door. It wasn't night time yet, but Claudia stood quietly, for the first time in a long time, and couldn't mess with Leda, for the first time in a long time.

Leda belted out her best bilyj holos and ran for the keys she left on the couch.  She threw on some casual clothing and headed outside to her Leaf. A wave of bilyj holos enveloped her and her cultural awakening seemed to be navigating her further and further away from Jasper Street. She took streets she had never driven, and she still didn't notice the darkened sky. She vented like she once used to in a mosh pit, but once again, it seemed like silent lucidity.

Leda felt like she needed to get out of the car, turn her outrage beyond her mini mosh pit. Where was the glory in driving into a storm and feeling alone with her emotions? Who hears a tree fall in the forest? 

The sky suddenly wouldn't go unnoticed. Like the bilyj holos of lightening, thunder shifted carbohydrates from carbon dioxide without the aid of photosynthetic organisms. Leda might survive the weather, but she wasn't going to ignore her cultural awakening. 

She drove down a narrow road for miles navigated by her intuition. She cried, and she felt alone except for the company of the bilyj holos. The heavy raindrops looped her windshield in groups. More lightening rose out the side windows like tall index fingers in front of the skies’ temporarily closed lips. The sky paused to consider remaining silent.

A loud bang interrupted Leda’s belting.  The rain poured and she continued driving in a neighborhood that became incrementally more rural. Consumed by her cultural awakening, Leda almost missed a sign that was obstructed by the intense thunderstorm rain. She couldn't believe her eyes as she passed it.  The smell of rain moshed against the air vents. The letters on the sign were in Cyrillic. She found a dirt driveway to turn around. 

‘Семінар на диких їстівних рослин!’ Translated, it read, ‘a seminar on wild edible plants.’ Could it be? She drove down the path. She saw more signs in Ukrainian. ‘трав'яні консультації.’ (herbal consultation) She felt like she was going to burst!  She parked, approached the door and knocked. A Ukrainian looking woman in her 60s answered the door. 

Leda introduced herself and asked, “Do you speak in Ukrainian?”

The woman at the door said she did in fact speak in Ukrainian. She introduced herself as Olena. She welcomed Leda inside and asked her how she found her. Leda said it was all by chance, but that she was driving to clear her mind and saw the surprising signs on the road written in Ukrainian.

            “I was listening to bilyj holos recordings and hollering in the car when I saw your sign. Olena explained that she and her daughters perform occasionally interweaving bilyj holos folk songs into their performances. Leda felt momentarily sad.

            Olena added, “And at times we perform community concerts with others who show an interest in performing.  There is a revival of sorts as a reaction to the mono-culture that is being promoted. We are cultural reference-friendly, kind of like cat-friendly, no need to reference a bad action flick just to have SOMETHING in common.”

            Leda perked up.  No guts, no glory and although she loved supporting musicians, she stepped up to the plate and asked to participate next time there was an opportunity. Olena told her it would be next Wednesday. How opportune, thought Leda. It fell on the same day as the board meeting.

            Olena explained that she had moved to Ridky Mountain Road only ten years ago from western Ukraine, and was from a family of herbalists, wood crafters and fiber artists in the Carpathians. They taught her their techniques. She had spent a portion of her life uninterested in these techniques, and realized she enjoyed continuing and modernizing the practices. Leda told her that she had recently realized how few traditions she really knew and was very interested in learning them.  They spoke only shortly about the disruptiveness of war on previous generations.

            Leda confessed that she hadn't always been interested in Ukrainian traditions, until recently. She had spent her teens in mosh pits instead. Had it been wasted time, she wondered out loud? She waited to see if Olena would judge her.  Olena didn't judge her or reduce her ska years to a mistake or regret.  On the contrary, Olena told Leda that several of her friends back in Ukraine played in ska and funk bands and still enjoyed some of the customs and traditions, sometimes combining them. 

            Leda said, “It’s wonderful to get to a place where Fishbone, or ska in Ukraine, and an appreciation of our heritage and customs are not mutually exclusive. It feels good to fuse them.”

            Olena laughed, “Хвилює, що думають інші люди, і ви завжди будете у них в в'язень.” (Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.)

Leda said she had often had difficulty being true to herself, in particular when she could see what others wanted from her. Sometimes, she stayed nice instead of speaking up. Now she had become very well aware of why people spend a lot of time telling you not to synthesize the world around you and speak your mind. 

On Wednesday during the rehearsal, Leda silently thanked herself for not oversimplifying her exposure to different types of music and forms of expression and for embracing who she had become in living an examined life. She brought lyrics of her own to Olena’s that were based on everyday life.  After learning some harmonies to traditional Ukrainian bilyj holos verses, she shared them.

Reclaiming her voice, Leda sang her lyrics in bilyj holos first in Ukrainian, then in English. She pushed against the pain of separation from deep roots, as she detached from what didn't feel like home, and what didn't feel right:

I stand on the porch and I read the news
I synthesize it and do something about this or lose.
I can't just sigh and say it is out of my hands,
Because if I did, then I would just be drawing lines in shifting sands.
So dearest Claudia, good luck -
I hope that when something bigger matters you don’t duck.
The feelings you postpone are true
To move you to do. To move you to do.

            Leda no longer moved in a circle, like she used to when she moshed. She stood in one spot, sang, and felt the end of a cycle that threatened to define her, rather than compel her to come up with a definition of herself on her own.

Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is. - Albert Camus

The END. 
May 18, 2013


  1. Great essay, I never finish what I write, not used blogger for years, maybe set up a new page

    1. Thanks Faq. Good luck! I hope to read blog in the future!