after the storm

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Vieques is a tiny island about 8 miles away from the larger island of Puerto Rico. Its uniquely isolated geography makes it an ideal retreat for tourists, but also renders it particularly vulnerable to a natural disaster like Hurricane Maria. While the main island of Puerto Rico is beginning to see some relief – not without many setbacks – Vieques likely won’t see power restored until next year.

This conundrum is compounded by a Puerto Rico economy that played fast and loose with investment dollars until the recession of 2008. While the U.S. mainland recovered over time, Puerto Rico never did. As a territory and not a state, the island couldn’t restructure its debt, instead continuing to pay crippling interest and ultimately defaulting on a key loan payment earlier this year. The back-to-back punches of Irma and Maria couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Vieques has an additional burden not of its own making. The U.S. Navy used the island as a bombing range for decades, promising a comprehensive cleanup once the bombing stopped but ultimately leaving the task at the mercy of budgetary cuts and general indifference toward an increasingly forgotten island. As a result, islanders who don’t flee to the mainland face the possibility of contamination from toxins exposed by the storms.

Mary and I have visited the island twice and loved the laid-back tropical vibe there: fresh mangoes ripe for the picking and wild horses trotting down the streets. The high incidence of cancer directly correlated to unexploded ordnance behind miles of barbed wire kept us from seriously considering it as a place we might want to spend our retirement years.

Native islanders don’t have the luxury of this sort of planning. Many are packing up and leaving – for good. They don’t deserve this.

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“Chuck”

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His name wasn’t “Chuck”. It wasn’t even his nickname, truth be told, but rather a disparaging sobriquet we’d hurl at him whenever he uncorked an errant throw. By Junior High School age he was a fairly good athlete, which made it all the more inexplicable when a toss made during a simple game of catch in the street somehow found its way through our dining room window. “Way to go, Chuck!”

There were quite a few of those instances where it didn’t look like he was paying any attention to where the ball might land. The rest of the time, however, he’d make a spectacular catch, followed by a pinpoint accurate throw. He’d be the star of the game, and everyone wanted him on their team.

When I was a sophomore in college, he and two high school friends crossed a busy highway not too far from our house to get to a 7-Eleven store. A car sped past, and the two friends quickly stepped back. Not Chuck. He was hit at full speed and dragged beneath the car for some distance until it stopped. He was killed instantly.

Hours later, his body was still in the road, cordoned off by police. His mother was brought to the scene to identify the body, but became hysterical as she got close and had to be taken away, shouting “Not possible! Not possible!”

The funeral was a somber affair, sparsely attended by neighbors who didn’t know what to say. The family moved away not too long after that. No one stayed in touch.

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taking a knee

I’ve been reluctant to weigh in on the issue of “taking a knee” ever since Colin Kaepernick first began his silent protest in August 2016. For one, I don’t watch football, so I don’t have much emotional investment in the conversation as it pertains to the sport.

I also come from a law enforcement family. My father was a police officer in New York for 30 years, and my brother is an LAPD veteran. I believe in the rule of law, and have the empty rap sheet to prove it.

On the other hand, my pale complexion could also have something to do my cozy relationship with the men in blue. And this was Colin Kaepernick’s point. He was protesting what is widely perceived as unequal treatment under the law, as is his first amendment right.

That an NFL game wasn’t the proper platform for protest is a valid point, and Kaepernick has paid dearly for it. Team owners have made their position clear by essentially blacklisting him; he hasn’t played a game since.

And then politicians got involved, unwittingly shining a spotlight on a nasty rash that wouldn’t go away, that rash being racism.

Enter the Leader of the Free World, calling anyone who would dare to kneel during the National Anthem a “son of a bitch” who should be “fired”. Predictably, this had a galvanizing effect on many NFL players, but also on college football players, an entire high school football team, and a major league baseball player. It suddenly seems that everyone needed to take a public stand on the issue – to kneel or not to kneel.

If this was Trump’s goal, it succeeded spectacularly, but if not, he might need to keep his nose and ego out of football, and focus on helping this nation. Might I suggest starting with Puerto Rico, an island populated by 3.4 million Americans and reeling from a catastrophic hurricane, exacerbated by a crippled economy and infrastructure. It might not drive up ratings, but it would be the right thing to do.

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your story is killing me

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There are songs I love because they’re irresistibly catchy, and others I love because they instantly evoke a particular mood. Oddly enough, even though I’d like to consider myself a poet, I’m not necessarily drawn to a song for its lyrics alone.

Occasionally all three of the above align, and a song remains stuck in my head and in my psyche far longer than what most reasonable people might consider normal. Case in point is the song “Hey Lock Haven”, originally performed by Morgantown, West Virginia’s Braille Drivers back in 2001. I was immediately struck by the band’s Hüsker Dü meets Americana sound, and immediately downloaded the track from the Insound.com website. The song was not only powerful and melodic, but it told a story.

I never took a close look at the lyrics until very recently. The Braille Drivers are long gone, but Lexington, Ketucky one-man band J. Marinelli (pictured above) covered the song in 2014, and captured the lyrics as well. They describe a transformative event, but they never tell you what it is. According to WikiPedia, there were several floods in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania over the years, but none that would seem to inspire a remembrance like this:

Lately she’s been tried
Eyes me with a tepid longing
Yes deep down I’m too far gone
To upheave what’s placed upon me

I guess I’ve no choice
But to suspect
All that I’ve been shown
By surveying this here wreckage
On my own

Will I convalesce
Until all the roads are clear of traffic
Or am I free to ride
On this big bus going nowhere fast

I guess I’ve no choice
But to suspect
All that I’ve been shown
By surveying this here wreckage
On my own

On my own
Same old story
Nothing ventured
Nothing lost
My own
Years ago
My wisdom
Came at such a cost

So sow me to those orchards greener
Lock Haven
To heal until my wanderlust
Takes hold again
And there I’ll lick my wounds
Until they bid me go
Bid me go
Bid me go
Bid me go again

Hey Lock Haven
Your story is killing me

I can only guess what it means. Maybe that’s the point.

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white privilege

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I’ve often blogged about my somewhat complicated relationship with my own ethnicity. Climbing the ancestral tree, all four of my grandparents were born outside of the U.S. — three in Puerto Rico, and one in the Philippines. Puerto Ricans didn’t become American citizens until 1917, when the Jones-Shafroth Act produced fresh conscription material for World War I. Since all of my grandparents were born earlier than that, it means all 4 of them were immigrants.

As fate would have it, they all moved to New York City (Brooklyn, to be specific) to find a better life. Never able to lose their accents, they worked long hours at menial jobs, all so that their children could experience the American dream that was ultimately beyond their grasps.

For my parents, the American dream meant leaving the City, buying a house in the suburbs, and assimilating.

It was pretty easy for us. My brothers and I were all fair-skinned and didn’t speak Spanish — that was the secret language of my mother and my grandparents. I was a good student, and I lived in a house that looked like every other house in the neighborhood.

It took many years for me to understand that I wasn’t your run-of-the-mill white kid. Ironically, the same parents who raised me to be ethnically neutral encouraged me to indicate that I was Hispanic in order to get into medical school. I refused, and ended up with a degree in Computer Science.

And yet it gnawed at me — this notion that I was able to slink chameleon-like between identities, invoking the race card when it proved advantageous, and relying on my pale complexion the rest of the time. I often feel simultaneously cheated out of being more in touch with my ancestry, while at the same time enjoying traffic stops that end in mere warnings, and border crossings that end with “have a nice day”.

I’m reminded of November 1979, after a summer spent largely at the beach left me with a dark tan. I was in a TV lounge at Harvard University on the night Iranian students took over the American embassy in Tehran. I was brown, had a bushy beard, and wasn’t a student. For the first time in my life, I was racially profiled.

Since then, I’ve learned that prolonged exposure to the sun is bad for you, so I’ve returned to fold of the privileged pale. I remain humbled that so many fellow Puertorriqueños do not have that same option. And yes, it’s wrong.

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Cape Codger

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Over the weeks, my wife Mary has learned a bit about the new neighborhood, particularly which streets would make for a leisurely dog walk. One of these routes takes us down “Pond View Road”, a short P-shaped spur just off of the main road and not far from our own little cul-de-sac. These are neat little Cape Cod cottages, most of them seasonal, and many of them unoccupied during the week. A glaring exception was a big, well-kept house on a corner lot, featuring a barn-sized garage with a giant, can’t-miss sign reading “OH MY COD”.

It was inevitable that we would meet the man behind the sign. We saw him gesturing to kids across the street, who paid no attention to him. Then he spotted the two of us walking toward him with our dog, and he stopped forward to get a good look.

“Rat Terrier”, he said, a frequent guess.

My wife and I looked at one another to see who would answer first. “He’s half Australian Cattle Dog, half American Eskimo Dog.”

“A mutt,” I added.

The man introduced himself only as “Kelly”, an 80 year-old former marine and veteran of Consolidated Edison, the New York City utility company. He retired to Centerville 36 years ago after a heart attack forced him into early retirement. He was wearing a shabby t-shirt that suggested that he was working around the yard, and it quickly became clear that this was all part of his shtick: clip a few shrubs and then engage the unsuspecting passers-by.

We learned quite a bit about him in a brief amount of time. Born in the Bronx but raised in Queens. Didn’t think much of the President, who came from the same borough. Yankee fan. Rescued a neglected Great Dane years back, and now had a Weimaraner, who would could hear bellowing in the background. That was our cue. “We should get going. We’ll be seeing you around, Mr. Kelly”.

Predictably, he muttered “Mr. Kelly?” and gestured dismissively. We could tell another story was coming on, but chose to save it for another day. We’ll be seeing him around.

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on the air

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I’m a big fan of college radio, and consider myself extremely fortunate to live within range of one of the best in the country, WMBR in Cambridge, MA. As a prominent station, WMBR receives dozens of CDs and records from record labels and independent artists on a weekly basis. It is the thankless task of the all-volunteer staff to sift through this material and separate the chaff from the wheat. Many DJs are MIT students, but quite a few are dedicated veterans who curate week after week of quality programming from musicians who otherwise would never be heard on the radio.

While the staff is unpaid, there are plenty of costs associated with keeping such a sophisticated operation running. MIT provides the space, but the rest is paid for by donations received during a one-week fund drive in November, the one opportunity listeners have to show their appreciation in a tangible way. In return, one can receive all sorts of premiums ranging from t-shirts to used CDs. Above a certain amount, a listener-fan can receive the ultimate premium — an hour of air time on his or her favorite show.

So to get to the point, I got to do an hour of radio on the James Dean Deathcar Experience for the eighth year in a row last night. As always, it went by way too quickly, but it was a true blast. I usually try to do something a little bit different, so this year I had sets focusing on jangle-rock and short punk and post-punk instrumentals. The set list can be found here. For the aurally adventurous who’d like to hear the hour in its entirety, I’ve posted the podcast to my website here.

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