your story is killing me

J_Marinelli_20170912

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

Paul_Prisma_Black_and_White

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

Free_Beer_Tomorrow_20170819

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

On_the_Air_20170812

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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opal diamond (dream sequence – part 67)

diamond_20170802

To my knowledge, there is no such thing as an “opal diamond”. This is what my waking mind tells me, and I suspected as much in my dream as well.

For reasons that were never explained, we found ourselves in the mythical Florida town of Opal Diamond. It was in the central part of the state, far from the flash of Miami or the sprawl of Orlando. The town was two blocks long and one block wide, with a single traffic light in the middle and a pair of gas stations on either end. In between, virtually every restaurant, hotel and souvenir shop paid homage to the town’s namesake.

I asked the hotel receptionist if the gem was real, resulting in a disdainful “of course it’s real!” When I asked if I could see it, I was told about a museum in the center of town, which I had somehow overlooked.

The museum was an old post office converted into a gallery of images and exhibits. There were several photos celebrating the history of the town as early as the mid-19th century. My sense was that strawberry farming had once been the town’s chief industry, but that it had been in decline for decades. Conspicuously absent were any photos of the opal diamond, or indeed the diamond itself. When a guide approached me asking if I had any questions, I whispered “I can’t be the only one to ask, but where is the diamond?”

She explained that the precious stone was far too rare and valuable to be openly displayed. It was locked in a safe in the basement of the museum. When I asked if I could go down there, I was told that the area was “restricted”.

After waiting for other misguided tourists to arrive, I quietly walked down the stairs to a windowless, brightly lit hallway with a single open storefront at the end of it. It resembled a bank without tellers and without customers. A man and a woman were seated at a round table in front of the room. I deduced that one was a bank executive and that the other was a security guard. He was armed — and not amused. I tried to disarm him with a clueless tourist ruse.

“I’m sorry — I was looking for a restroom but I’m clearly lost.”

“They’re clearly marked upstairs,” replied the guard. “As were the signs saying that this floor was closed to visitors.”

I knew I was walking on thin ice. “That must be because of — you know — the diamond.”

“That’s right,” the woman interjected.

“So you’ve seen it,” I pressed.

“Of course.”

The guard interrupted. “We’re going to need you to leave.”

“Yes — and again, my apologies,” I said, obediently backing away. “Thank you for your hospitality.”

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this compulsion to write

Writing-Poetry-20170723

I’ve often heard of poets describing their creative “gift” as more of a burden. I can relate to this, as I don’t feel as if my day has started until I’ve written a haiku. I haven’t kept an exact count, but I believe I’ve gone 5 years or more without missing a single day.

Sometimes I write a lot, much of it passing observations that would need some thoughtful editing if I ever thought about publishing them. Smart phones with note-taking and voice recording apps have made it easy to capture words in a matter of seconds. Sometimes, however, I’m in a rush to get to work, and hours have gone by without a moment to reflect. My fear is that when I finally set aside some time to quiet my mind, the words will have left me.

wondering if today
will be the day
I stop writing

So yes, even though words come easily to me most of the time, there’s always the dread that Old Faithful will run dry. For this reason, I write with a sense of urgency, as if one day I might have nothing to say.

new moon —
a night
without words

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dream sequence – part 66

33_poplar

Minutes before the alarm rang this morning, I dreamed that I was living at the house I was raised in back in Farmingdale, NY. Also with me were my wife Mary and my dog Tito. The dream began with Tito furiously barking at someone or something in front of the house, rousing us from a deep sleep.

While Mary settled Tito down, I went to the front door. A large crowd had gathered in and around our driveway: neighbors, policemen and news reporters. They were murmuring about some sort of crime, possibly a murder. Having been asleep only moments earlier, I had no idea what was going on.

Seeing me at the front door, a reporter ran up with microphone in hand. “Sir, I’d like to ask you a few questions about the neighborhood. I understand you grew up here.”

“I can’t talk right now,” I said, “I’m not wearing any pants.”

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