first thought, best thought

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The phrase “First thought, best thought” originated with Allen Ginsberg, but Jack Kerouac popularized it in his essay Essentials of Spontaneous Prose and illustrated the approach in his epic novel “On the Road“. Popular myth holds that the original manuscript was written on a single continous sheet of paper in one amphetamine-fueled session, Kerouac claiming that “punctuation only hindered the process, and that pausing and thinking were also detrimental.

We now know that “On the Road” experienced multiple edits before its publication years later, and that spontaneity and “purity of speech” were all part of a carefully crafted illusion.

I encounter the same dilemma as a haiku poet, and knowing that Kerouac wrote some exceptional haiku allows me to benefit from this very basic struggle: to capture an authentic image in perfect clarity.

The first part of this puzzle, the “authentic image”, hearkens back to the Zen origins of haiku and its ancestors in Japanese and Chinese poetry. In meditative practice, poetry is a by-product of emptying the mind of the trappings of life and focusing on nature and its intersection with humanity. In its purest form, a haiku begins with an observation, be it in the woods, the workplace or the subway.

The poet’s conundrum starts with an attempt to translate the authentic image into words. I’ll use an example from a recent trip to Baja California Sur, Mexico. An hour or two past sunrise, I paced around on the viewing deck of the casita we called home for the week, searching for inspiration. The first thing I noticed was the persistent sound of ocean waves crashing against the beach in El Gavilan.

each pounding wave

Easy enough, I thought. Now to bring it all home with a little juxtaposition without trying to get too “crafty”. Although secondary images abounded – expat vacation homes in various states of construction, empty lots strewn with sagebrush and trash, and the Sierra Laguna mountains to the east – none seemed to compliment my experience of the waves without overwhelming it.

I shifted gears to contemplate how the sound of the waves made me feel. The first word that came to my mind was “gentle”, so I wrote:

each pounding wave
unrelentingly
gentle

I came up with “unrelentingly” as a modifier of “pounding” and “gentle” as a contrast, and while I’m pleased with the result as a poetic exercise, I can’t help feeling that I can do better. Despite adhering to my “first thoughts”, I’m handicapped by the limitations of language, saddled with the unenviable burden of giving voice to intangible thoughts and images. And then there’s the perennial fight between the artist of my right brain and the engineer of my left brain. My right brain searches the heavens, while my left brain searches Google.

I guess I’ll just have to keep on writing until I get it right.

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how a haiku is made

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Haiku might not be as tasty as sausage, but at least you’ll recognize all — or at least most — of the ingredients.

I’ve been writing haiku for over 25 years now, and I find that I’m writing more, and at a much more rapid clip than I did when I was younger. Sometimes I think I must have more time on my hands, but I know that really isn’t the case. And far from having more inspiration as raw material, I find less of it while living and working in suburbia than I did when I spent ten years commuting into downtown Boston. So how do I account for this increase in productivity after over a quarter century?

For one, I no longer wait for inspiration to walk over to me and introduce itself. I write about where I am, where I’m going, what I’m doing and what I see around me. It may or may not be interesting to anyone but me. If it strikes my fancy, I write about it.

As for making time to write, while I do try to find some “quiet time” every day, sometimes I just have to pause whatever I’m doing for the 30 seconds or so it takes to gather my thoughts into words. Technology helps in this regard: a voice recording app on my cellphone enables me to capture words when I’m driving or otherwise don’t have access to a keyboard. Here’s an example, written about 3 hours ago and immortalized via my voice recording app:

Spring Cleaning Haiku

For those who would rather not hear my voice, here it is in plain text:

spring cleaning —
choosing the memories
I will keep

Never mind that it isn’t Spring. Rather than a seasonal activity, “spring cleaning” has become the mindset my wife and I have adopted ever since we decided to sell our home of over 22 years. And while it’s one thing to put a house on the market, it’s quite another to scrutinize birthday cards, Christmas gifts and other mementos of intangible value, deciding in an instant whether to save them or relegate them to the recycle bin. To state the obvious, it’s a pretty draining undertaking.

So I took a break from sorting through drawers, shelves and boxes and made my weekly drive to the Wayland Town Dump, knowing that I was about to part with innumerable time capsules of various shape and form. Somewhere on Route 27, between West Plain Street and Old Connecticut Path, the words formed in my head, and I knew I needed to record them before I pulled into the dump and lost my train of thought.

That, in a nutshell, is how this particular haiku was made.

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Christmas in Puerto Rico

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I grew up in a thoroughly assimilated American household. I didn’t know that I was different until some kids bullied me in Elementary School, taunting “Ah so, Mena!” It was very confusing to me. Was I Chinese? No, my mother assured me, I was Puerto Rican. What was that, exactly?

I knew that my mother spoke to her mother in Spanish, and that I had spent my fifth birthday in Santurce, staying with my mother’s Aunt Ven and visiting my Aunt Alice, a Dominican nun who was assigned to a convent in San Juan. All of my mother’s siblings spoke to their mother in Spanish, while my father, whose parents were both born in Puerto Rico, never spoke Spanish. I’d say that this was confusing to me, but in reality I was perfectly comfortable being a suburban white boy whose life’s soundtrack occasionally included Spanish. And since this soundtrack didn’t include subtitles, I didn’t learn the language until I became an adult.

In the meantime, there were holiday visits to my grandmother and grandfather’s apartments in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. There was Mother’s Day with my Grandma Felicita, and Father’s Day at Grandpa’s house, but the real treat was at Christmas time, when we visited both homes on the same day. I couldn’t care less about the turtleneck sweaters I would inevitably receive as gifts. The true star of the day was the Puerto Rican pastele.

Always a good eater, I feasted upon pasteles with great zeal. My mother, half Puerto Rican but not a gifted cook, never made them at home, so I only ate them when I visited my grandparents. They passed away in the late 70s and early 80s, and I haven’t had a pastele since then.

Being a thoroughly assimilated American adult, and married to a very gifted cook, I enjoy the food of many cultures, but I long for a Christmas beneath the flamboyan tree, breathing in the fragance and relishing every bite of a homemade pastele.

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Lost Wages

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I can’t think of too many things more surreal than spending Thanksgiving in Las Vegas, so naturally that’s what we did this past year. Our true reason for being there was the Las Vegas Invitational basketball tournament; everything else about Las Vegas was a bonus.

We didn’t gamble. Apart from attending the tournament’s four games, we ate a lot of good food and basically watched people interacting with machines and monitors at the casinos. I also wrote quite a bit, some of which I’ll share here.

morning sun —
a small dog
in a travel bag

waiting to board
high rollers
and their baggage

jet lag:
the time between coffee
and beer

now boarding
all of the passengers
more special than me

delayed departure —
they called me
a late bloomer

friendly skies —
the pilot wishes
he had better news

all night long
the slot machine
sunshine

waking from a dream
a golden pyramid
in the desert

Thanksgiving morning —
grandma cleans house
at blackjack

Thanksgiving buffet
I eat
my feelings

double shift —
the cocktail waitress serves
a whiskey sour

one day after Thanksgiving
Santa wears
a cocktail dress

Black Friday
what happens in Vegas
24/7

final nightcap —
a drunk couple’s
angry conversation

Vegas midnight —
row after row
of flashing lights

Vegas midnight —
the serenity of a
broken slot machine

the art
of the deal
with the devil

magic trick —
the weekend
disappears

desert night —
an adult book store’s
guiding light

somewhere
above the Vegas haze
Nevada moonlight

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Why I don’t celebrate Columbus Day

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First off, my employer doesn’t give us the day off, so of course I’ll drag myself into the office on Monday like everyone else. But beyond that, there​’s the whole notion of celebrating the “discovery” of America, as if there wasn’t already a vibrant patchwork of indigenous cultures already thriving in that exact place. It would be more accurate to celebrate the day Europe arrived in earnest to invade the Americas, enslaving or executing those not annihilated by disease. How festive!

Now I know what you’re thinking: it’s my white liberal guilt talking. Granted, Casper the Friendly Ghost envies my pale complexion, but beneath this pampered pastiness is a pair of surprises to many: first, I’m three-quarters Puerto Rican. Second, thanks to the miracle of modern DNA testing, I apparently have about 10% Native American blood by way of Puerto Rico, in other words, Taíno. And the Taíno people have, let’s say, a very special relationship with Columbus.

When Cristoforo Colombo sailed the ocean blue and landed in the Bahamas, he was greeted by curious Taíno villagers, whom he described as

“a physically tall, well-proportioned people, with a noble and kind personality. They traded with us and gave us everything they had, with good will … they took great delight in pleasing us … They are very gentle and without knowledge of what is evil; nor do they murder or steal…Your highness may believe that in all the world there can be no better people … They love their neighbours as themselves, and they have the sweetest talk in the world, and are gentle and always laughing.”

Translation: they were easily exploitable. By his second visit, Columbus began to exact tribute from his gentle hosts, often through violence. By the middle of the sixteenth century, most of those who had not died through brutal treatment or smallpox were the women whom their Spanish overlords took as wives. As a result, there is no surviving Taíno population, but rather traces of Taíno blood in most of those who consider themselves Puerto Rican. So no, I won’t be celebrating Columbus Day.

Not surprisingly, I see this same delusion of conquest in our current administration’s mishandling of the devastation that followed September 2017’s Hurricane Maria. Instead of offering the same level of assistance that followed Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida, Puerto Rico was assailed for the poor finances and infrastructure that made such a disaster inevitable. What is often missed is how decades of colonial rule have rendered Puerto Rico without any of the safety nets afforded to fellow Americans in the mainland. Sure, the island doesn’t pay Federal income tax, but nor do Puerto Ricans have a voting member of Congress, or the ability to vote for President. I won’t speak for my Island counterparts, but I would certainly be willing to pay taxes to participate in decisions that have a direct impact on my life.

I could go on about the bombing ranges in Culebra and Vieques, the plundering of coffee and sugar plantations, or the frenzied investment of mainland dollars in lucrative island casinos, but I’ve only got one more day left this weekend, then it’s back to work on Monday…

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the consequence of sound

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In what has become an expensive but irresistible habit, I had the opportunity to hijack an hour of airtime from the James Dean Deathcar Experience on WMBR, MIT’s radio station. It was my ninth time pretending to be DJ for one hour, and as always it was both great fun and a great privilege. The playlist can be found here, and an archive of the entire hour-long joyride can be found here. Be sure to buckle up!

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dream sequence – part 72

ShadowPeople

As is the case with many of my dreams, the scenario was very close to real life: I was in bed, alone, unable to fall asleep. In the dream, however, some kids were horsing around near the house, shouting outside my bathroom window from the backyard and then running away laughing. I finally had enough of this and decided to confront them.

I waited in front of the house, knowing that they’d be running out from the backyard, at which point I’d give them a well-deserved scare. Suddenly a shadow appeared in front of me, at eye level, hovering just out of reach. Startled, I tried to touch it, but my hands went right through the space where the shadow appeared to be.

And then I did another thing I often do in my sleep: I screamed — very loudly — promptly waking myself up, terrified. But in those seconds between the time I started screaming and the time I was fully awake — that seemingly endless state of hypnagogia — I could clearly hear my wife Mary saying to me, from 83 miles away, “I’m very sorry, but I can’t help you now.”

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