Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Living Life on Life’s Terms

Hola Everybody...
During the 60s there was a popular poster depicting a swami, complete with flowing beard and robes, on a surfboard with the caption, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf.” Well, lately the waves have been the Rosario clan really hard. Here’s something to consider, especially relevant when life’s “waves” get too rough…

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This too shall pass...
Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.
 -- Carl Gustav Jung

We’re experiencing a tragic event. Something almost impossible to grasp: the death of Taina Marie, my sweet, 28-year-old niece. I cannot even begin to fathom the pain my sister is experiencing and I just don’t have the words. Some days, Taina’s passing is something ethereal, conceptual. Then there are the days that the realization that Taina is no longer with us hits me so hard, it’s almost as if I can’t breathe. I try to cry, but what comes out is a silent howl.

I can’t even imagine what it must be like for the rest of my family, especially my sister.

I believe that some things actually don’t pass, that there are events that change us forever. I think I speak for many people when I say that the last thing we want to hear when we’re in pain is some trite saying or scripture whether it’s a truism or not. When it comes to brand-spankin’-new pain, at the moment of impact clichés really have no place. I mean, would you run up to a victim of a pedestrian accident and blurt out, “This too shall pass?” Well, there probably are some people who would consider this, but I would guess it would at the very least be inappropriate. I don’t think people mean any harm, but responding to death is always an awkward exercise. This is especially true of a society in which people most often live in denial of the Grand Cosmic Joke that, no matter how many trips we take to Whole Foods, or how much we exercise, we all eventually die.

Nevertheless, clichés become clichés because at some level they contain truths. Some of the most important teachings that help us with life’s hardships are simple to understand intellectually, but harder to integrate holistically. It is only when we have managed some psychological distance from a traumatic experience that we can begin to understand a truth. The following is based on a true story...

Being in prison is depressing, to say the least, and as someone condemned to prison looked at his surroundings -- the stone walls, the cold cell, the bars -- he couldn’t help but feel the weight on life on his shoulders. As the days passed, and the reality of his sentence settled in, his heart sank lower. Then one day, he attended a mandatory meeting and he heard one of the speakers say, “This too shall pass.”

At first this caused him to feel resentment, but as the days passed and he allowed himself to be receptive to the truth of the words, the same words that initially caused him pain, seemed offer him solace and helped him through the days. One day, he printed those words on a blank sheet of legal pad paper, and he taped it above his bed and in that way, those were the last words he would see at the end of the day and the first words upon awakening. Eventually, he would pay an artist friend two packs of cigarettes so that now he had the words artistically engraved with fancy calligraphy on heavy stock paper. Regardless of the hopelessness of that prison environment, or how hard life became, he would look at those words and remember, “This too shall pass.”

On the day he was released, except for a few books, he gave away most of his belongings. As he was leaving, a friend asked about the sign, and he decided to leave it there, perhaps hoping those words would comfort the next resident of that cell.

As he went about picking up the piece of his life after his release from prison, he would continue giving away that message, speaking on it at meetings and sharing it with those close to him -- many of whom were suffering. And even when times were bad, he never got depressed because he remembered the truth of, “This too shall pass.” And he often had to struggle, one day at a time, sometimes one breath at a time. It was a challenge to put things together and in many cases, there were broken things that would never be put aright. There were good times too, and he made sure to enjoy them, but never carelessly or mindlessly. In times of joy, he remembered again, “this too shall pass,” and so he continued living his life on life’s terms, not taking anything for granted, fully living in the joy but also fully experience the sorrows of life.

Years passed, and the rewards of his karmic actions accumulated, the formerly condemned person would become a lover and husband, a father, a dutiful son. But along with the victories came pain, and he would come to know intimately the experience of the loss of loved ones, of relationships lost, the trials, and tribulations of life. He buried cherished friends and family members, grieved the losses of love, and experienced the slings of betrayal. Even then, “This too shall pass” still gave him hope and served to keep him focused and directed.

And that was his message to his friends and family -- to any who would listen. Finally, he understood that depression and sadness is a form of prison that “this too shall pass” helps us transcend. It is also one of the secrets to avoid depression, which is too often taking the happy times for granted. And the truth of “this too shall pass” helped him understand that certain events would make it impossible to go back. It helped him understand that sometimes it’s OK not to feel OK. That certain events take years to process and that truth of the matter is that even the surest things can change.

My name is Eddie and I'm in recovery from civilization...

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Plantation in Puerto Rican Popular Music

I wrote the following for another site and I don’t believe it migrated here. I’m in a Puerto Rican Studies mood today, so I’m sharing. I'm looking to tie this analysis to modern-day mass incarceration, so stay tuned...
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Plantacíon Adentro: 
The Plantation in Puerto Rican Popular Music
Sombras son la gente…

The connection between the Cuban “Son” and Salsa is undeniable, but whereas son is Cuban country music, salsa was the child of an inner city identity movement wrought by the mass migration of primarily Puerto Rican Latin@s to New York in the 50s and 60s. Hence Salsa, right off the bat, is overtly political. The Panamanian-born actor, songwriter, poet, Harvard-trained lawyer, and politician, Ruben Blades (who sings lead here) once asserted that salsa was more than a musical genre, it was a way of life, an “urban folklore.” Eventually that urban folklore -- that cry of the urban Latin@ working class -- would reach 100s of millions of Latin@s in Barrios the world over. Eventually Europe and swaths of the Orient would come under its rhythmic spell (salsa dancing and salsa bands still very popular in Japan -- Google Orquesta la Luz).

While some salsa songs, for example, take up the theme of the sweetness of the sugarcane as a way to explore nostalgia for the good things of the old country, others explored the politics more trenchantly. What ultimately appealed to the young Puerto Ricans in New York and Latin@s the world over were the songs that documented (and in that way validated), celebrated, and explored life in El Barrio.

As an example, Willie Colon and Ruben Blades collaborated on a viciously wicked song called “Plantación Adentro” (literally Plantation Inside). Though it deals with a coffee rather than a sugar plantation, the system of oppression is not much different. Written by one of the greatest Puerto Rican composers, Tite Curet Alonso, the song is notable first for its black humor, which is used as a vehicle to expose the hypocrisy and cruelty of the entire system:

Se murio el indio Camilo por palo que daba el mayoral
que medico de turno dijo asi, “muerte por causa natural.”
¡claro! si despues de una tunda de palos, que se muera es normal

English translation:
Camilo the Indian died from the beating the overseer gave him,
and the doctor on shift pronounced it,
“death by natural causes.”
Sure! after a rain of blows naturally one dies!

Not much different from the reality that many Puerto Ricans and other minorities experience: so long as everything is certified by a specialist (in this case the doctor on call) the status quo holds and the system is legitimized by its social institutions and proceeds business-as-usual. Of course, the meaning of that “natural” death is open to interpretation, and while it results from a natural or normal chain of cause and effect, it is not legally a “natural” death. This highlights the essentially violent nature of capitalism, as experienced in the postcolonial context.

The song also utilizes a theme that centers on the paradox between secrecy (a proactive blindness?) and revelation. This is an inspired bit of writing on the part of Alonso: the plantation presents us with a conundrum, as it is at the same time hidden (“adentro”) and out in the open. Its marginal status virtually ensures that few people outside the industry would or could penetrate the boundaries erected by social prejudice, geographical isolation, and poverty.

The song begins with the news broadcast of a death and then proceeds with the following lyrics:

Sombras son la gente, sombras son la gente
Plantación adentro camará, e' donde se sabe la verdad,
e' donde se aprende la verdad,
dentro del follaje, y de la espesura, donde todo viaje, lleva la amargura . . .
Camilo Manrique fallecio por golpes que daba el mayoral
y fue sepultado sin llorar, una cruz de palo y nada más.


People are but mere shadows... there's a plantation inside there,
that's where the truth is known, that's where the truth is learned,
inside the foliage, past the thickets, where everyone passes, there is bitter grief...
Camilo Manrique died from the blows of the overseer
and was buried without tears, a cross made from sticks and nothing more.

While the song is a lament for the cruel murder of an Indian, its genius consists in the way it builds its meaning around symbols of boundaries that simultaneously define and blur the spaces they delineate. The foliage marks the borders of the plantation, inside of which “the truth is learned.” 

Paradoxically, the thickets serve to hide this inside knowledge from those who pass by without entering. The grave marker is merely two sticks that reinforce the anonymity of the death. It marks the grave but not the body interred within it. Nothing more can be known about the deceased or the circumstances of his death. The fact that the sticks are of the very same material that killed the Indian is an irony that would escape notice were it not for the narrator's constant repetition of the word “palo” used here both in the sense of “stick” and the “blow” dealt by a stick (“palo” is both a noun: stick; and an action: a blow).

In fact, the entire incident, along with the presence and significance of the plantation, would escape notice, were it not for the narrator's own transgression, which means that the plantation now bears scrutiny and exists as a kind of “clue” or crime scene that must be investigated, penetrated, brought to light. It is an open secret, the dirty laundry of the captains of industry.

Tite Curet Alonso was arguably the greatest composer and interpreter of Afro-Puerto Rican musical and written art forms. He composed songs based on folkloric expressions of the very poor and downtrodden and wrote in a way that entertained, instructed, and elevated urban popular culture no other composer can claim. That his genius is barely acknowledged today is itself a crime.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…


[un]Common Sense