The Dogs of Arroyo

A few years back, a big chunk of my novella “The Dogs of Arroyo” was published in an annual anthology titled “The Caribbean Writer.” It was inspired by many things, including several visits to Puerto Rico (especially the rolling mountains and small towns off the beaten track), some reading about the blend of voodoo and Christianity known as santeria, the sight of feral dogs roaming the narrow dirt roads of the countryside, and a memorable conversation in Ponce with a passionate advocate for shucking the shackles of colonialism and declaring independence.

I thought about this as I watched the response — or lack of response — by Donald Trump, who probably had to be told that Puerto Rico is part of the United States and that its residents, so desperate for help, are U.S. citizens.

Here’s a snippet of what was published in that anthology.

There are thousands of coqui, maybe millions. Some of them are hidden in the shadows. Some are tucked under thick green leaves and some cling to the trunks of mango trees. All of them hum the same sweet note. When these tiny coqui sing, their song is so sweet that the touristos aren’t sure if what they’re hearing is the singing of Spanish – speaking angels, or the whispering waves, or the whistling wind, or the hum of the heat, or the secret hymn of the humid night, for all of things can be heard in the harmony of the invisible and magical coqui choir.

The light is so bright that now we can see the shy coqui hidden in the leaves, and we can see the parrots on the treetops with their bright green feathers, and we can even see the boa snakes, which are wrapped on the trunks like thick vines. And sometimes the light lasts long enough that there is even time to count each one of the fifty types of orchids that bloom on El Yunque but only bloom at night when no one is there to see them.

Up the trail now comes the jibaro band. The old men are stooped from their loads. But as they climb up El Yunque’s hills they slowly grow tall and strong and hopeful once more. Their deep wrinkles fade and their slumped shoulders straighten and their dull eyes shine as they set up their timbales and begin to knock the wooden blocks and slap the drums and crash the cymbals with joy.

Some believe the dogs  harbor the souls of jibaro who died at work in the sugar cane fields. Some leave them plates of hot food and bowls of cool water. Some even give them shelter in their very own homes. They live in the streets and sleep down in the weeds. They growl at passing strangers. They eat whatever there is to eat. They arrive at El Yunque, thousands of them, forming a tight circle on the damp hills.

These are the wild feral dogs of Arroyo.

And now they look up and watch the landing lights of a jet, which carries an American businessman and is descending at this moment to the runway at the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport on the outskirts of San Juan.

***** 

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God bless America

I keep thinking about the two jackasses who show up at virtually every Yankees’ home game, at least the ones televised  from The Bronx.

They bring a big American flag with them to every game. And in the seventh inning, when the Stadium’s PA system plays a snippet of Kate Smith’s rendition of Irving Berlin’s superficial and stupid “God Bless America,” the YES Network camera zooms in on these two as they smugly belt out the lyrics, hold up the flag — and occasionally look around to see if everyone else is watching.

Never mind that the song sucks. Never mind that Woody Guthrie heard it, also thought it sucked, and wrote “This Land Is Your Land” — which should be our National Anthem — in response. Perhaps more important are the misguided patriotism and jingoism that have overtaken baseball and other sports.

“God Bless America” was added to the seventh inning stretch after 9/11. OK. But now it’s nearly two decades later.

Perhaps most disturbing: People stand up, hold their caps to their hearts, bow their heads and sing along — none of which is called for or required. And I guarantee you that many of those people think “God Bless America” is the OTHER National Anthem or might even be THE National Anthem.

As for “The Star-Spangled Banner” itself, the tune has been played at baseball games for 80 years — but as a part of the tradition of the American Pastime. It’s not required. And it’s a song that glorifies war. If they play it before each game, fine — but bear in mind that it didn’t even become our National Anthem until the 1930s.

And “God Bless America” does not require holding your cap to your heart. Me, not only do I refuse to doff my cap, but if the two yahoos who bring a big flag to every game ever said anything about it, I’d tell them to kiss my red, white and blue you-know what.
 

 

 

 

 

What do you think about your blue-eyed friend now..

Yes, it’s a kind of a stretch and probably a bad paraphrase of the poem by e.e. cummings, but it came to mind after reading this remarkable commentary on Amazon: It’s so good, so insightful — parts of it actually made me cry…

Defying Death — with Humor, July 22, 2017
By Peter P.

Man Has Premonition of Own Death: An Ancestor’s Strange Demise and Other Mortal Matters (Paperback)
How strange that a book so unrelentingly about death should contain so much life. But that’s what we have in “Man Has Premonition of Own Death,” which stands athwart decay and demands to know why.

The book title copies the headline that appeared above a 1925 story in a Yonkers newspaper about a young man who uttered something of a prophecy shortly before he was fatally injured in a gruesome industrial accident. The young man was the author’s great-uncle, and it’s fair to say that Nicholas DiGiovanni, a novelist, essayist, journalist and poetry impresario, has been obsessed with the sad uncanny tale of Thomas Crooks ever since he found the old newspaper clipping in a family Bible some 35 years ago. Popping up here and there among the dozens of short essays & stories that make up this volume, elements of the Crooks story compose the leitmotif of a man who dies before his time yet somehow knows it’s going to happen. Which is not far from DiGiovanni’s own story.

For the author is himself a man who more or less has come back from near death to tell us about it. A strikingly personal account of fear, despair, hope, love, and above all, family, the book amounts to a premonition of his own death. DiGiovanni, in his 60s, is in recovery from brain and esophageal cancer. As we learn, he twice came very close to dying, once from the cancer before it was surgically removed, and once from massive hemorrhaging due to the effects of mixing chemotherapy with medicine he was taking for a heart condition (which itself was just barely prevented from killing him some dozen years earlier). DiGiovanni has had to confront his mortality repeatedly and with an intensity that many of us will feel only when we’re close to the end. It is the certainty of death and our foggy knowledge of what comes after it that permeate DiGiovanni’s writing.

But despite the grim topic and a necessarily autumnal cast, “Man Has Premonition of Own Death” is engaging as well as defiant, spirited and even light-hearted. This is due to the author’s voice, which is warm, wry, courageous and funny. DiGiovanni’s sense of humor, which only occasionally is of the gallows type, keeps these essays from being depressingly dark. Writing about those who have died among his family and friends, about his fondness for cemeteries and the celebrities and nobodies buried there, about the beliefs and indoctrination of his Catholic schooling, about how the dead are treated, considered, feared, missed — through all of it DiGiovanni proves to be an entertaining, thoughtful and perceptive writer. It is said that philosophy begins with the awareness of death, and that’s the direction in which DiGiovanni ultimately moves, although I wish his book offered even more reflection and metaphysical contemplation of our damned mortality.

Decrying how morticians mute death’s warning to the living through their cosmetic manipulations of the faces of the dead, DiGiovanni writes, “We all would benefit … if we got up the courage to look death straight in the eye.” Indeed, his book helps us do just that.

Man Has Premonition…A Vision?

 

Man Has Premonition of Own Death’ is selling copies and I know many are buying it, reading it, liking it, and hopefully will soon rate it and mini-review it on Amazon. But suppose you want it sighed?!
Well, just send me your mailing info, and I will send you a signed and personalized book plate to put inside the book!
So here’s a link to the Amazon page.
Hope to hear from you all soon — and thanks once again for the gfor the enthusiasm and generous praise.

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https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0692879374/ref=mp_s_a_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1496826637&sr=8-1-fkmr0&pi=AC_SX236_SY340_QL65&keywords

 

The truth about blurbs

Just some thoughts on authors and cover blurbs as publication day approaches for my collection of essays, “Man Has Premonition of Own Death: My ancestor’s strange demise and other mortal matters.”

Authors Christian Bauman (‘The Ice Beneath You,’ ‘Voodoo Lounge’ and In Hoboken’), Greg Lichtenberg (‘Playing Catch with My Mother’) and Michael N. McGregor (‘Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax) all wrote wonderful cover blurbs for my upcoming book.

Yes, I know them all to some degree, from 30 year friend (Chris) to Greg (became friends when we met twice as fellows at the Va. Center for the Creative Arts and Michael (email, as we both knew the great poet Lax).

But here’s the things to remember:
1) Most writers won’t and can’t write blurbs; it takes too much time away from their own writing: It’s not the two or three paragraphs they write; it’s the chunk of time it takes to read the manuscript.
2. Their good names and reputations are on the line. They mayvtruly like your book — or maybe not. If they write a good blurb, and then the book sucks, they damage their own careers. Finally, there is the actual writing of the blurb — try liking something, then describing it in 15-40 words!!!

So thank you – thank you – thank you to Michael, Greg and Chris!!!

Dancing to the music of time


Here’s my latest essay for a book I’m working on for Blue Heron Book Works. The title is ‘Man Has Premonition of Own Death,’ which was the actual headline on a 1920s newspaper article about the tragic death of young mill worker Thomas Crooks, 23, who was my great-uncle.

 

My father’s cousin Carlo and his wife Marie, it seemed to me, would have fit perfectly in a movie made by one of those great Italian movie directors.

Carlo, who came to America from his small mountain village in Chieti province when he was in his late teens or early 20s and was the nephew of my Italian grandmother, was dark and handsome, his hair nearly black and always slicked back with Vitalis or Brylcreem, his cheeks well-splashed with witch hazel, his smile friendly, his voice smooth but foreign. As for Marie, I remember her with a big smile, lighter complexion, heavy but alluring Italian accent, a mischievous twinkle in her eye, and a luxurious mane of long red hair.

It saddens me a bit, even now, to think that they’re both long gone, both passed on to that great Fellini set in the sky. They’re splashing in the Tivoli fountain. They’re cheek-to-cheek in a gondola gliding through the canals of Venice. They’re running arm-in-arm through the Piazza San Marco as flocks of pigeons flap skyward.

Or they’re where I remember them still – in their tiny apartment in south Yonkers, hosting some kind of party – maybe a child’s birthday. I’m seven or eight years old, there with my parents, and I’m sitting in a chair watching the adults dance.

Carlo puts on a record, takes Marie by the hand, and they swirl and laugh as Dean Martin sings “Volare, oh oh/Cantare, oh oh oh oh/Let’s fly way up to the clouds / Away from the maddening crowds…

Some people die but also don’t die. They live on in someone’s memory, the way Carlo and Marie abide on in mine, young and vibrant and beautiful, dancing happily to the music of a hard-drinking Hollywood paisan, dancing to the music of time.

Lonely hunter

 

Here’s my latest essay for a book I’m working on for Blue Heron Book Works. The title is ‘Man Has Premonition of Own Death,’ which was the actual headline on a 1920s newspaper article about the tragic death of young mill worker Thomas Crooks, 23, who was my great-uncle.

—–

There’s a novel by Carson McCullers titled ‘The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.’ It’s one of those books — I own it, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually read it, or at least I don’t remember it. The point is that the title came to mind — even though I don’t know what the hell it means.

It came to mind because it has the word ‘lonely.’

Songs, too. The early Neil Young song about the lonely boy out on the weekend. That crappy song by Paul Anka. That great song by Roy Oribison. And, of course, Elvis, asking ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’

The answer. Yes, Elvis.

Dealing with my illness has been and continues to be very hard. The treatments are working, thankfully, but the regimen sometimes wipes me out, physically and, sometimes, emotionally.

Related problems (soon to be fixed) with my vocal cords and voice have left me pretty much unable to speak for nearly nine months — and cut off, in large part, from people.

And I’m not that kind of person.Let’s just say that I could never live the life of a hermit — unless someone was paying me a lot of money.

Part of it, too, is that many of my friends and family are scattered around the country. I do have many dear friends who live nearby and would gladly spend time with me.

But there’s also a sort of self-imposed exile. I just don’t want to intrude on their lives. What’s more, pretty much no one except my family and a few friends has seen me since I became ill  — and I don’t want them to see me until I’m better…and I look like me again.

Usually I’m fine. I go out for coffee, for groceries, for the Sunday newspaper. Sometimes I get in my car and park down by river. I watch the Yankees on YES and old movies on TCM. I read a lot. I’m working hard on my book. And I even just co-wrote a song with my singer-guitarist son.

But sometimes I feel sorry for myself and sometimes I even wallow in it.

So, when Elvis asks his question, usually the answer is ‘No, but thanks for asking.’

Other times, though, I honestly reply: ‘The heart is a lonely hunter…’