Saturday, November 30, 2013

You Fool! (or why did I drive north for the winter?)

So, it's November 29, 2013.

Here is the 5 day temperature forecast for Los Angeles
High   64   74   78   79  66  61
Low   52    51  51    53  47  42

Here is the 5 day temperature forecast forAshland, OR

High 50    53   54    47  35  32
Low  30    34   34   27   19  14

I saw the pattern when I was in LA. Basically, the lows in LA are higher than the highs in Ashland. I was cold in LA already in the van in early November. I've been in Ashland more than two weeks now and have been cold every day---and so far the lows have not dipped below 28 or 29, but the next five days is even more scary---like New York & Philly Weather.... & I can't take it. Something happened to my nervous system...

was it the concussion? the stroke? the stress? the hopelessness? the homelessness?
and why oh why did I not heed the numbers that were plain to see?

I got out of Oakland, Ca. in 2012 to go south to LA, largely because Oakland was too cold and it contributed to health issues in the winter of early 2012. And since I was staying in the van, I thought LA would be significantly warmer. Even last winter in LA was too cold for my body, and the summer of 2014 was way too hot. That damn van accentuated the cold of the winter and the heat of the summer.

I knew I had to get out of the van, and couldn't afford a place...
the unemployment insurance ran out....and i've tried to scrimp so have some savings but not much
(and only coz i've sacrificed necessities like clothes and such...

So, as the teaching job prospects didn't come, the social security disability insurance didn't come,
the so-called democratic rock band recording project fizzled out due to the cancer-like spread of
the Cult Of the Individual Genuis, and the funding for the documentary never came through,
and the promise of a solo album that could lead to a publishing deal may not happen for a very long time, if ever....

An ex-student told me he was working on a APP project, in which I could be hired as a
CONTENT PROVIDER, writing about poetry, and he was convinced he could find funding.

In the meantime, I could stay with him, his wife and kids in Ashland, Or,
and we could brainstorm better on various projects.
Allegedly, small town easier to navigate, he said.
Maybe easier to get healthcare or social services,

He knew some of the OSF people.
I knew someone at SOU's English Department, but they too had a hiring freeze and were downsizing,
I could also work on my own writing in his garage-
I knew I couldn't write in his house, because I need to smoke to write.
And I was a little worried about the garage, because of the cold
but I figured with a SPACE HEATER, I'd be fine.
It seemed a little promising, after the hell of the last year

What was I thinking?
Certainly Ashland didn't seem as cold as New York,
but it was much colder than Oakland.

Nothing else was coming through, in LA....or anywhere else I was applying for a job
And obviously I felt ridiculous for moving to LA for the weather,
when I had no definite job lined up there either
(at the time of course I felt that my Ph.D & 25 years of experience
would make it easy to get at least one class at a community college)

So, yes, being colder but being in a nice warm house
seemed worth it...

I can't write in his garage. I can't concentrate to write in the cold without a smoke.

All I do is eat too much (I understand why Daniel Johnston got fat)
And watch TV (which I hate), and sleep more and wait and wait and hope something happens
(yes, I'm smoking less, but strange as it may sound,
I'm more healthy when I eat less and smoke more--
damn oral fixation...).
Gluttony and sloth does not help one's flagging self esteem...

It almost makes me nostalgic for the LA piano van thing,
or at least LA as a city
(but it was too spread out, unmanaeable, especially in the van--
see earlier journal notes, etc etc)...
or at least Glendale....cleaner, maybe even cheaper
if I can get more gigs doing commercial sounds....

I'm still scarred from 15 months of performing on a piano there,
but Ashland is dead....and the next 4 months are looking freezing and bleak
and I'm already going stir crazy trying to repress myself
to be somewhat civil to this beautiful hospitable family who tried to help--
I am really stuck....

There's another couple in New Orleans,
but they don't have a job prospect either...
and if I washed up on shore like a disabled BP-Oil-Stained Walrus,
I just don't know if I'd be even able to find a room of my own
to Squeeze out sparks in finishing a book
and if that book could find a publisher
and that publisher would have the clout
that would help me get that full-time academic job
in English/ Media Studies/ Ethnomusicology

or at least by time for this alleged solo album to come out
in Europe, and somehow lure a publishing deal
and unlock me so I can actually record with a band again
and yes combine the music with the book
in a project that could make a great film or something

a hope as real as a fear that death or abject absolute PURPOSELESSNESS is closer than ever...

oh dear g-d, help...
oh dear women who I've loved,
and friends from long ago and far away
(who seem closer and more present
 because of the illusion of Facebook),
yes I "reach out"---

I still have talents to give;
I think I gave at least a B+ performance
as a guest teacher/talker in Kasey Mohammed's class



I was gonna probably lose the van anyway...
didn't want to lose the piano,
but part of me felt I wasn't really making MUSIC anyway,
since I lost my Oakland studio access with Greg Ashley
and various drummers....

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Beneath The So-Called Glamour: A Few Unhinged Glimpses of The Reality (

Beneath The So-Called Glamour: A Few Unhinged Glimpses of The Sober Reality Of Day To Day Life (or just call it VENTING, if you must).

People are fascinated; people are curious. Some well-known musicians and writers congratulate me on my break out success (ha, if only they knew!). Many have told me say it’s a “brilliant concept” and a “marketable story,” but they can’t help me find a literary agent, editor or publisher What’s it like?  I’ve been trying to hang in suspension and avoid making public any direct, fleshed-out answer, to this question.

In the latest interview, I said three little words, “It’s getting worse,” but then purposely tried to steer the conversation to what I call being proactive! Thus always worked in the past---writing my way out of it, or singing my way out of it, conversing my way out of it—to focus on the Big Picture, the intersections between activism, teaching, and music —areas in which I can have use. I could write MUCH BETTER about it LATER, if I can get at least a little of my life back—but the longer it goes on, I need to consider the possibility that I may never get it back.  I’ve tried so many things this last year, and am working my butt off—but I am stuck, and on a downward spiral. I tried gracefully begging, but maybe people do want to hear the negative, the ridiculousness of my helplessness...

 I do need to address the situation soberly (without the “drug of hope”), or at least try to “grab the bull by the horns,” as they say, and thus address all this negative stuff in this “semi-public forum” in hopes SOMEONE will understand how bad my life has become (I.e.---so what follows is only the tip of the iceberg, of the “world I need to get out of”). Where to begin? 

Maybe I should start with clothes 
I put on dumpy clothes, and feel terribly ashamed. Most of my clothes are dumpy.
I do have a few pairs of at least semi-good looking jeans and shirts that in California could work as a professional uniform while teaching classes, but I notice holes developing in yet another pair, and I need to conserve, with money running out.

I need to conserve just in case I do get a job interview. I used to love dressing snazzy, especially in NYC, and miss it terribly. After I went homeless, I lost my one good suit. I don’t even have a place to store clothes, and comfortable, good-looking clothes are hard to find. In the last decade especially, even living in a city, I had to shop on line, to find tight black jeans and black sneakers. I often would get shirts, suit jackets (and even vests) at thrift stores, and underwear and socks at Sears. These days, I hardly even wear socks. I still cling to the one pair of Italian dress shoes that became especially uncomfortable after my accident. I’d wear them for special occasions. In addition, my prized electric self-cleaning electric shaving razor finally irrevocably broke earlier this year, and the $50 razor I replaced it worth doesn’t actually work to the same extent that did. It doesn’t get every spot, and I need to feel clean-shaven. Even if you gave me money to buy some of this stuff, I wouldn’t use it for that---because I need to survive first (and let’s not even get into how hard it is for me to shop smartly these days, etc.


Ah, but now, I’m sitting here in dumpy shorts, and a nice white shirt, which I put on as a concession to not looking entirely dumpy, at least to make it to the YMCA, where I go almost daily to shower and try to at relieve the constant physical pain I feel. In Oakland, water walking physical therapy at the YMCA helped me tremendously in the absence of real affordable healthcare, and I cling to it. It’s become my only regular routine—and of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to look dumpy at the YMCA. There’s an illusion of democracy in the pool with your suit hidden. People even say I look fit, but socially the pool (with most 70-90 year old women or sometimes kids) is bleak and lonely. It’s physically dark and drab (though a respite from the sun that’s too hot); the men’s locker room is not something I want to think about too much. It’s not a place to find a job (as my ex-girlfriend wisely pointed out when she caught me talking about my life in the past tense too much, when I started going back in Oakland; I’m not retired. Sure, I learned many things from many wise things from the retirees (especially the older African-American men) in Oakland, but it was only useful because I could apply it to my classes at Laney College, with the younger students who needed, and even wanted, to know the history I learned from these men.

In Oakland, they also played good music regularly, which has been lacking here. They don’t even play bad music at the Hollywood YMCA. It’s either silence, or kids screaming—so I am often left alone with my thoughts, the internal monologue, racing, the desperate thoughts, trying to shut them off—but if you put on some Motown, for instance, that I can move to, that I can feel a I’m working out, my brain immediately finds a form, and the thoughts stop. Sure, not everyone needs this on an essential level as I do, and sure there are times I dig silence too---but I don’t feel safe

Anyway, I try to simulate it in the spirit of self-reliance, singing as I work out, or simulating trumpet sounds, or even mouth pops, which I can’t do because my broken partial denture falls out--a tooth even fell out at the YMCA recently (and don’t even get me started on the lack of dental care). But even if I’m not ssshheed, it’s hard to sustain that making music in this environment; it takes more energy than thinking too much (alas). So I try to focus the consciousness more silently on the muscles, and the body….  In any event, I get through it, but it’s become harder and harder and more tedious, and sometimes I’ve even gotten thinking that I should stop this YMCA routine---which may be the healthiest thing I do in many ways (the only healthy thing?)---because sometimes I leave much more riled up, and agitated, than I was before I came. Am I more energized? Or more exhausted? Do I just work out so I can eat more? Or do I eat more because I work out too much?

The Office (and van)

THIS IS TERRIBLY EMBARRASSING to write about. The shame continues. I trip and fall. I’m afraid to walk far. I do a couple stupid errands. I get in the van. I’m so sick of the van. It’s a “beautiful summer day” (the weather I would normally crave), but it’s too hot to work in the van, make music, and making music solo on the piano sitting in a position that makes my disability worse, and just like at the YMCA it’s dark in here, and there’s no good music coming from someone else (or something else) to harmonize with, the work with---and then some say this is the closest thing to a JOB I’ve been able to find (but it pays mostly in photographs; the tips don’t cover overhead). $40 on gas, and I hardly drive. The van has all kinds of problems, and I’m a terrible driver, especially of something this big. I have to get gas. $40 half a tank. I always play trumpet while I’m filling the gas (a nice little trick I learned, ha ha)—but that’s enough of the social, practical, world for now. THE REAL WORLD---or whatever is left of my sense of HOME---has become the INTERNET? And Why? Because I have to look for jobs ON LINE, and must focus the thoughts, and see if my resume can be resurrected or resuscitated! That burns at me, as if it’s the only hope

What to do? Conserve the clothes? Run back to the grungy rat-infested office that I call “home”---which is basically a dying Laptop computer. And it’s now 3:23 PM and I’ve been back in the office for the last hour writing this. And this may be SQUANDERING MY ENERGY as much as trying to sing is or was. And yes, it’s unhealthy sitting position, and yes I’m smoking cigarettes---but I can’t even just “lay out” in the park without thinking too much (again, in the absence of any music but that which I try to make, which increasingly doesn’t even feel like music anymore).
So I might as well at least try to get something done----

But maybe now I’ve at least exhausted my mind on all this self-worry, and more importantly KILLED TIME to get through the hot part of the day, and see if my body will have energy left to actually play music later. I want to lie down, and fall back asleep again---with the radio on….

This piece of writing has been another failed experiment, another DEAD END, but in a way it did what it set out to; to hopefully GET IT OUT OF THE WAY, or laugh at it, and move on to something I CAN DO. I could write new songs, or make music with others again, but I do not have access to the materials and the collaborators or context that would make that possible---and there’s no palpable sense that anyone really wants it (there’s already this album that’s waiting to be unlocked, and I’m supposed to put my eggs in that basket I suppose)…This all has only been SCRATCHING THE SURFACE of the negative, which will have to be part of the documentation of this time----but I will GLADLY DE-EMPHASIZIZE it if SOMEONE CAN GIVE ME A CHANCE AGAIN, and publish my allegedly “marketable story” about my “brilliant concept.”

SHOULD I WRITE ABOUT SHAKESPERE NOW? I gave myself that assignment!---because no one else really did (though I thought there were some possibilities I’m waiting to hear from), or something else of cultural relevance….IN THE GLUT of culture in 21st century America, etc….

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Reprint from the OWS era: Corporate Personhood And The Case For Reparations

Prefatory Note:

In the fall of 2011, while I was still teaching at Laney College, many students in my Foundational Skills classes wanted to debate about Occupy Wall Street, which started a few weeks after the semester did, and appeared to be growing into a full-fledged movement. There was both enthusiasm and skepticism expressed by my under-served, largely disenfranchised, and mostly black, students. Many were skeptical about the strategies and tactics of the local “Occupy Oakland,” and for many of the same reasons I was—but I tried to direct their attention to the original national vision proposed by Occupy Wall Street itself. Originally, OWS’ “Virtual Presence” on the web, and through writing, was as much the front-lines as setting up a tent by Oakland City Hall was, if not more—working on both fronts is what made the movement so effective in the beginning. There was even a plan for a proposed convention in Philadelphia on July 4, 2012.

Since this was a writing class, and we had already been talking about manifestos (including the Black Panther Manifesto), before OWS began, I handed out copies of the various demands OWS was inviting people nationally to debate and vote on in hopes of proposing ONE SINGLE SHARED DEMAND to the federal government that would be a rallying point to unite its various factions, and bring even more people into movement. As Oakland Police Department helicopters circled above my classroom, my students collaborated on coming up with one-common demand.

In coming up with my own proposed demand, I wrote for at least two different audiences: 1) Those who primarily identified with the OWS movement, and 2) those who were skeptical of a latent Racism they found in the direction the movement was taking: I found common ground in the 14th Amendment. I hoped to educate many of the newly politicized white 99%ers, but also speak to, and even for, many of my black colleagues and friends well aware of the history of institutional racism—many of whom were reluctant to make the demand for “reparations to slavery” public---for the very justifiable reason that they saw what happened to most people who spoke out in the past.[i]

I thought that, in this newly politicized climate of 2011, I would be able to use my relative advantage as a white male, and professor, to educate and further galvanize the movement. I had the privilege of teaching in the same community college district that had begun the nation’s first “Black studies” program in the 1960s, which educated many of the Black Panthers. The school was very proud of its legacy, and my department chairs encouraged such debates in classrooms, as long as they were engaged in the spirit of Critical Thjnking.

Due to state budget cuts, I lost my job in 2012 and became homeless. OWS was defeated,by both external and internal forces, and it’s difficult for me not to look back at this time without a tinge of nostalgia, and bitterness. I choose to make this essay public again, in the fall of 2013, because the essential argument has not become dated in the last two years. I invoke the hope many of us had during the time, as well as the work we did, and the discussions we had—not just as a memorial of what we could have done better, but in order to restart the debate.

Corporate Personhood and The Case For Reparations (11/11/2011)
--in memory of Gil Scott Heron (1949-2011)

The core of the Occupy Wall Street and 99% Movement is expressed in the proposed demands #1 and #2 at
These demands are essentially the same as proposed demands #3 and #8 at Another version of this demand exists at Dylan Ratigan’s

For discussion and debate, I propose a hybrid version that combines the essential wording of all three, as my candidate for the ONE COMMON DEMAND—since every other proposed demand ultimately depends on swift federal enactment of this one:

Congress Should Enact Legislation for Publicly Financed Elections And Reverse the Effects of the Unconstitutional Citizens United SCOTUS decision by passing an amendment to prohibit any private financing of elections and ELIMINATE "PERSONHOOD" LEGAL STATUS FOR CORPORATIONS, and restore the 14th Amendment to its original purpose.

The Citizens United decision itself is but an extension of the broader demand to revise the interpretation of the famous 1886 case where the U.S. Supreme Court supposedly ruled that corporations are "persons" having the same rights as human beings based on the 14th Amendment. As the Occupy Wall Street website sums up this genesis of corporate “personhood.”

As most lawyers know, the Supreme Court made no such decision. In the case in question - Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company, the court itself never rules on personhood. A court reporter by the name of J.C. Bancroft Davis (a former railroad president) snuck that "ruling" into the books. The 14th amendment was supposed to give equal rights to African Americans. It said you "can't deprive a person of life, liberty or property without due process of law". Corporation lawyers wanted corporations to have more power so they basically said "corporations are people." Amazingly, between 1890 and 1910 there were 307 cases brought before the court under the 14th amendment. 288 of these brought by corporations and only 19 by African Americans. 600,000 people were killed to get rights for people and then judges applied those rights to capital and property while stripping them from people. It's time to set this straight.”

The stripping of these rights from people goes even deeper than this. The 14th Amendment, in addition to guaranteeing personhood status, with full voting rights, to former (male) slaves, also included provisions for the long deferred economic compensation of the former slaves without which such ‘freedom’ could mean even greater servitude: “neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay…any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.” (14th Amendment) Thus, all claims by plantation owners for “losses” (incurred from partial back payment to the their former slaves) are illegal and void.

The 14th Amendment also authorizes the United States government to incur whatever costs it needs by seizing the assets from the former antebellum slave-owners to emancipate the former slaves. Reconstruction cost money, and the 14th amendment provided the legal mechanism to fund the transition from a slave economy to a “free economy.” Lincoln knew that no true freedom could exist for the 99% of us without providing economic compensation for the former slaves: “Necessitous men are not free men.” The rights were human rights--both civil and economic; “freeing” the slaves required monetizing millions of people who had been property so that they could now compete on a level-playing field with their former “owners.”

In 1865, after the Confederacy was defeated, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Orders, No. 15, a temporary plan granting each freed family forty acres of tillable land in the sea islands and around Charleston, South Carolina for the exclusive use of black people who had been enslaved. The army also had a number of unneeded mules, which were given to settlers. Around 40,000 freed slaves were settled on 400,000 acres (1,600 km²) in Georgia and South Carolina. However, President Andrew Johnson reversed the order after Lincoln was assassinated and the land was returned to its previous owners. Reparations, in the short term, would have hurt the former plantation owners, but it would have helped the poor white farmers who did not own slaves during the antebellum period, especially after the rich whites raised the price.

The economic grounding needs to be recognized. The failure to deliver on the promised reparations destroyed this natural alliance of poor whites and blacks as the rich northern (Republican) industrialists realized it was more profitable to side with the former plantation owning Dixiecrats against the working poor. If the founding crime of the Democratic Party was the refusal to free the slaves after the Revolutionary War, the founding lie of the Republican Party was to renege on the promise of reparations made at the end of The Civil War. No slaves were truly freed; they were abandoned. The slave was, legally, only 3/5 of a person, but the personhood granted in the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments was now abridged by the creation of the “Corporate Person.” When the corporation first became a “person,” the rest of us became less of one; they didn’t even need numbers like 3/5 anymore.

Bancroft Davis exploited the amendment’s wording that protects “the pursuit of property,” rather than the “pursuit of happiness” to quantify values. The newly- freed slaves, who had been property themselves, were much more interested in freedom than in owning property. The theft of the African American community and working class in general after Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad just continued the plantation owner’s theft under a different name. In retrospect the Civil War was fought to free the corporation from the jurisdiction of The United States more than it was to free the slave from the plantation owner. Enter Jim Crow, and a new class of wage slaves: black and white; Citizens United is simply the latest manifestation of this founding crime. Thus, Corporate Personhood and Reparations are, at root, the same issue. This explains why it was a central plank in the Black Panther Ten Point Platform:

We Want An End To The Robbery By The Capitalists Of Our Black Community.
We believe that this racist government has robbed us, and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules were promised 100 years ago as restitution for slave labor and mass murder of Black people. We will accept the payment in currency, which will be distributed to our many communities. The Germans are now aiding the Jews in Israel for the genocide of the Jewish people. The Germans murdered six million Jews. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over fifty million Black people; therefore, we feel that this is a modest demand that we make.

The “mule” is the start up capital needed when the banks out price long term residents and deny small business loans. Once this one-time payment of reparations is determined, it will be used to set up the infrastructure for self-determination. In their current formations, neither of the proposed Occupy Wall Street or 99% Declaration demands speak of reparations for slavery, at least under that name. The platform for A New Revolutionary Party, written by ex-Panthers Kiilu Nyasha and Larry Pinkney, which is clearly influenced by the Panthers, replaces the demand for reparations with the demand for:

Social Security, unemployment insurance, and the safety net: In a country as wealthy as the USA, every person should be guaranteed an adequate income during hard times, illness, disability, and aging infirmity.

The lessened expectations, or even hopes, evident in the new party’s demand shows just how much America’s material base has deteriorated since 1966. While certainly Social Security should remain off the table, this demand could be included in the demand for repeal of corporate personhood and reinstitution of reparations. The Panthers tried to elevate the discussion and raise the stakes by bargaining from a position of strength: if you DEMAND reparations, maybe you can SETTLE for social security and Medicare for all, but if you only demand social security, you may have to settle for dying under a bridge. If the demands for reparations were met, the positive effects on the economy would be almost immediate. If the government will take care of its unfinished business, and finish what it started in 1865, the reparations could even render the crumbs of social security un-necessary.

In this sense, the demand for reparations is closer to the demand for a new WPA, to create full employment to work on America’s crumbling infrastructure. Since repealing “personhood” status for capital and property, if enforced, will ensure that corporations pay their fair share of taxes, these taxes should be used to create an economic stimulus program that pays the long-denied reparations to the African American community, in the spirit and the letter of the 14th Amendment. In order for this one time payment to do anything, however, the investment banks must be closely monitored so they don’t devalue the currency as they’ve done in the past when regulations are not enforced. However the demand is worded, it’s important to recognize this history when we convene in Philadelphia on July 4, 2012.

While the phrase “reparations for slavery” apparently still makes many people queasy, the 99% Declaration uses the word once, but in connection with Education Reform. This comes dangerously close to what Jared Sexton calls: “The metaphoric transfer that dismisses the legitimacy of black struggles against racial slavery while it appropriates black suffering as the template for non black grievances.” This illustrates where my biggest hope for the OWS movement can turn into the biggest fear: that this movement will turn into more of a 60s white youth-culture movement rather than a 30s worker based movement.

10. Implementation of a student loan debt relief forgiveness program. Our young students are more than $830 billion in debt from education loans alone with few employment prospects due to financial collapse directly caused by the unbridled and unregulated greed of Wall Street. Interest on these debts should be reduced and deferred for periods of unemployment and the principal on these loans reduced or forgiven by using a Wall Street corporate tax surcharge as reparations for their conduct leading to the economic collapse of 2007-2008 and current worldwide recession. 
While Education Reform is crucial, this demand should be secondary to the primary focus on repealing Corporate Personhood and returning the 14th Amendment to its original purpose, since the latter demand must be met in order for the former demand to be funded. Furthermore, the short term focus---charge Wall Street to bail out the students--should not be called “reparations” unless we’re also willing to argue for the reparations for slavery that have not been paid. Otherwise, this seems like a very partisan demand. If one is going to bail out students because their degrees are devalued, what about those who couldn’t even make it into college?

I can understand while many of my students feel disenfranchised from the 99% movement, why some object to the use of Oscar Grant’s name for the plaza, and why others carry signs that say: “Blacks have always been the 99%” and “there’s racism in the 99%.”I will address the demand for education reform (which I have a deep personal stake in as an underemployed professor) in another proposal, but in the meantime we must acknowledge that racism in America is first and foremost an economic war. We must ensure that this movement does not lose its economic grounding and inclusive focus.

Otherwise, we may very well repeat the mistakes of the 60s that moved from a “Civil Rights” movement to an increasingly segregated youth culture movement, as “stop the wars got distorted into a mere “stop the draft” and some of the more overzealous white students would spit on African-American soldiers coming back from the war, while applauding themselves because a statue made by Chinese slave labor is erected to Martin Luther King.

[i] I posted a version of my proposal on facebook on NOV. 11, 2011, and some of the comments I received helped generate “backchannel” conversations on this issue.
      I                   Kiilu Nyasha So far, there are simply not enough folks ready for a new revolutionary party. So now I'm thinking, perhaps a revolutionary united front (an umbrella group similar to that of So. Africa that united all the various organizations to end apartheid) might be the best idea. What do you think?

                          Chris Stroffolino Kiilu--I like your idea. Are there any meetings coming up soon?          
                          Jameelah Larkin If we will be all protected, I am sure a lot more will stand up

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

"Over You," (Lou Reed)

A little video I made when I had lost most of my possessions, my job and my apartment,
first got the piano put inside the van--
Summer 2012, Oakland
I ain't saying this is nearly as good as any of Jeff Feuerzeig's videos,
but this song goes well with my little piece on
"The Origins of My Homelessness"

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Origins Of My Homelessness (The Sequel: What Happened In 2012)

When asked about the origins of my becoming homeless (dressed up as the “Piano Van” spectacle or sideshow), in both the LA Weekly and The Organist, I come off much more obsessed with the twin traumas of 2004 (becoming disabled, and losing a full-time job)--what gets lost in both is my ability to survive for eight more years as a culture worker, teaching at a community college, working as a musician, writer and political activist (my attempts at forming a collective, etc)[1]—before I suffered another health crisis and job loss in early 2012.

In fact, it is the concussion and job loss of 2012 that was the more immediate cause for the homelessness, and the “piano van” thing. The interviews virtually force me to open up this “can of worms” and address these issues I really didn’t want to have to get into when other people asked (see the interviews, where I try to focus on my ART and IDEAS more than my LIFE, in Harriet[2] and CITC[3]). The factors involved are primarily: health, employment, housing, and loss of a social support network—and have a complex, and even contradictory, relationship with each other. This makes it difficult to isolate each factorbecause obviously I can’t work if I’m not healthy, but without work, it’s hard to stay, or get, healthy; physical and emotional/mental health can blur, as well as music, teaching, writing, and social life (or its lack); and housing blurs with transportation—but I’ll try to be clearer here than in did in my rants with interviewers (who I treated like shrinks or those ridiculous disability forms I’ve never figured out how to fill out for SSI), and hopefully GET IT OUT OF THE WAY, so I don't have to keep explaining it!

A. My Employment Situation

In the summer of 2008, during the height of the Bush Depression and “Obamamania,” I was hired to teach at Laney Community College. Aside from being a paycheck that allowed me to live, albeit a modest one, Laney College gave me a sense of duty and even community that galvanized me. In the three years I worked there, my teaching became much more politicized, as I became aware of the daily struggle the students face. The concerns my students expressed in their papers and classroom discussions fueled my own writing. In fact, the book I was working on had a strong pedagogical and political-activist dimension that pleased my department chairs. I was planning—at the very least—to self publish it as a P.O. D demand book to use as a text in the classes, in addition to its possible other uses to a more general reader than my academic writing could reach.

Despite the support of my department chairs, in January of 2012, due to downsizing and state budget cuts, I lost my teaching position. My chairs assured me it was a temporary setback, and I knew that if I was hired one more semester there, I would be able to apply for the preferred hiring pool, so I became even more of a shut-in, and devoted more energy to finishing the book. I was receiving a little severance pay that I could survive on if even more frugal.

I had lost my car a few months earlier, which made it even harder to go out (already being disabled), and couldn’t afford to buy another one, but I figured I could get by, as I put all my faith in my writing. I had some very astute, and attentive readers of my writing, and was convinced it could help me find a job at least as good as I had at Laney, with a purpose, and maybe even health benefits.

B. Health Issues (The Concussion & Stroke)

Since I hadn’t had health benefits after being diagnosed with premature osteo-arthritis as a result of the botched surgery in 2004, I never fully regained my leg strength. I fall a lot, can’t walk far, and stairs become difficult to navigate. I’m in constant pain, and this lead to other issues that have not been adequately addressed—specifically in the right shoulder, neck, and teeth. The best I could do to manage the pain was going to water-walking therapy classes on an almost daily basis since 2005, which even strengthened the leg (it’s helped me relearn to walk after the initial accident, and eventually to return to work, at least on a part time basis).

Early February, 2012: The leg is weaker, and the pain is always worse in the cold rainy wet Oakland winters. I’m on my way to the bathroom, and a hungry cat trips me and I hit my head on a porcelain sink. I wake up in a pool of blood with a giant gash on my forehead. First thing I see is this giant cathead! “You gonna feed me now.” Me, ow! I never experienced a concussion like this this before. The doctor at the West Oakland Health Clinic offered more pills, but they had no budget for anything like an MRI. I was told to rest, and take it easy! This will take months to heal!

But I couldn’t rest, and take it easy. I needed to get my job, and my life, back. I couldn’t let a little throbbing head pain, or a groggy, foggy, state of daze, get in the way of it. Time was money, and was running out! Instead, I pushed the book even more, along with the accompanying bad habits (coffee, smoking, plus the painkillers; my eating habits had even deteriorated; largely as a result of losing my car, and not being able to afford another one, unless I lost my apartment, I began having to buy unhealthy food at the local corner store). Within a few weeks, this lead to a stroke. A minor stroke I was told—but my entire left side went numb. This was finally a wake up call.

By March, I had to cease work on the book, and focus on my physical health. Over the next 5 months, I became highly disciplined as I attempted to heal my body on my own without the help of so-called “health care professionals. The best advice an MD gave me was to drink more water, and less juice, but I also continued my therapy at the YMCA, and gradually quit my vices---even vices that aren’t recognized as vices. I quit the painkillers I had been taking since 2004, the processed sugar, the coffee, and, by July, even the cigarettes—the “roy” of all my vices.

I found a cheap masseuse, a chiropractor, and a cranial sacral therapist—together, the three of them were able to do much more to address both the head-trauma and the stroke than the “health-care professionals” were. I also began working with an IBP Therapist (Integrative Body Psychotherapy), who taught me breathing exercises and gradually convinced me to have faith in the wisdom of the body. As the weather got dryer, and warmer, my body responded positively. I became physically healthier. I was believing I was developing a long-term faith—that, whatever was valuable in my “mind” (if it was truly of value), could eventually come back without having to rely on the crutches, the vices, and I’d be able to get back to finishing the (almost finished) book, and get the teaching jobs back—but I knew I couldn’t rush it lest I return to my old habits. Just give it time, as the doctor had originally told me after the concussion---but, if I couldn’t focus on the writing, at least I could do music.

C. The Role of Trumpet In Recovery

By August of 2012, I had been playing trumpet more, and better than I ever had before. I still considered it my third instrument, after voice and keyboards (in that order), but it was the healthiest, especially if you’re trying to quit smoking. One of my housemates was a jazz drummer, and he indulged me as I practiced with him. A previous roommate had brought a band over, Sweatlodge, fronted by the beautiful brilliant Navajo singer/guitarist Rockie Yazzie, to practice, and he let me play “noise trumpet” improvisations with him, and invited me to play a few shows. Playing the trumpet requires having a strong lip, and strong lungs. It is also better if I stand, which is better for my bad back. My leg still shake and I’ve fallen a few times, but if I can find something to lean on while playing it, I can stand. Such standing can give you what Burt Bacharach calls the “vertical view” of music; it focuses on melody, and after playing trumpet—even for 30 minutes a day, I can come up with better melodies for my own songwriting. I can sing better, and translate that singing into a band context. After playing trumpet, it’s much easier to play piano. It can also clear my head, and allow me to talk more artfully, and even write.

I was classically trained in trumpet, but switched to piano when I was 18, I told myself, because I wanted to play more than one note and be able to sing at the same time---but it’s probably not entirely accidental that I began smoking at the same time (for college)—but as I played it with Sweatlodge, Greg Ashley’s Death of A Ladies Man recreation, I realized how my style and sensibility could actual work, as an asset, as part of a funk or soul (think Stax/Volt) horn section—at least in the studio. A little can go a long way, aesthetically speaking. Coupled with the bodywork I was doing, it became part of a holistic therapy process in the deepest sense of the word, and I didn’t want to lose this, even as I was losing many other things.[4]

D 2012: From Carless but Having An Apartment, to Homeless but Having a Van

I still couldn’t focus enough to work, however. I still had a little savings, but with no money coming in—and the failure of the community center I had tried to form in 2010, I was in increasing debt. My credit rating was still good, and I had an apartment with 4 other people; the lease in my name and this gave me some leverage, but I didn’t really take advantage of it until it was too late, after I lost the job and had the concussion. I was living in the most expensive room ($600), but I finally moved to a cheaper room (paying $350), and began getting rid of many of possessions--but I was so convinced that, as long as I could continue on this path to getting healthier, and follow the wisdom of the body, that this would be a temporary loss---“nothing money couldn’t solve.” And I was convinced that the writing, as well as the music, I had already done, that was in the can already, and that most people had yet to see, would help me find a job, or a publisher. I was also told, and convinced, by some pro-bono­ lawyers in Oakland that I had a stronger case this time in applying for SSI & SSDI Disability Benefits, since the concussion.

Since my health/job crisis of the winter of 2012 was exacerbated by the lack of a car. I thought that if I bought a van, it could get me around. I didn’t need to drive much if I could find a job close to where I lived, and I could even sleep in it for a little bit, if forced too. I bought a cheap, old van, which would (I hoped) at least get me through the next winter better--even if Laney didn’t hire me back. I could even put a piano in it, and take it around town occasionally for some sideshow performances, and get some stories for a chapter of my book. Since I had become increasingly a shut-in, and had lost whatever feeling of community I had in Oakland after the losing the job, my girlfriend, and the warehouse collective that allowed the social world to come to me without having to leave my home, this could maybe even help me regain a social life I had once had—which again, was always as a result of my art, as either writer or musician before my disability. Almost immediately, I discovered I had to pour more money into the van just to make it street legal. It took months and the repairs cost more than the original price of the van ($2000).

By July, the van was up and running with the piano bolted in it. I tested it out at a first Friday celebration in Oakland, and was robbed by a homeless man, who had slyly found my wallet while I played him “Dock Of The Bay!” I had just gone to the bank to cash all my roommates’ rent checks, and was out another $2000. I tried to shake it off again—a temporary loss ---but it became clearer to me that, even though I was physically healthier than I had been in a long time, I didn’t have enough money, or social skills, to assure myself that I continue to afford to live even in the cheaper room of my apartment for the next year without the strong risk of becoming homeless myself just in time for yet another brutally cold Bay Area winter----and I certainly didn’t see myself sleeping in the van (which leaks when it rains) every night. I also knew I would no longer be able to afford regular access to the body workers I had gone to regularly over the past 6 months—unless I was very lucky. Something had to change, but what? I thought the van would stave off this encroaching homelessness! Ha!

South For The Winter

The Bay Area seemed dead to me, but I didn’t want to be bitter about it. I wanted to be proactive! I had been toying with the idea of at least checking out Los Angeles for the winter. I knew the weather was warmer. When I had housesat for someone for a month the previous winter, I was amazed how much writing I was able to get done without falling into unhealthy habits. Where I stayed, everything was convenient, which seemed to give the lie to the myth that you need a car in LA more than in Oakland. I was told that the rents were cheaper than what was happening to Oakland. I took a leap of blind faith, but thought I hedged my bets.

As I planned to move out, I purposely kept the lease in my name, thinking Laney would hire me back again after the winter. They said it was a strong possibility, so I thought I had options. I told one friend he could “indefinitely borrow” all my books, another he could borrow my albums while I’m gone. As I threw boxes and boxes of unpublished manuscripts, and letters, away, I was convinced that I had at least managed to save the essentials on a portable laptop computer. I wouldn’t have to pay for a mover, or even waste money on airfare or a bus-ticket to Los Angeles to find a place before I went there.

I could stay in the van for a month or two if need be, while looking—but I was convinced I could find at least a temporary small room in LA, unbolt the piano from the van, and use the van sparingly. I came to LA for health reasons more than anything---also it was closer to Mexico, where allegedly I could find great dental care that I could not find in the states. It may not be better, but can it be worse? It would at least buy me time, to continue on the path to get healthier, and if worst comes to worst, I would get through the winter, and return to Oakland for spring and summer.

I also believed that driving to, and around LA, with the piano for a month or two, would occasion some interesting stories for the final “field work” section of my book, which could potentially make the book much more marketable to a more general audience than my previous writing. “People want stories,” I’ve been told by more than enough publishers, and even though I can teach stories and story-writing, and have stories, my writing strengths have always been more lyric, essayistic and dialogic, rather than narrative in a memoir sense. Yet I had a frame, and a question for study I intended to explore: how do people respond, if they respond, to “music on the street” (and/or the spectacle), in our contemporary fragmented society. And, indeed, I got stories to tell---even after 5 months I did---more than enough for the book.

I could write them now, if I can get an advance on a book, and get a few months to work with an editor, in a room of my own with something to hope for. But I can’t really write them while still stuck in this thing. No time for the contemplation, or the “recollection in tranquility” such an organizational project requires.

In brief, as I told The Poetry Foundation for the Harriet Interview, “it’s getting worse,”--but if you have any follow-up questions, feel free to send them to me, and I can send you a more clear answer than I can do in a radio interview without a script. If I must talk of my trauma and situation, I would at least make it into an art that can be useful to others.

[1] I’ve written in more detail about my attempts to collectivize from 2006-2012, and my attempts to combine my roles of musician, writer and teacher with the community center—but for brevity will not include that here. The focus here is specifically 2012.
Sweatlodge: I had just come back from a Cranial Sacral Session earlier in the day. I look healthy!
Sitting in with The Downtown Train: