Archive for November, 2019

Young Man Blues

November 12, 2019 Leave a comment

Temps in the 60s yesterday, with kids walking around in shorts and tees, while I carried a jacket and sweater I didn’t need everywhere I went. Drove home from a trip to Easton with the window open the entire way. My daughter was sleeping in the backseat, but was awoken by the sudden blast of Live at Leeds on the car stereo. She informed me, perfectly deadpan (during “Young Man Blues”) that “Dad, this is really not good music to sleep to…” and I could not argue with her. (When the Who opened their own Rampart Studios in London the playback speakers in the control room were so loud it’s said they caused “projectile bleeding” from the ears, and were once measured to be the same number of decibels as the engines of Concorde at full throttle.)

leedsIt was in that spirit that I was rolling down a dark and mostly deserted 380, so while her complaint was justified, it’s not like I didn’t have my reasons. You simply cannot listen to Live at Leeds at anything other than ear-bleeding volume without feeling like a complete fraud. But being the good Dad I am, I turned it off and drove the rest of the way to the sound the wind and the wheels and gentle snoring, watching the stars and dodging the orange pylons that seem to appear like rogue deer on Pennsylvania interstates.

Today we awoke to ice, snow, and a 2 hour delay. My car was suddenly encased in a sarcophagus of winter. Young Man Blues indeed.

I’ve stopped looking at the weather forecast. One too many times of going from the air-conditioner to the ice-scraper wore me down. I talked myself out of cutting the grass on Sunday, and now I’m sprinkling rock-salt on my porch steps and using half a tank of gas to un-tomb my car. I let my dog out and as soon as he realized what the world had turned into he was back inside curled up in his bed, which he had conveniently maneuvered to the front of the fireplace. I’d like to tell him that he’d better get used to it but we both may may wake up tomorrow to golfing weather. So he goes his way and I go mine.

Onward we go…marching towards the holidays. Lights and trees and coming up with yet another iron-clad excuse to skip the office Xmas party. A few awkward dinners to get through as Uncle MAGA gets bombed on Coors Light and monopolizes the conversation with Fox News talking points. But that kinda stuff is so easily deflected this time of year. Good cheer and all that…..pretend the red cap was chosen for its Christmas color scheme and not its racist connotations, and keep distracting your hate-twisted kin with football so he’ll stop blaming illegal immigrants for why his dentures don’t fit anymore.

Soon it’ll be January 2, which is when the depression really sets in. Holidays are over….nothing to look forward to except unrelenting cold, the Patriots winning the Super Bowl again, and dead-souls standing in line to secretly return everything. And perhaps the realization that the gym membership you talked yourself into after half a 12 pack of PBR is gonna get as much use as the fruit cake you keep getting every year from the same weirdo. (It calls to mind the creepy person wearing a mask who for 50 years straight years would leave 3 red roses and a bottle of cognac on the grave of Edgar Allan Poe on his birthday, a tradition he or she started 100 years after Poe was already dead. I feel like this person was probably a huge fruit cake fan.)

These upcoming days can be a pleasant diversion that brings us together, or the family-dynamic version of Black Friday shopping, in which everybody in the line ahead of you deserves to die. So choose carefully. Your best bet is to shop on-line, listen to Live at Leeds and Elvis and Charlie Brown Christmas music, and eggnog yourself into the spirit of the season. Eventually….you’ll be able to roll down that window again.

So enjoy it while you got it folks. Play it loud if you can, unless the one and only thing more important than the music is sleeping in the back seat.

In a bit.


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Historicizing anthracite….

November 7, 2019 Leave a comment

Had a wonderful lunch meeting today with Phil Mosley, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English & Comparative Literature at Penn State University.

We had an agenda……what Phil calls “historicizing anthracite”. But our inner Gaelic shone through, and over a few beers we wandered off into many semi-related areas as well. Life is so frenetic these days that I’d almost forgotten the simple pleasure of a grown-up conversation.

We started things off thusly….

How can one understand what he or she has become without extensive knowledge of where he or she has come from? There’s no such thing as a blank slate. We are who we are largely because of the environment we’re reared in. For better or worse. We inherit the inner workings of familial saints and sinners, and are largely left to our own devices in learning how to keep them apart so they don’t kill each other.

harry-e-breakerThis is history you don’t get in the classroom. Schools don’t teach your history. Theirs is more like the revolutionary war on Monday, civil war until mid-week, then by Friday the bomb is falling on Japan and we’re all living happily ever after. In school I learned absolutely nothing about the ground underneath my own feet.

What triggers the effort?

Is it literature? Art? Music? Historians? Or maybe a stray remark at dinner about a box of letters in the attic?


Often…the song travels fastest and furthest. Phil mentioned how Springsteen’s song “Youngstown” probably educated more people about the Ohio city’s role in our nation’s uneasy history than the collective works of 100 historians. My fascination with the history of wildfires began with the song “Cold Missouri Waters”, which told the devastating story of the Mann Gulch fire of 1949. For songwriters, the research triggers the song. For listeners, the song triggers the research. And so it goes….gloriously around and around.

My father told me stories…..of filling sacks with coal in the winter…..hanging around the sharp corners of the tracks, where sympathetic conductors would sometimes increase speed so that the coal would fall off the cars that were filled to the brim. I remember how a lone abandoned coal car sat atop a mountain of culm overlooking the road to his childhood home like a sentinel. I remember him telling me of covering the entrances to illegal mines with their family Christmas tree to keep the mine bosses off their scent.

All this put the hooks in me.

Do we embrace our own history? Or do we wish we could re-write it?

Ours is a place forged by immigrants fleeing unimaginable horrors, and thus willing to do the kinds of things we today might find….well…..unimaginable. To live half of their lives under the ground so that, just maybe, their kids might have it a little better. Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers and great-great grandfathers had to fight for everything. Nothing was given to them. They fought, and sometimes died, attempting to blunt the cold edge of an industry that valued the mules they worked beside more than it valued them. It’s so easy to take for granted that little boys don’t have to work 60 hours anymore…..and that an 8 hour day is plenty, thank you very much.

They fought and died for these things. Right here. They powered the nation……they fought and won its wars. Local names. On local gravestones.

And for this….what?

Many are weary of the past…..more proud of “The Office” than being known as some backwards coal-cracker. More folks make jokes than give thanks.

But still…..there’s something about this place…..something about the coal region’s concept of home. It’s why so many travel great distances to and from work… stay. Why so many who strain at the leash to get out…..wind up coming back. And it’s why one of our largest tourist attractions is a place, Centralia, that literally is not there anymore.

Bitterness is easy. Sentiment is hard. We manage both.

I want to learn more. I want to read more books about this place. I want to hear more songs about this place. I want to sit over more beers and have these types of conversations again and again. I want to talk it out….and I want to pass on what I’ve learned to my kids so that they can pass it along to theirs.

For too long we’ve been holed up inside…..phones in our faces……screeching at each other with our thumbs. Our partisan outrage almost seems scripted by now. We’ve forgotten that we can disagree without being disagreeable.

In a bit..




Categories: Uncategorized

Writer’s block…

November 6, 2019 Leave a comment

snoopyWriter’s block is a strange thing.

It can creep up on you, or dive-bomb you like a bird from the Hitchcock movie.

In 1848 Niagara Falls stopped flowing because of ice. Residents accustomed to hearing the sound (the way Hershey residents are accustomed to smelling chocolate) were awoken by the sudden silence. The flow was there….and then it wasn’t.

Words are there….and then, they’re not.

It’s terrifying because even though intellectually you understand that such droughts are inevitable… never really know if the words will ever come back.

Even the scariest Hitchcock film can’t compare to a writer staring at a blank sheet of paper (or a white computer screen). Sweat forms…..we’re unable to stay seated…bouncing up and down…..looking for any type of diversion. Even a bug on the floor will do. Maybe I should check the mail? Did I check for it already? It’s only 8am. Well…maybe they’re gonna be early today. I should check the weather. The grass looks high….might be one of the last chances for me to cut it this year. Milk? Bread? Maybe a quick trip to the store will give me an IDEA. Yea….that might work.

No, it won’t. But I’ve tried it anyway, because it gets that blank white thing out of my face. The one thing that computers can’t give you is that great feeling of writing half a sentence by hand and then crinkling up the paper and throwing it away, like it’s covered in disease. It’s very therapeutic to sit in a room with a wastebasket overflowing with nearly empty sheets of paper. The blank computer screen is more insidious….because there’s no remnant of effort AT ALL. You just open and close the word document over and over…clicking “do not save” each time. It’s a brutally efficient beat-down, and one of the reasons I suspect so many old-timers have a hard time giving up the quill.

If you do have an idea…’ll come at the WORST time…..when you’re in the middle of nowhere without a pen, 10 minutes after your phone just died. You promise yourself that you’re gonna remember it, but of course that’s a lie. It’s gone with the wind. And it was probably the GREATEST IDEA EVER. But….well….tough shit Bubba.

And when you’re blocked, the more you read your peers the more pissed off you get. Because NOBODY ELSE SEEMS TO BE BLOCKED. They’re writing just fine and dandy…..with all sorts of ideas that probably are shit compared to the one that you FORGOT….but still. They seem all happy and content and smug in their little creative corner… you smirky side-eye for being such a word-drained loser.

Ok, maybe that last bit isn’t true…..but I DON’T KNOW FOR SURE….

I’m sure you’ve already gathered this, but any writer writing about writer’s block HAS writer’s block so…..there.

I felt like writing something and could think of absolutely nothing to say, so I decided to write 500 words about having nothing to say…..which is what writers do because admitting defeat is fake news.

Here endeth the lesson…

In a bit..


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Fading light….

November 4, 2019 1 comment

I like when the darkness comes early….so daylight savings time is just fine with me. My problem is hating the mornings….when the light comes streaming in an hour earlier. That messes me up way more than navigating a dark parking lot at the end of the working day.

As a kid I was terrifyingly shy, so I’d invent reasons why I didn’t have to interact with anybody who didn’t live inside my own head. This included pesky neighborhood kids and classmates and siblings and the like. Darkness was a built-in excuse to stay in my room and listen to records and play the tennis racket in front of the mirror, pretending to be Townshend or Jimmy Page.

When it was dark outside I didn’t have to pretend that I loved playing sports that I was terrible at, or that I was a willing participant in the types of shenanigans that I only became willing to participate in (and sometimes lead) once I discovered the persuasive properties of hops, barley, water, and yeast. The good part about the darkness was that I never worried about what might be there that I could not see. Instead, I was always grateful for the cover it provided.

I’m still the type that walks into a room and immediately closes the shades…..trying to make the room as time-neutral as possible. If lights can’t be turned off, they’re turned down. Any room I wander into, I immediately turn off all the lights. I don’t even think about it anymore. It’s instinctive.

Watching TV with a blaring light on is impossible. If I’m alone in a hotel room, forget it. Keith Richards and a suitcase full of scarves couldn’t make the place any darker. One time the hotel hall light was bothering me, so I jammed a bathroom towel under the door to keep that out. There’s a part of me that would adore living in Tromsø, Norway between November and January (google it Bubba….)….as long as I had guitars, books,  a lap-top, and Netflix.

(I’m also the type that doesn’t rake leaves until the spring, always being able to convince myself that once they disappear under the snow, they’re gone for good. So I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice. Not sure why, but I feel like the 2 things are related somehow)

fadingWith the fading light comes more indoor exercise. While the darkness can fire up my creative synapses, it does make the couch much more inviting. So my daily 5 mile walks on the heritage trail will be relegated to Saturday and Sunday mornings. This week my soundtrack was an hour of The Jam…..Paul Weller’s outstanding early 80s mod band. This re-invigorated my search for the perfect Mod bulls-eye t shirt, which I promise to buy myself right after I talk myself out of needing a mod parka jacket (it’s getting cold you know…) and a vespa scooter (think of the savings on gas!). The struggle is real people…’s doggone real.

So to the treadmill I go (of course it’s in the dark). I’ve re-arranged the world in the basement so the TV is sitting 3 feet from me…..and I can time myself with a Netflix episode instead of staring at the treadmill timer itself, which I swear moves in reverse. So far my record in one session is bingeing (and yes, that’s how you spell it….spell-checker be-damned) half of season 5 of “Peaky Blinders”…..somewhere around 7 miles. All it cost me was a stress fracture that I’m trying like hell to ignore.

So I’ll finish this session by looking out the window here on top of this mountain, watching what’s left of the sunlight burn its way out over the valley. On Friday when I was here…..I needed sunglasses to navigate my way out of the parking lot. Today…I’ll hit the headlights and make my way down into the darkened bowl, trying to convince myself that I’m ready for what comes next. Because this time of year is never satisfied with the status quo. It practically demands that you take stock, and make the kinds of decisions that the lazy haze of summer allows you to put off. It’s exciting. And it’s a bit scary too. Because honestly, it’s the stuff that you can’t see that fires up our nightmares.

In a bit..



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