Sunday, July 28, 2013

Why do health clinics often make people sicker?

The waiting room for the health-clinic ---one of the most devastating places I’ve been, and, yes, there are beautiful people here (a true American melting pot!), heroically trying to be stoic in the face of adversity. Chronic conditions, immediate injuries; we’re all here. Like many, I was sick and in pain before I came here, but after 5 hours of waiting I’m even sicker, and it’s contagious. For starts, there’s the others coughing, hacking, moaning, groaning holding onto bloody napkins, etc. It’s also the smells---since so many of us are homeless, it’s difficult to be clean (despite whatever immediate injury brought us here); the smells of rotting teeth, failing organs and decaying flesh. Ah some try to cover it up—with perfumes that are also toxic.

And if this bouillabaisse wasn’t enough, don’t forget the actual food. Sure, there are often signs saying “no food permitted,” but the smell of grease pervades the room. You can see people sucking on fast food “French” fries, often coated in catchup or mustard, or wolfing down burgers or chicken through greasy-soaked bags, hidden in purses. And of course there’s always a taco truck or two outside, or a vending machine with chocolate bars, and water you have to pay for (since the water fountains often don’t work, and the bathroom water fountains are rigged to make drinking out of them almost impossible (not that that would be incredibly healthy anyway, but given the options, it’s probably just about the least unhealthy thing here). The worst thing is; after 5 hours of this stuff, it gets harder and harder to resist the temptation; this food is designed to agitate the sense of smell and taste, and break down your resistances. especially when some guy next to you offers you a chicken wing. I’m resisting, but I want to scream--

It’s stuffy, and if you go out for a little, you never know if they’ll call your name in the meantime. Same thing if you try to catch a little sleep---even if I could in these chairs, and this environment. Once I decided to lie down in the corner, and I explained to the security guard that I can’t sit too long due to my condition, but of course they don’t provide beds or sofas in these waiting rooms. It’s hard enough finding a wall against which to stretch.

Well, I could always check out the TV; in fact, it’s hard to avoid the TV.-- and that usually doesn’t make things better. Often it’s these channels like “” with attempts at feel good stories about health—many shows about food, and many more advertisements about all kind of pills, from so called “boutique” pills to so-called necessities.

So here I am, feeling myself getting sicker--and there’s still no sign that I will get to see a “healthcare professional”, who would then send me to another healthcare professional, and maybe eventually I’d find a dentist—though in the meantime I may be prescribed pills, similar to the same pills that contributed to my stoke.  I once again, try to ask someone seen anytime soon, and there’s no direct answer. I leave. There’s got to be something else….even if it’s just sleep….if only I could find a quiet place to sleep.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

"Boy" (Poem)


Solitude has begun to burn the log of self 

but the two have not become the unity 

of which ash is the visible half-truth. 

Foolish ash, who prides yourself 

on being the only child of the marriage 

of log and flame. You can only 

sing through sisters of air. But dualism 

denies debate. Log turns ash. Flame becomes air. 

No connection but immaculate conception. 

Foolish ash of the unassailable future 

Disguising yourself as a log 

to "protect" the trees
presenting solitude as a forest fire
which means less to the forest
than to the wooden houses not yet built

as if one can see without eyes 

or that all that one can see is eyes. 

Surely they're mine. Everything is. 

Surely pain is an illusion, 

and the loss which makes a tree ash 

without becoming a log 

may warm those by the fireplace 

in the summer house of the sun 

in which we live and die each second 

eluding the censors for sure 

and eluding the senses we redefine
as body tingles a word like mind.

Chris Stroffolino 
(an earlier version appears in

Monday, July 15, 2013

Crimes Against The Lyric—(Re-) Covering Richard Hell’s “Time”

Crimes Against The Lyric: (Re-) Covering Richard Hell’s “Time”

While writing an essay that interprets a work of art--song, poem, play, story, novel, etc-- in ways that the author didn't intend may be considered a kind of 'crime,'--I usually don't mind being subjected to such interpretation--as a writer myself-- if it's not presented dogmatically, or definitively as the "only true" meaning--but when one unintentionally changes the words of the original in ways that clearly weaken the song, I consider it a crime, especially if I'm the one who committed it!

When I recently recorded a solo-piano version of Richard Hell’s song “Time,” I thought I was paying a reverential tribute to a great song which listeners may not otherwise be familiar with—a brilliant, beautiful, even visionary song that could also be called a poem in the best sense of that word. My version was also intended to be a tribute to the Minutemen’s cover; they recorded it both electrically and acoustically, and the feel they achieved in the acoustic version inspires the way I played it on the piano (lacking a band and an amazing guitarist like dBoon or Robert Quine).

Lyrically, the Minutemen version of “Time” is based on an early Voidoids demo rather than the official Destiny Street version, which they didn't have the advantage of knowing. In the process, my version unfortunately misremembers some crucial lyrics; I have unintentionally contributed to the confusion over what the correct lyrics are. Since each word contributes to the overall structural integrity in Hell’s version, I need to call attention to them to clarify this confusion, and truly pay tribute to Richard Hell’s songwriting. In every case, I weaken the suggestive power and wisdom that is conveyed in Hell’s lyrics.

I. The First Verse
In the first verse, Hell sings:

Time and time again I knew what I was doing, and
time and time again I just made things worse.
It seems you see the most of what is really true
When you're stepping into your hearse.

The first two lines hooked me when I heard the song. I love the fact that the speaker isn’t simply saying “you can’t know what you’re doing” (a lyrical commonplace), but appealing to an over-intellectual like myself. He could, and that made it worse, and now he’s ready to take responsibility for being too smart for his own good.  The third and fourth line help drive home the first two lines, but in the version I sing, they contradict (and weaken) it.

I sang:
It seems you’ve seen the most of what is really true
and you’re stepping into your head

The most egregious mistake I make is changing “hearse” to “head.” It not only loses the end-rhyme, but more importantly, changes the meaning. Any discerning reader of poetry, who is unfamiliar with Hell’s version, may ask, with absolute justification: Why oh why would someone who realizes that knowing what he's doing just makes things worse want to step back into his over-self-conscious “head?”

This entirely misses the suggestion that the ‘self-knowledge’ of the first two lines can only truly happen when “you’re stepping into your hearse” (a place for dead bodies), or at least a metaphorical hearse. In addition, my other word changes (“you” becomes “you’ve” and “when” becomes “and”) place the entire verse back into the past tense. Hell uses the second person present tense to distance himself from the hearse (or head). The speaker doesn’t want to die (again), and thus doesn’t need to know what he does.

II. The Chorus
The next major mangling I make occurs in the choruses. My version comes closer to a 1979 Demo (available on Hell’s Spurts compilation), but the Destiny Street version is clearer, and superior:

Only time can write a song that's really really real.
The most a man can do is say the way its playing feels
and know he only knows as much as time to him reveals.

(Hell's original lyrics that I miss are in bold)

III. Second Verse

And when I want to write a song that says it all at once
like time sublimely silences the whys
I know that if I try I'm going to take a fall at once
and splatter there between my lies.

My major mangling here occurs on the 3rd and 4th lines (I may have heard “whys” as “wise,” but I don’t think that affected the performance; a fortuitous audio double entendre). Replacing “a fall” with “that fall” trivializes the fall, and “splatter there between my lies” is a much more physical image than what I sing (just like “Hearse” at the end of the first verse). In both these cases, I make the song more abstract (these are just about the only two “images” in these songs, but they carry with them a heavy weight).

IV. Third Verse

If this was not enough, my most egregious crime against the lyric comes in the third (and final) verse. In the Destiny Street version, Hell sings:

We are made of it and, if we give submission
among our chances there's a chance we can choose.
And if we take it, by uncertainty's permission
then it's impossible to lose.

As “Time” moves from the speaker’s confessions of his past failings and present crisis in the first two verses to a more universal (or transpersonal) statement of hard-won faith (or at least the conditional hope of "if") in this verse, the “I” disappears, as if “Time” itself has actually written these lines. In the version I sang, however, “then it’s impossible to lose” falls flat and feels like a non-sequitor; on a lyrical level, what I sang was hard to believe (for me even), whereas the beautiful inconclusive conclusion on the Destiny Street version opens the song up to time, chance, uncertainty…and survival as a physical entity…beyond the hearse.

The song may not “say it all at once” but the subtle metaphysical turns here can say many things at different times to different people, and suggests a deeply profound ethics, but only if “we give submission” to what time reveals. I will spare you a lengthy paraphrase of the ethics suggested in these lines, as well as a structural analysis of how this last verse enhances the depth, and gravitas, of each and every word in the chorus to make it more convincing to the worse over-intellectual egocentric or nihilistic cynic. The most I can do, however, with this song is say the way its playing feels, and if I’m ever requested to play this song again, I must un-remember my mangled lyrics, let them sink in, and let time do the rest.


"Extras On The Yacht" (poem)

Extras On The Yacht

If love and you are the city and language
But its greater metropolitan area, why do I feel
You present an opportunity and challenge
To speak as if from the center of the lowest crater,
The highest megaphone of itches comedy sketches
And mine them, perhaps,
As cookies dig for asparagus on the way to avocados
When the fly buzzes above the great chain of being
And worship is a warship made into a restaurant
That lets you on deck only if you drink
Desalinized water for free and sing for your tip?

So the love poem will take some time.
It seems to poke its head from the sand
Of an interest in vocabularies and their sexless sects.
It’s thirsty from being so lonely in the sand.
But thirst is good for it, good as water, safer than milk
And not just because machines can be played with
More erotically than mountains,
And not just because the self is like a donut
With a hole in it big enough for
What would be called a munchkin
Even were it not a celery stalk
Around which several horseshoe souls could be thrown
If the Lord be willing, and of course she has to take off
Her dress of the city to find love in the sex
Manhattan pretends to be when we’re on deck
Circling it, like vultures made tame by their status as extras.

(Originally Published in Open City Magazine, 2003; and the limited edition Chapbook SCRATCH VOCALS (Potato Clock, Boulder, CO, 2003)

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Casual Conversation about Shakespeare: Profession As Therapy; Therapy As Profession

It’s been a few years since I worked as a professional Shakespearean, but anytime I meet someone who wants to talk about Shakespeare, I realize my knowledge of the dramatic structures, characters and uses of language can certainly hold its own with the tenured Shakespeareans. One man at the YMCA is taking a Shakespeare class at UCLA, and always has questions for me. This week it’s The Winter’s Tale. He asks earnestly, as if we’re talking about real people, “Don’t Polixenes and Leontes know better than to fly into such destructive rages?”

There’s rarely, if ever, one simple answer to questions like these, but it triggers the memories of having read and seen the play, and what hundreds of critics and students have written and said over the years. I offer some theories that I’m not yet sure I believe, but we’re exploring them together.

After about 30 minutes, I notice I’m getting very excited as all these thoughts are coming back, and talking faster and trying to make my points clearer. When we started the conversation, I was lying down on the grass in the sun, basically trying to relax, but a man walks past and says (kinda jokingly), you guys need to calm down---and it hits me, I’m dangerously coming close to letting all this talk about rage make me lose control. I check it, with an ease that surprises myself (as if I'm in a professional context again!).

For me, this conversation raised some intense issues that made me, more than ever, long to get back into teaching Shakespeare in the classroom, and, yes, there’s a therapeutic dimension. This somewhat clinical discussion of these characters who have nobody to blame but themselves, and their own uncontrollable rages, for the losses they suffered, may very well be the best way to discuss our own rages and failings. I know we can’t help but see some of our own situations in these situations, however different they may be: Mitch has a 25 year-old son, for instance, and I know he has suffered losses.

As Harold Bloom wrote (I think he was quoting Emerson), it allows us to see our own situations with an “alienated majesty” that, at its best, can shine a light on our own issues, but one we can turn on and off, and maybe help ethically structure our emotions in less destructive ways.

I usually felt in Shakespeare’s plays (of any genre) an intense exteriorization, and a very capacious structure, for my own inner turmoil in ways that that the Psychology, Psychiatry, and Wellness industries have not been able to reach. These other fields still involve using words to talk about “me,” in isolation, more than Shakespeare’s dramatic work, with their poetry of deep lyric emotionalism combined with their detached structures. It combines what I loved most about poetry---with its intense emphasis on individual words---with the structures of simple narratives that can especially come alive in collaborative situations, whether the theatre or the classroom.

We all become actors, even when merely discussing Shakespeare’s plays. The formal detachment (and negative capability) becomes a highly useful skill for critical thinking, by presenting situations in which I can identify with more than one character at a time. The social and collaborative dimensions are emphasized; it’s much more like the role of a teacher than the role of a poet giving solitary poetry readings. It’s much more like being in a rock band than being a solo-singer writer.

Talking about Shakespeare's plays with Mitch reminds me how I don’t have to work so hard anymore to still be brilliant about them, because I already spent over twenty years doing the homework, and that Shakespeare is at least as firmly lodged in the iPod of my memory as any song I’ve written or performed.

Yes, the rage, or undifferentiated subjectivity (or what Cognitive-Behavior Therapists call “doing a number on yourself”) can find a structure! And Shakespeare presents one paradigm for it. It worked for me; maybe it was primarily therapy all along; but it was also a profession. It could be therapy again, especially if I can get paid for it!

There must be a way---especially if I’m stuck in a place (LA) that values narrative much more than lyric art forms. In fact, Shakespeare is a great “gateway drug” that allowed me to appreciate the contemporary Hollywood “romantic comedy” genre much more (for instance, the “girlfriend” movie The Best Man (1999), which I’ve recently discovered they’re making a sequel and a remake of

Friday, July 5, 2013

Reprinted from Oakbook, 2008: Kelvin Joiner: Water Aerobics at the Downtown Oakland YMCA

When I was told I should take a water aerobic therapy class at the YMCA that is attended by, and designed for, mostly seniors in their 60s, 70s, and 80s,"I expected an image of a very slow class. The class that Kelvin Joiner leads at 930AM on Mondays and Wednesdays, however, dispels most of these myths.

In fact, with his mixture of very strong rocking songs, and his engaged, highly motivational attitude, Kelvin is a rock star sensation, as he leads his classes into call and response chants with as much passion (and less threat of damnation) than a fiery southern preacher.

Speaking to some of the seniors in his class, they almost unanimously praise him.  Mary Spamos credits Kelvin’s class for  "making her feel 17 again." Denise Dill had “just about given up on water walking classes at the YMCA,” due to what she considered to be lackluster instructors. “But Kelvin brought me back. He doesn’t treat us with kid gloves; he pushes us to go as far as we can go.” His classes are consistently the most popular "water walking" classes at the YMCA. When he substitutes for another class, he brings people with him. When he misses a class, it's a very tough act for his replacements to follow.

In fact, his classes feel much more like the "oldie nights" that young, local hipster DJS, like "The Duke Of Windsor" or "East Bay Oldies" held at Kitty's. Perhaps this is because the mostly senior citizen clientele knows how to rock, dance, a little more, than quite of a few of the young hipsters I meet while clubbing. Kelvin does not make the same assumption most younger people who work with seniors do, he doesn't assume automatically they are slow: “You can’t be healthy unless you’re enjoying yourself. I try to get people to enjoy moving their body whether on water on land.”

Nor is the class’s population restricted to seniors.  Younger clients with disabilities also find Kelvin’s classes to inspire them to stay healthy.  Cricket Bailey loves the water because “she can do things in it like jog, and even dance, “ that she generally can’t do on dry land. In a country that tends to glamorize youth and vigor, people like Kelvin help glamorize the pool therapy class in a way that makes it one of the most happening disco nights in town (even though it happens in the morning).

Kelvin Joiner started going to the new Oakland YMCA when it opened in 1987, and started teaching there shortly thereafter. Until this year he had primarily lead land classes in stationary bicycling, aerobics, and weight training. He began teaching the pool classes earlier in 2008 only as a substitute, but his popularity has kept him doing it. In fact, he has even quit his day job in the computer industry at Stanford University to devote more time to his work as a personal training His class may not be everybody; one or two have complained that he’s a little too loud, or a little too fast. Luckily the YMCA offers other classes to accommodate these folks as well. You must be a member or guest of the YMCA to take these classes. For more information, contact. oakland.ymca - (510) 451-9622. For information on Kelvin’s personal training classes, contact

(Author's Note. From 2007 to 2010, I was able to land some paying gigs writing journalism for The Oakbook, and a few other publications. I took it as an aesthetic challenge, to write "simple" stories for a a general audience after making a career out of writing for more specialized and 'sophisticated' audiences. Unfortunately, Oakbook shut its doors a few years ago; the paying gigs dried up, and these articles are no longer available on the web. I repost this one article for several reasons. I think it raises important points about several crucial functions of music in our society (which of course I could get into more deeply, upon request), and I also need "writing sample" to refer to--to show the range of writing--when applying for jobs, even if pursuing a career in journalism is at least as quixotic in and of itself. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Pavement's "No More Kings" (with Schoolhouse Rock video)

Pavement’s version of “No More Kings” seems, on first listen, to just be having a little fun with the same Schoolhouse Rock that brought us “Conjunction Junction” and “I’m Only A Bill,” a throwaway for a benefit album, but it’s a subversive put-down of both the historical distortion in the lyrics and the benign mid-70s soft-rock of the original song. Not only does the original version edit out anything about the indigenous people already living in what’s now called North America, but it also makes it seem like the Revolutionary War was fought to establish anti-government anarchy rather than a representative democracy.

In retrospect, the original “No More Kings” misinterprets the point of the Boston Tea Party exactly the same way the Dick Armey “Tea Party” of 2009 does. The song fails to mention that the Boston Tea Party was primarily a revolt against a corporation who was given a tax write off to rob domestic jobs and keep wages low. Seeing how the corporations were running things into the ground, especially in the wake of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, might almost make one nostalgic for the tyranny of the cartoon king in Pavement’s version. Maybe a foreign king would have freed the slaves much earlier, and provided healthcare! Maybe there’d be no trail of tears or New Orleans never would have been bought so that the puritans could dominate the continent; maybe the Mexicans would not have had to “cede” Utah to the Mormons. This goes way beyond a “cerebral and ironic” po-mo gesture of a smart-ass ivy-league history major, and maybe it got some dancers thinking, and some thinkers dancing.

In 1996, as in England in 1596, one had to be very crafty to venture any attempt at direct political statement—even in “indie” culture. You could write screeds attacking computers, and especially the web; those who love your poetry won’t publish them, but you can get them into the local weekly. You could write a “vulgar Marxist” critique of post-modern race theory, but the so-called Marxist journals won’t publish it because they’re post-modern too. Or you could write a song that is a highly personal curse song directed to a specific other, like the blues---but it also summons every last drop of moral outrage in the invisible world toward the entire Washington DC lobbyist establishment mostly responsible for running things into the ground in our time.