Recycling for Real

 I don’t understand the crowd that thinks the Environmental Protection Agency ought to be dismantled. I remember a childhood in which people took whatever they didn’t want and just tossed it into creeks and rivers: old tires, wrecked cars, dead appliances, box springs, garbage… even chemicals. Every few months there would be a fish kill on about a quarter of mile of the stream that flowed through my Pennsylvania town—courtesy of discharge from a creek-side dry cleaning plant.

As I got older I recall flying into cities that weren’t visible until the plane pierced the yellow smog that hovered above. You didn’t need to be an M.D. to figure out that it probably wasn’t healthy to breathe that air. I also remember taking parts of Pittsburgh home with me—in the form of grime and soot that clung to my clothing and exposed skin. Or driving through places like Latrobe and Butler as fast as I could because the stench of paper mills watered my eyes and constricted my throat. These memories make me testy when I hear business-at-any-cost advocates talk about emasculating the EPA. Don’t get me started on idiots like Mitch “Burn as Much Coal as Possible” McConnell.

Pre-Earth Day American imagery came flooding back last week when I took a train from western Massachusetts to Philadelphia. Amtrak isn’t known for its scenic journeys, especially not in the Northeastern megalopolis. You get a great view of postindustrial America as you whiz (or crawl) through Holyoke, Springfield, New Haven, Bridgeport, Yonkers, Newark, and Trenton. It also seems as if trackside is the new dumping ground for the detritus of the American Dream gone wrong. Flat out ugly would be another way of expressing it.

Those old enough will recall the difference Lady Bird Johnson’s Highway Beautification Act made to American highways and byways. It made me wonder what a modern version of it would look like. We pat ourselves on the back when we recycle cans, glass, and paper, but the data is pretty clear that these things make just a dent in improving the environment. I’ll take and support that dent, but there’s so much more that could be done to make America a more pleasant and ecologically sound land. Why not start with the trackside?

What if we tried to convert squalor to dollars? (I like that phrase for a campaign!) When I look out the train window at abandoned factories, ghost parking lots, rusting heaps of metal, and cast off junk, I envision the following: real estate, recycling, repurposing, and reinvigorating local economies. First, local governments should seize these blighted and abandoned places by eminent domain and subdivide them into real estate parcels. Second, offer free land to any developer but with the stipulations that the site must be cleared and cleaned before anything else is done, and that all usable materials must be salvaged and either used on site or sold. Those old buildings are eyesores, but think of the number of reusable bricks, concrete blocks, sheets of tin, steel I-beams, cables, and pieces of wood contained therein.  them.
In like fashion, imagine how much rubber could be chopped and reused from those old tires, how much asphalt could be crushed and made into new, how much glass could be re-fired, and how much metal could be re-smelted. Imagine, if you can, taking a train through a corridor of new developments, parks, or just good old Mother Nature reclaiming land where bric-a-brac and rubbish once collected. Imagine too the number of jobs that would result if we hired people to carefully recycle rather than sending in wrecking balls, bulldozers, or worse: waiting for he ravages of time to undo the ravages of humankind. Too expensive? Compared to what? What is our landscape worth? How much is it worth to put the American Dream on display rather than dying a slow death before our eyes? And while we’re at it, let’s give the EPA the power to make sure we don’t make these mistakes again.  
Rob Weir


Rani Arbo and daisy mayhem Create Another Winner

RANI ARBO & daisy mayhem
Violets are Blue
Signature 2074
* * * *

"Americana" is such an ambiguous label that it often seems to connote little more than a song sung in English. If, on the other hand, we use the term to denote the ways in which American music cross-fertilizes, surely daisy mayhem is among the best exemplars of Americana. Rani Arbo reminds me of Nanci Griffith–not the voice, but in the way each chooses music that inspires them and let others fret over what to call it. You know you're on a unique ride from the start; Violets are Blue opens with an Arbo original, "Heart of the World," that unfurls with just Arbo's voice and Scott Kessel's percussion before any other instruments appear. With Kessel, though, you can be sure there will be twists. Want to know what happens to the junk you throw away? Kessel retrieves it and adds it to his ever-evolving collection of things upon which to bang. The band follows with an Appalachian-influenced song ("Down by the Water"), a bit of country folk–Arbo's "Keep it in Mind" would feel at home on a Bill Staines album–and then the hard-driving "Around the Wheel," with especially crisp work from bassist Andrew Kinsey and fret meister Anand Nayak. Still to come is music with a decided mountain feel ("You Should See Me Now"), the Cajun-flavored "Swing Me Down") a splash of honky tonk ("Over and Over"), some torchy blues ("I'm Satisfied with You"), and a cover of May Erlewine's "I Love this City" that reminds us that folks from the Delta created the Motown sound. If pure acoustic folk is your thing, Ms. Arbo has penned two gorgeous songs for this album: "Piece of Land," whose tune is faintly reminiscent of the opening strains of Harry Chapin's "Cats in the Cradle;" and "Sweet and Bitter," a heartbreakingly lovely song about love tinged with uncertainty. The latter is the album's final track, but in many ways it's the theme song. The very title of Violets are Blue is clever wordplay, as is most of the album's selections touch upon affairs the heart. Kinsey, however, correctly notes that they are "sugar-free love songs." About what we'd expect from this topnotch, mature string band with its superb musicianship, tight harmonies, solid rhythms, and grown-up takes on life. Everyone in the band can/does sing and occasionally one of the lads takes the lead, but there just isn't too much that compares to Rani Arbo, one of the most distinctive voices in the business. Fifteen years on the road has just made it better and the journey seems to have nourished her Americana soul as well.  Rob Weir


Opening Day: Field of Memories

--> -->

Here's small memoir to celebrate the opening of baseball season.

Maybe it’s that Everest-sized mound of snow remaining in my driveway, but lately I’ve been thinking about the days when I played softball for Pleasant Journey Used Cars in Northampton’s mixed-sex summer league.

My wife and I moved to Northampton, MA in 1985, and my decision to play with “PJs” was one of my wiser ones. I’d like to say PJs was a fabulous team, but I think we had a winning record just once in the five years I played. The team reflected the character of owner/manager Bob, who remains a kind, generous friend. His motives for fielding a team were, in order of priority: making friends, having fun, catching some sun, enjoying post-game fellowship, and competition. A lot of our competitor teams consisted of hell-bent-on-winning folks in their late teens or early twenties; PJ’s was mostly over 30 with an occasional graybeard within sight of 50. Team motto: “We may be slow, but we’re old.”

We did have some very good players. Our shortstop, Rich, could clobber the ball and dazzle with the glove; nothing got by Patty at third and she was amazingly strong. When Patty wasn’t at third, Jessie was nearly her equal. John was another great fielder and was fleet of foot, though not nearly as swift as his wife, Elaine–the fastest person I've ever met. She couldn’t hit the ball further than 20 feet but if she made contact, she was on base. Peter was also a good player, as were Bob and Chris. Yours truly was a decent hitter—one year I hit nearly .700—but I was definitely a singles and doubles guy with very little power. I was pretty good with the glove too, though the less said about my throwing arm, the better.

Mostly we were a reverse Lake Woebegone: slightly below average. Bob’s son, Dereck, kept score on a cleverly fashioned electric scoring board powered by a car battery that he lugged to the field of combat, and he often needed to jerry-rig some crooked numbers–for the other team. PJs had what can be charitably called a fungible roster fashioned from newcomers, friends, spouses, paramours, and persons of interest. Because we were older than most teams, many of us had work and family obligations that prevented us from attending every game. When you showed up on a given night, there might be 20 people vying for nine slots, or just seven. Bob’s position was that if you were there, you played—a democratic worldview at odds with a winning-is-everything ethos. Some times we lost games we would have won with our best nine on the field. Meh! We made fun of those who confused recreational softball with game seven of the World Series.

More often we often found ourselves short of players.  On those nights, we drafted partners and friends no matter how loudly they protested they were “no good” or didn’t know the game rules. As we hysterically discovered, most were telling the truth! Some draftees had to be tutored on how to hold a bat and there simply wasn’t enough time to consider the fundamentals of catching.

No one was too lonely, lost, or un-athletic for PJs. Just moved to town? Show up and someone will loan you a glove. Danny had cystic fibrosis, couldn’t see well, and was fairly immobile. We didn’t care. When Danny hit a dribbler we screamed as if he had launched a moon shot over the light stanchion. We also had some eccentrics on the team. Ron had a powerful arm capable of gunning down anyone reckless enough to try stretching a cheap single into an even cheaper double. The problem was he had no idea where the throw would land once it left his hand. Rumor has it that some of the comets in the summertime sky are Ron’s errant throws. Dave was a pretty good player—when he was focused. When he wasn’t, it was as if he paused mid-pitch to compose haiku.

Even our practices were like Keystone Kops outtakes. Once we tried to practice at Child Park. After about ten minutes, a guard appeared to tell us that “organized games” were not allowed there. I pointed out that it was inaccurate to call us “organized.” He agreed that I had a point, but we still had to move on.

After a few years, most of us crossed the line between being getting older and fearing we might seriously hurt ourselves. Peter kept the team running for a while—longer than he should have, as he later conceded. Left behind, though, was something far better than a winning record: a passel of good friends and a field of memories. --Rob Weir