Wednesday, August 31, 2005

king's night

swear, I've got the social graces of a traffic cone.

Last night was Whitney Terrell's big hometown second-novel party night, with a reading at Unity Temple and a reception at a loft in the Crossroads District. Allie and I went to both.

It started off well. The reading was great (though it reminded me of how pissed I am that Rainy Day Books is now requiring purchase of a book to attend). Whitney was really funny as he handled questions from the crowd. Allie and I laughed when he said everyone who writes a book thinks at various times that it sucks and the publisher won't accept it. He said that he had written an entire draft of this book and then had to throw it all away, all 800 pages, and start over, which is a hell far deeper than any I've suffered (knock wood).

His new book's funny too, though the very real story it tells isn't at all funny, at least not to me, which makes the book really complex and cool. I picked it up last Thursday and I'm enjoying the hell out of it. I liked his first book, too, a lot. But this one is a marked improvement. And he's obviously getting quite a bit of attention for it, what with reviews in People, Entertianment Weekly and all the big newspapers, and I think that's fantastic and well-deserved.

So it was all fine and dandy through the reading, because you can be a shlub at such things. But then we went to the reception and steamrolled into a series of social car crashes (actually, they were more like social getting-stuck-in-the-mud-out-in-the-middle-of-nowheres, because no one but me seemed to notice or care).

First, we pulled up to the loft where it was being held, and we were startled to find no-option valet parking. It was free, but neither of us had any cash to tip. Allie and I lingered for a while in the parking lot for a minute or two, frantically scheming how to get our hands on some cash. Allie looked into the loft's lobby, hoping to see an ATM, which obviously wasn't there. Then she asked if one might be within walking distance, but this place was situated in a no-man's land at the north end of Pennn Valley Park, a good half mile from a cash machine. I said I thought there might be some spare change in my care (sparing her the detail that it would likely be sticky with spilled pop), and she grimaced.

"Wait!" she said, hopefullly, "I have my check book. Maybe they'll take that."

"Cool," I said. "We can at least offer, and we won't look like total dicks."

So we went in, got the off-duty cop escort up to the third of fourth floor and stepped into an immaculate loft filled with people in nice, clean clothes. I looked down at my feet, shrooud in dusty Crocs, and damn near had a panic attack (It's not totally my fault: Gobo has eaten all of my attractive-yet-comfortable shoes, and I'm still too into summer and jobless comfort to succumb to the blister-making "church" shoes).

The elevator had let us out into a foyer, and I pulled Allie into a corner of it. "We have to leave," I said. "I can't be here dressed like this."

She tried to reassure me, and we took a couple of tentative steps forward to peer around a wall into the vast expanse of the loft (carpeted, BTW, Kansas City style). I spotted a guy in jeans and sneakers, and though they were clean, silvery sneakers, I felt a bit relieved. So we went in and got some drinks from the open bar, did a pass around the lovely snack spread, and planted ourselves in wallflower pots at the far end of the joint, where we stayed for most of our hour at the party.

We knew only a couple of people there, a reporter/editor from the Star, and old Pitch colleague, and, of course, Whitney and his wife Gayle. So, after squeezing as much conversation as we could out of our four acquaintances, and after doing an investigative sweep through the place to determine as much as we could about its owner (son of former mayor, Ilus Davis, we figured out, thanks to the framed memorabilia that said, essentially, "Son of former mayor Ilus Davis), we split.

And, wouldn't you know, we bumped into one of our best friends, Sylvia, just as the valet was pulling our car up. She was on her way in.

And the valets were nice when they said they didn't take checks. Allie wouldn't let me scrounge for change.

Maybe I should go to charm school.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

writer's block

Every morning I start over. Brand new. Mountain just as high as the day before (the current mountain being a proposal, and proposals are hands down the biggest bitch to write). There's no momentum carrying over from the previous day, because that momentum lasted exactly three hours yesterday, and then abruptly stopped. And now it's nearing nine, and I've procrastinated right to the edge of doing anything at all. As if to tempt me, Allie decided not to walk the dogs, and I'm thinking perhaps I should do that, it's quite nice out, after all.

A couple sentences...

Sunday, August 28, 2005

future man

Hung out in Lawrence with my friend Joel last night. Apparently, he's going to be on CBS Sunday Morning because he's an emerging god of media convergence. He's already been in the New York Times and on NPR. I really want to read the NYT piece, but I can't find it on Google. (Joel?!)

Joel represents more than the future of media. He's ushering in, and helping define, new notions of community. It's weird hanging out with him. You walk down Mass Street and every fifth or sixth person stops to chat with him. He's super popular because he's always out at cafes and restaurants chatting with people, and because he has a popular blog, and a weekly column, and he does TV reports and newspaper reports (and he's friendly and kind of a ham). And I can't help but think that Joel's the Pied Piper. I think media is going to become more and more community based, very local and very democratic, coming in many different forms -- newspapers, TV, radio, blogs, coffee shop conversation. It's going to be seemless. Think high-tech bonfire or village water well.

Really, it's all so young, this change, I'm having a hard time describing it. Let me try this: Joel and I had a long conversation about the future of newspapers last night, focusing mostly on the Star. He made the good point that with so many national and international media choices all updating quickly, all coming at you in differennt voices to suit almost every imaginable prejudice, there's diminishing need for a morning paper with a front page full of wire copy. So newspapers have to become intensely local, because that's the one niche they can really claim. But there are problems with this for the Star. For one, they're part of the Knight-Ridder chain, which is all about cutting personnel, and you need peoples to cover a community. Also, the Star's community is totally fractured -- two states, tons and tons of separate municipalities, class division, race division. Really, the Star's circulation area is a bunch of separate markets, some as big as the Journal World's, some as small as that of my neighborhood paper, Northeast News.

And what each of those mini-markets needs is a Joel Mathis (or two or a few).

Admittedly, Joel is in a rare position. The company he works for is one of the few that seems to really understand the value of content. And their revenue stream is diversified enough (they are the primary cable provider in Lawrence) to pay for it: For instance, Joel told me last night that the LJW has a bigger news staff than Topeka's paper, and the market's half the size.

So what's the point I'm trying to make?

I think that the convergence of media technologies, and the increasing ease of publishing/broadcasting, is going to bring us full circle to the roots of media, to the village model of info sharing, where folks get news from folks they really know and trust. People like Joel will naturally rise to annointed positions, but there'll be places the introverted (like me) as well (especially when you throw books into the mix).

I'm not sure where this leaves the big media companies, though I think they'd be very wise to follow the World Company's lead and start branching out into content facilitation in addition to content providing (for one, stop requiring registration on the website and instead allow folks to ineract with stories -- like, why not offer a Wiki feature?). That and they need to back away from the idea that content can deliver the profit margins that, say, shampoo does. Because if viillage idiots like me are going to partake of the content facilitation, we're going to need some decent content to discuss.

(Sorry for the ramble. Still trying to figure it all out.)

Friday, August 26, 2005

peluquero italiano

There's a barbershop in my neighborhood called Joe's Barbershop. I usually go to a salon in Midtown, but I had to try this place at least once.

It's on St. John, near a pentecostal church -- a little place with two chairs, paneled walls and a TV in the corner tuned to a baseball game. When I came in, Joe, the owner, was practicing golf swings with an older guy who grew up in the neighborhood but now lives in the Northland.

Haircuts cost 15 bucks there, but I only had 12 on me, and Joe doesn't take checks. But he quickly agreed to give me a trim and trust me to bring the rest of the money by later.

We got to talking, and quickly determined that we're both Italian. He'd lived in the neighborhood his entire life, operating his shop for 40 years. He was pleased to learn that I'd settled in the Northeast. "I like new blood," he said.

He told me the neighborhood had gone from really good to really bad to "maybe it's not so bad." He owns a house near the Colonade, where there's a plaza with a nice fountain. Early this summer it had become a popular hang out spot for Hispanics, especially on Sundays, when the place was as packed as a zocolo in a Mexican village, tamale vendors and all. I knew this ticked off the white folks who own undervalued mansions near the colonade, so I asked Joe his opinion.

"Well, we got that problem taken care of," he said. He explained, but he didn't have to: I'd read in the Northeast News about the sting that had taken place there a few weeks back, where several dozen immigrants were deported.

Then Joe and his old friend just started going off on "the Mexicans," complaining about how they come up here looking for work and they don't even speak the language and they collect social security and they drink and they're all ex-cons and they I can't remember what else but it was pretty long bash session.

And I said, "Well, you know, our people were just like them back in the 20s. My great grandfolks came here with nothing, not speaking the language, and folks said the same stuff about them you're saying about these people."

They tried to tell me how it's different now. "There was a lot less people here back then," the old man said. "We came here to be Americans." I didn't really understand the distinction.

Then a man came in with two young daughters. His English wasn't perfect, but he could understand and pretty much be understood. Joe was very accomodating. He switched the TV to cartoons, gave the girls bubblegum (that same hard, cheap kind my barber gave out when I was a kid), and tried to strike up a conversation with the dad.

Joe's a nice guy. When I returned later to pay the rest of my bill plus a tip, he gave me a card so I could make an appointment the next time. But I won't be going back.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

way to go tony-o!

Met up with Tony Ortega and Fatimah to swap see-ya-laters, and I can't resist adding to the blogger tribute parade. It's been great getting to know both of them, and to have played a key role in their raising of fur children.

Tony's a great editor, this move is a much deserved bump up, and the folks in Ft. Lauderdale are lucky to have him. He's got a lot of energy and enthusiasm, and a rare mix of strength in both reporting and writing. I always loved the way he'd shout, "Dude, that's fucking awesome!" whenever I told him I'd unearthed a particularly juicy tidbit for a story.

I have to mention here a couple of stories we worked together on, both of which are among my favorites from my time at the Pitch, and which his editing improved immensely.

One was about a certain conniving U.S senator. I'd gotten really bogged down early on in my reporting, printing out stacks and stacks of documents from government sites and Lexis-Nexis, trying to nail this dude from all angles, and I was sort of driving myself nuts. But Tony kept telling me it's real simple: Just point out how local Democrats love him, and then play that against his record on Democratic issues. I still went pretty deep into the story, but Tony's guidance kept me focused, and the story wound up generating a fair amount of buzz (it even got quoted in a later article by Salon).

The other was a story about a scientist at Stowers. I'd always wanted to do a science story, and Tony was very supportive, even though it wasn't the sort of thing I usually did. When I turned in the draft, I played all the stuff about cloning up real high, but Tony told me to move all that down and put the stuff about the scientist's research into to birth defects up front. Which I thought was really sophisticated and cool -- not what you might expect from an alt-weekly -- and it definitely made the story much better.

After both of these stories ran, my grandpa, who was a newspaper editor and one of my toughest critics, called me up to praise me, which didn't happen often. Both stories are right up there at the very top of my clip pile.

I know this is sounding like is as much in praise of me as Tony. But that's what editors do -- they make writers look good. With little in return. Except bigger paychecks.

Thanks Tony! And all the best to you!!

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

good news

My editor accepted my final draft, so I'm set to get paid again soon (looks like I can lay off the garbage cans this time). The book "goes into production" after Labor Day. Not sure what all that entails, but I guess we're still shooting for a fall '06 release date.

It's all so exciting.


In spring 2002, a 12-year-old girl from suburban Kansas City started a blog, under the pseudonym "rockonlittleone." She named her site, "Sorrow is like the ocean and sometimes I wish my heart would stop" (at least that's what it was named most recently).

Right off the bat she was a prolific blogger, adding as many as 13 posts in a single day. She kept at it through all her early teen years, letting the public in on her trials and triumphs, through piano lessons and debate tournaments, good grades and bombed tests. She posted the results of just about every online quiz created over the last four years, and photos of outings with her friends, goofy pictures of gangly girls having fun. And, of course, long accounts of fights with her parents -- lots and lots of those. Her parents were Chinese and quite old fashioned, you might say strict, borderline mean, and the girl sometimes said she hated them. But all in all it was your normal teen blog, though perhaps the writing was better than most, and the author, Esmie Tseng (pictured above, on, appeared to be just your typical suburban kid growing up on the Internet.

Then all of Esmie's entries -- hundreds and hundreds of them -- disappeared, because she's in jail, charged with stabbing her mother to death in their Johnson County home. I went through all her posts yesterday before the site was shut down. To say the least it was an unsettling experience. I wish I could turn back time, really. Now prosecuters are pushing to have her tried as an adult, which she clearly isn't, for first-degree murder, so it appears as though this bright young person will live for ever in prison, which, wrong as it might be to say, doesn't seem right.

I seem to be amassing a small collection of stories about 16-year-olds whose lives ended, or were essentially ruined, by their own acts of violence.

First there was Porky, a kid who went to Central High for a while, and was friends with a few of the debaters, before he suddenly went off the deep end and started going around town shooting a gun. His adventure ended in June 2003 when stray bullets from his gun struck several innocent bystanders at the gas station across the street from Central, killing one of them. Last I checked, Porky is due for a long stretch in the state pen.

Then last summer I read about Jonathan Jackson, a 16-year-old who was so upset about his older brother George's imprisonment that he essentially launched a teen-rage coup against the government, storming the courthouse where his brother was having a hearing of his case in an attempt to break his brother free. Some California state officials were killed in the crossfire, I think, and Jackson took a few more hostage, before he was brought down in a hail of gunfire. (George Jackson was, BTW, one of the central figures in the prison abolition movement.)

And now Esmie. I'll be curious to see what the system makes of her.

These are powerful stories, and I'm not sure what they say collectively, if, indeed, they say anything at all. For a while I thought the Jackson and Porky stories said something about the political agency of teens, or lack thereof, particularly among inner-city youths. But Esmie's story twists things a bit, it's so odd and out of stereotype, she being of a completely different world. But I suppose there are similarities down there somewhere.

Anyway, they're all haunting, to say the least, and I have a hunch I will continue to reflect on them as I deepen my coommitment to work with teens.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

prairie man

My big thing this summer is canning. I went out and bought a big pot with a wire rack and some Kerr jars, and I've been going at it. Cool hobby. I like hobbies you can eat. Above are today's special: Blackberry jam (thanks, Jane, for the free berries).

It's hotter than hell, though, what with all burners on the stove going full blast, and steam everywhere. Every once in a while I pause and think this is how folks used to do it. They'd grow stuff in the summer and can it for the winter. And this was back before AC. And I'm like, man. That had to be some work.

Strange economy we have here in the US. Or strange life I'm living. Where what was once a dreaded, hot, miserable job has become a hobby. Something fun. What the hell does that say about me?

Here's what I've made so far this summer:

Them's tomatoes to the right, and blackberry preserves to the left. Hiding back in there somewhere is soome ungodly hot salsa.

back in books

I've been in a bit of a reading slump; I haven't finished a book since I finished my book, the first draft, that is, way back in April (actually, that's not true; I finished Native Son). It's weird. I haven't been able to get into anything. Or when I have gotten into something, I haven't been able stay into it.

Well, I'm glad to say, the slump is over, thanks to the stupid sci-fi novel pictured above. It's about infinity, I think, and a bug played a prominant role. Just finished it last night, though I don't feel much richer for having done so, and now I'm back onto more interesting stuff, and a reading list is forming. Right now, I'm deep into James' Baldwin's Go Tell it on the Mountain, which I've never read. I'm sensing an all-time favorite here. It's starting to make me feel the way I did when I read Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, the way it seems to be working up to a massive punch in a small package.

The writing is so beautiful:
The way of the cross had given him a belly full of wind and bent his mother's back; they had never worn fine clothes, but here, where the buildings contested God's power and where the men and women did not fear God, here he might eat and drink to his heart's content and clothes his body with wondrous fabrics, rich to the eye and pleasing to the touch. And then what of his soul, which would one day come to die and stand naked befoore the judgment bar? What would his conquest of the city profit him on that day? To hurl away, for a moment of ease, the glories of eternity!


Saturday, August 20, 2005

found photos

Relentlessly Optimistic pointed me to this cool site full of random pictures. I really liked the one above. I guess it was taken in 1972, and I probably would have been impressed if I'd seen it at the time, when I was four. Even then I loved rock and roll.

It's interesting how the FoundPhoto site came to be. Its founder was looking for music to steal, using Kazzaa or something like that, and he stumbled across someone's picture file. Then he looked around some more and found hundreds of picture files. I guess he could probably get into mine. Which isn't a big deal (with the exception of a few pictures taken on a clothing-optional beach in Mexico).

Reminds me how the other day I went to the monthly meeting of the Cliff Drive Corridor Management Committee (on which I serve, in case I haven't mentioned that before), and found myself looking through a bunch of random pictures of strangers. They'd all been taken by several security cameras folks at the city's parks department had set up along Cliff Drive to deter illegal dumpers and graffitiers. I havde mixed feelings about the cameras. On the one hand, they seem to deter the jerks who deface and pollute the beautiful stuff we have in our neighborhood, not the least of which is Cliff Drive. On the other, it's a troubling example of how weak and disconnected urban communities have become.

A lot of the pictures showed nothing; they'd been triggered by a breeze-blown branch, or a car passing by. There was one of a cat creeping quietly across the pavement. But the one that stuck with me was of a parked car with a man sitting in the passenger seat pointing out the opened window at the camera. His mouth was twisted mid-syllable, and I imagined he was saying to the driver, "Check it out! We're being photographed."

I paused on this photo for a while before flipping to the next. I was surprised to see that the man was still there. He appeared again on the next photo in the stack. And again, for a half dozen more pictures. The immages documented his little break in the park, as he sat in the car for a while, and then got out to stretch his legs and peer over the ledge of the overlook.

It's odd because I know from experience that these cameras talk to you whenever they snap a picture. They say something like, "Stop! You're picture has just been taken. Now enjoy your stay in the park." So this guy kept hanging around in spite of Big Brother's rude interruptions.

Funny how much we'll tolerate. But then, is there really a choice anymore? Was there ever? If so, when was it offered? Because when I downloaded LimeWire, I don't recall seeing a checkbox giving an option to make my photos private, the same way that dude on Cliff Drive wasn't told upon entering that he might be photographed.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

cracka with attitude

Blogger's note: When I was in Louisville, I was asked to write up an essay about my connection to a rap artist or song and read it in front of a video camera. It's for an online course they'll be offering.

When I was in college, my favorite album was NWA's EFIL4ZAGGIN, and it played a key role in one of the highlights of my entire life.

I went to the University of Colorado, where I majored in film production. It was a competitive major, very competitive, and I really wanted in. My sophomore year I worked hard to put together a solid film for the panel of judges, and I got picked.

But the thrill didn't last. I got in, but I didn't fit in. The department had a strict hierarchy, and I was at the very bottom of it. Bottom line: Nobody liked me, other than my fellow bottom feeders.

I was pissed off and disillusioned, but I found solace in the new NWA album released that year. I've always liked angry music. Punk. Death metal. Hip hop. You name it. But this shit was hardcore. Side one was all about murder. And side two was all about rape and murder.
I'm a muthafuking nigga wit an attitude
I got a case of spitting in a muthafukers face
So me and my ace we got a taste
Of a muthafukers billy club he took his gun and
Put it to my head and said nigga start running
So tell me what's the next episode
Is he crazy does he want to chase me and waste me
I thought run nigga run but I caught myself
Because my secondary thought was death
i get hit hard real but still muthafuker said
I want another black muthafuker dead

I listened to it constantly, usually on my little Walkman, as I made my way around campus or Boulder. I cranked it so loud my ears would practically bleed, and I'd just leer at the world around me, which was the polar opposite of the world NWA described. Boulder is so white the KKK demonstrated there and said, basically, "Why won't you people join us? You’ve created our dream community!"

And I was white too, obviously. I was raised in all-white communities. KKK dream communities, where I had no meaningful contact with black people. Yet I identified with the words of NWA, especially while I was working on my senior thesis film, which was a horrible experience. I spent more than $2,000 on this film. Worse, my job was to act as the director, to be in charge of a crew of fellow film students who didn't like or respect me.

Well, my director of photography apparently cared so little about my project that he failed to load the camera properly, and I wound up with hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth of over exposed film. Just clear plastic. Put it in the projector, all you get is a white screen.

I was devastated. Not knowing what else to do, I just started pouring out my feelings, writing with a fine-point pen directly on the worthless film, writing each word over and over again so it could be red when projected at 24 frames per second.

Then I added a soundtrack. NWA.
Lost in the motherfucking world of madness, sadness,
But Dre is just a nigga that's glad it's
sucker motherfuckers like you making whack jams,
because it only you shows you how dope I am.
Never try to ignore us,
When I'm expressing, stand still like you're full of riggermortis.
Cause I'm a real nigga, but I guess you figure,
You could break me, take me, but watch me pull the trigger.
Dre is just a nigga with heart, a nigga that's smart,
A nigga that's paid to say what others are scared to play.
We started out with too much cargo,
So I'm glad we got rid of Benedict Arto.
Yo, N.W.A., criticized for what we say,
But I'ma do this shit anyway.
Cause I'm the motherfucking doctor, never faking,
Yo Yella, kick the motherfucking break in.

I know I said side one of this album was all about killing, but this is about art. It's about personal expression, pride in that personal expression. Fierce pride. And as a young artist, trying to develop and defend my voice, I was feeling it.

I ended my film with a little throwaway clip a classmate had taken of me storming toward the camera and giving the finger. While this angry image of me flashed on the screen, MC Ren declared "NWA takin' over this motherfucker!"

I entered it in annual student film show, which is a huge event -- a packed crowd in one of the biggest lecture halls on campus. I was nervous. The crowd sat quietly while my film rolled, my angry words mixed with those of Dr. Dre. Then the film ended, the screen went blank, and the crowd erupted in enormous applause.

That was one of the highlights of my life.

After I graduated, I stopped listening to NWA. All the violence in the lyrics got to me. It was too close to reality. Mainstream media began to catch up with NWA, and spread stories about what was going on in our nation's inner cities. Their album EFIL4ZAGGIN came out during the height of the crack epidemic, and violent crime was tearing communities to shreds. By listening to NWA, I felt like I was somehow supporting this, and I wanted no part of it.

Ironically, this was a time of change in hip hop. Artists were rapping less and less about political issues and empowerment, which was the norm when I first got into hip hop, listening to artists like Public Enemy and KRS-1. Now the norm was gangsta rap -- songs about violence, sex, drugs -- and white folks were buying it more than anyone else. It didn't feel right to me. It seemed like a macabre minstrel show.

A few years later, though, I sort of slipped, and bought a Dr. Dre disk. I couldn't resist. I heard a song on the radio and the beat was so good I just had to have it.
Yea nigga
Still fuckin wichya
Still waters run deep
Still snoop dogg and d-r-e, '99 nigga (guess who's back)
Still, still doing that shit, huh dre?

I was living in Kansas City at the time. I'd just moved here to take a job as an investigative reporter. KC was the first city I'd ever lived in with a substantial black population. And I decided to focus my investigative reporting there, to find out what was going on the east side of town, to expose politics and institutional structures that keep my new home town divided and unequal.

Now I gotta pause here to tell you how cool this job is. As an investigative reporter, I felt like a bad ass. I was just an average Joe, but I was penetrating the corridors of power -- city hall, the justice system, the state house -- with the mission of letting everyday folks know what the hell was going on. And when I succeeded, I felt so powerful and tough. It was exhilarating, and Dre's beats fueled my exhilaration. I'd listen to it in my car as I drove around the city, doing my thing, and I would get PUMPED UP.

Then I started listening to the lyrics, and I found I could relate to them. Dre was rapping about being a professional at the top of his game.
It ain't nothing but more hot shit
Another classic cd for y'all to vibe with
Whether you're cooling on a corner with your fly bitch (beyotch)
Laid back in the shack, play this track
I'm representing for the gangstas all across the world
Still (hitting them corners in them low low's girl)
I'll break your neck, damn near put your face in your lap
Niggas try to be the king but the ace is back
So if you ain't up on thangs
Dr. dre be the name still running the game

It wasn't hard for me to draw a metaphor from the music -- from "another classic CD for y’all to vibe with" to "another scorching investigative report," from "representing for the gangstas all across the world" to being a common man fighting so all my fellows can know what they have the right to know. Snoop even makes a direct reference to news: "If you ain’t up on things."

And, like my earlier college experience with NWA, this was a key turning point in my life. Earlier, I was taking a stand for my voice and my vision as an artist. Now, with Dr. Dre, I was coming into my own as a professional. Like Dre, I was "running the game."

But I'll be honest with you, it's not easy to tell these stories, especially to a video camera, not knowing who's going to hear my words and draw conclusions based on what I've said. I knoow I'm treading a thorny patch here. The music and words I've identified with in these instances liberally use a term that's inappropriate for a white guy like me to appropriate. It's like Spike Lee's Bamboozled where all these white folks start walking around in black face.

Worse, or deeper, it's like what Frantz Fanon writes about the colonizing white viewing the colonized black as a savage with the keys to some twisted notion of liberation.

But I can't escape the realness of the connection. And it reminds me of something I read recently in a book by James Cone about how Jesus was black. Now, I'm not afraid to say that I’m a believer. I try to live by the principles of Jesus's life, and I'm still struggling to understand what that means. Cone's words really shook me. He wasn't talking about physical features, the hair as fine as lamb's wool and all that. He was talking about blackness as a state of being, That the Gospels were stories about liberation and that salvation lies at the site of the struggle, among the poor and the oppressed. And in our world, in our era, in America and across the globe, the poor and oppressed have, by and large, black and brown faces. Cone argues that in order to be saved you have to die of your whiteness and be resurrected black.

In other words, in the words of my current favorite rapper Kanye West, the artist I listen to constantly as I move into the next stage of my life, as I emerge as an agent of social justice, you gotta get down.
Get up i get (down)
Get up i get (down)
We are all here for a reason on a particular path
You don't need a curriculum to know that you are part of the math
Cats think I'm delirious, but I'm so damn serious
That's why I expose my soul to the globe, the world
I'm trying to make it better for these little boys and girls
I'm not just another individual, my spirit is a part of this
That's why I get spiritual, but I get my hymns from Him
So it's not me, it's He that's lyrical
I'm not a miracle, I'm a heaven-sent instrument
My rhythmatic regimen navigates melodic notes for your soul and your mental
That's why I'm instrumental
Vibrations is what I'm into
Yeah, I need my loot by rent day
But that is not what gives me the heart of Kunte Kinte
I'm tryina give us "us free" like Cinque
I can't stop, that's why I'm hot
Determination, dedication, motivation
I'm talking to you, my many inspirations
When I say I can't, let you or self down
If I were of the highest cliff, on the highest riff
And you slipped off the side and clinched on to your life in my grip
I would never, ever let you down
And when these words are found
Let it been known that God's penmanship has been signed with a
language called love
That's why my breath is felt by the deaf
And why my words are heard and confined to the ears of the blind
I, too, dream in color and in rhyme
So I guess I'm one of a kind in a full house
Cuz whenever I open my heart, my soul, or my mouth
A touch of God reigns out

Sunday, August 14, 2005

immortal technique

One of the coolest things I came back from Louisville with is Immortal Technique's second album Revolutionary, Vol. 2. He's better than any columnist I know of:
I break it down with critical language and spiritual anguish
The Judas I hang with, the guilt of betraying Christ
You murdered and stole his religion, and painting him white
Translated in psychologically tainted philosophy
Conservative political right wing, ideology
Glued together sloppily, the blasphemy of a nation
Got my back to the wall, cause I'm facin' assassination
Guantanamo Bay, federal incarceration
How could this be, the land of the free, home of the brave?
Indigenous holocaust, and the home of the slaves
Corporate America, dancin' offbeat to the rhythm
You really think this country, never sponsored terrorism?
Human rights violations, we continue the saga
El Savador and the contras in Nicaragua
And on top of that, you still wanna take me to prison
Just cause I won't trade humanity for patriotism.

I wish more hip hop were like this. It makes me feel the way I did when I first heard Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back way back in high school. Back then, I felt I'd caught a sneak peak of a revolution. I guess it was. Hip hop went big. But it also went bling and bang bang. Not that it was all bad (the world would be duller if Dr. Dre had never dropped the Chronic albums). Still, this Immortal Technique reminds me of what hip hop could be, or could have been.

But then again, the new Kanye West album comes out on Tuesday. College Dropout was deep, and it still managed to sell. Counting the hours...

Saturday, August 13, 2005

cut 4

At issue was a tax abatement for Crown Center, an upscale shopping, office and residential center just south of downtown, adjacent to the headquarters for Hallmark, which owns the development. The center was planned in the late 1960s as a means of rejuvenating the area, which had begun to resemble a slum. The project sprawled out over the next two decades, gobbling up acres of old neighborhoods, with each phase's development buoyed by generous tax breaks. Now, in 2002, the last of these was set to expire, but city and business leaders were pushing to have them extended for another 20 years, largely because the center’s retail ventures were unsuccessful and the mall was barely able to stay open even with a reduced tax burden. The abatement would affect the school district because it depends on property tax.

One of the board members, Elma Warrick, stiffened in her seat and frowned. She said she'd been investigating the situation. She’d called a city official and felt "insulted" when the gentleman told her he hadn't spoken with anyone from the school district—indeed, he didn’t even know the proper person to contact. She complained that city leaders could care less about the needs of Kansas City's school children.

Board President Mauro shifted in his seat. He said he wanted to talk about the matter, but he that it would be unethical to do so because his son was a high ranking executive for Hallmark. But the district’s top in-house attorney told him it was OK. "I think you ought to voice your opinion," Warrick said haughtily. "Whether you are able to influence me is another question."

Mauro agreed that the abatement was a bad idea from the school district's perspective, and that they ought to fight it. But, he said, it was already to late. "One of the problems is we hear about these decisions after all of the staff work is done," he said. "And we need to be considered. It’s really at the staff level is where it all happens."

What he meant was that decisions about tax abatements and development projects are made behind the scenes, before the matter comes up for public debate. Public meetings are mere formalities. Mauro would know. He'd been president of the Downtown Council, an group of downtown business owners who pushed for more city investment in its withering commercial core. He helped spearhead a major residential and commercial redevelopment on the western edge of downtown, which was aided by tax breaks and the power of eminent domain given to a few well-connected developers and law firms.

It was all so ironic. Less than a year earlier, Mauro had recruited a slate of candidates to run for the school board because he was frustrated by the way other board members, Warrick among them, would decide matters behind the scenes. Mauro, a longtime civic leader in Kansas City, had trouble swallowing his own medicine. So he held a series of breakfast meetings and built his own majority, a "Mauro Majority," we called it in an article in the Pitch.

Now, as board president, he was saying with a straight face that this is how things work at City Hall, where white folks are in charge, and there's a whole lot more money on the line. Mauro could have spared Warrick the lecture. She knew full well how things worked in this town. Annual audits of the city's tax break system revealed a program in which developers essentially called the shots. These developers and their attorneys formed a small circle of insiders, the reports revealed, nearly all of them heavy campaign contributors. Moreover, the staff and board members who ostensibly represented taxpayers' best interest in these endeavors were typically former employees and associates of the developers and law firms that were benefiting from the program. On the other hand, the developers' attorney's were often former city council members and city staffers. The program had no policy that dictated where such benefits should be directed and which projects ought to be supported, though state law required such a policy to be in place. These investigations found that earning projections for proposed projects were almost always overblown, and that the city was losing hundreds of millions of dollars to fund them. One audit was particularly scathing. It found that the financial books at the city agency that oversees the tax breaks was woefully mismanaged. In many instances, developers were reimbursed with tax money with little or no documentation that they’d spent money. In some instances, these developers double billed or sought repayment for expenditures that were not legal under their contracts.

Not that Warrick was innocent herself. A year earlier, the federal judge overseeing the desegregation case had ordered an investigation into allegations of patronage and micromanagement by board members. Though the judge ultimately ordered that the results of the $100,000 investigation remain sealed, I learned that it had focused primarily on her. Shortly after Warrick and four of her colleagues had unseated the superintendent, Warrick began meeting with the newly installed superintendent and Gwen Grant, director of the Kansas City chapter of the Urban League. Grant and Warrick were close friends; the urban league had established a nonprofit Warrick ran, the Family Resource Center, from which she drew a $50,000 salary. At the time of these meetings, Urban League officials continued to keep the FRC's financial records. Together, Warrick and Grant pushed for the new superintendent to enact a district reform initiative, which would require an outside contractor to provide professional training to principals and teachers. Coincidentally, the Urban League was simultaneously offered a no-bid contract to offer the exact kind of training that was spelled out in the reform initiatives. As soon as the investigators' report was finished, and when board members and other parties in the desegregation case were deciding whether to allow the report to be released to the public, Warrick retained a lawyer to represent her at district expense, costs totaling $20,000. Now, just a year later, at the time of this meeting, the reform initiative had been essentially abandoned, though the Urban League had received full payment on its $160,000 contract. There were other suspicious incidents as well. For a time, Warrick's niece was employed in the district's legal department, which was run by another friend of Warrick’s, Kathy Walter-Mack. And within a few months of the patronage investigation’s conclusion and burial, another close friend of Warrick and Grant, Dianne Cleaver, former mayor Emanuel Cleaver's wife, received a no-bid contract to serve as an assistant to the superintendent. She was later hired to a permanent position after a costly candidate search which Cleaver herself and another close friend of her and Warrick (and district contractor) helped direct.

Through the window from our perch on the tenth floor I could see Crown Center in the distance. It was a cold November morning and long clouds of white steam billowed from vents on the tops of office towers. I could see the neighborhoods of the city’s east side, the shabbiness of some of the houses visible even from the distance, and the tree-lined parkways leading to Country Club Plaza the mansions of the Southwest Corridor, where Mauro lived. These sinewy patches of green perfectly bisected the city and, from where I was sitting, they were framed perfectly between Warrick and Mauro, with Warrick on the left side of the conference table, the east, and Mauro at its head, on the west. It was a perfect image of Kansas City.

kc love

Before I do the whole we-are-the-world/group-hug thing, I have to brag on my hometown heroes. Pictured above is Leodis McCray, top speaker of the camp's first speech contest. His speech is PHENOMENAL. Maybe we'll put up an audioblog of it one of these days.

And James Riley got sixth-place speaker with his intense, evidence-heavy speech. I'm proud of James. He really knuckled down and got it done this week.

Alas. Dominique didn't win anything. (Actually, he and James took fourth in the debate contest on Thursday.)

And Ebony needs to come out the closet.

so long, campers

Well, the camp is over, the kids delivered safely home, and I'm back in my zero-gravity chair and nice house, with my woman, two dogs and four cats. What a great experience! I know the kids learned a lot, but I did too. I feel as though we're all about ready to take the game to a whole new level. This is going to be a great year!!

Here are some more pictures.

Friday, August 12, 2005

ebony rose moves on

Last night I took Ebony to a Target and we loaded up a shopping cart with all the usual college stuff -- sheets, towels, a hamper, a gigantic jug of shopping detergent. He didn't want me to pay for it, but I told him he's family to me, and when I went to college my family took me to Target and loaded up a cart for me. It felt good to return the favor.

Man, I'm gonna miss Ebony. I'm starting to feel a little misty-eyed. I'm so happy for him. He's so excited about this next stage, so ready for it. Louisville's a good place for him. The debate squad here is a family. They've had some spats here and there, like any family, but their bond is strong. And Ebony's going to fit right in. He already does.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

more pix

More pix for you all to see. (Sorry so few words to accompany.)

Sunday, August 07, 2005

louisville camp day 3

Lot of serious energy today. The main goal was for students to find an "organic intellectual" to begin to build a case around, and to for each student to establish his or her own personal purpose in debate.

First, organic intellectuals. This comes from the writings of Antonio Gramsci, a long-dead Italian revolutionary who wrote all these radical books while he was in jail. One of his big contributions to the world was the idea that intellectuals are not just part of the Ivory Towers of The Academy, but they can also rise up from among the masses, as organic intellectuals, who are from a community with a beef (like blacks or Palestinians, for example), who speak about the issues of their people, who do so in a way that's subversive and revolutionary, and who can motivate people to come together and fight for change.

Here at Louisville, we've been focusing mostly on hip hop artists as organic intellectuals, but not entirely. One girl is using Rage Against the Machine, another dude is leaning on Bob Marley.

As for the purpose, I'll get to that in a minute.

On the organic intellectual pursuit, we went to some computer labs on campus, and surfed the web looking for lyrics, and scrutinizing them through a set of criteria established by some scholar named Nathan D. Abrams, who wrote an article called "Antonio's B-Boys: Rap, Rappers and Grramsci's Intellectuals."

Seen this way, it's amazing how deep some of these lyrics are.

Anyway, once the students had their organic intellectual figured out, and they'd written out a defense of their choice using Abrams's essay, they started figuring out what their purpose is. This is their mission, their personal political goal, something they want to see changed in the world.

For example, Aaron wants to see educational opportunites improve for inner-city kids.

Then they started putting their organic intellectual together with their mission, to begin writing the first chunk of what will become their debate speech.

Here are some pictures of day three.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

louisville camp days 1 and 2

Eigth hours of driving, 500 miles and a cheap Illinois hotel later, we wind up in Louisville, for the first day of debate camp. KC kids have met up with about 20 other kids from DC, NYC, Baltimore, Atlanta and Compton to find their voices as debaters and pick up the tools they'll need to kick ass in the coming year.

Everything's going great so far. We started off with an inspiring lecture from Dr. Ede Warner, director of the Louisville debate program. He really got the kids fired up, at least ones who came with me. Domonique said afterward that Warner said everything he wanted to say about debate but hadn't been able to say himself.

Tomorrow we're going out for brunch at the classiest brunch joint in Louisville (after the kids have an opportunity to go to church), and then we'll dive in. I'll be assisting Tiffany, along with two other adults, in teaching a group of eight or ten debaters. First step: Start writing a speech.

Friday, August 05, 2005

garden update

It hasn't been a bad garden year, but it hasn't been a great one either... mostly because of little mistakes I've made. Learning a lot, though. I suspect next year will be a lot better. Here's a mid-season photo documentary.

louisville bound

I'm off to Louisville today with a vanload of young debaters. We'll be attending their summer debate camp. Keep checking here for regular updates, photos and audioblog entries. Should be fun...

Thursday, August 04, 2005

a not-so-final final

Today I printed out the rewrite, to be shipped tomorrow. It's 40 pages lighter, and, I hope, a bit tighter. I'm pretty sure I'll have one more pass through before it's accepted and we can move into production.

I'm not sure how I feel. I'm neither elated nor anxious. A little happy, for obvious reasons, and sad, for not so obvious ones. This is a wild process. I guess the toughest thing has been the drastic mood swings. I've had some extreme highs (when the book sold, when I sent off the manuscript, when I got it back with a six-page glowing letter). Against these, the mundane drudgery of actually writing a book has felt, at times, like severe depression. Indeed, for a while after the book sold, before I really got started writing, I literally shut down. I was so bummed out I could barely move. I think (hope) things are starting to even out, and I am beginning to take it all in stride.

I've been meaning to blog about the experience of getting the manuscript back. It was quite overwhelming, but time has passed since then, and the feelings are a bit distant.

I wasn't home when the package arrived for it, so I had to go to the FedEx office to sign for it. I started tearing open the package before I even got back to my car. I started reading the letter. Three paragraphs in, I read, "In many ways, this is a challenging book. By challenging, of course, I don't mean arduous or tiresome; in fact, I was consistently impressed by your ability to make complicated issues of legislation and reform accessible to your reader. What's challenging is the honesty with which you bring to light a number of thorny racial problems. Some of these problems, such as poverty or systemic failures in public education, will be somewhat familiar to your reader (although you elaborate on them with a voice and candor that are uniquely yours). But what really distinguish CROSS-X are the more subtle issues of race and racism that you tackle -- many of them difficult precisely because they point to the complacency that accompanies privilege."

I read this and I just started sobbing. It was a culmination (not the last, I hope) of a journey that had begun about seven years earlier, when I first started toying with the idea of writing a book (actually, "toying around" doesn't quite describe it: I set a life goal of writing a book, the one thing I intended to do before I die). I was living in Colorado then and I had no real idea what I might write about, just that I wanted to create something of "length and substance" (that's actually how I described it). The goal had no financial components, no fancy publisher wish list. Just: I want to write a book, and I want it to be the best book I can write.

When I finally found a subject, three years later, and I got permission from the subjects to write about them, I had no publisher, and no guarantee that I would ever have one. All I had was a flexible job and about $7,000 left over from the sale of my house in Colorado, which I spent on the project without hesitation.

So I cried when I read that paragraph because it said, in essence, You did it! But also because it was addressed to me, and only I have lived with me my whole life, and, frankly, it's hard to believe that I could do such a thing. I'm the one lugging around the comprehensive files on all the stupid stupid shit I've done in my life (and, honestly, continue to do). Even while I was immersed in the project, even after it sold, I didn't really totally completely believe I could do it (Allie, who listened to my long, insecure sob sessions, can testify to this). And I know this is all coming off kind of arrogant and cocky, but really what I'm trying to explain here is a moment of extreme humility and gratitude, because that's what I felt in that moment, and that's why I cried (and I mean cried; like, I all-out bawled all the way down Front Street).

I felt grateful for all the folks at Central who let me into their world, to tell this amazing story they were already living (and, believe me, the telling was the easy part). And I felt deep gratitude for my experience at the Pitch, because so much of the editor's glowing letter cited aspects of my writing and reporting which were things I specifically learned on the job there. And for a host of other folks, above all Allie, who held my hand on many a freaked out night (and who edited the entire 630-page manuscript before I submitted it).

I cried because I felt very lucky, and that I didn't really deserve it. And once the initial elation wore off, I began to doubt, at times, that the editor honestly meant what he said, which is absolutely insane, I know. But such are the highs and lows, I suppose. Perhaps that's what keeps us going.


I went ahead and upgraded to a Pro account on flickr, so now I have a bunch of group sets like this one. It's fun. I like all this bloggy, live-out-loud-on-the-Internets stuff. Definitely hobby-worthy.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

new beginning

It looks as though I am soon to be a full-fledged debate coach. Today I met with the folks at De La Salle Education Center here in KC, and we shook hands on plans to start things up there in late September.

I'm excited and a little nervous. It's the getting started part that has me nervous, getting kids interested and encouraging them to stay with it.

But I guess it's just one step at a time. I have a hunch this'll work out.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005


I voted today, mostly to honor those who've died and been beaten for the right to vote. At issue was a half billion in bonds to fix the city's water and sewer systems. It was a tough decision. I actually stood there, staring at the ballot, not knowing what to do.

The choice as I saw it:

1. Vote yes, and get much needed infrastructure improvements... and higher water bills, which have been pretty damn high lately.

2. Vote no, and punish the city for wasting money on all kinds of crap and letting our deferred maintenance bill mushroom to $1.5 billion.

I went with choice #1, and winced.

Monday, August 01, 2005


It's odd, but I actually feel a bit of grief over the death of the Nate character on Six Feet Under, which really means I'm grieving over the end of the show, which was very, very good. I'm not ashamed to say that I think the show was a work of art, certainly a defining portrait of our time, and I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to watch it.

For one, it just might be the definitive movie/TV show about life in Los Angeles, at least middle-class life, and for that reason alone it's a significant work. Though LA plays a huge role in the defining of America, both as a producer of so much media and as a massive consumer market, New York tends to be America's fantasy city of choice, a character in its own right. Too often, LA is just a set. But if you've ever visited the place, and I've really only been there once, you get a sense of not only how important it is, but also how unique, indeed, downright strange -- as if its story conveys a theme no other story can, at least not as poignantly. LA is like something out of Sci Fi, or the book of Revelations, which has been edited down to near normalcy. New York might be the tip of the American knife, but LA is its long, decorative, razor-sharp blade.

The ocean played a huge, if sporadic role in the series, and that's partly why the LA setting was key. We were led to believe in an earlier episode, for instance, that the ocean had swallowed up Nate's first wife, Lisa, at a moment when she'd finally found some peace. Later Nate and Brenda were married on the shore, while she carried a dead fetus in her womb. And in Nate's death sequence was where he wound up, running into the waves, yelling over his shoulder, "Come on! This is what we came for!!"

As a fledgling story teller myself, I can't help but think, How perfect! The closeness between life (and by life I mean life at its most alive: elation, ecstasy) and death is a time-honored device of art, one that'll never be worn out because it's so true. And to me that's what LA is: this place on the edge where the fire burns a bit brighter and hotter than anywhere else. It's the spot where those with the most acute cases of wanderlust stopped, because they had to stop, and infected the gene pool with their dangerously curious spirits. The ocean. Life and death rolling, one over the other, again and again, endlessly.

Of course, the Fisher's funeral home, which Nate couldn't succeed in escaping, was a bigger, more obvious thematic backdrop -- and recurring character, what with each episode beginning with a different, unexpected death. These little stories, and the morbid setting, tempered the intensity of life in all the main characters' storylines, grounded them in reality. And isn't this what America is: plain, old mortality wrapped in an illusion of self importance and invincibility?

In this setting, with such real characters, and in the hands of sophisticated writers, actors and directors, Six Feet Under became, in my mind, a true American masterpiece, and I'm really going to miss it.