National Sibling Day

It’s National Sibling Day and instead of thinking about the short life I spent with my brother Roland, I’ve given thought all day to his funeral. Perhaps is was because I was preparing for an interview with author Nora McInerny. Her book, No Happy Endings, is a memoir that chronicles the personal tragedy of losing her husband to brain cancer not long after they married. She writes, often with great humor, about the awkwardness of being a widow and how being around people became increasingly difficult. Which brings me back to my dead brother and the awkward day of his funeral.

My brother Roland died in 1999 at the promising age of 36 from complications resulting from the treatment he received as a kidney patient. After his body rejected the first kidney transplant, he had a 2nd operation that we thought was successful after living for 4 years with it. I’m not sure I was ever told what the official cause of death was.

A day or so before he passed, I received a call from my uncle Mike who said, “your brother isn’t doing well and I think you should come home.” I was dead asleep in the guest room of our house (because I snored like a growling bear) when the call came from my mother. My wife walked in the room and handed me the phone. My brother had passed before I could get there. I howled for quite some time as my childhood flashed before my eyes. Cried until there were no more tears to cry. Death had never come so close to me.

I learned a lot about my brother during his funeral. He was well respected by the faculty of the theology school he attended and by leaders from his church. Great moments of pride swelled my chest. The church was full of family, friends, church members and school mates. So many people that I could find a quiet place to think. I couldn’t breathe.

As grand a send off as it was, I hated the entire affair. I have always found funerals to be a morbid and unnecessary ritual. Looking at dead bodies is a creepy exercise and I was in no mood to socialize. My brother was a devout Christian and his funeral was as about as Christian as a funeral could be. Christians view funerals as a “home going” event, a reason to celebrate. Yet I was in no celebratory mood.

I had what could only be described as an out-of-body experience that day. Aside from my wife, who understood what I was going through, and my sister-in-law who was devastated upon losing her soulmate, everyone seemed to me to be attending a different event. The laughs and smiles, jokes and hugs all seemed foreign to me. There I was in my grief having just lost my only brother and people were engaging me as if we were attending a church picnic.

The thoughts that ran from the depths of my mind to the tip of my tongue were held back only out of respect for my mother. “What the fuck are you smiling at?” “You find this to be a fun event?” “Yes, I haven’t seen you in quite some time. Now get out of my damn face.” “Yes, upstate New York is beautiful country…now piss off.” I wanted to grieve. I needed to grieve. But these people did not understand the needs of the heathen black sheep of the family. The non-church attending son. The one yet to have his body snatched by space invaders. They didn’t understand the immense guilt that I carried knowing that the last conversation that I had with Roland was an argument about my not being saved.

I helped the other men carry my brother’s body to the dead person’s car. Weak in the knees, he nearly slipped from my grip. What a total dick I would have been if I dropped my dead brother to the ground. But I held on tight.

I still carry the guilt of not saying goodbye and the guilt of not donating a kidney and likely always will. It’s difficult separating that guilt from the memories. It’s a burden I’ll happily bear if it means that I can still remember the sound of his voice, his laugh, and his trying to save my lost soul.

Death and Wood: An East-Coast Urbanite’s Foray in the Mid-West


Ahhh…the mid-west. I’ve been here thrice before but the visits were to major urban areas like Kansas City and Denver, and a more culturally diverse college town in Greeley, CO. But this is my first time in the sparsely populated heartland.

I made the trip to visit my dad and his wife, Erika, in Bloomfield, Nebraska where they relocated to some years ago. I got my first taste of mid-west flavor while people watching as I awaited my flight to Sioux Falls, SD in Chicago Ohare airport the day after the Cubs won the World Series. If I had a dollar for every dude that I saw sporting “dad jeans” and hiking shoes, I’d be Mark Zuckerberg rich.

Big agriculture is the name of the game in Nebraska. The landscape is gold and tan hued peppered with brown and black cows and accented with sprinkles of modernity in the form of giant white propellers.

 

Dry fields stretch as far as the eye can see and trees are small islands of green that pool around homes or separate property lines. It would be fair to say that I did not come across a true forrest the entire time that I visited.  And it is dusty. Extremely dusty. Tractors kick up clouds of dust so thick that it lingers still in the air if the wind isn’t blowing and the cutting down of end-of-season crops delivers pestilence to the doorstep of man. The flies, beetles and grasshoppers overwhelmed me. Acreages and acreages of trees and grassy plains displaced by crops of corn grown to fuel ethanol production and grazing cattle to satisfy Americas demand for beef unveils miles of barren vista. A sad sight for my urban eyes.


Bloomfield is a town with a population of 1,126 and it is what you would expect of a small Mid-western town. The pace is slow, the people are friendly, and the opportunities for fun and employment are scarce. Quaint is the adjective I used most often to describe the place. The convenience store owner, the real estate agent, and newspaper publisher that I met were all so friendly and accommodating. And they all seemed to have a great deal of respect for my dad and Erika.


Trips like these are often moments of self-discovery for me. The things that I frequently complain about, like crowds and traffic, are among the things that I miss the most about the east. You can drive for miles without seeing another car and move about the day missing human interaction as long stretches of road separate residential properties. The isolation is as depressing as the failing economy here.

The emerald green of the east with its tree covered hills, sparkling lakes, and massive traffic jams call to the urbanite in me. There are many reasons why the left and right coasts are so heavily populated. Buzzing restaurants, live music, walkable cities and communities, public art, the diversity of life itself…these things matter to many.  And yet there were some pleasurable discoveries and experiences in Nebraska. I ate an elk burger full of flavor. I shot a gun in an open field without fear of disturbing the neighbors or risk of being shot by the police for possession of a weapon. I discovered a winery that rivaled many on the Seneca Lake wine trail. These things I will long remember.  Still, my values won’t play well out here. A pair of Ferragamo shoes would be as useless as tits on a bull as they say.

My dad is nearing 78 and is as obdurate as you would expect a 78 year-old to be. He and his wife have settled in nicely in Nebraska and have become an integral part of the social fabric of Bloomfield. I amused myself, during this visit, with his obsession with wood and death. Not long ago they lived on a farm and partially heated their home by burning firewood. During this period, he collected a lot of fire wood. And although that is no longer the case, his tour of the area included areas where he collected the fire wood. Private property where he was given permission (and sometimes not) to remove fallen trees. A drive by of the old farm house revealed where he chopped the tonnage of wood collected over time.  Passing other homes I learned of the families fates including who died. Collecting and burning wood was a significant part of his life for such a long time that he now suffers from “wood envy”. He showed me properties where the homeowners had enviable stacks of wood. Piles of wood gathered in anticipation of the winter to come. The irony of a man’s obsession with collecting wood in a woodless land was not lost on me.

I am happy that they have settled into a place that they can call home. A place where neighborly connections are meaningful even in a place where people are scattered like sand in the wind. This place is good for them. It was a pleasure visiting the two of them, but the east calls to me now…and I must answer.

What Happens To A Dream Deferred?

FullSizeRenderIt wasn’t long after I arrived on the campus of Syracuse University as the newly appointed Program Director for the University’s public radio station that I received a highly anticipated telephone call from my hometown of Baltimore, MD. The voice on the other end of the line informed me that my submission to the annual WMAR TV Arena Players Black History Month new playwright contest was selected as the winning script. The screams of excitement were heard throughout the studios and offices I assure you.

You see, there was a time when I fancied myself a writer. I had dreams of creating great works of poetry and fiction. Maybe even becoming a screenwriter. My best bud, Sean Yoes, and I would put a pen to paper transferring thought to pad as we itched to create the next great work. We’d hit the open mics and spin tales of urban woe; oppressed warriors shaking the shackles of modern slavery; and even tales of love and lust. In truth, our shit might have stunk, but we couldn’t smell it. Creativity was our drug and the Jones kicked in every day.

You should have seen us two knuckleheads from Walbrook High fumbling around the Mid-Atlantic Writer’s Conference back in the late 80’s. It was a conference full of academia and professional writers. We were the second coming of Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen. The Harlem Renaissance would be reborn in us on that day…or so we thought.

The conference concluded and our resolve strengthened. We had dreams. Dreams of being writers. Dreams of being film makers. We would be integral parts of the creative class come hell or high water.

During that period, a local television station sponsored an annual contest for up and coming playwrights. The station, WMAR TV, partnered with the Arena Players, a local African-American community theater organization, to host the contest in celebration of Black History Month. The chosen playwright would receive a $1,000 cash prize and his/her play would be produced by the Arena Players and aired in the Baltimore metropolitan area on WMAR TV. It was a big freaking deal.

Twice before I attempted to submit a competed script and twice I failed to realize a finished product. Writer’s block got the best of me as did a lack of technology.1992 was a different year. 1992 would be my year. I was arrogant enough to condemn prior contest winners to the dung heap. Yet, as arrogant and cocky as I was, I still needed permission from my new bride to buy a word processor. Handwriting a complete script proved to be daunting.

$500 is what I needed to prove myself worthy of the dream. It might as well have been $5,000. $500 was a lot for us to consider spending. Having just jumped the broom three years prior and  adding a new addition to the family, every penny was needed for daily necessities. Yet there I stood before Angela Lee breaking down my simple plan – buy a $500 word processor on credit (a personal computer for us in the early 1990’s was unthinkable), write and submit the script, and win $1,000 for a net gain of $500.

It didn’t take much convincing. I could see the concern on her face but it quickly turned to a smile and a “yes”. Angela has always believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. Her confidence in me fueled my creativity as I banged away at the word processor keyboard. It’s why I continue to be in love with her today.

I submitted the script to WMAR TV and accepted a new job in Syracuse, NY simultaneously. So much was happening at the time and it was overwhelming.

Flanked by my bride and 1-year-old daughter, mother and mother-in-law, I stood in the crowded Arena Players theatre listening to the buzz around me, anticipating the moment that my work would come to life on stage. Announcements made, lights dimmed, and there it was; a cheap imitation of Zora Neale Hurston and influences of every Harlem Renaissance writer I had ever read appeared on stage. The work wasn’t very good; it was just unique enough to win. The actors breathed life into my play which, ironically, was about fulfilling dreams.

I was buoyed by my family and good friends like Sean Yoes and Tony Perkins. Yet despite the kind words and praise of the actors and theatre attendees, I knew as I stood there that the dream had come to an end. I held my squirming 1-year-old and looked at my beaming bride and knew that the work that was ahead of me was not as a dramaturg, but as a husband, a father, and a radio guy. And with no regrets.

I think about Hughes’ question all the time. What happens to a dream deferred? We all have dreams. Fruition is the end game for all but only the lucky few get to see their biggest dreams unfold on the grand stage. For the rest of us, those dreams go through a metamorphosis of sorts. It doesn’t have to dry up or fester like a sore. And it needn’t sag like a heavy load. A dream deferred merely becomes a different dream and the dreaming itself is what sustains and drives us, isn’t it? Today my dreams are simpler and  they change from day-to-day; but always centered around my girls.

My friend Sean parlayed his dream of becoming a writer into a career as a journalist. Between the two of us, he was the far more talented scribe.  As for me, I just needed some sort of creative outlet. My dreaming is never-ending. There is no tragedy in unfulfilled dreams. Tragedy exist when we stop dreaming altogether.

Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams

For when dreams go

Life is a barren field

Frozen with snow.

Langston Hughes

The Cinema, Me and Life

There is no doubt that Hollywood is rebounding or that they have found the formula that’s getting butts in seats.  With a domestic gross revenue of $10.1 billion in 2011, 2013 generated just under $11 billion behind the success of the Hunger Games Catching Fire ($420 million plus) and others including Iron Man 3 and Frozen.  For some, the formulaic approach of pushing comic book, big action, Animated, and fantasy movies that Hollywood takes is a yawner and enough to keep some folks home staring at their 700 inch TV screens.  For others, the movie theater will always be so much more and they will always find a reason to get there.

2013 box office leader Hunger Games: Catching Fire
2013 box office leader Hunger Games: Catching Fire

My wife and I couldn’t possibly be further apart on the subject.  She would rather develop a rash in her nether region than sit in a movie theater. I, on the other hand, saw no less than 20 movies in the theater in 2013…and not one with her.  I think that my wife, along with many others, miss the bigger picture of what cinema means to American culture and our lives.  Movies shape and are shaped by our values and way of life. They reflect on our past heroics and highlight our past savagery (hello 12 Years A Slave); they have informed our masculinity and femininity; and they represent our hopes, dreams and fears all on a big screen. Whether it’s your fear of spiders, as portrayed in Arachnophobia (1990) or your fear of dystopian  futures, as portrayed in 1984 (1984), cinema explores the full range of human emotions in graphic detail.

Every year during the Oscars, Hollywood attempts to tell its story but fails miserably in doing so. An endless montage of movie clips can’t capture what cinema represents to me.  For many of us, it was where we had our first real date. It could have been a girl’s first kiss or the first time a boy touched a titty. For others it represents a right of passage as the first time you attended a movie without mom and dad in tow or your first rated R film that made you feel “grownup”. It is where we bond with our children. I pledged to see 15 movies last summer with my youngest daughter and, while we fell two movies shy of our goal, we had the most wonderful time together. I stood in the parking lot of the movie theater last year arguing with both daughters why I thought the Man of Steel was a truly shitty comic book movie with bad science and mediocre acting and why Superman is an inherently flawed superhero to begin with and it is probably one of my fondest memories of 2013.  I love movies because they transport me to places and times that I can only dream of (hello Lord of the Rings).

You see, I still remember the first movie that I ever saw in the theater – Bedknobs and Broomsticks starring Angela Lansbury. Not only was it my first movie theater experience, it was the first time that I had seen live-action film mixed with animation. I thought is was pure magic. And at six years of age it truly was.

I remember sneaking into my first movie without paying. I remember the first movie that I saw that had “real sex” in it (hello Body Heat, 1981). Me and the fellas had a lot to talk about after that movie! Then there were the all night karate flicks that my uncles use to take me and my brother to.  Movies started at midnight and ran until about 4 am. I learned how do karate from watching those movies (not really).

My first drive-in movie was Blacula (1972). A black vampire, who’d a thunk it.

Blacula

The first time that I knew I was in-love with movie making was my first viewing of Star Wars (1977). I understood then that it was an amazing piece of film-making. It was also the first time that I rooted for the bad guy. And it was the first time that I bought a movie soundtrack…and it was symphonic music for goddamn sake! I was serious about that movie.

My dude Darth Vader
My dude Darth Vader

At the movies is where I learned to apply critical and rhetorical analysis to something. It is where I kissed my first girl and had my first real date. It’s where I bond with my children and where I have some “me” time. I am an enthusiastic cheerleader for the film making industry and I want it to succeed. So when my wife says no to a movie offer, she is saying no to an awful lot.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all cookies and cream at the theater. There is a case for waiting for some movies to be released on Blu-Ray. For one the cost is escalating. It used to be a real cheap date but not anymore. Secondly, I am easily irritated. I tend to go to the movies at times where people are just not there. I am susceptible to talkers, coughers, whisperers, gigglers, texters, snorters, wigglers, seat-kickers and frequent pissers. First showing of the day on Saturday or Sunday works for me.

Spring is when I get geeked up about the movie season.  Here’s a few that I am looking forward to in 2014:

My favorite comic book here and the re-boot works for me.
My favorite comic book hero and the re-boot works for me.

I'm a sci-fi nut. Dystopian future, aliens, Tom Cruise - I'm all in
I’m a sci-fi nut. Dystopian future, aliens, Tom Cruise – I’m all in

The X Men haven't let me down yet, no reason to think that they will start here
The X Men haven’t let me down yet, no reason to think that they will start here

Dystopian future, space travel and Matthew McConaughey. Need I say more? Yes? Christopher Nolan is directing
Dystopian future, space travel and Matthew McConaughey. Need I say more? Yes? Christopher Nolan is directing

Jennifer Lawrence is a joy to watch. Plus I have to see this thing to the end.
Jennifer Lawrence is a joy to watch. Plus I have to see this thing to the end.

Jolie is a babe. Plus someone has to get the whole darkened version of Disney classic thing right at some point. I want to be there when it happens.
Jolie is a babe. Plus someone has to get the whole darkened version of Disney classic thing right at some point. I want to be there when it happens.

I'm vested. There's no quitting now.
I’m vested. There’s no quitting now.

Please share your fondest movie memory or your favorite movie.  I’d love to hear about it.

Cheers!

Ghetto Toys and Other Signs That You Grew Up in 70’s Urban America

 

I'm the shorty in the headband
I’m the shorty in the headband

I use the word “ghetto” loosely.  Growing up in Section 8 housing in Cherry Hill, a neighborhood in Baltimore, MD, was vastly different in the 1970’s than it is today. While times were hard, it was still a relatively safe place to rip and run the streets without fear of fatality. Standard summer gear included a tank top, pants cut into shorts because there was no way you’d still be able to fit them again by fall, and generic “fish head” sneakers with tube socks.

We didn’t have much at all.  Nothing except space, opportunity and ingenuity. I will never become that old man that bores his children to death with tales of how things were far more tougher for me as a kid than it is for them today. But it was.

My mother had little money to speak of and whatever toys we received for Christmas had to last until next Christmas. But when you have outdoors, you don’t need much else. At least not for us street urchins. Being confined to the house because of rain or grounding was a prison sentence. After all, there was absolutely nothing on television and the neighborhood was magnetic.

Necessity forced us to be creative. After so many games of Hide and Seek, Hot Buttered Beans, Tag and others, you had to get down right inventive if you wanted a toy.

We learned to make our own sling shots by taking wire hangers from the closet and shaping them with pliers. We fashioned the sling out of rubber bands and bicycle tire tube. This is how it was done on the African savannah right?

Sling Shot

And of course we shot stones.  At everything.

 

Skates

 

Wanted a skateboard? No problem. We augmented those old steel roller skates (don’t act like I was the only one who owned a pair) by separating the front and back of the skate and nailing each end on to a piece of two by four or plywood. Why? Because the mate of the skate was long lost and we looked quite silly pushing ourselves on one skate in cut-off shorts and a dirty tank top. (Side note: you can find a picture of anything on the internet)

NunchuckOur inspiration derived from many sources.  Including Bruce Lee movies.  Who didn’t want a pair of nunchucks after watching a martial art film? My apologies to all the people in Cherry Hill who discovered their mops were missing from the back stoop.  With an old rusty saw blade, a bit of dog chain, and hammer and nails, we had the necessary materials needed to give each other concussions. We walked the dog with a rope around her neck so we didn’t quite need the dog chain anyway.

Necessity, the mother of invention, served us well.  She taught us that a two by four, rubber bands, a clothes pin, and pull tabs from soda cans would yield a serviceable projectile. I was so accurate with it that I hit an MTA bus driver in the leg from 50 paces just before he closed the bus door!

There are times when I am quite envious of my children. They have an overabundance of cool technology, smart phones, internet, and on-demand entertainment. But more often than not I lament for the life that they’ve been deprived of.  Not knowing what it’s like to race popsicle sticks in the gutter after a downpour.  Throwing eggs at the bus as it drove through the neighborhood. Playing golf with a stick, a soda bottle and a tennis ball.  I wouldn’t change my childhood for anything in the world.

There are times today that I have to call on that little boy to remind me that there is a creative spirit within that fuels the evolutionary process. That there is always a solution to a problem.  I remind myself that humble beginnings define the man that I am today.

This spring, after a big rain, I’m going to take my daughter to race popsicle sticks in the gutter.