Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Change The Way You Educate Us

In kindergarten, I once remained outside in the playground well after recess was over and laid on top of the Snoopy doghouse for nearly an hour, even as my classmates and teacher beckoned me to come back in. They finally gave up and I came back in when I felt like. I don't recall if I was punished for it, but I do recall it was neither my first nor last act of defiance in school.

When my family and I moved further north, I was made to see a social worker twice a week from third grade all the way through high school. To me, those (and in-house suspension) were the best periods of my journey through the "system": I was allowed to explore myself, learn and create new things uninhibited and express my thoughts and feelings without judgment.

Back in my then-new elementary school, I often had headaches that resulted in me spending quite a bit of time in the nurse's office resting, or getting into fights or confrontations with classmates that resulted in spending a lot of time in the principal's office (sometimes voluntarily, though I had no respect for the principal himself as opposed to his assistants). Once, he banished me to a corner table in the cafeteria where the janitor ate his lunch, away from my classmates with whom I was in constant disagreement with. I enjoyed my solitude so much, it somehow became the "cool table" with some of my classmates sneaking over to join me.

Once, in a fit of exasperation and rage, I stormed out of the front door of the school, determined to walk all the way home by myself. The substitute principal, a kinder man than the regular one, chased after me and rather than dragging me back, appealed to my senses and sought instead to convince me to stay, leaving me to make up my own mind. My respect for him and his respect for me tipped the scale on his side and I returned. All of my teaches from fourth through sixth grade took a special interest in me and both encouraged and protected my development, though at the time I didn't know exactly why. All of them had reputations for being tough and no-nonsense, but I saw plenty of compassion from them that said otherwise.

With all the alternating drama and boredom, I still managed to be a well-above average student. It wasn't until seventh grade and the various day-to-day "periods" where I started having issues with education itself. I began to challenge my teachers and material more often and more directly, and where I made no headway or received no sensible responses to my queries, I became disinterested and tuned out. Some classes, I excelled in, some I failed or skated by. Some of my favorite subjects in elementary school became anathema in junior high and high school, some I became intensely more interested in.

Old friends drifted off and I made new ones. Headaches became seizures and life-threatening procedures. I skipped classes I was bored with to follow my passions unabated. Instead of fighting with fists, I debated students and teachers and convinced classmates not to fight at all (or in some cases to not even consider attempting to fight me if it was in their minds all along). I carried myself like a senior from the moment I first stepped onto high school campus, and went rouge in and out of the classroom on a whim. Some people thought I was a dork, but a lot of people thought I was cool.

Nevertheless, I hardly ever felt cool. I never felt like I fit in. I had friends in quite a few different groups, but my identity was hard to manage or define. I felt, if nothing else, like that same kid in kindergarten who defied his teacher and classmates and lay on top of the doghouse after recess, resting and reflecting while everyone else was in class. I was scared, scared for my life. I knew not whether I would survive the seizures or the newly-discovered abnormality in my heart. Moreover, I did not trust the "system", nor what it presented and represented. If I survived, what would become of me? What was waiting for me after my journey was over? I could see it coming; the changes. The economy our parents had would not be waiting for us when we graduated. Why could our teachers and administrators not see this? I did not want to fall through the cracks. To this day, I don't know how exactly I managed to escape high school with what was then considered a high-achieving Regents diploma (Regents later became the standard, so it's nothing special these days). But my only regret through all of it was being right about what I saw coming. And in trying to escape the inevitable, I fell anyway.

My first experience in college, which was also my first experience away from home, was a miserable failure. After three years of free-fall in an environment I was totally unprepared and unsuited for (yet finally finding and pursuing my passion for filmmaking and further developing my craft and cartooning), I went back home and reinvented myself, armed with the experience from my previous volume of life failures. Life was not over with me even then, but I became a different person when I was done with it all. I took the bull by the horns, if you will, and made college work fro me instead of the other way around. What I learned in class was supplementary to what I learned on my own. I took what I wanted.

And that's what's wrong with our schools now, and have been wrong with them for a long time. Our schools don't teach us what we want to know, but instead teaches us what they want us to know, which is often outdated and obsolete, They teach us to obey rather than think, to accept rather than observe and query. To be a box, not be outside the box. The love and desire to learn is forced out of most of us at an early age, and in it's place is a desire to succeed with no clear goals in mind. And when we don't succeed, we have nothing to cope with except what we can get our hands on, because tangible objects are seen as evidence of significance. Lacking that, we seek ways to escape the hurt and shame. Self-harm, or harming others, all in a desperate effort to escape... something.

Frankly, six problems does not cover nearly enough of the problems with the "system". But these are fairly significant and worth your undivided attention. Perhaps this entry will put things in enough of a perspective for you to desire immediate change and progress, for yourself and for those around you. Don't wait for the comet to hit us head-on, and don't wait for someone else to do it (which is what got us where we are now as a rapidly fading society). Seek knowledge and adapt, make true progress. The world some insist on bringing back are only reflections of light that no longer have matter or substance. It's time to look away from those shadows and move forward.

Change the way you educate us.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Going Into 2017 Like...

MF Doom - Lemon Grass

As you probably noticed, I haven't been around in a while.  Ironically, the world wide web makes me feel isolated.  I've had so many things to say, to share and what-not, but when I get ready to put it down or halfway through my missive, I start thinking...

"What's the point?"

I mean... what the hell is the point? How many people listen, or even care? My efforts to be creative have been stifled by the echoes in my mind.  I try not to blame anyone for that except myself, though.  I've always collected enough people in my life to have an intense, familial relationship with.  I've never been a crowd-pleaser or a fan favorite.  Another irony, which seems to be a way of life for me, is that I work in the film and television business, in which success or at the very least growth is built on relationships. I have my dreams in place, but I need help that I've always been fearful to ask for.  I don't know why, it's never been right to me to ask for help with anything.

I refuse to feel sorry for myself.  During an email conversation earlier either this year or last, I described some of the things I've experienced in life, and my friend responded, "gosh, you've had a tragic life."  I paused at this.  Yes, I've experienced quite a bit of tragedy in my life, enough for me to never wish it on anyone else. But until then, I'd never let it define who I was.  I had to examine this thoroughly, but my immediate response was, "I wouldn't say that."  I don't compare my circumstances or feelings to anyone else to make myself feel better.  It is true that there are worse things in life than what I've been through.  It could happen to anyone, but at that time it happened to me and my family.  I never take that or anything I have now for granted.

I deal with ghosts every day, which in 2016 is as ironic as it can get.  With so many people of world renown who have had an impact on society that I merely dream about passing away this year alone, it's far more than the average citizen can take without changing who they are into something painful.  I've not been immune to that pain. I've just dealt with it in a different way.

I, I, I, me, me, me.  Do you see where this is going? I can't get out of my own way sometimes. Who do I owe any of this explanation of myself to? It dsepends on who's reading or listening, I suppose.

Next year, I will be getting married for the first and only time.  I will be entering the new year having achieved a goal in life I set out to make much earlier in becoming a member of a strong and important union.  I'm organizing and implementing the next phase of my life plan, in hopes that this time the waiting period for fruition will be much shorter.

Next year, I'm hoping that tragedy will leave me alone.  I'm building up my knowledge and awareness to protect myself and the people I love.  I am not as naive as I was entering the year, and I'm far more alert than I've ever been. I owe nothing to anyone who doesn't have my best interest at heart and doesn't have my back; no matter the race, gender, creed or whatever.  This is not about me anymore.  It's gonna be us.  It has to be or else.

I leave you now with the feels.  That's what I got listening to the music MF Doom has made over the past decade or so.  I loved this cat as Zev Love X of KMD, and I love him even more as Doom. I can't imagine the things he's been through to become who he is, but his presence today is a testament to something greater than I can express in words.  Really, his love for the craft is inspiring and something I hope to gain from in my own creative efforts.  Peace brother, and thank you for surviving and shining.

...and isn't ironic; the idea of Doom bringing so much inspiration for living? 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Just Gimme A Second To Rant...

I'll just take a moment from my series on my relationship with Hip Hop to rant about my strained relationship with social media for a moment (because I have a headache and time on my hands)...

As you know, I hate Facebook.  I've left and come back on several occasions because I grew tired and frustrated with the content of the site and the site's continued manipulation of members and said content. Yet I still maintain a presence on the site in order to communicate with people who otherwise would not hear from me or are too averse to using other methods to share thoughts and ideas with me.  This I find both irritating and a relief (ooh, conflict!) because I don't talk much in person and even though I'm friendly, I don't embrace the idea of being around people for an extended period of time unless I know them really well and know that they actually don't mind me being around them. Workplace friendships are fine, but it's a different story after work when you notice that you don't have much in common with your work buddy and it gets awkward. 

To me, social media has much of the same dynamic; you communicate on a shared topic and maybe engage in playful banter or have rip-roaring fun playing with words, or maybe enlightening each other with information and trivia.  But when the idea of actually getting together to hang out becomes and option, it gets awkward. You make promises, but never keep them,  You hide away from repsonding, pretending you never saw the proposal in the first place. So many ways to hide from actual contact; a behavior which you may or may not have grown accustomed to.  I admit it, I'm guilty of this on many occasion. Technology and perhaps middle-aged perspective have put chains on my youthful enthusiasm and idealism to my consternation. Might I also add that the direct assault on my senses and intelligence by a majority of internet content and all media platforms have severely damaged my faith in human nature.  To put it bluntly (and quote an actual friend of mine): I'm disappointed in people. That's interesting; I had faith and expectations in the level of kindness and consciousness of humans once and it's been compromised by their overall nature.  So much so that Facebook has a fairly accurate count of the people who I would consider trusting enough to want to share intimate thoughts with, were it not for the fact that the whole world could potentially have access to them and contort them or use them against me in any manner possible. If I were to take that thought deeper, I could say that I would think I am a victim of my own hubris; thinking that my thoughts are far more important than they actually are, and social media exposes the ugly truth in numbers, clicks and view counts. Can I object to this?

Yes. I don't really care about those things because this blog is not about furthering a cause or monetizing or exploiting its content. When I'm ready to do such things, I'll put it all someplace where everyone can pay to read my thoughts.  But I know that virtually no one cares what I say, and I can ramble on like this for pages without a single content.  I won't beg you to look at anything you might or might not find interesting. I'm trying very hard to rediscover that madness that kept me doing things like this, especially with my comics.  My cartoons were everything to me at one point early in my life, and they effectively helped me save my life. I haven't been able to draw them for some time now, probably because I needed to focus on the everyday challenges of living on my own, with my own hands and feet and associated extremities and organs and skin. Yet, I find I need them again. I need to reconnect with something that had a purpose and gave me the reason to keep facing the next day. So as I rant and tell you how angry I am with people, I need people to understand that my intentions are well. I will not seek destruction or go out in a blaze of glory over some random or inexplicable cause or thought.  I am not sick, dying or losing touch with my senses. I'm trying very hard to be human in an inhuman and inhumane world that's going more and more digital by the second.  I don't want to be a quantity, an digit or a file in someone's computer. I just need someone to know that it; life, living and all that fits that description matters to me, and maybe I'll feel better if I know it matters to you.

I have a headache, and maybe just a little bit of heartache. I'll leave you with that, and return soon with my continued thoughts on the current topic. Thanks for the time and consideration.    

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Real Hip Hop (Is Over Here) - Introduction

The following is the beginning of a series of personal thoughts and discussions about the place Hip Hop culture has had in my life; past, present and future.  I've considered this post for more than a couple of months, trying to sort and proof my recollections, but I came to the conclusion as usual that my stream of consciousness yields the most honest results. In fact, there's really not enough words I can attribute to my complicated relationship with the music and the culture.  As someone who grew up in the suburbs of New York and came to the birthplace of what we know as Hip Hop as a young adult saddled with a lifetime of issues, I cannot conscript my experiences to one post.  In fact, I cannot fairly tell this story alone; I hope that some of my fellow auteurs will follow my lead and contribute to the tale as well.  

Also as such, I wish I had more pictures to go along with my tale, but unfortunately many of my vintage photos and drawings were lost in the fire. The picture above was one I took during a sound check for a concert I worked for several years ago. It seems appropriate somehow...

The most difficult part of all of this isn't even where to begin, rather it's where to end. Because, as anyone who knows anything about Hip Hop, ya don't stop... 

Summer of 1985, one year into junior high. I began to attend a summer playground program a half-mile or more away from where I lived in the Mid-Hudson Valley.  Among the new friends I made there were a couple of kids who lived practically next to the park itself, and right next to each other: Tom Loughran and Mike Perrini. Tom was the oldest of five brothers of Irish descent, Mike was the son of the substitute nurse at my former elementary school. Both liked to ride BMX bikes and skateboards; Rad Boys if you will.  They also liked to listen to music. Mike hands me three vinyl albums he had and figured I would like: Escape (Whoudini), Fat Boys (Fat Boys) and King Of Rock (Run-DMC).  I gladly accepted them and took them home for a spin on my plastic Barkers record player...

This was not, repeat NOT my introduction to rap music or Hip Hop, though I was a fairly young boy. I distinctly remember listening with my brother and oldest sister when they played certain records and cassettes or tuned into the distant radio stations emanating from The City that I had some fond childhood memories of, but rarely visited. Instead, this became the catalyst for fully embracing the culture that was emerging from the far-flung boros and creeping out to distant sentinels in the tri-state area. Before that, I'd already become aware of the lifestyle, the language and the rhythm that was in simpatico with simmering yearnings for understanding myself.  Visions articulated in straight-talking poets over often synthesized rhythms and syncopated beats. It was an edgy contrast to the staid, laconic suburban environment I was developing in, but later realized I had a strange disconnect with at a crucial age when I had to learn to make decisions on my own. It corrected my own vision of the world in many ways; not always in good ways, but in ways that directly effected the decisions I would learn to make.

In hand, I was dealing with three distinctly different groups with different sounds, yet they all propelled me in seeing something I had not seen before, and if I did it was in a totally different way than I was used to.  I was transported and in subtle ways transformed. The first two albums had come out a year earlier and I had likely heard some of their tracks in the background, but now that I had the solid substance in front of me, I was able to clearly identify the names of all the tracks and the style of music they produced.  The last one was new, and combined what I was familiar with from the environs I was in with what was now piquing my interest the most.  Each had their own distinct style and evoked different moods and sensations in different ways, but it all led to the same conclusion: this was Hip-Hop; moreover it was a style that was emerging which was more sophisticated than the "party emcee" that until then dominated and battled with each other over simple break beats. This would later affectionately or derisively be called "The Golden Age". 

The funny thing about discovering something "new" is that you suddenly realize how much of it has been around you the whole time. Terry and Joseph had stockpiles of records and cassettes laden with soul, blues, funk, disco, jazz, classical and even some rock of various genres. There were also lots of comedy albums (that I wasn't really supposed to listen to)... but as I looked closer, I found Hip Hop albums mixed in the treasure trove as well. I didn't know Terry had Sugar Hill Gang with "Rapper's Delight" and I didn't know Joseph already had Fatback Band's "King Tim III" (which was actually released a few months before "Rapper's Delight" and thus is considered the first commercially released rap record). Of course they both had Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five on vinyl... the funny thing was, although vinyl was fine, I gravitated towards the cassettes because they were not only more portable, but recordable as well. Plus, the record players I was able to use were not necessarily the best quality (ever try to scratch on a Fisher-Price record player? Yeah, don't bother), and Mom wasn't about to let me use hers, so again I borrowed whatever I could get my hands on to either listen or record.

I constructed intricate metal coat-hanger towers along the mantle in my bedroom towards the window so that I could get the best radio signal coming from the south (I picked up more than city signals at night) and then pressed whatever cassette player I had to the speaker of whatever radio I had to record the late night weekend rap shows I remembered hearing from time-to-time when I was a little younger.  My niece Anese (Nikki) would join me on occasion to listen in and help fine-tune the radio signal.  The first rap radio show I remember listening to fully was Mr. Magic on 107.5 WBLS, but soon enough I encountered 98.7 Kiss FM with Chuck Chillout on Fridays and Kool DJ Red Alert on Saturdays. I was peripherally aware of 92 KTU from earlier years of listening with my brother, but the KTU I knew disappeared in 1985; the same year I began to formally build a Hip Hop collection.

It didn't take long for the rest of my family to figure out what I was doing in that regard; within the next couple of years I was given even more albums and cassettes to add to my collection (Kurtis Blow, Ultramagnetic MCs and Boogie Down Productions were Christmas gifts), along with my ritual taping of Chuck Chillout and Red Alert (I took over for Joseph when he got a place of his own). Mom was tolerant to a point with my new-found obsession; she did complain about Public Enemy's very loud and repetitive hooks on their "Nation of Millions..." album for example, but I'm almost certain she was intrigued by some of the sounds and lyrics I was listening to.  Even Dorothy had occasion to catch one of the lyrics of a different song and repeat it (though more confounded more than anything else, let's say she wasn't necessarily a fan), and her off-work fashion sense could have been influenced to a certain degree by the prevailing R&B/Hip Hop fashion (there is a picture of us of which I noted that she had the perfect B-Girl stance).

The best part about this era was the proliferation of music stores, big and small, where I would eventually start buying and collecting vinyl and cassette albums of all the artists I was listening to on Fridays and Saturdays. Yes, vinyl and cassettes coexisted to a large degree in large part because the Walkman and boomboxes made cassettes viable, but vinyl was still popular and respected not only for the familiar "warmth" and dust ticks/pops, but also because they were an integral part of making the music and the sound effects that were genuinely part of the culture. It was out of this milieu that Cut-Up City was born. But I'll discuss Cut-Up City in another post...

To Be Continued!

Friday, February 20, 2015

PathMark's Pizza Is Pretty Good, Actually...

I know, I've probably said it before, but it bears repeating. Via Roma, the premium brand of Italian pasta and sauce products distributed by A&P and it's subsidiary supermarkets (PathMark, Waldbaums, etc.) is pretty doggone good for store pizza. Store pizza, you say? Aren't I a certified snob when it comes to pizza? Yes, and that's why you have to trust me on this one. Sometimes you're in an area where you just can't get great pizza, so you either do without or diminish your expectations to what you consider an acceptable level and make do. I happened to try this pizza on a whim a few years ago and found it to be beyond acceptable, so I've been singing it's praises ever since for people faced with limited options:

Do you like Domino's or Papa Johns or Pizza Hut or (ugh) Lil Caesar's? Well if you try Via Roma's, can you accept the fact you will hate those other brands forever? 

Just try it and let me know what you think.  I don't know why the topic of pizza has been trending with me lately; my friend Imir recently pegged me on a post of his on Facebook in which he proudly indicated my snobbery with pizza from back when we first met in 1990.  Another friend, Chris, with whom I attended school from elementary-onward, traced my snobbery to the fact that I was graced with the efforts of fine pizza making from the Italians of the Hudson Valley. My sister and quite a few others have recounted the many establishments we inhabited or encountered that made good pizza as we were growing up.  When I went to college in DC, I was suddenly at a loss to find what I deemed good pizza; it was either Sbarros, frozen pizza or take your chances with the local establishments (and chances were very slim).  Needless to say, I further developed my own cooking skills after exhausting my options with the school cafeteria (a major disappointment for a heralded Black university), local take out (I despised McDonald's for a long time after DC) and dorm-style cooking (my specialties where potato-chips and cheese on radiator-toasted bread and what I referred to as "Arroz con Pollo" which was more gumbo than anything else).  I even invented a pizza-stick like substance that contained mozzarella cheese, breaded chicken patties and bits of toast microwaved in Tupperware and sliced into strips or Sicilian pizza-style squares.  What you have to do to get by.  There was also Chinese take-out, which I've always had a thing for and was actually pretty good down there, but you'll never believe what I found at Chinese take-out joint on 14th Street NW near the place I last lived in DC: pizza.  Good pizza, in fact.

Nobody would believe that a Chinese food place could possibly make good pizza, no matter what part of the country you were from, but I stumbled upon it and after a few weeks of skepticism while ordering my usual pork fried rice-and-ribs, I tried out the pizza.  Wowzers, I I was taken aback by how decent it was.  Great, no, but better than Dominos? Hell yeah! After some considerable and similar skepticism, my housemates also tried the pizza and came to the same conclusion.  It was a surprise hit. Now, I don't know if the place still exists (not likely), but I would bet that it was more or less hormones and deprivation that drove me to like that pizza back then.  Not so with Via Roma.

The best thing I can say about it is that it's better than the chain store pizzas we see nowadays.  If that's not saying much, then let me also say it does give some local parlors a run for their money, which is considerable when you factor in the price of ingredients, the labor and other miscellaneous overhead, not to mention delivery and tip if you go that route; with Via Roma you're getting a fairly similar pie for more than half the price.  It's fresh, not frozen (big difference!) and they claim to use premium quality ingredients, so the taste is better than what you would expect from the store.  

Trust me, I'm not trying to shill for them (I'm getting nothing for endorsing this brand), but I present it as a viable alternative to the Dominos and Papa Johns and Pizza Huts and Lil Caesars of the world that continue to rip you off with suspect pizza and pasta products.  Save your money; you can get two pizzas for what those places charge and have a better experience.  I say all this because I was just at PathMark and paying for my items; the cashier saw the pizza and asked me if it was any good.  I looked her in the eye and asked her, "Do you like Dominos?" When she said yes, I said, "If you tried this pizza, could you live with hating Dominos for the rest of your life?"

That's a pizza snob for you >;)

Post Edit: I looked on Google Maps to see if I could trace my old address and the stores I went to; the address is there, but renovated and new buildings have gone up on more than half of the block.  In fact, 14th Street looks brand new; none of the empty lots from the riots of the 60s stand empty; in place are tall apartment/loft buildings.  I welcome the revitalization of the area, as long as the people who have long lived here also benefited from the cleanup (but we know how gentrification goes).  Needless to say, the take-out place is also gone.