Friday, June 22, 2007

Preference for African American or Overweight?

I recently watched a talk show with Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink, who presented a computerized test on race.

How do you stack up on other sensitive topics such as religion, age, sexuality, or weight? Launch the following website and find out: Project Implicit.

I don't like the way it's designed. Perhaps it's just me. You're asked to go fast, which in itself might cause mistakes. It's as if the test seeks racist results.

My results: "Your data suggest a moderate automatic preference for African American compared to European American." This wasn't scientific. Before and I after this test, I will continue to see people as individuals, rather than a collective group.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

New and Noteworthy

I recently came across three websites of interest while flipping through an old issue of Essence Magazine while my Adult Basic Education students took their TABE (Test of Adult Basic Education) given by New York State.

The first site I'd heard about on Oprah when Susan Taylor was a guest, Essence Cares; the goal of this site is mentoring. "
Our critical call to action simply asks this: that every able Black adult put his or her guiding hand on a vulnerable young person's shoulder. So many of our young people-our treasure and our future-are in peril. At this moment, the negative forces claiming our children are more powerful than our community's and country's efforts to secure them."

The second is Victoria Rowell's organization for foster children. Why this site? One of my aunts was a foster parent to several children when I was growing up. I saw at an early age the emotional, spiritual, and physical abuse some displaced or abandoned children endure.

The final site is Wallpaper Magazine, because I like the look of it, and am considering sending in a query letter or three.

I hope you all enjoy the sites, or get involved if so inclined.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Blogging for Dollars

When I first began blogging, I never thought about making money. It was to complement my then morning pages from the Artist's Way. It's faster and easier to type on a keyboard than to write longhand.

A few months into my blogging, I responded to an online ad to join a "blogging network" by a local would-be businessman that handled the administrative technical aspects of the blog in exchange for my creating original content.

That didn't last for long because I suspected he was not forthcoming with the profits, however small they might have been. We did our best to part amicably after he accused me of a few things over the phone and via e-mail. He gave me a few days to transfer my content for safekeeping.

Two years later, blogging for profit has soared, and people have become celebrities, published authors (blooks), and multimillionaires.

I came across this site, Problogger, a few days ago, and after forcing my lower jaw shut, wondered what I could do to generate income on this blog, or one of my other online outlets. A friend recently pointed me to this article from Business 2.0 Magazine, Blogging for Dollars. Take a look and see if there's anything of interest or use to you.


Friday, June 15, 2007

Should Writers Work For Free?

Long before I realized that I wanted to pursue writing, editing, and teaching as a possible second career, I was always clear on that there would be a learning curve where I wouldn't earn as much as seasoned professionals.

I've earned money since I was fifteen years old. My first job was as a busboy/porter at a regional chain restaurant in Texas. I worked hard during the summer and was compensated for my labor. Why then, after training and rough starts, should I not receive compensation as a writer? There is no reason for magazines, corporations, and laymen seeking my services to expect me to do it out of the goodness of my heart. Goodness will not pay for my ConEd, Time Warner Cable, or weekly trips to various grocery stores.

It's always troubling to speak to someone on the phone or via e-mail and know in my gut that they're cheap and have no respect for artists. Worse is when I visit their office or apartment with nice furnishings, and oh, don't gawk too long at the huge flat panel TV affixed to the wall, just above the fireplace. It's then that I want to prop a rocket launcher on my shoulder and aim at the center of their being.

There's usually a debate in the Writing Gigs or Writing/Editing section on Craigslist on this very subject. It usually figures prominently in other writing forums such as MediaBistro.

Is it insensitivity or trying to get over on writers or editors that causes those who seek our services to insult those of us who earn either a full or part-time living creating and editing press releases, artist biographies, or movie and book reviews?

I especially love to read posts from people seeking writers to write their "amazing, wonderful, shouldn't be overlooked" life stories now that memoirs have become popular. Or those who have great screenplay ideas that must be written this instant, and if the script sells, compensation will follow. Pardon me if I raise my right brow, smirk on my face, as I stifle a guffaw.

At the end of the day, it's a personal choice to work for free. Do I think it sullies the credibility and professionalism of all writers? No. There are gullible people born every minute of the day, and those who'll take advantage of them soon after the doctor has tapped their bottom, signaling their arrival into the world.

Am I my fellow writer's keeper? No. We can learn from the mistakes and miscalculations of others posted in forums and blasted in newsgroups: Writer Beware! This company doesn't pay. This company promised pay, and didn't deliver!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

A few couples I know have broken up in recent weeks, and I wonder if it's the heat that made them cross, or if the relationship ran its course after ten, seven, or five years, respectively.

Relationships can be difficult to maintain in an image-obsessed society of perfect abs, derrière, and polished white teeth. Is anyone to blame? Or should everyone be concerned about health, weight, and nutrition?

There's usually an emptiness leading up to the final decision to separate, followed by packing suitcases, giving away shared items, and alerting family and friends of the inevitable, irreconcilable breakup.

What precipitates a breakup? Some couples are seemingly impenetrable against outside attacks, wandering eyes, and occasional boredom and annoyances that are a part of every relationship. Are the couples that breakup not trying hard enough to hold onto each other, salvage the relationship?

When a couple has been together for more than two or three years, the shared history should account for something. There are any number of books in the Self-Help section of Barnes & Noble or Borders Bookstore. I have four such books in my collection: Life Strategies, Self Matters, Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, and thoughts without a thinker. I've read two of them, and never made the time to read the other two. Why? I don't know. There's only so much internalization and self-reflection I can take before I'm tempted to shutdown and hide in a dark room.

I imagine striking out alone after living together for years is painful. Several couples in my apartment building have done so since I've lived here, remnants of their lives together stacked in the lobby for all to see and rummage through like an African vulture picking at a carcass after a pack of lions have feasted. Their lives together frozen in time in the outdated blue dresser drawer and the unopened yellow latex gloves.

I tend to think of country songs by Dolly Parton, Shania Twain, or Loretta Lynn, or court cases when people breakup. But more so than not, heartbreak usually spirals us into depression, sloth, and one too many bad tearjerker movies on cable TV. Pass the tissue, buttered popcorn, and Klondike ice cream bar.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Writing Quotes

"Many books require no thought from those who read them, and for a very simple reason; they made no such demand upon those who wrote them."

--Charles Caleb Colton

"[W]e can get away with things in children's books that nobody in the adult world ever can because the assumption is that the audience is too innocent to pick it up. And in truth they're the only audience that does pick it up."

--Maurice Sendak

"You've got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell."

--F. Scott Fitzgerald

"My advice to a budding literary critic would be as follows. Learn to distinguish banality. Remember that mediocrity thrives on 'ideas.' Beware of the modish message. Ask yourself if the symbol you have detected is not your own footprint. Ignore allegories. By all means place the 'how' above the 'what' but do not let it be confused with the 'so what.' Rely on the sudden erection of your dorsal hairs. Do not drag in Freud at this point. All the rest depends on personal talent."

--Vladimir Nabokov

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Almost Homeless, Nearly Murdered

I was almost homeless at an early age because my mother and I couldn't, wouldn't, and refused to get along when I was in high school and leading up to my first year in college. Looking back on it now, I'm surprised that it ever came to my living in the YMCA in Downtown Houston, given the size of my immediate and extended family.

When I think back to the incident that resulted in the deadline my mother gave me to vacate, I draw a blank. It could've been anything that caused a riff between us. We fought about my attending a predominantly white high school, my having a phone in my bedroom, money I spent on clothes I bought with my earnings, or her unrealistic idea that she was losing me, and I my identity, to a white majority.

I didn't think about losing my identity while packing the contents of my life up to seventeen in boxes and suitcases. I thought about which family member or friend of family I'd call to offer refuge from my mother's wrath.

As I stood in my bedroom with a solitary calendar on the wall--I'd removed all other wall and door adornments--I flashed back to the previous time my mother put my younger brother and I out of the house. An underage female cousin was in trouble, and my mother felt it her duty to shelter her during her time of need. She'd always wanted a girl, and this was the closest she'd come in rescuing my cousin prior to her procedure. (This reminds me of Daisy's monologue from Baby with the Bathwater by Christopher Durang. In it, his mother always wanted a girl, or a bestseller.)

That episode unfolded with my stepping in to prevent my mother from what I thought would paralyze my younger brother during one of her famous fire and brimstone whippings. We had to iron our school clothes a few days, if not a week, in advance. We were ironing and fooling around when she tore into the bedroom intent on chastising him for something, other, or another. He fell back onto a bed of wire hangers (pardon the Mommie Dearest references), and I interrupted her swing. "Stop, you're going to hurt him."

I thought about one of the hooks working its way into his spine and paralyzing him. She thought I was defying her on principle. She huffed, puffed, and had the apartment not been made of bricks, would've blown the room off the foundation.

Off she went into her bedroom, arms flailing, jaws full of air; my cousin lurking just out of sight. She regrouped, returned, and told us to get out. She forced us out of the house, barefoot, sniffling, coughing, crying. (She was always worried about what the neighbors thought, so she ordered us back inside to put on shoes, get our belongings, and leave.)

Back inside, I called every relative with a phone and a car who we thought would come to our rescue. No one volunteered, but one aunt offered, "Your mother is crazy, chile, I'm not coming over there."

After exhausting all family members, I decided to call her then best friend, may she RIP, who came to pick us up without a second thought about her friendship with my mother. She knew my mother's temperament, that she was wrong, and she was our last hope that night.

Black garbage bags stuffed with clothes, shoes, and anything that fit on top, we waited at the end of the apartment walkway for our rescuer. I recall the look on her face as she peeked through the curtains: Damn, they got away.They don't need me.
Many years later, it was a Mexican friend who lived in the neighborhood, and attended the same predominantly white high school, that backed his black TransAm (Camaro?) underneath the dining room window and helped me load my boxes and suitcases in the trunk en route to a high school friend's house. I'd called a friend from theatre class to ask for advice, help. His father answered and informed me that he wasn't home, but he was more concerned with my emotional state (crying, blubbering). Without ever laying eyes on me, knowing nothing about me, he invited me to stay at their apartment.

Mother had always feared I'd grow up white, which was genetically impossible in my case, but there I was living like a foster child with a white classmate and his father. I stayed there for about two months before I made the next stop to the YMCA. One of my godmothers, may she, too, RIP, pulled up in a her customized burgundy and white Cadillac, and off I went to register for a room.

I remember the residence hall as large, dimly-lit, and not a place I wanted to be, but had no other options at that time. I didn't think to ask, or my godmother didn't offer me a place to stay. I don't recall if it was from a place to strengthen my resolve and independence.


We see a young African American male, late teens, sitting in a darkened room, surrounded by boxes, suitcases, with assorted clothes strewn about the bed and faux leather chair. A wall-mounted TV plays in the background as he surveys the room, perhaps wondering how he ended up in a place like this.


A Rubenesque Mexican maid approaches the young African American male having breakfast, stops, looks around room before offering a verbal warning.

¡Ten cuidado, mijo!

Huh? Oh, okay.

As it turned out, the resident in the room to the left of mine had been robbed and murdered the night before. The motherly maid knew I was new, and that I was in the adjacent room. I think I'd been there two or three days by then. I found out from the murmurs and mumblings of other residents in the hallways or near the showers what had actually happened. It could've been me lying in a pool of blood, staring at my body from just above.

I immediately called my godmother. She picked me up in her Caddy, and off we went to her beautiful home miles away from the scene of the crime. I've never forgotten the maid's facial expression and voice. She responded to me as if I were her child. I'll always be grateful for my angels in life.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Writer's Schizophrenia

I'm working on a series of short stories that deal with troubled, dysfunctional, or characters on the fringe of society. My former life as an actor has prepared me to create characters from the ground up, during improvisational exercises, but acting was a group activity. Writing is a solitary act, and as such can leave me vulnerable to voices, sights, sounds, and memories that build the foundation of fictional characters and the world they lead me to create.

I'd never given much thought to depression or mental illness as an artist despite the number of people who suffer. I won't say afflicted, perhaps because it sounds biblical or like an elective surgery. However, what I've felt time and again comes close to Hayley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, when he says, "I see dead people."

I don't really see dead people, but I can connect to and identify with characters young and old, rich or people, black or white, as I sit at the computer or when one of them wakes me in the middle of the night.

I've also discovered that it's harder to murder your darlings in writing. One such female character refuses to die. She dances on the edge of my reality, having taken her lessons from Salome or Cleopatra. She wasn't working in the story no matter how hard I tried to accommodate her and the other characters. The only solution is to showcase her in a new story in all her cunning, deceptive glory.

It's my hope that readers will identify with the characters I create on the page and screen. I don't wish the creative process on the uninitiated.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Life is oftentimes a series of tests that can be hard to overcome-- nightmares, emotional scars, and hiding out in your apartment or at your best friend's are left in the wake of said tests, trials, and hand-wringing troubles.

I've always taken refuge in my grandmother's strength, will to live, and spirituals as a way to heal what might ails. Nothing could go wrong when Granny was on the scene. Granny was there to impede our parents from spanking us when she thought we deserved a second or third chance. Staying overnight at her house was mandatory on the avoid a sneak attack in the middle of the night or the next day.

Over the years granny's strength has waned, her eyesight not what it used to be, and there now great-grandchildren scattered throughout Houston and surrounding subdivisions. Her will to live remains, even if her body contradicts her. I'd love to live as long as she has and have a similar will to persevere at ninety and beyond.

People have come and gone in my life, and I try to be grateful for having met them and shared experiences in all forms good, bad, and those I try hard to forget, but reside at the edge of my sanity.

I travel back in my mind to pleasurable memories when the bogeyman, devil, or the rude neighbor downstairs bangs out the same simple rhythm that I played in kindergarten on my wooden chopsticks. I remember Granny pushing me down the street in the wheelbarrow before sunrise in my footed pajamas, her walking along with one of my aunts to every daytime performance at my junior high, or her giving my first drink of coffee, cooled, on a porcelain saucer when I was a child.

Music has a similar soothing and escapist effect on me, be it Billie Holiday's blues, Marvin Gaye or Aretha Franklin's soul, Jessye Norman singing Wagner, Purcell, or Schubert. Add to that a hot-as-I-can-stand-it bath with Epsom Salt and wintergreen alcohol, Granny's recipe for anything that bothers you, as the CD's shuffle as I fall asleep with a towel as a pillow in my clawfoot tub.

I remember when I first heard Jessye Norman's voice. I was still living with my mother and two younger brothers. I was alone at home, and had turned on the TV while I prepared something to eat -- the local PBS station. Her voice rose from the TV and over the sofa and latched onto me. The closest I'd ever come to classical by that point in my life was being forced to take private piano lessons as a child. I made it as far as third grade in piano before being pardoned by mother. Anyway, where I grew up and in my family, little black boys didn't listen to opera. Piano was different, because it was something my mother had wanted for me, for a foolish reason to impress her boyfriend at the time.

As an adult I don't care what other people think of me as African American male. I've only my faith and coping skills (see above) to get me over the hiccups and through the challenges that are part of life on earth.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Child Prodigy

My earliest memory of performing took place on stage in kindergarten when I played wooden chopsticks. My mother told me recently that she'd seen my kindergarten teacher in a retail store, and that she asked about me. She was very nice and kind to all her students.

I can see the classrooms and hallways in my grade school in Houston, and think back to my teachers and administrators who first encouraged me when seemingly no one would or could. In my mind's eye now, the desks and classrooms seem so small and remote.

I don't remember my classmates as overtly competitive, but there were encouraged rivalries among us.

There gospel-singing, tambourine-playing sisters in the glee club, one of which audition for the Houston Idol. The younger of the two sisters, I felt, could have become a household name with professional training and mentoring. She felt her voice was a gift from God, and was best utilized in church.

I don't recall any others with artistic gifts from God. The director of the glee club back then believed in and encouraged us equally. He was determined to get as many of us out of the neighborhood and into better schools and universities.

I can't recall if I performed solo prior to playing piano in my bid to be Mr. Hilliard in 4th grade, when I swore I wouldn't cry as winners were announced. Perhaps it was then that I formed my low opinion of pageants. The king and queen were the teachers' pets. The comedienne classmate and the budding athlete who became a minister would have been more interesting choices.

I didn't come into my own as an actor until junior high, thanks to the opportunities of my 7th grade English teacher who took over the drama department. The previous year was when I learned that I could be replaced in a performance if I locked myself in my dressing room like a spoiled opera star. It was none too pleasing to sit in audience and watch someone else walk through a role I knew I could sell.

I was the default male lead in school plays for two years, I just had to pick up the script and attend rehearsals. I last knew my drama coach as Dr. Owens, but I think she's since remarried. I owe a debt of gratitude to her and a few people at church for putting me front and center on stage or behind a podium to read the bulletin announcements, scriptures, or performing God's Trombones or The Judgment Day by James Weldon Johnson.

High school brought with it new challenges and head-on racism in a predominantly white student body. I transferred from an all-black high school at the urging of my grade school and junior high school glee club director/cultural attaché to all things upwardly mobile.

I knew I was black before I hopped on the yellow banana and was bussed clear across town to the tony River Oaks, but somehow didn't feel my blackness until I was surrounded by white classmates, which was a first for me. It's different having two or three white teachers in a black school who chose to work in the district, and eating lunch Indian-style on the front lawn of a new school, a few feet away from a country club that I imagined had restricted membership.

The new high school was filled with false prophets, spoiled rich kids, and a few who were probably child prodigies in the family and/or respective grade schools. I acknowledge that I was in a different body of water, but I wished the drama school had cast me and other non-white students in lead roles, rather than being relegated to bit players and servants.

One of my fondest memories came from from one of the redneck coaches, "Boy, you can act! Keep on doing what you doing." He'd seen me audition in the auditorium for a role that I wasn't given the opportunity to bring to life even though I was right for the part. The Northwestern-educated drama coach didn't believe in colorblind casting.

When I landed a few print modeling gigs, local commercials, and a national McDonald's commercial, I wanted to poke out my tongue at the overacting son of the famous televangelist, and the saccharine-sweet default female lead.

I'm glad I didn't turn out like Bette Davis's character in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Imagine.