Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Random Attack by Teen Gang

This is a broadcast e-mail I sent my mailing list:

Dear All,

Please be forewarned this holiday season if you see a gang of African American teens approaching you that they may up to no good. I was sucker punched and knocked to the ground one block from my apartment Tuesday night (9 p.m.) after leaving a coffee shop.

After I collected myself, my neighbor called the police. It turns out that there's a gang or perhaps several small gangs of teens who are randomly attacking, robbing, and chasing people during the day and well into the night. The cops know about this gang (these gangs) and can't seem to do anything about the problem because of the nature of the attacks. The cops believe that this is a gang initiation of sorts.

They have their routine choreographed. The attacker is in the first part of the swarm. S/he attacks, and runs away while the 'second string' feigns comfort/disbelief. If said victim does not fall for the ploy, the 'third string' tries to continue the intimidation. What saved me was an oncoming livery cab driver and car that happened by. All fled toward Frederick Douglass Boulevard.

I'll be fine after a night's rest and a shot of whiskey. Who am I kidding! Two or three shots of whiskey. My head's pounding and my ear's ringing as I type this e-mail.

I don't know if they're working Uptown only . . .

* * *

My first instinct was to turn around and walk back inside the coffee shop, or to cross into the street. I didn't want to be noticed by that many rowdy black kids. I wanted to be invisible. I wanted not to have stereotypical or racist thoughts. I should've have followed my gut instinct. Had I listened to the still, small voice inside, I'd not be sitting with a towel doused with alcohol and filled with ice against my head in between sentences.

I saw fire engine rage as I pulled myself to my feet. I imagined I had a gun to shoot into the crowd as haphazardly as they chose me as their next victim. I imagined gutting the obnoxious person who lurched forward to spit on me, but missed, with a serrated knife the same way my uncle cleaned the fish we caught in Galveston.

I looked over to see a livery cab driver and another car waiting for the signal to change. I wondered where were the cabs or other passersby when I wanted or needed them. I felt alone in the darkened area that used to house a hardware store and bogeda.

I've lived in New York for many years and nothing violent has happened before now. Immaturity and violence knows no race, creed, or nationality, yet I was offended as an African American by these kids who have no regard for life or personal property.

As I rounded the corner to my building, it felt like a scene from a movie. I was floating above myself, sure that I was in fact dreaming or imagining a scene to write in a future fictional work. My reflection in the first floor lobby mirror brought me back to reality. I was indoors, safe. Fears of being outside alone after dark had been realized in a matter of seconds within steps of my home.

I'll recover from this episode, a bruise for a day or two, but wiser for having survived it. I wasn't robbed, stomped, or disfigured. Days before Thanksgiving, I am thankful not for turkey, ham, or sweets, but for my health and life.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Writing Group Moderator Blues

When I originally set out to form a writer's group, I didn't expect I'd have difficulty recruiting other well-read, skilled, and dedicated fiction writers. Over the years, it's been anything but. My earliest attempt to form a writer's group was a mixed genre of aspiring fiction, playwrights, and people who didn't quite have a handle on screenwriting.

We alternated meetings in our apartments in the various boroughs, except Staten Island and the Bronx. Mainly because none of the assembled lived in either place, and I personally wouldn't have trekked over to Staten Island (sorry to the Joeys and Veronicas over there).

Those early meetings were filled with neophytes and people who will most likely not publish because they had too much going on in their lives. People with razor sharp tongues ready to rip fellow writers apart, and their manuscripts fit for lining my cat's litter box.

I cooled on the idea of writing groups and concentrated on full time work. Perhaps writing groups weren't for me. So I enrolled in a writing correspondence course to work one-on-one with a writing mentor/editor to shape my novel in progress. That felt sterile and distant. I wanted to sit in the same space with a person discussing my writing and see their face, not climb the stairs, trying to imagine the sound of their voice. I needed a human interaction. Not the USPS as an intermediary.

I think my need for human interaction is borne out of my having grown up in a large southern family. I trace all my strengths and shortcomings to these origins. Aren't most things a double-edged sword? Too much of something can be bad, too little, not enough. Or honing in on me specifically, I'm an oldest child, raised to take care of my younger brothers in my mother's absence when she returned to work.

When I couldn't contain myself anymore, I created a name, bylaws, rules, and structure. I would create a writing group that would last more than three or four months. I would create a writing community that would be the envy of other writing groups. I grew up in Texas, one of the beauty pageant capitals of the south, I knew how to smile and wave. My god-sister had won more beauty pageants in a twenty mile radius, so I knew a thing or two about public relations and winning people over. But a New York crowd. Yankees.

Four years ago Morningside Writers Group was born. Back then, a website was but a glimmer in my eye, as was a screenwriting division. The graphic novel division is new as well.

Along the way, I've met lackluster people who couldn't get out of their own way. I have been publicly attacked from online postings, or after someone has applied to the group and wasn't accepted, they return to the original place of the posting and post a tirade: Who they think they are? I have an MFA! My response. But you can't write your way out of a corner. Your writing is hackneyed, and your personality during the two-way interview was foul and superior.

I've met my share of good people with bad timing. Not exactly salt-of-the earth, but good intentions to write and improve. It can be a gamble bringing five strangers together to workshop fiction, screenplays, or graphic novels. I only moderate/participate in the fiction and screenwriting groups. Someone else has the job of sheriff in the graphic novel group.

My chief complaint is that I'd like to find and build a community of serious writers in the New York City area, not transients, hobbyists, or people with secret agendas.

There are several competing ads online for writing groups, which doesn't frighten me, I know
who we are as a group, and what we offer. Bring on the competition. What concerns me is that I've become a father or caretaker to adults, sometimes foregoing things that I want or need to do to ensure the smooth operation of the group. I didn't set out to be a wet nurse. Only to coordinate the meeting places and times, workshop, improve, and get published and produced.

Time to find my way back to my original goal. Time to cut the umbilical cords, separate the baby from the bathwater and allow nature to take its course.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Medical Mysteries

I began having unexplained headaches about one month ago, and as of today, my neurologist and I can't isolate the reason or reasons for the pain that starts at the base of my neck, and floats throughout my head and temple during the course of the day. This pain, more like a persistent humming doesn't bother me while I'm sleeping, only when I'm awake.

I originally thought it was an extreme case of caffeine withdrawal after I went cold turkey and stopped drinking Café Bustelo, but that apparently isn't (wasn't the case). I'm on my second prescription, and still no relief in sight. The last draw would be a spinal tap, which I'm not rushing to do.

It seems every few years my body breaks down only to build itself up again. People have joked recently that I'm getting old, family members have chimed in that there's this, that, and the other in the family tree (which I don't care to hear, but alert doctors of all the same). At the end of the day or break of dawn, I want the strength I had when was eighteen or nineteen, and not feel like I'm older mentally and physically than my eighty-nine year-old grandmother.

I've never thought I was invincible. Expressionless people in white labcoats can bring the most optimistic person down to earth. I have met and been prodded by so many doctors and technicians in recent weeks, that someone should pay me!

Faith, religion, and God comes to mind during these visits and exams. I was raised to believe that God does not want His children to suffer sickness and pain . . . that the devil is behind all mental, emotional, and physical attacks. I wish the devil would pull up stakes and leave me alone. I'm sick and tired of being sick, tired, irritable, and restless. The battleground is in the mind, and I must admit sometimes I lose small battles along the way when I've curled up in the fetal position in bed rather than leave the apartment for a walk around the neighorhood.

My current roommate has blind faith. Before every test I've taken recently, he's said: You'll be fine. God will take care of you. I've had an MRI and an MRA on my head/brain, both came back negative. There are no signs of aneurism, or other ominous, multi-syllable conditions or diseases that are causing the headache-like symptoms. I have a genetic history of migraines which I outgrew. The neurologist thinks it might be a low-grade chronic migraine. My question: Why does it only bother me while I'm awake? Next question: Why do I feel sporadic tingling in my hands and legs?

I feel as if I've fallen off the wall next to Humpty Dumpty and no one's around to put me back together.

Through it all, I'm doing my best to keep my chin and spirits up -- it's a challenge keeping the boogey man (devil) at bay while in transit to doctor's appointments. It doesn't help that the primary care physician shows no interest in my medical care, but thankfully the referred specialists have better bedside manner.

I need answers to the question of what ails me. Is it all in my head, or is there something really the matter? Is it time I start thinking about moving out of Manhattan to a place with a babbling brook and wild deer because the people, pace, and stress of city living have become too much for the southerner?

Decisions to make, but at least now I've a new pair a glasses to help me see clearly down the road ahead.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Will Work For Food & Benefits

Why must we work fulltime just to have medical benefits in America? I've never lived in Canada or Portugal, but I know that both countries have free medical care regardless. Why can't the same exist in the richest country (on paper) in the world? Capitalism.

I think as I get older, medical benefits have become more important. I didn't have many aches or pains in my twenties as I seem to have in my thirties. I'm not crying wolf or that the sky is falling, but there is a problem in America when senior citizens play Russian roulette with expensive prescriptions, or when they feel they have no choice but to eat pet food to afford their medications.

Is it idealistic to want a rewarding life in America? I think not. If this is the land of opportunity, why are there so many homeless people living under bridges, in abandoned buildings, and scrounging for food in dumpsters and along outdoor cafés?

Is the argument based soley on rich versus poor? I wasn't born rich, but wasn't dirt poor growing up. I wore clean clothes to school and church, and began working to buy my own clothing that my mother wouldn't. I'm not advocating handouts or rigged lottery tickets, but a redistribution of resources and power.

I know I'm blessed living in America, witnessed by any number of PBS documentaries and specials showing the hardships of Africa, Brazil, and Eastern Europe.

The American workforce can be a land of nepotism, favoritism, and personality contests. The most qualified applicant doesn't always get the job. The position might go to the first or next minority or disabled candidate.

What's the heart of my argument? I have often worked for sustenance and medical benefits, rather than personal interest and professional growth. I've worked in several industries because I happened upon a restaurant, classified ad, or terrified I'd have to call my family and return to my birthplace. I've worked as a software trainer, helpdesk agent, rollerskating host in an outdoor café, an office temp, and a retail salesperson, none of which caused me to spring out of bed and dash to work.

In recent years I've freelanced from home as an English as Second Language Tutor, Essay Writing Instructor, and Accent Reduction and Vocal Clarity Coach. I enjoy these hats, but wish I had a professional space to hold classes rather than at my kitchen table. The private workshops are exhausting, but I'm happy. It's not stable work because students filter in and out at will. I had to incorporate a contract to ensure a steady stream of income because people can be flaky.

Maybe I belong in a different country and era, a time and place where teachers and artists were valued. Where wealthy citizens and governments commissioned operas, novels, and plays.

It's not that I don't want to work, I, as many other writers, only wish it wasn't so difficult to sustain a living as an artist. Sometimes I feel otherworldly, like a character in The House of the Spirits or One Hundred Years of Solitude, two magical realism novels.

In deciding to work for food and benefits, I might be faced with a decision that might alter research, writing, and editing time. That shouldn't be an issue because as the previous post asks and answers, I know why I write. I must refine my process to yield better results. I must broaden my scope to include other forms of writing, not strictly fiction, screenplays, and personal essays.

The inherent fear in working for food and benefits, is that I could teeter of the precipice of losing myself to a job. I refuse to become a bitter or stalled artist, sulking in a corner office because I've a wife and family.

I know I've creative and editorial work to contribute to the world. I must place myself under a microscope and figure out what or who stands in my way of publishing success in this age of self-published novels being reprinted by reputable publishing houses.

Should I self-publish my short stories that I workshop in Morningside Fiction Group? Should I set up a table on West 125th in Harlem and hawk my book as many others before me have done? Should I ride the New York City subways to sell the aforementioned collection like the people who brandish alkaline batteries, giant Snickers and M&M's?

I know I will have to stop stressing about food and medical benefits and concentrate on researching, reading, and completing more creative works. Stress causes health problems, and without medical benefits as a freelancer, it's a double-whammy. One note on freelancing and medical benefits. I responded to an online ad for free medical benefits through the Family Health Plus Program sponsored by the current New York Governor. I was told that I had to be destitute or close to qualify and be ultimately approved. I think it was a waste of time because I've not heard a peep from the commissioned sales rep or the agency in three months.

I've applied for so many jobs in recent months just to have medical benefits. I can deal with a lower salary because I have a roommate and decent savings and investments. I've received few responses because I've been out of fulltime work for several years. My skill sets aren't what they used to be, and I know my tolerance for office politics has decreased.

Do I believe in energy and thought projection? Have I cast myself too high too soon, and haven't done the grunt work to get there? No bitterness or envy implied, but everyone can't be a wunderkind like Zadie Smith, Jonathan Lethem, or Dave Eggers for that matter. No need to be a wunderkind, I'll be myself, with minor and major tweaking where needed.

Will work for three square meals a day, full medical and dental benefits, and a corporate-sponsored gym membership (to look good for the book jacket photo). Is that too much to ask? I hope not.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Why Do I Write?

I have gone through several incarnations as a writer. I didn't set out to be a New York writer, but I am on my way to becoming just that once I replace bad habits with good habits. More on those later.

I can create people and places they didn't exist before I take pen to paper, smelling the blue ink as it flows in cursive letters into my notebook, or appear on the monitor as I type on the computer keyboard. Distraction can be an e-mail or website away, so it's best to close all other programs and web browsers.

I believe most creative people use our lives for the sake of art or commerce, and the sooner I accept that, the sooner I'll become a published fiction writer. I'm not a prude, but I think there's something tawdry or unsavory about prostituting my family and friends. My family is rich in conflict, strife, and scandal. Would it be so bad if I were to change the names of a few cousins, aunts, uncles, and write and publish short stories, novellas, and screenplays?

My mother has encouraged me to write a family saga. My aunt has threatened to write it if I don't get my act together and commit pen to paper, keystrokes to screen.

I originally began writing to create believable characters that I'd bring to life on the screen and stage, but along the way my focus wavered and I lost sight of my motivation. Typical actor's response: What's my motivation for this scene?

I wanted to travel along similar paths as Chazz Palminteri, Spike Lee, Robert Townsend, or John Singleton, but my personal tastes and sensibilities are more in step with the racial and social commentaries of Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, Chinua Achebe, and Edward P. Jones.

I have written artist profiles, personal biographies, dance and film reviews, but they use a different muscle. I have several creative works in progress that I need to complete as I keep life's challenges under control. I envy Miss Oates who seems to crank out novels every few months while teaching at Princeton University.

I write to clear my head of the faces, voices, and experiences that have haunted and inspired me over the years. I write to record my thoughts and impressions of the world. I write to explore my boundaries.

I'm not the first, nor will I be the last artist who thinks the work isn't good enough for public viewing and consumption. I'm not an exhibitionist as an artist, so I write for different reasons. I'm not out to prove I'm the smartest, wisest, or funniest. I sometimes stop in my tracks because I don't want to embarrass myself or others.

Writing is opening a vein to the world and being judged. Writing is standing in the midst of rush hour traffic, nude, while onlookers point, giggle, and look at each other in disbelief.

I used to write a daily journal, part of a self-help course, the Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. The twelve-week course leaves no stone unturned, and forces the reader to face the person staring back in the mirror. I tried to get other people to work through the course with me, but no one else would. I did the homework alone, and was better for having done so.

I miss writing my daily journal, which is different from keeping a blog. Handwritten journals are more intimate than a blog or one recorded on a computer. I've allowed too many people and things to consume my time and energy. I remember being happier and emotionally healthier when I didn't let the junk to pile up inside, but poured it out on the page.

I still have those journal entries, markers of my chronological, emotional, and spiritual growth. I've thought about transcribing them onto the computer, but I don't know if I will. I keep the safe for now. Perhaps I'll revisit them soon. Is there a memoir or two contained in those pages written before I set foot on the floor in the mornings?

I write because I must. I'm not a businessman, a lawyer, or doctor. I am a writer and must commit words to the page daily. I write because I've stories to tell that I'm sure others would enjoy reading. I write to mark my time on earth.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Where Have They Gone?

Fading voices, smiles, and faces that have haunted over the years. The voices that echoed throughout the apartment during birthday parties and potluck dinners have disappeared, a casualty of time immortal.

Where have they gone?

The smiles that greeted at work or play have vanished as if by magic.

The mind plays tricks while walking down a busy Manhattan street or squeezing into a crowded subway car. Once familiar faces blend into a jigsaw puzzle of commuters.

The lines between coworkers and friendship were blurred, and soon thereafter socializing and sharing dreams felt natural.

E-mail and voicemail replaced personal contact, and eventually those placeholders ceased.

Where have they gone? Where are those who said they understood and shared my beliefs? I'm left to wonder if I said or did something offensive. I wonder if I didn't return her call soon enough, after she and her boyfriend fought. Or if I should've made an exception and trekked out to edge of Brooklyn more often to attend his dinner parties.

People come and go through the revolving doors of my life. Some people I'd hope would stay, while others won't go away.

How I wish life wasn't like a country song. Everyone has a tale to tell, and a warning to spread. Today is oftentimes better than yesterday and tomorrow.

Broken promises resonate as I flip through old photographs or try to find humor in a sitcom as laugh tracks pour through the stereo speakers. The photos can cut quicker and deeper than a Japanese sword if I stare too long. Poking fun at bad actors and actresses isn't the same without a trusted friend nearby.

Where have they gone? Perhaps those once thought of as friends have taken their leave of me and are now hanging out with Godot.

Perhaps southern hospitality and or naiveté are no longer appealing to the strays and orphans who once populated my life.

Searching in the darkness for the remote control to stop those sad country songs on the carousel CD player.

Time to shave the beard, wash my face, and remove the chains that jingle and jangle behind me as I haunt my past imperfect life.

There's no definitive answer to where they've gone. They've scattered to the four winds off Montauk Point, They've gotten married, had children, divorced, and returned to school.

Regardless of where they've gone, it's time to etch out a new path and reinvent myself, again.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

High Road or Axe To Grind?

To err is human, to forgive, divine.

I grew up in the South, and attended church regularly until I was sixteen years old, at which time I challenged the reason for going to a church where the first four or five pews on either side in the front were filled with hypocrites. These people sat near the pulpit and lectern, Bibles and colored highlighters in tow, waving their hands and praising Jesus and God, Amen and Preach On, rising in the sanctuary.

No sooner had the morning service ended, these upstanding Christians would stand just outside the church, smoking, flirting, and gossiping about church members and visitors.

I didn't like hypocrites back then, nor do I like or appreciate them as an adult.

I don't know if religious or secular hypocrites are more reviling. In a church or religious setting, we were taught to take the high road, turn the other cheek, love our enemies, even going so far as taking the shirt off our backs to clothe them.Oftentimes that's not realistic and requires patience, practices, and forgiveness.

In the heat of the moment, most people react and want to strike out, strike back at the person or people who has caused the pain. However, religious leaders, scholars, and parents advise us to walk away from the offending situation, take a deep breath, and regroup.

In recent weeks I have had to deal with an immature and unprofessional situation. Yes, I wanted to strike out, call upon God and my dead ancestors to rain down fire and brimstone, and even thought about consulting a santero or santera to do their best to rid me of the people who upset my apple cart.

Alas, I didn't consult the spiritual healer as much as I might have wanted. I didn't want to mess with mojo that involved colored candles, incense, and animal blood or bones. It was a temporary childish vengeful moment.

I am comforted knowing that God will take care of me and my enemies. I've turned over the situation to a Higher Power to deal with when and where He wants.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Administrative Hijinks & Power Plays

Certain jobs in corporate America are ripe with office politics, power plays, and inept administrators and managers who maneuvered their way not unlike a chess piece, into a corner office or choice cubicle.

I am a writer. I am an editor. I am a teacher. I was an actor. I have directed staged readings. I am an artist. Oftentimes artists don't fit into restrictive corporate arenas. I can only speak of New York City, but can imagine the same applies to cities large and small throughout the world. New York is one of the financial and business centers of the world. Is it then irresponsible for an artist to seek temporary employment, complete with full medical benefits, while pursuing and financing creative endeavors?

I never liked playing office bingo or politics. I have worked with people who were competitive because I was able to blend into the woodwork while maintaining a smile and sunny disposition. In their minds, this wasn't supposed to have happened. I was supposed to be miserable or bitter, and join them in a rousing verse of Misery Loves Company. If I've learned anything from my eighty-nine year old granny, is that we're here today, gone tomorrow: "Some of us who were here last night, aren't here today," she often says during our weekly long-distance Sunday afternoon phone call.

I have worked with and for barracudas, or tiger sharks, whichever applies. I remember this one attractive female supervisor (who later met with an unfavorable end) who could equally rally (and or beguile) female and male staff. She reminded me of All My Children's Erica Kane. I'm sure there were women in the office who wanted be her when they grew up. She was a smooth operator, and one didn't feel the sting of poisonous dart for several minutes after leaving her presence.

I'm not female, so I can't say what it's like to be a woman in a man's world. When I first worked on a helpdesk, there was another female supervisor, reminiscent of Whitney Houston, or some other black diva, without much of the attitude. I think her being a reborn Christian helped her manage us. She too, had a way of inspiring the troops, but she did so with a smile on her face, gift mugs from Disneyland, or homemade cookies.

One of my worst immediate female supervisors was the only other black person in the department, who wanted me to align myself against the man, whitey. She had an annoying habit of flicking her long unpolished nails outward like a movie villainess as she spoke. We didn't like each other, and I did everything in my power to find a new job and move on.

One of my best immediate female supervisors reminded me of my cousin's stepmother. It was my first job in New York City, and I was admittedly homesick. I worked in credit authorization, but wasn't content, so I transferred to the credit collections department. Big mistake. I should've stayed in authorization with the homemade treats and carefully dispensed motherly advice.

A close second worst female supervisor was a woman who had major control issues. It was a long-term temp assignment, and she replaced an outgoing supervisor who was loved and respected. Inside of her first two weeks she had chipped away at the comraderie in the office, and set about trying to divide and conquer. This was a troubling environment because the staff worked well together before she arrived. I'd never seen someone with such insecurities, not even the aftermentioned nail-flicking villainess. She was rude, unprofessional, and deserved what came her way.

The male supervisors paled in comparison to the women, much like they do in men's professional tennis. I'm not one for drama, heightened or otherwise, but some men tend to grunt and shift only for the sake of announcing their continual presence.

One male supervisor stands out. He liked me in ways that I didn't want to be liked. He'd call me into his office and make subtle sexual overtures to see if I'd take the bait. I knew what he was doing, and turned a deaf ear. His attention and pet projects made me uncomfortable. I resigned after having found a new job.

Endnote:I imagine that all jobs have some level of administrative hijinks and power plays. I prefer to work in a team environment, and there's no I in team. There should be no egos, divas, stars, and slackers, but there are and will be. Everyone has a role in life and oftentimes the chess pieces collide and explode, propelling the unsuccessful players off the board and into the unemployment line.

One of my favorite lines of dialogue is in the movie Wonder Boys based on the novel by Michael Chabon. Rip Torn plays "Q", an often-published novelist/teacher to Michael Douglas's stalled and currently unpublished status. Midway through the movie, at a writer's festival on campus, Q announces: "I am a writer!" To that, the audience applauds.

My quote: "I am an artist. Crazymakers and those bent on destruction, keep five hundred feet behind."

Monday, July 10, 2006

Teaching in Spanish Harlem

I have taught an Adult Essay Writing/English Workshop in a GED program Spanish Harlem for the last year. I originally didn't think I'd get the job, concerned that I was a square peg trying to fit into a community that I didn't belong. I'd applied for the job once before, but was passed over for an unknown reason. When I saw the posting a second time on Craigslist, the seemingly one-stop place for anything, everything, and anyone on the Internet, I didn't blink before reapplying.

I arranged an interview more out of curiosity, than an actual desire to get the job. I wanted to know who it was that dissed me the first time. I was asked to teach for an hour, an audition, and ended up going beyond the allotted time.

Walking into that storefront classroom was one of few times I was nervous. I did not feel as I though I was in the hood, but close, and the faces that looked out at me weren't welcoming. It wasn't their fault, the previous teacher was a drill sergeant, and had only lasted a few weeks before resigning (or being terminated).

I pulled from my public speaking, acting, reading Bible verses in church toolbox to calm any fears that I could handle myself in what I later realized can be a hostile environment. I often think of Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds when I look at some of the students. I've no martial arts skills, high cheekbones, or pouty lips to beguile my adult students. I have to rely on my conviction to make an impact in my students' lives.

We all make bad choices, and sometimes choices are made for us. However, I don't believe that we should spend a lifetime in the shadows or making excuses for what has happened. Whose past isn't imperfect?

Each week I learn as much about myself as I impart to the students who pay attention and take notes. My capacity as a big brother and mentor extends to the classroom. I know that I'm contributing to a higher cause (no climbing on a soapbox). Depending upon the week or hour, I see fear, revelation, and sheer confusion on the students' faces.

I didn't foresee my teaching this course, and for this long. Kudos to teachers who are in the classroom five days a week, with assignments and exams to grade, dealing with various student personalities, and their parents. My aunt retired this summer after thirty-nine years as a third grade teacher.

Teaching an essay course keeps my writing and editing skills sharp. Teaching this course, I'm privileged to read about the triumphs and disappointments my students share with me, well, those who attempt or complete the homework.

I don't know if I enjoy more the literary fiction discussions, to hear my students blurt out essay types, forms of punctuation, or the increased confidence in previously shy students.

I know I've changed because of my students, and this evolution wouldn't have otherwise taken place in an office or corporate job. I owe them as much gratitude as they express to me with their weekly attendance, in what has become a standing-room only workshop.

Building blocks for future success . . .

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Independence Day

This year's Independence Day took on a new meaning for me. I was finally able to let go of people who have long since let go of me. It wasn't difficult to do; most of the people I thought were true friends turned out to be fair-weather friends. The difficulty was accepting that I was a poor judge of character.

New York is a city of orphans. Everyone is from somewhere else, or want to escape to someplace, if only in their minds.

My official role as social director with co-workers, cast mates, and strays is a thing of the past. I've not gone to a club or lounge in many years, and no longer care what's hot in New York Nightlife. It was a system of supply and demand. The promoters requested names for their guest lists, and I supplied the bodies. After my last hoorah in a club, I felt relieved. I no longer had to worry about what to wear and who to accompany to various midtown and downtown hotspots. I don't know if I've mourned the absence of my annual birthday, brunch, or potluck guests, but I've definitely questioned my bull meter. I was a big brother, mentor, and unpaid therapist to many people, exhausting myself emotionally, spiritually, and physically to help them solve their crisis of the moment.

What was my life that I invited and cultivated such relationships? I'm not a crazymaker, but I used to attract people that would be better served by a trained clinician and a healthy dose of prescription drugs. I used to think it was my destiny to minister to them, but would undoubtedly feel drained and apprehensive each time the phone would ring.

The names in my address book are strangers. The phone numbers once committed to memory have faded with time, just as the sound of their voices, and expressions on their faces.

Is life cyclical, or do people and experiences happen in our lives because they are suppose to happen? Whatever the answer, today I celebrate not with fireworks and hot dogs, but with a sigh of relief that I'm no longer the person I used to be.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Anatomy of a Critique Group

When I realized that I didn't fit in corporate America, I set out to discover life after, or parallel to an acting career. My interest in writing began in Dr. Joeris' eleventh grade English class. We had to keep a daily journal, with assigned topics she wrote in her perfect script on the chalkboard. She called us little ones even though she wasn't bigger than a sparrow, with her chignon bun affixed to the back of her head.

Prior to Dr. Joeris' class, I didn't disdain writing, I just knew I'd move to Los Angeles, establish a name for myself and then move on to New York City where I'd perform on stage. With each succeeding high school and college audition, I became increasingly frustrated with the roles I were offered, and thought I could write something more suitable.

I tried my hand at semi-autobiographical plays meant to dissect and understand my immediate world. My first attempts were rebellious and angry, rather than focused or poignant. Those early drafts have either been shredded or buried in a foot locker in my aunt's house down south.

My early years on the East Coast, I did everything but seriously write - I knew I'd be a force on stage, commanding nightly standing ovations. Why should I write when there were others who could create memorable roles for me?

I've a kept a journal for several years and have read and/or worked through the Artist's Way, The Forest for the Trees, On Becoming a Novelist, and The Faith of a Writer. These books were my foundation for searching for other writers in New York to form a writer's group.

My earliest attempts at forming a writing group were temporarily successful. It was a mixed genre (plays, screenplays, angst-ridden fiction) group that rotated meetings among member homes. I personally didn't like trekking out to Queens, but did so because of the group that I formed. He tried to be a gracious host, but personality differences eventually caused him to drop out. Or was it laziness to travel to other boroughs?

My original intention was to create a Modern Day Harlem Renaissance. What resulted from my efforts was a group of lazy, recalcitrant, and moody people who periodically thought about writing, and actually wrote less. Dramatis personae aside, I felt as if I were in a whirlpool, ever sinking as laughing sharks circled above, perhaps waiting for the whirlpool to reject me as its latest victim.

The traveling band of writers disbanded after barbs, volatile e-mails, and vicious gossip were exchanged. I was dealing with people who didn't know how to play in a sandbox. The narcissists outweighed the meek lambs. I went into hiding after that debacle, thinking that I'd had enough with creative circles.

My sabbatical was short-lived, and I was off and running again, but the second time, I'd improve upon the first group. I'd primarily host the meetings at my apartment, with occasional meetings in office conference rooms and other public places. The problem with hosting groups or parties is the cleanup afterward. Bringing together writers took on toll emotionally. Everyone didn't share my vision of a writing community, as opposed to skeet shooting at traveling carnival.

After several years of anguish, frustration, and phone gripe sessions with my mother, I read a few more books on craft and researched the inner workings of successful writing groups. Two books there were instrumental were bird by bird and Immediate Fiction. Clichés aside, the third time would be a charm.

I created guidelines, critique forms for fiction and screenplays to hopefully reduce personal attacks. I required membership fees to weed out the transients, slackers, and to pay for workshop materials, website, and other incidentals.

The disclosure on the critique form reads: Stories can be improved only by identifying problems. The purpose of writing a critique is two-fold: (1) identify the weaknesses in the piece and, (2) offer some constructive advice to the author that might lead to some improvement in the story.

Armed with this statement, one would think a person would offer quality feedback, not aim torpedoes at a writer whose work they envy. On the surface fiction writers are different from screenwriters and playwrights. It comes down to discipline, commitment, and focus.

I was all set to dish on the immature and nasty people who masqueraded as adult writers that swept into the groups only to disrupt the flow, but it does no good to badmouth them. I don't want or need the karma. I've been blessed with a few core members over the past two years, and recently created a new graphic novel and comic book writing division. God has been good to us.

What have I learned so far? Always trust my gut instinct and not feel desperate for writers just to ensure a desired head count. If I didn't like a person in the initial interview, I should've ended the conversation by saying, "Thanks, but I don't think it's going to work."

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Group Mentality

I grew up in a large southern family, the oldest of three children, and I've accepted that I'm a teacher, mentor, big brother, and father to many people. I know how to function alone, but sometimes left to my own schemes and thoughts, the world would be a different place.

Why plot world domination or wish for magical powers like Harry Potter or Dr. Bombay from Bewitched? With a wave of my hand and an incantation, I'd rid Africa of its ails, and bring back my dead relatives.

And then I think of what I'd do with magical powers when people piss me off. I've this fantasy role I want to write and perform on screen, the stage wouldn't contain my imagination. I'd play this diabolical character with a shaved head, long black fingernails, pirate's shirt, loose pants for my wand and gadgets, and an obligatory high-collared cape. This character is borne out of frustration and impatient times with people, if only temporary.

For as long as I can remember, I've been in a clan or group. In elementary and junior high, I was a member of the honor roll and performing arts clique. The honor students were given preferential treatment, and pity on other students who weren't as lucky. They were ostracized and cast aside. In some instances, the honor students had better clothes, homes, and parents than the others.

All honor students weren't performers, favoring books and studying over exhibitionism and competition. Some successfully navigated both worlds, while a few fell out of grace in one of the groups. An emerging comedienne's schoolwork began to suffer because she favored making us laugh rather than study.

My two cliques weren't impenetrable, but I know there was a feeling of exclusivity or snobbery within and without. I'm not passing judgment these many years later; just reflecting on where I started and where I want to go.

It was our natural abilities to excel, and we were grouped accordingly. Perhaps some of our parents didn't know what to make of our teachers gushing and fawning over us. There was pressure to always perform on the same scale academically, on stage, or in the glee club. I didn't know it back then, because it wasn't part of our vocabularies, but that was peer pressure.

We competed in the math club, for parts in the school play, for the spiritual or gospel solo, and for the teacher's attention. My kindergarten, second, and fourth grade teachers liked me. There was one teacher's pet in first grade, and I popped her on the knee that she'd hurt over the summer or weekend before. The timing is vague and unimportant in this retelling. I remember being paddled for my aggression.

Well, my mother didn't like my being spanked or paddled by anyone else, and made an appearance at school to inform said teacher of her boundaries. Perhaps that's why she didn't like me? It's funny now, but surely wasn't as I leaned forward to get paddled. I'm trying to remember if I hopped atop a desk.

* * *
There's an interesting group dynamic oftentimes seen in the animal kingdom. All groups have an alpha male and female, and must appease the leader to enter the fold, or suffer the consequences. Humans are no different than animals in this regard.

It wasn't until junior high and later than I became an alpha male in the groups I belonged. I wasn't shy in elementary school, but did my best to stay under the radar because my aunt worked in the front office, and would report any infraction to my mother by day's end. Having my aunt at school was a double-edged sword. My mother informed all teachers to allow her to chastise me should I misbehave. I didn't necessarily flaunt this with my first and third grade teachers (my second grade teacher also taught us in the fourth). My fifth grade teacher couldn't stand me! She was very butch and so wanted to pick on me, but knew my aunt would be all over her. She'd punch the boys in either the upper arm or chest when they said or did something she didn't approve of.

Did I relish the fact that she couldn't touch me no matter what I might have done or said? Short answer: Yes!

She was too masculine to be a woman, with her curly chest and chin hair she proudly displayed.
The women in my family weren't and aren't girly, but they look feminine. I've never been one to roll around in the dirt, and to her mind that wasn't normal for a boy. We'd return from recess and I'd be still clean. One day, I don't know what got into me, but I made a concerted to get dirty while playing kickball or dodgeball. She was so happy that I was dirty. She beamed like a proud mother. I was normal for a day, but wasn't looking forward to going home. My mother was famous for saying things like, "I send you to school looking decent and you come back looking like a hobo."

It's in groups that we discover who and what we are. Everyone has an integral role to the group's success or failure. Parents and teachers, knowingly and otherwise teach us to be a certain way before we form peer groups. Different personalities are nurtured or ignored according to the adult or peer in charge. I've always been a leader or co-leader in all my groups to date. I was recently profiled in the NY Times Style Section for forming and doing my best to maintain a group.

I have come full circle from the precocious tyke in elementary school who felt invincible because my aunt was in the front office. It takes courage and bravado to form a group, and I'm grateful to my mother and aunt who unknowingly taught me to take risks in life, and not be a weakened gazelle stalked by a predator, waiting to be eaten.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Summer and Fall 2006 Reading List - Part One

1. The Known World by Edward P. Jones
2. Nobody Knows My Name by James Baldwin
3. Beloved by Toni Morrison
4. the crazed by Ha Jin
5. No Longer At Ease by Chinua Achebe
6. Lost In The City by Edward P. Jones
7. letters to a young artist by Anna Deavere Smith
8. The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray
9. Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington
10. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, 2nd Ed., by Renni Browne
11. Creating Black Americans by Nell Irvin Painter
12. Slavery And The Making of America by James Oliver Horton
13. Whose Bible Is It? by Jaroslav Pelikan
14. Write Away by Elizabeth George
15. Brick Lane by Monica Ali

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Urban Healthcare

New York City attracts all types of dreamers and thrill seekers. I relocated many years ago in equal parts to flee from my family and carve a new life for myself. I never dreamed I’d be sitting in a urban healthcare community center waiting room for hours on end. I don’t remember spending time in doctor’s offices while growing up in Texas beyond annual physicals.

I miss having a private doctor, but life as a freelancer comes with certain restrictions. I had medical coverage with most of my past fulltime jobs. I miss my private doctor who was a seven minute walk from my apartment. I miss his gentle nature and soothing voice. His specialty was cardiology, so I was usually the youngest patient in his waiting room. This used to comfort me because my maternal grandfather died of a heart attack.

More than anything else, I miss having my appointment time honored. I recall once or twice having to wait five or ten minutes beyond my scheduled time because a previous patient’s appointment lasted longer than he expected.

City and community hospitals require reading material or portable music players, but I’d caution against a personal music player because you might not hear your name being called by the overworked and/or irritable resident or doctor. I’d also suggest not going to the toilet for the same reason. The person swings the door open, yells your name, and if no response, feigns a look of concern and then disappears behind a locked door. It’s these types of urban health centers that might turn some people off doctors and medical care, opting for natural herbs and holistic care.

I couldn’t fall asleep last night. I was in bed, but aware of everything in the room. I’m not afraid of needles, doctors, and absolutely not a hypochondriac. My last visit to this unnamed uptown community health facility wasn’t good. I had an abrupt Asian female doctor who I felt lost or never had the desire to serve and treat patients as individuals rather than statistics.

No sooner had I arrived today that I was bombarded with outraged and belligerent patients screaming in the waiting room, demanding better service, attentiveness, and prescriptions. I was met with a cacophony of accents, dialects, and wailing babies competing for my attention.

It’s now 9:55 a.m., my scheduled appointment was 8:45 a.m. I’ve just returned from a strange interview with a sluggish financial officer who asked my nationality, stared at me in disbelief, and then asked what state I was born. Do Texans look Texan? He looked at me as if he knew me, or perhaps he was trying to focus on something other than his computer monitor.

I paid the twenty dollar fee after the determination that I was one of the working poor in New York City. I paid before seeing a doctor – maybe people have bolted without paying. Private care versus public care. 10:05 a.m. Returned from having my blood pressure and temperature checked and weighed. The medical assistant weighed me with my sneakers on. Sneakers or not, I know I’ve gained weight in the last year. My metabolism . . . I no longer can eat anything I want.

There were patients who were there as early as 7 a.m., long before I arrived at 8:40 a.m. who hadn’t seen a doctor by 10 a.m. God save us all. I don’t like how patients are herded like cattle in community clinics. After today’s physical, I will apply for Medicaid, insurance through FreelancersUnion.org and turn up the volume on my fulltime job search. I have to return to my previous private doctor or find a new one if he can longer accommodate me.

Healthcare for the uninsured or minimally insured reeks in this city. I’m sure some of the people were insured. Why in the heck did they go to that place?There’s an obvious shortage of doctors working today. This is the condition many metropolitan centers share – the demand outweighs the supply. People accept this mistreatment as par for the course. When names are called, people spring to attention from a seeming stasis or slumber.

Who wants to write letters to Congress for medical reform?

I’ve only seen three men with stethoscopes calling for patients, and there are about forty people in various stages of reading, eating, and agitation. I’ll do everything in my power to make this my last visit here. Why schedule appointments if they’re not going to be honored?

10:35 a.m. Still no doctor belching out my name, as he holds the door ajar with an extended foot. I’m hungry because I’ve not eaten since last night. I’m sleepy and on the brink of getting a refund and going home.

I’ve gone to another nearby clinic, but the experience was slightly different. The waiting room was deserted which spooked me, and the admissions staff was more pleasant. The doctor I was assigned seemed unsure of himself and his diagnoses, which was why I didn’t return. I’ll now rule out this place for medical care. It perpetuates most ethnic urban healthcare stereotypes: rude, uncooperative, impatient staff who’d rather gossip among themselves than greet and assist patients.

11:45 a.m. I decided to get a refund and return home for a 1 p.m. meeting. After zigzagging between framed windows and uncooperative customer agents, I finally got the necessary signature, my cash, and headed downtown to the comfort of my apartment.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Scarlet Fever

My mother told me that I almost died of Scarlet Fever when I was three years old. I don't often think of this, only when I sense something or someone in my apartment (see previous entries below).

It is believed that those of us who almost or actually die momentarily and return from the jaws of death, come back with something extra. It is believed that we are sensitive to spirits and the spiritual realm.

I remember as a child my younger brother pulling me into his nightmare to help him fight whoever or whatever pursued him. The next morning at breakfast, we didn't speak of this. We sat silently after locking eyes, confirming: Yes, you were there. My mother and youngest brother didn't witness this exchange.

I don't know if that was the beginning of my being sensitive. It's the first time I experienced something extraordinary.

I later developed the bad habit of reading while walking. There were a few instances of my looking over and up, only to find a front bumper within inches of my knee. Was that further proof of power or gifts I brought back from the other side? Did I repeatedly cheat death or at least serious injuries on the streets of Houston and New York?

I often times know who's calling before I answer the phone. No, I don't have a cell phone or home phone with caller-ID. I pick up vibrations, see faces, en route to the phone.

When I concentrate, I can anticipate, as if there's a dictaphone in my head, what someone is saying. I don't do this often because I don't want to people uneasy around me.

Sometimes I'm able to see into a person's home while speaking on the phone or Internet. I freaked someone out years ago when I described the type and color of pants, the chair, and the lighting in the room. Here, too, I receive vibrations and/or images.

I was able to see into Wolfsong's house in Texas while we chatted online. I saw a bulky wooden table with a slippery surface that a creature would slip and slide across. The table was handmade and shipped overseas by her father. The creature was her cat. I saw plush, thick curtains in this same room. I saw a computer stand or console. I saw her curly locks. I've never physically seen Wolfsong, but I've felt her presence spiritually. She picked and sent me a clear crystal with male energy, wrapped in tissue paper, snug in a little wooden box. I keep the box opened, crystal exposed in my home office. I carry the crystal from time to time in my pants pocket on days when I'm feeling low and at odds with myself. Wolfsong's told me she's seen things through my crystal. She's warned me of things and people here in New York.

I can be skeptical, but there are things that have happened in my life and apartment that I can't explain. I've felt the presence of evil in my bedroom, as it tried to sit on the edge of my bed. I raised my upper body and commanded, "You better get on up outta here!"

I need to decide what I believe and don't, but in the interim, I've a ghost to get rid of.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Happy Birthday To Me

My mother woke me eighteen minutes earlier than my birth time this morning to sing Happy Birthday as she drove to work in Houston.

I don't feel older today. Should I? My granny's eighty-two this year. She has a few ailments here and there, but usually in good spirits.

After Mother's phone call, I slept until a good friend prepared breakfast for me before heading out to brave the temperature that was anything but spring today and this evening.

It was a laidback day of walking, talking, and wondering why we've yet to secure an agent and publish book while sneering at various jackets and thumbing through the first few pages. We were not impressed. We were pea green with envy. If they could get a book published and on display, what's stopping us?

I bought No Longer At Ease by Chinua Achebe from Barnes & Noble.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Celebrated Birthday!

Yesterday's entry wasn't too far off the mark. After what felt like a panic (anxiety) attack, I dressed and headed out with my granny cart to shop for food and party favors.

Prior to leaving the apartment it felt as if something or someone was blocking my exit. I've disclosed to a few people that I had (have) a ghost in my apartment. I sensed that he died in this apartment and hasn't resolved to walk into the light. He's not malevolent, just lonely and stubborn. I sensed that the African American male died in his fifties of a heart attack.

This may sound very infomercial or psychic friends network, but I tested my theory with two people. The first was a healer here in New York who does Automatic Writing wherein she connects on a higher plane while a client asks questions. She sits at her laptop and transcibes answers to a client's questions. One of my questions or cloudy areas was the feeling that I didn't reside here alone (not counting the cats and tropical fish). Flash forward: The force, spirit, confirmed through this mystic that there was a presence in my apartment and that I would have to overcome my fear and reticence if I ever wanted to rid my apartment of him. I have a printout of our session for the naysayers out there.

The second person to confirm and actually help on a spiritual level was a shapeshifter from Texas, Wolfsong. She's a mixture of Native American, Chinese, and Hawaiin. She's able to travel through the eyes of animals to distant places. While we were chatting on an instant messenger, she traveled to the apartment to out-ghost the ghost. I know it to be true because it was one of the few occasions my oldest cat ran from the kitchen to my home office at the opposite end of the apartment. She'd seen something and fled to me. Wolfsong had entered the apartment and described what she saw as she looked around.

Please, no one call a therapist or medical doctor. I've still my wits about me. I've not gone off the deep end. She's told me things that only I or my family could have known. There were no slight-of-hand parlor or carnival tricks. She told me of health concerns back then that were true. She told me about a protection mask that prevented her from seeing things here in my home office. I was drawn to this mask years ago while on vacation in the Dominican Republic, along with a sarong. Or perhaps the mask called out to me?

Back to yesterday. I couldn't move from my seat to begin cleaning, rearranging furniture, and stuffing items into bags and under the bed, out of the way of guests. A wave of emotion swept over me. I just knew there'd be hell to pay if I forged ahead with the small dinner party. I've overcome the desire for large scale parties in my budget-sized apartment.

I prayed. I had to fight whatever it was that was ailing me and/or my apartment. I looked at my candles with blessing oil from a local botanica purchased a week before. I inhaled and smelled the lingering sage incense bought days before from yet another botanica in Spanish Harlem. I would wage war against this pesky presence and have a dinner party despite his contrary intentions.

Walking out the door, I breathed deeply. First major hurdle overome. Stopped off at discount store and bought a white and purple candle, no blessing oil. I made my way downtown to grocery store one, back up to wine store, on to grocery stores two and three.

Over my proposed budget, I returned home with granny cart filled to the top, store bought birthday cake (sounds of my mother shrieking in my head), and set up transforming the apartment into a party atmosphere.

Second flash forward: Jorge arrived to help clean and calm my nerves. Once the apartment was in good physical shape, showers out of the way, we set about dicing, chopping, and cooking. At 8 p.m., not one platter or dish was set. I reasoned that people refuse to show up at the scheduled time because they don't want to look desperate or pathetic. No one was here at 8:15, 8:30, 8:45 p.m., but I continued to chop, dice, stir. Jorge did his best to distract me. His plan was that we'd eat the food, watch a movie, and then go walking if no one materialized by 10 p.m.

Pause. Benedetta arrived at 9 p.m., and Jorge shot me a look: see, now, relax. You are loved. A half-hour later Luisa from my fiction critique group arrived, followed by Tanyika.

I bought and prepared too much food in that southern cook by sight, smell, taste, and you know folks will eventually eat.

I am grateful for the guests who showed up: Benedetta, Tanyika, Hadiza, Luisa, Jorge, and Tyrone. It was in fact a small dinner party. We talked about religion/ceremony, movies, overcoming fears, and whether there was actually a female Pope.

Last night's gathering will go down as a success. I harbor no ill-will nor will publicly ridicule those who RSVP'd and called with last minute lame excuses, nor those who didn't have the courtesy (decency) to call. Life's too short to hold grudes. I consider myself fair. I'll invite everyone to my next Sunday Gospel Brunch in a month. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Anyone want a slice of birthday cake and ice cream? We were engrossed in conversation, food, hot spiced apple cider, and African rum, that I forgot about bringing out the cake and ice cream. I'll take the cake to my GED class this coming Tuesday as a reward for those who took last week's cumulative exam.

I joked with Benedetta and Jorge about my doing the same thing to those who didn't show up to the dinner party as Melissa Sue Anderson did in Happy Birthday To Me.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Birthday Party Planning & Shopping

I'm sitting here with a shopping list in hand, on the way to various grocery, retail, and specialty shops. There's always anxiety when hosting a social gathering, doubly so when it's your own birthday party.

Second-doubts try to creep into the brain. Will everyone who RSVP'd actually show up? Will those who didn't RSVP show up unannounced?

I've had sucessful birthday parties in the past, but with each passing year, the preparation can wear on the nerves. I used to celebrate with other Pisceans here on the East Coast, but that tradition disintegrated after a few years. One person relocated to Oregon, another moved to Florida to start a sandwich shop, another one was just too fabulous and preoccupied to slum uptown, away from his other fabulous downtown types. The most disappointing were two female singer/songwriters who I thought we'd always be together, eventually rising to some semblance of artistic and cultural note.

I think of Bryce, a former Army brat, who warned me not to get too attached or caught up on friends and friendships. People come and go all the time in life. Share and enjoy the moments at hand.

I am grateful for another year alive! I am grateful that my Granny Gums celebrated her 82nd birthday on February 7th!

At last count, I'm expecting fifteen, perhaps sixteen guests tonight. Friendships and acquiantances can be strange. I don't want anyone to feel obligated to come tonight. (The official birthday is March 20th, not the 18th).

I had originally thought to hop on a commuter train or Greyhound bus this weekend. Disappear to parts unknown with my laptop to work on my next short story that's due midnight next Thursday.

I didn't celebrate last year. I didn't want to go through what I'm feeling right now: anxiety. I was told I was stupid by a new friend for not celebrating my birthday. This same friend hates to celebrate his birthday, and would prefer it go unnoticed.

My mother sent me old Polaroids and dated pictures of my first, second, third, and fourth birthday parties in Houston. Back then, I didn't have the adult pressures of planning and executing a birthday party. The pictures show a smiling toddler in the arms of my mother and other relatives. There wasn't a shortage of guests in my family - we easily numbered twenty or twenty-five back then, plus all the neighborhood kids.

I'd take my mother's expertly decorated homemade birthday cake and planning right now. I'd rather someone else be in charge (and ultimately responsible for the success) of the birthday shindig tonight.

I'm hoping for the best.

If the party is a bust, I will hop on that aforementioned train or bus, head to a small town, try my hand as a fry cook for a weekend in a truckstop or diner where the waitresses call everyone sugah or hon, while looking disinterested as the pen scrawls across the order pad.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

D. R. Journal - Day Seven

Flying home today after having spent the past eleven days in different towns in the Dominican Republic with the Pujols and their extended family. Now that I am in the air, heading back to New York City, I have a different perspective about the country. At best, I did in fact enjoy having gotten away from the hustle and bustle of New York and the demands of the job.

On the flip side, having gotten away from the madness and directly into the Mosquito Coast was an experience I will not soon forget. The Dominican Republic is an expanse land with many different classes of people intermingling in the same place.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

D. R. Journal - Day Six

Good Friday. Semana Santa in the Dominican Republic. Back in NYC, when purchasing my ticket to Georgia I was told by a female Dominican that today most things are taboo. Dancing and the eating of meat. Liquid libations began soon after breakfast.

Last night, two of Rich’s cousins arrived from the capital, one with a wife in tow. Last night I didn’t sleep too well; one of the cousins slept in the room with me. He tossed and turned throughout the night, which in turn caused me to toss and turn.This morning the maid is under the impression that I am interested in her; have plans to take her back to NYC. Of course, this would happen when hell freezes over. On the way home from LuPrisma on the scooter with Samuel, we stopped to talk to a rather unpleasant looking/sounding female. Sam offered her to me as a potential mate. Once again, she is not one I’d export to NYC.

Last night, it was also brought to my attention that Rich supposedly has a prime, beautiful cousin that lives in the capital. Today, Sam (jokingly, I thought, I think) told me that he’s picked out someone for me as well. We’ll have to see about that.

Monday, January 30, 2006

D. R. Journal - Day Five

Up at the crack of dawn to go to the capital to apply/complete forms for Rich. We drove an hour to the house of the yet another cousin. During the early morning preparation, cheese and crackers were breakfast. [Sidetrack: Dolores Claiborne, with Kathy Bates. In the movie she would say, “Cheese and crackers when you wanted to swear."

We were up at 5 a.m. for the drive to the capital. I knew Rich drove fast, but he has seemed to have gotten an extra dose of machismo as with a large portion of the men (some women as well) here in the D.R. Once at the agency, Junta Central Electoral Cedula, we waited and waited, and waited. While we sat in the initial reception area, Rosa applied her make-up as a man at first tried not to stare, but eventually had to comment as to the amount and time spent on applying her make-up. He was flirting with her, he made no qualms about that. He looked right through me and over to Rosa. There were a few minutes of conversation interspersed with Rich coming to and from the inner-office. The people don’t hesitate to stare at someone they find attractive, even when that someone is with a partner.

In the hallway, we continued to wait for the needed papers. I am told that things get done here when those in power want it to happen. Not unlike any other country. Small talk with the other people in the hallway. People passing by, complaining in unison. The short of the long, Rich could/should have had the necessary stamp on the first day he came here to the capital. NOT three days later and an overnight stay, instead dragging Rosa, Sacorro, and I along for the trip.

At different times I want to get on the next plane out of here because of the types/mentality of the people. Other times, like today at the beach when I felt uninhibited. I don’t think it had anything to do with the several beers I had consumed. As it happened, the music got into my soul, mind, and body. The next thing I knew, I was barefoot and dancing while all eyes were on me. It was great! Once I began, I couldn’t stop. Dancing such as this, when it comes, is like a trance. From the beach, we returned to the country club, where we are now at 5:30 p.m.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

D. R. Journal - Day Four

Sunday morning in the mountains of Jarabacoa. Last night after showering, I was exhausted to the point that I fell asleep while reading How To Make A Good Screenplay Great, for the second time. I believe we returned from the country club around 8pm. Soon thereafter, we had dinner, the chicken that I had seen hanging from a branch yesterday morning. It was definitely fresh. Beans and rice rounded out the meal, there was a salad, but I didn’t have room for anything else.

At one point, I remember Timo coming into the bedroom to check on me as I lay stretched out in the bed reading. I remember laughter and talking coming from the patio. I of course remember the music as I struggled to go to sleep. I remember Rich calling out to me, but I was too close to actually being asleep to move or respond. Today, he says he tried to wake me on three different occasions, of which I don’t remember.

Rich said the music was even louder than the last time. So much so that he had to stuff pieces of paper towels in his ears. He also said that the place, Leymel, was crowded, unlike the night before. I am glad I didn’t go and face those conditions.

The cabin we’re in belongs to an uncle, a manufacturer of pants in Santo Domingo. It is excellent! Being here makes me forget the conditions down below. It is a 2 ½ level, multi-room home. Tiled floors, wicker furniture, wood furniture, winding stoned staircases, natural wood windows and doors. Glass windows and doors. Fireplace. Two kitchens, one on each floor. Hammock upstairs (as I write from the main level). The house is inside a mountain that was hollowed out. This is living. The bathroom, dark browns, greens. Stenciled leaves along the walls. Scented candles. I love it.

This is a complete departure from Azua. One of the modern conveniences I have grown accustomed are highways which cut travel which cut travel time in half. In the Dominican Republic, I have yet to see a highway. We embarked upon our journey today and not reach out destination for what seems to have been a full three hours. Taking into consideration the two rest stops. We remained at the cabin for about an hour and a half venturing to the river at Jarabacoa. Nobel, Rich, and Timo rode a horse. There was a band playing merengue music atop a platform. Esmerlin, Helsin, Karen, Rich, Samuel, and I went into the river to watch the people playing in the water and listening to the music.

Later we went to the waterfall, Salto en Jimenoa, where there were bridges suspended from the sides of the mountains. We went inside of the very cold water with its slipper rocks. There were rocks suspended for safety in the event of someone losing their balance, or in the case of a few obnoxious people, being pushed or distracted.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

D. R. Journal - Day Three

This morning I was temporarily awakened by what I assume was the same rooster crowing at dawn. I went back to sleep after what was a long night barhopping and club-hopping only to end up at the first place we began, a place called Leymel. It rained last night which made all of the locals remain indoors, that was sight unto itself. Normally, the streets and porches are overflowing with the inhabitants of the different barrios. Each day that we are out and about, I am still in awe of the many classes of people. I am told that the police is on the take. Just yesterday, a policeman attempted to pull us over to find a reason to solicit money; we of course continued to drive.

Back to what was to be a night of carousing, which fizzled at best. We drove around to three places in total, stopping momentarily at a car wash-restaurant-bar with dancing. A number of the people drink, a lot! I can’t say that the people have drinking problems, i.e. are alcoholics, it is just a way of life.

The ones that drink do so before one o’clock in the afternoon. My biological donor is an alcoholic/drug abuser, seeing a drunk is old school for me. Personally, I like to drink red wine with cheese and dinner, but to drink just because you can escapes me.

In homes all over the world it is considered impolite to turn down an offer of food, drinking is an altogether different story. Furthermore not acceptting a second helping of food is considered in bad taste, for fear that you didn’t enjoy the first serving.

I’m feeling a bit put upon being asked to drink beer everyday, all day, thus far, as if I’ll change my mind. As I attempted to explain, I don’t want to drink just because it’s readily available and cheap. Call me rude, prude or a snob, but I don’t need or want to start a dependency upon alcohol.

So, where was I? Back to Leymel. The music was too damn loud!! My ears popped after going inside and my throbbing temples didn’t help matters as well. In New York or LA, clubs wouldn’t allow more men inside initially. The men would be kept outside to make it appear as if the place was hot, to stir up attention for those passing by. There were two or three attractive women inside, one in particular was gorgeous. I think of her being a model or Bond Girl. The music was the same the entire night we were there, with the exception of a few American songs at which I got onto to the floor a second time, the first being with Rosa. The second time I actually broke a sweat dancing to House and Reggae music.

More beer and dancing to the same blaring music in this club where the temperature was near freezing, the air-conditioner really worked. There is a culture here that I am not familiar, and I can’t say I would ever want to become comfortable. The host family I am staying with is a book unto themselves.

No one travels in a straight line here. Having plans or trying to set a time is all but impossible, at least with the host family. There are more detours than on a pirate’s map for a buried treasure. They know EVERYONE in and out of town!!! This causes tremendous delays when wanting to go somewhere at a specific time, but to say something seriously about it , or about the drunken bad driving of another would upset my hosts. So, in jest I say, “No Hay Lineas Directas Aqui”.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

D. R. Journal - Day Two

This morning I was awaken by the sounds of a rooster crowing at 6:00 a.m. I reached up to peer through the window leading onto the patio to see several chickens, roosters and chicks strutting about on the patio. Last night I saw the dog and cat lounging about in the cool breeze. This morning, after falling asleep a second or third time, I was awakened by the blaring sounds of merengue music. At some point, I remember smelling fried foods, hearing the sizzle of a pan.

Once again from the vantage point of the patio window, I looked out to see Richard and Rosa having breakfast. After brushing my teeth, I ventured out to the patio and a breakfast I would not have expected; fish soup and fried fish [bones and head included]. One must get accustomed to the flies and mosquitoes.

The majority of the houses here don’t have windowpanes as I we have in America. The reason being the temperature is so hot, and most likely this being a Third World country, they are not too keen on air-conditioners. The cost of living, I’m told is a mere twenty dollars a day, and that most people earn two-hundred dollars a month. I know I couldn’t live here, nor would I want to live here. The areas I have seen thus far range in people, as it pertains to a class structure, not uncommon in any other part of the world. There are areas or districts I’d call modern, but in those same areas there are shacks in clear sight, off to the side and in thick tree-lined areas. Jungle or wooded areas.

After breakfast, I showered in COLD water, and then we went on a wild goose chase in an attempt to get Richard’s passport renewed. The bottom line is that he has to go to the capital on Monday. There was this guy with a mini-binder that approached in hopes of securing a renewed passport. Walking up a street and around another corner, Rich had to get a new passport photo. Going to some building, a civil service agency of sorts, Rich was still unable to secure the necessary document because of his not having an original document listing his Dominican social security number.

Stopping off en route to the beach to meet yet another one of Rich’s soon-to-be brother-in-laws, five in total. This one owns two stores. While there, I had a chance to ride a scooter. I’ve never ridden a scooter before, so on the first attempt he showed me how to operate the scooter. The heat was beating down on my head; the only thing I could think about was crashing, being involved in some horrible accident and having to be transported to a third world hospital. Fortunately we were successful, there were no major accidents. I learned how to maneuver the scooter.

Back inside the colmado, the merengue music was in full force, flies buzzing about, and beer was steadily consumed by the locals while children were at play. People here tend to stare at someone new, just because they are not from their territory. I think it a bit rude to park yourself in a comfortable position and gawk at another person. The first two days thus far there has been an insistence for me to drink Presidente beer. I remember Rich saying back in the states that he couldn’t wait until he arrived, that he would drink with no apparent end in sight.

The race has begun! Various patrons enter and depart the dimly lit colmado. There is one particular child that has taken a shine to me, albeit to eventually ask for money. As we were about to leave, he asked for a recuerdo. A memory of my having been there, and his having met me. So, I gave him a computer-generated business card with my production company’s name and e-mail address. This didn’t sit too well with the young tyke, he insisted upon un recuerdo de ti while extending his hand. Rich informed me that if given money, he’d remember me for a long time to come. I gave him a total of one U.S. dollar; his eyes lit up like a Christmas tree. He even had the nerve to check its authenticity. Earlier during our stop at Alberto’s store, Rosa had given us a scare when she disappeared without a trace on the scooter. It turned out that she had gone to visit a nearby uncle.

My first memory of the beach, Monte Rio, is one of filth. I’m trying to remember more about our first trip to the beach. But it escapes me. I remember having to go to the toilet and not having a place to go. I walked away from the water and through a maze of buildings high atop a mountain in search of a hidden area. I only peed, not comfortable and or not being able to pull my pants down outside. I had taken along sheets of a legal pad to serve as paper to clean myself. Anyway, walking down the mountain, I noticed that there was a pool atop a country club of sorts and then proceeded to walk to the front of the seemingly isolated locale. There was no activity in front, which leads me to believe that passersby were not welcomed. Returning to the area we had decided to sit, I found the others tanning, or at least trying. I think at some point we headed to LuPrisma country club where the Pujols are members.