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Meet Edward “Ned” Hickson

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Ned Hickson) Edward “Ned” Hickson

Editor’s note: This profile is part three of a an on-going series on successful bloggers and their process. Read part one here and click here for part two. 

Edward “Ned” James Hickson doesn’t believe in “road blocks.” Instead, the editor and humor columnist sees each perceived obstacle as a catalyst for him to blaze his own trails.

It’s a lesson he learned from his stepdad, Glenn, who was a problem solver. “Nothing was ever a road block to him,” Hickson said in a recent interview, “it just meant a reason to discover a new route.”

And those wise words gave an aspiring journalist, whose formal education stopped at high school, a survival plan. The Lawnsdale, California-native’s life story is analogous to those of born geniuses like George Burns, Julie Andrews, Sean Connery and Wolfgang Puck among others. They succeeded despite their limited formal education because of hard work, sheer luck and natural talent.

Hickson’s natural talent is his comedic timing. It helped him during the 10 years he worked as a chef for Morrison Inc., which owned several restaurant chains (including L&N Seafood, Silver Spoon and Ruby Tuesday’s.)

During that time, he rose from assistant chef to regional chef, overseeing restaurants and openings in Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, New York State and Alabama.

Hickson’s humor seemed to follow him wherever he went. “I tried to keep things light during high-stress meal periods and restaurant openings,” said Hickson, who now  lives in Florence, Oregon. Humor was so much a part of him that, “if I stopped making quips, the kitchen knew it was time to get serious.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Ned Hickson) Edward “Ned” Hickson, 15-year veteran journalist.

But he’s rarely serious about anything — except his wife, Alicia (who he affectionately calls “Alicia The Beautiful”), and their four kids who range in age from 12 to 19.

Otherwise, Hickson’s always in joke mode. “Humor plays such a big part of my everyday life,” he said. “I grew up surrounded by funny people in my family — my parents, grandparents, cousins, my older half-brothers. They always had me laughing.”

Now, he entertains readers as a humor columnist at the Siuslaw News and on his personal blog, “Ned’s Blog: Humor at the Speed of Life.” When he started with the paper, he covered sports until he pitched the idea for a weekly humor column.

His editor, who already took a chance hiring Hickson despite him not having prior journalism training and experience, asked: “You really think you can be funny every week and not run out of ideas?”

To this, Hickson nodded. That was 15 years ago, when the paper hired him to replace the sports editor who quit. “A friend who was working there jokingly suggested I apply,” he said. “I had no journalism experience and am not really a sports nut.”

He submitted his application and got an interview. “I was up against some recent journalism grads from the University of Oregon,” Hickson recalled. Fifteen years later, he still wonders if the editor was drinking that day because he got the job.

But Hickson has no regrets. “Taking that job was one of the best decisions I ever made,” he said. Then chuckling, the columnist added: “I’m not sure he feels the same.”

(ARTWORK: Courtesy of Ned Hickson)

Hickson’s readers are still laughing. “My first rule is to always make fun of myself before someone else,” the veteran columnist said. “Unless it’s Justin Bieber; I’ll always make fun of him first.”

That’s the best way Hickson gauges what’s funny. “If I can laugh at myself, then so will readers,” he said.

It also doesn’t hurt that his approach to humor nearly mirrors that of Larry David, whose sitcom-engine style made “Seinfeld” a successful show.

Developing the story for each episode, David picked a mildly annoying habit of a character or their lover and blew it out of proportion. It’s successful because that annoying habit is relatable to viewers.

Hickson’s approach is slightly different. “I’d rather take an everyday situation, blow it completely out of proportion and put myself right in the middle,” he said. “The more absurd the situation, the funnier it gets.”

It worked for a Chuck Norris bit he did for this interview. Here’s his response when asked what his readers would be surprised to know about him:

Readers would be surprised to know I recently got into a tussle with Chuck Norris over the last t-shirt at a One Direction concert. It turned out to be an extra-large, and my daughter wears a small, so I let him have it. The shirt, I mean — not my fists of furry. And yes, I meant “furry” not “fury.” Ok, fine. That didn’t really happen.

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Ned Hickson)

It’s those random creative moments, which spring from simple “what ifs,” that make his columns successful. In response to this question — What if the guilt associated with throwing away unwanted fruitcake became an actual disorder? — came his series of columns on FDAD (Fruitcake Disposal Anxiety Disorder).

That column is his most successful one at the paper. With the outpouring of encouraging words, he also got some hate mail. “I discovered there was a strong lobby of fruitcake supporters who weren’t amused,” Hickson recalled.

In fact, they were so hell-bent on defending the candied-fruit treat that they mailed dozens of them to the paper.

Hickson’s response? “I held a taste test in our newsroom and wrote a column about the results,” he said, adding that he actually enjoyed two out of the 12 fruitcakes he received.

But that stunt in the newsroom is nowhere as daring as what he writes about for his blog. “The creativity blogging offers has given me an opportunity to explore humor writing in ways I couldn’t do as a columnist,” said Hickson, who started blogging for over a year and a half ago.

Since then, he’s guest blogged on other sites, met other humor writers he admires, published his book (Humor at the Speed of Life), and built a following.

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Ned Hickson)

Michelle Terry’s among them. “OMG…I’m going to love reading your stuff,” the fellow blogger and proud mama of two posted. “…hope you don’t mind another gushing fan.”

Another fellow blogger, Claudia Felsberger, felt she’d hit a goldmine. “Skimmed through your blog. It made me draw the conclusion that you’re awesome!” the freelance journalist and photographer posted. “Humorous, entertaining, thought-provoking, maybe even a little bit awkward, but awesome!”

Encouraging words aside, blogging gives Hickson what his job couldn’t. “There’s a real sense of immediacy in blogging that you can’t get with newspaper writing,” he said. “I love getting an idea, writing it up, posting it and seeing the ‘comment’ icon light up.”

His actual process for creating each post is more involved. It starts with him arriving to the newsroom at 5:30 a.m. “I prefer to write early in the morning because, in addition to fewer distractions, I’m not really awake yet,” Hickson said.

That helps his freethinking in addition to blasting AC/DC through his iPad headphones while sipping coffee. He usually has a rough idea of his topic and doesn’t over-think it until he’s at his keyboard.

“I’ve learned to  trust my instincts, so I like things to develop as I write, as opposed to using an outline,” Hickson said. “This works well for humor because the funniest things are almost always born out of spontaneity.”

He likens the process to stand-up. “Except I get to sit down,” the blogger said. “If I bomb, no one knows it but me.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Ned Hickson)

Another thing most people didn’t know is that he responds to comments and/or tweets if they pop up while he’s writing. “They don’t interrupt my flow,” Hickson said. “At least for me, they  keep the creativity flowing by maintaining that level of spontaneity.”

Then it’s time for the oral test. “I read the piece out loud. If my tongue gets tripped up, it needs more polishing,” the columnist said. “That’s also when I check for timing.” Does he need to add a pause? Elaborate more? What can be cut? Those are the questions his internal editor ask before he hits “Publish.”

He’s usually done before 9 a.m. when the other reporters roll into the newsroom. That he posts daily, sometimes twice a day, gives you a sense of his dedication.

But the labor’s not without a pay-off. In addition to new followers, he got the WordPress administrators’ attention, resulting in them selecting two of his posts — both a year apart from each other and within a week of Hickson’s birthday — among their eight favorites to showcase. This process, on WordPress, is known as being “Freshly Pressed” and results in a major traffic surge.

The first time, WordPress “Freshly Pressed” his blog piece, “Surgery is Safer When Patients Come With Instructions,” which resulted from a report on an increase in cases of wrong-site surgeries.

Hickson’s post was a response to his question: What precautions would I take to make sure my vasectomy didn’t turn into an appendectomy?

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

That post recorded 1,200 hits in two days and gained him nearly 300 new followers. “I always answer every comment and email, so my weekend was a busy one,” the blogger recalled. “I had no idea what to expect. I couldn’t believe it.”

He also couldn’t it when he got “Freshly Pressed” again last August for his piece, “If You Can’t Fix It With Gum and Duct Tape, It’s Not a Real VW Bus.” The idea for that post resulted from the buzz of new generation Volkswagen vans that Hickson felt lacked the character of their old counterparts.

That post recorded 878 hits the first day and hundreds of comments, along with 400 new followers. Though the earlier experience prepared the blogger for this time, he recalled: “It was still overwhelming.”

It’s the creative process that keeps him grounded. His advice to first-time bloggers: “Write with regularity. Whether it’s once a week or once a day, be consistent.”

That consistency doesn’t just benefit the reader. “Writing is a form of meditation,” the journalist said. “The more you practice it, the more focused and instinctive it becomes.” He added, “Eventually, your creativity will begin to anticipate that routine and be waiting for you when you sit down at the keyboard.”

What also keeps Hickson grounded is another lesson his stepfather, Glenn, passed on to him: “Do something well and the rest will take care of itself.”

Everything the journalist and blogger approach with that philosophy worked out well. “I started with one newspaper column and just focused on the writing,” Hickson said. “Today, it’s in 30 papers in the U.S. and Canada.”

(ARTWORK: Courtesy of Ned Hickson)

Scott Write and Sandra Walker are among the editors happy to run Hickson’s columns in their papers. ” I only had to read one of his columns to realize his humor transcended regional lifestyles and geographical boundaries,” according to a testimonial from Write, editor of The Post in Centre, Alabama. “That was almost two years ago, and his column is now an eagerly anticipated weekly feature.”

In her testimonial, Walker pointed out Hickson’s intergenerational appeal. “Ned’s column has attracted not just the usual middle-aged class of newspaper readers, but also the high school students who enjoy seeing something lighthearted in the newspaper,” she said. “We are thankful to have his entertaining wit and wisdom as part of our newspaper each week.”

The philosophy of doing something well gained him additional blog benefits. “I’m approaching 3,000 followers, which is something I never suspected, particularly with my limited social networking knowledge,” said the blogger, who managed to link his site to Facebook and Twitter.

“I’m just focusing on the funny,” he added, “and letting the rest take care of itself.”

Hickson’s also focused on taking care of his family — whether it’s cheering on his kids at sporting events or helping them with homework. “Any time I can spend with my family is quality time,” he said. “My wife is truly my best friend and someone who makes every moment together quality.”

In fact, the few pleasures he enjoys, once the kids are in bed, is curling up on the couch with his wife while she reads aloud his post for the day. “When something catches her off guard and she laughs out loud — that’s the best,” Hickson said. “If she were my only fan, that would be enough for me.”

A Christmas Post

A lot’s happened since October. I started two new jobs — one full-time (communications specialist for a national nonprofit) and the other part-time (senior editor at a global hip-hop journal). Though the former, more so than the latter, leaves me less time and energy to blog here, I couldn’t be happier. With both positions, I make a living doing what I love: writing. And they help me get my work to a larger audience, even if — at times — with the the full-time gig, I’m a ghostwriter.

They’re also the reason this Christmas is special, why it’s the first one — in a long time — of which I’m excited. It took me working a regular schedule to appreciate this week off. I took advantage of the break and knocked out my holiday shopping before the last minute rush. I also baked an eggplant parmesan, worked with my wife on a gluten-free veggie lasagna and assisted her with baking four 7-Up cakes and dozens of muffins (the 7-Up replaces baking powder, helping the cake to rise).

This morning, I’m looking forward to the chicken and waffle breakfast with Kirk Franklin’s gospel Christmas album on repeat. I’m looking forward to sipping hot cocoa and to eating dinner at my parent’s with my wife, siblings and my niece, Anicia — who, as I’m writing this, fills the house with her sweet sounds, bugging “Nana” and “Poppa” for attention.

(This is Anicia’s  fourth Christmas and the third she’ll actually remember). I’m also looking forward to dessert at my aunt and uncle’s, hanging with my cousins and some family my wife and I haven’t seen since our wedding nearly two years ago.

In addition to my new jobs, I started my newsletter, The Hourglass Flow, of which I snatched the title from a friend’s poem inspired by MF Doom’s verse on De La Soul’s “Rock Co.Kane Flow“: “…to write all night long/the hourglass is still slow/flow from hellborn/to free power like Wilco”. (Check out the back issue and the holiday sale I got going with said buddy that will continue through New Years, then subscribe to the newsletter).

Besides inspiring the title, Doom’s verse also alludes to the love and energy  we bloggers put into our posts, especially since we’re willing “to write all night long” because we have something to say. Every time I wonder how long I’ll keep this up, I think about how fortunate I am to have a platform that promoted several authors and helped a film student raise funds for his feature-length thesis film.

I’m fortunate for a platform to post my articles and essays that would otherwise sit somewhere, collecting dust. I’m grateful to have this platform, without which my ramblings would stay idle voices echoing in my head.

So here’s a short post, checking in, and a long way of wishing everyone happy holidays. I’m excited for what the new year will bring such as, among other things, a piece I wrote on an amazing photographer that will debut in the next Words Beats & Life hip hop journal. I’ll keep you posted on when the new issue is out. Also, if you have anything you want promoted in The Hourglass Flow, hit me at nyckencole@hotmail.com with “Newsletter Item” in the subject line, and it’ll go out in next month’s newsletters (it’s bimonthly). Peace!

(PHOTO: Samantha Paul) For her ninth birthday, Rachel Beckwith asked her family for donations to help bring clean water to people in poor countries. She died in a car crash before she could see her $300 goal exceeded a thousand times over.

Ryleigh Kastra and Joshua Williams fed needy people in their communities. Rachel Beckwith brought clean water to African villagers. These young people, all of whom Youth Service America (YSA) recognized as Everyday Young Heroes, weren’t in their teens when they decided to make a difference…they were children.

Yesterday was Universal Children’s Day, which the United Nations and its member countries observed for two reasons: 1) promote mutual exchange and understanding among children and 2) to promote the welfare of the world’s children.

Of the former, these young people weren’t waiting on anyone to take action. They did it, themselves – like Rachel Beckwith of Seattle, Washington. On her ninth birthday, Beckwith asked her family for donations to Charity: water. She set up a website with the nonprofit, hoping to meet her $300 goal (she only reached $220 by her birthday).

Ryleigh Kastra from Charlottesville, Virginia, was just as ready to affect change when she joined a national food drive initiative started by another Everyday Young Hero. Kastra was 8 years old when she created flyers, asking for canned goods donations. She distributed nearly 400 of her flyers. She collected 700 pounds of food to deliver on her first trip to Neighbors-4-Neighbors.

Joshua Williams, of Miami, Florida, and his family were on their way to feed the homeless when officials told them it was against public health laws to distribute food without a permit.

(PHOTO: Lance Cheung) The White House recognized 11-year-old Joshua Williams, of Miami, last year as a “Champion of Change” for strengthening food security in the United States and around the world.

He was initially inspired by what he saw on TV. “I was watching Feed The Children, and I felt sad for the children,” Williams said in the Sodexo Foundation’s video, which included interviews with Williams’s aunt KerryAnne McLean and his friend Alexander Bailey. Of Feed the Children, Williams added, “I wanted to do [something similar] in Florida.”

That’s when his mom, aunt and a consultant helped him start his own foundation, Joshua’s Heart, when he was 5 years old. “It was amazing because his friends and other family members — everyone — was excited to help…and put a smile on someone else’s face,” McLean said.

The Foundation has since raised over 400,000 pounds of food to needy families in South Florida, while teaching some recipients how to prepare healthier meals. “We have volunteers and elves,” Williams said. “Volunteers are adults, and the elves are children. They’re my friends, or friends of my friends.”

An elf admired Williams’s selflessness. “I think Joshua has a very big heart,” Bailey said. “I would say that he’s a very thankful person and he’s very helpful.”

Universal Children’s Day is an opportunity to be as helpful in promoting the welfare of the world’s children. Two years ago, Generations United teamed up with the MetLife Foundation to help the Ryleighs, the Joshuas and the Rachels out there, looking to put their entrepreneurial spirits to work.

(PHOTO: Stock)

Through our youth-led jump-start grants, young people developed volunteer projects working with, or on behalf of, older adults. I remember what a teenager, who took part in our project, once reported. “One thing I learned through this project is to respect your community and your history,” he said. “For all of the retired teachers we worked with, most had lived here for a while, and even though they are done working and could leave if they wanted to, they did not. I learned through their stories that your community has a way of shaping you and your history, and that your community never leaves you.”

Generations United promoted the welfare of the world’s children by stating our support for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan that devastated the Philippines two weeks ago – leaving thousands, who lost everything, struggling to survive without food or medical care. We used our weekly e-newsletter, Generations This Week, to direct support to HelpAge USA and Save the Children.

At our Signature Report event next month, we’ll tackle the zero-sum framework (funding programs like Social Security and Medicare for Americans over 65 vs. addressing college debt and youth unemployment), which sets up a false conflict between our older and younger generations.

As we celebrate Universal Children’s Day, let’s nurture our children’s potential and show them there’s no age limit on affecting change.

Marian Wright Edelman Fires Up Intergenerational Advocates

Edelman

(PHOTO: Alan King) Marian Wright Edelman after her talk at the Public Policy building in Dupont Circle

EDITOR’S NOTE: I’m writing this article as the Communications Specialist at Generations United. I had a great opportunity to catch Ms. Edelman’s talk earlier this week.

Marian Wright Edelman’s pep talk earlier this week came from a different place. It wasn’t the usual eloquent oration of a gifted speaker whose decades of fighting for disadvantaged Americans earned her the status of civil rights legend.

Instead, she delivered her appeal as a grandmother. “I love my grandchildren,” she told a packed room Oct. 28 at the Gray Panthers’ National Convention in D.C. “They have re-radicalized me all over again.”

Edelman’s initial spark came from the racial injustice she saw as a lawyer with the Mississippi office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She tackled segregation laws, represented activists during the 1964 Freedom Summer, and helped setup a Head Start Program. In 1973, she founded the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), an advocacy and research center for youth issues.

The CDF is also a co-founder of Generations United, a national advocacy group whose intergenerational strategies improves the lives of children, youth, and older people.

Evoking the inspiration her granddaughters gave her, Edelman re-radicalized the Gray Panthers, an intergenerational advocacy organization. She charged them to be “pit bulls up there on the hill” for young people disadvantaged by poor educational systems (“We want universal preschool through K,” Edelman said, “it shouldn’t stop at kindergarten”) and gun violence (“a violent crime occurs every 26 seconds,” according to the FBI’s 2012 crime data).

Though we weren’t mentioned by name, Generations United was present in Edelman’s address, especially when she urged the older adults to advocate for children and youth. “We’ve got to make a raucous,” she said, “but it’s got be a continuous raucous.”

Through our Seniors4Kids program, older adults make a continuous raucous in support of early childhood development whether they’re in Colorado, Kentucky, Nebraska or New Jersey, to name a few.

“1 in 6 Americans live in a multigenerational household,” according to Generations United’s data.

“What does early education have to do with older adults?” Drs. Joan Lombardi and Mary Catherine Bateson asked in their May 14 Huffington Post Op/Ed, “United Across the Generations to Assure a Strong Start for Children.”

“The well-being of our nation’s children and our own grandchildren will have a huge impact on our quality of living,” according to Lombardi and Bateson. “If our children emerge from our education system ill-prepared for the work world, we will suffer along with them, because we will be dependent upon them.”

Edelman echoed that sentiment at the Gray Panthers’ National Convention. “You are the indispensable,” she told the grandparents – some of whom mentored troubled teens and young mothers through the foster grandparents program.

“You’re the most talented and educated generation of grandparents and advocates,” Edelman continued before expressing her admiration for grandfamilies, or multigenerational households headed by grandparent caregivers. There are now 2.7 million grandparents in the U.S. who have sole responsibility of the children living with them, according to Generations United’s data.

Edelman joked about her experiences as a grandmother. “I love my grandchildren, but I sure am happy when they go home,” she told a laughing crowd. “They wear you out.”

But Edelman doesn’t take the social enrichment her grandchildren give her for granted. “I have three great sons,” she said, “but when I had my first two granddaughters, I didn’t know how lonely I’d been all of those years.”

The Human Thing To Do (for National Blog Action Day)

(PHOTO: Tunisia Live)

In the spirit of Blog Action Day, a friend challenged me and a few others to join bloggers around the world in raising awareness about a single subject.

The premise hasn’t changed since this free annual event started in 2007. The goal is that what we post will start positive global discussions about an annually assigned topic and urge support for advocacy groups whose work coincides with that issue.

This year’s topic, “Human Rights,” is right on time with 800,000 federal workers out of a job because of a congressional showdown between the President and Tea Party Republicans. But I don’t want to tear House Speaker John Boehner a new one for not reigning in his “Young Guns”.

I don’t want to talk about how those loose canons are holding middle class families for ransom, how they hope the President and Senate Democrats cave so they can delay or de-fund Obamacare, attempting to tarnish the President’s legacy. I don’t want to talk about those human rights violations, with Congress so close to a deal.

I do want to talk about an email I received this morning about 46 women fatally shot every month by domestic abusers. That’s the issue that hits even closer to home with me — someone who admires his wife’s brilliance, his mom’s big heart and quiet wisdom, his sister’s strong spirit and his adorable 4-year-old niece’s inquisitive nature (“Uncle, what’s that?”).

This issue is also on-time with October being Domestic Violence Awareness month. This year, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a bipartisan coalition of more than 1,000 mayors, got a petition going to toughen gun laws that make it difficult for dangerous people, including violent partners, to buy weapons.

I wholeheartedly agree with this coalition’s efforts to stop what former Congressman Mark Green considered a threat to national security. “If the numbers we see in domestic violence were applied to terrorism or gang violence, the entire country would be up in arms,” Green once said. “It would be the lead story on the news every night.”

(PHOTO: unknown on Flickr)

Right now, the lead story is the government shutdown, which is nowhere as pricey as domestic abuse services that include health care and counseling, along with social and welfare programs.

The Advocates for Human Rights did some additional calculating in their 2011 report, including the cost of “police and criminal justice services, legal services, transportation costs, and housing and other refuge services used by victims of domestic violence and special education services used to treat children of abused women.”

The advocacy group found that healthcare services, alone, for abused victims was $4.1 billion, according to figures from1995. That the government shutdown — which doesn’t occur often — gets more news ink and TV time than violence against women — which recent stats show is prevalent enough to victimize one in four at some point in her life — says a lot about where women’s rights fall on our priorities. Additionally, consider the irony of domestic abuse awareness kept to a whisper during its dedicated month.

But what do you expect from elected officials who, during last year’s General Election, tried to redefine rape and tell women what to do with their bodies. Those oppressive behaviors would disgust even a Republican tycoon like Leland Stanford. To hear him tell it, “Women having to suffer the burdens of society and government should have their equal rights in it.”

That’s why advocacy groups like Mayors Against Illegal Guns are important. We can do our part to promote human solidarity by adding our names to a petition “demanding action to end gun violence.” There are also other groups working on behalf of battered women such as American Bar Association Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence, Battered Women’s Justice Project, Child Welfare League of America, and Equality Now, to name a few.

Here’s a full list of standout groups stopping domestic abuse. Let’s do our part to discuss a human issue. It’s a step in the right direction, according to actress and filmmaker Salma Hayek. “If you give me any problem in America I can trace it down to domestic violence,” Hayek once said. “It is the cradle of most of the problems, economic, psychological, educational.”

Our Government Shouldn’t Default on its Youth and Seniors

(PHOTO: Reuters)

This weekend’s forecast is rife with symbolism. Take the snarling sky and the thunderheads rumbling through the district.

Take the flash floods, the pounding winds, the power outages. And what you have is a local storm analogous to the one in Congress that shutdown the government last week, leaving this country’s defenseless citizens to wonder what this means for intergenerational programs.

Among those effected is the USDA’s Commodity Supplemental Food Program — which, in addition to serving 40 states and two Native American reservations — benefits Kent County, Michigan’s 1,300 low-income elderly. This older adult group is over 60 with an annual income below $15,000. According to NPR’s All Things Considered, the weekly food packages “include some dried milk, pasta and two different types of juice.”

This national impasse hit North Carolina’s Piedmont Triad Regional Council, trimming staff at the Area Agency on Aging (AAA). During the shutdown, the AAA reduced its full-time employees’ work hours by 25 percent, while temporarily laying off part-time staff. This limits or delays the agency’s ability to empower seniors and disabled people by affecting change in existing policies.

(ARTWORK: David Horsey)

If this shutdown continues, it could drain funds from the Older Americans Act (OAA) that secures physical and mental health services, retirement income and housing for older generations, while protecting them against ageism in hiring practices. The OAA also helps youth through its National Family Caregiver Support Program (NFCSP), which allows state agencies to use 10 percent of program-allocated funds to support grandfamilies, or households with caregivers over 55 raising a related young person.

Across the country, rental assistance programs aren’t sure how they’ll survive if the political deadlock, which stalled activity at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, stretches into November. These voucher services aid grandparent caregivers, who already face barriers to housing access (“More than 1 in 4 older caregivers live in overcrowded conditions,” according to Generations United, while “more than 1 in 6 pay over half their income in rent”).

It’s times like these, I wish Hubert Humphrey was here to lend Congress his common sense. “The moral test of government,” according to the former Vice President, “is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” This was Humphrey calling on the American government to protect its vulnerable citizens.

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

A global example of helping the defenseless is The Girl Declaration, which fights intergenerational poverty by tapping into the potential of adolescent girls, who too often are without educational resources.

“Bringing together the thinking of 508 girls living in poverty across the globe with the expertise of more than 25 of the world’s leading development organisations, the Girl Declaration is our tool to stop poverty before it starts,” according to girleffect.org.

If three foundations and a coalition can start a movement that helps young girls abroad, there’s no reason Congress can’t help struggling households at home. To make matters worse, the U.S. is at risk of defaulting if legislators don’t raise the debt ceiling.

Last Thursday, AARP President Robert Romasco explained to Bloomberg TV’s “Market Makers” how a default catastrophically affects seniors hard. “It puts every single obligation we have — from bonds, to social security payments, to contractors — at risk,” said Romasco, whose organization lobbies for 37 million older adults. “Somebody’s not going to get paid. That could be social security recipients, it could be veterans, it could be bond holders.”

That’s why it’s important, more than ever, for some serious soul-searching on Capitol Hill. They can take a cue from Mahatma Gandhi, who once said: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Let’s hope Congress loses itself doing what’s right.

Arts Summit Revives SW Community

(PHOTO: Azeez Bakare) Australian artist MEGGS produced this mural that wraps around the walls and ceiling.

There are no pews in this darkened sanctuary. Atop the booming pulpit, a DJ spins a sampled sermon for the head-nodding congregation, colored in sweeping orange and yellow spotlights, the few among them kicking MF Doom lyrics the way a disciplined believer spits scripture.

The revival on the second floor is fitting for hiphop’s holy ghost to take hold of those snapping Instagram shots of Australian artist MEGG’s floor-to-ceiling mural that wraps around the room. The building, itself − at the corner of Delaware Avenue and H Street SW − is a work of art. The lava lamp patterns of red, purple, blue and green cover the exterior walls of what was once the Friendship Baptist Church, which sat vacant for two decades.

This visual overhaul is so far out that if funk-era’s Extraterrestrial Brothers showed up opening night, there’s no doubt they’d marvel at this functional canvas and swear it spawned from George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic machine of the 70s.

Now, a crowd gathers inside the new Blind Whino: SW Arts Club for the G40 2013 Art Summit (Sept. 13 – Oct. 6). This year’s theme, the “Art of transformation,” is about reclaiming spaces and objects. Which is what four “street artists” accomplished through the Heineken Mural Project, whose D.C. stop coincided with this year’s arts summit. Along with Brendan Tierney and EVER, Aniekan and Rubin transformed D.C. into a citywide art gallery that starts at the Shaw metro, continues to Capital View, through 3rd and L streets NE, concluding at H and 6th streets NE.

Since its inception in 2010, the G40’s international drawing includes more than 300 artists and 500 works showcased in a giant exhibit of canvas work, installation walls, and mural wraps. I recognize some artists from previous shows like Angry Woebots (Aaron Martin), known for his enraged panda wood prints, and Gigi Bio, who captures urban-scapes in her stitched panoramic photos.

(PHOTO/ARTWORK: Aniekan Udofia) Udofia’s “Return of the Shaolin Pencils” series was a hit at the arts summit.

Then there’s Aniekan Udofia, whose new work includes the “Return of the Shaolin Pencil” series, which features three panels of various warrior women in fierce poses. Udofia’s shift from acrylic paints to oils animates his heroines in their bright Chinese dresses − brandishing fat pencil nunchucks and retractable lead claws. I’m still thinking about my friend’s eerie discovery that one of Udofia’s illustrated women, the one donning a bamboo hat and graphite sword across her back, shares my wife Tosin’s likeness.

I’m glad “Tos” finds that flattering. I’m also glad Blind Whino, an arts nonprofit, will operate the space as an arts club following the G40. Ian Callendar, who co-founded Blind Whino with Art Whino’s Shane Pomajambo, didn’t respond to a request for comment at press time. Our objective is simple,” according to Blind Whino’s website, “to provide our youth, our elders and everyone in between with an organic, art inspired environment for both learning and creating within the arts culture.”

In an August interview with The Southwester’s Sam Marrero, Callendar explained the excitement around Blind Whino. “Blind Whino introduces the Speakeasy concept where people met to mix and mingle,” he said. “These places were destinations for art, jazz, and social gatherings.”

(PHOTO: BlindWhino) “Art Whino commissioned Atlanta based artist HENSE to produce a full building mural wrap around the entire perimeter of the venue.” (blindwhino.com)

And that’s fitting for the arts renaissance coming to D.C.’s SW quadrant, which includes the nearby Randall School building’s renovation into a modern arts museum. “With Mera Rubell’s Family Collection and Redevelopment coming to the old Randall School, this quadrant of Southwest is set to become a booming Arts District,” Callendar told The Southwester.

Of moving forward with Blind Whino, he added: “We plan to house planned town hall meetings, art groups and organizations, and even special events.”

It’s jumping at the Blind Whino this closing weekend, which included Friday night’s performances by Locke KaushalTheophilus MartinsFootwerk Band, and Beyond Modern to conclude the Rock Creek Social Club (RCSC)’s weekly F.A.M.E. (Fashion Art Music & Entertainment) event.

Resident DJ Jerome Baker III, a self-described cog in the RCSC machine, also performed. He couldn’t be happier with the social club’s success its first at the arts summit. “We were given Friday nights to create any environment we wanted thematically,” says Baker, whose organization offered free entry to anyone donating winter clothes at the Feed DC booth they set up.

Saturday, the second floor is just as energetic with the producer showcase, featuring DJs GrussleT Mos and Triple Threat. Their journey through cascading drums and bass-heavy tracks almost makes me break my neck from nodding. So much so that the host DJ JUDAH calls me out for making the screw face. I’m not an emcee, but the beats are so inspiring that I’m tempted to lose my mind like Ghostface Killah and start rhyming about calzone purses and fettuccine shoelaces.

An actual lyricist, The Goddess of Light, is also inspired − giving props to Piff Huxtable. “This man @Grussle” − Piff − “got so damn nasty on the crowd,” she tweets. “That beat was incomprehensible. I dumbed out. Crazy.”

Banafsheh Ghassemi, still elating from an exhilarating closeout, tips her hat to Blind Whino’s Ian Callendar and Shane Pomajambo for pulling off the summit. “Thanks for all you do!” she tweets. “You guys rock this town’s soul.”

Interactive Meet-up Provides Platform for Race Discussion

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Gregg Deal) Gregg Deal is an artist, vandal, father, husband, indigenous and a cyclist. “I wear Crocs making street art,” he jokes, “to keep my street cred in check.”

Scrolling through the notes on his smart phone, Gregg Deal, a visual artist and self-professed vandal, asked his digital media cohorts an important question last night.

“How would you react if” — while grocery shopping — “you came around the corner to see this?” He pointed at a slide photo of himself sporting a decorative blue tunic, face paint and white feathered headdress — walking through the cereal aisle — “trying,” as Deal put it, “to pick between Fruit Loops and Cocoa Puffs.”

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe member’s humor resonated with the poets, playwrights, journalists and filmmakers who packed The Dunes in Columbia Heights for StoryCode DC’s launch event Tuesday evening.

The narrative of  StoryCode, a global community for emerging and established storytellers using transmedia to engage audiences, comes out of the New York-based meet-ups, according to Felicia Pride (@feliciapride), CEO of The Pride Collaborative and the event’s co-organizer with Kelli Anderson (@Sojournals).

A new form of immersive storytelling emerged with global audiences using tablets, cell phones and multimedia. What was eventually dubbed Transmedia quickly outgrew that umbrella term and became Story Hackathon, then StoryCode this year. “The first chapter was started in Paris…in April,” Pride said.

StoryCode DC (@StoryCodeDC), the second global affiliate, is the first U.S.-based offshoot of the StoryCode franchise. “There are lots of chapters forthcoming,” Pride said. “Boston might be next, so we’re very excited to start this here.”

(PHOTO: Alan King) Kelli Anderson and Felicia Pride co-hosting last night’s StoryCode DC launch event.

The D.C. chapter’s goal is to use the monthly meet-ups, which features two 10 -12 minute presentations followed by networking sessions, to connect storytellers with web developers and interactive media artist to advance the possibilities of narrative.

“We don’t want it to be an exclusive situation…where it’s just the filmmaker or the visual content creator,” Anderson said. “We also want to make sure we have a place where you can experiment. You may not have the idea completely figured out.”

Or, she continued, “Maybe you just need a place in the community where you can voice your ideations and find collaborators.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Media Rise Festival)

Last night’s event also kicked-off the nearly week-long Media Rise Festival (@MediaRiseNow) (Sept. 23 – 29), a series of D.C.-based events celebrating how storytelling, design, art and media contribute to a peaceful and sustainable world.

StoryCode DC attendees, like Saaret Yoseph (@SaaretSays), live-tweeted the inaugural meet-up. “It’s never been a better time to be a storyteller in DC,” Yoseph posted. “The environment is ripe for innovation.”

Filmmaker Jonathan Goodman Levitt and visual artist Gregg Deal made that case for this ripe environment in their presentations. During his talk, Levitt showed clips of his current project Follow the Leader, a film that confronts the assumption that all millennial youth are liberal.

It’s Levitt’s first film made in the U.S., after a decade of working as a London-based filmmaker. Follow the Leader started as a personal investigation into the contradictory political views Levitt saw while teaching in the U.S. Post-9/11.

“Rather than trying to define millennial opinion generally, my approach was to follow teens” — Ben, D.J. And Nick — “who had signed on wholeheartedly to the ‘War on Terror’ as they became adults,” according to Levitt’s Director’s Statement. “Beyond giving voice to ‘conservative’ ideas, their distinctly different choices on the cusp of adulthood show how kids like them are already redefining what these terms mean as their generation shapes American politics’ future.”

The film hit home — literally — with Victor Akosile (@CaptVHugo). “I’m eager to see Follow the Leader,” he tweeted, “especially since it was shot in my backyard in Virginia. #storycodedc”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Gregg Deal) Deal recounted the time a shopping mall security approached him. “OK, you have my attention,” the guard said. “What are you doing?” To which Deal responded, “I’m shopping.” There was a back-and-forth until the guard told Deal to stay out of trouble.

Erica Lee Schlaikjer (@MediaRiseNow), of Benevolent Media and a founder of the Media Rise Festival, shared Akosile’s enthusiasm, championing Levitt’s company Changeworx USA LLC. “What’s the call to action from @changeworxfilms?,” Sclaikjer tweeted. “Discuss, educate, think, change attitudes. #storycodedc”

Gregg Deal (@the_lame_sauce), the self-proclaimed vandal and a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, was also about changing attitudes. Though his humor paid off in his connection with the crowd, the photo of him in the cereal aisle was an attempt to also humanize Native Americans, too often exploited in popular culture.

He’s exploiting those stereotypes in The Last American Indian On Earth (@thelastamericanindianonearth), a performance art piece he started in May that involves him, dressed in his ornamental outfit, bringing the misconceptions of Native Americans to public spaces. “It raises questions,” Deal said. “What is this? Why is this here?”

This project sprang from his 2004 experience as a docent (“a guide” or “educator”) for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. During that inaugural year, the museum reportedly drew 20,000 Native Americans who marched on the National Mall to celebrate the opening.

It also opened the door for non-First Nation  folks to voice their misconceptions. Deal fielded tourists’ questions like “Why aren’t there teepees in the museum?” and “If you lived in a teepee, where would keep your squaw?”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Gregg Deal)

A patron tried to convince Deal of what she saw as her Native American ancestry. “My great, great, great-grandfather was Indian,” she said, “because I saw a picture of him and he really looked Indian.” To which the museum docent responded: “That’s crazy! My great, great, great-grandmother was white. I’m sure because I saw a picture of her and she looked really white.”

One of the public places Deal’s usually-silent character frequents is the Lincoln Memorial. He parks at the Department of the Interior and makes the seven-minute walk from C Street to 17th Street — right on Independence Avenue — over the Kutz Bridge, back to Independence, then posts up with his signs on the marble steps at Lincoln Memorial Circle.

During one of his walks, an SUV cruised by Deal slow — its windows down, the family inside hooting and hollering, smacking their mouths before peeling off. “Part of the performance,” he said, “is I don’t react.”

He doesn’t react when people pose beside him for pictures without his permission. “I am, essentially, a subhuman nonentity,” Deal said, “not a person that they can talk to and say, ‘Hey, you mind if i take a picture with you?’” Some folks ask, but most don’t.

Then there was his encounter with an “unapologetically rude” husband. Here’s how it played out, according to the artist:

Rude Guy: Why are you wearing that?
Deal: Why am I wearing what?
RG: That get-up?
D: How do you know I don’t wear this everyday?
RG: Whatever, man. Whatever floats your boat.

The irony is that Deal’s outfit was why the guy’s excited wife wanted to pose with him in the first place. “It floated somebody’s boat,” Deal said, which drew awws from the crowd. He continued, “The important aspect of being indigenous, and of my work, is my humor and my family.”

But he didn’t see the humor in a Starbucks customer’s remark some time ago. That day, the alter ego was enjoying a coffee with his spouse. A couple near them asked Deal’s wife, whose Caucasian: “Where did you meet your husband? At a bar on a reservation?”

It’s days like those that make Deal’s project taxing. “People of color, when somebody says something that’s inappropriate, racist, or horrible, it hits you to your core,” he said. “To me, it doesn’t just hit me, it hits my ancestors.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Gregg Deal)

The slide images were Just as hitting — some photos showed sports fanatics wearing Mohawks and face paint, yelling for the cameras; one showed the Washington football team’s logo; another showed Tonto from The Lone Ranger TV series — all of which pointed out another irony. Those images are not “Indian,” according to Deal. “They’re images of colonialism, of the idea of defeating a specific people, they’re images of genocide.”

That’s what makes The Last American Indian On Earth significant. “It’s about my kids. I do this for them because…they’re going to have to come to terms with this idea of identity,” Deal said. “They’re going to have to work out how to maintain their identity…their Indianness while someone tells them what it is they’re suppose to be.”

He continued, “It’s my hope that shedding light on this…will make things a little bit brighter for my kids and other people.”

He brightened last night’s event for Caitlin Carroll (@carrollcaitlin), who tweeted: “Leaving #storycodedc, feeling so impressed with the projects presented, smarter than I was before, & inspired to work!”

A Lifeline for Guys Passing as Sports Fans

(PHOTO: Nick Matthews)

As a 30-something male in a sports-dominated world, my boredom with watching guys running on a court or rushing a field might seem odd to most folks. To them, my disinterest in an apparent global pastime drops my testosterone and spikes the estrogen.

And it’s easier said than done to brush off what sports lovers might think of me. That’s what drove me to find men who also felt alien on Planet ESPN. Which landed me on The Straight Dope message board, under “I’m a guy and I don’t like sports.”

The thread reads like confessionals from a support group for guys made to feel their manhood was somehow defective. (This post is not me trying to wear my disinterest in team paraphernalia as an emblem of courage. To each his own. Rather, I’m extending a hand to some poor soul, a lifeline for those who considered passing as sports fans when their masculinity’s not enough.)

To know how I feel about televised recreational activity, there’s Tim Seibles’ poem “Playing Catch” (from Buffalo Head Solos), about a hypothetical day when the balls disappear. “[...] the televisions were jam-packed:/pre-season football, rugby, golf, even softball,” wrote Seibles, a sports fan and a 2012 National Book Award Finalist.

He continued, “If you didn’t know better changing/channels could make you think the world/was a giant field divided by white lines and water,/that life was mainly a chance to fall in love/with one of the many man-made spheres.”

(ARTWORK: J.Gabás)

Dallas Jones, a man over 50, couldn’t agree more. “The college basketball team playoffs last all goddamn month long! All. Damn. March!” he posted. “I never knew there were that many colleges in the entire country, but there are, and they all play basketball in March. All. Goddamn. Month!”

As if that’s not enough, “ccamp,” another man over 50, gets tripped up in small talk with his clients. “In business, it is sort of an icebreaker,” he wrote. “I have several contacts who always launch into sports talk, and I wonder what they think when I can never offer anything back besides…[the] BS I can string together.”

Lord knows I’ve done that, going so far as to read headlines and watch sports highlights for something to contribute in office discussions, then stroll off, victorious that I proved myself. I had to do it again, last week, while trying on a suit for work.

The sales rep asked about the previous night’s game between Washington (I refuse to say or print the racist team name) and Green Bay Packers. My eyes glazed over before I caught myself, then threw out some familiar names and hammered the clerk with questions about his team loyalty.

That’s my awkward sports talk strategy: revert back to the journalism technique of speaking less and listening more, getting more info out of the other guy than he gets out of you. Pulling it off doesn’t take as much effort as knowing everything about the game, a complaint even die-hard fans legitimize.

“The rules and regulations ARE overwhelming. On top of keeping track of the hundred or so different rules in every league and knowing how they apply to the game and scenario at hand[,] depending on whether you’re watching the college or pro version, you have to keep track of which rules are changing,” wrote Logan Rhoades in his BuzzFeed article “5 Reasons People Hate Sports — That Sports Fans Secretly Understand.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The columnist continued, “Just take a look at the NFL rule book over the last few years. Plays and hits that were legal 20 years ago are no longer permitted, and even the guys playing the game don’t fully know what’s allowed anymore.”

It doesn’t help me that, at 6-foot-2 and over 240 pounds, I look like I should be on a field, sacking quarterbacks and ramming linebackers. That’s what “Game Hat,” a 29-year-old, did through high school with zero interest in sports.

“Even as a kid — I really wondered WTF the big deal was. I never had a favorite team and never felt any sort of connection with any athlete,” he wrote.

Perhaps fueling his disinterest is that the down time outweighs the action in most sports. “…[T]he average NFL game is just over three hours, while the time the ball is actually in play on the field is only about 11 minutes,” according to Rhoades, who noted that this ratio doesn’t solely apply to football.

“A baseball fan will see 17 minutes and 58 seconds of action over the course of a three-hour game,” Wall Street Journal’s Steve Moyer reported in a July 16 article. “This is roughly the equivalent of a TED Talk, a Broadway intermission or the missing section of the Watergate tapes.”

It’s enough time for “Game Hat” to put things in perspective. “Around my junior year of high school,” he said, “I quit all sports to join the debate team and the jazz ensemble.”

Arts Advocates, Unite!

(PHOTO: Alan King) The D.C. Creative Writing Workshop’s writing club members who placed at the 2013 Parkmont Poetry Competition.

In a previous post, I talked about why poetry matters. Now, with the shift towards STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) curriculum, advancing the arts is more important than ever; and why there’s strength in numbers.

I’m still hellbent on convincing my opponents that arts education is as important as mathematical skills. In fact, while “you can replace some math skills with a calculator,” according to Hal Sparks, “there’s no calculator for human interaction.”

That human connection — which I enjoy as a creative writing instructor and nationally published poet — is, as Hendrik Willem van Loon once put it, a true barometer of what’s going on in our world.

(PHOTO: Alan King) Mark Williams, chair of the Literary Media and Communications department at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, cracks up after hearing Khat’s joke: “Why do basketball players wear bibs?” Answer: “Because they dribble a lot.”

I’m glad that two columnists, The Desert Sun’s Floyd Rhoades and Florida Today’s Suzy Fleming Leonard, are using that barometer to measure how arts impact today’s education. The emphasis placed on STEM — minus the “A” — worries Rhoades.

”Certainly a well-rounded education is critical, but when we put all the emphasis on right-brained education, what happens to the left-brained students?” Rhoades wondered. “What about an A for the Arts? We should be talking about STEAM” — (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) — “not just STEM….It’s also about quality of life.”

As a poetry teacher, I can attest to that. The arts fulfill my life and those of my students. During my craft lessons I teach throughout the D.C./Baltimore region, I make my classes aware of sensory details (what brings the reader into the speaker’s world) and psychological details (what brings the reader inside the speaker’s mind or what shows the speaker’s reactions to the sensory details).

What I enjoy most about teaching is how my students light up when they realize that every time they write poems, they’re casting spells. The goal is to keep the reader spellbound until the end. They also learn to enhance an already rich experience with other literary devices such as rhythm and alliteration, both of which crank up a line’s musicality so it hits the reader like a bass thump to the chest.

For the students I taught at both Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop, those craft elements paid off when their work won recognition in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and the Parkmont Poetry Festival in addition to D.C.’s citywide competitions.

(PHOTO: Alan King) Kayla swagging at the after school writing club.

The arts also provides abundant possibilities, according to columnist Suzy Fleming Leonard, who interviewed about 900 folks on Facebook. The outcome affirmed her hypothesis that arts appreciation does more than “produce…just talented artists.”

Leonard’s notion alludes to the creative economy, what Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, describes as “creativity…turned into big commercial innovations lead[ing] to new businesses, new jobs, higher wages and economic growth.”

In a September column for The Atlantic, Florida noted a recent study by two analysts at the London School of Economics that looked at the United Kingdom’s “creative industries” — among which are advertising, architecture, publishing and design.

“But, as the researchers pointed out, creativity extends beyond these specific firms and industries,” wrote Florida. “Roughly 2 million people are employed in creative occupations across the U.K. Economy, more than 40 percent of which are in other industries.”

Back in the U.S., Mijee Bain and Debbie Vordemark Wells are part of that economy. They told Florida Today’s Suzy Fleming Leonard how their childhood appreciation of the arts equipped them for unlikely careers.

“Because of my education in the arts — both at school and in Brevard County community theaters — I learned a good amount of the skills I needed to become an international business consultant,” Bain said. “I would never have been able to travel and consult with major companies on six continents without my background in the arts.”

It also informs Debbie Vordemark Wells’s skills as an engineer. “I think what makes the arts so attractive to complete education is the use of the other senses,” Wells said. “I have been lucky to have started serious musical training at 9 and played alone or in groups for many years. . . . As a result, I’m a very creative engineer. Sound, smell, sight and feel play a huge role in evaluating technology.”

As for me, I’m in the business of advancing art. I did it for four years as senior program director for the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop. My communications strategies included developing outreach materials — often quoting Americans for the Arts in my grant applications to corporate and private funders, informing them that “The arts…are essential to a thriving community, creating a sense of place and fueling social and economic growth.”

Duke Ellington’s Literary Media students rehearsing their talk for TEDxDESA, the first-ever high school TED talk.

I also took my crusade to the airwaves, promoting arts education through an on-air interview and radio spots, all of which resulted from my partnership with National Public Radio. Additionally, I served as an advisory panelist for the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, improving the commission’s application/review process.

And despite these accomplishments, I know my work — like other arts advancers — is a drip, compared to the downpour of programs and services that arts advocacy coalitions offer their member organizations and artists.

That’s why — more than ever — we need to make a stronger case for arts education, which requires collaborating with other arts defenders, echoing a Michael Jordan quote: “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.”

It’s time for us to support groups championing the arts, doing our part to help score opportunities for more Americans to take part in and appreciate all forms of the arts.

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