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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.

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.

Four Year Blogiversary!

(PHOTO: Cai Studio)

Combined, the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall and Opera House seat about 4,700. Beijing needs 13 gigawatts of power to work.

At the time of this posting, which marks this blog’s four year anniversary, readers viewed this site more than 63,000 times. If this blog was a performance running in both the Concert Hall and Opera House, it would take 13 sold out shows for that many people to see it. If the views were gigawatts of electricity, they could power Beijing 4,850 times.

Those views ain’t breaking 100Ks, but they’re more than I imagined when, at a friend’s suggestion, I started this blog back in 2009. I was recently unemployed, then, as a staff writer at a Black-owned Baltimore newspaper.

The thought of a blog, then, brought on what I would later learn was a common fear among first-time bloggers: “No one will care what I write about”. I like how Michael Martine, at Remarkablogger: Cutting-Edge Business Blogging, gives practical ways of overcoming it.

“When you are trying to start a fire, it always begins as a very small flame….Just some tinder, some heat, and some air creates the tiniest flame,” Martine writes in his post “11 Blogging Fears and How to Overcome them for Good — Part 1”. He continues, “But we nurture that tiny flame until it becomes a roaring, toasty fire.”

I don’t know about “roaring,” but I got a modest flame going — made even nicer by bloggers Zoe Valentine (of Zoe Says) and Robert Hookey (of You’ve Been Hooked and The Book of Terrible), both of whom I recently profiled in previous posts. I’m grateful to them for spreading the word and linking to the features I wrote on them; I’m also thrilled their readers boosted my number of views, followers and likes.

When I was a new blogger, the articles and posts about “best practices” seemed overwhelming, though I appreciated the info, which included successful habits — like interacting with readers through comments, using web tools to publicize posts, reading other bloggers, etc.

Then there’s the ongoing debate over blogging routine — whether to post everyday, twice a week, or monthly. “Some bloggers do best when they’re in a steady routine,” writes Ali Luke (of Aliventures), in his guest post at problogger.net. “If you find that posting once or twice a week quickly ends up as posting once or twice a month, then you might actually find it easier to post every day. That way, you can build a strong writing habit.”

I don’t think it’s wrong to blog once or twice a month if you’re posting longer (800-1,500 words), in-depth, well-researched pieces that give your readers enough to chew over until the next post.

In its early stages, I wanted my blog to showcase magazine-style articles about the artists, educators and advocates I met while drifting through under-the-radar D.C. I wanted to introduce them to my readers. For that, I knew I didn’t have the creative endurance to generate post ideas daily, let alone twice a week.

And that’s not what this blog wanted, anyway; it certainly wasn’t feeling what I envisioned for it. In many ways, this blog is analogous to my soon-to-be-four-year-old niece who pretends to fall asleep at nap time before wiggling herself across the bed, away from “Nana” (my mom), who’s nodded off.

(PHOTO: Alan W. King) My niece, Anicia

(PHOTO: Alan W. King) My niece, Anicia

This is the same girl who corrects strangers when they mispronounce her name: Anicia (ah-NEE-sha) — the one who smiles while imitating Nana and “Poppa” snoring. She once told “Nana” she’ll one day be “Dr. Anicia.”

Her sense of self is as frightening as it is exciting. “By the time your child is three years old, she has made remarkable developmental strides — some willingly, others less so,” Dr. Michael Meyerhoff, a child specialist, writes in his article “Understanding How Children Mature”.

”These strides are not only intellectual but social and emotional as well,” he continues. “Though still dependent upon you, your three year old has begun to establish her sense of self and many of the elements of her adult personality.”

(ARTWORK: Stock Image)

Now, if a child specialist calls a 3-year-old’s actions normal, then why should I expect different from my blog — my baby — that’s a month older than my niece. I knew what I had to do, which resulted in my blog being a far cry from what I initially wanted.

Letting it evolve on its own terms, under my paternal guidance, resulted in a shift away from covering D.C. to including book reviews and — during my grad school days — essays and short stories. My once or three-times a month blogging schedule became whenever I could.

And I’d feel bad if it wasn’t for Zoe Valentine’s advice on avoiding burnout. “I went ten months without a new post between last year and this year as I had started a very demanding new job,” Valentine told me last month. “I’ve had my ups and downs, as any writer/blogger does.” But she didn’t beat herself up for not posting weekly. That, she said, helped keep her going.

I’d feel bad if it wasn’t for the fact that you all love me anyway — enough to keep following me or checking in to see what’s new. And, while it’s easy for any blogger to take their readers for granted, I think you should know how much I appreciate all 2,880 of you.

I’m far from a rock star blogger, but your attention’s enough to make me feel like a headliner jamming before a packed concert hall. It’s enough to make me feel electric, charged off you gigawatts of bright energy.

How Zoe Valentine Works

(PHOTO: Zoe Valentine)

Editor’s note: This is part two of an on-going series about successful bloggers and their habits. Read  part one here and click here to read part three.

A lot’s happened in the nearly five years Zoe Valentine’s entertained and informed readers with her blog about what she calls “the most mundane of things” in her daily life.

Those adventures include the Missouri-transplant apartment-hunting in New York City, falling in love, and leaving an economic consulting gig in the Big Apple—fiancé in tow—for an executive administrative support position in the Urbana-Champaign, Illinois-area. Those posts and more gained her a wider readership and caught the attention thrice of web administrators at the popular online publishing platform that hosts her blog Zoe Says.

Not bad for a self-professed introvert. “Having an easily findable online identity is sometimes really scary to me,” the Louisiana-native says in a recent interview. “It’s not just my name, it’s that all of these personal observations and facts about myself are just…out there.”

Even if Valentine tried, this age of smartphones and social networking sites makes it impossible to avoid an online presence. “Already today’s smartphones used by teenagers to text friends have as much computing power as the Apollo spacecraft that traveled to the moon in 1969,” the husband-and-wife research team Ayesha & Parag Khanna tell tech blogger Kyle Munkittrick, of Pop Bioethics.

The Khannas are part of a research and advisory group at the Hybrid Reality Institute, which explores human-technology co-evolution and its implications for global business, society and politics. According to their book, Hybrid Reality, the “balance of innovation” eclipses the military “balance of power”.

The Khannas note this trend will advance for another decade. “Hewlett Packard estimates that by 2015, there will be one trillion devices connected to the Internet constantly recording and sharing information,” the Khannas says. “By 2020, we will literally live in technology.”

Another thing that makes Zoe Valentine’s online presence inevitable are current hiring practices. “In this era, [an] online presence is the best way [a] company can check your…background,” according to Dheeraj thedijje’s post at the tech blog Intelligent Computing. An online presence gives a company a sense of how well a potential employee uses technology, how well she/he writes, and how well the individual conducts themselves publicly.

(PHOTO: Zoe Valentine) That’s the smile, thanks to Zoe’s fiance Kevin .

Valentine built her presence through blogging, which resulted from her friends’ fascination with how she tells stories, either in person or through her narrative emails.

“I had always thought I would go into film or video editing…which is another medium for telling stories,” says Valentine, who earned a BA in Film & Media Studies at the University of Rochester. “But so far it hasn’t panned out that way. I wrote my first post about hunting for apartments in New York City with Craigslist, and the blogging seed was planted.”

Her most memorable and successful post is “The Obligatory Courtesy Smile,” a hilarious post about workplace etiquette. According to Valentine’s piece, this gesture is a “weird smile—sometimes an accompanying nod—that you give people…where you flatten your lips and smile tightly as you pass each other by.”

This post resonated with fellow bloggers. “How about the little ‘wave’ that you give along with the nod as you pass by someone,” writes Nikitaland, who blogs about her dog Nikita.

Think that gesture’s bad? It could be worst, according to Ugogo, a vegetarian and aspiring actress. “What’s really awkward,” she writes, “is seeing that person twice.”

“Courtesy Smile” was also a hit with WordPress administrators, who selected that post among their eight favorites to showcase, or, as it’s called on WordPress, “Freshly Pressed”—which results in a major traffic surge. “Courtesy Smile,” posted July 2011, grossed 12,915 hits in one day.

That post introduced me to Zoe Valentine, who I’ve followed since. And get this. “Courtesy Smile” marked the blogger’s third time being “Freshly Pressed”. The first (November 2010) recorded 2,065 hits, while her second (May 2011) clocked 4,195 hits. “It’s been an absolute honor each and every time,” Valentine says. “The thrill never gets old.”

What makes posts like “Courtesy Smile” successful is that—whether Valentine intended—they adopt what’s called the sitcom format. Like sitcoms, Valentine’s blog posts—whether about chucking a microwave for counter space, how she chooses her drugstores, or why she stopped listening to the radio—are short bursts of enjoyment that include the hero, anti-hero, love interest and buddy.

(ARTWORK: Courtesy)

“Since sitcoms are only 30 minutes long, it is essential that the plot line be fairly tight and resolvable,” writes Winifred Fordham Metz, a media librarian and contributing writer to How Stuff Works, an award-winning website of explanations of how the world works.

In his article “How Sitcoms Work,” Metz adds, “Successful plots will typically fall within a family or workplace setting or some combination of the two.” In “Courtesy Smile,” Zoe’s the hero (for tackling the situations she encounters), the gesturing office mates are the anti-hero, and Valentine’s love interest/buddy is her fiancé Kevin, who demonstrates the gesture in a photo.

Now, here’s how Valentine works. “Sometimes I’m hit with a snippet of inspiration from the most mundane of things in my daily life,” she says. “A funny thought or personal quirk about myself will hit me, and I will whip out my iPhone and enter it into my Notepad.”

(PHOTO: rapgenius.com)

She gets her need to write things down from her parents, who are both prolific writers. “My mom is more poetic and she uses her writing to inspire and encourage others,” Valentine says. “My dad is currently working on publishing a self-help book that he has worked on for a very long time.”

Of her parents’ writing habits, she adds, “They write every single day, even if it’s just personal notes, thoughts, feelings.”

While Valentine’s not writing every day, she’s just as disciplined. “If I feel it’s been too long since I’ve put out a blog post, I’ll refer to my snippets of inspiration, put the idea into a draft, and develop it into a full post,” she says. She also responds to WordPress’s weekly photo challenges, which get her creative juices going.

Lately, her faucet stays flowing. “More often than not, I sit down at my computer with a strong idea of what I need to flesh out,” says Valentine, noting that articles online make up majority of her daily reading.

Those days when she’s dry, she’s learned not to beat herself up. “I went ten months without a new post between last year and this year as I had started a very demanding new job,” she recalls of the ups and downs writers experience. “As I’ve gotten older and developed my blogging muscle, I find I can’t stay way.”

Neither can Charles Gulotta (aka bronxboy55), a long-time  ZoeSays reader. “What a great blog this is, Zoe,” writes the veteran freelance writer and author. “It’s like a candy store that changes with every visit.”

And that’s key to successful bloggers—return readers. “Checking spelling and grammar is…a key to getting people to come back and read your blog,” Valentine’s advice to new bloggers. “Misspelled words or poor grammar (unless it’s ironic) keeps the reader from really delving in and getting lost in whatever you have to say.”

Another advice is to stay open to inspiration in its many forms. For Zoe Valentine, it’s a song line, scene from a favorite movie or TV show, a story line from a novel, and other bloggers. “That’s the beauty of writing blog posts,” she says, “anything can be fully realized in some fashion.”

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

Editor’s note: This is part one of an on-going series about successful bloggers and their habits. Read  part two here and click here to read part three.

There’s nothing typical about being a bellman. Robert Hookey knows this first-hand as a steward at the Niagara Falls Canada-hotel where he works.

One minute, he’s calling a cab and giving directions to a couple visiting from Australia, who tip him with smiles and a handshake. The next, he’s attending to Min. Louis Farrakhan’s bodyguards, who won’t let Hookey handle the Nation of Islam leader’s luggage without supervision.

Such conditions require Hookey’s quick wit and ability to small-talk strangers – skills that also serve him well as an author and the popular blogger, The Hook, who divides his time between his brainchildren, The Book of Terrible and You’ve Been Hooked.

The former gives readers an eyeful of Hookey’s obsession with pop culture. “I usually scan entertainment and news sites to find inspiration,” he says in a recent interview. According to Terrible, The Hook’s origin is as follows: “I [was] the kid whose life really changed the day his parents handed him that first comic book.”

Hookey’s now, according to the bio, “a forty-something white Canadian male who doesn’t like hockey (I know, what’s up with that?) and doesn’t drink beer or eat back bacon.” He’s also a husband and father, proud that his only daughter, Sarah, inherited his writing talents. “She represents everything good and pure in my life,” Hookey says, amazed at the 14-year-old’s way with words.

While he doesn’t engage in what passes as Canada’s pastimes, he enjoys movies with Sarah as they stuff their faces with popcorn and guzzle soda (Oh, I’m sorry; they call it “pop”). As The Hook, he watches how people react to their popularity.

(PHOTO: ibelieveinthejoker)

“Most celebrities have no idea of the magnitude of the gift they have been given and so they squander their talents,” according to The Hook’s bio. “I’m here to point out that fact and hopefully, entertain a bit in the process.” And nothing’s off-limits, not even Barbie. Here’s what The Hook writes in a post about the doll’s declining reputation: “The 55-year-old plastic diva appears to have become the Reese Witherspoon of the doll world.” Ouch!

It’s the rave among fellow bloggers. “I love your enthusiastic attitude,” writes Jackie Paulson, a single mom and Sagittarius. “Your batman logo is awesome.”

Maddie Cochere, an Ohio-based author, was also ecstatic. “How did I not know of this super secret and amazing blog?!” she writes. “Am I missing anything else?”

Hookey’s just as funny when he’s sharing his bellman (mis)adventures on his other blog, You’ve Been Hooked. His work life sounds like a successful sitcom. “I’d love to adapt my work to another medium,” Hookey says, “but I simply don’t have any idea how to get started.”

So, instead, he self-published his earlier posts in a book of essays titled The Bellman Chronicles: Shining Light on Mankind’s Missteps From The Trenches… “If you’ve ever worked in the service industry, you know what it’s like to make fun of your customers the second they’re out of the room,” writes Jefferson, an Amazon customer. “With [T]he Bellman Chronicles you get a peek into the life of Hotel service…step into their break room and listen in, poking fun alongside them.”

The bellman’s blog is just as amusing. “My hotel posts write themselves,” says Hookey, a nearly three-year blogger and native of St. Catharines, Ontario, a 15-minute drive from where he works at Niagara Falls Canada. He adds, “I’m not clever enough to fabricate the situations I write about.”

No fabrication needed for the post about the gorgeous woman who thinks her husband ignores her. Upon check-out, she sends hubby and their five kids to wait downstairs, while she pours her heart out to The Hook in the empty hotel room, waiting for the nervous bellman to make a move. “Its funny how some people will just bare their souls to perfect strangers,” writes Hookey in the post “The Hook Dodges a Bullet – Barely!” He continued:

Its also funny how some people will start to move slowly towards their bellman with the same look The Coyote gives the Road Runner! Actually, it isn’t funny when it does happen. I responded by simply asking her a question as I moved towards the door, quickly.

He didn’t have to fabricate his post about the International Union of Elevator Constructors who organized a two-month elevator strike that delayed lift operations and construction throughout the Greater Toronto Area.

When those setbacks affect his hotel, Hookey acts quickly. He jumps into United Nations-negotiating mode to please frustrated tourists who either waited 30 minutes for the lift or stood terrified when the Journey Behind the Falls elevator stalled 10 feet into its 150-foot ride to the bottom of the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. His efforts paid off, with those guests tipping him generously.

Another payoff was when WordPress “Freshly Pressed” two of his posts – one from The Book of Terrible and the other (two years later) from You’ve Been Hooked. Now, for the uninitiated, “Freshly Pressed” is when WordPress picks eight of its 500,000 blogs to highlight. “Getting promoted to Freshly Pressed is a major traffic win,” according to the popular blogging platform. “WordPress.com receives a huge number of page views every day…so being highlighted exposes your post to a wide audience and brings you a flock of engaged new readers.”

(COVER ART: Robert Hookey)

That was my introduction to The Hook. His “Freshly Pressed” post on The Book of Terrible recorded 4,110 hits that day, while his You’ve Been Hooked post drew in 1,283 hits. The excitement last for a few days. “Then,” according to Hookey, “things get back to normal.”

But, again, we’re talking about a bellman whose day is everything but. Hookey’s blogs and book gained him admiration from his colleagues. “I am a bit of a Grade D celebrity,” he jokes. Of his book, he adds, “The only real reward worth nothing has been the realization of a lifelong dream.”

That Grade D celebrity buzz also thrust him into an unfortunate, but hilarious, encounter with a hotel guest. While transporting luggage for an elderly guest and his too-young “companion” to their car, Hookey worked his charm with some elevator chitchat. “The housekeeper told us you were that guy who wrote a book on hotels,” the guest inquired. “Is that true?”

When The Hook mentioned his book on adventures in Hotel Land, the “golden-aged” man unsuccessfully tried to punch the bellman’s face. The man’s rage stemmed from the fact that he owned a chain of inns. He mistook Hookey for another author whose book about “all the dirty, little secrets and tips hotel owners don’t want you to know” landed him a spot on 20/20’s expose on hotel practices.

That situation aside, he enjoys the perks of his job that include enough writing material to make any author jealous. And that’s not all. “I occasionally get a whole range of swag,” Hookey says, “from snow tires” – he’s dead serious! – “to Red Bull hoodies.”

There’s also downtime to write his blog posts and self-publish a book. Of the latter, Hookey says, “I sold to pretty much everyone at the hotel and made my money back pretty quickly.” That makes his wife, Jackie, almost as happy as her Vampire Diaries TV series. As an occasional social media user, she sparingly reads You’ve Been Hooked.

And The Hook’s OK with that. His current priority is getting his daughter’s work out there. “I’m trying to concentrate on helping my daughter launch her book series, The Misadventures of Misery,” he says.

The series revolves around a young girl, who owns a bookstore in New York City, and her best friend Misery’s perpetual bad luck. Together, they visit Misery’s hometown and learn that Misery’s relatives are supernatural beings. These connected tales encourage everyone to celebrate their differences, while embracing their common interests.

That creativity is among Hookey’s inspirations. “I’m a people watcher,” he says. “The world never fails to inspire me.”

(ARTWORK: Krista Franklin)

Like Ralph Ellison’s narrator in Invisible Man, Iain Haley Pollock’s speaker in Spit Back A Boy is the invisible underdog. He’s a man torn between his “black mother’s blood”[1] and his white father. And, like Ellison’s invisible narrator, Pollack’s speaker battles the stereotypes that make him invisible since he’s not seen as a real person. This journey to identity is an involved one through which Pollack’s speaker revisits the middle passage[2] and Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath[3]. Along the way he encounters an orisha[4] while roaming Philly’s mean streets[5].

The speaker’s longing for home is analogous to the enslaved Igbo’s longing for home in the poem “Port of Origin: Lancaster,” a poem about the middle passage. About 15 percent, or nearly two million, Africans died while being transported from African countries to Europe, Brazil and the U.S. as part of the Atlantic slave trade, according to various sources. Pollack’s speaker in “Port of Origin: Lancaster” remembers what he read about the suicides from slaves throwing themselves overboard that contributed to the high mortality rates:

When salt swallowed breath,
Igbo souls leapt from the water
as great sea eagles. Talons gripped
black bodies as a she-bear lifts
her cub by the scruff. Wings
throbbed air until all passed back
to Igboland.[6]

And just as striking as those physical details are the psychological ones:

[…] I knew this,
knew before I heard
the stories, read the books,
knew from the whispering
of my black mother’s blood
into my marrow. Knew also
the mocking tap of rain
on the hull christened
in my white father’s city.[7]

(PHOTO: Random House) Ralph Ellison — an American novelist, literary critic, scholar and writer — was best known for his novel Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953.

The physical details intensifies the speaker’s longing for identity. That “my black mother’s blood” whispered that history “into my marrow” before “I heard/ the stories, read the books” is the speaker’s allusion to ancestral memory, which also heightens his longing for identity. However, the speaker’s white father complicates that longing. That the “rain/ on the hull christened/ in my white father’s city” is a “mocking tap” means the speaker’s aware of how African Americans see his father’s white skin as a reminder of that history.

The musical moments in “Port of Origin: Lancaster” are in the recurring “creaked”:

creaked. Creaked and creaked.
All night, creaked. All day
that was night, creaked.
Over dull slap of waves
on brine-soaked wood, creaked.
[...] creaked. Creaked and creaked
In the hollow chamber of aboy’s ear—
creaked, timbers creaked.[8]

(PHOTO: first-draft-blog.typepad.com)

The onomatopoeia brought me inside the slave ship. I could feel it rocking from the “dull slap of waves.” I heard the “groans from hunger” and smelled the “foul air.” That this creaking echoes “in the hollow chamber of a boy’s ear” is a sign of the longing for identity echoing “in the hollow chamber” of his ear.

That music continues in the poem “Chorus of X, the Rescuer’s Mark.” The poem’s “X” references the FEMA markings left on houses in New Orleans searched after Hurricane Katrina. The X distinguished the searched houses from others, and the markings in each X quadrant let rescuers know which houses had dead bodies, the date of the search and who did the searching. The music in “Chorus of X” is in the recurring X’s:

X say search party […]
X say live wire […]
X say no dead bodies,
[…] X say kitchen, […]
X say that dog was a loud-ass, mean-ass bitch anyway,
[…] X say Lord you been flooding us too much,
[…] X say it got easier to die in water than live on land,
[…] X say lungs full of flood in the end […][9]

Pollack’s X is also analogous to Ralph Ellison’s narrator in Invisible Man. Though X says a lot of things, it remains unnamed. Pollack’s speaker in “Chorus of X” also sheds light on a social issue with which America still struggles. Pollack’s speaker and use of X transforms the symbol into an inhumane image (“X say that dog was a loud-ass, mean-ass bitch anyway”). That X’s four quadrants sums up any person’s life is a sign of the little regard we hold for human life. In “Chorus of X,” X is just as inhumane as calling New Orleans residents “refugees,” as if they weren’t citizens of a country touting its liberty and justice.

(PHOTO: blackagendareport.com)

Another musical moment is the recurring “say”:

[…] say month,
say day, […]
say gas leak, say floodwater,
say dead dog, dead cat,
[…] say one dead body, say two,
say three dead bodies, say four,
[…] say bedroom, say attic[10]

And so on. Both the recurring “X” and “say” intensifies the urgency of the situation. They almost overwhelm the poem the way flood waters overwhelmed rescuers in the gulf coast.

Going back to identity, Pollack’s speaker mirrors Ellison’s narrator another way. Like Ellison’s invisible narrator, Pollack’s speaker is mistaken for a white man when he encounters a modern-day orisha of change in the poem “Oya in Old City.” The mistake happens twice: once by “the red-bone woman/ wearing two coats and sitting on a bench” who yells, “i ain’t Nigga Mary” in response to the speaker’s “how are you?[11] And again in a flashback of a childhood trip to Philadelphia when a homeless woman sees him staring and says, “take a motherfuckin picture     aint you never/ seen a nigga.”[12]

The speaker’s childhood image of Philly transforms in the poem “Killadelphia.” In the poem, it’s not so much the human actions within as it is the speaker’s grim portrait of Philly. Here are the physical details:

where pit bull
bitches—three,
chained, starved—
lurch scarred
throats into yowls

[…] molded lids
ticking open
and shut
over glazed
unreal eyes[13]

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) Iain Haley Pollock lives in Philadelphia and teaches at Springside Chesnut Hill Academy, where he is the Cyrus H. Nathan ’30 Distinguished Faculty Chair for English. His first collection of poems, Spit Back a Boy (University of Georgia, 2011), won the 2010 Cave Canem Poetry Prize.

Those details make Philly a city that scowls at outsiders. “Killadelphia” is an audible poem sprinkled throughout with onomatopoeias such as “poppa pop-pop pop” of gunshots and the “slap-clap” of “sneaker soles […]/ on asphalt” and daybreak’s “rumble-grumble” along with the “smack-/thwacking” newsprint and the “skittery-skitter/ of boys.”[14]

While the speaker’s tone ranged from sad to cynical to candid in the earlier poems, his scatting in “Killadelphia” makes his tone both playful and critical. The scat becomes background music amid the “security gates/ flung up in rickety-/ racket at Mt. Zion’s/ store front worship” and the “raccoon’s crash-/ dash as it drags/ a near-dead pigeon/ from a rust-pitted/ trash can” and the “fluttery-stutter/ of the bird’s one good wing/ flapping to lift/ its carcass into/ still-darksome dawn.”

And that’s as far as the similarities go between Iain Haley Pollack’s speaker in Spit Back A Boy and the narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Up to this point, the similarities between both men echoed Oscar Wilde’s quote: “Most people are other people…their lives a mimicry.”[15]  But, unlike Ellison’s narrator who eventually embraces his invisibility, Pollack’s speaker continues his ongoing journey to find himself.

Going back to the poem “Oya in Old City,” Pollack’s encounter with the angry homeless woman (“take a motherfuckin picture     aint you never/ seen a nigga”) makes it clear which side of his biracial self the speaker’s leaning towards in terms of identity. It’s evident in his response to the homeless woman: “I flung my almost-white self/ into my mother’s embrace—that brown/ embrace I hoped would swallow me whole and spit back a boy four shades darker.”


[1] from the poem “Port of Origin: Lancaster”

[2] Ibid.

[3] from the poem “Chorus of X, the Rescuers’ Mark

[4] from the poem “Oya in Old City”

[5] from the poem “Killadelphia”

[6] Iain Haley Pollock, Spit Back A Boy, Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2011, 2.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 2-3.

[9] Ibid., 8-9.

[10] Ibid., 8.

[11] Ibid., 18.

[12] Ibid., 19.

[13] Ibid., 22.

[14] Ibid., 22-23.

[15] Oscar Wilde, Quotes About Identity, 2011, http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/identity (September 2011).

The Obvious

(ARTWORK: Zach Wrup)

Never bet against your wife.

My cousin Alvin tried to teach me that through his marriage crash course. “Love”–Alvin’s pet name for his wife, Natasha–”is always right,” he once told me. “Even when she’s wrong, she’s right.”

Conventional wisdom tells guys being “wrong” is better than sleeping on the couch. You’d think I’d heed that advice and those of  Hugo Schwyzer, whose article (“Why Women Are More Often Right“) points out that women’s experiences, in addition to giving them “standpoint privilege” in arguments with men, also contribute to their perception of things.

“In a relationship between two people who are of different sexes, classes, or ethnic backgrounds, it’s reasonable to assume that each person’s knowledge of the world will have been shaped in no small part by their status,” writes Schwyzer, a professor who’s taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College. He continues:

Class and sex and race and faith are some of—but surely not the only—prisms through which we see and interpret the world…. Feminists point out the deeply obvious: The class of persons most likely to be discriminated against by the system are also those most likely to be aware of the system itself.

Tosin’s macro focus trumps my micro vision anytime. That’s why I won’t ever doubt her again, especially after what happened this morning. I put my Ninja blender against her Nutri Bullet. I was going to prove my point that the Ninja made better smoothies than the Bullet.

My wife, Tosin, thought otherwise a few nights before. So, this morning, I used the Ninja to make an Energy Elixir smoothie after the gym–throwing in two handfuls of kale, 1 frozen banana, 1 cup of red grapes (stems and all), 1 cored apple, 1/8 cup of walnuts, water, then let the blades rip for 5 minutes.

(PHOTO: Alan W. King) l-r: Nutri Bullet, Ninja blender, and my delicious Energy Elixir smoothie.

(PHOTO: Alan W. King) l-r: Nutri Bullet, Ninja blender, and my delicious Energy Elixir smoothie.

What happened afterwards was disappointing. The Ninja, for all its roar and grind, left me a pulpy blob of sweet green stuff. I mean it was sad the way it sat there–lumpy in some parts, runny in others.

Thinking of that debate, when I ran down what seemed obvious (my claims that the Bullet’s tight two-blade system was no match for the Ninja’s three-tiered sabers), I realized my mistake. “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact,” the late Arthur Conan Doyle, physician and writer, once stated.

Looking back, I see our debate was more than about kitchen appliances and smooth juice. Tosin’s never been one to go with what seems obvious. In fact, her analytical mind combs through “fact”, crunching and verifying all relevant data, before accepting or rejecting the seemingly obvious. She keeps me on my toes–something I appreciate, though I don’t always show it.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

I’m an artist, which means she expects more from me. That includes me not settling for what seems obvious. After all, that’s how the late-Lebanese artist and writer Khalil Gibran described art: “a step from what is obvious and well-known toward what is arcane and concealed.”

With this morning’s experiment, the art came when I looked at the Nutri Bullet–its bright teeth smiling, as if to say, “Let me handle that.” Which it did, turning what was barely edible into some holy nectar I believe the ancient Greek gods sipped, lounging at a lake while nibbling a platter of grapes, figs and juicy meat chunks.

I can see that ancient Greek sun glossing their olive skin, their perfect bodies glinting in my workout goal horizon.

I will never doubt my wife again. And, instead, be grateful when she’s right–all the time.

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