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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Home I Knew Is Gone

Required listening: Spike Lee's "rant" on gentrification in Brooklyn, NY

I grew up in Flatbush and my teen years were spent during the early to mid '90s witnessing firsthand the effects of the crack epidemic and the drug war on a neighborhood.  Shootouts were common and gunfire echoed through the night like a snare drum.  The apartment I grew up in, which my family to some degree still lives in, was cheap for New York, even at the time.  The unfortunate part about New York being built on a series of islands is that there's no space to expand, and the housing market gets competitive and expensive. Years ago, before the war on the lower and middle classes, city planners had the foresight to install rent control and stabilization laws to prevent the laws of supply and demand from cannibalizing the populace.  After all, what's the point of having a good job if you can't afford to live there.  Rudy Giuliani, who won his first term as mayor with the not insubstantial financial backing of the real estate lobby, ended those laws which set in motion the runaway increase in rent in Manhattan, and eventually throughout the city.

Looking back, it's effect has been multi-tiered.  Drive the prices up in Manhattan.  The middle class who were able to live there before are forced to move to the outer boroughs.  But wait, some of those neighborhoods are sketchy and filled with drug addicts and minorities.  That's okay.  Arrest the drug addicts and minorities (in New York in the mid 90's, the NYPD's zero-tolerance policy and propensity for racial profiling made the terms interchangeable), rebrand the neighborhood by changing it's makeup (building more Manhattan-style dwellings and inviting more displaced Manhattanites) and/or by changing it's name to eliminate it's negative connotation (Spanish Harlem becomes SpaHa, the South Bronx becomes SoBro, Bushwick becomes East Williamsburg, and parts of East Flatbush and Flatbush become extensions of Park Slope and Prospect park South).  The rising rents eventually price existing tenants out, and if that doesn't work, the landlords were empowered to let buildings fall into decay until the undesirables moved out, then repair them and rent for full market value.  And slowly, over 20, 30 years, people of color and/or less than extraordinary means are pushed further and further away from the city proper, or shunted into overpriced public housing.

Spike Lee has said some less than brilliant things in the past about race relations that you likely haven't heard if you're not from New York.  His views on gentrification are spot on.  I was priced out of my hometown.  I agree that it shouldn't have taken an influx of wealthier residents to have the city services (Police, Parks, Sanitation, Education) do their jobs in certain neighborhoods.  Trash would pile high and linger on the sidewalk for days (and in the summer, stink like hell) due to once a week trash collection.  Those same neighborhoods are now getting daily collection.  They're getting increased police protection, which is a marked difference from the "contain" mentality of my youth.  And while I don't begrudge anyone the increased service they get, I can't help but feel a little cheated.

Maybe it shouldn't matter to me so much what's going on in New York.  I'm not there anymore, not subject to anything Spike Lee was talking about.  But, I've always had a problem with injustice though, and what we're seeing there is the last bits of a systematic injustice become revealed.  And it saddens me.

UPDATE:  This is purely anecdotal.  I'm going on my own experiences plus what I've observed while I lived in New York and since I left.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Final Season

Now for something less angry and more... bittersweet.

A legend of my own time has announced this is his final go-round with the Yankees.

Derek Jeter, shortstop, #2, Yankee captain has announced that this is his final season, that he rides off into the sunset (and likely the Hall of Fame) after the 2014 season.  I'm sad, I admit it.  Jeter may not be the flashiest player, or the one with the biggest power numbers, but what he did on the field, what he has meant for baseball, echoes something that the last 20 or so years have meant in my life.

Consistency.

Every season you could pencil Derek Jeter in for a batting average at or near .300, between 10 and 20 home runs, 70-90 RBIs, and 185-200 hits.  Every year.  Like clockwork.  These are not easy numbers to achieve, and yet he did it with such quiet regularity that when it didn't happen, and he had an average ballplayer's year, the sky was falling, and reporters heralded his demise as eminent.

Jeter was -- is -- a winner.  And beyond that, he's smart enough to understand what it means to be a star.  It's why you've heard nothing negative about him off the field.  Arrive, play the game, go home, repeat.  On top of that, he did it with the biggest media draw in the biggest media market.  New York is a baseball-crazy city to the point where even the most ignorant to the sport has a cursory knowledge at least of what's going on.  New York is a celebrity driven media market to the point where we know which restaurants certain stars will dine in.  And Derek Jeter has consistently remained in the spotlight but not of the spotlight.  An ESPN reporter described this feat as like "surviving in Chernobyl, and then emerging as the healthiest person to have ever lived."

Consistency.

I turned 18 the year Derek Jeter won the AL Rookie of the Year in 1996.  It was the first championship I had the pleasure of enjoying (I was only a few days old in '78 when the Yanks won.  The Mets in '86? Well, they're the Mets, it doesn't count.) and really kicked off my formative years.  My twenties were played out with Yankee championships in the backdrop, and I enjoyed the wonders of the twenties: youth and awareness being at equal levels for the only time in your life.  I equate the career of this man, the one great player whose career I had the pleasure of closely following as a fan, as a link to those wonderful days of being young and dumb, energetic and impetuous, and the championships as a metaphor for my own perceived invincibility.  I loved being in my 20's in New York City.  I loved my life.  The only person I would have traded with at the time is Derek Jeter.  After all, as fun as it was for me, I didn't date supermodels, nor did I have multiple millions in the bank.

As that link to my young adulthood fades off, I find that I'm suddenly facing the realization that I'm not 20 something anymore.  Don't get me wrong, I'm happy with my age, my life and so on, but that time is gone forever, and only exists as memories -- stories that through retelling are elevated to legend.

Much like the career of one Derek Jeter.

So as this nascent baseball season gets underway, I thank Mr. Jeter, much like I thanked his teammate Mariano Rivera last year, for providing an excellent backdrop to an awesome story.

Sidebar:  I want to be in my hometown for Jeter's final home game at Yankee Stadium, I don't care if I have to Kickstarter that thing...

Monday, February 17, 2014

I Know I Said I Wouldn't Talk About It...

I made a promise to myself that when the book came out, when I would start to promote, I would tone down the political stuff that came out of my head and ended up in my blog.  I would tone down my comments on racism,  I would stop spreading my unsolicited liberal opinion.  I made the conscious decision to make no comment on perceived injustice in this country, in the news, in any viewpoint.  I'm a fiction writer, not a political journalist.  I stopped watching the news, interested myself only in the sports pages.

Unsuprisingly, I've had very little to write in this blog for quite some time.

Then came the Jordan Davis trial.

I heard that Michael Dunn was convicted of everything but murder 1, to the outrage of most.  I didn't understand why, so I read up on the trial.  Horror crept into my mind.  We've got another Stand Your Ground case.

Short version:  White dude drunkenly tells SUV full of black kids to turn their rap music down.  Black kids politely (maybe not so politely) tell him where to go.  Drunk white dude goes thinks someone is pointing a shotgun at him, goes back to his own car, grabs a gun and caps off 10 times into the SUV.  Nine shots hit, one kid dies.

It makes me want to puke writing it.

I'm not even going to talk about the verdict.  That is it's own animal.  I'm going to rant for a second on the horrific racial injustice inherent in the murder and the racist nature of the SYG law in and of itself.  It speaks to an era we convinced ourselves ended when Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington.  It speaks of a mindset people declared over with the election of President Obama.  The idea that you can blast someone when you feel threatened is not universal.  Those kids in the car were threatened.  If they produced a weapon and shot Mr. Dunn, would there be any doubt as to the treatment they would receive in the legal system and in the media? There would be referendum on the violence inherent in rap music, a call to arms to stop this scourge to our youth, and oh yeah, those kids would ALL be put away for life.  Trayvon Martin was shot dead in his own neighborhood because a white guy, who we now know is batsh** crazy, saw his hoodie and decided he was a threat, and for half a minute people blamed the hoodie.

I think we can agree that a law is unjust if it is not or cannot be applied evenly, which was the driving force behind eliminating the "Separate, but Equal" thinking behind the Jim Crow laws.  The Stand Your Ground laws are of the same ilk.  It punishes people for being Black, assigns a threat level to being Black, makes it okay for citizens fearing a phantom menace to police you for being Black, and to what end?  So that we'll tip our caps to every white person walking by and greet them with a "Good mornin' suh" to put them at ease?  So that we'll keep to "our own" neighborhoods with people who look like us and therefore stay where we're supposed to be?

If you've never met me or spoken to me, I'm a threatening looking Black guy -- 6'4", 260 pounds give or take.  I like wearing hoodies.  I like rap music.  Have I signed my own death warrant? Like the quote says, "There ain't much I can do about being big and Black at the same time."

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Writing Advice

Last night, a friend of mine made me feel like a grown-up.

I hadn't seen him in a while, so there were of course pleasantries exchanged as well as the updates as to what we've been doing with ourselves.  He congratulated me on the book and asked me how it was doing, to which I honestly have no earthly idea.  He then told me his young daughter wants to be a writer, wants to pursue a career in writing, and what should he as a father tell her.

Now, I have no clue what qualifies me as someone to give advice on how to be a writer.  I have an unfinished degree in journalism, wrote one unsuccessful novel, and another one that may or may not do better.  My blog has a grand total of 6 followers (change that, please, and subscribe).  But he's a friend, and I tell him what I was told in high school.  "You want to be a writer?  Write.  Read.  And Write."

A day later, I had a little more time to think about it, and I want to give this addendum to that little nugget of advice.

Take writing classes.  Creative writing, journalism, English composition.  Any class that gives you a different experience and feel on the craft, do it.

Read.  A lot.  Read anything you can get your hands on, and finish it.  Even if it's terrible.  ESPECIALLY if it's terrible.

Keep a journal.  Not only does it give you great practice in organizing your thoughts, but it makes you used to writing every day, makes writing second nature.

This last bit is important as anything.  Read what you want to write, and write what you want to read.  Writing is one of those things that you should do because you love it. Not for the acclaim.  Especially not for money (spoiler alert: there isn't a lot for most of us at first).  Rejection is part of the game, no matter what you write.  Your work should make you happy before you parade it to the world.  If you write something you would read, your enthusiasm will carry you through. 

Writing has been an extremely rewarding thing for me.  It's gotten me through some tough times mentally and emotionally, it's chronicled my greatest moments and memories.  And if someone can benefit from that experience, then that's what I have to share.

But I'm the wrong guy to ask for advice.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Discipline

It kind of came to me as I stepped out of the shower and stepped onto my bathroom scale.

That used to be a ritual I had before I went anywhere. My day would begin (or end, considering I work nights) with me getting home from the gym, showering, and taking a step on the scale, being proud that a workout ended in a slowly but surely shrinking number.  This ghost of my routine kicked in at the end of its cycle and I stepped on the scale without doing all the previous stuff, and the number I saw reminded me of it.

I haven't been to the gym -- not consistently, anyway -- in quite a while.

People are slaves to routine, followers of habit.  They do what they do with repetition, as the repetition is comfortable.  It's why bad habits are so hard to break; they become hardwired into our daily lives until our bodies and minds crave it.  Creative types -- artists and writers for instance -- are even more susceptible to habits, both good and bad, as they drive how and what we create.  I thought about that as well as I dried off and sucked in my gut as I looked in the mirror.  I've lost all my good habits.

I haven't written -- not consistently, anyway -- in quite a while.

We all have our reasons for this, of course, and some of them are even valid.  Good habits, for instance, are invariably the ones that are more difficult and more of an investment in time, and sometimes changing life situations -- good and/or bad -- make it tough to keep good habits.  Or sometimes we get lazy, as bad habits are easier, more instantly gratifying, and creep in when we least expect it.  Either way, whatever the reasons or excuses, the problem comes down to one thing: discipline.

My life situation has changed a bit.  I find myself less willing to engage in the high-energy, cardio-intensive routine of early-morning basketball two to three days a week, and more willing to spend that time in bed.  I end up talking myself out of my workouts as I drag my feet to get to the gym.  I'm completely unwilling to go for a run in the midst of the recent (and absolutely, insanely bitter) cold snap.  I find myself writing less, and I give myself reasons like "Gotta promote the novel," or "Don't have time right now.". Or, if I'm being truthful, the reasons are "I don't feel like it," or "I'm not in the headspace to produce anything good."

Damn that.  No more excuses.  Life is passing us by as we fill the days with stuff we should have done and reasons why we didn't do them.  Our bad habits are killing us.  My bad habits are killing me.  Not with any disease or anything, but with malaise and missed opportunity.  The game is not called because of cold.  We -- I -- just have to find the find the discipline, to create the good habits, that restores the natural order of things.

And with that, I reveal the number I saw. 271.

I say this a lot, but now I'm saying it publicly over the internet, which will hold me accountable.  I will reduce that number by 30 in the coming months.  It's going to take planning, hard work, and discipline.

The other thing, the writing?  Well, something must be done about that too.  At the beginning of the year, I set forth an unreachable goal: to write a million words of fiction.  I know the goal is insanely difficult, but I set it with the idea that if I try and don't make it, I'll stilt have done an unbelievable amount of work.  So far, my word count isn't all that impressive.  I'm going to take a NaNoWriMo-style approach and try to generate 1200 words a day of fiction.  Yeah, I'll be well short of my million-word mandate, but the point wasn't a million words, the point was forging the discipline to transition into a writing career.

And I trust the internet to hold me accountable.