Wednesday, December 27, 2006

What Black Men Think

this is a public service announcement from the cast of "what black men think," an indie movie coming out in spring, '07. enjoy.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Nicole DuFresne, Guns and Self-Defense

i wanted to write something insightful about the nicole dufresne shooting because of the life sentence that was handed down this week to the kid that pulled the trigger. but then i read this article and thought that it summed up my feelings on the subject so perfectly, i'd pass it along -- so here it is.


A New York Shooting -- and What the Victims Did Wrong by Kent Fung

Even if you don't live in New York City, you've likely heard by now of an aspiring actress who was shot and killed during a robbery in Manhattan's Lower East Side last Friday. Much has been made of this killing - particularly, I believe, because the victim, Nicole duFresne, was young, pretty and blonde. (But that's another issue altogether.)

The killing was a tragedy, and I extend my condolences to Nicole's family and friends.

But duFresne's actions, along with her fiancé and their friends the night of their murders, are also a prime example of exactly how NOT to behave on a city street. I'm certainly not saying or implying that these victims deserved what happened to them. But they certainly made it easy for themselves to be victims. I think, therefore, this tragedy gives us the opportunity to review what it means to be safe in a modern urban environment.

For those who haven't read about the incident, here's an abbreviated account of what happened. On early Thursday morning, Nicole duFresne finished working at a popular Manhattan music club - her first night on the job - and had gone bar-hopping with her fiancée, Jeffrey Sparks, and two other friends. Upon leaving a bar around 3:15 a.m., the group was walking down the street when as many as seven teens stepped in front of them and accosted them. One of the men pulled a gun and demanded money. Sparks, drunk (by his own admission) and not thinking clearly, shoved the man aside and tried to walk past him; the man proceeded to pistol-whip Sparks. At some point, the muggers then grabbed the purse of one of duFresne's friends. DuFresne tried to stop him, reportedly saying, "What are you going to do? Shoot us?" At which point the mugger responded by taking Nicole's suggestion, shooting her in the chest. She was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.

Once again, while no one is suggesting that Nicole deserved to die, she and her friends certainly didn't do anything to prevent this tragedy. Here's a list of the things they did wrong:

1) They were drunk in public. Now, I'm sure many of you will tell me that just because Nicole and her friends were drunk didn't justify they're being shot. You're right. But you're also missing the point. Anything that impairs your judgment, vision, reflexes and awareness should be consumed in the safety of a private home. I'm all for partying it up - do it myself on a regular basis. But I make it a point to never have more than a drink or two in me if I'm going to be out in public. Especially in a major city (such as New York). Especially late at night. This is probably the biggest mistake Nicole and her friends made, one that led to all the other ones that followed.

2) They were unaware. There's no telling what role alcohol had to do with this. But late at night, walking down the street, vigilance is crucial to staying safe. From what I've read, Nicole and her friends should have noticed a large group of teens walking toward them, noted the hostile aura around them, and tried to avoid them. Obviously, they didn't. Especially in a city, but not matter where you live, you should be constantly scanning ahead while in public, evaluating places where a criminal might be hiding and waiting for a choice victim, and - most importantly - avoiding those places. This might seem like a lot of trouble - but you can quickly make it an automatic habit, one that you do almost subconsciously. A good way to do this is to start by evaluating your usual routes - from work to your parking lot, from your home to the subway stop, etc. - and imagining where you would hide if you wanted to ambush yourself. That gives you a starting point of places you should make a point of scanning every time you go outside.

3) They failed to evaluate the situation correctly. Nicole and her friends were outnumbered. Surrounded. And at least one of the assailants was armed. Yet Sparks apparently thought the right thing to do was to shove one of them away. That's stupid, and akin to poking a rattlesnake for laughs and giggles. Again, I'm not saying he deserved to be beaten. But was it really a surprise that he was?

4) They failed to evaluate the situation correctly - part two. After Sparks had been beaten for his actions - i.e., the assailants had demonstrated their willingness to use violence - and after one of the assailants (reportedly) said, "Look, all we want is some money," they failed to just comply and give up their wallets and purses.

5) They failed to evaluate the situation correctly - part three. After Sparks had been beaten for his actions - i.e., the assailants had demonstrated their willingness to use violence - and after one of the assailants (reportedly) said, "Look, all we want is some money," Nicole evidently thought it was a good idea to challenge - to dare - and to taunt the gun wielder. In general, if someone is pointing a gun at you, it's hard to imagine a more inappropriate thing to say than, "What are you going to do, shoot us?"

The shooting of Nicole duFresne was an unfortunate occurrence. But if anything good can come from it, it's this: learn from her mistakes. Don't do what she and her friends did. Yes, it's true that we should all be able to walk the streets at any time, without risk to our safety, our loved ones, or our possessions. You have the right to walk down the street safely and unaccosted. Unfortunately, we live in the real world, not an idealized one, and precautions and sound judgment must be taken - regardless of rights.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

what does the "S" stand for?

The S train is a one stop midtown situation that runs from east to west and back again on four tracks. Everybody knows that there are other ways to get from point A to point B if you have to get across town and everybody knows that they aren’t as fast or nearly as efficient. That’s why everybody uses this train. And when i say everybody, i mean the unwashed masses, yearning to get to work on time.

If you’re smart, you hit the ground running. God help you if you need this train line and something goes awry, like there's less cars than usual or one track is out. It’s a messier stand-off than any other one. Then again, I can’t ever remember using it when it wasn’t as tightly packed as a clown car. There’s always this desperation involved that heightens the intensity of it all. I look around me as i'm headed towards the S and i feel like I’m running with the bulls in Pamplona because i'm surrounded by people who are moving as fast as i am -- so fast, in fact, that it seems as though none of us are really moving at all. The horde moves as one toward that one train door, a tidal wave of proletariats coming from every direction. The train is already full when we get there. And we get on anyway. That's what the S is like.

Lately, I've noticed that people are quick to mouth off on this line. It's trippy. I don't think that's ever a good idea in a city like this one because you don't know what people will say or do in retaliation. Maybe they'll ignore you. Maybe they'll snap a pistol in your face. (The last thing on earth that you would ever want to do is provoke someone, especially if they have a gun -- right?) Sometimes you don't have to do anything at all. Just standing on the platform is enough to get a complete stranger to attack you with a power saw. That's why i'm always in awe of people who will shoot their mouth off to a stranger. I honestly think it's some new kind of stupid.

The other day I’m on the east side headed west. i wanted to get into the very last car because it meant less people to weed through in my sprint for the next train I'd have to take to get home. That doesn't sound like much, I know -- but when you're in one of the busiest corners of the world, every little thing makes the commute easier. Of course, this meant running the length of the train, a skill in and of itself. The doors could always close before I get all the way to the end.
As I got to the last car, the doorway was a wall of people but i could see that there was room further into the car and evidently so could some Indian man directly behind me because we both began to ask people to move in. Surprisingly, they obliged. One of them didn’t move, and as the crowd shifting around him to accommodate us, he began to complain. As soon as I heard his voice, I knew that he was from the south. He talked like Boomhauer’s would-be cousin – not as fast but just as twangy. He must have been furious to talk at all – and why he directed his venom at me, I’ll never know. I guess as a black girl I must have seemed to be an easy target. Most Southerners I know don’t like to let their accents out of the bag up north. He looked Texas-German: stocky, with dark blonde features and blue eyes. Although he probably wasn’t, he looked severely middle aged. Like some crummy job that kept him well fed had totally worked him over, the wrong way.

He was all wound up and madder than a wet hen, letting me have it about how he waited for ten whole minutes until the train got there and he didn’t see why I should just walk up and get on the train, how supremely unfair it was. To tell you the truth, I was amused that he thought I was some Yankee.

We kept going tit for tat until i finally said, what do you want me to do. He said, i want you to get off the train, is what i want. I said, i can't get off the train, i'm already on it. So he went off on another tear and when he was finished, i said -- slowly, with feeling, in this really high pitched voice, like a little kid, all singsongy and soft -- i love you.

i know you're not going to believe this (because i didn't) but that totally shut him all the way up. of all the things i could have said, that's what got his goat? ha.

maybe when i said that he realized how stupid he sounded.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

it's like a dream...

I have a Treo and suddenly my life is a dream made real.

No more, the snippets of paper with illegible scribblings. No more, the post-its with phone numbers and notes to remind me of whatever and what not. No more business cards. If I have to find an upright bass player, I don’t have to scramble through a Rolodex. I have a dozen or so at my fingertips – literally. actually, a Rolodex is unthinkable at this point. i can't even imagine that i bought one once upon a time and thought that i was actually making progress...

i feel like everyone i know with one of these things has been zipping around in cars and i've been walking everywhere.

If I meet you at a party, or on the street or at a gig, I can get your phone number and then I can take your picture to go with it, to remember you – so months later, I’m not looking at your information and wondering, who in the wide wide world of sports is this? When I say I’m going to stay in touch, I can do it effortlessly. I can email you from anywhere, not just from my desk or my laptop. Everything dovetails. Everything fits. I can make videos. I can watch television. All those radio stations that love me in Colorado? I got ‘em right here. I could drop all of them a line as I walk through the park.

How could I run a business without this thing?

Everytime I turn it on, I figure out something else it can do. Scary but true -- I’ve discarded a whole world of endless clutter and paperwork. Everything has been recalibrated. My life is realigned. It’s like a dream.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

my new york city

When I was little, I would daydream about living in New York City. I knew that I would live in Harlem and that I would live alone. I also knew that I would have an unconventional creative life. I didn’t know what I would do to make money exactly, but I imagined that I would wear gowns for a living. I didn’t know if I would ever get married and have children but I knew that I would have lifelong friends, and that we would have grand adventures. I would eat things like lobster thermidor and collect bakelite jewelry – and although my mother and father would be around, no one would ever tell me when to go to bed. While other girls were thinking about what their wedding day would be like, I was standing on a box in the bathroom, pretending to accept some award, wondering what I’d say, what I’d wear.

Somehow, every famous anybody that had a modicum of talent had a story to tell about what happened to them when they lived there and what they did and how they pulled it off and when they left or why they stayed. Because back in the day (and I think this still holds true), if you wanted to be an actor, you went to New York City and did theater and then you went to California.

The question remains: What is "my New York City story"? Maybe what I should ask is: Where is "my New York City" in the first place?

This place is not the Emerald City that I dreamed of. That was a fantasy. It’s not the toilet filled with human excrement that overwhelmed me in the early 90s when I got here, either. That was reality then. The city is basically becoming a Jersey strip mall, filled with long-term tourists and short-term students. Something in me wants to get it overwith, go to graduate school and leave when I’m done. But I live in a wonderful section of Harlem, one that most people have never heard of. (Thank God.) My neighborhood doesn’t seem to be going down as quickly as the rest of the city. Things are getting pricey up here, though. Everyone is already running for the Bronx.

I want to leave but where would I go? How do you leave New York City? Once you’ve spent a certain amount of time here, I’m not sure that it’s entirely possible. I like Harlem, though. It's easy to understand why it was (and to some, it still is) the cultural capital of Black America.

Everything here is easier to stomach when you have a cool place to live. The reason why living alone in a Harlem apartment is such a luxury is because most of them have everything that a proper home should, besides a room to sleep in: a living room, a dining room, a foyer. A kitchen to sit and eat in. Closet space. Space, period. No small wonder – it was created for people with money and class. You can see the opulent remnants everywhere. The way most of the buildings have elevators and marble lobbies and chandeliers. The beautiful parks. The wide walkways that let you stroll. The lower east side, on the other hand, was built for the steady stream of immigrants who lived like lemmings in walk-ups with everything in one room.

Someone had the genius idea to turn my place into a two bedroom set-up, so I’m basically sleeping in what was the dining room. I’m rearranging everything, cleaning everything, throwing things away. It's spring cleaning in December. It's also a New Year's Eve tradition but why wait until the last minute? Time to make those end-of-the-year tax write-off donations to charitable organizations like The Salvation Army and Furnish-A-Future.

My little bachelorette pad, filled with Super 8 equipment and art books and framed lobby cards and mah jong bakelite jewelry, is somewhere underneath it all.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


what is it? one moment, an atomic bomb, tentacled and luminous. the next, a strange flower that blooms whenever it moves. perhaps it is both.

Friday, November 24, 2006

happy thanksgiving!

happy thanksgiving!

checking on the fried turkey in my parent's backyard. no one but me seems to care that it's 600 calories per serving...

Sunday, November 19, 2006

a few thousand words

norris bennett and queen esther

this is norris bennett on mountain dulcimer and myself on vocals (with a slight visual of henrique prince behind me on fiddle) at sekou sundiata's wedapeople cabaret at the gatehouse in harlem a few weeks ago.

queen esther @ the gatehouse

this is what the stage area looked like. of course, the acoustics are amazing. so easy to imagine the water rushing through the place when it was a water plant in 1890. it's a remarkable achievement that they were able to preserve the intregity of the building the way that they did. the venue holds about 200 people. it was a sold-out night.

queen esther @ the gatehouse

here's a shot of the rythym section: dave on bass and boo on acoustic guitar.

coming soon: video footage.

Friday, November 17, 2006

my gym, my life

When my gym membership ran out at the beginning of November, I knew that I was in trouble. For some strange reason I saw myself sliding into a sedentary abyss that would blow me up in a sudden way, and have me floating around the city like a balloon on a stick. I scrambled to find another gym that would make me happy. I wanted treadmills and Nautilus and all that, and yet – I wanted more. I wanted to work out whenever I wanted. I wanted a steam room and sauna. And if I felt like a massage after my workout, well, I wanted that, too.

When I found what I wanted, it was what I had all along, or at least off and on in my early years in the city: New York Sports Clubs. That was when I was living in an unbelievably cheap SRO. Now that I was living alone, I simply couldn’t afford it. Then, as divine providence would have it, a week-long pass to fell into my hands, and I went out at 3am the other night and had a brisk workout in one of their 24 hr. gyms. It actually felt like an adventure.

As my legs were spinning under me on the treadmill, it hit me: the reason why I was so panicky about a place to work out had nothing to do with weight loss or even weight management. I’m a healthy size six on a bad day. I’m a size eight when I let myself go – but I never really let myself go. Not really. And that’s the point. Some people can eat whatever they want and never gain weight but I’m not one of them. I used to envy those folks. But not anymore. For me, everything requires discipline and sacrifice and hard work. After a certain point, each thing feeds on the other until all of it runs together and my whole life is a well-oiled machine – focused, purpose-driven and (strangely enough) joyful.

That balloon in my head wasn’t my body. It was my life. I was panicky because I wanted to stay on point, not because I wanted to stay in shape. Don’t get me wrong. It’s nice to get healthy and look great in my clothes. But once those goals are reached, other priorities come into focus, things that I’d never considered. Like the time that I get to spend alone with my thoughts as I’m running. How I can meditate, or pray, or mull over a problem and find a solution, even if it’s only a 30 minute run. I love doing that. After awhile, I find myself looking forward to that alone time. Working out is no longer a chore. It’s a release. And when I start my day that way, everything seems to fall into place.

Looking back, I can see that I joined New York Sports Club and worked out everyday without fail at a time when I was the most stressed and when my struggle as an independent artist – to find my own voice and develop my own style creatively in spite of the impossibilities that faced me every day – was at its absolute worst. Did my body look great? You betcha. Was I healthy? Like an ox. Yet there I was, attacking every situation head-on and forging ahead with a fearlessness that seems bizarre to me now. My friend Eric Andre Johnson says I was like a human bullet. Anyone that got in my way had to look out for shards of shrapnel, because I was going straight through them, if that’s what it took to make it happen.

Gee. I guess I’m still like that.

I still can’t afford to join that gym at the regular rate, by the way. But as divine providence would have it, a rep for NYSC sent me a temporary membership…

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Racial Divide Still Evident

okay, maybe it's me. maybe i'm the only black woman out here that's a single college graduate with no kids that happens to earn as much if not more than the median white income level in this country, according to the latest census reports. but i don't think so. i think there's a jillion of us. so where are our stats?

who knows what my life would be like if i left new york city. let's face it: my rent is a mortgage payment. that's the next step: home ownership. or maybe graduate school. hm. let's see which one comes first.

Racial divide still evident
Blacks, Hispanics lag behind in education, income levels
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
of The Associated PressWASHINGTON, D.C. -

Decades after the civil rights movement, racial disparities in income, education and home ownership persist and, by some measurements, are growing.

White households had incomes that were two-thirds higher than blacks and 40 percent higher than Hispanics last year, according to data released today by the Census Bureau. White adults were also more likely than black and Hispanic adults to have college degrees and to own their own homes. They were less likely to live in poverty.

"Race is so associated with class in the United States that it may not be direct discrimination, but it still matters indirectly," said Dalton Conley, a sociology professor at New York University and the author of "Being Black, Living in the Red."

"It doesn't mean it's any less powerful just because it's indirect," he said.

Home ownership grew among white middle-class families after World War II when access to credit and government programs made buying houses affordable. Black families were largely left out because of discrimination, and the effects are still being felt today, said Lance Freeman, assistant professor of urban planning at Columbia University and author of "There Goes the 'Hood."

Home ownership creates wealth, which enables families to live in good neighborhoods with good schools. It also helps families finance college, which leads to better-paying jobs, perpetuating the cycle, Freeman said.

"If your parents own their own home, they can leave it to you when they pass on or they can use the equity to help you with a down payment on yours," Freeman said.

Three-fourths of white households owned their homes in 2005, compared with 46 percent of black households and 48 percent of Hispanic households. Home ownership is near an all-time high in the United States, but racial gaps have increased in the past 25 years.

Asian Americans, on average, have higher incomes and education levels than whites. However, they have higher poverty rates and lower home ownership rates.

The Census Bureau released 2005 racial data on incomes, education levels, home ownership rates and poverty rates today. The data are from the American Community Survey, the bureau's new annual survey of 3 million households nationwide. The Associated Press compared the figures with census data from 1980, 1990 and 2000.

Among the findings:
  • Black adults have narrowed the gap with white adults in earning high school diplomas, but the gap has widened for college degrees. Thirty percent of white adults had at least a bachelor's degree in 2005, while 17 percent of black adults and 12 percent of Hispanic adults had degrees.
  • Forty-nine percent of Asian Americans had at least a bachelor's degree in 2005.
  • The median income for white households was $50,622 last year. It was $30,939 for black households, $36,278 for Hispanic households and $60,367 for Asian households.
  • Median income for black households has stayed about 60 percent of the income for white households since 1980. In dollar terms, the gap has grown from $18,123 to $19,683.
  • Hispanic households made about 76 percent as much as white households in 1980. In 2005, it was 72 percent.
  • The gap in poverty rates has narrowed since 1980, but it remains substantial. The poverty rate for white residents was 8.3 percent on 2005. It was 24.9 percent for black residents, 21.8 percent for Hispanic residents and 11.1 percent for Asian residents.

Thomas Shapiro, professor of law and social policy at Brandeis University, said the "easiest answer" to narrowing racial gaps is to promote home ownership, which would help minority families accumulate wealth.

"The wealth gap is not just a story of merit and achievement, it's also a story of the historical legacy of race in the United Sates," said Shapiro, author of "The Hidden Cost of Being African American."

Shelton, of the NAACP, called for more funding for preschool programs such as Head Start, improving public schools and making college more affordable.

"Income should not be a significant determining factor whether someone should have an opportunity to go to college," Shelton said.
On The Net:
Census Bureau:

Monday, November 06, 2006

video coming soon!

the gig at the gatehouse for sekou sundiata's wedapeople cabaret on saturday was stellar. there were at least two photographers (aside from the one that i brought with me) and two videographers on the scene to document everything -- so i'm hoping for something good to put online via for mass consumption, and more pictures for the blog. stay tuned.

Friday, November 03, 2006

can't. shouldn't. won't.

my manager called me last night and asked me if i wanted to go to japan for six months. We have an ironclad agreement that he is not to call me for three basic things: cruise ships, regional/stock theater and disneyworld -- or any combination therein -- but he feels obligated to let me know what's out there. and evidently, mickey mouse is hiring in Tokyo.

But there was more: several months on a cruise ship and a philly production of caroline or change were waiting in the wings. how odd that in one phone call, he would tell me about all three things that I categorically refused to consider.

as he went on about the disney thing, i remember thinking, wow -- i've always wanted to live in a foreign country. but to tell you the truth, it was strange, listening to all the details: pay rates, per diem, LORT agreements. it felt like he was talking to someone else. Those are the kinds of opportunities I would have followed when I first came to the city. Until I began to develop my own ideas, I was at the mercy of this business, forever wondering what I was or wasn’t doing to make the phone ring and waiting around until it did. My strategy was to throw myself into the fray and say yes to everything. I was a roman candle, exploding in every direction, sure, I was exhausted and broke. but it felt so good to run after my dreams at full tilt that I really didn’t care. My successes shaped my goals and priorities. When the ideas I came up with were more interesting than the opportunities that were being presented to me, I began to say no more and more often until I hardly said yes at all.

Suddenly, here I was, going no-no-no all over again, without hesitation.

I know that I’m not a negative person but when the moment presents itself, I genuinely enjoy saying no – and I honestly don’t mind hearing it. I think it’s a freeing thing to say and to accept, as long as you’re objective about it. The word no has to find its way through a situation that the word yes never seems to know of. Yes gives it to me. No compels me to shift gears and find another way. And work harder.

it's not that i can't go to tokyo and do a show in disneyworld if someone offered me the part, or that I don’t want to take the gig. it's just that, at this juncture in my career, i would rather do commercials/tv/film, so I probably shouldn't. and that means i won't.

What it really boils down to is this: Say yes to what you really want. Say no to everything else.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Black Cowboys Ride the Range in Queens, and Keep a Sharp Lookout for Traffic

(Rufus Earle, left, sells western gear near the stables for the Federation of Black Cowboys, and Ali Rahman calls himself a Muslim wrangler.)

By: COREY KILGANNON, from The New York Times

Link(Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

In a shallow valley just off the Belt Parkway near the Brooklyn-Queens line, there is a dusty ranch where cowboys in wide-brimmed hats, muddy boots and pearl-buttoned shirts saddle up and ride the high plains of Howard Beach.

Most of these urban cowboys are black men getting up in years. But they take out their quarter horses or appaloosas or dappled paints and head out onto the streets of New York. They are members of the Federation of Black Cowboys, which keeps alive the heritage of the forgotten black horsemen of the old West. They keep their horses at that dusty ranch, the Cedar Lane Stables, at the junction of Conduit Avenue and Linden Boulevard. There are no cattle rustlers here or gunslinging outlaws to face. But there is one pervading peril: negotiating the heavy traffic that has steadily increased in an area that 50 years ago was largely farmland and wooded lots.

“Yes, we do a lot of riding in the streets, and traffic is dangerous,” said Edward J. Dixon, the president of the federation. “A horse can bolt anytime, so you always got to have your guard up.”

This is exactly what happened to a 13-year-old boy returning to the stables Sunday afternoon from a horse ride along city streets. The boy, Jared Johnson, was riding a 7-year-old quarter horse named Romeo that had been boarded at Cedar Lane Stables. The boy and the horse were stopped on a grassy median of Linden Boulevard opposite the stables, waiting to cross at the traffic light. The horse suddenly lunged into traffic and struck a yellow cab, the police and witnesses said. The boy was knocked to the ground, suffered head injuries and was taken to NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital in Manhattan, where he remained in critical condition last night. The horse, which the boy had borrowed from a family friend, slammed into the cab’s hood, windshield and roof, slightly injuring the driver. The horse suffered a severe gash across the belly from the cab’s roof light fixture and died at the scene, according to the police.

Mr. Dixon called the accident a tragedy, but emphasized that the horse belonged to a man who is not a federation member, but who simply rented a stall at the stables. The boy, who is not a member, was not taking part in a federation event, he said. The federation, a nonprofit group formed in 1994, has 35 members, many of them former law enforcement professionals. Roughly 45 horses are kept in the stables on the 24-acre site, which the federation has leased from the city since 1997. The group’s mission is to teach poor black children horsemanship and the role that the black cowboy played in the old West.

About a dozen of the horses here belong to nonmembers who lease stalls from the federation, according to Mr. Dixon. Members do not let unskilled riders take their horses off the property, but cannot dictate to nonmembers what to do with their horses, he said. Doug Elder, another federation member, said: “We can’t police every person who takes a horse from here onto the street. Anything could spook a horse out there, even a plastic bag blowing by.” Mr. Dixon, 66, a retired transit worker from Brooklyn, said, “We’re in the middle of New York City; Queens is right there, and Brooklyn is over there.” “The kids we teach to ride start from the ground up and learn to ride in control,” he said. “They have to pass a test, and we keep a very tight watch on them.” “We keep alive the heritage and history and culture of the forgotten black cowboy,” said Mr. Dixon, who was wearing Wrangler jeans, cowboy boots and a white wide-brimmed hat as he picked okra and green peppers in the small garden on the property, next to a graffiti-scrawled wall.

Members teach the children to muck out the stalls and groom the horses. The federation stages Wild West shows and holds rodeos that feature bronco-riding and calf-roping in the main corral. The group often plays host to school field trips and church groups. The horses stay in rudimentary stables in long, low-lying structures with tar-paper siding. Some have been converted from large metal shipping containers, with stable door spaces cut out of the corrugated metal sides.

“We used to have many stables around here and hundreds of horses,” said Rufus Earle, 78, who sells western apparel and gear at Leatherworks by Rufus on a desolate stretch of 78th Street near the stables. It is decorated with vinyl siding, wagon wheels and horseshoes. There are saddlebags and chaps inside. Outside, lariats sell for $20 apiece. “Once upon a time, black cowboys helped build this country, but somewhere along the line, we lost our heritage,” said Mr. Earle as he sat yesterday in the strong noonday sun on his porch with Ali Rahman, 65, who called himself a Muslim wrangler.

“You got Muslim cowboys, yep,” Mr. Rahman said. “Why not? A cowboy is a working man. You got cowboys who are businessmen, truckers, entertainers, even presidents. A cowboy is a working man, is all he is.”

Friday, October 27, 2006

go-go girl

go-go girl

still learning how to use my digital camera. i know this one is blurry but i like the way it looks like an abstract painting. and it captures her mood. taking pictures all the time is changing the way i see the world. fortunately the burlesque dancers at the slipper room are wonderful guinea pigs. i want a new digital camera that's small and that can capture movement better than this one.

the photo above taken at the slipper room the other night. i was running around with renee and she brought kwame and terrence along. all of us, musical theater folk. all of them, still working in musicals -- renee got the color purple national tour, terrence is going to japan to do RENT in a few weeks and kwame is doing a revival of a musical that made eartha kitt famous in the 50's (i can't remember the name of it, for some reason) -- and me, with my first national commercial under my belt, transitioning away from musicals and plays and moving towards on-camera work. where would we be in a year? three years? five? as we laughed and had fun, a part of me could only wonder.

renee, me, kwame & terrence

we had a screamingly good time. we sat right in front and took in a great show. for only five bucks, it's the best deal in town. i love the theatricality, the campiness, the storytelling, the style. it's always a treat to watch burlesque with dancers. they have such insight. and of course, there's so much respect for the craft -- because it's all movement. and besides, a lot of those burlesque girls used to be bun-heads. they know exactly what they're doing.

i went to the bodega down the street before the show started and my friend made me hot toddys all night long. and then on the break, we went outside to cool off and had popsicles, and then kwame and terrence skipped off to a gay bar.

our happy days are numbered. renee skips town in late december. we have to squeeze in as much fun as we possibly can.

Monday, October 23, 2006

top ten stuff i want NOW

  1. a clean, fixed-up, tricked out, well-organized, roommate-less apartment
  2. oversleep
  3. a big baby taylor
  4. bikini boot camp
  5. more guitar lessons with james "blood" ulmer
  6. my grandmother's recipe for oxtail soup
  7. a trip to rome or paris with my friend (he's never been to europe)
  8. endless time with a personal trainer/pilates instructor
  9. that great recipe for chocolate sour cream cake that i lost somewhere in my apartment
  10. two weeks hanging out all over texas -- sitting in, seeing friends, sipping mescal and eating nothing but world-class tex-mex every single solitary day

Sunday, October 22, 2006

dreaming is free

i missed spa week, believe it or not. me, the girly girl that's practically addicted to the bliss hot milk and almond pedicure. well -- i almost missed it. i promised myself that after spending practically a week in plymouth, i would do something about my hands and feet, at least. they looked positively grubby. on saturday, i went to jeniette instead of the infamous taste of chinatown that i had soooo looked forward to for months on end (it still hurts a little to think about it) and made an afternoon of it -- a manicure and a pedicure ensued, followed by a pleasant sidebar with my favorite eyebrowist, who shaped my eyebrows so beautifully, i honestly believed i had a totally different and much improved look when she was finished. as i sauntered out the door, i almost felt like myself.

what did i need to get it all back? a full body exfoliation, massage and soak at juvenex. a basic facial from bliss or mario badescu. a three day fast and many, many shots of wheatgrass. some new black boots. a sunday stroll through MoMA with my friend on my arm. i settled for a good hard sweat in the gym, followed by a hot shower and some serious daydreaming. there was a lot to consider.

i had been slugging it out, auditioning like crazy for commercials and such for so long that it blindsided me to actually get one. sure, i wanted it to happen but when it finally did, i wouldn't let myself believe that it was actually mine until it was over. i wanted to shift towards film/tv/commercials as an actor, and away from theater/musicals -- unless i can originate work, of course -- and i wanted confirmation that the commercial route that i so doggedly pursued was the right one for me. i realize now, as i wait with some fairly righteous trepidation to see if it gets picked up after the editing process, that clearly i'm standing on the verge of the rest of my life. i've heard people talk about turning a corner but this is unreal. everything has changed.

i'm looking forward to the creative freedom that only money and time can give me. in the meantime, i'm ordering my thoughts and rearranging my goals and priorities. i've had my little dream come true. several, in fact. now it's time to dream something else.

Friday, October 20, 2006

a picture is worth a thousand words...

Justin and Henry 002

here i am in a cranberry bog outside of plymouth, massachusetts with henry and justin, shooting the ocean spray cranberry juice commercial yesterday -- my first national spot! do i look sublime or what? finally -- that sack of money with wings that i've been chasing with a butterfly net at every commercial audition/callback situation for God knows how long has finally landed in my lap...maybe. this isn't a go until its edited and the client okays it. i'll celebrate when that happens. until then, it's back to the old grindstone.

yes, i'm wearing a wet suit under my clothes. yes, it's clean crystal clear spring water. and yes --even though the sun is shining, it's cold, cold, cold.

more photos later.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

i wanna be your dog

listening to iggy and the stooges rip into "now i wanna be your dog" on and i'm wishing it was alejandro escovedo's acoustic version -- so i dug around on youtube and found a live performance. ah, modern technology. there's always something a live show can teach you. and now with a push of a button, school is in session:

this song is reminding me of some amateur burlesque i saw in williamsburg awhile ago with an ambitious co-ed in a furry head-to-toe dog outfit that stripped to the iggy version, complete with a black spiked dog collar and leash, electrical tape on her nipples and everything. there were a lot of girls that went up that night but for some reason -- was it the song or was it her dance? -- her performance stuck with me. later, i ran into her in the bathroom and gushed over what she did. she was trembling with so much nervousness, she could hardly take in what i was saying, so overwhelmed to have simply gotten through it. i am told that singing onstage is a different kind of naked -- but still and all, nudity isn't easy, no matter what form it takes.

of course murray hill was the mc. she's just as seedy as she ever was. i wonder who's the dirty little old man she's emulating? who inspired that? what a little empire she's carved out for herself since we met in the early 90's. she's a real sweetheart, too. really down to earth and drop dead funny. funny that she recognizes me after all this time. i think i'd be a great drag king but i wouldn't want to do it. i'd be way too into it, way too good at it -- because in my head, i'm a straight-up dude.

i remember thinking that this number was what neo-burlesque was all about and although i knew that i was that ballsy with my clothes on, i wondered if i could ever do the burlesque thing. my friend says he expressly forbids it. hm.

thinking of alejandro as i listened to iggy got me to thinking of other harder songs that could be covered acoustically. i suppose i'll mess around with some ideas as i get closer to the unplugged notions i've been toying with lately. but the iggy/alejandro example is a fine model -- and also quite tempting. i don't know about any other punk songs to unplug but something so familiar, so close would be a real kick.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

larry the lobster is my lonely girl dinner

of course, one of the things i was most looking forward to when i knew i was coming to boston was the fresh seafood. i wasn't disappointed. not by a long-shot.

the motel we're in is located on the verge of the water that's sprinkled with fishing boats and such, with seafood restaurants down the road a bit here and there that readjust their menus daily to sell the catch of the day. everything is clean and well-paved and within easy reach, and everything that's newly built maintains the general look of the architecture, circa 1850's or so, i'd guess. the internet cafe. the eateries. the little shops. there's plenty to do here: cranberry bogs (of course), whale watching (sounds exciting!) and there's plimoth plantation , a living history museum. what a good idea, i think -- and then i wonder if they'll ever do that down south and recreate what slavery was like for hundreds of millions of africans. exactly who would be the black folk to step in and show everyone how it all went down? (insert involuntary shudder here.)

when i got hungry enough, i went out in search of the perfect little meal. i called my friend to take him along on my little journey as i went from place to place, peering at menus and reading items to him aloud. after picking on me ("you're taking so long to make up your mind, the restaurants will be closed by the time you decide what you want!"), i settled on this:

dinner in plymouth, massachusetts

my friend called it my "lonely girl dinner" -- as opposed to hungry man, i guess.

does anyone remember "larry the lobster"? i thought about him fondly as i inhaled my little feast. sure, there were enough votes to keep lawrence alive. but what no one seems to remember is that eddie boiled him up anyway when he got a lot of hate mail from these racists somewhere in the midwest who accused him of killing larry anyhow. i remember him reading their letters on the air (pretty ballsy in light of the corporation he was working for, i think) and then, in a grand flourish, showing a boiled-up larry, brightly red, dressed up and ready to eat, when he was finished saying what he had to say. it was ultra-controversial. for a long time, i couldn't eat a lobster without thinking about larry.

oh, well. i guess larry and i are going to get down again tonight. when the lobster is this good and plentiful and cheap, what other option do i have?

i do miss my friend. i guess that's what makes it a lonely girl dinner -- i wish he was here to eat it with me and wander around afterwards. he's been going off lately about how much he wants to jump in a car and drive us to maine and eat lobster and other seafood goodies near a dock somewhere. i wonder how we'll pull that one off?

oh, and ps: the shoot is delayed by a day. the forecast said inclement weather, so it's a no-go. we'll do it on thursday and i'll be back in the city -- and back in the saddle again -- by thursday night.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

the adventure begins...

flew into boston monday afternoon and was swept away by a silver 15 passenger van to a bustling wireless production office in the heart of the city. the introductions around the room were rapid-fire and friendly and in no time at all, i was in the bathroom in my underwear, struggling to squeeze my way into the wetsuit that would keep me warm while i stood in a cranberry bog up to my bum and wisecracked with rednecks. it was sleeveless with a velcro closure on the left shoulder and it fought me all the way. i waddled into the adjoining room to murmurs of approval by the costume department. the wardrobe person was surprised at how quickly i got into it. so was i.

i was in and out of four or five outfits superfast and i was photographed and then those outfits were approved of or vetoed by the ocean spray powers that be. and so was my hair. (more on that later.) bang-bang-bang, just like that. in no time at all, the well-organized wardrobe room was emptied and i was in the front seat of that silver van again, on my way to where we'd be staying during the shoot -- plymouth, "the nation's hometown," according to the sign that let us know where we were as we entered the town.

it was about an hour south of boston, and it was cold, cold, cold. the p.a. took me to a nearby gigantic mega-walmart (aren't they all that big?), which made me strangely happy. i stocked my little fridge with juice and yogurt and fruit because i knew that i would be on hold the next day and that meant nothing to do and i didn't want to leave my room. for anything. i prayed for a wireless hook-up, cable tv and a decent sized tub. i was prepared for a nice long soak and i had the lush bath bombs to prove it. when we arrived at the governor bradford motor inn (how positively creepy!), i realized that two out of three ain't bad and i promptly sacked out like somebody drugged me.

the next day was spent oversleeping, reading that war book that's changing my life, writing in my journal and making lists incessantly, obsessively even. oh yeah. and there were a ton of phone calls. as usual.

bizarrely enough, i happen to know a lot about plymouth. something in me always wanted to come here and explore the place. it's one thing to read about this stuff, but it's an entirely different situation to physically wander through it, to have it unfold right before your eyes. i did a report about thanksgiving once in grade school that was supposed to be some sort of pat presentation that retold the story we've all heard. the problem was, i wasn't a "pat presentation" kind of a child. i kept digging for the truth behind the well-worn stories. and once i got past the revisionist dreck, i found it. frankly, it scared the living daylights out of me -- and everyone else in the classroom. i distinctly recall that my teacher, a rather glow-in-the-dark pasty middle-aged spinster type with a helmet-like modified spit-curled beehive to go with that unyielding personality of hers, a real live sourpuss who labeled me as "bossy" (the nerve!) was genuinely annoyed with me and pretty much labeled me a troublemaker after that. it was so well-researched, she didn't think i actually did it. boy, did that piss my mother off. after all, she was the one who taught me to read when i was three. a showdown ensued. but i digress.

do you think i'll find anything in plymouth about what really happened to cause the pilgrims to "give thanks" so profusely? because i don't.

the shoot happens on wednesday. wish me well, folks. wish me well.

Monday, October 16, 2006

joy, joy

this is what greeted us as we made our way down riverside drive from the george washington bridge -- the sun setting over new jersey. sometimes it's truly breathtaking, how beautiful it can be up here.

homecoming shot

as we zipped through the adirondacks in our spiffy rental van with wayne asleep in the backseat, i laughed and bounced around in the front seat with matt ray at the helm as we told stories and sang along to everything sirius radio's 70's channel could throw at us, marvelling at how we knew absolutely all of the lyrics to every single solitary song. as a matter of fact, the cheesier the song, the more on point we were. uncanny. it was cold and wet and gray outside but the fall foliage was like a house on fire. we glided through constant explosions of reds and yellows, with hills and mountains that shifted all around us, overwhelming our good time with moments of genuine awe and personal reflection that gave way to silence. why is it so easy to find God in nature? as the chorus to barry manilow's "i write the songs" modulated and soared, i realized that i was happy but what i felt was bigger than the glee that knows me when i'm having fun. there was something else there. it was joy.

happiness is a feeling. it comes and it goes. it's something you can choose. joy is spiritual. it is a gift from God. joy chooses you. it resonates inside some other hidden part of you, whether you happen to be in a good mood or not. when everything in my day goes straight to hell, it's joy that tips everything in me in the other direction, giving me an equilibrium that is virtually unbreakable. not the harshness of the city, not my dire circumstances, not even my worst enemies can hinder me. i am astonished at this shift, how subtle it can be and how over time, i've grown to rest in it and trust it. everything really is going to be alright.

if i had a favorite song, it would have to be "joy, joy" by the edwin hawkins singers. everyone everywhere should hear that song at least once after they've called themselves grown and the world whips them around for awhile. everyone should own the cd "oh, happy day." it's instant uplift.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

mini-road trip

i'm in the adirondacks, in lake placid to be exact. yes, that lake placid -- site of the 1980 olympics, where a bunch of what amounted to well-intentioned american college students beat the undefeatable powerhouse russian olympic hockey team, arguably the best hockey team in the history of the game. the russian athletes were even threatened with work-camp detail in siberia if they lost, so they were more than motivated to win at any cost. talk about beating the odds. everyone is still trying to figure out how they did it. including them.

i forgot all my music but i've got so all is not lost. not by a long shot.

the gig that brought me here was done with by 10pm, thankfully. i think the guys went to a bar called the zig-zag, to chill out and goof off. i didn't feel like tagging along. i don't want to sit around and watch them get loaded.

i've got a sweet little room in a motor inn that's modernized yet somehow retro, and i'm way too wound up to sleep. i am seriously considering a long soak to take everything down a notch but i'm not so sure it'll work. i'm too excited about everything that's happened, and it's exhausting me. i want to strategize.

everything feels like christmas. that's the only way i can sum it all up at the moment. and wouldn't you know it? earlier this evening, it started to snow...

tomorrow, i need to spend the entire afternoon in church, i need a shot of green vibrance, i need a pedicure and a manicure at jeniette and i need to see my eyebrowist there -- pretty much in that order.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

another day, another (commercial) callback

i had a 1pm appointment at HOUSE for the ocean spray commercial callback. they wanted me to do lines and they were prepared to put me on camera, upload my takes online and have a decision for me before the end of the day. i went in with the usual joie de vivre: crazy mad starving (i hadn't eaten all day) with no make-up on and, like always, i gave the assistants at the front desk my usual hello as i breezed past them to prep for my close-up. i've been in and out of there so much for auditions/callbacks in the past 2 years, they actually know me. one of them, rebecca, knows me no matter what my hair is doing. needless to say, she's my favorite.

i like to put my make-up on when i get there because their floor-to-ceiling windows means strong daylight even on a cloudy day, so i can't overapply it. i usually don't have much time to hang around so i'm also quick about it. and my eyebrows are always finished, which helps tremendously. the result is a natural, well-rested look. i know it sounds like no big deal but it took me forever to figure out how to put make-up on for the camera, to get this result. it was a constant learning process: what make-up to use, how to angle my face, how to relax the muscles in my face and smile slightly, so i didn't look deranged or constipated. i ended up experimenting by using my digital camera to make readjustments. i would put on make-up and take pictures of myself in natural light until i looked unmade-up. sounds oxymoronic, i know -- but that's the effect i knew i had to have. too much make-up can make you look a lot older than you really are on camera. it also looks amateurish -- a major no-no.

and you don't want to get into clothes and how you have to dress to pull all this off. you don't even want to know.

it took long enough to learn how to do the make-up/preparation/clothes right for stage but the camera is a strange animal. i had to learn how to audition well, how to prepare for it, all of it. is there a class for that? i seriously doubt it. if there were, i'd still have to go through the process of doing it, and that has its own learning curve. i couldn't have afforded to take them. i simply didn't have the money for those things. all i had was my creativity and my determination and my nerve. i was never afraid of showing up and doing a bad audition or looking stupid. i was afraid of missing an opportunity, even if i didn't get the gig, because i knew that the chance to be in front of that camera was school, and i had to take advantage of that.

so by the time i walked into that callback, i had it all down to a science. as i casually applied make-up and readjusted my look, i chatted with miryam, a blactress that was there for a k-mart commercial. she was on her way out the door, so she was readjusting in the other direction. somewhere in there, they brought out a massively huge platter of sandwiches for the staff. i involuntarily winced as i watched everyone dive in, thought about taking one, changed my mind and went to the front desk to sign in.

as it turns out, i was the only person there to read for the role.

as divine providence would have it, my favorite assistant rebecca was the one to put me on camera. this was important because i like her and she likes me, so i instantly feel comfortable in her presence and all of this translates to what i do on camera. the lines were quirky and fun. i actually enjoyed myself. like always, i was in and out -- and on the way out, rebecca let me have her sandwich because she was wheat-gluten intolerant. is she cool or what?

i find out either way later on this afternoon. in the immortal words of tom petty, the waiting is the hardest part.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


i called talentworks at about 4:30pm. did i get the commercial? weeeelll, they drawled, the people at ocean spray said they'd figure it out by "end of day" and it's not end of day yet. i say, oh, okay but i'm thinking, it's the end of my day. so i'm thinking, somebody is shining somebody on, but it ain't me. i didn't get it. and that was that.

about 30 minutes later, phil calls me. i say, are you calling to tell me i got it and he says, you got it and you didn't get it. huh??? it seems they want me to come back in tomorrow afternoon at 1pm to HOUSE and read lines. i'm thinking, lines? dollar signs pop out of my eyeballs like something out of a tex avery cartoon. you see, getting a national commercial with no lines that runs a lot means recieving a nice-sized sack of money when the quarterly payments start coming in. having lines in a national commercial that runs a lot, however, means you just won some kind of residual payment lotto. it's a money train, people. and it's got your name on it.

well. i'm still on hold and they want to hear me do lines. this should be interesting...

another day (some days ago) -- another (commercial) audition

a few weeks ago, i went into HOUSE for an ocean spray commercial. like most commercial auditions i've done in the past, it was an in and out situation, really. i've said it a jillion times before but it bears repeating -- there's a certain skillset that's required when it's time to say lines on camera and hit your mark, believe me, but most of the time, they look at you and decide whether or not they want to give you the job. seeing as how there's nothing i can do about how tall i am or how ethnic a face i have or how dark my skin is, there's never anything to get upset about when i don't get the gig. this audition was no exception. i came in and did my usual song and dance: put on minimal beat, had my picture taken, filled out the print out and signed in. then i pick up copy to figure out what they want me to do when i get in the room. once i'm in there, they occasionally fine-tune it. and that's it.

this time, i was to dance and have fun like i was at a cocktail party with friends, except i couldn't move my legs from the knees down because i'm supposed to be in a cranberry bog surrounded by rednecks. and yeah, that's not me interjecting that "surrounded by rednecks" line. that's what it actually said. now, i'm sure that when most people think of rednecks, they hear banjos playing somewhere in the distance as they're visualizing key scenes from deliverance. but when i think of rednecks, i think of archie bunker and jimmy the greek and president jimmy carter's much loved, much lambasted little brother billy. (actually, he was more of a good ol' boy, really. and that's not a redneck.) as a southerner who's lived in the north for quite a spell, i know firsthand that rednecks aren't just in the south -- they're absolutely everywhere. especially up here.

seeing that redneck line made me wonder just what they meant by redneck by putting it in there, especially since cranberries are typically grown in the northeast in this country. but i didn't wonder aloud. i wandered into the studio when my name was called, with a casually dressed middle aged white girl, where a smiling woman explained the scenario, turned the camera on us, slated us and cranked some music while staring at us on the monitor to her left. it's always funny to me, the way they're looking at me on the monitor and talking to me on the monitor and responding to me on the monitor and there i am, standing less than six feet away and they're not looking at me at all. and there i was, dancing without moving my legs to the strains of outcast, empty cup in hand, laughing and interacting with the other girl who was in the cranberry bog too, waving to the rednecks and wondering if they were waving back at me. hey ya, indeed.

yesterday i get a call from my agent phil at talentworks. surprise -- i'm on hold. that means they want to make sure that i'm available on the dates that they're supposed to shoot the commercial, because they might want me. to tell you the truth, i'm unfazed. i've been "on hold" before and not gotten the gig -- so often in fact that it felt as though my entire commercial audition experience was one gigantic hold button, with me dangling on the other end. but i keep going in for commercials because the money is basically a king's ransom. and the law of averages says that, like lotto, if i keep throwing my hat in the ring with this many near misses, i'm probably going to get one sooner or later. the question is, how long can i keep going in that room?

the obvious answer is, as long as it takes. because frankly, i'm way too hardheaded for any other option.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

charlie louvin and i at rodeo bar & grill

charlie louvin and i

my friend had met charlie louvin last year at the rodeo bar -- and he had the oversized color photo to prove it. he was so determined to see him play live that he literally came in from a cross-country vacation in the desert, put his bags down in his apartment and jumped in a cab to meet up with his friends who were already there and waiting for him. i was not to be outdone. the other night after we'd had a lovely dinner and taken in a broadway show, i decided we'd end the night by taking in the top of mr. louvin's first set at the rodeo bar, if my friend was up for it. undaunted, he happily agreed.

it was a thursday night, mr. louvin's 2nd night in residence as it were, and the place was packed as usual. and why wouldn't it be a shoulder-to-shoulder nightmare? there's never a cover, there's no drink minimum and the food is fairly decent tex-mex fare, with lots of righteous western/southern atmosphere and cool music posters and such. i'm still wondering if the enormous buffalo over the bar is real. boo reiners was playing guitar with him and he was in fine form.

eventually, the set ended and i got to say hello to boo. i asked him if he thought it would be alright to say hello to mr. louvin. "oh, sure," boo drawled. "he loves girls." indeed, there was a well-heeled, well dressed older dark-haired lady who sat in the booth against the wall nearby, watching everyone approach him, her lips smiling faintly, her index finger pressing against her lips, her other arm folded against her midsection, her jacket resting gingerly on her shoulders. i remember thinking, its so nice to see older women be...well, older. it's just not what's done these days. no one wants to age gracefully. she was loveliness personified. she had to be with him. she just had to be.

my friend and i made our way to the stage and dodged some fairly manic fan that was completely jabberwocky to get this photo. it was worth it, to meet my hero. all i could hear in my head as i looked into my own camera's eye was him and his brother ira singing their ever-popular gospel song "satan is real."

as i introduced myself, i told him that boo played on my last recordings and in a flash, he gave me his card and asked me to send him some of my music. he was warm and genuine and accessible, not unlike my friend's grandfather. when i mentioned that to my friend, he said that they vaguely resembled each other. and he's right.

i floated home and had wonderful dreams about recording my songs with charlie louvin. or at the very least, hanging out with him in nashville long enough to bake him and the lady a pound cake.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Marriage, Shamu and Rewarding Good Behavior

What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage

AS I wash dishes at the kitchen sink, my husband paces behind me, irritated. "Have you seen my keys?" he snarls, then huffs out a loud sigh and stomps from the room with our dog, Dixie, at his heels, anxious over her favorite human's upset.

In the past I would have been right behind Dixie. I would have turned off the faucet and joined the hunt while trying to soothe my husband with bromides like, "Don't worry, they'll turn up." But that only made him angrier, and a simple case of missing keys soon would become a full-blown angst-ridden drama starring the two of us and our poor nervous dog.

Now, I focus on the wet dish in my hands. I don't turn around. I don't say a word. I'm using a technique I learned from a dolphin trainer.

I love my husband. He's well read, adventurous and does a hysterical rendition of a northern Vermont accent that still cracks me up after 12 years of marriage.

But he also tends to be forgetful, and is often tardy and mercurial. He hovers around me in the kitchen asking if I read this or that piece in The New Yorker when I'm trying to concentrate on the simmering pans. He leaves wadded tissues in his wake. He suffers from serious bouts of spousal deafness but never fails to hear me when I mutter to myself on the other side of the house. "What did you say?" he'll shout.

These minor annoyances are not the stuff of separation and divorce, but in sum they began to dull my love for Scott. I wanted — needed — to nudge him a little closer to perfect, to make him into a mate who might annoy me a little less, who wouldn't keep me waiting at restaurants, a mate who would be easier to love.

So, like many wives before me, I ignored a library of advice books and set about improving him. By nagging, of course, which only made his behavior worse: he'd drive faster instead of slower; shave less frequently, not more; and leave his reeking bike garb on the bedroom floor longer than ever.

We went to a counselor to smooth the edges off our marriage. She didn't understand what we were doing there and complimented us repeatedly on how well we communicated. I gave up. I guessed she was right — our union was better than most — and resigned myself to stretches of slow-boil resentment and occasional sarcasm.

Then something magical happened. For a book I was writing about a school for exotic animal trainers, I started commuting from Maine to California, where I spent my days watching students do the seemingly impossible: teaching hyenas to pirouette on command, cougars to offer their paws for a nail clipping, and baboons to skateboard.

I listened, rapt, as professional trainers explained how they taught dolphins to flip and elephants to paint. Eventually it hit me that the same techniques might work on that stubborn but lovable species, the American husband.

The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don't. After all, you don't get a sea lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging. The same goes for the American husband.

Back in Maine, I began thanking Scott if he threw one dirty shirt into the hamper. If he threw in two, I'd kiss him. Meanwhile, I would step over any soiled clothes on the floor without one sharp word, though I did sometimes kick them under the bed. But as he basked in my appreciation, the piles became smaller.

I was using what trainers call "approximations," rewarding the small steps toward learning a whole new behavior. You can't expect a baboon to learn to flip on command in one session, just as you can't expect an American husband to begin regularly picking up his dirty socks by praising him once for picking up a single sock. With the baboon you first reward a hop, then a bigger hop, then an even bigger hop. With Scott the husband, I began to praise every small act every time: if he drove just a mile an hour slower, tossed one pair of shorts into the hamper, or was on time for anything.

I also began to analyze my husband the way a trainer considers an exotic animal. Enlightened trainers learn all they can about a species, from anatomy to social structure, to understand how it thinks, what it likes and dislikes, what comes easily to it and what doesn't. For example, an elephant is a herd animal, so it responds to hierarchy. It cannot jump, but can stand on its head. It is a vegetarian.

The exotic animal known as Scott is a loner, but an alpha male. So hierarchy matters, but being in a group doesn't so much. He has the balance of a gymnast, but moves slowly, especially when getting dressed. Skiing comes naturally, but being on time does not. He's an omnivore, and what a trainer would call food-driven.

Once I started thinking this way, I couldn't stop. At the school in California, I'd be scribbling notes on how to walk an emu or have a wolf accept you as a pack member, but I'd be thinking, "I can't wait to try this on Scott."

On a field trip with the students, I listened to a professional trainer describe how he had taught African crested cranes to stop landing on his head and shoulders. He did this by training the leggy birds to land on mats on the ground. This, he explained, is what is called an "incompatible behavior," a simple but brilliant concept.

Rather than teach the cranes to stop landing on him, the trainer taught the birds something else, a behavior that would make the undesirable behavior impossible. The birds couldn't alight on the mats and his head simultaneously.

At home, I came up with incompatible behaviors for Scott to keep him from crowding me while I cooked. To lure him away from the stove, I piled up parsley for him to chop or cheese for him to grate at the other end of the kitchen island. Or I'd set out a bowl of chips and salsa across the room. Soon I'd done it: no more Scott hovering around me while I cooked.

I followed the students to SeaWorld San Diego, where a dolphin trainer introduced me to least reinforcing syndrome (L. R. S.). When a dolphin does something wrong, the trainer doesn't respond in any way. He stands still for a few beats, careful not to look at the dolphin, and then returns to work. The idea is that any response, positive or negative, fuels a behavior. If a behavior provokes no response, it typically dies away.

In the margins of my notes I wrote, "Try on Scott!"

It was only a matter of time before he was again tearing around the house searching for his keys, at which point I said nothing and kept at what I was doing. It took a lot of discipline to maintain my calm, but results were immediate and stunning. His temper fell far shy of its usual pitch and then waned like a fast-moving storm. I felt as if I should throw him a mackerel.

Now he's at it again; I hear him banging a closet door shut, rustling through papers on a chest in the front hall and thumping upstairs. At the sink, I hold steady. Then, sure enough, all goes quiet. A moment later, he walks into the kitchen, keys in hand, and says calmly, "Found them."

Without turning, I call out, "Great, see you later."

Off he goes with our much-calmed pup.

After two years of exotic animal training, my marriage is far smoother, my husband much easier to love. I used to take his faults personally; his dirty clothes on the floor were an affront, a symbol of how he didn't care enough about me. But thinking of my husband as an exotic species gave me the distance I needed to consider our differences more objectively.

I adopted the trainers' motto: "It's never the animal's fault." When my training attempts failed, I didn't blame Scott. Rather, I brainstormed new strategies, thought up more incompatible behaviors and used smaller approximations. I dissected my own behavior, considered how my actions might inadvertently fuel his. I also accepted that some behaviors were too entrenched, too instinctive to train away. You can't stop a badger from digging, and you can't stop my husband from losing his wallet and keys.

PROFESSIONALS talk of animals that understand training so well they eventually use it back on the trainer. My animal did the same. When the training techniques worked so beautifully, I couldn't resist telling my husband what I was up to. He wasn't offended, just amused. As I explained the techniques and terminology, he soaked it up. Far more than I realized.

Last fall, firmly in middle age, I learned that I needed braces. They were not only humiliating, but also excruciating. For weeks my gums, teeth, jaw and sinuses throbbed. I complained frequently and loudly. Scott assured me that I would become used to all the metal in my mouth. I did not.

One morning, as I launched into yet another tirade about how uncomfortable I was, Scott just looked at me blankly. He didn't say a word or acknowledge my rant in any way, not even with a nod.

I quickly ran out of steam and started to walk away. Then I realized what was happening, and I turned and asked, "Are you giving me an L. R. S.?" Silence. "You are, aren't you?"

He finally smiled, but his L. R. S. has already done the trick. He'd begun to train me, the American wife.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

neo-burlesque at its finest!

delirium tremens at the slipper room

here's a shot of one of my favorite neo-burlesque performers, delerium tremens, hard at work at the slipper room. i especially like the way she puts a new twist on her old school take on burlesque. you can't completely let go of the past with any of this. you have to build on it. i like her style. the betty paige hair, 40's make-up and classic body complete the effect, but the kicker is that sneer on her face that she gives the audience as she dances.

that hard look has a startling effect, somehow. there's something calculated about it, which adds even more dimension to what she's doing, because there's something contemptuous in it. i don't think she realizes the expression she's making. or maybe she does. either way, it's not what you'd expect from such a pretty girl. that's a part of the reveal in her dance, i suppose. and the allure.

this is what my friend looks at while he's slinging drinks but for some strange reason, he could care less. is it because he's been working there for so long? as one of the dancers told me, "if i want him to not look at me, i'll put on some pasties."

Saturday, September 30, 2006

my friend and i go shopping...

my friend says that before he met me, he didn't know that he needed certain things. like containers for leftovers, with lids that fit. or dish towels. or an armoire. (he doesn't have any closets in his apartment.) or pot holders. he was perfectly happy yanking things out of the oven with the tail end of his shirt or whatever else was within reach. what a guy.

the other day i convinced him to go to national wholesale liquidators to get a few necessary items. it was quite an adventure.

i hadn't been there in years. it didn't matter because it hadn't changed at all. all of the goods were piled all the way up to the ceiling, mesmering everyone. i call it "the sam's effect." look at it this way: when you walk in, you're literally overwhelmed with all of the stuff on the shelves. you think to yourself, what is all this? no one needs all this stuff. and then you focus on a few things here and there. a waffle iron. a steam iron. a water purifier. a microwave. by the time you get to the end of the first aisle, you wonder how you got through life without any of this. you feel grateful that you've found the place because it's so unbelievably cheap. and even though you don't necessarily need a george forman grill, you're making a mental note to come back and get one.

the store really is basically a miniature version of sam's wholesale club, big lots and cub foods rolled into one -- they have everything you can think of inside, at bargain basement prices. and yes, i mean everything. ladies lingerie. mountain boots. lucky charms cereal. kitchen appliances. jumper cables. hot rollers. if someone were dropped off naked in front of this store with cash money and/or credit cards, they'd walk out with absolutely everything they'd need to set themselves up.

one of the main items i made my friend get was a 9 inch round glass baking dish, so i can make pie at his place. he was pretty happy about a computer keyboard he got for $5. and yes, i have a list of things i'll get on my return trip. it's the place i'll go before we hit IKEA. but that's a whole other conversation...

Thursday, September 28, 2006

well, surprise, surprise, surprise!

what really shouldn't be a surprise at all is that i came so close to being the hulk. they probably tagged me with wonder woman because i'm a girl...

Your results:
You are Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman
Green Lantern
The Flash
Iron Man
You are a beautiful princess
with great strength of character.

Click here to take the "Which Superhero are you?" quiz...

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

the one and only freddie king

my friend ralph says that this video is what made him want to play the guitar. after repeated viewings, i can definitely understand why. at the moment, there are other things that are compelling me to keep learning and playing but i have to admit -- the longer i watched this, the more inspired i felt.

who knows? if i had seen this as a kid, i probably would never have picked up that clarinet...

Monday, September 25, 2006

paula and lois

i got a phone call the other day from paula. she was in town from beaver county, pennsylvania with her husband and her little girl, catching up with friends and seeing the sights. could we see each other some time this weekend? she had sent me a smattering of phone calls and e-mails warning of her impending breeze-through but only some other part of me had paid attention, so her crash landing into my afternoon was a bit of a happy surprise.

or maybe the surprise is that she's in my life. this part of it, anyway. she was supposed to be trapped in my idiotic urban beginnings, like a mosquito in amber. from time to time, i would hold a memory of she and i up to the light and examine it closely, marvelling at how well preserved it was. i wondered what happened to her like i wondered what happened to all of rest of the people i had known then, a garden variety of freaks and weirdos and posers that i was pretty sure i'd never see again. and then one day she e-mailed me. and then she called me. and then she showed up and we met up and everything started up all over again, like it never stopped.

she's probably just as surprised as i am.

she and i met at a bar on the upper east side called name this joint. i can't remember exactly what she did there but i was a cashier at the spot in the back called atomic wings that served * you guessed it! * buffalo wings -- and yeah, they were actually good. it was my first job in the city. frankly, i don't know why they hired me. no one else would because i didn't have any "new york city experience." my not being able to type didn't help much, either. it took a year to live through that particular catch-22, it was one long gut-wrenching emotionally draining snag. everyone was so dismissive, so sure that i wouldn't make it past the winter. i watched my southern friends leave in waves. i was immovable. i had dreamed of living in new york city all my life. i wasn't about to turn high-tail and run home because it was cold and snowy -- colder than anything i had ever known, actually. i got some long johns, a decent winter coat and i kept going.

i worked a wide variety of crap jobs for my first six years here while i did my art on on my own terms and on my own time -- that is, when i could find my own time. all of that ended when i got cast in the original company of the first national tour of RENT. how? by walking into a cattle call of what ultimately amounted to more than 6,000 people in five cities. and puerto rico, for cryin' out loud. but i digress.

paula belongs to those first six years.

paula lived with lois, who also worked at that bar. i remember how she would have a bottle of tequila in either hand and she would walk through the crowd, literally pouring alcohol down people's throats. sometimes they would lean against the bar and tip their heads back and open their mouths like starving baby birds, yelling until she came along and obliged with some jose cuervo. it was the kind of place only a former frat boy could love. then again, so was the neighborhood. we always made goofy faces at each other, whether anyone was looking or not because we were so over it. we knew that we had to get out of there before it got all over us.

lois was a sweet-faced brown eyed girl. she was also, as it turned out, greek-american. first generation, i think. she spoke greek fluently. i remember hanging out with her and listening to her talk to her mother one day and being really taken with how melodic it sounded. like a bird, singing its heart out. like me, lois wanted to be an actress. but i heard that from a lot of people when i first got here. the numbers dwindled exponentially as time went on until the only actors i knew were the ones that were actually working. but i guess that's the magic of living in the city. it will force you to put up or do something else.

she and paula were a study in opposites, in a way. she was grounded, a preacher's kid, with strong family ties. paula came from a good home but she was adopted, and something in her was looking for those roots.

the one bit of fun that the three of us would have after work was hanging out at king tut's wah-wah hut at all hours. it is a legendary place, and deservedly so. it was the coolest bar i've ever known, before or since. i have yet to go to a bar that's topped it.when we'd close the place down, lois let me sack out at her apartment, which was a few blocks from tompkins square park. we would lie in bed and talk until one of us would say, we have to stop talking and go to sleep. and then we would keep talking and talking and talking. lois meant a lot to me. she was full of feeling, she had a sunny disposition and she wasn't afraid of hard work.

that was pretty much my first year in new york city. lots of "no," lots of buffalo chicken wings, lots of former frat boys reliving their glory days, and lots of downtown freaks.

remember: this was the early 90's, when the city was filthy and dangerous, and when all of the lower east side was one gigantic toilet. no one could stop talking about david rakowitz, the guy killed his ballerina roommate, then boiled her into soup and fed her to the homeless people in that park. (he was just up for parole, actually. he didn't get it. surprise.) eventually, the homeless people decided to turn the area into their own self-governed sanctuary. and they did, for awhile -- until the city came in and evicted them, then bulldozed their shantytown. it was a crazy neighborhood. it was nothing at all like the well-heeled, well-dressed hipsters that chain smoke and sip lattes and walk their canine kitties in the long dark shadow of all that mess. whatever.

paula was quite the wild child but i always knew that no matter how bad off she seemed to be doing or what she'd gotten herself into lately, she was a good girl at heart and that she would eventually straighten up and fly right. and she did. she finished school, got saved, found her birth mother and her birth father and her half-siblings, got married, left the city, bought a house, had a kid. now she's an out-patient psychotherapist, with clients ranging in age from 2 1/2 to 60. she's even riding horses and writing again. i am so proud of her, for all her hard work -- but also because i know that things could have turned out a lot different. and she knows that, too.

the first time we got together, we wondered aloud as to what happened to everyone we used to know. between the two of us, passing stories back and forth, we filled in a lot of blanks. the one we really wanted to find was lois. the last i heard, she married a puerto rican guy that made her happy and moved to queens. paula has tried everything and she can't find her. maybe she's left the city entirely. maybe she doesn't want to be found.

paula has another life but she and i will keep in touch, and we'll hang out when we can. we'll keep looking for lois. looking and praying. anything's possible. she has to be out there somewhere...

Sunday, September 24, 2006

good things abound

something spectacularly wonderful just happened to me -- it's been two weeks now -- but i don't want to talk about it just yet, partly because the full impact of having it hasn't quite hit me. then again, as i write this, i realize it probably never will. i'm still a little shell-shocked. give me a minute to catch my breath and brace myself as i make the readjustment in the rest of my life. eventually, i'll let the cat out of the bag.

in the meantime, i walk around smiling at complete strangers for no apparent reason at all.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

the real thing

on friday afternoon, i got a call from robert, my neighbor who lives around the corner from me in a co-op on riverside drive. he wanted to know if i was up for trying out a brand new swanky chinese place in harlem called ginger, on E. 116th and 5th avenue. he said it was healthy and traditional. that made me wary. healthy and traditional chinese food? in harlem? not possible. i'd been to enough bullet-proof shotgun chinese fried rice to-go situations uptown and eaten my fair share of dim sum downtown to know that when it's time to eat, what americans are used to is hardly anything like what the chinese prefer.

to tell you the truth, living in new york city has forced my tastebuds to transition to an entirely different level. my friend and i usually frequent places in chinatown that most people either ignore or don't know. it makes it very difficult to make do or even thaw something out when i can have the real thing.

but i would be on the east side in the evening anyway and after reading so many glowing reviews about the place and looking over the menu online, i was curious. we decided to meet up in time to beat the dinner rush. when i arrived, i was more than a little surprised. it was a really beautiful place, the kind of set-up you'd expect to find in tribeca or soho. anywhere but harlem. there were people seated here and there, but it wasn't crowded. yet. keith showed up and we decided to walk up the street to a lovely boutique called N (also brand new to the neighborhood) where i spied a black nicole miller gown that i have to have. the lush leather satchels cost as much as the dress did. and yeah, it was nice to see byron lars and tracey reese on the racks -- but how could someone open a boutique in one of the toniest sections of harlem and not carry their line? more on that later.

we returned to the restaurant, were seated promptly and ordered right away. the emperor's throne was a variety of appetizers on a platter that included a slaw that i practically inhaled. we also ordered four beef ribs to make our start a complete one. deeeeeee-lish. after we ate those ribs (which were so good, it was wacky), things took a surreal twist. strangely, there was always someone hovering nearby to make sure that we were satisfied. our water was always filled. our drinks were always fresh. the talk at the table was non-stop. i was up to my eyeballs in work. robert had just come back from brazil. keith was convinced that the whole area would shift gears enough to make all of mount morris not look like a ghetto anymore. we were surrounded by construction. lots of condos and luxury rentals popping up.

somewhere in there, the manager came over and announced that he had infused some vodka with pineapple and vanilla -- his own recipe -- and he wanted us to try it. by this time, there were quite a few people in the place. things were getting busy, but not overwhelming. when the wait for the entree stretched past the 30 minute mark, we got a round of drinks on the house and an order of baked egg rolls, which were exploding with crunch and zest. and no grease. by this time, i knew that i would surprise my friend by bringing him there for a night out uptown. perhaps dinner and a movie at magic johnson theater a short walk away. i remember thinking, we should spend more time in harlem.

that's right about when our waiter blurted, you're queen esther! i'd met him with brian keith jackson at bergdorf-goodman's, at a party i hosted there for franco mondini-ruiz's book signing. what a fun night that was. and the book -- high pink -- is drop-dead hilarious.

james apologized for the long wait and explained why it happened, but the service was so good and we were enjoying ourselves so much that we totally didn't care. then the food came. and it. was. spectacular. and no, we couldn't finish it. and yes, we had dessert. i'm still thinking about the ginger ice cream. and those ribs. and that slaw. and i don't even like slaw!

i think my friend is going to like this place...