Tag Archive: kansas


ART

 

Alright gang, my special guest for this year’s Oscar predictions is Aaron Rahsaan Thomas.  For those of you who don’t know him or haven’t met him, here’s a quick bio: Born in Kansas City, Kansas, two years at Morehouse and then graduated from the University of Kansas, masters from the University of Southern California Film School.  Everyone assumes we’ve been aces since kindergarten (perfect Hollywood cliche), but the truth is we met the year we graduated from KU.  Not counting the 200 million side joints we’ve cooked up over the years, Thomas was the writer of peeping tom ( my USC grad project) and a producer on my last short Lady In My Life.  He’s also built up a pretty nice Hollywood resume over the years: Soul Food, Cover, Friday Night Lights, Numb3rs, and now CSI: NY.  As a matter of fact, he wrote and produced this week’s episode featuring Danica Patrick (premiering tonight (Wednesday)) on CBS.  In the pic above, Aaron is on the right of Danica, the cat on the left is the director, Matt Earl Beesley.

So those are the basics.  For those who haven’t experienced the ‘Art Fradieu’ style, you’ll get to check it out once we start our Oscar preview shortly…

In the meantime, support my ace and watch his episode of CSI:NY tonight!!!

I fixed my financial situation.  In spite of my own actions at times, I managed to avoid being permanently tied to the Midwest.  It was time to focus my attention back on the Dream.

I may not have gotten married yet, but I wasn’t the only Musketeer who started thinking about the long term.  Our self proclaimed 4th Musketeer Linus left the Game first.  He was the last one out of KU and the first one with a wife, kid and a mortgage.  Go figure.  I will always remember this cat breaking down in tears as the procession began for his wedding.  I don’t say that to mock him; I just didn’t fully understand.  I asked him why it happened and he said it was the happiest day of his life.  It was a revelation for me.  I cried for a woman once, but I also recognized how foreign it still was to me to expect that level of happiness in my personal life.

Beavis married his longtime girlfriend next.  His bachelor party was the official end of the Three Musketeers.  I won’t repeat that whole story again, but in true Musketeer fashion, I will say champagne bottles were emptied, the cops got involved, and for the first and only time in my life, my parents saw me hungover.  Anyway, there was nothing left for me to do personally in Kansas.  The Colonel was in a similar boat, so we each made plans to head to the West Coast.

You almost never, and I mean never get a chance to make right things you did wrong previously.  It was the right attitude at the right time in my life, but I was in complete EFF YOU mode when I graduated from KU, thinking I would never be drawn back.  In the years since, the chip on my shoulder had disappeared.  I had good friends waiting for me in California, and I was leaving great friends behind in Kansas.  My family was, and is still healthy and intact (thank God).  We still check on each other on a regular basis.  The Musketeers took me out one last time for my personal going away bash; I ended up hurling on the Colonel while sitting in Mrs. Beavis’ car (sorry about that to both of you).  Alexis told me she was burning me some CDs for my long road trip; I didn’t realize some meant…50 at least!  But it was a long road trip and I ended up listening to all of them (muchas gracias Cunada). 

In returning to Kansas, I gained a bond with my family I didn’t have when I left.  I knew a lot of people when I graduated, and a lot of people knew me, but the bond built between most of my closest friends came after college graduation.  And I imagine most of those friendships will carry me through however much longer God decides to let me hang around.  I had lost a few good years professionally, but I gained a personal life.  All in all, I’d consider that a fair trade.

(Let me open this chapter by saying I almost certainly do more name dropping in the next few paragraphs than you will ever hear me do in a five minute conversation in real life.  Nature of the beast…)

Like any film geek worth his salt, I knew the names of the filmmakers who either graduated or were otherwise connected to the ‘USC Mafia': Lucas, Spielberg, Singleton right off the top of my head.  My bootleg experiences had given me a rudimentary knowledge of how to make films; I honestly felt in undergrad I picked the basic knowledge of how to do that.  But I definitely didn’t know Hollywood: didn’t know how it worked, didn’t know how to get a project through the system, didn’t know anyone who could help me do these things. 

If I was forced to choose just one skill I picked up in grad school, it was relationship building, a.k.a. networking.  No one ever says it out loud, but my industry is not a meritocracy.  Don’t get me wrong, if it comes down to a Julliard trained cat with Broadway experience and some underwear model with no acting experience…um…bad example.  I don’t want to discourage the cat who was in my shoes many years ago; if you stay on your grind, push yourself to your limits, and constantly get your name out there, you will eventually create an opportunity of some type.  Even in Hollywood, persistence is rewarded (and somewhat mandatory).  My point though is the more people you connect to, the better off you are.  It was stressed to us very early to get to know the people to your left and right, because they will help shape your career.

USC is a great film school, and it’s unfair to say I didn’t pick up any new filmmaking tricks sitting in the classroom.  My craft absolutely picked up in my time spent in those halls.  But to come from the background I came from, what I was really paying for was ‘fraternity dues’ for lack of a better term…

Insider A: “Hey you ever heard of a Malik Aziz?”

Made Friend: “Yeah, I know Malik, he’s a friend of ours.”

You think I’m exaggerating?

My first mentor is now one of the hottest female screenwriters in town. (I won’t name her here, but for my non-Hollywood readers, I have a strong feeling you’ll start to become more familiar with her name in the next couple of years, if it takes that long).  Some of those guys ‘to my left and right’ have written top selling videogames and directed movies that have opened at the top of the box office.  Some have produced films that are already cult classics.  When I was 23 years old, I had my own office on a major studio lot, and was giving my script coverage every week directly to the head of the studio. (Another woman by the way; if I really did have any misogyny in me, it evaporated quickly simply by the constant support and interest shown in me by the numerous professional relationships I was finding myself in.)  Anyway, the studio job was cutting too much into my school time, so I had to find a new part time job.  And I did find one.  At the Playboy Mansion.  Catered lunches with the Bunnies, working on my thesis at night.  ‘Hollywood’, as my boys call me mockingly, was born.  If at that point I was becoming as smug and arrogant as I had ever been, could you really blame me?  I would never call myself ghetto, but in five years I had come a long way from Wyandotte County.  In two years, I had come a long, long way from Lawrence, Kansas. 

While I definitely feel I earned every opportunity that came to me, I was still nearly a year short of my 25th birthday when I got my Master’s degree.  It was, in retrospect, a little too much too fast.  I still had a lot of life experience to get under my belt.  I was fairly mature for my age, but I wasn’t remotely mature yet.  God works in mysterious ways of course. A strike shut down the industry the summer I graduated.  My student budget fell all the way back into the red.  With no money and limited options, I put my tail between my legs and headed back to Kansas. 

Limitless XV – Antonio

Everyone assumes that since we were born in the same city, five weeks apart, have well documented militant streaks and share a passion for the same artform, me and Antonio have been best friends since kindergarten.  In truth, we never even met each other until my senior year at KU.  But with the number of things we did end up having in common, it did become a rare ‘fast friendship’ that ended up working out.

It broke a cardinal rule we both believe in (letting someone get too close to you too fast) but out of necessity we were roommates our first year at USC.  We barely had anything but the clothes on our backs, but we rarely complained about it.  Cooking on the George Foreman grill was the height of luxury in those days.  We chose this life path, this career path, we knew the sacrifices.  Neither of us are overly materialistic; that was the first real bonding point I think.

The next one did in fact become the movies.  You might be saying, “Well obviously,” but it wasn’t that automatic.  There are all kinds of different genres and styles to choose from; as it turned out, we both love the gangster genre, with The Godfather Trilogy and Scarface both being personal favorites.  All it takes is a well-timed ‘Her womb is so polluted” or “Maybe I don’ hear so good son’tine” to get either of us going.  Those became inside jokes 1 and 2 of a shorthand that’s still growing to this day…

And also reflected a very similar sense of humor.  KU showed me the beauty of the hypothetical question to get to know someone better; me and Antonio took it to new heights with the ‘Worst Case Scenario’.  Although by my own admission, the last question inevitably ends up being some version of, “So Malik, what would you do if you were doing an interview on the red carpet at the Oscars, and Jack Nicholson just started hitting on your wife on national television?”  Antonio’s been married since I’ve known him essentially, so I always get some version of the ‘Mister Bachelor’ questions…

Along those lines, because of our shared history in Kansas City, Kansas, the University of Kansas, and the University of Southern Cal, aka Los Angeles, Antonio definitely has the most unique perspective on my personal history.  It usually breaks down like this:

Me: “Man I was in the cut and Mandy Moore was giving me the Look all night!”

Antonio: (no response)

Me: “Man we were in the salsa club and I was up on this Dania Ramirez clone til the lights came up!  I thought you would be getting The Call!”

Antonio: “That’s cool…”

Me: “So, Alicia (Keys) looked pretty nice in that dress…”

Antonio: “Didn’t she?!?  And she smells like cinnamon too!”

Heh heh, OK, I’m exaggerating (slightly), but nobody, and I mean nobody co-signs for the sisters I express interest in more than Antonio.  I asked him point blank (and he admitted) that he would like to see my professional loyalty and sense of responsiblity cross over in a direct way into my private affairs.  That story hasn’t reached its conclusion yet so we’ll see how that plays out.  (And for the record I’m not one of those Hollywood brothers who flat out refuses to date his own kind.  I play my cards close to the vest, but I think there’s enough ‘evidence’ about me out there that no one would ever accuse me of being, as my friend Beavis likes to call them, one of those straight hair brothas).  Anyway, when I’m not confiding in him about my personal ups and downs, we’ll usually talk about yet another passion we both share: sports.  Since we pretty much came from and went to all the same places, we get hype and celebrate with the Trojans, and we die every Sunday with the Chiefs. 

Like I said, we didn’t grow up together, but even I’ll admit sometimes it doesn’t seem that way.  Life is funny like that.

If my father was my benefactor, my biggest fan in the family was his brother’s wife, my godmother.  My father is very laid-back, which is where I get it from.  My aunt was the one who would stick up for me (all of us really) if someone was bullying us.  I chuckle at how many times I pouted my way into a Happy Meal whenever my older cousins picked on me.  The first job I ever had was as a bagger in a grocery store.  My grandfather made his sole visit to Kansas City, and the family was taking him to a Royals game.  My boss told me straight up not to come back if I took the night off.  Well…I told my aunt, and long story short, I got the night off paid and still had a job.  My godmother was that black woman.

Not long after that, my godmother was diagnosed with cancer.  The downfall was quick; the chemo left her bedridden after only a few months, and she passed before my senior year of high school.  Deniece did make it to my high school graduation; I was the ‘black’ student speaker at Commencement.  But our dynamic had changed.  She was a year older than me, so she went to college first.  The phone calls and hanging out became a lot more sporadic.  Losing both her and my aunt within a 12 month span put me in a very ill mood, truth be told.   I didn’t understand why college was such a big deal, but I would stand corrected soon enough…

Spike’s movie about Malcolm had made black nationalism as ‘cool’ as it had been in decades.  I started to mimic Malcolm physically (horn rimmed glasses, goatee), and in terms of speaking out.  I joined my high school speech team and took to it pretty quickly.  I had my first couple run ins with the police, so I wrote a speech about the stereotypes young black men always face.  I ended up winning a few contests and started to get noticed.  The first time I appeared on TV, it was on the Kansas City version of the ‘Black Perspectives’ show that airs on Sunday at 3:30 in the morning.  My teacher/coach took a shine to me and asked me if I had any interest in acting…

The first acting piece I tried was based on the play ‘The Meeting’, a short piece about a fictional meeting between Malcolm and Dr. King.  I picked the scene apart and started breaking down the cadences of each man until I felt comfortable in each role.  I was 17 years old, so nobody was calling me the next Brando now, but again I would win competitions and end up going to State.  I enjoyed it but I didn’t care for the attention just yet.  All of this looked good on my college applications…

I had dreams of filmmaking so you can guess what my college choices were: NYU, Columbia, USC, UCLA.  A tier below that I had some contingency schools, Florida State, Northwestern, TCU and Xavier showed interest in me.  I got a letter from Harvard which was nice for my ego, but I knew I wasn’t going there.  Naturally I had a couple HBCUs on my radar: Grambling and Prairie View to be specific.  After I filled out my film school applications, my father took me on a College Road Trip through his alma mater and Texas.  I still had respect for these places, but I wasn’t a kid anymore.  KC had made me way too ‘city-fied’ to want to spend four years there.  I came back home ready to mail in my apps to film school proper.  One problem.  Moms had thrown out all my film school apps.

There’s a sequence in The Shawshank Redemption where Andy meets a kid who can prove his innocence.  So the Warden has the Kid murdered, and Andy’s sent to the Hole for a couple months by the Warden as a way to set him straight.  This was how it went down with me and her: all the different daily arguments about my hair, my clothes, my grades were love taps compared to this.  This wasn’t the Argument of the Day; this was my life.  I had done everything that was asked of me, and I come to find out it didn’t mean shyt.  I had to start questioning my father too; if he wasn’t part of the plan, he was enabling it.  In retrospect, I had no business in LA or NYC at 18.  The real issue though was I wasn’t given a logical excuse (like money, since all the top film schools were at private schools).  The reason I was given was ‘distance,’ which coming off a massive road trip through the South smelled of extreme hypocrisy.  Of course I lost this battle.  What could I do but take it?  So for the first time in my life, I was waking up every day pissed the phuck off.

Like Andy, I had to momentarily take my sentence and deal with it.  Four years without the possiblity of parole.  I no longer trusted anyone; it was a hard way to learn it, but I began to appreciate the fact that playing by the rules and being the ‘nice guy’ sometimes leaves you assed out.  Sometimes to get your way, you just have to straight be an asshole and hustle your way out. 

With a chip on my shoulder the size of a Redwood, I made my way to my version of the Hole.  Also known as the University of Kansas.

Limitless V. – Deniece

I subscribe to the theory that relationships are like investments: the more you put into it, the more you get out of it.  I’m not going to reveal all the various forms of physical and sexual Kryptonite I have a weakness for, but I will say this: I’m a man.  I’m reminded of an old Eddie Murphy joke: if a woman spends enough time catering to a man’s ego or libido, well, it’s no guarantee he’ll fall in love or sleep with her.  But she’ll definitely end up on his radar.  Men are simple like that, even me.

Right before one of my high school summers, my guidance counselor pulled me into her office and asked me if I would be interested in going to some type of multicultural summer camp.  I have no idea what possessed me to do it, but long story short I spent a week out in the country with a bunch of other city kids from both sides of the State Line.  I’m not trying to undersell it; it was a very moving experience for us, especially at that age.  That said, we were still teenagers with out of control hormones; there were more than a few sparks developed over that week.  I had a thing for this nice, light skinned cheerleader from the Missouri side.  I talked to her for a quick minute; I remember she was the first sister who expressed anger at me that I would consider dating someone other than a black woman…

Later that summer there was some type of camp reunion and I ended up hanging with Deniece.  I believe the line I threw at her was, “Hey, hey woman!  Why don’t you, bring your pretty little self over here?  Find out what it’s like to go home with a real man!”  OK, OK, I didn’t go all Clubber Lang on her, but that was always the tone between us.  I would just start cracking jokes and acting silly and she would crack up.  “Make her laugh” was the first of many life lessons I would pick up in my relationship with Deniece.

In a way I feel sorry for her looking back.  I was in full bloom as ‘the firstborn teenage son’, which translated into constant arguments and disagreements with my mother.  Like clockwork, every Saturday night I would storm into the basement (which was becoming my favorite part of the house) and call Deniece ranting about whatever I was heated about at that particular moment.  I pride myself now on being both a good listener and someone who will protect your secrets if you confide in me (because that’s what I demand if I become close to someone).  Anyway she’ d just let me blow off steam, knowing when I wasn’t mad, I turned into a straight nut.  I was cordial with everybody I went to high school with, but we weren’t hanging out together socially, and I wasn’t really dating anybody from school, so at the time Deniece saw that part of me no one else knew existed.    She was the first girl who complimented me on my biceps (Lesson 2: keep the physique tight); she was also the first woman to expose my jealous side.  This is a funny story she may not even remember, but it wasn’t even from another guy in Kansas City…

I’ll never forget this; we went to go see Above the Rim with a couple other friends.  Pac was in that movie, a young Wood Harris is in there, Duane Martin.  But they were all about some Leon boy!  This cat…really?!?  Some skinny fool is really going to go down to Rucker Park in some cordoroy jeans in the middle of summer and ball up on the best of the best?  Are you kidding me?  Leon…anyway since I’m nowhere near a hothead personality-wise, it was a great tell of the nature of how I felt.  We were going to prank a mutual friend and tell him I got her pregnant right before college…which ended up crashing and burning because he really did get his girl pregnant (and couldn’t go to college).  Yes, that was foreshadowing…

We’ve gone our separate ways since college, but through the magic of current day technology we’ve refound each other as adults.  I still smile when I get a random note from her once in a while; I like to believe I can still make her laugh with my foolishness. 

But back in my teenage years, she was probably the only one who saw that on a regular basis.  I was about to get a whole lot…darker…

My earliest memories of the movies were from the summers in Salina.  The local theatre would play these Sinbad serials as matinees, and we’d all ride our bikes home afterward and play out in the street.  Pirates, cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, what have you.  E.T. was the first ‘Hollywood’ movie I remember seeing at the theatre; the Goonies was the first film I remember trying to imitate with my friends.

Fast forward to 1989 was the number, another summer.  Even in Kansas City, you couldn’t escape hearing about it.  One of the best movies of the year was a story about black people, written and directed by a young black guy…

I remember the first time I saw a picture of him: he was a little guy, he wore glasses.  I was a little guy who wore glasses; he didn’t look much different than me.  As much as I enjoyed movies, never in my wildest dreams, had I thought, “I can do that.”  Until now.

A few times in my life, I’ve found myself in the middle of a perfect storm.  This would be the first time for me a series of things all seemed to happen at just the right time.  First, my generation was the first to grow up with VCRs in our home.  (These preceded DVRs and DVD players for any young people who might be reading this.)  So if we missed a movie in the theater, we now had the ability to wait a few months and watch it at home.  This is how I came to see She’s Gotta Have It, and School Daze.

The other great blessing that fell in my lap was home video cameras becoming increasingly cheap.  My father always gave me more than I deserved, but his greatest gift to me was giving me the chance to fail.  As I’ve gotten older, I understand that for alot of people, when they’re told “You can’t do this,” “You’re not good enough for that,” that’s it.  End of story.  They don’t even try to do whatever it is they want to do.  I idolized Michael Jackson first, so he hooked me up with the cassette, the poster, the glitter gloves and the socks.  Yes, the socks.  I’ve always loved dancing, but tragically I wasn’t even passable as a singer until my mid 20s.  My first sports hero was Magic.  When I was two feet tall, I had a toy hoop in the basement.  When he moved up to having a home with a garage, we put a regulation hoop up, and the guys in the neighborhood would come play.  I had the most hideous, purple and gold, half varsity letter jacket, half turtleneck, Magic Johnson sweater ever made.

But outside of my historic triple single against Northwest for my 7th grade team (2 pts, 1 assist, 1 steal, I still remember), genetics killed my hoop dreams.  When I first showed interest in filmmaking, my father decided to buy ‘the family’ a video camera.  I think he used that thing 10 times.  Seriously, to this day, I have no idea what my father’s favorite movie is.  I know he likes westerns, that’s about it.  But somewhere down the line, he decided he was going to encourage me until I figured out what I was good at.  And I’m eternally grateful.

The first videos were me, my sister and cousins singing and dancing in front of our grandfather’s house.  There’s a pretty good one of me, baseball cap cocked to the side, dancing to ‘2 Legit 2 Quit.’  (That video will never see the light of day by the way).  I did a little rapping when hip hop started taking off nationally; I started shooting the basketball games when the guys came over.  Best Buy sold a little mixer, so I learned how to edit by putting the VCR and camera together and making music videos.  I was getting better at it.

And could there have been a better time to be a fan of black cinema?  Hollywood had jumped on the bandwagon and I was along for the ride.  The main mall in Kansas City Kansas was Indian Springs; I was down there for three reasons: to get an Orange Julius, to see what dimepiece they had working in Harold Pener, and to go downstairs to catch a show.  House Party, New Jack City, Juice: I saw all these on the big screen.  And it was usually kids like us running the ticket counter so normally I didn’t have a problem getting in.  There was one time though: my father had to take me to go see Boyz N Da Hood, which was written and directed by another little brother in glasses, who came from some school in California…

Like I said, it was a perfect storm for me personally.  I found something I was passionate about and good at.  I loved every minute of it.

And I still do.

I spent half a year living with my mother and roughly a year living with my father, first in Salina, followed by a move back to Kansas City.  My mother and sister came to stay with us after that, and the family was reunited.  This was around 1985-1986 I believe: the Royals had just won the World Series, and the Kings had skipped town.  As I become more self-aware, I picked up on a new dynamic in my relationship with my parents.  My father was the breadwinner and the nurturer; if I needed a ‘yes’ I would go to my father.  As I’ve alluded to earlier, the respect I show my elders, my compassion for others comes from him.  My mother was the disciplinarian, my mother raised my sister and I.  My hustle, my perfectionism, my attitude all come from my mother.  As I became a teenager and we started butting heads on a daily basis, it was my mother who would end every argument with, “You don’t have to like me, but as long as you live in this house you have to respect me!”  Truer words never spoken.

To finish my childhood in Kansas City was a culture shock based on how my life started.  It was my first time going to school in a true big city (if you have more than two high schools in your town, you qualify as a big city).  Both my father’s brothers stayed in KC, so it was the first time I had extended family in town.  Based on what happened later it seems weird to say, but the biggest adjustment was being around black people all the time.  We laughed about it as we got older, but the transition from me yelling on the court “Gee whillikers, come on you guys!” to “Play hard mother****ers!” was a long, long one for me.

All things considered, I think Kansas City is a great place to raise a family.  The people are very friendly, the cost of living is reasonable.  As a sports fan, you have a passionate fan base for football; and very strong collegiate fan bases in all four directions.  Even among some of my friends, there’s a belief that I don’t like my hometown on principle; that’s not it at all.  It’s similar to my alma mater where I have more of a ‘big brother’ complex:  I’ll talk smack about it all day, but if you’re not from there, you can’t say anything.

My transition from 8 to 18: spiritually, professionally, as a person overall was pretty dramatic even by adolescent standards.  To see what I’ve become, I still wonder how someone of my specific demographic background came from Kansas.

Limitless – II. Year One

 My affection for the colors black and gold started earlier than most people think.  My parents met at Grambling State University in the late 60s/early 70s.  As any black child would, I have vivid memories of going to a Grambling homecoming when I was 9 or 10.  There is NOTHING like seeing an HBCU marching band; I still feel like that today.  Even though I didn’t make it to my first Bayou Classic unitl my early 20s, I will always have a soft spot for HBCUs.  My father did a stint in the Army after college, which turned into a career working for a federal agency.  His older brother, my uncle, was living up North, so Kansas City was as good a spot as any to start off in.

I was born at 10:08 P.M. at Bethany Medical Center in Kansas City, Kansas.  Yes I was a night baby, big surprise.  Even though KCK is my hometown, my earliest memories of growing up are actually in a few other Midwestern cities.  A big part of my father’s early career meant moving around alot.  At a certain point, me and my mother couldn’t get up and go all the time so he would just leave for months at a time.  My mother still teases me about this; she says I used to always cry when he left; as if I believed he was never coming back.  They say the person you become can be all be traced to your first 5 years; I’ve had more than one ex tell me with conviction that my own well documented aversion to commitment can be traced to the constant moving and separation I went through at this stage of my life.  Of course these girls are exes for a reason, so my counterargument is they’re all crazy (just kidding).

The first city I recall staying in was Oklahoma City.  We had a little basement apartment; my mother stayed with me during the day while I watched Sesame Street and the Electric Company.  You may question how I remember this, and the answer is easy for me: I learned how to spell Mississippi watching the Electric Company.  It’s true; there was a little skit where they turned into a musical jingle I still use today: M-I-S, S-I-S, S-I-P-P-I!  Thank God for Public Broadcasting.

After that we spent time in the city my sister was born in, Springfield, Missouri.  I attended preschool there while my father took classes at Southwest Missouri State.  Still never been to the campus, but I remember the parking permit sticker in the first car I remember my family owning, an Oldsmoblie Eighty-Eight.  Eighty percent of the pictures of myself I hope never see the light of the day came from this period of my life.  Cordoroy pants, jellies, cowboy hats…yeah.  But there was ‘Pooh’.  My first ‘security blanket’ if you will was a Winnie the Pooh plush toy that I evidently took with me nearly everywhere.  I must have been over that thing by the time we made our next move, to Salina, Kansas.

Salina was similar to Springfield in that, as far as I could tell, we were the only black family in town.  Actually let me correct that: at that stage of the game, I had no concept of race.  My family looked one way, everyone else looked different.  It never came up back then, ever.  Me and my neighborhood buddies all went to the same school, we rode bikes together, we played in Little League together, we went to each other’s birthday and skating parties.  When the earliest elements of my sexuality surfaced, I played house with the cutest girl from my Little League team without a second thought.  If Michael Jackson could take Brooke Shields to the Grammys, why couldn’t I do what I was doing?  I was a ‘special kind of guy’ too.

Ironically, the first time I became aware of any kind of difference was spending time with my extended family in Louisiana.  They used to laugh at the way I talked (and in fairness, I probably did sound like an 8 year old version of Tiger Woods in those days).  But hell, THEY sounded just as ridiculous to me: ‘y’all’, and ‘mein’ and those crazy Southern accents.  But I loved them to death and vice versa.  Myself, my younger sister, and four of my younger cousins were all born six years apart.  We bonded pretty quickly and always hung out together when the opportunity came.  My first forays into artistry were the product of cutting ‘albums’ singing with my cousins on our old school boom boxes. 

What I remember next, I remember not as any single moment, but as flashes: My parents arguing.  The cops coming to the house.  One day I was at my father’s house in Kansas; the next I was living in a trailer out in the country in Louisiana with my mother and sister.   You don’t understand what exactly is going on, but you understand enough.  The carefree, outgoing kid who accepted whatever he was told is replaced by someone who, for better and worse, questions EVERYTHING and EVERYONE.   Paradise lost.

 

 

Oh there been times that I thought, I couldn’t last for long

But now I think I’m able to carry on

It’s been a long, a long time coming

But I know a change gonna come

Sam Cooke, ‘A Change is Gonna Come’

I’ve expressed a slight dread to those close to me that I’ll wake up one day to children who have no appreciation of the lives of their grandparents.  As expressed in The Godfather and other films, is the price of mainstream ambition the loss of your cultural roots?  The dark side of the American dream if you will.  Some of my earliest memories are of making the drive down 71 South, through towns where Confederate flags filled the streets, to get to the hometowns of each of my parents.

My father came from a small town in Northern Louisiana.  And I mean small; I’m still not sure if the town has its own high school.  My father is the middle child of three brothers; as best as I can tell, he was the ‘quiet one.’  Spending time in my father’s hometown, I would hear the stories of how he and my uncles would pick pecans at the Big House up the road from where they grew up.  (Lord knows what else hung from those trees over the years).  I can go there now and still see every star in the sky at night.  In Kansas this is what would be considered a ‘farming’ community: a lot of pickup trucks, all used for practical purposes.  In movie terms, I’m reminded of the setting of ‘Hud’ in more ways than one.  I have vague memories of my paternal grandparents; what sticks out in my mind was seeing ‘Big Mama’, my great-grandmother.  She lived in a three bedroom space with the sister of my grandmother for many years.  Even in her most advanced state, she always recognized my father (and myself as a boy).  I’ve never asked him about it directly, but I definitely sense she played a major role in my father’s life growing up.  Absent or present, my father is definitely the man who has the most influence on my life.  He’s taught me a lot over the years, but as I think of these earliest memories, I recognize how some of the most important things he passed on to me, in particular my compassion, were instilled in me at that early stage of life before you recognize you’re being ‘taught’ anything.

My mother came from a more traditional small town, even further south than my father.  In this day and age you rarely hear of families this big, but my mother was one of ten children.  My memories of my family on the maternal side are much more vivid; I can recall specific moments with both of my grandparents on that side.  With a such a large number of children and grandchildren, their home became the ‘ground zero’ for every pleasant and unpleasant reunion growing up.  We’d have these huge crawfish boils growing up; crawfish, half potatoes, corn on the cob thrown in a huge pot and seasoned, heated over a giant flame.  Our uncles would be drinking tall cans of Coors, our aunts would be in the kitchen talking and making pecan candy for dessert; as kids we’d be sucking on sugar cane stalks and racing snails in the carport.  In the evening if we were still hungry, my cousins and I would walk to the Canal Street Market and buy pork cracklins.  I’d come back to the North with ridiculous mosquito bites, but other than that, it was a great period for me.

Of course, none of us make it through life without ever going through something.   My time was coming.

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