Tuesday, December 15, 2015

An Old Fashioned For Carol


I have an affinity for elderly white women solely based on the universal fact that my grandmother was an elderly white woman.

Carol, my grandmother, baptized me in a kitchen sink in New Orleans. I don’t believe there’s any other way to define my entrance into this world, than the kid how was spiritually ordained by faucet water and an Irish Catholic woman in the Big Easy.

St. Paul, MN 2008

Eyedea sat in the distant corner of the Glockenspiel, talking on the phone. It sounded to be a conversation between him and an old friend or someone that might’ve needed convincing on the other end of the phone. I always imagined it was a scorned lover who was easily rattled with jealousy, and Micheal was the only guy in 100 square miles that could give her the right words. Hell knows, he was the guy within 1000 square miles that had the right words, why not over the phone with a scorned lover. Alas, I retreated my wandering imagination back to the bar I was tending to.

The Glockenspiel was a German restaurant and bar resting on a gorgeous stretch of urbanity we call West 7th St. That year of bartending 8 hour shifts and making little over a hundred bucks per shift, I’d give up for nothing. The characters that walked through the door each day & night were enough to fill several comic books, horror films and hallmark movies… or just enough to fill a Vulcan’s Fire Truck.

While serving the mostly empty bar, I’d frequently call my grandmother for advice on how to make drinks. I distinctly remember being inundated with orders and someone yelled out, “I’ll take an old-fashioned!” The look on my face was that of absolute horror- relative to Clark Griswold finding out he’d receive no holiday bonus check this year, or the eternal look on Bender’s face, from Futurama. I swiftly ran to the kitchen, sat in the staircase and called Carol. She not only filled me in on how to make an Old Fashioned, we ran down the specs for a Cosmo, Gimlet, and Hot Toddy over the course of the 60 second phone call.

Once the night crowd had died down, I called her back to thank her. We chatted for a minute or so. She would go on to tell me a story of a night her and friends went out to paint the town red, and took down one too many Old Fashions while my grandfather played the trombone at a jazz gig. The sight of my grandfather performing on stage while my grandmother swayed back & forth to the tempo- well, that would be something.

Thanksgiving 2015

Pick-a-biscuits lay strewn about a pan, disconnected from one another like shrapnel after an explosion. My mother truly put her time, energy and soul into replicating the feat of our family’s signature dessert. However, the recipe evaded her skill of kitchen in the most defiant manner. Whereas I’d usually take several pick-a-biscuits before dinner began… this time, I stole only one.

My family is made up of a hodge podge of personality and attitude. It’s taken us decades of not only understanding one another, but coming to know who we are in the same space (or dinner table) with one another. There have been holidays, or even years, I’ve distanced myself from them, and only to find myself in their arms again. Only a fool speaks for himself in the future- However, I foresee no circumstance that could drive me away from them permanently.

We sit to a long make-shift table in my sister’s living room. Her 8 month-old son, Benjamin, and my cousin’s newborn son, Cedar, take shifts crying loudly into the air. The infants’ wails bounce to and fro the walls, accompanied by clangs of dishes being passed clockwise around the table. We talk over the natural soundscape. Conversation fades to the inevitable feasting on an abundance of wild rice, squash, beets, broccoli soufle, and pick-a-biscuits… we are together, and we are filling ourselves with each other’s presence as much as the food.

By this point, there had been no mention of her. The babies mere presence might’ve stricken that subject out of discussion, but I don’t have a child, so I can’t say for sure.

She’s gone. I can’t hear her voice. She’s not at this dinner table right now telling me to get car insurance, move out of my mother’s house, asking me about the next dance (acting) job, or checking in on my relationship with my mother. Even the absence of the nagging upsets me.

This wild rice is bomb. I owe it to whoever made it, to finish it before I go to the basement and cry in the bathroom.

So, I do.

I eat the last portion of the wild rice, knowing there will definitely be a sequel between the meal and I. Don’t think I’m done with you, wild rice. We will have our time again, in a very short while. For now, I wrap my napkin, push myself up a little bit to stand away from the table- I take a few steps toward my nephew Benjamin, kiss him on the head, and walk toward the basement door.

No one notices. And that’s exactly how I wanted it.

Down the stairs, my sister and brother-in-law, have a bathroom tucked away from the television space next to the washer & dryer. It has the feel of a room from an episode of Doomsday Preppers.

I enter, close the toilet lid, sit on it, and place my head in my hands.

This is how you do this- how you handle your first Thanksgiving without your grandmother.
I blow my nose, promptly trot up the stairs and am back to the dinner table. Feeling as though a weight has been lifted, I delve back into the wild rice sequel. Again, no one notices. I prefer it that way.

December 2015

The walls stretch further and further away between myself and the bodies corralling themselves into the bar. Politicians, lawyers, news anchors, business owners, 6-figures, 7-figures, 8-figures belly up to the marble bar top and kindly ask me to fill their cup. I gladly serve them.

My new-old vocation of serving alcohol couldn’t have come at a better time with the holidays around the corner and an old friend entrusting her reputation to me as I fill in a bartending role for what might’ve gone to someone else less familiar. The bar has the makings of a well kempt, but antiquated, speakeasy. My great grandfather would’ve easily frequented this place after his dance (music) gigs. I would serve him a whisky, call him a cab, and attend his next show with bells on.
It’s undetectable at this point, but what is about to strike me is going to possibly put my employment at risk and send me into an inconvenient emotional moment of catharsis.

I am of the ilk that we are not at the mercy of our minds or hearts, but that we are at the mercy of our very own authenticity. We know when we’re kidding ourselves, out-kicking our coverage, or flat out not engaging with reality. Working with Pre-K students suffering from mental illness, the first thing we establish is “we are not our illness, expectation, or even our own body”. We are who we believe we authentically are. Engage with that, and you will never let yourself down… inversely, never let anyone down as well.

The bar begins to clear. A few stragglers, regulars and couples remain at the bar. We can breathe easy for the moment and log in tips while the storm rests… and in walks my authentic moment. Someone enters the bar at sometime while I was dealing something, which is all arbitrary up until the point Louis Armstrong began singing “What A Wonderful World” over the venue’s speakers. I pause at the register, take note it’s the song played at my grandmother’s funeral and take a deep breath. Serendipity is relative. The damn song could have nearly the opposite meaning to the next man.

“What would you like?” I wrap up the someone and I’s conversation after greeting them and chatting about this balmy December weather we’re having (enter MN Nice smile here). “Y’know, I’ll have an old fashioned.” They declare.

I smile to myself. It’s what she would’ve ordered.

I gladly make the beverage, I gladly serve the beverage, and because every now and then I discover my levy isn’t perfectly capable of holding all of the feels at bay… I excuse myself to the employee bathroom downstairs.

It’s nothing like floodgates. It’s more a moment of acknowledgment. Carol would have absolutely loved this place, have been proud of the man I am right now, and easily would’ve sang along to Louis as she sipped her drink.

So, I lean against the bathroom wall with my forearm, and cry it out. Nothing loud or blubbering- just sniveling and nose-blowing.

The only downside to having a good cry is the fact that without super-charged vizine, it’s damn near impossible to cover the red in your eyes. People can see it once you get back to public. Thankfully, the lights are low, the attention is sporadic, and the laughter is loud. No one notices, and I prefer it that way.

Whether they be smiles, tears or words, I let the moments flow through me. It’s how she would’ve wanted me to process her death, and so it will be how I journey through a world without Carol. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Six Minutes And Back

It was 5 years ago, the last time I stepped foot into a downtown St. Paul hospital. I was there to see my grandmother after they had placed several stints in her heart. Trooper she was, her cadence and wit remained just as sharp after she went under the knife than before. Although Carol’s socialite skills always impressed, it was her unflappable confidence to take stake in her loved ones that awe struck me most throughout her time on earth. Sprawled out on a table after heart surgery, she still was able to reprimand me for being at odds with my mother and not having a place of my own yet. One can care, but to express that feeling under duress falls into the realms of unconditional.

I remember sitting in the waiting room, watching Good Morning America, half asleep. The other half of me couldn’t shake the idea that this might be it- this could be the end of the road for Carol and a long life of family, Irish Catholicism and compassion. In that moment, I wanted to curse the wallpaper for being such a drab color, blame the rug for not holding a more hypnotic pattern to trap my attention- everything in the room spoke to me… and all it would whisper was “Deal with this”.
In a hospital, there is no room for escapism. Only reminders of why you’re here, how you handle grief, and our undeniable mortality. Waiting to see Carol, I flash grinned at a passing thought of hospitals reminding us we’re human.

Now, entering the atrium, Carol is almost a year passed away- there is never a day that goes by that I don’t think about her- and I am entering, yet again, a hospital in downtown St. Paul. Under quite the contrary of circumstances, a new life in our family has blossomed. To what degree of joy and happiness the new life has brought us all, the moment is also accompanied by a complication and reminder that we are fragile as ever.

Barring details to my reasons for visiting- Entering prenatal care is something I never imagined I’d have to do in my lifetime.

Curvy stars, of different colors and sizes, speckle the path to the next door after I receive my badge to pass thru the first entrance. Something of a yellow brick road, the walls and windows of the hospital entertain the eye as anything & everything in a children’s museum. Unlike the whispers of the waiting room five years ago, this building is cordially smiling and attempting to empathize with its visitors.

Passing the first colorful hallway, entering the 2nd entrance, the room goes cold and pastel. Chairs line the walls. A woman at a desk asks me a few questions, checks my badge, asks me a few more questions… and then gives me an elevator look. The security in any prenatal care is triplicated beyond any standard hospital, due to the potential circumstance of infants being stolen. I can’t imagine the pathology that runs behind such an act, but apparently it’s a thing. The woman at the desk gives me the go ahead and points me toward a hallway vividly opposite the last I passed thru.
Double doors open and spill me into a world humbling my senses to taking a deep breath just to make it to my new family member’s room. Doors ajar or partially creaked open reveal glass cases containing newborns. Machines, producing high-pitched beeps and low-toned pumps of air, breathe in and out of the cases. I struggle to keep it all in.

Turning a corner, I panic that the room number, the woman at the desk gave me, isn’t here. I’m lost. I stumble by a family, crowded around a room, in thick focus. I could spin a thousand stories from the picture of them. My imagination unravels.

Finally, arriving at my new family member’s room, there he is: A beautiful child and miracle in his own right. It is at this moment, in this place, betwixt the joy of life and woe of potential untimely tragedy that Carol finds my heart to remind me a family does not decrease in size, but grows in compassion.

Cedar, welcome to the family.

May this world offer you every opportunity and joy it has to give.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Classroom Catharsis

The walls littered with academic social justice posters and historic reminders of disparity maintain a sort of welcome mat when I see them. I usually take a deep sigh to notice a teacher who has taken the time to put up a Malcolm X poster. Not Martin Luther King, not Booker T. Washington... just Malcolm. A strange quirk for me: It’s a sign said teacher fully grasps the difference between prejudice and systemic disparity. Her walls exhibit the such, and would have me attend her 6th grade class for the entire week to lead a slam poetry workshop within the realms of Minnesota history. The history part works, as she’s laced the entire syllabus for the slam poetry workshop with equity, racial disparity, classism, and an all-around breadth of sociology.

Egg white walls stretch as high and far as I care to see. The thing about art and design schools, for me, is the dead silence. Passing by several classes of capacity auditoriums and paint labs, while walking the 2nd floor, you can hear the welcome desk person typing from the floor below. Dead. Silence.

I had been requested to step into an art and design college to speak about my process as an artist, touching on the themes of community and social responsibility. By now, having traveled the country for over a decade discussing racial prejudice and systemic disparity, I have no problem standing in front of a group of 20+ year old white students and telling them their privilege is one thing, however not communicating it through their art is a failed responsibility on all accounts.

So, here we are: Friday morning, 30 junior/senior students with emphasis from animation to film directing to sculpting, me, two poems, and an hour to kill before we all disperse into the weekend.

For 5 days, 5 classes a day, I circle up with the tykes to discuss where they’re at with their slam poems and level of confidence in what they’ve written so far. Some display an unrivaled passion for academics I can see their parents have encouraged, and have pages upon pages sketched down of what they’ll present the final day of the workshop. Other students, who have taken animosity with school and disdain for authority, express a page or shorter of absolute brilliance. I can quickly see the disparity of house income, ethnicity, and perceived self-image from each student. It’s amazing how quickly their deepest insecurities can surface once given a space designated for expression.

At what first felt like a time-killer, the first slam poem I delivered to the class brought about the elephant in the room: money and art. If your art is a piece of your soul, can it have a price tag? We barrel through that and a litany of other subjects regarding school, working with youth, and soon the dreaded… race and art.

So far, the class has been mild to luke warm on the subject matter we talk about, until I asked, “Do you feel the overwhelming presence of white people and whiteness in Minnesota affects your art?” The auditorium erupts in a collective of agreeing gasps, sighs, and laughs of “no shit”. The ball is rolling, and I’m going to make for damn sure I don’t push it too much, otherwise whatever precious momentum we have could be ruined.

Of the 30 students and faculty in the room, 4 to 6 were non-white. The room equally chips in to the discussion on whiteness, to my surprise, scaling a gamut of defining white art to whiteness in Minneapolis hip-hop. The conversation is jilting to the point several students begin to speak on the subject out of turn, overlapping one another.

The 3rd to last class, on the final day of the workshop, enters the classroom to present their slam poems. The class is daunting in size as our circle begins to creep into the other half of the room. Students deliver impassioned poetry from historic subjects as foreign to me as the great typhoid outbreak in St. Paul, and the not-so-foreign-to-me lynchings in Duluth. Some of the poetry is personal, some of it not. Uniform to all, their poetry is delivered with conviction.

Rounding the bend to the final portion of the circle, a shy student stood to speak his poem. Brown skin, Spanish accent, and standing no taller than 4-and-a-half feet in height, he began his piece with the softest voice yet. Hard to hear under the acoustics, I lean in from my chair, as does the majority of the class.

For the life of me, I can’t remember verbatim what his poem spoke, but he began with listing…
“I am Mexican. My family is Mexican. My people, are Mexican. We work the jobs you don’t want to. We roof your houses, we clean your dishes…”

Sweet Jesus on a Klondike, I think to myself at this moment. What was presumed to be another innocent declaration of one’s newfound interest in MN History, turned into a personal essay with a resounding emotional boom slowly working its way through everyone’s solar plexus. Tears well up in the young man’s eyes, his voice bubbles through the excess saliva choking him up, I quickly look about to the rest of the class- White students unknowingly spectating with their jaws dropped, while each Spanish speaking student began to tear up in unison with the young poet. He continues…
“How would you feel if… How would you feel if…”

He cracks. A part of him can no longer hold back his heart’s momentum. In his youthful mind, he hasn’t quite connected the dots that it’s perfectly ok to speak with conviction, cry, and be human all at the same time, so he turns his back and begins to release more tears, haulting the poem.
At this point, every brown student in the classroom is tearing up or fully crying. Another student, races from an arc of the circle to hold him. In solidarity, they hug, communicating “Hey, it’s ok. You can make it.” And over all gestures, the embrace says “What you have to say is important.”
With his back still turned, he reads on.

“How would you feel if your parents could be taken away from you at any moment and deported to another country”.

Annnnnnnd we lost it. Now the teacher, the teacher assistants, and myself are caught in a wash of tears, unbridled empathy, and a fervently shaken control to keep it all in.

I wrap with my testimonial on my entrance into college at St. John’s, then to Hamline, then to drop out, and then to the University of Minnesota. Illustrating how I found my footing as an artist, and reconciling with Minnesota that I will forever be heavily viewed as an artist of color before anything else of my being or work is taken into account.

A white student raised his hand to ask, “As a white person, how can I touch on racial disparity in my art. I mean- how do you talk about that”.

I respond, “I don’t know, because I’m not white. I wanna know what you feel like though! When you walk into Spyhouse and see dozens of white people on expensive laptops typing & clicking into the day, meanwhile, an old homeless black guy is passed out in one of the chairs next to all of this- How the hell does that make you feel??? Privilege is invisible, so I want to know at what point is it unavoidable? We’re in Minnesota, where a white rapper can go an entire career without having to see one person of color in her or his audience, go without charitably donating one song to the fact that he’s a white artist participating in an art originated by an entirely different ethnicity and culture, go without having to acknowledge race for a fiber of a second- I wanna know how that makes you feel?”
Time’s up. The hour is away from us. We adjourn.

Students line up to the side of the stage bestowing thanks and questions to me they weren’t able to quite get to during the discussion. A brown woman stands waiting for 5+ minutes while I converse with a student on what exactly the air of the school is like when a student tries to bring race into their assignment or project. Our dialogue goes on longer than I expect. The brown woman stands diligently still. Wrapping up, she took a meager two steps to greet me.

“Hi” I introduced myself basically.

“Hi, I uh…” she stifled. “I- Ok, I was fine, but now it’s happening again.”

Tears surface to the bottom crescent of each her eyes, so thick they’re even noticeable behind her thick black-rimmed glasses.

“What’s up? You alright?”, I tip toed.

“Yeah, I’m fine. When you were talking about race up there. See, I'm from South America- I was born in South America, and I was adopted…”

She goes on to divulge her background of adversity with being presumed too white to be accepted by people of color, and too brown to be accepted by white people. The line is ugly, and I’ve lived it all my life. I can still remember Bridget from the 4th grade screaming at me during recess, “Nigga I’ll slap the black outta you! (Laughs) If there’s any black in there (More laughter)”. I can tell her experience is filled with moments that have moved her as an artist, human being and potential activist. Continuing her story, “And, it’s when you try to talk about that (race) or present it (race) in your project, other students just harp on it so hard and dismiss it so quickly”

Again, I can’t recall what she said verbatim, but I can recall the way it made me feel. As the tears continue to surface, I ask her a question I don’t think I’ve ever asked anyone before. Almost tearing up myself, I ask, “Do you want a hug?”

Not even giving her a chance to answer, I take a half step toward her, stretch out my arms in tandem with her own, we hug it out for a quick few seconds. In that moment, I can recall just how many times I needed a hug like this in my earlier days. The days of cradling my head in my hands trying to figure out just why the f writing, performing and acting felt like skating uphill- felt like I was speaking to an audience that hadn’t a shred of empathy- felt like I was giving my best to Minnesota, and only receiving apathy in return. That hurt, that pain, that struggle is what has made me the artist I am today. Not fully, but definitely a fair part of me.

We chat a little longer, and draw comparisons to her final project and a show I did recently at the Bryant Lake Bowl. The entire lecture, the talks afterward… all of it humbling.

I never expect tears on such occasions, however when you designate a space to speak freely, express truthfully, and value your neighbors thoughts and ideas as much as your own, I can think of no better place to give someone a hug. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Oddly Closer Than I Thought

To say I knew Joe Sodd III, would be fairly accurate. It wasn’t an acquaintanceship- it couldn’t’ve have been. It was more than an acquaintanceship, but definitely shy of friends. If we saw each other on the street, there would have been immediate recognition in the form of a two syllable handshake- you know the kind where you clasp palms wrapping the thumb, then clasp the four fingers without the thumb- who knows, it might’ve reached the third syllable of bringing it in with the pat on the back. It was the early 2000’s, the sun seemed bolder then.

The connection between he and I, lives in the vivrancy of my sister, Annie. Now, a mother, wife, and impeccable occupational therapist with far more (or just different) responsibility than I could ever imagine taking on myself, but back then: an exceedingly fearless socialite with the propensity to call the shots, stepping to the most courageous of frat bros who might’ve said something politically distasteful and shutting down whatever liquid bravery they thrived on at the moment. My sister was, and is, an amazing force to be reckoned with.

Annie and her group of surly female confidants traveled evening parties like debutantes social-circle hopping a gala in the Hamptons. They didn’t give you’re their presence, they graced you with it. Standing opposite to them, more than not, were the male division of my sister’s friends. What appeared to be lead by a tall ex-hockey prodigy by the title of Nick, the two groups of young folk combined seemingly  like a homemade Voltron. They biked day and night, took friendly to newcomers, and were the antithesis of MN Nice in that their circle always had a spot for you.

Joe occupied an arc of that circle. I had run into him on numerous occasions during evening galavanting. In that time (2002 – 2008), I was known for throwing parties that would soon turn into remakes of Animal House. In these events the cops were always on cue (3am), the obligatory fight betwixt a Minneapolis South Side division of large white gentlemen and a Minneapolis Southwest Side division of large white gentlemen arrived religiously before or after the cops, and always- seemingly always, love would find its way amidst two college campus wayfarers that would never have acknowledged the others existence had they not stumbled paths at said party. Friends, Love, & Fights (Beats, Rhymes, & Life) These occasions served like wedding receptions. As my run-ins with Joe became more frequent, my understanding for his character became more familiar. You come to understand people differently amongst chaos rather than a controlled environment. (i.e.: house parties, special education classrooms, concerts, sociology classes, yelling at a dinner table, school buildings, a coffee table I’m sitting at, etc.)

He would greet me, usually at the beginning of the night whilst the Annie & Nick Gang funneled into my apartment building. Standing short, but solid as a fire hydrant, Joe had the physical makings of an unbeknownst Peter Parker. If news hit the next day that a real-time Spider-Man was seen webbing thru downtown St. Paul, I’d take no surprise in finding out it was he. Beyond the aesthetic, his demeanor and cadence struck me genuine as friend or family would. I’d like to think perhaps he and I were somewhere nearer to friends than acquaintanceship, alas…

Summer 2008
I awoke in a closet I rented from a large house in Dinkytown. Always on the road or crashing in another city or campus, I didn’t necessitate much, and a closet was pretty much all I needed at the moment for me and my belongings. While clicking & photoshopping away furiously on a poster for an upcoming show, my mother called for the 2nd or 3rd time. I can screen the first, where the call is usually about taking the dog out or a leftover dirty dish after family dinner. A 2nd or 3rd usually prompted something more urgent… naturally.

Sobbing sordidly from the get, my mother poured out to me “You remember Annie’s friend, Joe??? He was found killed on a street outside the Triple Rock!!!”

She fills me in to a few more details I possibly could have done without, but nonetheless assisted the understanding in what the fuck just happened. My heart ran a furious several beats and then subsided. Our conversation ends, I go back to the photoshop at the same pace I was before being informed of the disaster. I’m able to focus for a few minutes more on the graphic design before me, beaming off an antiquated computer screen. I stop.

Nothing is flat. Everything plays on a spectrum. Joe Sodd III’s death expectedly struck me as the loss of a family friend. I take no pause in the expected if I’ve already experienced such a loss or event. What blindsided my nerves to a boggling hault was something else. The murder struck me as something oddly closer.

I quickly gathered one of the two pairs of shorts I owned, put on my Adidas, hopped onto whatever fixer-upper bike I was riding at the moment and sped to Riverside Plaza. I cruised near the area Joe’s life had been claimed. Locked up the bike and walked the entire neighborhood- every level of the plaza, as if I’d find out what the hell happened the night before. Nothing… it was as it always was… as the West Bank and Riverside Plaza had been my entire life since I arrived to Minneapolis in 1986… it still wreaked of home.

The familiarity in every crack, crevice, hint of racial disparity and socio-economic suppressant conjured damn near two decades of my existence on earth. Today, it sounds absurd, but then I felt an accountability to figure out the “why” in the equation of Joe’s life being taken, due to the trivial fact that he fell where I was raised.

There’s a specific tragedy in knowing the street, the past friends that used to occupy that stretch of road, and the past friend that was murdered on that same surface. I've always known this, however it bares little to no resolution being reminded backdrop of my childhood rests on a hairline trigger and a thin halo. No one is ever truly safe, and we willingly take the risk everyday by simply daring to live.

I digested the event to a summer of reckless abandon, while misunderstanding my own processing of death with heavy exchanges of booze, coffee, writing, and impulse. There’s never a moment you need to tell someone you don’t give a fuck.  When the life of someone you know is untimely ripped from the fabric of tangibility and left only as a memory in which time does its damndest to fade with each passing second, I’ve found myself to fashion a glaze of apathy to the world… until it strikes me while sitting in front of a laptop or piece of paper, to write.

Summer 2015
I have no place to bare the tattoo of “III” in memory of Joe Sodd III, because I didn’t know him like that. However, I find myself still dealing and walking with his memory to better understand him and the events that transpired. On day’s baring absolutely no hint of him, my mind will sometimes sharply turn to thinking “Shit. I swear I’ll see that kid biking around the corner any day now.” I can say now, that unexpected death is unbelievable to an extent. There isn’t a day or moment you’re truly over it, and there isn’t a day or moment you should be over it.

Loss is something we live with, not something we move pass. It’s in how you live with loss that defines who you are and the legacy you will lead. Honest to Godly, I have no effing clue as to where it will lead me, but I’ve come to grips with the fact that there will always be a part of me that won’t go without writing about that kid. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Masterpieces Of My Mother

In high school, my first break-up left me so viscerally dismembered, that I had to seek out the school counselor for hour-long counseling sessions twice a week. She would later on create a sensitive student group. I was part of it. Experiencing loss has transformed me in the most ridiculous ways I never thought possible. Over time, you create a mental safety net of truths that comprise laws of physics and parts of you. Example, I know that anxiety for me has increased with my level of success. When I come into a role or job that requires a larger world of me, the anxiety I may be feeling is a sign that I may be fearing the success I’ve just achieved, or could achieve. You find simple signals and alerts your body will send off, and quickly respond with “Oh, that’s just me getting in the way of me. Insert retro-action, here”.

Before that first break-up left me in an emotional puddle of pheromones and serotonin, I experienced a material loss unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. Unlike the time I lost my toy alligator out of the car window, at the age of four, while my mother drove my sister and I away from New Orleans in the initial step of the divorce; Unlike the time I had torn so many holes in my blankey that my mother had to throw it out; And unlike the time my mother decided it was time for all the He-Man figures to be thrown in the trash… it was something different, and I don’t know why.

I had just fallen into a newfound fanaticism with Marvel Comics. My friend, Tony, had nabbed Spider-Man 2099 and Ravage 2099 for me in exchange for a few dollars for the first issues. The covers were thicker than the usual flimsy paper covers. It was a thick kind of cardboard with gleaming letters outlined with silver tones. “Spider-Man 2099- Peter Parker in the future! This is fng crazy! But 2099 is like over 100 years away tho!!! How could they conceive such a time???”, I thought to myself. It was the coolest thing I’d ever come across in the 5th grade.

A year later, 6th grade, my best friends and had the decision to either step into the 6th, 7th and 8th grade department of Windom Open School, or remain big fish in the 4th, 5th and 6th grade hall of the school. We collectively embarked on a journey to the senior side of the school and make due with the big kids (6th, 7th & 8th graders). The new rave was less comic books, but comic cards. I had spotted a few cards last year, but this year the big things was a series of cards titled “Marvel Masterpieces Series 1”.

The little pieces of paper were gorgeous- absolutely brilliant to my eye then as much as they are now. Joe Jusko painted each card in a daunting series of over 100 characters, including a special set of foil cards that gleamed similarly to the Ravage & Spider-Man 2099 comic covers.
Over months of collecting, I was 2 cards short of retrieving the entire set of Marvel Masterpieces Series 1. Archived in numerical order, I kept each card in a 3-ring binder full of Ultra Pro Platinum Storage Pages of plastic slips carrying 18 cards per page.

I was obsessed.

At first, it was the colors and beautiful art, but later it became more an intrigue with how Jusko captured each character- The Blob catching a cannonball with his stomach, but less that and more the expression on his face as if he enjoyed absorbing large mortar from weapons of mass destruction- Bullseye stretching a menacing grin while shooting a gun, casually pointed in the distance. A shadow in the background showing blood spraying from its head- Cyclops unleashing an optic blast from his eyes, where you question the pain streaking his face is due to the amount of power released from his head or his resentment for who or what his targeting in the still- Jusko captured moments that made you question the spectrum of good and evil. Who was born into this, and who had a choice. The answer, after observing every piece of the series, was simple- there are no heroes or villains, just human beings and organisms navigating what they can mean to the world.

I carried all the stories and pictures with me everywhere I went in the 6th grade… until one day… they were stolen.

My entire 3-ring binder was stolen from my desk and disappeared into obscurity. I’d never find it again.

The amount of anxiety, sadness and what small 6th grade depression I fell into, was the deepest I had felt throughout my decade on earth. My mind tried to recall the details of each picture- Blade, Blaze, Nova, Quasar… - I began to forget the colors and miss them. I cried for nights on end.

My mother… observing all of this, didn’t have the money at the time to try and recollect an entire set of a child’s comic cards. Collecting a set is difficult as it is, who knows what the hell you’ll get in a pack of cards, doubles, triples, etc. Finding the one card to fulfill a series is expensive and tough to find enough packs after the series had stopped selling. Shinder’s ramped up its prices of the series after they stopped being supplied with Masterpieces Series 1. So, my mother took me to Shinders to buy the next best thing.

We surveyed the box sets of comic cards that lay on the folding table at the entrance. Mounds of Baseball, football, basketball, Dark Horse Comic Book characters and everything that wasn’t Marvel Masterpieces piled high on the table. “Pick one” she said.

I damn near cried at the sight of my choices. I almost opted for nothing. Looking at it now, what a first-world-troubled child I was. I mean, seriously- fucking comic cards!?!?... But, to be easy on the kid I was then, it was less the possession of the cards, but being able to read the stories on the back of them. The feeling that I could conjure such knowledge at the opening of a page- I loved it.

Alas, in the mountain of box sets, I pointed out a dark box… a box that read “Ghost Rider”. It was a box of Ghost Rider cards that fully surrounded the origin of Johnny Blaze, his commitment to sell his soul to Satan and then return as the Ghost Rider engulfed in hellfire. The story, like the phoenix, was relative to the redemption I was seeking from the absence of my Masterpiece Series 1.

My mother bought me the box, and replaced what I thought was irreplaceable.

5 years later, she’d purchase my first weeks of acting school at the Brazil Acting School with Mary Allette-Davis and Bob Davis, who rooted the foundation for my passion for performance art.

12 years later, I would move in with her for the next 3 years as a grown man, where I was able to take care of her through several major surgeries, and take my time to churn out the most writing, touring, and music I’d ever produce in my lifetime. Those years would later serve as 90+ songs, 5 mixtapes and multiple scripts I wouldn’t have been able to write under the worry of making rent. Looking back, a tad more  stable, her in better health and eyeing box sets of comic cards on Amazon.com, I just don’t know how I could’ve made it without her. I’ve experienced some of, what I felt relatively at each time, were my greatest losses in life with my mother beside me. I love her and thank her for being there. Happy birthday, mom.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

She Is Everywhere

1989, Summer
I knew little of my cousin Evan, except that he was 7 days older than me and reveled in being a rambunctious boy of a single digit age as much as I. He was from a distant land my mom called Canada and would visit Minnesota infrequently with his brother Hugh.

This particular summer, Evan visited Minnesota… for good. His father passed away in a work related accident, so his mother moved back to Minnesota to be with the family. I remember being elated to hear that they were moving back to Minnesota for good, and that I’d have a friend to romp around our grandmother’s back yard with.

My younger mind couldn’t grasp tragedy. Although Evan, his brother and mother were undergoing the woes of a vicious, untimely death- I simply understood it as “Yay, a new friend in town”. My relationship with my father, at the time, was stewed in absence and somewhat of a mystique. I took his circumstance to be the same as mine: Living with a sibling, mother, and no father. My understanding couldn’t have been further from the truth.

1993, September
Evan and I sit on a dark couch in a room full of weeping family members. Our grandfather, Doc Van Deusen, had passed away and we were now attending the funeral home for the viewing of the body.
Everything in the room seemed dark. I swear it was night out, but it was most likely in the throws of daylight, nothing held color in the room. The walls ran muddy, the lamps conveyed as cryptic antiquities, the window curtains hung like last minute buys at Dracula’s garage sale. I hated this place. Evan and I were forced to dress in tandem with the room- our Sunday best, as one would perhaps have it. Little boys, we were, dressed in slacks, dress shirts and little dress shoes.

The ceremony of it all made no damn sense to me. At the ripe age of 11, I took these people for madness. “Who, in their right mind, would want to view the dead body of a family member?!?!?” I continuously thought. My mother, emphatic in her sobbing, asked me to stand up and attend the room. “It’s that last time you’ll get to see him. Don’t you want to say goodbye?”

I entered the room… for her. I didn’t want anything to do with the display of my grandfather’s dead body, but I knew my mother would never forgive me if I didn’t go to see him. I’d rather sit on the dark couch with Evan than enter the room.

Upon entrance, I looked down and away. Perhaps my mere presence would suffice my mother’s heart… but I was curious. What would he look like? How would he seem? Would their be a strange smell? What if he jumped up and yelled “Surprise!”?  My mind reeled. I must look at him, otherwise I’ll never live it down.

Averting my gaze… I first saw the right side of his face. I approached slowly to a view revealing the entirety of his horizontal posture, fully laid out in a casket. My mother reminded me he was on a cot, but I distinctly remember him wearing a suit in a casket. I don’t know why, but memory might serve me differently than the reality of it. That moment- I will never forget.

The room filled with tears and inconclusive sentences. He looked like him, but not. Something was off. He looked smaller than before. Of course, suffering from ALS will literally atrophy the body to something quite smaller, but his face… there was something in his face that looked off. It was him and not him at the same time. My younger mind fumbled with this paradox of viewing my grandfather’s lifeless body… as a stranger.

He meant the world to me, but at 11 years of age, I just didn’t have the tragic swell to cry or be upset. I’d known some of him, but by no means all of him. Doc was a complex man with a litany of layers and walls. All for good reason, but none of which I could understand at the time. I remember, at the age of 18, writing to my father that I no longer wanted to see or speak to him. However, running into him a year later, we broke bread, chatted… I referenced the “break-up” letter I sent him to which he conjured a glint in his eye, grinned criminally, and shortly said “You’ll understand when you get older”. I get it now.

Doc’s body was saying something. There was a statement there muddled in the reality of his death and physical departure. Something was there, and it would take a lifetime to understand it.

2015, February
My mother texts “Do you still want to view grandmother’s body at the funeral home?” Inversely to 22 years ago, I have the choice. No one is mandating I sit in an antiquated church-smelling room to take a gander at a lifeless body in relation to me. I reply “Yes”.

“This will be easy as it was before”, I think to myself. “I have the wherewithal of an adult mind, I can come and go as I please, and I can control my emotions as a grown man”, I expound.
I arrive early. The building is empty. Silent.

The acoustics of main entrance room swallow any sound made between the walls. Nothing can be heard. It feels to be a liminal space trapped between reality and the stars. Something is off here.
A man comes out to greet me. His tone is soft, his posture is perfect. “I’m here to see Carol” I tell him. Most assuredly the last time I will be able to say it. “Yes” he replies, “We’ll wait for your mother”.

I figured I could maybe go it alone since my mother wasn’t already there, and I could possibly get “this” over with. “I had visited grandma just a week ago, I remember what the woman looks like.” My mind reeling again. I grab a pamphlet from a kiosk and sit with it. “How To Cope With The Loss Of A Loved One” reads the pamphlet. The literature drags me through a roster of pitfalls in dealing with death. I get it. I’m ready.

My mother arrives, the soft spoken man leads us to the basement, and it hits me: This is the same funeral home Evan and I impatiently waited in our Sunday best outfits for our grandfather’s viewing of the body. The same church-scented air wafting through open space, I can’t help but scowl in its presence like revisiting an old enemy. I immediately regret coming back to this place. My veins course with fear stricken intimidation, I almost freeze in place and resist the march to the basement.
Descending onto the room, that same couch standing there, I feel everything- the air, the absence of sound, the dark walls, the vampiric curtains, my mother’s ease with the entirety of it all, and my own heart… beating slower and slower. This is it, this will be my mind’s undoing. All the anxiety, sadness, and deflation of the past 24 hours will come to a complete epoch in this next moment. 

Everything will rage, and I can feel it already stirring.

Standing in the room, every cell of me wants to run. The soft-spoken man opens a door to another room. “You can take time to process in here. Through that door, there is a hallway, she is there.” Respectfully, he exits.

My mother goes in first, I follow close after. And here it is.

The crying is uncontrolled at first, as my eyes fill, release and repeat. I look up and away, but the reality of her is inescapably chasing me down. Her body demands my eyes. I acquiesce.

I have loved no one more than this woman. I have loved no one as uniquely as I have loved this woman.

To me, she was and will always be the truth.

For her life, I would give my own. And bearing all of this in a hallway next to her lifeless body is a pressure my soul is crumbling beneath.

The ground shakes.

The walls move.

I recall my mother, not asking, but telling me to reach out and touch my grandfather’s arm or hand during his viewing of the body. I thought her to be a mad woman. I reached out to touch his arm, as my uncles and aunt, one by one kissed him gently on the forehead. I wanted nothing more than to get “it” over with.

But here. There is no evading the circumstance through innocence, youth or naivety. Everything in me and around me is shaking violently, and I cannot make it stop.

My vision blurs. The tears continue to pour.

Whatever my mother is saying goes mute beneath how loudly my grandmother’s body is filling the hallway. Against every fiber, cell and ounce of blood in me, I take a step toward her… and another… and another, until I am standing next to her. I reach my left hand out, and touch her forehead. And it disappears.

Time stops. The walls pause. My tears hault. Everything ceases.

In this is the purest moment I have ever felt in my life. She is with me, she is everywhere, and she is in me. Carol wanted nothing of the pageantry of drama or over doing anything. She had mastered the simplicity of joy. Her daily practice was compassion and not holding concern for which she could not control. She was peace… and in this moment, she is giving me that. The tears would run again while entering my car in the parking lot outside of the funeral home, but in this pristine moment as I am touching her forehead on this final day before she is cremated, there is pure and simple peace… and she continues to giving it to the world.

The scene mirrored that of Doc’s where she didn’t look to be herself. Something foreign about her face- something that wasn’t her.

My mother dialogued for a few seconds. The tears subsided for the moment. I kissed my hand and placed it on her forehead once more. “Ok” I said. “It’s time”.

We exited the hallway.

Once caught in the folds of the hallway, the undulating walls and thick air, I thought I’d never want to leave my grandmother’s side. But now, the peace swimming through me… it spoke too clearly. It was time.

I returned to my car, and wept for what felt like an eternity.

I called Evan later that day. We talked about the passing. There was a calmness in the tone of his voice. He had visited her hours just after she passed away at the intensive care unit. Seeming unwavered in his posture, a part of me presumes it to be his experience of losing his father, and parts of me believe it’s because he has to be. Each of us plays a role in our family, and everyday I’m finding the connections between us are infinite.

Carol meant life to me. Now, she means that and more.

It was just a week ago she was playing with her great grand-daughter cracking jokes and telling stories of Doc’s uncles and aunts.  But now…

Departing with Carol wasn’t the same as departing Doc’s viewing of the body. With Doc, even my younger mind was able to grasp that something was entirely unfinished with him, like the adventure had several more chapters to it. Again, it’ll take a lifetime for me to understand what that all means. However, with Carol, she knew- She was aware when death was upon her, and what it meant. She left everything behind.

Before her passing, and now after it, she means the world to me. And as sad, loud and heavily it weighs upon my heart, we must carry her legacy to the best of our ability and potential as a family.

To Carol. I’ll see you again someday.

With love, and nothing less than my heart,
Always your grandson, Toussaint Morrison

Monday, January 5, 2015

Sociology At Night

The Kitty Cat Klub perches with deep velvet colored d├ęcor and vampiric lighting. It had been some time since I’d performed a show there, however it felt like home. The placement of lights in the dark- always the true mark of a well versed venue. It reminded me of the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor, MI. Regardless of the time of day, it always felt like night. I feel that way about the Kitty Cat Klub.
Brock and I had texted a few times earlier that night to meet at a house party yonder. Collecting my cash, and gathering the merch, I hit the door for my car. Already wounded, leaking coolant from a tube near the manifold, Honda was running on 70 to 60%. The single-digit temperature saw to it the engine didn’t immediately overheat until 10 minutes into the drive. I hopped in and made my way to the house party Brock was already in attendance.

Stepping in, the apartment delivered a similar ambiance to the Kitty Cat Klub. Wax candles melted to their placeholders, tie dye patterned cloth draped along the wall, the look of a domain of holistic healing.

We sat and watched the television for what felt like 10 minutes, but in real-time clocked over an hour. Brock leaned back in a vintage cream-colored chair across the room, while Hannah and her friends lounged the couch producing multi-colored clouds hovering eye-level.

Time blurred to what felt like a slow crawl, but was creeping on 4am at this point. The ambiance and conversation (or lack thereof) almost put me to a slumber. Bordering on half-asleep, I recognized a sound persisting from the television. An annoying bright whine from its speakers beat into the air like an injured car alarm. Turning to the television set, I realized it was now the 3rd Iggy Azalea music video Hannah had playlisted.

“Ahh, she’s so bad”, I said without filter. “She’s a musical genius” crooned Brock.
Hannah quickly pointed out the “genius” in Iggy reproducing the movie Clueless into one music video, and that this particular work of hers was brilliant.

I nearly gagged. I don’t smoke. I don’t smoke anything, not cigarettes, not weed, not crack, not anything. And I never have. But if there were ever a high I was experiencing, it had been at the moment, and was currently being ruined. Yes, my high was getting ruined, and I was going to defend myself to the highest degree.

“Are you serious, right now?” I asked Hannah. I continued, “Iggy is appropriation in a bottle. That’s not even the way she talks- it ain’t her voice. She has a song where she says “when the relay starts, I’m a runaway slave master”. The woman is ridiculous!”

Hannah retorted, “ She is the best white female rapper out there, right now”.

This portion of the debate could have been perceived as civil, and most definitely would have if I hadn’t held Ms. Azalea so near and dear to my heart. However, Brock began declaring that her business model is flawless.

“Her manager is T.I.! He’s a minstrel on a VH1 reality tv show where they exploit the fact that his wife can’t read. He’s on record saying people need to get over race!?!?” I slammed.

The tie dye’s on the walls began spinning counter clockwise, while the music from the television speakers seemed to climb in treble- daring my ears to bleed, whilst the resin in the carpet started swimming with the rest of the inanimate objects on the ground. This is what it must feel like to think you’re going crazy. Looking up, I’d realized what I just said and that no one was going to empathize with the term “minstrel” or “appropriation”. I was screwed, and I just did it to myself. The discussion could end there and we could go on speaking of our Top 5 rappers of all time and make a civil love-in of it… But hell no. Once a brown guy in a room full of white people brings up appropriation… he’s solidified his place as “that guy” and will be given no such leniency to be anyone else.

Hannah held a calm face just as Brock and I hit a pause in our exchange. “Toussaint, it doesn’t have to be about race” she soothed. Ok, maybe she has a point. Maybe it can be the fact that our opinions just differ on the talent-level of Iggy Azalea and we can agree to disagree. “I just treat human beings as human beings. I don’t see a black person or a white person, I just treat people like people”.

If you stood close enough, you might’ve been able to see several atom bombs mushroom cloud in the reflection of my eyes. About my tired and sedated brain, a committed voice took over. There would be no helping anyone in this room to learn more about me, sociology, appropriation or hip-hop for that matter. It would be only one way, and that is mine. It was at this succinct moment in time that I knew I was going to say exactly what little to no people have told Hannah throughout her lifetime… and although it might mar her future for dialogue regarding race, I simple gave nil fucks at this juncture. I would be selfish, I would be fed up, and I would have none of what she just said.

“Oooohhh, I live in a post-racial world! I’m Jerry Garcia’s daughter, and I don’t have to see race because everything is fine and Disney” I sarcastically played about, and continued “Are you kidding me? Racial disparity in this city alone is top 3 in the country, and you’re going to sit here and refute a fact of socio-economics with me?”

… “You can leave” Hannah pierced with slight head jerk.

“Gladly” I responded immediately.

Once she claimed that she doesn’t see race (skin tone), I knew my response was going to be followed with an exit.

I grabbed my gloves and hit the road, carried the merch from the car to my house, and hit the bed.
… then it could have ended there, but for me it would not.

My stubborn, die hard, brick thoughted, (insert more here if you’d like), incredulous self, insisted on making a facebook post about the incident- because that’s what you do when you can’t have the moment any more, you look to the internet to revive the already dead corpse of the conversation. I thought nothing of it, until waking at the crack of noon, several hours later.

Checking my phone, I was notified there had been 15+ comments on said post. To my chagrin, I feared the commentary were to be barbs calling for my head, or worse yet, my social credibility. Alas, the comments referenced my use of the phrase “white privilege”… however after the 3rd contribution, the commentary turned in on itself like a self-loathing Cerberus. A litany of verbal shots and slashes marked the post to a literary clash of clans. People were now calling each other out, passively exercising low-blows and cuts that strayed further and further away from the post’s initial intent.

I had created a monster.

I zoomed out from the facebook page, scrolled to my newly acquired Boom Beach app game and began to liberate islander slaves held captive by the Hammerman army. It was easy. I could turn away from the facebook commentary collision just like that and pretend it didn’t exist. I wouldn’t think about the commentary for the rest of the day... or until I had to deal with human beings again. Surely someone would stop me later to ask "Just what the hell was going on with that post you made yesterday/today?"

Regardless of the post, the discussion or experience of race is a life long dialogue for me. I once heard a man of color quoted "asking me not to deal with race is like asking me not to swim while I'm drowning."

Going back to Hannah’s apartment, Brock sitting across the room, the white women perched on the couch sedated and subject to a non-white guy clamoring of appropriation & white privilege… it must feel nice to tell him to leave the room soon as his words got under your skin- soon as he struck a personal nerve ending that wouldn’t be satisfied until he got the hell outta sight. The room could go back to its peace and not have to discuss a single article of race, let alone think of it. I wondered if it felt anything like zooming out of an online commentary and switching to the next app…