Saturday, March 28, 2009

Writer's Conference

I'm fired up, having spent the day in Allentown at "The Write Stuff" a conference sponsored by the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group. It was my first time at one of these things. I've been a poor networker most of my life. Nothing to be proud of. I'd just developed a habit over the years of being a lone wolf when it comes to writing. But when a friend of a friend said the GLVWG gathering was one of the best writer's'conferences he'd ever attended, I decided to give it a try. Now, I'm patting myself on the back for having made a wise investment.

One thing I want to tell you about now, and I'll save the rest for later, is this: One of the presenters, Matt Birbeck, an award-winning investigative journalist and author has just signed a movie deal for his book "Deconstructing Sammy."

Birbeck shared the news after I asked him if he thought his book on the tragic life of Sammy Davis, Jr. would be movie material, and if that explained his use of the term "back story"when he described his layered approach to writing about one of the most versatile and troubled entertainers of our era. Sure enough, Birbeck admitted that he started thinking "movie" soon after he started turning up some of the unexamined pieces of Davis' life.

And who might be cast in the role of Davis? C'mon, that to me is a no-brainer. Who else but Jamie Foxx?(he'd have to lose about 60 pounds first, though)

Sammy Davis, Jr's birthday and mine are the same: December 8. That made him someone special to me. As a kid growing up in Ohio, I kept up with Sammy and his career starting from the years he and his uncle tap danced as part of the Will Mastin Trio, and I cried hard when he got hurt in a car crash that caused him to lose an eye. Years later, at Birdland ,the Manhattan jazz club, I spotted Davis at a table with friends and politely approached him and asked for his autograph. Let's just say he wasn't very nice.That encounter left me promising myself that if I ever became well known and somebody asked me for an autograph I would try not to be like Davis.

If a movie does get made from Birbeck's book, it could go a long way toward re-establishing Sammy Davis, Jr's reputation as a multi-talented entertainer, a gifted dancer, singer and actor who today, is mostly a forgotten man.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Who Would Have Imagined It?

How much of our current economic meltdown sprang from some one’s imagination? Or from a failure of imagination on the part of the rest of us? As we try to pull ourselves back from the brink, it might be wise ---and even productive----to put that question to members of Congress, to business executives, shareholders, regulatory watchdogs, the news media---and to ourselves, you know, us ordinary citizens.

At any moment--- for good or ill--- incredible deeds rooted in imagination shape and re-shape our world. And make us see anew what is possible. Two stunning examples stand out in my mind. Their only connection is a set of landmark buildings. My connection was as a reporter.

In 1968, on one of my first assignments for Channel 7 Eyewitness News, I took a camera crew to lower Manhattan where construction was underway on the Twin Towers site of the World Trade Center. All I remember of that assignment is how the sound of my voice on the film soundtrack made me almost sick to my stomach. That alien voice couldn’t possibly be mine, could it? Surely, there must have been a problem with the soundman’s equipment. But no, the slow, painful-to-listen-to voice was mine and the 6 o’çlock tv news audience would soon get a dose of it.

Fast forward to June 24, 1974. I and my camera crew are sent to cover a young Frenchman who is drawing crowds and stopping traffic in midtown Manhattan. He is juggling and performing magic tricks and aerial stunts on 59th Street and 5th Avenue along a stretch of sidewalk near the grand Plaza Hotel.

I’m not happy with this assignment. It seems like scraping the bottom of the barrel on a slow news day “Why am I the one they send on this corny stuff?” I grumble in the crew car as we make our way through heavy traffic, and unload the gear where a crowd is gathered.

I direct the cameraman, the electrician and the sound man (remember this was back in the days of 16mm film, before one-man-band video tape news) to get shots of the impressive Plaza Hotel, and the usually blasé New Yorkers--- now turned into laughing, applauding gawkers--- and a spritely young Frenchman who has the crowd in the palm of his hand. At one point, he stretches a tight rope between two trees, and to the crowd’s delight, proceeds to walk it. We capture all of this on film.

The man’s name is Phillipe Petit and his performance and personality win me over. This is not a bad story after all. So, microphone in hand, I approach the young artist and proceed to question him, or try to.

He just grins and shrugs, but says nothing. I keep trying. And when I give up, he laughs and hands me my wristwatch. The joke is on me. I never felt him relieve me of my watch. The crowd laps it up.

Fast forward, again. It’s August 7, 1974. I’m not due at work until late afternoon, and so I’m still lying in my bed. The radio is tuned to an all-news station. It’s 7:17am and a reporter is saying that a crowd has gathered at the foot of the Twin Towers. People are watching a man walk a tight rope between the two 110 story buildings. The man is Phillipe Petit. My heart speeds up. I am holding my breath. I am stretched out less than a foot off the floor, but I am as tense as if I were upright, walking that steel wire a quarter of a mile above the street. The daredevil up there is no stranger. He is the engaging street juggler from my non-interview news story. I cross my fingers and pray: “Please, please let him make it across that wire.”

He is up in the air for 45 minutes, walking, dancing and lying down on the wire.

This year marks the 35th anniversary of that thriller in the sky. Phillipe Petit is sought after for interviews. And "Man on Wire", the film documenting Petit’s exploit has won an Academy Award.

His book, "To Reach The Clouds" came out a while back (I bought it on sale and it was fun to read on pg99 his version of our encounter, somewhat different from my memory of it.) The words and photos in his book are gripping and terrifyingly beautiful. So powerful they bring the reader right up on that steel wire with him. Who could have imagined such a feat? Phillipe Petite did and carried it off. Brilliantly.

Fast forward, one more time. September 11, 2001. Two airplanes reduce the Twin Towers to rubble. In the aftermath of that terrible event, former Secretary of State Condolezza Rice and other Bush administration officials said ”no one could have imagined” flying a plane into the World Trade Center. But some people did imagine it, and they carried it out. There is imagination. And then there is failure of imagination.

In her 911 Commission testimony, Dr. Rice also said: “A band of vicious terrorists tried to decapitate our government, destroy our financial system, and break the spirit of America.”

The vicious terrorists of Dr. Rice’s description failed to accomplish their goal. But a band of greedy domestic robber barons may do that for them, abetted by a business-cozy US Congress, a corporate media and an unwitting citizenry. It is not foreign terrorists, but home-grown predators who have made our country less secure and its citizens angry and afraid. In their unbridled avarice they concocted sub-prime mortgage schemes of criminal proportions, schemes which have escalated and spiraled out of control and now threaten to unravel the US financial system along with the entire global economy. Who would have imagined it?

Did you? And when you think about the economy and the future of our country, what’s on your mind?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Miss Canvassing

I will miss canvassing now that Barack Obama has been elected the 44th president of the United States of America. I think that’s because knocking on doors in this part of northeast Pennsylvania and talking to the people who answered is a lot like what I used to do as a reporter in New York City and on Long Island. You learn a lot from asking questions, figuring out how to get information from people, some of them reluctant to give it. Asking somebody who they will be voting for is considered too personal for at times. That question is out of bounds; it’s like asking a woman’s age, or man’s choice of underwear.

Now, three days past what will go down in history as an election that transformed our politics, I and others have completed our last walk lists, put our campaign buttons on the dresser and turned from celebration to contemplation.

A Door In Pen Argyl

I’ve been thinking about our Obama victory here in Pennsylvania—and especially our winning in my part of northeast PA— and the spirit and the opportunity that the Slate Belt Team has been.s. An ideal world might possibly look like the one our team created together where everyone brought to the table the thing they do most naturally. The thing that is very much needed. We have been drivers and phoners, cooks and list-makers, letter writers and cleaners, team leaders and organizers, data coordinators and canvassers and record keepers and cheerleaders and sign-makers and thinkers and talkers. Most of all we have been the hope-mongers that Barack said we need to be if we were/are the antidote to the hate-mongers that have being doing their best to keep our country divided.

As for me, I have loved canvassing and learned so much from it. It has allowed me to see people in all of our diversity. And I hope it isn’t immodest to say that canvassing is an act of courage. Nothing could be scarier or more intimidating than chancing a face-to-face meeting with a stranger. Of course, none of the folks who answer our knocks are ever really strangers. There’s usually something about them that says something about us. Says something about our own fears, our courtesy, our evasiveness, our resentment, our gratitude, our good humor and our ill will. And the pre-conceived notions we have about each other before either one of us has even opened our mouths.

A couple of Sundays ago I knocked at the door of a house high on a hill off of Delabole Rd in Pen Argyl and the woman who answered—looking first through the screen door— said that the 34 yr old woman on my list was her ex-daughter-in-law who was very ill with MS and would not be voting. She said the other name was that of her husband and he was not at home. I thanked the woman for her time and asked if she would give one of our flyers and a tax comparison card to her husband. As I was walking away she called out “Thanks so much for what you’re doing.” That took me by surprise because she didn’t look like someone who would be supporting Obama. My car was parked at the top of a long driveway leading to the main road and the view of the hills and valley, the trees and the leaves all red and gold was breathtaking.

As I was about to drive off, a middle-aged man headed toward my car. He was dressed in work clothes and a baseball cap and as he got closer he removed one of his work gloves. He looked menacing, like he was about to order me off his property or worse. When he reached my car,I rolled down the window, stuck my hand out and introduced myself.

He didn’t take my hand. I thought I was in real trouble. Instead, this man began to tell me why he was for Barack!. “He’s the only possible choice any rational person could make” he said. “I heard someone say the other day that he’s the one, the one for this time” Again, I was taken by surprise. In a million years I would never have thought this man could be an Obama supporter. He was everything the pollsters and pundits said was anti-Barack: white, rural, angry, hardworking, blue collar, probably a gun-owner.

Turned out he was an ex-marine, born in Bethlehem, lived all his life in the area, was caring for his ex-daughter-in-law, “Who would have thought I’d end up being a nurse?” he said, more a statement than a question. “You can’t just put a person away in an institution, can you? Besides I don’t think she’s going to make it to Christmas.” And he thinks the property that he bought when a large farm was subdivided in the 1970’s is the most beautiful place in the world. “Look over there” he said pointing an ungloved finger toward the horizon, “Ät night you can see the lights from the trucks on rte 33.”

He said he would have voted for John McCain 4 yrs ago. But not now. “He’s changed. His time has passed. He’s not the same McCain. It’s Obama’s time now” he said as I just listened in amazement.

I was near tears by the time he finished talking and we shook hands,said goodbye and I drove off to the next house. And the next stranger.

I’m really going to miss canvassing. And I’m going to miss the Slate Belt team. But I’ll always be grateful to Barack for bringing us together in this extraordinary year.

The Two McCains

By Melba Tolliver

I’m scared. There appears to be two John McCains running for president. There’s the John McCain who on page 68 of his book Why Courage Matters instructs parents on how to start their children thinking about honesty. Comparing himself to his own father, McCain writes, “He wouldn’t tell a lie, ever.” McCain admits, “I have not lived as honestly as he did.” Änd McCain adds, “Whenever I’ve been less than honest, I’ve felt ashamed and much worse than had I told the truth and taken the consequences.” And then there’s the other John McCain. The one who most major news organizations, fact-checkers and even some Republicans are calling out as one big fat liar.

There’s the John McCain advertising himself as an agent of change. And there’s the other John McCain who changes the subject every time he’s caught telling one of his big fat lies. There’s the McCain who prides himself on his patriotism. Then there’s the other one who rarely wears a flag pin.

There’s one of the most celebrated POW’s in our nation’s history who ridicules his opponent for being a celebrity. There’s the McCain who says he’s going to kick butt in Washington. But there’s the other McCain, a Washington insider, boastful deregulator, Arizona congressman and senator who’s never held another civilian job except a couple of years on the payroll of his wife’s beer business.

There’s the John McCain who promises to lead Americans into a bright and prosperous future. And the John McCain who admits he knows next to nothing about our economy and even less about how to send an e-mail or how ordinary people are using 21st century technology to build and strengthen communities. Something, by the way that Barack Obama—former community organizer—- uses effectively and efficiently.

So who exactly are the entrenched folks McCain intends to kick around if he makes it to the presidency? Watching McCain kick himself will be a sight to see.

And what about his running mate? She seems to have an evil twin as well. There’s Sarah the earmarks buster and Sarah who overloaded Alaska’s shopping cart with pork every chance she got. Then there’s Sarah who was all for the bridge to nowhere until the Congress said no deal. Then she morphed into the Sarah who jumped off the bridge idea.

This election just isn’t fair. The Republicans are running four candidates, while the poor Democrats only get to run two. And if the Republicans win the White House how will we know which of the two McCains or the two Palins is calling the shots?

I guess that question explains why some voters remain undecided.


by Melba Tolliver

October 21, 2008

Melba TolliverBill Richardson

When New Mexico governor Bill Richardson made a campaign stop for Senator Barack Obama here in northeast Pennsylvania last month, I spoke up and voiced my concern about registered voters who tell me they are still undecided. To read about this visit click here

In his amiable, folksy way, the popular Richardson sought to dispel my anxiety. Maybe because I’m obviously black, Richardson, who was speaking at the Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations, addressed my question in terms of race, though I never used that word. He conceded that a certain percentage of white voters will not pull the lever for Obama on November 4th. Richardson went on to say that strong support for Obama among young voters and independents—of various racial and ethnic groups, though Richardson did not describe them as such—will offset the anti-black voters. Being the optimist that I am, I hope Richardson is correct. None of us will know until the votes are counted and analyzed.

But I want to make a couple of points here. First, I never mentioned race when making my comments to Richardson. He assumed that was my point in noting that many voters that I encounter when knocking on doors say they remain undecided. Like Richardson, the newspaper reporter who wrote about comments also heard a word I never used and assumed that that’s what I was talking about.

It’s the kind of assuming that goes on a lot around black people. If you’re black and supporting Obama it’s assumed you’re racially motivated. Even Colin Powell—a black, but a non-race man— who endorsed Obama on Sunday is subject to such assumptions. Never mind that 95% of black folks gave their votes to John Kerry last time around. Never mind that black voters have helped elect Democrats in elections big and small since before FDR. Never mind that blacks who will vote for Obama may be smart enough to vote for the candidate who’s got the best grip on the failing economy, the failed Iraq/Afghanistan policy, the failed health insurance system—the failures in America that run across the board. That candidate is certainly not John McCain. And black voters like the majority of all other voters haven’t been fired up by any of the third party candidates.

Obama for all his “blackness” is after all a mixed race man. Half black, half white. Son of a black African father and a white American mother. Raised mostly by his white grandparents, and himself. So what does that say about him? Nothing much unless we resort to the tired stereotypes about black people and white people. What does tell us something useful about Obama and the kind of man he is, the kind of president he might be are these things: His campaign which , according to some observers, is the most disciplined political campaign in American history. His brilliant and audacious use of the Internet for fund raising, social networking, volunteer organizing—again, prompting some to observe that if Obama is elected, he and his operatives will have changed presidential politics forever.