Straight Outta Somewhere

We walked out of the movie theater last night — three white suburban teenage boys and one white suburban middle-aged male — and I asked them whether they enjoyed the movie. One of the boys has been tracking all of the movies has seen all year, filing away ratings in his own system on his phone. He gave Straight Outta Compton a 93 on his 100 scale, he told me, and the other two boys — one of whom is my son — agreed that the movie was “great.”

When I said some of the scenes of the movie reminded me of what was happening in Baltimore, Ferguson and other cities where blacks were near or beyond the boiling point of frustration with police brutality and systematic problems, the three boys went silent, thinking (I hope) and connecting the news headlines to the story. The movie is a fictionalized biopic of the emergence of rap music in LA, told through the story of NWA members.

I thought it was a strong movie, too, with a typical but powerful narrative arc of a “band movie,” although the story and images and music also brought back memories for me.

When NWA first broke on the scene in the late 1980s (along with Public Enemy and others from New York City), I was an infantry soldier in the Army National Guard. My home armory was inner city New Haven, Connecticut, and for much of the six years there, I was the only white soldier in a platoon of black soldiers.

For much of the time, I was an outsider — a white suburban, lower-middle-class college boy working alongside young men and Vietnam veterans from the inner city, where life — I learned by listening and talking — was a very different experience for them than it was for me. In a strange twist, the Armory (now closed) was situated right next to a New Haven prison, so as we did work outside the Armory, soldiers in my platoon would sometimes be calling up to people behind barred windows. College was not on anyone’s radar screen, and living was a day-to-day experience for many.

Here, I heard stories of police beatings, or gang strife in neighborhoods, of who got robbed, of who got away, of whom was fooling with whom, and of the lack of jobs and opportunity. AIDS and HIV were soon topics of conversation, too, as were stories of powerful drugs ravaging the streets. For many, the National Guard income, as a little as it was, was the only reason they were in the military. There was no love of country, or trust of government. Quite the opposite. It was a job, of sorts, that could pay some bills (one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer).

Rap music and what we now call Hip Hop was everywhere, all the time, in our platoon. Boom boxes were standard military equipment in our unit, much to the chagrin of the officers (whom, I should note, were all white men who mostly kept themselves separate from our unit).

I was raised on rock. Led Zeppelin. Aerosmith. The Rolling Stones. Bad Company. Kiss. What they were playing was nothing I ever heard on the radio in the late 198os (how times have changed) and they amused themselves by trying to get me to appreciate “the music of the street”, as they called it. Just as in the movie, when Ice Cube articulates how NWA’s rap music captured the reality of living in the Daryl Gates’ years of Los Angeles (sparking the LA riots that were to come later, following the Rodney King verdict), so too did my fellow soldiers explain how the beats and lyrics of rap spoke to their own experiences with street truth in New Haven.

I’ve never forgotten those years in New Haven. By the end of my time, I was part of the unit, but I know I was still and always separate. My skin color and my upbringing, and the fact that I could drive home to suburbia, was a wall between us that never came down.

In many ways, we spoke different languages and lived in different countries. But I’d like to think and remember that they did let me in to their lives over time, and I let them into mine. I know I learned more from them than they learned from me. I will always deeply appreciate an unofficial mentor that I had, Sergeant Calvin Nelson, who took me under his wing during my first scary days and taught me lessons about life. He was the first person I knew who was a member of the Nation of Islam and the first Vietnam vet I knew up close and personal. He was a calm, patient man worried about supporting his family with his manufacturing job and my relationship with him went a long way with the others.

Being a cultural outsider, as I was for those years, teaches you hard lessons about acceptance (or not), and about listening and compassion, and if you let it, about the world much larger than your own. You realize rather quickly the bubble we all live within as we grow up. Slowly, I made my way in to a community that would have otherwise been forever outside my field of vision. I am wiser for the experience.

We walked to the car last night and I wondered to myself if these three boys came away with a new wrinkle of reality after viewing the movie. Maybe not. It may have been nothing more than a big screen movie, set years in the past. For many people, in many places, the hardships shown in the movie are still a daily reality, and I hope the prospects of art and music transforming the reality is also still a possibility. That, and education.

One can hope …

Peace (in the think),

Knowing Someone from Afar

for Bonnie

It’s an interesting twist of the digital age — many of us are more connected with more people than ever before, but many of those connections are fragile, held together by words and media and posts and comments. A string of ideas becomes the centerpiece of connections, and our notions of whom we call a “friend” becomes a bit convoluted as a result, doesn’t it?

This morning, I was met with a headline that 1 billion people used Facebook yesterday. People connect. But how deep are the connections? A piece on Medium yesterday took an interesting stance on how people represent themselves in online spaces. We put our best foot forward, the author surmises.

I have been thinking of this concept of identity and connections and friendship the past few days as a very good friend, one I know beyond the wires of social media spaces and one whom I have worked with closely for many years on a variety of projects through the National Writing Project, has been in a difficult transition period, of losing her loved one and cherished life partner.

She has been powerfully articulate on her blog in capturing their lives together, documenting and archiving the love of the years. Many people, myself included, have been leaving her comments of support. No doubt the writing has been an avenue for her in dealing with loss, which moved in slow motion over the past few weeks.

This is what writers do. We write, in good times and in times of struggle. We write to understand the world.

And in her writing of the moments, she has brought us into her world with compassion and voice, and she has made us feel connected to her experiences in a very personal way.

The pieces she has been sharing also had me thinking is how much I feel as if I have known her partner, who just passed away, over the years from the many blog posts and videos and images and more that we have shared over time. I met her partner once in person, I think, and yet, his presence has been felt strongly over the years because my friend was always in the present with him. She represented her life as a partnership with him regularly, and I feel as if I knew him as well as her over the years of our friendship.

I realize there is a certain fallacy to this insight. I don’t really know the full person — who no doubt was much more complicated than I will ever know, as we all are to those outside our emotional circles —  and I am sad now that I never will. I think I knew of the person who loved my friend, and I think I saw a powerful love and partnership between them that made her happy and content. His constant presence in that picture in my mind — of them on beaches, in Israel every year, in concerts, at the breakfast table, reading books and the newspaper, traveling into the city … my mind has many moments of them together — is formed mostly by our digital connections.

And here’s the thing: in her sharing of her life with me, a friend, over the years, he will remain an active presence in the world, even in passing. In that, I will miss him, too, even if our connections were echoes in a digital world of connections. In my mind, at least, his presence will always remain a part of her, and I am thankful for the friendship and partnership that she and I have, and I am sad for her loss.

Here, though, the digital connections fall short. I can’t drive down the street to comfort her and sit with her. I can’t make her coffee, and play guitar with her. I can only send words. Writing is the way I am trying to help her through it. It’s what writers do. We write. I write this, then, for her, and for me.

Peace (for my friend),

Gearing Up for Getting Back to School (A Comic Collection)

I’ve been away from blogging for a few weeks as part of a summer tradition, but I have still been writing and creating for August, and that includes making comics. These comics were part of my “anxiety of going back to school” thinking and planning and getting myself ready for another exciting year. We teachers go back on Friday (yikes .. that’s tomorrow) and then students come back for Monday.

These comics were all shared on Twitter but I wanted to bring them all here, too.

That first day of school anxiety

Before the storm

First day of school perspectives

Mr SmartyPants

Peace (in the frames),

August Hibernation/Low-Tech Pause Mode

Blogging vacation comic

It’s August and that means laying low, turning down the tech for a few weeks, and coming back in September with the start of school rejuvenated and reconnected ….. Normally, this would have happened a week or so earlier, but the CLMOOC was still running …  I won’t be completely utterly off-the-grid but I won’t be very active even when I am checking up on some things … so, see you in a few weeks!

Peace (in summer siesta),

Ten Reasons Why I Love #CLMOOC

I’m in reflection mode right now with the Making Learning Connected MOOC … mainly because I know I am going to miss a final #CLMOOC Twitter Chat night, as a reflective gathering of the tribe.

Ten Reasons Why CLMOOC Rocks – Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires

How can you reflect? Use this from the newsletter:


…Twitter Chat for Make Cycle #∞ on Tuesday, August 4, at 4p PT / 7p ET / 11p UTC with the #clmooc hashtag. We’ll use a Google Doc to do some shared reflective writing, and then use these reflections as the basis of our chat.


If you look into the CLMOOC Make Bank you’ll find a range of ways that folks have reflected in the past, including:

Peace (in the think),

These Open Maps Will Remain Our Open Stories

A friend in the Making Learning Connected MOOC asked me this weekend if the maps that we have used in the CLMOOC — the one that kicked off the start of the CLMOOC where we introduced ourselves geographically and then the one that was at the heart of the CLMOOC where folks geotagged their parks and spaces — would remain open even as the CLMOOC began winding down.

Well, yeah, of course the maps will remain open. It never even occurred to me that I would close off access. In fact, I am curious if a look back at the maps from the future will reveal more pins and media and such, and maybe give more evidence of the reverberations of the CLMOOC beyond the summer months.

Oh, sure, I guess we could get some spam here and there, but so what? The maps were designed to be open and open they shall remain, telling the story of the CLMOOC.

Here, be dragons …

The First Map:

The Second Map:

Peace (along the longitude and latitude),

A Desktop Tour of the GeoLocate Map

I created this video tour of the GeoLocate Your Space Map for the end of the Make Cycle at Making Learning Connected MOOC, although I see that other pins were added after I had created the tour (so, I apologize if you late pinners didn’t make it).

You can read the end-of-week newsletter that went out yesterday, where we used the metaphor of “cairns” to point to different projects throughout the week.

Peace (beyond the map),

Graphic Novel Review: The Graveyard Books

I think I have re-read Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book more times than just about any other book. I read it myself. I read it to my three boys as a read-aloud (at appropriate ages), and then I read it myself again. There is something about the story and the writing, and the mystery of Nobody Owens’ story, that keeps pulling me in, and I am not much a book re-reader.

I knew there were graphic novel versions of The Graveyard Book out there, but I had forgotten about them until I stumbled into the two books the other day in the library, and quickly scooped them up for summer reading. I was not disappointed, as the graphic novel versions not only remain quite faithful to Gaiman’s story but also move the story in a very visual direction with the power of illustration and graphic novel format.

There are a few different illustrators in the two-book series, so I had a slight jarring feeling going from one section to the next at times, but it did not take away from my enjoyment as a reader. There is always that sense of someone else’s artwork taking over what you had imagined, and I found some elements of that as I read the graphic stories — that’s now how I imagined the witch, or the Sleer, or even Silas.

Still, I was deep in The Graveyard Book again and for that, I am always grateful.

Peace (in places unknown),

PS — check out this video by Gaiman’s wife, Amanda Palmer, about Gaiman in dream mode:


What My Son Made: Ant Man Jr.

Rowan storyboard

My 10 year old son enrolled for the second year in a row at the free Apple Movie Camp, which is a three day gathering in an Apple Store for kids to learn about iMovie and Garageband and the basics of moviemaking, including storyboarding.

My son had recently watched, and thoroughly enjoyed, Ant Man and he remembered how last year, the Apple folks showed him how to do “picture in picture” and he wondered if he could “shrink” himself and do his own Ant Man-style movie. He could. He did.

I was his trusty cameraman and gave advice on some editing, but overall, he was able to make this over the course of two days (three hours) plus some video shooting at home.

The free Apple Camp idea remains a bit of a tension point for me. It is cool they offer it for free, and it is neat that my son wanted to do it again. But parents are trapped in the Apple Store during the camp time (which I understand) and it is hard not to think the camp is a genius (excuse the pun) way to hook a new generation on Apple products and get parents to play with iPads and more during the wait time. Maybe even buy something. Or think about buying something. It is never a hard sell. It’s a soft sell. And it is brilliant marketing. I should note that this year, one of the counselors did work with parents a bit, to show us what the kids were doing with some of the apps.

Peace (may it get bigger not smaller),