Sunday, February 18, 2018

How The West Was Lost

Originally read at The FREE ASSOCIATION Reading Series
on February 18th, 2018 
at Alphabet City, Pittsburgh, PA

BY THE MID-1970s, my little family had already registered considerable mileage migrating around Pittsburgh, living in various neighborhoods. I remember when my mother, younger sister, and I moved into the two-story, two bedroom house on Lyric Street in East Liberty. It was rented to our mother by her sister, in an effort to provide a measure of stability for the three of us. Later, this became four, when my youngest sister was born in the living room. Sometimes the head count grew to five, when our father would come to live with us for a while, though this was always temporary. All told, I was a happy kid.

However, even at six years old, I knew innately that something was off with our family. Specifically, something wasn’t quite right with my mother’s skewed perspective of the world. She loved her children with a ferocious volatility, but would turn on friends and loved ones at the barest provocation. Sometimes even we weren’t spared her wrath, which could be terrifying to the uninitiated, and tiresome to those who were. We weren’t so much a nuclear family as a family that was prone to going nuclear for the most mundane of reasons. Still, we kids were very close to our mother, even when her behavior was unstable, which was frequent.

Like most six-year old boys, I also looked up to our father, even though he typically wasn’t in the picture; he was a photographer so he preferred to instead take most of the pictures. That’s more than a metaphor: He wasn’t built for helping to maintain much day-to-day familial structure, so he existed at the periphery of our world, observing but not guiding. Sometimes he’d live with us for a week or month or so, otherwise he lived with his own mother in the Hill District. He was usually on-call as a special visitor more than anything else, and I looked forward to his visits. To make up for his absences, he frequently came bearing gifts. This was how I became exposed to comic books, which would chart my path through everything that was to come. Other times, he brought us toys.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Judy Penzer & The Art of Deepening the Mystery

Me working on my SPACE mural
Photo by Jami Marlowe
"The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery." - Francis Bacon

THE RELATIVE DISTANCE of memories is a peculiar phenomenon of aging. Think back to when you were a child and how every minute between holidays felt like a month. For most of us, birthdays were the best thing imaginable, our own personal holiday where time and space and gravity bent in our direction. There was a perceived upgrade in status that came with being another year older; we were allowed more and more autonomy of our lives. But in time, most of us discover that our youthful perceptions are warped by inexperience, and every upgrade comes with more and more responsibility. By the time most of us have reached our early twenties, that precipice between the so-called freedom of youth and previously-coveted responsibility of adulthood, we’re just starting to sense the shift in our perception of time.

It happens incrementally, barely noticeable at first. The event we thought occurred a year ago was actually two years ago. A movie sequel is released and we suddenly realize it’s been more years than we thought since the previous installment came out. Someone’s name gets mentioned and it takes a second to recall who they are, then you wonder how you could have ever forgotten that person. Or someone’s name is mentioned and you immediately know who they are, but you suddenly realize how long it’s been since you’ve been in touch. Then the occurrences pick up the pace, but we don’t notice. Babies are born, then they’re talking, then they’re tweens, and we remember buying them outdated gifts for birthdays long passed. In our twenties, we are fully-formed adults in the eyes of twelve-year olds, even though we know we’re nowhere close to that. For them, as it had been for us, minutes are months, but for us now months streak by like minutes, and the clock ticks on. The time swirls into a temporal mural with memories as the paint, and one’s lifetime as the wall it’s applied to.

Monday, January 16, 2017

44 Is A Magic Number: Part One

Prologue: A Personal History of Before and After

There are two kinds of occurrences that can be said to change the world: There are the types which unfold over time, which we often see coming, and there are the unexpected types which happen in an instant. It’s hard to say which ones ultimately leave the more lasting societal impact. That would be a subjective conclusion anyway. What these types of occurrences have in common is that they divide our history into before and after. Ask anyone who is old enough if they remember life before and after certain things happened, and you’ll most likely get a story that defines the person as well as the day and age in which it took place.

I remember watching the earliest news reports about the Iranian hostage crisis in November of 1979. I was much too young to grasp the politics that swirled around that story, but I knew it was serious, and it was protracted. I also remember the sense of elation when it was announced, immediately after Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, that they had been released. A little over two months later, upon returning home from a trip to downtown with my mother and sisters, I flicked on the television and, before it even warmed up enough for the picture to appear, you could hear the newscasters had interrupted programming to tell us the president had been shot. These two back-to-back events, one long-in-coming and the other happening out of nowhere, had the lasting effect of increasing Reagan’s larger-than-life persona to an extent that carried over long past his presidency into the present day.

I also remember, in 1984, when Jesse Jackson launched his first campaign for the presidency. I was still too young to understand the intricacies of his platform and politics (although at least some of that probably speaks to the trickle-down understanding of politics most Americans still experience), but I definitely felt the newness of that candidacy, and how it had the possibility of unlocking something we’d never seen before. Of course, that quality of the unknown didn’t inspire everyone, and many of us possessed an intimate understanding of where that resistance came from.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016


A man is supposed to take care of his family. You live in my house, fill your belly with my food, put your behind on my bed, because you’re my son. It’s my duty to take care of you; I owe a responsibility to you.” – Troy Maxson, Fences

*The following blog post is written as though we're all familiar with the source material, and contains gentle spoilers. That's all the warning you get.*

During a scene in the final act of the movie FENCES, based on the decorated August Wilson play of the same name, the presence of lead character Troy Maxson is described by his younger son as being outsized, subsuming his own life and sense of self. This particular testimony is unique in that it comes from the only person in the story who has lived their entire life with the main character looming over them. The elder Maxson is angrily eulogized as a fearsome being whose shadow crept over and into everything in their home, including their souls. By this point in the narrative, the audience knows this to be true, but our vantage point also allows us a more nuanced perspective. At times, Troy is shown to be every bit as menacing as his son Cory sees him; at others he makes us laugh as he weathers each new indignity with a tall tale, a shrug, and a bottle of gin. By the end though, we can’t help but pity him for the self-destructive complexities he seems incapable of reconciling.

Not unlike Troy, Wilson similarly casts a very long shadow over his hometown. Thanks to his Pulitzer and Tony winning stageplays, many of the nooks and crannies of historical life here in Pittsburgh have been preserved in the arts for the ages. The esteem of being a musician who played onstage at The Crawford Grill and the significance of having once belonged to a Negro league baseball team that took to fields in Homestead are no mere footnotes in Wilson’s works; here, they are mythic undertakings, the stuff that defines the character of fictional constructs and the real-life individuals they are based on. The author took his responsibility to this duty seriously, at times so much you might wonder if he liked his own characters, so achingly earnest are the labors he visits upon them.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Spinning Our Wheels

I was asked just this morning if Christmas 2016 feels off somehow. A friend mentioned how they were struggling to get through the holiday and not finding joy in the normal seasonal routines. This person isn't the only one I've heard express similar sentiments, and my response was that, yes, it does feel off for a myriad of reasons. The perpetually slate-gray skies of Pittsburgh and the lack of snowfall or any other natural yuletide distinctions haven't helped, and the ever-advancing crawl of Father Time changes our perspective. Christmas rotates back into play so fast these days it barely seems as if we've had a chance to recover from the last one before we have to stop and consider what to buy for who again.

But still, there's something more at work this year. You know a big part of it, and I know a big part of it: The looming specter of The Ghost of President Future waiting to make his anarchic appearance on January 20th. It's cast a huge pall over celebrations for many this year, and there's no denying it. Some of us managed to get through Thanksgiving with family and loved ones, biting our tongues as much as the food on our plates, without drawing blood. But the whole thing is so effing depressing, it's still been sapping the lifeblood out of our spirits. There's an emotional lethargy that's palpable. How can we sing carols about tidings of joy when we're all suspect of what's to come? The notions of peace on Earth and good will toward all ring hollow in this hallowed season when we know how many of our neighbors don't truly have good will toward all.

Last night, I may have discovered a way to get through the next four years. It involves relearning some dormant skills, staying flexible, and learning when to go with the flow and when to pick up speed and roll your own way.

Last night, for the first time in over thirty years, I went roller skating.

Friday, November 11, 2016


CAN YOU THINK of someone you know who has radiated vibrance to the point where you either couldn’t look away from them or look directly at them? Maybe it was because of their looks, or their personality, or their intelligence, or their talents, or their empathy, or some magical combination of these elements. They had a “star quality” that affected how you interacted with them. Playwright Anna Deavere Smith has referred to this as having presence, and stated the qualifier for having presence is being completely and utterly authentic. How many people have you encountered in your life who you’d describe as completely authentic? Probably not enough but, if you’ve been lucky, there’s been someone who fit that descriptor.

Let me tell you about my friend Wanda, rock star extraordinaire. She had serious presence.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

To Tell The TROOF, Part 1: On a Mission

PEOPLE OFTEN WANT to know when I realized I wanted to draw as my vocation. That came very early on, when I was about five years old. My father had introduced me to comic books, and he was a talented artist himself. He did all kinds of things, but none of them fully professionally. He could draw, he could sculpt, he was good at woodworking, and he was adept at photography. (The latter is the reason why our family albums are so full.) He also introduced me to my first comic books. That may have been just to keep me occupied, or he may have wanted to share something he loved with his son; regardless, comics fascinated me from the outset and that never went away.

Knowing that my father could draw so well, I would pick out my favorite pictures from within the various comics he’d buy – the comics ranged across genres too, and included everything from superheroes to cowboys to Archie comics to monsters to Richie Rich – and ask him to redraw them for me. He would, and to my eyes they looked just like the ones in the books. I’d toddle off for a while, satisfied with his latest handiwork, then I’d find another one and come back and ask him to do it again. This went on for a good while, and one day he turned things around on me and told me to try drawing the chosen picture myself. This had never occurred to me as an option, and to this day I don’t know if my father had grown weary of the incessant requests or not. Regardless, I was so happy with my end result that, while I would occasionally seek his approval of my own handiwork, I never asked him to do another drawing for me.

I also knew, with the absolute certainty of a five-year old, this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to make comic-books. I didn’t know anything beyond that about the actual work involved, where you went, how you trained, what you earned, etc., but I knew I’d be making comic books one day. In a sense, even though I didn’t know it at the time, I had already started making comic books.

This would be a very long journey, and the destination was uncharted, but my compass was pointing true north.