Big Daddy Kane

As we age, we no longer follow the concert calendar as closely. We sometimes rely on the next generation for information. That’s why I appreciated this text from the daughter of my friend, mentor, and traveling companion, Willie Hooks.

Michelle learned of my fanhood a few years ago over dinner in L.A. one night when Willie and I had Lakers tickets. She was dubious until I threw down the first part of “Who Am I?” from Kane’s 1990 album, “Taste of Chocolate.”

I’d rehearsed that verse for a spoken-word event at my son’s elementary school about 15 years ago. That first minute of the track captures 400 years of Black history like nothing else I’ve ever read or heard. It became my go-to out of all the verbally magical, socially conscious raps Kane rocked on his first five albums.

On another of our Lakers trips, Willie enjoyed “Wake Me When I’m Free,” the immersive Tupac exhibit I’d dragged him to, so he was willing to take a chance on Big Daddy Kane. As an elder, Willie opted for the early show this past Saturday night with his date, Angela, and me and my wife, Val.

From our dinner table, Yoshi’s staff ushered us into the music venue, seating only about 400 souls, many wearing derbies, form fitting dresses, or Wakanda t-shirts. Soon after we settled in at table 46, about 30 feet from the stage, the lights fell.

When they rose again, Big Daddy Kane stood front and center of a band rolling 12 deep on the crowded stage. We had wondered how Kane could replicate the mix of samples and live instrumentation to make the sounds we knew, thinking he might just rap over old recordings.

But no, he introduced Tim on keys, Vanessa Ferguson on vocals, never mentioned the percussionist, welcomed Achilles on guitar, a bassist hiding somewhere on the back line, Big Sexy on drums, a turntablist, and four horns out front. In no time, Big Daddy Kane — age 54, wearing pants of leather or pleather and what Val called a dad-bod t-shirt — “set it off.”

From the jump, Kane delivered high-energy entertainment, releasing irresistible toe-tapping, leg-pumping, rap-along adrenaline. He sounded exactly as he did 35 years ago: fast, furious, lyrical, literary, in rhythm, in rhyme, right on time. The cleverest-ever writer I know.

The set did not include “Who Am I?” understandable, because the third verse — by Gamilah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X — could not be replicated on stage. Kane also left out “Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy” despite the pleas from the boisterous crew at the table behind ours.

Kane couldn’t have played all the cuts the crowd wanted or he’d still be up there now. But he did give into one old head during frequent banter and crowd interactions. That brother in the audience just started rapping the lyrics to “The Day Your Mine” during some relative quiet, and Kane engaged, asking why that particular, romantic tune, and then, before the old head could offer TMI, Kane said, “Never mind, I know why” and completed the first verse, ending with “Sweetheart, you’re my aphrodisiac.”

Other off-stage antics included visits to tables during “Smooth Operator” to chat with fans and let them try their hands at a scatting hook over the bass line. One visit with a wheelchair-bound fan had Kane adjusting the man’s beanie and encouraging him to “gangster that shit up.” At another stop, Kane eased onto a lady’s lap for some sweet talk, which he cleared with her massive male companion by making sure, “We good, right? Yo big ass, ain’t gonna start nothin’?”

Back on-stage, band member introductions and solos went well beyond standard. Ferguson led for a couple numbers while Kane recharged his batteries backstage (presumably “chillin’ like a villain” as he claims in his song “Raw”). Big Sexy’s drum solo stood out. But the best was Kane as conductor of the horn section, holding up fingers to set the number of horn hits he wanted, and that section delivering as impeccably as the J.B.’s ever did.

More high points:

“Raw” was so frantic, I lost control of my phone, symptomatic of our generation.

Kane’s speed-up and slow-down act left us room to breathe. As always, he provoked thought, too. Invoking a song title, Kane exhorted us — whether doctor, lawyer, or burger flipper — to adopt his ethic and make sure that in whatever our craft, there “Ain’t No Half- Steppin’.”

Then, as you can see below, he set the example.

After this show, possibly my favorite stage performance ever, we all left feeling younger than when we arrived.

About Last Night

Ambrose was awesome. The show was on my radar for a while, but the decision to go was pretty spontaneous. I told my wife I was tempted by the show, and she said go.

It was fun driving like a Chicagoan through the streets of San Francisco. Surprisingly easy street parking right next to Grace Cathedral on California and Jones.

What a massive structure! The line snaked around the staircase and landing and moved inside quicklyer than I expected. I sat in a folding chair fairly near the front of the general admission section.

Ambrose started at 7:35 after a brief introduction. He started slowly as though testing acoustics. Somewhere I read of a seven-second echo, so he would have to play much differently than in a studio or even most normal live club gigs.

The notes were not halting but haunting, faintly filling the cavernous space. Green, red, blue, purplish light backlit him and threw huge shadows of Ambrose on the nave walls halfway between him and me. Like a giant Ambrose ducking, twisting and writhing in time with the tiny Ambrose up on stage.

He stretched notes like taffy. He tried his wide range, not just from high to low but to all sides including inside, as you could hear his breath, plus big elephant blasts and quiet cat meows. The third number, he hit his stride. Now he played the shorter notes tumbling after each other like creek rapids.

He grew comfortable with how his virtuosity could sound in the strange venue. The crowd stayed quiet and respectful until he lowered the trumpet from his lips and the applause rose.

I kept my eyes closed almost the whole time. He was too far away for me to discern his facial expression or breath or fingering technique anyway but eyes closed mostly to heighten the meditative effect of solo trumpet in such a space, the freedom for the mind to wander while nothing in particular commanded its attention other than the realization that the mind was free to wander.

I stretched and rolled my neck. Mind, body and soul so open I heard for the next eighty minutes every busker on every street under the L tracks, every crying baby, a safari, pleas. At the end of the last number before the encore I heard myself gasp.

On the Road: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Nightmare

Way back in the day when Willie and I still kicked it in the steam room after pick-up basketball games and before the pandemic ruined all that, we planned to someday visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

Then George Floyd. Then, in the ensuing media coverage, the eloquence of the Memorial’s founder, Bryan Stevenson, upped our urgency to visit the Memorial, dedicated to lynching victims. That was one reaction of Willie’s and mine to all that unfolded in 2020. Another was my writing of At the Cookout: A White Man’s Journey in Black America, which shared part of Willie’s story.

Among others’ strong reactions to George Floyd: Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion “Prime Time” Sanders, who told 60 Minutes that Floyd’s murder moved him to leave retirement and coach football at Jackson State University — an HBCU (Historically Black College/University) — so he could “change lives.”

Sanders aka “Coach Prime” coached so well in 2020 and 2021 that by the summer of 2022, it was obvious he would leave JSU for a more prominent, higher-paying position. It was now or never that Willie and I could fly to Jackson for football and then drive to Montgomery, Ala. to visit the Memorial. We chose now.

Willie is a bucket-list guy. As my mentor, he often asks what’s new on my bucket list and what’s been crossed off. It was time for both of us to cross off these items. “Just remember,” I asked, “to bring your copy of The Green Book.”

Willie did not know — as we waited at the luggage carousel in Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport, futilely phoning every restaurant that Yelp said was still open — that dinner at Waffle House was on his bucket list. Before retiring, Willie’s sales career took him to about 50 countries. He once gave me a book-sized printout describing his favorite places in Paris that I shouldn’t miss. But he’d never been to Waffle House. Fortunately for Willie, or maybe not, it was our best bet for a late-night meal.

We took the booth behind the one with the guy sleeping in it. The menu language threw Willie. He could order in French with perfect pronunciation, but not in Waffle House-ese. The waitress waited for the “scattered, smothered, covered” part of his order, and Willie thought he’d finished ordering, so during their silent stand-off, they locked eyes and looked like each thought the other must be from Mars.

Soon after our food arrived, booth dude behind us stirred and sat up to look around for his shoes. His phone played some obnoxious music or video game soundtrack. He asked the waitress for a knife so he could hurt himself. She called the police.

Between the food and the atmosphere, Willie wanted out. We passed po-po in their bulletproof vests in the vestibule and waited for our Lyft in the parking lot. The waitresses took turns joining us for their cigarette breaks.

Somewhere between San Francisco and Jackson, Willie had decided out loud that on this trip, I should try to pass for high yellow. Now to lighten the mood, as the police rousted booth dude, Willie asked the waitress, “Do you think my friend could pass for high yellow?”

“Hell, no!” she laughed so hard she dragon-snorted smoke out her nose.

“What if,” I said, removing my beanie, “what if I tried some Jheri curl?”

“Oh, no. Hell, no!”

The police dragged Shoeless Joe out of his booth, but not out of his stupor, and on the way to the wagon, made extra sure to dip his stocking feet into a puddle. One of the cops told the EMT he’d picked up the same guy at a different Waffle House that morning.

It wasn’t easy getting Willie to smile for this photo.

Our first full day in Jackson was the Friday before the Saturday football game between Jackson State and Southern University, known as the BoomBox Classic. Over coffee brewed with Jackson’s notoriously iffy tap water, we planned our day, moving slowly due to fatigue and hours of deep conversation on the flight and post-Waffle House as Willie guided me to realize that the inter-personal challenges I told him about were actually internal.

From home base at the Airbnb, we Lyfted to the famous Brent’s Drugs for breakfast.

“Y’all hungry?” the waitress asked. “We might could eat,” I answered in one of my favorite Southernisms picked up from interviewing NASCAR promoters.

The coffee and the hot honey chicken biscuit set us right. Willie flirted with the waitress, she being female and all. She shot a few photos of us at the old school soda fountain, where we couldn’t have sat together until the Civil Rights Act was signed into law on the day I was born.

Out front, while we waited for the next Lyft, the waitress came out to ask if we wanted back inside since the crew from ESPN’s College GameDay were coming to shoot video to air during the next day’s coverage. Ordinarily, I would jump at the opportunity, especially if I might appear on national TV in front of friends and family who questioned whether I actually was going to Jackson, when the city only sporadically had running water.

But this was no ordinary trip. We had an agenda beyond TV. We were off to visit the home of Medgar Evers. Along the way we caught our first daylight glimpses of Jackson’s disrepair, disinvestment, and even sense of abandonment.

It was hard to believe how humble the Evers home was. The assassination of Medgar Evers is a small dot, if even a dot, on the timeline of the U.S. history taught in most classrooms. But he is a monumental figure. You’d think they’d make a bigger deal of this monument.

Like many people who use humor to ease pain, including me, Willie gave it his best.

But at other times, he wondered aloud, “Why?” and “For what?” and “What a crazy world.” We stood in the driveway where Medgar Evers’ blood flowed and felt like we were sinking.

Jessica, the Lyft driver who drove us there from Brent’s, reappeared about 10 minutes after dropping us off. Maybe she knew from experience there wasn’t much to see there, though plenty to feel, and that we’d soon want a Lyft to our next destination. Styling in her Lichtenstein-inspired jacket, she drove us through rutted-road, project-packed, falling-down-shack Jackson.

Jessica let us out at Jackson State University. I wanted to buy a J baseball cap like Coach Prime wore on the sidelines. I wanted to see the Walter Payton Health and Recreation Center, named for one of my all-time sports heroes, who first put the school on my radar, and I wanted to feel the vibe of Michele McAfee, my high school friend who attended JSU in the ’80s.

Outside the campus store, alumni swarmed. This rivalry game with Southern was a big deal made bigger by the presence of Coach Prime, the 60 Minutes interview, the speculation that he would soon leave, and the buzz that brought College GameDay to town.

The bustling campus store was out of J hats. Willie saw a guy wearing the style of hat I wanted and asked what I was willing to pay for it. I told him $30. Willie said he would make the offer to buy the guy’s hat right off his head.

“You really want to do that?” I asked.

“It’s not about what I want. It’s about what you want. Just go stand behind that rack over there, and stay out of sight and don’t look over there, because he’s not gonna part with that hat for a guy who can’t even pass for high yellow.”

Willie came back empty-handed except for the information that the store always runs out of these hats, but they are always available at the stadium on gameday. Next, we needed directions to the Payton Center. This being the South, we found a guy named George who insisted on walking us to the building instead of just pointing the way.

The building pays ample tribute to “Sweetness.” Or, as Willie insisted, “Sweetshoes.” I had my moment of reverence, and Willie had his moment of irreverence.

Batting .500 for the JSU experience, next on the list was following Michele’s recommendation for a burger at Stamps. It was about a half mile from campus. As soon as we walked through the iron gate around the school, we were in the hood.

Stray dogs and weed smell from slowly creeping cars followed us to Stamps. It appeared like an oasis.

One step in the door, decades of grease scent assaults your nose and “Welcome to Stamps!” greets your ears. Any employee who is not facing the grill and therefore can see you walk in the door says “Welcome to Stamps!”

Other than the 10 or so stools at the counter overlooking the grill, it’s SRO: a cacophonous crowd of football fans — both JSU alums nostalgic for the food and Southern U. supporters who heard this might be the best meal in town. The only surface more crowded than the floor is the grill, practically invisible beneath all the half-pound patties. Your order will take about a half hour, but no worries while you wait. The service is friendly.

I swear, I asked if I could take her photo, and she said yes.

The football smacktalk gets louder and rowdier. Everyone wears colors.

“Y’all in town for the game?” a lady on the next stool asks, as though it’s somehow obvious I’m not from around here. “Yes, here to see Coach Prime,” I reply, and catching the spirit, I channel him, as seen in video and add “Now, give me my theme music.” And she and I in unison bob like Coach Prime and sing, “Ba-da-DUM, Ba-da-DUM,” to Mystikal’s “Here I Go.”

The burger is solid. The lemon pepper fries are spectacular. Willie has had enough. He walks out while I’m finishing up.

When I come outside he’s standing under the Stamps sign talking to two crackers, whose key points are, “We’re not racist down here. Let ’em think we are. That way they’ll stay out, and we can have all this beauty around here to ourselves. Tell ya one thing you’ll never see down here is the An-TEE-fuh.”

Unfortunately for Willie, I see a guy walk into Stamps wearing a Dusty Baker jersey from his years managing the Cubs. He’s more interesting than Clete and Zeke, so I follow him in to compliment the jersey, worn in honor of Dusty that week leading the Astros in the World Series.

“My dad knew him in Chicago,” the guy says.

“I met him through work,” I reply. “I was his greeter at an event in the Bay Area where we gave him an award. He’d been to the Apple Computer headquarters that day, and he was talking about it like some kind of architectural marvel, and I said, ‘Dusty, you spent years of your life in an even more amazing building, the most beautiful in the world.’ And Dusty said, ‘Where’s that?’ and I said, ‘Wrigley Field.’ And Dusty said, ‘Man…’ “

And just as I start my punch line, jersey guy fills it in with me, and we finish in unison, “That place is a dump!”

By the time we finish laughing, and I go back outside, Willie is standing alone shaking his head. Just then, our Lyft pulls up to take us to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

The museum surpassed expectations. Most moving was a multi-media meditation room.

The columns listing the names of lynching victims once again had Willie saying things like, “It’s too much.”

We closed the museum and admired this mural across the street.

We waited abnormally long for a Lyft, as we often did in Jackson. We were catching on that although the tap water was running again, the overall infrastructure and service economy found in most other states’ capitals and largest cities was lacking in Jackson.

We decided to walk to our next destination, the famous Johnny T’s Bistro and Blues. We paused outside the capitol building.

The streets were mostly empty. Not much traffic of any kind. Surprising for the end of a work week in a state capital. Two blocks later we walked along weeded-over lots on streets with no sidewalks.

The little pretense of a government center faded. Now our surroundings borrowed from “The Last Picture Show” and every post-apocalyptic film combined.

Even the Big Apple Inn — famous as a place where Medgar Evers took many meetings and still thriving today — looked foreboding in the early evening gloom.

Just down the street is Johnny T’s.

Still stuffed from Stamps, I ourdered just a Redd Foxx specialty vodka cocktail. Willie had shrimp pasta, his only decent meal in Jackson. Johnny T’s offered a smooth vibe and interesting crowd. A corner table held a small sign reading “Reserved for Coach Prime.”

The later it got, the more it seemed like the setting of Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” An occasional drop-in from over-militarized law enforcement personnel didn’t help. We left about eight o’clock, still two hours before the live music was supposed to start, and by that time heaviness descended outside the club.

We wanted one more stop on the way home for a nightcap at the Fairview Inn’s Library Lounge. “Oh, look,” Willie said when the Lyft pulled up at the hotel’s grand. white-colonaded entrance, “it’s Massa’s house.”

The Library Lounge’s literary theme — walls of bookcases and specialty drinks named for authors — and intimate setting with jazz classics played at perfect volume instantly made it one of my favorite bars.

“Man, this place is comfortable,” I said.

“Yeah,” Willie answered, “because you’re inside Massa’s house. Of course you’re comfortable….But you were also probably more comfortable than I was at Johnny T’s and especially at Stamps.”

The next day, gameday, came up rainy, as predicted. We opted out of attending the ESPN College GameDay scene that started at 8 a.m. We just watched on TV until it was time to Lyft to the airport to pick up a car rental so we would have it ready for the next day’s early-morning drive to Montgomery.

Willie chatted up the Lyft driver, who asked what we thought of Jackson. Willie’s answer went straight to Waffle House. “You know,” the driver said, “Waffle House still tastes better than Denny’s. Some people say Denny’s is like Waffle House for people who can’t fight.”

At the airport, it was not clear where the driver should drop us off. We saw no staff for any of the car rental agencies and wandered the garage until we finally found a guy. Tyrone moved slowly. It took him a while to do the math about whether we should return the car full or empty, and when the reckoning was through, the margin of error was about $4.

Tyrone disappeared to find our rental car and drive it back to us. That 15 minutes or so — lengthened by wondering if and when he would ever return and whether we might actually see a football game that afternoon — was filled with discussion of Willie’s observation about a “plantation mentality” in Jackson.

I asked if he would have used the same characterization about poor service in a northern city. It took some meandering for me to realize that by “plantation” Willie meant the crumbs of resource from a white power structure falling to Black people. In other words, it was OK for the service to suck since the service was “only meant for Black people.”

I realized I should have just asked what he meant by “plantation” instead of challenging his use of the word. I should just ask the simple question that I want answered, like any decent journalist, and then listen carefully to the answer.

I told Willie I was branded selfish at a young age, and these days felt compelled to show how how sympathetic or empathetic I could be, probably trying too hard to shortcut to the meaning of “plantation” as a way of demonstrating an understanding that I obviously did not have.

Willie said I had nothing to prove to him in that way, that I was compassionate, empathetic, and proven to know my way around Blackness. Out-loud credit for any form of compassion or empathy was so rare that a tear or two leaked. The talk helped me realize I should apply the same diligence to considering what I say in my closest personal relationships as I do to the race relations conversations that have consumed me in recent years.

Willie went on to say he brings me into parts of his world that he won’t trust entrust to others. He continually teaches me to approach conversation and other interactions with people in ways I might never have considered, to honor people by hearing them, giving them an ally, rather than speaking in ways that persistently try to prove I’m an ally.

There was so much of this type of conversation and realization from the airplane to the Waffle House to the Airbnb to all the places we’d been the previous day. It continued during intense museum moments and over every meal and throughout long hours of hundreds of miles in the car on this trip, including just these few mikes back to the Airbnb.

We’d heard parking would be impossible at the game, so we parked the rental in our driveway under gathering rain clouds. An enormous brother named Tim Lyfted us to the game. He barely fit into his dopely detailed Dodge Charger, let alone leaving much room for us.

I must’ve punched into the Lyft software that we were going to the Coliseum, and as Tiny Tim slowed in traffic, he asked why we weren’t going to the game. “We are,” I said.

“Oh, that’s the Stadium, not the Coliseum,” he said, swerving across a few lanes of traffic. He sped up a road where people had either parked or abandoned their cars on either side of a ditch that served as a boulevard.

“I’ll get you as close as I can,” he promised and then shooed us out of his car about a half mile from the Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium. We followed the foot traffic and turned a corner into a parking lot that gave a great view of the Stadium rising up from the wreckage of the rest of Jackson.

We hustled a bit. I was intent on seeing the teams rush onto the field in a mass behind heir flags and cheerleaders and marching bands. Those few seconds epitomize college football, and even more so in the HBCU scene.

From the timing of the rental car pick-up to the bad Lyft directions to the serendipitous drop-off to our pace and choice of gates to enter, the universe miraculously delivered us through the concourse — even with a stop to buy my coveted J hat — and to the upper aisle overlooking the field at the exact minute that Coach Prime and his team charged onto the field.

We wove through a Southern U. crowd in their gold and powder blue to seats where we could see the band and the field and be surrounded by friendlies. As soon as we sat, the tall, athletic brother next to me fixed on my Walter Payton throwback. “Man, what you know about Walter Payton?”

“I know I was living in Chicago when he was all the the Bears had and he ran for an NFL record 275 yards in a game against the Minnesota Vikings in 1977, and then he was shut out in Super Bowl XX when they gave the ball to Fridge instead of Sweetness to score a touchdown.”

The football talk was on, and we traded stories of other JSU alums — Jackie Slater and Robert Brazile — who helped establish the program in the ’70s. My neighbor there in the JSU bleachers was a basketball player from that era and knew Payton and the others and explained how revered they were, Sweetness above all.

It started to drizzle. Willie handed me a small plastic pouch with a rain poncho for me. I was prepared to rely on my raincoat, but Willie knew better and made sure I was taken care of. It gave me pause for more meditation on thinking of others, as was needed in my personal life. It was the exact metaphor.

As drizzle became downpour, Coach Prime’s son, quarterback Shedeur Sanders led a touchdown drive, unleashing a frenzy in the stands and among the band.

We ducked back down into the concourse to stay somewhat dry at least until halftime, when it was worth it to brave the weather so we could see Jackson State’s famous marching band, the Sonic Boom of the South.

With the score 22-0 at halftime and both schools’ competitive marching bands witnessed, Willie and I bailed. We walked about a mile to make sure we were far enough from the crowd pouring out of the stadium to stand a chance of catching a Lyft to the Pig and Pint for a barbecue lunch.

I was perplexed by the menu at Pig and Pint. It seemed to offer three meats on a two-meat menu item because one of the meats was assumed to be a half-slab of ribs, but another of the meats could not also be a half-slab of ribs without an extra charge.

From then until now, few conversations with Willie end without a level of ridicule for how much I struggled with placing that order (not unlike his Waffle House experience, but we don’t mention that). The barbecue was all it was supposed to be, and as we devoured it, more JSU fans and more Southern U. fans poured into the roof-covered patio.

Then more rain poured, and the game ended, and we couldn’t catch a Lyft and stood there waiting for an hour or so until the rain let up so we could walk the two miles home. Willie cursed all the way home for the torture the walk inflicted on his 75-year-old knees, all owing to my Jewish heritage, he teased, which had me wanting to save money by walking. So I replied that if the Lyft network hadn’t tagged me as traveling with a Black man, Lyft would’ve sent a driver. Seriously, none of that was serious.

The rest of the night we watched TV, which gave Willie more ammunition to cap on me for not knowing how to work the remote and not knowing enough about Airbnb protocol to figure out the user guide to the property or whatever it may be called that explains how to use the remote. When he got tired of the jokes about my TV incompetence, he switched back to jokes about my meat order, and when that got tired, he got tired, and we would need an early start to Montgomery the next morning.

My work with the Redwood City Racial Equity Mural Steering Committee connected me with the artist Rachel Wolfe-Goldsmith, whom we commissioned and who told me of a panel she’d painted in Montgomery some weeks earlier. The panel complemented a sculpture by Michelle Browder called The Mothers of Gynecology, which rescued from history’s erasure the herstories of Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsy, three enslaved women abused as subjects — without consent or anesthetic — in the experiments of the so-called “father of gynecology,” J. Marion Sims.

Rachel and her crew connected me with Michelle Browder so that I could try to meet her at the warehouse where Rachel’s work was stored in waiting for a February 2023 public unveiling. I texted Michelle soon after we hit the road to try to work out timing with her.

Willie’s focus was his next cup of coffee, couched in complaints that the “plantation mentality” of Jackson meant there were no McDonald’s nearby but as soon as we were outside city limits there was a McDonald’s every 10 feet. “Come on, man, we can do better than McDonald’s,” I told him. “We’ll probably come up on a Starbucks pretty soon.”

“There won’t be any Starbucks out here,” he insisted.

“I’ve learned my lesson,” I said. “Remember when I drove up to Oregon for the eclipse? I pulled out of a campsite needing coffee and gas and stopped the first place I saw, figuring there’s no place out in Bumblefuck, Oregon that’s gonna serve a decent cup of coffee. I bought a huge cup of the worst swill I’ve ever tasted, and then on my back to the freeway out the other end of town, there was a Starbucks. I screwed myself with my own prejudice of thinking no way could a town like that have a Starbucks.”

About the time I finished my story, we saw a sign for Starbucks next exit. I offered to take care of the order. I came out with an armload of cups. “I’m sorry your coffee is not fully prepared,” I said, “but they don’t leave their cream out. They gave me a separate cup of cream from behind the counter.”

“Man, they’ve been doing that at Starbucks since the pandemic started. When was the last time you were in a Starbucks?”

“I try to avoid it.”


“Because of that brother they had arrested in Philly for sitting in a Starbucks while Black.”

“Man, that was one incident. Years ago. One bad employee out of all the thousands of people they employ.”

“I know that,” I answered. “Even at the time I thought that Starbucks had probably done more good for racial harmony than most companies, because they usually do provide a place for people to hang out and have the kind of chance meetings that let people talk about what this world needs us to talk about. But then Starbucks made a big deal of closing their stores for two hours on a weekday afternoon when it would cost them the least possible money, so they could force their employees to have some racial sensitivity training, and they advertised that store closure with millions of dollars of advertising. All very cynical to me.”

I finished the cold brisket left over from Pig and Pint as Willie drove through the pretty pines and slowly changing fall leaf trees. We talked of my personal issues. He led me through some thought exercises to help me reach a peace. He asked for some marketing advice about using Instagram to attract consulting clients. We spoke of families, exes, reactions to At the Cookout, the Lakers’ rebuilding strategy, whose turn it was to drive, when to pull over for a pee.

“Goddamn, the water’s cold.”

“Yeah, and it’s deep, too.”

It was my turn to drive. The hours of conversation welled up in me. I felt compelled to tell Willie he was on my Mount Rushmore of wisdom. Road reactions, the depth of the issues we were confronting within ourselves, each other, and the sick, crazy world around us poured out of me. When those moments passed, Willie played a recording of a sermon from his church on the topic of “Radical Empathy,” which is the title of a book by my friend, Terri Givens.

It wasn’t until later in the sermon that the preacher mentioned Terri and her book, and I didn’t know if Willie played that recording on purpose, because he knew I knew Terri, or if it was just another example of weird road serendipity like a brother in a burger shack in a Dusty Baker jersey harmonizing on my punch line.

We rolled through the outskirts of Selma and soon into Montgomery and found the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

Once through the metal detectors, we saw a beautiful spread of landscaping, sculpture and architecture. We were already solemn, just for having arrived here after years of talking about it. But Bryan Stevenson and those who helped bring his vision to life took no chances in communicating solemnity to visitors.

A paved path guided us on diagonal cutbacks. Signs and sculptures created context along our way to the covered pavilion that contained the Memorial’s signature experience.

Those first few minutes on the grounds of the Memorial let us know we were in for an unforgettable experience beneath the roof of that pavilion. That might have prepared some people for what awaited. But not me.

Under the roof are more than 800 Corten steel coffin-shaped monuments, each representing counties and states where lynchings occurred, and each listing in laser-engraved lettering the names of the lynched in that location. At entry, those cuboids stand on the ground at about my height.

Progressing through the rows of monuments, the pavement dips and the coffin shapes are raised so that the bottom of the monument is at eye level, replicating the sensation of looking at an old black-and-white photo of a lynching scene where the victim’s feet dangle at eye level of the spectators.

Continuing the walk, the monuments are overhead, which creates a sense of how heavily those structures hang. Standing beneath them, looking up, you know that weight could crush you. And that knowledge elicits the feeling of oppression that the victims must have felt, and not only the victims, but their loved ones, and all the other Black people, who were meant to understand that they could be next, and that even if they were not, they were still subject to the oppression embodied in the lynching.

As the sadness affected me, I stopped to talk to a staff member, a young Black woman wearing a jacket against the cold and rain emblazoned with the logo of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson’s first project, which provided legal defense for death row inmates. I wondered how she withstood frequent exposure to such grim surroundings, especially as a descendant of the oppressed group.

I tried to heed Willie’s guidance in conversational style and asking precise, answerable questions, which makes for better human relations and bridge-building, as well as better journalism. I started by asking how often she worked here.

“Three or four days a week,” she answered.

And, echoing another Willie theme of talking to and from heart rather than head, “How does this work make you feel?”

“It’s sad but necessary work.”

“But how does that make you feel?”

“Proud to work here.”

Willie had wandered ahead. He was muttering to himself again. He had a moment with another staff member, who seemed more experienced and engaging. She stood calm and peaceful and answered some technical question from Willie about the space or the information it was providing, but I sensed Willie needed to ground himself in conversation, take a break from consuming the messages of the Memorial’s content.

When a pause naturally allowed, seeing how she soothed him, I asked her about what kind of training she had received in addressing Memorial visitors whose trauma flared. She told me that there was none in particular, but that staff were told of the possibility and asked certain questions in screening for employment that would discern how equipped they were to handle those situations.

Toward the end of the walk under the pavilion, placards explained some of the reasons for the lynchings, along the lines of “refused to move off the sidewalk” or “wrote a note to a white woman.” Then there was a water wall, similar to the one at Maya Lin’s Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, and the eerie confluence of that water wall with the rain pouring out the downspouts of the pavilion roof and the water running from our eyes.

We wandered out into the rain, and I checked my texts and saw that Michelle was stuck in Selma giving a private tour, and we might not catch up with her to see Rachel’s work in the warehouse. Driving to The Legacy Museum, we passed some wrought iron gating, and I thought I glimpsed the Mothers of Gynecology, but we were on a mission and hurtled past that site toward downtown Montgomery.

No photography is allowed at The Legacy Museum, which is dedicated to revealing a through-line from slavery to today’s mass incarceration. Several paths through the exhibits lead to the same destination. But there is an unmistakable starting point depicting the Middle Passage through a hundred or so sculptures of the faces of slavery by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo, a Ghanian artist and activist, who also created the shackled sculptures at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

Kwame’s work at the The Legacy Museum comprises mostly disembodied heads with horrified and horrifying faces realistically twisted in agony, some eyes open, some closed, some missing. Mouths screaming in physical pain. Some heads attached to necks and torsos, scarred, chained, collared, staked. All in close proximity as they would have been on a slave ship. All at ground level where you can stoop to view those faces closely, up in your face.

The Legacy Museum is built on land that formerly occupied by one of the many slave warehouses in downtown Montgomery. Soon after passing Kwame’s exhibit, you encounter a row of replica holding pens. As you step nearer, a ghostly holographic image emerges, and the actor in the image speaks a slave’s narrative.

Small theaters interspersed throughout the museum show short films about Kwame’s work, about the display of 800 jars of dirt dug from lynching sites that sit labeled with victims’ names on shelves in the museum, about a family’s discovery of an ancestor who was lynched. In the dark of the theater, you hear nearby sniffles and sobs.

Other portions of the museum contain photos of slaves, blown-up images of newspaper ads for the slave trade, and walls with written accounts of slavery and lynchings. Among those accounts, as written here:

“In Newnan, Georgia, in 1899, at least 2000 whites watched as a white mob mutilated and burned alive a Black man named Sam Hose, and then sold pieces of his organs and bones. In 1916, a white mob in Waco, Texas, tortured and lynched a mentally disabled 17-year-old Black boy named Jesse Washington in front of city hall, stripping, stabbing, beating, and mutilating him before burning him alive in front of 15,000 white spectators. Charred pieces of his body were dragged through town, and his fingers and fingernails were taken as keepsakes.”

One section focuses on the Civil Rights Movement of the ’50s and ’60s, through the Black Power era. The next focuses on the crack epidemic of the ’80s and mass incarceration, including a letter to Bryan Stevenson from a jailed 13-year-old boy who was afraid of “what all these men here say they want to do to me.”

I gave Willie space and watched for if and when he might need a friend. Throughout the three-hour museum visit, more of his “Makes no sense,” and “What the fuck?”

The last exhibit areas showed photos of the protests from 2020, followed by a reflection room with portraits of Black leaders and an art gallery with works by such famed artists as Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence, and Faith Ringgold. Although some of the art depicts sad themes, it is ultimately a needed uplift from the previous hours’ devastations, easing us, at least a little, toward readiness for re-entry to the outside world.

It was near dusk. The rain abated. My texts with Michelle Browder concluded we would not be able to meet and view Rachel’s work, but I was determined to see Michelle’s Mothers of Gynecology even through the locked gates that surrounded the plaza where her sculptures were installed.

Ringing the site were sheets of metal with words of famous quotations stencil-cut out of them.

We did have to peek through the gate to see the Mothers of Gynecology, but there they were in all their glory.

Despite disappointment at falling short of my vision for connecting my colliding artistic worlds between Rachel and Michelle, I felt fulfilled for going the extra mile to take my vision as far as it could go that day. I let both artists know I’d tried my best to explore their work and honor the connections they offered me.

Willie and I found a relatively elegant restaurant called The House in downtown Montgomery’s Renaissance Hotel. We decompressed quietly over shrimp and grits, by far our highest quality meal of the trip…even better than Waffle House.

Full and weary from the day’s emotions, we took the four-hour drive back to Jackson. As usual, our conversation ranged from humorous to heavy. I wished then and still do now that I could remember every precious word of Willie’s wisdom.

The next day, though our flight was not until about 3 p.m., we had to vacate the Airbnb by 10. We lingered over breakfast at Broad Street Bakery for a couple hours. I half-heartedly asked about a lunch at Bully’s Soul Food Restaurant a last hurrah in Jackson, but Willie had no more hurrahs. He’d had enough of the city.

He just didn’t like it there, and I didn’t blame him. He figured the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport couldn’t be any worse than anywhere else we would wind up that day, so we arrived early. Of course, there was no baggage handler on duty to check Willie’s bag — more plantation mentality — so we had to sit outside the security checkpoint for an hour instead of passing that time at a restaurant or bar.

We played around with Instagram to help Willie turn his dabbling in advice videos into a real tool to help drive his consulting practice. When the baggage checker finally showed up, we pounced. The security line was quick enough, but I fell into conversation with one of the TSA agents about Coach Prime’s future at Jackson State vs. his then-rumored move to Auburn.

Willie was still shaking his head over my obsession with Jackson State football by the time we were seated at Riverbanks Bar and Grill. The catfish nuggets — as they say in the Black-folks version of Death at a Funeral — were to die for. Business was slow enough that our pretty, braided Senegalese waitress, Coumba, had nothing better to do than flirt/banter with us.

When Willie tired of that, he wandered off to the airport’s “art gallery.” Coumba’s shift ended, and she needed to pick up her kids, so I left for the gate. Not much before boarding, Willie caught up with me, enthused about some paintings of the Tuskegee Airmen.

We decided I couldn’t make it to the gallery and back in time for departure, but I suggested he check out the painted portrait that welcomed visitors to the nearby men’s room.

“Looks like Sweetshoes,” Willie said.

On the flight back to the Bay, we mostly kept to ourselves. We each had so much to process from our experiences of the last few days.

Occasionally, Willie interrupted his iPad movie to ask a question about Instagram or swap ideas about a headline or video title for some of his consulting content. Sometimes he just felt like sharing his latest over-the-top satire of my struggle with the Pig and Pint menu.

Other times he checked in to make sure I had a handle on how to tackle my internal challenges, that I grasped his precepts for accountability and distinctions between discourse of head and heart. But mostly, it was quiet, as we withdrew from the levels of intensity and introspection we’d experienced in Jackson and Montgomery.

Writing Coach for College Essays

Committing to co-create a Creative Crescendo course for US-Africa Institute, I never thought that series of pre-dawn Zooms with Ethiopian students would lead to an assignment for The Writing Coach. But it did.

Here is a sample of my work with a high school senior in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, who eventually gained admission to the University of Pennsylvania, using a different essay. Click on the image below to open a file that shows edits and comments in detail, and then contact The Writing Coach to learn how I help students write and edit excellent college essays.

Round 1 Edits and Comments

Racial Equity Mural

This first time meeting the muralist Rachel Wolfe-Goldsmith in person was almost an accident. Driving along the Jefferson Underpass in Redwood City, I noticed major progress on the Racial Equity Mural and felt a surge of pride at serving on the Steering Committee that conducted dozens of Zooms in the 18 months it took us to vet applicant artists, gather community input, and select and contract with Rachel.

Then I noticed why the mural was taking such shape: Rachel in full swing on the underpass, working furiously, paintbrushes flying, in the throes of the passion that fuels her purpose. I pulled into the strip mall where her 4,700-square-foot wall ended and waved at her from behind the barrier.

She walked over, and I introduced myself, not expecting she would recognize or remember me from group Zooms with our committee. “I know who you are,” she said, laughing.

“The work looks amazing,” I said. “Obviously we liked your renderings, but to see this at larger- than-life-size instead of on a computer screen…I’m so glad we chose you to do this mural.”

“Me, too,” Rachel answered, laughing again. We talked process, planning, technique, and timing, all in just a few minutes. My steering committee work had landed me on a new Arts Advisory Work Group. I had to get to that first meeting I was driving to, and I did not want to keep Rachel from her work. The deeper, doper conversations about “race” — and all that means and all it doesn’t — would have to wait.

We got to some of that about 10 days later, when Rachel hosted Community Paint Day on the underpass. The connections and ideas spilled as we shared common interests in Comrade Sisters and the Women of the Black Panther Party Mural that Rachel had painted on the side of Jil Vest’s house.

Again, we couldn’t talk long. Volunteers of all ages, sizes, and abilities arrived for their painting shifts and needed Rachel’s direction. Then there were the arts commissioners, the politicians, the press, and some random folks ignoring the barricades.

Rachel engaged anyone and everyone who wondered at her work. She somehow simultaneously kept painting, directing her crew, and graciously greeting and training volunteers. Despite the high-stakes possibility that an errant or misguided volunteer could ruin her work, Rachel placed her faith in even the least artistic people.

Community Paint Day energized this stretch of Redwood City. Drivers on the underpass honked and slowed their roll to take in the activity. People shot photos from across the street, where their cameras could capture panoramas of the mural and reveal its narrative arc, in contrast to what you could see while standing on the sidewalk right next to the mural.

Everyone seemed joyous and united, rallying around this art. Just witness the triumphant looks on our faces in our team photo.

At the time, Community Paint Day felt like the culmination of a year-and-a-half of hard work conducted almost entirely via Zoom. But we reached an even higher peak a few weeks later, when the city held its official Racial Equity Mural Celebration.

That event held extra meaning, because my daughter, Eleni, joined us. The site of our Celebration was just a block or so from the start of the group bike ride she was leading for Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition. She met my committee colleagues, and we shared our mutual pride in a day of multi-generational social impact work.

The Celebration included public speeches that acknowledged the project originating as a response to the murder of George Floyd and whatever racial reckoning has followed. The event also was a chance to learn from Gregg Castro, representing the Ramaytush Ohlone, on whose land we were standing.

It was a chance to hear Rachel’s perspective, especially regarding the internal work entailed in seeking racial equity and social justice.

It was a chance to be publicly recognized for our work.

It was a chance to take a private tour of the mural, where Rachel led us further into her art.

It was a chance for meaningful multi-lateral private conversations that will inform our future work, individually and collectively, toward Racial Equity.

Dusty Baker

That was the day that Dusty Baker, who managed the Houston Astros to a World Series win tonight, received Positive Coaching Alliance’s Lifetime Achievement Award. I asked Dusty for a photo together, and Willie Gault, star receiver for the 1986 Super Bowl Champion Chicago Bears, came over from my left and said, “We gonna make an Oreo out of you.”

It was always a good time with Dusty. Just a few minutes earlier that day, Dusty and I talked about his tour of Apple Computer headquarters at One Infinite Loop, which he called an architectural marvel. As a Cubs fan, I told him he’d already seen the most marvelous architectural wonder in the world. He thought about it for a few seconds and asked, “Which one is that?”

“Wrigley Field,” I responded, and in less than a few seconds, he said, “Aww, man, that place is a dump!”

At a different Positive Coaching Alliance event, where we first met, he was coming off surgery and hobbled through the lunch line on his cane, a beautiful knotted dark hardwood adorned with feathers and other talismans that lent him a mystical air. In a private room at the Stanford Faculty Club, he told tales of his time in the minor leagues in the South of the late ’60s, post-Jim Crow by letter of the law, but not its spirit.

Somehow, in that room of 20 or so souls, with conversation gravitating to counter-cultural sports icons, Dusty mentioned the legendary football player, Joe Don Looney and asked if anyone knew his story.

“He was an outstanding bar fighter,” I answered. “Yes,” Dusty confirmed, “One of the best.”

“I think he also decked Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma,” I added.

“One of his assistants,” Dusty corrected.

It all went to building rapport that stretched over a few video shoots we did together for Positive Coaching Alliance. Here is my favorite clip, mixing the fun and seriousness Dusty brought to his work, which finally resulted in tonight’s World Series win.

Comrade Sisters

Yeah, that’s Angela Davis, and I am glad to finally scratch that meeting off of my bucket list. Word of the opportunity arrived from @marcus.books, which hosted her and other contributors to the new book Comrade Sisters: Women of the Black Panther Party for presentations, conversations, and book signings.

Arriving 20 minutes early, I stood at the end of a block-long line that eased into the bookstore’s cozy confines. Maybe 200 or 300 folks packed the place for Marcus Books’ first in-store event since the pandemic started.

Speakers included:

  • Blanche Richardson, owner of Marcus Books, the nation’s oldest Black-owned bookstore, whom I met while working on At the Cookout
  • The author of Comrade Sisters, Ericka Huggins, a prominent Panther, whose husband, John, was assassinated in 1969 in a plot allegedly hatched by the FBI’s COINTELPRO
  • The book’s photographer, Stephen Shames
  • Several women of the Black Panther Party on a panel that Angela Davis moderated.

Each speech inspired more than the one before. Angela Davis told the story of an illiterate 14-year-old boy, who grew so enamored of John Huggins’ leadership that he borrowed books and a dictionary and taught himself how to read in order to improve his effectiveness in the movement. Off to the side, whenever so moved, an old man leaned on his cane and muttered through his mask, “Power to the People.”

In-between, there were personal reunions, handshakes, hugs, back-slaps and shouts. Blanche ran out of copies of Comrade Sisters to be sold and signed. Fortunately, I’d brought my dog-eared copy of Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, so I stood in line for an hour after the presentations until it was my turn for Angela Davis to sign.

Like most book signings, it was hurried, without enough time to tell the author exactly how the work moved you. Like all book signings, sharing any space and time with an author who moves you to stand in line leaves you feeling you’ve stood with greatness.

The next day, Jilchristina Vest hosted another signing for Comrade Sisters at her home, which houses the Women of the Black Panther Party Mural and Museum. Arriving even earlier than the day before, I had a chance to catch up with Jil on our work, help her set up for the event, and give her one of Brandy’s candles that I wrote about in At The Cookout.

Held outdoors as a block party with food and a DJ, Jil’s event brought the book’s author and photographer together with even more of the women of the Black Panther Party. My favorite presentations, featured below, came from Cheryl Dawson, Ericka Huggins, and the Oakland School for the Arts.

In the picture above, Ericka holds one of the posters that Jil had left out on tables for the public to ponder. Its message holds particular meaning for me as a writer and reminds me to aspire to more.

Real Americans


When Eric Jones, captain of Sea Valor, handed me that flag behind us to place in the flag holder yesterday, my first thought was “don’t drop it into the Bay.” The American flag means more to Eric than it does to many of us.

Eric’s story came to me from Tony Green a few weeks ago, as I sat across Tony’s desk at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland learning about his pioneering work with the new AP African-American History course. Tony invited me to join his group aboard Sea Valor, where Eric, Tony’s former student, would contribute to the course curriculum.

An invitation for a day sailing on the Bay is a no-brainer, but that invite grew dear to my heart when Tony told me Eric’s story, adapted here from

Eric grew up in the Bay Area, his mother a social worker, and his father an Air Force Colonel. Eric felt compelled to help people from an early age and became an EMT as soon as he turned 18. That led to him joining the Prince George’s County Fire Department, where he received additional training in firefighting, search and rescue, hazardous materials, and rescue diving. Eric continued by earning his Paramedic certification, and in 1998 graduated from The George Washington University (GWU) with a BS in Health Sciences, with a focus on Emergency Medical Services with a minor in Psychology.

On the morning of September 11, 2001 Eric was driving to class at GWU (he was then working towards a Masters in Public Health), and as he neared the Pentagon, American Airlines flight 77 had just crashed into the Pentagon. Knowing he had the skills to help, he pulled over and ran towards the building. He helped pull and carry five people from the impact zone, and then spent the next four days as a member of the Mortuary Affairs team removing the remains of those killed. On September 14, Eric finally left the Pentagon, and drove to New York Ground Zero, to join fellow members of his fire department who were already there assisting with the massive search and rescue operations. He spent another two weeks engaged in search and rescue, and then search and recovery operations. For his efforts, Eric was one of two people awarded the Medal of Valor from the Department of Defense, the highest civilian award issued for heroism.

Like many of the first responders during 9/11, Eric has struggled with PTSD, and additional traumatic events over the years have made it worse. He has tried all of the traditional treatment methods; therapy, medications, support groups, etc., and found varying degrees of success, however nothing has “cured” the depression and PTSD.

Over the years, Eric has known seven people who have taken their lives as a result of their depression and PTSD. In 2016, his friend Jason, an honorably discharged and highly decorated Army sniper, took his own life. Just a few months later, his friend Andrew Berands, an Oscar-winning cameraman, took his life. Both of these tragic deaths affected Eric very hard. He has known firsthand the deep feelings of hopelessness and despair that result from the inability to process traumatic events. Eric’s fate might have been the same, but believes that sailing and a love for the ocean saved his life.

Eric has always loved all things ocean; scuba diving, swimming, boating, exploring tidepools, but in 2010 he discovered sailing. First, on small sailing dinghies in the Potomac River, then on larger boats which ventured offshore. In 2011 Eric served as crew on his friend’s boat sailing from Miami, Florida to Annapolis, MD. This experience solidified his love for sailing.

For a week, as they cruised up the Eastern Seaboard, Eric felt happy for the first time since before 9/11. His depression was still there, but sailing and being surrounded by the ocean and all of its beauty, brought him a sense of peace that he had been yearning for. This was the first time he realized the healing power of sailing and the sea.

Over the next several years, Eric’s depression grew worse. After his mother died in 2015, followed by the suicides of his two friends, Eric was in a bad emotional state. The only time he felt calm and at peace was when he was near or in the ocean. He started sailing with friends, and over time, he realized that he felt better not only on the days that he sailed, but on the days before and after. Sailing and other ocean activities were helping. Eric founded Sea Valor to bring the same healing to others suffering from PTSD.

Yesterday, I joined Tony, a diverse group of his students, and a few other strays like myself at the Emeryville Marina, where Sea Valor is moored. I asked Tony how Eric might be feeling on the eve of the 21st anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. He said that we may or may not hear from Eric about that, and he reminded me to check out the display below deck of the triangular-folded flag that Eric rescued from his days of service at the Pentagon.

Waiting in the parking lot as Eric and his crew prepared, Tony completed the class’ unit on “The Global Reach of the Mali Empire,” dropping knowledge and calling on students to contribute what they’d learned in his classroom, including the voyage of King Abubakari II, ruler of the Mali Empire, who in 1311 AD, led an African exploration to the New World, sending out 200 ships of men, and 200 ships of trade material, crops, animals, cloth, and African understanding of astronomy, religion and the arts.

Soon after boarding, Eric’s father, a retired Air Force colonel, gave a brief presentation on African-American contributions to our country and gave us each a newly minted quarter commemorating the Tuskegee Airmen. That set the tone for our voyage, mixing education, a celebration of Black excellence, inter-racial exploration, and the co-operation that sailing requires.

Eric put us under engine power until we cleared the Berkeley Pier. Students helped raise and lower sails and took turns at the wheel under direction of Eric and his crew–Heather and Nixon. We tied up at Angel Island, the “Ellis Island of the West,” where many Asian immigrants started their American adventure. There, Eric presented to the students about the technical aspects of currents and navigation, introducing a STEM element to Tony’s teaching and helping students understand what confronted both King Abubakari II and then 300 years later, those who endured the Middle Passage.

From Angel Island, we sailed toward and under the Golden Gate Bridge.

Then we skirted Alcatraz Island, where Tony and our new friend, Wanda, kept conversation real as we drifted past reminders of some other real Americans.

Eric kept us on the water for about five magical hours. Although we never heard from Eric about his trauma, many of us shared stories of our own. Wanda and I compared notes on the Black and Jewish experiences as both friends and foes in this country. Nixon, of Asian descent, explained that his father named him after the former President, dooming him to not only persistent questions about the origin of his name, but also being playground nicknamed “Tricky Dick.”

Exhausted and exhilarated, we arrived back at Emeryville, processing thoughts and feelings that arose from our conversations, none about how to make America great again, most about how to make America America again.

Inside the Making of “The Man Behind the Mask”

(New book available here, as seen on American Ninja Warrior, with a portion of proceeds benefiting Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center in its fight against child abuse.)

When the July 18 episode of American Ninja Warrior featured The Man Behind the Mask – a book I crafted in collaboration with Flip Rodriguez and Noah Kaufman – I felt like I’d “beat that wall” and hit the buzzer. Pardon my slip into Ninja-speak here. It’s what I had to do to land the book gig in the first place.

Skeptical of a reality-TV sport, I initially resisted an introduction to these Ninjas. I soon knew they spoke my language, and I soon started speaking theirs. Therein lies the first of several lessons I learned en route to the making of The Man Behind the Mask, shared here to help other entrepreneurs, especially in the creative fields.

That first lesson: Listen.

Amy Manson, a colleague when I led marketing communications at Positive Coaching Alliance, asked me to explore partnership with a group called Wolfpack Ninjas. She offered to connect me with the group’s leader, Noah Kaufman, the physician who starred on American Ninja Warrior as “The Ninjadoc.”

Accustomed to partnership with Hall of Fame athletes, coaches and teams from the major pro sports leagues, hearing a name that sounded more like a WWE character stopped me cold. As the saying goes, “Nevertheless, she persisted.”

I relented when Amy explained that the Wolfpack Ninjas were “making the world healthier one kid at a time,” and Noah practically had me at hello. Within minutes we found that we hailed from neighboring suburbs outside of Chicago and that his group and ours both focused on youth-friendly principles of sports and educational psychology.

Noah said he could demonstrate this via video he would send me. Most such promises from other partnership prospects over the years were never kept. But when Noah’s video arrived the next day, I was glad I listened to Amy and glad I listened to Noah.

His well-produced minute-long cellphone video featured him speaking in voice-over shots of his son repeatedly failing to scale a Warped Wall until he finally succeeded. Noah’s video nailed our PCA principles. When I asked how he’d done such a good job so quickly, Noah said, without irony, “I’m a Ninja.”

Throughout that partnership, we discovered similar values and skill sets, often finding the other answering emails at 2 a.m. While co-promoting and attending Wolfpack Ninjas events, I connected with many of Noah’s team of about 30 Ninjas. But that phase of our work abruptly ended when PCA laid me off in August 2017, leading to the next lesson in the making of The Man Behind the Mask.

Say Yes
Phoning Noah to explain my departure, he thanked me and said, “This layoff must be sad for you, so I don’t want to seem overly opportunistic, but would you consider contracting with us?” I answered, “Thanks. It is sad for me, and I also don’t want to seem overly opportunistic, but honestly, that’s part of why I’m calling. So, yes.”

Over the next two-plus years, our group worked hard, traveled together, stayed up late, and sweated out mission-critical assignments, quite literally, in the case of a playground build with KABOOM! on a 95-degree day in San Antonio. We forged the sort of bonds that uniquely arise from those circumstances.

The rewards of friendship, achievement, and adopting the mindset of these world-class athletes made me happy I’d said, “Yes,” especially because our San Antonio team included Flip Rodriguez, who is The Man Behind the Mask. One other reward was learning more lessons.

Sometimes Work for Free
The pandemic halted our live events. Noah’s financial backers ended our contract. With their blessing I contacted the Ninjas individually and landed a couple sweat-equity-only gigs.

Though I never saw cent one, I enjoyed the work and continued growing, which reinforced the lesson to “Say Yes.” I have no doubt that is why Noah contacted me late in 2021 with an offer of paid work on The Man Behind the Mask, a process that taught me one more lesson.

Play to Your Strengths, and Help Your Collaborators Do the Same
Noah Kaufman knows business. He runs it for our collaboration. Flip and I stay out of the way.

Another of Noah’s strengths is that he knew Flip well enough to help him open up in the eight hours of conversation they recorded for the core of the book. Flip’s story is so agonizing that he sometimes had to stop talking, and Noah, The Ninjadoc, masterfully supported and encouraged Flip as he would any trauma patient in the ER.

Flip’s strength is his honesty and courage. It’s not fearlessness. It’s his ability to overcome fear. That he endured his trauma is evidence. That he purposefully re-lived his trauma in the telling of his story shows the strength of his conviction to “get comfortable being uncomfortable” and the depth of his commitment.

Me, I know words. I edited theirs into a coherent narrative, wrote the book’s afterword, and this marketing copy for our Amazon page: “Read the real and raw story of Flip Rodriguez, the ‘Man Behind the Mask.’ In this inspirational story, the American Ninja Warrior star explains how he overcame years of sexual abuse during his childhood and lifted himself from the depths of despair to unimaginable heights.”