Real Americans

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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 http://www.SeaValor.org:


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.

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.”

D.C.’s Hot Days and Nights

After dark on May 2, D.C. wasn’t overly hot, walking from my de facto headquarters at The Hamilton back to Hotel Harrington. The night held just a hint of humidity, a soft blanket that subtly alluded to the city’s notorious sweat soakings.

Nothing even happening at Harry’s, the often-rowdy dive bar in the Harrington, which is a dive hotel like the one where Robert Blake and Tom Ewell lived in the old Baretta TV series. But it’s worth staying there for the old-school “charm” at half the price of anywhere else such a short walk from the White House and even more importantly The Hamilton.

But up in my room, where the blackout drapes almost met closely enough to keep the light out, CNN let me know we’d feel heat the next day. The news broke about the Supreme Court’s draft opinion re: Roe v. Wade.

Sleep with CNN spicing my dreams segued into waking surrealism. The candidate’s team communications platform overflowed with internal messages, mostly of the wailing-and-gnashing-of-teeth variety. I would have to directly phone the candidate back in Houston to sort this out.

And it would have to happen while walking to the day’s destinations, familiar haunts from my past D.C. visits. I refused to forego the pilgrimages I’d planned on top of a two-day out-and-back from San Francisco to D.C. built around representing my client, Fit Kids, at the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Summit.

The call came at 10 a.m. from the candidate — Cameron “Coach Cam” Campbell, known for the #GridironGrit he brings from his football coaching career to his campaign to “go to state” as the representative for Texas House District 132. Yes, in Texas, it takes nothing less than #GridironGrit grit for a Black man to turn a red seat blue.

Between Coach Cam’s infant and toddler in his office and the street shouts and sirens that started to wane when I walked the gentrified U Street Corridor, we somehow managed to mostly understand each other. I would duck into Busboys and Poets, the progressive bookstore/cafe, for inspiration…

…and I would take my findings — which this time included The Trayvon Generation by Elizabeth Alexander and Create Dangerously: The Power and Responsibility of the Artist by Albert Camus — to a proper office to compose a statement on SCOTUS for Coach Cam’s consideration.

In my booth at Ben’s, fueled by the vibe and an Original Chili Half Smoke, I wrote: The Supreme Court opinion that came out yesterday demonstrates the vast overreach and ruthless power grab of the political right, reaching right down into the most intimate and personal aspects of women’s lives. The right, embodied by the Republican Party, does this against the will of the people they are sworn to represent. It is up to us as individuals — politicians and constituents alike, starting at the local level — to use our voice and our vote to protect our legal rights. The Supreme Court stands poised to trigger the worst of what Texas Republicans already have decided. Our best defense against the violation of our civil rights and human rights is to remove Republicans from power, and I intend do so in HD 132.

With Coach Cam more or less signed off on that, a long, hot walk had me hit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian an hour before closing. On the way there, and then to happy hour at Off the Record in the famous Hay-Adams Hotel, glimpses of the Washington Monument, the U.S. Capitol, and the White House had me feeling some type of way.

The sight of the buildings themselves are so iconic, so burned into my brain as a patriot-in-training from earliest memory, that they raise a reverence. But knowing what their residents and honorees perpetrated is just as breath-taking.

Sitting in Off the Record — elbow-to-elbow crowd clamor drowning out CNN’s continuing coverage of the not-yet-24-hour-old SCOTUS news — I wondered who around me shaped policy in which ways. In those surroundings, politics feel real.

It was nothing a stop at headquarters couldn’t cure. So I walked back out into higher heat and humidity than the night before.

Coronavirus Diary: Back to School

My friend and collaborator Gino DeGrandis — photographer for our mutual client, Fit Kids — snapped this photo of the near-unprecedented thunderstorms that rolled through the San Francisco Bay Area on August 16. One of Gino’s photographic specialties is stormchasing all over the world. He’s seen a few, some too close for comfort.

This one was not so threatening in and of itself, but its 10,800 lightning strikes sparked hundreds of fires in the Bay Area, plus a phenomenon new to me called a “fire tornado.” The three major “fire complexes” — named the LNU, the SCU, and the CZU — have burnt a half-million acres. The CZU, in my county of San Mateo, is 0% contained and threatens more than 24,000 structures.

For now, I am safe other than inhaling the occasional floating ash while running or bicycling, which I must, even more than usual, to stay centered during the Coronavirus crisis, let alone this latest shit-rain. An August thunderstorm, a delightful staple of my Midwestern days, but never experienced during my quarter-century in the Bay Area, contained next to none of the actual rain our region needs to prevent fires.

What to do? Keep working. After all, it’s back-to-school season.

When Gino emailed me his photo, he mentioned that he missed Fit Kids. Pre-pandemic, he shot many of the non-profit’s free after-school fitness trainings for under-served elementary school students. Of course, COVID canceled those for the foreseeable future, and as Fit Kids continues its pivot to distance learning via Home Workout videos, we shoot more footage of scenes like these.

In addition to Fit Kids work, I am re-configuring my Creative Writing curriculum for Citizen Schools to meet their Distance Learning needs and just wrote a back-to-school perspective for St. Thomas Academy: Why Troubled Times May Make this the Best School Year Ever.

My new one-on-one writing instruction clients in Chicago get the Zoom treatment, as do students in the two classes I am teaching for The Writing Salon this month. One of those launched on August 16, about four hours after our thunderstorms passed. After the class, one of my Chicago clients emailed apologies for canceling her August 10 session due to losing power when near unprecedented 100-mile-per-hour gusts tore through the city.

I replied: “Thanks, and no worries. We all do the best we can. Ironically, we lost power out here on Friday when PG&E implemented rolling blackouts because of our ‘heat wave’ and then about 3am today we had a thunderstorm, with lightning strikes that ignited some blazes. At the start of my Writing Salon class today, I had to say, ‘Just log back in to Zoom if we get disconnected due to blackout, fire tornado or plague.’ “

Next in Series–Coronavirus Diary: No New Normal

Series starts at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

John Lewis

Just over five years ago, I joined Sojourn to the Past for one of its immersive Civil Rights history experiences for high school students. My son, Sam, took the journey along with 100+ peers from throughout the U.S.

In addition to serving as one of about 20 other chaperones, I was in charge of capturing and sharing media, along with official photographer Audra Gray. On the third day of our six-day journey, we had a private audience at The King Center in Atlanta with Rep. John Lewis, who passed last night of pancreatic cancer at age 80.

Rep. Lewis arrived late at our event. He was out the previous night celebrating his 75th birthday. He was worth the wait. A forceful speaker, his voice rose and fell to emphasize his points. You could still hear the hurt, even 50 years after he led the Bloody Sunday march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Alabama state troopers cracked his skull.

Rep. Lewis sounded every bit as fresh and relevant as he did when he chaired the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and spoke at the March on Washington, in my view, even more powerfully than Dr. King in his “I Have A Dream” speech.

Sojourn tradition provides each person on a journey a private moment with guest speakers. Hugging Rep. Lewis, I thanked him for all he had done for our country. Then we shot this impromptu testimonial video for Sojourn.

Despite my decades of meeting “important” pro athletes, I had never experienced such gravitas. Although he rests in power now, Rep. Lewis will forever stand as the most important, impactful person I have ever met.

Coronavirus Diary: Busy Week

When the Coronavirus crisis closed classrooms, it seemed my work for Citizen Schools would end abruptly. But the organization asked all of us volunteer Citizen Teachers to create a three-minute video about our career paths and another, shorter video wishing students well and sharing some brief guidance.

To my surprise, Citizen Schools featured my videos in their national e-newsletter!

As the above video mentions, this week also marked the introduction of my new novella, Az Der Papa. Here is the second video from the Citizen Schools newsletter.

This week, I also led a three-hour online Writing Salon course for a group of design professionals, plus my new online writing program for Citizen Schools. It’s a thrill to re-connect with students and colleagues, but “distance learning” feels so distant from what we experienced when I introduced this class in February with words that seem even truer today:

Speaking of Donald Trump

Have you heard the new word
From absurd orange bird?

The cock of the walk
Who can squawk
But can’t talk

Who frowns
On the brown
Holds them down
What a clown

Whose wall-building bombast
Blasts outcasts
He thinks he outclasses
But can’t outlast

Vile defiler,
The liar, denier
Of climate fire
Heats our air
Doesn’t care
It’s not fair

We can’t bear
But we swear
We will tear
Your orange hair
If you dare to declare
You are heir to the rare

You are square
So prepare
And beware our despair
When it’s time to compare
We’re the real billionaires

Next in series: Coronavirus Diary: The Last Dance

Series begins at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction.

Coronavirus Diary: Fit Kids

Inkflow client Fit Kids released its new series of Home Workouts via the e-blast below. School closures during the Coronavirus crisis limit even further the scant fitness resources in the disadvantaged communities where Fit Kids operates.

Each workout uses bodyweight only, providing a fitness solution for underserved youth who live in crowded housing conditions. The pursuit of fitness — with its physical, mental, and social-emotional benefits — is critical to people living in the most vulnerable communities, where COVID-19 has disproportionate impact.

Next post in series: Coronavirus Diary: Streaming Consciousness Bay Path Bike Ride

Series begins at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

Speaking of Donald Trump

At the start of a Citizen Schools semester, we Citizen Teachers pitch the students on the Apprenticeship we will lead. Above is my pitch for my Poetry Apprenticeship.

Speaking of Donald Trump

Have you heard the new word
From absurd orange bird?

The cock of the walk
Who can squawk
But can’t talk

Who frowns
On the brown
Holds them down
What a clown

Whose wall-building bombast
Blasts outcasts
He thinks he outclasses
But can’t outlast

Vile defiler,
The liar, denier
Of climate fire
Heats our air
Doesn’t care
It’s not fair

We can’t bear
But we swear
We will tear
Your orange hair
If you dare to declare
You are heir to the rare

You are square
So prepare
And beware our despair
When it’s time to compare
We’re the real billionaires

Kobe

For a long time, I was not much a fan of Kobe Bryant, who died yesterday at age 41 in a helicopter crash that also killed his daughter Gianna and seven others en route to a youth basketball tournament. Early in his NBA career, he was a wannabe Michael Jordan. He conducted an unseemly feud with Shaquille O’Neal for alpha status that helped unravel a Lakers dynasty.

Most importantly, at the end of a felony sexual assault case against him, he confessed to non-consensual sex with his accuser. There is no getting around that.

Later in his career, however, especially outside the media, in more intimate settings, I began to appreciate him. The first time was at the Lakers’ shoot-around the afternoon of Game 3 in the 2007 playoff series against the Phoenix Suns.

I attended by invitation of Lakers Head Coach Phil Jackson, a professional acquaintance back then, to interview Assistant Coach Tex Winter and raise Tex’s profile as a Hall of Fame candidate. Kobe arrived late to that shoot-around, perhaps due to receiving treatment for injury or illness.

But when he arrived, the energy in the gym changed. He watched the walk-through like a hawk. Players became much more intentional and attentive, even though Kobe was just watching. Because Kobe was watching.

That energy reminded me of attending a press conference for the presentation of one of Michael Jordan’s MVP awards. He entered from the back of the room, and the feeling in that space changed even before I saw him. By 2007, even if Kobe was not on Jordan’s level as a legend – with two more NBA titles yet to come – he was way past a wannabe.

Near the end of the team’s practice, Kobe hoisted a few jump shots. He couldn’t help himself, his love of the game ran so deep. Then Kobe swaggered out of the gym, and his teammates followed with a swagger unseen earlier. He dropped 45 on the Suns that night.

The next time I saw Kobe outside of the media was at the October 2018 Aspen Institute Sports and Society Program’s Project Play Summit. He’d retired from the NBA as an elder statesman, one of the all-time greats, known for his five championships and as many individual accolades as anyone who ever played, known for his work ethic and his fierce competitiveness.

Now, Kobe was onto using the platform of his fame to change the world for good. He’d started coaching Gianna’s team and was concerned enough with the state of youth sports to spend an afternoon with a few hundred like-minded folks.

The Summit included Kobe leading a panel discussion with four athletes ages 11-13, titled “What if Youth Designed Youth Sports?” and another session on “The Meaning of Play” with his childhood friend, Kevin Carroll, the author and former Philadelphia 76ers athletic trainer.

Kobe’s roles in these events were not ceremonial. They were hard, earnest, honest work with much more payoff for everyone else in the room than for Kobe himself. This work required Kobe to be humble and genuine, especially with the kids.

He was as prepared as he had ever been on-court and performed with the same aplomb. If you didn’t know better, you would never have thought he was any kind of celebrity, let alone one of the world’s most famous athletes, a global icon, Oscar winner, and multi-lingual budding Renaissance man.

Ferocious, competitive, mean-mugging Mamba — in this new venue — channeled all the same intensity that fueled his basketball career into an equal measure of kindness, gentleness, and playfulness. He had become a man in full and stayed that way until yesterday.