Friday, October 31, 2008

"Friends & Lovers"

Friendships. Friendships are what keep me here in Toledo. I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere continuously m y whole life. I went to live with my grandmother the year I turned seven when my grandfather died and stayed with her on the family ranch in Texas until I graduated from high school and went to college. That was eleven years. I lived in Wichita, Kansas, where I attended graduate school and taught in the public schools for seven years. That was nine years. I’ve lived in Toledo twenty years. I can’t believe I’ve been here that long! I was a kind of nomad during my adult years until I moved here. I moved to Ohio from Kansas because I became disillusioned with teaching gifted students who were lazy and uninterested in learning. I had been volunteering as fulltime staff at a local theatre and decided to ‘retire’ from teaching and become a fulltime writer. Then I got writer’s block and, although I did a lot of writing, nothing really significant came out of it until I wrote some plays about AIDS that my brother James took on tour with a grant for the National Conference of Mayors. By that time, I’d left Columbus, a city I don’t like because it’s too big and crowded, to come to work for Charlotte Zeigler in Columbus.

I think moving to Toledo was the best decision I made regarding my geographic location, career, and relationships. Not that I haven’t had friendships in the past. My best friend as a pre-teen and teen was the youngest daughter of the “other family,” the Johnsons, who attended the country Baptist church started by my great-grandfather, Rev. David Houston Parish, Sr., in the early 1900s. My grandmother, brother John and I made up one family and Charlie and Beulah Johnson and their five children made up the other family. When I hear people like Barack Obama talk about black men not being responsible, I of course think of my own father, Rev. John Henry Chapman, Sr.; grandfather, Calvin Benjamin Jefferson; and great-grandfather who were all great providers and remarkable men, each in his own way; but I mostly think of Charlie Johnson. “Mr. Charlie,” as we called him, was a farmer, school bus driver, and all around handy man that put four daughters and a son through college while his wife stayed home and cooked, cleaned, raised chickens and gathered eggs, sewed clothing for her daughters, and generally took care of the family. Mr. Charlie lived well into his nineties and “Ms. Beulah” is still alive, living on their farm by herself, and she is also in her nineties. I saw her a couple of years ago when I went to Texas to attend my mother’s youngest brother’s funeral. Except for using a cane and having some wrinkles, she hadn’t changed. She and Mr. Charlie had smiles on their faces at all times and always laughed when they talked. Those laugh lines are permanently etched in her face.

Their youngest child was their daughter, Minnie, who I considered my best friend growing up; she was three years older than me and talked to me about boys she liked, things she did at school, and things she hoped to do some day. I knew everything about Minnie and looked up to her. However, she knew little about me because I never got to tell her anything about myself. I was the passive listener in our relationship. She never even knew I had a huge crush on her only brother, who was seven years older than me. Had he been a bit younger, I’m sure my grandmother would have decided we were a match, but since he was “too old,” she picked out another young man for me that I happen to meet when our country church visited his country church and, according to him, he fell in love with me “at first sight.” Although the feeling wasn’t mutual, I consented to writing him letters since we lived in different rural communities and our romance began. He was two years older than me and because my strict grandmother didn’t allow me to “date” (I found out why a few years later!), he occasionally came to visit me at her house during holidays. Minnie’s brother also came to visit on holidays, saying he wanted to ride our horses. The Johnsons didn’t own any horses and only had a few cattle while my well-to-do grandmother had two hundred head of cattle (that belonged collectively to our family) and three or four horses.

My mother pointed out to me when I was in college and young Mr. Johnson was still coming around on holidays that young men usually spend time around girls they are interested in during holiday seasons. I hoped she was right, but left Texas before I could find out whether or not a romance was possible with this guy I’d had a crush on since I was twelve. Anyway, my grandmother’s choice for my mate went to college on an athletic scholarship and was a sophomore when I graduated from high school. He came to my graduation and my classmates, who didn’t believe for a minute that I had a college-age boyfriend who was a football star, given my grandmother’s reputation for being strict and overprotective. Imagine their surprise when the six foot three, handsome college athlete showed up that night. We got engaged and our relationship continued until I was honest and told him I was going out “platonically” with a senior at Prairie View, where I went to college on my Valedictorian scholarship from the State of Texas, against my better judgment (I wanted to go to Texas A&M). However, everyone in my family went to Prairie View (that’s where my grandparents met!), so I didn’t have a choice. Anyway, my fiancĂ© became enraged and at the end of my first year came to my college to confront the senior I’d been seeing as a friend only (from my point of view – the senior actually asked me to leave school and marry him and move to South America where he got a job working in soil conservation or something!). The fool had a sawed-off shotgun in the trunk of his car and I became so upset, I threw away the ring he gave me and ended our engagement.

The next year when I was expelled for my ‘militant’ activities and moved to Oklahoma to live with my parents, my former beau didn’t know I’d left Texas. Ironically, he ended up going to college at Oklahoma State, but neither of us knew the other one was in Oklahoma. Then I moved to Kansas after graduation when my father went there to pastor a church and my former beau was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs. Again, neither of us knew the other one was in the state. Eleven years after we broke up, I was in Texas visiting my parents who’d moved out to the ranch to ‘take care of’ my ailing grandmother and my former beau called my grandmother to inquire about me. She gladly gave him my parents’ number and he called. We went out to dinner and ended up getting engaged again. He’d been married and divorce and was not the sweet young man I’d first met, so a few months later I broke it off and he told me he’d never ask me to marry him again. I was relieved because the only reason I wanted marry him is because he lives in Austin, Texas, the ONLY place to live in Texas! My grandmother was upset and accused me of thinking I was “too good” for the country boy turned professional athlete turned engineer (a knee engineer ended his professional football career). I told her I was too good for him and that maybe she should marry him! That ended that conversation. Anyway, my “best friend’s” brother married someone else and things worked out because he had three children and is very happy. Since I can’t have children, I think it’s best that he ended up with someone who could. He needed to be a father having had the role model of the perfect role model to pattern himself after (so did my two uncles, but neither of them followed my grandfather’s example for some reason!)Besides, our families were so close, it would have almost been like marrying my brother if we had gotten together. Anyway, I’m not the marrying kind – everybody knows that!

Years after Minnie and I were “best friends,” I spent a few hours with her and all we did was talk about her life, picking up where we left off years earlier, and I realized that she established my idea of “friendship” years ago: one friend is the passive listener and the other is the one who gets to do all the talking. For years I fought to make sure I didn’t assume the passive listener role in friendships, but often found myself falling into that role. I also took on the other role on occasion and found it equally unsatisfying. Then I came to Toledo and found friends who taught me what friendship really is: an exchange of ideas, feelings, support, and concern. I love my friends in Toledo who number far many than I’ve ever had anywhere else. I still have friends in Kansas, but don’t communicate with them much – it’s hard to keep friendships in tact when you don’t actually see people face to face. However, friends I’ve made in Toledo remain friends even when they move away. Thanks to all of you for your friendship which means much more to me than you could ever know. I also appreciate you bearing with my denigration of the candidate of choice this year, Barack Obama, whom I’m sure all of my liberal friends support. Your disagreement with me has been strong, but civil. I appreciate that. Only friends can disagree and remain friends. I hope we remain friends for many years to come. Your friendship, more than anything else, has made Toledo my true home.

Monday, October 27, 2008

gjc - Frog Town Diva

I’ve been out of commission due to a particularly virulent sinus infection that sent me to my doctor’s office seeking antibiotics (believe me, I’d rather do anything than see my doctor, the head of the weight-loss program at the Toledo Clinic!). He checked my heart rate and my respiratory rate, asked if my chest hurt after I told him it was congested, and refused to comment on the good blood pressure reading the nurse got (the man insists that I have high blood pressure just because it shot up to stroke level when I stupidly took some natural energy pills that are more potent than ginseng!), the fact that I no longer take the hypertension medication he prescribed (hey, it’s almost $100 a month and I no longer have health insurance!), or the ten pounds I lost (never mind that I only lost weight because I had chills and fever for a week and eating was out of the question!). He just prescribed my medication and told me to be sure I take the antibiotics all ten days and call him back next week if I don’t feel better.

Well, I just finished day five of the antibiotics and I’m beginning to feel better. Since yesterday, everything I eat and drink stopped tasting like cough syrup, so I’m eating and getting my strength back after losing another ten pounds or so (my doctor would be so proud!). I’ve never gotten this sick from a sinus infection. I only went to the doctor because I knew I was just days away from getting bronchitis. I had that a lot about ten years ago when I was younger, stronger, and had a better immune system. Well, that stuff can turn into pneumonia and ever since my best friend died with pneumonia from complications of a disease called Behcets that compromised her immune system, I don’t take chances that might end up with me getting pneumonia.

The closest I ever came to getting pneumonia was in 1993, when I got a really bad case of the flu that had me in bed for nearly two weeks (this sinus infection has had me in bed for ten!) and I was delirious from fever. For three consecutive nights, I saw tens of thousands of angels fly past my window. They looked like glowing clouds and I didn’t realize they were angels until I read someone else’s account of seeing angels in clouds in one of those books about angelic encounters. But I was delirious, so those couldn’t have been angels, could they? I hate being sick, so I’m using every natural medication I can (can’t afford the prescription kind, not that I’m that fond of prescription medication, although I continue to take the Lipitor my doctor prescribed for my slightly high bad cholesterol and slightly low good cholesterol – I’ll concede he’s right about that anyway) and plan to try to eat at least one meal with vegetables (probably in soup) every day this winter. I’ve got too much to do to be sick!

Recently, I reverted to form and was ready to cut and run when I realized that my efforts to support the Toledo talent that I so admire in an active way is futile at best and self-defeating at worst. I will be leaving Toledo figuratively, if not literally, because I give up after years of spending my own money to support Toledo talent on doing anything else in that area. I will continue to give support by going to events that I can get to (I have the ongoing problem of getting other people from here to support talent from here so I can get a ride to local events), but no more of my money will be spent promoting anything or anyone in Frog Town. I’ve decided to let someone else do the African Market I’d hope to organize to showcase local entrepreneurs and artists and instead will put my considerable energy into promoting my own work. I am currently re-writing a play and thanks to my good friend, Pastor Bob Veersteg, I recently received an in-depth critique of it from a Broadway actor/playwright/director who was a student of Pastor Bob’s.

I plan to pour over the specious notes and suggestions given by this theatre professional and continue re-writing my play and expanding my horizons beyond Toledo. I love the city and the people, but I’ve finally concluded there’s nothing I can do here that won’t be questioned, criticized, or even resented, so why try? I’ve given all I can afford to give to causes I’ve deemed worthy and will put all of my efforts in the city toward providing the best service I can to the agency for which I provide consultation. I am currently seeking a grant to provide visual arts instruction for adults with cognitive disabilities using local artists. This is a national trend, so, hopefully, I will be able to locate funding. A considerable amount of money is needed to provide materials for painting, salaries for the artists/teachers, creating a gallery, and launching a unique ‘art business’ unlike the ones usually created for individuals with disabilities based on a presumption that all individuals with artistic aspirations have talent in this area. I also have some other ideas for adult day hab programming that I am trying to get funded.

And, of course, there’s my new business that will take a lot of my time and energy. I want to start a business in Toledo for a number of reasons. Primarily, it’s a good business community and I have an excellent business partner who is rooted in this community. As an artist who likes to remain under the radar, so to speak, Toledo is the ideal location for me. Considering the anonymity successful business people and artists are able to maintain here, I think I have found my home, since I prefer to be reclusive and not in the public eye. Two examples of how one can get lost in Toledo involve the African-American CEO of a major corporation who lived here for years, but about whom I’ve only seen one newspaper article in the twenty years I’ve been here and the Broadway star I’d never have met had it not been for David Carter.

When I lived in Wichita, Kansas, an incredibly talented African-American woman named Karla Burns attended Wichita State University as an undergraduate while I was a graduate student there. Karla’s best friend, Robyn and I became good friends when I served as assistant director of two plays Robyn did at a local repertory theatre: “Godspell” and “Man of La Mancha.” My first play, “The Race,” a musical based on Aesop’s “The Tortoise and the Hare” with Uncle Remus characters, had a role written for Karla. She never played it because she went off to Broadway after graduating and got the first role she auditioned for – a supporting role in a revival of “Showboat.” By the time I moved to Ohio in 1983, Karla had been nominated for a Tony Award. Years later, when I sang with David Carter’s group for about a month, a former student of Mr. Carter’s came to one of our rehearsals to visit and it turned out he was Karla’s co-star in “Showboat.” Now, back in Wichita, Karla returned home the conquering hero and became the star of the city’s summer musical theatre series, which I always attended while I lived there.

Karla Burns is as famous in Wichita as Katie Holmes is in Toledo, but does anyone know Alton Coleman and, if you do, did you know he was in “Showboat” on Broadway or that he starred in a European production of “Cats” that I think he is still doing? African-American achievers in Toledo are often overlooked, even by the African-American community (we couldn’t even fill up a room to celebrate Art Tatum’s birthday at the Kent Branch library this year, even with a live jazz performance!) So, yes, I’m home! Toledo is the best refuge for a reclusive soul like myself who’d just as soon lock myself in my house with my computer and type plays to send out to Chicago, New York, and other far off places where someone might actually appreciate them and maybe produce them (I did have two out of three entries in the Chicago Dramatist Workshop’s “Ten Minute Play” festivals accepted for staged readings and critiques in 1993 and 1994). Here I’ll never have to worry about being something as trite as a celebrity. Thank God! I hate celebrity. Look what it did to poor Joe the Plumber!

All I want is a quiet place to write, good friends to hang out with once in a while (although my friends do complain because they don’t see me much sometimes), and the ability to curb my excitement about all of the tremendous talent here in Frog Town. I may have to enter a twelve-step program. I think if I take it one day at a time, I can conquer my addiction to Toledo talent and not feel the need to promote it with my own money, then feel used, depressed, and unloved when my efforts are unappreciated and unwanted. Pray for me. I have to kick this habit and I think I can with God’s help and a healthy dose of putting my own needs first and using my money to promote ME, not someone else. Meanwhile, I’ll see you online. If you don’t see me in person, don’t despair. I promise I’m not leaving and I won’t become a recluse, well, not a real one. As much as I’d like to lock myself in my house and not come out for at least a year, I have obligations.

So, I’ll be around. You may not see me, but I’ll be here. I’m not going anywhere any time soon. And if you do want to see me, you might find me at Ruby’s Kitchen, my favorite Toledo restaurant. I am constantly trying to convince someone to let me 'take' them to Ruby’s for lunch or dinner and they always like it when they acquiese and go with me. It’s sometimes a hard sell, but I’m persistent. I know, old habits are hard to break. I can’t help supporting African-American businesses. It’s just in my nature. I guess some habits persist even when you’ve admitted you’re an addict and have vowed to quit. Some things I just can’t give up, however, and Ruby’s is one of them! So, look for me there or at Kwanzaa (if I’m in town) or at the next African-American play written by a Toledoan (I missed JuJuan Turner’s latest because I was in bed with that fever!). I still love Toledo’s African-American talent. However, the only money I’ll spend on it in the future will be the price of a ticket or a good meal at Ruby’s. I do hope someone does start that African Market. If you do, I promise I’ll be there purchasing products from local African-American entrepreneurs and artists with all that money I’m going to make now that I’m promoting me!