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Sep. 8th, 2013

Birthday Pig Roast

So how do you celebrate a significant birthday without drawing attention to how old you are? Roast a whole pig in your backyard!

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We were going to to the traditional islander pig-in-the-ground-pit way that my grandfather did way back when. But that proved too time consuming with no way to check on the pig's progress, plus it was getting too difficult with the amount of rain we've been having lately. So I stumbled across this guy who built his own cooker for $25 and basically copied him!

The box is 5x3 and 30" tall,  lined with 2 layers of heavy duty foil. I put in 6 rebars across to hold a fencing grate for the pig. There were air vents on the sides and top lid. Total coast: about $30 (because I used my hurricane wood from my shed)
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Our only mistake was we put in too much charcoal. A 16 pound bag is plenty to start with. We started with about 30 pounds and so it became intensely hot.

Warning: vegans leave the post now!

While you wait for the coal, you need to prep your pig. Don't feel too sorry for him for he led a good and active life: raised on a farm, free grazing, no drugs or hormones, eating organic foods. I think they even read Proust to him late at night. It was about a 90 pounder which ended up about 60 pounds of meat after he was butchered. We coated his back with olive oil and kosher salt.
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Next we lined his insides with a dry rub and then later with a wet pig mop to keep him tender.
Click on the links for the recipes.


We plopped him on the grill and had planned for a 5 hour cook. But it was so hot, we invented a new style of pig cooking: Blackened pig. Charring the back kept the juices in and since we were going to peel the skin off, it seemed like an ok way to go. We only had one mishap grease fire; luckily I had a bucket of water handy!

We used a digital thermometer with a remote to monitor the progress, but because it was so hot and the foil acts as a convection oven, the thing cooked in only 2.5 hours! Never flipped it. Still great and juicy, but not quite as pretty. Next one will try to get temp at a lower 200 degrees and cook for 5 hours. But even the char was tasting eating, spicy and crisp.


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We had about 40 people over and, as you can see, the thing was pretty much gone by the end. It was a great party! Thank you all for helping me to celebrate.

Special thanks to my friends Friedeman (who led the box build and helped pick up the pig from the farmer), Ned (who was on fire and beer drinking detail) and Tutu, for talking me into it! And most of all, my wife Maggie, who thought I should do something special when normally I try to do nothing for my birthdays.

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I will now eat salad for a week.

Feb. 23rd, 2013

GHETTO COWBOY...the MUSICAL

I LOVE this music video featuring the men and boys of Fletcher St, where GHETTO COWBOY takes place. AMAZING!

Dec. 30th, 2012

FAQ

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Usually adults ask me what I do for a living (I'm a writer) and do I really get paid for that (yes). But here are some actual questions that I get asked a lot from students I've encountered! (In no particular order).


  1. Where do you get your ideas? Ideas are like driving at night across Alligator Alley in Florida. A lot of bugs will hit your windshield, but every once in a while a real whopper will smash into you and you have to stop because you can’t see clearly anymore. A great idea will literally make you stop in your tracks. They come from all around; my ideas are based on real events, people and places that I come across on the internet, radio, TV, reading, or in conversation.

  2. Did you always want to be a writer? No. I came to writing late in my life, quite by accident. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a cartoonist. Most of my life I was a visual storyteller (film, artist, illustrator). The only connection is that, as a language artist, I now paint with words.

  3. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers? At the end of the day, writers write. Period. You’re either going to find the time and the means to do it, or you’re not. I always say that if you can live your life without writing, do it. If you can’t and you write even if you’re told you’ll never be published, then you’re a writer.  It doesn't matter how good you are.

  4. Are you rich? No. Do you have a limo? Um, what did I just say?

  5. How old are you? Old enough.

  6. Did you grow up like Marcus in Chess Rumble? No. But I did know kids like him. I was introverted, had brothers and I’ve spent time in those schools. Plus, I once lost a chess match in six moves.

  7. Are you a chess master? The way I see it, you don’t have to know how to slay a dragon write a fantasy novel. I can play the game, but I don’t pretend to be very good at it. I think like CM and play like Marcus. That’s why I understood both characters. Or at least that’s what I say when some little kid beats me.

  8. If I was to read one interview with you that would really help me with my report, which one should I read? This one.

  9. How do you write? One word at a time. Five days a week. Between the hours of 9am and 3pm. I work and work, then let it go. I don't think about it overnight. I don't overthink the story, I just let the words come out unfiltered. You have to give yourself permission to write badly and not worry if it makes sense or not. All that can be fixed later. But you have to keep regular hours at your computer, otherwise how is your muse gonna find you?

10. What is your favorite part of the writing process? Probably the second half of the first draft when I’ve finally figured some things out and it’s just pouring from my brain unfiltered. At that point the characters are leading me and I have no idea what they will do or where the story will take me. My job is to get out of the way and report it as it happens.

11. What were you like as a kid? Shy, quiet, liked to draw a lot, liked to shoot hoops a lot, liked to body surf a lot. I was a skateboarder and liked to explore underground and build skate ramps.

12. Who are your favorite Authors / books? (Teen books): Mark Haddon - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Jerry Spinelli -Milkweed, Norman Juster - Phantom Tollbooth. John Green – Looking for Alaska, Melvin Burgess - Smack. (Graphic Novels): Marjane Satrapi- Persepolis, Craig Thompson – Blankets. (Kids) R.O. Blechman – The Juggler of our Lady, Tomi Ungerer – The Hat, Mark Alan Stamaty- Who Needs Donuts. (Adult stuff): John Fante - Ask the Dust, Joseph Heller - Catch-22, J.D.Salinger – Nine Stories, Richard Bach- Illusions, Chester Himes – If He Hollers.

13. Do you read a lot? I go in spurts, though I always seem to have 9 or 10 books vying for my attention.

14. What does your office look like? This. It's the reason I bought this house.

15. When will they make Chess Rumble/Ghetto Cowboy/ Yummy into a movie? Can I star in it? Uh, maybe someday, though any movie that gets made is a bit of a miracle. I wouldn't get my hopes up about the starring in it part.

16. Do you do school visits? Yes! See my School Visit page for details.

17. Will you sign my book? Yes! Email me and I’ll tell you how.

18. Did you like going to school? Where I came to love learning was in college. But you have to make it through high school to get there. Just do your best, it’ll pay off.

19. How long does it take you to write a book? It varies. Knockout Games was the quickest from idea to coming out: about a year (I wrote the first draft in 3 weeks). Surf Mules took three years to write and two years to get to the shelves. Yummy took about 12 years to make it from an idea to book but mostly because it started as a movie project first. When I finally figured out it needed to be a graphic novel, the writing was extremely quick, maybe a couple of months.

20. Is there a G. Neri archives? Yes!

21. What do you do when you are not writing? Mostly spend time with my family. I watch a lot of movies and basketball games, go to the beach, canoe the rivers looking for gators, and yes, read.

22. Are you happy? Yes. Mos def.

Excerpt from MY ALIBI (from the Who Done It? anthology)

Yes, I killed Herman Q. Mildew.

  • I ran over him with my car after we’d left a sales conference where he’d informed potential buyers that I couldn’t turn a phrase if it had power steering.

  • I dropped a safe on his puny head when he refused to pay me for a manuscript I delivered one day late-- my daughter’s birth being no excuse.

  • I strangled him in his office where he belittled me in front of Lemony Snicket, making me fetch coffee so they could insult my “writing” behind my back (but not out of earshot).

  • I poisoned his glass of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild when it came time to pay the bill at New York’s most expensive restaurant and he claimed that he’d forgotten his wallet.

  • I pushed him down 102 flights of stairs after he refused to hold the last elevator for me at the top of the Empire State Building, saying “Maybe a bit more suffering would improve my verse.”

  • I suffocated him with my birthday cake after he tweeted to my fans that I was now too old and out of touch to write YA because I didn’t own an iPhone or know why birds were angry.

  • I stabbed him with my pen after he failed to point out that my contract gave him final say on my novels--and yes, instead of black cowboys from the inner city, could I make my heroes white girl scouts from Poughkeepsie?

Excerpt from UNDER BERLIN (from the Open Mic anthology

The subway’s kinda like
Watching reality TV—
you see all kinds.
I’ve seen the clothes change
from season to season since we got here:
Shorts and pork pie hats and flip flops
in summer
become heavy coats and fur caps and boots
by winter.
There’s funny looking people:
hipster artist types trying to act all Euro-cool,
workers reading big ol’ novels,
students bopping to their iPods,
tourists looking lost and confused.
But most of all,
old people.
Lots of ‘em.
I don’t think I ever seen
so many old people before.
Daddy says they ain’t that old,
they just look it.
Ex-communists
who lost their way of life
when the Wall came down.
You’d think they’d be happy,
but the older ones aren’t.
They like making your life
miserable
‘cause they can’t have it their way
anymore.
Daddy says, just kill ‘em
with kindness.
But they never smile,
or give us the time of day.

Daddy looks around for a place
to park our butts.
The train is jam-packed—
No place to go.
But he smiles,
winks at me
and nods toward
two older women,
all uptight with little glasses
and what they think passes
for style: beige pants, beige jackets,
a colorful scarf
 and poofy colored hair.
To me, it seems
they all dress the same,
like they in the same old people’s club
 or something.

There is one empty seat
between them.
Or at least
Daddy thinks there is.
It’s more like a small gap
but it’ll do.
“Honey, it’s on,” he says,
pointing to their row.
“Not funny, Papi,” Mom says,
frowning.
I look at the old ladies,
especially the one
with a bright red mop of Lola hair
who holds a small dog
as sour as she is.
I laugh. “Good luck with that.”

Daddy shrugs. “I didn’t invent the rules.
I just play the game.”
“Some role model,” Oscar pipes in,
taking mom’s side.
“Mama’s boy,” I say.
“Daddy’s girl,” he says, all cutesy
‘cause he knows I hate that.
Daddy puts his hands
on our heads.
“Y’all missed
the freedom bus protests,
so you have no idea,” he says.
Mom clears her throat.
“Papi, you were two years old back then,”
She says, blowing his cover.
Daddy gives her a look and shrugs.
“Just sayin’. Now let your man
go to work.”
He adjusts his tie,
smoothes back his goatee
and heads towards the two old ladies,
all smiles and southern charm.
He tips his invisible hat
and says in his best Alabama-German:
”How y’all doin’, fraw-lines?”
then motions to the empty spot.
They grimace,
like they just swallowed
something bad.
Dan-ka, ma’ams,” he says politely,
not waiting for an answer.
He wiggles between them,
Clears his throat
and waits
for the next move…

Dec. 29th, 2012

(no subject)

Here's the article on Yummy Sandifer that appeared in TIME magazine on September 19, 1994:

time MAGAZINE

To Our Readers
By ELIZABETH VALK LONG, PRESIDENT
Considering all the tragedy they come across in their jobs, reporters have to develop tough skins to survive. But when members of TIME's Chicago bureau fanned out in the city last week to reconstruct the short, shocking life of Robert Sandifer, known as Yummy, their journalistic reserve was sorely tested. In an intense three-day period of reporting, the Midwest bureau chief Jon Hull and reporter Julie Grace trekked through Robert's former neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, talking to friends -- and more often enemies -- about the slain 11-year-old. They searched out family members, spending time with both Yummy's mother and his grandmother. They pored through worn folders on Robert at Juvenile Court and the Department of Children and Family Services. Joined by photographer Steve Liss to produce this week's cover story, they found themselves as moved as we think readers will be by their work.

Grace was particularly shaken by the interviews she did with Robert's former neighbors. "It's depressing to hear them talk about murder as if it's an everyday thing," she says. "And it's just heartbreaking to talk to 10- and 11-year-olds who don't expect to live past 19. As I was leaving Yummy's block, a woman called out to me, 'When are you coming back? You've gotten to be my friend.' Sometimes stories get to you; this one left my stomach in knots." Hull, who wrote our cover story last year on kids and guns, realized after all his digging that Robert's death was sadly predictable. "After three days of reporting," he says, "I still couldn't decide which was more appalling: the child's life or the child's death."

Integral to the coverage were Liss's evocative black-and-white photographs. Liss, who has covered presidential elections for TIME since 1976 and has taken 18 cover photos -- including last year's on the Midwest floods -- was called in from vacation in Boston. Flying to Chicago, he went immediately to the scene of Robert's murder, where he found that someone had placed a single red rose. Later he joined Hull and Grace to retrace the steps of Robert's life. Most poignant of all was the funeral on Wednesday. Liss, who volunteers as a Big Brother, was struck that the victim, no matter how troubled, was just a little boy. "His grandmother kept wailing that someone should have been there for him, and I know that's true," says Liss. His photos of the scene, he says, were quite simply "the saddest pictures I've ever taken."

Yummymugshot4
Murder In Miniature
At the age of 11, "Yummy" Sandifer killed and was killed. His short, violent life is a haunting tale.
By NANCY R. GIBBS

On a bright September afternoon last week, the mothers of Chicago's South Side brought their children to a vigil for a dead boy they had never met. They wanted their kids to see the scrawny corpse in the loose tan suit lying in a coffin, next to his stuffed animals, finally harmless. The big kids dragged the little kids up to look at the stitches on his face where the bullets fired into the back of his head had torn through. The only picture the family could find for the funeral program was a mug shot. "Take a good look," said the Rev. Willie James Campbell. "Cry if you will, but make up your mind that you will never let your life end like this."

Parents hoped to haunt their children; maybe fear would keep them safe. Lynn Jeneta, 29, took her nine-year-old son Ron. If he got scared enough, she decided, "maybe then he wouldn't be lying there himself one of these days." She pushed him right up to the coffin. Ron tried to stay calm. "Some kids said Yummy looked like he was sleeping, but he didn't look like he was sleeping to me." What exactly then did he look like? "Kind of like he was gone, you know?" His composure melts. "When Mama pushed me forward, I thought I was going to fall right in the damn coffin. That gives me nightmares, you know? Can you imagine falling into a coffin?"

Many who knew Robert ("Yummy") Sandifer better mourned him less. "Nobody didn't like that boy. Nobody gonna miss him," said Morris Anderson, 13. Anderson used to get into fistfights with Yummy, who received the nickname because of his love of cookies and Snickers bars. "He was a crooked son of a bitch," said a local grocer, who had barred him from the store for stealing so much. "Always in trouble. He stood out there on the corner and strong- armed other kids. No one is sorry to see him gone."

Nor, it seems, was anyone very surprised. The neighborhood was still grieving its other dead child, the girl Yummy allegedly killed two weeks ago, when he was supposed to fire on some rival gang members but shot 14-year-old Shavon Dean instead. Police descended on the gang, and Yummy became a liability. So he became a victim too. When he was found dead in a bloody mud puddle under a railway viaduct three days later, an entire city shuddered and clutched its children and looked for lessons.

The mayor of Chicago admitted that Yummy had slipped through the cracks. Just what cracks were those? The sharp crevices that trap children and break them into cruel little pieces. Chicago's authorities had known about Yummy for years. He was born to a teenage addict mother and a father now in jail. As a baby he was burned and beaten. As a student he often missed more days of school than he attended. As a ripening thug he shuttled between homes and detention centers and the safe houses maintained by his gang. The police arrested him again and again and again; but the most they could do under Illinois law was put him on probation. Thirteen local juvenile homes wouldn't take him because he was too young.

Before they grow up, these children can become walking weapons. One very mean little boy didn't grow up, so he became an icon instead. The crimes he committed -- and those he suffered -- shook the country's conscience in a way that violent acts with far larger body counts no longer do. "If ever there was a case where the kid's future was predictable, it was this case," says Cook County public guardian Patrick Murphy. "What you've got here is a kid who was made and turned into a sociopath by the time he was three years old." Yummy's mother Lorina called him, without irony, "an average 11-year-old." The courts and cops and probation officers and psychologists who tracked his criminal career all agree. "I see a lot of Roberts," says Cook County Circuit Judge Thomas Sumner, who handled charges against Yummy for armed robbery and car theft. "We see this 100 times a week," says Murphy.

The proof is in the paperwork -- worn folders inches thick, filed at the public guardian's office, the courts, the police headquarters and now the medical examiner's office. Yummy's files are indistinguishable from the records of thousands of other urban American kids. The evidence -- if more evidence is really necessary -- is overwhelming: when a child's brain is flooded, the child eventually drowns.

That was the verdict of a psychiatric evaluation last November. "Robert is emotionally flooded," the confidential report reads. "His response to the flooding is to back away from demanding situations and act out impulsively and unpredictably." The examiner asked him to complete the sentence "I am very . . ." "Sick," Yummy replied. The examiner saw a child full of self- hate, lonely, illiterate, wary. When he heard a walkie-talkie down the hall, he jumped from his seat, afraid of police. "You tryin' to trick me," he accused the examiner. There was not much doubt about how he came to be that way -- only about whether anyone or anything could save him.

Yummy's mother was the third of 10 children from four fathers -- she never knew her own. When she was 15 she had her first son Lorenzo, then Victor, then Yummy and eventually five more. She dropped out of 10th grade, found an apartment, went on welfare and nursed a crack habit. For a while she tried living with Yummy's father Robert Akins, who was convicted of drug and weapons charges. They soon split because he had "a rather angry and hot temper," she told a social worker.

So, apparently, did she. The first charge of child neglect was filed in 1984, when Lorina failed to follow doctors' orders for treating two-year-old Victor's eye condition. He eventually went blind. The following year 22-month- old Yummy arrived at Jackson Park Hospital covered with scratches and bruises. A few months later it was his sister, this time with second- and third-degree burns on her genitals. Lorina explained that the toddler had fallen on the radiator. An emergency-room nurse told the court that the injuries did not quite match the story. Someone probably held the child on the heater, the nurse testified.
The courts finally moved in a year later, when neighbors told police that the five children were routinely being left at home alone. By the time they removed the kids, Yummy was a bundle of anger and scars. He had long welts on his left leg; police suspected he was beaten with an electrical cord. There were cigarette burns on his shoulders and buttocks. "I never beat my kids," Lorina insists to this day. She says the scars were caused by chicken pox, not cigarettes. "I gave him all the attention I could," she says of Yummy, but admits there were distractions. Now 29, she has been arrested 41 times, mainly for prostitution.

"He shouldn't be dead," she says, sitting in her living room the day after his funeral. There is a white bucket in the corner with a live frog he caught a few weeks ago. "He liked to fish," she says. "People think he was a monster, but he was nice to me." She says she saw him regularly; he called her Reen instead of Mom, and, she admits, "he was always blaming me" for his problems. "They could have saved him and rehabilitated him," she insists. "When he started taking cars, they should have put him away then and given him therapy."

yummy family
From early on, the child-welfare workers had little hope for Lorina as a parent. "There is no reason to believe that Lorina Sandifer will ever be able to adequately meet her own needs, let alone to meet the needs of her growing family," a psychiatrist reported to the juvenile court in 1986. And so Yummy and his brothers and sister were placed with his grandmother, Janie Fields, whom Yummy took to calling Mama. Her prognosis as a care giver was not much more promising. The psychiatric report described Fields as "a very controlling, domineering, castrating woman with a rather severe borderline personality disorder."

Neighbors in the black working-class neighborhood called Roseland still remember the day Janie Fields moved into a two-story, three-bedroom house with her brood: nearly all her 10 children and 30 grandchildren lived with her at one time or another. "They are dirty and noisy, and they are ruining the neighborhood," complained a neighbor. Residents launched an unsuccessful petition drive to force Fields out. "All those kids are little troublemakers," said Carl McClinton, 23, who lives down the street. "This is the kind of neighborhood where we all look after each other's kids, but they are a rougher breed."

The neighborhood kids describe two different Yummy Sandifers. There is the bully, the extortionist, the fierce fighter who would take on the big kids and beat them. "Yummy would ask you for 50 cents," says Steve Nelson, 11, "and if he knew you were scared and you gave him the money, he'd ask for another 50 cents." Erica Williams, 20, a neighbor, says, "You really can't describe how bad he really was. He'd curse you completely out. He broke in school, took money, burned cars."

Others recall a sweeter side. Lulu Washington sells discount candy out of her house, just across from Yummy's. "He just wanted love," she says. For that, he could be disarmingly kind. "He'd say thank you, excuse me, pardon me." He loved animals and basketball and had a way with bicycles. He once even merged two bikes into a single, working tandem. Those were the good times. "It always meant trouble when he was with a group," says Ollie Jones- Edwards, 54. "If he was alone, he was sweet as jelly."
Yummy liked great big cars, Lincolns and Cadillacs, says Micaiah Peterson, 17. "He could drive real well. It was like a midget driving a luxury car." Sometimes he hung out at the local garage, learning about alternators and fuel injectors. When he wasn't stealing cars, he was throwing things at them or setting them on fire. "What could you do?" asks McClinton. "Tell his grandmother? She'd yell at him, and he'd be right back on the street. If the police picked him up, they'd just bring him back home because he was too young to lock up. He was untouchable, and he knew that."

His odds of reaching the age of 12 dropped sharply when he fell in with the local Black Disciples gang. Several thousand or so gang members in Chicago are spread out across separate fiefdoms, led by "ministers" in their 30s and 40s who are always recruiting children. There is plenty of work for everyone: car theft, drug running, prostitution, extortion, credit-card fraud. Police suspect that gang leaders use the little ones as drug runners and hit men because they are too young to be seriously punished if they are caught.
On the other hand, they aren't likely to last long. "If you make it to 19 around here, you are a senior citizen," says Terrance Green, 19. "If you live past that, you're doing real good." A Black Disciple named Keith, 17, describes the role the youngest members play: "He's this small little punk but wants a name, right? So you make him do the work. 'Hey, homey, get me a car. A red car. A red sports car. By tonight. I'm taking my woman out. Or hey, homey, go find me $50. Or hey, little homey, you wanna be big? Go pop that nigger that's messing with our business."

Yummy averaged a felony a month for the last year and a half of his life; 23 felonies and five misdemeanors in all. Ann O'Callaghan, a lawyer and assistant public guardian, met Yummy once, last December in court. She was astounded by his size and demeanor. "Some of these kids we represent are ominous characters. But I had to bend over, and I was like, 'Hi! My name is Ann, and I'm your lawyer.' I couldn't believe it." Yummy wasn't the least bit intimidated by the courtroom. "It was like he was just sitting there waiting for a bus."

Last fall Yummy was placed with the Lawrence Hall Youth Services, which runs homes for troubled teenagers. He ran away in February and went back to his grandmother until June, when he spent two weeks in a detention facility. In July, Yummy and his cousin Darryl went on a church trip to Six Flags Great America, an hour north of the city. "Yummy couldn't get on most of the rides," Darryl says. "He was too small." On another day a neighbor, Ida Falls, took Yummy and 12 other kids to the local police station to see a film on crime. The cops asked her not to bring him back because he got into fights with other children. On Aug. 15 he was charged in another burglary. By Aug. 28 he would be firing the fatal bullets -- and it would be too late.

shavon Dean
Falls' niece Shavon Dean lived around the corner from Yummy and had known him growing up. One August Sunday night she was sitting in the kitchen eating Doritos, while her mother Deborah was out back grilling ribs and chicken for a family barbecue. Shavon slipped out for a few minutes to walk a friend home. She never made it back.

George Knox, a gang researcher at Chicago State University, believes Yummy was sent on a specific mission of revenge sparked by a drug feud or a personal insult. "If it was just an initiation ceremony, he'd do it from a car. But to go right up to the victims, that means he was trying to collect some points and get some rank or maybe a nice little cash bonus." Yummy opened fire with a 9-mm semiautomatic into a crowd of kids playing football. Sammy Seay, 16, was struck in the hand. "I hit the ground," says Seay. "It was the second or third shot before I knew I had been shot. So I got up and I just ran, trying to save my life." Shavon was struck in the head and died within minutes. "Shavon never got a chance, never got a chance," her mother says.

Yummy spent the last three days of his life on the run. Gang members shuttled him between safe houses and abandoned buildings as police swooped down on the neighborhood, searching for the shooter, followed by a flock of reporters. Gang leaders felt the pressure. "He was like a trapped animal with everyone after him," says Knox. "He was the hunter, and then he was the prey."

Maybe Yummy figured out that the gang's protection was not worth much. Janie Fields last spoke to Yummy Wednesday afternoon before he died. "He said, 'What is the police looking for me for?' I said, 'I'm coming to get you.' I had clothes with me 'cause I knew he was probably filthy and dirty. My heart was racing. I said, 'You ain't done nothing wrong, just let me come and get you.' " The phone went dead. She went to 95th Street, where he said he would be. "He wasn't there."

But he appeared that night on a neighbor's porch, visibly frightened, asking that she call his grandmother so he could turn himself in. He asked if they could say a prayer together. The neighbor went to make the call, and when she came back, he was gone. The police can only guess what happened next. Derrick Hardaway, 14, and his brother Cragg, 16, both honor students and fellow gang members, found Yummy and promised that they could help him get out of town. They drove him to a railroad underpass, a dark tunnel marbled with gang graffiti. Yummy's body was found lying in the mud, with two bullet wounds in the back of his head.

Now it's the Hardaway brothers' turn. Authorities say gang leaders, who can easily order hits in any prison in the state, may have the Hardaways targeted next. Both boys were arrested and are being held in protective custody. As for the other children in Yummy's neighborhood, when they are asked what would make them feel safer, most give the same answer: getting a gun. Among other things, it would protect them from the children who already have them.

There were those who were missing Yummy last week, those who had seen the child and not the killer. "Everyone thinks he was a bad person, but he respected my mom, who's got cancer," says Kenyata Jones, 12. Yummy used to come over to Jones' house several times a month for sleep-overs. "We'd bake cookies and brownies and rent movies like the old Little Rascals in black and white," says Jones. "He was my friend, you know? I just cried and cried at school when I heard about what happened," he says, plowing both hands into his pants pockets for comfort before returning to his house to take care of his mother. "And I'm gonna cry some more today, and I'm gonna cry some more tomorrow too."

yummyfuneral




 

Dec. 28th, 2012

(no subject)

gc1
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From Philadelphia Weekly: Blazing Saddles

A muddy white pickup truck slowly pulls into an empty gravel parking lot next to the Speedway, a grassy 500-yard straightaway lined with thick low-hanging trees in Fairmount Park.
A procession of cars follows. Men, young and old, pile out. Some wear sports jerseys and ballcaps, others barn boots and dirt-stained jeans. A few men arrive galloping out of the brush, cool atop their mounts, sporting cowboy hats and silver-and-gold Western-style belt buckles.
A car radio blasts old-school soul.
Wives and girlfriends gather at picnic tables, holding babies, chatting and laughing.
The men hang in the parking lot, shaking hands, giving bear hugs and talking trash, the first language of the Speedway.
"When you gonna bring your horse up here?"
"Man, just tell me when you want to do it."
"You crazy you think your horse a racehorse."
A trailer pulls up. In the back, a big chestnut-bronze thoroughbred.
A group of men ambles through the grass with another thoroughbred, this one midnight black, leg muscles flexing visibly with every step.
"Let's get it on," someone shouts.

Black inner-city cowboys have been racing their horses at the Speedway since before even the old-timers can remember.
"Some things just always been around," says one Speedway regular, gray and stooped, moving through the crowd. "It's what we do."
Speedway lore dates the races to early last century, when black stable hands who worked for wealthy equestrians would bring their mounts here for a little weekend racing. A ritual was born, and the tradition has endured.
For years black cowboys bought horses at livestock auctions in New Holland, Pa., and cared for them at stables in North and West Philadelphia. Many of the cowboys bought horses as hobbies in their retirement, taking them for weekend rides through the neighborhood and across Fairmount Park's many trails. Today a dwindling number of cowboys still buy aging racehorses--many of which would otherwise be killed--and give them a second racing life.
For generations, kids more interested in horses than in hanging on street corners have spent their summers in city stables "shoveling crap," as they put it, and dreaming of one day riding at the Speedway. The action starts as soon as the ground softens each spring.
Over the decades, legends were made. And some are still in the making.
There were the jockeys. Boo, Parrot, Devon and Jerome. They all could ride, say the old-timers.
Today there's Keith. Keith is the man. Beating Keith is the only way you can get a name for yourself on the Speedway.
The old-timers say there were too many horses to remember. There was Annie, who streaked to 21-0 on the Speedway. And Big Kojack and Little Kojack too.
Now the horse is O.J. "Fast as lightning," they say. Trouble comes getting him to stay calm at the gate. He jumps and bucks all over the place, because when he's ready to run, he's ready. If you get a rider who can handle 'em, he'll run the quarter-mile in 19 seconds flat.
There are 10 tales for every race at the Speedway.

Some of the old-timers estimate that just 20, 30 years ago, there must have been 400 or 500 cowboys in the city. Now, they say, maybe a hundred remain. Many of the stables were built on small plots of inner-city land or in former factory and warehouse spaces.
But most of these stables have closed over the past couple decades due to redevelopment or stable mismanagement. This past February, as part of its Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, the city evicted dozens of cowboys and more than a hundred of their horses from three stables at Master from 31st to 32nd Street.
The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority claims the cowboys were illegally using the former warehouse as a stable, a use it wasn't zoned for.
Many of the Master Street cowboys are quick to defend their home.
"The animals were kept in fine condition," says Ellis Ferrell, who ran horseback riding programs for kids in Strawberry Mansion and Brewerytown, and was in charge of one of the Master Street stables. "They were just looking to get us out."
With nowhere to keep his horses in the city, Ferrell, 65, was forced to end the programs he'd run for 23 years.
"Learning to ride kept the kids out of the drugs and taught them responsibility and respect," he says. "But all that's gone now."
The cleared space where the stables once stood is being sold to a private developer who plans to develop a mix of market-rate and low-income houses on the site.
The cowboys say the Master Street stable was the last large, affordable place for them to board their horses in the city.
"It was our headquarters," says one.
A few cowboys have relocated their horses to better digs in New Jersey or the western suburbs. But most others couldn't afford the boarding rates and sold their horses.
There are fewer cowboys every year, which means fewer races. Races were held at the Speedway most every weekend last summer. This summer there are races every other weekend, and sometimes only every third.

Boo stands alongside the Speedway, his arms folded and cap pulled down low, watching as horses are prepped to race.
Before warming up, leg wraps are removed and muscles rubbed down. Some of the horses get "vitamins," Speedway slang for performance enhancers.
"We can race today," says Cheech. "I don't give a damn."
Cheech points his finger in the air and bellydances in a skintight purple shirt. Boo laughs. "You wanna race me, Boo? Bring that horse of yours out here."
Boo offers a dismissive nod and a wave, then turns his back on Cheech, who's still yelling.
"O.J.," he says, drawing out the infamous initials that belong to his copper-colored Oklahoma-bred 10-year-old gelding.
Sixteen hands high with legs like tree trunks, O.J. is the current folk hero of the Speedway and the cause of Cheech's rage.
"His name is O.J.--the Juice," says Boo. "Ain't no one faster."
In the seven years Boo has owned O.J., he's raced the animal just seven times.
"I pick my spots," he says.
Cheech's horse was the most recent victim.
It was Cheech who'd been pestering Boo to race. Cheech taunted Boo last summer. "You scared, Boo. You scared."
But Boo wouldn't bite. Boo played it cool, took his time, let Cheech get confident. A confident man, Boo knows, will bet big. Then one day Boo came to the Speedway with O.J.
"Let's get it on," said Boo.
A purse was agreed on, word spread, and the crowd swelled.
"When the Juice runs, that's the race of the century," says Boo.
O.J. was jumpy at the starting line. Cheech's horse bolted first and gained a big lead while O.J. stayed frozen for what seemed like forever. A hush came over the crowd.
Then the Juice jumped.
"When he landed, the Juice was right beside that boy's horse," says Boo, laughing. "And I turned around and looked at him and said, 'This race is over.'"

Back in his day Boo was a well-known and respected jockey on the Speedway. But those days are behind him. His once-thin build now resembles a runningback's due to steroids prescribed to treat injuries.
Boo was born in Washington, D.C., 47 years ago. As a child he spent time on his grandfather's Virginia farm, where there were horses and mules. His mother later moved the family to Philadelphia.
"Me and my cousins, we used to go up to 40th and Parkside after school," Boo says in a rapid-fire Southern drawl. "They had stables there and would rent the horses out. The older guys would come off work to take care of their horses, and they'd start in with each other. Just like the talk on the Speedway: 'Well, your horse can't run.' 'What, you wanna run?' We'd go and sit and watch them race. And I said to myself, 'Well, I seem to like this.'"
When Boo was 17, a racehorse owner named Mr. Hilton spotted him.
"Where you learn to ride like that, boy?" Mr. Hilton asked.
"Street racing," Boo answered.
Mr. Hilton introduced Boo to the pro racing circuit. Boo worked as a groom and later as an exercise rider at Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts and at Tampa Bay Downs in Florida.
"I was galloping a horse one morning," Boo says. "But the guy didn't tell me the horse wore blinkers. When the sun came out, the horse saw the shadow and ran right over to the railing. Me and him flipped over. I said, 'Oh man, here we go.'"
Boo fractured his neck, and broke an arm and collarbone.
He recovered, but then came another accident, this one along the Parkside Avenue trail. Boo was galloping on a horse when a four-wheeler drove by. The horse got spooked and ran straight into a tree.
"I broke my whole left side," says Boo.
The horse died a week later.

Boo now spends all his time training horses instead of racing them. Till last February he stabled his mounts at Master Street. Before that he was part of the famed Hole in the Wall stables at Cecil B. Moore and Glenwood avenues, an old factory converted by the cowboys. More than a hundred horses were stabled there, says Boo. The Hole in the Wall closed in 1981. It's now a vacant lot.
After Master Street closed, Boo was able to move his horses into some of the few remaining stable spaces in Fairmount Park.
"Well, I know why they did it," says Boo of being chased off Master Street. "They're trying to get people back into the city, so they're building all these houses. To do that they had to knock somebody out. They knocked the cowboys out."
Boo's mornings are now spent at the stables in Fairmount Park, catering to O.J. and other horses, cleaning stalls, changing bedding, dishing out feed and riding or walking the horses. His stalls are clean, and his horses are strong and healthy.
"I love my horses," he says. "Treat them like they're my world."
O.J. gets the middle stall.
"I treat him like a hot rod," says Boo. "Make sure everything's right on him and buy the best stuff. If he needs a girlfriend, I get him a girlfriend."
Boo says O.J. will race again soon.
"There are just too many fools to be tooken," he says of the hot shots who show up at the Speedway but know nothing about horses.
Hot shots who make their money on the street and have plenty of it to burn, who go to the auctions in New Holland, overpay for horses, hire trainers and jockeys and then come to the Speedway looking to race.
"They think they're smart and know everything," says Boo. "We let 'em think they have a fast horse. And we just take 'em."

Boo's son Kyle stands in the shadows of the trees where a crowd of about 50 waits restlessly for the trainers to finish their prep so the race can start.
Kyle, 16, is small and lean and has wanted to be a jockey since Boo introduced him to horses as a child. He spends many of his summer days in the stables with Boo.
Having shoveled his share of manure, Kyle's earned himself a place on the Speedway. He already has two races under his belt. Victories both.
Boo says he worked his old connections to land his boy a job as a groom at the track when he graduates from high school. "He's going to Philadelphia Park," Boo says proudly.
For now, though, Kyle plans on racing Champ--a big, fast copper-colored horse--at the Speedway in the coming weeks. "I'm taking all new contenders," he brags.
Though he's a relative newcomer to the Speedway, even Kyle sees things are changing.
"You'd always see new faces and all that," he says. "But now you see the same little bunch of people coming out."

Today's race is a grudge match between two horse owners from the Fletcher Street stables, a small, run-down hundred-year-old structure, one of the few remaining stables in North Philadelphia. Both Fletcher Street thoroughbreds--Power and Chief--are big winners at the Speedway this season.
"It's the race everyone wants to see," says Jordan, Chief's owner.
Burly, with a hustler's smile and tinted sunglasses, Jordan allows himself to be identified only by the famous name printed on the back of his Washington Wizards jersey.
"We won't put all the stipulations to rest today," says Jordan, "but we gonna race 'em."
Since the horses in this race are stablemates, their owners have wagered just a dollar on the race. Yet there will, of course, be side bets.
Jordan is nothing but confident.
"Keith is riding my horse," he says. "And he's the best."

Standing at one end of the Speedway, Keith buttons a black down vest over his small jockey's frame, completing his riding uniform of baggy black pants, white sneakers and a white T-shirt.
At 44, with innumerable wins under his belt, Keith is a legend on the Speedway. He plays the part well. He spends most of his prerace time pacing the sidelines, his thin face, covered with a scraggily beard, looking tense with concentration.
Keith was just 3 years old the first time his sister's boyfriend came around his North Philadelphia neighborhood on a horse. The boyfriend let Keith hop up for a ride, and he was hooked.
He worked as an exercise rider at Philadelphia Park for a time. But it was at the Speedway that Keith found his calling. He's been riding horses at the makeshift track for 27 years.
He gets all the top rides and big-money races at the Speedway, and has taught most of the other Speedway jockeys how to ride--mainly by beating them again and again. But they keep coming back because the only way to earn a rep is by besting him.
"Some of them luck out and beat Keith once in a while," says Boo. "But most of 'em don't."
Keith runs the Fletcher Street stables these days. He's there seven days a week, 12 hours a day, cleaning, riding and training the horses. It's a tough way to make a living.
"I stay in it for the love of the horses," he says.
The Fletcher Street stables are small and cramped. There wasn't enough room to take in the displaced Master Street cowboys. "We were like a family," says Keith of the two stables. He says it's just a matter of time before the city comes looking to close down Fletcher Street.
"Ain't gonna be none of us anymore," he says. "All the black people that own horses, the city is pushing 'em out of the city."
Keith tucks his riding crop under his arm and hops up on Chief. He pulls back the reins, gives his horse a little heel and heads down the Speedway for a warm-up gallop.
Keith is cool and calm upon a horse.
"He knows how to ride with the horse," says Boo. "Them kids don't know what to do against him. They'll get all excited and start whipping the horse, all caught up in trying to beat him. And Keith, he'll just set his horse, and when they get real close to the finish line, he'll just zoom by them laughing."
"See what they did to [Smarty Jones jockey] Stewart Elliott at the Belmont," says Keith. "I play those games with the guys down here."
Earlier this year, some cowboys from South Carolina came to race at the Speedway.
One of South Carolina guys grew up in Philly and was cool with everybody. But the rest were running their mouths.
They lit into the Philly cowboys for not being able to scrape together enough purse money.
"The trees got more green than y'all bitches do," one of them taunted.
The opposing jockey tore into Keith.
"This is my home," he spat at Keith. "I own this strip."
Keith stayed cool, and with a hundred yards remaining, he blew into the lead.
Crossing the finish line to a frenzied crowd, Keith stood up on his horse. He pointed his whip at the lagging South Carolina jockey and shouted, "Don't come here talking trash."

"Yo, who likes Chief?" yells Power's heavyset goateed owner, standing at the finish line, taking some last-minute bets. "Come on, y'all."
"They're both fast horses," Boo says. "But I like Keith's horse."
The jockeys trot their horses down the Speedway toward the starting line. There's a chain-link fence at the bottom of the Speedway where the jockeys stop and wait for the race to start.
Keith is riding against Timmy, a young jockey he beat badly two weekends ago.
The horses reach the fence.
The crowd spills onto the Speedway.
The horses seem reluctant to get into starting position.
"They both down there fighting," yells Power's owner. "Two studs down there. One got enough, the other one don't."
The horses settle down.
All is quiet for a moment.
The horses bump out of the start.
The jockeys quickly regain control.
"Here they come!" yells Cheech. "Here they come!"
The crowd recedes back onto the sidelines, cheering and jumping.
The owners cheer on their horses.
"Come on, Power."
"Take 'em Chief. Take 'em."
Timmy is on the outside and has a slight lead.
The riders near the bushes. About 200 yards to go.
Keith starts to make his move.
Timmy invades Keith's lane, cutting him off and forcing him toward the bushes.
Keith reins in his horse.
Timmy takes off and finishes two lengths ahead, pumping his fist as he crosses the finish line.
Keith follows behind shaking his head in disgust and furiously screaming epithets that get lost in the noise of the crowd.
Power's owner is jumping up and down.
"You know what I mean, baby!" he yells. "You know what I mean, baby!"
Someone taped the race with a camcorder. The replay shows what everybody knows: Timmy cut Keith off.
Keith stands off by the brush, sweating and pacing.
The crowd starts to thin out, laughing and relaying the race to each other as they leave.
Jordan stands at the finish line paying out his bets despite the disputed ending.
"That's how we do it here," he says, smiling. "This ain't Philadelphia Park."

Keith stands in the parking lot by the Speedway.
Most of his buddies are already back at Fletcher Street drinking beers and bullshitting about the race.
He's cooled down since the end of the race.
"Timmy was just trying to beat me at all costs," he says, smiling confidently. "A lot of these younger guys, that's their goal in life--to beat me."
Boo walks over with Jordan.
"It was a race," says Jordan, sarcastically.
"A dirty race," adds Boo, laughing. "But, you know, we get 'em next time. That's how you got to look at it."
They all shake hands.
"This is the only thing we like to do," says Keith about the Speedway races, before climbing into the car that will take him back to the stables.

Dec. 27th, 2012

Scenes from Chess Rumble

CRexerpt
bb spread
CM park spread
alley spread

Dec. 26th, 2012

(no subject)

chess

All the right moves

Andre Hall, USF's star running back, approaches life like he does a game of chess, which he grew to love.

By GREG AUMAN, St. Pete Times Staff Writer
Published August 21, 2005

TAMPA - He could choose the king, and you'd understand completely.

He could answer with the queen, the most powerful piece on the board, and you'd have no reason to argue.

But ask Andre Hall what his favorite chess piece is, and it's that rare question to which USF's record-setting running back answers without hesitation.

"The knight," Hall says, smiling. "You never know if I'm going to go left or right, front or back. You never know. As a knight, you can do many things. You can cover eight spaces. At my position, I have to wear a lot of hats, so it represents me the most."

Take a step back, think of a knight's unique L-shaped moves across a chessboard, and you can picture the shifty running back making cuts, leaving a defense in, well, pieces.

And if it seems unbelievable that an all-conference star would be as at ease talking chess as he is football, you don't know unbelievable. Just ask Hall about the time he beat Jim Brown - yes, that Jim Brown - in a chess match ... the night before a game.

For Hall, chess and football are much the same game. Some athletes visualize themselves in sports video games - and Hall does that, too. But more often, he sees himself on a chessboard. He sees chess in football. He sees football in chess. He sees chess in life.

"I use chess for everything," Hall said. "For living. Make sure your next move is your best move."



* * *

Ask Hall if he could play chess with any four people, alive or dead, and his response is, initially, predictable.

"Bobby Fischer has to be one. He's the greatest," Hall says. "And I played once with Jim Brown. ... I actually beat Jim Brown in chess."

Wait a sec. Brown, like NFL legend Jim Brown? Hall of Famer Jim Brown? Maybe-best-football-player-ever Jim Brown?

"He's my idol," said Hall, a senior who turned 23 Saturday. "Him and Barry Sanders. They're both quiet. They get up. They don't celebrate. That's why I like them."

True story: Hall was a sophomore at Garden City (Kan.) Community College the night before a game at Butler County in El Dorado, Kan. The hotel the Broncbusters were staying at happened to be hosting a chess tournament with the winner earning a game against Hall's idol.

"You might not get an opportunity like this ever again, so I'll let you enter the competition," Hall recalled his coach telling him.

The coach helped get Hall into the tournament at the last minute, and not only did he play, he won, setting up the match with Brown. Hall promptly beat him.

"Time of my life," Hall said. "The whole time we're playing, I'm looking at his hands. His hands are so large. He's got the biggest hands ever. He shook my hand, and I felt like a woman. Like, "Please, try not to break my hand.' "

In November, Hall and USF will play at Syracuse, which will retire Brown's No. 44 jersey that day. Memo to coach Jim Leavitt: Keep close track of Hall - and Brown, for that matter - the night before the game.



* * *

Before Andre Hall, before Jim Brown, before even football, Ben Franklin wrote that the merit of chess is in three "very valuable qualities of the mind" strengthened by the game: foresight, "which ... considers the consequences that may attend an action;" circumspection, "which surveys the whole chessboard, or scene of action;" and caution, "not to make our moves too hastily."

Hall, like Franklin, finds the greatest value in caution, learned from the simple rules of chess. If you touch a piece, you must move it; if you put it down, you must leave it there.

Ask Hall a question, and he'll pause a split second, surveying a mental chessboard, making sure the words he has in mind are in fact the best ones he can offer.

He learned chess in St. Petersburg's Mel-Tan Heights neighborhood from an old man who played with friends in a nearby alley. Hall knows him only as Pops, but he has him to thank, in some small way, for the path that has led him to the cover of USF's media guide.

"I'd walk by him every day, and one day, he stopped me, said, "Young man, what do you want to do with yourself?' " Hall recalls. "I'm about 16, so I'm thinking, "What's this old man talking about?' He's got a long beard, dreadlocks. But he made me think. He said, "You're getting to the age you need to think about the future.' "

He taught the game to Hall, who soon was bringing friends to learn from Pops. They drew a makeshift chess grid on a table ("So you couldn't lose the board," he said) and kept a bag of pieces on the front porch of one house, playing marathon games.

"When I say all day, I mean starting at 3 o'clock, going to 11 at night," Hall said.

In watching Pops and his friends play, Hall was struck by the sheer silence of the game. This was the opposite of football; the only word spoken was "check."

"There was no talking, no back and forth," he said. "The focus I got from that, it helped you know what you had to do. I took that into my perspective on life."

Chess purists will tell you saying "check" is something of an insult, suggesting an opponent doesn't realize his king has been threatened or defeated. That said, Hall enjoys the game too much to yield to a sometimes stodgy code of conduct.

"He loves to tell you "checkmate,' " said Hall's brother, Johnny Barthel, who can remember when chess replaced Monopoly as the embodiment of a friendly sibling rivalry.

Give Hall a short break during a locker room photo shoot, and he takes the prop chessboard to the locker of safety Danny Verpaele for a quick game. The two were next-door neighbors last year, and when Verpaele left a chessboard out on a counter one day, Hall insisted on a game.

"He beat me in like 10 minutes," said Verpaele, who loses again this time as teammates gather around. "We played maybe three times. He killed me."

Barthel said chess has made his brother a better person, a more patient young man. Hall says he found chess about the same time he got himself together academically, getting his grades up enough to be eligible to play football his senior year at Dixie Hollins. That ultimately allowed him to come to USF two years later, and the same patience kept him with the Bulls this year.

After last season, Hall considered leaving early for the NFL draft. Instead of making any rash moves, he did what chess players call "sitting on your hands," getting advice from Leavitt and running backs coach Carl Franks. He wrote to the NFL's advisory panel, which told him he'd likely be taken in the fourth round.

The fourth round is the draft's second day. Second-day picks aren't knights in the NFL as much as pawns, and staying at USF not only would improve his draft position, but put him that much closer to a degree.

"It wasn't a big deal, wasn't the first day or anything. I'm sure I can do better," Hall said. "And they told me my weaknesses. Lack of home run speed, taking on bigger defenders, blocking. That motivated me a little more to work even harder."



* * *

On a chessboard, the knight is a stealth weapon, easier to hide than the linear attacks of a bishop or rook. It's the only piece that can attack a queen without first being vulnerable to being taken itself. Hall will not be able to surprise many opponents this fall.

A year ago, he was a largely unknown name, a coveted recruit lost by many programs through stints at two junior colleges. He started slowly, rushing for just a combined 98 yards in his first two games. He emerged with three touchdowns and 119 yards in USF's double-overtime win at Texas Christian then fully arrived three weeks later, rushing for 200 yards against Army.

If anyone hadn't noticed Hall, that ended Nov.3 on national television, when he rushed for a school-record 275 yards and two scores in a 45-20 road upset of Alabama-Birmingham. It opened a four-game stretch in which he rushed for 725 yards, ultimately finishing with a USF-record 1,357.

"He was the new kid on the block last year, not a name many people knew. He was still a novelty," Franks said. "This year, he's more of a target. He's the guy people know about. Defenses will be more geared to stopping him."

To counter that, Hall's dedication in the past year has been unprecedented. He had never played spring football before this year, never worked out in the offseason before this one, never volunteered for summer workouts before this summer.

"He realizes he'll have to be better than last year," Franks said. "He has to be stronger. But he's had a year's worth of hard training. He's stronger, more durable with a little more speed in him this year."

If Leavitt has concerns about Hall, they might be in how he's able to handle the spotlight now fixed on him and maintain his focus. Here again, chess is football's ally for the Bulls.

Along with foresight, circumspection and caution, chess has reminded Hall of humility, of the relative unimportance of any single piece. Queens are sacrificed in chess. Knights are traded for positioning on the board, and a pawn that sticks around long enough to reach the other end of the board can become a queen itself.

It's a game best played with pieces moving in concert, with the threat of one piece clearing the success of another in one coordinated attack.

"The most important thing for me is bringing everybody together, being a leader, making sure everybody's okay," Hall said. "I want to make sure everybody's on the same page. It's my job to be a good leader. I know I'm going to get it done, but it's about the team."

Nov. 9th, 2012

In Praise of Librarians


Just let me say off the bat: I would not be here without librarians. Libraries have given me a career. Libraries have been my refuge in new cities. Librarians have put my books into the hands of kids who may not have found them. And it was a librarian who gave me the book that turned me into a reader.

I spent this past weekend surrounded by them at the YALSA conference in St. Louis. The love was palpable. In the first hour, librarians would spot me and make a beeline to take pictures, give praise, tell me about how they couldn't keep my books on their shelves. They even confused my brother in arms, Torrey Maldonado, for me (to be fair, he's a little better looking). And then the Book Blitz started and they lined up for an hour to tell me their individual stories and how one of my books made them cry at the reference desk or something amazing like that.

It was enough to make me think that maybe I'm doing something worthwhile.



Then came our panel: Guys Talking to Guys with my buddies Andrew Smith, Torrey, and Antony John. The amazing aspect of it (besides that it was packed to the gills) was the addition of 4 young male readers who had the guts and personality to outshine these outspoken authors. These young'uns pretty much stole the show, which is hard to do because we said a lot of compelling things too. It was kind of shocking, for once, not to have just the adults talking about how teens feels or think. What a revelation: they told us themselves!


It was powerful, funny, poignant and a rocking good time.

All credit is due to the amazing YA librarian of STPL, Carrie Dietz. I have met wonderful librarians all over this country, but she may be the best. Her dedication to books and students is awe-inspiring. She has given so many book talks at so many schools that when I heard the number, I knew it had to be wrong, but I also knew it to be true. She works with juvenile detention facilities and Title 1 schools and gets folks like me to come out to StL over and over (this was my third time). She even showed me the world that became the subject of the novel I am working on right now. So she's not just affecting how I relate to readers, she affects my actual writing.


If there is to be a YA goddess of librarians, I nominate her.


In between, just hanging out with Andrew, Antony, and Torrey was a blast. We ate, we drank, we hung out at Sweetie Pies with fake Diana Ross and Samuel Jackson. Antony put me and Torrey up, without ever having met us, and didn't live to regret it (thanks, man)! I got to take Drew up into the Arch and scare the tar out of him, which is hard to do (hey, when that elevator door closed, even I panicked). We're all so different, but all connected by the power and inspiration of what we do. That a good gang to belong to.



Someone remarked that soon I'll be looking for a second home there. Not a bad idea...

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