Who says Cleveland needs saving?


Cleveland, where I was born and raised, had a birthday last Tuesday. The city turned 218, which feels young, particularly for a place so associated with being old and faded. Even the I.M. Pei-designed Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, sitting on the city’s lakefront, feels like a relic of the past.

The joke about the Cuyahoga River catching on fire is tired, too. (It actually happened, in 1969.) So are the jokes about our sports teams.

No major Cleveland pro sports franchise has won a title since the Browns’ NFL title in 1964, earned at Municipal Stadium where my father and my uncle braved the wintry Lake Erie crosswinds to witness it in person. My dad had just turned 18.

That long wait is why I rejoiced at the return on NBA superstar (and Akron product) LeBron James to the Cavaliers, joy that host Melissa Harris-Perry recounted a couple weekends back when I wasn’t interrupting her with a photobomb on live air.

Yes, I was that hyped; still am. But I’ve also been thinking a lot about a cliché being tossed around, one that troubles me as a fellow northeast Ohio kid who also moved away: “You can’t go home again.”

You can’t go home again, LeBron. LeBron proves you can go home again. LeBron decides he can go home again.

Sure, as a lifelong Cleveland sports fan, I was indignant when “King James” announced in an ostentatious live ESPN special in 2010 that he was leaving his long-suffering city and “taking his talents to South Beach.”

But in retrospect, who was I to complain? I haven’t lived in Cleveland for nearly 17 years. Neither have many of my childhood friends.

Like James, we had reasons to leave that made sense to us at the time. We wanted opportunities we couldn’t see possible in a city we were raised to love but that the rest of the country saw as a loser.  We wanted a chance to travel, to grow, to make mistakes, and not be sent back defeated.

Many a late night at the office was fueled by fear of failure – visions of showing up in my father’s driveway with a brimming U-Haul, the big city having kicked my behind. Cleveland became a consolation prize, at best.

But now, the suggestion that “you can’t go home again” touches a nerve for many of our fellow Northeast Ohio expatriates. Frankly, it pisses us off. The idea that a Cleveland kid can’t return seems utterly contradictory, given how often we are forced to defend our hometown from sophomoric jokes and correct the misconceptions of out-of-towners who see, quite literally, nothing to celebrate about the area.

What do we hear when the words “Cleveland” or “Ohio” make the news? Aside from LeBron and the news about the 2016 Republican convention, you see a lot about cutting early voting hours, rejecting alternative energy sources, crackdowns on abortion and contraception access, not to mention the guy who held three women as sex slaves in his house for more than a decade.

James touched on the city’s challenges in the Sports Illustrated essay where he announced his return to Cleveland. It almost felt more like a promotional ad than it did a message about basketball.

“I want kids in Northeast Ohio… to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business,” he wrote. “Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.”

The region needs more than just a star basketball player’s talent. While the trend has reversed slightly in the past year, Cleveland and the rest of Ohio has been suffering from a “brain drain” for decades. From 2000 to 2010, the state lost more than 65,000 young adults, Census figures show – a drop of nearly 3%. Only Michigan did worse.

ESPN host Jemele Hill, a native of Detroit, another struggling Midwestern city, spoke on this point during the July 13 Melissa Harris-Perry discussion about James.

“Detroit, Cleveland; they’re sister cities. The mentality is very much the same. This is a place that people leave and forget about, that people leave and they go on to do great things, and they never come back,” Hill said. “And so for him to actively choose them when he doesn’t have to, it’s just symbolic and it’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen in sports.”

That’s why James’ return resonates in a new way with me. Yes, I am a lifelong Cavaliers fan, so I was thrilled that the best basketball player on the planet will be playing for my team again. I hope my dad and I might see a championship, together.

But just as the “how” of his departure to Miami bothered me, the “why” of his return was the best part – returning not because northeast Ohio offered the best opportunities, but because it’s home.

Should I pull a LeBron?

Our host has joked that maybe I should leave the show and move back home. Truthfully, it’s a discussion I’ve been having with my wife – a fellow Buckeye – and other Cleveland expats with increasing frequency. I rarely have a conversation with friends who have returned that doesn’t include a plea for me to join them. I often discuss the idea with friends here in New York and elsewhere who have watched Cleveland’s struggle over the last few decades, wondering if our presence there might change things for the better.

There’s the rub. Does Cleveland really need us expats to save it, or is it doing all right on its own?

“Everything is just getting busier and busier,” a 34-year-old Cleveland resident told the Los Angeles Times. “We have such a worse reputation than we deserve.”

An undeserved reputation isn’t the only issue. Cleveland is genuinely improving.

According to Cleveland State University population dynamics researcher Richey Piiparinen, more graduate school alums moved to Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is located, between 2007 and 2011 from Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Brooklyn, NY than it sent to those places. (I live in Brooklyn.) 40,000 people with college degrees moved to Cleveland during that period, and the number of educated 25- to 34-year-olds grew 68%.

The downtown area, moribund during my youth, continues to reinvent itself. The city’s plan to renovate the city center, Public Square, in time for the GOP convention got a big boost recently with an $8 million grant. The Flats, the area that local comic Mike Polk, Jr. called a “Scooby-Doo ghost town” in one of his YouTube tourism parodies five years ago? It’s showing signs of life, with plans for more. Also, there is a new medical mart and convention center complex.

And one thing about Cleveland no one can deny: its world-renowned hospital, the Cleveland Clinic. Pacific Standard magazine reported the hospital is a big jobs engine since it draws not just local patients, but also international ones seeking care.

The savior complex is both alluring and frightening, and one could argue it’s precisely what “King James” fled when he went to Miami. That’s why his homecoming should prompt humility, not pride.

“In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have,” he wrote in SI, offering no guarantees. It’s a good lesson for us natives if we’re afforded the chance to return to Cleveland: our hometown may not need us quite as much as we’d like to think.

This was originally published on MHPshow.com.

When code-switching goes wrong

It is quite difficult to acquire a Southern accent growing up in the area surrounding Cleveland, Ohio, where I grew up. Yet it seems that Republican Josh Mandel, who is challenging Sherrod Brown in a U.S. Senate race, would have you believe he acquired one in the nearby suburb of Beachwood. In Mandel’s appearance with presidential candidate Mitt Romney in southern Ohio’s coal country this past Tuesday, he applied what sounded to many like a Southern twang to his speech.

I don’t fault Mandel for trying, and failing, at code-switching. It’s a skill that entails changing one’s pattern of speech or behavior to acclimate to a particular environment or audience, something many of us know all too well. Vice President Joe Biden also gave code-switching a go this week at a speech in Virginia when he told a campaign-event crowd in Danville, Virginia that presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his new running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, are going to “unchain Wall Street” and “going to put y’all back in chains.”

Biden is usually so good at code-switching that hardly anyone thinks twice when he slips into it in front of a largely Black audience. We already know President Obama is a master at code-switching, a necessary trait for any First Black American President Ever. And as Mother Jones’ Adam Serwer noted in his recent Bloggingheads episode, Republicans have their own brand of code-switching: the “aw, shucks” politician, none of whom are running for President at the moment.

Some say Biden’s remark is part of his unpredictability, but I disagree. It’s all code-switching, which sometimes can be taken too far. That’s why I was and remain disappointed with the Vice President’s “chains” remark, when it seems that he got a little extra comfortable.

To be fair, it isn’t as if Biden just burped out that remark, completely out of context. He claimed, in his clarification the following day, that he meant to say “unshackle,” a rhetorical flourish he’s used previously to describe “unshackling” the middle class, and a play on a previous usage by Romney’s new running mate, Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. I get where the vice president was going. But the Republican fake-outrage train had long since left the station. During a tough introductory week for Ryan, Romney did his best to switch the focus to Biden, citing the remark as a seed of “division, attack, and hatred.”

So, Biden defenders, it is less about whether or not he “meant it” than whether the remark was necessary at all. The remark gives us a chance to re-examine how politicians employ racial coding as a carrot to particular segments of voters, and to what degree we accept it – particularly coming from a Democrat.

That is ironic, given that we hear racialized politics from the Right so loudly these days that we should stop doing them the favor of calling them “dog-whistles.” But to whatever degree Republicans use race as a political tool, this is about whether we hold Democrats to the same standard.

Biden, consciously or not, used racial dog-whistle politics. Hinting at such a painful historical moment for African Americans in a political speech is suspect at the outset, but using it to evoke the eventual reality that a President Romney would create is simply wrong, strictly on a moral level.

All that said, I get why he did it. It’s easy to code-switch, but it’s tough to describe in a political speech the prospect of a Romney administration by running off a series of stats about how (for instance) food stamps, access to Medicare, reproductive services, Head Start, and Pell grants would be cut, and over two million African Americans would get a tax hike. It doesn’t play as well in a political speech. If the Obama campaign believes that life will be stark for African Americans under Romney, they should be able to describe it, minus the slavery metaphors.

This column appeared originally in EBONY on Friday.

(Ed. note: These are the remarks that I read from the pulpit at the funeral for my grandmother, Odessa Howard, on Saturday, June 9. I share them with the hope that they provide a cursory introduction to one of the most important people in my life, the lady you see above in a 1993 photo. For a longer introduction, I’d have to write a book. Perhaps several.)

I was convinced, as a child, that my grandmother knew half of the entire population of Pittsburgh. I’m not talking about the North Side – the entire city. And “half” was a conservative estimate.  Now, I’ll admit that at that young age, the way that any of us see the world is already pretty limited. Things tend to look grander than they may seem, concepts beyond our grasp.

But I grew more and more convinced every time I’d be out with her, when I’d inevitably hear someone holler her name. Perhaps they’d seen her in Saks Fifth Avenue at the mall, run into her in the elevator at work, or approached her as we sat in a restaurant. And I wasn’t as wowed by her popularity as I was by her demeanor, by her friendliness. I’d call her ease with it almost political.. if I hadn’t already known, at that young age, that she didn’t have one phony bone in her body.

To her credit, she was just as straightforward as she was loving, including with us, her grandchildren. She expected more from all of us, which is unsurprising given that I’ve never seen anyone love as strongly as she did – not just with her words, but most importantly with her actions. Everyone in this sanctuary would do well to meet her standard.

I’ll close by saying that of the many, many things I do miss and will miss about my grandmother is her voice. We in this family are a vocal people – it is our nature and our way, and in no one was that embodied more so than in my grandmother, whose lengthy phone calls and enriching conversations were more important to me than I perhaps realized at the time.

Her voice encouraged me to develop my own, and I ask one simple request of all of you here today: be likewise encouraged. Take your voice out into the world and let people know where they stand, that you demand more from them, that you love them. Then like she did, use your actions to back it up.

There are some things that are indeed grander than they may seem, concepts beyond our grasp, - as children, even as adults. But as I grew, my grandmother never grew smaller in my eyes; she maintained the same all-encompassing presence in my life. If we all do what we need to do and follow her example, her influence will only continue to grow.

(Wrote this three years ago today. I stand by my argument. And as stated previously, the man in the photo is not my father. But he might as well be.)

I recall her class, and the conversation, but not her name. Whatever my seventh-grade English teacher’s name was, she taught me one hell of a lesson.

Shortly after class, she and I were talking. Thinking back, I’m surprised that I had time to chat. I remember that the walls were blue, and that I was holding my copy of Cry, the Beloved Country - but the particulars of how we got on the topic of our fathers and war remains fuzzy, as this occurred over twenty years ago. How the chat ended stands out like it happened yesterday.

When I remarked that my Dad and I could talk about anything, she sounded a note of caution. “Don’t ask him too much about war”, she said. Why not, I asked. I then wondered aloud if my father had killed anyone in ‘Nam. “I asked my father that question,” she said. She told me that she’d done so when she was a pre-teen, like me, wide-eyed and curious. Her father sighed, and replied solemnly,


"And then he said not another word", she recalled. Neither did I, for that matter.

Largely because of that conversation, my father and I haven’t talked much about his “time in the service”, as he termed it. He was an Air Force radar operator in Vietnam, but I never found out really what that meant. He would talk about his time stationed in places ranging from New Orleans to Laos, but I never asked for dates or details. He’d let me walk around the house in his old fatigues, but never talk about the sweat he surely put into them. He’d show me the faded burn scars on his right forearm, caused by fresh M-16 shells - but I never dared asked him the when and where.

In fact, the only detail I ever really learned was that his rank and classification (which I’ve since forgotten), when I applied for a Child of a Vietnam Veteran scholarship to a summer college program at Oxford University. I would go to Oxford at 16, while around my age, my dad would be preparing himself for war.

My father graduated from high school in 1964, so he knew damn well what was awaiting him if he enlisted. His older brother joined him, and eventually became a paratrooper. I knew them as completely different people, and still am left longing to know the men they were. But even if I only know what my father did in an abstract sense, I know that his service opened the door to his becoming the great, imperfect man he is today. I really wouldn’t have it any other way, and I guess that today, that is what I’m most thankful for.

The man pictured above is not my father, but it might as well have been. He has the same clean-shaven face filled with possibility, a face that I’d never seen before. (My father has had virtually the same beard all my life.) That’s a young man I’d like to know. But I’m thrilled to know the old man I know today.

Yes, part of me would like to ask my father about his service, get to know the details. But I’d much rather talk to him about the election, the latest action movie or how badly the Browns are doing. Surely, you’d be correct to assume that I’ve made assumptions about what my father had to do, and what now has to live with. However, if I can spare my father the pain of remembrance, I have done him a service.

There’s no need to ask our veterans about every detail. If you’re in doubt, and as conflicted as I was twenty years ago…just do as I did today, in a phone call to my father.

Just say thanks, and leave the rest alone.


I love me some Biden.



“No means no. No means no if she’s drunk or sober. No means no if she’s in the dorm room or on the street. No means no even if she said yes first and changed her mind. No means no—no matter what. I’m asking all of you, all of you to help get this message out.” —Joe Biden

The video is being released on the 17th anniversary of the passage of his Violence Against Women’s Actwhich is up for reauthorization this year.


(via jessicavalenti)

The thing you’re not prepared for, I was warned, is how loud it is. The sonic boom-like sound during the ascent is much different in person than on TV, he said. Another told me I’d literally be able to smell the shuttle lifting off. One more advised me to wear sunglasses, since the flames could be brighter than the sun. (I didn’t, but I was OK.)

But most of all, I and my fellow #NASAtweetup attendees were told this weekend to resist the urge to make media of the moment. Don’t take photos of it. Don’t be on the phone, or watch it through the viewfinder of your handheld camera. Just watch, feel and listen. Have the real experience of watching the last NASA Space Shuttle launch ever.

These are instructions that I (being in this business) and my 150-or-so fellow space geeks needed, especially since we were invited specifically because of our use of Twitter. For instance, when arriving in our group tent on Thursday morning, yards away from the Kennedy Space Center countdown clock, virtually all of us dispensed with a few pleasantries before quickly cracking open our laptops and logging on. But as the tweetup went on, we met astronauts, stood in awe inside the Vehicle Assembly Building and trekked to a spot less than a mile from Atlantis itself. Yes, I took that photo so that I could remember in 50 years that I was there. But I spent most of my time facing the other direction, slack-jawed.

The urge for all of us to make media of our experiences is becoming increasingly intuitive, especially in this new digital age. Every thought can be recorded for posterity, information is being shared at an unprecedented rate and short films can be shot and edited on a telephone. That said, what was most impressive about this weekend’s experience, aside from the massive dose of NASA awesome that we received, was the manner in which it discouraged us from that new intuition.

Yes, we still photographed, blogged, and live-tweeted a good chunk of it. Media was made. But #NASAtweetup reminded me that divorcing oneself from technology to witness something marvelous can help one rediscover why it mattered enough that we picked up our cameras or got on Twitter in the first place. Sharing the experience is one thing. Having it is quite another. Lesson learned.

In the 1986 movie "SpaceCamp," five campers aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis are launched into orbit because a kid-friendly droid puts them there (long story as to why). Plot devices such as The Cute, Sentient Robot™ are a staple of 80s dreck like “SpaceCamp,” but that doesn’t matter in the least when you’re an 11-year-old kid watching it, and dreaming of one day going into space.

It’s 25 years later, and I’m about to get as close to that dream as I may ever get. This morning, I’m on my way to Kennedy Space Center as the second TRMS producer this year to participate in a NASA Tweetup. And tomorrow (weather permitting), I’ll witness the launch of STS-135, the final Space Shuttle mission in its 30-year history.

The Economist marks the occasion with pessimism in its current issue, making Earth’s orbit the ceiling for manned space exploration:

It is quite conceivable that 36,000km will prove the limit of human ambition. It is equally conceivable that the fantasy-made-reality of human space flight will return to fantasy. It is likely that the Space Age is over.

Seeing NASA hit with retirements and downsizing, as well as a $240 million cut in this year’s budget, one can understand such fatalism. But President Obama is still holding out hope (ahem). At yesterday’s Twitter town hall, he was bullish about NASA’s future, but with the caveat that “what we need is that next technological breakthrough." New advancements are sure to come, but scientific innovation may not be enough. New York Times science writer Dennis Overbye laments not a lack of human ambition, but of political will:

NASA works for the president, and the president can do only what Congress will give him or her the money for. And Congress answers to the people — that is to say, its campaign contributors.

I wonder what effect those contributors will have, especially since contributors don’t even have to be human beings anymore. More from Overbye:

…an astronomer I know who grew up with the same science fiction dreams and expectations as I did once described himself as a member of the “cheated generation.” I no longer expect to see boot prints on Mars during my lifetime, nor do I expect that whoever eventually makes those boot prints will be drawing a paycheck from NASA, or even speaking English.

All that said, the 11-year-old in me is still so geeked that I haven’t been able to sleep. I’ll have more from #NASATweetup, up to and through the launch. Maybe it’ll even be some good news.

The traditional gift on reaching 10 years of marriage is tin — a gift that seems oddly fitting today, in a “Wizard of Oz” kind of way. Ten years ago today, the American people became wedded (and our economic fortunes inextricably linked) to the heartless Bush tax cuts.

Via Mother Jones, we find the Economic Policy Institute offering the latest comprehensive breakdown (PDF) of the damage inflicted on the American economy by those tax cuts. It’s well worth reading all the way through:

The Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 (the first of a series of Bush-era tax changes) was enacted on June 7, 2001. Since then, the Bush tax cuts have exacerbated the trend of widening income inequality, accompanied the worst economic expansion since World War II, and turned budget surpluses into deficits.

Last week, President Obama pledged that he would not extend the Bush tax cuts again. But among Republicans, the Washington Post reports, the dedication to taxing (the rich) as little as possible is even more steadfast than it was 10 years ago:

This orthodoxy is now woven so deeply into the party’s identity that all but 13 of 288 GOP lawmakers in Congress have signed a formal pledge not to raise taxes. The strategist who invented the pledge, Grover G. Norquist, compares it to a brand, like Coca-Cola, built on “quality control” so that Republican voters know they will get “the same thing every time.”

Happy anniversary — we got you this nice chart.

“Shame wasn’t something that came naturally to me. It was something that I learned against my will, and now that I know it inside and out, I don’t know how one can possibly unlearn it.”

A rapper with, what, one violent lyric ever performed at the White House, and hot damn — the world didn’t end.

And from what we’ve been able to ascertain, neither Karl Rove's nor Sarah Palin's head exploded due to Common reciting a poem. We were pretty confident this wouldn’t happen, but figured it’d be better to just wait until the poem was over to report as much.

If you’re interested in exploring further how ridiculous this non-troversy was, read this, this, this and especially this. (Jon Stewart also laid waste to it last night.)

In the meantime, enjoy the video above, which proves that you can’t encapsulate an artist with one lyric.

Basically, I just had to do this to my next-door neighbor. I didn’t ask for milk; a building security guy and I just asked him to open the door.

Never in my 9 months living here have I heard a peep from any neighbor. Whether that’s due to the thick walls or my neighbors being quiet, I don’t care. Having lived in apartments where I knew whenever my neighbors showered (or did other things), I count it as a blessing. But I heard something tonight.

"Go away!"

"Get your hands off me!"

Long story short, I knocked on the door, accompanied by a building security guy. After being told by the guy (as I hear the woman crying loudly) that “we’re good,” I made use of my baritone and told him to “open the door, please.” He did, and even though Mr. Security Guy didn’t give him the third degree as I’d hoped, I think dude will be a little less grabby, so to speak. He’ll know someone’s watching, and so will she. (I will be checking on her later.)

It feels a little odd to make media of this as I literally sit here listening for my neighbor’s voice. But my friend Chloe (who gave me some real-time wisdom tonight) sent me this moving video, and I felt compelled to share it here.

Good sense and good home training should stop domestic abuse. But if it takes embarrassment, I’ll take it.

"All men want freaks. We just don’t want ‘em for a wife."

Mars needed to get out more. The world is not just Nola Darlings…and wives.

“Ideology makes it unnecessary for people to confront individual issues on their individual merits. One simply turns to the ideological vending machine, and out comes the prepared formulae.”
Daniel Bell quote in the New Yorker, to which George Packer adds, “Ideology knows the answer before the question has been asked.” (via jillfilipovic)

Papers, please.

The President may have hedged about one thing this morning. No, not about the long-form birth certificate, which he and the White House released this morning. (This is a carnival barker-free zone.) What I can’t quite believe is that Mr. Obama has been “puzzled” by the “birther” conspiracy.

He has to know that African-Americans in this country have been stopped and had their papers requested since the days of slavery. The President being hounded for his birth certificate is not equivalent to Frederick Douglass having to show his “free papers,” but it is reminiscent of that and more recent demands to prove who you are.

Racism in our politics is not so much a philosophy as it is a tactic. The goal? Acquire and retain power. This is what it is all about. President Obama knows that posting his birth certificate won’t change the minds of some who think he wasn’t born in the United States. The so-called “Birther King” told Mother Jones’ Suzy Khimm today that he’s satisfied by the document, but that there are “other questions,” including the President’s college transcripts (thanks, Mr. Trump) and some wacky nonsense about a Black Nationalist lawyer paying for the President’s college tuition. Birthers may not be convinced until the President actually stops being Black.