Black Lives Matter: Omaha activists view social movement as platform for advocating-making change

August 26, 2016 Leave a comment

Social movements are part of the American fabric. Black Lives Matter (BLM) began in response to violent deaths of African-Americans. It now addresses all systemic inequities and disparities affecting blacks. Some Omaha BLM activists believe the disfrachisement that holds back many blacks in the U.S. is a root cause of blue on black, black on blue and black on black violence. BLM is a platform for activists to engage such issues. But these activists don’t want all the energy behind BLM to be expended only on protests and dialogue sessions. They want BLM efforts to spur change that improves social conditions, police-community relations, law enforcement practices and policies. so that as concerned citizens they won’t have to still be holding rallies a decade or two from now but can count on elected officials and lawmakers to do the right thing.

 

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Black Lives Matter showcase
SARAH HOFFMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

Black Lives Matter: Omaha activists view social movement as platform for advocating-making change

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the September 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Borne from outrage over violent African-American deaths, the grassroots Black Lives Matter movement espouses a social action platform to end systemic violence against and mass incarceration of a people. BLM’s loose-knit activists advocate diverting funds from militarized to community policing and to supporting quality of life indicators.

All this resonates across the nation, In Omaha, tensions exist between the African-American community and police and gaps persist in black health, education, housing and employment. BLM activists here and elsewhere have inserted themselves into the political process through protests aimed at disrupting the status quo and campaigns raising awareness about social injustice. This movement without a leader or structure is a catalyst for citizens getting involved to address issues.

The Reader spoke with local BLM activists whose voices are engaged in various public forums.

 

 

 

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Michelle Troxclair, ©photo by Bill Sitzmann

 

 

Nebraska Writers Collective deputy director Michelle Troxclair has long railed against perceived wrongs, including wrongful killings. She’s seen initiatives come and go..”In all this protesting we have to have a unified message of what we want – that we are not disposable people. Throughout our history we have been considered everything from chattel to cattle, and based on studies I’ve seen not much has changed. So Black Lives Matter represents our voice that we deserve respect and basic human rights guaranteed in the constitution – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

“The movement’s about self-love and self-empowerment as well as making systemic changes. I’ve seen it in the way black men and women wear their hair, dress and walk. I look at our young people and they are not apologetic for their blackness.”

 

She likes BLM’s strong language.

“There’s a war on terror, a war on drugs and to that extent, yes, there’s a war on black people. To maintain power and notions of superiority you have to eliminate the competition through education, dehumanization, emasculation and economic means. This is how you completely decimate a community.”

Poet Allen Stevenson said, “I definitely support the movement expressing frustration over the brutality.” He and others have their say on heavy topics at open mic nights.

Musician Dominique Morgan, co-administrator of the Omaha BLM page, said despite differences “our blackness is what unites us. We cant allow division. That’s what will hinder us in the long run – folks trying to appropriate a whole movement.”

Troxclair’s organized and attended rallies, held signs, spoken her mind. She’s drafted and circulated a petition of demands. Now she wants others to assume the mantle.

“When I look back at how long i’ve been doing this and nothing’s changed, I’m ready to pass the baton to others on the front-lines. I feel like my calling is as a poet with a microphone – that’s where I think I can make the most difference.”

 

 

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Dominique Morgan, ©photo by Bill Sitzmann

 

 

 

 

 

 

Until BLM, Morgan’s activism was confined to LGBT rights but he said, “This the first time I’ve seen a movement where my sectionalities as a gay black man meet. These identities that so strongly represent who I am made it doubly important for me to be aware and also to have a voice in what’s happening, especially in a place I call home. I realized I have a stake in this. It made me go harder in advocating for black folks.

“This movement is waking people up.”

Art educator Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru awakened years ago and uses BLM to reach disaffected youth.

“When I work with kids I try to teach them to question things and not to accept everything they’re told – to keep searching for the whole truth and story and needing to move with purpose.”

 

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Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru

 

 

She said BLM provides a vehicle to discuss “absent narratives about black life and history,” adding, “There are certain systemic racist powers that prefer it to look like our contributions don’t matter and that hyper showcase negative aspects and issues to deconstruct or denigrate black lives.”

BLM’s emboldened her to speak out. At a recent public hearing she advocated the city budget fund mandatory anti-bias, diversity and mental health training for police.

Gaines Liwaru said BLM must not be just media fodder or a stage for a few. “The movement continues whether televised or not because we have solidarity for a cause. But I see it fizzling out if people don’t do behind-the-scenes rallying to demand the reform within policies. We can’t assume someone else will carry the torch for justice … at hearings or in elections. Rallies won’t mean change or justice – unless we show up to have a say.”

Stevenson said, “I applaud what the movement is doing because people are standing up and making life uncomfortable. The racism discussion is being had. When you have a group feeling suppressed for an extremely long time, something has to give. That frustration and rage needs to go somewhere and that’s where it’s happening.”

Minister Tony Sanders said, “If this emotion is not channeled in the right direction, you will have continued civil unrest or rogue individuals taking the opportunity to further divide us instead of unite us.”

Stevenson said it’s hard remaining calm after a new blue on black incident claims another victim. “Even if there’s an investigation, the determination is there’s no crime and we’re left with nothing except to stew on that frustration,” he said. “Then the next thing happens and the cycle continues. How much of that can you really stand?”

He gets that BLM is a platform for people to vent or debate, but, he said, “once you create this discussion, what do you next? I would like to see something different. It can’t be just like the same old.”

“My hope is our collective voices speaking about the injustices of our people will migrate into calls for action and overdue change,” said Voice Advocacy founder-director Clarice Jackson. “I believe we are seeing that happen now and will see more of this in the future.”

Dominique Morgan said, “There are fires going. We have to fan it to make it grow stronger.”

Some are not waiting for change. Thirty-something social entrepreneur Ean Mikale is running for mayor with the slogan, “Be the change.”

 

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Maurice Jones with Hillary Clinton

 

 

Seventeen-year-old Maurice Jones, vice chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party Black Caucus, is running for the Omaha City Council.

“I hope my candidacy will inspire others my age to enter public life,” said Jones, adding that he wants to amplify the voices of people who go unheard by the political system.

On the streets, Stevenson said blacks face real fears of being profiled. “If you get pulled over by the police, you tell yourself, ‘Survive through this – cooperate.’ But there are people who cooperated and still faced horrible fates. For us to have to teach this extra element is stressful because you have to confront some of your worst fears over something that shouldn’t even be. I think of my sons and I’m like, I need you to live.”

 

Allen Stevenson

 

Rev. Sanders confronts fear head-on in town halls he hosts called S.O.S. (Saving Our Sons).

“The first installment, ‘The Talk,” taught African-American males how to interact with law enforcement should they encounter them,” he said. “No one ever had that conversation with me. I had to learn it the hard way. That’s more common than not.”

Michelle Troxclair bemoans the lengths she must go to to instruct her son on what to say and do should he be detained.

“I’m resentful white mothers don’t have to have these conversations. It’s not a question of cops doing their jobs or good cops versus bad cops, – it is the innate belief some officers have when they enter into an encounter with African-Americans.”

She asserts some officers are prone to overreact because they assume blacks are threats. She acknowledges that’s not the whole story. “All officers are not bad people. I learned that when I coordinated the Michael Brown protest. I had bail money in the glove compartment of my car. Instead, I was met with kindness and great cooperation.”

 

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Tony Sanders

 

Sanders calls for unity from the pulpit and the street.  He’s part of coalitions working with police to remedy alleged discrimination.

“We’re standing, working and moving forward together for there to be a change in policing,” Sanders said. “There has to be more transparency and accountability. We’re working on specific things to make that action and change a measurable, tangible reality. We’re sitting down saying, OK, what can we do to resolve this issue? How do we learn to coexist?

“There will never be equality if there’s a segment of the population not viewed as equal. How do I change that in you?  I can’t legislate that. No policy can make you see me as equal. We have a tendency to be afraid of and treat differently about which we don’t understand. It requires we get together so we learn about each other. Then our fears dissipate and we look at each other from a humane perspective.”

He’s planning table talks to discuss elephants in the room like black on black crime.

 

Clarice Jackson

Clarice Jackson

 

Clarice Jackson said, “For some, BLM is solely about the wrongful deaths of blacks at the hands of law enforcement but as a mother who lost her daughter, Latecia Fox, to gun violence this applies to black on black violence as well. Black on black crime is a huge issue of concern and I feel just as passionately about the injustice of it and the families it hurts as I do when some police officers feel they have the right to be judge, jury and executioners of black people.”

Until action-based change results, expect BLM’s social critique that freedom still hasn’t been fully won to continue.

Literary star Ron Hansen revisits the Old West in new novel “The Kid’

August 25, 2016 Leave a comment

Once upon a time, it was possible to be assigned depth stories about authors, artists and musicians by various Nebraska newspapers and magazines. Alas, those days are long gone in this age of byte size, SEO-rich content that favors style and graphics over substance and text. One of the few print sanctuaries for long-form features left in the state is the New Horizons newspaper published by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. This monthly may not be on your reading list or radar but it should be, I dare say, for the long form features that Nick Schinker, Jeff Reinhardt and I do for the publication. If you like to dig into a subject, then you will have your fill and then some, especially when it comes to my New Horizons stories, which are four or five times the length of today’s average feature. A perfect example is my new profile of author Ron Hansen in the September 2016 issue. That Hansen profile is featured in this post. The Omaha native is a hihgly respected novelist, short story writer and essayist. He is a true literary star on the national scene and yet in his hometown he and his work are not well known outside perhaps the most informed literary circles or the Creighton Prep and Creighton University communities – he is a graduate of each school. I did a fair amount of writing about Hansen in years past but it had been awhile since the last piece. It’s been good to re-engage with him and to once again share his work with others. My new story about Hansen largely focuses on his new historical novel “The Kid” about Western outlaw Billy the Kid. The well-reviewed book is being released this fall by Scribner. The Old West and its outlaws have been subjects of two previous Hansen novels: “Desperados” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” The latter was made into a fne film starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck.

For this new story Ron generously sat down with me for a long interview, just as he’s done in the past, and he later answered several more questions via email. I am grateful to New Horizons editor Jeff Reinhardt for giving me the space I need to explore subjects as rich and complex as Hansen and his meticulously researched work. The September 2016 New Horizons with my cover story on Ron Hansen will be hitting the stands and arriving in mailboxes the end of August. Make sure to pick up a copy or two. You can subscribe to the paper for free. My extensive profiles of fascinating Nebraskans have appeared in its pages for 20-plus years and represent some of my favorite work about some of the most unforgettable people I’ve ever met. You can find many of those stories on my blog.

 

 

Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck as the title characters, Jesse James and Robert Ford, respectively, in the film adaptation of Ron Hansen’s novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

 

 

 

Literary star Ron Hansen revisits the Old West in new novel “The Kid’

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the September 2016 issue of the New Horizons

 

Ron Hansen, the author of such esteemed novels as Mariette in Ecstasy (1991) and Atticus (1996), long ago joined the ranks of Nebraska literary greats such as Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, Wright Morris and Loren Eiseley.

The Omaha native is also a among Creighton Prep graduates to have made their mark in arts and letters, including Alexander Payne, Richard Dooling and Conor Oberst. Hansen’s Jesuit education continued at Creighton University. The 1970 graduate went on to study at the Iowa Writers Workshop, where he was a student of American novelist John Irving (The World According to Garp), and Stanford University.

Hansen is a devout Catholic and permanent deacon in the church. His work is funneled through the prism of faith and morality. Even though he writes about deeply flawed souls who are sometimes psychopaths and murderers, he doesn’t caricature them. Instead, he creates multi-dimensional characters through careful observation rooted in context and circumstance and tinged by occasions of grace. He has a historian’s penchant for the truth rather than some convenient approximation to satisfy the story.

Writing is his vocation for not only expressing his Christianity but his boundless curiosity and creativity.

His humanism and Catholicism are most evident in some of his essays: Hearing the Cry of the Poor: The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvado; Affliction and Grace: and The Pilgrim: Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Yet there’s nothing overtly religious about his fiction with the exception of Mariette and even it’s framed in spiritual, psycho-social, emotional terms, not religious.

Hansen lives in Northern California with his wife, novelist Bo Caldwell, and teaches at Santa Clara University.

He’s the author of acclaimed collections of essays (Stay Against Confusion) and short stories (Nebraska Stories) and historical fiction books across wide subject matter and eras. Atticus was a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was also a PEN/Faulkner finalist .

His novels often draw on historical figures and incidents. One that does not, Mariette in Ecstasy, details the intense inner journey a postulate faces when the stigmata appear on her body and the experience causes a crisis of faith in her and in her convent. Hitler’s Niece imagines the romance the dictator may have engaged in with a niece with whom he was infatuated. Exiles explores what made a tragic ship wreck the inspiration for a famous poem. A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion examines what led illicit lovers to plan and commit murder in a real-life case that inspired Double Indemnity.

Hansen’s particularly fond of the 19th century, owing partly to his late grandfather being a conduit to its Old West legacy. His latest novel, The Kid, is in his estimation the most accurate portrayal of legendary outlaw Billy the Kid yet produced.

“All the events in it are true,” Hansen said.. “In some ways they’re my interpretation of what occurred. I think there’s a lot of newness to what I did with this book as opposed to all of the other accounts. For one thing, this is the only time you see him with a sweetheart. None of the other treatments have had him speaking Spanish.”

A Publishers Weekly review called it  “entertaining and lively,” adding, “Hansen’s colorful description of the New Mexico Territory as a lawless land of lying politicians and thieving businessmen is historically accurate, resulting in an excellent, transportive read.”

 

 

The life and times of William H. Bonney have inspired many writers and filmmakers but they usually ignore facts for sensationalism. Disregard for history rankles Hansen, who takes great pains hanging his story on actual incidents. He authentically recreatsd the way people spoke and dressed then. Like all great storytellers, he immerses you in that world.

The Kid completes Hansen’s western trilogy that began with  Desperadoes (1979) – his take on the Dalton gang. He continued the outlaw theme with Jesse James  (1983) – another subject oft-interpreted in print and film. The latter book was closely adapted by Andrew Domink into a 2007 film starring Brad Pitt as James and Casey Affleck as his assassin Bob Ford. Though a critical success. the film struggled at the box office. Hansen was delighted with the adaptation. Dominik consulted Hansen during the writing process and had him on set the entire shoot in Canada. The script is so close to the book that many passages from the novel are spoken verbatim in the film as voice-over narration or dialogue. Hansen was on hand to ensure costumes, sets, lines were historically correct.

He also enjoyed being an extra in a scene where he played a frontier dude reporter.

It wasn’t the first time a Hansen novel made it to the big screen. He adapted Mariette himself for a 1996 film directed by noted cinematographer.John Bailey. Hansen said he admired Bailey’s original vision but the film was taken out of his hands and “mangled by higher-ups.”  The book’s also been adapted to the stage, including an award-winning theatrical play in Chicago.

On a spring visit to Omaha for his Prep 50th class reunion, Hansen spoke at length about his work. He especially focused on The Kid, for which he has great hopes.

“I’m hoping at least it becomes a miniseries because there’s so much story to tell. I couldn’t imagine how to turn it into two hours. It could easily be six hours.”

He also touched on other projects, some realized, some not, and what we can expect in the future.

 

Ron Hansen

 

Billy: The Man and the Myth

To belong.

To be liked.

To be famous.

To be feared.

Hansen has Billy say those four things to a trail mate who asks The Kid what he wants. They’re the aspirations of a mercurial man-child who lived fitfully and died violently at 21.

“In the movies especially he’s often portrayed as illiterate and a psychopath and when you read memoirs of other people they never say that about him,” Hansen said of Billy. “They say he was really smart, loved to read and was always very pleasant to be around. Billy obviously was very intelligent because even with very little schooling you can see in his letters he was very literate. He wrote a lot of letters actually. Maybe six have survived, mostly because they were letters he sent to the territory’s governor, Lew Wallace.”

Billy, like other outlaws, also enjoyed reading stories about himself to see where fact left off and fiction took flight.

“He once wrote an editor after reading an article about himself and said, ‘Whoever wrote that had a very vivid imagination because I didn’t do all those things,'” Hansen noted. “But he could have been denying what he really did do, too. That’s the way criminals act.”

For a lover of words like Hansen, it’s important he capture the richness of language people used then,

“There was a kind of grandeur to speech. Most of the time in Westerns people talk very simply, not very interestingly, but reading these accounts you realize people were very literate and very self-conscious about the way they wrote. They took time with things. For a lot of cowboys, their literature was basically the Bible and so there was an ancient sound to a lot of their language because that’s the only thing they’d read or heard. It was a different kind of education then and maybe a reverence for the written word that caused people to be careful how they spoke and wrote.”

Saying the wrong thing to Billy could be fatal, Hansen said, if The Kid’s “dark side” erupted after Insult or injury.

“That complexity naturally draws a novelist to show the shadings and not try to explain it really, just experience it.”

He said like other famous figures “Billy is basically everybody’s wild invention.” “Nobody can pin him down. It’s like Jesse James – everybody has an attitude about him. For some, he’s still a hero and they name their kid after him. And I think the same thing is true of Billy the Kid. He was very charming in real life. Everybody talked about what a nice smile he always had, so it makes him more likable than a lot of the outlaws.”

“So you have the possibility of two faces – the angry killer and the sweet guy all the women loved and liked to dance with. He learned Spanish somehow and the Hispanic people liked that  he would speak to them in Spanish and that he knew the Old World customs, so they protected him,” Hansen said. They thought what the authorities said was all untrue. In fact, it was trumped up a lot of the time. The newspaper accounts show how the description of Billy changes. He has black hair when they make him a negative figure and he has blonde hair when they make him positive. The journalistic slant is so clear. He starts out as this viper, really awful man. and then as accounts go on and people start having a yearning or romantic feeling about the Old West, he starts to take on a different coloring.”

The Kid’s legendary status was secured as soon as he died at the hands of sheriff Pat Garret.

“Almost immediately after his death there were five books about Billy the Kid and he was largely a figment of people’s imaginations even then,” Hansen said. “Then he faded from memory until Walter Noble Burns wrote The Saga of Billy the Kid. It became an immediate best seller. A movie followed that. There’s been something like 30 movies about Billy the Kid.”

Hansen said the Burns book makes The Kid “this very romantic hero – like a knight-errant,” adding Burns had the advantage of starting “on the research when a lot of the people were still alive, so he actually had first-hand accounts.”

Hansen read all he could find about The Kid, including the Burns book. Another resource he used to get a handle on him was the Enneagram of Personality Types. Applying what he knew about The Kid, he determined he fit the melancholic type.

“I sprinkled those aspects throughout the book,” he said.

Part of that type is wanting to be noticed and Hansen said that fits with a studio photograph of Billy dressed shabbily – a direct contradiction to how folks garbed for special occasions. Hansen has someone ask Billy, “You want to be photographed in that?” and The Kid replies, “I don’t want to be ordinary.”

Another trait of the melancholic, Hansen said, is having one hurt in life that can’t be assuaged. For Billy, he said, it was the loss of his mother, to whom he was devoted. The more Hansen dug into his subject the more he discovered what a complicated figure his protagonist was and how bereft he felt after losing her.

“He never really had a father and then she married this other guy who he didn’t get along with. The guy made him change his name from William to Henry. He never had much connection with his brother either. So, Billy basically had his mother and then she died and so he felt like an orphan.”

Hansen believes the fires raging inside Billy were fueled by abandonment and rejection. Billy also caught much grief for his slight build and fancy, fussy ways. When bullied, assaulted or cornered, he could be deadly. The great conflict within him was a desire to be accepted, even respected, and an urge to rebel.

“It was a real hot and cold thing going on with him,” Hansen said. “I think I have Paulita Maxwell, who was almost certainly his girlfriend, toward the end telling him he attracts people and repels them at the same time. They never know where they stand and they make him more and more anxious to please him. That’s why he became the leader of almost any group he was in – nobody could quite figure him out because of those contrary aspects of his personality.”

Given his charms, it’s no wonder The Kid won over a dandy land baron in the New Mexico Territory named John Tunstall, whose high breeding did not prevent their hitting it off. Tunstall became his boss and benefactor, remarking to others his admiration for The Kid’s wit and guile. When Tunstall was killed by arch enemies, Billy swore revenge and got it,

 

 

Western stirrings

There’s no telling if Hansen would have developed his same interest in the Old West without the influence of his grandfather. But there’s no doubt that crusty old man and his tales stirred something in him.

“My grandfather Frank Salvador had a ranch in eastern Colorado. He was from Spain originally. He and his mother and father seem to have sailed from France to America and settled in Utica, New York, where his mother died, then his father — in a gruesome mining accident.”

As a child Salvador was put on an orphan train bound for Iowa.

“Orphan trains began conveying children from the East — mostly New York City — in the early 19th century and didn’t stop until after World War I.,” Hansen said via email  “The idea was to get orphans out of the slums and into better living conditions of the wide open spaces farther west. Unfortunately, children sometimes became indentured servants to farm owners, as was the case with my grandfather on the farm near Adair (Iowa).”

While there, his grandfather swore he had a close encounter with an infamous outlaw.

“My grandfather told the story of when he was really young a group of guys rode up to the farm to water their horses. Then they heard galloping in the distance – it was a posse after them – and they jumped on their horses and ran off. He thought that was Jesse James. Jesse James actually robbed a train in Adair. It could have been another outlaw gang. But he was convinced of it and he had a reputation for being really honest.”

Salvador settled a score, peacefully, before lighting out for the West to make his own way.

“When he was in his late teens, my grandfather filed suit against the farm owner who’d misused him and never paid for his labor. The court ruled in his favor and he left Iowa for eastern Colorado where he bought land with his court settlement and called the ranch ‘Wages.’ He was a real interesting character because he was a 19th century man essentially. He would go someplace and nobody would see him there again for a year and they’d still remember him because he was so charismatic. He chewed tobacco and always carried around this coffee can he’d spit tobacco juice into, and I was charmed by this. Once I got a bee sting and he put a wad of chewing tobacco on it to take the hurt away and maybe it was a child’s imagination but I thought it really did work. The sting went away after he applied that poultice.”

The impressionable Hansen loved hearing the old man’s yarns and perhaps inherited some storytelling prowess from him.

“He would tell me stories – how some hands still wore their Civil War overcoats. He must have worked on horseback for a good while because it was only when he became prosperous he bought the first tractor in the county. He was also the first rancher (there) with indoor plumbing. He still had a bunkhouse that must have held at least 12 men. It was remarkable to visit there and think what a different life that was back then. So I felt like I had contact with the 19th century just through him.”

Naturally, once a writer Hansen drew on his grandfather – making him the subject of the essay A Nineteenth-Century Man. He’s the model for the title character in Atticus. Hansen said, “Some of his attitudes survive in Jesse James and all my Westerns have some element of my grandfather.”

There were other Western models in his life, too.

“There were a lot of farmers in my family and I remember visiting them and hearing them talk and they had a completely different vocabulary than the people I knew in Omaha. I think even being in Omaha you have a sense for the past you don’t have in other cities. Like where I am, the city of Cupertino, California, it didn’t exist really until 1970 and so there’s such a newness about it, whereas here (Omaha) you can still see houses and buildings from the 19th century. It would only take me about five minutes from West O to be in cornfields.”

He said growing up in Omaha in the 1950s, “the West was very much alive” because open country was just beyond the then city limits of 72nd Street. Plus, the stockyards in South Omaha found ranchers bringing livestock to market in epic volumes.

Hansen also saw his share of Western movies as a kid. Though steeped in images, artifacts and stories, he didn’t burn to write about the West until poverty sparked inspiration.

“I was really poor and I thought what can I think I can sell to a magazine, and I ran across this book about the Dalton gang. I knew they weren’t well known. They were a violent gang. I was charmed by the fact they tried to rob two banks at the same time in their hometown where everybody knew them. I thought that’d be a great story. I was writing it as a short story and then I realized I had like 30 pages and I hadn’t even touched the whole story, and so I decided I’ll write this as a novel.”

That story became Desperadoes.

“The same thing happened with Jesse James,” he said, when a short story he started morphed into his novel about the outlaw.

Much as he came to be with Billy the Kid, he said, “I was entranced by the differing opinions about Jesse James – how the newspapers thought he was the worst guy possible and then you saw memoirs where people said how gentle and fun he was and that he was very witty. Those kinds of complexities of character draw me to writing about these characters.”

 

 

Billy the Kid’s West

That rascals and varmints inhabited the West and that deadly conflicts happened with alarming frequency is not surprising given the conditions of that wild place.

As Hansen explained, “The area of Lincoln County (New Mexico) was the size of the state of Connecticut. It had one lawyer and one sheriff to cover all that, so people had to make do on their own basically. They had to be the law themselves. This was open range with no fences, Cattle would run away all the time – mavericks they called them.”

People claimed, worked and defended land they had no clear title to. When questioned or challenged, disputes arose, and with no practical legal remedy in sight, opponents often settled things with a gun. The same held for disputes over cattle, cards and any number of other things. If you killed someone in a conflict, you invoked the Code of the West, which roughly translated to, “He left me no choice.” Billy used that one himself.

Men protected their honor by any means necessary. Feuds often resulted in bloodshed. A wanted outlaw might take his chances with the Army, a sheriff or a posse. Hired guns targeted anyone, wanted or not, their employers wanted “regulated.” Frontier justice could mean death by assassination or lynching. On the run, dangers included Indians and bandits. At one time or another, Billy was on every side of these fights and pursuits.

“New Mexico residents thought of the government as being in Washington and they were their own government, so in some ways it was almost like the secession the South did with the North. They were rebels against this government that was being imposed on them,” Hansen said. “There weren’t telephone lines, there weren’t fences, there weren’t roads. There were trails, so it was really open country. The Apaches and the Comanches were still on the warpath and you constantly heard about people losing their lives. It affected Billy, too. He was attacked by Apaches and they stole his horse once. I don’t know how he got away with his life but he did.”

Billy specialized in stealing cattle and Army horses. Hansen said neither practice was uncommon. “A lot of people did it back then,” he said. “What’s ironic is that when Pat Garrett started his own herd of cattle, they were all stolen.”

Then there were the big ranchers who acquired their holdings by various expedient and questionable means. Hansen said, “Billy saw all that and thought, Why can’t I do that, too?”

Hansen makes no apologies for Billy’s crimes but insists he “kept getting blamed” for things he didn’t do. “Anytime he was around he got blamed for the murder when in fact many times he didn’t fire his gun. Partly that’s why he became so famous – that round up the usual suspects. He was always one of them.”

Not all outlaws are created equal.

“Jesse James was far more of a psychopath than Billy the Kid,” Hansen said, “because Jesse James was very violent – and intentionally that way. When we were shooting the movie Andrew (Dominik) and I both agreed it’s not really a Western, it’s really a gangster story. Typical of the gangster movie, a guy has accumulated wealth and power and all that stuff but then he gets paranoid and he starts killing off all the guys who made him famous. That’s what was happening with Jesse James. He was looking up all the guys and killing them.

“Yet he had these kids he loved and his wife loved him and all that. But at the same time he was capable of murder and robbing banks and trains. His wife must have known what he was doing but she pretended he was a cattleman and made money in the stock market.”

Hansen said though “Billy the Kid was like that, it was more impetuousness, especially when all these people were out to get him. He was constantly facing mobs and a lot of times they didn’t have warrants, and so in some cases it’s justifiable homicide. He was not as vicious as Jesse James. I have that scene where Jesse James meets him and Jesse gets vicious with him and then he finally gives up and walks away and Billy thinks, ‘If that’s an outlaw, I’m not an outlaw.’ Sure he was stealing cattle to make a living but so did almost everybody. That was the way people started their herds. That was the natural way of doing things back then.

“Billy’s crimes were never against people unless they shot at him or were trying to kill him, and then he shot back. He had lots of reasons for killing Bob Olinger, who was really nasty to Billy. Plus, Bob killed one of Billy’s best friends. He didn’t really want to kill Jim Bell but he felt forced to because they were going to hang him. So there were all these mixed motives going on.”

Billy’s death wasn’t accepted by everyone even though he clearly did die at the hands of Garrett.

Hansen said, “All these people who knew Billy were on this committee or jury that Pat Garrett urged be put together to say that the body was that of Billy the Kid and he did get killed by Pat Garrett – but it was justifiable homicide.”

Further evidence The Kid’s life ended then, Hansen said, was that his flame, Paulita, never saw Billy again.

The author finds Paulita an intriguing figure. Despite coming from a respectable family, she fell for this brash miscreant and after he was gone she denied being his girl.

“She thought of all the reputation Billy was carrying with him,” Hansen said. “In the Walter Noble Burns book she comes off as a woman wrongfully accused of being Billy’s sweetheart. She said she liked him very much and if they had been sweethearts she would have run off with him. So I actually have her say some of the things in the book she said to Burns. I don’t think she realized because of the book and the movies how famous she was going to be. She kind of hid out for the rest of her life.”

Years later. people claimed to be Billy under assumed names.

The same claims attended Jesse James after his death. “Officials finally did do a DNA sample and found out Jesse really was in that grave in Missouri,” Hansen said, “but I always knew he was in that grave because he was well known as a good family man and yet he left his wife destitute and it’s very unlikely he would have allowed that to happen.

“People just don’t want these legends to die.”

 

 

 

Projects

Just as no two outlaws are alike, no two writing projects are either. One constant of the craft is that it’s hard work. But some projects are more enjoyable than others. Though it took much research and imagination, The Kid was a relative breeze.

Hansen said, “I had more fun writing this than almost any other book I’ve done just because there’s such a variety of activity – so many different things are described. He’s a fascinating character. My wife was kind of irritated because I was writing in earnest for one year and she’s been on her book for four years. But it just came quickly to me.”

Not all his books perform as well as he’d like, including his 2011 historical novel A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion drawn from a real life “case of the century” that saw a tryst lead to a 1927 murder. The culprits, Ruth Snyder and her lover Judd Gray, were both executed at Sing Sing in 1928 after being found guilty of killing Ruth’s husband Albert Snyder.

Hansen happened upon the case and couldn’t shake it. There was a wealth of material about the crime and the trial. Gray even wrote a memoir about it while awaiting execution.

“Judd Gray was a corset salesman who had dropped out of high school,” Hansen said, “and yet at the trial the judge said, ‘We can see what a well-educated man you are.’ While in prison, to make money for his daughter, he wrote a very literate memoir about how he ended up killing Albert Snyder.”

Hansen’s own book about the case “didn’t do very well at all,” he said, which he attributes to early negative reviews in trade publications that outweighed later positive reviews. “I thought it was going to be a movie and it didn’t become a movie but people who have read it liked it. I like it.”

He had been with Harper Collins before parting ways and going to Scribner, which published Wild Surge. “Then Scribner published my book of stories She Loves Me Not  (2012). I wanted them do a paperback of it and they said we won’t until you give us a novel, so I decided to write The Kid.”

Then there was the feature film script he co-wrote with good friend and fellow novelist-short story writer Jim Shepard (The Book of Aron). Their script Lie Down with Me, which tells another 19th century story, though this one in the East, was written for Casey Affleck to produce and direct for Relativity Media. Everything was a go before things fell apart.

“Casey Affleck was counting on doing this as a labor of love and in the same week we were expecting our writing checks in the mail, Relativity declared bankruptcy.”

Hansen said Affleck still wants to get the movie made and is trying to secure a name actress in the key role of Abigale.

“It’s set in farm country in upstate New York in the 1850s. He wants it filmed in all four seasons, so he would get people on the set for one week and let them go home and get them for another week, and so on. It’s much voice-over. He wants it to be basically a diary of Abigale, who’s telling all these things that happened. It has very ornate language because she’s concentrating hard when she’s writing her diary, but when she’s talking it’s very plain language.

“A female actress would really be intrigued by this project just because it’s so much her (Abigale). Virtually every page is her and there aren’t many big parts like that for women.”

Asked why he’s so drawn to the past, Hansen said, “Some of my fascination as a fiction writer is the requirement to imagine so much more than if I were writing about a contemporary world or from autobiographical experience. I have to take on unfamiliar roles in unfamiliar settings, so I feel more creative. Even the spoken language is different. And it’s intellectually satisfying that there’s so much learning that needs to go on in order to persuade the reader that a scene must have happened pretty much as I present it.”

As for a next project, he said, “I want to do a sequel to Mariette in Ecstasy. Mariette would be like 80 years-old and she will have moved from upstate New York to Big Sur, California, but I don’t know anything else about the plot. The idea for a sequel just came to me. People like Mariette in Ecstasy a lot and wouldn’t it be nice to see what she’s up to. That was a book I liked writing. I had kind of a ready-made plot with that and I don’t have a plot with this.”

It’s a chance for his imagination to take full flight with one of his favorite characters whose life details he gets to fill in. Sounds like a state of bliss for the author.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

 
 

The Long Goodbye for Bohemian Cafe: Iconic Omaha Eatery Closing After 92 Years

August 25, 2016 Leave a comment

Soon, there will be no more “dumplings and kraut today at Bohemian Cafe” as the venerable Omaha eatery’s familiar jingle went. As you probably know by now, this throwback ethnic restaurant that’s served up authentic Czech, German and Polish cuisine for most of its nine decades is closing September 24. It truly has been a landmark and anchor on South 13th Street for its immersive ethnic experience – from the exterior’s decorative tile and signage’s Old World style lettering to the folk attire of the wait staff to the specialty meat dishes with their rich, sopping-good gravies and sauces. It truly has been a destination place for residents and visitors alike who want something distinctly different.

It may not serve the most refined fare, but the Bohemian Cafe made its reputation specializing in some of the most delicious, satisfying, stick-to-the-ribs meals found in the metro. After 92 years the family-owned restaurant is bowing out of the hyper competitive dining scene knowing its departure is making lots of loyal customers sad. During its long goodbye, lines have been out the door as proof it’s made a lot of folks happy.

 

 

The Long Goodbye for Bohemian Cafe: Iconic Omaha Eatery Closing After 92 Years

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the September 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

When family owners of the Bohemian Cafe announced in May the restaurant was for sale and would close September 24, it marked another casualty among classic eateries calling it quits. An eventual surge in customers wanting to indulge Czech-German-Polish specialties was expected, but sibling co-owners Terry Kapoun and Marsha Bogatz never expected the deluge would start almost immediately. And not let up.

“We made the announcement on a Tuesday (one of two days during the week the cafe’s closed), and that Wednesday we served 500 dinners, where we normally served maybe 225 on a weekday,” said Kapoun. The numbers kept growing. “Thursday we served 600, Friday we served 700, Saturday 800 and then Sunday it dropped back to 650-675. We expected this maybe the end of August, the beginning of September, not the next day,” And certainly not every day since.

“It’s just overwhelming,” he said.

The droves coming for roasted meat in rich gravy, hearty bread dumplings, sweet-sour cabbage, kolaches, strudel and a Pilsner pint, combined with reduced hours, means long lines at the 1406 S. 13th Street eatery. The wait allows time to admire the facade’s decorative tiling whose folk art displays continue inside.

Queues of hungry diners have meant doubling the batches of dumplings and kolaches normally made. The same for the roasted beef, chicken, pork loin and duck. For the first time in anyone’s memory, the Cafe ran out of duck one evening.

Head chef Ron Kapoun, another sibling, learned the unwritten recipes from Laddie Svoboda. The slow-cooked meats with special seasonings and pan drippings, cream-laced gravies infuse dishes with deep flavors arrived at by practice and instinct.

Families used to commemorating special occasions and holidays there are returning to relive powerful sense memories. Sentiments get shared with Bogatz and Terry Kapoun’s wife, Steph, who split greeter duties. The Bohemian’s Facebook page is filled with reminiscences and farewells.

Terry Kapoun said several ex-pat Nebraskans have returned just for another meal.

Bogatz said the family’s “seeing customers we haven’t seen for quite a few years.” First-timers are also among the throng and they’re getting turned onto unfamiliar items like svickova, jaeger schnitzel, Czech goulash and liver dumpling soup.

“We’ve had a lot of new people in. They heard about us and they wanted to at least experience it once, and they’ve just loved it. They wish they would have been here before.”

After 92 years in business, 69 in the same family, the Bohemian will be no more unless a new owner steps forward and the younger set of the four-generation clan that’s run it since 1947 decides to continue the tradition. Terry Kapoun’s parents purchased the cafe from his grandparents in 1966 and he and his siblings later took it over. It’s the only job Kapoun and Bogatz have ever had. Their children and grandchildren have all worked there, The full-time wait staff, some on the job 30, 40 years, are regarded as family.

 

 

Bohemian Cafe: 1: liver dumpling soup 2: egg drop soup 3: jäger schnitzel 4: hasenpfeffer

Bohemian Cafe: Get the goulash!

 

Its end follows other beloved stand-alone dining spots now gone: Mr. C’s, French Cafe, Vivace’s, Venice Inn, Piccolo’s, M’s Pub. Only a few remain with such pedigree: Cascio’s, Johnny’s Cafe, Gorat’s, Joe Tess Place. Petrow’s, Dundee Dell, Howard’s Charro Cafe.

Terry Kapoun laments independents fading amidst chains.

“There were so many great restaurants just in this little area (Little Italy-Little Bohemia), and they were all family-owned.” With each loss, he said, Omaha “loses a little bit of its personality and character.”

Each had its own niche. The Bohemian stood out with Czech folk figures flanking the huge neon sign over the entrance, a wait staff attired in traditional garb and that Old World menu.

“To so many people, this is Czechoslovakia in Omaha,” Kapoun said.. “Customers who’ve gone to the Czech Republic tell us when they eat at cafes in Prague it’s just like eating at the Bohemian Cafe. We take pride in giving Czechs and non-Czechs an authentic cuisine experience.”

The owners say that where today’s entrepreneurial indies are apt to move on when the going gets tough, family-owned spots persevere. Kapoun said, “I don’t think there’s been a family restaurant where at times they didn’t pay salaries or had to hold them awhile when things were sluggish. Only in a family restaurant would things carry on this long or the same head chef still be there since 1979.” Ron Kapoun’s been rising at 2:30 a.m. to start cooking at 4 nearly every day for 37 years.

As Marsha Bogatz said, “You sacrifice for the restaurant.”

Even with advancing age and decades of long hours taking their toll, the 64-year-old Kapoun said, “I really thought I’d be working until I was 80 with the kids. It just didn’t work out that way.”

The Cafe’s evocation of homey nostalgia makes folks feel a part of it, which is why Kapoun regards himself the steward of a communal treasure.

“It was always that type of a feel. I’ve never felt like an owner.”

Open Wednesday through Sunday from 3 to 9 p.m. Visit http://www.bohemiancafe.net.

Dick Holland: Builder of Omaha’s Arts, Culture and Human Services Landscape (1921-2016)

August 25, 2016 Leave a comment

Dick Holland: Builder of Omaha’s Arts, Culture and Human Services Landscape (1921-2016)

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the September 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

A force of nature named Dick Holland died at 95 on August 9. The philanthropist’s passing triggered warm, appreciative tributes from leaders of organizations he supported as well as individuals who worked with him or just admired his frank manner and good heart.

Many say this plain-talking old lion of charitable giving changed the face of Omaha by funding major brick-and-mortar projects, some bearing the Holland name. Before the term social entrepreneurship came in vogue, he applied his wealth to humanistic causes in his hometown reflecting his broad interests.

Fellow Omaha philanthropist Todd Simon said, “Dick was a builder. He helped build and then supported many cultural, arts and human services organizations we take for granted today. He and my father (the late Fred Simon) had a kind of cultural brain-trust. As a kid, I remember going over to the Hollands’ house with my dad. They made plans to support the opera or symphony while listening to their favorite records. Today, I realize the seeds that grew into the foundation of Omaha’s cultural scene were planted in Dick Holland’s living room.”

As an adult, Simon said, “I learned so much about tenacity and determination from Dick, who accomplished so much in such an informal way. He was easy to approach and generous with his time – for seven decades.”

The accessible philanthropist kept a publicly listed phone number and often fielded calls himself from people seeking help. After listening to a plea, he’d tell personal assistant Deb Love, “We need to find a way to help them.” He usually did.

 

 

Holland’s various youthful escapades – Fuller Brush salesman, ice house laborer, drover, bookie – didn’t hint at his future except for his brass and hustle. The Omaha Central High graduate and World War II veteran found his calling at his father’s advertising agency. He then made his own way partnering in the Holland, Dreves, Reilly agency (later Swanson, Rollheiser, Holland) in the Mad Men era – its wild success rivaled only by Bozell and Jacobs. The devoted husband and father was all business but kew how to have fun, too. Valmont Industries became a breakthrough client that made him a player in the business-civic community.

In an interview, Holland said, “Some of the great lessons I learned in advertising, like how to talk to people to try and convince them of an idea, have served me well.”

He did things on his own terms. He once said, “I found out kind of early I didn’t want to work for somebody – I wanted to be my own boss.” He said a personality test developed by his brother Jack Holland pegged him “investigative, artistic and entrepreneurial.” His independent, outlier sensibilities found harbor in the Unitarian Church. Achieving wealth provided autonomy to follow his passions. He wealth came as an early investor in friend Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. He took credit for introducing Buffett to BH’s No. 2 man, Charlie Munger.

His real entry into circles of influence came after he and wife Mary formed a foundation that was the conduit for their giving the rest of their lives together. She died in 2006 (he earlier lost a son). He went right on giving and in his last decade he sought ever more opportunities to make a difference and leave a mark.

In a typical year, 2014, the Holland Foundation reported total giving as $19 million and total assets as $158 million.

His largesse can be seen downtown and midtown in the Holland Performing Arts Center, the Child Saving Institute and University of Nebraska Medical Center. In North Omaha his helping hand is seen at North Star Foundation and Jesuit Middle School. After breaking with Building Bright Futures, he formed the Holland Children’s Movement and Holland Children’s Institute to prepare and support at-risk youth for success from birth through college.

Virtually every Omaha arts organization of size benefited from his generosity and belief the arts enrich a community and attract new talent and business.

“The whole cultural scene is a big, big part of a community,” he told a reporter.

Arts leaders were present at a private celebration of his life held August 15 at the Holland Center – a favorite venue where he was a familiar presence. Members of the Omaha Symphony Orchestra accompanied singers performing operatic selections.

Omaha Performing Arts president Joan Squires said, “He well understood the impact the arts have on all of us. In the Holland Center’s 10th Anniversary video, he said  ‘I don’t know of anything I’ve done that satisfies me more. We made a difference for the happiness of the people of the town. We opened the door to new feelings of all kinds of beauty.’ That was Dick. I know it’s not ever going to be the same without hearing Dick’s bird calls at the conclusion of a performance.”

Holland was a Omaha University graduate who became a mega contributor to his alma mater. He made key gifts to the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Holland Computing Center and the Baxter Arena, whose Community Ice Center is dedicated to him. His support of UNMC played a significant role in that institution’s physical growth, including the Durham Research Centers, the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center and the College of Public Health.

 

 

 

The self-described “liberal Democrat” used the platform his fortune and status afforded by voicing opinions about social causes, railing against policies he opposed and throwing his weight behind bills and candidates he supported. He decried local, state, federal government not working together for the country’s betterment. He criticized Omaha’s failure to uplift a large segment of its minority population who experience poverty. “To me, that’s the worst thing Omaha does,” he said. Though he felt Omaha did public education well from elementary school through college, he bemoaned early childhood gaps and disparities between what inner city children receive and what suburban kids receive.

“I don’t see this so much as an intellectual problem but as a community problem,” he said. “We have all kinds of government programs designed to grab these people as they fall off the cliff. The failure is to raise them so they can climb cliffs.”

Someone privy to his most intimate deliberations was Deb Love, his personal assistant and a Holland Foundation staffer.

Love recalled the many op eds he submitted to the Omaha World-Herald and New York Times. “Sometimes his words were so frank, I would cringe and ask if maybe we should soften them a bit. He usually didn’t take my advice. He would stand up for what he believed.”

She said Holland was the same in private and public when speaking his mind, asking probing questions and seeking ways to remedy problems or meet needs.

“We worked side-by-side in his small home office,” she said, “and I heard every phone conversation, every meeting plan, every decision – personal and business. He would share his innermost feelings and thoughts and would ask my opinion. There are so many things I will miss about Dick: his humor, his advice, his wealth of knowledge. But most of all I will miss our private conversations. He was not only a boss, but a mentor, friend and father-figure.”

Similarly, Joan Squires of Omaha Performing Arts developed a fondness for Holland.

“Each of us has a chance to meet a few very special people in our lives. People that touch us and who we feel privileged to know. For me, one of those people was Dick Holland. He was so much more than a board member and donor – he was one of my closest friends.,” Squires said. “He was so widely read and intelligent, you found yourself scrambling to keep up. He was fun, he was funny and most of all, he cared for others.”

Love said despite grants totaling many millions of dollars over the foundation’s life, Holland never felt he did enough.

“He always wanted to help people in any way he could, whether financially, helping find a job or giving moral support. He was a man of such generosity and humor and very observant of people’s needs. Not long before he passed, he said, ‘I wish I was a magician and had more money to give to all Omaha organizations.’ His joy of giving was contagious. He always said there was nothing that made him feel better than helping someone else. He believed if you have the means, you should share with those who don’t.”

Love said she marveled at his magnanimous spirit.

“Dick treated everyone with the utmost respect. He thoroughly loved children and watching them learn and giving them opportunities to do so. When in public, he would always talk to children. He enjoyed giving his time and money to organizations that help underprivileged children. He wanted them to be able to experience Omaha as any other child would. Some of his donations provide educational opportunities as well as transportation to events at the Holland Center.”

His contributions were well recognized in his lifetime, including by the national Horatio Alger Association. But even someone so accomplished needed assurance in what he’d leave behind.

“He told me he didn’t want to be forgotten after he passed and wanted his foundation and legacy to go on for many years,” Love said. “I am so thankful I will continue to work for the Holland Foundation to carry on Dick’s legacy.”

Holland’s survivors include three daughters, five grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

A public memorial for Holland is pending.

 

Pot Liquor Love

August 23, 2016 Leave a comment

 

 

Pot Liquor Love 

Not long after Pam and I began getting to know each other, we discovered several things in common, and some of what we found we both have a real passion for has to do with food. Having been in a previous long-standing relationship with an African-American woman, I already knew that the food I grew up eating and the food that many African-Americans grow up eating share many similarities. This, despite the fact that I am of Polish and Italian ancestry, two cuisines you wouldn’t ordinarily or immediately associate with soul food. But much of the food my late parents grew up eating and that they then weaned my two older brothers and I on is what could be called peasant cooking, which is essentially what soul food entails. The peasant connotation simply refers to the fact that people of little means, whether Polish or Italian or Black, historically make do with whatever is at hand. including what they eat. The humble rooted people on both my dad’s Polish side and on my mother’s Italian side certainly made do with what they raised and tended on the land and with what scraps of meat they could afford to purchase. The same with Blacks, whose soul food tradition derives from what was available from the sweat of their own brow working the land and what they could scratch together to buy.

Thus, the Polish and Italian cuisine I grew up eating, just like the Black soul food cuisine I was introduced to years later, features lots of greens, beans, potatoes, pastas (think spaghetti and macaroni and cheese), grains (barley, rice, grits) and lower end cut, slow cooked meats, including pig’s feet, cheek, hocks,  butt, ribs, oxtails, smoked turkey wings and legs and beef liver, although some of those formerly low cut low priced meats have since become pricey gourmet items. There are pan-fried and deep-fried connections, too, between my roots and Pam’s, such as chicken livers and gizzards. and, of course, chicken.

My mom and dad split the cooking. Their go-to dishes included: smothered pork chops (his), bean soup with hocks (his and hers), oxtail soup (his), braised oxtails (hers), oven-baked chicken (his), beef stew (his), Italian stew (hers), pig’s feet (his), greens (hers),

Pam has expressed surprise over and over again when, upon talking fondly about various dishes her family enjoyed eating, I come right back with, “Yeah, we ate that, too.” She is fairly amazed even now that I have consumed more than my share of ham hocks, for example, and that I still cook with them today. We didn’t have collards, but we did have mustard and assorted other greens. My mom grew up eating dandelions and she’d once in a while incorporate them into our greens as well.

The whole idea behind this mode of cooking and eating is to stretch things in order to feed several hungry mouths without straining the budget. That means lots of soups, stews, casseroles, bakes and concoctions where you throw in everything on hand to make what Pam’s family used to call “stuff.” Every ethnic group has it own variation of this everything but the kitchen sink dish that is more about expediency than it is culinary style. But Pam and I both agree that there’s never a good enough excuse for making something that lacks flavor. We are both big on bold, robust flavors achieved through liberal seasoning and cooking methodology. When it comes to meat, and she and I are both classic carnivores, we prefer slow baking, roasting methods that produce copious amounts of natural pan drippings that we spoon right over the serving portions or that can be the base for rich, delicious gravies and sauces. You might say we are connoisseurs of pan drippings because we appreciate the layered, complex, concentrated flavors they contain.

The resulting “pot liquor” is produced whether cooking beef, pork or poultry, but you have to have cuts that are bone-in and contain some fat, too. Fat and bone, that’s where the real flavor resides, and all the seasoning and veggies you add only help enhance the flavor. Yes, pot liquor is the really deep, fat and marrow released and rendered goodness that gets deposited in those puddles, streaks and bits. We never serve a meat dish without  some of the pot liquor over it. I love that term because it’s so apt to what the essence of pan drippings are. Rendered fat and bone is where it’s at and when enough of it is released and it gets to coagulating and browning to where those alternately gooey and crusty bits collect at the bottom and edges of the roasting pan, it distills right there in the oven or even on top of the stove into a heady, briny brew that really is best described as pot liquor.

Pam knows by now that one of my favorite food things to do is to take a hunk of bread and sop up the smear of congealed pot liquor left on the pan. Oh, my, that is a burst of flavor that rivals the best bites I’ve ever eaten, Not even a 4 or 5 star restaurant can duplicate that taste.

There are other pot liquors not exclusive to meat dishes, such as the brew created by cooking collards with ham hocks. Pam makes some righteous greens with hocks or smoked turkey lumps whose pot liquor is enough to get intoxicated on when sopping it up with corn bread or pouring it over most anything.

With the holidays coming up I am already salivating at the thought of Pam’s roasted turkey – she makes the moistest turkey I’ve ever eaten – and its pot liquor bounty that pairs well with the greens, the stuffing, the candied yams and everything else for that matter.

Sure, there’s more to life than food, but at the moment I can’t think what that might be. Cooking a meal for someone is as true an expression of love as I can think of. It is the epitome of sharing something precious and of delighting in someone else’s pleasure or satisfaction. Pam and I regularly take turns cooking for each other. Her home cooked meals bring me right back to my childhood and early adult years eating at home with mom and dad. She likes my cooking, too. It also takes her back. By now we both know what we like and what we don’t. Our tastes, with a few notable exceptions, are remarkably alike.

On our recent trips down South we experienced a few dishes with good to the last drop pot liquor love. Read those at–

https://leoadambiga.com/?s=southern+fried

Not sure whose turn it is in our couple cooking rotation. It doesn’t much matter though you see because whoever has the duty will be putting out big flavors. That’s what you get when you cook with love – flavor. The one cardinal sin we can’t abide is bland food. That and skimping on the pot liquor. When we sit down to dinner, it’s not so much “pass the salt” as it is “give me some more of that pot liquor, honey.”

I don’t mean to imply the lip smacking magic of our Pot Liquor Love is what keeps us together, but it sure helps.

All Wrung Out and Hung to Dry…

August 23, 2016 Leave a comment

All Wrung Out and Hung to Dry…

First off, blessings to all the Louisianans affected by the flooding. We were just down there before the deluge and troubles began, having driven through areas of Baton Rouge and surrounding towns and parishes en route to Pam’s family reunion in New Orleans, During our Southern Fried Love Road Trip II – link to my diary of that experience at https://leoadambiga.com/2016/08/12/southern-fried-love-road-trip-diary-ii/ – we only got one whiff of the torrential rains that can fall there. As brief as our exposure was when caught in a blinding downpour on the Lake Ponchartrain Bridge, it was plenty enough to make us nervous. Can’t imagine living in areas so prone to flooding. But what I’m really sharing in this post are my gathering thoughts about the oppressive humidity of the Deep South. While in the midst of that sog and sap I couldn’t find words to do it justice, except a few choice curses. Not even for a time upon my return could I manage to describe it. Now that I have a semblance of my wits about me, I will try to articulate how all consuming it felt. I mean, I knew it would be hot and I thought I was prepared for what everyone told me would be a humidity unlike any I’d felt before, but I never imagined its thoroughly invasive properties. Every time I left AC environs for the outside my pores spontaneously opened to release at first a film and then a full cascade of sweat. It often felt as if I’d been caught in a storm. That none too comfortable sticky, clammy feeling is most unpleasant. It’s essentially walking around in damp clothes. i did find relief when infrequent breezes thankfully appeared to create natural air conditioning of the most refreshing kind.

 

 

After being subjected to that muggy climate I can see how the humidity itself may be enough to explain the origins of Southern Gothic literature with its hyperbole, histrionics, eccentrics, grotesqueries and magic realism. Then add to that voodoo, fundamentalism, evangelism, hellfire Baptist devotion, devout Catholicism, swamps, backwoods, plantations, chain gangs, football, jazz, blues, country and soul food, not to mention the legacy of slavery, the Confederacy and the civil rights movement, and you have the makings for high drama, combined with doses of the surreal and the supernatural. The stark rich-poor, urban-rural divide lends itself to tragicomedy. Just like the humidity, that rich broth of culture oozes out until it envelops you in a steam bath of pleasure and pain. Beads of sweat and drops of rain mark the spot. The myriad struggles and conflicts of that place find release in the grace of slow rhythms that the heavy, moist air seems to regulate. As a visitor, there is no mistaking you are in a Southern Realm or Southern State of Mind, and just to remind you that you’re far from home is that all pervasive, stifling veil of sodden heat you cannot deny or escape, except indoors.

Funny thing about that humidity is that as draining as it could be, it sure never dampened my appetite.

Then there’s an undeniable sultry quality to all the humidity down there. People wear fewer, lighter clothes down there and, well, you know…I swear I felt like going all Stanley Kowalski to my Stella, Pam, by stripping down to a T-shirt in the French Quarter and calling for her to come to me in her slip. Visions of high strung Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor characters and overwrought scenes and delusions of being a character in God’s Little Acre kept coming to mind. But that was the heat talking. Maybe that Rum and Coke, too. But just thinking and writing about the humidity now makes me breakout in a sweat, so give me another cold one and pass the pralines.

And somebody please hand me a fan – and a change of clothes. While you’re at it, if you have any of those battered, deep fried chicken livers we found at a roadside store, I’ll take me some of those, too. The key is to eat, drink and be merry and not let the humidity bog you down or bum you out. After all, when in the South, do as Southerners do.

NEWS FLASH: “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” now available through Barnes & Noble

August 20, 2016 Leave a comment

NEWS FLASH: “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Now available through Barnes & Noble. $25.95.

Passion Project. Introducing the new – “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

https://www.facebook.com/AlexanderPayneExpert/?fref=ts

The book’s a must-read for film buffs, critics, filmmakers, educators and students as well as more casual film fans who want a handy Payne primer and trivia goldmine.

“This is without question the single best study of Alexander Payne’s films, as well as the filmmaker himself and his filmmaking process. In charting the first two decades of Payne’s remarkable career, Leo Adam Biga pieces together an indelible portrait of an independent American artist, and one that’s conveyed largely in the filmmaker’s own words. This is an invaluable contribution to film history and criticism – and a sheer pleasure to read as well.” – Thomas Schatz, Film scholar and author (“The Genius of the System”)

 

FINAL FRONT COVER 6-28-16

 

FROM YOUR ALEXANDER PAYNE EXPERT

Leo Adam Biga–

I am an Omaha-based author-journalist-blogger who often writes about film and in 2012 I turned my in-depth reporting about Oscar-winning writer-director Alexander Payne into a book entitled “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”. It is the most comprehensive study of his cinema career and work to be found anywhere. My collection of articles and essays is based on interviews I conducted with Payne and with many of his key collaborators. I have a new edition of the book releasing September 1 through a boutique press here called River Junction Press. This new edition features expanded and enhanced content, including a Discussion Guide with Index.

The book is updated and current through his “Nebraska” and “Downsizing” projects. I am quite proud of it. It’s received a wonderful endorsement from film scholar and author Thomas Schatz (see above).

“Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” takes you deep inside the creative process of one of the world’s leading cinema artists and follows the arc of his filmmaking journey over a 20-year span, when he went from brash indie newcomer to mature, consummate veteran. Along the way, he’s made a handful of the best reviewed American films of the past two decades and his movies have garnered many top honors at festivals and at the Independent Spirit Awards, the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.

The book has a staged release this fall, beginning September 1, 2016 through year’s end and well beyond, from River Junction Press in Omaha and sells for $25.95.

Available soon on Amazon, for Kindle and at select bookstores and gift shops. You can also order copies through my blogleoadambiga.com or via http://www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga or by emailing me at leo32158@cox.net.

More strong praise for”Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

“Alexander is a master. Many say the art of filmmaking comes from experience and grows with age and wisdom but, in truth, he was a master on day one of his first feature. Leo Biga has beautifully captured Alexander’s incredible journey in film for us all to savor.” – Laura Dern, actress, star of “Citizen Ruth”

“Last night I finished your wonderful new book and I enjoyed it so much! Alexander Payne is such a terrific director and I loved reading about his films in detail. Congratulations.” – Joan Micklin Silver, filmmaker (“Hester Street” and “Crossing Delancey”)

“Alexander Payne is one of American cinema’s leading lights. How fortunate we are that Leo Biga has chronicled his rise to success so thoroughly.” – Leonard Maltin, film critic and best-selling author

“I’d be an Alexander Payne fan even if we didn’t share a Nebraska upbringing: he is a masterly, menschy, singular storyteller whose movies are both serious and unpretentious, delightfully funny and deeply moving. And he’s fortunate indeed to have such a thoughtful and insightful chronicler as Leo Biga.” – Kurt Andersen, novelist (“True Believers”) and Studio 360 host

“Alexander Payne richly deserves this astute book about his work by Leo Biga. I say this as a fan of both of theirs; and would be one even if I weren’t from Nebraska.” – Dick Cavett, TV legend

“Leo Biga brings us a fascinating, comprehensive, insightful portrait of the work and artistry of Alexander Payne. Mr. Biga’s collection of essays document the evolution and growth of this significant American filmmaker and he includes relevant historical context of the old Hollywood and the new. His keen reporter’s eye gives the reader an exciting journey into the art of telling stories on film.” – Ron Hull, Nebraska Educational Television legend, University of Nebraska emeritus professor of broadcasting, author of “Backstage”

“Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the book is Biga’s success at getting Payne to speak candidly about every step in the filmmaking process. These detailed insights include the challenges of developing material from conception to script, finding financing, moderating the mayhem of shooting a movie, and undertaking the slow, monk-like work of editing.” – Brent Spencer, educator and author (“The Lost Son”)

“This book became a primer for me, and introduced me to filmmaking in a way that I had never experienced in my years at film school. The intimacy and honesty in Biga’s writing, reporting and interviewing– and Payne’s unparalleled knowledge of cinema introduced me to filmmaking and film history from someone I quickly came to respect: Mr. Payne.” – Bryan Reisberg, filmmaker (“Big Significant Things”)

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