Tiffany Austin Birthday Concert: A Review

Tiffany Austin and her band at the Sound Room, Oakland.

I’ve heard Bay Area-based singer Tiffany Austin several times. She frequently returns to her alma mater, Berkeley Law, to perform at the commencement day after party. My work often keeps me from hanging out and listening to her and her band perform.

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of hearing her perform in a more natural setting, at the Sound Room in Uptown Oakland. A nice intimate venue, I heard Tiffany perform without interruptions or work distractions. As always, she had a top-notch band accompanying her: Adam Shulman on piano, David Ewell on bass, and Leon Joyce, Jr. on drums. Tiffany had just celebrated a birthday a few days before, and like most musicians, she celebrated by doing what she loves best, getting on stage. What a wonderful present for the audience.

Tiffany Austin.

One word characterizes Tiffany’s singing and stage persona: ease. She appeared naturally comfortable with the audience, interacting as if in a room with friends. Then she seamlessly slips into performance mode, demonstrating intimacy with the songs she performs, interpreting them with care, and with great control of her voice.

She started with Abbey Lincoln’s “The Music is the Magic.” It crossed my mind that she sounded a bit like Ella Fitzgerald. She also reminded me of the late, great Minnie Riperton on some of the high notes. The next tune confirmed her Ella state of mind, as she launched into “Night in Tunisia,” basing her interpretation to Ella’s famous version. The scatting was hot, on point.

Tiffany gave generous space to her band, often leaning on the piano and listening to them do their thing. Each brought their own considerable gifts to the show. Mr. Joyce in particularly presented one hot solo after another on the drums. (I couldn’t resist playing “knee tabla” along with him.)

Her Law School performances typically stick to standards, so it was a real treat to hear one of her original compositions. Born from a new relationship that came on the heels of one that ended badly, she sang the appropriately titled “Lost” with freeness in her soul. The lyrics provocatively and joyfully celebrated her ability to fall in love again.

Tai-ge Min.

Another surprise came in the form of a very talented protege who she brought on stage. Tai-ge Min studies singing and drums. At age 14, she demonstrated talent at both, singing another Ella transcription, this time for “In A Mellow Tone.” Then later in the show, she played drums on “Body and Soul.” I particularly admired Tai’s scatting, not an easy art form. But like all good scat-singers, she made it look easy.

Tiffany and her band performed a generous set that covered much territory. It made for a very pleasant late Sunday afternoon. Unbroken, her latest album comes out June 1 and then she goes on tour to support it. Stops include Birdland in New York and SF Jazz. Her star is rising, as well it should. I’m happy to have had a chance to see her in so intimate a space as the Sound Room.

April 4, 1968

It happened six days after my 3rd birthday, so I don’t have memories of the day. But I can picture my mother screaming. I can picture my grandmother also upset. I can picture my father trying to console them, while tears ran down his own face. I can picture my older brothers, in their teens, stunned and confused, hurting. I can picture them worried that a repeat of the Watts Riots would happen again, when armed vehicles went down their residential street, when a bullet lodged into my grandmother’s house, when the local stores could not carry food for several days because the area had turned into a no-man’s land. I can picture them all staring at the little black and white TV, the one with the fake wood paneled exterior on the four legs, the one with the oval-shaped picture tube, in disbelief, dismay, distress. I can picture them all living in a haze for the next few days, weeks, months, years.

I can picture these things because I, too, have experienced similar moments, when the world turned upside. Most recently, with the election of the foul one whose name I try to avoid using, the one who put out a perfunctory video praising Dr. King, but who works day and night to undo everything Dr. King stood for. I screamed the night he was elected, my mother’s scream, my grandmother’s scream. I shed the tears my father shed. That’s how I know how they reacted 50 years ago today. Because we live on the same path. Its windings are known to me.

April 3, 1968. (Charles Kelly/AP)


My standard workout routine runs Sunday through Friday. On weekdays, I get up quite early, usually by 4:30. After shaking away grogginess, I dress in a t-shirt and shorts—sometimes long pants in the winter—then go around the house in the backyard to the rear entrance to the garage. This leads to the basement, a low-ceiling expanse where the washer, dryer, and my workout equipment are located. I have a Bowflex and an elliptical machine.

After I finish my routine, I take the same route back to the main part of the house. During most of the year, when I finish working out, dawn has not occurred yet. Blackness still covers my part of the world. For a long time, this has given me pause. A series of what-if scenarios play uncomfortably through my mind as I emerge from the garage and walk the pathway around the house to the backdoor.

Opposite the back of the house lies a low fence between our property and our neighbor’s on the next street over. One can easily look into her backyard, see the sliding glass door into her house.

What if there’s a police action next door, officers roaming my neighbor’s yard after a break-in or perhaps searching for a runaway suspect?

Some my think my concerns silly. I live in a “good” neighborhood. Police actions are rare, though not unheard of. Once, while working at home, I heard a helicopter circling close overhead. Checking around different websites revealed that the police were searching for a suspect about four blocks from our house. I stayed inside.

Sadly, it doesn’t matter what type of neighborhood one lives in when one is black. Anything can happen. The latest police shooting in Sacramento give tragic justification for my concerns.

Stephon Clark was shot multiple times, with several bullets hitting him in the back according to autopsy reports. He was in his grandmother’s backyard, a place as familiar to him as my backyard is to me. He should have been safe, but was not. Details continue to emerge, and the initial police account does not jibe with the facts. They claim to have felt threatened by Mr. Clark. But how threatening could he be if he had his back to them?

The first report about this latest black man shooting stated that Mr. Clark had a cellphone in his hand, which the police mistook for a gun. I don’t own a gun. I despise them. But I do have my metallic water bottle with me when I work out. I carry it downstairs and have it with me when I emerge.

My water bottle, my backyard.

So now during those moments I feel a pause come over me, an apprehension fed by “what ifs” as I walk through my own backyard, I wonder if my water bottle puts me at greater risk. Does it look like a weapon from a distance, like a gun?

The tragedy of Mr. Clark’s shooting has played out as so many have in the recent past. Details remain sketchy. Video contradict police accounts. In the absence of facts, the victim becomes the subject of suspicion and derision: if he had done this or that, then the police wouldn’t have shot him. That the victim rarely has a gun on his or her person becomes an inconvenient afterthought.

Another “afterthought,” rarely discussed in depth, what happens to the victim’s family? Mr. Clark has two sons, ages 1 and 3. They are now fatherless. Former NBA player Matt Barnes and the Rev. Shane Harris of the National Action Network announced a new scholarship fund to help Mr. Clark’s sons get to college. The fund will also help others who lost a parent to police violence.

No one should feel unsafe walking in their own backyard. We should not have to make such declarations, anymore than we should have to say that black lives matter. But clearly we must. For clearly, too many fail to take the message to heart.

It’s springtime now. The mornings will grow lighter. When I finish my workout, I will emerge from the garage into a backyard bathed in the glow of a new dawn. My appearance, and that of my silvery water bottle, will not hide in the shadows. Perhaps we should put more lighting in that part of the yard for when the days grow short again.

Why should we have to worry about such things?

Reading at Saints and Sinners Literary Festival

This weekend I’m attending, for the first time, the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans. In its 15th year, this gathering of LGBTQ writers has become one of the premier events of the queer literary world. Today, I presented on a panel discussing Queer Fiction as Social Commentary with authors Matthew Griffin, Nick White, and Felice Picano, and moderated by Barry McCrea. We had a lively discussion. I learned a lot from this engaging panel of superb authors. I was particularly happy to meet Felice, a legend in the queer lit world.

In the afternoon, I participated in the reading series with Kathleen Archambeau, Peter Gajdics, Mary Griggs, Mercedes Lewis, Jeffrey Round, and Vanda.

What a wonderful experience it has been meeting and getting to know so many amazing writers. I thank my publicist Michele Karlsberg for connecting me with this wonderful event and to Festival organizer Paul J. Willis for scheduling me as a panelist and reader on my very first visit. I look forward to Sunday’s events and will be sorry to see the weekend end. But I’ll be back!

Here is video of my reading. I read excerpts from Sin Against the Race. Enjoy!

Boom – Homegrown Terrorists Are a Problem

Mark Anthony Conditt, deceased terrorist.


March 2, 2018, Austin, Texas. A package bomb went off at the home of Anthony Stephan House, killing him.


March 12, 2018, Austin, Texas. A package bomb killed Draylen Mason, a 17 year-old, and injured his mother.


On the same day, another bomb went off at a different address, injuring Esperanza Herrera, a 75 year-old visiting her aged mother.


March 18, 2018, Austin, Texas. Two young men, one 22, the other 23, tripped a wire and set off a bomb rigged on the side of a road near a “for sale” sign. Both were seriously injured.


After the fourth bomb attack, mainstream media finally caught on that the victims were mostly black and Hispanic. Black news sources noted this much earlier.


March 20, 2018, Schertz, Texas. A package bomb went off at a Fed Ex facility, injuring one employee. The bomb was addressed to someone in Austin. A second bomb at another Fed Ex facility, in Austin, Texas, was discovered and deactivated.


Police identified the bomber as Mark Anthony Conditt, a white male who wrote a screed in junior college wherein he declares his hatred of gays and abortions and where he also states that the government should get rid of sex offender registries.


The picture of Conditt smiling makes him look angelic, sweet.


News agencies refrain from calling him a terrorist.


Trayvon Martin was disrespected after his death, called a thug who got what he deserved by bigots and a young man who was not angelic by those deemed “more objective.” Both site his photos of marijuana, guns, and flipping the bird as examples of his supposed less-than-angelic nature. Or thuggery.


Trayvon Martin wanted to become a pilot and go to college to study aeronautics, a fact that only came to light after his killer was acquitted.


May, 2017. Florida University awarded Trayvon a posthumous degree in aeronautical science at the time he would have graduated had he not been brutally murdered.


June 17, 2015, Charleston, South Carolina. Dylann Roof sat in a bible study class at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. He then stood and shot nine worshipers in cold blood. He spared the 10th so that she could tell the world what happened.


The police arrested Dylann Roof soon after the killings. They took him to Burger King on the way to jail. He was hungry.


April 12, 2015, Baltimore, Maryland. Police arrest Freddie Gray for allegedly having a switchblade on him that was illegal in Baltimore. They loaded him into a police van. They did not ask if he was hungry or wanted to go to Burger King.


Freddie Gray sustained injuries to his spine during his ride in the back of the police van. He fell into a coma then died seven days later.


February 14, 2018, Parkland, Florida. Nikolas Cruz goes into Stoneman Douglas High School and starts shooting. In the end, he murders 17 people, 13 students and 4 adults.


The media avoid calling Cruz a terrorist. Or a thug. Cruz is white.


Many say that Cruz has mental health issues.


But it is also known that Cruz wrote about killing Mexicans, black, and gays privately on Instagram.


He’s still not referred to as a terrorist.


November 8, 2016. The United States elected a known bigot (They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.) President of the United States. He has no political experience. He has no military experience because he received a series of deferments during Vietnam for bone spurs.


The man elected president appointed to his inner circle known bigots and extremists like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller.


Stephen Miller grew up in liberal Santa Monica, California with liberal parents, but developed a great dislike for Mexicans and blacks. He reportedly unfriended someone (not on Facebook, but in real life) because he’s of Mexican heritage.


We’re going to continue having terror campaigns targeting people of color, LGBTQ people, and women in this country so long as we have an Executive Branch composed of bigots.


Being white does not absolve people from being terrorists.


Don’t ask black people why they have rage. If you have to ask, you are not paying attention.


A group of teens, survivors from the Douglas High School shooting, are leading efforts to end gun violence. They are called every name in the book and are targeted by the NRA. To date, thousands of students across the nation are heeding their call and demanding an end to weapons of mass destruction on American streets and in their schools.


The Parkland teens give me hope. They acknowledge that black kids have tried to warn the country about gun violence for years. I can’t wait until all of these kids, the Parkland activists and the Black Lives Matter activists, run the country.


Black Panther Power

My husband, our friend, and I had dinner at a Thai restaurant just around the corner from the theater. Across the room from us sat a group of about 10 African-Americans, ranging in age from youngster to auntie. Most wore beautiful prints of African origin. Some of the men wore hats.

We smiled. No need guessing where they were going after dinner. I wish I could have taken a picture of them. They looked so beautiful. Beyond their outfits, their demeanor carried purpose and pride. Folks don’t normally get that dolled up to see a movie. Wakanda had already cast its spell.

When was the last time I stood in a long, long line waiting to get into a movie house? I can’t recall. None of the recent blockbusters — Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and the like — trigger that memory. I think I have to go way back, to the original Star Wars trilogy of the late 70s and early 80s. Or maybe to the very first Star Trek movie in 1979. In any case, it had been a while.

But there we stood, on Grand Avenue. We all braved the weather, clustered as close to the building as possible to guard against the cool breezes. Our friend had left the Thai place a bit early to secure a spot for us. We got lucky. We stood only a couple doors down from the theater. I tried to look at how far the line stretched down the block, but couldn’t. I’m sure it reached the parking lot about a good 400 feet away.

Color filled the line as it had the restaurant: beautiful, billowing dresses, dashiki, amazing hair, spirited talk and laughter, giggles, selfies.

High excitement ensued when we started to move. Despite the colorful chaos in the lobby and entering the theater, we found good seats rather easily. I heard that mall cineplexes held equally animated crowds, but for Oaklanders, there is only one place to see an epic like Black Panther: The Grand Lake. The director himself, Ryan Coogler, an Oakland native, had come to the Grand Lake and surprised the crowd a few nights earlier. The old movie house still knows how to throw down the magic.

When the movie started, all became serious. No distractions. We lived the movie with laughing, cheering, and gasping. I loved the older black lady behind us who said “That’s right!” whenever someone on screen referenced their ancestors. I wonder when was the last time many of the aunties and uncles came out for a superhero movie?

My short critique: I loved it. I had feared that the story would depict Wakanda and its ruler T’Challa, aka Black Panther, fighting off racist colonialists trying to takeover the magical kingdom and strip it of its scientific secrets. In other words, I feared it would depict a world too close to our own, where a white man rose to power to undo all that his black predecessor had created.

But there was none of that. Indeed, throughout the movie white people were unimportant. Instead the story focusses on conflicts within Wakanda itself. By extension, the story addresses issues relevant to African-Americans and Africans. Mainstream movies don’t normally do this, unless they deal with slavery or the Civil Rights Movement. For a superhero film to take this approach is nothing short of revolutionary.

I think we were hungry for Black Panther. We need Wakanda. How happy I am that we entered its realm.

Lunch with the Author – EXTENDED!

UPDATE 3-3-18:
Dog Eared Books has graciously allowed me to continue the raffle for another week. So there is still a chance to enter the raffle for a free lunch with yours truly. We can talk about my book, books in general, writing, the weather…endless possibilities!

Have lunch with the author? Why not! I’m holding a raffle at Dog Eared Books, Castro for the next week. Put your name and email address in a cute blue bucket and I’ll draw a name at random next Friday, March 9, and invite that person to lunch. My treat!

Dog Eared Books also has some signed copies of Sin Against the Race for sale as well. Go check it out!

What: Lunch with the Author
When: Raffle runs from Feb. 23 – Mar. 9; winner selected on Mar. 9.
Where: Dog Eared Books, 489 Castro St., San Francisco


Out in Print: Queer Book Reviews

Jerry L. Wheeler at Out in Print: Queer Book Reviews has reviewed Sin Against the Race. The site has hundreds of reviews over many years, so I am grateful for the review.

“First novels are tough, especially ones that aim to tell a large story. Big stories usually require big casts, which can be difficult for even the most experienced novelists to manage. That Gar McVey-Russell does it pretty well right out of the box speaks highly of his skills . . .

Sin Against the Race is an extremely promising first novel . . . much here to enjoy . . . its ending satisfies with a vengeance.”
-Jerry L. Wheeler

Check out the entire review here.

Lunar Eclipses Past and Present

Super Blue Blood Moon from Oakland, January 31, 2018.

Karl the Fog stayed away, allowing Bay Area skywatchers a chance to observe the Super Blue Blood Moon total lunar eclipse that occurred in the early hours of January 31. I get up early anyway on weekdays. My current workout regime requires it. But that Wednesday morning, I had an extra incentive.

Low clouds had thwarted my first attempt at seeing a lunar eclipse. I was probably 10 or so. I remember shaking my fist at the air in anger. A few years later, though, we hit the jackpot. My brother Robert packed us into his car—sister Tania, brother JK, and me—and we trekked up the narrow, tortuous road to Mt. Wilson. Home of the Mt. Wilson Observatory and virtually every television and radio transmitter for the LA area, we had the perfect vantage point for viewing the eclipse.

Light pollution hadn’t totally killed the view from Mt. Wilson. Stars aplenty filled the sky. And against this backdrop sat the moon, creeping deeper and deeper into the Earth’s shadow. I thought that it would turn completely dark. But we all geeked out when it turned blood red. Look! It’s Mars! we all exclaimed. And so it appeared, the Red Planet came in for a close up, a cratered planet taking the place of our cratered moon.

A large group had gathered in the chilly air high above LA. Many brought telescopes and happily shared them with those of us that did not. But without a scope, you saw what looked like a 3-D object floating against a sea of stars. It appeared that all one had to do was reach out and grab it like an orange off a tree.

We all talked and talked about what an experience it had been as we descended the mountain and drove home. I remember thinking, as we passed Jack-in-the-Box and McDonald’s on the way home, I could get a job at one of them to earn money to buy a Celestron 8, the king of the telescopes for amateur astronomers. Robert raved about its advanced, Schmidt-Cassegrain design, giving it power in a compact package. We talked about getting a van, one of the classics from the 70s, fitting it with a dome and taking out the Celestron to the high desert. A great fantasy that never came to pass, but always filled our minds with hope.

Early Wednesday morning, before working out, showering, eating breakfast, and going to work, I took out my 4” Newtonian telescope out to the curb to get close up views of the eclipse in progress. There it was, the Super Blue Blood Moon. The giant orange returned, tempting us to pluck it from its celestial tree.

JK and Tania watched from their respective homes in Southern California. As I watched from mine in Oakland, I thought of Robert and that special trip to Mt. Wilson long ago. Soon to be four years gone, on February 11, I felt a part of Robert’s spirit with me as the Moon quietly traversed the Earth’s shadow.

State of the Union: From Obama-nation to Abomination

One does not have to look far beyond the headlines to discern the current state of the union.

GLAAD reports that Americans are becoming less comfortable with LGBTQ people.

49 percent of the non-LGBTQ respondents identified themselves as LGBTQ “allies” in 2017, down from 53 percent in 2016. At the same time, 55 percent of the LGBTQ respondents said they experienced anti-queer discrimination last year, compared to 44 percent in 2016.
-Huffington Post, 1/25/2018

If the courts, stacked with conservative, anti-queer judges, begin chipping away at LGBTQ rights, we run the risk of the population looking at this set back as business as usual, or worse a good thing. It’s not, nor should it ever be thought of that way.

The White House once looked like this. Photographer: Drew Angerer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Deportations run rampant, destroying lives and families. ICE deported Jorge Garcia from Michigan after living in the US for 30 years, taking him away from his wife and kids. ICE has detained Lukasz Niec and threatens to send him back to Poland, where he hasn’t lived since he was five years old. Dr. Niec’s sister says he doesn’t even speak Polish. California, Gondor to this administration’s Mordor, braces itself for an onslaught of random raids by ICE, punishment for declaring ourselves a sanctuary state.

Similarly, this administration wants to deport all Dreamers who arrived here as children. The president uses Dreamers as a bargaining chip for his stupid, expensive, and pointless border wall, the one he said throughout his campaign that Mexico would pay for. Bullshit, of course, and he knows it. Former Mexican Presidente Vicente Fox has said on numerous occasions, “We will not pay for your fucking wall.” So now he wants to extort the US into paying for it, using Dreamers as hostages.

We live in a country where supporters of this administration tell Native Americans to go back to where they came from.

The Department of Justice wants to crack down on state legalization of marijuana. Again, California lies in the cross hairs.

Mass shootings continue at an alarming rate. Nazis march in the street. Hate crimes are up. And official statements from the president, in the form of tweets, cause international alarm on a routine basis.

The man himself claims to be the healthiest ever to hold the Oval Office. Despite the report from his doctor, he is clearly dangerously overweight and, by his own admission, does not exercise.

We had a president who embodied good health and whose wife advocated healthy living (and received much shit for doing so by right wing kooks). Now we have one that sits in bed eating junk food while watching garbage television and hate tweeting.

A healthy president.



A not-so-healthy president









We went from an administration that cared about people to one that cares for no one. One that recognized and celebrated families, to one that parrots empty rhetoric about the importance of family yet engages in policies antithetical to them. We went from generous to cruel.

What’s the state of the union? We aren’t a shithole nation, not yet. But we dance dangerously around the toilet rim. We were an Obama-nation and now we’re an abomination.