Martin Luther King, Jr., Political Correctness and my Bittersweet Birthdays

17 Jan

I’ve taught Martin Luther King, Jr.’s essay “Letter from Birmingham Jail” more times than I can count.  I love his strength, his resilience in his fatal fight against white oppression and bigotry. He was assassinated on my birthday and every time right before I celebrate, I always first think of him before I blow out the candles, how he took a bullet for his beliefs.

But I think if he were alive today he’d be ashamed of how divided our society has become.  He’d be ashamed that much of his work has, in many ways, been undone in the face of political correctness that sterilizes our language, blunts our thoughts before they can even form into spoken words and punishes those who speak out or God forbid accidentally say the wrong thing.  MLK used to stress people needed to have a “dialogue vs. a monologue.”  Sure, we talk today.  We talk in a code so generic and careful that nothing ever truly gets discussed.  Racists remain racist and the self-righteous keep on pointing out the flaws in everybody else but themselves.

For years I’ve gotten used to checking the White, Non-Hispanic box when asked about my heritage, my ethnicity.  I am classified as white, period.  I am to keep to myself who I am.  My European ancestors, the dirt-poor ones who came here from the islands of Greece, who took in other people’s ironing or sold fruit out of the back of a pick-up truck just to put food on the table for their children, their hard-earned identities, they simply don’t count, not to the United States Census Bureau.  I am Native American too, on my mother’s side.  But exactly what percentage?  Is it enough to constitute shading in another box?

No.  To the eyes of the US Census Bureau and all other institutions that call for me to answer who I am, I must remember this – I am what I am not.

Years ago I published a piece in the New York Times Magazine titled “Prejudice and Pride.”  It sparked a lot of conversation and it has and continues to be taught in universities across the country.  I hoped that by now we’d be beyond intentionally drawing distinctions from one another, our race or our sexual orientation and maybe, just maybe, we might try and connect with one another by some of our similarities.  We have plenty of them.  Love.  Loss.  Grief.  They’re universal feelings experienced by all of humanity.  But sadly enough, in a society where walls are favored to be constructed between our country and another, I couldn’t be more wrong.




My Mother and I Vs A Would Be Mugger in Vegas

01 Jan

I should’ve seen it as an omen that morning at 7 a.m. in the casino lobby of Planet Hollywood when a well-dressed man wearing a sweater/blazer combo and a black fedora began to serenade me with the seventies hit “Feel Like Makin’ Love.”   As a writer, I am an early riser.  It cannot be helped and, most of the time, I prefer it this way.  Except at that moment as I was being sung to by some European guy still drunk from the night before, I was alone, my family members I came to Vegas with still asleep.  I sat there stunned on a stool in front of a Britney Spears slot machine with my Venti black coffee.  A younger man quickly interrupted and hit the older man with his shoulder, apologizing profusely, and I thought that maybe this would be as strange as my day in Vegas would get.

I was wrong.

I hadn’t seen my mother in nearly five years.  She lives thousands of miles away and she doesn’t travel much after a car crash left her with a fractured vertebrae that never fully healed.  It was hard to see her slightly hunched over, her gait slower, somewhat frail, but still feisty as ever.  We had plans that crisp, sunny afternoon to cross the street and check out the elaborate Christmas decorations at Bellagio.  I held my mother’s arm while she carefully made her way down the concrete steps to the crosswalk, and that’s when I heard it.

“I’m your baby, I’m your baby, I’m your baby,” a young woman in a red sweatshirt and tan pants yelled as she charged down the steps towards my poor unsuspecting mother.

Instantly I turned, placed my left hand on my mother’s back to brace her, and I faced the woman who was now one step away from knocking my mother to the ground.  I’ve always hoped in times of crisis that I would react the right way, that I would not be one of those people who dumbly stand by and watch a criminal act occur.

I did not yell back at the woman screaming at the top of her lungs at my mother.  Nor did I think she was all that crazy as she was attempting to act.  I sensed that what she really wanted from my mother was her small canvas purse that hung off her shoulder, filled with hundreds of dollars in cash.

Instinctively, I stepped in between this woman and my mother.  She would have to get through me before she ever got to her.

For several seconds this woman and I stared at eachother, neither of us saying a word, both of us sizing the other up.  I’d watched enough boxing matches with my favorite boxer Gennady Golovkin to know what I’d have to do next if she tried to strike me.  Suddenly, it surfaced in her eyes, the stark reality that this would be no easy mugging, that a daughter’s love for her mother was a force she was no longer wanting to mess with.  She cursed at me, then ran off into the crowd on the Strip.

My mother and I continued to make our way to Bellagio.  We weren’t going to let some random stranger ruin our time.  We took a couple pictures of the famous fountains out front, but later I took my mother’s suggestion and we sat at the bar inside with a pianist playing nearby and each had ourselves a calming glass of good red wine.





Why I Flipped Off Santa Claus…

21 Nov

Whenever the man in the red and white furry suit and long cap is out in public he’s supposed to laugh, pat his big belly and let out a hearty ho ho for whomever crosses his path.  He’s supposed to wish those who smile at him, whether it be an adult or a small child, a very Merry Christmas.  We are to come away from our brief interaction with him feeling better than before we’d run into him,  maybe even sucking on a candy cane he was generous enough to hand to us as a token of his goodwill.  He is, after all, dressed as Santa Claus.  Confuse him with either being a symbol or archetype of all things Christmas if you must.  But doesn’t the person behind the fake white beard owe this perfectly cliched Christmas behavior to all of us who still believe in the tradition?

At an early age my parents encouraged my older sister and I to believe in the big red and white lie and we did.  They even went so far as to tell my sister and I that the Santas we saw on the street corner or seated in a fake sleigh at the center of the mall were just stand-ins, local So Cal helpers to that old guy thousands of miles away up at the North Pole who was an expert packer – how does one fit a world’s worth of children’s toys in one sleigh?  No, my mom and dad continuously repeated, the one they took us to see on Christmas Eve was the real Santa Claus.  Not many people were aware that before his all night trip ’round the globe in his sleigh he temporarily parked it in a plastic igloo in front of Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California.

If I grew suspicious why I couldn’t hear Prancer and Dancer and the rest pawing the ground nearby, my father would just bend down to me and whisper,  “His reindeer are on the other side of the igloo, Paula Girl.  They’re filling their bellies, eating big pails of turkey and stuffing, getting ready for their busy night ahead.”  Of course this made sense.  And because I didn’t want to leave Santa out, right before bed I would set out a glass of milk and a plate full of sugar cookies I’d baked as a thank you for the unwrapped gifts he would leave me come Christmas morning.  I’m grateful to my parents for having deceived me about Old Saint Nick.  My childhood is all the better for it.

Yesterday, all these years later, when I got out of my car at the post office and noticed a man dressed as Santa Claus, things did not go as expected.  He definitely looked the part.  Instead of a sleigh he had an old antique car decorated with Christmas lights.  Coming out of the black speakers on either side of the car (there were no doors) played “Jingle Bells.”

“Would it be okay if I took your picture?”  I asked the Santa who I saw as I got closer had bloodshot eyes.  I had plans of being festive by posting it on Facebook.

“Sure,” he replied, holding out a white gloved hand,  “for five bucks.”

Maybe it was the kid in me that has yet to grow up that made me literally take a step back.  Yes, one typically pays to see Santa.  But what is the proper protocol if you come across him in a parking lot next to a Walgreen’s drug store?

“Nevermind,” I muttered and got back into my car.

But this is where the story takes a dark and very not-so-merry turn.  This bad Santa was not taking my monetary refusal so well.  As I started my car and pulled away from the parking spot, I watched as he pulled down his fake beard and mustache combo.  An ugly five letter expletive geared towards women could easily be read from his now fully visible lips.  Normally I would’ve just driven away, taking the high road.  But at that moment I remembered what the idea of Santa stood for and it certainly wasn’t this bitter old man who thought he could get away with cursing at a woman who didn’t give him five dollars.  So as immature as it may sound and without a second thought, through the side window of my car, I looked that Santa impostor straight in the eyes and I gave him the middle finger.


Newness, Nostalgia and a Lead Singer in White Denim

02 Oct

The eighties are known for big hair, bright questionable clothing styles…and Duran Duran. Lead singer Simon Le Bon serenading the camera in a safari hat seated in an exotic bar for the “Hungry Like the Wolf” video or the well-coiffed Nick Rhodes and John Taylor lifting boxes on a cobble-stone road in “New Moon on Monday.”  At the peak of their fame, when Simon Le Bon most recently joked with a reporter that he and the band were aiming “for world domination,”  Duran Duran was considered to be a twenty something version of a boy band.  Not enough music critics took them very seriously.  People like me were mostly to blame.  I was one of those teenage girls screaming her voice hoarse at their concerts, every inch of my bedroom walls papered with their posters.

But even though I was an avid raving teenage Duran Duran fan, I really did enjoy their music.  I knew every lyric of their popular songs as well as many of their obscure ones.  “Friends of Mine” and “Careless Memories” have been playing on my iPod for years while I work out on my elliptical at home.

I recently attended the concert of a well known singer, popular in the eighties.  After playing his biggest hits, he spent the duration of the concert covering songs by The Beatles and Katy Perry.  It not only sounded a little musically schizophrenic.  He also sounded really outdated.

This is not the case with Duran Duran.  Last night when I attended their sold out concert at The Hollywood Bowl, Duran Duran had the hard part of choosing which of their biggest hits to play along with new music from their CD Paper Gods.  Arguably, they’re that rare band that has too many hit songs.  They began with the signature title song of their new CD and later performed my favorite “Dancephobia” with Le Bon and their female singers dancing along a border of the stage that extended into the crowd.  They also covered the slow sensual “Come Undone” and the upbeat “Notorious.”  The majority of the audience remained on their feet throughout the night, some even putting away their smart phones long enough to enjoy the music without documenting every last second of it.

While it is good to see four of the band members together again, it doesn’t feel quite the same as it once did at fifteen seeing them in concert.  It is better.  Naturally, as an adult, I no longer scream my lungs out.  Instead I sing along to the music.  They are a different band in a necessary way.  They are decades away from that twenty something boy band.  They are a band with a brand new CD on the top Billboard chart here in the US and in other countries as well.  Le Bon, especially, has a renewed energy.  He worked the crowd into a frenzy with his self-effacing sexuality, at one point jokingly turning away from the crowd and shaking his hips.  And while they may no longer be a twenty something boy band, they may not be out of the woods just yet from being objectified by their many ardent female fans.   On the ride to the concert, while I was stopped in traffic, my older sister called my cell.  “Tell me how he looks,” she said.  “Which one?” I asked.  “Nick,” she replied.  “I saw him on TV the other day.  He’s sooo well-preserved.”



Don’t Make Me Break Out the Big Gun…

09 Jul

“I’m going to come into your bedroom and rape you,” threatens the man on the other end of the line.  It’s the middle of the night and I’m fifteen, maybe sixteen, though my voice sounds much younger, a child’s voice.  This pervert has hit pay dirt by reaching someone like me.  Even today people who don’t know me call my home and ask if they can speak with my parents.  Only seconds before I’d been dead asleep positioned like a corpse in the center of my bed with my hands folded on my chest, the way I always sleep, yet now I’m sitting upright, fully awake, as alive as I’ll ever be.

Is this guy just a sicko with his pants down getting his wood up by randomly calling numbers and waiting for whoever picks up or does he mean what he says?  Is he standing outside my bedroom window right now?  Has he been stalking me?

But then something interrupts all that panic.  It’s an overwhelming sound that every night penetrates the shared plaster wall separating myself from my father.  It’s the sound that makes me sleep most nights with Kleenex crammed in my ears.  It’s the sound of my father’s thunderous snores.  And I remember what’s in his walk-in closet, how it’s filled with business shirts and suits hanging in their dry cleaning wrap and leaning against one wall is a big black shotgun, the safety still on, one bullet in the chamber.  “Just in case,” my dad likes to say.  I’ve witnessed my father carrying that loaded shotgun as he walked the perimeter of the house the night we heard on the news rapist Kevin Cooper escaped from the prison just a few miles away from where we live.  There is no doubt in my mind my father would’ve used it that night had Cooper broken into our home or now if the man on the line suddenly made his way through my bedroom window.

Instead of crying out in fear or pulling the phone cord out from the wall to prevent the pervert from calling back, I slide deeper down in between the sheets.  The man’s breathing remains rapid but mine, it’s slowing down now.  “Do it,” I dare him.  “Come into my bedroom and my father will blow away your sick, creepy ass.”  Maybe it is the sureness in my voice backed by the cold hard steel of the barrel my father will point at this guy’s chest that prevents him from calling back.

The number of violent sexual acts against women in this country is staggering.  My mother knows of a woman who lived alone and awoke to a man in a ski mask standing in the doorway of her bedroom, a knife in one hand, a loop of rope in the other.  On her nightstand was a handgun which she quickly grabbed, firing off a shot.  The intruder ran off, knocking over a lamp in her family room on the way out.

I know of a man who insists he can protect his family with an aluminum baseball bat.  But what if there’s more than one intruder?  What if there’s no chance for the element of surprise?  What if the intruder has a gun and the man with the bat is just left standing out in the open of his family room swinging at air, waiting to be shot and killed?

One night when I was alone with my stepson who was only around seven at the time, I heard my dogs barking wildly at the front door.  I live in a safe community in the San Bernardino Mountains and sometimes I’d forget to lock the door.  “Who is it?” I shouted.  There was no answer, just the sound of my dogs  continuing to bark.  I stood up from the couch and watched helplessly as the doorknob slowly turned.  Thankfully, I’d actually locked the door this time.  I then ran up the stairs to my bedroom, pulled out my husband’s shotgun from its hiding place and loaded it fast with a couple shells.  Then I instructed my stepson to come out of his bedroom and crouch down beside me in the kitchen while I stood behind the counter, readied my shoulder with the weight of the weapon and directed the barrel at the front door.  There was no father to protect me, no husband, no man, period.  Make no mistake, I’m not a gun toting Republican.  I’m a registered Independent who weighs both the Right and the Left and always finds myself right smack in between.  That night in the kitchen, though my legs trembled, my hands remained steady and in some strange way I’ve still never felt safer.






Prized Pugilists, My Father and a Man Who Dresses Like the Color of a Pinata

08 Jun

With the Cotto vs Martinez fight now over, I can’t help but think of the man who raised me, a man I wrote an entire book about, a man whose death literally knocked me to my knees. There were no ropes to clutch onto for support. No one positioning me on a stool in a corner shouting what my next move would be. That morning everything was off its angle.  I was alone in my grief, afraid to come up off the floor, my canvas, because the world as I knew it only seconds before was no longer right.

My father and I loved debating politics but we also loved watching prized fighters.  I can remember the first time I bet against my father and won. It was the fight somewhere in Asia between champion Iron Mike Tyson and a quaking lunk of a challenger named Buster Douglas.  “Dad,” I said, as I watched the fighters dancing in place in the ring.  “Looks like Tyson’s metal has turned to blubber, especially in the chest.  He could use a training bra for those suckers.”

The more sarcastic I got the more my father would smile.  It meant he and I too were going toe to toe even if we were in actuality just seated on the edge of the couch with a bag of potato chips between us, watching HBO.

“You’ve just increased our bet by ten bucks for that one,”  he warned me.

I can’t remember which round it was before my father had to accept defeat and reach into his wallet and hand me one twenty and that extra ten dollar bill.

Another time we were with my uncle at his beach house and I bet against both of them.  It was Tyson again and neither of them had learned their lesson.  Tyson’s opponent was a well muscled Evander Holyfield with a whole lot of God on his side and a win against “Iron Mike” already under his belt.  At least a hundred bucks was in the pot on the coffee table as Tyson in a desperate act to end a fight he knew he was losing  leaned in close against the side of Holyfield’s face and bit down on the man’s ear.  After the shock wore off, my father just laughed, reclining in his seat, crossing his arms at his chest the way he did whenever he was trying to figure something out.  “How’d you know, Paula Girl?”

And as I swept up all those loose bills with both arms it is that moment when I was thinking about how to respond that brings me to last night’s battle between the Puerto Rican Miguel Cotto and the champion Sergio Martinez from Argentina.  Cotto, his career on the brink with one too many losses, humbled himself by switching to basically the best trainer in the sport a year before.  During a pre-fight show he is filmed training before dawn for the fight in unexplainable attire – black and bright pink track pants, matching Crocs?, jumping rope or walking with weights tied to his ankles in a pool, punching at hard water.  But just because a man dresses with the colors of a pinata doesn’t mean he’ll allow himself to be beaten like one.

While Martinez with his perfectly coiffed bed head is seen still sprawled out catching some Zzzzs in bed.  Because he holds the title belt he doesn’t believe he needs to put in the extra time and begins his workouts well after 10 in the morning.  This cocky carelessness of a defending champion is also one of the primary reasons why Martinez went down three times in the first round.  It is why he gave up before the tenth.  It is why I kept winning those bets I’d playfully, I’d lovingly take with my father.

“Because he lost his heart for the sport,” I answered.


A Quick Critique of Chris Mann’s Concert Last Night…

24 Nov

First off, I’ve never watched “The Voice.” While I’ve listened to Adam Levine and Maroon 5 and some Christina Aguilera, Blake Shelton is a little too grits and creamed corn country for my taste.  And I have no idea who the shady (his sunglasses, not his character) Cee Lo is or what he’s contributed to the music industry.  So the many references Chris Mann made throughout the night about his finalist status on the show with the revolving red chairs, well, it fell on my deaf ears.  I could’ve cared less.

Here’s hoping Chris Mann one day stops caring, too.  The moment he came out on stage in a pressed suit and tie, belting out not only the classics like “Ave Maria” and his own creations, an emotionally driven song titled “Roads,” he was his own singer.  A rather small guy in stature, his great big voice literally took up the entire theater.  Trained at a music school for the opera, he performed songs by Andrea Bocelli and Nelson, yes Willie Nelson, in multiple languages.

Mann also had a sense of humor.  At one point he looked down at the audience members seated in the pit of the first row and made a crack about the odd angle they had of his body.  The joke about saying the name Rancho Cucamonga where the theater is located fell a little flat as did the good-natured heckler in the audience who made fun of him being from Wichita, Kansas, “Is that in the U.S.?”  But the back and forth Mann shared with his talented pianist was a lot of staged fun.  When the pianist played too frenetically, obviously showing off, Mann quipped, “He’s only twenty-four.”

As for the aftermath, who knew a singer of the classics (who rightly so ridiculed himself for insisting on singing a Dan Fogelberg song) had groupies with full on signage and squealing included?  A long twisted line trailing around one side of the theater awaited Mann where he was to come out and meet the audience.  And while I didn’t brave an uncharacteristically cold, windy So Cal night to meet the singer, I came to hear his rendition of the classics.  I did leave with his new Christmas CD.  His “muscle,” by the way, a big Mack truck of a guy who was shadowing Mann while he signed autographs, who most bouncers probably would allow to remain unruly inside any bar, was all too helpful in exchanging the CD the girl handed me that had a cracked case with a new unblemished one.


Reviews for The Shyster’s Daughter

03 Oct

This look back at a family divided by divorce, geography, and grief crackles with tension, but also locates humor in their excesses and drama.  The narrative is flecked with several gathered quotes from family, clients, and others under the heading, “What They Told Me After He Died,” and the quotes are as dark and funny as the story itself…meeting the author’s family is an illuminating and sometimes disturbing journey the reader won’t forget.

– Foreword Magazine (Fall Issue)

The Shyster’s Daughter is a fascinating, quick and wonderful read.  Similar to Jeanette Walls’s The Glass Castle, Paula provides her readers with a very well-written take of her coming-of-age and adulthood occurring in the shadow of all her father’s and family’s immoral acts.

– Literary Hoarders book blog

In The Shyster’s Daughter Priamos has plied the best attributes of his trade to reveal the mysterious and intriguing personality that was her dad.”

– Women’s Memoir

Priamos’s ambitious and successful effort to meld two stories happens in a book called The Shyster’s Daughter, where she performs the big leap over timidity and skepticism to make her own life story a bigger one indeed…a self-described noir detective memoir, something evoking Nathaneal West or Joan Didion.

– O.C. Weekly

In The Shyster’s Daughter Priamos peers into the motivations of her family members with a rare and enticing frankness that distinguishes her work from that of other memoirists.

– ZYZZYVA literary journal


Strange Encounters of a Religious Kind…

03 Sep

It happened at the Book Expo in Los Angeles.  The woman, eager to spread the word of L. Ron Hubbard, stood before me with a smile, blocking my way.  In her hand was the Scientologist’s version of the Bible, weighty and protected in plastic wrap. “You’re a professor I see,” said the woman, glancing down at my ID badge.  This was before my memoir was published.

“Yes,” I answered with hesitation.  Her eyes popped with so much energy I instantly wanted to bolt.

“You need to stay with me,” she went on.  “Hear me out.”  Her mouth shaped every syllable like she was saying the vowel sounds to a kindergartener.  “You’re an important person in society because you communicate using the English language.”

Part of me wanted to sarcastically point out that everybody mingling about in that Southern California convention center no doubt was communicating like she and I were right then in English, but I was a little leery of how she might react.  Instead I thanked her for pushing a copy of Dianetics on me and went on my way, ignoring her open invitation to attend a closed meeting “at the Celebrity Centre.”

Another time I was driving down a busy street and witnessed a young guy in a button down shirt and tie, riding a bicycle, get hit by a car that was speeding into a mobile home park.  The cyclist’s helmet was knocked off by the impact.  As for the car, it slowed but did not stop.  Quickly, I parked at the curb, grabbed my cell phone and ran to help the cyclist.  A young guy around his age, also dressed up and on a bike, was helping him up off the ground.

“Are you sure you should move him,” I said.  “I’ll call 911.”

“No,” the uninjured guy said.  “There’s no need for that.  He’s fine.”

“But he should be checked out,” I argued.  “He could have internal injuries.”

The young guy who’d been hit could hardly stand.  He looked at me, afraid.  Clearly I put a scare into him.

“No,” the uninjured one said again.  He had the same amazed look I’d seen on the Scientology woman’s face when she stopped me. “God will take care of it.”  And with that unbelievable line he retrieved the helmet, and insisted the boy who was struck by an old Camaro struggle to get back on his bike and pedal as fast as he could away from his own hit and run accident.

It’s hard not to pass judgment on a religion that denies medical treatment for one of its followers, denies justice for that matter.  The police should’ve been called and the callous driver in that beat up car should’ve been arrested.  In this country there is freedom of religion.  There is the freedom to not file a police report and let a guilty person go free.  There is the freedom to aggressively peddle a religion whether it’s on a bicycle or standing in the way of an unsuspecting professor’s path while she’s out browsing for books.  But is it any wonder to these extremists why some of us push back?


Memorable Comments I’ve Heard So Far On My Book Tour…

22 Jul

“Your memoir has the pull of John Grisham and the meatiness of Hemingway.”

“I seriously haven’t read anything like this.  You pretty much created your own genre!”

“Before you make any assumptions about her (me) you need to first read the book and then read her blog.”

“Your legs (I’m in a miniskirt) they look…airbrushed!”

“I love your story, but I feel so insulted on so many levels, I’m not sure I’ll buy your book.”

“How does it feel to have a father who is a sociopath?”

“Are you sure you’re old enough to be writing memoir?”

“I can relate to your story because I’m a daughter who lost her father way too soon too.”

“I read your book in two nights straight.  I kept trying to figure it all out along with you.  You’ve written something real special here.”