About Me

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I'm a Sociology Professor at the University of Toronto. I write about gun violence, health disparities, and Hip Hop culture. When I'm not doing research, I like pop-locking, swimming, and learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is my first blog. I hope you like it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Why I Love Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

It's crazy to think that we'll be in Toronto on Friday.  Our time in Philadelphia has flown by so quickly!   Just over two years ago, I can still vividly remember my first drive into Philadelphia.  That day, I flew into Baltimore, picked up my dog (who flew on Pet Airways into Baltimore), and rented a car for the 2-hour drive into Philly.  Sarah was still in LA and would visit Tokyo before moving to Philly in the late fall;  my first couple months in Philadelphia without her were rough!  I'm so happy that we're moving together this time around!

Anyways, one of the things that was most challenging about my move to Philadelphia was my radical change in lifestyle.  I've basically always been a swimmer.  I started swimming when I was 6.  I started competitively swimming when I was 7.  In high school, I attended an elite prep school in Jacksonville, FL known as The Bolles School.  I competed and trained year-round at Bolles.  I then swam at UC Berkeley.  After retiring from competitive swimming, I continued swimming 5-6 times per week.  Then, I moved to UCLA to get my PhD.  I swam 5-6 times per week at UCLA, which on a sidenote has some of the nicest recreational swimming facilities in the US.  In addition to two 25-yard outdoor pools on campus, UCLA also has Sunset Canyon Recreational Center, a large swimming facility that has 1 50-meter outdoor pool and another 25-yard pool (both of which are surrounded by sunbathing areas that are in use about 10 months out of the year).  [On another sidenote, Sunset Canyon is probably one of the only swimming facilities in which you can regularly bump into celebrities who are trying to stay in shape with swimming.  There was a stretch of time when I used to see Owen Wilson at Sunset Canyon; I once gave him a pointer on his freestyle arm recovery, which he appreciated].

50 meter pool at Sunset Canyon: My favorite rec pool
Anyways, when I first moved to Philly, I stopped swimming all the time.  Although I continued swimming at UPenn's Pottruck Center pool, I didn't enjoy the process of trekking through rain, cold weather, or snow to get to an indoor pool that's underground.  Swimming just isn't the same when you aren't staring up into a blue sky and the sun.

Near the end of my first year in Philly, I felt myself becoming older.  I gained weight.  I noticed that my energy levels were slipping.  I also felt tired and sleepy a lot.  Although I had started lifting weights and occasionally running, I didn't really look forward to these activities.  I've never enjoyed running or going to the gym, so it was hard for me to stay disciplined and committed to either of these forms of exercise.

Then, a curious thing happened.  By chance, I became fascinated with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ).  At that time, I had a research assistant, John Dominski, who had moved from the midwest to help me with my research on gunshot victims (on a sidenote, John is now a PhD student in Sociology at Notre Dame; this guy has some serious sociological skills and I'm interested to see what he does in the coming years).  An avid crossfit person, John signed up for the BJJ beginner's program at Balance Studios in Philadelphia.

I can still remember a particular afternoon in which John started practicing "standing in base" while in my office.  For those who don't know, standing in base is one of the fundamental and basic self defense moves that you learn in BJJ.  This is basically a drill designed for real self defense situations.  In it, you practice standing up and having a solid base or sense of balance beneath you.  In a more combative situation, it's a good drill for learning how to shield yourself from an attacked and get away unscathed.

Anyways, in the middle of a work day, John slipped off his shoes and began doing "standing in base" drills in the middle of my office.  I immediately became fascinated and asked him to teach me a couple of the moves he'd picked up.  That was the beginning of my transformation.

John continued taking classes at Balance Studios for the next several weeks.  On different days, he'd come into the office and show me moves or drills that he'd learned.  In addition to hearing his enthusiasm for learning BJJ, I could also see a change in his overall affect and demeanor.  He's not a high strung person to begin with, but John appeared more calm and more relaxed after he started training.  My interest continued to grow.

Then, on some random day, I finally decided that I would give BJJ a try.  A couple months had passed and John was talking about BJJ and Balance Studios all the time.  I thought to myself, "There has to be something about this place, Balance Studios.  There has to be something about BJJ if  John is so into learning it."

I then called Balance Studios and was invited to come out and try an introductory class.  This was one of the best decisions I've ever made in my adult life.  During the first class, I became increasingly interested in BJJ.  Although we weren't actively sparring or rolling yet, I was learning real stuff.  I can remember doing "hip escape" drills, which are used when you need to get out of bad situations when your opponent is on top of you.

After taking the beginner's class for a couple months, I signed up for a long-term membership and joined the advanced and intermediate course.  At first, I trained 4 times per week.  Then, as my interests grew, I started training 5 days per week.  Within 2 months, I was training 6 days per week on a regular basis.  When I'm not training, I find myself thinking about BJJ, drilling the techniques, watching Youtube videos, and talking with people about it.  In a short time, BJJ has become an integral part of my everyday life.  In the process, it has also changed my life.

So far, I've trained for almost 10 months in the advanced and intermediate program at Balance Studios.  It's been easily one of the most humbling and gratifying experiences of my adult life.  In my first two months of training, I lost 30 pounds.  Since starting my BJJ journey, I have become more flexible, stronger, more alert, and feel younger.  BJJ is one of the sneakiest workouts I've ever had.  I never feel as if I'm working hard, and always look forward to going in and training with folks.  Moreover, I always leave a training session exhausted and sweating from head to toe; I don't know if I could ever reach the same levels of exhaustion on my own or in some other kind of exercise structure at this point of my life.  It's not uncommon for me to lose 3-4 pounds in water weight from training!  BJJ is also a great way to build lean muscle mass.  Although I don't life weights, many of the things you do in BJJ are great for muscle toning and overall cardiovascular health.  This video of Andre Galvao--a world champion--shows some of the drills I enjoy doing when I'm not actively drilling and "rolling" (sparring) on the mats with people.

But, beyond the physical benefits of BJJ, I've also noticed several other positive changes in my life.  My training has been perspective changing.  To put it simply, BJJ has made me a more humble person.  Recently, I heard a great interview in which Joe Rogan talks about the benefits of learning BJJ.  At one point, he says that BJJ is great because "It's good for you to get your ass kicked."

He has a more "eloquent" way of putting things, but I think Joe Rogan is right on the money.  Although there are days when I feel totally overwhelmed and incompetent while training with folks at Balance Studios, there is something extremely satisfying about continuing to train hard and learn in spite of being physically dominated and submitted on multiple occasions (on a sidenote: It also doesn't hurt that Balance Studios is a place where everyone is very eager to help you learn and develop as a martial artist).

Anyways, it's about 6:40 in the morning now.  I was up for a few hours working on my book and then took a break from writing.  For some reason, I feel like I write best really late at night.  I need to work on this, because it makes having a semi-structured schedule difficult to hold at times.  During my writing break, I started watching BJJ videos and then became inspired to write this blog.  In 5 short hours, I'll be going to Balance Studios to train.   Even though I'm exhausted and will most likely get my ass kicked, I'm looking forward to it!

Friday, October 21, 2011

How The Godfather helped me Understand Rap Battles

I once read a New Yorker article about how people have epiphanies when they are relaxed and often doing something that's not directly related to goal that they have in mind.  If I remember correctly, the article synthesized research in neuroscience about how people make "big connections" and have "ah-ha" moments when they aren't too directly focused on having a "big connection" or an "ah-ha" moment.  The author seemed to suggest that this was one of the reasons for why people often have great ideas while taking showers or when they first wake up in the morning.  I don't know the ins and outs of this research, but feel that I have experienced this throughout my academic career.

For example, when I was a 4th year PhD student, I was busy trying to publish articles from my dissertation.  At that time, I was trying to publish an article about street corner rap battles outside of Project Blowed, a Hip Hop open mic workshop in South Central LA.  I had been through several drafts of the paper and was feeling stuck.  I had just sent the article out for review and had it rejected, but with some promising comments from reviewers.

One evening, while trying to puzzle through how I could reframe and repackage the paper, I turned on my TV.  I was hoping to take a momentary break from my work.  As I flipped through the channels, I stumbled upon The Godfather 2.  I'm not sure if I've ever watched any of the Godfather movies from start to finish, but have seen each of the movies in parts many times.  

That evening, I caught the second half of the film and had one of these "ah-ha" moments during an iconic scene in which Vito Corleone dies while playing with his grandson, Michael.  In the scene, Vito is with his grandson Michael in a garden.  Midway through the scene, Vito puts an orange peel into his mouth and pretends to be a monster.  This act scares Michael, who begins to show fear.  Upon realizing that Michael doesn't see this gesture as a joke or as "just play," Vito relaxes his posture, opens his arms, and starts laughing; all of this is done to say "I'm just playing" and "this isn't for real." Moments later, Vito dies in the garden.

As it turned out, this scene helped me have an "ah-ha" moment.  Perhaps more than any other reading I had done, this scene inspired me to think about  how young men show that they are "just playing" while battling each other.  Street corner rap battles are an interesting case to examine this question because young men are always flirting with a precarious line between "play" and "violence" in a battle.  Although battles are usually mutually understood as play, there is always a chance that one of the rappers says something that might really offend the other rapper.  Using participant-observation in the scene, interviews with rappers, and videos of battles, I show that there are important non-verbal ways that young men show that they are "just playing" in moments that could become more serious, and if not managed correctly, fatally violent.  These findings were eventually published in an article titled, "Battlin' on the Corner: Techniques for Sustaining Play" in Social Problems.  

Anyways, this is all to say that I sometimes think that our biggest breakthroughs and epiphanies happen when we're relaxed and not entirely focusing on what we want to accomplish.  I wonder if anyone else has similar stories of an "ah ha" moment that caught them by surprise?  If so, I'd love to hear about it!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Locked in the House of Horrors

Police in northeast Philadelphia have discovered what they are calling a "House of Horrors."  Apparently, following a dispute between a tenant and landlord, police were called to a Tacony home in which they discovered 4 mentally-disabled individuals shackled in a basement dungeon.  Officers made this discovery after hearing a rumbling noise coming from the basement.  At first, police thought that the noises might be coming from a dog that was locked up inside the basement.  However, upon closer investigation, officers found a small, dark room that in one officer's words looked like a scene from Silence of the Lambs.  The individuals in captivity were malnourished, covered in bed sores, and in shackles.  
Inside the House of Horrors
So far, police have arrested 4 suspects believed to be behind this "House of Horrors."  Local news and detectives are speculating that the suspects may have been held hostage for the past 11 years, during which time the suspects stole their government disability checks.  

For the past couple days, I've found myself thinking about this story.  From news reports of one disabled person being shackled to a boiler, to others in which those being held captive refer to one of the suspects as "mom," are all extremely disturbing.  

Seeing this makes me sad
Violent crimes of all shapes and sizes are hard to stomach.  For the past 2.5 years, I've been following a number of different individuals who've been shot in armed robberies, drive-by shootings, wild western-type shootouts, botched attempted murders, street assassinations, and other forms of extreme violence.  Despite the horrific details of these and many other violent crimes that are part of my ongoing research, there is something especially repugnant about the House of Horrors story.   

I feel a personal connection to the story because I used to teach special education before I went to graduate school.   In the summer before I entered my PhD program, I got a long-term substitute teaching job in a 1st and 2nd grade special education class.  Most of my students were diagnosed with low-functioning Autism; one student had a particularly severe case of cerebral palsy; and others had milder developmental disorders.  To say that this was a challenging job is an understatement.  But, there was also something extremely rewarding about the "small victories" I experienced each day with my students.  Each day, I found myself humbled and inspired by the kids I worked with.  Even though there were lots of stressful moments and even though I spent a lot of time "putting out fires" in the classroom, I loved my time with those kids.  They were amazing and taught me so many things.  It may sound trite, but I really felt like I grew as a person through this experience and sometimes wonder if I missed my calling.  

In any event, as this story unfolds, I find myself hoping that the DA really goes after the suspects in this case.  I've read somewhere that the FBI and other law enforcement are hoping to charge suspects with a unique kind of hate crime, which was expanded to include individuals with disability.  In the end, I'm not sure how the chips will fall, but I find myself hoping that: a) The truth comes out and we get a sense for how and why these 4 people were held hostage, and b) Those responsible for this are severely punished.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

How Biggie Smalls Changed the Way I Lecture

I'm teaching two undergraduate courses in the Spring at the University of Toronto.  In addition to teaching an undergraduate qualitative methods course, I'm also teaching my favorite course: The Sociology of Crime and Deviance.  There are two reasons why I love teaching this course: 1) It's a topic that closely resonates with my fieldwork on gun violence, gangs, and drugs, and 2) If taught well, it's a topic that seems to pique the unpredictable interests/attention of 18-21 year old undergraduate students.

I first taught the Sociology of Crime and Deviance while finishing my Ph.D. at UCLA.  Since this was my first real teaching experience at the university level, I spent several weeks designing my syllabus.  This involved carefully picking readings that I thought would engage students.  After a few weeks of tinkering, I finally finished my syllabus, which included readings from   Clifford Shaw's Jackroller, Laud Humphrey's Tearoom Trade, and Howard Becker's Outsiders.  In my mind, readings about the career of a thief/pickpocket, clandestine sexual relations in public bathrooms, and the stages in becoming a weed smoker, would surely pique the curiosity and interests of my students, right?  

I was only about half right.  On good days, I would have the full and undivided attention of my lecture hall; on bad days, I could tell students were checking their Myspace (which was still hot back then), or worse they were asleep and snoring.  My first experience in lecturing taught me a valuable lesson:  No matter how "interesting" or salacious, the subject matter of my course would always have to compete against the many other distractions and interests occupying the lives of my students.  I had to rethink my strategy.

A couple weeks into the course, I made a discovery that has since changed my approach to teaching.  That day, I was lecturing on the structural and cultural allures of drug dealing to young men and women growing up in urban poverty.  Although some students seemed engaged, I could feel that my lecture was falling flat.  It was hard to really pinpoint how I got this feeling, but anyone who has done extensive public speaking knows that there are some situations in which your audience is totally with you, and there are situations in which the audience is noticeably not with you.  When everything is working, you feel in perfect flow and harmony with your audience.  Unfortunately, this wasn't one of those times.  My students weren't asleep or visibly distracted, but there just seemed to be a real lack of enthusiasm and attention in the lecture hall.   

"Time to flip the script," I thought to myself.  Unexpectedly, I paused and asked if students had any questions.  Not surprisingly, there was silence.  No hands were raised.  

I then announced, "We're now going to have a multimedia interlude."  Students looked surprised, but didn't really seem fazed by my announcement.  

Pretending that I had planned this all along, I quickly opened a music folder on my Macbook.  Trying to maintain the facade that this was all part of the plan, I quickly scanned the various albums in my folder and fortunately stumbled upon Notorious B.I.G.'s "Ready to Die."

Before opening the folder, I asked my students, "How many of you know who Notorious B.I.G. was?"  Only a few hands were raised.  As a die-hard Hip Hop fan, this was not only appalling, it seemed tragic that so few of my students knew about Biggie, who I considered to be one of the greatest rappers of all-time (on post-reflection, I realized that many were too young to really grow up listening to Biggie--another sign of the unavoidable popular cultural gap between a professor and his students ;)

Anyways, after my brief survey, I opened the music folder and clicked on "Juicy," a song that is great on many levels.  Immediately, I began to notice a sea change in my lecture hall.  Much to my delight, my students started to listen closely.  Some students who were checking their Myspace closed their laptops and began to puzzle over the lyrics in Juicy.  

After the song was finished, a couple brave souls raised their hands to talk about what they had just heard in relation to the readings for the week. One student found Notorious B.I.G.'s depiction of hustling to resemble the careers of many of his childhood friends from Inglewood who had entered the drug game; another student had problems with Biggie's depiction of drug dealing as a viable career option, suggesting that Hip Hop was responsible for celebrating a career path with few positive outcomes.  

Then, something miraculous started happening.  A wave of hands went into the air and various students began critically reflecting on the readings, the discussion, and the themes from "Juicy" and other Hip Hop songs about hustling.  The rest of the lecture was fun, exciting, and engaging for my students.  I knew that my impromptu multimedia use had worked because I wasn't able to finish all of the slides that I had planned for that day; students were too eager to critically discuss Juicy, the readings, and their own ideas about drug dealing and hustling.  

As the course unfolded, I began incorporating additional multimedia into my lectures.  My multimedia use varied each week, but in general, I tried to incorporate a 20-30 minute part of class strictly devoted to tying course readings to multimedia of some sort.  On some weeks, I used short clips from movies, TV shows, documentaries, and other visual media.  On other weeks, I relied heavily on music to make these connections.  

Anyways, this is a long way of saying that I'm planning to use multimedia while teaching undergraduate courses at the University of Toronto.   Since I'm teaching a Crime and Deviance course, drugs will inevitably become a key theme that I cover.  In addition to the social construction of drugs as a deviant activity, I'm also particularly interested in teaching students about the social experience of using drugs, the careers of drug dealers, and themes and topics that begin and end with drugs. 

Currently, there are two documentaries that I'm interested in using in this part of my course. One is called "Cocaine Cowboys 2: Hustlin' with the Godmother"  I was bored a couple weeks ago and started thumbing through my Netflix instant cue and saw this title under the "You might like" option.  Cocaine Cowboys 2 is a riveting documentary about Charles Crosby, a small-time cocaine dealer in Oakland, CA, who develops a friendship/business partnership/romantic relationship with Griselda Blanco, a Columbian cocaine trafficking grandmother who is alleged to be Pablo Escobar's mentor.  The documentary follows the unlikely relationship between Crosby and Blanco, but also delves deeply into the allure of drug dealing to Crosby and many of his friends growing up in a poor neighborhood in Oakland, CA.  Here is a short trailer from the documentary:

The next documentary is "Crackheads Gone Wild," a controversial documentary produced by Xtreeme Entertainment--a low-budget operation out of Atlanta, GA.  Upon release, the film received a lot of negative public criticism for exploiting drug addicts and sensationalizing their suffering.   I haven't seen this documentary, but gather that a guy basically took a handheld video camera and began interviewing various crack addicts across Atlanta.  There are some video snippets on Youtube.  One snippet that is particularly haunting is a tour of a notorious crackhouse known as "The Zoo."  Here's a short clip, if anyone is interested.  

Does anyone else have good suggestions for documentaries or other multimedia about the social worlds of drug users, dealers, or law enforcement responding to drug problems?  If so, I'd be interested in hearing your recommendations!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

10 Things I love about Breaking Bad

I recently became a fan of Breaking Bad.  After a few weeks of hearing rave reviews about the show from different people, I finally sucked it up and started watching it on Netflix instant. Over the course of a few weeks, I managed to watch Seasons 1-3.

 For those who haven't yet seen the show, don't worry, this post won't spoil the show for you. I'm not going to summarize the story's plot.  I'm not going to give away any hidden gems that the show has to offer.  So, if you're so inclined, you can continue reading on...

In a nutshell, Breaking Bad is a show about a relatively straight-laced high school Chemistry teacher who learns that he has lung cancer.  Saddled with incredibly high medical bills and worried that he may die and leave his wife and special needs son with a lifetime of debt, said teacher starts cooking meth on the side.  The story is more or less about his struggle to keep this new life and identity separate from his other life.  There, that's all I'm going to say.  It may sound kinda hokey, but the plot and writing are excellent.

There are many things to like about Breaking Bad.  This blog post probably won't do the show much justice, but I thought I'd get back into the swing of blog writing with a fairly easy and straightforward topic: "10 Things I love about Breaking Bad."

1)  There is hardly a dull moment in the show.  In addition to the fast-paced action scenes, there are incredibly tense scenes in which you feel empathy, disgust, fear, and a wide range of uncomfortable emotions for the cast of characters.  The writers and creators seem to have a good grasp on the pacing of the show.

2) The show takes place in Albuquerque (and yes, I had to look up the spelling of this word).  In addition to some beautiful scenes that showcase the vast and sometimes haunting Southwest--a part of the country often neglect in popular culture--we as viewers get a sampling of rural poverty.  While popular media depictions of poverty often take place in familiar urban settings, we as viewers often forget about the rural side of poverty.  Breaking Bad puts this theme into focus.

Bryan Cranston: Goofball turned dark meth cook
3) The main character, Bryan Cranston, used to be the dad on Malcolm in the Middle.  I didn't really get into that show, but I seem to remember him playing a pretty goofy and light-hearted character.  His role on Breaking Bad is anything but goofy and light-hearted.  At times dark, and often tragic, his new role is an amazing departure from his old role on Malcolm.  Would I be going to far to say that Cranston has resuscitated his acting career?

4) The show seems to have done a good amount of research on the topics they're depicting.  Writers and producers show you how meth is cooked, how its smoked, snorted, injected, sold, etc...Basically, I feel like the writers and creators really wanted their show to be an authentic representation of the social world of meth.
I knew quite a few meth addicts and dealers when I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, so the depictions are pretty true to form in my opinion.  Also, popular media seems to love stories about much higher profile drugs like cocaine, heroine, and even marijuana.  Meth is that other drug that is often forgotten about in popular representations.

5) Similar to The Wire--which I also think is a great and complex show--Breaking Bad avoids making characters into simple, flat caricatures.  Although there are clear protagonists and antagonists, no character is always portrayed as good, bad, heroic, evil, etc.  The main characters have quite a bit of depth and evolve continuously throughout the show.

6) Breaking Bad also touches on the precarious existence of working families who experience tragedy.  While the plight of the poor is well documented, Breaking Bad reminds us that working families who are at the lower end of the middle class, are often one tragedy away from slipping into really tough times.  I don't think this topic gets nearly enough play in the social sciences.

7) Breaking Bad has a great musical score.  I'm a big believer that music is a big and often under-appreciated element that shapes how we view TV shows, movies, etc.  Breaking Bad doesn't beat you over the head with music that is supposed to evoke some feeling.  Instead, the music plays a great complementary role to the already stellar writing and story.

8) Breaking Bad's episodes have an hour slot.  This means that each episode is about 43-46 minutes long.  I like shows that are given a half-hour time slot on TV as well, but feel that the hour slot really allows writers to build some depth into their stories.  Like Madmen or The Wire, I feel like a lot of stuff happens in each episode of Breaking Bad.  Sometimes, those 30 minute shows just feel like they're starting to go somewhere interesting before they end.

9) There is cussing in Breaking Bad.  AMC is great because many of their shows have cussing.  I don't think a show needs a ton of foul language to be enjoyable, but shows about serious and often dark material just don't seem that serious or dark when characters say things like "Darn" or "Shoot."

10) I couldn't think of a 10th reason and I'm getting sleepy.  I will just end by saying that Breaking Bad is very entertaining and if you get into it now, you'll be part of a show that's quickly become a pop cultural phenomenon, much like Madmen, The Wire, and other celebrated TV shows before it.  I was a latecomer to The Wire, but have made a pact to stay on top of the final 2 seasons of Breaking Bad.