Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Embracing The Noise

As a resident of Brooklyn I have come to know noise intimately. It has become a necessary evil that occupies both my waking and sleeping hours.   Whether it’s the earnest chaos created by my six-year old son’s adventures with Lego blocks, action figures and household items that become swords, blasters and spaceships, or the unabashed bass and syncopated obscenities emanating from the car stereos that meet at the traffic light in front of my bedroom window, the sounds of this city always offer the same unapologetic answer to my need for solitude; deal with it.  I suppose this has always been life’s message to the living or at least Brooklyn’s message to the rest of the world. I guess quiet is for the sleeping, and in a city that never sleeps, quiet is just not part of the plan. My six-year old son seems to be fully aware of this arrangement. He is the walking alarm clock of my home, rising each day at about 10am with the same mission; steal my I-phone so that he can top his high score on Mine Craft, a game that he persuaded me to download on a day that I was truly convinced, that whatever temporary preoccupation I was engaged in was actually solitude. But of course, the joke was again on me as I rediscovered what I had been discovering since the day he was born; little boys have no use for silence. Noise on the other hand, is something they can use, especially in the form of words like “daddy can I’, repeated incessantly, proving that he is also quite aware of my need to temporarily escape the pummeling of adult responsibilities, which are always waiting for me just on the other side of summer.

There is an ironic solace in my son’s distractions.  Sometimes I’m fortunate enough to recognize it while he is waking me on a Sunday with the usual greeting of “good morning daddy, what’s for breakfast?”, right at that point when I am really enjoying being asleep and my dreams are just beginning to make sense, or when he starts asking a million questions right at the point when the plot of the show I’m watching is just starting to get interesting.  I can recall a time in my teenage years when I had far less appreciation for this kind of interruption because my older brother and cousin always made it a point to pounce on my solitude as if it was somehow disrupting the natural noisy order of things.  At the time I viewed their antics as malicious jokes meant to amuse not only themselves but all of the noisemakers in the entire universe.  They demonstrated their own twisted versions of mindfulness in their attempts to fight the quiet in our small bedroom where we reluctantly shared space and our teenage years.  These obnoxious intrusions occurred especially when I was doing homework, which in my view was the worst of all sins, because after all, I was only attempting to achieve what all “good” black kids wished to achieve; a way to get to college and escape the hood.  But it seemed that my sadistic roommates had a different plan.

Both had their own unique ways to disrupt my attempts at studying. My brother’s technique demonstrated nerve racking, middle school, finger two inches from the nose, “I’m not touching you” efficiency as he would simply stand directly over my shoulder silently for five to ten minutes reveling in my struggles with algebra.  And when I finally found it unbearable, he would deny any foul play. The game was never over and he was never satisfied until I finally yelled curses at him.  He would then just laugh and walk away.  My cousin had a subtler approach.  He would simply enter the room and turn on the TV and when I complained, he’d say: “it’s your fault! Nobody told you to do your homework this late!” despite my attempts to explain that the workload of my classes demanded that I at least study until midnight and that I had big dreams and doing my homework was the only way I knew how to achieve them, even though they were big abstract dreams that I could not articulate. I just knew that going far away from that little room would be where they began. But it seemed that this was of no concern to him, especially since this explanation has only ever occurred in my head and in my solitude.

 My cousin died last year.  Rene was his name.

Whenever I think of Rene, that familiar noise visits me in the form of grief, regret and anger all arguing for their rightful place to mourn his loss, agonize over not telling him I loved him and yell at him for being one of the multitude who stood in the way of my untapped potential.  I realize how selfish this conflict is, but it doesn’t change the fact that it exists.  It is a tug-of-war between the most vivid memories that I have of him as a teenager when all of us were struggling to find ourselves and him as a grown man that possessed the ability to make everyone around him smile. I only experienced the latter briefly, because I left to find my solitude.  And while I was gone, he lay in a hospital bed on life support, surrounded by all of his loved ones, except me.  My only account of his last days were given to me by mother.  She described to me the look of wonder, profound sadness and love that came over his face when the doctors took him off life support while he looked around the room and saw all of his loved ones, except me, right before he slipped into his final sleep. 

I often tell myself that I have always thrived in solitude and I have always expected the world to give me space. But my brothers showed me that that was not the case.  And since that time, God has found great joy in casting me into the noisy arena of domestic life, teaching me, the wayward soul, that He has never been concerned with my expectations.  For example, I am married to a woman that I expect to read my mind and know not to cross the boundaries of my solitude.  But she, God and my six-year old son find this hilarious.  She is a talented singer and whenever possible sings entire songs when they come on the radio, because it’s the only remedy for her singer’s OCD.  When she and my son are in a room together they do more damage to my solitude than my brothers ever could.  At times it feels just as malicious and those old hostile feelings from my past begin to bubble up.  But how can I be hostile when both of them are obviously following the same childlike instinct to simply do what makes them happy?  And how can I and my solitude compete with such honesty?  I guess the pursuit of happiness can get a little noisy from time to time.  Sometimes people just want to watch TV because it makes them happy.  For my cousin, after losing his mom and living with us, TV may have been just the thing.  Before he died, he had a big house with several TV’s. I should take comfort at least in knowing that all of the noise in his life brought him solitude in the end, which makes me wonder if I’ve had it backwards all this time.  Maybe I should learn to embrace the noise like the inhabitants of my adopted city. Maybe all of the distractions that I endured in that little room have made me a better husband, father and teacher. Maybe all the conversations that I have had in my head all this time are more debilitating than any noise anyone in my life could have ever made. Maybe somewhere Rene is reading this, laughing to himself and thinking that I should watch more TV. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

What do I say?

Lately I have been struggling with how to respond to recent incidents of police brutality in African American communities.  But all these atrocities have done is render me mute.  We live in day and age where anyone can fancy themselves a writer and feel compelled to do so on any number of issues.  We have social media to thank for that.  Because of this I often find myself at crossroads between being relevant and being honest.  Although in a perfect world these should be synonymous, social media tends to skew our perceptions of what is genuinely felt and what is reactionary especially when race is involved. I have scrolled through countless memes and angry comments about white police and comments on why black lives matter.  Although I am in full agreement with most of what I see, I am beginning to wonder about their effectiveness and how I might be effective as a writer.   I am reminded of a recent interview with Toni Morrison in which she stated that she would like to be viewed as an American writer and not just an African American one.  And since she is both a Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning author she has certainly earned a right to that nomenclature. Many of the rest of us however, might have a ways to go. But despite her title I am sure that she would agree that the recent tragedies in Black communities transcend race and regardless of whether she is an African American writer or other, she would still be compelled to comment.  For me writers like Morrison represent on a larger scale what I feel every time injustices happen in black communities.  I can only imagine the pressure they might feel to say something authentic and relevant.   I have only recently become comfortable with simply calling myself a writer.  The African American part carries with it a tension that often times is hard to articulate.  But one way I can describe it is by the way my peers reacted the first time I tried skiing.  One memorable response was "Why are you doing that?" You know black people don't ski."  I often hear that voice in my head when I sit down to write, wondering if I am wandering down that road that black folks aren't supposed to go again.  Or I find myself wondering if I am not reacting to incidents like the recent attacks on young black men in a way that is acceptable.  And In moments when I might be taking myself far too seriously I can almost feel the glaring eyes of Langston Hughes, James Baldwin and Maya Angelou baring down on me and urging me to take action.  In response I ask, what could I possibly say that hasn’t been said already?  As a writer my greatest obstacle has always been my reluctance to engage in the most pervasive conversations. Given the way that social media attacks most issues and non-issues with such swiftness and aggression, I often find myself wondering if anything I have to say has any relevance at all. Is it pompous of me to be easily bored by the platitudes that are plastered all over Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr?  What words could I say that would not echo the feelings of every person of color in this country that has witnessed black people being killed with impunity?  Is there a word that I could pull from my lexicon that would make the conversation seem less reactionary, less cliché?  I realize that this is of course a luxurious problem to have.  I also realize that in many countries in the world to write about injustice could most certainly mean losing my hands, which is definitely one way to eliminate both the luxury and the cliché.   But since this is not my reality I have been given the enviable position of shouting from the highest mountaintop or fastest laptop my opinion of racist policemen and the racist system that supports them.  The only problem is so has everyone else.   So the question becomes, how long will it take before the collective outrage of all of the tweeters, Instagrammers, Tumblrs and Bloggers becomes a fad?  I strive to be optimistic and I want to believe that a real social movement is upon us, so I will engage in the conversation.  Consider this my two cents.  I am looking to you now, all of my brothers and sisters in the land of social media to show me the way from here.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Extension Dilemma

I posted this back in February on my other blog.  Enjoy!

The Extension Dilemma

My wife has a true talent for taking me on the bus to Abilene.  I learned via Susan Cain, author of the best-selling book Quiet that this is a military expression that alludes to an old story about a family that went to a place called Abilene to spend the day only to find out that neither of them actually wanted to go.  Apparently, soldiers use this term when their often charismatic superiors put them in dubious situations.  The family ended up there because the most charismatic and outspoken member of their clan convinced them to go.  Enter the phenomenon of charismatic leadership and its effect on my personal life.  It seems that due to the Abilene process we are currently debating whether or not to go to Vermont for my upcoming vacation.   The tension surrounding this trip brings me to one conclusion.  My wife the charismatic leader of our family and driver of the bus to Abilene is not only a master at loading it to capacity, she drives it better than most.  But, although she is sometimes very savvy at convincing me to do some things, the one place her influence does not reach is my choices where media is concerned; a fact that I imagine must infuriate her since she sells media for a living.
At times it seems that our conflicting sensibilities, mine stemming from education and her sales are often the reasons for the occasional marital spat. But ironically we share a common goal.  We just want to be understood and appreciated, preferably by one another.  In addition, we want the people in our lives to get us.  But the realization that kicks me in the teeth is that her quest for self-affirmation comes with a fierce sales pitch that I could neither hope to understand nor execute.  Her base of operations is a virtual sales floor; a social arrangement of pixelated personalities that all follow one golden rule:  sell yourself via selfies, likes and comments.
I figured this out during one of our occasional arguments.  She became annoyed with me because I failed to watch a You-Tube video clip of some dude singing.  At first she accused me of “not ever wanting to share her world”  And then told me that “everyone else” she sent it to were miraculously brought to their happy places after viewing  it which, in my mind (and emotions) implied that my failure to do so  just meant that I was incapable of happiness and that I was just plain mean.  So my guess was that all of these “happy people” were probably passengers on her bus on its usual route to that magical destination where everyone there shares her likes, understands her and comments joyfully during the ride with affirming gestures reassuring her that she is not alone.  I noticed her talents again in real time as she and her cousin watched an episode of “House of Lies” and flashing back to the first time she tried to convince me to watch that show, encouraging me that I would surely like it because it was a show that fit my personality. I wonder if she used the same sales pitch to convince her cousin who now watches it with the same enthusiasm as her.  If so, it apparently worked.  Over the years I have watched her convince friends and relatives alike of what shows to watch, restaurants to dine and music to listen to with impressive success.   Her sales pitch is solid. Her biggest problem with me is that it seems to work with everyone else except me.  But I’m not sure this is a good or a bad thing.  On one hand, it feels good to be my own man with my own interests.  Drinking from the same main stream as everyone else has always bothered me.  That kind of conformity terrifies me because people like Ray Bradbury and George Orwell have taught me that how we choose to entertain ourselves in time often becomes the only control we have left in this world until of course someone finds a way to steal that as well.  There is a stubborn ogre inside of me that refuses to give up that control and my wife has declared all-out war on him. On the other hand, my wife’s many attempts to invite me into “her world” could be genuine.  She may really think that watching “Scandal” with her might actually bring us closer. But whenever she asks me to I feel compelled to refuse.  I guess I have commitment issues.
I wonder when television became such a determining factor in relationships.  I wonder if the couples of old had these issues back when TV’s were black and white and we only had 3 channels to choose from.  Would a man’s refusal to watch soap operas with his wife result in knock down drag out arguments about his reluctance to bond?  I would ask my grandparents but they’re no longer around.  I don’t think that my parents have this problem, but then again every time I travel to see them they are in separate rooms watching separate shows.
Maybe something went wrong when they came up with so many channels giving people the choice to find their own “identities” and “express” themselves freely.  Didn’t Marshall McLuhan say that media is just an extension of the self?  Who knew that extending ourselves would keep us from having sex with our spouses?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Commitment to the Rescue!

Writing is a funny thing.  It is that paradoxical zone where nothing and everything is sacred; where real life and the spectacle we create on the page coexist.  One cannot exist without the other, fear has no place here because it will offset the delicate balance that one must achieve to write something worthwhile.  I am completely aware of this because I am afraid.  I guess celebrated writers like Hemingway and Poe relied on substances to alleviate their fear.  Although I am no expert on these writers or what they actually feared, I do know mine.  Yes, I know them well. 
The first is good old fashioned confidence.  Do I have what it takes to be a good or even great wielder of words?  I guess this remains to be seen.  But it goes even deeper than this.  I think that this greatness might only be discovered if I am willing to pull the veil off of some of the things that make me unhappy.  And when I do this I have to be unapologetic.  So here it comes.  Last night I had a date night with my wife, which is already a step in the wrong direction because the very sound of words “date night” are analogous to nails on a chalk board to me.  I remember my friend once clowned us for having such a night.  He decided to announce to everyone on the street as we passed by him on our way to the restaurant where our legendary night would take place.  I was mortified, because in my mind his laughter highlighted the cliché’s that are cosigned by so many married couples because in our search for sanity, common ground, and spontaneity, there is the irony that marriage by its very nature is often in direct conflict to these goals.  I suppose last night was no different.  Every date night I find myself saying a little prayer to God that my cynicism doesn’t rear its ugly head and undermine our efforts.  I guess I’m a purest in the sense that I feel like date nights, Valentine’s and anniversaries seem too unnatural to evoke any real bliss.  Not to mention, it always helps when you have something in common with your date.  There are days when I feel that besides bills and parenting my wife and I are often hard pressed to find something that we both enjoy immensely.  Of course there are those things that we both kind of enjoy, but that immense joy seems to always be out of our grasp.  And whenever we are given the rare opportunity of a date night it doesn’t take long before this unfortunate reality is exposed.  Now here’s the part where I must be honest and unapologetic.  Although I love my wife and I know she loves me, I can’t ignore the nagging little buzzing in my brain that says “you are boring her to tears” whenever we go out and I would be lying if I said that she didn’t bore me a little as well.  Feelings like this scare the shit out of me because there is always another gremlin in the back of my mind that makes me wonder what will happen if I continue to bore her or vice versa.  We have had countless discussions, which often morph into long drawn out arguments where ex-boyfriends and girlfriends are thrown into the mix and the conversation spirals into a dark murky place that sometimes takes days to dig ourselves out. 
One of the major catalysts for these explosions comes when she starts going on about her past and how glorious it was when she was in her twenties, a time that was not as glorious for me because I was in my thirties and dealing with the pre-midlife crisis that occurs after obtaining a liberal arts degree and the bubble bursts on all of the rock star fantasies that artsy folk like me hold so dear.     Although it was a time when I obviously fell in love with her (We met when she was 23 I think), there were many growing pains that came after, most of which could be attributed to her adjusting to life in committed relationship with a man who was 7 years older.  I of course had to adjust as well.  Needless to say these adjustments led to many painful moments that I would sooner bury than engage in nostalgia.  Another factor is that our nostalgias don’t match.  Her coming of age occurred in the nineties, the age of Bad Boy entertainment and Biggie Smalls, soon to be followed by everybody’s friend Jay-Z, a time that I view as the dark ages of music and art in general.  My time came just before that in the age of Native Tongue, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul.  Need I say more?  So the question remains, how do two people with such contrasting sensibilities manage to hold it together?  The answer of course is love but often more paramount is our value of commitment. 
Commitment is the blessed and cursed glue that holds us together.  So during those times when I’m rolling my eyes when she is shoving pictures in my face from Instagram or going on and on about her hair or how her sense of fashion has evolved since the nineties; when she feels a migraine coming when I’m going on about how much pop culture has changed for the worst or raving about some comic book I just read, commitment often swoops in and saves the day.  Commitment is the caped crusader of our marriage.  Although it saves us often from imminent disaster, its methods are unconventional and often messy.  Like when extinction level events like arguments occur it will unabashedly send in children armed with cute little faces and high prepubescent voices to redirect our attention to seemingly trivial things like juice and Chef Boyardee.  It will often redirect our attention from internal strife to greater threats of stability like shut off notices and threats of foreclosure.   It’s in moments like these when we transform from enemies to allies never questioning why we must band together.  And when the dust settles, we discover that without love, commitment means nothing.  And sometimes getting to that place requires superhuman strength.   I think the theme of our next date night should be a celebration of our collective superpowers.