Avoiding My Parent's Footsteps

My parents should have never been parents. While I am thankful they got together and had me, this is about as far as I will go in my praise of them. I am not going to spend the length of this column disparaging them. I will offer that my mother valued her string of boyfriends over her son, but suffered under their multiple right-hooks. I met my father a handful of times and the final time I saw him, we got into a fistfight. He wanted to see “what kind of man” my “silly country girl” mother was raising.

It's kind of a tough admission to publicly declare, but what others perceive as my being a ‘great parent’ is usually motivated by fear. I'm afraid that I'll be the parent my parents were.

It would be terribly easy to list the horrible events that comprise my memories of childhood. Anger, fear, lack of attachment, loneliness, violence and uncertainty swirled around me like seductive phantoms, inviting me to embrace and normalize the despair. But the bad events are not nearly as important as how I eventually responded to them. I distinctly remember being in a couch cushion fort, praying to a God I was not too sure existed at the time, and promising that I would raise my kids better than my parents did. “God, if I have kids, I promise you that I will always love them. They will always have enough to eat, and they will always be able to go on field trips at school.”

At first, everything I did was in reaction to how I was raised. I’d force myself to do the opposite of what my parents did, and what I imagined they would do. But you cannot live a life; have a life, based on anger-fueled reactions. The only thing that I accomplished was burning myself out. Being angry while allowing negative thoughts to constantly occupy your mind is not only exhausting, but it is deleterious to your future relationships. The shift in this mode of thinking came when I did something that I thought I would never do—I forgave my parents.

When my daughter came along, I was still in my reaction phase. I made concrete plans, plans to not make the same mistakes that my parents did. Parenting is not a concrete activity. If you cannot be flexible in your parenting style, you run the risk of making similar mistakes to the ones that you are so ardently trying to avoid. The more steadfast I was in my ways, the further and further I pushed my wife away. I pushed her so far away that we were about a half-inch from divorcing not more than two years prior to this writing.

The turning point came when I did a kind of review of my life and took the time to actually look at the good things that have happened, instead of magnifying the bad: I worked hard to get all kinds of alphabet behind my name; the house is nice and livable, the cars are nice, the refrigerator is stocked, the daughter is in gymnastics, and other classes, and I have a decent job. I had never done this before, and it is truly bothersome that it took the near-implosion of my marriage to realize that I had it pretty good—although something continued to stifle my ability to truly (and without judgment or qualification) appreciate what I had, and what I had to offer. Some kind of weight still held me down.

I wish I could tell a beautiful story about how I had some kind of cosmic epiphany, heard God’s own chimes, or was visited in the night by an angel who gave me the wisdom needed to be the better person I was supposed to be. It was a bit more boring than that. Most healing processes are profoundly banal. 

I thought about the abuse, the absences, and all the rest and came to terms with the idea that my parents weren’t perfect and I had no right to expect them to be. And none of their decisions were my fault. I was fine. More than fine. I was on an upward trajectory, despite my past. I thought about the future that I wanted with and for my wife and child, and forgave my parents. Simple, yet powerful. Weight lifted.

While I am still attacked by childhood memories that coax me into becoming angry, I now have the presence of mind to see them for what they are: Recollections of a past life that I am no longer living. Distorted mirror-phantoms that describe situations that are the opposite of my now.

I smile at them, wave, forgive my parents (yet again) and keep it moving into a brighter future.

The Politics of Young Girls Bodies

You would assume that the playground would be one of the few places where you could just be a father. No stress, just play, laughter, and a sense of community with other parents. But this is rarely the case. Maybe I missed the memo, but most playgrounds seemed to have been designated as either mommy or nanny spaces. Any way you look at it, men are barely tolerated, or even welcomed a majority of the time. The playground is a women’s space.

Going to the playground, especially during the day when men should be at work, is like being in one of those old cowboy flicks. You enter, everyone stops; you get sized up and immediately judged, and then everyone seemingly goes back to doing what she’s doing. (Yes, “she’s.”) But make no mistake, you are being watched. And don’t do anything that does not conform to the park consensus ideas of child rearing, because you will receive a ton of unsolicited advice and feedback. I’ll give you an example.

My daughter is a little rough. She plays hard, laughs loudly, and will take as many risks as she is allowed. There is a ton of personality in her 43 inches. So when she somersaulted off the play structure, a “concerned” mother ran over to me and said, “Oh my god! Are you sure that’s safe for your son to do?”

In my best not-to-scare-White-folks voice, I gently corrected her and informed her that it was my daughter that just did that spectacular flip. “Daughter?” She said. “How can anyone tell? Her ears aren’t pierced, and her hair is all over the place. She has on a superhero T-shirt… how is anyone supposed to know? She doesn’t look like a girl.” I told her that her son looked like a future Columbine kid and walked away.

Her assumption that I didn’t know how to keep my daughter safe did not make me nearly as angry as her “she doesn’t look like a girl” comment. What compels folks—especially in relation to gender—to categorize and force people to conform to how they view the world? My wife and I made a firm decision to not burden our daughter with gender trappings. If she asked for it, we’d pierce her ears, but only if she asked. At the park, she would wear things that we didn’t mind her destroying. We agreed not to shove her into dresses and shoes she couldn’t play in. You know, we decided to let her be a kid.

And then there’s this: A mom came up to me, tapped my shoulder conspiratorially, and said, “Oooooh, she’s so cute. You better lock her away when she’s old enough to date. You will be in trouble.” Aside from sounding mildly pedophilic, it disturbs me to no end when little boys are called “heartbreakers,” but parents are told their little girls need to be “locked away” like Rapunzel or otherwise removed and protected.

I’m guilty of uttering a “she won’t date until she’s 30” or an “I’ll whoop whomever she brings home” in my time as a parent. But the more I think about my words and feelings, I have to admit that they’re problematic. So much of our society is concerned with the policing and/or defining of girl’s (and women’s) sexuality. And most of this policing and defining comes from men.

It would be great if more men were concerned with, and supportive of, female sexual health. It appears as if many of us are much more concerned with their sexual behavior. Some men have argued that this preoccupation stems from knowing how they themselves were with women, and don’t want their daughters, sisters or nieces to deal with men similar to how they used to be. But one thing is always left out during these discussions: a girl or woman’s body is hers, and it’s up to her how she will, or will not, use it.

Since my daughter is young, it’s all about teaching her about her body and respecting her boundaries. Even during bath time, I ask her if it’s okay for me to touch her. As she gets older, it will be about informing her about responsible sexual behavior, not attempting to hide her away or sideways shame her for having sexual feelings, or for having breasts and a vagina.

When raising a daughter, the best things a father can do in this regard is to be respectful and mindful that her body is hers, support her in making safe decisions, and coming to terms that she will become a sexual being and that it really won’t be any of your business. That last part will be the hardest.

 

To Spank, or Not to Spank

[This was written 4/17/2013 for www.ebony.com]

couple of years ago, I was very deeply involved in putting together an anthology entitled Ass-Whooping’s Greatest Hits: Reflections on the Spankings We Received. As a new father, I felt it was important to explore this hot-button parental issue. I solicited 83 people to contribute, and out of that 83, every single Black person responded with a resounding “yes!” Latin, Arab and White folks were less enthusiastic (about 19% “yes” from all), but many of those folks I asked to contribute didn’t respond at all.

At the time, their silence didn’t bother me. I’d still have 80,000 words and would be able to produce a hilarious book that many folks would be able to relate to. And why would folks relate to spanking and find it hilarious? Well, every time anyone I know tells of a time they were spanked, they turn it into an episode of Chappelle’s Show. They choose their words carefully, the comic beats are on point. Through the telling of the story, most people make it sound as if it happened in an alternate universe. After witnessing this on far too many occasions, I chalk this up to being a coping skill. How else could anyone integrate the idea that someone they loved, and was supposed to love them, intentionally hurt them if not through the distancing power of humor?

My mom beat the crap out of me and it wasn’t funny. It was like she watched every kung fu flick made and practiced her moves on my too skinny frame. She was nice with hers, though. Hands, shoes, cords from the iron, wooden spoons and spatulas were all used to let me know that whatever I’d done was counter to her wishes. There was never any talking. It was always the following pattern: I’d do something (sometimes I had no idea what it was), she’d beat me, I’d cry, and she’d send me to my room where I’d fall asleep.

We’d never talk about the inciting incident.

This happened until I entered middle school. I got a little too big and fast for her to handle, and she seemed to resent me for this. I concluded that her spanking me was a form of control. She had a lot of stuff going for her that was chaotic, and maybe beating me was one way she could establish order and stability in one aspect of her life.

We either follow our parents’ lead, or we rebel against their examples, and I promised myself that I would never spank my kid. (Yeah, right.)

I spanked my daughter. I spanked her one time, and I’m still haunted by it. The pro-spanking “experts” will tell you that spanking is an acceptable form of discipline, but it has to be done dispassionately. The spanking should be done without any strong emotions attached to the act, centered on the child’s bottom, and (somehow) the behavior that warranted the spanking will be corrected. I’ve been in numerous street fights, and every time I hit someone, I was angry. Folks want to separate spanking from fighting. The only difference is that in a fight, you have a chance to defend yourself.

I spanked… no, no euphemisms. I hit my daughter because she hit another kid, in the face, for no apparent reason. I hit her because she hit someone. What kind of an example or correction was that? Not to mention the power difference. I’m 6’1” and a fairly muscular 270 pounds. I had no business ever putting unloving hands on her. What ripped my heart out was the way she looked at me afterward. Her face was not a mask of pain; it filled with distrust and fear. I had hurt my daughter and made her afraid of me. My hitting her changed our relationship for weeks. While she seems to have forgiven me, as our relationship is stronger than ever, I still haven’t forgiven me.

Spanking is a failure of good parenting. When we hit our kids, we have acted beneath our best, most loving and intelligent selves. We have willingly thrown away compassion for the sake of… what? What does hurting our children accomplish? We can never be the beautiful and loving people many of us claim to be if we continue to promote, accept and rationalize the pain delivered to the bodies and spirits of our children.



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Warrior Training Starts Young: Riot Grrrl at a Quarter Century

Then: It did not hit me like it did the women in the crew. For them, it was an (albeit lily-white) explosion. It was a profound shifting in how they publicly expressed culture. I noticed it in bits and pieces. The women who once where the backbone of our ‘zine making and distribution empires, now could not be found to bum a ride to Insty-Prints to make copies. They used to emcee—introducing the bands. They now had bands of their own, and they were playing better and with more ferocity than the dudes they once supported. It wasn’t like it was an all out gender mutiny. It was not a split, but a forced reckoning—we had to notice the girls. They were no longer support staff to the indie/punk-culture male ego DIY-industrial complex. They were Riot Grrrls.

Well, not exactly Riot Grrrls. Many of the women of the crew were waiting for a critical race element that barely manifested. They were Riot Grrrls, but they were also young women of color. Many of them had a difficult time reconciling the two. They were at a crossroads between bell hooks and Bratmobile, having a difficult time discerning which had the greater pull, and which would be a more useful politics for their futures.

Needless to say, this played havoc with trying to hook up. Tattoos, Doc Martens, and being surly were no longer enough. To step correctly to a woman, we had to be versed in women-centered politics and cultural implication. We just couldn’t know about certain bands or artists, we had to know why they were important. And if these bands or artists had even a tangential tendril of misogyny dangling, they got the boot. They were excised from the new cultural-canon, only to be spoken of in whispers of disgust.

This new reality forced me to understand what a feminist-politic meant. Having grown up in a profoundly matriarchal environment was not the education you might think. It was a given that my aunts, mother, and the over-boss that was my grandmother were running shit. It was just how it was. But when confronted, or asked for support, I had no idea what I could do to back up this phoenix rising among many of the women in my life. But I would learn. I had to learn. I had to act. It was Revolution Girl Style Now, for real.

I do not feel that I am in any way qualified to talk about what feminism is. What I am qualified to impart is how I learned to be an effective ally (and eventual feminist). This consciousness transformation was not as hard as it sounds. I started with a few simple rules:

-      I removed woman/girl-demeaning language from my vocabulary. This was the most demanding piece of my transformation. Hate and disrespect is so insidious because it colonizes your language, and reifies their negative influences every time you speak.

-      If anyone around spoke disrespectfully to or about women and girls, I’d speak up. If speaking up didn’t work, I’d knuckle up.

-      I shut up and let the women in my life be the experts on their own existence. I followed their lead to address their needs.

I still follow these rules to this day—well, I don’t knuckle up as much as I used to because my ally vocabulary is light-years more sophisticated than it used to be. But I will put foot-to-ass if I need to.

In retrospect, I can experience the effects of the Riot Grrrl explosion as advanced training in how to be a good partner and a good father to my daughter.

Now: I’m writing this circa twenty-years since my initial encounter with Riot Grrrl (and three days after my daughter’s fourth birthday). I write this with an aching nostalgia. There was an urgency that popped off back then, a sense of kicking norms in the crotch and striking out into wholly brand new territories. New maps of expression were being drawn, a new language being spoken. I don’t feel that now. My daughter came home one day singing Justin Bieber, talking about wanting to be a princess, and knowing who Nicki Minaj was. Are you kidding me? What happened to all the Bodysnatchers, The Selecter, Bad Brains, M.I.A. that I’ve been feeding you? I felt all of who I was, whom I wanted my daughter to be, spill out into a murky puddle of senseless pop stool. I know she’s only four, but still. Warrior training starts young.   

 It is a very difficult parental realization when you have to come to terms with the idea that your children are people. People with her or his own wills, desires, and tastes in everything from food to the culture they consume. Parents are also in constant battle with the influences that your kid runs into when you are not around them—when there are at school, at friend’s homes, or child care. You can expose them to all you want, but they are in charge of whether or not they give a damn about your recommendations. This was a bit disheartening. However, I no longer have to worry about this, or about going overboard with trying to expose her to all of the things that I think are vital and necessary. The only two things that I have to do are act and speak with respect and integrity. My only mission is that every word I utter, every action I take, affirms her as a girl, but does not lock her into being so. She sees and hears how I speak to her mother, and the other women in her life, and finds comfort and solace in this. I am in no way a saint. My latent misogyny can flare up from time to time (usually when I’m not in love with myself or jealous of my wife’s accomplishments) but I think I walk the feminist ally line often enough because my daughter will tell me how different I am compared to other daddies. She says this with a smile and a headbutt. No more validation is needed. My daughter shows me daily that what I say and what I do matter to her. She reaffirms that I am having both an affect and effect on her life. While she may have ripped my musical heart out by singing Justin Bieber, she repaired it—instantly—by singing “Monkey Man”…the The Specials version. Here is a different accounting of what I mean:

Once upon a time, my daughter wore dresses. Nothing too frilly, or pink, or taupe, just nice little sun dresses. Then, as she got older and started to have a say in what she wore, the great dress-rebellion of 2011-2012 began. After showing her photos of her in dresses (and noticing the turned up nose as she perused the pictures) I asked her, "Why don't you like dresses anymore?" With no beat missed, she stares at me, "How am I supposed to save the world in a dress? I need a bow and arrow and a tiger." Revolution Girl Style Now. For real. 

[This essay appears in the wonderful anthology: Rad Families: A Celebration]

Heart (from 2015)

I had, what has been dubbed, ‘a mild heart attack.’ What is ill about this is that I had not even the slightest clue that I had one. I went to the doctor for a very long overdue check up and my doctor ordered an EEG. A few days later my doctor contacts me and asks the following: “About how long ago was your heart attack, again? I cannot find any record of it in my notes, I find this to be a problem.” Hearing him say that was more surreal than hearing my wife’s doctor’s voice on out machine saying, “You have tested positive for pregnancy.”

My heart attack? I’ve never had a heart attack.

“Are you sure? The test results indicate damage to your heart consistent with a heart attack.” What kind of shit was this?
What, heart attacks are operating under stealth protocol now? I immediately went to my man-shit trying to assimilate this information: I will find a solution to this. I will find where the mistake happened. There is no possible way this has happened. Actively searching for some kind of answer, other than my having the heart attack, went a long way in muffling my panic, fear, and sadness. I made the decision to absolve myself of any responsibility by blaming it on heredity. 

The men on my mother’s side of the family weren’t made too sturdy. They started out strong. Very strong. There is a family story that my grandfather, a warehouse worker for his entire life, lifted a forklift off one of his co-workers who was trapped beneath it. The uncle right above me was a street fighter and would throw hands with anyone. I saw him handle three dudes, before I had a chance to jump in with my sock full of screws and nuts. He looked at the guys slumped in front of him, and then smiled at me. From that moment on, I worshipped that man. But for all of their strengths, my maternal menfolk were not very durable. 

My youngest uncle died of some crazy type of cancer; he left two kids and a wife behind. The uncle right above him died of some mutant form of liver cirrhosis. He left behind a son. My grandfather’s heart exploded. He left all of us to make it through this life without his presence and influence. I included myself in this pantheon and began to speculating on when I would die. I am already older then both of my uncles who passed, and this fact has me looking over my shoulder more often than I care to admit—looking to see if death is trying to sneak up on me. I became resolute. Aha! My grandfather, the bastard. I inherited his faulty heart. No, my not exercising as regularly as I should, getting poor sleep, and eating like shit had nothing to do with it. It is all his fault. 

It felt so incredibly wonderful to outsource responsibility for my crap heart. The semi-euphoric feeling I received from this lasted for a little while. I reduced my death watch to around twice per week. My stress lessened and I stopped formulating mental wills every time my heart beat fast. In-depth conversations with my doctor forced me to view all of this through a more complex lens. He interviewed me about my lifestyle and was “blown away” by the fact that I had never drank alcohol, smoked cigarettes or pot, or had done any other kind of narcotic or drug—I rarely even take medicine and have reduced my coffee consumption to a cup a week. The warmth of his approval turned into a pneumatic knee to the crotch when he began asking me about diet and exercise. 

Once upon a time, I was incredibly fit. A sterling regimen of martial art training and rock climbing kept me in phenomenal shape. Then, a few years ago, I had my kneecap ripped off and reattached. I remember the pure anger I felt when I was told that my knee may never (and it has not) work as it once did. I was also told that I may need to have the assistance of crutches or a cane for the rest of my life. Thankfully I can walk unassisted. However, having a major surgery that put me flat on my back for several months shot me into a depression. This feeling of helplessness negatively impacted my marriage—resulting in me and my wife being about two inches away from divorce—and made me a real shitty father for my daughter’s first two and a half years of her life. I (think) I’m finally pulling out of the spiral. 

As we discussed my health history, I become defensive by pleading that my sparring once or twice a week and talking walks was enough. He laughed at me. Laughter turned into his berating me: “As long as I have been your doctor, your weight has yo-yo’d from being ‘okay’ to obesity. You have this twenty-five pounds over/under thing that you seem to be trapped by. I distinctly remember giving you specific instructions, and resources, to deal with your weight loss and to increase your exercise. It doesn’t appear as if you took me seriously. More excuses from me: “I’m naturally a big guy. I’m six one and I my fighting weight was 250.” At the height of my fitness I was ripped, fast, and strong. 

His retort was short and to the point, “How many years ago was that?” 

Wow. “You are much heavier than you were in your prime, and you may never get back to that body. You’re in your forties now and your metabolism is slowing. It is going to take some serious effort to get it working at its optimum, from where you are now. Forget about your heyday. It is over. You need to get the healthiest you can be at forty plus. Starting today, you need to exercise forty minutes or more, every single day. You see how serious this is, don’t you? And you need to eat better. Fats and sweets are gone. Lean proteins, vegetables and fruits are in. Are we clear.”

Hadn’t felt scolded for a long time. But I sure as hell deserved it. 

10 Ways to Fight the Blahs aka The I Don't Cares aka I Hate The Worlds

1.    Praise yourself. Not to the point of conceit, but to emphasize your self-worth. Look in the mirror and tell yourself: ‘I’m worthy!’ But you have to also maintain the stance that everyone else is worthy, too. Your self-praise is not permission to belittle another. It is permission to join others in greatness.

2.    Never read the comment section on any website, if the story has anything to do with race, gender, sexuality,or nationalistic ideas. The Internet is greatfor a lot of things: purchasing books, getting directions, research, and figuring out where a movie is playing. But the ‘Net has also produced a legion of cyber-bullies, trolls, whatever you want to call them. You know of whom I speak. In the comments section of any site, these cyber-bullies usually post as “anonymous” so they can post something racist, misogynist, homophobic, or just plain stupid--and not have to own their words, or the effects of their words. The ‘Net has provided a safe platform for these digi-cowards. You have to be real coward (and possibly deficient in a few areas) to use the anonymous option when the ‘Net is already a continent of anonymity. It’s a facet of loser-dom that is damn near impossible to comprehend. What are you so afraid of? You have the opinion, why don’t you own it publicly? For every piece of intelligent commentary, there are a dozen comments from “anonymous” posting baleful quips like, “kill all niggers,” or “no means yes, and yes means anal.” You’re kidding, right? If you cannot stand by your words, do not present them in any fashion. Not audibly or typographically. Our world is in too precarious a spot for the cyber-bullies to be allowed to continue wasting our most precious resources: time, attention, and synapses. I challenge all cyber-bullies to sign your comments with your real names. In the 21st century there is no reason for people to hide under the aegis of anonymity. This early in our new aeon, we have to hold each other (and ourselves) accountable for all our collective multimedia bullshit. Otherwise, we’ll be continuing to traverse the same pothole filled superhighway of the previous century. Don’t be afraidto stand by your words, thoughts, or beliefs. If you want to use the word “nigger” own that shit. People want to say that the ‘Net is our highest form of representative democracy. If this is the case, another Katrina or Sandy should wipe us out for our hubris. Shit, I’ll be the brother with the tattoos and shaved head and doing the rain dance. Word is digital-bond. Wow. I just wentoff on a rant. My bad.

3.    Look beyond the surface. You don’t want to fall into the analysis leads to paralysis pattern, but you want to develop the tools needed to deconstruct the messages you receive about yourself and about your world. Once you have an idea about how it all works, you can make an informed decision whether or not to believe it. I'm not saying you should distrust all information--I am saying that you should develop the tools needed to discern if the information is worthy. 

4.    Produce more than you consume. While there is nothing wrong with informed consumption of culture, many of us spend an inordinate amount of time paying for the permission to experience other people’s stories. Our stories are valid and just as important as anything else out there. When we present our own stories, there are fewer opportunities for others to tell tell them. Having others speak for us is one insidious way that our esteems are attacked. If you want to see an example of telling our own stories as a form of self-defense, watch the Eminem film 8Mile (2002). When his character, B-Rabbit, airs his dirty laundry. The guy he was battling against had nothing to use, causing him to lose focus and to ultimately lose the rhyme battle.

5.     Have a code. This may seem to be ripped right out of a fantasy novel, but there is something very grounding about having a set of values too live by. What level of disrespect or negative impact are you willing to suffer until you fight back? At what point will you step in to defend others?  When you give your word, do others experience it as stone, or as tissue paper? Once you have this foundation of values—once you know where your lines are—it is much easier to navigate through your world. I’d suggest writing down your code and keeping it on you, turning it into a symbol or sigil, or hell, get it tattooed. So, when things start to go off the rails, you can refer to it and trust the purity of your approach andintent in the world. [This will be the focus of the 4/2/2017 Uncle Shawn Podcast.]

6.    Do not question joy. This should not need too much explanation. So many of us have been conditioned to treat joyful feelings as something out of the ordinary. So, when we encounter it, we scrutinize and question it away. It is our jobs to incorporate joy into our lives every single time it appears. It is not an abnormality to our daily conditions--it should be an essential part of them.

7.    Complete projects. The initial ramp-up is so easy, as we are fueled by the newness of the creative spark. When things impede our progress, our momentum begins to slow until we stall. Imagination is wonderful, but when you start routinely executing your ideas—seeing them to fruition--you’re in an entirely different league. Completing projects is like keeping your word to yourself. If you say you’re going to do it, then do it. I know far too many people who have half-finished manuscripts, or partially made films, or other projects that are in various stages of incompleteness. I count myself among this number. The amount of negative self-talk that arises when these projects are inquired about is saddening. Hell, if you don’t want to feel so awful, finish the damn project. If it is important to you, you will get it done.

8.    Prune your garden. The older I get, the less friends I have. But the friendships that have remained are stellar. I’ve left some people, while others left me. It’s sad; it hurts, but if you’re pruning for righteous reasons, the pain and sadness are worth it. This may seem like a corny analogy, but bear withme. You’ve come this far. Our friendships are like gardens; they are beautiful and flowering things. Every so often, weeds enter and if they aren’t immediately cut, they will take over and choke the life out of everything. Not too long ago, my garden was more weeds than flowers. I was irritable, judgmental, and none too pleasant to be around. As I was trying to figure out why I felt so constrained, so stifled, I never thought to look at my relationships. When I did, when I identified that some of my relationships were the primary contributors to my dis-ease, I got out the shears. I’m much better forit.

9.    Serve. When you can, help others. Don’t fall into the trap of helping others when you’re not at your best. You’ll only do damage to your self and who you're trying to serve. It is so enticing to be that person at every rally, at the food bank, or playing chess in the shelter—but be wary that your life of service does not turn into a job designed to feed your ego. I saw a bumper sticker that read:“Don’t let your struggle become your identity.We cannot be activated all the time. It is not healthy. No guilt should be involved if you decided to sit out an event to stay home and veg out. But if you can, serve. We all need help, or will need help, or have needed help. Some of us got it, others did not. We need to work together to make out shared world a place that is loving and supportive of all. 

10. Move more. Eat better. Eat as much good food as you can afford. While I have very strong feelings about the high costs of healthy food, I also believe that some things are non-negotiable. Want to live longer? Eat healthier food and exercise. Don’t exercise only for the cosmetic benefit, but do it so that your body can operate at its highest level. Better food + better fitness = better attitude. When you can experience and participate in the world, free of the fog of refined sugars and saturated fats, you will be able to accomplish much more than you ever thought possible. 

Daughter's (Ninth) Birthday Reflections

I've hustled for as long as I can remember. Not in the illegal crime sense--but was known to run a con and boost a car or few in my youth--but in the sense that all of my life has been a bare knuckled brawl against poverty. My hustle was the freelance gig. Whether picking up magazine jobs, bouncing, creative/marketing consulting, I have always had something that allowed me to put a little extra gold in the coffers. In my later years, I've kept just a handful of straight 9-5ers. I moved from social services, to tech, back to social services, to part time educator, to now being in education administration full time--with a slight dash of teaching night classes on the side. But I don't think I want this for my daughter.

I do want her to have a supernaturally strong work ethic, but I don't want her every move to be influenced by a fear of poverty. The other day, I had to admit that growing up poor traumatized me. Not being able to attend certain field trips because my mom couldn't afford them. Being homeless during one of the coldest winters on record at that time. Sleeping in a basement and being bit by a rat. That stuff still haunts me and shapes how I move through the world. It also causes me to see see poverty as a person whose ass I can whup. My daughter doesn't deserve this weight.

While my wife and I are in no way rich, we do very well for ourselves. We may teeter on the edge of "spoiling" our daughter every once in a while, but we also strive to instill in her the ability to appreciate what she gets. More importantly, we are working to teach her how to give and serve. I want her to escape my cycle of poverty consciousness and live a forward focused life, instead of copying my backwards focused, poverty as demon chasing me existence.

Sober

1. At damn near forty-five –old, it’s probably a bit disingenuous to still claim straightedge. Instead of being bolstered by all of my long ago politics and energy of being sXe, I have come to the point in my life where I must admit that my abstinence from cigarettes, alcohol, weed, and any other drugs is now more force of habit rather than grand statement. I don’t use. There was no traumatic event that pointed me towards this lifestyle. I’m a 70s-80s baby and saw the migration from dust to crack. Folks all around me were getting hooked—even some family—but it was par for the societal course. I don’t use because I choose not to. Most of my friends started to experiment with cigarettes around seven or eight-years-old, and I thought that they were fools. The shit smelled awful. The smoke stung your eyes, and it made you cough. Why would anyone want to do that, especially when there was stickball to be played and intact windows that needed to meet well-hurled rocks? These little cigarette fiends migrated to weed, and some of them went on to other stuff that took them clean out of this reality. But, as I mentioned, these events weren’t so traumatic that I made some kind of cosmic declaration to not use. I chose not to. It did not make any sense to me. It still doesn’t.

2. When I was nine years old I heard Minor Threat’s “Straight Edge.” Forty-five seconds of blistering glory. It solidified my decision to remain drug/alcohol free:

"I'm a person just like you/But I've got better things to do/Than sit around and fuck my head/Hang out with the living dead."

I wasn’t politicized at this moment, but Minor Threat was a gigantic sign ushering me into a new political identity. A few years later, and a whole shitload of 7-inches destroying the needles of my mom’s record player, I stepped through a threshold and became a new person. All it took was for me to shave off all my hair, dress sharply, and put foot-to-ass to racists, bigots, and their ilk. I became an anti-racist skinhead.

3. In my circle, being an anti-racist skin was the beginning of a global conversation. Being half Jamaican, I felt that this culture was my birthright as the NYC Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (S.H.A.R.P) Skins, the Minneapolis Baldies (two cities that I bounced back and forth from for most of my young life) and other progressive skinhead crews acknowledged that there was a multicultural origin to Ska music (was and continues to be my favorite music) and the whole skinhead culture. Even though I was appalled to learn that some black skins in the UK attacked Indian and Pakistani folks, I wore my shining Milk Dud of a head with honor and pride. Being a skin was a kind of street currency—folks knew I was down to fight, and that I had crew who were down to fight alongside me. Several of my original friends took the flight jacket and baldhead as permission to be proactively violent. They became the arbiters of what was and was not acceptable social behavior and Jah bless you if you fell on the wrong side of their boots—these folks fell by the wayside. I was good at violence, prone to it, but allowed myself to take a few major ass-whoopings because I was liable to go overboard and kill someone. I was always teased for not going all out. I was holding back because I did not want to catch a case, nor did I want to sully what being a skin for me was all about. The clothes, the strut, the music, the late night discussions, all of it, contributed to my nascent political being. While I was a hip-hop head and had my political consciousness expanded by X-Clan, Public Enemy, The Intelligent Hoodlum, the Native Tongues and others, it was skinhead culture that was my bedrock. When hip-hop took that 40oz turn, my skin bredren kept it sober. There was something more fulfilling about participating in social change rather than sitting around drinking and puffing and waxing intelligent about it while sitting on a couch.

4. I had three friends die because of drugs and alcohol. One took some bad acid and hung herself in her grandparents front yard (possibly much more was happening with her), one wrapped his car around a tree, and the last one died on the floor of his kitchen, mouth foaming like a cartoon Saint Bernard. If my being clean was a choice before, it was now a mission. Being political about my being sXe came way later than the choice to do so. Only time in my life my politics came after a decision to take an action.

5. For a long stretch of my life, I resented any and all people who partook in any kinds of drugs or alcohol. I even became a bouncer so that I could smack around drunken people. I was morally offended that anyone would squander the wonderful life they were given by getting high or drunk. The magnitude of my arrogance still astonishes me. I can’t believe that this arrogant, violent, sanctimonious asshole (with some good qualities) grew into a near 40 year old husband, father, advanced degree holder, published author, recognized public speaker, and mentor. I‘m not listing my bona fides as some sort of braggart’s platform, but as a reality check for myself, so that I can reflect on just how far I’ve come. Making the conscious choice to not use means that I had to accept that some people choose to and that they aren’t bad for doing so, and that it’s none of my damn business. That’s a hard realization to come to when your drive to be clean and sober has taken on an almost ecclesiastical quality.

6. My wife drinks wine, on occasion. When I first saw her with a glass of wine, I flipped. All of that old arrogance and judgmental crap came roaring from my past. It took me a while to get over that one.

7. As I hurtle towards planet getting-up-there-in-age, I’m still investigating the reasons why I continue to remain sober. It can’t be the politics as I am way too old to claim sXe as a political stance and haven’t listened to Minor Threat in years. Maybe it’s just not for me. Maybe being clean is one of the few things that I’m really good at: I have a talent for not using. There is no denying that the anti-racist skin ethos is still a part of my consciousness, as well as the too-small crew of friends who joined me on my life-long mission to never use—they act as a reminder that my lifestyle choice is okay, albeit really strange for a whole lot of people. I even lost a girlfriend because her father did not trust a man who didn’t drink.

8. I believe in the grandiosity of life. I believe in all of its mystery, its wonder, and I want to remain in a permanent state of awe—some feel that the use of certain substances enhances these feelings. I feel just the opposite. I want to meet the universe with a clear head, uninfluenced by enhancements or chemical prophylactics of any kind. But I could be wrong. I could have been depriving myself of a deeper connection with the All by wallowing in the desert of the sober. I’ll never know, as this lifestyle that I have chosen is as much a part of me as my scars and my tattoos. I need to find that Minor Threat EP. 

A Day At The Park

This was written several years ago. The event detailed here still stings.

1. I’m unsure why, but I get asked—quite often—about the hardest part of being a father. The people who ask me this are almost all younger cats who are about to become fathers or are there already. That question is a Pandora’s Box. Being a father is hard in a million different ways: Balancing fatherhood with partnership; being able to do the things that I love to do on a consistent basis (for example, writing—I’m writing this at 3am, while everyone is asleep and I have a moment to myself); the loss of money; having to send your child to childcare because both parents have to work to afford all the additional costs. Working all day, coming home at night and only seeing your child for forty-five minutes before their bedtime—in these ways and more, daddyhood is hard as hell. But none of this (yes, even the money problems) even comes close to the raging difficulty of being a father of color. 

2. Being tattooed, visually Black (I’m half Jamaican and half Puerto Rican), over six feet tall and muscular, holding a little ethnically-ambiguous toddler makes many people double, triple, quadruple take—and also, for some odd reason, loosens tongues, mostly of white folks, and creates an environment of familiarity. And yet they still manage to see me wrong: In my daughter’s twenty-two months of living, I have been labeled ‘uncle,’ ‘babysitter,’ ‘guardian,’ ‘cousin,’ but never father. I can’t tell you just how crushing a blow this is. I LOVE being a father and I think that I am becoming a better one by the day, but to have one of my greatest joys discounted is painful. 

3. Do we really live in a society that is still stuck in the lie that Black men cannot be fathers? Well…I must admit that I was on that same shit for a while. When my partner told me she was pregnant, I had fears that, at the moment of birth, a Greyhound ticket would appear in my hands and I’d leave my partner and new child to fend for themselves. I thought I’d become an absent father sleeper agent—the baby’s first cry would activate me and my mission would be to get as far away from mother and baby as possible.  Because, throughout my whole childhood, I never once had a friend or met anyone (of color) whose father lived with them, or in some cases, even knew who their fathers were. There is a generation of brothers and sisters born after Viet Nam and before the release of Ghostbusters that are a tribe of fatherless children. My own father, I saw the bastard five times in my life. 

4. People mistaking me for everything but being a father almost invariably happens at the playground. While the mothers (rarely do I see fathers at the playgrounds—but it could be where I choose to let my daughter play) are sitting in groups, either texter-bating or focusing intently on some new piece of thousand dollar baby gadget—I’m in the sand, on the structure, kicking the ball. I’m playing with my kid. Over at this park in El Cerrito, California, I was teaching my daughter how to hang from one of the monkey bars. She is a ridiculously daring kid and will try anything, as long as it is dangerous. This kindly older woman (dressed up like a fashion model to go the park) smiled at me and said, “My uncle used to do the same thing for me. He always let me do the things that my father would never let me do.” She drew out the “never” as if I was tossing my daughter over an open lion’s mouth. I told this woman that I was an only child, that my kid didn’t have any uncles, and that I was her father. She glanced between my daughter and me several times, and finally said, “Noooooo.” Wow. 

5.When I think about it more, not being recognized or acknowledged as my daughter’s father, while painful, isn’t nearly as crazy as being a man-of-color at a park. When race, size, gender, and how we dress intersect, it disrupts social fabrics. Like I stated earlier, I play with my kid while at the playground. And if my daughter decides to play with other kids, I play with them too. I don’t touch them, because you just don’t do that—you don’t touch other people’s kids without permission. One day I was kicking a soccer ball with my daughter and some other little kids she was playing with. One of the kids, a blonde, vacant-eyed little girl, tripped, fell down, and scraped her cheek on the wood that bordered the play area. I helped her to her feet and asked her if she was okay. She looked over at her mother, who was starting intently at her cellular phone, and got nothing. She then looked at me, I looked at her, and she wailed as though the end of the world was nigh. The cellular mom looked up, fixed me with the most baleful stare, and ran over to us, dialing her phone. Instead of asking her daughter if she was okay, she snatched her up by the arm and thrust her behind her back. I then hear her telling her husband “this big nigger just pushed Miriam to the ground.” Unbelievable. 

6. I gathered our things, and made to leave. This lady then blocked our way. “You can attack a kid, but now that my husband is coming you’re trying to leave? You’re not going anywhere.” She then put her hand on my arm and tried to stop us. All the while my daughter is getting freaked out because she is very rarely exposed to yelling or overt signs of anger. Being who I am, I figured, “Let’s see how this plays out.” 

7. Three minutes later, an SUV pulls up and this really fit dude pops out of the truck and comes barreling towards us. I see that he has his fist cocked a little. I put my daughter down and send her to go and play, which she was grateful for. I could feel just how tense and anxious she became. This guy comes up and started screaming at me. Before fatherhood, I would have gone at him, but I have been trying to change that part of myself; violence is a social ingredient that I am weaning myself from. When he finally paused, I asked him did he think that yelling and threatening me was going to do any good? I then asked him why neither he nor his wife had asked Miriam what had happened. I then asked them, “If I were a white dude, would you still think that I pushed your daughter?” That stopped them. All this time that the silly adults are going at it, little Miriam is clinging to her mother’s legs, terrified. “Your daughter fell, and I helped her up.” I focused on the mother: “And if you weren’t so busy looking at your phone, if you were actually parenting, you would have seen what happened. Better yet, it might not have even happened if you were playing with us.” Then I looked at the dad: “I can appreciate your concern, but if this is how you react to situations you know nothing about, you might get hurt. If this was two years ago, I would have beat the shit out of you for yelling in my face and pretending like you were going to do something.” I then bent down and asked Miriam if she was okay. She looked at her parents, and then at me, and nodded. I took out a wipe and wiped her scraped cheek. “Does it feel better now?” She nodded. I gave her dad the dirty wipe, and went to go and play with my daughter. 

8. That encounter still nags at me on a number of different levels. Miriam’s parents never answered my question: If I were white, would they still have accused me of hurting their daughter? My honor as a father and as a human being was totally disregarded. Two children had to experience the stupidity of their elders: Miriam’s parents for false accusations and racist words, and me for delivering veiled threats. I lost that day. I lost the core of the person who I am trying to become. I lost hope that my daughter would be able to live in a world where skin color wasn’t a factor. I lost faith that the rift between white and black folks could ever be repaired. 

9. As we were driving home, I started to cry. It came up and spilled out so powerfully that I had to pull the car over, turn it off, and just let everything come: Not having a father of my own to ask if he had to deal with anything similar; almost dipping into self-hatred because of my skin color; cursing so many men that came before me for fucking it up for my generation; every nigger I have been and would be called; how my daughter’s hair is different than her parent’s and how people point out this difference as if my kid had won the lotto. All this was trapped in my crying. I saw my daughter through the rearview mirror and she looked so sad and scared that I had to hold her. I pulled over, got her out of her car seat, and we sat on the hood of the car, holding each other. I cried into her hair and she, feeling daddy’s energy, cried into my chest. We were there for a little while when this old woman hobbled by and smiled at us. “You have such a beautiful daughter,” this woman said. “She has your eyes.”

Rebellion

This is a piece from a few years back.

My daughter has always been a rebel. From trying to crawl at only a few weeks old, to being a preschool Moses who attempted to lead her classmates on a great Exodus, she chooses to do things her way—despite adult expectations, structure, or supervision. And her actions make me so proud. 

I don’t think that I’m in the minority in my wanting to raise a girl who is strong, adventurous, tough, compassionate, intelligent, and curious. These are traits that my wife and I foster. We encourage her to range out as far and wide as she feels comfortable. Some parents have argued that we allow her to have too many liberties. That letting her engage in Parkour, Capoeira, and other activities is dangerous. My wife and I counter by asking them how they could allow their children to tell them to shut up, litter, and be generally disrespectful. I’ll take the growth that comes with engaging in rebellious acts over the corrosion of caregiver authority that comes from being your child’s friend, and not their parent. But my daughter is only two weeks away from turning seven-years-old and her little acts of rebellion are cute at best, and make me nervous at the worst. 

I have to admit that the there is a little bit of sexism informing my ‘list of worst case scenarios’ for my daughter’s eventual rebellions during her tween to teen years. I have been trying to purge myself of this, but I can’t. There is something (hypocritical) about me being concerned about my daughter doing the things that I did when I was growing up.

I, too, was a very rebellious kid. Some of my acts were unconscious—learning to read at three-years-old, despite my dyslexia—and others: rampant theft, capping on teachers in school, and calling out my shop teacher for having Playboys in his desk were willful. However, one of my biggest anti-authority acts, as a kid, happened in 1984. I was on punishment for climbing down our fire escape, in my underwear, wearing a Jamaican flag like a toga, and singing Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon” at the top of my lungs. So when my uncle (mom’s youngest brother and the pusher who caused me to become addicted to hip-hop) told me he had an extra ticket for the Fresh Fest concert, I made detailed plans of how I would break my mom’s ruling and witness the glory of Newcleus, RUN-DMC, Kurtis Blow, Whodini, and the Fat Boys on stage—In One Night!!! 

I begged and begged my mother. I explained to her how Fresh Fest was one of the most important things to happen in years, and how I would be a better person for attending. I offered to take on more punishment, if I could have a fiver-hour reprieve. As soon as she saw how important this was to me, she became resolute. Hell no, I wouldn’t be able attend a concert that promoted the Devil’s music. I told my uncle that my mom was on some prison guard shit, and he told me that he had a genius plan for me to attend, and that his sister would never know.

When it came time to head out, my uncle asked if I could help him move some things from his home to the dump. My mom agreed as she thought hard work would straighten me out. As we were driving away, he pulled over into an alley and made me change into the flyest gear. I was b-boy fabulous. When we got to the concert, the energy was such that I couldn’t stop smiling. I have never before—and not really since—felt anything like it. Everyone there knew this this was a Something. A big Something. A life altering Something. That show was one of the best experiences of my life, music or otherwise. But I paid for it. 

All was well until an errant ticket stub was found near our front door. My mom called her younger brother and went bad. She cursed in so many fascinating word combinations that I was dumbstruck. Some of those phrases I still use today. Then, it was my turn. 

Shoe to the hand to the belt to the extension cord to the spatula: that means a beating. She whooped my ass all through our tiny two-bedroom. I had a little speed and dexterity, so I dodged most of it. But when she connected…I had welts from the back of my knees up to the middle of my back. And it was worth every lash.

Hip-hop provided me with a cultural foundation that was separate from my hybrid Jamaican/Puerto Rican project dwelling, no money having identity. It was raw and rough like punk—but with better music—and complimented my obsession with science fiction. Like Questlove said in the film Brown Sugar: “It was freedom.” But how much of this freedom will I allow my daughter to enjoy?

If my daughter was grounded and snuck out of the house to attend some piece of culture that was important enough to change the trajectory of her life, will I block her? Inside, in that place where I cannot lie to myself, I have to admit that this would be easier to take if my daughter were a son. I have fallen victim to the girls are innocent/boys are mavericks propaganda. The thought of a son defying me in the name of personal justice and freedom feels like a victory for autonomy. For my daughter, I’m anticipating that it will feel like a parenting failure. This is wrong on too many levels to name. So I push her.

I push her to be good. I push her to be curious. I push her to hold her space. There is going to be a time, sooner than I would like, when my daughter will push away from her mother and me. And despite our good parenting, I have a feeling that this will be a hard push. We’ll still be standing in the same spot, but she’ll be going off in her own direction. This is okay. This is what every parent wants. But I am experiencing so many conflicting feelings. I want her to keep her rebellious streak, but I don’t want this to metastasize into wonton defiance. I need for her to become her own person, but I want to avoid her diminishing her mother and me because she can—or because we’ve allowed her to. 

So when the time comes and she ‘really needs to see the Holo-Dragons of the Dogon Star’ and her mom and I are unified in our ‘no’ and she conspires with her friends and/or cousins and attends anyway…I may have to light a candle for her long dead great uncle and ask him to lend me some of what he knew so that I do not deny her a positive life changing experience.