Saturday, November 28, 2015

Friday, November 27, 2015

Spare the Rod Spoil your Inner Child: What I know by 40...

... is that I have an inner child and that this child must be disciplined.

People 40 and up remember being spanked, catching whippings, getting our collective behinds beat by parents who loved us, aunts and uncles who cared for us, grandparents who would not allow us to be bad and then have to live out the consequences of badness into adolescence and young adulthood.  Many of us remember the punishment almost fondly, as though the beatings proved we were worth all that pain our folks felt when they did those things that  hurt them more than they hurt us.   Our folks did their best and to them, the rod was a belt, a switch, or open hand across the bottom.

And here's the thing.   The inner child, that little one inside all us that acts out for attention and needs guidance, you have to use the rod on the inner child or risk spoiling it and it spoiling you.  That inner child can be a wild beast and a petulant little brat, but underneath all that, your inner child is also a source of wonder, pure joy, and excitement that we all need to experience from time to time.  We don't use the rod to crush that good, child-like spirit, but to coral that spirit and direct it towards
healthy pursuits.

But here's the real thing.  When a real shepherd uses a rod, they don't hit the sheep with the rod.  They use the rod to set up a boundary to gently push, pull, and steer the sheep in the right direction.  In my humble opinion, that bible verse many of us know doesn't give permission to beat your children and it doesn't give permission to beat your inner child.  It gives you the responsibility of steering and guiding children and a good analogy for leading yourself.  You can't beat children into being good.  But you can lead them into being good.

Likewise, punishing yourself or beating yourself up are rarely useful or positive responses to doing something you know isn't good.  Guilt and shame are two of the more useless emotions a person can feel.  A sense of responsibility and indignation that make you want to act better, those things can be useful.  More importantly, taking responsibility and being vigilant about that responsibility can lead you forward to discipline

My health is my responsibility and, as I approach 40, I feel more serious than ever about it.  For example, when I'm fasting, I have learned (from watching my wife's style of self-discipline), that if I even taste food while preparing it for my kids, it will be much harder to resist eating.  I've learned that I must put the fork down like the shepherd puts the rod down.  Not one taste.  Not one bite.

The funny thing is that food smells better when you fast this fastidiously.  And when you do break the fast, the food tastes better, you are generally more deliberate about what you eat, and you generally appreciate the experience of eating more.  Discipline is often confused with punishment.  But the essential difference between discipline and punishment is that you get rewarded for discipline in a way punishment never really rewards anyone.

When you look at the rod and the staff of the shepherd, you see that the rod has a hook that can be used to pull the sheep back to the flock, and if needed, drag a sheep off the edge of a cliff.  The staff is actually a club, a weapon used to beat off wolves or other preying animals.  What a great analogy.  Keep your staff to pull your inner child into alignment with your adult goals (as opposed to strangling yourself with guilt) and use your club to beat back temptations (as opposed to beating yourself up).

So now, 14 days before 40, I will continue to work to use the rod on my inner-child.  Not to beat it into submission, but to lead it into success.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Give thanks means accepting love: What I know by 40...

... is that in order to give thanks you must accept love.

I am not the most in-touch friend there is.  Not the most present family member.  Can't say that I answer my phone every time some one I care about calls.  Sometimes I don't even listen to messages.

I am, however, a profuse thanker.  I thank cashiers for handing my receipt at the counter.  I thank drivers for letting me in a lane.  I thank babies for smiling at me.  I guarantee that I have thanked friends and family many times for many things, at times leaving my folks annoyed like,

"bruh, you don't have to thank me for letting you breathe the air in my house or sit your ass on my sofa.  That kind of comes with having you over, fool."

What was revealed to me in meditation this morning is that giving thanks, giving real thanks as opposed to the polite niceties I do most of the time, giving thanks is about accepting the love people give to you.  Thank you is an acknowledgement of the choice a person made to do some thing patient, something kind, something caring, something encouraging when they had the choice to do otherwise.

So even though I'm not always sure how to give thanks, the why is clear.  To complete the good someone has done, to seal the deal on the compassion someone has given or sacrifice someone has made, you have to accept it.  You have to let them know that you accept their love to close the circle and make their act an act of love, an act that increases the love in the world.  Thank you means "I accept your love for me" and it is very, very important.  And it gets deeper.

Without  acknowledgement of all that has been done to make me who I am, I can never fully understand my own value. I can not understand what I mean to those who love me, who have loved me until I acknowledge what they have sacrificed, forgiven, and given to me. I can value everything special about myself, but value is actually a bargained for exchange.  We shouldn't depend on the opinion of others to value ourselves, but to experience value there must be an exchange with anothe.

For example, you may love your house.  You may value it at one billion dollars because you want to spend the rest of your life there.  But anybody in real estate knows that a house is worth what someone will pay for it.  And unless your house is a sky scraper in Mumbai, no one is paying $1 billion for it.  Imagine Mukesh Ambani's skyscraper house in this picture, which is actually valued at $1 billion sitting in the middle of the desert.  It might not be worth a dollar.  The value of that skyscraper is in relationship to the city around it.

By comparison, Bill Gates mountain house is only valued at $135 million even though many of us would rather live on a mountain than in a sky scraper in the middle of a dense city.  But part of the value of anything is in relationship to other humans.  A mountain house, even if it would survive a nuclear holocaust, as secluded and glorious as it might be, won't be worth as much as a house that towers over a city, with all the amenities of city living at your finger tips.  Value is a bargained for exchange, it depends on the choice someone has made or is willing to make.  Love is no different.

So today, I'm going to call my folks and say thank you for choosing to love me, for whatever specific form that love has taken.  I'm not going to take all day and cry and sling snot over the phone.  I may text.  I may reach out on Facebook.  But I will take the time to thank them for at least one specific act, one specific act of love they have shown me.

Now, 15 days before 40, I am not going to waste the great, thankful energy of this holiday gorging on food (well I might do a little of that) or arguing about the empty nature of American holidays or being mad that we didn't land on Plymouth Rock ("Plymouth Rock, landed on us") or deconstructing the hegemonic narrative of pilgrims and happy "Indians" having turkey... I'm going to roll with the tide on this one and holla at my folks and accept their love by giving thanks.


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The voice in my head is named Emile: What I know by 40...

... is that the voice in my head is named Emile.  Why Emile?  Because the voice in my head is Emily Dickinson's twin soul brother separated at conception of course.  Confused?

I've read lots of poets, but Emily Dickinson's poetic voice is as close to the voice in my head as can be.  And I'm not superstitious, but I don't think it a coinkydink that Ms. Emily Dickinson and I share a birthday.

Yes, Emily Dickinson turns 185 years old the day I turn 40.  I know, cool right!?  Well maybe not to you non poetry nerds, but it is very much so to me.  When I read her poetry, it feels as though we were twins, separated at conception, Emily sent into the victorian age, a white woman, to never marry and refuse to take Jesus as her personal savior when it was very dangerous to do so and to write with (mostly) no intention to publish; and Emile becoming me, born into the Sly and the Family Stone seventies, a black man, married with kids and posting to the infinite blogosphere.  I'm sure it's weird of me to think, write, and actually share this.  But I'm almost 40, and I get to be me.

Anyway, here's an example of Emily Dickinson's rhythm, blues, funk, keen observation of detail, and the way she uses playful disorder (abstraction) to paint paradoxes of meaning on the mundane (the concrete).  Check my poet soul sister out:

I’ll tell you how the Sun rose –
A Ribbon at a time –
The steeples swam in Amethyst
The news, like Squirrels, ran –
The Hills untied their Bonnets –
The Bobolinks – begun –
Then I said softly to myself –
“That must have been the Sun”!
But how he set – I know not –
There seemed a purple stile
That little Yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while –
Till when they reached the other side –
A Dominie in Gray –
Put gently up the evening Bars –
And led the flock away –


And here's what Emile said, in my head, first thing this morning...

The voice in my head
is magic
and a greedy bastard
whipping up some tragic
inner laughter
that churns up into custard
the curd of the day
in a most discreetly
absurd way

The voice in my head
sings soprano
and rumbles low
reptillian hisses
its candle flickers
laps water like dogs
thickens in bogs
in mortified rigor
enslaved it seems
by my fears
until released
in ink tears

The voice in my head
I hear it now
but with what ear
I do not know
it listens itself
and catches its drift
and cannot unspeak
its spoken repose

without a tongue
or lips to purse
or teeth to consummate
or throat to warble
or belly to push from
or chest to vibrate
it whispers as loud
as my mind is vast
these words
right now
wind, sail, and mast

The voice in my head
given form by a pen
will speak in its silence
until it speaks again

What I know, 16 days from 40, is the voice in my head and that I can give it a name and that I can name it Emile, soul brother to Emily Dickinson.

Monday, November 23, 2015

'If Only': What you know by 40...

... is that 'if only' is the blue pill.

My favorite class in college was Logic.  You know...

Yes, that logic.  I loved it so much that I kept the textbook for 10 years until the thing fell apart.   Now, Logic was known as the most disgustingly difficult philosophy course at Xavier.  Ask anyone who went to X.U. in the mid 90s and they will tell you that, in Dr. Berman's Logic course, the struggle was not invalid.

Yet I got an A, got maybe two test problems wrong the entire semester.  I was so into it that I actually felt competitive with the one other student who was smashing the class.  She was a pre-med student who I would exchange narrow-eyed glances with when one of us would give the proof to a very complex problem before the other.  Both of us alternately fuming like, "You m'er f'er, I knew that!"

If only I knew then that logic is the basis for computer coding, that my favorite course in four years of college was the basis for the type of work that pays some people I know very well to work from home and cash in stock and work while traveling around the world for a few months and cash in stock.  True story.  If only I had pursued computer programing instead of using my logic aptitude to get a good LSAT score to get into (debt) Yale, then maybe I'd be newish rich right now, funding all the non-profits I've worked for over the last 13 years.  Ah yes, if only.

But by now I have come to understand that "if only" is by definition a contradiction.  'If' opens the limitless possibility of the unknown.  By contrast, 'only' implies only one outcome.  When you put 'if' and 'only' together, you imply that the limitless possibilities of life could lead to only one conclusion.  But life works not in that way (in my Yoda voice).  The only thing that does work in that way is death.

Short of death, 'if only' is a manipulation on par with Facebook's slogan: "Be connected.  Be discovered.  Be on Facebook." As if the only purpose of Facebook was connection and discovery.  Anybody breathing and on the verge of 40 doesn't need logic to recognize that as some malarkey, balderdash, and a card game called bull.  Facebook is a game of likes and a more honest slogan would be 'If Only.'

Anyway, my 'if only' myth centers around the assumption that if only I had made the choice to study coding, then the only outcome would have been rich Mike traveling the world and driving this...

A brother can dream can't he?
Yet, this assumes that I would have been good enough at coding to get a great job that would have survived the early 2000s dot com bust, that if I had survived the dot com bust that I would have managed my money well, that if I had managed my money well, that grief over losing my parents wouldn't have sent me binging on blow and gambling as opposed to Jim Beam and pizza (the only vices I could afford as a law student).

The seductive lie of 'if only' is that it is proof by contradiction, that it only seems true because if it were false it would seem to contradict the life we see someone else living.  The thinking goes like this:  I know my coder friends are rich.  So if I were a coder, I would have been rich.  But those types of comparisons are as helpful as comparing yourself to an octopus.  Albert Einstein, a logical son of a donkey if there ever was one, says "if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing it is stupid."  I agree.  If you compare yourself to your "successful" Facebook friends, you will get lost in the matrix of  'if only'.

In fact, 'if only' is the The Matrix architect's whole trick, his prestige (spoiler alert).  The Matrix architect makes you believe you have a choice, or in the case of 'if only' had some choice other than what you chose.  But your backwards looking reflection on what could have been, prevents you from making the choices that could create what could be.  The only way out of this Matrix, is to accept your life as the unique sum of infinitely complex fractals of factors going back through your nature, your nurture, and your non-sequiturs... to see yourself as the anomaly, in Matrix-speak.

In other words, the only truth is choice; what you chose and, more importantly, what you choose from this point forward.

Does this look sexy to you?  Now you millennials know
why we Gen Xers didn't all get into computers.  
'If only' assumes that I might have made another choice with some other information or insight.  When in actuality, there are countless factors that went into me not choosing computer programming, not the least of which was that, at the time, I could not give less of a crap about how computers worked.  For me, the only purpose of computers was word processing.  Computers made editing easier, and I loved them for that, but the notion that I would spend my time dealing with the innards of hardware or software was as asinine as the thought of me becoming a glass blower.  I mean, I used cups all the time, but I didn't want to make cups.  

Come to think of it, outside of the money, I don't think that I would enjoy coding the way I enjoyed the mental challenge of applying logic to  rhetoric as a law student, as an advocate, as a teacher, and as a poet.  Ultimately, I think I loved logic because it was communication in it's purest form, poetry without the affectation, boiled down to the essential oil that greases the gears of understanding.  Take this classic logic proof:

If Tom is a philosopher, then Tom is poor.
Tom is a philosopher.
Therefore Tom is poor.

So here's the question for Tom.  Would Tom be happier if only he wasn't a philosopher?  As a philosopher, Tom could spend the rest of his life trying to answer that question.

But me, 17 days before 40, I have come to learn that 'if only' is useful only if 'what if' is what could be.  'If only' is a powerful tool of mental manipulation.  It's the blue pill.  It is the power to compare the incomparable and it can make Tom go crazy or lead Tom to the promise land of a world-shifting philosophical principle and ample grants to go with it.  So in a paradox fitting of The Matrix Trilogy (how can a series be so good and yet, so bad), 'If only' can also be the red pill.

 If Tom, okay enough of Tom... if I say to myself, "if only I could get my writing in the hands of the right people, I'd get a great publishing deal to really launch my career...".  If I say that, then there are a number of choices that I can make right now to bring me closer to that desired outcome.  One choice would be to put my writing out to the world and ask, directly, if you, you satisfied reader you, would please share my posts with somebody, anybody.  If only you would do that, then maybe my writing will land in the right hands.  If only...

Take the red pill, my reada.  Share.  This.  Post. (in my Larry Fishburne in School Daze, "Wake Up! voice)

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Slumps vs. The Dumps: What you know by 40...

... is the difference between being in a slump and being in the dumps.

I know this because I have experienced both and, though they can feel the same, there are some concrete differences that are crucial to know.  Before listing those differences, let's discuss the similarities since sometimes we don't even know what we feel.

I woke up yesterday tired and didn't feel like meditating, working, or even brushing my teeth.  I waddled, heels hurting, to check the time and I had, of course, overslept.  The rush was on.  But all I wanted to do was go back to sleep.  With children needing to get to school and a self needing to get to work, that wasn't an option, so I sludge through making breakfast and lunch, getting myself together, and getting my son on to the car all with a funky, grumpy grudge that everyone in the household noticed.  After dropping my son off, I put my Pandora on Portishead.

Something is wrong.  And this is what it feels like.  Maybe it's a slump.  Or maybe it's more.

Ok, I don't feel that bad.

The morning I described was real.  It was yesterday morning in fact and after realizing that the urge to listen to Portishead was a response to feeling in a slump, I could immediately identify why.  It was the 16 baby Milky Ways from Halloween that I binged on the night before in a fit of wild disobedience to myself.  It was the fact that I allowed myself not to work out.  It was the staying up late to watch Jane the Virgin even though I hate everything about Jane, well mostly her name and character traits.  The actress is great.  I mean she's really good.  The character though, I cannot stand.  But I digress.

I was feeling slumpy yesterday because of some specific things I did the night before.  I could pin- point what had me down and try to think about it, forgive myself for it, and move on.  And I did.  I was having trouble writing a post and so I wrote a post about not having something to write a post about and ended up really enjoying the writing process.  It's kind of one of my favorite posts so far.  So slump over. I went to bed early last night and woke up ready to go today.

The Portishead video for "The Rip" is a good audio/visual reflection of slumping.  It's like an eerie cartoonish howl of bad wind.  You can feel that something funked up is going on and kind of ride it out till the song ends.

Slumping on the other hand is some Pink Floyd "The Wall" bad business.  And if you are in the dumps, like Roger Waters screen reflection is in the dumps, get some help.  Not joking at all.  Get some help.

The difference is that Floyd "Pink" Pinkerton has a wall around his mind that doesn't allow him to see outside.  He has fallen into a well of self-loathing, built up over years of repression and denial of feeling.  Pink has sunken into a pit of despair and self-medication that doesn't allow him to think or feel or experience anything outside of the stained glass window of depression that shades the days into horrible shadows and distorted, monstrous reflections of himself.  I repeat, if the above video for Pink Floyd "Is there anybody out there," speaks to you in any way.  Get.  Some.  Help.  Now.

I've been there.  I won't go in to detail to protect the guilty (that would be me), but I did some things that were self-destructive, things that society frowns upon, when I was in the dumps.  And I kind of knew I was in the dumps, but there are so many vices and elixirs that the great American free market offers to those in dumps...

... yes you can Lamar Odom yourself into not knowing you are Lamar Odom.

And although he is an extreme example, he is a good example.  He is someone who had a difficult life full of tribulation, still managed to succeed and be beloved by friends and family, and still managed to come close to destroying himself.  And his overdose may not be the end of the story.  In the dumps, there is no bottom.  Get.  Some.  Help.  Now.

Here are some ways to tell the difference:

If you can identify the exact interaction, mistake, problem, or challenge that has affected your mood, you are probably in a slump.

If you cannot recall when you started feeling bad, you might be in the dumps.

If you can hold a feeling of hope without the aid of so much as a glass of wine or a series of playful kitten Vines, you are probably only in a slump.

If you can't feel hope, even when people who care for you are taking time and energy to come and try to pull you up out of your bad feelings, you might be in the dumps.

If you know you need help, you might be in the dumps.

If you don't know you need help, you are in the dumps.

But you don't know what you don't know right?  So now, 18 days from 40, I know that the best way to get a sense of where I am on the slump/dump spectrum is to stay present with myself and what I am feeling.  I do this by writing, but there as long as there is something you regularly do that can be a sort of barometer of how you are feeling, you can be present.  Whether it's running or composing music or drawing or meditating, if you are having some dissonance while trying to do it, you might want to pay attention and try to track down the root of the negativity.  And if you can't and the negativity seems to stretch weeks and months and, god forbid, years.  Get.  Some.  Help.

I hope with everything in me that, by 40, you know enough about yourself to know this.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Act Like You Know: What you know by 40...

... is that sometimes you have to act like you know.

Like I don't know what to write right now.  I have no idea for a topic, no burning desire in my heart that I must express, nothing heavy on my mind that I must confess.  I only have this commitment to write, right now.

So I'm going to act like I know what I'm up to right now, that I planned this post out to seem clueless about what to write so that I could have this kind of meta, existential moment of self-referential clarity about this whole 40 days of writing experiment.  So I can pull the curtain back on my commitment to write everyday and show you that sometimes all I have by way of rationale for writing is this:  Because I said I would.

Well, now I'm three paragraphs in and still don't really have a point.  But I am opening myself up to the possibility of non-linear progression that might meander to a destination.  I am open to this third paragraph being like Seinfeld in its third season, scripting itself aimlessly with technically melodramatic writing performed to hold your attention while the fact that there's nothing actually happening is slipped right under nose like a whiff of absurdity.  It's like free-styling about free-styling and I'm doing it right now.

So wherever this post goes, if it does indeed keep going, we will go there together because I am committed to continuing to write and you are obviously committed to continuing to read.  Even though there might not be some funny twist or a meaningful play on meaning of a happy ending when this post is over, there might be just enough value in the time we are spending together right now, as reader and writer, to make this whole post worthwhile.  And if not, c'est la vie,  que sera, sera, and Domo Arigato.

Well, now, have we really made it to five paragraphs without any purpose to this post?  If we have, then have we wasted our time?  If we haven't wasted our time, is it a waste of time now to keep questioning whether we have or will waste our time if we keep going?  If we decide to keep going, at what point will we have wasted our time?  What are the qualities of wasted time?  Is it dependent on the outcome of the time spent?  Or is it related to the quality of the time spent?  Is Kant right that each word of each sentence of each paragraph of this post is, like the human that created it, an end unto itself? Or, contrastingly, is this Machiavelli's own post, only concerned for its own self-interests in its desire to go on by any and all means? Are both of these questions made irrelevant by the Double Slit experiment,

which proves that this blog post, as essentially a series of electrical pulses that have been converted to radio waves and back to electrical pulses that appear as these words, can behave as both a wave and a particle, able to both be an end and a means at the same time?  And if you aren't willing to click the links and watch the video to find out what I'm talking about, has this whole paragraph been a waste of time?  And if it has been a waste, have we really just finished five paragraphs without any purpose to this post?  If a tree falls in the forest does it startle a bear as it shits in the woods and uses a rabbit for toilet tissue?

Now six paragraphs, being one over the five paragraph structure of a prototypical essay, is a slice of cheese more than the basic hamburger of posts.  So we are really getting to the point where this post better gain some momentum towards a meaning or else we will have a veggie burger of a post:  a very unsatisfying hodgepodge of beans and nuts and bark and stuff that might as well have been barfed up by a tree after it binged on a bunch of burritos and snickers bars and chewed up gum while standing in it's little square of an infinitely linear Manhattan sidewalk.  No offense to veggie burger eaters or Seinfeld writers.

And after seven paragraphs in, I have to ask  What is this, velvet?

Is this Velveeta?  Is the potential of meaning in this post meta, like a post-modern myth of a movie where Eddie Murphy pretends to be a short Jewish man who inspects a lion-head sash worn by James Earl Jones (AKA king Jaffe Joffer of Zamunda) and, being unable to comprehend that the pretend real lion mane could be anything other than a velvet knock-off, asks "what is that, velvet?"  Is this post that weird while not being one fiber of pretend real lion fur as (kind of) funny?  I think not.

Ultimately, this post is an example of what old school hip hop would advise you to do when you don't know what you are doing.  And that would be 'act like you know.'  By 40, and especially if you have gotten to this point in this post, you should know the value of doing just that.  Don't believe me.  Ask Jerry Seinfeld about the 800 million reasons he agrees.

(Closes laptop)

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Respect your family business: What you know by 40...

... is that you better respect your family business.

For some it's easier than others.  Lionel Jefferson's business is laundromats.  Arnold and Willis were going into... what did Mr. Drummond do anyway?  Lamont was going to run Sanford and Son.

But for those of us whose parents didn't hand us a business, we have to figure out what we are going to build for a business, profession, or career.  Hopefully our options are better than our parents' options were.  Hopefully, our families were blessed to leave us something to build on.  ]

I was lucky and I wasn't.  My family business was very clear, but that business doesn't leave much material wealth to build on.  My parents were teachers.  Dedicated, professional, masterful teachers who got a masters and doctorate in education, worked in public institutions, and dedicated their vocation to kids in special education (my mother) and to adults in community colleges (my father).  That's my family business, and when my parents passed they left the most valuable thing you could leave a child:  good names, great reputations, and models of good living for a great cause.

And when I got in to Yale Law School, I'm sure they both thought I'd become a high powered attorney and represent an uptick in our entire family's financial fortunes.  I thought the same thing.

Yet very early on I was called home to teaching.  A little disoriented by the dizzyingly elite culture of Yale, I was called to Umoja, a program that went into New Haven public middle schools to teach civil rights history as a way to give the children perspective on how their educational opportunity had been earned by the bold sacrifice of their elders and ancestors.  Teaching this, at that time, brought home to me that I owed my time at Yale to my parents and ancestors, to countless young people and elders in the 50s and 60s who put their lives on the line for future generations of Black children to have a chance to attend a school like Yale.  Umoja helped set me on a course that didn't lead to corporate law and the big money that comes with it.  My path led to public education policy advocacy in many forms, to youth empowerment and organizing work across the country, and, ultimately, to use my law degree to create more educational opportunity for others.

And if that were the end of the story, that would be a nice neat bow for my life.  But all that is just the preface.  That's the introduction.  Now begins the first chapter of my life's work.

My family business is education, and if I think back over my (too) many jobs, the ones that stick out as the most invigorating, most exciting, and most fulfilling all had something in common.  I worked directly with young people, encouraging their growth and development into critical thinkers and leaders.  And of those experiences, the one that still brings joy to my memory, is the two years I spent teaching creative writing at Balboa High School in San Francisco.

The creative writing program, called Roots, was originally intended for young people whose parents were incarcerated.  But I was able to gather so much interest by going from class to class spitting a spoken word poem to get kids to sign up for the elective that we opened the class to students who were missing a parent or loved one due to death or being an orphan or because their parents were back in their home country.

I got the Roots youth started with journaling and formed spoken word poetry from their free-writing.  We organized and blocked their poetry for the stage and made it into a play called Sentences.  We put it on for peers, teachers, and administrators, many of who were tired of my students behavior issues in their classrooms.  Teachers who would kick my students out of their classrooms, almost on sight, came up to me crying and offering Roots students 'one more chance.'  And I knew that meant many more chances, that we had reinvigorated in weary teachers and administrators an empathy that would encourage them to see these struggling students through to graduation.  Then we took the play to Washington D.C. and presented it to a conference of judges and probation officers, so that they could feel the consequences of their sentences on the children, families, and communities left behind.  Here's a front-page article in the San Francisco Chronicle about our work in Roots.

I left Balboa and the Bay Area after Hurricane Katrina to get closer to my folks, at the time, mostly in Montgomery and Atlanta.  But I never forgot the joy of working with my Roots students.  I literally loved the students, the work and I haven't experienced anything quite like it since.

Well today, 27 days before I turn 40, I am clear that my family business is education.  And today I will offer the first in a series of creative writing workshops for high school students to create spoken word pieces to celebrate Dr. King on his holiday.  I love planning the lessons, mapping out how, from day one I will get these youth to gain enough creativity, mastery, and confidence to compose and deliver powerful pieces two months from now.  I love prepping by digging up and through Gwendolyn Brooks and Rita Dove and Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes and Chrystos and Rumi and Khalil Gibran and Shel Silverstein for just the right pieces to inspire their wonder and feed their fearlessness.  I loved waking up this morning knowing that, by the end of the day, I will have seen, first-hand, that the world is in good hands, and that I have had something to do with it... that I will have been a teacher again.

My entire time as an English major, I ran from teaching.  "Those that can do, and those that can't teach" I remember reading in some cynical quote that certainly doesn't apply to those for whom teaching is what they do, people like my parents and people like me.

And I'm encouraged by the fact that my mother and I graduated the same year, from the same school: Me with my undergrad in English and she with her masters in Education, both from Xavier University of Louisiana.  I'm encouraged by my father's journey, getting his Ph. D at 46 and within 10 years becoming president of Trenholm Tech in Montgomery Alabama where he administered two major campuses and several instructional sites, 34 instructional programs and about 200 employees.  I'm encouraged by my sister, who after Katrina, while raising 5 children, got her Masters in counseling and has her own practice focused on helping youth and families.  I'm encouraged because I have finally accepted a core part of my destiny.  And I couldn't be more proud to finally join in my family business.

What you know by 40 is that your family business isn't necessarily a business at all.  It might be a calling.   It might be a lifestyle or a culture.  It might be a responsibility to something greater than yourself.  Whatever it is, you better show it reverence and acknowledge its centrality to your life.  I've learned to embrace my family business and I'm, finally, ready to teach.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The 5th Element: What you know by 40...

... is the power of the 5th element.

Yesterday a friend posted Billboard's Top 10 rappers of all time.  I won't waste your time railing against the fact that neither Tupac or Slick Rick made the list, or that Eminem is above Nas.  You can decide for yourself whether you think the list is decent or some dung beetle dinner that proves that when it comes to hip hop, millennials are muggles while the rest of us grown folk above 30 are at Hogwarts trying to figure out how to transfigure Hotline Bling into hip hop (forgive the Harry Potter reference... currently reading book three to my son).  But I digress.

Instead of preaching or putting you to sleep with nostalgia, I'm going to invoke the Five Elements in the name of Hip Hop to dispel the demons of irreverence clouding the vision of the under 30.  Here are the five elements of hip hop:

1.  DJing/Producing:  DJs started and led hip hop from the start.  They moved the crowd, told people when it was time to dance, chill, or slow drag (couple up and grind out sexual frustration, an art seemingly lost on younger generations).  DJ's determined whether people get bucked up and want to fight or chant together and want to party.  Back in the 80s and early 90s, people went to parties based upon what DJ was spinning.  It was Eric B and Rakim; DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince.  The DJ was king because the act of producing music or playing music at a party requires a level of preparation and precision at being present to the moment that embodies the best of Hip Hop.  Having DJ friends growing up (shout out RSelf et al.), I came to appreciate the art early on.  But this is a recent video showing the mesmerizing ability of one of the best who ever did it:  DJ Jazzy Jeff...

 ...nuff said.

2.  MCing/Rapping:  Originally, the rapper was a hype man.  He would get on the mic and chant out dances or phrases to get the crowd buck.  Somewhere along the way, the big personalities and dramatic flair of rappers became the dominant representation of Hip Hop.  But the resulting imbalance, billing the big-mouth above the crowd controller has had some devastating impacts.  As is the case when style surpasses substance, Hip Hop has become synonymous with rap the way politics has become synonymous with democracy and in both, big money controls what is said and heard.

3.  B-Boying/Breakdancing:  Certainly never only for boys, this is the magical physical expression of hip hop in the human body.  B-boys and B-girls transform the body into a robotic machine or a formless energy wave, a ghostly gliding moonwalker or a gymnastic, spider-like creature of infinite creativity, all to a beat.  B-boying is Hip Hop's most challenging and entrancing element.  It's also universal as you can see below that the entire world is involved in taking b-boying to new, mind blowing levels.


4.  Grafitti Art/Tagging:  Hip Hop's most universal expression, you can find the transfiguration of words into images; the explosion of rhetorical concepts and metaphors into geometric patterns and boundlessly layered images; the disruption and transformation of drab urban edifice into flowing landscapes of human imagination blooming with color and booming with movement; you can find graffiti art in every single corner of every city on the planet earth.  From Iceland

to Melbourne

                                                          From Japan

To Brazil

But the 5th element is the core of all four elements.  Without the fifth element, all these sensually stunning, viscerally moving, gutturally titillating expressions of hip hop have no value; only spectacle.  Without the fifth element, beats become simply a series of deafening booms and piercing baps, patterned and irreparably flawed in their mechanical droning.  Without the fifth element rappers spit drivel as minstrels and caricatures, perpetrating the fraud of race tropes and gendered violence to children looking to break the social confines of their own minds.

The fifth element is the key that unlocks the power of hip hop culture.  The fifth element is the stream of consciousness that separates the commodified shadow pop of mainstream gangster/pimp rap from hip hop.  The fifth element is the missing ingredient.

5.  Education/Knowledge:  The organization of the four cultural expressions into the culture of hip hop happened because of the impulse to use culture to educate, inform, inspire, and uplift the world.  This is not hopeful philosophy.  This is the concrete foundation and historical core of hip hop.

Formed in the Bronx, New York during a period of severe cuts to social programs that left youth with little constructive activities to get into, hip hop emerged in response to the violence of gang culture that was threatening the lives of children and the fabric of the community.  Early hip hop, was a safe place to compete and battle, an uplifting energy to party with.  The 5th element was alive even in the 90s, after gangster rap began to dominate, rappers like NWA, Ice Cube, Biggie, and Tupac always gave both sides of gangster life:  the dangerous thrills and the destructive consequence.  And there was still Tribe and De La Soul, Pharcyde and Souls of Mischief, Public Enemy and Wutang dropping jazz, joy, power and knowledge.  We still had a choice.

What does all this have to do with turing 40?  Well, many believe that hip hop turned 40 years old on August 11th 2013, 40 years to the day DJ Kool Herc worked his technique of using two turntables to perpetually spin the break beats of the hottest records of the day.  The vapid, uninspiring, and socially destructive content of much radio rap is definitely a sad display of regress.  But the images and videos above, and the existence of new storytellers like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and conscious rappers like Dee-1...

... these things show that at just over 40 years old, Hip Hop is 40 and still fly... just like your author is about to be.  And if I can pull that 5th element squarely into my life and hip hop can send energy to that 5th element bubbling up to disrupt the commodification of Hip Hop culture, then

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

White is a color: What you know by 40...

... is that white is a color.

When white light is run through a prism, it's true nature is revealed.  You know the rainbow?  That thing that people associate with happy-happy, joy-joy and unicorn farts and Kermit the Frog singing on a log and Lucky Charms and Caitlin Jenner?  Here's what it really is.

A rainbow is white light refracted, freed from the prison of pale invisibility and released into the fantastic splendor of the color spectrum.  In many ways, white light is an illusion.  It is only a medium that simply reveals the color of things.

White is not clean or pure as much is it is empty and without substance.  White isn't cold or sterile as much as it is another form of water or air, a conduit through which expression travels, a palate upon which expression is splashed.

And so what?

White is a heavy, heavy color in the cultural context of America.  When we think of "white" in the world of American society we often think of a type of people.  Some of us think of hard earned privilege and wealth.  Some of us think of a history of supremacist philosophy and the consequent exploitation and oppression of everyone not "white."  We all think of white as the opposite of black, as somehow separate from the cultural bricolage some call "people of color."

But if we use the analogy of white light through a prism, you can understand that white is not only a color, but that it reveals all color.  In truth, what we know as American "white" culture is ultimately a merger of diverse European, Indigenous American, African, and Asian influence.  White has simply been the palate upon which the American experiment has been painted.  Calling American culture white culture is like calling the wall of the museum a work of art.  I'm sure someone has tried to pull that off in a rash of post-modern silliness.  But a white wall, art is not.  And America has never, ever been a white nation.

If you dig into American democracy without the blinding white light of eurocentrism, you will find that our foundational political philosophy was heavily influenced by the Six Nations or the Iroquois Confederacy, the original republic of indigenous independent nation-states on American soil.

If you dig into America's economy past the white fog of big "C" Capitalism, you will find that the among the first truly free markets were those created by escaped slaves like Louisiana's Jean St. Malo, who first stole his body back, then liberated other enslaved people, livestock, weapons, and more to promptly set up shop in the bayou to sell the goods to Native Americans, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Haitians, and anyone with something to offer the diverse community burgeoning around his multi-layered emancipatory entrepreneurial enterprise.

If you dig into the work ethic and ingenuity responsible for America's expansion, and subsequent wealth and success, without the thin white veil of European cultural supremacy called Manifest Destiny, you realize that 4000 Chinese people (among others) built The Transcontinental Railroad that made westward expansion possible.  And then contributed greatly, along with newly emancipated Black people, to the establishment of everything we know as the American West.

So if we are honest about what "white" means in the social context of America, it is much like the white light going through the prism.  If you actually send the white light of hegemony through the prism of multi-culturalism, you find every color, every people has made America what it is.

And yes, it means that the illusion of whiteness has to disappear to see the true beauty of America.  And no, this is not so that we can erase European contribution to America.  To the contrary, we must erase the illusion of whiteness so that we can liberate the contributions of Irish, German, Italian, French, Spaniard, Danish, Scottish, Welsh, and other European cultures from of the alabaster prison of an impossible white illusion and welcome them back into the full spectrum of human contribution to the American experiment.  We must do this so that white can no longer be a phantasm of superiority and once again be a color, an human diversity of no greater, or lesser value, than any other.

And so what?

So this...

And so what?

So we can show the world how humans can live together, in peace.  It will take us all to do that.  Pray for our success.   The future depends on it.


Monday, November 16, 2015

How long it takes: What you know by 40...

... is that the time it takes, is the time it takes.

Today I was driving and listening to NPR when a vaguely familiar voice comes across the radio.  It is a Black man who has just published a book called Black Man in a White Coat, based on his experience as a doctor in Durham, North Carolina.  He seems super smart and insightful, and also vaguely familiar.

Then right before a break, the host describes the man as having gotten his medical degree from Duke and a law degree from Yale.  Immediately I know why the voice is familiar.  It is Damon Tweedy, one of my classmates at Yale.  Here he is in a photo from this USA Today review of his book...

Now I don't remember all my classmates at Yale, but I definitely remembered Damon.  First of all he was 6'6" and was already a medical doctor, both of which are pretty rare.  But what I really recall about Damon was a conversation we had about a book he was working on that chronicled his experience in medical school and as a doctor.  I remember him saying that he was in talks on a book deal and I recall him saying that he was in the early stages of finishing the manuscript.

Now, if you are reading this, you might be aware that I turn 40 this year.  You might not be aware that I finished law school in 2002.  So this conversation occurred over 13 years ago.  13 years.  That's the time frame between that conversation about this book and the book being published and a New York Times bestseller, Oprah's 10 Titles to Pick Up Now, Goodreads best book of the month, and on and on with its success.

Now I know that Damon is an exceptional person.  I knew it then and I could hear it in the NPR interview.  He is brilliant and focused, conscientious and obviously serious about what he does.  And it still took 13 years.  Sometimes it doesn't matter how excellent you are.  The time has to be right.

I haven't always felt this way, but I'm okay with not having "mainstream" success by 40, not being a 40 under 40 or 30 under 30 or 20... you get the picture.  I'm okay with it because I relish the wisdom and perspective I've gained by having to work eight to sixes and by going to school, by having normal relationships and raising kids with love as the majority of what I could give.  But I'd be lying if there weren't times when I've felt that some of my dreams around being a writer have taken too long, so long that they will never happen.

Then I hear Damon Tweedy on the radio today.  And I'm not saying I'm Damon Tweedy, but it seems to have taken him 13 years.  So my little 10 years of being a poet and 5 years of being serious about my writing and the last 15 days of being so committed that I would write every single day, isn't a damn diddly squat of time.  If it takes 13 years to get on Oprah's radar so be it.  I'll spend those 13 years working and building my family, and writing every day.

And I'm not saying I'm waiting 13 years.  Quite the contrary, ain't a waiting bone left in my body.  I'm going to get this.  Now.  But however long it takes for the tree to mature, the tree is worth it.

In the example of Damon Tweedy, there are so many reasons why it may have taken 13 years, none of which is that he wasn't good enough to make it happen.  I'm certain that America is more receptive, more interested in a message about healthcare inequalities based on race and socioeconomics right now with race a much more prominent dialogue than it was 13 years ago.  I'm glad his book is out now and not a year earlier.  And I'll be happy when my preparation meets opportunity.

I won't judge success by the time of day it comes.  I'll just have a breakfast mimosa, a lunch scotch, a dinner glass of Malbec, or some dessert Port when the time comes to clink a glass and say salud.  Till then, I'll take heart in the success of others and enjoy what it can teach me about how it is done.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Cheaters Never Win: What you know by 40...

is that cheaters do win.  All the time.  Terrorists make democratic nations torture and peaceful nations bomb.  Hedge fund managers get richer by betting against the risks they convince investors to take.  Spouses get their cake and eat it to.

But those who cheat themselves, lose.  Every time.  Ask me how I know.

If I had a dollar for every time I cheated myself out of health, out of happiness, out of success, I'd be Oprah.  Or more like the anti-Oprah, rich off the obvious as opposed to manifesting the 'The Secret,' my own spiritual hedge fund manager betting against myself.  There were a lot of lean years where me failing was a pretty good bet too.  Almost a sure thing.  Failures came like cigarettes burn, quick and one after the other.

But I can always connect the dots from my failures to a very clear example of how I cheated myself out of a blessing, out of an opportunity, out of wellness.  Like when I lost the college job my sister got me at UPS when I chose to smoke weed with my girlfriend instead of going in for the first day (and you thought 'Cuz I Got High' was a joke song?  Realest shit he ever wrote).

Or the time I missed out on the opportunity to study abroad at Oxford because I was so over-confident that I didn't do much preparing for the final interview (one of the interviewers, a professor from Harvard, pulled me to the side and said 'you had this.  you will regret not preparing better.'  Damn.  He was cold-blooded and so right.).

Or the time I turned down free grief counseling at Yale after my mother passed and decided instead to self medicate with binge eating and binge drinking for a couple of years (that's the 15 pounds I'm still trying to lose now, 15 years later).

Or the time I... you get the picture.  Big and small, I can remember every cheat and every consequent failure.

So here I am at 40, not meditating every day, sneaking treats after dark, breaking the agreements I made with myself and I find I have a choice.  Either I will start taking full advantage of my blessings or I will not.  Either I will keep cheating myself or I will spend this day feeling what it feels like to be a few pounds lighter, a few depths more peaceful, a few clicks more disciplined.

Today (and every one of the next 25 days, I will have to make this choice again), today I choose to keep my agreements with myself.  I choose to agree with myself that I can be successful.  I choose to get out of my own way.  I choose to do what I said I was going to do with no excuses, no semicolon.

I've learned to forgive myself for faltering.  More on that in a future post.  But cheating myself?  Zero tolerance for that bullshit.

I got off the horse on Friday.  I got back on Saturday and I'm already reaping the reward with this Sunday motivational post.  25 days more of this please.

Are you cheating yourself out of something today?

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Be Encouraged: What you know by 40...

... is that you find your strength when you go through pain.  I wish strength and comfort to all of France and all victims of violence around the world.

It will take all of our collective lifetimes to bring peace to the world.  Maybe our children or grandchildren will know it.  In order to keep working for them, even though we may never see the full reward of our work, we have to be encouraged and stay encouraged.

I am encouraged
Just look at what we have done
we have filled this world
with a harvest of freedom
each one of us, a dream realized
every moment of our lives
an instance of oppression defied
every breath and utterance
a reflection of the resilience of life
despite being terrorized
brutalized and denied opportunity to thrive
our ancestors survived
reborn and alive in us
we must
be encouraged

be encouraged
each of us
could have shut up
in the face of injustice
but instead we stepped up
and kept up the mission the elders left us
and the world is so messed up
sometimes we get fed up
about ready to head up out the door
but then we connect up
hear stories that refresh us
and remind us of what we are fighting for
Be encouraged

Be encouraged
For We who believe in freedom shall not rest until it comes
And Freedom isnt a buzz word of pop philosophy
Freedom is the difference between a public school and a for profit penitentiary
Freedom aint the choice between coke zero or diet pepsi
Freedom is being healthy enough to enjoy your body
Freedom isnt choosing between comedians Colbert and Stewart or clowns like beck and hannity
Freedom is getting information instead of ideology
Freedom learns from it all
from the right to the left
to consider it all then take the best and leave the rest
we can learn a little bit from capitalists about how to catalyze
And we can learn a whole lot from socialists about how to prioritize
We can learn from the politician about how to compromise
We can learn from the revolutionary about how to lock our eyes on the prize
In freedom even perceived enemies
Have something to teach
Every heart and mind
Is within freedom’s reach
Be encouraged

Be encouraged
Because there aint no power like the power of the people
And the power of the people don’t stop
And we won’t stop at a black president
Won’t pause for a promotion
Won’t bow down or mumble humbly
We gon cause some commotion
Filing motions to cease and desist against racists
Composing policy and voting
We are in motion and wont stop
Till we rid our cities of crime and killer cops
We won’t stop with non-profits
We will be present in government
And prepared to take to the streets
From Main to Wall to Martin Luther King
You will hear us on your radio and see us on your tv
We resist the inertia of his-story
And its tendency to tame ambitions
Yeah we have come a long way
but not nearly completed our mission
Listen to your breath
That’s the sound of Ms. Moses Tubman in the woods
The sound John Brown plotting
And jim crow rotting like he should
Feel your heart beat
That’s children growing brilliant and strong
That’s women loving their whole selves
And men being present in the home
Say yes
That’s the sound of a nation
the founding fathers could not forsee
want to glimpse tomorrow
just look at me
A Black mestizo Filipino Creole German Jew
With half Asian babies and Indigenous roots
Look at you
A ménage of hues
With treasures of talents and tools
We are the truth
Empowered youth come to renew and rejuvenate
we refuse to resuscitate the
Old american ways
that confuse and reduce
A human being
To a gender class or race
We’ve come to reject and redefine
Politics as we know it
With is sick, twisted, and nihilistic
Fear-based, hate-laced rhetoric
Be encouraged

Be encouraged
This is what power looks like
We are democracy in the flesh
We are the hands that weave dignity
The minds that command respect
We dream in color
And we’ve come to wake the world up
We reach out and connect like webs
form networks to keep in touch
We destroy the constructs that divide us 
We build bridges of unity
From the country to the city
We are the world community
Be encouraged

Be encouraged
You can feel change in its skin
Wrapped around your hands
Echoed In the world you envision
Moving through this room
In the boom of silent intention
made real by commitment and necessity bred invention
be encouraged

be encouraged
Keep loving in the midst of the struggle
Keep hoping in the twists of trouble
keep singing and playing
Dancing and praying
and whatever brings you joy and defeats your fear
keep exercising your mind
read to feed your ideas 
keep seeking the divine in its glory
And in the little things like us here
Together at this gathering
We are worker bees
hustling for humanity
Be encouraged

Be encouraged
be you in the streets stomping for justice
or in power writing policy
be you in schools deconstructing ignorance
or an artist creating space for visionaries
whatever you be
be encouraged
lift your little bit of this 7 billion
and know that from the bottom up
we are building
a world for our children’s, children’s,
children’s children…