I went to this reading last night where I met this girl. She was a friend of a friend. There were introductions. I said hello with all the politeness that my mother and father instilled in me. I smiled. The girl seemed nice enough, but maybe a little bit weird.
Actually, she reminded me of a character from Girls. She was kind of loud and said fuck a lot. She wore hip clothes. She told a story of how her boyfriend, who she thought she was going to marry, left her to marry an ex. Ouch. After that, she moved from New York to Baltimore. Later, when we went to get a drink, she pointed to the bartender as he walked away and said, "cute alert." She ordered an Allagash White, a grilled cheese and fried pickles.
Ok, so I've never actually watched Girls because we don't get HBO, so I guess what I mean is that she reminded me what I imagine a character from Girls would be like if I watched that show. How did I do? Am I even close?
Anyway, the reading thing was a bit of an open mic and this girl got up to read. She had a notebook, which she explained was from high school. Really, I thought, from high school? I could feel my brain getting smaller, dissolving like wet cotton candy. My inner writer snob was asserting itself. The girl explained that she hadn't written anything in a while because she works from 9-6 and when she got home she just wanted to (wait for it) watch Girls.
It started off as terribly as I'd anticipated, with the girl reading something that she'd collaborated on with a bunch of other high schoolers--the kind of story where the teacher throws out a prompt every so often and the kids have to incorporate it--only this was the type where they were also passing the notebook around. Oh Lord help me. The only thing I remember from the Mad Libs style story was that there was a transvestite towards the end.
Then something funny happened. Not ha ha! funny but huh, isn't that interesting? funny. She read something from a journal that she'd written a long time ago. In the entry, she wondered what she'd be like in twenty years. She supposed she'd probably be married with kids and a job--things we probably all thought twenty years ago, back when twenty years seemed like an eternity and the idea of being 30 years old sounded the same as 70. This girl's life had predictably turned out much differently than she'd anticipated. Surely, she hadn't imagined that she'd be at some open mic reading from her notebook.
Then there was this line: In twenty years from now, I'll probably wish I was twenty years younger. It seems that adults are always wishing they could be kids and kids are always wishing they could be grown up.
Okay, that's not an exact quote, but it's the general idea. I was kind of stunned by the insight and depth from her twelve year old self and suddenly I felt like a real ass for being so judge-y and snobbish. So what's the lesson here? (Because there always has to be a lesson). The lesson is this: Don't judge a girl who is like what you imagine a character from Girls to be like, even though you've never even seen that show, just because she reads from a marble notebook, because there could be something awesome in there. Something much more awesome than you wrote when you were 12 or 22 or 32. Or ever.
“What?” she asked, glancing over at the T.V.
She was in the kitchen tinkering with something, counting on me to alert her if anything good came on. We’d already rewound to watch the Stephen Colbert ad for Wonderful Pistachios where he cracked his head open, revealing a smaller pistachio colored Colbert face. Hilarious.
In the Coca-Cola commercial, America the Beautiful was sung in various languages while images of people of different ethnicities played across the screen.
“That one is going to get all the racists fired up. I can hear it now.”
The tweets started firing immediately. Some of them began with, “I’m not a racist, but…”
Are people really still using that line, I thought. Still believing it? Apparently, yes. (I feel compelled, as a side note, to set the record straight: if you start a sentence with those words, you are most definitely, without a doubt, going to end the sentence with words that are incredibly and terribly racist. Guaranteed. And beyond saying something racist, in all likelihood, you are going to reveal that you are a racist.)
I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised. In today’s world, racism has been banished from its place of honor at the table, but there's no doubt that it’s still with us in the dining room. Yeah, yeah, I know, we’ve come a long way, sure. We no longer have segregated seating or segregated water fountains (hooray for us). We have a black president (woo-hoo), but let’s not pretend that we live in some sort of fair-minded, colorblind society.
Even sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, our schools remain largely segregated and I have yet to meet one African American male who has not gone through the experience of being pulled over while driving, simply because of the color of his skin. Racism has been written out of many of our laws, but it remains. It might not be at the table, but it still sits underneath like some beloved pet, living off whatever scraps we are willing to throw its way. And there are plenty of scraps.
I grew up surrounded by racist people. On one side of my family I had uncles who uttered the “N” word without a second thought and a set of grandparents who talked about “the coloreds.” The other side was a more educated bunch, many of whom wouldn’t dare utter such phrases, for fear of sounding racist, but many of them probably would’ve considered moving out of the neighborhood if a black family moved in next door.
My parents tempered all of that, teaching me as best they could that people were people, regardless of what color their skin was, but some of the other stuff seeped in. As a child I can remember getting lost in the grocery store. When a woman tried to assist me, I ran from her because she was black. All the stories I’d heard about black people doing “bad things,” had an impact on the way I perceived them. It didn’t help much that I grew up in a town and attended schools that were starkly lacking in diversity.
As I got older, I found myself arguing with my uncles and aunts during holiday dinners until I became too flustered and upset to continue. Eventually, I realized that these arguments were an exercise in futility, so I started to keep my mouth shut. I’d roll my eyes when they started their nonsense. Sometimes, I left the room. I wasn’t going to change their minds, and I was tired of trying. I figured that if they wanted to be ignorant, racist, asses, well they could go right ahead.
As I got even older, I became even more aware of racism, as it existed both in others and in myself. Despite my best efforts, part of what had been spewed around me for my entire childhood found a place to reside inside of me. I didn’t want it, but it was there--an unwanted parasite that had latched on, only showing its menacing presence on rare occasions like when I found myself crossing the street to avoid an approaching black man. Most of the time, however, I was aware enough to tamp it down, to tell it no, to be the one in charge of it rather than the other way around.
Instead of arguing, I'd warn friends and girlfriends before I brought them into a situation where they might encounter my extended family.
“Uh, my aunts and uncles are sort of racist. I’m sure they’ll say something offensive at some point, so, sorry.”
It took the better part of my twenties to realize that those racist asses also had redeeming traits. One of my uncles, for example, adopted his grandson because both parents were drug addicts, incapable of taking care of their son. All these years later, he and his wife are pushing seventy and they have a teenager living under their roof.
When I got married, I inherited a new set of racist relatives. Not many, just a few, but enough to cause my blood pressure to rise. At a recent family gathering, the talk turned to “all the young, black men who walk around the mall during the day.” According to some of the in-laws, the mall was full of them. Before I knew it, questions were being raised about why none of those young black men were at work. Someone offered that they were stealing things from stores and then reselling them. This person had this information on good authority because a coworker had been approached by one of these men, and he had tried to sell the coworker a belt.
As I sat at the kitchen table listening, I felt the way that I always have: angry and helpless. What could I say? What could I do? Arguing with your own family was one thing, but arguing with in-laws was another thing entirely. It could get sticky. Like, restaurant dessert menu sticky. Like, movie theater floor sticky. The kind of sticky that might never get unstuck. The fallout could affect not only my relationship with them, but also my relationship with my wife.
I knew all of this, but I just couldn’t take it.
“Right,” I burst out, my voice swimming with sarcasm, “every young, black man who goes to the mall during the day is definitely up to no good! C’mon!"
I know, there were a million things that I could have said that would’ve been more intelligent, more effective, more anything, but my emotions got the best of me, as they tend to do in these situations. At least, I figured, I’d finally broken my silence.
My wife shot me an “it’s not worth it” look. I looked back. This was dangerous territory, we both knew.
“I’ll stop being a racist when the prisons are no longer full of blacks,” one of them crowed.
I could have pointed out that hmmm, isn’t this odd, the fact that although blacks make up only 12.6 percent of the general population, they make up 40 percent of the inmate population? Or I could have informed him that while whites and blacks use drugs at comparable rates, blacks are far more likely to be arrested for a drug offense. But oh yes, let’s continue on believing that the color of a person’s skin is the cause for these statistics, because clearly, it couldn’t possibly be the fact that our country is racist. Clearly, the logical, rational, reasonable answer is that black skin makes people bad. (FYI: If there were a sarcasm font, I’d use it here).
But I said nothing.
Which brings us back to the Super Bowl ad and the stream of racist tweets that followed. I’m not going to bother quoting them here. They aren’t hard to find. If you want to look them up, you can. I did.
And you know what I thought when I read them all? That it was time for me to stop being quiet. If my uncles and aunts and in-laws and hundreds or thousands of people on Twitter could feel at ease spouting off any and all of their racist sentiments, I couldn’t stop them, but I could speak up.
I’m tired of listening to a bunch of ignorant asses who don’t seem to think that they should feel ashamed of their racism, who seem to be proud of their points of view.
So from now on, I’m going to try my damndest to call it out when I see it. I’m going to try to find my voice, even if only to say, “Your remarks are incredibly racist.” I’m going to do this because, even if I’m unable to change anyone’s mind, I refuse to be a silent partner. I’ve got a stake in this country, this society, this world, and I want it to be a better place.
After being married for a year and a half, Lindsay and I finally went on our honeymoon to Hawaii (Oahu, if you were wondering, which you probably weren't. We wouldn't think of going anywhere other than the North Shore, especially in January when the waves reach epic heights! See below).
While we were on the long flight to our destination I started to ponder the word "honeymoon." Hearing it had always evoked images of people hanging their asses out an open car window (Am I alone here? Anybody? Bueller?). Where, I wondered, did this strange and slightly hilarious word come from?
According to the online etymology dictionary, the word dates back to the 1540's and comes from "honey," in reference to a new marriage's sweetness and "moon," in reference to how long it would probably last, or from the changing aspect of the moon: no sooner full than it begins to wane.
If this was true, then the term no longer applied to Linds and I, as you'll see by the series of mathematical calculations that I am about to spring on you.
If you subtract the date we met from the date we got married:
September 12, 2012 (married)
- October 6, 2007 (met)
You come up with: 4 years, 11 months and 6 days (Time together before we got married)
If you go a step further and subtract the day we got married front the day we left for our honeymoon:
January 11, 2014 (honeymoon)
- September 12, 2012 (married)
You come up with: 1 year, 4 months and 1 day (Time from marriage to honeymoon)
And then, if you add all of those together:
4 years, 11 months and 6 days (Time before we got married)
+1 year, 4 months and 1 day (Time from marriage to honeymoon)
You come up with a grand total of: A really, really long time
On the day we left for our "honeymoon," we'd been together for over six years. By this point, our metaphorical moon had been through many cycles of waxing and waning, and the honey had gone from being an overflowing pot of sugary sweetness to near empty and back numerous times. This was the way that relationships worked, I'd learned. Constant motion.
Maybe, I thought, a more accurate name for our trip would have been a moneymoon. After all, it was expensive and as a result, the size of our bank accounts were waning rather rapidly, but this was far too obvious. It also completely missed the much larger and more important point: we were going on this trip to celebrate our union.
As I pondered other, more accurate names (celebramoon?), something dawned on me. The fact that Lindsay and I still felt like our marriage was something worth celebrating, even after a year, four months and one day, was a pretty great accomplishment, especially in light of the many flash in the pan marriages that happen these days--marriages that last weeks (Drew Barrymore and Jeremy Thomas), days (Dennis Rodman and Carmen Electra) or hours (Britney Spears and whatever that guy's name was).
When I looked at Lindsay, I still knew with everything in me, that I was lucky to have her. I knew this despite the number of times that our metaphorical pot of honey had filled and emptied. Hopefully, I'd still know it in ten, twenty, forty years--when all of my hair had turned grey, when my eyes could no longer read fine print, when my body ached in a way I would've never imagined possible. Perhaps, most importantly, I'd still know it during the inevitable moments when our pot o' honey had been scraped clean and there was only a memory of the sweetness to get me through. Memory, and the belief that it wouldn't be empty forever.
Here's to the rest of our lives, honey.
In the midst of this Polar Vortex, I heard a story on NPR. If you know me, this will come as no surprise. All the radios in my life (car, work and kitchen counter) are tuned to NPR 99.99999 percent of the time. (You can save the nerd jokes, I already know). I even listen to the shows that I don't really like, (Here and Now, which tragically replaced Talk of the Nation comes to mind). The only time I turn the dial is when I get in the car and hear Prairie Home Companion. (I'm sorry, Garrison Keillor)
Anyway, I heard this guy from Minnesota, where it was like four million below zero, saying that it was so cold out that you could take a pot of boiling water outside, throw it into the air and it would turn into snow.
No way, I thought.
He said he'd seen clips of it on YouTube, but he really hadn't believed it until he did it himself. (If you want to try it, it has to be -20 or colder to work, brrrr)
I was in my car when I heard this and it's a wonder I didn't drive right off the road. Could it possibly be true? It made sense, plus NPR was a pretty reputable news source, so I supposed that I believed it in the way that I sometimes believe really unbelievable things.
Water to snow. Instantaneously. Like, wow.
Immediately, I started thinking about the old nature vs. nurture debate. It seemed this this transformation was an excellent metaphor for the nurture side. The idea that something could go from being one thing to being another thing in the course of a split second, solely based on the environment. On external factors. On conditions that existed outside of it.
How often did that happen to us over the course of our lives, I wondered? We might be moving through life as one person and then, bam! Something happens. We get divorced or we hit the lottery or we lose a loved one or we fall in love or we have a child or we get cancer. And it changes us. Totally. Completely.
We are water one minute and the next we are snow, floating around, confused, wondering what the hell happened to us. All because it just so happened that it was really f-ing cold outside.
We are so malleable, so open to influence, I thought, always reacting to the things around us, always being impacted, moved upon.
It also occurred to me that water and snow are the same thing, essentially. Different and the same, like the selves that we become as we move through life and through experiences, some heartbreakingly painful, some overwhelmingly wonderful.
Like I said, it was a wonder I didn't drive right off the road.
Poppy possessed a curiosity that had an element of childish wonder at its root, which made him seem younger than his 68 plus years. When he talked to people, he peppered them with questions, leaning in to hear their answers and then exclaiming, "Is that right?" or more rarely, "Well, go to hell Miss Agnes!"
Around six o'clock every weeknight, Lindsay's mom, Virginia, would pull up to the lot with a piping hot rib roast, stew, or homemade soup with buttered rolls. Like a gentleman, Poppy always made sure that Frankie, Pat, Billy and Tony had a plate before he'd accept a portion from his wife, but he did so with a hint of desperation in his voice, as if he were afraid he'd never get a turn.
"Frankie! Come get a plate," he'd call, while milling protectively around the table, eyeing the steam that rose from the casserole dish. "Billy! C'mon, dinner's here."
The guys dubbed this anxious dance, "the Poppy shuffle."
"Look," they'd say, letting out hearty laughs, "there he goes."
Poppy did have occasional bouts of grouchiness, especially if Thanksgiving fell early in November, which made for a long season of tree sales. After a few weeks, the twelve hour days in the cold wore on him. From time to time he'd grab the wooden fold-up chair, a pair of pliers and announce that he was going to "do some greens," which was a cue for us to leave him alone.
Everybody complied. If anyone asked, where Poppy was, Frankie would motion his head toward the outer edge of the lot, "He's back 'ere, doing greens."
"Ohhhh, greens," they'd say.
But most of the time, the lot was filled with the sound of his spirited laughter, ridiculous humming and boisterous voice. Oftentimes he could be heard talking to a customer, insisting that this year would be the last.
"Yeah," he'd say loud enough for anyone to hear, "I don't think I'm gonna do this next year. I'm getting too old."
But every year, he proved himself a liar. Just this past December, he had customer pull up and spring out of her car.
"I'm here for my free tree," she exclaimed.
"You told me when I came for my fiftieth year, you'd give it to me free."
"Well, I'll be! You go right ahead," he said.
And that's how December seems to disappear every year.
That's why Linds and I don't send Christmas cards or go to many Christmas parties.
In fact, if you want to see me in December, you'll probably have to come to the tree lot.
It's on Stevenson Lane between Charles and Bellona (in Baltimore). We'll be there next year.
(Below is a ridiculous video I made)