Sure I’ve Raised Money, But…


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Man on a hamster wheel gif, like constantly looking for money, July 26, 2015. (

Man on a hamster wheel gif, like constantly looking for money, July 26, 2015. (

Keep in mind that these are just observations, not me axe-grinding or feeling sorry for myself. My biggest observation is that raising money for others without reaping enough benefit for myself shows that even governmental and nonprofit organizations are just as prone to capitalistic exploitation as Walmart and Apple. And that I am not immune, nor have I ever been immune, to the pride and naiveté of production and exploitation.

Many times during my years in the nonprofit world as a manager or consultant, employers have asked me about my ability to raise money. I’ve done a pretty good job of that over the years. Fifteen minutes of work as an educational “closer” at Presidential Classroom led to a $25,000 grant from State Farm’s civic engagement work (a.k.a. service-learning) in 2000. I worked on a $1 million renewal grant from Lumina Foundation for Education for the college access and success initiative for which I served as deputy director during my last four years at the Academy for Educational Development (AED). I also raised $200,000 from Lumina for data collection for the initiative in 2005.

"I come here looking for money (Got to have it)," lyrics from Pet Shop Boys "What Have I Done To Deserve This" (1988), July 27, 2015. (

“I come here looking for money (Got to have it),” lyrics from Pet Shop Boys “What Have I Done To Deserve This” (1988), July 27, 2015. (

I’ve indirectly raised funds from which I didn’t derive a benefit, either because the amount were too small for AED’s vast overhead and other direct costs (read as paying higher-ups salaries for the privilege of raising money on behalf of the now-defunct organization). Or because others used my curriculum vitae and my work for AED to garner grants that I never worked on. My last year at AED we turned down what would’ve been a $100,000 grant from Carnegie Corporation because it would’ve been too small, especially since we needed to collaborate with a sister organization on K-16 access and success work. We turned down potential smaller grants from other private foundations for similar reasons.

And after nine months of work off-and-on, the wife of a Pulitzer Prize winning-columnist for a Washington newspaper received a $250,000 grant from a corporate foundation in New York, based on my work. Because the AED higher-up in charge of the process worked with her as a personal favor — and didn’t put our proposal and implementation work into a contract — her socialite friend and head of a college fund organization received a grant with no strings attached, for AED or for me. I did get paid for my work, as I did it under the AED banner. But the fruits born from that work went outside the organization, to a person almost as duplicitous as the organization for which I once worked.

But in terms of fundraising, or at least, making money for an organization, absolutely nothing in my work history compares to what I did at nineteen. Yes, nineteen! The summer of ’89, I worked for Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health, out of the Mount Vernon, New York clinic, across the bridge from the Mount Vernon East Metro-North stop. After the previous long summer of unemployment followed by five days of homelessness and two more months of living on financial fumes, I was happy, really happy, to have gained steady employment all through ’89.

So happy that I didn’t notice how productive I was being in the office. I had the rather official title of Summer Intern, and had been told by the Director of Community Mental Health Programs in Bob Beane that he was “counting on me.” I came to the Mount Vernon clinic with Beane’s charge to “get their back-billing in order.” Since 1984, the clinic had regularly had its Medicaid and Medicare billing for psychiatric and psychological services rejected by the state-level health folks in Albany, mostly due to coding errors.

Graphic on DSM editions since 1952 (DSM-V is in its "beta-testing" phase), American Psychiatric Association, 2012. (

Graphic on DSM editions since 1952 (DSM-V is in its “beta-testing” phase), American Psychiatric Association, 2012. (

Specifically, the clinic staff were putting incorrect codes from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders — in this case, DSM-III and DSM-III-R (with the III-R standing for version number three, revised edition) — on the state billing forms. There were other errors to be sure. Doctor’s names and patients names were often misspelled. Control numbers were incorrect. The proper signature wasn’t obtained. But well over ninety percent of the errors were DSM-III or DSM-III-R codes that staff had entered into a billing form incorrectly.

This was the summer of ’89, so the form itself was printed on a line printer, and the checking of such forms had to be done manually. It would take two or three weeks to hear from Albany about an incorrect code, a month to receive payment. After five years of coding errors, red tape, and the clinic’s administrative staff badly managed by one Valerie Johnstone, my job was to rectify as many of the old billing errors as I could before the summer came to a close.

In eight weeks’ time, despite all the other menial tasks Johnstone would sometimes have me do, as well as having to share the same billing computer with Beverly (who dealt with current billing, and was probably responsible for the majority of my back-billing work), I got through three cabinets’ worth of billing issues. I left at the end of August, I left for the friendly environs of Pittsburgh and Pitt, vaguely aware of how much money I’d made for the Mount Vernon clinic and for the county.

Screen shot of 100 East 1st Street and South 1st Avenue, where I toiled for Westchester County the summer of 1989 (and 1992), April 2012. (

Screen shot of 100 East 1st Street and South 1st Avenue, where I toiled for Westchester County the summer of 1989 (and 1992), April 2012. (

I found out in September that my work had made them $371,000! I was impressed, but then I quickly became depressed. My salary for Westchester County that summer was $5.90 per hour. Over eight weeks, my net income was $1,610. As an intern, I had no fringe benefits, not even a commuter allowance. In terms of ratios, for every dollar I made between June 26th and August 18th, Westchester County and the Mount Vernon clinic made $230.43!

No wonder the staff at the Mount Vernon clinic looked at me with a combination of bemusement and derision! I had shown them up, unknowingly, and allowed myself to be an exploitable resource. And though I had a guaranteed job for the next three years after that summer with Beane and Westchester County, there was no way I could ever make enough income to make up for that kind of profit-generation. So much for the idea of not-for-profit and government enterprises!


“Between the World and Me,” What I Don’t Get…


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My reading (and writing) for Summer 2015, July 23, 2015. (Donald Earl Collins).

My reading (and writing) for Summer 2015, July 23, 2015. (Donald Earl Collins).

I don’t get most of the critiques of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ bestselling new book, Between the World and Me. It’s as if Coates had written Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve (1994), the way White reviewers allegedly liberal and conservative have reacted to its publication. I have read Between the World and Me, and there are more than a few things that any reader could criticize or even praise. But more than a fair share of the criticisms of Coates’ book are flat-out misreads, impositions of the critics’ own biases on Coates, or based purely on the book’s back cover.

“Go West, Young Man!”

Cornel West began this parade of badly handled critiques last week with his Facebook post. The title — “In Defense of James Baldwin – Why Tony (how West spelled it originally) Morrison (a literary genius) is Wrong about Ta-Nehisi Coates.” — says it all. One impressive blurb from a leading author of the last half-century, and West seems to have lost his mind. Aside from disagreeing with Morrison about the James Baldwin, West wrote, “Coates is a clever wordsmith with journalistic talent who avoids any critique of the Black president in power,” adding that

Coates can grow and mature, but without an analysis of capitalist wealth inequality, gender domination, homophobic degradation, Imperial occupation (all concrete forms of plunder) and collective fightback (not just personal struggle) Coates will remain a mere darling of White and Black Neo-liberals, paralyzed by their Obama worship…

Funny. I didn’t know that Coates’ 152-page letter to his fifteen-year-old son was supposed to be a damning critique of President Barack Obama. Ax-grind much, Dr. West? Especially since, in a structural sense, anyway, Coates’ book indirectly pays homage to West’s groundbreaking 101-page treatise, Race Matters (1994). For West, though, the world is not enough, because in his mind, “it’s all about me.”

Intersectionality vs. Exclusion

There have been a few reviews criticizing Coates’ for not dealing with the intersectionality between race and gender for Black women in the context of facing the same struggles as Black men. Britni Danielle wrote in her review of Between the World and Me in The Root last week, “[b]ut what of the women? In Between the World and Me, black women are footnotes to the men’s stories—baby mamas, lovers, mothers, classmates, around-the-way girls, grieving mothers.”

I don’t entirely disagree with Danielle’s assessment, especially in specific cases, like when Coates discussed his mother, talked about the first two women he fell in love with, and in his understanding of his slain friend Prince Jones’ mother, Dr. Mabel Jones. Then again, how could a late-bloomer like Coates really dig deep enough to discuss intersectionality with any depth for his fifteen-year-old son? My suspicion is that a more serious attempt on Coates’ part would’ve fallen flat.

Narcissistic White Men on “Race Matters”

The most explosive critiques of Between the World and Me — at least for most Americans (read “White Americans” here) — have come from two rather unimpressive high-brow intellectual narcissists. New York Times columnist David Brooks last Friday and National Review editor Rich Lowry on Wednesday (via both took it upon themselves to express personal outrage on the part of millions of other upstanding White Americans.

Brooks titled his column “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White,” though it really should’ve been titled, “Hearing Ta-Nehisi Coates While White.” Because based on what Brooks wrote, with sentences like “It [Coates’ book] is a mind-altering account of the black male experience. Every conscientious American should read it,” it becomes fairly obvious to the astute that Brooks wasn’t listening. As I’ve explained to my soon-to-be-twelve-year-old son and my students over the years, “there’s a difference between hearing and listening. One requires you to be look like you’re listening, the other requires you to think and act on what you read and hear.” I guess Brooks didn’t listen to Morpheus in The Matrix (1999) either. Like so many, he doesn’t want to understand that the American Dream is “the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth”

Brooks read Between the World and Me, and heard, “White people like me are bad, the American Dream is bad — how dare you say that about me, Mr. Coates!” This is even more evident later in the review, as Brooks wrote, “Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person have standing to respond?” Yes, Mr. Brooks, your White privilege matters, but doesn’t give you standing here. 

Lowry based his nullification of Between the World and Me on the very themes that Coates’ spun on their heads in his book — individualism and skin-color-based violations of the Black body. Lowry wrote, “He [Coates] argues — although that might be too generous a word; it’s more like assertion shrouded in a haze of lyricism — that all that other black people did to hurt or threaten him was ultimately the product of white racism.” As if racism is somehow self-contained, an individual choice or decision, and not something that is embedded in America’s institutions, with systematic effects throughout society, to the point of self-hatred and internalized racism. Wake up, Mr. Lowry, and smell what you’re shoveling!

Between Coates and Me

As for my read, I found the book powerful, self-important, compelling, pompous, and at times nihilistic and heart-rendering. Yet I also found some of Coates’ work weak and underdeveloped. Yet for almost none of the reasons that other reviewers have used to excoriate him and Between the World and Me. If Coates’ book is really just a letter from a near middle-aged Black man to his teenager son, I can tell you that at fifteen, my head would’ve been spinning for weeks after reading the letter. And not in a good way. My first reaction would be, “Thanks a lot, Dad! This burden you’ve given me could finish me before I have a serious chance to start!”

This book is far more than a mere letter. It’s part memoir and part treatise on the nature of the poisonous American Dream (one critique I read thought that Coates’ bought into the Dream — someone needs to learn how to comprehend what they read) and American racism. It is also partly journalistic commentary on the lives destroyed by “The Dream” and the structural racism that has supported it for centuries. Coates’ book is not just a nod to Baldwin, Langston Hughes or Malcolm X (whom he identifies in his book). There’s some influence, direct or not, between Martin Luther King, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, even the late Derrick Bell.

And that strength is perhaps Between the World and Me‘s great weakness. As strong as the writing is, and as personal and emotional the journey Coates tries to take us on, it is a journey with far too many destinations. Some of the people on Coates’ journey remain underdeveloped as characters, so to speak, and really serve as foils rather than as other bodies with the same hopes and fears that Coates’ had growing up. The appeal of The Mecca of the Howard University yard and Moorland-Spingarn would be difficult for some to appreciate without more of a sense of Coates’ lack of belonging, as there is so little about his relationship with his parents (especially his mother) and siblings beyond ass-whuppins. The repetitive declarations around the light-skinned kid with the gun, the notion of “twice as good” (which is mentioned several times over thirty pages before Coates provided a definition), and Coates’ cringing at all things Christianity, while understandable, probably do as much to exclude readers as they do to invite.

All in all, the book probably could have been thirty or even fifty pages shorter. But whether too repetitive, too long, too much rhetoric and not enough intersectionality, I still think Coates’ succeeded in his goal. If I’m understanding it correctly, that is. To remind his son (actual and the millions of proverbial sons and sidelined daughters, I guess) that the “Struggle is in your name, Samori–you were named for Samori Touré, who struggled against French colonizers for the right to his own black body” (p. 68). Imparting this wisdom may be perhaps the most important duty any Black parent has toward any of their children.


I Wish I Had Known Sandra Bland


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Sandra Bland, accessed July 16, 2015. (

Sandra Bland, accessed July 16, 2015. (

I truly wish I had known Sandra Bland. I wish I could’ve told her to fly out of Midway to Dallas-Fort Worth. I wish that I could’ve been in the car with her the moment Texas DPS Officer Brian Encinia made her pull over for an illegal lane change, to take the heat for any overt hostility on the officer’s part. I wish that I could’ve acted as a buffer against Encinia’s actions of escalation, to keep Bland from getting her head slammed into the ground. I definitely wish I could’ve been there in Bland’s final hours. To keep her calm, to wipe away her tears, to keep her safe, to give her more ammunition against this sham of justice that has been Texas DPS so far in this case.

But that’s just it. I could also wish I’d been there for Trayvon Martin in February 2012, or Renisha McBride in 2013, or Michael Brown and Tamir Rice in 2014, or seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones in 2010. I could wish that I’d known any number of the thousands of Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans wounded, killed or railroaded by police, White supremacists and vigilantes over the years. It won’t change the fact that these Americans are dead, mostly for the heinous crime of existing.

Sandra Bland deserved no more than a traffic ticket with a fine and maybe a mean look from Encinia. Anything that occurred after that is a result of a corrupt system and White fears and aggression. Period.

I don’t want to hear about “a few bad apples,” policing being a “dangerous job” or whether one’s individual “White guilt” is enough. Law enforcement’s system of racial and socioeconomic bias allows for the so-called bad apples, leading to constant abuse of authority. And while policing is a dangerous job, so is working at a chemical plant, a sewage treatment facility, and teaching in any classroom in the US. As for guilt, it translates only into an individual’s obsession with how everything relates to them, or basically a form a narcissism. It means nothing without a corresponding act, to protest, teach, persuade, strike, or otherwise speak out against what one knows is wrong.

I wish I had known Bland because like so many others handled senselessly and (perhaps) killed irresponsibly, she was smart, beautiful, and (as Whites often say about their not-so-perfect kids) had her whole life ahead of her. This injustice, like so many others, cannot stand. Here’s to hoping that Encinia and others responsible will actually face criminal charges and jail time. But really, here’s to hope, for really, without it, there’s no reason to live in a nation like this wickedly unjust one.


Ode to Tiger Woods


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Gray Tiger Woods "TW" cap 2014, July 17, 2015. (

Gray Nike Tiger Woods “TW” cap 2014, July 17, 2015. (

Okay. So my wife calls me “the last true Tiger Woods fan” in her tweets about me watching Tiger struggle mightily to find his authentic swing and rhythm again, a process that supposedly was over in 2013 (when Tiger won five tournaments). But since the calendar flipped to 2014, Tiger may well be angrily muttering to himself, “Where have you f**ing gone, Eldrick ‘Tiger’ Woods?” All as he spends yet another week looking for balls in bunkers and hazards, hooking and slicing driver and 3-wood like he’s working on differential mathematics for NASA’s next deep space probe.

The loop water near the 1st green at St. Andrews' Old Course, (where Tiger put his second shot of his 1st round), Scotland, UK, July 16, 2015. (

The loop water near the 1st green at St. Andrews’ Old Course, (where Tiger put his second shot of his 1st round), Scotland, UK, July 17, 2015. (

For years I have thoroughly enjoyed watching Tiger’s dominance in a sport dominated by Whites and Whiteness. I have used and sang stock phrases and songs whenever Tiger’s competitors (e.g., Phil Mickelson, Luke Donald, Bubba Watson, Sergio Garcia, ad infinitum) have found the drink, deep grass, impassable fescue, and have gotten the yips with two-and-a-half-foot putts to tie or take the lead at a major. Watching Tiger play like he’s fifteen years older and ready for the Champions Tour right now is like, well, watching any other professional golfer play.

I’m sure Tiger will find his swing and rhythm — eventually. I’m sure, though, that I’ll only see flashes of dominance even when he does. In the meantime, like every other golfer, Tiger gets the silly golfer treatments I’ve been giving to everyone else since 1989. Today’s cut day at The Open Championship, and Tiger’s got me “hangin’ on the cut line” (thanks, Loose Ends, for lending me your song in my thoughts) — “like waitin’ on the bus, I’m waitin’ on you.”

But that’s not all for musical silliness and golf. Here’s some other smash hits Tiger has become well acquainted with in the past five years:

Sade — “You gave me the hook and slice/Hook and slice” (really, “Kiss of Life”)

Pat Benatar — “Par is for Children” (in your case, exactly like “Hell is for Children”)

Billy Idol — “Bogey, bogey, double bogey, triple bogey…” (derivative of “Mony Mony,” but not the 1968 Tommy James and the Shondells’ version)

Grace Jones — “Pull up to the bunker, baby/with driver in between, ooh, ooh” (yeah, I went there)

U2 — “I still haven’t found (a good golf swing)” (self-explanatory)

The Supremes — “Ooh baby, baby, where is my ‘A-game’?” (self-explanatory)

Thompson Twins — “Driver! Driver!/Can’t you see I’m hurting, hurting…”

That’s the extent to which I’m willing to call Tiger “just another guy” (in reference to Isiah Thomas’ ill-conceived comments on Larry Bird in 1987). Because I’m still a fan after all. Seriously. I think that U2’s “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” is most appropriate for breaking out of a slump, and not wallowing in one (I should know — I’ve faced a few slumps of my own). The last six lines are most appropriate:

And if the night runs over
And if the day won’t last
And if your way should falter
Along this stony pass

It’s just a moment
This time will pass



Finding A Memory, Knowing the Whole Truth


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From Cam Jansen Mysteries, a series of children's books about a girl with a photographic memory who would solve mysteries and take pictures in her mind of the clues, August 9, 2012. (

From Cam Jansen Mysteries, a series of children’s books about a girl with a photographic memory who would solve mysteries and take pictures in her mind of the clues, August 9, 2012. (

No one’s memories — even those whom are eidetic or whose memories can be near photographic — are perfect, especially over the long haul. As far as the scientific community knows, there are no exceptions. I include myself in that category. This despite having a memory cycle that has seldom let me down. Since August 8, 1974, there have been only a few gaps of any major significance. I might not be able to tell you exactly what I had for dinner on July 16, ’85, but my guess would include either chicken and dumplings or $5 spaghetti with meat sauce and frozen chopped broccoli, both courtesy of my shopping at C-Town in Pelham, New York almost every day (it was a welcome relief from the heat of sitting home at 616, anyway).

One area where my memory had let me down was parts of the summer of ’76, the bicentennial summer. I could vague remember being down in the city for some of the festivities that July 4th, followed by a long sleep on the free Metro-North ride that day, only to end up in New Haven, CT because my father had been drinking and sleeping on the train, too. I remembered my Mom buying a Polaroid and taking pictures of herself and us and her new furniture at 425 South Sixth at the beginning of the month.

And I remembered that this had occurred a couple of weeks later:

My first memories playing with a group of Black males in Mount Vernon, New York are all negative. When I was six in ’76, a group of preteens on the neighborhood playground near Nathan Hale Elementary on South 6th Avenue tried to force me into sucking one of their dicks, practically sticking it in my face to do so. I got away before being truly scarred for life.

But I knew that I couldn’t remember what occurred beyond that, not only for the rest of that day, but for the next three weeks afterward. It had bothered me for years that I couldn’t remember beyond the flash of images I did write down.

Even in writing Boy @ The Window (which thankfully wasn’t about my earliest years growing up), as much as I drilled down into my past, I couldn’t fully conjure the memory of this incident. And when I did try, I ended up inducing headaches.

It was the year after publishing my memoir that I realized my headaches weren’t just because I needed new pillows for my neck. I had a repressed memory, maybe even more than one. I didn’t try to find a way to un-repress the memory, though. I figured that if I concentrated on other memories from the spring and summer of ’76, it would manifest itself, one way or the other. The key was my Big Wheel, the only toy I truly loved growing up, and my first “girlfriend” in Diana, who moved away at the end of first grade. Those memories helped me conjure up the buried memories I needed to fill in the blanks.

Cecil Parker Elementary School (formerly Nathan Hale ES), Mount Vernon, NY,  November 23, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins).

Cecil Parker Elementary School (formerly Nathan Hale ES), Mount Vernon, NY, November 23, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins).

Over the course of a couple of weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas last year, I either had dreams or wide-awake flashbacks that filled in my blanks. I was in fact sexually assaulted, by a light-skinned thirteen or fourteen-year-old. With the help of two of his friends, he had gotten his penis in my mouth while I was being held down to the ground on the rain-soaked, asphalt, Nathan Hale playground. I only got away because his friends were laughing after I spit his penis out of my mouth, laughing so hard that they were no longer holding me down.

I did a bit of digging into July ’76. I already knew from my memories it had rained on a Tuesday or Wednesday the week after July 4th. Turns out on that Wednesday, July 14, a quarter-inch of rain fell on the New York City area, as there was thundershower activity and high winds that afternoon, with a high of 78°F. That, unfortunately, confirmed everything.

1976 Chevrolet Nova, Seattle, WA area (not the right color, but the right model), July 16, 2015. (

1976 Chevrolet Nova, Seattle, WA area (not the right color, but the right model), July 16, 2015. (

What I remembered next after was probably just as horrific. I didn’t tell my Mom about my incident for weeks, because I was supposed to stay home while she went to work at Mount Vernon Hospital that day. I did tell her, though, about three weeks later, on the first Saturday in August, as she and my father were arguing as usual. And, my Mom being my Mom, she didn’t believe me, leading to my first attempt at taking my own life. I ran out of 425 South Sixth, straight into the street, and waited to be run down by an older Black guy in a Chevy Nova (more on that at a later date).

But maybe what triggered these repressed memories in the first place was the trauma of losing my sister Sarai in July ’10. After all, that’s also the week I learned that one of my younger brothers had been raped by a short Black guy in his early twenties while pursuing his video game addiction via arcades at the age of nine. As traumatic as that revelation was, it was my Mom’s response that was the most chilling. “It serves you right. I told you to stay away from that man,” my Mom said in response.

Maybe it was too much for my Mom to hear on the same week as her only daughter’s death. Then again, from what I’ve come to remember now, finding out about any one of her children being abused was always too much for my Mom to bear. As for me, knowing the whole truth has made sleeping much easier, my dreams more peaceful, and my headaches all about stress and neck tension.


RIP Sister, Sarai Adar Washington (February 9, 1983-July 11, 2010)


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Sarai Washington, circa 2003.

Sarai Washington, circa 2009.

It’s been five years since I received my brother Eri’s call telling me what I had known and dreaded would come for nearly thirty years. That my only sister Sarai had died from complications stemming from sickle-cell anemia.

As soon as I picked up the phone five years ago, I knew. Sarai had been in and out the hospital for months since she had returned to New York at the tail end of ’09. Before then, she had lived either on her own or with two of her high school friends in Huntsville, Alabama since ’05. The skin and bone bruises, the constant blood transfusions, the always-there pain of sickled red blood cells circulating through her body. The average life expectancy for anyone with the disease is thirty-three years. That I had Sarai in my life for 82 percent of that life expectancy was still a minor miracle in the midst of what to me seemed completely unnecessary pain.

We weren’t as close in her later years, though. I mean, Sarai saw me as a bit of a father-figure when she was growing up. I had thirteen years and six weeks on her, so that’s how it goes. Between the 616 fire and homelessness for her and my other younger siblings in ’95, though — not to mention puberty — Sarai no longer treated me as her hero. That was fine by me. I already had too many people in my life who thought of me as some sort of hero or saint.

I think, though, that my sister enjoyed not really having to think about her future, about not feeling the need to grow up, since, what would be the point, really? I thought that because she knew more about her disease than anyone, it was her responsibility to grow up and find the best care possible to manage her disease, to bring some meaning to her life. That’s where our closeness became less so. I have a way of expecting more out of people than most people are willing to expect of themselves.

Sarai & Noah, November 2003. (Donald Earl Collins).

Sarai & Noah, November 2003. (Donald Earl Collins).

When Sarai came to live with me and my wife Angelia in ’03, to help us out with our then newborn son Noah, it was obvious that my sister was doing little to take care of herself. When I finally confronted her about her poor diet and unwillingness to watch over her disease, Sarai yelled, “You’re not my father!,” right in front of Mazza Gallerie, on the DC-Chevy Chase border (we had gone to see The Matrix Revolutions, much more for her than for me). Of course she was right. But of course, I was right also.

Sarai decided the next day to pack up her stuff and move back home to 616 and Mount Vernon, “where no one told her what to do,” she wrote as part of her going away letter. She also said that I “don’t know anything about the streets” as yet another familial “Just because you have a Ph.D…” coup de grace. I thought, “If I didn’t know anything about the streets, you and the rest of the younger siblings would’ve gotten your asses kicked through the early ’90s.”

But I knew Sarai’s letter wasn’t about the streets. It was about her living her life the way she wanted, without me or anyone else telling her how to take care of herself. That’s why she went away to Alabama for nearly four years.

Luckily I did get to talk to her a couple of times after that. Though we weren’t close, I loved her, and I know she loved me. The sad truth was, though, Sarai never had enough time to take charge over her life, and I couldn’t make her take that precious little time.


American Narcissism, or, “Smiling, Crying, and Celebrity”


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South Carolina Representative Jenny Horne (Republican) speaking on floor of House chamber, Columbia, SC, July 8, 2015. ( via C-SPAN3).

South Carolina Representative Jenny Horne (Republican) speaking on floor of House chamber, Columbia, SC, July 8, 2015. ( via C-SPAN3).

There are so many examples of the US as a nation of narcissists that when I step outside of my own narcissism, it literally leaves me with vertigo. I can see narcissism everywhere. In how Americans drive, as if they’re the only car on the road in bumper-to-bumper traffic. I see it in how people walk on sidewalks, as if no one else will ever need space to walk in the opposite direction, or as if everyone wants to walk at a slow, plodding pace. I see it in how we reacted to even minor criticism, as if the comment “this needs revision” equals “you’re a lazy, untalented hack of a writer,” and deserves a response equally personal and nasty.

From U2's "Original Of The Species" (2005) video, from How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (2004) album, July 9, 2015. (

From U2’s “Original Of The Species” (2005) video, from How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (2004) album, July 9, 2015. (

One of the better demonstrations of narcissism American style is through our popular culture. From Frank Sinatra to Rick Ross, Mae West to Nicki Minaj, we have a century’s worth of pop culture divas as examples of narcissism at the level of prominent American individuals. The narcissism is so normal that we have benign terms for it, like “self-promotion” or “self-love.” People, especially in the pop culture world, should promote and love themselves, of course. But at what point is narcissism a self-defeating process of “me as triumphant,” “me as the center of the universe,” “me for everyone to like/love more and more?”

A clear-cut example of art imitating life imitating art for me around narcissism would be a Star Trek: TOS (The Original Series) episode. Season 1, Episode 2, September 15, 1966, was the airing of the “Charlie X” episode on NBC. It was the one in which a seventeen-year-old who had been stranded on an alien planet since the age of three was taken up to the Enterprise by a transport ship. Once on the Enterprise, the teenager displayed both petulance and his toolbox of god-like powers, hurting crew members or making them disappear at a whim. All because they either unknowingly insulted him or made him jealous in some way. As one story line summary for the episode reads, “Captain Kirk must learn the limits to the power of a 17-year-old boy with the psychic ability to create anything and destroy anyone.”

Charlie Evans, played by Robert Walker, Jr., Star Trek TOS, Season 1, Episode 2, September 15, 1966. (

Charlie Evans, played by Robert Walker, Jr., Star Trek TOS, Season 1, Episode 2, September 15, 1966. (

The Charlie Evans character became fixated on a female crew member — consistently called “a girl” in 1966 (that wasn’t acceptable even back then) — in one Yeoman Janice Rand. Charlie’s obsession with having her, his dislike for criticism and being told what to do, his inability to check his emotions, his destructive responses, were all based on his needs from moment to moment. Every potential slight, every action that he couldn’t control led Charlie to do some damning things. With his thoughts, Charlie took away Lt. Uhura’s voice, broke Spock’s legs, blinded another crew member, took away one woman’s face, aged another woman, and made one other woman disappear. When Charlie couldn’t win at chess, he melted the chess pieces. “I can make you all go away! Any time I want to!,” Charlie exclaimed at one point in the episode.

Within a scene or two, just before the episode’s climax, Kirk finally said, “Charlie, there are a million things in this universe you can have and a million things you can’t have. It’s no fun facing that, but that’s the way things are.” This was when Charlie was on the verge of taking over the ship and possibly wiping out the Enterprise‘s crew. But then, the Thasians came (the aliens who’d given Charlie his powers in the first place) with their own starship to take Charlie in as one of their own. “We gave him [Charlie] the power so he could live. He will use it – always. And he will destroy you, or, you will be forced to destroy him,” the face of the Thasians said. Then, the Thasians disappeared Charlie to their starship, with Charlie’s final words, “I wanna stay… stay… stay… stay… sta…” lingering on the Enterprise‘s bridge.

Defaced woman, Star Trek TOS, Season 1, Episode 2, September 15, 1966. (

Defaced woman, Star Trek TOS, Season 1, Episode 2, September 15, 1966. (

If this episode doesn’t serve as a metaphor for America as a nation and Americans as 320 million individuals with varying levels of narcissism, I don’t know what does. America has always declared itself at the center of the world, centuries before it became a world superpower. Any affront — real or perceived — has often led to skirmishes and wars, embargoes and removals. America’s relatively short history includes Indian wars, Barbary pirates, the War of 1812, the American Revolution, Manifest Destiny and the Mexican-American War, the Monroe Doctrine, Banana Republics and Cuba, Manuel Noriega and Panama, Beirut and Grenada. The central theme of American history and foreign policy has been to self-aggrandize, to settle scores, to challenge other countries to duels, to take advantage of those in the most vulnerable places in the US and around the globe.

So too has narcissism been a part of ordinary Americans’ lives. Just watch a rerun of Kitchen Nightmares on BBC America or on FOX. Any criticism delivered by soccer coach-chef Gordon Ramsey is received about the same way as a toddler reacted when their favorite toy goes missing. Taunts, tantrums, threats, gnashing of teeth, juvenile guilt and despair.

And, for a moment, there may even be a haunting realization that your intellect and experiences aren’t at the center of the universe. But just for a moment. After all, there aren’t any Thasians to check and balance America’s narcissism. Still, narcissism has a way of using up people and nations. Maybe in a hundred years, maybe in 500, but some time in the future, historians will write about American narcissism the same way many historians write about the gross inequalities of an over-glorified ancient Rome.


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