Aside

Part of My Real-Life Hunger Games

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Consequences of hunger in schools, NOKID Hunger, January 2015. (http://www.youthonassignment.org/).

Consequences of hunger in schools, NOKID Hunger, January 2015. (http://www.youthonassignment.org/).

This time three decades ago I’d started to recover from a week of seemingly endless tests and Regents exams at Mount Vernon High School, which couldn’t have come at a worse time for me. The cupboards and fridge at 616 were as bare as they had been since the days before my Mom had gone on welfare. There was only enough milk for my younger siblings, and besides cornbread and cabbage, we were SOL. That Monday we had our exams in World History and English. Tuesday was the Trig Regents, which I started preparing for at the end of February because our teacher Ms. Viggiano didn’t know the difference between sine, cosine and tangent. All of those went pretty well.

Then we ran out of food Tuesday night. I woke up the next morning with water, milk, ice and freeze-dried meat as my choices for breakfast and 50 cents in my pocket. I chose water and only water for the morning. And Wednesday was the busiest day of all. There were two Regents exams, one that morning in Italian, the other in Chemistry. I went to school feeling like I could overcome my hunger and do decently on the test. After all, I had been taking Italian since seventh grade, and I already knew I had scored an eight out of ten on the oral part of this exam. But deep down, I knew I just didn’t have the energy to get through the exam. I had a headache from the lack of food, which grew worse as I started to forget the difference between Italian in past, present, future and present perfect tense. I finished the exam and found myself just hoping for a 70 (anything below a 65 was an F, and the exam counted for a third of my total grade for the course).

Sara Lee Iced Fudge Nut Brownie (yes, they still make them), 2014. (http://saraleefoodservice.com/).

Sara Lee Iced Fudge Nut Brownie (yes, they still make them), 2014. (http://saraleefoodservice.com/).

I went to lunch and walked over to Chester Heights (Eastchester) to a deli and bought the only thing I could think of to eat: one Sara Lee Brownie. It cost 45 cents, and it was probably the best investment I had made up to this point in my life. I walked back to MVHS, slowly ate the brownie to make it last, and had just enough time to drink some more water before we sat down to take the Chemistry Regents.

When I opened up the exam booklet I started laughing. Our idiot Chemistry teacher Mr. Lewis had told us the month before to “not worry” about organic chemistry as part of the Regents exam even though he had never covered it in class. Listening to him had me averaging a C in his class all year, with my highest exam grade an 87. So I bought a Barron’s Chemistry Regents test prep book the weekend after his pronouncement, and did nothing but study organic chemistry for this exam. It turned out that the first ten questions on the exam were organic chemistry ones, and something like thirty-five out of 100 total covered organic chem. With my brownie digesting, I was ready to kick some butt. I left that afternoon knowing that I did pretty well. But after that shaky morning, I found myself still wondering, did I do well, or was my malnourished mind playing tricks on me?

I found out on Friday, June 21st that I had failed the Italian Regents, with a total score of 45 — I’d only earned a 37 out of 90 on the written party of the exam (I’d taken the oral part with Ms. Maldonado a couple of weeks earlier). On the Chemistry Regents, I had the third highest score in the school — a 95 out of 100. I was bummed, ecstatic, pissed and disillusioned with my teachers and with myself, all at the same time. The goofy-assed Howard Jones tune “Things Can Only Get Better,” a hit at that time, popped into my head from that morning and off and on for the rest of June.

Luckily on the Friday we found out our scores was also the same day we were to meet our AP US History teacher. I’ve already described my late friend and mentor in a previous post. But it’s worth mentioning again how he broke down my protective wall to talk to me about things I’d never discuss with my classmates or my Mom or Jimme. One of those issues was hunger. Not just my constant need for food even when there was food at 616. My hunger, my drive for something better in life. Meltzer noticed it, and gradually got me to exhibit that side of myself in class.

NO KID Hungry campaign logo, Share Our Strength, June 24, 2015. (https://www.nokidhungry.org/).

NO KID Hungry campaign logo, Share Our Strength, June 24, 2015. (https://www.nokidhungry.org/).

For years after AP, Meltzer would say, over and over again, “You know, I never worried about you.” I guess it was because I didn’t take the world around me at face value. I had a healthy disdain for authority figures and the daily bullshit that the world attempted to feed my mind with every day. I wasn’t intimidated by my classmates, and I wasn’t going to allow myself to engage in worrying about grades and pleasing teachers the ways in which they did.

Meltzer picked up on this, and laughed about it all the time. He said that I had that one-of-a-kind look of a student who wasn’t just hungry for good grades, but hungry for knowledge, hungry for something to make sense of a senseless world. I guess that this is all true. Boy, it’s remembering days of hunger past that I miss people like Meltzer the most.

Not Finding My Musical Center

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Glass Tiger, The Thin Red Line (1986) album cover, June 6, 2015. (http://www.amazon.ca).

Glass Tiger, The Thin Red Line (1986) album cover, June 6, 2015. (http://www.amazon.ca).

June ’15’s calendar is exactly the same as the one I lived through in June ’81, June ’87, June ’98, and June ’09 (you can look it up). But June ’87’s the month I graduated from Mount Vernon High School. At seventeen, my Blackness, my authenticity as a young man and as a Black man, my place in the world, all were question marks. Between Black administrators like Estelle Abel and Brenda Smith (not to mention White ones like Richard Capozzola and Carapella), teachers like David Wolf and my guidance counselor Sylvia Fasulo, plus the fifty or so “cool” kids with their ’80s pre-Nu Jack Swing/post-Purple Rain Prince look, I might as well have been an alien from another planet. That’s not even counting my strange and out-of-character incident with Dahlia, the humiliation of the Sam and Laurell Awards Show, the dissonance of dealing with Mom, my idiot stepfather Maurice and my siblings at 616, my father Jimme’s drinking, and the run-ins with not-so-normal Crush #2 in Phyllis.

The day I realized most how differently the world outside of Mount Vernon viewed me from how I viewed myself came the day after graduation at Tower Records on West 66th and Broadway. I’ve told this story before, here and in Boy @ The Window, about how some NYPD officers working security there accosted me and accused me of stealing tapes that I had bought the previous week. What I have left out, though, was my state of mind in the two-week period prior to this incident. As I said in the memoir

I had my latest Walkman, my first Sony Walkman, actually, and my book bag with my recent tape investments, including a few I’d bought at Tower Records the previous Friday. Investments like Fleetwood Mac’s Tango In The Night, Genesis’ Invisible Touch, Whitney Houston’s Whitney and Glass Tiger. Glass Tiger, by the way, was a good indication of my state of mind. Boy was I pathetic!

Here I was, attempting to discover myself through what was then my normal coping strategy of escapism via eclectic music. Given my long periods of deprivation from pop culture between religion, abuse and poverty, I’d really only been at this discovering music thing for a little more than three years. I was basically a preteen in terms of pop culture and musical development outside of choir in elementary and middle school and playing the trombone and fife.

Seriously, I look at this Canadian group Glass Tiger’s ’86 album cover The Thin Red Line now and think, “this stuff isn’t even Michael Bolton worthy!” Songs like “Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone)” and “Someday” were actual Billboard chart-toppers in ’87, though, and because I had no friends in whom I placed trust, I trusted my coping strategies and Casey Kasem.

That, and Columbia Record Club, which I signed up for off and on between ’86 and ’89, with my high point for using their Terra Haute, Indiana mailing operation being the spring and summer of ’87. I could use them to find music I wouldn’t dare buy even at Tower Records or Crazy Eddie’s. I bought new age music by Phillip Glass, took a hand at jazz with Dizzy Gillespie, bought Van Halen’s 1984 and 5150 (California-crazy me), and went for it with Big Daddy Kane, MC Lyte and Salt ‘n Pepa.

Thompson Twins, Here's to Future Days (1985) album cover, June 6, 2015. (http://audiokarma.com).

Thompson Twins, Here’s to Future Days (1985) album cover, June 6, 2015. (http://audiokarma.com).

But for every Simple Minds‘ Once Upon A Time (1985), there was Toto’s The Seventh One (1988), or Thompson Twins’ anything, really. For every song that stuck with me, like Sting’s “Be Still My Beating Heart” (1987) or Anita Baker’s “No One In The World” (1986), there was Whitney Houston’s “Love Is A Contact Sport” (1987) — one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard a voice as awesome as Whitney’s sing — and Howard Jones’ “Things Can Only Get Better” (1985). “Things Can Only Get Better,” by the way, is in my iPod’s random rotation, as I have come around to it again in the past decade.

I was trying to figure out what I liked and didn’t like musically on the fly, having lost a significant amount of time growing up for the triviality of enjoying music. This was hard to do, though, in a world in which my peers and many adults assumed that I knew myself well at the ripe old age of seventeen. No matter what my IQ score was in ’87 (about a 130, for the eugenicists out there), my emotional and psychological development probably put me about five years behind my now former classmates.

So my music tastes varied from genius to God-awful. They still do. The difference is, I recognize I may be the only one who listens to DMX for comic relief, because there’s no way to take him or his rap seriously. Or that I find Tupac and Eminem equally compelling and equally problematic. I still

Taco Bell's Waffle Taco w/ syrup, sausage, eggs and cheese, March 27, 2014. (http://vice.com).

Taco Bell’s Waffle Taco w/ syrup, sausage, eggs and cheese, March 27, 2014. (http://vice.com).

don’t understand the genius of Miles Davis, no matter how many times jazz enthusiasts like my friend Marc try to convince me to keep listening. Still, half of my music comes from the period between May ’87 and October ’97, and the rest crosses boundaries in time, genre, race and language (Deep Forest, anyone?).

I also recognize complete schlock, too. Unfortunately, commercial music these days is about as emotionally and mentally nutritious as a McDonald’s Big Mac and a Taco Bell Gordita combined. I try every few weeks to find out about the latest artists, just in case my son ever becomes interested in music again. Thank goodness, though, there’s no Lil’ Wayne, Rick Ross, or Iggy Izalea in our house! I’ll take my Glass Tiger (not really) any day over that!

Fake History, Historians’ Fakery

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Fake History Channel Twitter account, June 2012. (@NotHistory1).

Fake History Channel Twitter account, June 2012. (@NotHistory1).

For many of you, this will sound like a “been-there, done-that” kind of a post, but I’m posting anyway. It’s fairly evident Discovery Communications and A&E’s collection of history-related channels are meant for an older crowd of mostly White males with a hankering for military history, for big wars and powerful European (and occasionally Asian/Middle Eastern) men in history. H-History, H2 (soon to be Vice Channel), American Heroes Channel, and Military History are basically a collection of old and new-yet-rehashed documentaries on history that middle-aged and elderly White men can keep up with without ever feeling challenged by facts or different views on such facts. Especially when it comes to anything beyond the actual battlefields of World War II.

Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, regular snake-oil salesman on H2, History regarding Ancient Aliens, June 6, 2015. (tumblr.com).

Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, regular snake-oil salesman on H2, History regarding Ancient Aliens, June 6, 2015. (tumblr.com).

I can only criticize the TV networks and their owners but so much, though. The fact is, the only reason I watch these channels is to fall asleep faster, after a long day, getting my hyper eleven-year-old son to bed, and after some prayer or finishing up some work. Because History and H2 now dip their toes into reality TV and dramatic TV series with Pawn Stars, Ancient Aliens, Vikings, and Texas Rising, I can’t use these useless shows to cure insomnia. In the past year, American Heroes Channel’s gotten into the act, with How We Got Here and America’s Most Badass, a regular portrayal of great White men (and occasionally, women) and their self-made, rugged individualism building a modern America with their bare hands and teeth.

The result is that I can’t fall asleep to these channels anymore. But for the past seven months, I’ve discovered a treasure chest of older or fairly recent documentaries on either Netflix or YouTube to watch, or rather, to watch me as I fall asleep. I listen for soothing narrators, like actors Peter Coyote, Avery Brooks, Keith David or Martin Sheen, or at least, British voices like Robert Powell or Kenneth Branagh.

I look for histories that I know all too well, boring enough to fall asleep to, but not so boring that it leaves me thinking about how poorly the producers did in putting together their documentary. So World War II in Colour, World War I in Colour, Barbarians, Barbarians II, Ancients Behaving Badly, Rome: Power and Glory, Engineering An Empire, Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire, The Story of India, Islam: Empire of Faith, and The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance have been my go-to sleeping pills since last Thanksgiving (I also fall asleep to Wild China, Lions in Battle, Aerial America, The Universe, How The Universe Works, Cosmos, the BBC Planet Earth series, and other, less problematic shows and documentaries). Other documentaries, like We Shall Remain (on the plight of Native Americans since 1607) or The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, would cause too much pain, anger or interest, blowing an opportunity for six-and-a-half hours of sleep or more for that night.

Thomas R. Martin, Jeremiah O'Connor Professor in Classics at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA, June 6, 2015. (http://www.historyseries.net).

Thomas R. Martin, Jeremiah O’Connor Professor in Classics at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA, June 6, 2015. (http://www.historyseries.net).

So I tend to tolerate — but definitely do not accept — the ideas that the creators of these documentaries push. Like Rome being “the greatest empire the world has ever known” (the Mongols, the Hellenistic Greeks, the Arabs of the Dar al-Islam days, T’ang Dynasty China, Achaemenid Persia, even the British would all beg to differ) or Archimedes as the “greatest genius of the ancient world” (Imhotep’s probably saying, “Really now?!?”). That’s bullshit, of course, typical White and European navel-gazing. This is exactly why there’s no need for a White History Month or a college major in White Male Studies. As I often have that thought, I usually fall asleep, secure in the fact that this mythology would never make it into any class I teach.

Lately, though, I’ve noticed that some of the so-called academic historians that help move the story along in some of these documentaries. Some, like Thomas S. Burns (Emory University), Thomas R. Martin (College of the Holy Cross), and Robocop (1988) actor/historian Peter Weller (Syracuse University), all tell the story of ancient Rome’s rise and fall, or the medieval spread of smallpox and bubonic plague as if they actually lived through it. The assumptions they make about the people of 1,500 or 2,000 years ago are just staggering. It’s as if Rome and Western Europe had a monopoly on civilization, and that when Rome fell, a black cloud full of lightning bolts descended on the subcontinent like Hell itself, drowning it in invasion and sickness for half a millennium. Except that Spain (especially under the Moors), parts of Italy, southern France and Byzantine Europe weren’t exactly crying for a return to the glory days of 20,000 rich Roman families and 16 million slaves.

Krispy Kreme Hot Dogs at minor-league Wilmington (DE) Blue Rocks (consisting of glazed raspberry jelly donut, with hot dog, bacon and onions in between), April 16, 2015. (http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/18/living/gallery/hybrid-food-mashups/).

Krispy Kreme Hot Dogs at minor-league Wilmington (DE) Blue Rocks (consisting of glazed raspberry jelly donut, with hot dog, bacon and onions in between), April 16, 2015. (http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/18/living/gallery/hybrid-food-mashups/).

Others, like David B. Mallott, associate professor and associate dean at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, have applied modern-day thinking of social science — in his case, psychiatry — to their alleged analysis in these overly scripted documentaries. Describing someone like Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great as “bloodthirsty” isn’t exactly in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, is it, Dr. Mallott? And, given the historical context — a time without the UN Declaration of Human Rights or the Geneva Convention on the treatment of civilians or prisoners of war — would borderline personality disorder or schizophrenia with violent paranoid delusions really apply to Julius Caesar or Napoleon Bonaparte? Ugh!

If you’re going to entertain me, Discovery Communications or A&E, can you please do it without using the pretense of academic expertise as support for your grandiose mythologizing of historical events and the powerful Eurasian men involved? At least when the BBC and PBS do documentaries, they don’t just turn it over to geeks in the fifties and sixties to act out their preteen imaginations of what Rome must’ve been like two millennia ago. How can I continue to fall asleep to your shows and documentaries if you continue to exaggerate and lie and have academically trained hacks-for-historians and social scientists do the same, all in the name of entertainment?

Didn’t We Never Have It All

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Whitney Houston, "Didn't We Almost Have It All" (released August 1987) Single 45rpm, from 2nd Whitney album (not exactly a favorite), June 4, 2015. (combined/cropped by Donald Earl Collins; http://musicstack.com and http://rapgenius.com).

Whitney Houston, “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” (released August 1987) Single 45rpm, from 2nd Whitney album (not exactly a favorite), June 4, 2015. (combined/cropped by Donald Earl Collins; http://musicstack.com and http://rapgenius.com).

I’ve been thinking about this for nearly a year. It started for me last August. Melissa Harris-Perry had a segment on her MSNBC show regarding the multiple hats women of color have worn over the years in taking care of their families, immediate, extended and non-biological. In response to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s July/August 2012 piece in The Atlantic about “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” Harris-Perry and her guests made the point that feminism for women of color has been about far more than having a successful, sexist-free career. That throughout American history, women of color have found themselves wearing multiple hats as primary breadwinners, primary caretakers and primary childrearers, often in ways that traditional feminists don’t discuss or recognize. All without fanfare and with many setback along the way.

What I’ve witnessed and been a part of in my own life reflects much of the conversation that Harris-Perry led on her show. The physical, mental and psychological scars from caring for family, friends and children, while struggling financially and dealing with racism and misogyny often manifests in disease and depression for so many women of color. There’s so much more, though, in terms of how my own mother’s multiple hats and habits led me to so many of my own. All initially to help her, but in the end, helping myself become self-sufficient. Not to mention making myself more understanding of where all the wear, tear and lack of care that wearing so much for so long can lead.

My Mom’s Hats and Habits:

The Anne-Marie Slaughter image of multitasking/wearing multiple hats (just think what this is like for poor, low-income, women of color), February 4, 2015. (ALAMY; http://telegraph.co.uk).

The Anne-Marie Slaughter image of multitasking/wearing multiple hats (just think what this is like for poor, low-income, women of color), February 4, 2015. (ALAMY; http://telegraph.co.uk).

Before I turned thirteen years old, my mother had been far more than my Mom. She’d been a dietary supervisor at Mount Vernon Hospital, just outside New York City, since 1968, the year before I was born. She had been a high school basketball player, a caregiver to her eleven brothers and sisters, and a cotton-picking breadwinner for her family in segregated southwestern Arkansas, an area located in the Red River Valley, part of the larger Mississippi Delta region. She had become our family’s primary breadwinner in the years after she gave birth to my older brother and me. Not to mention a married young woman now living a thirty-minute train ride from Midtown Manhattan, between the Hudson and Hutchinson Rivers, on the border between affluent Westchester County and the Bronx.

Life didn’t treat my Mom too kindly once she married my alcoholic father in 1971. And it actually went from bad to worse as she divorced him for my stepfather in 1978. By then, she had become a cigarette smoker, a one-time adulterer, and an abuse survivor. My Mom did everything she could to shield my older brother and me from her habits and the realities of our tough life in Mount Vernon in the 1970s and early 1980s. But by the end 1982, as I turned thirteen, all the hats my Mom had worn began to fall to the ground. In taking on the role of a strikebreaker, all of our lives would change forever.

In response to concessions made to the union, who left her unprotected, Mount Vernon Hospital cut her from full-time to part-time. My Mom became the besieged one. She was the old woman in the shoe, with six kids — including four under the age of five — and a cheating, abusive, unemployed, sometimes-at-home husband. It was my Mom’s job to take care of us all. Yet no longer was she a breadwinner. My Mom had become one of Reagan’s alleged welfare queens, pulling in $16,600 in AFDC payments per year from April 1983 until I left for college in August 1987. With all of that, I became a hat juggler myself.

Once Her Hats Became My Own:

For a while during my teenage years, my Mom had been my friend, one in which I could usually confide, albeit out of anger and frustration. All while taking on more and more of what had been her duties, including the brunt of her second husband’s rage and fists. I’d become an everyday grocery shopper, a frequent family cook, and a sometimes provider, the last mostly through tracking down my own father for a few extra dollars every Friday or Saturday at one of his favorite bars. Or, by the time I was sixteen, through working part-time. I provided childcare on afternoons, evenings and weekends. I washed clothes with my older brother on Saturdays or Sundays every week without fail from October 1982 on.

Hat stall at a Sunday fair, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, August 31, 2008. (Jorgeroyan via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC BY-SA 3.0.

Hat stall at a Sunday fair, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, August 31, 2008. (Jorgeroyan via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC BY-SA 3.0.

By the end of high school, I realized too who my Mom wasn’t, maybe for the first time. She wasn’t an encourager, a person who pushed her kids to pursue their dreams. With so many “Are you sure…?” questions my last two years of high school, it’s a wonder I applied to any colleges at all. Mom wasn’t a nurturer either, especially after I became a teenager. My Mom had only said “I love you” to me two times between my twelfth and nineteenth birthdays, including at my high school graduation ceremony in June 1987. She also wasn’t easygoing. Any mistake with money or my time would get a “Serves you right…” sermon about never screwing up.

The Toll Caring For Others Can Take:

All of this has made my Mom a conservatively cautious perfectionist, one living with depression and in constant denial about our shared past. I guess that it was all too much for her, like reaching the Jordan River, but not being allowed to cross it. Our shared experiences had also made me cautious and perfectionistic in my dealings with myself and the world, as I had to wear so many of my Mom’s hats and cross so many of those rivers with her. My mother tried to be all things to me and my older brother especially, and failed more than she succeeded in the process. For that and so many other reasons, despite her mistakes, I love her very much.

It’s been more than twenty-seven years since I moved away for the greener pastures of the University of Pittsburgh. Yet it’s only been in the past decade that I’ve learned to stop striving for perfection in all the things I say and do. It ultimately takes a lifetime to unlearn all the bad habits and prejudices and give up on juggling all the ideas and roles that our parents have put on us. My journey with and without my Mom has been no different. Now that my Mom’s in her late sixties, I just hope that the only hat she tries to wear these days is one to keep her head warm on the coldest of days.

MVHS and Memorial Day Weekend Decisions

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Laurence Fishburne yelling "Wake up!" at end of movie School Daze (1988), December 9, 2009. (screenshot via Tumblr.com). Qualifies as fair use due to low resolution and clarity of picture.

Laurence Fishburne yelling “Wake up!” at end of movie School Daze (1988), December 9, 2009. (screenshot via Tumblr.com). Qualifies as fair use due to low resolution of picture.

Thirty years ago this weekend, I made a couple of decisions that I would take with me for the rest of my days of formal schooling, and still keep in mind for myself when I’m in the classroom as a professor. The decisions I made about my teachers came out of a sense of both malaise and desperation. You see, I was near the end of tenth grade in May ’85, and had figured out months earlier that I had hit the mediocre-and-apathetic-teacher-lottery at Mount Vernon High School that year.

That my Humanities teachers were underwhelming shouldn’t have been a surprise, really. Yet it was. I’ve written here and in Boy @ The Window already about two teachers — Zini for history and Lewis for Chemistry — who either “got on my last nerves” or as an “unimaginative instructor” who lived in “a chain-smoking world.” But I also had an Italian teacher who lost his job in April because of the distractions of owning a car dealership, a Trig teacher who could screw up an equation for me faster than I could quip, “Yeah, right!,” and an English teacher in Carol Buckley who spent most our eighth periods together lying on a couch and asking us to water her plants! The best teacher I had that year was my keyboarding instructor, who spent most of the year congratulating the women in the class who came in typing sixty or ninety-five words per minute.

It wasn’t all their fault. I was fifteen as well, more than a bit rebellious, as nearly every adult authority figure in my life had either abused or neglected me in some way. Yeah, maybe I did take my teenage angst, my lack of belonging, and my troubles at 616 with my Mom, my idiot ex-stepfather and my father Jimme out on them from time to time. I’m sure that’s true. It’s also true that I distracted myself with Humanities and school. I used that forty-two weeks out of each year to throw down academically, to work, to grind, to use my Jedi-mind tricks to take music and movies, arts and sports to absorb knowledge like Takeru Kobayashi and ‎Joey Chestnut at a hot dog eating competition. Those teachers, with their lack of nuance, or in some cases, actual lack of knowledge (and in at least one case, lack of teaching acumen), ruined my standard operating mode.

Takeru Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut battle it out at the 2007 Nathan's Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest, Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY, July 4, 2007. (Seth Wenig/AP; http://philly.com).

Takeru Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut battle it out at the 2007 Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest, Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY, July 4, 2007. (Seth Wenig/AP; http://philly.com).

My Memorial Day Weekend ’85 decisions actually began in February. I decided after another week of watching Viggiano mess up another sine, cosine and tangent lecture that I needed to learn how to do Trig properly, which meant on my own. I went to Mount Vernon Public Library, checked out the best Trig textbook I could find, and began working on angles and equations whenever I could squeeze in a spare moment. I bought the Barron’s Trig Regents Exam test preparation book at the end of February, and started working on practice exams in April.

It wasn’t until the week going into Memorial Day Weekend, though, that I had an epiphany about my tenth-grade teachers. Lewis made it so with yet another stream of nonsense.

Lewis went as far as to say, “There’s nothing to worry about” on the subject of organic chemistry. “There will be hardly any organic chemistry on the exam, anyway,” he said. After eight months of listening to his blathering, I thought “That’s it! Whatever he says to do, I’m doing the opposite!” The next time I got money from Jimme, I went out and bought the Barron’s Chemistry Regents exam prep book. It was just before Memorial Day, and I had a month before the exam.

That wasn’t all I decided and did. I really did think that my teachers were incompetent, lazy and arrogant. I simply could no longer trust them, even as I was desperate to trust someone at fifteen. I decided that ultimately, I was my own best teacher and own best barometer of what I needed to learn and why I needed to learn it. I decided that teachers had to earn my trust as a student, that I was no longer going to automatically entrust them with my educational enrichment, no questions asked. I decided that if I really was going to be going to college in a couple of years, that I had to keep my eyes open for individuals I could trust, because by the end of tenth grade, I didn’t trust Humanities as a program and MVHS as a school.

Those decisions turned out to be good ones, even though it also meant few new friends and only a couple of mentors after tenth grade. Luckily there was Meltzer, luckily there was Martino, and luckily, I was only two years from graduating.

Kiss From A Rose – 20 Years On

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Twenty years ago on this date, I re-met the woman who’s now my wife of fifteen years, Angelia on a PAT-Transit bus in Pittsburgh, the old 71B-Highland Park into Oakland. It was an eighty-five degree Saturday afternoon in the ‘Burgh. I decided to treat myself to a movie, Batman Forever (1995), mostly because I knew Val Kilmer was in it. After seeing him act as well as he did in Tombstone, I figured I needed to give it a try. I needed a break, between the euphoria of the Spencer Fellowship and the depression from the fire at 616 that had rendered my family homeless.

So here it was, 3:15 in the afternoon, with me dressed in a blue t-shirt with blue basketball shorts and sneaks. I was standing at the corner of Highland Avenue and Penn Circle South, across from my apartment building, waiting for a bus. The 71B showed up first. I jumped on, sat down on the right-hand side in a front-facing seat. As soon as I sat down, I saw her, sitting right in front of me. It was “Angela with an ‘i’,” Angelia, like that Richard Marx song from ’90.

Seal's second album/CD, Seal (1994): "Kiss From A Rose" re-released as part of Batman Forever (1995) soundtrack in June/July 1995. (http://www.allmusic.com).

Seal’s second album/CD, Seal (1994): “Kiss From A Rose” re-released as part of Batman Forever (1995) soundtrack in June/July 1995. (http://www.allmusic.com).

The thing was, I had a dream that she showed up in the Saturday before this one. I hadn’t seen Angelia in more than two years, hadn’t given her any thought. But it seemed weird that she would just show up a week later in the flesh.

So I said, “Hi Angelia!,” excitedly, wondering what she was doing on the bus. She paused, said “Hi” with the heaviest, stop-bothering-me sigh I’d heard since my high school days. That didn’t deter me. I coaxed out of her the fact that she was pissed off with Carnegie Library because a book she was looking for at the East Liberty branch wasn’t there, even though the catalog said it was. It was a conversation that was one-sided, with Angelia doing most of the complaining.

I listened, and thought, “Yep, same Angelia, same weird Angelia.” But since I was weird also, I kept listening. Finally, she asked me what I was up to. I told her about school, my Spencer Fellowship, my family’s homelessness situation. I kept it brief. I mean, I hadn’t seen her in two years.

By the time we reached Oakland — me to catch one of the 61s to Squirrel Hill to catch the movie, Angelia to walk over to the main branch of Carnegie Library — we exchanged numbers, with Angelia saying, “It was really good talking to you.” I wasn’t so sure about that myself, but at least, she didn’t seem as weird as the woman she was five years earlier.

Screen with Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis from Die Hard With A Vengeance (1995), posted February 28, 2013. (http://chud.com).

Screen with Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis from Die Hard With A Vengeance (1995), posted February 28, 2013. (http://chud.com).

I went to see the movie, but it turned out that it wasn’t out yet. It wasn’t due out for another month! I ended up seeing Die Hard With a Vengeance with Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson. Though much better than Die Hard 2 (1990; one shouldn’t really watch any feature film with John Amos taking up significant screen time, it still sucked, because Willis and Jackson spent half the movie yelling, and Jeremy Irons’ performance didn’t have Alan Rickman’s sense of social irony. I walked home, got together some grub, and through all preconceptions out the window. I gave her a call to tell her about the film mix-up. We ended up talking for more than three hours! It was the first time in a long time I had talked to a woman who wanted to hear what I thought about, well, anything, at least anything outside of sex. It was the start of a beautiful friendship.

A month later, we went to see Batman Forever, and it sucked, just like Angelia said it would. But Seal’s “Kiss From A Rose” didn’t. I bought his CD, though, and not the movie soundtrack!

The Long Road Home

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My stressed-out PhD walk photo, Carnegie Mellon University, May 18, 1997. (Angelia N. Levy).

My stressed-out PhD walk photo, Carnegie Mellon University, May 18, 1997. (Angelia N. Levy).

It’s been eighteen years and nearly a day since I had to shake then Carnegie Mellon Dean Peter Stearns’ hand on stage as part of the PhD portion of the 100th commencement ceremony for graduates, that third sweltering Sunday in May ’97. I’ve talked about the ceremony, my Mom’s jealousy and issues about my degree, Peter Stearns, Joe Trotter, Bruce Anthony Jones, and what happened before and after the degree ceremonies on that fateful day.

But time and enlightenment — especially the latter — has allowed me to take a step back from the events leading to a new wave of disillusionment in my life. If I really think about it, my struggles with where I wanted to go with my career go as far back as ’81, in the months after my first accolades as a writer, to the time when at eleven, I already had an encyclopedic knowledge of history, basic science, and technology. Heck, I already knew some of the historiography around World War II, the Cold War, American slavery and civil rights, long before I ever knew the definition for historiography. Not to mention, I was already living what we now call migration studies, thanks to my Mom and dad.

But my Boy @ The Window years did their damage to me. By the time I turned twenty at the end of the ’80s, I wasn’t fully clear of the array of choices I had for a career or set of careers. I knew I could write, and often write well. Yet I had stopped seeing myself as a writer by the time I went through my summer of abuse in ’82. I knew that I was a historian, because I asked the kinds of questions about history that only trained historians would. Yet I hated the idea that I was supposed to write only one way, using words like synergistic and interstitial (at an esoteric minimum) along the way. I toyed with the idea of going to law school in ’90, even going so far as to take the LSAT, scoring a then-50th percentile 31 on the exam in my one-and-only try.

Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922), The Long Road--Argilla Road, Ipswich, circa 1898, April 28, 2010. (BrooklynMuseumBot via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922), The Long Road–Argilla Road, Ipswich, circa 1898, April 28, 2010. (BrooklynMuseumBot via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I struggled for years with my fundamental question: “Am I an academic historian who’s also a writer? Am I a writer who’s also a historian? Can I be both?” I realized about a decade ago the question was moot. I am both. The real question really has been, will the working world allow me to operate as both without giving me grief and a hard way to go? (By the way, if I ever were to do a second, post-Boy @ The Window memoir, this would be one of that book’s big themes.)

I can safely say as a mildly successful freelance writer that the answer for many in this world of singularities is no. The working world puts up a fight, has and will continue to try to force me and others with multiple talents to choose one path, to do one thing, and one thing only, ideally for all time.

Academicians only think about each other via teaching duties or well-placed articles and books in scholarly journals and scholarly publishing houses. Higher education administrators believe that the only way to understand their work is through the lens of their specific university, as if universities and colleges aren’t similar from a management standpoint. Nonprofit organizations

A male mallard duck, a bird's triple threat (can walk, swim under water and fly), Saint-Eustache, Quebec, Canada, November 19, 2007. (Acarpentier via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

A male mallard duck, a bird’s triple threat (can walk, swim under water and fly), Saint-Eustache, Quebec, Canada, November 19, 2007. (Acarpentier via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

discount teaching and higher education administrator positions because finding money or managing students isn’t exactly the same as managing staff. Foundations who use your salary history instead of your scope of programs developed, people reached, and money raised as a barometer for even granting you an interview. All would prefer that you be quiet about injustices, especially ones in which their institution, organization, or foundation might well be complicit.

For me in the past couple of decades, though, I’ve worked in and with academicians, higher education administrators, nonprofit organizations, and private foundations. I’ve helped raise $3 million over the years, managed as many as twenty-five staff members, organized four-day conferences with a couple hundred attendees, worked with as many as 500 students at any given time, and taught undergraduate and graduate courses. I’ve written scholarly articles, published in scholarly journals, presented at a couple dozen conferences, and consulted for nonprofit organizations and foundations. To think of myself as only one thing is beyond ridiculous given my by-necessity-and-neglect careers so far.

Yesterday, The Chronicle of Higher Education posted the article “Thriving as a Freelance Academic” by Katie Rose Guest Pryal. In it, Pryal interviewed three White women about their experiences freelancing in the academic world. The women interviewed found a singular niche, found steady work through that niche, and otherwise didn’t question the idea of freelancing in a world in which freelancing is a rare career choice.

A square peg hammered into a round hole, May 2014. (http://joshbrahm.com/).

A square peg hammered into a round hole, May 2014. (http://joshbrahm.com/).

All that is fine. Except there was little soul-searching in Pryal’s piece. The women interviewed might as well have decided to go on a global trek or rock climbing, given their lack of ambivalence about academia or deliberate lack of specifics and dryness about the work they actually do. I don’t doubt that one can freelance in academia. I doubt, though, that one can do it without personal relationships with a specific university or alma mater, or with a specific higher education administrator or prominent professor. Why pick on this piece? Because there are far more people like me in and out of academia, who’ve consulted and freelanced and worked and stitched together a career, then there are the people represented in Pryal’s boutique article.

There is a lesson here besides the reality that life is a journey, and to get it right, we need to understand that it can and will be a roller-coaster-ride of a journey. The lesson, for me at least, is that while being true to myself has sometimes had consequences in terms of immediate victories and easy financial gains, it does mean I get to have success, and sometimes, even lasting success.

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