My Inner Music Soundtrack

December 17, 2007

There are so many things I remember because of music that I constantly have music from one genre or another in my head. It’s been this way since I was nine, and likely a couple of years earlier than that. Because my mother hardly ever played any music (with the exceptions of Diana Ross, Al Green and Gladys Knight) and my ex-stepfather only liked ’70s funk, I gravitated toward a little bit of everything, from Marvin Gaye to Billy Joel, from Earth Wind & Fire to Frank Sinatra, and from Al Green to Christopher Cross.

I have remembered what happened to me at a particular moment in my life because of music, remembered how my high school’s food smelled because of music, and remembered quotes from textbooks and research studies for exams and my doctoral thesis because of music. I remember Lionel Richie’s abominable “Hello” (1984) because the interlude reminds me of how my father would stumble around in a drunken stupor while trying to cuss me out — all in the middle of another person’s living room. He stumbled forward, backwards, and sideways and nearly fell on the floor before I caught him.

I was reminded this morning how much I rely on music to shape the memories I have of my life to date. Richard Marx’s “Should’ve Known Better” came up on my iPod this morning on my way to work, and a flood of memories from twenty years ago suddenly flooded my mind’s eye. Of course, everything’s contextual. It was a raw, windy and cold morning here in DC and the rest of the Northeast, with windchills in the teens and temperatures barely above freezing. Maybe all of that was the reason why I immediately remembered that “Should’ve Known Better” had been released as a single about this time twenty years ago. I also remembered how much of a fog I was in at the end of my first semester at Pitt, still reeling from my second crush’s rejection. I was ready to go home, to spend time with my mother and siblings, as if home had been my safe haven before I left for Pittsburgh at the end of August.

I remembered how I put myself in the middle of Marx’s lyrics the first time I heard the song, as if I’d been in the middle of some intoxicating relationship gone sourly south. I knew this was silly, that I never had a relationship with this woman to begin with. But I also realized that I needed to find a way to get over my obsession with my second crush if I ever wanted to go on a date again.

Then I remembered the anger and desperation for sanity that “Should’ve Known Better” communicated to me. By the time the song had reached number three on Billboard’s Top 40, I was using this and other music as motivation to keep anyone from ever hurting me in any way ever again. It’s a stupid thing for an eighteen-year-old to think that he can’t get hurt again, especially if he forms any emotional bonds with another human being at all. Still, it was on the lyrics and music of this song that I found myself beginning the process of overcoming my hurt and myself at the beginning of ’88.

I admit that I sang the song aloud as I walked from the Metro in Dupont Circle to my job five blocks away. I did it with a bit of a smirk on my face, as if I couldn’t believe that after two decades that I still liked some Richard Marx. But I did it anyway.

This isn’t the only “soft,” “eclectic,” “weird,” or “un-Black” music that I still listen to. From U2 to Michael Bolton to Howard Jones and Heart, as much as four out of ten songs I listen to today come from the Benetton ’80s. The difference is now I have a song for every emotion: petulance, anger, teenage (White) male angst, lust, romance, love, fear, hope, laughter, grief, pain, faith, determination, happiness, contentment and peace.

Although I’ve found it difficult over the years to explain to my friends and even my wife why I listen to what I listen to long after my need for listening to it has passed, I think after five years of writing, interviewing and revising Boy At The Window (not to mention years of introspection) that I get it. Most of the music I listened to back in the ’80s was meant to provide relief of some kind from the constant grind of poverty, ridicule and the threat thereof, abuse and rumors of potential abuse, even relief from not trusting or understanding myself. Music served even more than sports did as my escape from a cruel and uncaring world. So what if some of it was silly or full of songs written by coked-up singers and songwriters? It was something that I could claim as my own, something that not even my teachers or my former stepfather could take away.

I was the one who got the “Why you listening’ to that?” question, as if I’d violated some cardinal rule, like “Thou shalt not listen to pop music by Whites, especially British Whites.” I’d sometimes say something smart like “Well, what about Prince’s ‘Raspberry Beret,'” one of the silliest songs I’ve ever heard. Sure, I liked Run D.M.C., Luther, Prince, Whitney Houston, among others, but if I needed to feel myself soar in the mid or late ’80s, it was U2 or Mr. Mister or Anita Baker or even Richard Marx who usually got me there. The other stuff provided comic relief or was good to dance to or good to listen to late at night. I saw myself as an underclass underdog, one that almost no one had given any chance to succeed. My music often reflected those sentiments. It wasn’t until the end of the ’80s that my music became as much about love or fun or forgiveness as it did about survival. By the ’90s my music was also about knowing that I could succeed in any situation no matter the odds and still have fun while pummeling whomever stood in my way.

I guess that there’s still a bit of underdog left in me. Why else would I be a writer, right? So music that gets me jazzed about me being me is what I listen to, leaving me with a thousand songs on my iPod from 1950 to 2007, the majority of which is from ’87 to ’97. My inner music soundtrack reflects the story of my life and is the reason I understand my life so well. All I hope is that my music tastes don’t make my son gag in contempt in ten years. Even if it does, I’ll listen away anyway.

My Sorry Knicks

December 13, 2007

For most people who know me, it would come as a surprise that I’m a sports fan at all. After all, I’ve spent most of my life engaged in the intellectual. My above-the-rim game has mostly been the one that concerns the development of analytical skills, not to mention honing my craft as a writer. In many ways I was a late bloomer, organized sports included. Puberty and my ten-inch gain in height from the middle of seventh grade to the middle of ninth grade and my mother’s genes were what made me naturally interested in sports.

It wasn’t until the end of ’82 that I became fully interested in football, ’83 when I became a baseball fan and ’84 when I started rooting for the lowly New York Rangers. Over the years, I’ve also become an ex-baseball fan (thanks to Al Campanis, Bob Costas, Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, not to mention the ’94 lockout), a golf enthusiast (prior to Tiger Woods, mind you), and even watch futbol from time to time.

But my favorite sport has always been basketball. I never really had a choice. My mother played basketball in high school in segregated rural Arkansas in the mid-60s and helped lead her team to the state semifinals in ’65. My uncles on my mother’s side all played basketball in high school, and one made it to the University of Houston (3 years) and to the NBA’s Houston Rockets (1 year, ’82-’83; they went 14 and 68 that year). One of my first vague memories was watching the Knicks of Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, Willis Reed, Bill Bradley, Dick Barnett, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe and reserves in the ’73 playoffs on their way to the team’s second championship in four years. By the time I was old enough to know what I was watching, the Knicks were in decline, but my mother still occasionally watched (whenever we had a TV to watch them, that is).

When I turned my attention to sports in ’82, I knew more about the Knicks than I did about any other team, so of course I watched. The Micheal Ray Richardson affair of promise, drugs and bitter disappointment were followed by Bernard King’s rise as a scoring machine and his patented turn-around jump shot before he blew out his right knee in a meaningless game in ’85. Those Knicks sucked pretty bad during my teenage years. Hubie Brown was their coach most of those years, and he created controversies of his own, including calling Darrell Walker a “dog” more than one during a practice.

After all of the losing and dumb newspaper quotes, they won the inaugural NBA Draft lottery in ’85, picking my man Patrick Ewing that year. The Knicks still sucked for the next couple of years. But Ewing and the Knicks gave me a small miracle to hold on to on Xmas Day ’85. Trailing by something like 20 or 25 points, Ewing and Trent Tucker and the rest of the Knicks beat the Celtics of Bird, Parrish and McHale at MSG. I lived on that victory as a Knicks fan for nearly two years, during some of the worst times of my life. That victory reminded me that miracles do happen, and that we, I, can make them happen.

The post-Ewing years have not been kind to me. The Knicks have only been to the playoffs once in the past six years, haven’t been a good product to watch on the court, have had good coaches who’ve turned bad (Larry Brown) or bad coaches throughout. They’ve traded away enough draft picks to make Golden State and the L.A. Clippers better teams. The owner has the basketball management smarts of an amoeba. I’m embarrassed for anyone who’s expected to play for Isiah Thomas under these conditions. Maybe we should have Bloomberg or Trump by the team from Nolan — neither of them can do any worse.

Yet I remember those times like Xmas ’85, when the Knicks did the unexpected, the nearly miraculous, and it reminds me that all things pass in time and that all things are possible for all of us who believe they are. I hold on to those moments because they remind me that emotions and the spirit can soar even when everything seems to be going wrong. My Knicks may be sorry now, but as a fan I know that this won’t last forever.

How I Met Your Mother

December 11, 2007

I’m a day late in making this week’s post, and also a day late in celebrating a cheery little anniversary. Yesterday was the 12th anniversary of my first date with my wife of nearly eight years. Happy Anniversary Honey!

I didn’t forget. I just got caught up in the things of life, like doing my current job, looking for another jobs wondering whether an agent will be bold enough to represent me and Boy At The Window. Paying bills, scanning pictures of my son, wondering if I’ve made any mistakes quite as stupid as any Michael Vick has in the past six years. All kept coming up over the course of the day. I did at least say the words “Happy Anniversary” while getting my son ready for school yesterday morning. Even as introspective as I normally am, the cares of our lives and this world can trip us up. So it was yesterday.

But you know, since I now have the time to write about this anniversary, let me tell you all (especially my son) about how I met my wife. It started in the spring of ’90 with a mutual friend named Bryan. I knew him because he was part of my inner circle of friends and acquaintances from my sophomore and junior years at the University of Pittsburgh. My wife knew him because she supervised him and other staff at a market research firm in downtown Pittsburgh.

Bryan decided to throw himself an apartment-warming party that April. He invited us, telling each of us that the other would be there, that the other was attractive or intelligent or quirky. My wife has always assumed that Bryan tried to set us up because we were the two tallest Blacks that he knew. Probably so, seeing that in our circle, I towered over just about everyone by at least seven or eight inches. But I’d like to think that Bryan saw our weirdnesses complementing each other well.

It was just that his timing was off by about five years. I can’t completely speak for my wife, but I’d seen her on campus enough times to know that she was dating a Pitt football player (an automatic strike as far as I was concerned). Plus, my main focus that semester had been to find balance in my life as a student, between my assumed role as an excelling nerd, my 15-hour a week work-study job and hanging out with friends. Still, even with that balance and several all-nighters hangin‘ out in hole-in-the-wall clubs with my circle, I found myself on the verge of a 4.0 semester with a week and a half of the semester to go.

So I had plenty of reasons to be excited about myself by the time I’d had my second margarita of the evening, one that was sweet, strong and too much for my liver to process. It was at this point that Bryan formally introduced me to my future wife, almost a decade before we actually got married. In my wife’s version of this story, I said, “Hi, I’m Donald and I have a 4.0,” which given all of my immediate history of ridicule, scorn and suffering, doesn’t make any sense. I was too impressed by her height and her soft brown skin to have said anything about my grades right off the bat. She was wearing a pink and white blouse with a dark denim skirt that fanned out a bit, not to mention high heels.

I settled in for a conversation about our mutual lives as Pitt students, knowing somehow that I wasn’t interested in dating her. She asked me about how school was going. I’m sure at that point I mentioned the 4.0 thing. I know that she took my excitement about my semester as arrogance, but she did ask the question. I thought that her response and her ‘Burgh-like accent was weird, as well as the fact that she was dating a football player. I guess that we didn’t hit it off.

It all would’ve ended that night after Bryan’s margaritas had given me the runs if I hadn’t taken an interviewer job at my wife’s former company a couple of weeks later. She was my supervisor for a couple of weeks. I guess during that time she’d seen and heard enough from me to realize that I cared about a lot of other things besides grades. We kept in touch as friends by mail that summer, would occasionally bump into each other and go out to eat or see a movie in the year or two after that, and then lost touch for a few years.

When we bumped into each other on the bus in May ’95, we made sure to stay in touch at that point. After a few months of hanging out as friends — and one loony three-month relationship with another woman (small “r” relationship) — she invited me to her company’s Xmas party. The rest, as they say, is history.

Except that relationships and marriages are complicated unions. They take unexpected twists and turns, leave you head over heels or in an emotional hell and involve an enormous investment of your entire being if you care about the union’s success and growth and love your partner. It hasn’t been easy being married. But given how my first two crushes from so long ago ended, I know that I have enjoyed and cherished so much of this ride with my wife over the past dozen years.

About My Brother

December 6, 2007

This Sunday, December 9, my older brother Darren Lynard Gill turns 40 years old. It should be a day of pride, of tears of joy and long-suffering, of wondering about entering the prime decade of his life and my soon joining him there. With our relationship and my older brother’s life as such, there is only the hope that both get better before it’s too late for us.

You see, Darren had both the blessing and the curse of being the first-born son of our mother and our father Jimme Collins (they weren’t married at the time Darren was born) when he was born in ’67. It was a period in which both of our parents were still people full of hopes and dreams. It when my father was nothing more than an occasional social binge drinker and my mother was on the verge of becoming a supervisor of Mount Vernon Hospital’s Dietary Department. Darren became the embodies of their hopes and dreams.

And it should’ve been obvious that at least one of their hopes in Darren came true during his toddler years. All during her first pregnancy, according to my mother, my Uncle Sam, and a number of my mother’s friends at the time, all my mother prayed about was for Darren to be healthy and brilliant. She got what she wished for when Darren turned three. Sometime in 1971, my brother had taught himself how to read. The story goes that Darren was sitting at the dinner table in our second-floor flat at 48 Adams Street while my mother and father and me were milling about. Suddenly, they noticed that Darren had picked up a box of Diamond Crystal Salt and began reading the words on the box. Not just the letter, the actual words “salt” and “diamond” and “crystal”! If he hadn’t been moving his finger from left to right as he was doing this, I don’t think my mother and father would’ve believed what they’d witnessed at all.

This story doesn’t exactly take Darren to the academic decathlon. There was something else Darren inherited from my mother and father besides a high capacity for analytical thinking. He was also extremely shy and didn’t like being around lots of people. For both of them, this shyness needed to be taken care of, as if being shy is some sort of curse. My mother’s solution was placing Darren in Headstart in ’73 and ’74 (delaying his start in public school a full year) so that the shyness issue wouldn’t be one when he started school.

Jimme took this idea one step further and farther. He decided one day that Darren was too much like himself. After seeing an ad for a special school in Upper Westchester County called Clearview, he took us up to Dobbs Ferry (where the school was located at the time) so that Darren could be examined by a group of professionals. After a battery of psychological exams and an IQ test, they determined that my brother was mentally retarded. Darren would begin school in September ’74 at the Clearview School as a day student. Neither of our lives would ever be the same.

But before Darren became an institutionalized version of his shy and wonderfully intelligent self, he gave me the same gift he gave himself. I started kindergarten at Nathan Hale the same fall he started going to Clearview. I already knew and recognized my ABC’s, but couldn’t always make out or sound out words, and didn’t recognize them in sentence form. One afternoon between Christmas and New Years at the end of ’74, we sat down and went through sentence after sentence until I could recognize and read a sentence. He literally changed my life, and I didn’t even know it.

For years after that we remained close. We’d fight like all brothers fight. The main issue besides Clearview was my mother, who treated Darren as if he really was retarded while treating me more favorably because I wasn’t shy like Darren. Between my mother and father’s divorce in ’76-’77, my mother’s second marriage to Maurice, and the kids, poverty, abuse and bizarre religion that would come into our lives on the North Side of Mount Vernon, distance began to grow between us.

The key changes included a temper-tantrum that Darren threw in the middle of a Pelham laundromat in the summer of ’80, when my mother suggested that it was time to move my twelve-year-old brother into a “normal school.” It also included all of the abuse I took from my stepfather two summers later while Darren was off at Clearview’s summer day camp having the time of his life. By the time puberty struck, Darren was jealous of me and I was finding it hard to relate to him and survive 616 East Lincoln at the same time.

Darren would remain a student at Clearview until the year after I finished high school. For fourteen years, the state of New York covered his $33,000-a-year (in 1982 dollars) tuition, as he just slid under the public school accommodations radar for the mildly mentally retarded. I always knew that Darren was retarded, even though he now mimicked the severely retarded students he’d spent day after day with over the years. Through a dispensation granted by the Mount Vernon Board of Education, Darren graduated with the rest of the Mount Vernon High School Class of ’88, even though he had not spent a day in a public school.

From that point on, Darren was jealous of everything I did. I score a 5 on the AP American History exam, and Darren would take the CollegeBoard score sheet and dump it in the garbage. I get into the University of Pittsburgh, and Darren would enroll in college at home for a semester just to prove that he was just as good as me. If I said I was dating someone, Darren would stop talking to me altogether. Even during our Thanksgiving visit to Mount Vernon last year, Darren became angry with me because I offered and gave him a ride home in my family car, even though he wanted to walk in the pouring, freezing rain. I’ve never been able to have a normal conversation with him for fear of pissing him off or making him feel bad or him letting me know how much better my life has been compared to his.

The truth is, I do feel guilty sometimes about where Darren is in his life. For nearly twenty years, Darren has lived in a one-room flat, where he shares a bathroom and a kitchen in South Side Mount Vernon. His jobs have never paid more than $10 an hour. He’s often too afraid to say “Hi” to a woman he’s attracted to. He’s never learned how to drive and hasn’t taken a college-level course since the end of ’88. I’ve tried many, many times to reach out to him, to give him comfort and out of my hard earned wisdom and knowledge. I went through with my family intervention in ’02 in part because I wanted Darren to see what went wrong for our mother and Jimme as far as his education was concerned. Darren rejects almost all that I have to say and give him out of hand, with a smile of meanness that is praying hard for my failure in this life.

My wife says sometimes that she’s surprised that Darren hasn’t tried to kill himself yet. I’m not, if only because someone with Darren’s level of misery wants to see other people suffer with him, in this life, not in the next. That’s why he regularly visits our mother on Sundays for dinner, to remind her of one of the biggest mistakes she’s ever made. It’s why he regularly calls our father for money, to remind him of the idiotic decisions he has made on Darren’s behalf. It’s why Darren wears a permanent smirk on his face, to conceal his contempt for us all.

But I do want to remind him and anyone who knows either of us one thing. I wouldn’t be the intellectual I am today if Darren hadn’t taken the time to teach me how to read. He stepped in the breach to save me from years of catch-up in public school at a time when no one else in my life was willing or able to. Darren is a better person than me, because without him I wouldn’t be able to do what I do today. Happy Birthday Darren! I love you very much.

Giving and Receiving

December 3, 2007

One of the lingering effects of living a complicated life of abuse, poverty, concealment and imagination is that I generally don’t expect people to give me anything, including opportunities. Although I’m much, much better at accepting gifts, compliments, affection and opportunities than I used to be, I’m still not at a place where it all comes with the ease of someone who’s lived a charmed life, who has no expectations other than a life of giving to and receiving from others.

For almost all of us, our willingness to give and receive is set by our families, our parents and their ability to share themselves and their emotions with us, and not just presents and other gifts of things. In my case, we were all failures in this. It was difficult enough in ’78, ’79 and ’80. The last year of the ’70s was also the last time we (meaning me, my older brother Darren, and my newborn brother Maurice) would celebrate Christmas at all. Our gifts were meager–winter gloves, a pair of corduroys and some socks — but at least we had something that we desperately needed. We had an artificial tabletop Christmas tree that my mother had dutifully decorated. She promised, “It’ll be better next year.” Xmas ’79 was one of the last times I remember my mother saying “I love you” to each of us.

Well, it didn’t get any better the next year. The only good news was that we had plenty of food to eat, between my mother picking up the supplies for our Xmas dinner from a food pantry and her temporary separation from my stepfather. This food-filled holiday would prove to be the last one we’d acknowledge as Christmas until I was a high school senior.

With the return of my stepfather in ’81 came the Hebrew-Israelite era and four years without Xmas. No trees — artificial or otherwise — no Jesus, no Santa for my younger siblings to remember. All of this would’ve been more bearable if we had celebrated Hanukkah — the holiday that was allegedly one that the Lost Tribes could adopt. But because we didn’t have food in our humble abode the last three to ten days of any given month during those years, Hanukkah was not an eight-day festival of lights, giving or thanksgiving. It was an acknowledged but uncelebrated holiday. Neither my mother nor my stepfather put more than three candles in our menorah during Hanukkah. From ’81 to ’84, our new religion never yielded an opportunity to celebrate any giving or any miracles of oil or light.

By the time I had given up on my stepfather and the Hebrew-Israelites in ’84, I’d gotten used to not thinking about anyone giving me anything to hang on to at all. Even my conversion to Christianity didn’t make me someone receptive to receiving anything positive from folks in my life. I think that all of this set me up for the small miracle of December ’85, twenty-two years ago this date. It was the day that my second crush began, the one that would leave me depressed and disillusioned two years later. It was the day that my soon-to-be-obsession with a tall and popular girl from Mount Vernon High School would smile at me with more joy and affection than I’d seen from anyone in years (at least that’s how I interpreted it at the time). It was a smile that would leave me head over heels — like the Tears for Fears song by the same name that was popular at the time — giddy and nervous and constantly questioning my unconsciously emotionless and rational self for the next twenty-two months.

Her smile was a gift that I needed, received and purposefully squandered for the next couple of years because it’d been so long since I knew what to do with any gift. Since I no longer had a point of reference, a simple smile of attraction became a splinter in my mind, something that took the tweezers of maturity to pull out.

Still, even with that surgery, my adult years have been an evolutionary process in terms of giving and receiving. Because of how I grew up, it was always much easier to give to people in my life than to receive, to the point that I didn’t want folks to give me much of anything. I always saw it as a process that would have string attached. Yet, as my wife can attest, I sometimes complained when folks wouldn’t even think to give me a card or a telephone call or send an email of thanks or give without prompting. It’s been this kind of inconsistent behavior on my part that has left others scratching their heads over the years.

These days (say the last decade or so), I’m a recovering selfish giver. Every once in a while I fall off the wagon, only to find my way to repentance and staying on the path of giving and receiving, out of need or want or because it’s just plain fun to help others and for others to be there for me. It’s been a long and hard road just to reach this point. The even better news, though, is that I’ve been celebrating Xmas for the past fourteen years, making it easier for my son to see what giving and receiving is all about.


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