To My Ex-Stepfather

July 29, 2008

It’s been a good decade and a half since the last time we had contact. Not that I’ve ever really wanted to. I’ve spent the past twenty-six years of my life undoing most of the damage that you brought to my family, my brother Darren, my younger siblings and me. It’s been a long hard road, and though I know that I’m near the end of my journey in reclaiming myself, past, present and future, I also know I can’t finalize this without speaking my piece and finding it with you in the process.

You see, even though it’s been a good twenty-two and a half years since the last time you put your hands and fists on me in anger, I still bear some of the scars from those episodes of abuse. Some of my dental work, to be sure, is a result of one too many punches to my jaw and a few too many chipped pieces off of my two front upper teeth. A small but thick and dark scar remains on my right hip from the time you literally whipped me when I was twelve. And the constant stress of living in the same apartment with you is likely the single biggest reason for my irritable bowel syndrome.

My psychological scars are even deeper than my physical ones. Even with me forgiving you so long ago for all the horrors that you caused, your face still symbolizes evil in my nightmares. For the first ten years after my mother’s so-called marriage to you ended, I could count on you showing up in my dreams about once every six weeks. It was a brief reminder that no matter how well things might have been going, that I shouldn’t be but so happy, so content, so at peace with myself and my world. Even as a man who’s been married for eight and a half years and has a truly wonderful five-year-old son, I still occasionally have to fight the evil that you represent off in my scariest of dreams.

Yes, I forgave you ages ago, soon after you left 616 for the last time, the summer of ’89. I didn’t forgive you just because the Bible says to do so. I certainly didn’t forgive you because of the rare occasions you might have done something good in our lives. I forgave you because I knew that I couldn’t live my life, that I couldn’t begin trusting others again until I let go of my hatred toward you.

But because of the mind that I’ve been blessed with, I can’t truly forget all that you did. I can’t forget how you allowed me to be mugged by your good-for-nothin’ friends just so that you could “make a man outta me.” I can’t forget how you knocked my mother unconscious in front of me. I can’t forget how I discovered that you were a overeating, womanizing, abusive asshole who used being a Hebrew-Israelite–the most bizarre cult that anyone could possibly join–as an excuse for your misogyny and violence. Despite forgiving you, I still have a part of me that has yet to heal from you snatching my childhood away.

Yet you know what I’ve come to realize? That forgiveness is a choice that I have to make everyday if it’s to mean anything in my life, especially when it comes to you. It’s like being married or being committed to raising your children in the best possible way. It’s a choice that allows me to grow as a person, as a husband and as a father. It’s a choice I simply cannot afford to ignore.

And in the past two decades, as I’ve continued to make the hard choice to stand in forgiveness, I find myself feeling sorry for you. Not so much because of what made you who you were back then. More because you have numerous opportunities to make the right choices in life for yourself, your children, and for my mother, and chose instead to make the wrong ones. There are many things in life that aren’t black and white, but most of your choices were, and yet you still chose evil over good. The single worst choice you made in life was to delude yourself and attempt to delude us by believing that becoming part of a wacky Afrocentric Judaism would make you a better person, a benevolent father, a beneficial husband.

By not getting to the root of your issues, your emptiness, your contempt for yourself, your fear of the world outside of your definition of the so-called streets (as if Mount Vernon was South Central LA), you came to us in the spring of ’81 to start a wave of terror that could only end with me leaving for Pittsburgh and my mother finally standing up to you six and eight years later.

For me, the cruelest irony about those years was that my alcoholic father and my late eccentric AP History teacher Harold Meltzer served as better role models for manhood and human hood than you did as a sober kufi-wearing and Torah-quoting descendant of Abraham. Yet you spent as much time as you could telling us how to be men, even though you didn’t know how to be one yourself. From what my younger siblings have told me over the years, you’re still searching for an identity as if you can go to Madison Avenue and West 47th and buy it as the latest and coolest fashion. Luckily, I did learn quite a bit about what not to do with kids from your example. Maybe that’s a part of the reason why Noah’s thriving as much as he is.

So my plan from here on out is this. Just because I find myself liking something that you may like or might have liked in the past does not mean I should automatically hate it myself. I’ve picked up a new appreciation for martial arts in no small part because of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Just because you used your fourth-degree black belt in Isshin-ryu karate to knock out my mother and put a knot on my forehead doesn’t mean I should shun the idea of spiritual balance and finding peace within myself.

Just as I need to rededicate myself to forgiveness in order to save myself from time to time, I also need to continued to resolve to both be at peace and enjoy life. All without the gnawing sense that something or someone will betray me and take those things away from me. So, for this piece of hard-earned wisdom, if nothing else, I thank you.


The Avatar State

July 22, 2008

For some of you, including my wife, the subject of this posting will either be very bizarre or very annoying (or both as the case may be). Normally I usually talk about something related to Boy At The Window, not the “Boy In The Iceberg,” the original episode of my now favorite animation series of all-time, Avatar: The Last Airbender. Despite all of the strangeness over the ending of the series between Nickelodeon and its creators, it’s final four-part episode, “Sozin’s Comet,” aired Saturday evening. I must admit, I found myself tearing up on several occasions. It wasn’t all it could’ve been, but it was mostly a fitting end to a great series.

I know, I know, based on my background, I guess I should’ve been more upset about the series end of HBO’s The Wire, but I wasn’t. I saw more of myself in the characters of Avatar than in any other series I’ve ever watched. From the goofiness of Sokka to the cosmic spiral concerns of Aang, from the Kim Possible-ness of Suki to the need for redemption of Zuko, and from the utter evilness of Fire Lord Ozai to the complex nature of Iroh, I saw myself and many of my key influences in the characters throughout the show’s three-year run. I saw a bit of my first crush in Suki, Toph and especially Katara. I saw more of my second crush in Azula and Ty Lee. My AP American History teacher was a combination of King Bumi and Iroh. I saw myself in Aang and Zuko and Hakoda, especially in the third season. Surviving the things I survived and succeeding even to the extent that I did made me appreciate the complexities imbued into all of the characters. I even felt sorry for Azula as the series wore on from season two to season three.

As those of you who have read my postings on the end of the Disney series Kim Possible last fall already know, I’m a sucker for epic stories of turning possible annihilation into ultimate victory. Stories that illuminate struggle, redemption and renewal, unrequited love, succeeding against long odds, reluctant leadership coming from unusual people, and a deep sense of commitment to a vision and understanding of one’s self in the process. Avatar has done all that for me and more. It’s enabled me to form a deeper bond with my son Noah, to understand more why I react to certain things (like the love story of Aang and Katara, for instance) the way I have, and to rediscover my interests in Eastern philosophies and views of the world.

Not that the show is completely engulfed in the Dalai Lama or Tai Qi. It also presents women who kick ass and assert themselves — a very attractive quality, I might add. It shows young people who assume adult responsibilities while struggling with every important issue that any human being can face, including their own identity. It also shows a world in turmoil, on the verge of tearing itself apart, all in the name of spreading an ideology, an identity, that others are either forced to accept or get run over by in the process.

For those of us who are Christians, Jesus ultimately plays the role of Avatar. But in the end, it is each of us who has a responsibility of restoring balance to the world, to our world. That hopefully will be the role that the next president will take on. In a sense, the way many folks around the world see presidential hopeful Barack Obama is the way that many characters in Avatar saw Aang — as providing hope for a future worth living at a time when so much is out of balance. While Obama certainly isn’t the “last airbender” or isn’t likely to “glow it up” in the Avatar state, he does need to be the bridge over a number of divides in our world in order to fulfill his promise in restoring balance in our world and in America’s place in it.

Perhaps the only things for me to resolve as a result of my love affair with Avatar is both my immediate future and my distant past. I must resolve to keep striving for Boy At The Window’s publication while not allowing everything I have written about my past to define my present and future. I also must acknowledge my regrets, one of which includes never having given myself the chance to reveal my love and affection to my first crush. I must also take joy out of those things that do work out, including my marriage and with my son. I hope that he finds his Katara one day in a way that I couldn’t until I met his mother. In any case, I can’t wait until he’s older and can appreciate the series even more than he does now.


Better Late Than Never

July 14, 2008

This week my father Jimme turns sixty-eight. That sentence is weird for me. My father Jimme, who I really didn’t get to know as a sober, recovering alcoholic until he was fifty-eight, just as I turned twenty-nine. The fact that he’s still alive and doing really well, all things considered, as he enters his late sixties. That we have any relationship at all is a miracle, and it confirms the old adage that is the title of today’s blog post.

Based on interviews for Boy At The Window, my own recollections and the stories told to me by Jimme and my mother growing up, my father’s alcohol likely started the year he moved to New York City (1962) and ended in ’98. From the Cuban Missile Crisis to Monicagate is but one way to look at it. Why so long? Why in New York City, likely the worst place to become an alcoholic?

My father’s grew up as the youngest of eight or 10 (I forget which at the moment) children in rural central Georgia in the 1940s and 1950s. He learned a lot about hard work and perseverance. Unfortunately, his formal education ended with the seventh or eighth grade, not uncommon in the Jim Crow era of segregation and exclusion. He was smart, which made him weird. He was shy, which made him vulnerable. And, not so coincidentally, his voice and diction made him sound Southern, which made him someone who likely should’ve never moved to the big city.

By the time my mother met Jimme in the late ’60s, my dad worked as a janitor for the Federal Reserve Bank in lower Manhattan making nearly $300 a week. It was good money for many people in ’69, and for a Black man with only a middle-school education, it was the American Dream. A dream so good that it was too good to stay true. He eventually lost that job because of his addiction, as well as numerous others. By the time my mother filed for divorce (’76), he worked as a janitor at Salesian High School in New Rochelle. The divorce process left Jimme wounded in many ways, and sent him deeper into alcoholism than I could’ve imagined at the time. Salesian fired him as well.

In the ’80s, Jimme worked as a janitor, a carpet-cleaning, wood-varnishing technician who for Glen and Bruce, the Levi brothers. Their offices were on West 64th and East 59th, near Jimme’s Manhattan bars. It was a job that he could show up drunk to. It was a job that he’d have for nearly twenty years (only to end when the FBI arrested one of the brothers for attempting to hire a hit man to take out one of their competitors; I’m sure that this is a story that’s stranger than fiction).

Among many things that I remember about my father between ’79 and ’97 was how vulgar his language would become once he sniffed alcohol, much less drank it. In finding him at bars or hanging out near liquor stores or on street corners as a tweener and teenager, he used a number of stock phrases that I could’ve easily made into a comedy routine.

Most of what Jimme talked about was money, drinking, his drinking buddies, and occasionally, women. But after he had his “pep-up,” which is what he called his Miller Beer, he started mouthing off like someone tried to pick a fight with him. “I’m a big shot, mudderfucka. I make fitty-million dollas a week. Look a’ dis po’ass mudderfucka. That mudderfucka cain’t do shit for me.” If anyone dared question his analysis of himself and his situation, Jimme would take it to another level, he’d say, “Muddafucka, you ain’ got shit nobody want. I buy an’ sell muddafuckas around here. I kick yo’ muddafucka ass.” Or “I’m da boss of da bosses. No one tell me what ta do!” The ultimate in Jimme’s mind was to say, “I make fitty-million dollas a week . . . I make eighteen thousin’ dollas an’ hour . . .” and with a wicked laugh, say “My name’s JC—Jesus Christ!” to end his expletive-filled tirade.

Despite this, despite his idiotic attempts to make a “man” out of me by paying for a prostitute to celebrate my seventeenth birthday or repeatedly calling me “faggat” because I had gone another week without getting “my dict wet,” there was a silver lining. Me and my brother Darren saw so much of New York because of being around our father and working for him in the ’80s. Whatever else could be said about Jimme, he did come through for us most of the time when we needed money during our welfare years (’83-’87). Of course, I had to hunt him down every Friday at a watering hole between East 241st in the Bronx and West 23rd in Manhattan for nearly five years to get it.

Thankfully, college, graduate school and working for a living ended this aspect of our relationship. It took another decade of drinking binges and fights and the loss of his one-room apartment and job for Jimme to fully hit rockbottom. Homeless and penniless, his brothers and sisters in Georgia convinced him to finally give up the excitement of New York and the pretense that he was a big shot in the city that never sleeps.

Every time he visits New York these days, my father is always amazed by how he lucked out. Most of his drinking buddies are long dead or are well on the way to a grave. He knows it’s only by the grace of God that he’s still here and still doing well. And he loves to remind me–and himself also– “If I can change, anyone can.” Happy birthday, dad!


The Power of E

July 10, 2008

Ever so often a person comes into my life who has the ability to influence my world view, my view of myself and my way of relating to the world. These people are like comets, in that they hang around for a season and then leave, usually returning once or twice (if I’m lucky) over the course of my life (at least to this point). This week, one person comes to mind. She’s the one person who helped me begin my healing and growth process in the aftermath of my obsession with my second crush. She helped me renew my faith in love and romance, not to mention my faith in myself. All while going through her own hard times at home and with her significant other.

It was the summer of ’87, in between Mount Vernon High School and the University of Pittsburgh, the summer I worked for General Foods at their Tarrytown location. I became friends with another Operation Opportunity intern in the midst of my descent into post-second crush depression. E was going into her senior year at MVHS. She was an inch shorter than my obsession, which was probably the first thing I noticed about her. She was pretty and thought of herself as a pretty nerd. At least she wore slacks and jeans (unlike my second crush, who was always in a skirt). That much about her I appreciated.
E was going through a hard time herself. Her parents were in the middle of a nasty divorce, which included custody arrangements. Since she was seventeen, she could make up her own mind about which parent to live with. Except that she couldn’t. It was between White Plains with her mother and younger brother and Fleetwood with her dad. “And the commute to school would be horrible,” E said more than once about living in White Plains. She’d also just broken up with her White boyfriend. The relationship was decidedly about race, according to E. He apparently digged her because she’s Black, and “his parents never liked me with him,” E said to me once.
When I finally told her about crush #2, my feelings for her and the overhead conversation that made me sound like a retarded eunuch, E got this angry smirk on her face. “You don’t need her . . . she’s triflin’,” E said. It was the first time I ever remember hearing that term. “Triflin’!,” I thought. It hit me that E was absolutely right, that the object of my infatuation was superficial in her outlook and triflin’ in her interactions regarding me. It didn’t ease my pain, but it did make it easier to express my anger.
E and me spent quite a bit of time talking over lunch at work, talking after work and hanging out in White Plains and in Fleetwood. I got to meet her mother and her younger brother, and I met her father once. I learned quite a bit about her eventual Class of ’88, where a fight similar to the one between our Class of ’87 valedictorian and salutatorian was unfolding. This time it was a White male and a Black female battling for the valedictorian prize. E thought that this fight had something to do with race, giving me more insight into what happened between our class’ top two students and how we, their classmates, unconsciously took sides. E wasn’t a fan of either person, but especially the White guy and his best friend. They were all pretentious in their own ways. As for college, E had planned to apply to Wesleyan and a few other small liberal arts colleges and Ivy Leagues. No safety schools for her!
We spent quite a bit of time talking about relationships. And she spent a portion of that schoolin’ me on finding a balance between being nice and being assertive when it came to women. “We like guys who aggressive, but not too aggressive,” she’d say. If E started a sentence with, “You’re a nice guy Donald, but . . . ,” I knew where she was headed. Apparently being nice and smart wasn’t enough. I needed to be confident in and comfortable with myself, relaxed in my own skin. I had to assert myself, to let a woman know how I felt about her. I couldn’t be “too revealing,” though. That would be “scary.” I learned more from E about women in six weeks than I learned from all of my female classmates and my mother in eleven years. Combined. E had picked up my spirits at a time when I needed it the most. I just hoped that I’d done the same for her.
We kept in touch for a couple of years after that summer, mostly through letters, occasionally rendezvous-ing to talk in person. But after a stress-filled postcard from E at Wesleyan in April ’89, I didn’t have any contact with her until April of ’01. She seemed the same but different. Mostly concerned about money and worried about the future in general. Yet she was also someone who hadn’t forgotten me or what I had been like fourteen years earlier.
E was the most important person I met in ’87. At a time when I was no longer interested in finding new friends, she quickly and easily became my friend. Despite all of the ups and downs that would follow that bittersweet summer, I think that I will always remember E for doing what none of my classmates and so-called friends were willing to do — listen to and get to know the real me. To E, many, many, many thanks.

Lost and Found

July 2, 2008

Lately in all of my busyness around my job search, publishing efforts, teaching at Princeton and in general, not to mention my family responsibilities, I tend to naturally look at my decisions and how they may or may not have led to my current situation. One of underemployment, of being halfway through ’08 with no offers from agents, editors or employers (at least full-time ones, anyway), of realizing that the past decade of nonprofit management work has hardly helped me as a writer, professor or administrator. 

Of course, this is a glass half-empty approach to seeing what’s gone awry in my life. Dwelling on the past, while useful in writing a book like Boy At The Window, can also leave a person or a society in constant search of a redemption that they’ve already earned or is freely theirs for the taking. An emotional rut is what obsessing on the “What ifs…” could lead each of us.
So I’ve decided to create a list of the lost and found in my life since leaving my insecure (financially-speaking) position with an international nonprofit off Dupont Circle in DC in February. I’m fairly sure the found on this list will be much longer than the lost
Lost:
1. A job in which I was unhappy four and a half out of five days a week.
2. A career trajectory at an organization that had stagnated, in large part because they had either lied to me about steps for advancement or withheld information regarding promotions.
3. A position of financial insecurity in which I spent about two-thirds of my time in search for additional or new funding or creating products with the intent of raising the organization’s profile and drawing the attention of funders.
4. A job that would’ve either ended sometime this spring or turned into work on five or six unrelated projects and more time devoted to fundraising, the best case scenario.
Found:
1. Some peace knowing that I made the right decision for my life, my family and my career, even if it means some financial pain in the present.
2. How much I missed teaching regularly as a major part of my work.
3. The courage to keep fighting for my writing career, to keep seeking publication for Boy At The Window and other writings.
4. That despite some financial pain, that I’ve pretty much been able to help support myself and my family on the equivalent of what I might’ve made at my previous job without full-time work.
5. My bearings on what I want out of my life and some sense of how to get there.
6. That dwelling on past failings while working on fulfilling present dreams sacrifices both the past and the future.
7. My ability to lose weight while working out and watching my diet, minus my previous job.
8. More time to spend with my son and my students without looking over my shoulder to address work from my previous job.
9. That, if anything, I should’ve done this a long time ago.
10. My blog is a place that people look to every week for my story and for news about my manuscript, and much easier to maintain these days.
11. That sometimes it’s necessary to take a step or two back in order to move multiple steps forward.
12. That Obama is an inspiration for us all, even in the midst of Iraq and a recession.
See, I knew that I could see the glass as much more full than empty. 

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