One Good Woman

April 28, 2011

My Wife, Angelia Levy, April 2010. Angelia N. Levy

Today is our eleventh wedding anniversary. Tomorrow is a Crush #1 day. The next month covers a series of events that includes my first “date” with my now wife nearly sixteen years ago. Not to mention my last “dates” with the woman who’s the subject of my blog post, “The Power of Another E” (April ’09) from twenty years ago.

And then there’s my Mom, somewhere in the background, distant but still there, reminding me of all that made me, well, me. At least the me that wanted Crush #1, thought too highly of the twenty-two year-old version of “Another E,” and was ready to be involved with my eventual wife. Things have grown so much more complicated since the days when I couldn’t say “Hi” to a woman, much less date or be married to one.

One of my favorite adult contemporary songs about how women can inspire in relationships is Peter Cetera’s “One Good Woman” (1988). It was the first song I’d heard that really summed up the way I’d felt about my first crush back in ’82. And it provided a stark contrast to the way I felt about my second crush/obsession by the time the fall of ’88 rolled around. I bopped to the feelings in that song for much of my sophomore year at Pitt.

But I wasn’t a fool. I knew that there wasn’t anyone in my life at the time, or had been at any time, who could measure up to those lyrics. While Crush #1 definitely “brought out the best in me,” it certainly wasn’t because of her “love and understanding.” The two things I longed for in my life from others I cared for and about was love and understanding. My mother had little of either by the time I was a teenager, even though I know that she did the best she could. It just wasn’t close to good enough. So I put some of my faith in those lyrics, my romantic side in singing those words, eventually with no one in mind.

Even with dating and the ’90s, and even though I played “One Good Woman” less and less, I sought someone in my life who’d fit those lyrics. The problem with a country full of arrogant narcissists — me included — is that most of us present with DSM-IV neuroses (and in some cases, psychoses) long before we reach the stage of love and understanding. For better and certainly for worse, my mother was really the only woman who approximated any sense of the feeling Cetera releases so well in his song. And by approximate, I mean less than one-tenth of the full strength of the music and lyrics of “One Good Woman.”

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sons shouldn’t really think too often of their mother in a romantic light. It certainly would’ve helped to have known how deeply or how superficially I was loved by my mother, but I had nothing in my dating life really to compare it to.

That was, until I met my eventual son’s mother. Angelia was everything in Cetera’s “One Good Woman” lyrics. She wasn’t a dream of it like Crush #1. Or an obsession like Crush #2. Or someone who could be that for a moment like “Another E” or be a trifling ass the next minute like so many women I dated between ’91 and ’96. She was a real woman, good, bad, warts and all.

So when we married eleven years ago, with the Napster era that was, I downloaded Cetera’s “One Good Woman” and made it a permanent part of the collection that would end up on my iPod in ’06. Except that in recent years, my “One Good Woman” image feels more like John Legend’s “Ordinary People,” proving that even women that inspire you to love, cherish and understand are human beings as well.

When I listen to “One Good Woman” these days, I do think of my wife. But I also think of all of the other women who’ve inspired me over the years. Including my mother. Including even some of my more trifling exs. I love my wife, and I hope things in our marriage continue to work even as we work through whatever issues we have from time to time.

Still, I need to remember that romance comes and goes, but marriage only works when people work hard to communicate when they don’t understand, despite their love for each other. If either of us were to quit, it shouldn’t diminish all of the good that I saw and see in that woman, my wife, and the life we’ve had over the past fifteen plus years.

Hail To Pitt

April 27, 2011

University of Pittsburgh Logo, April 27, 2011.

I can be hard on people, places and things, especially the ones I like and love. That’s as true of my undergraduate alma mater as anything else. Twenty years ago this date, I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. I didn’t attend the cattle-call ceremony at the Civic Arena that Sunday in ’91. Almost none of my immediate circle of friends attended, either. My mother and my younger siblings, still in the midst of welfare, weren’t going to be there to see me anyway. The Penguins were on that day, in the middle of a dominant playoff run, with Lemieux scoring at will. And I had other things on my mind that day and weekend. Like, will I be able to go to grad school without taking out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans?

This was a time of major transition for me. Two years removed from the end of the reign of my ex-stepfather at 616, and four years after I graduated from Mount Vernon High School and my obsession

My B.A. degree, University of Pittsburgh, April 27, 2011. Note that this was Wesley Posvar's last graduation signature. The university president would retire the following month amid a $3 million golden parachute scandal.

with Crush #2. I was essentially the same person, and yet there was something inside me that had started clawing its way out over the previous year. It was a drive, a determination, a rage that I’d buried since my first year in Humanities and the summer of abuse that followed in ’82. I was going to graduate school, at least I hoped that I was. Or I was going to have to find a real job, something that made me feel like I had diarrhea.

I knew on my Pitt graduation date that the departments of history at NYU, University of Maryland and Pitt had accepted me into their masters programs. But NYU wanted me to make a signed commitment before they awarded me any financial aid. The University of Maryland conveniently lost my application packet during their graduate fellowship decision process. By the time my packet resurfaced, the department had awarded all of their fellowships, and decided to put me on provisional status. Not based on my grades, mind you, but based on how late they were in going through my application. Pitt had accepted me a couple of weeks before my graduation, but I was sixth on the alternate list for teaching fellowships that would cover my tuition and provide a stipend.

I felt a lot of anxiety about all of this uncertainty regarding my immediate future. It helped to have friends, even with my friends in the middle of their own uncertainty. My friend Marc was working at a Black newspaper, dreaming of law school but uncertain about his prospects. Three other friends, including someone I was sort of dating, were taking their last classes or unsure about grad school or law school. Even my summer job working for a project at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic was shaky. It only paid $5.20 an hour, and I could’ve easily gone back to Mount Vernon and New York making $8 an hour or more doing the same work.

But as uncertain as I felt about things, this much I was certain about. The four years I spent at Pitt were ones that cocooned me in a way that none of my time growing up in Mount Vernon, New York did. I began to heal while I was there, academically, socially, emotionally. I was far from done learning how to connect to people, but I wasn’t the twelve-year-old neophyte keeping only the most rudimentary connections to humans either. My education was a valuable part of that experience. The friendships and other bonds I forms, the lessons I learned about trust, the efforts — however limited — the university made toward creating a campus climate that embraced diversity were all appreciated.

Even at the time, I felt comfortable at Pitt because it was the first place I learned to be comfortable in my own skin. It was a place where my friends, my acquaintances and others around me didn’t look at me like I was a freak because I listened to U2, sang in high-falsetto or walked at Warp Factor 3 to get across campus.

Those are the feelings, those good feelings, that I have about my four years of undergrad and two years of grad school (more on that in May) at the University of Pittsburgh. So, “Hail to Pitt,” and to my Pitt friends and folks from the classes of ’90-’94, Happy Graduation Anniversary Day.

High Falsetto Highs and Lows

April 25, 2011

I know that I’m weird, a freak, and if I were a quarter-century younger, a bit geekish. Well, maybe a geek in a tall man’s body with fourteen percent body fat. Music is one of those things that separates me as weird. Not just because of what I listen to from moment to moment. Smooth jazz to R&B to hip-hop soul to ’80s pop to ’90 White male angst grunge to rap to divas like Mariah Carey and Celine Dion. Few people I know — much less males, much, much less Black males — have any appreciation for eclectic musical tastes. But they’ve had almost no tolerance for my high-falsetto singing voice over the years.

Puberty was the reason I discovered it all. My closest friends and wife don’t believe me when I tell them that I used to be able to hold a tune. That in sixth, seventh and eight grade, I sang with my elementary school and middle school chorus. I was a baritone, and a decent one at that. But the voice changes of puberty cracked my voice and sent it into high falsetto in ’83, ’84 and into ’85, whenever I did try to sing.

So I went with it. Once I reconnected with music outside of school in the ’80s, I sang mostly in that ear-splitting, shaky and unevenly high tone and pitch to everything I liked. And that made me stand out, mostly as the weird guy with the Walkman that my fellow Black males made fun of for not being cool. Did I care? Sure, in an obvious, I-know-I-don’t-fit-in kind of way. But, did I care? For the most part, no. I knew enough to not walk down certain streets in Mount Vernon and certain part of the high school singing in that voice, walking to the beat of my own internal music box.

That voice was my release. As awful as I sounded in it, as imperfect and grating my tone, as much of a strain as I put on my cords, it was one of a handful of ways for me to experience happiness, joy, laughter. Other emotions besides rage, fear and anger. That’s what singing Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” and a-ha’s “Take On Me” well outside my normal vocal range did for me. It gave me a high without the benefit of pot, and a low without the benefit of friends.

Singing in high falsetto still brings a natural high. Except now, I laugh at myself while doing it, and I don’t care about the people who think I’m a freak because I sound like a buffoon. Damn right.

Milky White Skin

April 21, 2011

Bethesda Literary Festival logo, April 21, 2011.

I attended the Bethesda Literary Festival last weekend. It’s been a while since I’ve gone to any conference involving writers, wannabe writers, published authors and other curiously weird types. I usually find these events somewhere between dreadfully boring and undeniably soul-sucking. I wish that I could say that the festival held at various parts of downtown Bethesda were an exception. But what I can say is that the Bethesda Literary Festival provided the best desserts — especially the cupcakes (my guess, from Georgetown Cupcakes) — I’ve had at any literary event.

Bethesda Literary Festival 2011 Logo, April 21, 2011.

The most poignant event at the festival for me was the Essay and Short Story Contest winners for ’11. Grouped into two categories — over 18 and young adults — the winners were announced and had the opportunity to read from their stories and essays. I must admit, some of the stories were compelling. (That word, compelling, a common word lit agents have used as a reason for rejection of Boy @ The Window. I often think that they’re working from an unspoken definition of what compelling really is.) But I also found most of the stories cliché, typical, White both in terms of the actual color as well in racial and cultural terms.

Listening to these aspiring authors, young and talented writers read their work reminded me so much of a line from Finding Forrester, where the character played by Sean Connery says, “Writers write so that readers can read. Let someone else read it.” It’s difficult for any writer to read something they’ve written with the passion and emotion contained within their own words. And with two exceptions — a mother reading for her daughter about a dying aunt, and a seventeen-year-old reading his essay in poetry slam fashion — the Forrester axiom was in full effect.

I kept checking my watch, hoping that I’d hear something that would inspire me or at least pique my interest. The latter did occur, but not in the way in which I would’ve expected. I listened to one forty-

Ridiculousness of Milky Skin, April 21, 2011. Donald Earl Collins

something short-story honorable mention read about a “tongue licking ice cream.” Earlier, there had been a young adult winner, reading phrases like “Same cloudless indigo eyes. Same auburn, frizzy locks. Same childish, pearly pudge of skin…”

It all took me back to novels and other pieces of literature from my high school days. Like Shakespearean plays in which actors described some young English woman as having “milky skin,” as a point of attraction and lust. That kind of writing, the constant shifting and sliding of adjectives and adverbs. It drove me crazy in ’85. Last weekend, it made my eyes glaze over, with both looking like the clear frosting on a glazed donut.

I yawned with the anticipation of more of the same stories that writers and publishers have been selling for as long as I’ve been alive. I knew what was coming. Stories of epiphanies and social consciousness, upper-middle-class-White-Bethesda-and-Potomac-style. Stories of parallel and pain, from climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and grave illness to autism to death and dying. Universal stories that somehow were milky White, told in a style that made the messy truth of it as palatable as a slice of key lime pie.

I don’t write that way. But not because I can’t. I could write page after page in vivid description of Crush #1. I could count each hair on her well-muscled forearms on the way to measuring every mole on her shoulders, every tooth in magnitude of whiteness, every capillary in her eyeballs. I could spend a few pages describing the different smells of flatulence and excrement I grew up with at 616. From the sweetness of a spaghetti and meat sauce fart to the lingering death-knell scent of a bathroom after the flushing of what once was a combination of coffee, beer and fried chicken.

Literary nonfiction, memoir, or other serious writing endeavors, though, are about the balance between the sweet milky whiteness of the literary and the messy realness of me as the writer. In the case of Boy @ The Window, of me as the main character as well. Descriptions of milky or caramel colored skin do reside among its pages. But so do descriptions of conversations, characters, actions and emotions. All as part of telling a story, sharing some truth, beyond the romance of the purely literary.

The Tyranny of Salvation

April 18, 2011

Foot On My Neck & Head, symbolic of my years as a Hebrew-Israelite, April 18, 2011. Donald Earl Collins

Thirty years ago this date, on a sunny Saturday in April ’81, the false prophet known as my stepfather came back into our lives with a new religion, delaying my spiritual growth by at least three years. The day before both Easter and Passover that year, me, my mom and my older brother Darren became Hebrew-Israelites, Black Jews, Afrocentric Jewish Negroes, strange folks among strange folks in our strange land. It was supposed to be my and our salvation, the beginning of glorious times. Instead, it was a hell on Earth like no other, with fists, kicks and empty stomachs to look forward to for the next three years.

An excerpt from Boy @ The Window seems appropriate here:

“Maurice returned to our lives in April ’81 after a six-month separation from my mom (sort of, because unbeknown to us, she was pregnant with my younger brother Yiscoc, a Hebrew variation for Isaac) claiming that he was a different man, a changed man, thanks to an allegedly reincarnated Balkis Makeda and his Hebrew-Israelite conversion.

This was the religion my stepfather converted to after he and Mom had separated. In the period before his return, my stepfather had been working on Mom, attempting to convince her that he was now a good man and could be trusted as the man of our house. He loved Jehovah, had stopped smoking, and had learned how to love himself. And he had changed his name to Judah ben Israel, not legally, mind you. The name literally means “Lion of God and of Israel,” and referred to my stepfather as a royal descendant of Jacob/Israel, the immediate father of the Israelite people. It was in this context that my stepfather gained a sense of himself and control over his world.

I didn’t know what to think at first. After I had watched Maurice load up on lamb shanks and pork chops on the first Saturday in October six months earlier, I hadn’t expected him to come back at all. I already thought of the man as the great pretender after three and a half years of living in the same 1,200 square-foot space together. That, and eating like he was Dom DeLuise at a banquet, were his only true talents. As few and far between my visits with Jimme were after Mom’s divorce became final in ’78, I’d always seen an inebriated Jimme as more of a father than Maurice could be if he really tried.

The Kufi, cute on some, a symbol of a curse for people like me, April 3, 2010.

Still, despite my confusion and skepticism, I worked extremely hard to convince myself that Maurice’s conversion was real. Especially since Mom had decided to welcome him back into all of our lives. I had to. Because becoming a Hebrew-Israelite wasn’t exactly a process in which free will was involved. Our mother told us that this would be our religion “for the rest of our lives.” Then our stepfather came to explain this “way of life” to us, and we put on our white, multi-holed, circular kufis for the first time. I had no idea what Mom and Maurice had pushed us into.

A part of me was on the outside looking in, thinking, “this is crazy.” But we were already the children of one divorce, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see another one so soon. Darren, to his credit, played along as if being a Hebrew-Israelite was just a role in a school play.”

I lost many of my sixth-grade friends when I showed up to school the Tuesday morning after Easter and Passover with a kufi on my head, including my best friend Starling (see April 2009 posting “My Best Friend”

I might not have lost my childhood thirty years ago on this date. But it was the beginning of eight years wandering in the wilderness. It was a bitter, tyrannical wilderness, populated by wolves in sheep’s clothing, Maurice Washington number one among them. I stepped on many landmines in the process of finding myself again.

Still, those years are ones I can’t get back. It’s amazing that I found God at all, given all of the crap we’re told by spiritual leaders about the road to salvation.

Slavery and the Civil War: Not What You Think

April 16, 2011

Schweitzer is mostly right but wrong neverthele­ss. Yes, states’ rights was the immediate cause of the Civil War. But, an individual state’s right to do what? To have slavery. Eleven states didn’t secede from the Union between November 1860 and April 1861 because of tariffs, taxes or Indian removal policy.

Your article presuppose­s that in slavery’s absence, something else would’ve caused the Civil War. That assumption doesn’t help us very much, because it ignores the central issues of slavery and race, and how those issues played a central economic role in building the US prior to 1861. Not to mention the major factor in creating a unifying effect for the nation in the connection­s between freedom and race, at least before the 1850s.

The other issue that’s important here is that many of the themes of the Civil War remain unresolved­. Southern Whites defending a flag and a “way of life” that depended on the subjugatio­n of millions of people during slavery and after the Civil War — you know, the Jim Crow era (1877-1970­-ish). When folks defending the Stars and Bars use the term “way of life,” they never describe it in any detail, as if we know what this means, as if we’re only talking about barbeques and blue-grass bands. The day that Confederat­e apologists get real about slavery and segregatio­n is the day that we can finally stop debating about the causes of the Civil War and the sanctity of the blood-stai­n Confederat­e flag.
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost

Never As Good As The First Time

April 12, 2011

I know. Today marks 150 years since a bunch of rebel rednecks besieged a fort in South Carolina after months of talk of civil war across the South and North, beginning the bloodiest conflict to date in American history. I’ll get to this in the next couple of days. Today, though, marks a more personal and bloody anniversary for me. You see, today’s the twenty-ninth anniversary of experiencing unadulterated child abuse for the first time.

Although much of what I’d gone through prior to April ’82 in terms of my parents’ and stepfather’s use of discipline would be considered abusive now, I wouldn’t have seen it that way when I was twelve. You run away from home, you get an ass-whuppin’. You tell a lie about your brother, you get whupped with a belt. You don’t clean up the kitchen properly, you stand in a corner of your room with the lights off, with one leg up in the air and your two arms balancing books for an hour.

Yeah, that was life at 616 before Maurice, Judah, whatever you want to call the man, became almost psychotic (based on my experience, actually bipolar) after becoming a Hebrew-Israelite in ’81. And, in the process, also making us Black Jews. Poor, misguided, conflicted Hebrew-Israelites we were. But not him.

Suge Knight Mugshot. Face and beard of my ex-stepfather from 30 years ago.

My idiot stepfather’s ego was stoked in this religion.

And it came out in the worst way on this second weekend in April ’82. It was a week after a freakish late winter/early spring storm had dumped 12-18 inches of snow on the New York City area — Mount Vernon included — and kept the schools closed for a few days. In the previous couple of months, Maurice had become a hanger-on at a newly opened Karate studio down the street from 616, next door to the old dry cleaner business on East Lincoln Avenue. He made me come to the studio because he wanted to show me “how to be a man.”

But when I’d see him on my almost daily runs to the grocery store, he mostly hung out with young Turks and wannabe thugs from the Pearsall Drive projects across the street. Maurice smoked up a storm of Benson & Hedges Menthol while talking about women, being a Hebrew-Israelite, and about me as his “book-smart kid,” at least when I happened to walk by.

I knew what that meant. My stepfather was making it known that he thought of me as soft. This would have disastrous consequences for me later on in ’82, as I’d come to be robbed by a guy called “Pookie.” But as far as this part of Mount Vernon was concerned, it was nothing like the poorer, almost exclusively Black South Side. At least where we lived, people didn’t go into parks with baseball bats attempting to put people’s heads in orbit, like with my father Jimme the year before.

Maurice had tried to teach me and my older brother Darren Isshin-ryu Karate two years earlier. Beyond that, he’d been showing us a variety of basic moves since ’77. Despite myself, I did pick up a few moves. Now he decided that I would learn how to fight no matter the consequences. It was all about breaking bones and inflicting maximum pain. When I told Maurice that I didn’t want to learn, he said “You will

D'Angelo Mugshot, circa 2010. A slightly better doppelgänger for idiot Maurice Washington from '82.

learn because I’m your father” as he started to throw hard punches into my midsection.

After I yelled “You’re not my father!,” he drop-kicked me to the floor. Maurice, all six-foot-one and 270 pounds of him, then pulled me up by my arms, slammed me back-first into a mirrored wall, and punched me several times in the head, chest, and stomach until several of the men in the studio surrounded him. My stepfather, completely exasperated and winded, yelled “Don’t you EVER say that again, muthafucka! I’ll kill you next time!” I ran for home with a knot on my forehead that didn’t go down for almost a week.

By the time that knot on my forehand began to shrink, I’d been feeling lonely and betrayed for nearly a year. It’d been exactly fifty-two weeks, a full year, since the asshole had come back into our lives with this earth-shattering religion. Now we were more broke than ever, I had lost my best friends, and in fact, had no one I could call friend. With this latest karate episode, I knew I was cursed, at least, that’s how I felt back then.

I wasn’t a normal kid before the Hebrew-Israelite period in my life. So I didn’t have a natural progression toward adulthood — I was struggling to remain a kid but succeeded at only having adult issues by the time a drop-kick knocked me to the floor of a karate studio. So, because of my virtually photographic memory and those terrible times, I often flip one of Sade’s refrains from “Never As Good As The First Time.” The thorns I remember, the roses, I forget (except for Crush #1). And Maurice second stint as a husband and father “didn’t live up to the dream,” ‘cuz his second time with us was “not quite what it seemed.”


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