Technocrats, Journalists, and Statistical Orgies

January 25, 2015

Front page of The Washington Post, January 25, 2015. (http://newseum.org).

Front page of The Washington Post, January 25, 2015. (http://newseum.org).

There are times when I wonder if exposing racial and socioeconomic disparities is really an eye-opening and life-changing exercise. Or, does the exposure merely serve to confirm the racial and socioeconomic stereotypes that Americans hold against each other? In today’s Washington Post, on the front page and above the fold, there’s an article titled “A Shattered Foundation,” with the smaller type “African Americans who bought homes in Prince George’s [County] have watched their wealth vanish.”

Above the title and subtitle are a series of charts and statistics noting the national chasm of a gap in total wealth accumulation between Black families ($95,300) and White families ($678,800). The theme here is that since the housing bust and subsequent Great Recession, the burgeoning Black middle class of PG County has fallen on desperate times, as home equity — their main means for accumulating wealth — for tens of thousands of these families caved in on them.

Michael A. Fletcher’s article is pretty even-handed. But this is kind of tangential to my larger point. In any given three-month period of my life, for nearly as long as the forty years and two months I’ve known how to read in full sentences, I could’ve scanned at least one article or book about the cruelties of structural racism and capitalism. Even if I’d never grown up in poverty or experienced racial discrimination, there have been enough articles, op-eds, books, book chapters, poems, short stories, plays, letters to the editor and scripts written about disparities to cover the US a mile deep in paper. The fact is, no statistics on growing wealth gaps and persistent racial gaps in wealth and education have led to lasting changes in policies, politics or institutional structures substantial enough to end poverty or ameliorate the most vicious forms of racism in this country.

Hand reaches out from big heap of crumpled papers, January 25, 2015. (http://galleryhip.com).

Hand reaches out from big heap of crumpled papers, January 25, 2015. (http://galleryhip.com).

Then again, there are some folks whose business depends on mantras like the “growing wealth gap” or “closing the achievement gap…as the civil rights issue of our time.” Technocrats in corporate education reform, social scientists in the world of conservative and “libertarian” think-tanks, neoliberals and so-called American liberals in search of compromises to strengthen the American middle class. They all turn to these statistics to tell their stories, to sell their experiments and their research, to promote their politics. It’s as if the statistics on racial and socioeconomic gaps in wealth and education provided a high, like crystal meth or a speedball. In some ways, for these groups, a five-story brothel in which they practiced S&M would be more appropriate for their use of misery statistics.

I am hardly suggesting The Washington Post‘s Fletcher or I or any other journalist, academician or writer should cease making their points with statistics about racial and socioeconomic disparities. But America’s poor and poor people of color or falling-through-the-cracks middle class are far more than “statistics on a government chart” (to quote The Police’s “Invisible Sun“). These are real people with families and lives, people who represent generations of lives in which this construct of racial capitalism has limited their choices and their opportunities, whether they believe in fate or not. So-called objectivity has never been sufficient, and neither have been statistics. What we need is a revolution in thought and in action, quiet or otherwise.


Where’s the Historical Documentary on W. E. B. Du Bois?

January 18, 2015

Or, "Sal, how come you ain't got no brothers up on the wall here?," Giancarlo Esposito as Buggin' Out from Do The Right Thing (1989). (http://www.theroot.com/).

Or, “Sal, how come you ain’t got no
brothers up on the wall here?,” Giancarlo Esposito as Buggin’ Out from Do The Right Thing (1989). (http://www.theroot.com/).

Or for that matter, where’s the documentary on Alain Locke, Anna Julia Cooper, John Hope Franklin, Horace Mann Bond, Richard Wright, Mary Church Terrell, and so many other Black intellectuals, writers and educators? If your answer is, “check out California Newsreel,” or PBS for a documentary on the Harlem Renaissance, then you obviously don’t watch TV for knowledge. Yes, California Newsreel and other independents have made documentaries on many of these important figures in American and African American history. But other than a handful of PBS documentaries done under the American Masters series, a few here and there on Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Robeson, Jack Johnson, and Marcus Garvey, and a 1993 documentary on the Harlem Renaissance, there isn’t much in the land of historical documentaries if you’re outside academia.

Still, I began with Du Bois for a reason. Given his influence on African American studies, American studies, American history, African American history, sociology, psychology, higher education, poetry, the Harlem Renaissance, the New Negro Movement, Whiteness studies, Transatlantic studies, civil rights activism, and the NAACP, it would seem a documentary for a broad audience is a bit overdue. He died in 1963 at the age of ninety-five, and February 23 marks 147 years since his original year of birth (1868). Most of us, though, can’t even pronounce his name correctly, assume that he’s French (read “White” here) or stereotype him as an egghead when we find out that his PhD in history’s from Harvard.

Wernher von Braun (1912-1977), a "reformed" Nazi, American citizen, and father of US space program (or WWIII, TBD). (http://biography.com).

Wernher von Braun (1912-1977), a “reformed” Nazi, American citizen, and father of US space program (or WWIII, TBD). (http://biography.com).

Yet, year in and year out, TV season after TV season, films and documentaries are made about White moguls and intellectuals, as if the only people with brains have been White males. Just in the past year alone, there have been at least three miniseries/documentaries on the great White male in history: Ancient Impossible: Ancient Einsteins, How We Got Here, and The Men Who Built America. Apparently the only smart ancients were Greeks who just happened to live in Egypt and master-race true believers like Henry Ford and Wernher von Braun built our modern world with their bare hands. Even ordinary White males ought to be insulted, no? Especially since Andrew Carnegie and J.D. Rockefeller apparently built the country without their forefathers’ muscle, sweat and blood.

But that’s just it, according to Du Bois (via Black Reconstruction, 1935). Even though many of these documentaries all but wipe ordinary people out of existence, ordinary Whites can glean a psychological wage from Whiteness just from seeing someone who looks like them represented in pixels, especially White males. Even if they can in no way become that person. That level of analysis alone would make Du Bois worthy of a well-financed documentary. That is, of course, if he were White and if we pronounced his name as ” Doo-Bwah.”

Why I am bringing this up on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday holiday? Isn’t Black History Month and Du Bois’ birthday next month? Precisely because we need to reflect on what we want to see on screen and in other places in our lives. Every day, every month, every time. Selma‘s doing gangbusters, is well-written, and got great acting. What more can you ask for? Yet the Oscar committee all but shunned it because it’s a “Black film” that took a smidgen of poetic license.  And, because Selma showed what everyone knows from listening to the LBJ tapes — that one of the great presidents who pushed through the Civil Rights Act and Voting Right Act was also a racist — the awards folks have snubbed it.

W. E. B. Du Bois and his wife Nina with their son, Burghardt, 1897. (http://scua.library.umass.edu).

W. E. B. Du Bois and his wife Nina with their son, Burghardt, 1897. (http://scua.library.umass.edu).

Seriously, how many times do we need to hear how great it was for men who weren’t self-made and who benefited from government subsidies to become billionaires at a time when a $500 a year salary made the average American man affluent (1880, by the way)? Or how much more to I need to hear to know that Einstein spent far more time pondering the cosmos than he did working on his marriage or being there for his two kids?

Too often we put great people on a pedestal as if they never had diarrhea or had days where their best efforts just weren’t good enough. Even Du Bois wasn’t an exception in this regard. He lost his only son when the latter was only eighteen months old, cheated repeatedly on his wife, and almost singlehandedly got Marcus Garvey arrested. But, then again, shouldn’t this make Du Bois documentary-worthy, too? Du Bois was a quintessential American, after all.


Can There Ever Be Too Much Race In A US History Course?

January 5, 2015

ODing on chocolate via a hypodermic needle, January 5, 2015. (http://buzzfeed.com).

ODing on chocolate via a hypodermic needle, January 5, 2015. (http://buzzfeed.com).

For nearly every semester in which I have taught a US history course — and I’ve been teaching them on and off since ’92 — one or two students have complained in their course evaluations that we “spent too much time on race.” Pitt, Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne, George Washington, UMUC, the refrain from this small but vocal minority has been the same. It was no different this past semester, as two students complained that there was too much about race in the course. But over the years, I’ve never seen any of these students ask themselves the question, “How do you define ‘too much race’ in a US history course?”

I guess I could look at it this way. That a small minority of my students like their US history the way most Americans like their churches — segregated and unequal. US history for them is supposed to be about the building of the greatest nation on Earth/in the history of humanity, preordained by God to dominate the world with its military, its capitalism and its brand of democracy. US history for them is the history of how Europeans escaped political persecution and religious oppression for the pristine wilderness of the New World, broke free of the chains of absolute monarchy and tyranny, and built this great country from the basement up.

John Gast's Spirit of the Frontier (aka American Progress), with American personified by Columbia in a toga, 1872. (Jeff G. via Wikipedia). In public domain.

John Gast’s Spirit of the Frontier (aka American Progress), with American personified by Columbia in a toga, 1872. (Jeff G. via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I guess I could teach a US history like this. A course that completely ignores the existence of Native Americans, numbering in the neighborhood of 10-15 million in what would become British North America (now the US and Canada) at the time of Jamestown settlement in 1607. A class that could gloss over the diseases, wars, starvation and constant encroachments that reduced this population by ninety percent within a century of the real British invasion. I could skip over the economic imperatives — really greed — that led to the use of White indentured servants and West Africans as indentured servants and slaves to make the colonies profitable through growing tobacco, rice and indigo. I could obfuscate the eventual creation of an institution that made permanent the connections between African skin and slavery in what would become the US, codified in law and in the US Constitution (albeit indirectly).

I guess this US history course could focus mostly on the genius of the great White men that made this a great nation, slave owners like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Andrew Jackson. I could then focus less on the crucial reliance of the US economy on the profits and products of slavery that made industrialization possible. A system that supplied the US and the UK with the cotton that would make modern capitalism — with its multinational banks, international commerce and movements of large numbers of people to cities for work — a reality. A system that so contradicted American ideals that it led to a civil war that killed and maimed nearly 1.2 million people.

Original Trivial Pursuit, Master Game, Genus Edition, 1981, January 5, 2015.  (http://epicrapbattlesofhistory.wikia.com/).

Original Trivial Pursuit, Master Game, Genus Edition, 1981, January 5, 2015. (http://epicrapbattlesofhistory.wikia.com/).

And all this only gets us to 1865. There’s also Indian removal, Mexican-turned-Americans in the Southwest, Southern and Eastern European immigrants and Social Darwinism, Jim Crow segregation and lynchings, race riots, Black migration, Mexican migration, Whiteness and the assimilation of White ethnics, the early Civil Rights Movements, the Civil Rights Movement, the post-Civil Rights era. This is hardly an exhaustive list of the topics that are key ones in any US history course.

So short of deciding to only teach a US history that only focuses on great, rich White males, I have to discuss race. If only to teach this history properly and well enough to give all of my students food for thought and thought for food. Otherwise, I might as well be teaching Trivial Pursuit or change my name to Alex Trebek.


Back to My Future, Forward to the Past

January 1, 2015

Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly on a hoverboard in 2015 in Back To The Future Part II (1989), screen shot, January 1, 2015. (http://youtube.com).

Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly on a hoverboard in 2015 in Back To The Future Part II (1989), screen shot, January 1, 2015. (http://youtube.com).

Happy New Year, everyone! It’s 2015, and the fictional year from Back To The Future (1985) has become reality. Yeah, right! There are no hoverboards — at least, ones that actually work, anyway — we still drive with internal combustion engines, and Whites still only vote for folks of color when they are truly desperate for some elusive change.

For me, though, 2015 confirms the reality that time really is an illusion, as I’ve spent time over the past thirty years imagining what life would be like in 2015. That imagining started in ’85. At fifteen, I could barely wrap my head around the idea that I could live to thirty years of age, much less that I could make it to forty-five.

Truly, that’s what growing up poverty and with abuse did for me. It created the impression that life was cheap and short. Dating, marriage, a kid, being a father, working on a third career? Heck, I spent so much of my life at fifteen constructing a sound track and a reality beyond my everyday circumstances, just to get by! I lived vicariously through my Mets and Giants especially. My conscious mind provided little space for constructing a reality based on my circumstances or the natural progression of a modern American life.

Collage of me at 15, 30 (with my wife), 40 (with my son), and 45, January 1, 2015. (Donald Earl Collins).

Collage of me at 15, 30 (with my wife), 40 (with my son), and 45, January 1, 2015. (Donald Earl Collins).

Gradually, I had to let go of most of my coping strategies in order to at least live for a better future, not just imagine it full of new technologies. I had to begin to place myself there as a whole person. It helped that I spent most of the 1990s in grad school and as a freshly minted professor teaching graduate courses in education foundations. Both helped me in looking at the past in order to understand my present and push for the future I wanted. Despite the betrayals and my mistakes along the way, I made it to thirty, mostly as the person I wanted to be.

Still, like most people, I have baggage. I have the kind of baggage that’s actually easy to ignore, and even easier to bury so deep into one’s mind and spirit that it would take the power of a flux capacitor to unearth. In writing about portions of my past over the years, I’ve dug up all of those haunts and demons, some of which I wish I hadn’t known existed in the first place. Writing about myself has been painful. But having a clear and complete understanding of every layer of onion from my past going back to 1969, and 1974, and 1976? It clears the air, even as it has induced five-alarm-fire headaches.

Beyond me, myself, and I, it has been absolutely necessary to live in the present, to find joy in both small and big moments, especially around the people in my life so near and dear to me. From my son’s first steps to his discovery of sarcasm, from watching my wife’s labor to receiving my first royalty check for Fear of a “Black” America. All of it was more significant than a new car, a better cut of steak, a fragrant glass of wine, or the latest version of the iPhone.

A Philips MRI machine at Sahlgrenska University Hospital, Gothenburg, Sweden, February 12, 2008. (Jan Ainali via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

A Philips MRI machine at Sahlgrenska University Hospital, Gothenburg, Sweden, February 12, 2008. (Jan Ainali via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Speaking of our devolving material culture, I can’t help but make this observation now that we’re in 2015. We spend so much time and effort exalting ourselves over the latest technological innovations, the next version of some new piece of gadgetry. Seriously, when was the last time a new invention came around that truly transformed our lives writ large for the better, that was transformative in every way possible? The iPhone? Please! Phones have been around since the 1870s, and mobile phones since the 1970s. And, I don’t think the tens of thousands of Chinese factory workers really enjoy making these gadgets for our benefit. Flat-screen HD TVs? Gimme a break! The TV’s been here since the 1920s, and adding clarity with hundreds of channels has just make the size of its “vast wasteland” that much bigger.

Face it folks. There hasn’t been a major technological breakthrough since the inventions of the MRI machine and the microchip in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Personal computers, Google Chromebooks, Fitbit trackers, electronic fuel injectors, the Internet and those millions of apps? They are all derivatives of technologies that are as old as I am.

Let’s credit Apple and Microsoft and Google for new innovations. But we haven’t had any major breakthroughs worthy of Back To The Future. Hydrogen-fuel-cell and nuclear fusion technologies? They remain somewhere between a limited experiment and a pipe dream. A matter-energy converter so that we can stop growing and killing our food? We’ve barely discovered 3D-printing, and that’s still years away from everyday usage. Technology that can scrub the air of greenhouse gases without killing every living thing on the planet at the same time? Someone’s buried it somewhere.

MR angiogram in congenital heart disease, technically known as Partial Anomalous Pulmonary Venous Drainage, February 22, 2011. (Jccmoon via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

MR angiogram in congenital heart disease, technically known as Partial Anomalous Pulmonary Venous Drainage, February 22, 2011. (Jccmoon via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Perhaps that’s what has happened in my lifetime. That with the killing of millions from war, disease, settler colonialism, out-and-out racism practiced on a societal level, unbridled capitalism and the constant quest for the immediate big profit, we’ve killed those people. A Black kid who could’ve created a faster-than-light drive. A Palestinian girl who may have developed a food replicator. An affluent White boy steered toward Wall Street who may have once thought through the idea of carbon capture from the upper atmosphere. Apparently we have none of this, because we don’t want that future. We only want to imagine that future while wallowing in the -isms of our pasts and presents, minus any wisdom or understanding.


The “Are You Sure’s” and Doubting Sylvias

December 30, 2014

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Caravaggio, c. 1601-02, uploaded April 13, 2005. (Dante Alighieri via Wikipedia). In public domain.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Caravaggio, c. 1601-02, uploaded April 13, 2005. (Dante Alighieri via Wikipedia). In public domain.

We all have doubters in our lives. Even if the only doubters turn out to be ourselves. As someone without much of a roadmap for any success, doubt has been a constant companion, one that I often had to ignore to experience any victories in my life. To have those with influence pretend to be on my side but add to those doubts, though. As a twenty-year-old, it was somewhere between bewildering and rage inducing. As a forty-five year-old who regularly advises students, love ones, friends and others about their futures, looking back at those doubters, it’s almost unforgivable the seeds they attempted to plant.

Of all the non-relatives in positions to advise me, few were worse than my high school guidance counselor Sylvia Fasulo. For four years, Fasulo forced me to listen to her “Are you sure…?” questions about difficult classes, the colleges I wanted to attend, the career paths I thought about taking. Her patrician Vassar arrogance toward me as the poor Black kid drove me up a wall every time I walked into her cigarette-filled office.

"Raleigh's First Pipe in England," an illustration in Frederick William Fairholt's Tobacco (1859), June 8, 2014. (Materialscientist via Wikipedia). In public domain.

“Raleigh’s First Pipe in England,” an illustration in Frederick William Fairholt’s Tobacco (1859), June 8, 2014. (Materialscientist via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I hated having Fasulo as my counselor especially once it was time for me to apply for college. She was condescending, demeaning and chain-smoked up my clothes for my troubles. Most of all, I hated having to reveal things about myself to her that I otherwise wouldn’t have shared. Like my family’s financial situation. Fasulo became only the second person I would tell that we were on welfare, that my father and mother had divorced and that he hadn’t made a child support payment since ’78. I had to talk to her about my role in my family as acting first-born child and my responsibilities. It was necessary and humiliating at the same time.

Despite and not because of Fasulo, things worked out for me in the end. Going to Pitt, meeting the people and the professors I’d become friends and colleagues with, was probably one of the best decisions I ever made. Still, I had one parting shot from her in the middle of my junior year at the University of Pittsburgh. It was the holiday season in ’89, and I took time while home in Mount Vernon to visit my favorite teacher, the late Harold Meltzer. I had just missed him, but bumped into Fasulo. It was about as fortuitous as having diarrhea and being nowhere near a toilet with toilet paper.

She asked me where I was in school, and I told her about my considerations for graduate school, law school and the world of work. It was a toss-off sentence, my attempt to end a conversation, not begin one. “Being a lawyer’s hard work,” Fasulo said in response. She then went on to tell me about 70-hour work weeks and billable hours and the bar exam, as if any of this was supposed to be surprising or would somehow scare me. I cut her off, saying “You know, you’re not my counselor anymore, so thanks but no thanks for your advice,” and left her office while she tried to explain her idiotic perspective.

Tiki Barber, the personification of a doubter, at the American Museum of Natural History, October 16, 2008. (Jamie McCarthy/WireImage.com via http://thenypost.files.wordpress.com/).

Tiki Barber, the personification of a doubter, at the American Museum of Natural History, October 16, 2008. (Jamie McCarthy/WireImage.com via http://thenypost.files.wordpress.com/).

A quarter-century later, and though I am more than content with the fact that I opted for a PhD over a JD thirteen out of every fourteen days (people with law degrees do make more money on average), I sometimes question if the PhD in history was worth it. After all, a JD is far more portable. A JD would’ve served me better in my nonprofit and consulting careers than having to explain a doctorate. I wouldn’t want to think that I went in the direction of a graduate program for five and a half years simply because I had a conversation with a racial elitist.

It’s probably more likely that I didn’t go to medical school to earn an MD because my Mom and my idiot late-ex-stepfather both told me I couldn’t be a surgeon because I had “ten thumbs.” By more likely, I mean highly unlikely on both counts. I ultimately did what I wanted to do educationally speaking, despite own my doubts, despite the doubts of those who believed it was their job to advise me. But constantly asking, “Are you sure, Donald…?” isn’t exactly the best way to advise or mentor anyone, especially someone in their teens or a literal twenty-year-old. You lay out options, you ascertain what’s going on in their heart as well as their mind. You introduce them to other people who could provide better advice, based on direct expertise or experiences. Otherwise, you’re a doubter, not an advisor or a mentor.


Biting Off Too Much, And Almost Choking On It

December 3, 2014

"Bush Gag" cartoon, Pat Bagley, Salt Lake Tribune, November 5, 2008. (http://dailykos.com). Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws -- low resolution picture.

“Bush Gag” cartoon, Pat Bagley, Salt Lake Tribune, November 5, 2008. (http://dailykos.com). Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws — low resolution picture.

I’m someone who’s in a state of constant learning, constantly wanting to challenge myself and others to be better, to do more and better. I don’t apologize for this. But I do need to acknowledge that too often, I exert so much pressure on myself to excel that I take on a Thanksgiving feast’s worth of challenges. More times than not, I come through on the other side, but frequently in need of the Heimlich maneuver to keep from suffocating on it all.

For those of you who are still in undergrad or have recently finished, or at least, still remember clearly the details of this part of your academic journey, this story is most poignant for you. After years of relying mostly on my great memory and very good writing skills to be the very good student I’d been over the previous decade, I wanted to do better, to not have to scramble in the last three weeks of a sixteen-week semester and look like a dog with a serious constipation problem trying to void, like almost two-thirds of the sickly, underdressed, raccoon-eyed students I’d seen on campus during my first two years at the University of Pittsburgh.

As I wrote at the end of my coming-of-age memoir Boy @ The Window:

reasoned that I needed to have balance to my semesters so that I wouldn’t spend the last two or three weeks of them playing catch up. Starting with the fall of ’89, I took all my syllabi from all of my classes, grabbed a calendar, and crafted a table where I knew exactly what to read, when to study, and when to begin my research and writing projects for each class I had in a semester. That way, I could know when to slack off or party, when to buckle down and study, and when to just shift into academic cruise control.

Hall-of-Fame QB Warren Moon with Houston Oilers, throwing from within pocket on his 527-yd passing day against the Kansas City Chiefs, December 16, 1990. (http://spokeo.com).

Hall-of-Fame QB Warren Moon with Houston Oilers, throwing from within pocket on his 527-yd passing day against the Kansas City Chiefs, December 16, 1990. (http://spokeo.com).

Those were literally my words and thoughts from a quarter-century ago. I also decided to become more organized because, thinking back, I knew that I couldn’t be a scrambling student in grad school. At least one who could be consistent and successful, who could sit and step up in the pocket and deliver academic darts for touchdowns — to use one of the many football analogies I would’ve said in ’89 (and probably now, too). All I knew was that after the spring semester — with thirty-six-hour workweeks and five courses — that I wanted more time to hang out with friends, to even maybe date.

Only, I was dumb enough to take third-semester calculus a year and a half after my last math course, and I was now a history major taking writing intensive courses. But at the time, I had my very good reasons. I was only one course shy of a minor in mathematics, which I figured would look good on my academic resume when I did apply to grad schools. I wanted to learn the basics about differential equations, because I was just that kind of guy. I wanted, most of all, to challenge myself, because that part of my Humanities indoctrination had stayed with me well beyond my high school graduation.

That course was a struggle, mostly because my attention was split between writing papers and reading thick history texts, constitutional law books and African American literature on the one hand, and math equations on the other. Fourteen months away from derivates and integrals and volumes was too long for me. I couldn’t really adjust to being in a lecture hall with nearly 400 students, being in memorization mode, no longer with much in common with this huge group of STEM-inclined classmates. By the middle of October, I was miserable whenever it was time to march up that hill to Benedum Hall.

A simple first-order linear differential equation (nothing "simple" about it), December 2, 2014. (http://revisionworld.com/).

A simple first-order linear differential equation (nothing “simple” about it), December 2, 2014. (http://revisionworld.com/).

But it did get worse. About a month before the end of that semester, my friend Terri looped me into unwittingly setting up my friend Marc with our mutual friend Michele. And it worked! All too well, as I realized that I had a bit of a crush on Michele myself, but only after they’d started dating. It was a rocky last three weeks of ’89. I managed a 2.98 GPA that terrible semester, including a D+ in multiple integrals and differential equations. I missed a C- in that class by two-tenths of a point. Terrible by my own standards.

Lessons here, if any? Don’t bite off more than you can chew, maybe? I know that three admissions committees used that D+ against me in either rejecting me outright or in not offering me fellowship money to cover tuition when I applied to grad schools a year later. So, one other lesson could be to not take unnecessary risks, to not challenge myself. That would be the wrong lesson, though.

The real lesson would be to know our limitations, that we can’t be all things to ourselves and others and do well at all things all the time, that we have a finite amount of time and choices, in school and in life. With so much going on in my life these days, it’s still a lesson of which I have to keep reminding myself, practically every single day.


A Diarrhea Football Sunday

November 23, 2014

Porthcawl, Wales takes a battering from a fierce Atlantic storm, February 5, 2014. (Getty Images, via http://www.express.co.uk).

Porthcawl, Wales takes a battering from a fierce Atlantic storm, February 5, 2014. (Getty Images, via http://www.express.co.uk).

I’m probably going to disgust a few of you who read this post. I promise I won’t go into a slurry of detail about this particular experience. It’s just that after years of gastrointestinal issues, I’ve learned a thing or two about triggers and coping strategies that may be helpful to folks.

Haagen-Dazs specialty milkshakes (my son had the $7 cookies and cream yesterday), November 23, 2014 (posted June 10, 2011). (http://www.qsrmagazine.com/).

Haagen-Dazs specialty milkshakes (my son had the $7 cookies and cream yesterday), November 23, 2014 (posted June 10, 2011). (http://www.qsrmagazine.com/).

This weekend thirty years ago, I learned for the first time that my body handled stress in a unique and painful way. I should’ve been aware of this much sooner than a month before my fifteenth birthday, and should’ve figured out how to counteract this long before my mid-thirties. I’d seen signs of it. The mugging I suffered from when I was nine in ’79. The recent broken toilet incident at 616. My inability to drink a chocolate milkshake from Carvel’s without the need to find a bathroom within forty-five minutes of my first sip.

But it wasn’t until the Sunday after Thanksgiving ’84, November 25th, that I recognized the link between the constant stress I felt and my G/I tract issues. It was a brisk late November day, like so many that time of year. The Giants were playing a big game in East Rutherford, against the Kansas City Chiefs. With a 7-5 record at the time, the Giants were fighting with both the Cowboys and Redskins for playoff position. They’d been on a roll of late, having won three of their previous four, including one on the road against Danny White’s Cowboys.

That’s what I thought about as the 1 pm game time approached. It wasn’t the only thing on my mind, though. It had been a long and stressful couple of months prior to this semi-break of a Thanksgiving weekend. This stretch included arguments with my Mom, including one in which I almost moved out. It included incidents with my teachers, especially Ms. Zini. It also included too many weekends of tracking down my father for money — including money that he owed us for working down in the city with him since the end of September. And washing clothes, and grocery shopping, and watching after Maurice, Yiscoc, Sarai and Eri, and cleaning the apartment.

Somewhere in all of this, I must’ve picked up a stomach bug, from either my younger siblings or from something I ate. At least that’s what I thought at the time. The toilet became my constant companion throughout that afternoon, as a stepfather-free Sunday gave me and my older brother Darren the opportunity to watch the Giants game without interruption. That was, except from my stomach.

Flour water in a jar, November 23, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

Flour water in a jar, November 23, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

I really didn’t know why I’d been on the toilet five times in two hours, but between that and Phil Simms’ lousy play in the first three quarters of the game (three interceptions, no touchdown passes), I felt really ill. My Mom suggested that I should drink flour water to settle my stomach. “Yuck” was the only thing I thought of her idea. The flour water thought had crossed my own mind, too though.

After Kansas City scored to take a 27-14 lead with a bit more than ten minutes left, I finally had an idea much more pleasant than flour water. I hadn’t eaten all day, and barely anything the night before. So I took five dollars of my Jimme money and went down the street to the local pizza shop. I order a slice of Sicilian with extra cheese. As thick as this shop made their Sicilians, I figured that would plug up my intestines.

While I waited for them to warm up my slice, I listened to the Giants game, which they had on their TV in the back of the shop. Simms had rallied the team and driven them down the field for a touchdown by the time I paid for my Sicilian slice. That actually lifted my spirits a bit.

I was hurting, so I didn’t wait. After I walked out of the shop, I took two big bites of my slice to see if it would help. By the time I made it to the front of 616, I let out a gigantic belch, and then my stomach, which had felt like a nor’easter in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean for hours, had finally calmed.

A good-looking Sicilian slice (my shop would've wrapped it in aluminum, though), November 23, 2014. (http://slice.seriouseats.com).

A good-looking Sicilian slice (my shop would’ve wrapped it in aluminum, though), November 23, 2014. (http://slice.seriouseats.com).

After I made it back upstairs to our place, the Giants had the ball again with less than three minutes in the game. They were driving on the Chiefs’ side of the field, in a two-minute drill. As I sat, ate and belched, Simms actually drove all the way down field for game-winning touchdown, a short pass to Zeke Mowatt. They won the game 28-27! I was stunned!

I learned a lot on that diarrhea football Sunday. For me, even watching a football game was stress-inducing. That sleeplessness and running myself down, the pressures of 616 and school, the pressure I put on myself, all manifested physiologically in my G/I tract. Sometimes escaping into comfort food, being pleasantly surprised by success, even someone’s else success, could calm my stomach. Sometimes not. Becoming fully aware of how my body responded to stress, though, would turn out to be a blessing, saving me from many moments of embarrassment over the years.


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