Intermittent Starvation

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Empty fruit and vegetable section shelves, Asda store, London, UK, March 14, 2020. (Yui Mok/PA via AP; https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2020/mar/15/trump-tells-people-stop-hoarding-and-buy-normal-am/).

A fair number of people I know have gotten into this trend we collectively call intermittent fasting. It’s the idea that you reduce your caloric intake by either reducing you total number of meals per day or take a set of days to not eat at all. When combined with rest, sleep, and exercise, one can become healthier, lose weight, and roll one’s body back to the days of normal blood pressure and glucose numbers. In the somewhat Apocalyptic times in which we live, some have said that intermittent fasting may be the new normal. Especially if or when stores and supermarkets begin to run out of foodstuffs. We will see what we will see come May, June, and the summer.

In the department of limited food intake, I have years of experience. Between the fall of 1980 and the winter of 1999, there isn’t a year where I didn’t have to scramble for scraps. I unknowingly made the lack of food at 616 part of my escapism in those earlier years, especially in Peanuts Land, where I used empty styrofoam McDonald’s and Burger King containers to construct the eatery sections of my imaginary capital city. It was partly why I liked it when my father would show up every third Saturday between April 1979 and April 1981 to take me and my brother Darren out for a few hours or even the whole weekend, sober or drunk. It didn’t really matter to me. Being able to eat fast food was a godsend this time four decades ago. Arthur Treacher’s Chicken and Chips, Mickey D’s, Carvel’s soft-serve ice cream, Papaya’s hot dogs, Wakefield’s brownies and greasy-spoon diners. Once, I even ordered and ate three Big Macs in one sitting at the one-time McDonald’s on the Avenue in South Side Mount Vernon. I was ten in 1980! Ah, those were great days!

But those days came after many days of well-balanced but often meager food options that Mom provided. Chicken and dumplings, pinto beans or black-eyed peas with rice, pork neck bones, and corn bread, and cabbage, cabbage, cabbage! By the end of 1980, cereal was no longer a regular household staple, and snacks were a rarity. Heck, when Mom and my idiot stepfather Maurice separated for six months that October, he cleaned out weeks’ worth of pork chops, lamb shanks, chicken, ground beef, and steaks on his way out of our apartment.

Then, the Hebrew-Israelite years came, and with it, intermittent fasting. That is, with extreme urban poverty. With the start of middle school in September 1981 came days at a time where I didn’t eat or ate very little. Our conservative take on Judaism meant that we would all have to fast for three days prior to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover. Since Darren and I weren’t adults, we were supposed to fruit and juice fast. That would have worked if there had been fruit juice and fruit in the house regularly! Our first Rosh Hashanah was the only time in those three years where I ate oranges, apples, grapes, and bananas for all three days. But with my family’s economic decline came days where I simply went to school and did not eat at all, upcoming high-holy day or otherwise.

So many days I watched my classmates eat full lunches while my stomach growled from drinking water. Pride and watching the older students clown others for being on free and reduced lunch kept me from picking up and filling out the application. And even if I hadn’t been raised to not expect handouts and to not see free-lunch as a sign of familial failure, the Hebrew-Israelite years complicated matters for me. Most Fridays at school, the cafeteria served grilled ham-and-cheese sandwiches with French fries.

It got way worse before it got better. From October 1981 through April 1984, we went between seven and 10 days every single month with little or no food at 616. After the 20th of any given month, I knew I’d miss meals, or it would be cabbage and corn bread or Great Northern beans and rice again. Keep in mind, Mom worked at Mount Vernon Hospital for most of that time as a dietary supervisor, so she worked around food while often hungry herself. One weekend in October 1982, all we had in the kitchen was some dried up cabbage, sugar, a little bit of flour, and a one-year-old box of Duncan Hines Devil’s Food cake mix. Things were so bad the summer and fall of 1982 that Mom was bringing home scraps from her job for us to eat. I got sick of days’ old Boston Creme Pie, hospital version.

Life improved slightly when Mom went on welfare after my late sister Sarai’s birth in 1983. But the food shortages continued into 1985, when Darren and I began working with my father regularly, and then began getting our own jobs. But while the malnourishment and starvation left me scarred, they also left me prepared for future crises that for many would have been calamities. Homelessness, malnourishment, and no money while at Pitt in 1988. Difficulties with rent, bills, and food in 1990 and 1991, when I graduated from Pitt. Summers looking for work and living off fumes in 1992, 1993, and 1997, when I was in grad school and after I finished my doctorate at Carnegie Mellon. The beginning of 1999, when me and soon-to-be-wife stretched $20 over ten days, eating makeshift gravy with instant mashed potatoes while teaching nearly every day for a week at Duquesne.

Maybe that explains why I once thought about becoming a chef while growing up. Maybe that’s why I took so quickly to cooking family-sized meals when I was 14. Maybe that’s the reason I made a point of cleaning off every plate of food I fixed or someone else put in front of me until I was 31. It’s certainly the reason behind my OCD around shopping, cooking, storing, and giving food, for myself, my family, and for others, for so many of my 50 years. It very well could explain my G-I tract issues and IBS for much of my adult life.

But with this COVID-19 pandemic could come food and other shortages. The land of endless plenty could have pockets of starvation if millions get sick and stay sick for too long. I have thought for years about buying a composite bow and some arrows with which I could shoot a deer in the neck. I already know I can do it, having killed two dozen mice and rats over the years — some with a broom handle, a hammer, and my bare hands. I have beheaded and gutted fish, chickens, and turkeys. I have eaten venison and rabbit stew before. Or, I could hop on down to Home Depot and buy some seeds to grow snap peas, green beans, maybe even squash or potatoes. We do have a back yard!

Maybe this is all overblown. Maybe this isn’t the Apocalypse. We still have electricity, cable, and wi-fi, after all. Yet the Romans still had gladiatorial games at the Coliseum during two years of siege and starvation at the Visigoths’ hands before it fell in 410 CE. Thousands and perhaps a few million could go without food, even if the power plants and Comcast and Verizon never shut down.

So, intermittent fasting may well work for many. As for me, I’ve tried it, and I still do it from time to time. But you cannot fast your way out of a crisis. You can hunt and grow your way out of one, though.

Fandom and the False Belief in Transcendence

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Trinity jumping across the street clip (GIF), The Matrix (1999), January 31, 2020. (https://gfycat.com/; https://youtube.com).

I don’t know who needs to read this, but no matter how talented someone is, no matter how often someone had triumphed in their field, no matter how popular they are, and no matter their level of celebrity status, that person is not necessarily transcendent. Many of these folk are assholes. Yet we Americans use the term so often that all one would have to do to transcend in this country is film themselves with an iPhone 11 in slofie mode while jumping from one building to another in The Matrix series (either as Carrie-Anne Moss’ Trinity or Keanu Reeves’ Neo) to sell themselves as such. Or, to just not talk about the realities of the ugly and oppressive world in which we all inhabit while selling sneakers and entertaining millions.

So, let me be clear. The death of former NBA player Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna Bryant, John and Keri and their teenage daughter Alyssa Altobelli, Sarah and her 13-year-old daughter Payton Chester, Christina Mauser, and the pilot Ara Zobayan is nothing short of painfully tragic. Kobe Bryant, of course, played for the Los Angeles Lakers for 20 years. He won five NBA Championships and two Olympic gold medals as part of the USA Basketball team, was an 18-time NBA All-Star, and at the time he retired in 2016, was the league’s third all-time leading scorer, at 33,643 total points. LeBron James only passed Bryant on the all-time scoring list the night before the tragic accident. At 41 years old, Bryant was only into his fourth year of post-NBA life, supporting the WNBA, investing himself in girl’s basketball, winning an Oscar for a five-minute short. This polyglot, this nerd whom experts often mention in the same breath with Michael Jordan and LeBron and other all-time greats, is truly one of the greatest professional basketball players in the history of the sport, full stop.

But, does that make Kobe Bryant “transcendent beyond his sport,” as I have heard the commentators say this week, and have read the sports and culture columnists tweet and write this week? No, absolutely not. We each all have the responsibility to put our lives and our times into perspective, to take a panoramic look at the world in which we inhabit and to dig deep into the soil and rock of that world for meaning. If not, we risk idolizing the first person who comes along to rock our world, and in the process, becoming as short-sighted and as narcissistic as the celebrities, entertainers, artists, athletes, and politicians we worship.

And that has sadly been the case with Bryant. The news and sports media has been paving over the potholes and sinkholes in Bryant’s life faster than The New York Times newspaper plant in College Point, Queens can ink and fold a million hard copies. Bryant’s semi-admitted raping of a 19-year-old in September 2004 (the “incident” was in 2003) has suddenly become a full-throated mea culpa that apparently was unprecedented in the annals of American sport and celebrity. Not one that the rape survivor or any other person who has ever experience rape or sexual violence (yours truly included) should acknowledge, or believe that it would ever make up for the rape, but hey, what do I know?

But my case against transcendence hardly begins or ends with Bryant as a one-time alleged rapist. As great a basketball player as he was, for the bulk of his career, Bryant was a selfish ball hog. By comparison, Bryant made AI’s (Allen Iverson) one-on-five scoring attempts and successes look like Iverson had no choice because he was on the court by himself a lot of those times (which for half of Iverson’s career, was pretty close to the truth). Bryant’s last game in the NBA was one where he scored 60 while taking 50 shots, and he in fact owns the most field goals attempts in any single game of any player this side of Wilt Chamberlain! If this were Rucker Park and not the NBA, maybe transcendence would apply in terms of athletic ability. But as someone who saw how MJ could regularly get 30 while taking only 13 shots (and making 15 free throws) in the second half of his career, great, but not transcendent, from even within the sport of basketball.

Speaking of, the transcendence case really breaks down in terms of cultural influence outside of basketball. Some argue that Bryant was an ambassador of the game and made it international. Really? Two words in response. Dream Team! And, two more words. Michael Jordan! Without the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, and with MJ and Magic and Larry and Patrick and Hakeem, et al. among 11 future Hall-of-Famers, Bryant’s overseas efforts would’ve been like selling the current brand of NFL football to the world (no one likes weak tea made from sewage water, by the way). Also, if one wants to know two more names from different sports who have MJ-esque transcendence or higher, try Tiger and Serena (I don’t even need to use their last names)!

How big was Jordan, and how big does Jordan remain? His Air Jordans are still among the leading earners for Nike in 2019, 16 years after MJ retired, and nearly 36 years after Nike started making them. Air Jordans went well with hip-hop gear and in rap lyrics and videos — for decades. MJ’s shaved head and goat-tee became fashion trends (one could argue the same for Bryant’s messy Afro look, I suppose) that remain with us to this day. But so does MJ’s reluctance to speak out against racism, homophobia, sexism and misogyny, something that Bryant inherited and adopted in shaping his public persona as well.

And it’s this last piece that truly makes the case that the late Bryant was not and could not be transcendent. LeBron James, for all his greatness, has also put his weight and words into Black Lives Matter, mass incarceration, police brutality, and calling out White supremacists. Certainly athletes from the recent past, from Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe to Jim Brown and Althea Gibson, and of course, Jackie Robinson, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, fought oppression with the very lives they lived and the barriers they dismantled. All of them had flaws, but none of them had PR machines in their prime to cover up their mistakes and probable crimes, either. Heck, even O.J. Simpson for better and certainly for worse in transcendent in this social justice and injustice sense.

Now, could Bryant have “transcended basketball” if he had live to, say, 60, 70, or even 80 years old? Maybe. But probably not. His image mattered too much to him. The world outside of basketball and family, not so much. And that’s okay. That doesn’t make his death and the deaths of the other eight — especially the three teenagers — on that helicopter any less tragic. This doesn’t make the pain or sadness any fan feels for him and his family any less real. But maybe, just maybe, those who are just fans and members of the media should check themselves before putting Bryant on a pedestal or altar. As tragic a death as it is, death is part of life, after all, and Bryant had as full a 41 years as anyone could expect. Just not a transcendent 41 years.

Ugly

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Me in April 1975, Sears Picture Studio, Mount Vernon, NY. (Cropped/Donald Earl Collins).

Another title for this could be “Ugly Donald,” an homage toward Ugly Betty. But one word should cover it!

All this talk over the past few weeks about who is and who isn’t “ugly,” or “fat,” or just “too dark” take me back to how I felt about myself for most of the 1980s, and sometimes even as I gotten older over the 30 years since the Reagan decade. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve been in a camp of vipers like this since my preteen and early puberty years, where I definitely had my own excited utterances toward Black boys and girls in particular (also, the occasionally flat-butt White girl and bed-headed White boy, but I digress). So I never understood the need for deliberate meanness toward people over something that they would have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to fix for a group of misogynoirist assholes who aren’t worth a nanosecond of thought.

Whether Lizzo, Blue Ivy Carter, Bria Myles, Ari Lennox, or Teyana Taylor, these mofos who made fun of their looks, or called them a “rottweiler/German shepherd mix” (sic), or told them to workout to lose weight are such boring-ass losers. These women are beautiful. Black women are beautiful. Full stop. You got time to waste running down an active entertainer over your bullshit? Your ugliness is the kind that takes years of therapy, prayer, active listening, and educational reprogramming (i.e., reading lots of books on Blackness, Black feminisms, and intersectionality) to overcome, if you overcome it at all.

I have a bit of experience with ugly over the years. Usually from family and classmates throwing it in my direction. “Whatcha makin’ that ugly face for?,” my mom would say to me many, many times growing up. “You ugly, faggot!,” I remember hearing from folx in around the 616 and 630 apartment buildings on East Lincoln in Mount Vernon from the time I was nine. “Ain’t no one gonna eva wanna be with your ugly ass!,” an older girl who once attempted to molest me said to me when I was 12. I was ugly, alright. I felt ugly, living with poverty and abuse and anti-Black ugliness in the many places I went in Mount Vernon. It was probably why I felt more comfortable around my father, especially when in the Bronx or down in Manhattan doing work. The anonymity of the city meant that for hours or even days at a time, the centrality of my ugliness could disappear.

I felt so ugly inside and out that I wanted to take my own life at 14. I was so ugly that it scared me to look at myself in the mirror for more than a few seconds, mostly to make sure toothpaste or dried drool or eye crust was off my face. I kept my face as blank as I could, like Jamal Wallace (played by Rob Brown) in Finding Forrester, just so I wouldn’t have to endure more put-downs about my tall, lanky ass and my ugly features on top of that.

Me at Prom Dinner, White Plains, NY, May 21, 1987. (Suzanne Johnson neè De Feo).

But the worst of all this was my senior year at Mount Vernon High School. My final days took an ugly turn the moment my classmates learned I was ranked 14th out of 545 students (509 of us eventually graduated in June 1987). I’ve written ad nauseam about how my White Humanities classmates responded to my ranking, as if I threatened their worldview of them being more intelligent than the Black folx they went to school with every day. Months before my soon-to-be former Black classmates began to stare through me like I was a ghost, they began to clown me. I’d blow by them in the hallways, and they’d bust out laughing. They’d comment on my ugly, brittle hair, talking about how my “hair could break picks.” They’d talk about my “cheap clothes from Taiwan” — which they were from, by the way (how did they know that?). Or, they’d simply shake their heads, as if my existence was a “shaking my head” moment on par with Raven-Symoné declaring herself “not Black.”

Clyde was among that group of Black guys and gals who made a point of telling me I was ugly throughout my senior year. He did it so many times that somewhere around February of that school year, I lost track of the number. “You ugly. There ain’t nothin’ in the world that’s gonna fix that,” Clyde said to me once. Most days, I ignored it, because what would have been the point? We were graduating, and my plans for college were bigger than any insult any asshole could muster. But, one day before winter break, Clyde just said, “You ugly, Donald. You ugly.” It took every bit of the low energy I had to not cry, and not pick up a desk and tear his fucking head off with it, like the chair revenge scene in Moonlight.

It took getting away and going to college for me to stop seeing myself and my own unique blend of Blackness as not ugly, even handsome. A bout of homelessness here and months of struggling to pay rent and eat there will begin to harden you against the bullshit of muthafuckas who would prefer to tear you down rather than build something for themselves or others. As Flavor Flav from PE would say, “Motherfuck them any damn way!”

After those days of sleeping on concrete slabs or eating tuna fish out of a can until I could eat it anymore, it didn’t matter how the Clydes, Gordons, and Tomikas saw me. I saw myself clearly, for the very first time. And I clearly saw my naysayers, too, as the short-in-body and in mind, coloristic, Blackness-but-only-so-much, racist, sexist, and homophobic pieces of shit for whom they were. Why should it have ever mattered what they thought of me?

One Saturday in early February 1989 in the shared bathroom in the Fu rowhouse on Welsford Avenue in South Oakland, I looked at myself in the mirror. I had just finished washing up. I was six-two, maybe 175 pounds, and six weeks past my 19th birthday, with barely enough facial hair to clog up my right nostril. I must’ve stood there staring at every angle of my face for two or three minutes. Then I chuckled. “You’re an okay-looking guy. You’re not Billy Dee or Denzel, but you’re not bad-looking at all.” Nor am I Idris Elba. But being me since has almost always been okay enough. The truth is, it always should been, for any of us.

“On the Next Episode of ‘Dumb MFers’…”

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Pre-speech prayers over President Donald J. Trump (led by Pastors Paula White-Cain — laying on hands — and Guillermo Maldonado), Evangelicals for Trump coalition rally,, El Rey Jesús International Ministry, West Kendall neighborhood, Miami, January 3, 2020. (Tom Brenner/Reuters via https://nationalpost.com/).

My wife can attest to this. Since the days of HBO’s The Wire (2002-2008), I have had the idea of Idris Elba doing a voice over leading into the next episode of an alternative television series. But instead of Elba narrating in his smooth American Russell “Stringer” Bell baritone, “On the next episode of The Wire,” I’d have him say, “On the next episode of Dumb Muthafuckas,” said exactly the way I’ve spelt it here. Then, the no-so-happy highlights from the next episode would ensue!

On the use of the MF word. I grew up around folx who didn’t use the n-word (with the notable exception of my idiot ex-stepfather, who said and wrote the n-word as “niggah” or “nigguh,” such were the influences of the late-1960s and 1970s on him). My mom would either say “Ns” or “Ens” (depending on spelling), or would grunt “un-un” in reference to Black folk she felt were assholes or fucking up in some way. But motherfucker, particularly the AAVE (African American Vernacular English) way of saying it as muthafucka? That could flow freely like the Hudson River after a spring or summer rainstorm, even during the Hebrew-Israelite years, though less so since we went evangelical Christian in the late-1980s! It could start a sentence and end a sentence, and in heated, violent arguments, often at the same time.

Screenshot of a younger Idris Elba as Stringer Bell in HBO’s The Wire (2002-2008), January 4, 2020. (https://hbo.com).

But it wasn’t just Mom. My father said “muddafucka” when he was in drinking mode growing up. I once played a game in my head, and counted up the number of times he used it at a bar in the Bronx to describe the other drunks, the barkeep, and other folks in the city. I lost count after 50, between “po’ ass muddafucka,” dumb muddafucka,” “git out of here, muddafucka,” and “Suck my dict, muddafucka!” And that was all in 45 minutes!

Their friends, their kids, and so many others I was around in Mount Vernon, the Bronx, and in Manhattan growing up all used variations of MF. I didn’t become regularly acquainted with the n-word outside of Roots or A Soldier’s Story until I went off to college and Pittsburgh. But when Bruce Willis said the line to Alan Rickman’s character Hans Gruber in Diehard (1988), “Yippee-ki-yay, muthafucka!,” he said it the way the Black and Brown folk I grew up around said it, and not the wimpy ways most Whites tend to use it. And every Black who was in the theater with me that night audibly gasped with delight

So when I use MF here, I am being tongue-in-cheek and as serious as a muthafucka. Especially when it comes to America’s daily reality TV show, 45 and his cabal of mostly obese in body, mind, and spirit privileged White man hell-bent on making America a blatantly White supremacist country again (see Mike Pompeo, William Barr, and Rudy Giuliani here, among a legion of others). They are stunningly craven, which also makes them stunningly stupid. They collectively are the person who comes along and knocks down the Jenga tower you have carefully constructed and deconstructed over several hours with a sledgehammer, and then burp in your face immediately afterward. All while not knowing the chain of events they have set off for themselves and for you. They are too orgasmically high on power and drunk off of spreading lies and fear to contemplate playing checkers, much less picking up a bishop to play chess.

And that’s why the show should be titled Dumb Motherfuckers. Because the 45 thesis is to destroy all of former President Barack Obama’s proverbial statues, statues, paintings, treaties, deals, orders, and obelisks in order to restore Whiteness in the White House. The problem is, the Obamas merely brought their Blackness to the White House. The government remained steeped in Whiteness in policies and in attitude the entire time Obama wore the trappings of American imperial power. But when your racism and narcissism is so great as to think that the first Black president was an affront to millions of Whites and some footsoldiers-for-racism Black and Brown folx, being a bunch of dumb motherfuckers lighting up the US and the world with tiki-torches is the result.

Screenshot of ancient Egypt’s Sphinx, complete with closeup of its smashed nose, January 4, 2020. (https://education.abc.net.au).

Now America enters season four of Dumb Motherfuckers. Season three ended with a cliffhanger, as the House of Representatives voted in favor of impeaching 45 on two counts. But, what will Nancy Pelosi do next? Will Mitch McConnell continue his pledge to march “in lockstep with the White House,” like a jackbooted SS officer in a parade at Nuremberg? Will 45 continue to play golf while the US continues its march toward full-on corporate plutocratic fascism? Stay tuned!

As of 36 hours ago, Dumb Motherfuckers‘ producers threw us a plot twist, assassinating Iran’s leading general, Qasem Soleimani, a sort of declaration of war, and certainly a violation of the Geneva Convention. Sure, this plot twist is a distraction from impeachment and the 2020 election cycle. But it is also another drumbeat toward a war that will cost hundreds of thousands of Black and Brown lives, and displace millions of people from their homes and their possible futures. But that doesn’t matter, right? Ratings, a.k.a., votes, do.

45 and his minions of motherfuckers don’t care about all that. Nor are they smart enough to know where this new plot direction will take them or the rest of the US and the world. What they do know is that there are roughly 60 million Americans who are down for anything that 45 does. If 45 ran over a White family with a steamroller, killing three children under the age of five and their Scottish terrier in the process, his fans would find an excuse, say he’s “making America great again,” call me a racist, and threaten me and my life. So know that they would support, “Bomb bomb bomb/Bomb bomb Iran,” just like the late Sen. John McCain did during his 2008 election run. And apparently, through prayers and supplications, through megachurches and the Gospel of Prosperity.

This is what makes watching Dumb Motherfuckers so frustrating, because it is all so predictable. The thinly-veiled imperialism, the rank anti-Black, anti-Brown, anti-Jewish racism, xenophobia as World War Z, and Islamophobia, the obvious women-are-meat misogyny, and the wicked hoarding of wealth. The use of blind patriotism and Christianity to rally Whiteness and White folk into supporting utter stupidity. Just like in 1968-1969, 1973, 1983, 1989, 1991, 2001, and 2002-03, from Vietnam and Grenada to Panama, the First Gulf War, and Afghanistan. Dumb Motherfuckers isn’t dumb just because the characters are dumb. It’s dumb because it will eventually leave the Whites who want to be rich and want Black and Brown people to suffer thoroughly and lethally screwed as well. But give the (White and internalized racism Black and Brown) public what it wants, right? Dumb muthafuckas — it’s a shame and a pitiful!

My Whole Self At 50

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Selfie of me at 50, December 27, 2019. (Donald Earl Collins)

The title could just as easily be, “Confessions From an Educated Fool.” After all, I am highly educated, and have done more than my share of dumb-ass bullshit over the years to avoid certain truths about myself.

I have no idea what turning 50 really means. For Black men, the average life expectancy of 64.5 years makes me worry about every ache and every anomaly. Based on my family genetics, I have at least 30 years where my age will in no way be reflected in my height, weight, athleticism, sex drive, or other general health issues. My mind should remain sharp until I am in my late-80s or early 90s, if not longer. As of now, I know I am in better overall shape than I was this time 10 years ago, but lack the running stamina I developed during most of my 40s. On the other hand, my knees have been thanking me for the past 17 months since I stopped running 300-plus miles a year.

Depending on how I look at my life, I am a scrambler who has turned an Olympic-size swimming pool full of diarrhea with turd chunks into two kilos of gold. Or, I am a once brilliant and talented young Black man whose temper and impatience fucked up his future. Two things can be true, sometimes equally so, and at the same time. That is, if I don’t account for upbringing, systemic racism, extreme poverty, the violence of misogynoir and toxic masculinity, and a host of other burdens that my differential equation mind could not factor into my life’s calculus. Much less control or counteract with respectability or kindness or the Golden Rules of Christianity.

Some context. When I was 11, I participated in my first writing contest and came in second place among the dozens of K-12 students who submitted to the local newspaper, the Mount Vernon Daily Argus. By then, I had long buried the sexual assault I endured and the subsequent suicide attempt from five years earlier. I graduated 14th in a class of 509 in 1987, only to spend my last days of high school and the year after my enrollment at Pitt treated as if I were an invisible ghost by many of my former classmates. At 25, I earned a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship. But the entire time I was in commune with “my fellow Fellows,” as I used to say, I was ambivalent about my prospects, in and out of academia. At 26, in part because of the Spencer fellowship, I completed my dissertation. Yet my advisor’s petty jealousies and psychological abuse burned me out, just as my dissertation committee’s subsequent abandonment of me once I graduated left me feeling burned.

I was a young prospect with a doctorate from Carnegie Mellon, but with little in financial support or connections to continue to spin shit into gold. After two years, I left the wonderful world of adjunct teaching for a civic education job with the center-right organization Presidential Classroom. My boss was both extremely paranoia about terrorist attacks on DC and openly racist, referring to Asians as “Orientals” and making comments like “Slavery was a hoax.” After seven job interviews for academic positions over three years, Howard University offered me a tenure-stream assistant professorship in June 2000. I said no. At the time, I told my significant other, two months into our marriage, “I do not like working for racists, but at least I know where I stand. With Howard’s constant elitism, I’d likely lose it and pop one of my colleagues in the mouth for saying something elitist and stupid.” I was averaging 100-to-110 hours of work per week and about five hours of broken sleep at night when I made this decision.

Sometimes I think it’s the dumbest adult decision I ever made. Most of time, though, I think about the broom closet that they offered me as an office. I remember the urinals in the Founders Library that dated back to the tenure of Mordecai Johnson (1926-1960). I ruminate on rough attitudes of my one-time colleagues (I eventually taught there as an adjunct in 2007). And through all this, I remind myself that it was okay to say no. Especially to colorism, respectability politics, and a campus that has been in need of a total gutting and a top-down renovation at least since I began visiting in 1993.

My career has been one of wandering by necessity. I have never been a complete fit anywhere. Damn sure not in academia. Definitely not in the nonprofit world. Certainly not in consulting. And not quite as a freelance writer and author. I have had to bend and break so many rules and norms, just to survive, that to mold and shape myself like a shapeshifter would nearly always lead to me feeling at constant war, with myself and my work.

Selfie of me post-workout, December 24, 2019. (Donald Earl Collins).

Especially since so much of this war was over who I am. I am a writer, damn it! I love teaching — most of the time. I like managing projects, and was fairly good at raising money. I am an excellent cook (just ask anyone other than my Mom). I am a pretty good basketball player even now, and could’ve made a D1 college squad back in the day. I once considered stripping to make ends meet after finishing my doctorate (my eventual wife talked me out of it, a lot, while I gunned for a six-pack). But since at least the spring of 1981 (maybe, with Peanuts Land, the spring of 1979), I have been a storytelling, introspective, imagining-of-alternative-worlds-and-lives, mixing-fictional-techniques-with-my-real-life writer. It took me 21 years to admit that I was a writer, another decade to see myself as a writer first and foremost. That no matter the job or my roles in that job, that I was, am, and will always be a writer.

That was what motivated me to write Fear of a “Black” America and Boy @ The Window and then self-publish them, even as the process of researching and writing Boy @ The Window led me to uncover so many uncomfortable truths about me, my family, and the people I grew up around. Including the truth about my greatest failure, my refusal to dig out the splinter in my mind. The dual decision to not see myself as a writer and then to not dedicate myself spirit, soul, and body to my craft and calling until after turning 45. That’s my biggest regret, my daily frustration, my constant companion, buried just a few millimeters between my flesh and my bones.

Even when I finally push through, break through, blow up, and have any modest level of success as an author of x-number of books — and I will, because, me — I will continue to carry this deep well of what coulda and shoulda been. My need to credential myself, to make up for the loss of my childhood to poverty and domestic violence and child abuse, my desire for worth and work, my simple arrogance of youth. It nearly squeezed out the divine voice of purpose in my mind. More than once, it all drove me to the edge of the galaxy, where rage against the world, a lust for lust and self-destruction, and the sheer drop into the abyss of depression all intersect into a nebula of desperate insanity.

This is precisely why it is so important to have a crew, a group of folx who will not jump into the void with you, but instead will support you with critique and encouragement, and yes, love. Of course, I could not have transitioned from the burnout of the nonprofit world and the constant search for money to “change the world” into the constant search for income through freelance writer and teaching social justice through history and education without my wife. After years of watching bosses and co-workers get down on their knees to beg for money while they morphed the grassroots and systemic social justice work they really wanted to do into inchworm-paced “social change” models, I wanted out. I figured, consulting, occasionally teaching, and doing the work I truly wanted to do would be better.

Then, the Great Recession hit, and did a number on my permanent job prospects and consulting work. If someone had told me on verge of my 40th birthday that I would spend the next decade primarily working as contingent faculty at not one but two universities, I would have laughed until I cried. I would’ve also predicted that my wife would’ve handed me divorce papers. I didn’t die from woeful laughter, and my beloved did not demand that I move on.

But we did argue. One of those arguments led me to a “Fuck It” realization at the end of 2014. No one would ever offer me a permanent position at a university as faculty, not without offering me an administrator position first. And since the unofficial rules of the academy have never really applied to me and my writing, I had the right to publish anywhere, on any topic, even if and when other academicians — including some whom I had trained — looked at me like I was some tragic figure.

Along with some counterintuitive thinking about my eclectic writing skills and queer approaches to understanding the application of history and education in mainstream journalism, this new truth has been my resurrection and insurrection as a writer. Between The Guardian and Seven ScribesThe Atlantic, Huffington Post, and The Washington Post, and especially Al Jazeera English, I have come closest to being my truest and whole self outside of marriage, friendship, parenting, and my many moments in prayer.

I owe my wife for allowing me the space necessary to finally access my calling. But I also owe my small inner circle of folx who may not have always understood my journey and the decisions I made that led me to where I am at half-century. They’ve read my horrific drafts, heard my most hare-brained ideas, smiled through my most ludicrous of plans both before and during this bitter slog of a rollercoaster ride. I’m more than sure that some in my circle still don’t understand my end game. Mostly because there is some aspect of my whole self that I haven’t shared with them. Not only my desire as a writer. But my general desire to be excellent at everything, my quest to know everything, and my contradictory default of being scared of nearly everything, especially of whatever good moments I have had. Too many times, I have seen the anvil drop on or near me all too soon after drilling a three.

I think I have one more big run in me left. The proverbial they say that life is a marathon and not a sprint. They are wrong. Life is like a continuous basketball game, where one can be overmatched, but can take timeouts and make a series of 12-0 or 30-13 runs to tie the game or take the lead. I am in the midst of a run right now, as unexpected as living past the age of 30 was for me when I almost jumped off a bridge on my 14th birthday, 36 years ago.

I need the crew I have, and I could use some help from a few more folx who may want to join me on my journey into decade six. I’m gunning for a book contract for my American narcissism and American racism work. I’m looking for some career stability that takes advantage of my work in academia, in nonprofits, and in freelance writing. I’m looking to make sure that my son becomes the whole person he needs to be without spending the next 20 or 30 years kvetching about everything in the universe. I’m looking forward to spending more time traveling outside the US with him, with my wife, with others, and with myself. It’s time. It’s been time for 50 years.

My Thoughts on Cut-Throat Finals Week

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Death Race (2008) Dreadnought scene screen shot, December 17, 2019. (https://youtube.com).

I have seen some shady shit as a student and educator over the years. Between my middle school and high school magnet programs in Money Earnin’ Mount Vernon, my four years as an undergrad at the University of Pittsburgh, my three years of grad school course work at Pitt and at Carnegie Mellon, and my years of contingent teaching, I have seen students do everything short of killing me or killing their classmates for a higher grade.

This semester provided some new wrinkles (really, old wrinkles I haven’t seen since my Humanities days in the 1980s) that actually shocked me. All as I taught my 77th, 78th, 79th, and 80th classes in my roller-coaster of a teaching career. I have felt a certain way toward some of my most demanding, hold-my-hand-for-an-A, spoiled-brat students over the years. This semester, I found myself actually despising three in particular across two universities and four classes. By no means does my grading reflect what I think of them, as I assigned each of them the grades they earned. But really, there is no letter in the alphabet low enough for them that I could assign. At least, one in which I would ever feel fully satisfied. And that is all because they all made the decision to be cut-throat, toward me and toward their peers.

I fully understand the compulsion. Six years in a magnet program that was one part Benetton commercial and three parts Death Race — the Jason Statham version from 2008 — showed me George Orwell’s Animal Farm as a live-action drama set from 1981 to 1987. Students giving each other incorrect notes from which to study. Classmates telling each other they were going to fail a final, or that they didn’t belong in Humanities. One Class of ’87 star making sure to say to another that they were only getting into an elite school because they were Black.

Hazing, bullying, torture, ostracism, denigration were all part of my experience, and that was before we started taking AP courses! I even snickered when our valedictorian received a 67 on an English essay in 11th grade because she failed to underline the title of a James Baldwin book (either Go Tell It on the Mountain or The Fire Next Time, who can remember such mundanity nearly 34 years later). We became good friends for a while after high school — go figure!

So, it’s not like I couldn’t conceive of setting up a classmate to fail, using someone else’s better words to substitute for my gross and imperfect writing, or spending money to hire a tutor to study for an AP exam. I could’ve really done it, if I had the will and/or the wealth. I just wouldn’t do it. You know, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” It’s in Matthews, the first book of the Gospels in the New Testament. It’s one of the few tenets that I have tried hard to follow in all my years as a human being and as a Christian. (The tenets I follow consistently are universal ones, so please do not get your atheistic drawers all twisted.)

But not always. During finals week my second semester at Pitt, at the end of April 1988, I put that Golden Rule aside, and for good reason. During our two-hour, multiple-choice final exam in Roman History, I noticed him. A skinny, geeky White yinzer with dirty blond hair sitting behind me in the Cathedral of Learning lecture hall on the ground floor. I noticed him because I heard him, somewhere around the question 70 mark. The only time his pencil made a noise was after I had filled in a bubble with an answer. By question 75, I knew the dumb mf was cheating off my answer sheet.

Denzel Washington’s character putting corkscrew to throw/soft palate/brain cavity, The Equalizer (2014), December 17, 2019. (https://imdb.com).

So I did what my years in Mount Vernon and in Humanities had trained me for. I proceeded to answer the next 25 questions on this 100-question exam incorrectly on purpose. It was rich and dripping with caramel-chocolate-on-ripe-strawberries revenge! I knew every correct answer and just kept bubbling in one wrong one after another. And as sure as dog-shit peppering dirty snow piles on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in February, Mr. Yinzer bubbled in his answers right after mine.

Then, I stopped. I paused for a half-minute after bubbling in question 100. I picked up my big eraser, and frantically rubbed out my incorrect answers to each of those last 25 questions. Then I turned around, and gave the yinzer a “Gotcha!” look. He was pissed and scared, his face the pale color of white pastel paint mixed with water. I turned back around, and carefully bubbled in my correct answers for the last quarter of the exam.

After I got up to submit my exam to the professor, I walked up the steps toward the back of the lecture hall, passing Mr. Yinzer along the way. He shot me a look, one where he knew he was caught, like a rat in an old-style trap, about to die from the pain of asphyxiation and a broken neck. I rolled my eyes with the thought, That’s what you get, dumb muthafucka!

I am not proud of that moment. Sure, the yinzer deserved it. But, I could’ve reported it to the professor. I could have just covered my answer sheet up better. I could have confronted the student directly. I could have even let the student ride my coattails toward an A on his final exam. Instead, I went all cut-throat and ensured that this student failed his final. In what way am I really better than him when I helped an academically drowning classmate swallow more water while holding his head down?

I know. What I did may seem milquetoast on the scale between blatant cheating and the viral slut-shaming of a peer with whom you are in academic competition. But that’s the point. None of this should be acceptable. My A in the course would not have changed, and Mr. Yinzer would still have struggled academically even if had succeeded at cheating on this one exam.

At just 10 days before I turn 50, I have figured out what I hate, actually hate, about other humans. I hate habitual liars, especially the ones who regularly lie to themselves while telling me their lies. I hate elitist assholery, even from those whom I admire, even from among my friends. I hate cheating, and those who think they can get away with it. I hate brown-nosing, as I smell this shit from a mile away. Now, I despise those who would eat A’s and A-‘s for their three squares a day before recognizing that education is about much more than a high grade an a job to pay off their student loans. Education is about freedom, having and making good choices, and finding yourself a crew that you can rely on and can rely on you long after graduation. Those who think otherwise are as lost as Dr. Manhattan caught in a quantum vortex.