We’ve Got 45 Problems and…

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President Donald Trump prior to his 2016 presidential run, holding up a replica flintlock rifle awarded by cadets at the Republican Society Patriot Dinner, The Citadel, Charleston, SC, February 22, 2015. (Richard Ellis/Getty Images).

President Donald Trump prior to his 2016 presidential run, holding up a replica flintlock rifle awarded by cadets at the Republican Society Patriot Dinner, The Citadel, Charleston, SC, February 22, 2015. (Richard Ellis/Getty Images).

To quote from Jay-Z is hard for me. The only song I like with him rappin’ is Foxy Brown’s “I’ll Be” (1996), which should tell any Jay-Z fan that I’ve never gotten him or his hold on the rap world. Still, here I am, sort-of-quoting from a Jay-Z production from 2004, “99 Problems.” Except, the real problem number is 45, and the millions of other 45s he represents (hat tip to Laurence Fishburne via The Daily Show for what to call the orange turd-ball). Donald J. Trump and his followers are the epitome of all that ails the US.

Trump’s recent executive order to ban Arab Muslims and Africans with Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, Sudanese, Yemeni, Somali, and Libyan citizenship is one of the worst attempts to roll back human rights in the US in recent years. But there were complementary responses as well. The burning down of the Islamic Center of Victoria in Texas a day after Trump issued his unconstitutional order. The French-Canadian Alexandre Bissonnette’s terrorist attack on praying Muslims, killing six and wounding eight at their mosque in Quebec City within 72 hours of Trump’s ill-conceived, remorseless, unlawful Muslim ban.

All prove one of the truisms of American (and Canadian) society. The terrorists Americans should worry about the most historically, indirectly through policy, and directly through bullying trolls and violent actions are heterosexual White males. No border wall, no Muslim Ban, no immigration quotas, no guest worker policy, no War on Terror, no War on Drugs, no stop and frisk, no abortion ban, no gerrymandering, no EPA gag order, no TPP withdrawal, no NAFTA renegotiation, will protect us from this mob of not-so-random terror. Their leader is 45. And like a man with a Colt .45, Trump is intent on asserting his and their superiority, through institutional policies and our deaths, if necessary.

If someone reading is a heterosexual White male, please note that if you are offended, you should be. Not because of my words. You should only be offended if you recognize the lethal privilege that many White males enjoy. That as police officers, they (and, with greater frequency, officers of color) get to arrest, beat, maim, and murder, and with few or no consequences to face. As vigilantes, often with lesser charges and less jail time. It helps these White males that the media attempts to give a full retrospective on the life of a Dylann Roof, a Michael Dunn, a George Zimmerman, a James Holmes, a Jared Lee Loughner, and so many others. Their terrorism becomes an issue of their alleged mental illness, or a “young man” somehow “losing his way.” Americans are always supposed to understand why the archetype of the master race glitches, as if their psychological and racial privilege isn’t the real culprit. As rapists, White males can expect the media to treat them with kid gloves, to the point of calling a rapist like Brock Turner the “ex-Stanford swimmer.” His rape act was “very objectionable,” but of course, the Brock Turners of America are also completely redeemable. At least, that’s what White males (and many White females) would say.

Racist jugate ribbon promoting the 1868 Democratic ticket of Horatio Seymour and Francis Blair (losers to Gen. Ulysses Grant), under the motto, "This is a White Man's Country." (http://oldpoliticals.com).

Racist jugate ribbon promoting the 1868 Democratic ticket of Horatio Seymour and Francis Blair (losers to Gen. Ulysses Grant), under the motto, “This is a White Man’s Country.” (http://oldpoliticals.com).

Please recognize that for Native American tribes from coastal Virginia to Athabascan central Alaska, White males have been the ultimate terrorists. White males led the charge to spill Native American blood on every acre that is the US. Black African sweat and blood runs deep in the red clay soils of Georgia and the deep brown dirt of Mississippi. The crimes within slavery are too numerous to list here, but the reduction of Native American numbers from at least 10 million in 1600 to about 250,000 by 1900 is evidence by itself. White men reduced wild buffalo populations from 30 million to 300 in 30 years to starve American Indians, end their ways of life, and force them onto the marginal lands that are for many their reservations today.

Policies to provide oligarchic power to White males is all part of this history. Andrew Jackson’s “Age” did more than give non-propertied adult White males the right to vote. It gave ordinary, non-slave-owning White males the right to oppress others, legally. The Hayes-Tilden compromise of 1876 allowed treasonous Confederate White males back into power, despite their anti-Black equality and lynching ways. All in the name of unifying the country. Woodrow Wilson segregated the federal civil service in 1913, to all but exclude Blacks from serving as no more than street sweepers, domestic servants, and doormen. White men led race riots to burn down Black homes and businesses in Memphis, East St. Louis, Houston, Harlem, Washington, DC, Chicago, Detroit, Tulsa, Rosewood, Florida, and so many other places between 1866 and 1943. Congress passed the 1917, 1921, and 1924 immigration laws to set up quotes to exclude all but White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) from large-scale immigration to the US.

In more recent times, the mass shootings and bombings also belong to White males. Charles Whitman, the Texas Tower Shooter, killed 16 (14 during his University of Texas at Austin rampage) and wounded 31 (one of whom died from his injuries in 2001) before police killed him in August 1966. Need I even go into detail about Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995? Or about Columbine? What about the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, or Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012?

But hey, 45 wants to protect Americans from potential terrorist threats, no? If 45 and his White male supporters and like-minded sycophants want to protect all Americans, they need to look in the mirror. They should consider doing “extreme vetting” on any White male whose Twitter avatar is a trolling egg, or whose Facebook page includes swastikas, or any White male whom voted for Trump. This is a “White man’s country,” after all. At least, that’s what these people keep saying.

Lit on Moonlight

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Moonlight (2016) poster, October 2016. (Film Fan via Wikipedia; orig. A24). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright law as illustration of subject/review of film.

Moonlight (2016) poster, October 2016. (Film Fan via Wikipedia; orig. A24). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright law as illustration of subject/review of film.

I finally, finally saw Moonlight with the wife and son at AFI Silver Spring yesterday, months after the in-crowd had already seen it and attempted to spoil it for the rest of us. It was excellent. The cinematography, the loud and incredible silences, the small moments, when actors just being in the moment with their facial expressions did more than any dialogue could to move me and anyone else watching. Mahershala Ali was only in five scenes. But his first scene set the tone for the whole movie. As Juan, Ali channeled both the need for hard hypermasculinity and the vulnerable fragility of such in just one scene. His time with the youngest version of Chiron made me laugh, cry, sad, and angry, and left me wondering if I’ve seen this much intimacy between Black man and Black boy on screen before. I know I have (Antwone Fisher, The Wire, even Roots comes to mind), but on-screen doesn’t reflect this anti-stereotypical slice of truth nearly as often as it should.

Moonlight snap shot (cropped), Mahershala Ali and Alex Hibbert, October 23, 2015. (http://variety.com).

Moonlight snap shot (cropped), Mahershala Ali and Alex Hibbert, October 23, 2015. (http://variety.com).

Yet I was also not as impressed as I expected to be. Not because I didn’t like the performances — I loved them. I thought every actor in the film was legit, every scene was moving in some way. Naomie Harris I’ve been fond of for years, André Holland and Janelle Monáe’s work I already knew, and Trevante Rhodes and Barry Jenkins, well, the two need bigger platforms for doing more great work. Moonlight wasn’t a film. It was a collage, a kaleidoscope of precious moments, blood-churning episodes, and tender images. Jenkins’ treatment of coming-of-age, Black boyhood into manhood, and Black masculinity, hypermasculinity, and vulnerability was avant-garde.

Still, I felt like I’d seen Moonlight before. Or, really, lived parts of Moonlight in my own past. No, I did not befriend an older, Afro-Cuban crack dealer in 1990s Miami, have a drug-addicted, abusive mother, or have a group of kids chase me around and beat me up off and on for ten years. But I didn’t look at the world the same way as my peers. I didn’t sound like a Noo Yawker, walk and talk and code switch like Denzel Washington, or try to fit in like so many of my 616 neighbors and my Mount Vernon school mates during my growing up years. And I paid for it, dearly, with few friends before I turned eleven, and no friends in the six years before I went off to the University of Pittsburgh.

But on Chiron and that most pernicious issue of hypermasculinity, the need to be hard all the time, I’ve been there too. I’d been called “faggot” (or in my father’s case, “faggat”) enough times to occasionally question my own sexual orientation growing up. My senior year at MVHS one day, I hit a three-run homer during a softball game in gym class. It wasn’t the first time I’d done that. But for one Jamaican dude, me drilling a ball 350 feet off his slow fastball was an affront. He called me a “faggot” after the game, and threatened to wait for me after school with a machete to chop me, adding “bumbaclot mon” at the end of his threat. I left school as normal and waited for him. He was lucky he didn’t show up that day.

Me at 16, Mount Vernon High School ID, Mount Vernon, New York, November 1985, March 21, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

Me at 16, Mount Vernon High School ID, Mount Vernon, New York, November 1985, March 21, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

You see, my rage didn’t need years to build up. All before I’d finally lose it one day, and take out a bully with a wooden chair and break it across his back, like the way Chiron did at the end of II of Moonlight. I didn’t have bullies at school per se. There were a couple I dealt with at 616, but they weren’t regular. Many folks would make a crack, but generally left me along. Any bullying I faced in high school was completely random and momentary, because I stood up for myself. Because if I could face down a six-foot-one, Isshin-ryn black belt of an abuser in my idiot stepfather Maurice, a stupid football player was gonna get hurt trying to hurt me.

No, the bullying I faced was in middle school, from a bunch of overwhelmed and racist Italian classmates in Humanities. I’ve named them in Boy @ The Window and here in this blog before. Alex, Anthony N., Andrew, Anthony Z., etc, the Italian Club. That things were much, much worse at home meant that I saw them as background noise. There was always a part of me, though, that had enough rage, even in seventh grade, to take a desk and smash Anthony N.’s head in with it until his fuckin’ Italian brains spread out all over the floor and walls!

I ended up beating up a wannabe bully in JD that year instead. I won kufi battles in eighth and ninth grade. I wore a blank face that most of my more dumb ass classmates interpreted as a smile. I made plans to get out, because I never wanted to fit in. I was already awake, coping with the day-to-day, but in it for the long-term. I had that President Barack Obama, audacity-of-hope-beyond-failure, beyond reality thing goin’. When I saw Chiron as played by Ashton Sanders, I wanted to hug him, beat up his bullies for him, and tell him that you can love who you want to love, even if they never love you back. And to always, always be your best self, and not some “I don’t want to feel pain again” version.

Too Close for Comfort

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Skyline of downtown Houston from Sabine Park, Houston, Texas, July 15, 2010. (Jujutacular via Wikipedia). Permission granted via GNU Free Documentation License.

Skyline of downtown Houston from Sabine Park, Houston, Texas, July 15, 2010. (Jujutacular via Wikipedia). Permission granted via GNU Free Documentation License.

My Mom and my Uncle Sam are in Houston, Texas/Bradley, Arkansas this week, burying their father and my grandfather, who died ten days ago, just three weeks after his 97th birthday. Given what they’ve told me so far, it seems like they’ve been treated as outsiders by my extended family of uncles, aunts, grand uncles and aunts, and cousins that I barely know or whom I’ve never met. They’ve learned some embarrassing stuff as well, details that I will not go into here. I had been conflicted about going versus not going, especially given that I’d only met my grandfather once, in June 2001, and that wasn’t a pleasant visit, at least environmentally speaking. After the past few days, I’m definitely glad I didn’t go.

My Mom and my Uncle Sam Gill, Jr., Mount Vernon, NY, November 23, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins).

My Mom and my Uncle Sam Gill, Jr., Mount Vernon, NY, November 23, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins).

I do feel bad for my Mom and Uncle Sam, though. And not just the natural empathy of feeling for your kin when their father passes away either. I feel for them because they are part of a family dynamic that has gone on for nearly a half-century without their input and with a limited bit of shunning as well. Some of this may well be deliberate, but most of this is natural, as time and distance has meant limited understanding and inclusion between my uncles and aunts with the New York Gills since the time of my birth in 1969. But some of this is about embarrassment, too. My Mom and my Uncle Sam’s lives haven’t exactly been a bowl of pitted cherries with whipped cream, either.

This is a topic that I’ve known all too well with my own family over the past three decades. One example would be the next to last day of 1988, the first year in which I rediscovered myself as someone other than an emotionally wounded twelve-year-old. It was a day of both eye-opening lies and hidden truths, a moment of unexpected boldness and moments of seeing familiar faces and places with different eyes.

It was the day my friend and former high school classmate Laurell decided to pick me up from 616 to spend time with her, as well as her friend Nicole, our former eighth-grade Algebra teacher Jeanne Longerano, and eventually, our mutual acquaintances JD and Josh. It was a day I was forced to code switch, to traverse my 616 world, my former Humanities world, and maintain my new conception of myself at the same time. It wasn’t exactly my Miles Davis moment:

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-11-01-32-am

What I discuss in different parts of Boy @ The Window, but not in this particular scene, was the exact nature of “too disgusting” at 616. Let’s see. Blotches of gray and black stains on a salmon-colored area rug around a 19-inch television set in the living room. On top of the rug was my then stepfather Maurice who was laid out in nothing but his size-54 underwear. This meant that most of his 400-plus pound fatty bulk was exposed for anyone to see. A cobble of broken down sofas, busted chairs, and a

Deepwater Horizon oil spill aerial, Gulf of Mexico, May 6, 2010. (Reuters/Daniel Beltra via Flickr, http://motherjones.com).

Deepwater Horizon oil spill aerial, Gulf of Mexico, May 6, 2010 (same color as area rug with stains). (Reuters/Daniel Beltra via Flickr, http://motherjones.com).

kitchen table with hanger wire connecting each of its three remaining legs to the tabletop. Kitchen, hallway, and bathroom walls stained with grape jelly, crayons, and even feces. Dust balls the size of Matchbox cars in the hallway, lined up as if in rush-hour traffic. And the never-ending smell of cigarette smoke, overused cooking oil, and farts from eight human beings between the ages of four and forty-one. Seriously, what would anyone else have done under the circumstances, especially now that I was a fully awake college-aged student? I wasn’t acting just out of embarrassment or just to protect my Mom from embarrassment. I was acting to protect Laurell as well.

Contrast 616 with what happened next on December 30, 1988, between The Price is Right’s first Showcase Showdown and the end of The Bold and the Beautiful on CBS (roughly, between 11:25 am and 2 pm):

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-10-05-18-am

Afterward, we went down the street to the nearest pizza shop, and hung out until midafternoon, telling each other what we thought would be the best thing to say. Even me. I didn’t talk about homelessness, or a semester without money for food, or living in a deathtrap in the South Oakland section of Pittsburgh. Laurell did give me a heartfelt hug after dropping me off at 616, still puzzled about why I wouldn’t let her and Nicole visit with my family. Hopefully, after years as a high school math teacher, she understands better now.

Biohazard symbol (orange), May 29, 2009. (Nandhp via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Biohazard symbol (orange), May 29, 2009. (Nandhp via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Even though my Mom and Uncle Sam are obviously just as much Gill as the rest of my extended family in Texas, Arkansas (and Washington State, Louisiana, and elsewhere), they’re not part of the everyday that my other uncles, aunts, grand aunts and uncles, and cousins have had with each other for decades. So the extended Gills cannot see my Mom and my uncle and their struggles the same way they see their own. Nor can my extended Gills see those things that may be embarrassing to my Mom and my uncle the same way either. It makes for a bewildering family dynamic. And this in many ways explains well why so many families have a hard time being families, in the closeness (and closest) meaning of the word.

Dysfunction is so much a part of families these days. but even in dysfunction, you can learn truths about yourself, especially in moments of life, death, and in my case, rebirth.

Yes, I’m A Sexist Feminist

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Hostile vs. Benevolent Sexism, March 10, 2015. (http://www.dailymail.co.uk).

Hostile vs. Benevolent Sexism, March 10, 2015. (http://www.dailymail.co.uk).

I finished up a chapter in Boy @ The Window with the closest approximation to my contemporaneous thoughts about Phyllis (a.k.a., “Crush #2” at times on this blog) in August 1988:

screen-shot-2016-12-27-at-7-43-51-am

I must’ve rewritten these two paragraphs at least a half-dozen times before putting the book out for limited consumption. The thought process that I went through at eighteen years old bothered me then, and looking at the words even today leaves me wanting. Probably because there is more than a bit of sexism contained within these words.

But I wasn’t wrong, of course, not in ’88, not when I wrote and rewrote these paragraphs between 2007 and 2011, and not now, at least in terms of how I perceived things then. While I believed in reproductive rights, in equal pay for equal work, and in passing the Equal Rights Amendment growing up, I also believed in saving damsels from distress and in distinguishing between “ladies” and “bitches.” Or, as my father put it when he argued with my Mom in front of me when I was four years old, “You’s a black bit’!” Or, my contradiction could’ve fully formed when my father tried to set me up with a prostitute a couple of weeks before my seventeenth birthday, in December 1986.

There was no way in 1988 I could’ve understood the contradictions between the idea of feminism (in any form) and the notion of “being a nice guy.” I hadn’t been exposed, or, rather, exposed myself to Paula Giddings, Elsa Barkley Brown, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, bell hooks, Maya Angelou, Angela Davis, and Zora Neale Hurston. I hadn’t yet been engaged in the hundreds of conversations I’d eventually have with women folk I’d become friends with, people with whom I bonded because of their suffering, people from whom I’d hidden my own suffering during those years. Date rape, physical abuse, the more typical abuse of serial cheating, among other issues. With many of these women, I recognized the sexism and misogyny I saw in myself in 1988, and saw them again when I wrote down my contemporaneous thoughts in Boy @ The Window. It didn’t occur to me until the mid-1990s that women could be just as sexist and misogynistic as men, and often could pass down their notions of masculinity and patriarchy to their children. And that thought scared me.

Imprisoned brain (or, maybe, Culture Club and "Church of the Poison Mind" [1983]), December 27, 2016. (http://mdjunction.com).

Imprisoned brain (or, maybe, Culture Club and “Church of the Poison Mind” [1983]), December 27, 2016. (http://mdjunction.com).

It scared me because I realized I may have learned more of my contradictions from my Mom than from my father or idiot ex-stepfather. After all, she was the one constant in my parenting, the one person who engaged me in ideas like chivalry and manliness, who through her acquiescence to Maurice might have made it okay for me to see women, especially Black women (and to a lesser extent, Latina women) as ones in need of help, even when they decide not to take it.

And it may have made it okay for me to see myself as the victim in my incident with Dahlia in June 1987, when I accidentally (the first time), and later deliberately smacked her on her left butt cheek. Maybe I was the victim in a way, at least of my own deluded thought process. And there hasn’t been a time in the past twenty-nine and a half years in which I haven’t regretted that second, deliberate slap, in response to Dahlia accusing of thoughts I didn’t have, because my only obsession in 1987 was Phyllis. I’ve said and written this before, including in Boy @ The Window. To Dahlia, I am so sorry.

Beijing smog alert, Beijing, China, December 6, 2016. (http://ibtimes.com).

Beijing smog alert, Beijing, China, December 6, 2016. (http://ibtimes.com).

I may never be the perfect intersectional womanist feminist I’ve tried to be since I told my Mom to abort my future (and since deceased) sister in 1982. I still believe that professional women’s tennis players should play best-of-five-set matches at the Gram Slam tournaments. I think more women — particularly White women — should stop calling themselves feminists if their feminism stops when dealing with women of color or poor women in general. I think that most men who aren’t feminists are assholes. But I also know that, just like with racism (as now well noted by Ibram Kendi) and with narcissism (my next project, maybe), sexist ideas are as pervasive as smog in L.A. and Beijing. I don’t have to like it or accept it, but I do have to accept that I am a man, and I will make mistakes, including sexist ones. I will have to own up, and keep trying to do better.

Christmas is Carnage!

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A white duck? goose?, December 25, 2016. (http://pinterest.com).

A white duck? goose?, December 25, 2016. (http://pinterest.com).

One of the funniest lines in Babe (1995) comes from Ferdinand the duck (who kind of looks like a goose) yelling just before Christmas Day, “Christmas means carnage!,” as he hoped to avoid A. Hoggett’s chopping block for making duck a l’orange. But really, that’s what this holiday has felt like for me for years.

Saying “Jesus is the reason for the season” doesn’t quite help, because that’s only partly true. All the actual evidence points to Jesus’ birthday being either in April or August, not the Winter solstice. The combination of a celebration of Jesus’ birth with either the Saturnalia festivals or the “birthday of the unconquered sun” (sol invictus) commemorations via Constantine and other Roman emperors (take your pick), led to Christmas becoming a December 25th tradition in Europe, the Middle East, and Northern/East Africa. And all of this became formalized by the end of the fourth century CE. So while I believe in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and what Jesus stood for while walking among humans, I don’t see Christmas as a strictly religious, spiritual, or Christian holiday.

The Queen's Christmas tree, Windsor Castle (steel engraving), published in The Illustrated London News, 1848, in "Godey's Lady's Book," December 1850 . (Wetman via Wikipedia). In public domain.

The Queen’s Christmas tree, Windsor Castle (steel engraving), published in The Illustrated London News, 1848, in Godey’s Lady’s Book, December 1850. (Wetman via Wikipedia). In public domain.

That’s because of how the holiday came to dominate much of the world. The myth-making in the UK and the US between 1820 and 1870 helped turn an inconsistently celebrated holiday for Jesus’ birth, community, family, and some gift-giving into capitalism at its best and worst. That the Christmas tree didn’t become a common part of the holiday until Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert began taking an annual picture of themselves around a tree in 1850 was a function of German influences and British imperialism, not just the beauty of a decorated tree. Christmas cards didn’t become normalized until a German immigrant to the US thought he could make a fortune selling cards for people to mail each other, in the 1860s and 1870s. Congress didn’t make Christmas a federal holiday until 1870, and did so in an attempt to reunite the country around the common idea of Christmas as a form of family healing. Enacted five years after the Civil War and the loss of 620,000 lives, the Christmas holiday was one thing that formerly slave-owning Southerners and anti-slavery/anti-Black Northerners could agree on.

The British and later American influences on the world — military, geopolitical, economic, and popular culture — made the holiday into the trillion-dollar business that is today. You do not have to be Christian, Muslim, or even Jewish to celebrate the holiday, because while Jesus is important to tens of millions, it is not the unifying theme, and hasn’t been for decades. Commercials and other ads, endless rounds of shopping for the latest in high-tech electronics, the near-global slaughtering of spruce and fir trees, turkeys, chickens, sheep, goats, geese, and yes, ducks. That has been the main theme of Christmas for most, It’s A Wonderful Life’s (1946) annual re-broadcast on NBC notwithstanding.

The bridge scene in It's A Wonderful Life, where James Stewart's character's was contemplating suicide, 1946. (http://salon.com).

The bridge scene in It’s A Wonderful Life, where James Stewart’s character’s was contemplating suicide, 1946. (http://salon.com).

I am not bah-humbugging out about the holiday, though. I just want to remind people to not wallow too much in the mythology they tend to believe is universal about the holiday, because most of what people believe about Christmas is at best only one-third true. The fact is, some folks do bug out this time of the year, from loneliness, from a daily reminder during this season that they are the have-nots in a holiday myth built on fables of abundance. And some people attempt to and actually succeed in checking out — some permanently — this time of the year. I should know, because I almost did thirty-three years ago.

And with social media, we reinforce these tensions of economic inequality, of moralistic exclusion, of reading more spiritual meaning into a holiday that has been a big driver of consumer capitalism for nearly 150 years. We essentially stick up middle fingers at those whose families are distant and dysfunctional. We basically blow raspberries at those who do not have enough resources to do much more than provide the basics for themselves and their loved one, with many more having even less. And we shun those who have the audacity to point out the hypocrisy that is the annual holiday season.

Christmas for me has only been a holiday for me because of my younger siblings (when they were just kids, between 1988 and 1996) and because of my wife and now teenage son. I went nearly a decade of my life without Christmas trees, cards, and gifts, a combination of being a Hebrew-Israelite and abject poverty between 1979 and 1988. So despite the temptations of being in this capitalist world and somewhat of it, Christmas is only a big deal to me because of kids and their vulnerability during this time of year. Otherwise, a moment of thanksgiving and prayer, well-prepared food (but not a Saturnalia feast’s worth), and being around those who truly love and care about me is really all I’ve ever needed. That folks may only get a facsimile of this, and only around holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas (if at all), is part of the carnage that is Christmas.

This, by the way, is what all of us need, every day, Christmas or not. So, Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, and Merry Kwanzaa, but let’s pay it forward, too!

Go Greyhound (only when you can’t afford anything else)

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Screen shot of December 1988 calendar, December 17, 2016. (http://timeanddate.com).

Screen shot of December 1988 calendar, December 17, 2016. (http://timeanddate.com).

It amazes me sometimes when I look at a date on a calendar and not only know I was doing at that time years and decades ago. It is uncanny sometimes how similar the weather is on a specific date versus the same date and time from another year of my nearly forty-seven.

So it is with today, a cold and freezing wet day, not only here in the DMV, but also in Pittsburgh. It’s not as cold as it was on Saturday, December 17, 1988, when lake-effect snow was pouring down on Eastern Ohio, Western New York, and Western Pennsylvania. But dreary is dreary anyway. Despite the weather, I was grateful after making it through a semester that began in homelessness, continued in foodless-ness, and ended with new friendships and with enough money to hang out for the first time in well over a year. I had aced my courses in spite of it all, faced down my Mom in changing my academic and career course to history, and felt like Pitt, if not Pittsburgh, had become my home for the first time. Thirteen months after the second of two rebuffs from my high school classmate Phyllis, I was finally, finally, self-aware of my emotional and psychological scars enough to want to begin the long, painful, and difficult work of healing.

So why couldn’t I sleep the night before my first Greyhound trip from Pittsburgh to New York?

Greyhound Bus and blizzard, Vancouver, BC, Canada, circa 2015. (http://huffingtonpost.com).

Greyhound Bus and blizzard, Vancouver, BC, Canada, circa 2015. (http://huffingtonpost.com).

There was something different about this, though. I couldn’t go to sleep, even though I was absolutely exhausted. I wasn’t supposed to catch a bus until eight o’clock that morning, but I gave up getting sleep at five-thirty. I went out in a snowstorm to catch a PAT-Transit bus downtown, and walked over from Grant to the Greyhound Bus terminal. I didn’t think we were going anywhere the way the snow was coming down, but we left on time for New York City. Good thing for us that the bus was a non-stopper between Pittsburgh and Philly.

On the bus and across from me was a young Black woman with a Brooklyn accent. She was as pretty as anyone I’d seen in the previous seven years. But I was so tired that I kept to myself. Despite our driver’s attempts to kill us all by going at near ninety an hour on the part of the Pennsylvania Turnpike that crossed the Allegheny Mountains, I slept for a couple of hours, playing Phil Collins, Peter Cetera, Brenda Russell and Kenny G throughout.

I suppose I was antsy about going back to New York, to Mount Vernon, to 616, to the life of constantly looking over my shoulder and looking at myself through the eyes of my former classmates and neighbors. After finally rediscovering the real me, and finally beginning the process of putting away the coping strategy, Boy-@-The-Window-me, I was going back into the third armpit of hell for the next nineteen days. Or, maybe it was my terrible taste in music (except for Phil Collins, of course)!

I also had unfinished business. Now that I realized I could trust myself again, at least in part, what did everything mean? Could I sustain friendships? Would I know how to date? Can I reconcile what kind of Christian I could be in a secular, scholarly world? What would being a history major mean for me by the time I graduated in 1991? Why does this woman across from my seat keep staring at me?

Once I woke up, I looked over at her and struck up a conversation. We talked from central Pennsylvania to Philly and from there to New York. She was a second-year medical student at Wayne State University in Detroit, and was in between boyfriends. We talked about our families and our growing up in and around the big city. She was the first person to tell me, “Anything above 125th Street is upstate, don’t’cha know?,” referencing Mount Vernon. It was a long and wonderful conversation, and if I hadn’t been embarrassed by 616, I would’ve asked her out. She didn’t give me the chance to think about it. She gave me her number and said, ‘You don’t have to call, but I really would like it if you did.’

Rhiannon Griffith-Bowman smokes an e-cigarette, San Rafael, CA, April 16, 2015. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images; http://washingtonpost.com).

Rhiannon Griffith-Bowman smokes an e-cigarette, San Rafael, CA, April 16, 2015. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images; http://washingtonpost.com).

I should’ve given her a call, but I didn’t. I was scared, not of her, but of being my better self while at 616. I had no idea how to do the dating thing when I had to be around my idiot stepfather and his size-54, 450-pound, greasy, abusive personage. Or my Mom, who spent every waking moment either singing God’s praises (literally) or hatching plots with my input to find another way to drive my stepfather out of 616 once and for all. Or my siblings, four of which were now between the ages of four and nine, and my older brother Darren, who might as well been a six-foot-five thirteen-year-old. My Mom and Maurice smoked up a storm. There were evenings where they would have farting contests, with legs lifted up in the air, as if they were part of a nasty, stupid comedy routine! There was no way I could handle the psychological code switching I’d have to do just to hang out, not at almost nineteen years old, and with a woman four years older than me.

Looking back, I realized I had deeply over-thought the situation, that I could’ve just had tunnel vision and done what I wanted to do, and not involve myself with any 616 drama that Xmas/New Year’s break. But I couldn’t do that, not yet. My sexist, damsel-in-distress syndrome was still more powerful than any of my other sexist, misogynistic, or even feminist tendencies. Even with all that, the first of my Greyhound bus trips was easily the most important one I went on.

A Story of My Life

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One of dozen of rags-to-riches falsehoods from Gilded Age author Horatio Nelson (1832-1899). (http://www.pavillionpress.com).

One of dozen of rags-to-riches falsehoods from Gilded Age author Horatio Nelson (1832-1899). (http://www.pavillionpress.com).

That one of the not-so-small miracles of my young adult life from ’88 and me completing my dissertation process in ’96 are just a day apart on the November calendar every year is a story unto itself. Between a month before my nineteen birthday and a month before my twenty-seventh, I went from a semester of homelessness, lack of money for food and rent and living in a firetrap to finishing up a doctorate in history. If this were someone else’s story, I’d think that amazing, even almost unbelievable. At the time, I was so worn out and beat up by Joe Trotter, my dissertation committee, and the scars accumulated over that eight-year — really, twenty-year — period, that the idea of seeing myself as an American example of a Horatio Nelson story would’ve likely made me angry enough to spit blood.

Even now, I don’t and won’t see myself as exceptional. That’s that American bullshit about rags-to-riches stories, about being-a-credit-to-my-race tropes, that I’d be subscribing to here. What I really was back then was young and hungry. So young that I was willing to put up with all kinds of people’s baggage, taking near-minimum wage jobs, allowing people to call me out of my name, excusing racist comments and actions. All because I wanted the brass ring, for myself and for my family. I was already hungry, from years in poverty, from years without friendship bonds, from years of people not recognizing my, dare I say, brilliance. I had a chip on my shoulder, but it wasn’t because I was mad. I was after a righteous reckoning.

Two decades removed from those Carnegie Mellon days, and approaching thirty years since Ron Slater and my band of new friends kept me in money and food during Thanksgiving ’88 and beyond, and I am thankful. I am thankful that I am no longer either of those versions of myself. The one too afraid to ask for help, and the one too naive to realize that the America I believed in for so long never existed. I am thankful that I know more about asking for and providing help, about understanding that in this America, help might never arrive, at least when folks most need it. I am thankful mostly that I still have optimism, I still have drive, and I still have people who like and love me enough to remind me that a few of America’s giga-pixels are worth savoring.