This is the first of a series of essays and posts that I am doing this month about my journey as a writer, an educator, and a fool over the past four decades, simultaneously between Medium and my blog. I hope to educate, to entertain, to make people laugh and cry laughing, but (hopefully) not to feel too sorry for me. I am who I am, a work still in progress, even as my knees and my neck ache, even as my mind and spirit are exhausted. Still, I want to fly. “Ain’t that crazy?,” to quote music artist Seal, this as his song “Crazy” turns 30 this week.
Serving as a contingent faculty member at two different universities with few benefits, few avenues for promotion, and having lived through one obsequious toad for a supervisor after another year after year? This was not how I imagined my life would end up by the time I reached middle age. I didn’t even think I’d make it to 30 when I was a fourteen-year-old, so there’s that. But when I was 11 in 1981, I did discover my first true calling. I wanted to be a writer, what kind of a writer, I wasn’t sure. But after two years of reading World Book Encyclopedia and more than 40 college-level or higher books on World War II — mostly by British authors — I was ready to write something. That spring, I wrote a 500-word essay as part of a city-wide writing contest in Mount Vernon, New York, back in the days when this New York City suburb had its own separate newspaper, the Mount Vernon Daily Argus. I don’t remember what they asked us K-12 students to write about, probably something civic-minded and somewhat trite. But I finished second overall out of hundreds of entries. The first-place winner was a high school junior. I won something, on my first try, too. Yay, me!
I got a note in the Daily Argus, along with an invitation to an awards ceremony at A. B. Davis Middle School that June, where a photographer took my picture and a representative from the newspaper handed me a $15 check. Technically, this was the first time someone paid me for my writing. This wouldn’t happen again until I was a doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh. Between that and me introducing the keynote speaker for our graduating class of sixth-graders earlier that morning — the eventual Mount Vernon mayor Ernest Davis — I was truly inspired. I thought, for the first time in my life, This is MY gift! I want to write! I want to be a writer!
I went for it a week after graduation. I decided that I would write a book about the latest in American military hardware and how this would create the most efficient killing machine “in the history of mankind.” I wrote about the prototypes of the B1 and B2 bomber and bomber-fighter planes. I wrote about the prototype of the original M1 Abrams tank, which had recently come into service. I even jotted down paragraphs on ICBMs (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles) MX and MX2s and SLBMs (Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles), the Trident-class missiles and the Ohio-class submarines being built to house them. Unbelievably, I wrote a letter to the Pentagon to get pictures of these machines of destruction, and they obliged me with more than a dozen color photos a month later. I was sure that at least two pictures were classified.
By the time my mom had birthed my then youngest sibling Yiscoc (this is a form of Hebrew for Isaac), and my next youngest brother Maurice had turned two, both at the end of July, I had written 48 pages of what was to be a nearly 100-page book. It wasn’t a children’s book. I wrote about the modern United States military and its ability to wage a traditional war and a tactical nuclear war, and what that meant for the rest of the world. And then I hit a wall, and fell into a sinkhole somewhere in Florida. I couldn’t reconcile my fascination with these weapons and the tens of millions of people who could be killed by such weapons. My 11-year-old mind could not grapple with the real-life consequences of such expensive and deadly military hardware. And as a still immature preteen, I didn’t want to consider the vaporizing and pulverizing ugly side of military weaponry. After more than a week of trying to move into another section of this book, I stopped at 52 hand-written pages. It was mid-August, and middle school and all the hell that would come with it was just three weeks away.
Did I mention that as I wrote my first book in the summer of 1981, my stepfather had converted me and my siblings and my mother to Judaism, making us Hebrew-Israelites, without asking me or my 13-year-old older brother Darren for our opinion? Or that I was a month away from social suicide in the classroom, in the magnet program I would be a part of for the next six years, all because I had to wear a kufi outside our two-bedroom apartment? Or that the Carter-Reagan years and two more kids had left my mom broke, and us without food in the house on the regular? All of this was in process even as I was writing my summer away. It would be one of the only times in my life where being blissfully ignorant of the future while pursuing my gift as a writer with all of my heart and mind was such luxurious joy. Where time itself was as abundant as all the atoms in the universe.
I lost my way after that. The growing-up years had already been brutal, between a sexual assault I endured at six and a half, a suicide attempt, and years of therapy my mom administered with homophobia and a belt. With us sinking into welfare poverty, no food at home a third of the time, and my bullying, constant threatening no-good stepfather, my childhood love for reading and writing would take a beating. And still, when I emerged from the eight years of constant abuse to see my true face in my mind’s mirror, I still saw a writer. And then I lost my way, again. This time, to academia, to career-chasing, to chasing dollars, to the responsibilities of living an adult life.
My story is one of constantly denying who I am as a writer, and paying for it with blood, tears, and a damaged spirit, every single time. It doesn’t matter if I am a particularly good writer or a mediocre and overwrought one. After all, there are horrible writers who’ve published best-selling books, and great writers who’ve died before their work was ever read by more than a handful of family members or friends.
No, my story is about how the pursuit of all America pretends to offer can really fuck up one’s priorities. My story is about the spiral of falling in and falling out of love with life and the pursuit of making one’s life better, the illusion of choices, and the hypocrisy of the US, embedded in all of its institutions. My story is about the elliptical ebbs and flows of life, about my journeys as a writer, and how much of an educated fool I have been in these journeys. I promise laughter, sadness, and anger, and joy and victories, too.