28 July 2009

The Inconvenience Of Absolute Truth

Suppose you were a congressman who tried to get legislation passed - lets say a federal law - that 2 + 2 = 4.

Sounds simple.

Before you know it, though, the nation would split into its usual factions.

Right wing groups would claim that making two plus two equal four is tantamount to affirmative action - "why, if God wanted twos to be equal to fours, he would have made them fours in the first place.

Left wing groups would put world renowned mathematicians on the job around the clock, generating every known numerical combination that could equal four - "because singling out the number two for special treatment, when we know there are other combinations of numbers, both whole and fractional, that add up to four - that is discrimination."

Think tanks would fill the airwaves and the internet with new releases hourly showing how this would affect the environment, or how the whole thing was an exercise in futility.

Political pundits would parse such nuances as the validity of the number theory - "is two really the description of a finite quantity, or is it the arbitrary designation of an abstract theory that is not based on scientific fact?"

All of these machinations, however, would pale in comparison to the efforts our vaunted media would put into depicting this brouhaha in the news.

"Two Plus Two Equals Disaster For The Left"

"Right Math Produces Wrong Total"

"56% Of Americans Do Not Believe 2 + 2 = 4"

As absurd as this sounds, it isn't much different from a lot of what I read in the paper everyday. We see sound bites, deliberately designed to wrest any semblance of logic from the words the speaker says, republished and regurgitated hourly.

The absolute truth is prevention is less expensive by far than emergency room intervention at the last minute. The absolute truth is that most of our big city trauma hospitals will sound their own siren in the next couple of months, declaring that they are again broke before the end of the year because of all the indigent and uninsured patients they have to serve. The absolute truth is that many procedures are performed in order to prevent lawsuits or generate revenue. The absolute truth is that our health insurance companies have designed their policies, for those who can afford them, to provide the minimum benefits for the maximum cost.

"(w + x)/y = z" is probably closer to what needed to be dealt with, if w,x, and y were the absolute truths I listed above. But you will never see anything with so many unknown variables put before Congress. Which means a third grader could do as good a job as the people you elect to represent you now.

When we can get to the point where we are not afraid to deal with multiple unknowns simultaneously, when we can have the guts, both as a government and as a nation, to let the outcome of an effort like this healthcare initiative fall where it may, instead of insisting on hammering our square peg problem through a round hole of a solution, maybe we can make some real progress.

27 July 2009

Reunion: The Fellas

I opened one of the tinted glass double doors to the restaurant Dantannas in Buckhead on a Monday night two weeks ago, quickly scanning the room for familiar faces, before I finally sidled up to the hostess to tell her I was looking for some friends.

"I think they're in the back."

A few steps later, I walked upon a table full of my college classmates.

The fellas.

The boys.

The posse of five that would cram into a two door Honda Civic hatchback at the drop of a hat to get to a party on the other side of Atlanta.

The guys I started college with, and marched across the stage with four years later (although I didn't actually graduate until the next year, which is another story in itself).

Now we were all alumni, all getting those same calls from the students working in the campus development office who were soliciting donations.

Alumni who are about to roll up on their twenty fifth class reunion soon.


Just before I'd opened the door to the restaurant, while I was walking up to the building, I'd been going over in my mind the reasons why I shouldn't be here - I was still tired from our trip to the Easy Reach Beach, I was still full from a late lunch, I wasn't interested in paying fifty dollars for a steak tonight, and I was too old to be hanging out as late as I figured we would be out and still get to work on Tuesday.

All of that evaporated, though, as I saw the faces of my Ace Boon Coon buddies (that's Number One Negro for those of you who didn't have old school black parents) break into smiles when I got close. In less than three days on campus, we had formed an unlikely band of brothers that has lasted a lifetime. Together, the five of us were The Brain, The Mouth, The Fly Guy, The Clothes Horse and The Big Guy.

Our band of brothers was one short for our reunion - The Big Guy, now the Big Man, was probably incognegro somewhere in Connecticut.

As it turned out, we had more fun than I've had in years, doing absolutely nothing but reminiscing, rehashing and rearranging our past exploits.

It was a storyteller's convention, with each of us trying to elbow our way into the spotlight in order to recount our own stylized version of the decades old details of one of the many, many crazy escapades that filled our college years.


Road trips.

All nighters (I'm talking about studying here)

Cross town treks to the fabled Spelman College gates.

And all the growing pains, social gaffes and legal jeopardy that can come with the territory when you live away from home for the first time.

A couple of us had gained quite a bit of weight. Most of us had lost some of our hair. And then there was the one guy who looked like he could have been walking out of the DUC, our campus student center, twenty odd years ago, he'd changed so little - same hair cut, same boyish grin, same Polo shirt.

We left in the wee hours of the morning.

I called one of them the next morning - or maybe he called me, I don't remember which now.

He grunted. "Hello."

I growled. "Hey."

We sounded like two bullfrogs with strep throat, our voices so low they were practically unintelligible.

"Dude, we're getting old."

"Uh huh."

"It was fun, though."


Even though we all seem to congregate on the internet these days, where you can practically have a high school slash college slash family reunion all in one night on Facebook, there is nothing - nothing - like seeing your old friends in the flesh.

25 July 2009

Book Review: "Sag Harbor" by Colson Whitehead

I loved this book.

I don't know if that disqualifies me from writing a review, but there was no two ways about it - I was bowled over almost from the start by the story, because for the first time in a long, long time, I read a story that spoke directly to me. I liked this book so much, I could send Colson Whitehead another twenty five dollars and it would still be a bargain.

I've read Whitehead almost from the beginning, when I came across his seminal debut novel, The Intuitionist, a racial allegory about the fictional world of elevator inspectors that combined insightful poetic lyricism with the taut pace and narrative structure of a detective thriller. His next two novels, John Henry Days and Apex Hides The Hurt, didn't really wow me, but Hemingway didn't have a hit every time out of the gate either, so I took them in stride, wondering how long it was going to take him to get back the authority of purpose he displayed in his first book.

Sag Harbor broke new ground for Whitehead, venturing into territory he'd been consciously avoiding ever since he started writing. At a reading he gave here in Atlanta after his book of essays about New York, The Colossus Of New York, came out, he stated during the question and answer session something along the lines that writers who wrote first person stories about events that paralleled their own lives risked crossing the fine line between art and personal confession.

This one was worth the risk.

Set in Sag Harbor, a small African American beach community in Long Island Sound, the book chronicles one summer in the life of Benjamin Cooper, a fifteen year old African American boy who spends the season at his family's beach house with his younger brother Reggie. Their parents, like many of the people who owned houses in Sag Harbor, were accomplished professionals who had careers to attend to back in New York City. Benjamin's mother had grown up coming to Sag Harbor in the summers herself, and the house the Coopers now owned had been inherited from her parents.

The advent of double income families meant that there were a lot of kids like Benji and Reggie in Sag Harbor for the summer who were left to fend for themselves during the week while their parents worked. The result was the formation of a society of sorts, that included a loose association of kids, mostly boys, who were unsupervised during the week. The resulting high jinks and tomfoolery that the boys engaged in were pretty much the kinds of things I would have done if I were in their shoes.

The thing that Whitehead pulled off in spades, at least to me, was the way he was able to transmit enough of the boys humanity in the first few chapters of the book to allow you to see them as more than children of privilege - "Black Boys With Beach Houses" was how he described his cast of characters early in the book. You didn't have to live this life growing up - I certainly didn't - to relate to this motley band of adolescents.

The mixture of bravado and adolescent yearning was so spot on I felt myself reliving my own youth as Whitehead took us through the social rituals and pecking order divinations of Benji and his friends. His deconstruction of the black teen aged boys penchant for stringing together long winded expletive laden phrases read like a "How To Curse" primer, one I must have memorized myself, because every one of my favorite phrases were there, laid out in all their glory, complete with a helpful diagram to show how we ended up with some of the more exotic derogatory concoctions.

Whitehead brought it all back - terry cloth sport shirts, IZOD Lacoste, the incessant cleaning of the white rubber soled sneaker with tooth brushes and Comet, the phrase "blah-zey blah" - it was all there, this and more, all of the nuances and details that let you understand the author knew what he was talking about.

I was impressed more with the turn of each page, until I got to the part where Whitehead broke down the ancestry of the beat Afrika Bambaataa used in the classic hip hop anthem "Planet Rock", tracing its origins all the way back to the song "Trans-Europe Express by Kraftwerk. I'd forgotten that the author used to be a music critic for the Village Voice way back when, before he became a fiction writer, but it wasn't just that - it was the way he wove this intimate bit of knowledge about pop music into his narrative, doing it in such a way that he taught me something new about "Planet Rock" even as he revived memories of days gone by, that sealed the deal for me.

The hilarity of the boys adventures was leavened by a foreboding undercurrent of family discord, a growing rift between Benji's mother and father that was often alluded to but never shown directly. Benji's parents were bit players, surfacing only briefly in phone conversations and flashbacks until well into the story. Their failure to appear weekend after weekend was in itself a source of rising tension, pushing Benji and Reggie out of their comfort zone and into a semblance of self reliance.

It is actually a book you can take to the beach with you, although you need to beware - if you are the kind of person who needs a big, dramatic climax, or are looking for a story that celebrates the nuances of the nuclear black family the way they used to do on those ABC After School Specials, Sag Harbor may not be the book for you. But if you've read this far, I'd live a little, and pick up a copy, even if you are only going as far as your backyard deck.

24 July 2009

Fellow Blogger Genma Holmes In New York Times

So here I am reading through my Thursday edition of The New York Times last night, just tooling through the sections, back to front, when I come across The Unchilled Life, an article in the Home and Garden section about people who don't use air conditioning.

I almost folded that section up when the name of a blogger on my blogroll who used to be on my blogroll, and is now back on to stay, caught my eye.

Genma Holmes, even looking a little drained from the heat, will not be stopped.

Her blog is Genma Speaks.

If there is anybody who can bring glamor to the pest control business, she is it.

Check her out.

It's only a matter of time before Genma has her own talk show, radio show - something.

19 July 2009

"Keeping It Real": Being Stupid On Purpose

Can you believe that there are black people out here in the blogosphere who are now BLAMING OBAMA, LIKE THEY DID COSBY, FOR TELLING BLACK PEOPLE THAT WE NEED TO FOCUS ON GETTING AN EDUCATION?

Is there that much status in being stupid?

In being stupid ON PURPOSE?

Do you see any rappers still living on the streets they came from?

Hell no!

So why brainwash our children into believing that attitude and swagger mean anything when they have no brainpower to back them up, no knowledge base upon which to anchor them, and no way to communicate with the rest of the GRAMMATICALLY CORRECT ENGLISH speaking world, whether they are white, black or brown?

If "taking it to the streets" is all we are, then kill me now.

I've been hearing all this talk around the internet today about how the education we get here in the U.S. is "Eurocentric", but most motherfuckers who can't read don't really know anything about Africa except kente cloth, Roots, and the STUFF THEY SEE ON TV that has been programmed by the same "whitey" they swear they are afraid of acting like.

Nobody here is going back to Africa. I live in Atlanta, and the line for the one-way flights back to Africa is mighty, mighty short. Maybe they are swimming back these days. But believe me, NOBODY is headed back to Africa, despite all the "Afrocentric" rhetoric. Certainly not anybody I see standing on the corner, talking about "The Man" who is holding him down.

Why is an education important? Because these "black businesses" my crazy as a loon brethren are so in love with, the ones our phonetically challenged, mathematics deficient urbanites are going to simply pull out of their asses, cannot be financed by taking a loan out on a collection of Air Jordans.

But you CAN start a business IN THE HOOD with practically no money if you have an education. Brand new lawyers who have next to no experience hang out their shingles everyday. Young doctors with 125K in loans do it and can get paid Year One if they take Medicaid patients, which our HOODS are full of. Even if you don't get that far in school, you can either learn how to navigate the government grant system to get a loan to rehab your block, or start a small retail shop - BUT ONLY IF YOU CAN READ.

If I was Martin Luther King, Jr., or the beloved Malcolm X that so many dumb ass thug wannabees holler about while they wave their 9mm's around, killing up US, our own black people IN THE HOOD with impunity, I'd look down on their ridiculous asses and say "damn all of you fools who don't know any better than to believe this bullshit."

Malcolm didn't get to be Malcolm cause he sold drugs or wore a conk. He got to be Malcolm because when his ass could have been rotting in that jail, he took the time to master the language of the land, one word at a time.

Every African in Africa who has a bit of sense and the middle class luxuries many of us here in the States enjoy know two, three, or more languages, and they live on the biggest continent in the world. REAL AFRICANS have no fear of Eurocentric educations, enrolling at Oxford by the dozens whenever they can wangle admission.

So what the hell are we afraid of? Is our poverty and ignorance so precious to us that we simply can't bear to part with them? Can't we just get a wing for this shit at the Smithsonian Institute, so you can go look at it from time to time when you get nostalgic?

If you can learn to cook crack properly, you can learn to be a pharmaceutical technician, and mix legal drugs.

If you can hotwire a car, you can learn to pull conduit and wire a house.

And if you write rap songs, SINCE YOU PROBABLY AREN'T GOING TO GET A RECORDING CONTRACT, you can learn how to understand iambic pentameter, alliteration and onomatopoeia. Which means you can probably learn how to teach the next generation of Downtown Browns how to read.

The only reason you tunnel vision, "keeping it real" Negroes even have half a chance to spew this nonsense about RayRay in the HOOD not giving a damn about an education 'cause someone like Sarah Palin is revered for knowing nothing - guess what, it's because a whole lot of EDUCATED NEGROES took one for the team for the last hundred and fifty years, all the way back to Frederick Douglass, a real "G" if their ever was one. Douglass, A FORMER SLAVE, was the owner of one of the largest private libraries in D.C., "keeping it real" one page at a time.

And I don't think Douglass hankered for one minute after that plantation he escaped.

So to all of you internet naysayers who think President Obama "overstepped his bounds", take these nursery rhyme fantasies back where you got them and quit fooling our black youth. What happens to the Sarah Palins of the world has no relevance for the average Joe "I Don't Know" Negro.

For every Sarah Palin who barely crawled out of college and blinked her way into making it big, there are three white chicks who get treated like total tricks when their ignorance shows, because all white chicks don't look like Sarah after having 5 kids, and if you don't believe how she looks didn't have anything to do with her skating her way into the governors mansion, I've got a stack of Martin Luther King's paper's to sell you.

Predicating the importance of the educations of our children on whether or not white people are overlooking these same standards for themselves is illogical. Not kinda dumb, not sorta stupid – it's the most idiotic motherfucking reasoning I can think of for just throwing in the towel on a whole generation of black kids.

The people - slaves, remember them - whose educations were eked out by candlelight when their lives were at stake didn't worry about how white men looked out for each other even if the ones who needed looking out for the most WERE stupid, BECAUSE THOSE SLAVES KNEW HOW POWERFUL IT WAS TO BE ABLE TO FIGURE OUT THE MORE COMPLEX THINGS IN THIS WORLD FOR THEMSELVES. Even if they had no freedom with which to use this knowledge.

If you are wrong, and many of us are wrong, a lot - then I owe it to you to give it to you straight. Your president owes it to you. Bill Cosby owes it to you. Lil Wayne owes it to you too - to tell you you've got a better chance of being in the NBA than having a hit rap record.

Maybe Jamie Foxx can give us a remix - "Blame It On The AC...AC-AC-AC...AC-ACADEMICS"

An education doesn't guarantee any particular job or income level, though - I'll be the first to admit that - but what it does do is provide its recipient with a better ability to see the machinations and complexities of the world for what they really are. And for many of our children, who are currently looking through poverty colored glasses, that little bit of improvement in their vision is all they need to see their way forward to their next way station in life.

So for my money, you Negroes who can make up any old bullshit reason why we shouldn't be putting on a fucking Carlton Banks outfit if we have to in order to get the knowledge we need can go catch one of those "keeping it real" bullets that always seem to be flying around the hood.

The only thing that will be "good in the hood" is when the last light in the last project finally goes out forever.

They play rap music in the suburbs too.

Cats at my Starbucks wear more Sean John than black folks.

We would still be black, though, if we had never rapped, break danced, ate collard greens or corn bread, or even if we had never once ripped a jazz solo.

Trust me.

06 July 2009

"Cadillac Records" Brings Back Memories

We watched the movie Cadillac Records last night. I know, I know, the movie came out months ago, but it was finally on cable, so we watched it at home - where else can you take four people to the movies for only $4.99? With two teenagers on the cusp of adulthood and two "old folks", there was the usually inter-generational brouhaha - the teenagers had to keep shushing S. and I all night long.

Jeffery Wright resembles Muddy Waters about as much as I look like Denzel Washington, but whether it was the way Wright had his cheeks puffed out, or how he grunted through his teeth when he spoke, he did that thing that good actors can do to make you believe they are the real thing.

Maybe that means Cedric The Entertainer can't act, because no matter what role I see him in, he's always still Cedric to me. He didn't have much screen time, so after awhile you could go with the fiction that he was supposed to be songwriter Willie Dixon.

But the cat who played Howlin' Wolf, Eamonn Walker - now he looked just like the real Wolf, if you had cut off his legs - the real Howlin' Wolf was a great big man, six feet six or six feet eight, but since most people don't know that, I'll give the casting director a pat on the back for selecting such a compelling supporting actor.

I had to work hard not to laugh out loud during the movie - not because of the acting, which was pretty good, or the storyline, which was written in the familiar rags-to-riches music biopic style, but because I had grown up with all the songs and all the stories.

My father used to talk about Muddy Waters like people talk about Michael Jackson. If you asked him who was singing one of the wailing blues records he played, he say, "boy, that's Muddy Waters. Muddy Waa-ters." The second "Muddy Waa-ters" was usually uttered reverentially, as if saying his name alone brought back memories. Then my father's mouth would drop down at the corners, like Jeffery Wright's did in the movie, the same way the real Muddy Waters mouth probably dropped sometimes when he was sitting in Chicago remembering those fields back in Mississippi, and my father would slowly shake his head from side to side as that gravely voice wailed atop the guitar notes out of the big, wooden Maganavox stereo console in our living room.

So when Chuck Berry, played by Mos Def, came on screen and did his rock and roll moves with his country twang and his guitar swaying, I turned to S., after checking to make sure the Resident Diva wasn't watching me, and said sotto voce "Elvis needs to give all that money back." It was the same line my parents and their friends had said over and over for years while I was growing up, but I'd never seen what they had actually lived through, when the real Chuck Berry was on their radios back in the fifties, until I saw this movie.

I'm not mad at the producers for putting Beyonce in the movie - she was a natural choice for Etta James, all the way down to the generous padded ham hocks that helped make the real Etta James famous. But I think it took them away from delving deeper into Muddy Waters character at a time when we needed to know more about who he was inside. As good as Beyonce looked in those skin tight dresses, I still felt they would have had a stronger movie if it had focused more on Muddy's internal struggles as an aging, fading artist.

After a couple of dramatic scenes nearing the end, which prompted the noise police to double shush us, we were able to make it to the end without further incident.

The thing about movies like these that is interesting, given the juxtaposition our viewing of this particular movie with the surreal events swirling around us these last few days with celebrity deaths, is how central depravities and addictions and psychological horrors are to the lives of many who inhabit the limelight. You can't make a movie of Ike and Tina Turner, or Ray Charles, or James Brown, without including them, or else you don't have a movie.

So why, when celebrities are alive, do we insist on making them one dimensional? Would you watch a movie about Steve McNair that only included the Disney moments he shared with his family? Would you watch a movie about Michael Jackson that left out his alleged exploits at Neverland Ranch?