Friday, August 14, 2015


                             The Saxophone Man

                                           Short Story by Roy L. Pickering Jr.

What am I going to say to Ellen?  How will she react when I tell her I’ve been fired?  I suppose there’s no point in asking myself rhetorical questions.  I know exactly what she’s going to say.

 “Howard, how could you let this happen?  How are we going to pay our bills?  I’m extremely disappointed in you.  You’ve always been such an underachiever.  You always settle for second best from yourself.  I bet you’ve been daydreaming, or hallucinating, or whatever you want to call it, instead of focusing on your work.  Didn’t any of what Dr. Seagram had to say sink in?  I suppose not.  To think of what I gave up for you.  I could be married to Barry Frugesi, living in a mansion with servants catering to my every need.  But no, like a fool I let emotion override common sense and chose you.  Now here I am closing in on middle age, and instead of being secure, we have to start all over again.”

None of this will be fair of her to say.  First of all, I’ve worked my tail off for McDermott and Lynch Realty.  It’s not my fault that I’m in a slump.  Not entirely, anyway.  I can only perform as well as the economy dictates.  For a considerable number of years I was their top salesman.  At one point I accounted for nearly sixty percent of their sales.  There wasn’t a house on the market that I couldn’t sell, even if it was little more than a cardboard box held together by duct tape and loose wiring.  Now that I’m not doing so well, do they show me loyalty?  I suppose it was pure folly to expect any.  Loyalty has gone the way of chivalry and penny arcades.

Backstabbing from employers is one thing, but the reaction from Ellen that I fully anticipate is shameless.  How dare she complain about our bills being paid?  We’ve never paid a bill the entire time we’ve been married.  I’ve paid the bills.  I’ve single handedly supported my family from day one, never mind that gratitude has been expressed at a faster dwindling rate than marital affection over the past decade or so.  My output at work has declined by no less a degree than Ellen’s output in the bedroom, not that bringing this up will strengthen my case any.  Ellen is living a comfortable existence courtesy of my earning and investing efforts, but all she cares to highlight are my supposed inadequacies.   Her complaints are based on the paranoia instilled in her youth by a penny-pinching father.  The truth of our situation is that we’d need the Hubble telescope to find the poorhouse she’s routinely prophesying is one bad break away from becoming our residence.  As for the legend of Barry Frugesi, if she throws him in my face one more time I’ll have no choice but to sternly express that - “He was a pompous, self-centered ass, not to mention that it was he who dumped you, Ellen.  And I hate to be the bearer of bad news, darling, but you left middle age behind in your rear view mirror a few years ago.  Embrace the downhill slope.”

What am I doing?  I’m walking down the street talking to myself, that’s what I’m doing.  I need to get a grip.  It’s a good thing this is Greenwich Village or else I would be attracting a lot of stares.  As it is, I’m just one more raving lunatic in the crowd.  This area of the only city I’ve ever lived in, the greatest city in the world, bares little resemblance to the way it was when I was a child.  That was before NYU moved in and took over, gentrifying the neighborhood building by building.  Times in general have changed a great deal from when I was young and on top of the world.  I suppose everyone’s on top of the world when they’re young, and by its very definition, times have little choice but to change.  Still doesn’t stop me from fondly reminiscing and profoundly missing days gone by, one of my biggest faults according to Ellen, though certainly not the only one she recites.

As I turn onto Broadway, a beautiful and eerily familiar melody flutters in the air.  I spy a black man across the street standing in front of a 24-hour deli playing a tenor saxophone.  The scene is typical, but the virtuoso performance he’s giving is anything but.  Before my mind can recall where I have heard this song before, he stops and starts to play another one.  This composition I instantly recognize as a Dexter Gordon masterpiece that the street musician is interpreting flawlessly.  Being a huge jazz fan and having nothing better to do than procrastinating further before heading home to inform Ellen of my unemployment, I cross the street to listen closer.

The sax player looks about fifty-five years old, which would make him five years older than me.  He has a salt and pepper afro and possesses a complexion like hot chocolate, his radiantly white teeth putting me in mind of marshmallows floating on top.  The feeling of warmth exuded from his eyes puts one instantly at ease in his presence, even as they dance in rhythm with the music he brings forth.  His fingers glide across the keys with a fluidity I can’t help but marvel at.  Here is a man who was born to play the saxophone, but not on a street corner with an open case lying on the ground next to him containing about three dollars in change.  This guy belongs in Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall.  He should be performing for kings and queens, not pedestrians with too much on their minds and too little spare time to recognize the genius they’re racing past.

The music transports me back to a better time, a wondrous one during which I handled a saxophone pretty well myself.  I must have played close to a hundred nightclubs.  That sax of mine helped pay my way through college.  It got me more dates than I could have ever hoped for.  Ellen fell in love with me, despite having superior offers on the table, largely because of the passion and sensuality that I exuded on stage.  Was it really so long ago when I last went out on the fire escape to set loose a melody after making love to Ellen on that creaky old bed in our tiny apartment in SOHO, back when we were delirious newlyweds?

The Dexter Gordon tune is brought down to a graceful landing.  I respectfully applaud and toss a dollar into the musician’s case. 

“Much obliged, mister,” he says in a throaty pack-a-day voice, flashing a broad smile with his practically glow-in-the-dark molars.                     

“You’re incredible,” I tell him.  “Much too talented to be out here playing on the street.”

“Ain’t nothing wrong with the streets.  You’re always guaranteed a sell out audience, rain or shine.  Even if most people don’t stop to listen, they still hear me as they walk by.  All in all I’ve played for thousands of folks.  And every so often one of my songs touches someone’s heart and makes their day just a little brighter.  Guys and dolls on Wall Street might make a lot more money than me, but how many opportunities do they get on the job to make someone smile?”

“I suppose you have a point there,” I say.  “I used to play the sax years ago.  Nothing quite like standing before a crowd and knowing I had them in the palm of my hand, that I could take them on a journey of my own making simply by breathing my dreams and aspirations into that brass tunnel.  The feeling was worth a lot more to me than the paychecks.”

“Of course it was.  That feeling is called happiness.  A shrink or a thesaurus could give you some alternate words for it, but I think the one I chose works just fine.  I might not have a lot of money, but it doesn’t take much effort to put a grin on this old mug of mine.  The same can’t be said for you, sorry to report.”

A quizzical expression must fall upon my face, because before I can ask the old musician what he means by this, he proceeds to answer my unspoken question.

“I can see it in your eyes.  Your whole life has revolved around providing for the well being of others at the expense of your own contentment.  You’ve worked for years in a job you hate so your wife could wear fashionable dresses while dining at exclusive restaurants.  You made sure that your son was able to go to the best schools, even though you knew that he’d goof off and flunk out.  You arranged for your daughter to have her dream wedding, never mind that you couldn’t stand the guy and accurately predicted it wouldn’t last a year.  Their needs were taken care of, but what have you done for yourself?  The truth is you haven’t really been happy since the last time you played your saxophone.  When you put it up in the attic you tucked away a large piece of your soul.”

I can do nothing but stare with astonishment as this complete stranger recounts my life story.  I am both frightened and fascinated.

“Where are you getting this nonsense from?” I manage to stammer, afraid to confess to the accuracy of his words, or perhaps ashamed to admit it to myself.

“Like I said, I can see it in your eyes.  It’s a gift.  Some people create paintings, some write novels, others sing or dance or solve complicated mathematical equations.  There are even a few extraordinary individuals who can juggle while riding a unicycle.  As for me, I play the saxophone and read people’s eyes.  Some of them tell the saddest stories ever told.  The truly tragic ones I put to music and play their tears.  It isn’t too late for you to change your song, you know.  Sometimes what looks like a setback is actually an opportunity.  Don’t let this one pass you by.  Life is too short, and there’s a whole mess of beauty to take in if you have the right frame of mind to see it.  Most folks waste time examining their sorrow, trying to make sense of it, trying to bend it to their will.  I say just toss it aside to make room for a prettier picture, for a song with a groove that you can dance to.”

I’m not sure how to regard this fortune cookie advice.  Since he knows so much about me, superficial details as well as knowledge that seems to require inside information, perhaps he actually is qualified to counsel me.  He may merely be some down on his luck guy playing saxophone on a street corner for castaway coins, but his advice rings truer than that given to me by those in much loftier societal positions, including Dr. Seagram who charged armed robbery by the hour to listen to my woes and then regurgitate the irrelevant opinions of Sigmund Freud.  Listening to the musician, mesmerized by the creases in his face that remind me of rivers on a map of Africa, I feel as people do upon reading their horoscope in the newspaper for amusement and finding that it neatly coincides with whatever they happen to be going through. 

After college, I wanted to pursue a full time career in music.  But Ellen, who was pregnant with the child who hastened our sprint to the altar, insisted that I enter a more secure line of work.  On the recommendation of her father, some would have called it extreme prodding but I knew better than to offend the daughter who doted on him, I chose the real estate game.  I turned out to be pretty good at it, needing simply to transfer my stage presence to one-on-one charm, especially in the beginning when it was new enough to capture my interest.  But it was only a matter of time before dissatisfaction settled in.  My vocation was lucrative, my home spacious, my finances secure, my loved ones were protected from their complacency, but still …               

One morning about seven years into our marriage, an impulse led me up to the attic in search of my abandoned saxophone.  I found that I had forgotten all the songs once played from memory with such ease.  I had traded my soul to the devil in exchange for domestic tranquility, and my soul, in the shape of a tenor saxophone, had become dust covered and foreign to my touch.  As I headed to work shortly afterwards, I realized it wasn’t so much playing the sax that I missed as it was the sense of freedom I associated it with.  When I was a young man, the whole world lay before my eyes for the taking.  Now as a not so young man, I could scarcely believe how little I had elected to grab hold of. 

The process of manufacturing a lifetime is a tiring one, or at least that has been my experience to date.  The quotas I was professionally obligated to reach pulled increasingly further away over the years.  The degree to which I allowed myself to care about this waned in direct proportion.  One year ago I had what experts termed a nervous breakdown.  Therapy and time were supposed to rejuvenate me and increase my sales figures in the process.  I tried to care.  I failed.  Eventually I was fired.  No hard feelings.

This street musician is right.  Today doesn’t have to be an end for me.  It can be a new beginning.  Maybe I’ll start my own business, open up a music store.  And I could take up playing the saxophone again, not to earn a living, but to make the process of living a little sweeter.  What nobler cause to undertake a venture can there be?  But before doing any of this I’ll go on a world cruise with Ellen, check out all the places we once talked about longing to see before getting caught up with keeping up with the Jones’, whoever they happen to be.  What’s stopping us?  We have enough money saved to tide us over for a good while.  Our kids are grown now and more or less independent; Rachel having married and then divorced herself into country club money; Herbert lucking into business partnership with a former college classmate and now earning a small fortune not through intelligence, skill or diligence, but solely due to being in the right place at the right time - the American way. 

My thoughts are interrupted.  The musician is once again playing the song I first heard him performing, the one that lured me to him like a child to the Pied Piper.  I allow its sweet melody to caress my senses and find myself humming along.  Suddenly I realize why the tune is so familiar to me.  I composed it twenty-six years ago.  It is the song I wrote for Ellen when I was courting her.  This cannot be, and yet it most definitely is.  I clear my throat to ask how he could possibly know this particular arrangement of musical notes, but then decide against it.  Some things are best left unknown.  I continue to listen until the saxophone man finishes my song, after which he grins so brightly that I nearly need to shield my eyes. 

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he says.  “Now it’s time for you to go home and play it for yourself.”

“I think you’re right.”

I remove a twenty from my wallet and place it in his instrument’s case.  Then I head across the street towards the nearest subway entrance.  I can’t wait to get home and discuss with Ellen my wonderful plans for the adventurous future I’ve envisioned for us.  She’ll no doubt resist at first, wanting me to be practical, to get back onto the safe road.  But I’ve played it cautious long enough.  I’m confident that if I stick to these relocated convictions and probe deeply enough into my wife’s heart, I will eventually find the free spirit lurking beneath, long dormant but not yet expired. 

The chain of mellifluous chords snakes between the oxygen and nitrogen that comprise the surrounding air.  With each step I take the music grows louder and sharper, the acoustics of this street corner defying conventional wisdom.  The saxophone man is accompanied by a most unique set of band mates generating sounds only to be found on a New York City street, the ultimate jazz improvisation.  Then an unpleasant chord is struck, a high pitched screech that spoils the toe tapping groove.  I turn my head just in time to see the alarmed face of a truck driver slamming his foot on a break pedal.  But the vehicle has gained too much momentum, and the distance between us is too small.  The tires stop spinning, but the grill of the truck moves towards me at a catastrophic rate of speed.  An instant later all fades to back. 

When I awaken, it is in a state of profound confusion.  I do not know how long I have been asleep.  Perhaps I’ve been in a coma.  I am relieved to find that my limbs are fully operational.  A quick pat down of my torso fails to reveal anything missing, or even hurting.  My health appears to be fine.  I must have recovered from whatever injuries I suffered while lying unconscious in this hospital room.

“Looks like you were having quite the dream.”

I turn towards the voice that has startled while informing me that I am not alone.  Seated to my right is Dr. Seagram.  I wonder why my former psychiatrist has come to pay me a visit.  It isn’t as if we became good friends while I was under his care.  In fact, during my sessions I made little effort to mask my disdain of him.  My wife and kids should be here by my side, not this Freud obsessed fool.    

An image from hospital bed scenes in various movies springs to mind.  Fearing to discover that while my body is fine, my face is encased like a mummy, I run my fingers from ear to ear and hairline to chin.  No bandages or scars are to be found.  It seems that I am completely uninjured.  Perhaps the truck merely tapped me and I was knocked out when my head hit the ground.  Or maybe I passed out in fright, a reasonable reaction to the circumstances.  It has become clear that I was certainly not plowed into.

“How did I get here?”

Dr. Seagram smiles in that way of his that I have frequently longed to smack from his face, for it toes the line beyond which is a smirk, without quite crossing it. 

“You blacked out in your office after…  After you were fired, Howard.  Do you remember being fired?”  

“Of course I do.”  Oh, how I loathe Dr. Seagram’s condescending tone of voice.  My guess is that rather than coaxing patients back to mental health by lending an ear and dispelling sound advice, his technique is to drive them off his couch and back into the chaotic world that loosened their marbles through the overpowering force of his obnoxiousness.  

“And I remember leaving the office, having a great conversation with this black guy playing the saxophone on a street corner, and then I think I was hit by a truck while crossing the street.”

Dr. Seagram pulls on his beard, one of his many very annoying habits.  I can almost literally see the wheels spinning in his head as he tries to psychoanalyze me.

“What you’re describing is what you must have just dreamt, Howard.  The truth is, you collapsed in the office of your employer after you were let go.  An ambulance brought you here.  Therefore you could not have had a conversation with a musician, black, white, purple, or green.  And there was no truck accident.”

The words spoken by Dr. Seagam shake me.  As much as I dislike him, I also know him to be a straight shooter.  Playing con games is not his style.  So I’ve little choice but to accept that his version of events is the true one.

“But it seemed so real.  He seemed so real.  He inspired me to make major changes in my life.  I was looking forward to taking his advice.  No offense, Dr. Seagram, but ten minutes spent talking to him was far more motivating and clarifying than all of my sessions with you combined.”

“No offense taken, Howard.  After all, it’s pretty hard to compete against a figment of one’s imagination.  Under the circumstances, I think you should give serious consideration to resuming our sessions.  I recommend two per week to start.  Going back on medication is probably a good idea as well.  You have much work to do when it comes to dealing with stress.  It’s no wonder a day like this one pushed you over the edge.  Not that it’s anything to be embarrassed about.  There’s no easy way to cope with being fired from a job you’ve had for decades and being left by your wife on the same day.  You have a tendency to hide out in a fantasy whenever reality gets too difficult for you to handle.”

“Left by my wife?  What are you talking about, Dr. Seagram?”

“Oh my.  Apparently you’ve blocked some of what happened this morning from your memory and replaced it with what you merely imagined.  I hate to be the bearer of such bad news, but Ellen moved out of your home.  She’s taken up with another man.  I’m rather embarrassed to admit that the man she left you for is my colleague, Dr. Robertson.”

Talk about information overload.  If only this conversation was my nightmare instead of the awful state of affairs I’ve awakened to.  I close my eyes in order to picture the psychiatrist that Dr. Seagram shares a practice with.  Our paths only crossed a handful of times.  He’s African American, about half an inch taller than me, mid fifties, a short salt and pepper afro with a complexion like hot chocolate and prominently white teeth.  My eyes open wide, as does my mouth to utter three syllables.

“Oh my God.”  Remembrance is crashing down upon me.  The real events of today are assaulting my awareness with perfect clarity, in technicolor.  Ellen curtly informed me that she was leaving for good.  Unlike prior occasions, it was not merely a bluff for attention.  She actually walked out the door this time, out of our marriage, without taking the briefest glance of regret back.  Pathetically, I could think of nothing better to do in response than go to work, where as bad luck would have it, I was fired.  I did not leave the office on my own terms, or even on my own feet.  There was no encounter afterwards with a wise black man who plays the saxophone like an angel.  But I didn’t dream the guy up entirely, not his physical appearance anyway, for he does exist, he is in fact the man that Ellen left me for – Dr. Robertson. 

I close my eyes again, this time in sweet surrender.  My senses shut out all stimuli, so if Dr. Seagram is offering words of wisdom or apologizing for his colleague’s behavior or trying to fit future sessions with me into his calendar, I am blissfully unaware.  My state of concentration pays off and I am able to bring back what I long for.  The music of the saxophone man is washing over me.  It will get me through this.  The uncaring world that I desperately need protection from has disappeared. Only this glorious music is left behind like a Chesire smile.

                                                         THE END 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

We Will Just Have To Agree To Disagree

Social media has taught me that plenty of people hold strong opinions that I consider to be quite bone headed, and the reverse is equally valid.  Below is a Top Ten list of issues where others are in disagreement with how I see the world.  That said, I respect your opinions, all the more so if we engage in debate and you handle your end in a respectful matter.  I try my best to be mature when taking my stances and I forgive you for being wrong.   

* N word usage: I'm not in favor of it being said by anybody. It's firmly entrenched in our culture as a hateful insult and I do not believe the misguided attempt to claim the word for ourselves (primarily by ending it with "a" rather than "er") has been successful in removing its sting.  Otherwise nobody would get upset when a non-black person said it.  It can't be denied that the N-word has successfully ingrained itself into black culture though.  African Americans, particularly under a certain age or under a certain degree of educational achievement, will continue to use it.  They won't mean any harm.  It's like a cigarette habit, mostly self inflicted damage with some second hand smoke level injury.  I believe that to be respected by others it is important to show you respect yourself.  Referring to yourself by a derogatory term is not what Queen Aretha was referring to by R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

* Feminism needs to be broken down into race categories?: My Twitter mentions blew up the other day on account of this question.  I carelessly RT'd someone who said something that seemed sensible to me and BOOM went the dynamite. Look, I get that people from different cultures have different struggles.  A hardship that applies to a black woman's day-to-day may not impact a White or Asian or Latina woman in the same way, and vice versa.  But certainly there are a sufficient number of issues that are woman based, regardless of race/skin tone/religion, for Feminism to serve as an umbrella cause covering women in general. To say that feminism is strictly for white women seems very short sighted to me, though I have no doubt there are white feminists who give little thought to certain matters that only tend to affect a woman of color.  Even so, women of all backgrounds have many shared hardships.  They deal equally with sexual harassment in the workplace; catcalling on the street; lower pay for equal work; less representation in top corporate positions, needing access to birth control; considering abortion to be a personal choice over one's own body rather than a decision handed down by politicians; breastfeeding shaming; slut shaming; body image shaming; possibly having to choose between motherhood and career in inflexible workplaces; etc. etc.  So with all of this being shared, I don't believe the differences that exist are enough to disqualify feminism from catering to womankind overall.  There is more than sufficient common ground. And there is strength in numbers.  Why shrink the volume of your collective voice?  One doesn't even need to be a woman to be a feminist.  If you're a man who happens to have a mother/sister/daughter/girlfriend/wife/ or friends of opposite sex then you should consider being a feminist too, regardless of your race.  Lastly, agreeing with someone who has a similar view of feminism (or anything else for that matter) is not "caping" for them, not protecting them from big, bad bullies.  It's just agreeing with them.

* Hashtivism / Semantics / Which Lives Matter?: I believe that activism by hashtag has led to oversimplification of what it means to be supportive of a cause.  Inclusiveness seems to have become a vulgar concept.  Consider what I just said about feminism.  Yes it's true that certain issues pertain to people of one race more than another, but that doesn't mean we can't still be in the fight together.  Yes, there are issues being brought up about mistreated black lives that have caused people to proclaim that "Black Lives Matter".  I repeat, #BlackLivesMatter, for of course they do.  Do all of the other racial categories of lives matter as well?  Of course they do.  Granted, when we're specifically talking about black lives we should try to stay on topic.  We can talk about the struggles of Native Americans and Eskimos some other time. It's not as if we insist that the NRA talk about knives or that anti-smoking people discuss the perils of trans fat in fast food. A special interest group is allowed to focus on a particular topic and the specific people affected. That's fair, right?  But if someone does happen to say ALL rather than black, there is no need to assume that the speaker is saying black lives DO NOT matter.  Saying ALL does not mean that issues of particular importance to African Americans are being ignored.  It simply means that all people are created equal, we all have the same inalienable rights, so in situations where a particular group is getting the shaft, that's a problem in need of remedy.  When asked about a specific racial injustice if somebody chooses to wave it off as unimportant, then we can conclude that their definition of ALL is more limited than it should be.

* Police: We need significant revamping of the screening/training/sanity maintaining of police officers in departments throughout the USA. I do not believe all cops by nature are evil.  I do not believe all white cops are racist. I do believe that cops who walk a beat have stress inducing jobs that can sometimes lead to hair trigger overreaction. There are plenty of cops who need to be weeded out as they are unfit for the duty of protecting and serving everybody equally.  There are plenty of officers who act decently 99 days out of 100 who may screw up royally under pressure on the exception day.  Hopefully the result won't be the needless loss of a life.  We can't allow the police to police themselves for they have shown inclination to protect their own over making sure that justice is served.  Bad apples must be tossed out before they spoil the bunch.  But not every cop is a bad one, and not every situation that arises and makes the news is the result of a cop gone wild.  Sometimes the one being arrested is the bad guy as it is supposed to be.  We need cops to do their job properly, and more often than not, that's what they do.  The success stories don't get much press, only the incidents where something goes horribly wrong.

* Cultural appropriation: People copy aspects of ethnic cultures other than the one they were born into from time to time.  This is not a federal crime, nor is every single example equivalent to black face.  Cultural borrowing, typically temporary, can go in any direction.  It isn't a one way street of whites ripping everybody else off.  Every couple months it seems a new celebrity is being accused of underhanded cultural appropriation. Miley Cyrus was the focus of ire for awhile.  Iggy Azalea is a white woman from Australia who somehow sounds like a black woman from Georgia when she raps.  This is certainly peculiar and clearly a calculated decision on her part to capitalize on a certain sound that isn't native to her.  But it doesn't mean she is the enemy of blacks, including the black guy she agreed to marry.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  So if Kylie Jenner wears her hair in cornrows for a day or two it's not like she's leading a lynch mob, she's just a girl trying on a different look for size.  If you agree with me here but draw the line at Rachel Dolezal, I can't say that I blame you.  Rachel went several enormous steps too far by making a conscious effort to pass for black and somehow managing to take her masquerade all the way to heading a chapter of the NAACP.  Had she stopped short of the NAACP I probably would have just shrugged, but apparently Rachel is not the sort of person who does anything halfway.  Yet I'm not pissed off at her and I don't feel she did much harm to anyone other than herself once secrets were revealed.  We got some good laughs at her expense.  We should now be able to move on.

* Interracial relationships: They happen. In every variety of way. With celebrities and with everybody else.  It's not a trend and isn't going anywhere.  So get over it. Being involved with somebody of a different race is not proof of self loathing.  One does not abandon what they were born by being involved with someone of another race.  Just as people can walk and chew gun at the same time, they can be themselves while loving another.  If you're not in the relationship it's none of your business.  If I'm not in it, it's none of mine.

* Privilege: Yep, white people in the USA have it.  Especially the males.  Most especially those who aren't broke.  This isn't the only kind of privilege of course.  Things are set up more for the convenience of right handed people than lefties.  Able bodied people are in a better situation than handicapped.  Tall and skinny usually works out better for a person than short and tubby.  Being considered attractive comes with perks that being considered NOT does not.  Whichever of these and other privileges you may be in possession of, chances are that you didn't have much choice in the matter.  As for categories where you got the short end of the stick, c'est la vie.  Deal with whatever it is you need to deal with and go be great.  Nothing is stopping you except maybe for you.  Privilege is just there chilling, not caring how much of it you ended up with.  So stop whining about it 24/7.  Didn't you know that privilege is blind and deaf to your protestations?

* Stop declaring every belief by a black person that you disagree with to be an example of hotep/Uncle Tom'ing: People curse because they lack the vocabulary to make an intelligent argument.  The same can be said for referring to someone by an insulting term for the sin of having a different opinion than you.  This is done to an exhausting degree in the black community.  Within any other ethnicity, if one person has liberal left leaning beliefs and the other has conservative right wing beliefs, they'll disagree on a lot of issues.  They'll vote for candidates in different political parties.  When arguing over a particularly heated topic they may not like each other very much, at least temporarily.  But typically neither of them will call the other anything like an Uncle Tom or a hotep, which are terms that mean a black person is acting in a traitorous manner against his own race (see interracial relationships)Feeling strongly one way or the other about a matter has nothing to do with racial identity for most people.  But if a black guy happens to feel that black-on-black crime is as much of a problem as police brutality, he is called an Uncle Tom.  Perhaps we'll eventually modernize that low blow to Uncle Don in honor of Don Lemon. Don receives as much name calling / abusive meme treatment as anyone these days.  Disagreement is inevitable and won't always be kept civil.  But it's possible to not agree with much of what someone such as Clarence Thomas stands for, to dislike him vehemently, yet still not pull a card having anything to do with race when expressing distaste.  Consider him to be a jerk. State that you think he's dead wrong. Leave it at that.  As Chris Rock once said, I have some things I'm liberal about and some things I'm conservative about.  Most grown-ups feel similarly, even if in their younger days it tended to be all one or the other. It's not a matter of jumping back and forth between being conscious and being a so called hotep.  It's simply a matter of being a complex human being who judges situations on a case by case basis.

* Black Twitter: It's not actually a real thing:  Neither is Black facebook, black instagram, etc.  There was (maybe still is) a Black Planet, I'll grant you that.  Social media is one for all and all for one.  There are plenty of black people on Twitter.  Among them I don't believe there is 100% consensus on anything.  The LA Times has put a writer on the case, think pieces are written on a monthly basis, books are in the works, all about Black Twitter.  One may as well write about Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, visiting space aliens, and mermaids.  They all make for fascinating stories but nothing can be proven so it must be considered fiction.  I'm black. I have a Twitter account.  Does that make me a member of Black Twitter?  Not necessarily, as apparently not every black person tweeting is in the club.  Also, I've read you can be in Black Twitter without even being black.  I wonder if Rachel Dolezal was in Black Twitter before being outed.  Do I have to hold certain beliefs to be in Black Twitter, 100% compliance to whatever the rules of engagement are?  If so, where are the guidelines?  Hidden like stations of the Underground Railroad?  I doubt it.  Have I forever disqualified myself from Black Twitter membership by writing this blog post? Surely it goes against several core BT principles?  Or maybe it doesn't.  I have no idea because I have no idea what Black Twitter is exactly, no clue what it represents, and neither does nobody else no matter how much they've written about it and swear they know the deal.  Black Twitter is the ghost in the attic, the fairy in your garden, the angel on your shoulder.  Nobody can get a picture of it but they swear it's real.  It's not. Until someone registers - it's nothing more than a phrase that people use to pigeonhole. One more completely unnecessary label.

Racism is a 1-way street (aka Blacks can't be racist): Hogwash. Every street runs two ways minimum, even if on some of them cars are only permitted to drive in one direction. If you (no matter what race you happen to belong to) generalize and pre-judge an entire race of people (no matter which race is the one being judged) then congratulations, you have just participated in the art of racism. We are all capable of being angels and all capable of being a-holes towards our fellow (wo)man. The more power that you personally and your race in general wields, the more harm you are capable of inflicting with it.  But even if you are relatively powerless, if writing a scathing think piece read by six people is about as much damage as you can inflict, you still don't get to be excused from having a racist mindset.

R.I.P. Sandra Blank. May the full truth be unearthed and justice prevail.

And now for some book reviews:

Mary Poppins (Mary Poppins, #1)Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I knew from the movie Saving Mr. Banks that a personality overhaul was given to Mary Poppins when Disney adapted this book into a film. She's all sweetness and light in the film, quite the hard ass in the book. She's rather vain in the book as well. I suppose I'd be vain too if I could fit furniture into a suitcase and fly by umbrella. I learned from Wikipedia that the reason so much that happens in the movie is not in the book is because there are 8 Mary Poppins books and the movie is based on events taken from the first four, plus some stuff added by Disney. I can't say that I loved this classic book that spawned the much more charming movie. I'm giving 3 stars rather than 2 because without the books, starting with this one, there is no movie.

View all my reviews

How the García Girls Lost Their Accents How the García Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a beautifully written book. But it's one of those works of fiction that isn't really about anything in particular. Readers spend time with alternating Garcia girls in random order throughout a portion of their lives. There is no plot to speak of. The chapters are connected by the fact that one or more Garcia girl is featured in each of them, but you could read them in any order you wanted without impacting the reading experience. The chapters/scenes hold your attention in standalone fashion as well as loosely connecting with the others. I didn't grow attached to anyone in particular. I cared about what was happening when it was happening and then the book moved on to something else. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is a well written series of scattered moments in the lives of girls who become women who become the memory of a book you once read.

View all my reviews

The RuinsThe Ruins by Scott B. Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Seriously creepy stuff. What do you do if you and a group of friends end up on a hill in Mexico that is crawling with vines from hell. They can think, plot, see, hear, deceive, mock, physically and mentally torture, invade your body, destroy your soul before eventually, inevitably stripping your bones clean? You hold out for as long as you can in hopes that the cavalry will arrive before it's too late. If one of you happens to be an Eagle Scout, perhaps you can figure out ways to last longer than most. But no matter. It was too late the moment you took one step upon that hill. This is a dreams haunting kind of book.

View all my reviews

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Extraordinary. The Goldfinch is a deeply satisfying blend of gorgeous literary writing with a thriller style plot and Charles Dickens-esque range of scope. Theo Decker is a character we watch from boyhood to manhood, in peril for much of that time, in possession of a cherished gift. It's a gift meant for all people who appreciate art and beauty, not just for him, but it ends up in his hands to secretly protect and preserve. After surviving an explosion that takes his mother's life he moves through his days recklessly. As a teen in his father's careless charge he immerses himself in drugs. As an adult who has somehow managed to secure a comfortable lifestyle with the seemingly non perilous job of selling antique furniture, he is continually drawn to danger. His mindset is practically suicidal, we readers care about him more than he seems to care for himself. He is also cared for by those in his inner circle: his best friend Boris, father figure Hobie, and Pippa, the girl whom he loves from first sight but has no idea what to do about it. Theo protects a masterpiece meant to be displayed on museum walls much as he guards memories of his mother who was taken too soon. Memories never have to be surrendered, but eventually we all find ourselves needing to let go.

View all my reviews

A Wrinkle in Time (A Wrinkle in Time Quintet, #1)A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There are Young Adult classics that dazzle no matter when in life a reader comes across them. And then there are those that one needs to be young to fully appreciate, it seems. If discovered too late in life, those in the latter category will fail to impress. I'm putting A Wrinkle in Time in that latter group. A lofty reputation preceded but when I finally got around to reading it, I simply failed to see what all the fuss is about. Yet if my theory is accurate then my daughter, who it was read aloud to, would have enjoyed it considerably more than I did. She didn't. We were both underwhelmed, though we were in agreement that it got better as it went along and we became used to the space age setting. I am dazzled by the best of science fiction because of the level of imagination required to create a new world from scratch. I would not call A Wrinkle in Time science fiction at its best. I'll stick with writers such as Philip K. Dick for that. I feel kind of bad almost that I didn't enjoy this book more than I did because I know it's such a beloved classic. A great many readers will enthusiastically recommend it to you. Take them up on it. Perhaps you will agree with them more than you do with my review, and that's fine by me.

View all my reviews

Saturday, July 18, 2015

To Kill a Mockingbird - And Revitalize a Brand

My original review of To Kill a Mockingbird

Updated review: It was all a dream, Atticus NEVER read Word Up Magazine.

So in case you haven't heard, and of course you have, Harper Lee has a "new" book out.  It reads as a sequel to her classic 'To Kill a Mockingbird', showing us an adult Scout and a very much changed Atticus. The lawyer with a heart of gold who championed the cause of justice in a racist society is now a bitter, garden variety bigot. You probably also already know that Go Set a Watchman was not written as a sequel to Mockingbird, but is actually its first draft.  At editorial suggestion Harper Lee focused on a flashback to Scout's childhood, and from that piece of advice the book we all read in school was born.

Harper Lee famously said that she did not want to publish another book. So why at age 89 would she decide to let Mockingbird's first draft be published as a book in its own right after the missing manuscript was supposedly discovered by her lawyer?  Your guess is as good as mine.  The purpose of this post is not conjecture about whether Harper Lee had a late in life change of heart or is being taken advantage of by a publishing giant.  Let others shout "Liar Liar - pants on fire" if they wish.  I'll buy this version of the story until/unless someone proves it to be false: From Mockingbird to Watchman

And perhaps there is more to come, for here is A New Account of ‘Watchman’s’ Origin and Hints of a Third Book

Some readers are conflicted:

But perhaps we should simply read Watchman and judge it on its own merits. Doing so without comparison to Mockingbird is of course pretty much impossible. Harper Lee's 'Watchman' Is A Mess That Makes Us Reconsider A Masterpiece

Not that this is preventing it from selling like hotcakes. Go Set a Watchman Breaks Book Selling Records

The release of Watchman has people re-examining Mockingbird with new eyes. In the #BlackLivesMatter era does Atticus Finch still come across as a civil rights hero?

It's also tough to think about Mockingbird the book without comparing it to Mockingbird the movie.

A search for more hidden gems may now be underway as result of the discovery of Watchman:


Chapter One of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

p.s. Turns out there are way more than #TenThingsNotToSayToAWriter

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Will trade a Benjamin for five Tubmans

When I saw this article I was a little surprised but mostly disappointed that some people seem to find the negative angle in everything. WHY WE SHOULD KEEP HARRIET TUBMAN AND ROSA PARKS OFF THE $20 BILL

More negative reaction to idea of Harriet Tubman on $20 bills.  Keep Harriet Tubman – and all women – off the $20

So we only want people on $ bills who were pro slavery, anti woman, members of ruling class? No matter how much has changed & how much change we're still striving for, we want to cling to the ugly past and not acknowledge those who fought for a greater America?

As for me, I can think of no one more worthy than Harriet Tubman for the honor. Her legacy IS America. She should be on $1, $5, $10, $20...

Women were 2nd class citizens in the US way too long. Still not caught up. Imagine Hillary in the White House & Harriet on the $20. Go on, do it.

Most of the impact will not be immediate. Changing mindsets takes time. Some of what we do today is meant to make tomorrow better.