Standards for Living

It has now been nearly two weeks since I’ve entered my forty-first year.

Or, as I’d like to call it, “Forty won.”

In a year marked by so much death – from ones intimately close, to strangers known and unknown, not to mention the brutal murder of democracy – I end my fortieth year with an even stronger zest and appreciation for life. Especially my own.

Because, in spite of all the tragedy and turmoil that 2016 embodied for most of the world – admittedly the first half was brutal for me as well – I somehow managed to ride out the rest of it with one of the strongest years I’ve had in nearly a decade on a personal and professional level. I made uncomfortable choices, found more of my voice, embraced the unknown, and found freedom in letting go of things that weren’t right for me. I’ve knowingly disappointed some, and unknowingly inspired others.

What resulted was the universe opening up a world of opportunity in the form of more love, support and fellowship from new and unexpected sources. Ones that allowed and, at times, insisted on, finding acceptance that I once sought from relationships – both familial and romantic – within myself.

So I took those trips. Went to those shows. Saw those movies. Booked those therapy appointments. And so on.

…and didn’t wait for that call to do any of it. And also didn’t give a shit what anyone thought about it.

In the spirit of keeping that momentum going, and in honor of all the fucks I’ve lost during this year, here’s a list of my standard for living for 2017 and beyond:

Stop Hesitating (“Take the trip!” “Buy the shoes!” “Go to the fucking doctor!”) When you have gainful employment, insurance, decent credit, and a shit-ton of people in your life who are in your corner, there are no excuses. Life is too fucking short…and it can all be gone tomorrow. I say this 7 months after my father’s passing, and over a year after the sudden loss of a very dear friend who lived his life fully and generously, so it’s not exactly an epiphany. Death has a way of putting you in “YOLO” mode; forcing you to face your own mortality and, subsequently, your “bucket list.” And the savagery of this year has been the biggest wakeup call of all.

Speak my mind. Anyone who really knows me might be like “When have you NOT?” To them, I say “Hush.” But recently, someone I was once close to, told me that I didn’t communicate with them during the time we spent together. In this instance, I no longer trusted them or had faith in their ability to act in my best interests, but they had a point. It is best to speak one’s mind, for better or worse, that way everyone can move accordingly.

Refuse to spend any of my hard-earned cash on the following: Hip Hop albums from most of this era’s artists (although anderson.Paak might get my money for a live show). Rihanna concert tickets. Anything with the Kardashian name. Poor-quality shoes, clothing and undergarments. Events where most of the demographic is under 35, or frequently uses the word “lit” with more intention than sarcasm, and/or people who like to invite you to functions/dinners/trips/etc. with the expectation that you’ll be bankrolling them or their friend’s portion of it. If we’re not in a long-term partnership, and I have not given birth to you…you’re paying your own way. I am not Angelina Jolie or Mia Farrow. Call Tyrone.

Don’t take anything in life for granted. Not to be mistaken with “not complaining.” While I try to avoid the other c-word, there are gonna be times in life when things aren’t perfect and something needs to be said in order to address and improve it. (See “Speaking my mind.”) That doesn’t mean everything is shit – it just means it’s important enough to me to be made better. But at the end of the day, even the lessons from failures are appreciated.

Do not entertain the idea of a long-term relationship with any man who isn’t equipped to be my best friend. New rule for 2017: “If he doesn’t make plans, doesn’t keep plans, doesn’t respect my time, doesn’t respect what I say, doesn’t respect my gender, doesn’t respect my family or friends (or – as my sister-girl once said after an ex spent two days at her home but never engaged in one-on-one conversation with her – “doesn’t find out who they are to you“), doesn’t show any interest in spending time knowing or building upon mutual interests…I’m not wasting any time with him. My desire for an honest, selfless, interactive and collaborative partnership supersedes my desire to have a proper lay any day. I believe “Stronger Together” isn’t just a nice and sunny political slogan. I’ve seen too many solid relationships where couples travel, party, and make plans and important decisions together. They respect each other’s input and rely on each other for mutually beneficial contentment and growth. They also have each other’s backs when times are hard for either of them. This is what I aspire to be and have in return. And because I’d rather be alone than feel alone…nothing else will do.

Never apologize for being who I am, and take zero shit from any “friend” or family member who has opinions on how I should behave. I’m single, childless, live in a city bursting with culture and vices, and I’ve survived four decades of life that consisted of  events that have broken many. (At least, that’s what I’ve been told.) And for the most part, I’ve done it solo. That I continue to maintain a sense of humor, optimism, desire and enjoyment of intimate connection and only have a marginal social media addiction – I’d say I’m doing okay. Not Oprah okay…but you never know what the future holds.

Stop doubting my abilities and gut. That I still do this on occasion means there’s more room for improvement, but I’d like to think I’m headed in the right direction.

If I’ve taken nothing else from this year, it is that there is no reward for playing it safe. Those who’ve impacted our lives most – in both life and death – have been the most extreme risk takers. The rogues. The controversial ones. The ones who colored outside the lines and bulldozed their comfort zones to fit big dreams (and in some cases even bigger egos). The ones who set a standard for the way they lived, and fulfilled it to the best of their ability, in spite of (or perhaps because of) how others said they were supposed to live.

If we all set standards in our lives, then we’ll do anything to preserve it for our own well-being and joy. Our jobs, relationships, finances, living conditions and even our political leanings are a reflection of those standards. Or lack thereof. I mean, how else can you achieve a “gold standard” without actual standards?

We owe it to ourselves to have them. We owe it to each other to honor them. If, for no other reason, for our own self-respect, and the peace of mind that comes with knowing we did all we could to make the world a better place by being a better person in it while we could.

Those are my standards for 2017 and beyond.

What are yours?

Mirror, Mirror

Forgive me for the unusually long hiatus.

It’s not that I’ve been extremely busy (although I kinda was), nor was it the absence of a topic of discussion. I think we all can agree that over the last few months, there’s been nothing but discussions.

Yet, every time I sat down to write about it, I found myself in that unenviable position every one of us has suffered at one point or another, where I just could not.

But now, I’ve been inspired by — of all things — television.

Unlike my younger days, where I sat for hours transfixed to a television with the intensity of a One Direction fan, these days I’m often out of the loop on most things that show up on most-watched lists, and the equivalent of “water-cooler” conversations.

Like a number of people from my generation, I watched TV not only to pass the time, but to transport myself to imaginary worlds where people had money, adventures, superpowers and even cool, talking cars. As a kid in a single parent home, I also got comfort from seeing the family comedies, where there was a mom and a dad who worked together to teach their kids valuable lessons in comedic ways.

As time passed, those shows – “Dynasty” “MacGuyver” “Wonder Woman” “Knight Rider” “Good Times” “The Brady Bunch” “The Cosby Show” “Family Ties” et al – disappeared, and in their place were shows where real people engaged in shameless acts of desperation for attention, exposure and seemingly lucrative payoffs.

That’s when I tuned out. The fantasy of my childhood shows at least gave me hope of a better life than the one I was currently living. The “reality” was just a depressing commentary on the extreme measures people will take to make their own fantasies come true.

And then Shonda Rhimes came on the scene… Making both history, and shows I could somewhat relate to or, at the very least, enjoy.

From “Grey’s Anatomy” to my current addictions “Scandal” and “How To Get Away With Murder”, Rhimes and her team of writers created stories that teetered on both lines of fantasy and reality. In the case of Grey’s and Scandal, the shows would mix raw and genuine human emotions with the fantasy of teasing happily ever after scenarios that often go horribly awry. A couple who pined for each other after parting ways would reunite, only to have one die in a plane crash. A taboo love affair with the President of the United States gets the bizarre blessing from his wife.

I mean, really, how the fuck is that real life?

But this past Thursday, Shonda and her team outdid themselves, when “Scandal” took a much-needed turn from a nonsensical plot line to deliver the most heavy-hitting episode in its history. In it, they tackled a subject that had gripped the country — myself included — for the last six months: The Ferguson incident.

For anyone who’s been living in a self-imposed bubble, the story of unarmed teenager Mike Brown being gunned down by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, has been widespread news. What had already began as a tragedy with the death of an unarmed youth, escalated further by the police department’s refusal to discuss the case until they had found evidence — which would later reveal to be false — that the victim had committed a criminal act which, in their opinion, justified the shooting. The public’s frustration with the police and media seemingly depicting minority victims as criminals had reached its peak, sparking riots in Ferguson and a wave of protests around the country. Everyone from pundits to presidents in other countries sounded off on what had become a firestorm and a black-eye (literally) for the United States of America.

…So Shonda and her team took every sound bite, every perspective and every character and caricature that has lent a voice to this chapter in American history, and lumped it into one very emotional hour of television drama.

In her version, the father of a slain son becomes his protector by sitting with the body while holding a shotgun until justice has been served to clear his son’s name. The police chief hires a black crisis control consultant to mediate the situation before it escalated to chaos. The president, still reeling from the death of his own son, agonized over the shooting, but is advised not to make any public statements due to the hotbed issue.  The crisis consultant has her team investigate the truth, which revealed the shooting officer’s guilt. The officer is then arrested and the victim is cleared. The father is then taken to the White House by the crisis consultant to meet the president and weep in his arms. Credits roll as the episode is neatly tied up with a bow.

In between all the fantasy, there were bits of reality: The anger of the community over another unjustified physical and character assassination. The charismatic, boisterous and occasionally manipulative black activist who uses rhetoric under the guise of good intentions, which ultimately encourage further destructive and counterproductive crowd behavior. The politician who jumps in to give their two cents in hopes of bolstering their presence and agenda with the fifteen minutes of media fame they’ve been allotted. The police chief who’s more concerned with the image of his department than the situation at hand, or the respect and trust of the people he’s supposed to protect and serve by resolving things peacefully and professionally. A crowd of people who are justifiably angry over their mistreatment, but unaware of how their own actions and reactions further alienate them from the sympathies of society and, sadly, justice. The police officer whose resentment over the attitudes of the community and his own deep-seeded disdain for their ethnicity severely clouds his judgement and makes him a ticking time-bomb in a job he clearly should not have. And a president who’s damned if he does say something, and damned if he doesn’t.

As stated before, I’ve had difficulty putting into words what I’ve been feeling over the last few months. As I’ve listened and watched people sound off on this, the Bill Cosby allegations and even stupid shit like a reality show based on sorority girls, I’ve wondered — sometimes out loud — how African-Americans pick and choose what they’re outraged about.

For instance: Why is it hilarious when women act a damn fool for ratings and lauded for their ambition in one show, but dragged to hell and “read to filth” because they wore letters in another? Why is it funny when Kanye West slut-shames Amber Rose for being an exotic dancer, when his wife had sex on camera with another man and built a fucking family empire from it? Speaking of “Empire,” why are people up in arms over the character depictions on a show that is a fictional scripted drama, when we grew up watching soap operas with absurd and borderline psychotic plot lines? Why is it okay for rap artists to spit lyrics about putting “molly” in a woman’s drink, but when it’s revealed that everyone’s favorite TV dad did it in real life, suddenly the women are liars? Where is that same outrage that prompted the now famous #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, when a video of black people fighting goes viral? Where is the same call for action when another black youth or innocent bystander falls victim to revenge and/or gang violence, or just a kid with anger management issues from being abused at home or school?

Maybe it’s just too hard to see ourselves, or own our hurtful behavior, beliefs and habits when they’re reflected in so-called “art” for public consumption and scrutiny. It’s easier to point fingers and talk about what any other race but our own have done to embarrass or degrade our culture.

We spend a short month reminding ourselves how wonderful and majestic our history is; how many people of color changed the world by inventing groundbreaking medical and scientific techniques and countless household items, and blazed trails that have set legal and human rights precedents. How important it is to recognize and support black achievement. We quickly — and loudly — derided the Academy Awards for “snubbing” the movie “Selma”and its director, Ava DuVernay, citing the monumental impact of the event on which the film is based.

But for all the pomp and circumstance we built around the historical significance of honoring the movie on the fiftieth anniversary of the march itself, upon closer inspection, we failed to notice that the box office take of “Selma” was significantly less than the average Kevin Hart movie. Meaning we also snubbed the movie by not supporting it in the theaters!! In fact, we snubbed it more by not doing so, sending a far more dangerous message about our hypocrisy than an Oscar nod ever could.

As much as it makes people uncomfortable, I’m happy there are now shows that rip the band-aid off of the once taboo subject of talking about race and the issues we all face. Black. White. Hispanic. Asian. Jewish. African. Arabic. All. Of. Us. Be it discrimination, or even quiet-as-kept subjects like sexual abuse and incest — which was covered in a searing episode of “How To Get Away With Murder” (and may earn Cicely Tyson another award) — we need to see ourselves and our stories so we can maybe… hopefully… start the conversations and actions that create necessary changes.

Understandably, people get rattled when the lines between fantasy and reality get a little blurry, when all they want is to escape to a world where they can be entertained. But more and more, society is showing us that we can no longer look away or tune out when something doesn’t appease us.

If we can hold sports, entertainment and political figures accountable for their “scandals”, surely we can do the same for our own… Can’t we?

It all starts by looking in the mirror…

Let Freedom Ring

On Monday, the world paid tribute to the memory of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man whose legacy will forever be linked to his tireless pursuit of equal rights for not only African Americans — but for anyone who suffered injustice and discrimination based on race, gender or social standing.

As a child, I recalled every year in my elementary school being encouraged to read and recite his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, and obsessing more on my classmate Yvonne — who, along with her sisters, would always nail the recitation in the grade level school-wide contests — than on the speech’s contents. The rest of us in the class didn’t even try to beat her; we just basked in the bragging rights of having her in our class.

It would take years for me to fully understand and appreciate the sacrifice and struggle of Dr. King and his fellow “freedom fighters”. In retrospect, the work of these incredible men and women didn’t resonate as strongly as the holiday from school. To this day, I’m not certain if it’s a testament to my refusal to digest the horror of history, or if the school system failed to emphasize the importance of the movement that, at the time, was still freshly woven into the fabric of this country.

To be fair, the subject matter calls for complicated — and sometimes uncomfortable — conversation that is tough to grasp at an age where you can barely put sentences together.

In any case, recalling this bit of information helps me understand why the youth of today aren’t fully informed or sympathetic to Dr. King’s fight.

But what I don’t understand, is how in this era — where most kids who don’t have jobs somehow possess expensive smartphones that easily access information, and two year-olds can navigate applications on iPads — is it possible that people choose to not research the story of King and all freedom fighters, and instead use his image to promote “twerking” parties?

This thought came to me while attending Monday’s annual tribute to Dr. King at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which this year included tributes to Nelson Mandela and Amiri Baraka . While standing on line early that morning waiting to be seated, the presence of parents with young children en mass was a welcome and heartwarming sight to my sleepy eyes.

During the tribute, we heard the voices and messages of borough presidents, senators, congressmen, various elected officials and the new mayor and first lady of New York. We also heard the old/new police commissioner — a man clearly out of his comfort zone — who kept gratingly referring to Dr. King as “Mr. King”.

Once the political agendas and awkward moments commenced, we listened to the melodic voices of the Christian Cultural Center Chorus (who unfortunately included an R. Kelly song in their set list) and the jazzy brilliance of José James.

But the high note was the event’s keynote speaker… Angela Davis.

The indomitable fist-hoisting poster child for “Black Power” in the ’60’s and 70’s. She of the famous gap-toothed smile that beams through a face shrouded by a mushroom cloud of an afro (now graying and only slightly tamed), with a razor sharp mind and an undeniable ability to capture a room or gathering crowd with her eloquence.

Decades after being acquitted of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy charges, and semi-quietly resigned to a life of minimal fanfare, the woman still electrifies an audience. In a packed to capacity venue, the former FBI fugitive stood onstage for several minutes basking humbly in the applause and cheers of an emotional crowd that continued to stand even after she told us her time to speak was limited.

She was the most natural choice to pay tribute to the men who collectively created profound ripples in the seas of change. Having spent years being vilified, persecuted, threatened and incarcerated for her outspoken support of human rights, Davis has emerged as one of the rare survivors and success stories of that era. Following her powerful  — and, not surprisingly, controversial — speech, the crowd made their way to the cinema to view the documentary “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners“. Generations young and old were introduced to Angela the fighter, the woman, the scapegoat and finally the vanquished. Even though we knew how the story ended, there still wasn’t a dry eye or an un-clapped hand in the audience at the film’s conclusion.

With last month’s passing of Mandela (along with the perfectly/eerily timed release of the “Long Walk to Freedom” film depicting his life), and the recent PBS documentary by Henry Louis Gates Jr., “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross“, there’s a resurgence of interest surrounding those who risked their lives and their livelihood in order for future generations to enjoy the freedom and luxury of choice.

Personally, I believe this recognition couldn’t have come at a more crucial time.

Speaking for myself, it is often easy to take for granted the physical and psychological warfare that was endured for centuries prior to this day and age where it has now become okay to publicly demean each other on television, in music and via social media, but cry racism when someone from another ethnicity says or utters anything even in ignorance.

Sometimes a wound needs to be reopened in order to heal properly. The recent spate of racially themed movies in the past year, while garnering some vitriol from African Americans tiring of seeing “another film about slavery, etc.”, are necessary reminders of the struggles of ancestors past. If nothing else, they should embolden generations that now have more opportunities and resources than ever to make even greater strides and more groundbreaking accomplishments that unite and rebuild broken communities.

Because what’s the point of people fighting and dying for freedom, if we end up allowing anger, resentment and fear to imprison our thoughts and actions and keep us from ultimately living Dr. King’s dream? Or for that matter… simply living our own dreams?

Let freedom ring… indeed.

All The Rage

Like almost every African American in my social network timeline, I went to see “The Best Man Holiday” on its opening weekend.

While my reaction wasn’t as effusive as my peers, I did enjoyed it for what it was: an entertaining film that brought back the days when movies that featured a predominantly black cast didn’t play up to any stereotypes. The days when movies like “Boomerang”, “Love Jones”, “Soul Food”, “Brown Sugar”, “Love & Basketball” and the first “Best Man” gave us a view of educated professionals, creative people following their passions, and families that were achieving middle and upper middle class success.

That was an era when great and sometimes compelling storytelling and positive and realistic imagery — ushered in by “The Cosby Show” — promoted the renaissance of black entertainment… a time when neo-soul music was coming up, hip hop was socially conscious and infusing jazz in their sound, and both were being incorporated into legendary soundtracks.

For whatever reason, it appeared this era was too brief for that genre. The films that brought career success to Taye Diggs, Nia Long, Sanaa Lathan, and Morris Chestnut –to name a few — faded into obscurity, and made way for a new brand of movies that often went straight to video or played for a certain type of audience who were content with watered down characters who were more caricatures than three dimensional.

Today, nearly fifteen years later, what should be a simple celebration of an entertaining movie and a revival of that craft, has now escalated into heated debates and unnecessary comparisons.

From a poorly worded USA Today article — where the author was dumfounded by the film’s ability to nearly keep pace with “Thor” despite being in a thousand fewer theaters and called it “race themed” — to a cavalcade of online militants who’ve grown tired of the crop of “slave genre” movies, Malcom D. Lee’s movie found itself with the unwanted and unwarranted baggage of other people’s expectations.

Although the film’s second half took an emotional turn, the overall romantic comedy was suddenly pitted against a juggernaut of a comic franchise that is Marvel (one that, it should be noted, had two black lead actors in the cast), and unfairly dubbed the antidote to more somber flicks such as “Fruitvale Station”, “The Butler”, and “12 Years a Slave”. Message boards still reeling from “Django Unchained” urged people to support the movie for reasons beyond its feel-good nature. Deep sighs of relief from people suffering “Tyler Perry backlash” could be heard across the nation. The shade being thrown was enough to blind you from the beautiful and seemingly ageless cast that just set out to make a warmhearted Christmas-themed sequel with friendship, love and forgiveness at its core.

I suppose these days, when movie-going has become a fairly expensive pastime, one tends to be a bit more selective and discerning when it comes to how and what your hard earned money is spent on. And when the caliber of entertainment being ladled down your throat on a regular basis comprises mostly of train-wreck reality programs where positive messages are severely lacking, then it’s no wonder when smartly written shows like “Scandal”, and anything where the lead characters are prominent African Americans in non-submissive roles conjure up the kind of emotion mostly felt on graduation day.

But the rage is just overwhelming. My fear is that our propensity to get fired up about everything is just going to end up burning bridges of opportunity time and again.

Granted, the onslaught of material tackling the disturbing subjects of slavery and racial discrimination appear excessive when you’ve been inundated by it in the past couple of years. It would also seem that the timing couldn’t be more unfortunate, as ignorant actions and statements appears to be on the rise. But where “Django” was a cartoonish revenge fantasy (much like “Inglorious Basterds”, which ironically didn’t fire up as much outrage in the Jewish community), this year’s crop of stories were either based on factual events and people, or derived from a true story. It’s an interesting commentary, given that decades ago Alex Haley was once heralded for sharing the story of his ancestors in his epic novel, which became the historic TV movie, “Roots”.

One would think at a time when Henry Louis Gates Jr. and his team of historians launched the spectacular documentary series “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” on PBS, the time would be ripe for embracing and appreciating true stories that shine light and perspective on the hardships and triumphs faced by black people in general, and open up dialogue in communities starving for respect and recognition while struggling with identity and self-esteem in a continually shifting social and economic climate.

Which is probably why “TBMH” was such a breath of fresh air. Like its predecessors, it allowed the audience to view a world where the black people had success in their careers and relationships (or saw any challenges with them neatly resolved by the time the credits rolled), and were treated equally — and even adoringly in one case — by the white cast members.

Most importantly, race never had a starring role in this movie… Love did.

Perhaps the painful reminders of a flawed and tragic history and reality is still too much of a jagged pill to swallow, and we prefer our entertainment more diluted and, yes, a bit melodramatic as a means of escape.

It is, after all, entertainment. Maybe we do need to see a crying (and shirtless!) Morris Chestnut, a snarky Terrence Howard, and a New Edition tribute to make it all better… at least for two solid hours.

Given the sheer joy it’s brought millions of people thus far… I’m gonna go with a resounding “Yes.”