Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Hour of Fire

A half full plane idled on the runway.
20 minutes.
No clouds, no rain.
Sitting on the runway seems
to be a re-occuring personal theme.
A message?

Whispered mantras, purification,
further in I went.
Suddenly the turbines spun
and the engine belched flames.

We flew up into the hour of fire.
Out of the right window: the red sun,
burning into the ruby sky.
Out of my left window was the blue moon
A winter sapphire glistening.

I created myself into light,
sending it cross the sky. 
To my right was fire, 
to my left was ice;

I stood in the middle.

Monday, February 27, 2012

LOL: The End

"LOL: The End" is a clown show with a lot on its mind. I went to see this show's premiere at the FRIGID Festival over the weekend because Una Osata was performing in it. Una is a very talented actress and writer I got to know a few years ago at some Freedom Train Production workshops. I was also intrigued because it was going to be a show with her family involved as the other clowns. Her sister Michi and father Yoshimasa Osata would be on stage with her.

I hadn't seen a clown show since "Slava's Snowshow" which was a brilliant cross between vaudeville, Blue Man Group, and Jacques Tati's "Mon Uncle." Slava's clowns embodied the Eastern European morose and dour attitude with floppy gesticulations and faces that were painted in various states of depression.

"LOL" is a completely different style and take on clown shows. "Slava Snowshow" was the epitome European auteur clowns and mimes. "LOL" is Japanese frenetic in flavor. The clowns are more manic, the face paint is more colorful and explosions. While Slava slouched, LOL clowns are balls of energy. While Slava was about the slow decline of a relationship and the loss of love, LOL is an allegory about the end of the planet.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Buying the Oscars

The Oscars are the best example of Hollywood prestige, showmanship, and bribery all rolled into one. All year long there is a buzz. Any notable performances, any notable movies, anything with swelling music, and preferably a plot involving World War II or some star taking a turn as an 'abnormal chap' or 'historical' person gets put into the Oscar buzz.

Angeline Joline chops off her hair and frizzes it (read: uglifies herself) playing the wife of a murdered journalist: Oscar pot. Nicole Kidman puts on a prosthetic nose and stares longingly out the window: Oscar pot. Steve Spielberg makes a swelling epic with galloping horses and glamorous corpses: Oscar pot. Downtrodden minority gets trampled on, but then rescued by white protagonist and then offered a glimpse of dignity before more trampling (Gone with the Wind, Glory, The Hurricane, Monster's Ball, Precious, pretty much most movies with minority nominated actors, and now The Help): Oscar pot!!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

HIV Vaccine: A Year or Two Away?

One of the most under reported areas of news in the last few years has been HIV research. At the start of 2012 there has been an explosion of discoveries and possibilities. Yet, most people don't  know about this exciting news. Scientists are closing in on a vaccine and possible cure for HIV.

This is amazingly good news which is so hard to find that these days.  There is no villain or group to be outraged at so maybe that's why the news isn't being widely circulated. The HIV vaccine is a story of people coming together and working for a greater good. Not the stuff of tabloids or gossips. The silence may be because there have been so many dashed hopes and false starts in the 20 years of intense research. It also may be because there's an ever-growing population of Westerners who are able to live with the disease. The plague of the 80s has now become a common living condition for many men and women. While people in Africa still suffer and die in the millions, HIV coverage in mainstream media is rare.

Still there is a medical race going on right now. And it's happening in several countries, and among hundreds of scientists.  The race is to attain, verify, and patent an HIV vaccine and then find a formulaic cure for those currently infected.

Curing HIV would be one of the biggest medical feats since the polio vaccine. In Belgian, a team of scientist just began a round of research this February on a new vaccine. Meanwhile in America there are several different groups pursuing a vaccine in different laboratories and universities.

What's going in this race is the best in Western medicine and science: vigorous and thorough pursuit of first identifying the illness, then containing it, and finally eradicating it.

AIDS was first mis-identified as GRID and thought to be a problem for gay men. This mis-identification of the illness only played into society's homophobia. When scientist realized that the disease could effect everyone, the acronym of Gay Related Immune Deficiency, was no longer accurate. Once it became about a virus and not a person's moral or sexual standing, scientists could get down to work.

When the Black Plague struck Europe there was a similar moralization around sudden death. It was only when millions had perished and panic reached a frenzy that society shifted away from moralization and toward practical containment methods. The immediate fear of extinction won out over and punishing perceived sinners.

Once AIDS was properly identified then scientist could track who it was spread through blood. Education on safe sex, clean needle programs, and testing blood banks dramatically cut down the rate of infection in the Western world. The next step in containment was finding treatments so that people could continue to live while a cure was found. AZT and now a variety of drug cocktails are available that can balance out a person's system.

People have access to information, opportunities of prevention, and ways to treat and live with infections. The last step is eradication. We are witnessing the end-game of HIV. What was once doubted, is now an assumed: in my lifetime there will be a cure or, at the least, a vaccine for HIV. The next generation will be free. The children being born now will look at our fears as excessive. They will take for granted all the millions lost, pain endured, and setbacks to get to their comfort. Future generations will be seen as ungrateful, undereducated, and oblivious to HIV. It is the luxury of modernization and living in a progressive society. The children take the parent's suffering for granted.  I wish this luxury for everyone. 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Whitney's Homegoing

Whitney Houston is dead.
She's gone.

I sat there processing this information. The informant didn't say what were the causes but he didn't have to; I knew. Everyone in that small room knew as we had her the jokes about her insane drug-induced behavior. And that in it of itself was shocking. No one asked how or why she died. Whether it was prescription or illegal or alcohol we all knew that some insidious substance was involved.

I'm looking at Whitney Houston's Homegoming. It's only been a week since I heard those words and it still shocks me. I reject the backlash at expressing sorrow over celebrity death. My continued stunned grief wasn't because she was famous. When Judy Garland died there was a general sadness but a profound sense of loss and sorrow for a select group and not just for her drug abuse or her voice. For the spirit she represented. And that grief was able to trigger Stonewall and social change. Whitney represents the same sense of sorrow for a distinct group that is much more than a lost singer. She represents something much more than a voice that is now the standard for female pop singers. For Blacks, for gay Blacks, and churchgoers she was their Judy Garland.

There are people who seem to think that public grief in America is a performance piece and that we have moved beyond wailing chorus of widows from ancient times. But in fact we are in it. In our texting and post-modern times we are growing closer to our instinct and our past. The technology that separates us causes us to seek out grief that exists at a primal level. If someone doesn't understand a subculture's deep sense of loss at one of their own, that is fine. You are not apart of it. But it doesn't discount that people are having true sorrow. I'm sure when Elvis died on the toilet from excessive abuse, there was the same subculture sense of sorrow. The difference is that the subculture that claims Elvis and Judy Garland is assumed to be important and the one Whitney represents is typically marginalized and so their grief is treated in the same manner.

My grief was earned and real. I had grown to love and appreciate the troubled and divine Miss Houston. Toward the end of her life the voice was gone. The squeaky-clean image was gone. The beauty was quickly fading behind drunken spectacles and cigarettes. And as she went down each step toward further chaos and humiliation I would mutter under my breath 'just love you. We don't care about the voice any more or the beauty or the hit movies. Just find something worth saving in you.' I imagined it must have been very difficult for Houston see her own voice and image -the model of pop music female perfection- crack and wither into hoarse, airy croaks that had to be airbrushed with slick production experts.

The fact that she kept living in public made it all the more painful. At least Billie Holiday didn't have to deal with twitter and TMZ. Heroin destroyed Lady Day in a few years and with privacy. We were spared watching Janis Joplin alcoholic decline for 15 years.Whitney had reality TV shows, comedic sketches mocking her, and several feature spreads in tabloids listing her failures, her alleged drug dens, pictures of her looking bedraggled and with a junkie smile plastered across her face while she made a late-night runs to gas stations for junk food. It was like watching one of my aunts soiling her dress and slurring her words while school children giggle and pictures were snapped. It hurt my feelings.

There were 3 different periods of Whitney: the 80s overwrought Whitney, the 90s stripped down Whitney, and the post-millenium Whitney of scandal and tragedy. 

As a child of the 1980s, Whitney Houston's voice haunted me. Through no fault of her, she was everywhere. At every school talent show, at every recital, at every procession. Flag Day at Highland Oaks Elementary School involved an outdoor event in front of the main office's flag pole. All the students from all the grades would gather in the parking lot and stand for over 2 hours as we celebrated flags. The American flag, the state flag, historical flags, flags of different shapes and colors passed before my glazed eyes. Strips of colored cloth were raised and lowered on various poles, paraded around, folded and must never touch the ground. No one ever explained why these rectangular pieces of cloth couldn't touch the ground. Would they spontaneously combust, would the flag police arrest us, was it a federal crime? These are the many questions that run through a young child's mind as they're squatting on scalding hot black asphalt while your peers are dressed like Hitler Youth. 

Flag officers and flag cheerleaders would march around in geometric shapes to the pounding of a drum as we sweated under the Florida sun. For one afternoon, this upper-middle class public school became like a military academy and we were the unwilling and flabby cadets. Speeches were given at the microphone.

Principal Virginia Boone was a woman to be feared. Built like a linebacker and with the voice of a hard-drinking and chain-smoking Civil War general, she presided over Flag Day with an iron fist. If there was anyone less scary or threatening at the helm, we probably would wander off halfway through the ceremony like stray cats. 

Our teachers would remind us repeatedly 'don't embarrass me out there' with a whispered fierce tone that was a warning of some horrific medieval punishment involving flayed skin. For most of the year we could yell, scream, have food fights in the cafeteria but if we messed up on Flag Day then there would be hell to pay. Perhaps an eternity spent as a human shawl or some sort of local and obscure flag warning future generations to turn back from Flag Day.

Principal Boone would relish the opportunity to call out teacher and student alike over the microphone from her Flag Day parade stage. It didn't matter what our ages were, because on Flag Day we were all her children; her mentally-handicapped idiot bastard children. Boone would berate and humiliate staff with unruly students. The younger, fresh-out-of-college teachers would look on in horror as Principal Boone's hoarse Southern drawl would claw at our skin. The more gentler teachers would burst into tears at being dressed down in front of hundreds. The children wouldn't even use the teacher's emotional breakdown against them. We would all bow our heads in shame at our failings. 

As a reward for our terrified silence, we would get treated to a medley of songs. Principal Boone really thought this was a great reward for the kids. We would get to hear live music as our sneakers melted into the skillet-hot asphalt. From her comfortable and shaded seat she couldn't understand how ungrateful and lazy her minions could be while the music played. One year, a girl standing next to me burst into tears. She was in so much discomfort that she couldn't take it any more. Our teacher came up to her patter her on the back. I thought it was a moment of camraderie until I realized the teacher was smothering the child's cries in her shoulder.

We would count down the minutes of these ceremonies, awaiting our return to air conditioned rooms and seats. "Wind Beneath My Wings" and "I Believe The Children Are Our Future" were stored in the deep recesses of our minds. Those songs were filed under ironic torture music.

In the 1980s Whitney's music became a syrupy gruel dispensed at public events that was bereft of individuality. The only thing needed was an ability hit high notes with increasingly difficult runs and backflips. I didn't like this especially knowing she came from a gospel background, the very epitome of soul and spirit. It seems as if slick producers stole the songs of slaves and stripped them over their true pain. Mainstream music just needed the antics, not the story that caused it.

Whitney willingly played a part in this music. Her voice, 'the voice,' surpassed her background and heritage. There have been others who came before her, such as Michael Jackson, Prince, and Aretha Franklin. But you can't imitate those stars without it becoming a poor mimicry. When you do the moonwalk or sing in the Prince-like falsetto, people know what you're doing. When people sing like 'the voice' all they do is take it over like a virus in a host body. The voice became something of a puppet act for young kids and teenagers. Unknowingly, she played a part in this as 'the voice' became another stolen piece of property in American culture.

Her sound lended itself to being taken over by others. Artistic form is often set by weaknesses as much as strengths. The artist's limitations and flaws define the  container in which they operate. When there is no limitations or flaw then very often there is no artistic form either. There is only indominable talent and ambition. The audience is left with a talent that is always emerging and escaping but never gelling into anything of perceivable substance.

It's sacrilegious and I know I might have my Black card revoked for saying this but 1980s Whitney Houston felt like that giant perfect "Star Search" ambition. Incapable of vocal flaw and therefore unable to define her very soul, she barreled through Hallmark cards posing as songs. She would come on the radio and very often kids would erupt in mimicry, singing the runs and doing vocal acrobatics. If no one was around I would very politely turn the radio down, afraid that by turning it off completely I might be committing some federal crime against patriotism. As a compromise I would edge the volume lower and listen to her as if from a distance. At a low volume, Whitney's voice has a mystery to it that is often lacking in her big hits. She's whispering from another planet of 'femmebot' singers.

There were rising den of opposing voices to Whitney. She was thought of as 'phony' and 'too white.' In that, and only that, I felt a kinship with 1980s Whitney. She wasn't sufficiently ethnic and was boo'ed at Black awards shows for a period of time. Beyonce has received the same criticism and has been shouted down by Black audiences at the height of her fame. 

My shift toward Whitney happened while watching the Super Bowl and her rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner." It was 1991 and she had been out of my ear for a few years. America was in the middle of a patriotic revival with the first Iraq War over oil. I was obsessed with military equipment and the Panama War had proven underwhelming. Iraq, which touted one of the largest armies in the world, gave hope for an aerial firework display the American media had been deprived of in arresting Manuel Noriega. The patriotism was highly manufactured and finely crafted by the finest minds of propaganda. Whitney's voice was the very embodiment of Americana, an un-ironic blend of consumer merchandising and bland colorless love. A witless force of ambition pumped up on steroids. The voice was a merchandising virus, and like a virus it had only 3 purposes: to duplicate, to infiltrate, and to spread.

When they announced Whitney's name, I cringed and then prepared myself for the waves of diarrhetic singing. But this was a new phase of Whitney's career. She was a woman and a year away from marrying Bobby Brown and having a child. She was partying hard but the girlish antics and preening were gone. She was wearing a white track suit with red and white trimmings and her hair was held in a simple ivory-colored sweatband. She was here to work. She launched into an athletic and robust rendition of America's national anthem that was stunning and short. Some of the key notes were underplayed. She still had an enormous voice, but she was owning it, instead of parading it. There was no need for the backflips. 

This moment in pop culture history felt like the official start of the 90s Whitney. The songs were stripped, more soulful, and her notes were darker to fit the change in her voice and personality. She could still hit the notes and was a marketing genius as she began incorporating movies into her career trajectory. But this new Whitney was a full-grown woman whose songs about love felt more real. The writing was still fairly bland, but the delivery transformed the songs beyond mere ambition.

She released "All The Man That I Need" confirmed this fresh perspective on a grown 1990s Whitney. We were entering the era of grunge and gangsta rap. The public demanded more than karaoke. Feeling was needed. Neo-soul began to peak its head out before blossoming in the middle of the decade. We were a nation and a world in search of something ancient and darker. Bubble gum would not do. The market adjusted and gave us 'bad boy' bands dressed in leather like Jodeci and New Kids on the Block, while Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation" portrayed a factory dystopia that was remarkably similar to Madonna's Ayn Rand send-up in "Express Yourself."

"The Bodyguard" was her ultimate hit but many of the songs weren't so upbeat. "Queen of the Night" was not the image of squeaky clean girl. It was a partying midnight siren, still boastful and ambition but tinged with a foreshadowing doom. The partying would catch up to her. At first this doom played itself out in the music. "I Will Always Love You," is a clear-eyed retrospective of a relationship and love that is over. It's easy to forget this, since it's one of the biggest love anthems of all time but it's not about finding or discovering. The song that Dolly Pardon originally sung as a country anthem was about defeated woman.

The decade ended with "My Love Is Your Love," with Whitney on album cover in dark black dress, black stockings and neon blonde hair. The one sign of color -the hair- was a nod to pop music and the 1980s were she came from. But the rest of picture was of a woman moving into dark territory with a smile. The album garnered some of the best reviews of her career as her voice was now lower and distinctive. There would not be a boom of talent shows contestants emulating this Whitney. She was still covered and imitated, but it wasn't all-pervasive because it wasn't aimed at the 12-year-old girl market. "It's Not Right But It's Okay" was delivered in a stabbing staccato of a woman talking through all the incidents of betrayal. When I heard the song for the fist time on the radio, I couldn't believe it. Whitney without the excessive runs. She was delivering a promise long overdue. She was growling from her gut.

In her last decade, Whitney was mostly adrift. The post-millennium period marked a decade of bizarre interviews, fizzled album sales, and tabloid notoriety. "Being Bobby Brown" was supposed to be a reality TV show about Bobby Brown and the bad boy trying to make a comeback. But it was obvious that people weren't tuning in to see Bobby. They wanted to see Whitney and how she interacted with her troubled husband. As Bobby struggled in the studio, the editors would frequently cut to Whitney poolside in a haze, or Whitney smoking a cigarette and cutting up with friends. This was a diva in exile, still grand but largely disconnected from what made her famous. The infamous last episode of "Being Bobby" featured pop icon smoking and roaming around her mansion cussing her husband like an R&B Norma Desmond.

After the show's first year she realized the damage that she had done to her image. It was one of the biggest hits on TV to not have a second season. Despite Bobby Brown and Bravo pleading, Whitney would not renew another season for people to use against her. She would not sign off on a DVD version that people desperately wanted. If she was going to be a mess, she was going to do so in private.

Whitney never got this privacy because we don't allow it of our celebrities. Once you reach a certain level of fame, you are tracked. Friends and associates whisper to the press, circulate the rumors and failings. The gossip generates billions of dollars and runs an entire industry. Whitney was now a part of this and she spent the last years of her life attempting to re-enter the arena of a superstar artist.

The day before her death, I was reading online about Whitney being considered as a judge for X-Factor. I thought it would have been a great idea. Being in front of the camera as a judge would give her the attention she craved, spark her next comeback, and may cause her to clean up her act. She would be mentoring young singers and, perhaps, she would take it seriously. The comments below this report was the usual round of jokes about Whitney being a crack addict and not taking a job unless her dress room floor was covered in cocaine so every time she fell she could pick herself up. The jokes didn't make me mad nor did I laugh. I just hoped these comments would be proven wrong.

A few hours before the Whitney's death reached my ears, I was online watching youtube videos. I surfed through the endless cover bands and current list of pop singers. They all sound like the children of Whitney.

Now it's a week later and I'm watching the Whitney Houston Homecoming broadcast live on CNN. Clive Davis spoke just now and the eulogy and he sprinkled his comments with memories of music videos and resume accomplishments. Davis ended his Whitney commercial with an odd blend of spirituality and marketing. She was getting ready for a comeback and it was going to be August. You know in this statement that Whitney's last movie 'Sparkle" will be released around August and the music industry will be preparing for a Whitney wave during the summer lull. Davis said he was going to hold Whitney to her August comeback promise. He's going to hold her voice and her music, working it and churning it out endlessly. The speech came across as verging on a slave master eulogizing a slave as working in heaven because, after all, that is a master's idea of a slave heaven: a place where they can work in heaven's cotton fields eternally. According to Mr Davis, Whitney will be held to her contract obligations in heaven and will be expected to continue singing. It reminds me of Michael Jackson's death where the controlling corporate interests released many statements promising that they will continue their fruitful relationship with Michael, even in death! This is their business idea of heaven: indentured service in perpetuity toward the profit margin.

I hope she finds rest. My idea of heaven isn't Whitney singing forever. I would like to see her again, smiling and free. She wouldn't be on stage in front of a crowd. She would probably be humming softly to herself. Performing for no one. She would be singing softly the music of her heart. This music isn't produced and doesn't have verses or a chorus. This music doesn't even have words. It is just a feeling, like a child humming while at play.  And I hope I could eavesdrop in on this private moment and, in turn, get some comfort.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Confessions of a Sugar Addict

The doctor removed the needle from its case and held it to the side of my face. Two taps and a thin metal spear shot into my ear. A few more needles were tapped into my ear. The pain felt like two small red ants nibbling at my ear loom. I flattened out on my stomach and waited for the transformation. The acupuncturist turned off the lights and adjusted the volume of serene nature sounds on an iPod stereo system.

I started seeing an acupuncturist at the beginning of 2012 for a back injury. During the summer I fell down a staircase so hard that I bounced off my lower back and was able to flip in mid-air over on to my stomach. I rolled down the rest of the way and laid on the wooden floor covered in cold spilled tea. Employing reikki and matrix energetics, I struggled to my feet. I continued focusing on collapsing the pain and it went away in less than an hour but the trauma caused a melon-sized cyst to develop on my back. Being a guy, I shunned the silly idea of seeing a doctor to have the extra head-sized appendage removed from my back. I thought I could 'walk it off' but surprisingly cysts don't like to go for walks. They tend to just sit there. And after trying herbs and massage therapy, I decided to take more invasive action.

It had been over ten years since I had been to an acupuncturist. As a young high school student reporter interning at a few local papers, I figured I could get some free drugs by doing an 4-part series on alternative medicine. Due to wrestling and excessive summer work-outs, I had some minor skin diseases and eyes that were constantly irritated and red. I went to an herbalist for my eyes and skin diseases saw a few specialist and wrote up the series. My eyes and skin cleared up and someone offered free acupuncture. Years later I brought my Dad to a world-famous acupuncturist in Aventura, Florida and his strength and conditioning improved.

Om'Echaye was one of the first centers in Miami that popped up when I did a google search. I came in to see one of their specialist. She began putting needles on my back and the swelling reduced from a melon to a grapefruit and then a orange. We continued in the treatment as well as taking herbs and I was asked 'is there anything else' that I wanted to address in the sessions. I scanned my body and thought about all the little injuries and sprains. A doctor asking if 'there's anything wrong' is an opening for my hypochondriac to recount every bruise and flu since infancy and wonder 'is it AIDS?"As I searched for speculative cancers, signs of leprosy, and rare genetic diseases lurking I remembered something.

"You know, I have a thing...about sugar. I'd like to get rid of that."

The specialist didn't even feign shock. She's probably heard this story from countless clients or noticed it in them. She nodded and brought out the needles for my left ear. This was an old story for both of us.

I come from a long line of sugar addicts. Diabetes is as common and almost expected if you make it to a certain age. Being a family of overweight Black Americans I suppose we were all aware of the monster in the shadows. Diabetes means heart disease. Heart disease means complications, multiple ailments, several prescriptions, and spending my senior years in life worrying about foot circulation and carefully clipping my toe nails.

Although I played tennis well enough to win several tournaments I was still an obese kid and teenager. I was gifted with quick feet and hands that would leave opponents scratching their heads at how they could lose in straight sets to the fat Black kid with asthma. It wasn't until I hit high school that I burned away my belly.

Football and wrestling became my passion. And with my passion I could burn thousands of calories in a few hours. I would and could eat anything. Cookies, cakes, burgers, and shakes. The only thing I refused to eat was candy and soda, and still maintain my abstinence to this day.  But I could get my sugar in many other ways and tended to prefer it via elaborate drinks with whipped cream and gelatinous cherries. I could drink my weight in sugar and probably did when I was a teenager.

After high school I was conscientious of my sugar intake. Still I consumed a lot of the sweet stuff in college cafeterias. The meals were always buffet and dessert became an obligation (gotta get your money's worth). When I go away from sugar or attempt some restraint, I would get irritable and emotional. My mind and body felt agitated and edgy. I was experiencing withdrawal symptoms. One time it got so bad that I developed a pounding headache and tremors while in Miami. Granted sugar wasn't the only factor as I was also stressed out and obsessing about staying away from my substance. And the more I focused on it, the more it overtook my thoughts. I pulled into a fast food drive-in and ordered a vanilla shake. The moment I began drinking the thick, corn-syrup laced substance, my headache went away. In under a minute, I felt as if I had averted some terrible storm. The sun seemed brighter, the air was clear, and the tension melted away. I smiled and slumped down into my car seat as I returned to my senses.

It wasn't until 5 years ago that I made a dietary shift. I became a vegetarian and saw the weight fall off as I became more aware about eating to feel good. I started dancing and working out, going to yoga classes, and exploring a more physical life. Excessive sugar started to make me sick. Two slices of cake was a reward as a child but now I could barely get through even one. And still, at some point during the day, my body craved a hit. It might be a small shake or a few cookies, but most days there would be a point in the middle of the afternoon or at night when the sugar craving would vibrate from my stomach.

A few years ago I tried going a week without any sugar at all. By the second day I wanted to cry. Not balling or weeping, but just a little whimpering fetal position sob with dramatic shaking as I rocked myself. I found that without sugar, my body was telling me something. It didn't desire cookies or cakes. What it was desiring was love. All this time I had been using sugar as a substitute, a reminder of childhood love expressed through cupcakes and hot chocolate. Those birthday parties with fruit punch and cake. All those little things I didn't get growing up I had been storing in my sugar experience. The sugar was a psychological balm and emotional pacifier which I had projected onto desserts and sweet things. I desired sweetness emotionally and had substituted in physical sweetness on my tongue. It's sounds like self-help pablum, but I was using sugar as love.

Flashbacks flooded me. My romantic dates with sugar, furtive and in secrecy. These were moments in my life that I hadn't thought about in years. There was the time I snuck off into the laundry room as a kid and consumed cream-filled Debbie cakes as the drier tumbled the sheets. The lights were off and my face was smeared with chocolate. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and stuck the shoved the wrapper to the bottom of the trash. There were long drives in the middle of the night in which I wasn't going anywhere or doing anything. I would drive around with my date of french fries and banana shakes.

This is something I have never talked about to anyone. Not my parents, not my friends, not counselors of any kind. These memories were buried in my body and were now being excavated in rough and disorderly fashion. My body unpacked these jagged little frames. After a few days without sugar, my spirits picked up. I wondered if I could try my hand at gorging myself on fruit but thought better of it.

By the end of the no-sugar week I was consuming spicy hot foods and curries. My appetites had shifted to burning sours and pickled piquancy. I bought a sandwich from a grocery store and took a bite. The bread was sweet. This wasn't Wonder Bread or some white processed food. It was whole wheat organic bread and I found it sugary. I checked the ingredients of the sandwich to make sure no one slipped a pack of Dixie Crystal in between the bun.

"Bread is sweet!" I exclaimed on 14th street in the middle of New York City before realizing that I had verbalized the thought at a volume a bit too loud to be kept to myself. Bread is a dessert. It always has been but I never noticed it. My taste buds were too dull and caked up with corn syrups.

During the summer in Nicaragua I was cut off from fast food and luxury items. Food options were anything that could be grown or bought a simple store. The deprivation kicked up even stronger emotions but also a greater sense of relief once the withdrawal symptoms faded.

Over the last year I've phased out the sugar. From once a day, to once every other day, to 2 or 3 times a week. I did the same thing with meat as I went from a die-hard carnivore to vegetarian over a 2 year phase-out period. The biggest thing was adding drinks to my count. I used to be able to get around limitations by chugging a Starbucks frappucino or sugary chai tea.

At the beginning of this year I added another substance to my ban list: shakes. No small shakes, no tiny shakes, no 'I'll just sip a little bit' excuses. It was at this point that I was willing to ask the acupuncturist for help. My ego wouldn't have allowed me to ask for help when it was still a daily obsession. It's ridiculous because I wasted so much time 'not asking' or speaking up.

The acupuncturist asked me to focus on 'stress eating' or when I feel anxious. It's difficult to realize because my sugar eating doesn't happen in massive orgies or binges. It's a cookie here and there or some chocolate-covered almonds for Valentine's Day. And still it's an avoidance of something that wouldn't even occur to me if I was feeling good about myself.

A few ear acupuncture sessions and I took note of any changes. Did a miracle happen? Where is the special, instantaneous transformation? My acupuncturist repeatedly warned me that miracles don't happen in acupuncture. Believing that my deus ex machina lies in needles is a belief in voodoo magic. It's like believing that there is some magic, special point that can be tapped and make my problems disappear. My issue with sugar isn't magical or mysterious. It's clearly related and easily overcome. All acupuncture does is the same thing as yoga or any form of medicine: it opens the possibility of transformation. By opening the channels in my body what was once blocked now becomes open and flexible. My mind and my memories can be shifted, but not wiped away. The miracle happens when I look for that chemical high and find a different kind of relief in my mind.

When I search for sugar and, instead, find the presence of love then I am in the presence of a transformation. I experience the miracle because I am reversing the magical thinking of addiction. It's this faulty voodoo logic which projects love and validation onto cupcakes and chemicals.

As I said, I come from a long-line of sugar addicts. Our magical thinking gave us comfort but also continued the never-ending pursuit of a shadow. We ran after the shadow, broke down our bodies, destroyed our minds, and shut down our emotions toward each other. Love was something not to seek in others but to purchase from a bakery or drive-in.

I still have some processed sugar once every few days. I would like to make it once a week and then not at all, but I don't know how long it's going to take to phase out. The process is slower than I like, but it's not on my time. My impatience is another trick of magical thinking: seeking to convince me that it's impossible because it's not instantaneous. And since most change doesn't happen instantly, my ability to change is impossible so I might as well give up. I know that's not true because I have many examples of change in my life to draw on.

Moment of change: The last time I ate a chicken burrito was after an Alvin Ailey dance class. I walked into Chipotle with my friend and sidled up to the stainless steel bar.

"I'll have a veggie burrito," I said as I stared down at my phone.

"Chicken, right?" the burrito wrap worker said as he pressed the sugary white bread into the heated ironing device.

"No, vegetable."

The worker nodded and, after a few moments, he took the burrito out of the metal iron.

"'re having the chicken right?"

In that moment I could have easily reminded the worker of what I said twice in under 30 seconds. It takes two words. Not a big deal. Instead something failed inside of me. The magical thinking came out and I hesitated for a second. Maybe I'll never get over this meat-eating thing.

"Sure," I muttered as the Chipotle worker piled spoonfuls of grilled white meat onto the burrito. I sat down with my chicken burrito and told my friend what just happened.

"Why didn't you just tell him you wanted a veggie burrito?" she asked.

The answer is that I have no idea. I wasn't aggravated or enraged at his initial mistake. I had a moment of helplessness and I just gave into it. Sure, whatever you want. Whatever the universe says because this isn't something I'm going to kick. Even though at the time I was eating meat once every two weeks, I still had cravings for it. And I know that if the cravings are still there, then the real underlying impetus hasn't been eliminated.

As a make-up action for my burrito surrender I went online to PETA. This is an organization I laughed at with its militant anti-meat, pro-animal stance that had fanatic intensity. This sounds unimportant but to make up for the chicken burrito I made a donation to PETA. Two weeks later I got mailed PETA's newsletters and fliers as a 'thank you' for my donation. I muttered my regrets at all this paper now sitting in my mailbox. One morning I sat down and opened up one of the PETA fliers and began reading the propaganda. It was a story about a cow and her life in the industrial factory system. I have heard all the sob stories about little chickens and lambs lead into these horrible conditions. As I read the story this morning something shifted inside of me. I started crying. No, I was weeping. Tears were falling down my face and I shook. The voice of my ego kicked up.

You're an idiot. Crying over a goddamn cow. 

Look at yourself. You're a grown man blubbering over a story about a farm animal. 

And yet I couldn't help it. At that particular moment in time, my heart was open. I was ready to hear for the first time the story I had glossed over so many times before. And I thought about that burrito and all the hundreds of pounds of meat I had eaten over my life. And in that moment it was done. Another voice started speaking to me, but it wasn't harsh and cruel like the last one. This voice was gentle and I felt an overwhelming peace.

It's all over now. You're done with that. 

And I knew in that moment that I was done with meat. Not just cutting back or having to abstain from a desire. My desire backed by decades of eating habits was gone. And that is how I became a vegetarian: by reading a story about cow in a PETA flier.  The craving was instantaneously gone once I had stopped asking for it or trying to manipulate it. The voice just took it away when I wasn't paying attention.

Even now as I write this years later I am crying when I think about that cow. It's really silly but visceral and real. The transformation wasn't something I had to will or force, even though that it was exactly what I had been trying to do the past two years. My efforts wasn't in vain.  Reducing meat intake over 2 years brought me closer and closer to that moment. All I was doing was training myself for the moment the miracle happened. I see that the training only opened my heart enough so that I would be ready to listen.

For sugar, which is really about love, I ask for the same. I am stripping away the voodoo dolls of childhood and asking for love. That is the healing balm that I have to be ready for in my heart. That soft gentle voice that will come to me one day and say 'it's all over now. You're done with that.' And so it will be done.

Sugar obsession is just like any substitute. It is just like excessive alcohol, drugs, sex. It isn't something to be overcome or fixed, but merely outgrown. When the childhood terrors look small and laughable like monsters under the bed, then I won't reach for the infantilizing comfort. I just have to be ready for the change.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Whitney:Why Does It Hurt So Bad

I was in the middle of chairing a meeting. We were at break when someone rushed in and interrupted our separate conversations.

Whitney Houston is dead. 

She's gone.

I wanted to cry. The meeting went on as if on autopilot. I went through the agenda and don't even remember what I said.

Dazed, I started talking. Too much. I was downright babbling in conversation with people. The news wasn't penetrating. I wouldn't allow it. A whipped a meringue coating. I spun with words, pontificated, quipped, and orchestrated several conversations somewhere above my head. I was looking down on the proceedings.

I didn't know who to talk to about this because I didn't even know what I should be feeling.

On the subway coming home a couple of teenagers were singing her songs into the train tunnel.

And I......
Will always...
love you....I

The words echo'ed as the wind of an incoming train blew through the station. The voices and whoosh of wind gave everything a ghostlike feel of spirits leaving on an exhale.

I found it grotesque at first. The teenage laughter seemed to mock the news. And then what was obscene became ephemeral. Secular music became gospel due to circumstance and location. They went through a Whitney playlist.

Didn't we almost have it all...

I leaned my head against the 14th street sign on the green post as their voices were soon drowned out by the braking F-train.

Very few were talking. No jovial chatter and drunken banter when the doors opened. I wanted something loud, offensive, and distracting. I transferred at the next stop. I was hoping for loud banging   buckets or a Black klezmer musician who some times take over the entire space with abstract atonal screeching that mimics careening trains.

There was one guitarist singing a folks song. It was a gentle lullaby and not the sort of thing you expect from New York street performers on a Saturday night in prime time.

The D train pulled up. Passengers weren't crowding up to the doors. There was almost a fear of breaking the lullaby and frail atmosphere. People deferred and waited. The doors opened and there was hesitation. I stepped inside.

Inside the D-train a young Black guy in a shiny leather jacket had his feet up and taking up 4 seats. His headphones were on and his eyes were closed. He looked sick and dazed.

At another stop, another set of passengers deferred to me when the doors opened. I motioned for them to go in and they insisted that I go first. I staggered in and sat down.

I'm still processing, still reliving, and remembering.

What's sad is that Whitney's death was shocking but not surprising. What's sad is that the news seemed overdue and inevitable. That's what a Greek tragedy feels like.

I remember standing outside Boiler Room years ago. I had too much to drink and a patron was flirting with me. He was telling me how beautiful I was and how I looked like no one else in the bar. I didn't know how to respond to this compliment. My mind thought of beauty and in a beer haze I started babbling about Whitney Houston. I told him about my favorite performance: Why Does It Hurt So Bad. I gave an aesthetic breakdown of the perfect performance. The way Whitney Houston manipulated and guided the pace. Her body language and delivery. That was beautiful. and in the midst of a meaningless MTV Movie Awards Show.

He nodded along, but I could tell he was pretending. I recognized that nodding. It was "I'll agree with whatever you want if you like me back." I wanted him to really understand so I began to further explain why the performance was perfect. He continued nodding like a bobble head and exclaiming 'wow' and 'so fascinating' as I attempted to break through to him. It wasn't working. I excused myself, hopped on the subway, and went home.

I wanted him to understand what I couldn't describe, what I still can't. I wanted to transfer my love through words. But it's something you have to feel. I can't fully express how I feel because it is beyond syllables and sentences. It is a soulful sadness. Whitney, I miss you already.

Monday, February 6, 2012

My Nina Simone Experiment

College introduced me to Nina Simone. Not going to college, but college applications.  As a teenager getting ready  to decide my next four years, I set up a college application factory. The 'factory' involved 3 assembly lines spread out over the dining room table. Line A was for small liberal colleges in small towns, Line B was for big colleges in big cities, and Line C was for medium-sized colleges just outside or near big cities. Each line had a top school and a series of alternatives.

At the start of each line were the hard copy applications and all the basic paper work. Then off to the side I keep the factory parts to be added: resume, list of awards and honors, several generic letters of recommendation to be matched according to school, several notarized sealed transcripts I had sweet-talked the high school secretary into giving to me, and a file of prewritten essays. As the applications worked there way down assembly line A, B, or C, I would make a file folder, slap in needed material, transcript envelope, recommendations, and the appropriate essays.

The most personable and time-consuming part of college applications were mandatory essays. And I was determined to spend the least amount of time possible on this. I crafted and honed a series of Hallmark-card style essays that answered my passions, goals, why I loved (fill in the blank) big college, why (fill in the blank) small college liberal arts education was so crucial to my development, and why (medium sized school) had the best of both worlds. If I there was a school that decided to be 'eccentric and unique' in their questions I would answer the essays that offered the greatest chance for recycling. Northwestern University's infamous "if you had to design a building that expressed your personality" essay questions would send me into fits.

One day as a particular college application was making its way down the assembly line in its yellow file folder I noticed that all the essay questions were aggravatingly 'eccentric' and unique. I began eliminating the ones that were so strange no other college would even think of asking and sifting my choices down to 2 possible essays. One question was about my parents and family and the other question was to name a person in history who influenced me. I wasn't too keen on the idea of writing about Black middle class family life for fear that it might pop their 'downtrodden Black kid overcomes the odds' bubble. I settled on writing about a person in history. This is a great essay to have on file for any future 'who or what inspires you' questions.

I needed a hero. Problem was that I couldn't think of anyone from history who I admired and directly influenced me. I could go with the obvious choice for a Black kid: a civil rights leader. The safe, obvious pick is Martin Luther King. But they probably got hundreds of those essays. I didn't dare write "Malcolm X" or a Black Panther organizer, just in case the person reading it wasn't that left-leaning in their politics. A sports hero might get laughed at and put me in the 'dumb jock' pile. Who did I admire?

I got up from the factory line and walked to the living room. By the TV was a stack of magazines. My sister had purchased one I had never heard of: "Interview." I opened the glossy cover and learned that it was founded my Andy Warhol, the ultimate factory worker. The magazine reflected the genius of its creator: it was a colorful sausage casing stuffed with celebrities-interviewing-celebrities filler and idolatry. Perfect.

Consuming the magazine as I think Warhol meant it to be read, my eyes ran over the pages as my fingers snapped a new page on top: a word here -FLIP- a cheeky phrase there- FLIP- a new movie coming out- FLIP- celebrity fawning over another celebrity's- FLIP-perfume ad-FLIP. It was a patina of airbrushed faces, inconsequential beauty tips and a self-help word slaw not meant to be lingered on, but best consumed in a mindless frenzy while exercising, watching TV, walking your dog, or performing minor surgery. The artistry was in how editors and graphic designers could turn a chic let into a Thanksgiving feast. I really do marvel at craftsmen who can make a puff of smoke seem like a fortress and, upon first read, Interview felt like the mini-masterpiece of some marketing idiot savant. It was here amidst the fluff that a blurb on Nina Simone stuck out. In between designer bags and winking blue eyes, there was this image that was  mahogany. Stern, dense, and epic, the face of Nina Simone looked like they snuck a Tolstoy novel in between eyeshadow ads.

My fingers stopped flipping. My eyes lingered for a moment. Then I continued consuming with my fingers all the way to the back cover. The only thing I could remember in the colorful haze was the picture of that stern woman looking out. I thumbed my way back to Nina Simone. It was a one-pager, a simple rebellious reverie for the self-exiled American Black artist. I took in the bullet points of her life.

She was living in France.

She had quit America and its music industry years ago.

Her voice was thick and smoky.

She was a classically-trained pianist.

Her biggest hit, "Mississippi Goddamn," was penned in a furious outburst after a church bombing.

That's all I needed to know. I went to the computer and punched up a short essay about why and how Nina Simone  deeply impacted my life. Over the next few weeks and then months I polished and honed the essay every time I brought it out of the stable. After a while I began to feel guilty that I was using this Nina Simone hero essay and I had never actually heard one of her songs.

I went to the record store (yes, they did exist children)and discovered that there was quite a nice hidden Nina Simone section. I made sure to pick out a cassette (yes, they did exist) with her classic "Mississippi Goddamn" on it. When I got to the cash register, the clerk looked at my purchase and then looked up at me with shocked look. Then this burn-out hippie started nodding.

"Alll right!!"

This was the beginning of my Nina Simone experiment. This lady was already making me feel good and I hadn't even listened to one note. I guess she was respected and, by purchase proxy, I was respected and outside-of-the-norm. I was a rebel consumer and not like those college kids that wear Che Guevara shirts. Everyone knew Che. Only the elites knew Nina.

Nina Simone fans were like an underground cult back then. They lived in the catacombs, off in the abandoned mom-and-pop record shops, tape piles, and stowed-away treasure chests. You had to know someone who knew Nina Simone. As her albums were produced by so many different record labels over several generation that there was a lot of different quality and standards. You needed a Nina teacher. I found a few in unexpected places. Often these teachers were in their 40s and 50s and fit the progressive white liberal mode. Occasionally I would find another teenager who also knew what Nina Simone was about, but I found that there knowledge was at my level. They knew the bullet points of her career and her most popular songs. I didn't want to hang out with new Nina Simone fans, who just recycled what they heard their parents say. I needed to be around people who knew more than me.

I bought her biography, "I Put A Spell On You"and read it several times, highlighting different aspects of her life. The more rare Simone songs started appearing on my radar. By the time I arrived at Northwestern University I had several Nina Simone CDs amidst my gangsta rap and some r&b oldies.

One day I was looking for other participants in my Simone experiment. I played Nina Simone's album when my roommate, an 18-year-old Cuban-American, walked into the room. I played it cool and continued to do my homework but I desperately wanted him to like the tunes. My roommate sat at his desk reviewing his book. After a few songs, he blurted out, "Who is this guy?!"

I informed him that it wasn't a guy but a woman. Her name was Nina Simone. He frowned like he was being force fed liver-flavored jello. In a nonchalant tone I asked him what he thought about the music.

"It's...okay," he said while making a face like he just smelled a fart. "I just thought it was a guy."

I let the song on the stereo play out and then I turned off the CD. My roommate instantly perked up and started talking. He put in one of my rap CDs and we continued doing our homework. I made a note to never play Nina Simone in his presence.

My parents didn't like Nina Simone either. They found her annoyingly unclassified. She wasn't quite jazz, not quite blues, not traditional soul music. When I played a Simone CD in the car they listened politely.

"This is Nina Simone."

"Ahhh. Interesting."

Another failed convert. I put my Nina away. The Fugees had a one-word mention of the exiled diva. Lauryn Hill spit the verse:

"I be Nina Simone/ defecating on yer microphone."

And that is how most of the people in my generation would become familiar with her name. I didn't learn until much later that Lauryn Hill and Ms. Simone were actually friends and talked. It was possible that it was Simone's 'exile opinion' that prompted Hill to disappear from the music scene with her kids for many years.

Her name would pop up in odd conversations. The strangest and most unexpected people were familiar with her music and a part of the secret society. And there's still the fans that vaguely know and love her and then the fans who worship Simone. The one common trait in Nina Simone-philes is that they tend to be the one man or woman in a group of friends who is quietly and very discretely different. They have secret loves, passions that run like underground springs. They try to fit in, but can't pull it off completely. There's always a loose-end sticking out.

Her music is too varied in style and production quality to be analyzed in a neat and concise way. She sang a strange mixture of blues and soul with African drums and a classical piano flowing underneath. Who thinks with such richness or has an ear like that these days in contemporary music? And she recorded popular, eccentric masterpieces in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Over four decades her voice became slightly brittle, her tended to become more Africanized in the 1970s. And in the 1980s she had an unfortunate run-in with a synthesizer which, out of respect for her, I won't go into. I'll just say that I've only littered once in my life and it was at 55 mph after popping in a cassette and hearing Simone's voice being stretched over Euro-synth mixers. As the newly-purchased cassette leaped out of my hand and flew through the window I realized that I had become a Nina Simone snob. It pained me too much to see her voice ruined by shoddy production and cheap lyrics. In my rear view mirror I tried to see the tattered remains of my experiment with 1980s Nina.

And then I stopped listening to her. Just like that, I went from collecting random trivia, cherishing rare live performances, combing the internet for the mention of her name to nothing. Dead silence. She was making a comeback and I feared the worst. She wobbled out on stage for one final victory lap. Now re-introduced to America as 'an ARTISTE' she was selling out shows in New York and LA. Her voice was no longer smoky and reedy. It was just a smoldering wreck. I felt embarrassed for her. But then I noticed something. She felt no embarrassment or apologies. Yes, her voice was changing. That's what happens when a woman ages. Simone compensated by more creative arrangements, diva-like talking back to the audience, making demands on her musicians and fans to prop her up. Join in the chorus! Nina demands it! And we, the faithful Nina Simone cult complied. It was fun. We joined in the singing, the musicians bent their notes to her warbling voice. We were becoming a part of the art.

My love was restored. And with that she once again disappeared. Off to her chateau in France. Back behind the fences. She passed away silently behind those gates. Her songs have become more known thanks to youtube and the collapse of the record industry.

Currently it's a free-for-all in the music industry. Nina is doing quite nicely in the anarchy. She'll pop up in a movie, or a fashion show. I walked in Chipotle a few days ago and Nina Simone was blasting on the speakers. I stood there with my mouth agape. And then another Nina Simone song. Back to back!!! This wasn't just a random shuffle. The manager was a Nina Simone fan. The clerks were oblivious to what was being piped into their workspace. They groused and complained, rolled their eyes at the manager, and treated customers as a burden. But I was in heaven. They didn't know what they missing. I wanted to tell them, educate them, introduce them to the world of Nina Simone.  But then again it wasn't my place. They had to take their own journey, find their own music. I knew that I had found mine. 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Opa and Mema

Opa died when I was in kindergarten. It was an eerily quiet overcast morning. I awoke and looked down at my bedroom's sky blue carpet. I saw the shadow of my mom's feet outside the door.

She's not moving. Something is wrong.  

She knocked but didn't wait for an answer. Barreling in, she whispered, "Opa passed away last night. Get dressed." The door closed and I watched the shadows on the carpet recede behind my pale white door.

I tumbled over on to my back and looked up at the ceiling. This was my first time being introduced to death. I wondered how a five-year-old was supposed to react. I decided to take the traditional advice for kids: be seen but not heard.

We ate breakfast in silence. The TV was off and we had nothing to talk about. After my sister and I dressed, we went over to Mema's house. I gingerly stepped on the carpet, afraid to cause any noise on a very serious day. Adults seemed to be in a perpetual shadow, whispering and patting each other on the back and shoulder. Opa's bedroom door was cracked open. I peered through the hinges and saw the ruffled bedspread. His body was already gone.

Adults bent down and rubbed my head. They offered their condolences to me and I nodded with an equally somber face. My mind reached for words but couldn't find any. I felt numb. Death didn't feel tragic. It felt procedural and dry. I was disappointed in how flat and dull everything and everyone seemed.

The next day I returned to school, but I thought of Opa. He wore hats and smoked a pipe with sweet smelling tobacco. He would come home from work at the factory and sit in his leather recliner and read the paper. Mema would be finishing up dinner and he would give me a peppermint before patting me on the head. This was our communion. We didn't talk much and he didn't dispense tales of his yester-years. I would clean up my cars and trucks, hear his red Chevy sedan pull up, feign slight surprise at his entrance, get a pat on the head and a peppermint. The pat always felt like an ending instead of an invitation. It was an encouragement that niceties had been exchanged and now it was time for me to disappear. I  would scoot off into Mema's bedroom and watch "GI Joe" or "Dukes of Hazzard" while waiting for one of my parents to pick me up.

Opa and Mema slept in separate bedrooms. Mema's bedroom was warm and inviting with tassle'd pillows and purple curtains. There was fluffy carpet and dollhouse-like furniture. Opa's bedroom was dark and dank. The curtains, bedsheets, and lamp were all shades of coffee and chocolate. The floor was cold and creaked when you walked over it. His Stetson hat boxes were stacked on top of his dresser. Opa's door remained closed during the day and I dreaded when I had to go in there to fetch something for Mema. As soon as I grabbed the needed item, I would rush out and slam the door behind me.

But something didn't feel right. Opa and I played this role playing game that, even back then, felt kitsch. He seemed to be out of an old TV sitcom. I felt uncomfortable around him, like I was always waiting for something terrible to happen. Neighbors and kids respected him but didn't go out of their way to welcome him. A hush followed him around the house. We were all scared of Opa.

I never asked him what he did, where he came from, who this man was who was coming into my life and sitting down in a leather chair to read the newspaper. I was curious but my fear got the better of me. Some sort of internal security system flashed caution when I tried to speak in front of him. My voice would lower and I'd lose my words. Opa's eyes smiled and he had beatific look on his face whenever I would get quiet around him. On the few occasions that I could gather my words and courage, Opa's smile would fade. He would just stare at me blankly before snapping the paper open. 

His funeral was tasteful and clean. Black suits and plates of rich soul food filled Mema's house afterward. In my first funeral, I wept. Not uncontrollably or like a child. I cried and remember observing myself crying and judging the tone and tears to be 'just about right.' Adults nodded in solemn approval that I was so good at crying without it becoming whiny or distracting. As a reward, a buxom lady cut me an extra-large hunk of pound cake. I was informed repeatedly on what a good grandson I was with the usual head pat. By the end of the day this head patting thing would be very tiresome and I found a way to artfully dodge the heavy dark palms of adults. But for most of the day I nodded along with their appraisal of me. You're right. I am a good kid, I thought before digging into the mound of sugar and butter.

My sister, on the other hand, was chastised. She didn't cry at the funeral, her face was too indifferent. She wanted to go home and would often let a long sigh of impatience blow out of her flared nostrils. I was the good kid and she was the bad kid. The roles were very clear and comforting. As long as I didn't think of Opa I could maintain my calm. The only slight worry I had was that I wasn't sure if we were all playing these roles or if someone was actually having some genuine emotion at this funeral.

Opa's bedroom became like a sealed vault to me. For the rest of my childhood and teenager years I never entered. One side of the house was shut down. It would be years before I actually found out any details about this mysterious man.

It turns out Opa was my Dad's stepfather. Mema and him made an arrangement as older adult days. He would work, she would keep house. This allowed her to work less frequently as a hotel maid, and offered Opa some semblance of a home life. That is why they slept in separate beds and often seemed more like roommates than spouses.

Long before I arrived, Opa was notorious for his terrible temper and drinking. Opa worked his whole life at the same factory and earned good money as a foreman. But whenever he was given vacation time, it was a nightmare for my grandmother. A vacation or even a long-weekend for Opa consisted of buying several bottles of liquor and proceeding to obliterate himself. Years later, my father told me stories of Opa driving Mema home from hotel work at night in a swerving, red car. She would hold on and pray to Jesus they he didn't crash. Opa would get so drunk that he would see bugs and ants on his skin. He would run down the block, ranting and raving.  And Opa would hit Mema. Not frequently, but enough to make everyone terrified of his outbursts. When my Dad was in college he came home one time to find Opa on another alcohol-fueled rampage. As he reached for Mema, my Dad stepped in and knocked him against a wall. He informed his stepfather that he would never touch his mother again. And Opa never did.

Opa and my father had history with each other. It wasn't hard to see that the respectful but curt greetings between them had a bitter edge. They were the first Black men in my life and I was saddened by their lack of camaraderie. They were both men of integrity who tolerated each other for the sake of the family. I was aware of something amiss at an early age but passed it off as paranoia. Opa never had a kind or mean word for my father and vice versa. They never raised their voices or even showed a sign of hostility toward each other. One time there was a disagreement about some minor protocol of gifts. Opa's got this mischievous smirk on his face and his eyes smoldered. They both rushed to apologize for stepping on each others' toes.

"It's your house, Dad!" with just a slight knifing of 'dad' in his voice.

"No, no, no," Opa countered as the smirk remained on his face.

It was the first time I ever saw Opa smile like that. It looked as if he was replaying a lewd joke in his head that no one else knew. Maybe this old man did have some edges and corners to him.  

Opa had no overt signs of trouble when he passed away. He died in his sleep. He is one of two people I've known who had such a privilege in my life. Mema said that on that fateful day, he came home from work and nothing was awry. He sat in his chair, smoked his pipe, and read the paper. They sat the dinner table and at their final meal together. Then they watched TV, he smoked some more, and went to bed. There were no screams or cries for help in the night. Mema awoke the next morning to prepare his coffee and fix his lunch when she found him in bed. A massive heart attack in his sleep. A respectful, clean, and appropriate end for a troubled but honorable man.

In his last years, Opa wasn't drinking any more. By the time I was born the factory was making use of his workaholic nature. This decision happened when Mema went in one day to tell the boss that it was the vacations that were killing her husband. She begged them to never let him have time off. The factory agreed. The vacations ended and the drinking dried up. Opa would work up to his last day. He seemed content when I last saw him. He had a well-paying job, benefits, a home, and a family.

Decades after Opa passed, I felt a curious enough to open his sealed bedroom. The door was stuck to frame and it took several knee jabs to get it open. When I walked inside I was hit with this deep, humid funk. The air was heavy and I felt dizzy. I knew I couldn't stay in the room that long. I gathered my senses and tried to take it all in in a quick gulp.

Stetson hat boxes, and clothes hung in the closet. The coffee-colored lamp and plain brown desk. His bed was still perfectly made and unchanged from the 1980s: caramel colored comforter, sharp tucking points, and two pillows positioned with hotel-like precision by Mema.  When I took another inhale I noticed that I wasn't coughing or sniffling. There was no dust. The detail and dedication which was taken to preserve the room in its original state stunned me. Not even a drawer was left open. His a-track cassettes were neatly organized in a box: Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Mahalia Jackson.

I suddenly realized that they loved each other. There was still honor between them. Opa had served Mema by providing income and security. Mema was still serving him, keeping the room ready. This dark, cold strange annex was an altar in my grandmother's heart. Even after all these years she had been preserving this private room, wiping away the dust, and keeping it open to the light. Opa's death finally hit me and I grieved. Real unfiltered grief.  No one promised me an extra slice of cake or patted me on my head for my expression. I was ready and able to love him in the small private chamber my grandmother had preserved for her memories. It was a room of devotion.

To Opa and Mema: I am so sorry. I didn't knowing any better. But I was a child back then and just pretending. I'm a man now and I miss you so much.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Facing Michael Jackson

A bike messenger walked in grinning like the cat that just ate the canary. I spotted him out of the corner of my eye as I examined the menu board above the salad bar. The plastic fans in Bonobos, the now defunct New York restaurant, whirled on its axis cooling the few customers who were having a late lunch. An unremarkable June 9th afternoon in New York City.

The messenger stormed up front the counter.

"You're never going to guess what?"

He had caught the Bonobos worker in mid nori-roll preparation who responded by parroting the last word he heard like a well-trained boyfriend.


"No, you're never going to guess what happened?"

I didn't know if I was supposed to be eavesdropping at this point or whether I was just being naturally rude. But I wanted the messenger to just spit it out so he could stop distracting the food prep guy. 

"Michael Jackson is dead."

We, the few Bonobos customers and late lunchers, looked up from our bubble. We made eye contact with each other as if to establish a semblance of community when hearing history. Disbelieving laughter punctured the silence. 

"It's true. Got a friend in LA who-"

The bike messenger began validating his information. He either attributed it to a friend who worked in the ambulance or someone he knew at TMZ. I can't remember because I had re-submerged in my own thoughts. But the messenger swore he had the inside information. This pop cultural earthquake on the other side of the country and he decided to walk into a half-empty raw food restaurant and announce it. I imagine there must have been an enormous amount of pride in Ancient Greece with being the messenger. Even if it's bad news, there's a certain glee in telling. I can attest to this because the few times I have dispensed shocking and tragic news to the unsuspecting, I feel enormously powerful and even some sense of exhilaration. 

I could feel the tragic excitement spreading. I wondered if doctors ever have to cover that 'gloating glow' when they tell a patient that the dizziness is a tumor or night tremors are some horribly rare and incurable genetic disease that would have gone unnoticed if it wasn't for their keen medical mind (yes, isn't it wonderful that I discovered this information early on so that instead of dying suddenly in the midst of living your life, you can now meditate for months or years on the inevitable). 

Of course a practiced messenger of medical, emotional or historical tragedy must have a cover. To ensure that the messenger isn't killed or detested, they should cloak that immense satisfaction in 'telling' with stern, practiced mask of condolence. There was no mask in this moment because Michael Jackson was not personal. He was a walking circus whose every mishap delivered a new ride, a new thrill, a new game for spectators to play. There were so many wonderful games in the Michael Jackson circus, from his asexually odd behavior, a grown man having boys sleep over, to his surgically destroyed face, to his mysterious secrecy behind fleets of bodyguards and handlers. Now there was a new act added to the circus: the is he or isn't he Dead game? Let's play!

Customers rushed to their phones and pulled up news, texts, and tweets. We looked around, confirming from one person to the next with satisfaction. No, Michael Jackson isn't dead. But what a fun game this has become. New Yorkers talking to each other again, chatting and sharing. We were undertaking our own smart phone detective work with relish. 

The messenger departed and several patrons shook their heads. What a crazy rumor. That was fun. A few other picked up their phones and called their friends to share. I sat down with my meal and texted my sister and called my Mom. 

"Is Michael Jackson dead?"

"No, you're thinking of Farah Fawcett."

"Thanks but I think I know the difference." I asked her if she could turn on a TV. She flipped to CNN and waited. No, no news. I laughed and informed her that some messenger came in spreading a rumor that Michael was dead.

My sister rang on the other line and switched over. She was in the doctor's lounge, taking a break from her rounds. I asked her if Michael Jackson was dead. She flipped around to the different news channels.    She asked if I was referring to Farah Fawcett. 

I hung up the phone and went back to finishing my lunch when a text flashed over my phone. CNN reporting that ambulance at Michael Jackson estate. At that moment I knew that the messenger was, in fact, true. The mainstream media was doing a 'slow leak' just to confirm its sources but also to give a steady feed of information that would keep people watching. If the messenger gets an ebullient joy from dropping sudden tragic news, TV stations seem to want this 'narcotic high' to last as long as possible in stretching out the information and dressing it nicely.The breaking news was being prepped and prepared by producers and the graphic department. I still remember the morning of September 11th when on-air reporters were so unable to process on-site information in real time that they attributed seeing a giant jet airliner fly directly into the tallest building in the world as an error or weather problems and said it might have been a small propeller plane. They were so caught off-guard without producer prompting that they couldn't even process the information in front of their face. If cable news were around at the time of World War II, on-site reporters and anchors would have reported Pearl Harbor as a 'possible yachting mishap' in the first half hour and told the viewers to stay tuned after a commercial break; all while graphic designers furiously worked on their logos and finding the right theme music. 

A few minutes later my Mom said that CNN was reporting Jackson taken to hospital. Then the reports stated he had a heart attack. And finally what the messenger first said was confirmed. Michael Jackson went from being 'rumored dead' to 'possibly dead' and then 'finally dead' in the time it took me to order and eat my lunch. 

I hadn't thought about Michael Jackson in years. He fell under the category of washed-up American superstar living in exile. After the trials, the money problems, and bad press MJ seemed constantly on the go. Perhaps he figured a moving target was more difficult to hit than a standing one. He'd pop up in Dubai and then re-appear months later in a lawsuit claiming he owed back pay to his Neverland employees, and then reconfigure himself in London talking about his next album. There was always a next album, next tour, next concert waiting to happen with Michael. And these project were greeted with mild curiosity and sadness.

When the media prefaced his name with the title 'King of Pop' they might as well have been announcing him as the 'Emperor of Ethiopia' or the 'Pharaoh of Phoenix.' The crown seemed more ironic with each passing year and stalled project. Even stand-up comedians moved on to riper targets, as pedophile jokes at the King of Pop received more sighs and boos than laughter in his last few years. The audience was saying 'we've had enough. Leave this poor, crippled, plastic disaster to his own garbage heap. He's been kicked enough. Toss a penny of thought into the King's hat when he tells you his next album is coming along nicely.  Smile, quickly wave goodbye, and avoid eye contact with the fallen monarch.'

There was the added tragedy of Michael avoiding Blackness. Black was clearly not beautiful in his family. Although the Jackson were African American in music and culture, they seemed to want nothing to do with Blackness cosmetically. The ugliness and fear of Negritude played very prominently into his dress, his look, his skin. He just didn't want to run to Whiteness. He was running  into outer space. The image trajectory went from rebel teen and into some totalitarian dystopia where he was both the 'Great Leader' with storm troopers and statues, but also the ageless Messiah of the poor. He was Jesus and Caesar, crucified victim and ruthless victor. Jackson played both extremes in his characters and his skin.

Growing up I would flip through JET magazine and see the ads for 'lightening' your skin or balancing out the tone. I imagined there must have been a big market for these products. My sister remarked repeatedly that I had come out of the womb very dark. This remark was not meant in a positive way, but was always intoned as if I came out with a deformed hand or club foot that miraculously healed. My birth 'error' corrected itself Relatives would visit from other states and comment on how beautiful I was, mainly because of my fair shade. 'Stay out of the sun' was their main beauty tip as my parents looked on clearly embarrassed. I took this information to heart. Darkening my skin would be like giving away my inheritance.

I remember being a young child running in from the hotel pool one blistering hot summer day and being stunned when I passed by a mirror. My skin had become mocha brown, an almost Indian shade. I didn't know it was a temporary effect that chlorine has on tanned skin. I wept. This was going to be the beginning of an uglier me, and all because I spent too much time in that damn swimming pool. My parents looked at me confused, not knowing why their happy son had suddenly burst into tears. But my sister knew. She assured me that it was a temporary effect and that my reaction was disgusting. We were all fed the same message of beauty, believed it on some deep psychic level, but any reaction against this was considered traitorous to Blackness. Fear of darkness had to be known, but not expressed. My hysterical reaction to this fear was shameful and disgusting to my family. We never spoke about this issue ever again.

When I became a teenager and started playing tennis and football, I tried to make up for lost time. Ashamed at my childhood fears, I stayed out in the sun excessively. I welcomed the opportunity to darken. I wanted to be African Black, a midnight deep. I wanted to be an unmistaken color so far gone that I looked like what would happen if Wesley Snipes and a bottle of Ritz grape soda had a baby. I wanted to be in the purple. But it was too late. My skin tone had been set. No matter how much I stayed out in the sun, I could only get light tan. My skin would go from yellow to caramel and then completely skip over Brown-ess and go into darker shades of red as if I was Native American. I wonder if the fear instilled in me as a child was so great that it genetically shifted the makeup of my skin. Is it possible that the same thing happened to Michael Jackson? As crazy as it sounds I've seen people bring on diseases, ailments, and other physical abnormalities just through the persistent meditation on a fear or worry. Our skin is the largest organ in the body. If we are so worried about our shade, why wouldn't our thoughts be able to shift or alter pigmentation in some significant physical way?

The Jackson circus may have kept him in the spotlight longer than he deserved, but it also distracted away from his true genius: music and dance. I don't there's been a more influential performer and entertainer. In American pop culture Michael is in the league of the one-name superstars: Elvis, Madonna, Prince. But internationally there is no one even close who could muster the raving-mad adoration and lust. This was no idle fad. His shrieking fans have been around for as long as I've been alive. He had a knack for combining and shaping songs into mini-symphonies. His dance moves combined street jazz and ballet with raw teenage angst.  But the fandom and worship goes much further than music appreciation.

Michael instilled religious ecstasy in millions and he had to have been affected in some severe way by this worship. I can't imagine an alternative reality where my entrance into a room causes other's to cry, faint, and scream my name until they go hoarse. In the age of celebrity-obsession, most people have some secret desire to be famous. There are obvious perks to this status: you get money for speaking, you get awards for just showing your face, your words are treated as gospel to be interpreted, and every space you travel in is prepped and fitted to your liking. In general, celebrities can live in a world in which ugliness and gross pain have been discretely removed through cosmetics and wealth. Disaster and strife is something to be whispered off to the side between assistants and handlers who coordinate to soften the shock of reality. Yes, being a celebrity can be very nice. But being celebrity worshipped can be frightening and deluding.

Michael Jackson is a cautionary tale. He's our Icarus who wouldn't listen to the warnings because he was so far above his family, his protectors, the record labels. He just couldn't hear the screams as he soared into the light.  When the wings of his fame began melting, his fans didn't take caution.
They just saw it as a daredevil act, an Evil Knievel stunt where he would pull up out of the tailspin at the last moment. So we cheered even louder as he fell. We watched his trials, his flops, and his glory getting stripped away. We watched as spectators waiting for the last-act comeback. But there was no comeback. We watched him die and then when the inevitable was announced, we didn't believe. The messenger walked in and delivered the news and we laughed. No, this is a stunt. Okay, we'll play along. You got our attention again, tell us about your next album, you can have a penny of my time.

One of my favorite songs of all time is "Dirty Diana" which is off "Bad," Michael's last 'good boy gone bad.' It was 1988 and the last time I watched and cared about Jackson's music. The video chartered up to Number 1. On a Saturday morning music video countdown show the slow ominous guitar notes slinked through the TV.  When I saw that the number 1 video was Michael Jackson's, I was shocked. I didn't even know he was still releasing singles from that album.

While the first and titular single "Bad" received massive advertisement and a 8pm major network premiere that interrupted "The Cosby Show," his last single locked like an afterthought. "Dirty Diana" was shot on stage at a faux rock concert. "Bad" was a mini-movie musical much like "Thriller." Millions were poured into it and weeks were spent getting everything just right. was something an expert music video director could pump out in a 1 or 2 day shoot. "Dirty Diana" is set in a future music dystopia of mohawks, ripped curtains rustling in the wind, and old Chevrolets.

Dirty Diana is embodied in a long-legged woman in a mini-skirt. She's exiting out of the backseat of a car. The camera cuts her off at the torso, fetishizing her legs and high heels as she struts in slow motion through the broken concrete and puddles of a back alley. The visual clearly reads Diana as a prostitute and the song's lyrics falls under the 'suck my dick' genre of late 80s rock music. But instead of the frivolous and fun songs like "Cherry Pie," Diana is not a good time, easy-loving girl. Michael was clearly anguished, disgusted, and drawn to Diana. The camera came in for a close-up and I noticed the white tape wrapped around his fingers. Against the ripped and rustling linen curtains, Michael looked like some wounded and scarred victim, who had been bandaged and patched together.  The whole song felt like a giant wound.

Michael is moaning 'oooh no,' as he's crouched over on stage.

You'll Never Make Me Stay
So Take Your Weight Off Of Me
I Know Your Every Move
So Won't You Just Let Me Be
I've Been Here Times Before
But I Was Too Blind To See
That You Seduce Every Man
This Time You Won't Seduce Me.

I remember my adolescent brain trying to figure out why Diana was so evil. She must have AIDS. This was 1988 and if you were slutty women being portrayed as dangerous for another man, that's where my mind automatically went. It also fit with Michael's asexual, teenage boy angst that he would be drawn to a dangerous and very distant woman who never appeared in the same shot as him. Then I thought she must be evil because of her aggressive sexuality, and THAT is why she probably has AIDS. I started thinking about our neighborhood prostitute.

On our block we had our own Diana who would walk around, stand in front of the corner store, and was cussed out by other women. Diana wasn't a long-leg, mini-skirt wearing, seductive Russian model turning tricks in the back of Camaro's. Our Diana was a short, nappy Afro'ed, spandex short-wearing crack prostitute. Occasionally she would pop up at our house and my parents would give her a few dollars here. She would thank them profusely and make some vague promise about 'turning it around' and disappear. One time I was home by myself when Diana rang the doorbell. I looked through the peephole and saw her standing on our porch. I opened the door and informed her that my parents weren't home. She asked if I had any money. I went to the change jar and gave her a few dollars in quarters and dimes. And then she sulked off the porch and continued walking down the street. She had stretch marks on her arms and legs. Her teeth were crooked and their were black blotches on her face. This wasn't exactly the fearful and dangerous prostitute. This was a sad and desperate woman. As I handed her the money I remember thinking 'she must not be a very good prostitute' if she has to beg for change. I only saw Diana one more time. It was a few years later and she had shrunk into a raisin. Her face was ravaged and her teeth protruded from her mouth. Somehow she still had an ample and round butt, but her legs were toothpicks. I assumed she had AIDS, like many people in the neighborhood who were dying at the time. Her hoarse voice perked up when she saw me. I handed her all the money I had in my pockets. I was a teenager so it probably wasn't enough. But it was all I had. She smiled and thanked me. As she walked away, I noticed tears were falling down my face.

If this was the Diana, Michael was referring to then I saw no reason to fear her. I began siding with the headless female torso in the music video and resenting Michael's misogyny. But that interpretation still didn't explain Michael's bandaged hand and tattered looks. He was going for a heroin chic look that was 10 years ahead of its time. He was in pain. "Dirty Diana" wasn't a woman. It was something else, but I couldn't figure out what I was supposed to be watching.

She's Saying That's Ok
Hey Baby Do What You Please
I Have The Stuff That You Want
I Am The Thing That You Need
She Looked Me Deep In The Eyes
She's Touchin' Me So To Start
She Says There's No Turnin' Back
She Trapped Me In Her Heart.

The guitar soared with Michael's voice as he jumped into the chorus while spinning around and flashing his taped fingers at the audience. Even as a 9-year-old boy I eventually picked up on the symbolism. Diana wasn't a prostitute. Diana was this thing that was destroying Michael. This insidious disease that had caused this wasteland and his destroyed body.

She Said He's Not Coming
Because He's Sleeping With

Diana was death. Disguised as a seductive woman of lust and ambition, but it was still a finality that Michael embodied as pumped his chest with the pounding bass. This was death by fiery consumption and then sleep. This was a death he was first introduced to when he was badly burned in the Pepsi commercial. As his hair and head caught the spark from the lights,  Michael was oblivious. He was such a performer that he launched into his dance routine unaware that he was on fire.  He had to be wrestled to the ground to save his life. 

Back in the age of the Pepsi fire, fans were really concerned. Michael Jackson was a superstar but he was still a person. His tragedy was meet with sincere grief and an outpouring of condolences. After that moment in pop culture history, he became a completely different being. His post-fire songs reflected seclusion, escape, and death. It would be three years before he released "Bad" and there was a cataclysmic shift in his tone. He was screaming "leave me alone" and singing about being gunned down on the dance floor by smooth criminals. Granted he was also seeking hope. "Man in the Mirror" is also on "Bad" and it's one of the greatest songs ever made and focuses on personal responsibility and turning one's life around. But that song's hope was based on the promise of positive change, not the actual results. 

The tragedy of Michael is that he had more promise as a singer, dancer, and ambassador to the world than any superstar in my life. My missionary friends in Nigeria wrote to me and said his name is graffiti'ed on the walls and shacks in the country. My friends who taught English in Japan reported that his music was still emulated and stolen. When a Michael Jackson song comes on in the Miami clubs, even after all the plight and scandal associated with his name, people explode on to the dance floor. He made billions of people feel hopeful on this promise of what was to come. These people sang, danced, and worshipped. But this promise was never fulfilled.  At the end,  we were left with rumor, gossip, and the ghost of a murdered king.

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