Stop Paying Attention to Age

“I need a slow motion video, right now,” he recited bubbly when he answered my phone call. Most greet others with a hug or a handshake. Our special welcome is a rap ad-lib that we uttered no less than a thousand times in one day during the summer of 2011. We joked, drank, partied, and conversed during his one night visit to NYC. Most importantly, we needed a slow motion video for our plethora of shenanigans.

We met while I attended the best university at a “we have extra money in our budget so let’s host an extravagant buffet styled lunch” appreciation luncheon during the summer. His mother was then an administrative assistant in the Dean’s office and proudly introduced me to her soon to be fourteen year old son. His tall lanky frame, with over sized hands and feet, highlighted that was he in the midst of a growth sprout. His mom and my boss mentor suddenly disappeared into the crowed after the brief introduction, and we were left awkwardly together. Making small talk (Editor’s note: small talk with a teenager is top ten hardest things to do in life…don’t doubt me, just shake your head in agreement), I asked what he liked to do in his free time, and he tersely replied, “Play basketball.” I then invited him to hoop with me and some friends, not thinking that he would take me up on the offer. But he did; I still remember the phone call from his mother asking what time she should bring him to the gym. A couple days later, we were running up and down the court together. He was on my team because my big brother instincts wanted to protect him because neither my friends nor I knew if he could actually hoop since he was younger than we were and if he sucked it was only right that I shouldered the burden. Impressively, he held his own against the older competition and we won the majority of our games. More importantly, our friendship began.

We are six years apart, and being the elder I assumed the mentor role. We spoke occasionally about school and his social life; I mainly listened and offered advice when asked for it. After I graduated, our conversations continued, evolving as we each became more of ourselves. The frequency decreased each year, but we always made it a point to check in with each other ever so often. For example, when I found out that I was going to have a child at twenty-three, we spoke about it like brothers. I shared with him my anxieties and apprehensions, especially given that both of us had grown up without our biological fathers present. Likewise, when he was having a difficult time in college, we spoke about it like brothers. I encouraged him to continue his educational journey, and even sent him some money for “books.”

After all the pleasantries and small talk, he exploded that he connected with his biological father and siblings. The story seemed surreal; he went to college with his half sister and even met her a couple times because they shared a similar friend group. Only a few months earlier did she somehow connect the dots. I smiled when I heard the excitement in his voice about being a big brother and how he and his sisters are actively working on crafting meaningful relationships. And then the conversation became authentic when we broached the difficult questions about his father and their initial meeting. Undeterred and maturely, he detailed the work in progress of moving past the past and focusing on the future. I could hear, faintly, the hurt in his voice that he was actively moving beyond. He understood that bitterness would destroy this opportunity, so he decided to be happy and embrace the moment. During our two hour conversation, I learned from him. He showcased for me what letting go actually looks like. He demonstrated a strength and courageousness that left me in awe. I just kept saying in my head, “I want to be like him when I grew up” because he was handling tough situations in an admirable way that I wanted to emulate.

After we hung up the phone, some two hours later, I decided that I can no longer pay attention to age because it can not quantify one’s wisdom and maturity. I have met some older adults who act like children immaturely. Similarly, I have met some young adults who speak and act with a knowledge beyond what one would expect given their age. Thus, I am actively working to remove my assumptions about others based on their age.

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Success Is Born Out of Struggle

struggleOne of my co-opted life sayings is, “If we all put our problems in a public pile, I will gladly keep my pile.” I was reminded of that truth recently while at a friend’s boozy (unlimited mimosas), board game/UNO playing brunch in celebration of her birthday. I notice that when the opposite sexes of the single variety get together the conversation tends to stray towards sex and relationships, which makes sense given that our lives revolve around the two in some form and fashion. This conversation, however, was slightly different largely because all the participants did not know each other well. We were all associates, having all seen each other at different music industry events and being introduced previously, but not everyone were friends. Thus, we asked those seemingly standard, non invasive questions, in no particular order, like: what do you do for a living? so why are you single? any kids? where did you go for undergrad?

After my round of twenty questions, which I dislike because once people hear that I graduated from two Ivy league schools their view of me often changes. Some become intimated, especially when they learn that I teach English; they become much more self-conscious about speaking correctly, whatever that means. Some are surprised because I “don’t look the type,”confused because I have a six year old son out of wedlock, live in the Bronx, and have tattoos. Their vision of an Ivy League grad is not me. *Shrugs* I’m used to it by now. However, the same way I am slightly irritated by people’s projections and assumptions of who I am or who I’m supposed to be, does not mean that I am excluded from doing the same thing. And I have to remind myself of that fact.

Next, a friend (editor’s note: I use this term loosely because even though I consider him a friend, the following conversation made me question and think about what it means to be a friend) began his obligatory twenty questions. The barrage of questions, from the opposite sex, began with what he does for a living, and he quickly disarmed them with a curt response: “Whatever I want.” Taken aback by the ambiguous retort, they reloaded with a seemingly simpler question, “Why did you go to school?” Once again, he quickly responded, “I didn’t go to college.” Surprised once more, the firing squad asked the next logical question, why, which allowed for him to share a deeply moving personal recount of being homeless for roughly eighteen months after high school graduation. The questions increased as everyone’s interest was elevated. I had my own, but decided to be a silent observer.

The cheers of shots being given for losing Connect Four and the raucous laughter and conversation of a cacophonous sports bar during the Final Four were suddenly muted, and I only heard his voice. Not once did he falter when retelling his story because he knows it better than anyone else. He kept eye contact throughout the course of the questions, even smiling at times when the story took unexpected (Editor’s note: the whole story was unexpected) twists and turns, nothing short of divine intervention at one point. He even shared small things that I never considered, like knowing where to get water or where to use the bathroom without being hassled. As I sat to his left, watching his big brown eyes move around the table, fully engaged with everyone within earshot, I witnessed strength and resiliency firsthand. I wondered, while he shared his story, if I could have made it through those situations with the same high level of integrity. Could I be so open and honest about such a personal history with people that I see at various functions and parties? Could I…In the end, I had no response, but was grateful…not because I thought of my situation to be better or easier than his. But rather, I was grateful for the moment, an opportunity to share in something special. Needless to say, my admiration and respect for him grew a thousand fold.

After he stopped talking, the table was silent for a few moments, when one of the beautiful women said, “And look at y’all,” pointing towards my friend and I, “different paths but in the same place.” Her acute observation reminded me of how little assumptions should matter, and, more importantly, how much more valuable personal stories are.

Reflecting on the moment, I wonder why we don’t share our piles of issues more publicly, more often, probably out of shame or fear of judgment. Those few minutes, while our UNO game was suspended and our attention undivided, I felt so connected…to him and the others who listened. Understanding just this one part of his struggle, makes me cheer so much harder for his success.

Beats and Breakfast

I love living in New York City, an adult playground, because of the randomness that its never sleeping nights produce.

Last night, I went to the Kendrick Lamar show at SOBs. It was packed wall to wall with rap enthusiasts and industry folk. Hennessy freely provided unlimited drinks, handled and delivered by scantily clad Hennessy models, to all who wanted to imbibe its convincingly strong cognac. Overall, his performance was dope; his first performance at SOBs a few months earlier captured everyone’s attention with his sheer skills and potent potential. This time the brown had everyone’s focus scattered.

After the show, I met the editor in chief for XXL magazine. I met a beautiful, talented blogger/magazine writer/poet from Boston. I met the founders and creators of Rap Genius, who want to work with me to bring the exploration and analysis of rap lyrics into classrooms. Lastly, I met the star of the night, the newly minted ‘next big thing,’ conferred by current and past legends, Kendrick Lamar.

The best part of the night was when a few of my friends and I decided to head to the local diner. We ordered breakfast food galore. The tables were overrun with different kinds of pancakes, eggs, and meats. We filled the empty diner with raucous laughter, fueled by crazy jokes and recounts of previously unshared stories. At one point, my friend, while looking through his grown man book bag, took out his Beats by Dre. I had never used them, though it seems that everyone has. I plugged them up to my iphone and turned on Young Jeezy’s classic first album, Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101.

Suddenly, everyone seemed to be pantomiming. Their mouths were moving, they were making conversational gestures, but I had no idea what they were saying. All I could hear was Jeezy masterfully floating on top of the baseline and accompanying instrumentation. The rugged rhymes and thumping bass excited me, manifested through my uncontrollable bounce in the tight booth pew and apparent yelling of Jezzy’s famous ad libs, all while devouring chocolate chip pancakes.

One of my friends turned to a newly made acquaintance and pointed at me and shook his head. I removed the headphones to hear what he was saying.

“You would not believe me, but that man is an Ivy League educated teacher.”
“Two times over,” I added while turning my two fingers downward to form an A, to represent Atlanta, Jeezy’s hometown.

Another friend joked, “Our youth is in trouble if you are teaching them.”

I laughed to myself. Here was a moment in which the seemingly contradictions that make up who I am were outwardly open, and I felt great because I was enjoying my beats and breakfast.

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Womb II

“Where you at, scrap? You sleep?” his voice booms through my iphone receiver. I can hear the laughter percolating in his voice. He knows my answer.

“I’m chillin’ at my mom’s house, man,” I respond sleepily, waiting for it.

And it begins…he laughs a deep laugh born in the pit of his stomach. He laughs for only four or five seconds, but it feels so much longer because his laughter is filled with sincerity. He laughs that kind of laugh that makes me laugh.

“I know what that means,” he teases. “You’ve been sleeping. You always sleep when you go to your mom’s house.”

He’s right. I have sleeping issues, but those slowly melt away like butter placed on a warm skillet when I enter my childhood home. I feel safe. I feel comfortable. I am myself, no pretense. Consequently, my body resigns to the fact that I’m tired, spent, and stretched a bit too thin. It finds solace in 3014.

“Man, that place is your womb,” the banter continues.

I told my family that joke during Thanksgiving dinner. When I woke up a few hours later, after a turkey induced coma like rest, my family revealed that they were laughing at me while I slept. Did I snore? Did I yell out some nonsensical sound? Did I drool? I quickly touch and wipe my mouth as the thought rushes through my mind.

Nope. That wasn’t it.

Apparently, I was curled up in a fetal position with my hand under my head and my knees slightly bent towards my stomach. That opened the flood gates to “Wombgate.”

Joke on jokes on jokes.

When they finished cracking up about my sleeping habits while visiting the house, everyone went to sleep, and I thought it was over. Oh, I was wrong again.

In the morning, as I prepared to leave, I decided to stock up on some delicious thanksgiving leftovers. I asked my mother to help me fix a tubberware plate. My youngest brother quickly quipped, “That’s right mommy, he can’t get food without you.” The simulated pregnant belly rub made us all laugh.

Shoulders of Giants

Sir Isaac Newtown is often attributed with the following quote: If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.

On this Thanksgiving, I want to acknowledge my gratitude for the shoulders on which I stand. I am only where I am because of the unconditional love and unending support that various people have given me.

While I am not a fan of commercialized holidays, which many of them have become, I am thankful for Thanksgiving because it is a day that promotes reflection.

I wish we, as individuals, as a society, and as a country, did it more often.

Enjoy your thanksgiving and all the delicious food.

More importantly, enjoy your family and friends.