“Dad, why do you always wear nice clothes on a Saturday? I mean, you have on a nice shirt and stuff. To go to Costco.”
This was not a compliment. It was an indictment on my personal style. See, a while back I ran a men’s lifestyle website with a good friend of mine. Our whole shtick was that most guys don’t know or care about looking good and behaving well, but should. We gave it to them as guys, not fashion gurus or former models. Care because it makes a difference; because people notice; because you might get laid. Just Be Better Guys. And while I always cared about clothes, having the business meant I had to look the part, even on weekends. Sweats and t-shirts? Only if I am heading to the gym or lounging in the morning at the house. Jeans to work? Maybe 5 times a year, usually with a move or a holiday as the excuse. It drives my wife crazy, who is an acceptably dressed, business-causal modern woman, but thinks I’m nuts. If I wear a sports jacket to party or night out, it’s too much. Why get dressed up for a movie? It’s dark anyway.
I blame my mom. I couldn’t go out to a department store or downtown without a button-down shirt and long pants, at least. For several years after, I rebelled–horrible pants known as “action slacks” around the 1980s DMV (District, Maryland, and Virginia), baseball caps with the crowns pushed in. My dad cared, but only if it was church or a special event. As long as my shoes were polished and tie was tied, I was good. He did take offense to my desire to wear shiny maroon pants to a wedding. My older brother has a nickel in this dime, too. He’s always been a clotheshorse. This is a man who hasn’t owned a pair of jeans since the Reagan administration. He worked me into some semblance of an acceptable-looking male before I took it on from there.
My own style ranges from somewhat preppy to 60s jazz crooner. I love color and would rather be a bit over the top than too understated. I’m against Crocs, the over-proliferation of plaid flannel shirts as an urbane fashion statement, suits with sneakers, people who don’t own an iron, and too much starch in your shirts. I’m a big believer in season-appropriate gear, so regardless of what my wife says, I love white pants in the summer, draw the line at the full Cleveland.
My girls have now internalized this struggle between getting dressed and dressing up. One would wear dresses and patent leather Mary Janes every day; the other prefers sweats and her Nike running shoes over anything. Both love bright colors and but are really careful about making sure their clothes match–my wife used to yell “no match!” at her dad when she was a kid, so the girls get it honestly. They seem to like dad when I “look handsome” but just not to overdue it. Which means no poplin suit for brunch on Sunday. And I had the perfect shirt for it, too.
There is screaming coming from the basement. Both my wife and the 8 year-old are irate with the process of undoing her cornrows. I can’t help, because the 5-year old and I are washing her hair. This has a 50/50 chance of ending in tears and we still have nail clipping to conduct, not to mention actually styling her hair, which she wants me to understand that I will have no part in doing. This is fine by me, but given my wife and oldest are 45 minutes into what will be a 2+ hour ordeal, I’m thinking I might have to jump in, which will ensure that there will be crying. This is far from the relaxing day I had in mind.
We, using the royal “we” here but I mean me, still need to get dinner prepared, since my wife and I are going out for the evening, and although it’s only 11 am, I can see that we are rapidly running out of time. The sitter, that is my mother, has to be picked up. We have to eat a preemptive celebratory meal a sing and “Happy Birthday” with her, my sister and her kids, whom will probably be running late, because it’s my birthday.
An hour prior, I was eating home-made buttermilk biscuits, marveling at the craft birthday cards from the girls, and modeling my new watch. We hadn’t made any firm plans for Sunday morning, but my wife and I discussed taking the girls out for a bicycle ride, maybe going to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival or just walking to a park for a bit. Our evening plans won’t start until 6 pm and, while I need to swing by and see my dad, it could be incorporated into the sitter/mom pickup (they live less than 5 miles apart). It was going to be a picturesque vision of a Dad’s birthday. Adoring family, loving parents, and an opportunity to be seen by people hither and yon, awash in that birthday glory.
Fast forward 2 hours, I’m in the kitchen frying chicken (because the girls like fried chicken and rarely get it) and roasting veggies. The 8 year-old walks past me crying, with ¾ of her hair free, but a painful looking ¼ still bound tightly to her skull. Her mother curses under her breath. The 5 year-old, reading the tea leaves, decides to do her own hair and makes a half-way decent bun. Initially, I offer assistant. But I still have to shower, visit my dad, pick up Grandma, rush through the birthday crap and get back in time for a 6 pm show. “The bun looks good,” I say and I keep moving. At this point, my alternate vision of maybe an hour to myself with a cigar on the porch while the ladies run an errand is shot to hell, too.
This is the life I chose, that my wife and I chose when we decided to have children. Their hair and grooming don’t care about our birthdays, nor being “Easy like Sunday morning.”
After another tearful visit from the 8 year-old with accusations of sadism, the rest of the hair goes quickly—washing, conditioning, and braiding are done by 2 pm. It’s apparent that my wife won’t be joining us for the family expedition. In a moment of clarity, I texted my dad and my sister to move back our anticipated arrival time. The passable job the 5 year-old did with her hair has been lost to multiple bun/ponytail attempts and now it’s all about the Doc McStuffin headband containing the lion’s mane. It’s Sunday afternoon now, and we still have to hit the road. And no sooner than we get into the car, both girls fall asleep.
I was camping at the beach this past weekend with my daughters and another dad-daughter combo for what has become an annual tradition. Did we put sunscreen on our girls? Nope, not until the latter part of day 2, after multiple hours in the sun and on the beach. Were there 3 types of sunscreens with us? You betcha!
If you’re like me, you might say something like “Who needs sunscreen any? I never used it as a kid.” This sort of logic drives my wife crazy, who would have the girls in lead shields with visors if she could. It also masks the fact that I had forgotten to apply it, not that I chose not to protect my daughters. And that my parents were a bit lax about such things–it was the 70s, they didn’t know. Please raise your hands if this sounds familiar.
Good news! It probably doesn’t matter because the Environmental Working Group just shared its list of best and worst sunscreens, with 80% of sunscreens rated as not effective at their prescribed task, protecting your skin from the sun. Chances are, you are slathering your pride and joy with one of the products in their Hall of Shame. If you can spray it (causes damage to young lungs), if the SPF rating is over 50 (doesn’t account for the dangerous UVA rays that cause cancer), if it has oxybenzone (causes allergic skin reactions and acts like estrogen in the body), or if it has retinyl palmitate (may speed development of skin tumors and lesions on sun-exposed skin), make like Steph Curry and shoot it into the basket. The wastebasket.
I am a child of the modern Civil Rights Movement. I grew up middle-class with the expectation of college and a comfortable life. I was able to date and marry as I saw fit for me. I could fail and not be written off before I was 24. I have been fortunate. Geography was kind to me. My dad’s last military duty station was in DC, where he and my mom settled. I was in DC, just as the town became the most affluent, educated, and influential African-American community in the nation. Not that DC and the surrounding suburbs didn’t have their share of crime and violence in the 80s when I was growing up. But it wasn’t Baltimore. And I didn’t become one of the thousands of underemployed, powerless people who just exhaled all of their bottled-up rage in Charm City.
The situation in Baltimore heats the back of my neck, not because of its proximity, not because of my fondness for The Wire, but because over the past 24 months our nation has seen this sort of event replay itself on a loop. Pick a city or a region and chances are there has been an unarmed person, usually black, being shot by police under dubious circumstances. Some times the victim is a bad actor, some times not. Often, the investigation is quick and perfunctory, with very little communication with the public at large. Terms like “feared for his life” and “used appropriate force” are a part of the testimony.
In the last several days, I’ve had intriguing conversations with all sorts of people I know about the events in Baltimore. The investigation in to Baltimore Police Department’s handling of Freddie Gray, who died as a result of injuries incurred while being arrested, ultimately for carrying a knife; the days of protest as people tried to understand how his spine came to be nearly severed and he received no medical attention; the surge in vandalism and looting that took place after this past Sunday’s protests; and the current media coverage that can only be characterized as fraudulent. They cross the spectrum–from colleagues, to family, to friends who know the various iterations of me. One person is trying to figure out how to talk about white privilege in a constructive way, while acknowledging her personal connection to the situation (family on the Baltimore PD). One friend compared what he saw on TV to the riots we experienced in DC during the early 90s when a black DC cop shot a Latino man under dubious circumstances. Others have questioned the nature of big media coverage, through various social media feeds. Such as, how can Wolf Blitzer be so complicit in the sham of “This is the worst thing ever,” months after he said the same thing about Ferguson, and NYC. A family member who lives in the Baltimore area and has seen unrest on at least two continents wonders how the residents have stayed so calm, considering the situation in Baltimore had been a long time in coming. And then there is the police report, which isn’t being made public, because it might unduly bias the potential Attorney General investigation.
So that we’re clear, I believe that there is too little policing and too much soldiering occurring in our nation. Police, out of preference or via direction, treat large segments of the population as if they are criminals. Black and brown people in urban areas are viewed as the problem and police are supposed to protect the “public” from them. In Baltimore, the goal of police was to keep “those people” away from the revelers and visitors that go to Fells Point, Camden Yard, and the Inner Harbor. When you hear commentators talk about how the post-protest rioting and looting, not the overwhelming, far reaching incidences of police violence, abject poverty from a broken economy, or shitty schools that combine to create a sense of hopelessness and despair, will set the city back decades, you know that the shim-sham is in full effect. Personal responsibility, not a history of oppressive policing, is the problem here. We need to “Send in the Moms!’ to straighten this thing out!
I didn’t know Freddie Gray, but the story sounds really familiar. Poor neighborhood, low education, caught in the cycle of crime and poverty. If I saw him on the street, I might have given him a nod and kept moving. We shared being black, male, and from cities below the Mason-Dixon line, and that’s about it. But I bet he got a similar talk to the one I did, which essentially said “be afraid of police and don’t do anything to antagonize them.” ” Yes, sir; no, sir. That’s all you say. And call me as soon as you can.” Interactions with police shouldn’t end in death, but too often in places like Chicago, Charleston, New York, Oakland, and Ferguson, they do. I wrote a note to my daughters, trying to explain Trayvon Martin’s death and I’ve talk with them about Freddie Gray. I tried to convince myself that they won’t have to worry about these situations–they’re girls from a solid home–but I’m certain Rekia Boyd’s family might have felt the same. I have nephews and cousins, young black males who have to navigate this world knowing people assume the worst of them before trying to understand their best. Frankly, it scares me. Every now and then, I walk into the girls’ rooms when they are sleeping, touch their hair and try not to cry. I don’t know if I can protect my daughters from the randomness, if I can offer advice to my nephews that will keep them safe and not end up with them being maimed or killed.
As a child of the Civil Rights movement, this sort of thing was supposed to be left behind. All those folks that marched, labored, took beatings, and died paid the toll so that we could move forward as a nation, get to that more perfect union. No. Apparently, not all of us.
When possible, my wife and I try to teach our girls to repair before replacing. “Let’s get new tires on your (sister’s/cousin’s) bike” before buying another. I tend to salvage things, especially things I chose and purchased before moving on to a new item. Why not exhaust all options first? This means I’ve spent many dollars repairing things like several suits, pants, sweaters, shoes, and overcoats. I have a coat that is at least as old as I am and has been refurbished at least 2 times (buttons, lining, pockets, button holes), after giving up on a coat older than that–honestly, I traded the coat for a grenadine tie before I understood what sort of magic a tailor could work. Why? Because I liked those things and my calculus said that finding a near or exact replacement was much more expensive than fixing the older one. This assumes a few things: your original piece can be salvaged–a moth infestation of our closets laid waste to several items that will never, ever, ever, get back to-gether! (Thanks, Taylor)–and that the repairs look good and not some hatchet job. No need fixing a sweater if it costs more than the sweater’s worth or if it looks like Freddy Kruger did the work.
This leads to the story of a pair of tan shoes. I bought them as a pair of non-traditional shoes for summer–a tan, suede Cole Rood Haan (their heritage vintage line within the greater Cole-Haan brand), double-monk-strap, apron-front with a rounded point shoe. No bucks or penny loafers or driving shoes, but something to wear to work and for a night out. They were just that, except for one problem. The dye job was a bit off. Subtly, once the shoes were worn and exposed to sunlight, the monk-strap on one started to darken. It’s nearly a year before the change happened, but eventually, it became an overt sign of a defect. The problems were two: I love the shoes and now I’d had them over a year when the final change occurred. So I decided to have them dyed. Not the first time I’d done it: see, 1993, (grey penny loafers to black). I wanted them to be a dark brown for fall and winter, and because I thought a darker color would make more sense–hide my mistake in checking the details. I’ll admit, I’ve been given to an impulse buy, which I might not have been as willing to own up to at the time.
The cobbler I use has done wonders with damaged items before and is honest enough to admit when he can’t do something well. He was skeptical about getting to brown, but was willing to try, with the caveat I was OK with taking them to black if it didn’t work out. The shoes couldn’t stay tan and I’d paid more than enough to justify the investment–the dye job was less than 1/3 of what it would cost to replace the shoes. It took a while, but you can see the results. I’ll let you be the judge, but I think it worked out OK. I don’t mind the wear marks, because they were worn before the work was done. But salvaging shoes so as not to spend money to replace, or throw them out seemed to make sense. I’ve got other things to spend my money on. There are braces, dance lessons, and new bicycles in my immediate future. Recycle, repair, and reuse.
So I’m 13 stories up, overlooking Washington, DC from 12th and Eye Streets, NW. It’s a warm day for mid-winter. Except for the fact we just had 8 inches of snow, with the ground still partially covered or wet. The air holds the anticipation of spring, and now people can’t decide what they should be wearing. I’m at work, it’s a Sunday. So a couple of questions arise: What am I doing at work on a Sunday, sitting on the roof top, and why am I telling you about it?
Quite simply, this is my last day in this building, a place I’ve spent more than 12 years working in one capacity or another. What you realize, once you become an adult, is that most of your time is not spent at your home or apartment, not out at cool clubs hanging out with your friends, but in buildings like this one, with cubicles, offices, water fountains, and if you’re fortunate, it has a gym in the basement. There are a couple of nice restaurants in the area or at least a good place to get some coffee. This is where you spend 8-10 hours a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year. So if I’m sounding nostalgic about an office building well, it’s because I am.
I’m on the roof because it’s one of my favorite places in the building. It looks out over downtown Washington and the city that I know and love. Why I like this vantage point is that the view allows me to see the changes. Where I’m sitting, I’m facing due east. When I first sat here, I could see all the way to Anacostia. I could see the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, because the skyline was that clear. Now, I can’t see more than a few blocks. I’m looking into the offices of Google; I’m looking into the offices of Ernst and Young. I look at all the new retail and residential that has cropped up downtown. Commerce that didn’t exist 10 years ago, didn’t exist 5 years ago. This roof is a place where I had lunch with colleagues, where we used to have happy hours, until the building management decided it was a liability. I did work up here and when I ran Be Better Guys, I’d take conference calls up here, edit articles up here. It seems like the right place to spend a few minutes as I pack up my cubicle, take my pictures off of the wall, pack up my coffee maker and move those things into my basement office at home.
Work is work, but given the amount of time you spend at a building, with people, on a issue or product, that time should mean something. The people in this building–from the maintenance crew to the security guards to my colleagues–saw me get married, saw both of my daughters born, watched me transition professionally. So I am a bit nostalgic. So I saved my Opus X Short Story to have here, with a cup of coffee and some solitude.
Before anyone gets the sense I’m being fired, know that I’m changing positions and a part of that change is a change in location. For everything, a season. Now, time for a change of scenery.
Resilience. I was in a parent-teacher conference with my wife for our 4-year old daughter. The teacher and her two aides (how lucky is that?) talked about our daughter’s resilience, her ability to go with the flow, to bounce back in unfamiliar situations, to be adaptable. The two of us did a mental double-take, thinking about the number of meltdowns that occurred over Goldfish instead of Cheez-Its, or over watching Sponge Bob (her sister’s choice) instead of Lion King. “WTF is she talking about?” was our mindset, but that’s not the sort of thing to say during an affirmation moment with the person who will spend more time with the fruit of your loins than you do on most days.
In fairness to the 4-year old princess lover, she does exhibit a greater ability to say f— it and move on to things than her 7-year old sister. The youngest has already seen two stints in the emergency room for stitches, and never breaks stride. The oldest likes consistency, operates with as much care as a 7-year old tomboy can have. While the 4-year old made the transition from day care to school with a minimum of fuss, her sister figuratively gave everyone the bird for the first 6 weeks in school when she transferred. No conversation, no engagement, to the point I got daily calls from the teacher’s aide to get her to stop crying about going back to day care. Then again, I did call a neighborhood kid out of class to take me home in 1st grade when my mom was 5 minutes late. What I’m saying is that maybe resilience isn’t exactly a family trait at that age.
Which leads me to Michele Wie. If you follow sports, you may recall a precocious 13-year old girl from Hawaii driving a golf ball over 300 yards. Wie played in PGA and LPGA tournaments before she turned pro at 16, wowing people with her talent. But at some point, she needed to win. Wins come hard in golf and questions about her resolve arose. Wie missed several cuts, took 4 months off due to injury, and pulled out of tournaments she was in and playing poorly, with the inference that she didn’t want to look bad missing more cuts. Is it fair criticism of a 18-year old that she’s is more style and substance, maybe pulling back when things got hard? How was your resolve at 18? Wie didn’t quit, she kept playing, while attending Stanford, slowing putting together a game that matched her talent. This summer, she won two tournaments, including her first major, the U.S. Women’s Open. Now, she’s the cover model for the Grit Factor issue of Golf Digest.
Wie mentions the unwavering support of her parents as a source for resilience. The 4-year old may never win a major, (or celebrate by twerking–please no) but having resilience, resolve, grit are traits I want them both to have. It doesn’t have to be through sports, I just want them to learn that to grow you have to keep trying. Maybe I can get Wie to give her a pep talk and back on her training wheels bike.
Last Friday afternoon, I stopped by the early voting location in my precinct after picking up my children from school. It allowed me to perform an act of civic engagement, regardless as to how uninformed I might be on the candidates beyond those running for mayor and my immediate advisory neighborhood commission. I went to the polling station (reminding me that I hadn’t gottent o the gym that week), said hi to neighbors, and cast my vote for an election that was nearly fait accompli.
My town votes almost 90% Democrat, which means the primary usually decides the races. It’s a mid-term election cycle, which I’m certain most people are tired of hearing about. Voter turnout has been dropping for year (57.5% in 2012, down from 62.3% in 2008) and mid-term elections traditionally have worse turnout. I was a bit salty with President Obama’s statement about getting cousin Pookie out to vote. It’s the tone that he occasionally uses toward people of color that borders on condescending, but his point is accurate: don’t let voter apathy decide the election.
Back in the early 90s, John Kennedy, Jr created George Magazine to usher in a new era of political interest and engagement. Esquire’s November issue trumpets that politics still matter. But 20 years of partisan politics, stagnant legislation, and an increasingly dissatisfied populace would seem to put the lie to that idea. The last mid-term was 42% and all indications are this one will be worse. Sounding a bit cynical?
And yet. The two independents actually received double digit percentages in votes for mayor, which means the new mayor will have to negotiate with them. Tight races all over the nation turned on the engagement of those scant voters. Even if you didn’t vote, you probably had an opinion about Kentucky, Louisiana, and Virginia. Maybe politics as lifestyle has taken hold, but it appears to have move us in the wrong direction.