My wife told me about this book. Enthusiastically, she said to me, “You have to read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. This is a Brian book.” When she told me this, I was wrapped up in two projects (one for work, one for my web enterprise), read almost no fiction, barely any books that didn’t related to men’s lifestyle or Latin American history and culture in the US (latinidad).
Have you ever been so caught up in what you were doing that you couldn’t see the forest for the trees? I was writing about the impacts of Latinos in America on one hand, and how to define masculinity in the on the other. My wife, my smart wife floated a book by me (that sat on the shelf for years) that addressed aspects of both, along with orishas, science fiction, vivid imagery, incredible prose, and that tingle and nausea of being slightly different in a world with a tightly prescribed set of behavioral and social norms. Growing up in an urban setting, multi-ethnic, the sounds of the streets calling, but you not knowing what to make of it. And FOOTNOTES!
Fuku wasn’t Oscar’s problem. Oscar’s problem was that he was born 10 years too early. Today he’d have a blog, with several e-books out, and a whole host of other kids just like him.
Generation X, we are in mourning. David Bowie, Phife, now Prince. All impacted my view of the world through music. Seeing Bowie on Soul Train, wondering if I was the only person who didn’t know he was white and British. Phife and A Tribe Called Quest, him holding it down on Midnight Marauders’ cut “God Lives Through Music” (. . . if my partners don’t look good, Malik don’t look good . . .). Now Prince Rodgers Nelson. The short muthafucka with the deep voice (his description). “Adore,” “I Feel For You,” “DMSR,” “Delirious,” “Musicology,” “Gett Off,” “Pop Life,” and of course “Purple Rain.” We will never see his (or their) like again.
Obligatory Prince story: Like most every other kid in America, I’d been transfixed by seeing Purple Rain, listening to the sound track (and the B-sides!), and the ancillary related content (The Time, Apollonia 6, music videos). The theater where I watched it the first time, people were dancing in the aisles during the last 20 minutes of the movie. My high school senior class prom theme was Purple Reign. So, yeah, it was kind of a big deal.
Imagine my surprise when I found 15 tickets for the Purple Rain tour at the Capital Centre in Landover, MD. My brother was moving stuff from his grad school place back home. One item was an antique radio the size of a gas oven and range. It was beautiful junk that big brother didn’t have space on his way to a new job. I hauled as much stuff as I could in my 1980 Honda Accord hatchback, including the radio. Inside the cabinet of the radio was an envelop with 15 tickets–cheap seats, but seats all the same for a series of shows that sold out in hours.
One of his roommates managed to get a block of tickets, probably put them in the cabinet for safe storage before my brother moved. Chuck (don’t remember his name) called my home asking if I could check the radio and see if the tickets were in there. I did; they were. Chuck was relieved.
I naively asked Chuck if I could get a couple (as a reward, or to buy, if necessary). He said he’d committed the tickets to people, at what I’m sure was above face value. My brother suggested that a couple of tickets should have come up missing before I confirmed the number, but I was a straight shooter and thought I might be rewarded for my good deed. Per usual, no good deed goes unpunished and there I sat/in my lonely room/looking for my sunshine*, not at the Capital Centre wearing something ridiculous.
Eventually, I’d see Prince at the Capital Centre. I sang all of the songs (to the chagrin of my girlfriend) and was much better dressed than in 1984. Sadly, I missed him when he was in DC last. Had I known it was the last time forever, I might have tried harder.
This arrived in my house last week. It was a gift from my late grandmother’s home in North Carolina. One of my aunts brought it back with her from a recent visit to check on some renovations occurring on the old house. Given my background in history, she thought I might enjoy it.
For fans of late 20th century American history, this book is a lighthearted look at a most tumultuous event during a period of tumultuous events. The 1968 presidential election is amazing to think about in retrospect. Truly epic in terms of the storylines that emerged and the political machinations that played out in the public sphere. And out of that rises Richard Nixon, left for dead after the 1960 election.
The authors write the story in the style of the King James Bible, a style worthy of the events, with pen and ink satirical illustrations of the presidents and political leaders in biblical garb. If you are familiar with the Old Testament and/or the late 1960s, this will give you a chuckle, and perhaps cause you to shed a tear.
The idea was that bunch of guys get together with the idea of tasting a few bourbons and hanging out. We all worked in restaurants and have had our share of whiskey. We showed up with a bottle each–something decent, maybe even good for a Thursday night. That was before Dan showed up. Dan has run several bars, been an owner in a local restaurant group, and now worked as a liquor representative. He knows drinks and drink making. He arrived with a roller bag filled with bottles, glasses, and a ham. It got real when he pulled out the ham.
Our host Kelly found some rolls and mustard, so we started cutting up the ham and making sandwiches. Kelly rounded up his girls, who patiently let their dad get his guests settled before asking for their bedtime rituals. Most of us were dads, so we had advice on corralling the kids, except for Dan, who as their uncle, chose to let Kelly deal with it. Dan set up shop and started teaching. The first lesson was about the distilleries. That most bourbon comes from one of a dozen or more distilleries. Once you know which distilleries makes which brands, finding a bargain was a matter of asking the right question. Armed with that knowledge, we divided the whiskies into flights (less than .5 oz per whiskey), to better discern the differences and similarities. The commentary comes from my notes.
Three 4-year, 100 proof Flight
These were high-alcohol, hot bourbons. We got these out of the way early, to be responsible and all. JW Dant Special Reserve is hot, sweet, with a short finish; Old Fitzgerald has a surprisingly smooth finish, with a light, sweet taste; Medley Bros., spicy, full rich with a strong finish (high barley content). The JW Dant comes via the Heaven Hill distillery. You can get it in 1.5 liter bottles (or “handles”)for less than a shot of Willet at a bar. The Old Fitz was tasty, and Medley Brothers comes from the recently reactivated Charles Medley Distillery and made for a good mixing whiskey.
12-year, 90 proof Flight
The Very Special Old Fitzgerald 12-Year is a wheated bourbon, which means the secondary grain is wheat as opposed to rye. This means it’s softer, with fewer spice notes and less sour taste. The Old Fitz had a nose of musty wood, with brown sugar notes, but no funk; W.L. Weller 12-year, another wheated had vanilla and light spice notes, with a long finish; Elijah Craig 12-Year had a funky sugar taste, with wood, and a subtle hint of vanilla; Old Medley was vanilla notes, with coconut-spicy finish.
By coincidence, we collectively brought multiple types of the W.L. Weller line, from the Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort, KY. We all found the Weller bourbons to be pretty damn good across the board. The Special Reserve 90 was fruity, filled with of spice, with a smooth finish; Special Reserve 100-10 year had brown sugar, all types of spice notes, and a woody funk (in a good way); we tried the Weller 12-year again, for continuity (see above).
In between flights, we talked about music (Kelly was a guitarist and bassist; the other guys played with him at some point, except for Dan), like the Minneapolis Sound that preceded Prince, and the DC alternative scene in the late 80s and early 90s, which ranged from Minor Threat to Bad Brains to Velocity Girl, with some go-go thrown in. It’s weird to talk about the DC music scene in the past tense. But hell, that was 20+ years ago and no one under 30 knows half of the bands or clubs we were reminiscing about.
Then, we reached the last flight, which was really interesting.
Wathen’s 94 proof is made at the Charles Medley Distillery. It’s 70% corn, with a smooth
vanilla taste and slightly funky; McKenna 104 proof, is a Heaven Hill product that was possibly the weirdest tasting whiskey I’ve ever had and I’m not sure if I actually liked it. It had hints of pineapple/tropical fruit, and wood notes; Four Roses was a bourbon snob’s special for a while; spicy, with brown sugar notes, and a long finish, it was 35% rye. This group was the weirdest just from its variety. The lack of blending with other barrels created some singular tastes.
Eventually, the ham ran out and no amount of water was going to dilute that much alcohol, even with the 3 hours that passed since the first sip. We helped Kelly clean up, said our goodbyes, and committed to a scotch tasting before the winter. Next time, cigars and poker may be involved.
“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.