Thursday, January 31, 2008

My Love is Like Premium Cable


It all started with a 30-day trial package of premium cable.

I had just moved into my apartment and was enjoying the temporary pleasures of HBO On Demand. In the midst of Million Dollar Baby, I realized there were only two weeks left in my free trial period, just two weeks before a decision was required of me.


Apparently, the suits at the cable company felt that by the end of thirty days, I would have had ample time to figure out if premium cable was worth the investment. Either way, after thirty days, I’d no longer get premium services for free.

I can dig that strategy.

It's not an uncommon marketing ploy--try it, then buy it. The lil' Asian woman in front of Manchu Wok in the food court hands you a toothpick pierced with a tenth of an ounce of bourbon chicken. The toothy salesman at the dealership lets you take the Camry for a test drive down the street. The cable company gave me thirty days to figure out if I wanted premium cable. And for the average person it only takes one bite, one ride, or one month to decide if you’re still interested.

So, when “in like,” why do we stick around for ridiculous amounts of time only to find out that a relationship isn’t meant to be?

We’re waiting for the person's feelings to catch up. We think they need time. And they give us something--attention, sex, conversation, company--that convinces us we’re not waiting in vain.

We drop nuggets, clues along the way to ensure that in case the person has SLD, he or she can't say they didn't know. If business continues as usual, we take this as a good sign. After all, they know what's up, and if they don't agree, they'll speak up...right?

And so, we kick. And push. And coast. Six months later, we’re in the same spot. No Man Land.

My girlfriends and I have spent many a night lamenting over these treadmill relationships of love & like lost---or worse---stagnated. Why does he call me every other day if he doesn’t like me? Why would he tell his mom about me? Why would he…I don’t know…remember my freaking birthday? Whatever.

“The fact that the guy doesn’t want you to get any farther away than you are doesn’t mean he’s ever going to let you any closer either,” said Evan Katz and Linda Holmes, authors of Why You’re Still Single: Things Your Friends Would Tell You if You Promised Not to Get Mad. “He may just leave you in that very lonely place right where you’ve been for months or years for as long as you are willing to stay.”

Sounds like the tried and true “stringin’ along” routine. Yet, the amazing thing about words is that you can flip them and get an entirely different connotation: Just because a guy [or girl] doesn’t let you any closer doesn’t mean he or she wants you to get any farther away.

In other words, play your position. Everybody can’t be quarterback.

I don't know about the fellas, but this is hard for women. Our proverbial ego cannot comprehend why a man that we’re interested in (operative phrase) would spend time with us, call us, communicate with us, vibe with us, sleep with us (or not)…and not want to be with us. It’s like we expect a man to either want to be the boyfriend, or leave us alone. “If you don’t want me then don’t talk to me,” Fantasia croons. That’s pretty much it. No gray area.

And really, it’s not fair because there is gray area; the idea only seems harsh when you’re the “liker” as opposed to the “likee.” The calls, the conversations, the attention can be confusing, cruel even. Yet, we all have people in our circles who we’re not trying to get with and it doesn’t mean they need to disappear. History calls these people “friends,” guys or girls you like—or love—but with whom you don’t wish to procreate or elope.

It’s not always ill will, malice, or an attempt to play games. Unreciprocated advances towards coupledom don’t mean you ain’t jack, it could just mean that the person is fine with you playing the position you play--the cool chick he can vent to, the hilarious homeboy that makes her laugh, etcetera. It also seems that if you have to ask what your role is, then it’s probably a good time to evaluate your positioning.

If you don’t like where you are, put the ball down and walk the hell off the court.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A Glimpse of Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father


My intention this election year was to be unbiased in my biasness, reading Hillary Clinton’s autobiography and at least one of Barack Obama’s before voting time.

Much to the glee of my bank account, a few weeks ago I discovered a paperback edition of Obama’s first book, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, on sale in Target. While I still intend to read Clinton’s Living History, I doubt it will happen before primary season is over.

And so, I present (drum roll, please)…my thoughts. Not a book review. Not a literary critique. Not an endorsement. Just some thoughts.

In Dreams, Barack Obama tells it like it is in the most poetic of prose. Now, I could just be a sucker for picture-painting adjectives and attention to detail, but the man’s eloquent descriptions are comparable to those of a seasoned author. Renowned journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault said Dreams is “One of the most powerful books of self-discovery I’ve ever read…It is also beautifully written, skillfully layered, and paced like a novel.”

Indeed, Obama’s gifted use of language often induces one to forget that Dreams is the actual tale of a United States senator and presidential hopeful. This is probably due to the fact that he was still a lawyer, not an elected politician, at the time Dreams was published in 1996. Dreams tells the story of a young Barack (“Barry” at times) searching for his identity within the two worlds of his Kenyan father and white mother.

The following passages from Dreams will hopefully provide a glimpse of the sincerity and expressiveness that Obama displays on every page.

Obama's father left the scene when he was 2 years old, returned to Hawaii for an extended visit when Obama was 10, and died when he was 21. Most of what Obama knew of his father came from stories and the occassional letter. Therefore, it was Obama's mother who first taught him about the black experience:

She would come home with books on the civil rights movement, the recordings of Mahalia Jackson, the speeches of Dr. King. When she told me stories of schoolchildren in the South who were forced to read books handed down from wealthier white schools but who went on to become doctors and lawyers and scientists, I felt chastened by my reluctance to wake up and study in the mornings…Every black man was Thurgood Marshall or Sidney Poitier; every black woman Fannie Lou Hamer or Lena Horne. To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear.
During his teenage years, Obama lived with his mother’s parents, Gramps and “Toot” in Hawaii. They were doting and proud of their grandson. However, in the following incident, Obama depicts a setting where societal race misconceptions penetrated even the most loving of homes. He walks in on the tail end of a heated discussion between his grandparents. When he enters, the argument dissipates and Toot explains what happened to her that morning at the bus stop:

“He was very aggressive, Barry. Very aggressive. I gave him a dollar and he kept asking. If the bus hadn’t come, I think he might have hit me over the head.”

I returned to the kitchen. Gramps was rinsing his cup, his back turned to me. “Listen,” I said. “Why don’t you just let me give her a ride? She seems pretty upset.”

“By a panhandler?”

“Yeah, I know—but it’s probably a little scary for her, seeing some big man block her way. It’s really no big deal.”

He turned around and I saw now that he was shaking. “It is a big deal. It’s a big deal to me. She’s been bothered by men before. You know why she’s so scared this time? I’ll tell you why. Before you came in, she told me the fella was
black…That’s the real reason why she’s bothered. And I just don’t think that’s right.”

The words were like a fist in my stomach, and I wobbled to regain my composure… Gramps slumped into a chair in the living room and said he was sorry he had told me.

They had sacrificed again and again for me. They had poured all their lingering hopes into my success. Never had they given me reason to doubt their love; I doubted if they ever would. And yet I knew that men who might easily have been my brothers could still inspire their rawest fears.


A third of Dreams is dedicated to Obama’s experience as an organizer in some of Chicago’s poorest communities. His keen sense of observation is evident in this passage as he writes about a visit to an elementary school during his organizing efforts:


She laughed cheerfully and walked me into the hallway, where a wobbly line of five- and six-year-olds was preparing to enter a classroom. A few of them waved and smiled at us; a pair of boys toward the rear spun around and around, their arms tight against their sides; a tiny little girl struggled to yank a sweater over her head and got tangled up in the sleeves. As the teacher tried to direct them up the stairs, I thought how happy and trusting they all seemed, that despite the rocky arrivals many of them had gone through—delivered prematurely, perhaps, or delivered into addiction, most of them already smudged with the ragged air of poverty—the joy they seemed to find in simple locomotion, the curiosity they displayed toward every new face, seemed the equal of children anywhere.


In the final portion of Dreams, Obama visits his father’s homeland for the first time. It is in Kenya where he finally is able to fill in the voids of his father’s story, the beautiful and the ugly:
I feel my father’s presence as Auma [Obama's sister] and I walk through the busy street. I see him in the schoolboys who run past us, their lean, black, legs moving like piston rods between blue shorts and oversized shoes. I hear in the laughter of the pair of university students who sip sweet, creamed tea and eat samosas in a dimly lit teahouse. I smell him in the cigarette smoke of the businessman who covers one ear and shouts into a pay phone; in the sweat of the day laborer who loads gravel into a wheelbarrow, his face and bare chest covered with dust. The Old Man’s here, I think, although he doesn’t say anything to me. He’s here, asking me to understand.

***
Family seemed to be everywhere: in stores, at the post office, on streets and in the parks, all of them fussing and fretting over Obama’s long-lost son. If I mentioned in passing that I needed a notebook or shaving cream, I could count on one of my aunts to insist that she take me to some far-off corner of Nairobi to find the best bargains, no matter how long the trip took or how much it might inconvenience her.

***

Not long into Obama’s visit, the hardships and poverty his family and other Kenyans faced became an uncomfortable reality. He and his sister Auma, who had been born in Africa, were of the few family members who were doing okay on their own. Yet, they struggled with how their independence translated to their poor relatives. Questions of responsibility arose, outwardly and inwardly:



For the first time in my life, I found myself thinking deeply about money: my own lack of it, the pursuit of it, the crude but undeniable peace it could buy. A part of me wished I could live up to the image that my new relatives imagined for me: a corporate lawyer, an American businessman, my hand poised on the spigot, ready to rain down like manna the largess of the Western world.
But of course I wasn’t either of those things. Even in the States, wealth involved trade-offs that I could see Auma now making as she tried, in her own way, to fulfill the family’s expectations. Her restlessness, her independence, her constant willingness to project unto the future—all of this struck the family as unnatural somehow. Unnatural…and un-African.

It was the same dilemma that old Frank had posed to me the year I left Hawaii, the same tensions that certain children in Altgeld might suffer if they took too much pleasure in doing their schoolwork, the same perverse survivor’s guilt that I could expect to experience if I ever did try to make money and had to pass the throngs of young black men on the corner as I made my way to a downtown office. Without power for the group, a group larger, even, than an extended family, our success always threatened to leave others behind.

Obama and Auma went on a safari excursion while in Kenya. Obama illustrates a carnal, yet serene episode in the wild:

And most of all the stillness, a silence to match the elements. At twilight, not far from our camp, we came upon a tribe of hyenas feeding on the carcass of a wildebeest. In the dying orange light they looked like demon dogs, their eyes like clumps of black coal, their chins dripping with blood. Beside them a row of vultures waited with stern, patient gazes, hopping away like hunchbacks whenever one of the hyenas got too close. It was a savage scene, and we stayed there for a long time, watching the life feed on itself, the silence interrupted only by the crack of bone or the rush of wind, or the hard thump of vulture’s wings as it strained to lift itself into the current until it finally found the higher air and those long and grateful wings became motionless and still like the rest. And I though to myself: This is what Creation looked like. The same stillness, the same crunching bone.

The following revelation came to Obama as he knelt in tears between the graves of his father and grandfather:
I realized that who I was, what I cared about, was no longer just a matter of intellect or obligation, no longer a construct of words. I saw that my life in America—the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I’d felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I’d witnessed in Chicago—all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name or the color of my skin. The pain I felt was my father’s pain. My questions were my brothers’ questions. Their struggle, my birthright.

Dreams is not about politics. It doesn't present a pristine facade of perfection. Obama shares his embarrassments, his uncertainties, and his doubts--some would say to a fault; the mentions of drugs and alcohol have been debated in public sectors since his campaign for presidency of the United States. But it is Obama’s genuineness, honesty, and "miscellaneous" experiences that makes his memoir a refreshing, relatable read.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Differences Deemed Irreconcilable


As explored in “Focus on the Flaws,” it is my pseudo theory that relationships are often abandoned despite the presence of decent attributes, thereby rendering the good features we have and search for virtually meaningless.

Another facet of this concept is differences. While they are not necessarily flaws, differences can sink a relationship with the voracity of an iceberg. They are usually more apparent, yet more readily dismissed. We tend to hide our flaws (since we know what they are...sometimes), but a person’s reaction to our differences is unpredictable.

“Whatever combination of similarities and differences brings two people together, once we’re in a relationship some differences have a way of magnifying themselves…” says Mira Kirshenbaum, psychologist and author of Too Good to Leave Too Bad to Stay: A Step-by-Step Guide to Help You Decide Whether to Stay in or Get Out of Your Relationship.

Just like that fatal flaw, a single difference can spell damn for a relationship, even when everything else is compatible. Kirshenbaum emphasizes one difference that can mean everything or nothing, and that is lifestyle.

Kirshenbaum stresses this difference as critical. "Think back to the relationship choices you’ve made. It’s never just a person you wanted to be with. You wanted that person combined with the lifestyle you’d have (or you thought you’d have) with that person," she states.

It reminds me of a basic marketing concept that I learned in advertising theory: people don't just buy wine; they buy the candlelit dinner, the grinning partner, and the marriage proposal they saw on the commercial.

It’s how we want a person to mesh with our vision of life. Kirshenbaum states that lifestyle differences are not issues if they're agreed upon and accepted by both parties. Think Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver. He's the Republican "Governator" of California; she comes from a line of prominent Democrats that includes former President John F. Kennedy. Both are passionate about their political affiliations.

This match wouldn't work for a lot of people; I balk at conservative discussions on TV (i.e., most things on Fox…), so it definitely wouldn't fly for me at the dinner table. But somewhere along the way, Schwarzenegger and Shriver had to accept how their political differences affected their individual visions of life.

According to Answers.com, as of 2005, Shriver decided to forego any public support of her husband's proposals. Now, if it meant everything to Schwartenegger that his wife march side-by-side with him in all his political endeavors, or if Shriver refused to become the public figure that First Ladyship entails, their divorce would have been sprawled across tabloid covers years ago.

A pardonable dissimilarity for one couple may be non-negotiable for the next. Think of really fit people--the gym jocks, the health nuts, the yoga yuppies...people whose fitness is a lifestyle. They more or less hook up with other fit folks. But then you look at radio personality Tom Joyner, who is pleasantly pudgy and proud; he's happily married to the ultra toned fitness and exercise expert Donna Richardson-Joyner. It all depends on how significantly a difference impacts your vision of life.

Kirshenbaum puts it like this: "If it’s clear that you’ll be happier living that lifestyle without your partner than living with your partner without that lifestyle, then you’ll be happy if you leave and unhappy if you stay. You live a life, you don’t live a relationship."

***

It's so practical that it’s practically impractical.

This approach simmers down to two main points --being cognizant and honest about each other's flaws and differences. It requires a lot more honesty and analysis than anyone wants to do, including me. A huge part of my Self emobodies all things carpe diem (my decade would have been the 60s). I love the warm-and-fuzzies of "Boo-dom" and living in the moment, ridin' it 'till the wheels clank by the side of the road. Who wants to dampen romance with pesky stuff like the imperfections we all want to forget?

We could spare ourselves a lot of pain if we just note the things we ignore about the people we deal with. We've all seen the teary-eyed men and women on talk shows discussing their partners' infidelity, drug problem, spending habits, or whatever. The host asks the inevitable: "Did you have any idea this was going on?" or "Didn't you notice this before?" Nine times out of ten, they did.

The point is not to get caught up in what we like, what feels good, what we have in common. The old adage is right: what’s too good to be true, probably is.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Focus on the Flaws: An alternative approach to dating

A revolutionary dating site in the works takes an unorthodox approach to the meet-and-mingle process.

You sign up and commence a search that will allow you to only enter basic criteria: preferred age range and location.

Click submit. Your screen fills with several faceless profiles of people in your selected area. Unlike traditional dating sites, you can’t tell if someone is “fun-loving” or “enjoys long walks on the beach.” Not yet. Instead, each profile lists “Insecurities,” “Weaknesses,” “Bad Habits,” “Health Issues,” “Jail Time: Yes/No” and “What My Ex Would Say About Me.”

You scroll past confessions ranging from gay tendencies to chronically broke to extremely low libido. It is not until you click on a set of flaws you can handle that you can view photos, education level, occupation, etc.

This Web site, if it ever exists outside my imagination, would be called something like TotalHonesty.com, FlawsandAll.com, BypasstheRepresentative.com, etc.

This funky concept took root in my brain a few years ago after running across this passage in Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand:

If you tell a beautiful woman that she is beautiful, what have you given her? It’s no more than a fact and it cost you nothing. But if you tell an ugly woman that she is beautiful, you offer her the great homage of corrupting the concept of beauty. To love a woman for her virtues is meaningless. She’s earned it, it’s a payment, not a gift. But to love her for her vices is a real gift, unearned and undeserved. To love her for her vices is to defile all virtue for her sake—and that is a real tribute of love, because you sacrifice your conscience, your reason, your integrity and your invaluable self-esteem.
The argument struck me as so profound that I immediately set the book down and began a poem called, "Unconditional."

The character’s point in this passage is one that is undeniably honest. My take on it is this: It’s not the virtues that make you stay; it’s the willingness to accept the vices. In other words, we stay in relationships not because of how great our partners are, but because we are willing to deal with and accept their issues. If we are not willing to deal, we bounce.

Okay, so people leave bad relationships because they’re bad. Duh. Yes. But, human nature persuades us to cast an unforgiving, all encompassing shadow of triflin’ on folks when a relationship goes sour much in the manner that Kool-Aid takes over a pitcher of water. We assume “bad” to be an absolute. That a bad relationship, a bad marriage, a bad boyfriend/girlfriend/wife/husband exists in the total and complete absence of “good.”

Due to this lapse of rationale in human nature, there’s an excellent possibility that the good attributes that originally attracted one person to another are still intact, even when matters have gone downhill.

Allow me to play Frankenstein for a minute. Let’s create a man built like LL Cool J (hello!), intelligent as Cornell West (alright now!), and wealthy as Bill Gates (yessir!). Sounds like a great guy--and he is--except for one thing. He’s (fill in the flaw of your choice…I’ll use “a workaholic.”). He’s away from home 22 days a month on business and doesn’t call as much as I like. I need attention. I’m lonely. I leave.

Is the man not still good-looking, intelligent, and wealthy? Certainly. All of the attributes that attracted me to him are still there, but I can’t deal with his inattentiveness.

It's the unfavorable aspects that force people to walk out on relationships, regardless of the favorable aspects remaining in place. I have yet to hear a woman complain that she dumped her man because he had too much money, or a man complaining that his woman is too fine or too nurturing.

Conclusion: The good things just don’t matter. A good man isn’t hard to find and a good woman isn’t hard to find, it’s finding a man or woman whose issues you can deal with.

There’s something rattling in everybody’s closet. We’ve all got our baggage, our issues, our hang-ups. Yet we spit-shine ourselves, step into the world putting our best foot forward, praying we can impress someone by our representative so much so that he or she will overlook our mess.

Yet at the end of the day, the mess is the deciding factor. Not the merit.

So as I browse the candidates on TheRealnessContinues.com, candidates are viewing my profile as well. They can't see my caramel skin, full lips, and curvy figure, nor are they privy to my bachelors degrees, silly sense of humor, or accomplishments. They have no idea that I'm reasonably intelligent and that I enjoy live entertainment and traveling.

But they'll know that I've got procrastination down to a science. They'll know that I snore, and that I'm easily distracted, which is why I often don't answer my phone. They'll know that on any given day there are dishes in my sink and clothes littering the bedroom floor.

And several of them will scroll right past.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Growing, Changing, Enjoying the Ride

Sometimes we yearn for it like Sam Cooke crooned in the 60s. Other times we sneer at it for the differences it manifests in people.

Hate it or love it, change happens.

Rediscovering the list of things I want to do in my lifetime inspired me to examine how much I’ve changed since the summer of 2003.

The inherent ingredients are still there: I still enjoy a good time, yet find pleasure in solitude; I still love the Lord; I’m still open-minded and like to read and write and eat, drink, and be merry; I’m still friendly and a tad flirtatious; I still procrastinate, all of the above. Yet, these inherent elements have refined. Four and a half years may not represent a vast amount of time in a long life, but these years are significant, particularly in the early 20s when self-awareness and character are shaped by the experiences of young adulthood.

I was 21 then, and so much seemed out of my reach, out of my league. Like “trying real sushi.” I still can’t believe that made the list of things I wanted to do in my lifetime, as if eating authentic sushi is exclusive or elite. The thing is, it wasn’t a part of my experience growing up in a middle-class family in Delray Beach, Florida. The only people I heard talking about sushi lived a different life and didn’t look like me, giving the dish a false aura of affluence. Nowadays, I’m eating sushi regularly on my lunch break. And it’s not like I’m ballin’, it isn’t even expensive.

In the past few years, I’ve developed a mindset of entitlement that is almost hedonistic. I took enough trips to realize that buying a plane ticket and staying in a nice hotel for a couple days will not land you in the poor house. I’ve eaten in restaurants that I learned about from magazines that don’t cater to my demographic and discovered I didn’t have to be dressed up, rich, or white to be there. (There’s other places to eat besides Red Lobster, y’all!)

Overall, I’ve learned that most of the stuff we position in a misty far-off dream can happen today. I also realize that the people who drive the nice cars, have the big houses and plenty money are not an elite species of beings. They have no more brain capacity or capability than I do. They weren’t born with a birthright to the good life. The only barrier between me, them, and what I want to do, is me.

Everything is attainable. Even goals like playing the piano and speaking Spanish don’t feel all that difficult to do anymore. Now that I recognize that it’s not that serious, it’s not that serious.

Besides being all militant about getting mine, other aspects of my being have become more refined. I still love the Lord, but my faith has been tested and is stronger. I still enjoy a good time, but my definition of a good time has changed; I used to be thrilled by the thickest party with the loudest music and the highest degree of sweating. Now I’d rather kick it in a venue where I can choose to sit down and carry on a conversation.

When it comes to the opposite sex, hell, I’ve got a lot to learn. I might have picked up one or two nuggets of knowledge along the way, but men never cease to make me go “hmmm…” One thing’s for sure, I spent entirely too much time interested in various men for extended amounts of time, and it didn’t amount to anything. I was scared to mention the R-word because I didn’t want to run a brother off. But I found out the hard way that people will be with whomever they want to be with, simple and plain. So as opposed to wasting my time, at some point, the R-word has to be mentioned. And if that’s all it takes to run a man off, then he can hit the tracks. And don’t come back for no benefits.

French author Anatole France said, “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.” There is a bit of sadness to changing, to leaving some of the items on that list behind. Some of them I will never do and I won’t care. There lies the beauty of change.

I’m encouraged by the changes in my life. I’m ecstatic about being the best me. And who knows, a few years from now I’ll look back on this column and say, “What in the world was I thinking?”