Thursday, February 21, 2008

For the Love of Music

Newsflash: There are 18-year-old people who don’t know about Prince.

As in, heard of him, can’t name a song, and actually have a bit of disdain for what they do now about The Purple One.

This rude awakening manifested as I shuttled three young men (two 17-year-olds and an 18-year-old) home one night. I always enjoy a moment to enlighten the youngins, so I asked them what they knew about Prince.

“Prince?!” exclaimed one.

“Ay, is he, y’know, funny?” asked another.

“What? Okay, well y’all have heard Purple Rain, right?” The three boys looked at each other and then at me with raised eyebrows and silly grins. “Remember at the Super Bowl last year, when my boy had the scarf on and it was raining while he was singing Purple Rain…how fly is that--”

My inquiry was met with stares and chuckles. I immediately sought out my personal Purple Compilation and selected arguably one of the greatest songs of all time, Purple Rain. With volume nearly full blast, we rode as I crooned the climax like an owl with soul (“Whooooo whoooooo whooooo whoooo!”) and they joked (“I can’t get with all this hollin’…”).

While we had a good laugh that night, for the first time, I felt what my parents and elders must have felt when we flaunted our ignorance about the elements of Earth, Wind, and Fire, the harmony of The Temptations, and the unmatched flair of James Brown. “You don’t know nothin’ bout that!” they exclaimed. Yet beneath their playful teasing there dwelled a wish tinged with desperation. A wish that someday we’d break free of pop culture, countdown shows, and radio to discover the melodies that paved the way.

But is it really so bad to stick to what you know?

“If all you can talk about is Lil’ Wayne, lil’ Weezy, and all those other little rappers, that’s going to be your world,” said Brett, a friend and jazz enthusiast. Brett, who has played drums and trumpet for several years, stresses that his broad musical interests have initiated bonds with people of different backgrounds in a variety of settings. As a college student at Duke University, he gained much respect from fellow white students for being well versed in the likes of Led Zeppelin and others.

Like other folks I asked about the subject, Brett also mentioned the fact that most successful music producers engage in a variety of musical genres. “The consumers listen to what they want; the people that create the music listen to everything.” On any given episode of MTV Cribs, top artists show off music collections featuring rock, old school, and alternative.

At the risk of sounding like an after school program, diversity in musical interests builds character. It makes you interesting. Similar to a diet, if all you eat is any one thing, you wind up unbalanced. Some of my young family members are forbidden the freedom to listen to secular music. As much as I adore gospel, I don’t see how every other genre of music can be justifiably ignored. At the very least, history and culture are embodied in the rhythms of music.

I’m not saying you have to dig every type of music, just as no one digs every type of food. But it doesn’t hurt to try something outside your norm, or at the very least, know about it. What’s worse is claiming you don’t like something you know nothing about. I have more respect for the person who gives something an honest chance and decides it’s not their cup of Kool-Aid, than the one who’s closed off from the jump.

I practice what I preach. I’ve been curious about jazz, the last couple of years, and more recently the blues. I bought an Etta James compilation and borrowed a few legends from the library: Son House, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, and Miles Davis. I’ve made an amazing discovery in the process…can’t nothing scratch the blues like the blues.

Seeking knowledge---whether it is in music, art, literature, or whatever-- is a sign of actively elevating your life. As children, we’re told what to do and what to listen to and enjoy by parents, friends, radio, and pop charts. Many people continue in that vein into adulthood, listening to what they always listened to, liking what they always liked. I pity the fool! This is the time when education is the most rewarding, when learning is not for the sake of a grade, but for the enrichment of character.

I have my Aunt Bess to thank for turning me on to Prince when I was a teenager. I’ve since encountered friends that continue to lighten my ignorance of melodies new and old. In turn, I pass the torch, encouraging others to join in the challenge to climb out of our boxes, release the shackles, and open our ears.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

This Friendship Will Expire in 90 Days

“You know I got love for you, man!” I said.

“Yeah, you say that but you don’t show it,” Phil* said. “You don’t even call me.”

My friend's allegation confused me. After all, I had just talked to him a little while back…just the other--well, actually…ummm…okay, it had been five months. Still, I couldn’t understand his attitude.

Apparently Phil (and many folks for that matter) believes there’s a correlation between how much you call and how much you care.

I’ll be the first to admit that my follow-up skills suck at best and Phil is not the first person to rip me a new one about it. Yet we all have friends we don’t keep up with on the regular. It doesn’t mean we don't care about them.

There are a number of variables to consider when it comes to the fluctuations of communication and friendship. One is just…life, responsibilities. I’ve got business! The older you get, the more things vie for your attention--career, higher education, health, finances, spirituality, and so on.

Another factor is the natural communication pattern. If I talk to Lisa once a week and Paul once a year, that’s just how the natural pattern plays out for each individual. It doesn’t mean I care about Paul any less. Actually, if Paul started calling weekly, it probably wouldn’t even feel right. Communication between friends often dwindles after a move. We naturally talk more to the folks we see all the time. Other circumstances, like marriage and kids all alter the dynamics of how we interact.

Then there are different communication styles. Some people require daily friend interaction--The Phone Fanatic--always on the phone, always online, always rockin' the earpiece. When The Fanatics aren't on the phone they wonder, “Who can I call?” These people receive undue props on the friendship tip. Most of the time, they’re not calling because they care. They’re calling because they’re bored.

On the other extreme, you have folks like me without a house phone and 200 daytime cell phone minutes that rarely run over. My friendship style is laid back--laissez faire, if you will. I’ll check on you periodically (depending on our pattern). Otherwise, if you need me, call me. I don't spend a lot of time "shooting the breeze." Some people want that in a friend and feel let down when I don't provide it. My outlook is this: if your car breaks down, I got you. Something on your mind? I got you. Sick? I got you. Need to vent? I got you. But if you just ain't got anything better to do, holla at The Fanatic.

If a friend assumes a lower profile in my life or vice versa, it’s nothing to be mad at. There was a time when Phil and I talked every day, but the nature of our relationship is different now. I don't expect a person to stay tight with me just because we once were. If we do, gravy. If not, that’s okay too. Lack of communication doesn't make us enemies.

I love and care about my friends. It shows in the core attributes they can count on forever--trust, acceptance, loyalty. No matter how infrequent the communication, these qualities don’t change. Not after a week, a year, or a decade.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Plight of the Career Student in the School of Hard Knocks

An old buddy named Chris skipped across my mind recently and I decided to give him a call. The conversation went like this:

“How you been?” I ask cheerfully.

Pause. “Well…”

Chris quickly gains momentum and spews an hour-long diatribe laced with an unexpected move, lost job, and lack of anyone around that gives a damn. In other words, he isn’t doing well at all.


My side of the conversation is speckled with “uh huh” and “wow” and “aw man, that’s crazy.” I give the same advice I gave before, offer the same promise to keep him in my prayers, and tell him it’ll work out.

I hang up, drained, but not surprised. This is how it is for Chris. This is how it's been for Chris.

See, many if not most of us experience rough “patches.” These patches last a couple weeks, maybe even a couple months. Some folks have a bad year or two. But most of the time, by the grace of God, we’re okay. More sunshine than rain.

Then there are folks like Chris whose rough patches have evolved and spread into everyday existence. Rough patch becomes rough life, the kind of life where good comes in patches.

These are the career students in the School of Hard Knocks.

I'm not talking about the downtrodden poor people that either starve or resort to panhandling, folks that ain’t been right since ‘Nam, or families who’ve faced bankruptcy or disaster. The students at SOHK aren’t homeless. Shoot, they probably have cable and iPods. Nor will regular “brokeness” grant you admission either. No, I'm talking about that person that everyone knows who can never get their act together; they’re always going through it, teetering on the edge of the ravine that ends at Rock Bottom.

All students at SOHK possess three core attributes. The first is the job hoppin.’ Chris runs through jobs like Eddie Murphy runs through marriages. Yet, the most ironic thing about SOHK students is that they’re not lazy! They don’t mind long hours or physical labor; they’ll even juggle two or three jobs at a time, and a side hustle. But they wind up quitting or being fired before they can dig themselves out of the rut.

Secondly, like Papa and Mick Jagger, these folks are rolling stones. They tend to move around. Whether chasing cheaper rent, greener grass, or childhood dreams, you can’t send a Christmas card without checking to make sure the address is still valid.

The number one requirement for admission to the School of Hard Knocks is longevity. Think about it: the people you know who attend SOHK have been enrolled for as long as you can remember. The same goes for Chris. When we met over ten years ago he was down and out and unfortunately, little has changed.

I'm not saying all of this to mock those who are down on their luck, but isn't the phrase itself one that suggests a temporary condition? Can you really be down on your luck for 5, 10, 20 years? At the risk of sounding Cosbyan, at some point, people have to be honest about their contribution to a chronically unstable condition.

See, the individualized curriculum at SOHK doesn’t change. Students are given the same tests year after year, paycheck after paycheck, until they pass. “Since lessons are repeated until learned, and sense you cannot learn lessons until you are aware of them, it makes sense that you will need to cultivate awareness if you are to ever progress from where you are right now on your path,” says Dr. Cherie Carter-Scott, author of If Life is a Game These are the Rules.

Carter-Scott's assessment is true for all lessons in life, whether it be in love, finances, jobs, etc. But for the career student at SOHK, it's difficult for any aspect of life to fall into place while still enrolled. So until Chris reaches that point, he’ll continue working on his PhD at the School of Hard Knocks.