The ‘Maybe’ Box

A trip to the dentist today, such fun!  What started as a routine check-up ended in some serious pain, numbing mouthwash, needles, and laughing gas.  While I lay in the tan, plastic-covered dentist chair sucking in as much nitrous oxide as I could without passing out, my mind began its usual wandering.  The hygienist was just over my right shoulder, no doubt sharping the array of pointy, metal, slash-y so-called “instruments” she planned on jamming into my mouth, while I thought about my childhood and how dentist visits were never so scary or full of Medieval torture devices.  I remembered the first time I ever had a serious visit to the dentist; 6th grade, after moving back to Texas from Germany.  And that’s when it hit me–an idea I had in my head after a conversation with a friend of mine suddenly started to make more sense, as I closed my eyes and went deeper into the memory, drowning out the sound of the whirring drill with vivid images.  I started to answer the question that I had been bouncing around in my head: why are some choices so hard to make, and sometimes, even the choice to make a choice?

“Do you like me? Check ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘maybe’.”  That was the note I got in 6th grade from Charlotte, in my last period class on some random Friday in Copperas Cove, Texas.  I can very clearly recall staring down at the note and not wanting to look up, knowing that her eyes were burning a hole in the top of my head, searching for an answer.  I couldn’t say yes; she was just a friend.  But I couldn’t say no; how could I hurt someone who did I like and thought was a sweet, giving person?  I picked up my pencil and carefully checked the ‘maybe’ box.  Almost the instant I did it, I felt lighter, as if a 10 ton weight had been taken off my shoulders.  I had no idea the many problems that came with that ‘maybe’, and that they would end up being a much heavier burden to bear than making a more definitive decision.

Being in relationship limbo sometimes seems like the best thing to do.  Why hurt someone that you care for, even if it’s not a romantic caring?  Why not just ride it out in that void, that strange middle-ground between lover and friend?  I mean, it’s so much easier than making an actual decision!  That’s what I told myself for years after that one moment in 6th grade, and somehow, like the over-achiever I am, I managed to apply this principle to every aspect of my life.  Whenever I needed to make a major decision, I would just check the ‘maybe’ box and put it on hold.  It seems like a great idea at first, but as all the life decisions that are on hold begin to pile up, things get overwhelming, and suddenly there are 20 giant decisions to make at the exact same time, instead of just one.

So I made a choice a few years ago; I chose to stop being stagnant in my life, to step out of the habit of choosing the ‘maybe’ box.  It wasn’t easy, and it is still a constant choice, and one that I don’t consistently make–I still find myself holding out on certain difficult decisions when it’s in my best interest to act immediately.  I can say, however, that I make the greatest effort to.  Quite often, that means me checking the ‘no’ box–no, I won’t start that Master’s program; nope, think I’ll pass on that wacky business venture proposed by my old college buddy in Florida; sorry, I’d rather not spend time with people that are a cancer in my life, good luck with that on your own!  I think the hard part is dealing with the unpopularity that sometimes goes along with those choices.  Playing the role of Mr. Onthefence is so easy, so innocuous.  It isn’t even participating in life, it’s like being a satellite orbiting the lives of all the active players.  I know that being on the line has its time and place…but I think it’s important to avoid making that the comfort zone you live in.  Am I in the minority with that thinking?

Okay, that’s my final attempt at thoughtfulness for the week.  I think now I’ll pop another handful of ibuprofen to preempt the pain that is no doubt on its way after spending two hours listening to Jimmy Buffet on the dentist office overhead speakers, praying in vain for them not to play “Cheeseburger in Paradise”.  If I hear one more steel drum…


Learning to Smile

Nothing like being surrounded by amazing artists to wrap up a great night, right?  That was me a few days ago, listening to great music, talking to some friends, and having a PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, for you snobs out there) when I noticed a woman sitting down next to me; she was tan, boy-cut hair, stylish glasses, louder than anyone in the band, and a smart-ass grin on her face–clearly, my type of woman.  She was preparing to take a shot of tequila with a beer back while I was preparing a clever comment, probably something about how I love a woman who starts out her night with Patron, I can’t remember now.  We ended up engaging in conversation the rest of the night though, and before I knew it, we were outside and she was staring me in the face with those drunken eyes, like buoys bobbing aimlessly in the sea, starting out a sentence with the infamous “don’t be offended, but”…I live for that sentence.

“What is it about you? There’s something really weird, I mean, you aren’t like normal black guys. You smile so much and your face is so ‘expressionate’, what’s the deal with that?”  Several thoughts ran through my head at that moment: should I have just taken the drunken rambling of this former heroin addict for exactly what it was–the drunken rambling of a former heroin addict?  Or should I have taken it personally and meditated on it the next day?  Well…obviously, the latter response is more in line with my character–I am so “expressionate”, after all.  But seriously, it made me ponder one of the more irritating stereotypes of black males that seems to have gained prominence in the last 25 years or so.

It is clear if you look at any Rollingstone magazine with a rapper on the cover–black males are not supposed to smile.  In fact, we are supposed to be stone-faced, silent, statuesque, even frowning, long before we smile.  There’s even a term for it; ‘mean-mug’.  I’m serious, that’s an actual term, as ridiculous as it sounds! So because of this false standard, there’s something ‘off’ about a black male smiling at a stranger and showing more emotions that just anger, something more involved than intimidation.  This is what we’ve come to, My Fellow Members of Society; rejoice at our progress!

Joking aside, it’s alarming to me that this trait of feigned aggression or complete lack of emotion is encouraged and even celebrated by mainstream media.  It’s not just in African American culture, I realize that, but that is certainly where it is most evident.  As a black man, I can’t help but be offended when not only does the media force this stereotype on me, but I’m actually questioned for not conforming to it on a night out.

How did this stereotype even develop?  I suppose it came from a combination of things: oppression and fear finally being met with an equal amount of aggression and bitterness, a non-verbal “I’ve been screwed with for a long time, so you need to realize that you can never mess with me again” response from some members of a minority group.  I’m sure part of it has to do with what’s become of hip hop culture, how so-called gangsta rap came into play and changed the complexion of things–it was dangerous, the rappers had all seen friends die on the street for letting their guards down, and had done what they had to for money.  The same cold, hard veneer they put up on the streets was now being translated to videos and magazine covers.  That was the new ‘cool’; baggy pants, a sideways hat, and a pissed off frown making it clear that the artist was not to be disrespected.

I can understand the synthesis of it.  What I hate though, is that it is still perpetuated.  A rapper who is worth hundreds of millions of dollars will still put on his angriest face when photographed.  I’m willing to wager that he and all his family are doing quite well now, and there’s really nothing left of the ‘hood in his life except memories and the occasional phone call–and even if he does feel some need to stay close to those roots, he has the means to help improve conditions there.  Mos Def smiles all the time.  Black Thought of the group The Roots smiles, Questlove from the same group smiles–but these aren’t the figures in hip hop that we see on the magazine covers.  Expression is a huge part of traditional African American culture.  Take a look at the Harlem Renaissance for one very small example.  We laugh, cry, mourn, celebrate, well would you look at that?  I think of Data from the Startrek series–”I am fully capable of simulating human emotion.”  Imagine that; now let’s put that imagine in the media for everyone to see!

I don’t buy into the need to put up a front for the world.  I’m happy.  I have my health.  I’m not rich, but I can take care of myself and my friends when they need it.  Have I seen tragedies?  Sadly, yes.  Suffered at all?  As sure as I sit here.  But in general, things are good.  I’m breathing.  I can turn to a total stranger and smile and strike up and awkward conversation that leads to me writing a blog about it.  I really do hope that the next stranger I meet and talk with, laugh with, stand in front of with an open posture, will respond in kind, not with a look of consternation.  I feel like the Dodo during its species’ last stand on this planet, like some rare, antiquated thing that people look at and think “Jesus, how did that survive?”  Hey, Crazy Girl from the bar–there are plenty of black guys who smile and laugh and do all sorts of things other than frown.  Quit buying every stereotype you’re sold.

Any thoughts?


Music Therapy….

So, this past year hasn’t been the easiest one for me, for any number of reasons.  Since this blog isn’t in the ’self-help’ or ‘depression’ section of the internet library, I’ll spare you all the gory details.  Basically, for the last 10 months, me sitting at home alone for more than two days in a row, equals disaster.  I’m talking about drinking way too much Jameson whiskey and listening to “In Too Deep” by the terrible imitation of Genesis that Phil Collins headed, over and over again until I end up in a drunken heap on the couch.  Classy, I know.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the value of music, how it can heal even in its most casual forms, especially in tandem with companionship.  I spent the night with a few friends at a local spot in the Fair Park area of Dallas that happens to have an amazing jazz night.  Have an instrument, talent, and want to sit in?  Sure, come on up!  It’s the type of place that is infectious in its mood; everyone there is affected by the music, the warmth and the intricacies of the various parts that connect to form a song.  Everything in that bar is soothing, knit, macrame’, soft, enveloping.  Physical touch, pure and simple in its ability to heal, is the currency there.  Except for at the bar.  Money is still the currency at the bar (the bartenders don’t like it when you try to pay in hugs–trust me).  Oh well.

I sat listening to the music, letting the infectious smiles on the faces of the musicians spark my own.  This is the kind of therapy I can get behind–no psychoanalyst’s couch like in a classic Freudian cliche’.  Just fingers on keys, rim-shots, the vibrations of a reed, the crooning of a honeyed voice.  Sigh…and they only play until 1:45am??

I’m going to need more whiskey.  Clearly.