This episode of Life in HD continues with Carol Barbour’s story of turmoil and abuse of power. Her tumultuous year in DC public schools ended with her school being closed and no new administrative assignment. She picks up the pieces and gets a fresh start in North Carolina only to return to PG County where her career began. But PG County offered nothing but barriers to entry. This episode explores how a woman, when faced with daunting obstacles, refused to give up and reclaimed control of her life.
Recently I decided to take a break from science fiction reading to delve into Ta-Nehisi Coates’ thought provoking book, Between The World and Me. I fully expected to be treated to a unique perspective on the multitude of complex issues that face my hometown. I least expected to be completely confronted with my own past experiences.
If you haven’t read it, and you really should, Coates starts his book with a letter to his son that is powerful, personal, and alarming. He warns his son of the dangers of being a black man in America and the ever present threat to the fragile human body.
Coates weaves poetic truths in the telling of his own personal story including detailed experiences very similar to my own. So many similarities that the lines separating our two lives began to blur as I read on. He speaks to the perilous navigation of Baltimore streets, PG county cops, and social constructs of New York City.
My own story is also rooted in fear. I learned to live in fear early on as a child growing up in the Cherry Hill section of Baltimore, MD. If an arrow lodged in my right shoulder blade, as described in my previous post, The First Time I Almost Died, didn’t teach me about the fragility of the human body, then watching two teenage girls’ hand-to-hand combat tete-a-tete quickly turn to knife wielding and stabbing certainly did. That was the first time that I saw significant amounts of somebody else’s blood. And there were plenty of other occasions to learn that lesson.
One triple H (Hazy, Hot, and Humid) day on the playground of my old elementary school Dickey Hill, I sat on the sideline of the basketball court watching the older high school boys hoop, shirtless and sweaty. Afros flopping with every shot and rebound. I waited patiently for the heat to chase them away so I could have a chance to improve my game. They were so much better than me and I wanted to run and gun with the big boys one day.
It was hot and I thought about giving up my hoop dreams for the apartment complex swimming pool. The game drew close to ending and the familiar cry of “who go next?” rang out. “Who got next”, as in who is next in line to challenge the winning team, almost always invited discrepancies. This day was no different.
The teams generally split between neighborhoods; my Wakefield Apartments vs kids from the notorious Forest Heights. Wakefield put claims on “Next” and Forest Heights disputed. These two neighborhoods, separated by Windsor Mill Rd and the sports fields in Leakin Park, were forever at odds with one another. Constantly disputing over everything with one central question to be answered – who was tougher.
Wakefield’s claims on “Next” did not sit well with two brothers from Forest Heights. The younger of the two staked his claim on the game after having just arrived to the court. Everyone knew that his declaration was without merit and so predictably the “us” vs “them” forces began on a collision course. First came heated words without reason followed by shoving and punches thrown between the younger of the two brothers and my fellow Wakefielder; a Cherry Hill transplant like myself.
The older of the two brothers watched with content as his younger brother sought to handle business. But he loss ground. He was the smaller of the two contenders and didn’t take kindly to his public embarrassment. So he reached into a Crown Royal whiskey bag and withdrew a .22 caliber pistol, aimed, and fired two shots at his scrambling challenger. Most on the playground broke in different directions or hit the ground seeking cover. I froze like a fawn playing a game of “you can’t see me” with a hunter. Heart pounding and ready to wet myself, I realized that the shooter, not more than a few yards away, fired at his challenger who was running in my direction. The shooter then fled on foot back towards Forest Heights.
The stunned crowd began to move and there was again bustling activity. My fellow Wakefielder emerged from behind his parked blue Toyota Corolla to notice two bullet holes in the passenger door. He was pissed. I, too my surprise, had not yet wet my pants, but the day wasn’t over. “Tell your brother when I see him I’m going to fuck him up”, he says to the older sibling whose “Oh, really?” response brought about a collective “oh shit” moment from the rest of us onlookers. He too reached into a bag and withdrew a handgun and began firing at a now moving blue Toyota Corolla. It was at this point that I detected moisture in my underwear.
Later that day I examined the bullet holes in the car. The bullets created two round holes surrounded by dented metal and chipped paint. I imagined what it might have looked like if those lead slugs tore threw my skin and flesh and perhaps hit bone. I was fascinated by the damage and ran my fingers over the holes in the car and then over my own torso.
My youth was full of narrow escapes. Moments when I could have been damaged severely or permanently. At times, like Ta-Nehisi, I lived in fear every time I left my house. Never afraid of one-on-one encounters. I never shied away from a fair fight. Being jumped by multiple people or defending myself against weapons that could tear my flesh is what created angst. During what seemed like a weeks-long period in middle school, I watched as a group of boys chose random victims on the bus and beat them mercilessly and for no apparent reason other than to terrorize. One boy that I hung out with from time to time was victimized. Beaten bloody. Busted lip, bloodied nose, swollen eye with contusions. He was no small boy. He stood tall and wiry with lengthy arms to his advantage. But he was not match for 5 boys hell bent on terror.
Each day that I boarded the bus, I feared that my ticket would get pulled next. That I would find myself scrapping for my life. That I’d arrive at school like Kenny did; ugly and battered. Humiliated as the bus driver and riders stared out of windows as if nothing was happening. I was lucky. My number never came up but the fear remained for a while.
One truism that I learned from the character Walter Lee Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is that the world is made up of takers and those that get took. Even as a boy I knew that there existed in my world those who would plunder. Those who would take your belongings, your money, even your health and dignity. It’s a hell of a thing when you become conscious of your own fragility and vulnerability. Impacts you in ways that you cannot fully comprehend. The funny thing is, we moved from what was at the time a hostile Cherry Hill neighborhood to one that we thought was safer in Wakefield. The fact of the matter is when you are economically vulnerable, there aren’t many safe places to retreat.
Without doubt, these experience have impacted me in profound ways. Contributed to defense mechanisms manifested in hot tempered, guarded behavior. Always ready to push back on those who would take from me, threaten me or my family; a punch first and reason later strategy. Strike with words and fists. But never plunder others.
Yes, Coates book is a stark reminder of a life, my life, of fragility and survival.
I am trapped inside a fishbowl which, in turn, is trapped inside a snow globe. Before moving to the Syracuse, NY area some 25 years ago, I never considered myself a son of “the south”. Having been born and raised in Baltimore, MD, we considered ourselves as a north-southern city if there is such a thing. But southern is now how I see myself. The further north I go, the more southern I become.
Winter is traditionally a tough time for me. I was a child of the outdoors, an explorer, experimenter, and a menace. During the calendar’s coldest month of January, the average high temperature in Baltimore is 41 degrees Fahrenheit. In Syracuse the average high is 32 degrees. When you add windchill and lake effect snow on top of that, the affects of winter are a harsher assault on my genetic code. And these winters are long. Much longer than my soul can bear.
“Take up skiing,” they say. “Try ice skating or snowshoeing,” recommend others. For a Star Child born in May who believes the Universe’s greatest gift to mankind is the summer sun, you might as well suggest I swim with alligators. I remain obdurate in my refusal to embrace wonderland.
The deep cold of winter here has a profound affect on my psyche. It’s pretty enough; the snow that is. Postcard pretty even. But a 1 degree morning like this very morning in January is as equally disabling as it is beautiful. The near back-breaking snow shoveling and frozen limbs limit my exposure to 20 minuets of outdoor time. Enough time to shovel a path for my short-legged dogs to handle their business and enough time to create a trail leading to the bird feeders to care for my winged, wild pets.
Crestfallen with each snowflake settling on the ground, I’ve come to accept that I suffer from more than just “cabin fever”. That it is, more clinically speaking, Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. I didn’t need to spend money on a shrink to come up with that one either. The associated symptoms of depression, social withdrawal, hopelessness, and fatigue align closely with my personal experience. The noticeable mood swings, the desire to opt out of holidays, the crawling out of bed when I’d rather stay hidden beneath the blanket all point to SAD. And the only thing guaranteed to bring me true joy is a sunny day with temps above 70. The kind of day that I can wander about, soaking in views, receiving all that my environment has to offer. A seat on a park bench. A songbird composing notes. Wind rustling leaves. A walk around the lake. These are spirit lifting experiences for me.
Treatment options for SAD include exercise (it helps a bit); medications (which I refuse); and therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy chronotherapy, and light therapy (none of which soothes my inner skeptic). Instead I chose a far more expensive treatment option. My wife Angela and I purchased a ocean-side condo in Florida. And while the holiday spent there this year was nothing short of magical, here I sit in Syracuse in January on a 1 degree day lamenting winter.
I plan to hit the gym at some point today for a pick-me-up, watch a soccer match later for mid-day entertainment, and begin planning for my next 2 therapy sessions in Florida this coming March and April. All in an effort to devise a plan to survive my 25th winter in the Winterfell of North America.
There is no real purpose to this post other than for me to finally, after 25 years, give voice to my sadness and acknowledge my difficulties.
My wife is inviting me now to get a manicure and pedicure and, at this point, I’m willing to try something new. If you also suffer from SAD and have words of wisdom to share, I’m all ears.
Surveying the room with dread. Identifying traps and looking for opportunities. Safe zones in the corners. Land mines around the bar. I walk smiling and nodding. Looking for a hack. Crtl + Alt + Del. I need a reboot. Intercepted by man. I recognize him from the elevator ride up. “Wamp Wamp Waa”. He sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher. I nod, feigning amusement. I chuckle with a sound I’ve been perfecting for years for these very moments. Another man touches his shoulder. Crtl + Alt + Del. Esc Esc. Just the hack I need to exit. Dipping in and out of uncomfortable spaces. Crtl + Alt + Del. Esc Esc. Made it to the bar. I sip bad wine and pretend it’s good. “Wamp Wamp Waa”. He found me using the same network pathway. We are joined by a woman. Small talk ensues. The man remarks on the extraordinary beauty of a young woman entangle in conversation among a pod of people next to us. He gives a foreboding glance and I wonder if he is conscious of #MeToo. “Wamp Wamp Waa”, they say to me. Reciprocity is expected. Crtl + Alt + Del. I need to hack this conversation. Esc Esc. A familiar face peers in my direction from a different pod of people and I make my way. Crtl + Alt + Del Dipping in and out of uncomfortable spaces. In familiar face, I’ve found a safe zone. Small talk ensues and again I am trapped.
Circuiting the room like a signal with no receiver. Page loading indicator just churning. That’s me in most social situations. Socially awkward as fuck. Conferences, fundraisers, meetings, it doesn’t matter. I tend to view the world through economic lenses. Inputs vs outputs. Risk vs reward. Investments vs returns. Gains vs losses. Over time, I have determined that the amount of energy expended during “small talk” is not worth the return on investment. For me…small talk is exhausting. I now know what the weather is like outside. The amount of traffic you traversed to get here. Your child’s school district. What’s my gain?
If nothing else, I am self-aware. I recognize this character deficiency. And I recognize the benefits of social capital. Yet still, social gatherings without my “wingwoman” are soul-crushing events without measurable personal benefit. This will come as a bit of a surprise for those who know me through my social media persona. The gregarious, opinionated person from Facebook is simply a personality construct for social media. A bit of personal branding if you will. The truth of the matter is that I am most comfortable sitting in a recliner with a glass of red wine reading a book or watching Netflix. Or getting caught up on the days events with my wife.
But I’m trying, friends. I’ve committed to getting out more in hopes of developing a set of skills that will help me survive social events. But the struggle is real.
The weather “Wamp Wamp Waa”. “How are things”? “What do you do”? Crtl + Alt + Del. Esc Esc….
It wasn’t long after I arrived on the campus of Syracuse University as the newly appointed Program Director for the University’s public radio station that I received a highly anticipated telephone call from my hometown of Baltimore, MD. The voice on the other end of the line informed me that my submission to the annual WMAR TV Arena Players Black History Month new playwright contest was selected as the winning script. The screams of excitement were heard throughout the studios and offices I assure you.
You see, there was a time when I fancied myself a writer. I had dreams of creating great works of poetry and fiction. Maybe even becoming a screenwriter. My best bud, Sean Yoes, and I would put a pen to paper transferring thought to pad as we itched to create the next great work. We’d hit the open mics and spin tales of urban woe; oppressed warriors shaking the shackles of modern slavery; and even tales of love and lust. In truth, our shit might have stunk, but we couldn’t smell it. Creativity was our drug and the Jones kicked in every day.
You should have seen us two knuckleheads from Walbrook High fumbling around the Mid-Atlantic Writer’s Conference back in the late 80’s. It was a conference full of academia and professional writers. We were the second coming of Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen. The Harlem Renaissance would be reborn in us on that day…or so we thought.
The conference concluded and our resolve strengthened. We had dreams. Dreams of being writers. Dreams of being film makers. We would be integral parts of the creative class come hell or high water.
During that period, a local television station sponsored an annual contest for up and coming playwrights. The station, WMAR TV, partnered with the Arena Players, a local African-American community theater organization, to host the contest in celebration of Black History Month. The chosen playwright would receive a $1,000 cash prize and his/her play would be produced by the Arena Players and aired in the Baltimore metropolitan area on WMAR TV. It was a big freaking deal.
Twice before I attempted to submit a competed script and twice I failed to realize a finished product. Writer’s block got the best of me as did a lack of technology.1992 was a different year. 1992 would be my year. I was arrogant enough to condemn prior contest winners to the dung heap. Yet, as arrogant and cocky as I was, I still needed permission from my new bride to buy a word processor. Handwriting a complete script proved to be daunting.
$500 is what I needed to prove myself worthy of the dream. It might as well have been $5,000. $500 was a lot for us to consider spending. Having just jumped the broom three years prior and adding a new addition to the family, every penny was needed for daily necessities. Yet there I stood before Angela Lee breaking down my simple plan – buy a $500 word processor on credit (a personal computer for us in the early 1990’s was unthinkable), write and submit the script, and win $1,000 for a net gain of $500.
It didn’t take much convincing. I could see the concern on her face but it quickly turned to a smile and a “yes”. Angela has always believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. Her confidence in me fueled my creativity as I banged away at the word processor keyboard. It’s why I continue to be in love with her today.
I submitted the script to WMAR TV and accepted a new job in Syracuse, NY simultaneously. So much was happening at the time and it was overwhelming.
Flanked by my bride and 1-year-old daughter, mother and mother-in-law, I stood in the crowded Arena Players theatre listening to the buzz around me, anticipating the moment that my work would come to life on stage. Announcements made, lights dimmed, and there it was; a cheap imitation of Zora Neale Hurston and influences of every Harlem Renaissance writer I had ever read appeared on stage. The work wasn’t very good; it was just unique enough to win. The actors breathed life into my play which, ironically, was about fulfilling dreams.
I was buoyed by my family and good friends like Sean Yoes and Tony Perkins. Yet despite the kind words and praise of the actors and theatre attendees, I knew as I stood there that the dream had come to an end. I held my squirming 1-year-old and looked at my beaming bride and knew that the work that was ahead of me was not as a dramaturg, but as a husband, a father, and a radio guy. And with no regrets.
I think about Hughes’ question all the time. What happens to a dream deferred? We all have dreams. Fruition is the end game for all but only the lucky few get to see their biggest dreams unfold on the grand stage. For the rest of us, those dreams go through a metamorphosis of sorts. It doesn’t have to dry up or fester like a sore. And it needn’t sag like a heavy load. A dream deferred merely becomes a different dream and the dreaming itself is what sustains and drives us, isn’t it? Today my dreams are simpler and they change from day-to-day; but always centered around my girls.
My friend Sean parlayed his dream of becoming a writer into a career as a journalist. Between the two of us, he was the far more talented scribe. As for me, I just needed some sort of creative outlet. My dreaming is never-ending. There is no tragedy in unfulfilled dreams. Tragedy exist when we stop dreaming altogether.
My mind has been so preoccupied lately that I almost forgot that I am celebrating a milestone birthday in just a matter of days. That is until a couple of friends reminded me by e-mail today and one of them thoughtfully welcomed me to the “old farts club”. For that minor transgression, I am making them buy me lunch.
The reminder triggered self-reflection and questions of goals and accomplishments. Am I the man that I set out to be? Is there still time to transform? Do I even care at this point?
The caption in this art work reads “It does not matter how others see you. But it is important how you see yourself.” I strongly disagree with that sentiment.
Dear friends, we spend a good deal of time and effort creating our personal brands whether consciously or unconsciously. And while we think we know how we are being perceived, we don’t have the faintest idea how we are coming across to others. Studies show only a minor correlation between how you think your viewed and how others view you. For example, you might think that you are engaging and gregarious in public situations. But if people tend to shy away from you at conference gathering, they could find you boring or stand-offish. If people are shying away from you, their perception of you is closer to reality than your own. Why? Because numbers matter. Our individual encounters with one another may be distorted by bias or ego-centrism, but in aggregate the chance of coincidence is dramatically reduced.
My wife Angela often accuses me of having a “dark soul”. I certainly hope that is not how I am coming off to others. It certainly is not a part of my branding strategy. I am not a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty kind of fellow. I am closer to being a what’s-in-this-glass and why-this-particular-glass kind of guy.
I spend a good portion of my day analyzing data. Everything from audience ratings data, to web site analytics, to financial performance; the aggregated data gives as accurate a picture of performance as any. In that same spirit, I turned to friends and family to measure their perception of me against my own.
Based on individual one-word responses that describe me, I created 5 themed buckets to categorize what people think.
The fullest bucket was Attitude.
The Attitude bucket contains descriptors like candid; determined; opinionated; intense; and relentless. These can be both positive and/or negative and you’ll get no argument from me. The more colorful descriptors include “fierce”, assigned by Anne Messenger; former classmate Hillery Brown’s “whimsical”; and colleague and friend Ron Jones’ “Mackdaddy“. I literally LOL’ed on that one. I’ll admit that I give off plenty of attitude; both good and bad. No doubt partly resulting from my quick-tempered, irascible, and determined demeanor.
The second fullest bucket was Cultured. In the Cultured bucket you’ll find descriptors like fashionable; jazzy; debonair; worldly; and renaissance. I particularly appreciated former classmate Tina Tarrant’s “Metrosexual”; former classmate Sharon Faulcon-Harney’s “quintessential”; and my good friend Lisa Resper France’s “Bon Vivant”. Classy ladies…very classy. It’s true. I dig fine food, a good bottle of wine and a kick-ass pair of wingtip brogues.
The third ranked bucket was Intellect. Smart; intellectual; thinker; well-rounded; and informative were common themes. I enjoy learning and sharing information. It is important to work for continuous improvement. And while my wife Angela often says that my head is “full of useless information”, the act of discovery is an enjoyable part of life for me. I appreciated my friend Jay Washington’s comment, “I actually look for your post and enjoy interacting with you.” Likewise brother!
Bucket number 4 was the Values bucket. Former WAER student Jim Patry claimed I was “fatherly” which made me feel real old. Others said caring; supportive; familial; grateful; profound; and dedicated. My favorite response was from my 15-year-old daughter, Hadiya, who described me as “devoted”. I almost teared up on that one.
The 5th and final bucket I called Physical. Strong, manly and handsome represented the few sparse crumbs of accolades for my “old fart” physical being. Though Jen Bailey Robb referred to me as “eye candy” and that was the highlight of this exercise.
So how did our views of me align? There was some agreement and some disconnects. In my view of myself and how I present through word and action, I would have thought Cultured would have topped the list. It was a very close second so, in that sense, we were pretty aligned. The disconnect, however, in our views of me is apparent in the high aggregation of Attitude descriptors and the relatively low consensus on Intellect. I’ll refrain from telling you all to kiss my ass for fear that I’ll be accused of giving off too much attitude. While I don’t consider myself an intellectual in either professional discipline or high academic achievement, I do highly value intellectual pursuit, intellectual conversation and the need to question everything. I am, after all, a public radio professional.
When it comes to your personal brand or reputation, it’s not about how you view yourself. What matters is how the world sees you. As I draw closer to crossing the 50 yard line, I am comfortable with how the world sees me. But I still have some work to do.
ManUp has gone all audioish on you. Feel free to read the text version below or enjoy the audio version of this edition of The Making of a Miscreant by hitting the play button.
My name is Joseph Bradley Lee. My friends and family call me Joey. Professional associates call me Joe. There was a time in 1972 that I hated the name Joseph. I wasn’t particularly bothered by Joseph because most people called me Joey. It was a different story, though, when school was in session.
In 1972 I was a second grader at Carter G. Woodson elementary school in the Cherry Hill section of Baltimore, MD. Cherry Hill was a mostly African-American community. In fact, if there were any non-black students at Carter G. Woodson, I never saw them. Cherry Hill was a tough neighborhood; a nurturing neighborhood; and to a degree an isolated neighborhood. And unlike any other place I have ever lived, the black folk in Cherry Hill frequently butchered the name Joseph.
“Mrs Richardson, Jozup cut in line”! “Mrs Richardson, Jozup pushed me”! Mrs Richardson, Jozup is chewing gum”! Jozup, Jozup, Jozup! The “seph” in Joseph seemed to allude the students at Carter G. Woodson. Occasionally, a teacher or two would duplicate the error in pronunciation. It was nonsensical to me. Joseph wasn’t a difficult name at all, yet no one managed to get it right.
I was so fed up with Jozup, that on one particular spring day after school I literally kicked a can up and down the street as I contemplated a name change. I sat curb side on Seabury Rd trying to figure out how to break the news to Mama Lee. I poked at a line of marching ants on their way to investigate a crumb of potato chip. A clear indication of transference of energy; my bad energy to the ants and the ants in search of something to attack.
After a few moments of pissing off the ants, a fellow classmate joined me curbside. His name was Philip. Philip wanted to talk about how Mrs Richardson swatted Byron Barnes with a yard stick because he was talking in class. Yes, the teachers, and I use that term loosely, were allowed to inflict physical punishment on us students at Carter G. Woodson elementary school. Byron was a nice kid, but trouble always seemed to find him. He also had a mouth full of the tiniest, blackest teeth you ever did see. We chuckled about that too.
After a while, Philip headed home and so did I. I was determined to have a chat with Mama Lee about the name situation so, once home, I helped myself to a bowl of cereal and turned the TV on to Leave It To Beaver and awaited mama’s arrival from work.
“I don’t like my name,” I got around to blurting out. Mama Lee wanted to know why. “I don’t like the way people say Jozup,” my reply. “Well tell them to call you Joey,” Mama Lee said with a “boy get out of my face with that silly shit” look. “I tried but they don’t listen,” my frustrated response. Then came the litany of predictable justifications, “It’s a biblical name”, “it’s your father’s name”, “it’s a strong name.” Her mouth moved plenty, but all that came out of it was Jozup, Jozup, Jozup. Then came a question that I surprisingly hadn’t anticipated, “What name do you want then?” she asked. Up to that point, I gave no consideration to a replacement moniker. So I uttered…Philip. Mama’s face was twisted and her response…incredulous. “Philip! Why Philip?” I had no response and, in fact, felt like a silly child. I soon dropped my short-lived campaign for a name change. School would soon be out for summer recess and I’d return to be Joey.
The name game followed me for a good portion of my life. Teachers called me Joseph. Friends called me Joey. And in between…a variety of nicknames.
In Cherry Hill, I was White Hiney. “Hey White Hiney,” they’d yell. Evidence that we were the lightest skinned kids in the hood.
As a teenager, Mama Lee called me Poo Bear. In front of my friends no less.
When we moved from Cherry Hill to the Wakefield area on Baltimore’s west side, variations on a wolf theme emerged. Wolfboy, Wolfie, and Wolfpire became a new attempt at adolescent cruelty. Inspired by a short-lived TV show called Lucan which ran from 1977-1978, a few neighborhood kids called me Wolfboy because of my long hair. Lucan chronicled the life of a young man who, as a boy, was raised by a pack of wolves. I was the neighborhood Lucan.
The two moles on my neck that mimicked a vampire’s bite suggested to them that I was part wolf and part vampire, hence the Wolfpire reference. This didn’t bother me. Secretly, I loved the Lucan TV show and often fantasized about being raised by wolves.
During the same period, yet another nickname surfaced. It was Ugly. No, literally the nickname was Ugly. It was given to me by my adopted godfather, Johnny Miles. Johnny Miles was a shit-talking hipster from Marion South Carolina that took a shine to my adopted godmother, Mignon Ackerman. They would later marry and become influential figures (good and bad) in my life.
“Hey Ugly, come here,” he’d say with his raspy voice. Johnny was a big guy. Over six-foot tall and thick of body. Peeled right out of a Zora Neale Hurston novel, Johnny was as country as they came. Johnny was loud. You’d never not know he was in a room; and to watch a Washington Redskins game with him was intolerable.
“Let me holla at you Ugly,” he’d bellow. “Stop calling that boy Ugly, Johnny!” Mignon jumped to my defense. “What do you want me to call him? Cutie?” I was not a kid with a confidence deficiency. I knew I was attractive and I didn’t need the likes of Johnny Miles to validate it. Johnny adored me, as did Mignon. In many ways, I was as much their child as I was Frances Lee’s. After two weeks of protesting the name, Mignon finally fell in line with her beaux and she too called me Ugly. It was and is, to this day, my favorite nickname.
It doesn’t matter what people call you as long as you know who you are. I’m a Joey. Joey defines me. More so than Joe. And more so than Joseph. Joe is my professional moniker. It started with my first broadcast assignment. I’m Joe all day long. I now live in a town where I am only known as Joe. So when I hear my wife Angela’s beautiful voice call ‘Joey”, I’m transported home, to Baltimore, to my roots. It’s sweet and peaceful and loving, her voice. It provides a sense of place and reconnects me to me, Joe to Joey.
Do you have a favorite nickname to share? Perhaps one that you hated? Let me know in the comments section.
I don’t know if I woke up that morning with a plan or, like many boys, decided to turn found junk into opportunity. Or perhaps it was another kid’s idea. But the plan on a hot, sunny, summer’s day in the early 1970’s was to catch some frogs. Nothing at all unique about this endeavor for rural preteen boys, but for urban youth, it required a measure of planning and adventure.
2438 Seabury Rd in the Cherry Hill section of Baltimore, MD was home. It was my home. I lived in Section 8 housing but I didn’t know it at the time. A single mom and two boys living in an apartment on the right-hand side of the court, eventually moved to a townhouse over on the left. That court was our world and we did not often venture far beyond its borders except to cross the street to the elementary school playground and basketball court, or to the nearest corner store to buy penny candy. We all new each other. It was the kind of place, and a place in time, when the neighbors were empowered to discipline you. And the maintenance workers might toss a football around with you in between tasks.
On this day, though, we were going to catch us some frogs. But where? First things first. We needed a vessel for the frogs. My friend Keith, a brown, lanky kid with a small afro, and my brother’s friend, Tony who was a year or two older, joined me as I rummaged through neighbors hot garbage cans for frog storing containers. We emerged with plastic jugs and milk cartons that we, with ghetto ingenuity, transformed by cutting the tops off and creating handles using pieces of twine.
Now, where? Beyond the borders of the court and the elementary school, sat the Patapsco River which fed into Baltimore’s harbor. Good for catching crabs, not so much for frogs. Our attentions turned west to the train tracks.
Someone told someone who, in turn, told Keith that creeks and streams ran parallel to the tracks so we surmised that frogs must exist in the general vicinity. In tank-top, cut off shorts, Jack Purcells and pals in tow, I headed west for a couple of miles in search of amphibians. Along the way, Keith tells tales of strings of fireworks that dangle from passing trains. He tells us, “If we can hop the train without getting caught, we can snatch some firecrackers to take back home.” Even as an 8-year-old, that hardly seemed plausible. But what the hell, I was up for anything.
The tracks were rusty looking and raised above grade. They were surrounded with crushed stone on each side. To our delight, a stream ran along side a portion of the tracks, among a thin line of trees. Even at 8 years old, I had experience catching frogs. My grandparents bought a parcel of land in Carol County and I spent many a summer’s day catching frogs, snakes and turtles. So I lead the way. We filled our containers with water from the stream and set them on leveled ground.
Wading ankle-deep, hands held 6 inches or so apart, we moved slowly so as not to disturb the wildlife. Frogs sat along the bank of the stream, unsuspecting, warming their cold blood. Keith, too anxious, misses his first. He mutters a choice profanity or two. I snag my first. Then a second. The others join in with better success having watched a pro in action.
In the distance, we hear the clacking of train wheels on tracks drawing neigh. “Firecrackers”! Keith yells. The frogs that we managed to catch were put into the 3 containers and sat closer to the tracks. We waited patiently and grew excited as the train came into view. Keith told us to run along side the train and grab any rail or handle to pull ourselves up. I think Keith lied about the fireworks. I saw none. Still, hopping a moving train seemed fun and so we moved, like experienced hobos, to make our way on-board.
The train appeared to move slow on approach but seemed to gain steam as it was upon us. Clacking with rhythm. Clacking with purpose. And so were we. Moving alongside the train as fast as our little preteen legs could carry us. We three intrepid boys searched for something to grab onto. I trailed the other two and began to run out of steam. Keith and Tony kept trying in earnest. Laughing and running along side the cars, looking for something, anything to grab a hold of. Hands on knees, huffing and puffing, we three boys watched the train move on down the line. Victorious.
An overwhelming sense of relief washed over me. I was scared and afraid to admit it. Not afraid of getting on the train, but getting off of the train. Jumping off of a moving train was not something I even remotely wanted to attempt.
We made the long trek back to the frogs, failures as hobos. What seemed like miles of track was most likely a few hundred yards. Back at the site, the frogs were gone, containers smashed. Shocked and perplexed, we three boys stood there silent, speechless, and dumbfounded. Who would do such a thing? Who would ruin the perfect afternoon? It was such flapdoodle that we struggled to comprehend what might have transpired during the short time that we chased the train. One frog remained in my plastic milk container, smashed and bloodied. A sad and truculent act.
I watched Keith’s eyes as he spied a figure emerging from the tree line. A boy, much older than the three of us, carrying a hunter’s bow with bladed arrow. This older boy told us that he was looking for some “white dudes” that assaulted his father. I couldn’t help but wonder if this would-be hunter of white dudes was not himself the capricious, frog-murdering bastard that ruined my afternoon. But Tony and Keith were enchanted by the bow and arrow and did not share my suspicion. They had never seen and hunter’s bow and arrow up close. Neither had I for that matter.
“How far can that thing go?”, Keith chimed. “Really far”, answered the stranger. Now he had my interest and attention. “Let me see”, I added. “Shoot it up”, I pointed to the sky. The stranger, bow in left hand, motioned with his right, gesticulating that we give some clearance. He pointed the bow upward, pulled the string back to his ear, and loosed the arrow. It flew straight up, climbing until it was out of sight. We three boys stood, planted in the gravel, mouths wide open and eyes bulging out of our heads. The stranger’s faced turned from a look of accomplishment to having a real “oh shit” moment. “Run!”, the stranger yelled.
Without knowing the intricacies and particulars of the laws of gravity, even we three boys knew that what goes up, must come down. We scrambled. Nervous laughter echoed and gravel flew as we made our way to the tree line. My foot slipped and I landed on one knee. With a thud, the arrow landed in my back. Lodged into my right scapula.
I don’t know what was worse, the pain or the shock of being shot. Given all the wide open space, what were the odds that a single arrow shot into the air would find its way through my flesh and into bone? I fell face down in the gravel, arrow shaft sticking out of my back. Cowboys and Indians for real. The stranger panicked. He grabbed hold of the arrow with one hand and placed the other hand on my left shoulder. He yanked. He shouldn’t have done that. Every western movie you have ever seen said don’t yank the arrow. But he yanked. And he ran. I stood. And I bled.
Gash in the back and bleeding profusely I, with my friends, started the long trek back to Seabury Rd. The energy drained from me with every step. The sun grew hotter and my tank top began to stick to my skin as the blood coagulated. The boys were concerned but none of us had any idea how serious the situation had become.
Those of us over a certain age remember this multipurpose tool as an effective replacement for the worn and broken television knob. Yes children, televisions had knobs that were used to tune into different channels…all three or four of them. After a few years of twisting and turning the knob too and fro, the plastic slot that fit over the tuner stem would wear and/or crack, rendering the knob itself useless. Enter the handy set of pliers from dad’s tool box. The tool sat on the television stand at the ready when it was time to navigate from The Price Is Right to the day-time soap operas. I imagine those of you from families that could afford to replace the television did so in earnest. For others like my family, we used the pliers until the metal stem of the tuner itself wore down. The pliers, because of their multipurpose use, exist today. The television knob…not so much. It, as you know, was replaced by the remote control unit.
As far back as the late 1800’s, inventor Nikola Tesla described remote control technology in a U.S. Patent and Zenith Radio Corporation created the very first television remote in 1950. These disruptive innovators endeavored to solve problems and enhance comfort and convenience. Today, Panasonic has developed voice-activated televisions with facial recognition technology. Tomorrow remote controls will join the TV knobs in tech heaven.
Examples of innovation and useful disruption on various scales are all around us as models of how we can and should live our lives. A disruptive technology is one that displaces an established technology and shakes up the industry or a ground-breaking product that creates a completely new industry. Innovation is a new method, idea, product, transformation, metamorphosis, etc. This is all scale-able to the personal level.
Centuries ago man looked at the moon and said, “damn it, I want to go there”! And we did. That’s innovation and motivation on a large scale. As artists, creators, educators, leaders, managers and contributors, we should always endeavor for disruption and innovation. Unless your position in life requires obsequious service, you should push yourself, your craft or your organization toward transformation. Self-motivation is the time-proven cure for stagnation. Ensconced in comfortable positions, happy to collect a pay check or simply survive to the next day is a reality for many. Sameness can be as comfortable as an old fuzzy blanket. Comfortable yes, but not necessarily useful or healthy.
Motivation pushes us to achieve at higher levels, feel more fulfilled and improve overall quality of life. People who are self-motivated tend to be more organized and have more self-esteem and confidence. Be it intrinsic motivators like having fun, being interested or creating personal challenges; or extrinsic motivators like money, power or high marks, self-motivation can help you take control of many aspects of your life. Take a moment to take inventory of your life. If there is a way for you to be more useful to yourself, your employer, or your organization, do it.
The TV knob wishes it was still relevant. The TV knob wishes it could have found a way to be of continued service to manufacturers. The TV knob wishes it hadn’t just hung around and waited for the remote to replace it. Don’t be a TV knob. Get out there and shake shit up.
Self assessment is not new to us. We are asked to do it every year in the workplace. We turn to our bathroom scales when we want to measure weight loss goals. Bank statements reveal how well we reach our financial goals. But what about our performance as a parent? A spouse? What performance indicators do we turn to assess effectiveness in these areas?
I read a blog recently in which the writer described her father as an “OK father.” I couldn’t help but cringe at the thought of being a mediocre father or husband. I certainly do not aim for such distinction and so I asked myself, “How Am I Doing?” After significant contemplation (approximately 2 minutes) the answer was. “I’m doing a fantastic job”. That is generally how the self-assessment of annual performance in the workplace goes, right? Until the boss comes in with a different perspective. The disconnect becomes apparent and we are left wondering WTF!
It is those to whom we are responsible whose perspectives matter most. After all, their perception is their reality. So to effectively measure my performance as a father and a husband, I should definitely turn turn to my customer group — the wife and kids. Gulp!
I will need some assessment tools. A set of agreed upon criteria by which to measure my effectiveness. The results should give me an idea of “strengths” and “areas for improvement”.
In his book, The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting, Laurence Steinberg, PhD provides guidelines based on some of the top social science research which neatly serves as the criteria for my performance evaluation . I Gave the criteria to my daughters and asked them to score me on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being a “deadbeat” and 10 being worthy of “father of the year.” Here’s how I scored:
Am I a good role model? Average score – 10
Do I show enough love and affection? Average score – 9
Am I involved in your life? Average score – 9.5
Does my parenting keep pace with your development? Average score – 9
Do I establish and set rules? Average score – 9
Do I foster your independence? Average score – 8 [verbatim: “Not very independent. I’m spoiled.”]
Am I consistent? Average score – 9.5
Do I avoid harsh discipline? Average score – 10
Do I explain my rules and decisions? Average score – 9.5
Do I treat you with respect? Average score – 10 [verbatim: “A 10 even though you call me rude names”]
Not bad scores overall, but there is clear opportunity for me to help my girls become more independent…and avoid calling them rude names. That last one is going to be tough I will admit.
Now on to husbandry. I found a few articles after conducting a basic search, combined several attributes into one evaluation form, and delivered said form to Angela Lee:
Do I display trust? Score – 10
Do I show you that I love you? Score – 10
Do I communicate openly? Score – 8
Do I recognize your sacrifices for the relationship? Score – 10
Do I help provide for the family? Score – 10
Do I strive to be more human and magnanimous? Score – 10
Do I meet your needs? Score – 10
Do I provide adventure? Score – 10
Do I tell you that I love you? Score – 10
Do I respect your opinions? Score – 9
The take-away here is 1) I am a slightly better husband than I am a father and 2) I have some work to do respecting her opinions and practicing more open communication. To that I say, she’s wrong and I don’t care to discuss it further.
While this was a fun, cheeky exercise, going through it facilitated good discussion with those whose perceptions of my performance matter most. The follow up discussion on how I can be a better dad and how to improve my already formidable husband skills will aid in my desire to be the best that I can be in all areas of my life. So, how am I doing? Practitioner seems to be the grade…for the moment.