What I Learned About Failure

“there is no failure in failing, only in not trying again.”

I have a series of aphorisms I call my “AsCaliforniaIsms.” One I use a lot is, “there is no failure in failing, only in not trying again.” Last night I watched episode 3 of Hulu’s “Wu-Tang: An American Saga,” which I thought illustrated that beautifully.

Let me start by giving some background on what “Wu-Tang: An American Saga” is. For the uninitiated, the Wu-Tang Clan were one of the most popular Hip Hop groups of the ’90s, a collective of DJs and MC (rapper)’s from Staten Island, New York. They are totally my kind of thing – a pastiche of every random pop culture influence you can think of, from animated cartoons to superheroes to Chinese gongfu (kung fu) martial arts films, all swirled together into the rawest Hip Hop anyone had ever heard at the time (and I mean “raw” in a good way). They brought the harsh, hard New York sound back to prominence at a time when Hip Hop was dominated by West Coast rap, a feat that I personally didn’t think was possible at that stage in the game. To me it felt like East Coast Hip Hop was moving more in the direction of conscious “hippie” rap, exemplified by groups like A Tribe Called Quest.  I thought any chance of traditional Hip Hop coming out of New York in a meaningful way was pretty much done. As I learned on day one of my Media Management program at Syracuse University however, Rule #1 of entertainment is, “nobody knows anything.” (I would later realize that this is true of life in general too, hence my first AsCaliforniaIsm:  “there is an exception to every rule”).

“Wu-Tang: An American Saga” then, is the story of how this bizarre hodgepodge of Staten Island rappers became the force that was the Wu-Tang Clan, and episode #3 particularly resonated with me because it exemplified my AsCaliforniaIsm about failure. Because in this episode, we get to watch as the founder of Wu-Tang Clan crashes and burns at a music contest in front of an auditorium full of his people (African American Hip Hop fans in New York), right when his idea of even having rap career is just getting started . Everything is set up for him to fail too: because of a mistake, he’s forced to follow the act that the contest is rigged to promote. His cassette tape (!) of beats he created is ruined, so he basically has no music. He attempts to get the crowd to help him do it A Capella style by using hand claps, but as soon as they hear his weird lyrics, they quickly lose interest. He slinks off the stage with his tail between his legs, as the few people there who knew and liked him join in on clowning his lack of ability.

And then, he takes an idea from the group that won, and figures out how to get better. And because we already know how successful Wu-Tang Clan are, we know he eventually succeeds and then some.

I have long bemoaned the fact that people like me aren’t often encouraged to play, or even watch, sports. It’s assumed that people with superior intellects shouldn’t have to, so much so that we can usually get physical education waivers for one reason or another, “saving” us from the stigma of failure or the rigors of competition. The thing I realized once I started following sports on my own however was that playing to win, failing, and then having to do it all over again gives you a skill set that can later make you very successful. Specifically, I believe that sports teach you resilience, persistence, and learning from mistakes. Every professional sports team keeps hours of video footage of every opponent they will face in their given league. Why? So that they can figure out how to beat them. By studying our competition, I believe we all have the ability to learn from each other, and incorporate what they do well into what we do well. We can not only learn to counteract what they do in direct competition, but we can figure out how to add the skill sets of others into what we do and resolve our own weaknesses. In a perfect world, we would all do what any fan of the Wu-Tang Clan knows their founder ultimately did – learn from the loss, get better, and succeed. For athletes, this comes as second nature. For the rest of us, it’s a skill we often have to learn.

Here’s the thing, though – if we’re talented, once we get that skill, we empower ourselves to do anything. We can not only accomplish some specific task, but study and learn from what others do in general. If we learn to communicate with them also, we can get direct instruction on improving on what we do. How do you know if you’re talented? Compete. If you win, you’ve proven that you’ve got at least something. If you don’t win, analyze how those who do win did it, and see if you’re capable of doing that. If not, see if there’s some adjustment you can make to avoid the pitfall that led to your loss. Compete again. See if you do better. If you win, great! If not, see if you at least did better that time. Figure out from who did win or other other competitors why you didn’t win. Compete again. In sports, teams actually refer to this process as”making adjustments,” ensuring that they’re always trying to improve. They keep competing until they win, and if they lose, they adjust and compete again. When this happens there’s growth, and the competitor keeps moving forward, getting better and better as they go until they do win. I think it’s the clearest, most direct path to victory, even if not necessarily the fastest.

Want to know what doesn’t win? Complaining about how the game is rigged. Giving up. Overthinking a loss based on self-doubt rather than reflection on performance. Not looking at how other people who won achieved their victory. As much as I despise the simplistic descriptions of success exemplified by the Tony Robins set, the general principle is universal – compete, learn from both success or victory; repeat. The minute you get too hung up on the outcome and not its reason is the minute I think it becomes impossible to win.

Perhaps the best application of “nobody knows anything” is this: in the media, we only see people succeed (because then it’s worth watching) or fail (because then it serves as a warning or chance to learn). Most of life however, is somewhere in between. As with good and evil, without failure you don’t even have any idea what success will look or feel like. All success does is make you want more, while giving others ideas on how to beat you. Failing and bouncing back – now that’s an achievement! Wu-Tang!

What I’ve Learned About Trauma

 

There have been three major traumas in my life: witnessing spousal abuse, the death of a parent, and the onset of a major illness. All three occurred in that order, and as a result, all three have determined the trajectory of my life.

But I believe I’m not alone.

Of all of my “good” traits (because therapy has confirmed for me that good and bad are relative terms defined in relation to one another), the one I’m proudest of is my ability to make friends. I have found that many people live in a constant state of distrust, believing that enemies are around every corner. I tend not to do that. I do tend to overshare, which I will admit is not the best tendency to have, but it’s one I’d rather have than living in the cynical belief that everyone I meet is looking to screw me over. Call it naive if you must, I just don’t think that most people you meet and directly interact with are out to get you. I know that makes life less sexy, not as exciting, and is bad for ratings, but having lived in five different cities by the time I was twelve, and ten by the time I was forty, encompassing four different states, that just hasn’t been my experience. The vast majority of people I’ve met over these years have treated me well. As for the others, I believe that what I experienced were traumatized people like myself. Worst of all, I believe that trauma has made it very hard for people to connect.

And I want that to change.

I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of what causes trauma; for that I recommend reading Peter A. Levine’s Waking the Tiger. Though I don’t agree with everything Levine says in that book (because Levine has a specific theory on how to heal trauma that he’s  arguing for), I do agree with his observation that negative things that have become commonplace in America today – increased violence, distrust, conflict, fatalism and fear – may very well be the result of widespread individual trauma. Our extremely partisan politics? Trauma. Increased preoccupation with sexuality? Trauma. Anger and violence? All trauma, and forms of trauma I name specifically because I’ve seen them all at work in me and nearly every negative person I’ve met, whether in real life or online. What to do about it I don’t know for sure, but I know a couple of things that don’t help, and am writing this blog posting in hopes that we all try to avoid them and endeavor to connect with others again, like I felt people used to when I was growing up. So if you agree and before it’s too late, let’s all try to stop…

  1. Assuming your way is the right way – Of all of the things that annoyed me about my father growing up, this was easily #1 on the list. My father felt like he was the authority on everything, Archie Bunker style, and that there was no way anyone else’s viewpoint could possibly be right. Why? Because according to him, he read a lot, was a good student growing up (untrue, as I later discovered), learned from people who knew (or so he thought), and had common sense. As it turns out, he was wrong about nearly all of it, and ended up having to be cared for by his children in his old age, despite coming from a huge family of fairly wealthy people who all claimed to love him dearly, but were at most willing to visit him sometimes. I’ve heard it in our media since the way I was born too, of course. “[Insert gender here] are always [something unfavorable].” “[Insert culture here] tend to be [something unfavorable].” “Your best bet is to listen to [someone rich and or powerful], because clearly their [wealth / power / material success / appearance / past achievement] proves that they know what they’re talking about!” None of it is true if you study law or even simple logic, but to the person who assumes they’re right all the time, it’s just a big circle – “because I believe it, how could it possibly be wrong?” Or worse, “that’s the way it’s always been.” Self-validations without some kind of proof or argument to back them up rarely amount to anything I’ve found, but so called “common sense” seems to be validation enough, and an excuse to push people away. The result? Loneliness, disconnection, and in the worst cases, terrorist attacks and school shootings.
  2. Needing to protect one’s ego – If you want to see a discussion of any kind come to a screeching halt, watch what happens when someone feels their ego or identity is being attacked. If you want to thwart your chances of connecting with somebody, say something to challenge their ego or identity, and watch the walls go up. Notice that I’m not commenting on whether somebody “deserves” the way they’re treated because you know, the whole good / bad thing. Most of the conflicts I see fall into this category though, and I believe that the reason this is so prevalent online is because without the person standing in front of them, people feel empowered to jab at anybody. Way back in Elementary School I learned that it’s hard to hate somebody you know, so through the “miracle of technology,” I feel that we can now “safely” hate from a distance. The problem with that? We ultimately still hurt others, because we also learned in Elementary School that words can hurt. When you live in a society that’s not in direct contact with others though, as is not the case in Elementary school, how do you even know whether you hurt somebody unless they tell you? And if they’re protecting their ego, why or when would they do that? So much easier to just stew in your pain or hurt others back, perpetuating the cycle and possibly leading the target to believe that people in their immediate sphere are that hurtful too. Why even bother to connect at that point?
  3. Judging others – Related to #1, I find that people have a tendency to form an opinion about others and their behavior, and then assume that this opinion must be right, because they’ve assumed that their way is always the right way. The reason I think this hurts us as a society is because it gives us a justification to avoid rather than connect. Without connection, I don’t see how you can teach or help anybody. I think it puts us all in that constant negative space that has made life so unbearably miserable for many of us. Worse, I feel like we’re not sharing direct information anymore either – if you’re not connected to an actual person who can hear and respond to your actual, specific, personal experience, I find that your natural (and marketed) inclination is to seek guidance from an impersonal, electronic, second hand source. While I see the value in that impartiality (you avoid judgment, after all), to me you’re losing “care,” that quality people extend to people they’re connected to directly. In absence of that, I believe that people are left to their own, thoroughly biased assumptions, often to their detriment. When people start judging themselves in this way, without a care in the world as they say, I find that they tend to be reckless at best, and overly harsh at worst. If there’s no one that cares to talk you down from believing that you’re [label], your own worst instincts can take hold and make you do things you might later regret. If you’re suffering from trauma, I believe that’s like throwing gasoline on an open flame.

For me, the upshot of all this is a society where I don’t see many people truly happy with how they’re living and who they are. Sure, we’ve got a lot more stuff, but stuff and people (and keep in mind, dogs are considered property or “stuff” under the law) are two different things. Without people in your life to care that you’re even alive, I find it very hard to function. I know that in my case, it’s always been the people in my life when I was at my lowest that have kept me going, no matter how bad I got. I do not know what I would do without them. What scares me is that I meet people a lot these days that claim not to have that and also claim not to care. They may be absolutely right about that – they may be alone and happy that way, and I may be judging them too harshly for being so. I find however that whenever I show kindness to others, those same people who claim they’re alone and loving it cling to me the most. Yet for me to connect with them, it’s usually me making the effort. If that’s not a sign of trauma, I think I clearly don’t know what is. And I just can’t help feeling like the version of America I’m living in now is not living up to what I was led to believe it could be, not in terms of our institutions, but in terms of the people I meet – or fail to – every day.

What I Learned About Pro Wrestling

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When I was a kid, I was into pro wrestling. But this blog posting isn’t really about that.

Instead, it’s about a temporary assignment I completed last week. When I got to this assignment I had no idea how much I would be making, so I was disappointed when talking to others on the job revealed that it was much lower than what I’m used to. Worse, trying to talk to other also reminded me that as much as I pride myself on my ability to make friends, you can’t win over everybody. Some people there just didn’t want to talk. Others were downright hostile. And still others were boorish know-it-alls that frankly, I didn’t want to talk to. There was a brief training that I did poorly on, confirming my reoccurring fear that I am just no good at “common sense” tasks and that my best days are my behind me. When I ended up spending more on lunch than I’d be making in an hour because I wrongfully assumed cheaper food would be available, I was upset. And when I was unable to perform the basic function of the job because none of the people we were serving seemed to want anything to do with me, I felt even worse. To me, I had absolutely hit rock bottom. I was done.

And there were six more days to go.

Though the job part of the job didn’t get any better the next day, I overheard a conversation between two people about pro wrestling. It was an interesting coincidence (I am going to call it that for now, but spoiler alert, I’m writing someday a blog posting about what I think so-called “coincidences” really are), because just days before, I watched John Oliver’s very moving video about what becomes of pro wrestlers and how badly they’re mistreated. As I said, I’d been a big fan of wrestling in my younger days, though as with all of the other “male power fantasy” genres I was into, I’d long since outgrew it. Still, I like poking my head in every now and then and seeing what’s going on in that world, so my ears perked up when this conversation began. It was started by a self-proclaimed wrestling geek who runs a website where he sells wrestling memorabilia. He’s self-employed, and just supplements his income with temporary assignments when business is slow. As a result, when he talked, I could barely get a word in as he went on and on about wrestling trivia and dismissed all of my viewpoints on the subject. To be honest, when I learned he was ex-military and I checked out his skinhead haircut, I really didn’t like the guy much, and assumed that would be the end of it.

But I was intrigued.

As I said, I’ve checked in on pro wrestling off and on over the years, and besides John Oliver’s video, I recently watched one of ESPN’s “30 For 30” documentaries about “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, a pro wrestler who typically branded himself the best there is, but actually had the longevity and titles to make a case for it. His daughter, as it turns out, recently became a champion in the WWE, and I was moved near to tears at his pride in knowing that he was able to pass something on to his child, despite the hard life that wrestlers lead. Being always on the road and subjected to tremendous punishment doesn’t leave much room for parenting, as Jake “The Snake” Roberts knows, having lost any relationship with his own daughter (as chronicled in the documentary Beyond the Mat (Barry W. Blaustein, 1999). In my experience however, wrestling can teach you a surprising amount about the media business in general, as I learned from former wrestling promoter Eric Bischoff’s 2006 autobiography Controversy Creates Cash.  It was in that book that I first learned about the creation of the “N.W.O., a wrestling crew that I never even considered had any relevance to me beyond being a ’90s rip-off of Ric Flair’s famous “Four Horsemen” group. As with most other things about those first few days at that temp assignment though, I learned very quickly that I was really wrong about that.

So the temp assignment continued, and though we hadn’t gotten off to a great start, I was determined to show this wrestling jerk that I wasn’t just a jobber. I really knew a thing or two about wrestling, having collected Pro Wrestling Illustrated magazine for two good solid years back in 1988-89 or so. I knew all about the indy promotions of the time, the AWAs, the Mid-Souths, and the various promotions that made up the NWA (READ: not the same as the NWO you see pictured above or “the world’s most dangerous group”). More than that, I had checked in long afterward too, when the ECW was in its heyday, and even after, when Rob Black created the XPW and I was introduced to Sabu and Rob Van Dam before he was actually anybody, and the Lightning Kid long before he bulked up and became X-Pac. I even remembered DDP back when he was just managing, and not yet wrestling! I’d seen Wrestling With Shadows (Paul Jay, 1998)! Again, as with role playing games or heavy metal or superhero comics, I never fully let any of my male power fantasies go – while I may not be up on things anymore, I’m never a complete n00b either. Worse, my ego doesn’t let me allow people to think of me that way. While I can laugh off people questioning my intelligence because of the sheer absurdity of it, and I can get used to the idea that not everybody is going to like me, if you think I don’t know anything about an area of pop culture I was once into, them’s fightin’ words. I got back into the squared circle with the King of the Ring, and I was sure I could get him to submit.

And then… I learned something.

As the wrestling champion broke me down with fact after fact about the ins and outs of the business, he mentioned something that struck a chord and had me on the ropes. He said that Eric Bischoff had gotten the WCW to be competitive by letting its wrestlers do what they wanted to do. That threw me, because an editorial tantrum written by a comic book writer (not remembering who at the moment) said that it was Vince McMahon letting Steve Austin (who I refer to as “The Artist Formerly Known as ‘Stunning’,” because again, I know wrestling history like that) create his own character that led to “The Attitude Era,” as the late ’90s and early 2000s are often referred to in wrestling circles. I was wrong though – Eric Bischoff had started all that, which led to the creation of the N.W.O, a group of has-been wrestlers who got new life after taking control of their own personas. More than that, they made the WCW competitive, actually beating Vince McMahon’s WWE until he bought it out rather than try to compete with it any longer. As Eric Bischoff said in his book, had the merger with Time Warner not ruined Ted Turner‘s media empire, it might still be beating and even supplanting the WWE today. And it was all done with wrestlers perceived as washed up, or put another way, who had hit rock bottom. Who were done.

Sound like someone you know?

As I said at the outset, this blog posting is not about pro wrestling. As with all things that happen in my life, it’s about me. I made an attempt to change careers after a major change in my health nearly a decade ago, and I failed at it. I wasn’t able to make the transition. I did it in the first place though because people had been telling me for years that I was overqualified for what I was doing, and too talented to let that go to waste. I failed, and thought that I was washed up. I forgot my own life rule of, “there is no failure in failing, only in not trying again,” moved back in with my family, and was reduced to trying to get back into the career I left behind. During that period however, a friend of mine from Middle School referred me for a writing job, and I absolutely loved it – to this day, I see it as the best job I’ve ever had. It was fun, it paid really well, gave me freedom (as I was working from home), and best of all, I was good at it. I only lost it because my employer realized that they could get an intern to do it for free, and since I was making $25 an hour and setting my own besides, there was obviously no way I could compete with that. They liked me though, and agreed to serve as a reference as I searched for future writing jobs. Though I haven’t found one yet exactly (I’ve done some transcription, which at least draws from my typing skills), I know I could. Better still, I met a group called Independent Writers of Chicago at a Meetup, who teach writers how to find writing jobs if you join their organization. You just have to be able to pay their very reasonable writing dues. Not impossible if you live with family, temp often, and have your health care covered by the Affordable Care Act. I’ve always said that my only real talents were writing, public speaking, and making friends. Now imagine if I was able to do all of the above on my own terms, like the wrestling nerd does? I think it might start a New World Order for me, no?

Suffice it to say, the wrestling site holder and I ultimately ended the week on the path to becoming friends. Hey, wrestlers turn from hero to heel on a regular basis, so why can’t we? He runs and markets his own business, and if that’s the direction I’m ultimately heading in, he’ll be a good guy to know. If I could get to the point of making my own income and calling my own shots, I wouldn’t have to worry about whether I could do a job to a boss’s specifications. I wouldn’t have to do demeaning temp work, and I might even be able to recreate a personal life like the relationship we saw in The Wrestler (Darren Aranofsky, 2008). I always liked that movie, because it’s about two has-beens getting a second chance at love. If a washed up writer like me can get a second chance, why not? The wrestling heel who turned out to be my hero showed me that as long as you do you, a championship is always possible. You just have to reserve self-judgement, trust yourself and trust your ability to get you that chance. Fight on!

What I Learned About Judging a Book By Its Cover

If you’d told me a week ago that I’d dedicate a whole blog posting to the actress Krista Allen, I’d’ve told you that you were crazy…

I’ll confess: I first learned of Krista Allen from a softcore adult film role she did early in her career.

Just as she isn’t perfect neither am I, and that’s kind of why I like her.  In the past week or so, her podcast has become a favorite of mine, one in which she reviews – or more appropriately, discusses and analyzes – a different self-help book every week, as reading self-help books is kind of her hobby.  As it turns out, Krista Allen and I have three very big things in common: 1) we both dabbled in adult entertainment, 2) we both moved around a lot as children, and 3) we both have struggled with low self-esteem.  This is why Krista Allen reads so many self-help books, and in listening to her discuss them on her podcast, she’s reminded me of a key lesson I learned in my first relationship that I’d like to write about today: that I believe people are enriched by dealing with people who are different from them.

My first serious girlfriend and I were more different than we were alike.  She honestly had more in common with Krista Allen than she did with me.  She came from poverty; my father was an engineer and my mother was a doctor.  She was a pretty and popular girl in high school; I was the king of the geeks.  Most importantly, while we both shared a love of film, my ex wasn’t a nerd about it.  She didn’t know or care what a director was before she met me, and would get annoyed by the trivial “fun facts,” as she called them, that I would often share with her.  While I am so willing to share every detail about myself that I had to force myself to be anonymous in this blog, my ex didn’t even like having our curtains open because others could then peer in and see how we lived.  Yet despite our differences, I probably learned more about life, both directly from and just by being with her than I ever did in my decades of school and growing up in seven different places before I finally moved out and was on my own.  While I don’t miss her personally, I miss the astounding number of things I learned from being with her, and that’s kind of what I get from Krista Allen’s podcast too.

Allen has shared that she’s from Texas, the red state I call “California’s evil twin.”  It’s big, it’s rich, it has a huge undocumented population but it’s not friendly to them like California is, which I attribute to people like Krista Allen and her family: poor Caucasians, the Trump supporter stereotype.  Like me, Krista Allen was essentially raised by a single parent, but in that “country” way that I have typically find repellent.  She’s not super educated, and growing up these attractive redneck-type women never gave me the time of day.  Yet when I listen to her podcast I realize she’s sweet!  And funny!  And easygoing!  Open-minded!  And honest, like I said.  Like my ex, she strikes me as generally a pleasant person to be around, and although that relationship went south for me, I believe that had more to do with our youth and inexperience than any personal defect on my ex’s part.  Unlike my ex, Allen is inquisitive and interested in learning, but again, I’d never know any of that from looking at her or if I judged her by the roles she’s played.  Krista Allen strikes me as a person who’s made the best of what life has given her, both in terms of her appearance and her background, keeping her from being a cynic.  She stumbled into entertainment after a disastrous ending to her first marriage, and “Forrest Gumped” her way into a career as a working actress, one that got her on “Friends” and “Frasier,” and in movies like Liar Liar (Tom Shadyac, 1997) and Anger Management (Peter Segal, 2003).  Were they great, major roles?  Not usually.  Were they bimbo roles?  At first, yes.   But does she still work to this day, and without having to go back to doing nudity?  Absolutely yes, and as most actresses in Hollywood will tell you, “bimbo” or otherwise, that is not easy to do.  Regardless of her work not being my cup of tea, I have found that meeting and knowing people like her allows me to be more open-minded myself, and look at the world from new and unfamiliar perspectives.  That has made me better at making friends, coming up with new ideas, and surviving in a world so different from mine.

I also like Krista Allen because I feel that she’s a survivor and not a quitter.  Again, her career is indirectly the result of a failed marriage, and I’ve never heard her hold her success up as proof that she’s exceptional or better than anybody else.  Like me she’s very candid about her failures, and that authenticity is something I value in everybody.  In fact, I personally believe that an inability to be authentic is the reason so many human relationships fail and conflicts develop.  Moreover, despite her failed relationships, Krista Allen continues to get into them – she doesn’t become cynical and give up on the idea of love and companionship despite thus far failing to really achieve either.  As I’ve said in the past, like me she rolls with it and keeps going, and though this hasn’t brought her ultimate success in relationships as yet, I believe it’s why she’s continues to succeed professionally, thus buying herself time and money to ultimately achieve her goals.  I admire all of these qualities, and I believe that they are a big part of what draws people to her.  Many of her podcasts are co-hosted by her friends, and many women have taught me that women are generally a lot meaner to other women than they are to men, a sad reality that Allen herself has shared.  I think the fact that she has so many friends of both genders is why she succeeds, and speaks highly of her character.

Bottom line, if you’d told me a week ago that I’d dedicate a whole blog posting to my fandom of Krista Allen, I’d’ve told you that you were crazy.  I’m a film geek with a minor in cinema studies!  I consider myself an intellectual, and I’ve only had one girlfriend (who I didn’t usually get along with) that looked anywhere near as pretty as her!  What could I possibly get from engaging with a person like that?

They say you should never judge a book by its cover, and Krista Allen’s podcast proved that to me.  And besides, it saves me a lot of money on books…

 

 

 

What I Learned About Eid ul-Adha

Last week was the Muslim holiday of Eid ul-Adha,

which commemorates Prophet Abraham (Peace Be Upon Him.  Yes, the one from the Bible) sacrificing a calf because God saved him from sacrificing his son, which God had asked him to do to prove his faith.  Muslims celebrate this by making a pilgrimage called Hajj to the holy city of Mecca, which we’re expected to do at least once before we die.   If you aren’t doing it this year, you’re expected to pray with the rest of your community, or Ummah.  What did I do?

Nothing.  I wasn’t even aware of it until my aunt wished me a happy one.

This has been the case for the last several Eids I’m ashamed to say, and yet I don’t really understand why I feel ashamed.  Because what I learned in California is that I’m an Agnostic more than anything else.  I’m not sure when it happened, exactly.  All I remember is that one day, it occurred to me that to believe in Islam means believing that at some earlier point in human history, magical things used to happen, and now they don’t.  No reason, no explanation, they just don’t.  When I asked myself if I believed that, really believed that, I had to admit that I just plain didn’t.

But I feel bad about it.

See, while I believe that my father has always struggled with religion himself, my mother’s side of the family are the Muslim equivalent of evangelical Christians.  Everything is about religion to them, and not only is every single aspect of Islam true, to say otherwise is blasphemous.  I try not to talk about religion with them, but whenever they discover that I haven’t prayed, or gone to the Mosque, or that I’m not a virgin (which they discovered in California when they accidentally ran into my then-girlfriend), it breaks their heart a little.  As I said, their family is extremely devout, so my mother was no exception, and because my father wasn’t it was always a point of friction between my parents and I always felt caught in the middle.  Now that my mother is gone, her family believes that it’s their duty as Muslims to try to save me from my father’s wicked ways, and my not being on board with them has always made them, and by extension me, feel bad.

Ironically, as a result of this conflict, I actually know a great deal about Islam.  Among other things, I know that the scene posted at the top of this page, a clip from the Bollywood film Coolie (Manmohan Desai and Prayag Raj, 1983) well-represents why I struggled with Islam so much.  You see, my “film geekiness” wasn’t born in a vacuum – my father loved going to the movies, and his brother even went on to become a significant figure in the Indian arts film movement of the 1950s and 60s.  My father would see American and Indian movies regularly throughout his childhood, and passed that love of film and arts and literature and entertainment on to me.  The paradox?  My grandfather’s job in India was to take care of the Mosque, so he taught my father that film and singing are both sins in Islam, hence my problems with Coolie: what you see in this clip is non-Muslim actor Amitabh Bachan lip-syncing a song about attending Hajj in an inherently sinful film, one that I watched with my dad growing up.  Long story short, I grew up learning that everything I like, everything that I would argue makes me me, and which I inherited from my father was sinful.  I believed these things to be the best part of him, and that in and of itself was as sinful as my dad to my late mother.  Since I feel we now live in a time when people wear their religions on their sleeve, her family has even completely stopped watching anything on TV other than educational or news programming.  Or put another way, my whole identity is built on something they see as a sin.

Like I said, that in and of itself didn’t cause me to abandon Islam, but it created tremendous internal conflict.  Even though logic, as I said, suggests that Islam doesn’t describe reality, I spent my life learning it, and I still love my family. In fact, after my mother died I went through a phase where I was determined to connect with the religion and make her proud.  It didn’t end well, as fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadaan directly led to my being diagnosed with Lupus (as always, more on this later), but even then, I could never abandon Islam completely.  To this day, I don’t eat pork, drink alcohol, or engage in any major sin beyond sexual activity.  It’s more of a “better safe than sorry” level of practice than anything else, but I still adhere to it.  Why?  It’s like this:

At the end of the day, I think that regardless of how “true” Islam is, it represents a decent moral compass, promotes discipline, and creates a sense of identity, unity and safety among all other Muslims.  I have been fortunate that the many Muslims I’ve interacted with, whether Sunni  like me, or other sects like Shia or the Nation of Islam, or Sufs, or even Rastafarians and so on have treated me well based at first on my status as a Muslim.  Like other religious people, I also admit that I still intuitively believe there might be something more than what we see.  Coincidences, validated intuitions, and even my continued survival despite unbelievable adversity have all suggested that to me.  Islam may not be it exactly, but I’m not convinced that science has described everything there is to know.  Though Islam only affects my behavior in terms of morality and my ability to interact with other Muslims, this still counts for a lot.  If my father, who has questioned it at many points, hasn’t given up on it yet, who am I to?

To me, that’s the bottom line too – I have found that people choose to believe what they want to believe.  That’s why I can still proudly consider myself Muslim.  God isn’t going to fall out of the sky and kick me out of Islam for my following what I want to and discarding what I don’t.  I don’t even think He’d sent me to Hell, because I believe the point of the story of Abraham (PBUH) is that God is not a jerk!  Though human beings have the capacity to judge, I learned in California that because people are so different, we tend to get along better if we refrain from judging those whose beliefs aren’t hurting anybody else.  Terrorists acting in the name of Islam I can condemn because by hurting others I believe they forfeit the right to be left alone.  My family though?  My father? My sister?  My friends who are of other faiths?  My friends (and relatives – my famous uncle’s son is an Atheist) who don’t believe at all or are Christian or Jewish or Hindu?  I may not share their beliefs, but I feel that I know about as much as they do about what God actually is, what He wants, or if He even exists.  Who am I to judge anyone else?

And I’ll be doing Hajj when I’m ready to, not when anyone tells me I should. 😉

What I Learned About Fear Itself

A close friend of mine recently put an extra property of hers up on Airbnb, and I’ll admit it, I got SCARED.

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You see, my friend is an itty bitty thing, single, lives alone, and yeah, I’ll admit, there’s some sexism on my part built in too.  Sure it’s a good idea.  Sure she could use the extra income.  Sure she’s smart and can handle just about anything.  But in the back of my mind I kept thinking: what if something happens to her?

That fear haunted my mind throughout the week that her tenants moved in, despite the fact that they weren’t staying long, and nothing about them seemed shady.  The thing is we live in a society where people kill their children, where terrorists and crazy people murder dozens of strangers, where there’s a rape culture – every negative thing about modern life raced through my mind: she’s a woman, she’s all alone, and frankly, you can’t trust anyone out there, right?

Then I watched “What Would You Do?” on ABC.  You know the show, right?  Reporter John Quiñones sets up hidden cameras in public places, and then gets actors to pretend to be in difficult situations around unsuspecting “regular” people.  For example, there’d be like a man berating his girlfriend or a parent verbally assaulting their kid, and then he records the encounter to watch what people do in these “real life” situations.  Last Friday the first story featured an Indian actor, no different from myself or anyone in my family, trying to get a passport photo taken while wearing a Muslim cap or “topee,” when another actor playing the photographer clerk gives him a hard time, clearly racially profiling him for being Muslim in front of other customers, while Quinones records how those customers react.  Situations like this naturally make me mad.  Why?  Because I have yet to meet a Muslim like the one this clerk supposedly fears.

I’ve heard the counter- argument: “well, your experience is anecdotal!  You don’t know every Muslim!”  Maybe not, but I literally have grown up all over this country: I was born in Chicago, and lived both in affluent Lincoln Park and the South suburbs.  My family then moved to Southern Illinois so that my mother, a doctor, could take a job in Carbondale, where we recently had the eclipse.  From there we moved to St. Louis, then a suburb of Flint, Michigan, before we returned to Chicago.  I earned my bachelor’s in central Illinois, then got my master’s in Syracuse, New York before moving to Southern California, where I lived in the San Fernando Valley, the west side of LA, both ghetto and affluent  parts, and finally Orange County.  Like me, my mother was compulsively social, so wherever we moved, my mother found other Muslim families and we made friends; I did the same whenever I moved.  My father came from a family of fifteen originally; my mother a family of eight.  My father came to this country in 1969, with all of his Muslim friends from India, who ultimately migrated all over the country and had families of their own, so I have countless uncles, aunts, cousins, and Muslim friends.  And like I said, of all of those people, I have yet to meet an actual terrorist or terrorist sympathizer.

I’m not big on aphorisms or “words of wisdom.”  A Professor of mine really hated “Founding Father” Ben Franklin, pointing out that Poor Richard’s Almanack was unnatural, as life is too complex and multi-faceted to be summed up into simple rules like “a penny saved is a penny earned.”  Yet watching that show, and then thinking about my reaction to my friend renting out her room suddenly made one expression crystal clear to me: there truly is nothing to fear but fear itself.

I don’t believe that the media has a Liberal or Conservative bias – I feel that as Jon Stewart suggested, it has a sensationalist bias.   Another expression that I think applies here is “if it bleeds it leads” – news organizations, particularly broadcast ones, are owned by publicly-traded Fortune 500 companies (hence the absurdity of their having a Liberal bias, in my opinion).  More than anything, they need ratings to make money, so the unusual – “man bites dog,” as another expression goes – is what they sell.  That’s why Donald Trump got so much free press when he was running for President – the networks all made a killing in ratings by covering him.  By that same token, I think stories of murders, rapes, terrorists and so on dominate the news because they’re unusual and scary, thus emotionally engaging a large audience, and ratings rise with them.  Fox News has argued that their Conservatism is why they’ve been the highest rated cable news network, but I’ve yet to see them do Fox News without reporters who look like models with skirts hiked up, angry pundits, and stories of terror around every corner – you know, the sensational.  As every critic of Fox News argues however, that stuff is questionable because it’s not reality.

So what is reality?  When I was in second grade, back in aforementioned Carbondale, I got lost in my neighborhood.  I had just moved there, and didn’t know my way around.  In fear, I approached a friendly looking guy on a riding mower, and asked him for help.  Minor kid, talking to a stranger, in direct contradiction of everything every grown-up had taught me to that point.  His response?  He asked me for my address, put me in his car and… drove me home.

He never even met my parents afterward.  Once I confirmed that we’d arrived at my house, he let me go and I never heard from him again.  Why?  Because in my experience, the vast majority of real people are decent.

The reason the people who applauded the clerk on “What Would You Do?” made me mad is because I know that in reality, only a minuscule percentage of Muslims are terrorists or have terrorist sensibilities.  Even the ones who are I only know about because I saw them on TV  – despite how devout my extended family is (they’re the Muslim equivalent of evangelical Christians, with one living near the Muslim holy land in the Middle East and everything), they wouldn’t hurt a fly.  That’s reality.  By that same token I vaguely possibly remember hearing somebody hurt by an Airbnb tenant, but the company has become extremely successful because the vast majority of people aren’t dangerous.  My friend also lives in a big city, feet away from her neighbors.  I think the likelihood that anything would happen to her, in reality, is as small as the likelihood that the next fifty Muslims you meet are potential terrorists.  Why does society go there though?  Fear.  The reality, as the saying points out, is not what we need to be afraid of – the fear is.  Why?  Because fear causes people to behave irrationally.  Fear causes people to accidentally shoot people they know or led to the blackballing of artists in the classical Hollywood out of fear of Communism creeping in through the entertainment industry.  Fear of Communism is also why the U.S. went to Vietnam and Korea, when decades later we realized that the notion of Soviet military might was just a fiction the Soviet Union created to scare us.  Fear is why terrorists attack the federal government or Western nations they’re afraid of.  Fear, I believe, is even why human beings aren’t able to connect like they once did and are so lonely these days, but that’s a topic for another journal entry.

Look, I’m not saying that the world is 100% safe – recently I heard “The People’s Court‘s” judge Marilyn Milian espouse the idea of “trust, but verify,” which is why my friend, and Airbnb themselves, screen all their renters and housing providers in advance.  Once thus verified though, I believe that it’s to your benefit to trust that the majority of the people you deal with aren’t going to be dangerous jerks, and that things are not as bad as the much-maligned media makes them seem in the name of ratings.  As long as you verify anything that makes you suspicious, I believe there really is no good reason to live in fear.

The only thing I truly believe we have to fear is fear itself, and the sooner we can learn to accept that and get over our fears, the better a chance I believe we’ll have of living in peace and handling the real threats when they do occur.  Do I believe we can accomplish that if we don’t though?

‘Fraid not.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What I Learned About Hip Hop

Confession Time: These days, when I see something whose importance I didn’t appreciate until I was much older, I weep. So when I saw the birth of Hip Hop Google doodle on the 11th of August, I lost it.

The Birth of Hip Hip doodle

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When I was growing up, my father never liked doing anything the way everybody else did, and I inherited that from him.  While the majority of my family lived on the North side of Chicago back in 1976 when I was born, we lived on the South side, which everyone from Chicago will know as the African American part of the city.

To be clear, my mother was a doctor and my father was an engineer, so we weren’t in the ghetto or anything – we were in Oak Lawn by the time my earliest memories began, which is the south suburbs, in the truest sense.  Nonetheless, Chicago stuck with me, and I had a comfort with and fondness for African Americans and other people of color ever since.  As a result and after August 11th, Hip Hop began its rise throughout American culture, and I was down with it early on. Like most people, I thought it was cool.  I liked the beats, which reminded me of the disco beats I heard coming up in Chicago or the music of Michael Jackson and Prince, who I was obsessed with.  For me, becoming a Hip Hop “head,” as they call them, wasn’t a big deal.

And then… it was.

An important thing I would like you to understand about this blog is that it’s not about what these entries are about, but about what they mean to me.  And to me, as the modern, fully African American form of music, Hip Hop is important.  Though it has since become almost as co-opted as jazz or rock ‘n’ roll, I feel that Hip Hop made it a point of clearly telling the world that it was by, for, and about urban Black folk, whose community deteriorated through the ’80s because of the crack trade, and this is how they dealt with and felt about it.  Hip Hop matters, and it fully matured during my lifetime, but it didn’t fully hit me how important that was so until Google’s doodle, and having original Yo! Mtv Raps host and legendary graf artist Fab 5 Freddy tell its story its story.  And that’s why I wept.

My recognition of how beautiful and important those things I took for granted are is one of the things that make me cry often today (others are basic human kindness, the love between siblings, parents and their children, children being afraid, and when something new feels truly great, but we’ll get to all of those in due course), because the emotion created by realizing that importance all at once is too much.  And this is what I hope this journal entry makes clear. When I was a kid, rap or Hip Hop was just the cool new Black musical style I was into, the broken up version of every other Black musical style I was into, and that was about it.  By the time I got to California, it was still around, and bigger the ever, on stations like 92.3 (and later 100.3) the Beat or Power 106.  By that point it meant a lot to everybody, to the point that artists were dying over it.

Seeing Google pay tribute reminded me that something that was just a part of my life had grown up to be one of the most important musical styles of them all, to me the purest and loudest expression of modern Black culture, and I just took it for granted, like I did a lot of things from my young life. As a kid, I never appreciated that the comics or the movies or the music or the athletes that I loved so much would be among the greatest in history, and that it wouldn’t always be that way.  To me, that’s the cruelty of time – as a hard rock song I like puts it, “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”  Life, I’m now fully aware, like youth, that great job I had at that time in my life when you lived in that place I loved, all that is very temporary.  My health?  Temporary.  Even my loved ones – these things are all temporary too.  I feel like people never know whether what they have and are doing now might be as good as it gets for them, so I think it’s important to appreciate them when we have them.  Because you – and they – may not pass this way again.

I’m glad Google took the time out to appreciate and share that appreciation of Hip Hop with everybody.  Hopefully it made folks smile rather than cry, and hopefully we all learn to appreciate things like Hip Hop when they come our way.  Because life has taught me that there aren’t a lot of things that matter as much, and I think the special ones deserve to be celebrated in the moment, not 44 years after the fact.

What I Learned In California

I came to California a fat 24 year old virgin with a great job, and bad health(and an attitude to match), but determined to take on the world.

I left it much slimmer, more experienced, and jobless, but healthier (new kidney), wiser, and with many stories about how I made it back in one piece.

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The 17 years I spent in California can accurately be called my adult life.  They were supposed to be my chance to conquer the entertainment industry, fulfilling my life’s ambitions and paying off all of my much-celebrated “potential.”  As the best friend I made there put it however, “potential is BS.”  So while I did get a credit in Hollywood, get on TV, get my writing published, and make films, it wasn’t the way I expected it would be.  Life, I learned in California, rarely is.

I came back home and decided to write a blog about it, about the many colorful characters I met there and the random situations and life lessons I learned.  I wore many hats in California – had to, because I found that in Southern California, many of the people are transplants,  from the Midwest like me or many other places, all hoping to reinvent themselves into some ideal version that they can ultimately write a book or make a great film about someday.  I met many people through Meetup groups, knowing nobody but my distant family when I got there, and met others at the many jobs I took on in order to survive. As someone once put it however, no matter where you go, at the end of the day, there you are.  All of your family history, all of your past successes and failures, things your parents taught you or didn’t, things that happened to you long before you got there; all of the things that make you who you are become what goes with you when you try to reinvent yourself somewhere else.  If you’re lucky, you can get them to work for you, and if you’re me, you have to learn how to.

When I was in California, I learned many different things.   Some of them were about politics, some of them were about entertainment, some about both and most about life in general.  The most valuable things I learned in California were about me though, and I’d like to use this blog to share them with you.  It’s my life’s ambition to return to California, but until I get there, I’d like to spend the weeks to come telling you why.

Starting with this.

(and continuing every Thursday, Inshallah.  Did I mention that I’m Muslim too? 😉