Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Rewards (and Risks) of Playground Conversations

I love talking to little kids, because what you see is what you get. When they speak, it’s usually unfiltered, comes from the heart and is soaked in honest curiosity. Everything’s still new, so to converse with them is to rediscover fresh perspectives on the world. Art Linkletter was right when he said, “Kids say the darnedest things.” But in today’s society, interacting with children that aren’t yours can carry potentially heavy consequences, if you’re not careful.
One morning while walking the dog, I turned down a street that parallels a local elementary school property. The fenced-in schoolyard was at least a block long and we were at the end opposite the school building. As I cursed the frigid air freezing my face, I heard them. Kids! Even at a distance I could tell from their high pitched squeals and random shouting that they were pretty young. I squinted in the gusting wind to watch them running, jumping, screaming and engaging in all manner of play. It was recess.
One of them broke from the main group and was walking my way. Must be coming for the dog, I thought. Trailing her was another child. As they closed on my position, concern tickled the back of my mind. How could these kids be allowed to stray so far from the main group? Then I noticed a caretaker had been there all along and was bringing up the rear.
The approaching gentleman was filled with intense interest but not alarm. I assumed him to be a teacher or school volunteer. He never made direct contact but hovered close enough to listen in on my conversation with the two first graders about the dog. After letting them pat her nose, which had squeezed through the fence, I kept moving. I wanted to close the gap between the intrepid pair of explorers and the rest of the youth banding about on the playground. I could sense the caretaker’s approval.
Just then two more kids appeared. Then another. And another. Soon there was an entourage of maybe 30 kids escorting me along the fence line, peppering me with dog questions. Once I made it to where the majority of the kids were, I stopped to satisfy their insatiable canine curiosity.
In the back of my mind, I knew I was taking a risk. After all, the Newtown, Connecticut, tragedy had occurred just weeks earlier. I also considered the concerns associated with adult strangers near kids on a playground and thought about moving on. Still, these kids were interested in the dog I was walking. Who was I to deny them their inquisitiveness? So I began fielding their questions.
“What’s her name?” “Can I pet her?” “Does she bite?” “Did you bring her treats to give her in case she’s a good dog?” “Why do dogs always sniff doo doo?” I answered as simply and enthusiastically as possible.
I was really getting into the conversation, when another adult appeared. If I had to guess, it was the principal. Or Secret Service. That’s because she was throwing me the same kind of look cast by men in black who wore thingies in their ears and spoke into their wrists while watching folks shake hands with the President. Oddly enough, I was okay with her cold, suspicious gaze. After all, she was on the job.
Like the other caretaker, she never said a word. But I knew it was time to move on; especially since one of the kids had just tossed me a zinger: “How can you tell she’s a girl dog?”

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Journey Matters More than the Destination

What's it all worth?
We live in a culture where money and winning are everything. Yet so much of that’s a lie, especially when it comes to defining who you are as a person. Of course, me being me, I had to take the long way around to learning that important truth.
Back when I lived in Los Angeles, I wanted to be a creative writer. In fact, that’s why I moved there. In L.A. they jokingly say everyone's working on a screenplay. If true, then I was one of the roughly 10 million or so people out there writing a script. In fact, I ended up completing a bunch of them. Scripts for TV shows, movies, and even manuscripts for novels. I have quite a collection. But here’s the rub: I never sold a single one. And you know what that means. For all those thousands of hours of work, I never got paid. Popular culture translation: Loser.
Not so fast. I did make some money here and there on creative projects. It just wasn’t enough for me to consider myself a success. Of course, I was basing all that on a mistaken belief that in order to anoint myself the 'creative writer' title, it needed to be my primary vocation and I had to make serious bank. Neither was the case. I did however have a decent career as an entertainment journalist but to my mind, that didn’t count.
Still, those lean years were some of the most satisfying of my life. Why? Because I was doing what I loved. Back then, nothing kept me from putting pen to paper. Or rather fingers to keyboard. I’d write anywhere, anytime, for hours – even days on end. On scores of occasions, when I was in the zone, I’d forego eating and sleeping to write. And bathing? Fuhgetabout.
Like most aspiring writers, I suppose I held mental images for success: like having a multi-book contract with a big name publishing conglomerate, smoking a pipe and walking around the house wearing a white linen robe with a silk ascot. The trappings. Yet as I really think about it, I didn't care so much about that stuff. What was important were the words I put on the page. It was my passion. And nothing kept me from it.
Since that time I’ve come to realize some things. Over the years, I developed a serious body of literary work. Writing all those unsold scripts and manuscripts improved my writing skills and helped me understand that the process of working can be just as important as the material rewards you may or may not gain at the end.
Jim Carrey: money isn't everything
On reflection, I was selling myself short and discounting my hard work because I’d bought into society’s definition of success. But that’s hogwash. I now realize I am indeed an author and screenwriter, if I’m just a legend in my own mind. Still, I have a significant body of work to support that belief.
After all these years, I’ve learned a very simple truth. I don’t need a lot of money, a fancy title or fame to define myself as a success. Or to be happy. It’s like superstar comedian Jim Carrey reportedly once said, “I wish everyone could get rich and famous and everything they ever dreamed so they can see that's not the answer.” I’d say that’s sound advice.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Hometown Signifiers Conjure Powerful Meaning and Feelings

Sometimes seemingly insignificant objects forged of cold hard steel outside can produce some of the warmest feelings inside. For instance, take what I saw at the end of a particularly grueling business trip. It was one of those exhausting, work-related journeys in which nothing seemed to go right. Everything from foul weather and flight delays to road construction and near car collisions conspired to ruin my homecoming. And had it not been for a series of what I term ‘hometown signifiers,’ my negative feelings from the trip surely would have sunk my spirit all the more.
Normally when I’m on a road trip and things run afoul, I mentally go on auto-pilot and try not to think about whatever string of sad sack circumstances are sabotaging my journey. The goal is to accept my fate, maintain an even keel and swim with the current, so to speak. The result is usually an uncomfortable but ultimately acceptable drive under less than ideal conditions. This time however, it was setting up not to be the case.
It was dusk and a near-miss with a deer sprinting across my path, followed by a careless merging driver, kept me on edge. Neither talk radio nor music contributed to relief of my crankiness as I wheeled ever inward bound. Thoughts about my next business day entered my brain like an ice pick and gave me a headache. Like many business travelers are upon their return, I would be behind at the office. As a result, my stomach churned the overcooked chicken burrito I had scarfed down while waiting at baggage claim. Soon it was accompanied by that vague unsettled feeling you get just ahead of nausea. I knew full well what could come after that.
As a diversion, I focused more intently on negotiating the weather and traffic, and just as I was deciding whether to make a pit stop, I spotted a sign: Exit 98 B. My exit! Seeing that green square marker instantly changed my outlook. Suddenly, the weather wasn’t so bad. A few minutes later, the outline of downtown appeared through the darkness, followed by the colorfully illuminated Gateway Grid, a metal art sculpture symbolically representing entry into the city.
My heart leapt at the sight. I was nearing home. My castle. My sanctuary. I would soon be in a place where all manner of objects positioned here and there would bathe my mind in comfort. What is it about familiar surroundings that calm the mind? How can a simple sign on the road signal mental processes that ease anxiety and promote peace of mind?
It’s easy for me to understand how a photograph of a child or family member can strike an emotional chord. But how is it that things like your car or boat or looking at your house can incite a warm and welcoming mind-set? Or feelings of pride? That Exit 98B sign represents more than the road I take to get home. It signified an end to my travels. For me, that Gateway Grid just before downtown stands for more than just an artistic shield masking less than flattering landscape beyond. It signifies a respect I have for folks bent on making where I live a better place. They don’t always get it right, but they’re trying.
There are many hometown signifiers that I hold in high emotional regard, from the high school I graduated from, to the duck pond I used to skate on in winter. What are your hometown signifiers and why?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Let our Youngest Lead Us to Understanding

New Year's Eve party animal
This past New Year’s Eve I tried something different than I have in a long time. I went to a party. It wasn’t just any party though. This one was surprisingly unique, at least in my experience of attending year-end merrymaking. While about half of the folks there were commonplace, like me, the rest were extraordinary. They also were the life of the party.
The festivities started early compared to most New Year’s Eve gatherings I’d attended in the past: five in the afternoon. It ended early too, at seven p.m. Although that would be well short of midnight, the party invitation promised there’d be New Year’s countdown and ‘ball-drop’ that Dick Clark himself would have been proud of.
Like many parties, this one had gotten off to a bit of a slow start, which is common when the group consists of people who have little or no acquaintance with each other. So early on there was mostly small talk and a good bit of clinging to the ones you came with. That changed after a time, in large part due to the energy of the special guests for whom the evening was centered.
Soon some folks were eating, others were talking. Still others, the special ones, were really enjoying themselves. They were having fun playing games, banging on things and what not. See, like a lot of parties, this one had a theme. A very particular one: kids.
Now I enjoy grown-up parties as much as the next adult. But this event was designed and produced especially for young children. For most, it was their first time celebrating New Year’s Eve in this way. It was for me too. It wasn’t the first time I’d been to a child-centered affair, but what made this get-together so special, at least for me, was the fact that few people in the room knew a lot of others there. That meant folks had to step into uncertain conversations, stretch themselves.
As might be expected, the kids served as icebreakers. Moments of awkward adult silence were comfortably filled by warm words of encouragement to kids, rolling stray balls back to one tyke or another, and a general mindfulness for the safety of the particularly young ones in attendance.
When it was time, the group commenced a countdown. Instead of a glittering disco ball dropping from a Times Square skyscraper, the oldest child slowly lowered a colorful cardboard star from the ceiling to the floor. Folks kissed their partners and kids and offered well-wishes to others around the room.
There are lots of ways for different people from different places to come together in fellowship. A big one is food. Prepare the right meal (meaning something that tastes good) and watch all of a sudden how well folks can get along – especially if it’s free.
Perhaps the biggest thing people have in common with each other is kids. Granted, some adults don’t have or want them. But I’ll wager most of us have at least one child woven into their life. That sets the stage for even the strangest of strangers to have conversations – boasting and bragging on infants, or else complaining about teenagers.
               It’s a pipe dream but if I were king for a day, I’d insist on a shift in the way disputes are dealt with among people who view each other as threats or even enemies. I’d make them come to negotiations with nothing but their youngest kids, provide them with a bunch of toys, a nice spread for when they’re hungry, and let the younglings work their magic. Wonder what would happen?

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Overcome Prejudice by Facing It

Until somewhat recently, whenever I helped someone who was ‘different’ from me, I’d pat myself on the back believing I was a fair and just person. But I was only fooling myself. Turns out there was at least one group of people with whom I had issues. It was the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer (LGBTQ) community and it took the most innocent things on the planet for me to see it.
               Just like that stale cliché said, ‘Some of my best friends are gay.’ The thing was, I used to keep them at a distance. Not physically but through my thinking. It was shocking when I finally realized I had been defining them foremost as gay, downplaying all the other rich and complex things that make up human beings. I naively looked at sexual orientation first. In short, I saw them as gay people instead of people who are gay.
               What disturbs me most is that as a man of African American descent, I should have known better and been appreciating LGBTQ folks in more complete ways. I've had my own share of experiences being ‘the black guy’ – at the office, in church, in stores and on the street. Yet, there I was looking on folks in the LGBTQ community like they were ‘other’ people, and not like me.
               In reality, they were/are like me in so many ways. Ways that matter. Except back then I didn't see it. It took me visiting a family of five whose parents were lesbians to realize how I’d been thinking. There I was: talking football with one and watching the other cook. All while the kids laughed, played, hugged one mom, complained to the other mom, etc. In short, they went about their normal lives, like everyone else I know.
Lesbian family from TV's "All My Children"
               I think it was the children being there that helped remove my blind spot. Before that day, I’d never shared space in a family setting where the parents held a different sexual orientation than me. Up until that time all the friends I knew who were gay were single. There’s something about innocent younglings cutting up that lets you know everything is normal. In any event, that was a turning point for me. In that moment I was able to confront my prejudice and misconceived notions of what being gay means. And doesn’t mean.
               One thing that keeps us separate and apart as humans is that we don't fully interact with people we believe are different. Oh, we may be polite or even friendly. But mostly we trick ourselves into believing we accept others like we accept ourselves. Except we don't. Not really. And I was quite disappointed in myself when I finally came to realize I was acting in the same way so many people regarded me and other people of color. Or persons with disabilities or of a different religion. Or political party.
               Breaking bread, sharing problems, watching kids be kids – those simple activities went a long way in helping me truly comprehend we all are more alike than not. It was a bitter pill when I finally saw how narrowly I had been looking at many of my friends, and embarrassing how easy for me it had been to disregard another group of people’s way of being simply because it was different from my own. For me, all it took was spending authentic, family time with people I thought I understood but really didn’t.
               I now know that in order to best appreciate people, I must move toward them, not away. So as a reminder, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to be more alert to my prejudices. Who will join me?