How can you not love Adele?
I was talking to one of my Musical Soulmates over the weekend, because when something new comes out that we both do/should/would like, we discuss it a little. I felt like Adele was likely not on his radar because she’s not really on mine, but 30 pulled me in, so I wanted to spread the good word. I am very close to becoming an Adele Fan after this album, but I’ve always liked her public persona.
Adele’s concert special just dropped and I would like to ask y’all again: How can you not love Adele? She seems to be such a genuine, decent, lovely person, and it is a known fact that people who loved their middle school English teachers are better than the rest of us. Watch this clip where she talks about a teacher she only had for a year but who impacted the rest of her life.
We all have that one teacher who changed our life… such a beautiful reunion! ❤️— ITV (@ITV) November 21, 2021
*PS, would totally buy Alan Carr’s version of ‘Make You Feel My Love* 🤣@Adele #AnAudienceWithAdele https://t.co/2ZZI2RS0mI pic.twitter.com/hlTOOZKt5j
That teacher who excited you or makes you feel special does stay with you forever. If my middle school band director hadn’t let me “noodle in the stands” I wouldn’t be living in New York City right now.
Noodling is when you’re playing around on your instrument while you’re not supposed to be, and doing that at a football game in the stands when the band isn’t playing is a big no-no. I had been messing around on the piano at home before a football game and I was plinking out “Push It” by Salt N Pepa. I thought it would sound good at a football game, so I transposed it for saxophone (my instrument) and I decided I was going to teach it to my homegirl Britney at the game. Mr. Hooper, our band director, caught us and told us to stop noodling in the stands, and I asked him if I could teach her a song. He made us put our scarves in the bell to mute ourselves and I taught her “Push It.” Once she had it, I figured out the harmony to it, and Mr. Hopper let us play it like twice.
That was the first time I ever “arranged” something, but it gave me the confidence to play by ear. That confidence came in handy when our football team went to state, because there was a big mellophone solo in our second song during the halftime show, but the mellophone player got in trouble or something (I don’t remember what happened) and she couldn’t go with us. Mr. Hopper knew I knew everybody’s part, because everybody’s part was more interesting than alto sax, and he told me to play Christy’s solo for him in his office the week before the big game. He gave me some pointers, and the solo was mine. Walking from my spot on in the back of the formation to take my solo position on the 50 yard line at the state championship was probably the highlight of my life up through 8th grade.
Later that year I went to All-State Band and I thought one of the songs we played would sound good at a football game. I remembered what I could, made my own staff paper, and wrote it out for each instrument. When I asked Mr. Hopper if we could play it, he said yes, and even though I had the baritone transposition completely wrong, he asked me to stay after school. He told me I had a real talent for music. I was 12 or 13 at the time, so there were musicians who were objectively better at their instrument, because I had only been playing sax for a couple of years, but he told me he was impressed with my ears.
I never wanted to be a professional sax player, but I loved music. Mr. Hopper told me I had good ears, and I kept arranging music. I arranged marching band and acapella music all through college. I was able to start making a few extra coins and that supplemented my income when I moved to NYC and couldn’t find a job that would pay my rent. I don’t really do it much anymore, but Mr. Hopper was the first person to tell me I was really good at something, and you never really forget it.
So shoutout to the teachers out there. Somebody remembers what you told them, and it still makes them smile decades later.
Maid is the best show on Netflix.
There’s no more realistic portrayal of single motherhood in poverty than this series.
I do a lot of stream-of-conscious thoughts about things I’ve seen and I call them Hot Takes. These are Hot Takes, but a little more in-depth than usual, with some personal reflections at the bottom.
1. C’mon Emmys! Everybody is doing their good good acting here. I used to sweep hair in my mama’s salon and I used to do electrical work on my daddy’s remodeling jobs, so I know the pressure of doing your best work with a parent around. So, props to Margaret Qualley for hanging in there with her mom, because Andie McDowell ain’t no slouch.
2. Lo-key was waiting on Anika Noni Rose to break into song, at least a lullaby or something.
3. You can call it prostitution or whatever you want, but you not finna put me in a house with this man and expect me to keep my draws on.
4. The shame of being poor is so complicated and layered. You know you need help. Your friend in a position to help you knows you need help. You also know that your friend knows. And yet, you pretend you do not need help! Your friend pretends that you do not need help, because they are ashamed that you need help and they want to avoid making you feel more ashamed about needing help.
It’s all an extension of this value we put on people based on how much money they make. Rich people are rich because they are good people and are being rewarded for being hard-working, good people. Poor people are poor because of some moral failure. Part of the reason the fight for higher minimum wages is so tough is this moral hierarchy of salaries. The person who bags groceries deserves to make enough money to live, but giving them a higher salary puts them closer to your salary, and you feel like you’re a better person than they are because you made choices (or had choices) that kept you from being in a position to bag groceries. You want to be able to look down on people who you feel made bad choices or don’t work hard enough.
So, it’s hard to ask for help. You don’t want your friend to look down on you like a person who made bad choices or doesn’t want to work hard enough. You pretend everything is fine so you can look like a good person.
5. The fact that Alex also has to parent her mother is a great addition. I think a lot of conversations about single mothers stop there, at providing for their child. A lot of people in poverty are there because of the lack of choices they had growing up, which is a reflection of the environment created by their parents. Young adults are sometimes caring for their parents too.
6. Also, I’ve been working out in my head how to word this and it’s always clunky, but here goes: I like that this story is about a white woman. One of the reasons why conversations about social safety nets and universal healthcare and access to housing only go so far is racism. There are too many White Americans who will cut off their nose to spite their face — they don’t want Black people to get “free stuff” so nobody ends up getting aid. The picture of the Welfare Mother as painted by (Mostly Conservative) White America is a Black woman in an inner city with multiple children by multiple men locked up by the state. It’s not an intelligent white girl running from a bad situation cleaning toilets to get by. I think Maid is an important piece of art about poverty because everyone can watch it devoid of race. Conservatives can “see themselves” and Liberals can see poverty divorced from having a conversation about what part race plays in the choices we have.
7. It’s a near-perfect limited series for me. I haven’t read any of Stephanie Land’s essays (the story is based on her), but now I’m going to. I can’t say anymore here without spoiling it, but it touched me very deeply and it’s taken me about a week to process it. I’m about to add some more personal observations, but there will be spoilers, so you can stop here if you haven’t watched it.
I watched this last week, but it’s taken me a long time to be able to process how it made me feel. Y’all, I was sobbing multiple times throughout the course of that series, because it was so accurate. I’ve been homeless and I’ve made bad decisions because of mental health struggles and I’ve worked in a domestic violence shelter just like that, and I was transported. The stories are told so well.
I’ve used pennies to pay for something off the dollar menu. I have budgeted every cent I had for the entire month to make sure I had enough money to ride the subway to work…but only to work. There was a bad patch years ago where I had been unexpectedly fired from a job and had trouble finding a new one. When I finally got an offer, I didn’t have any money for transportation to and from work until my first paycheck, so I walked home every day. Three hours, regardless of the weather. I had to walk home, because I had budgeted everything I had until my first paycheck. I’ve negotiated labor with a landlord. I had been living in an illegal basement apartment where the owner got caught and I had to leave with no money for First, Last, and Security. This old gay man on the UWS let me live there for reduced rent in exchange for errands, cooking, and cleaning.
When I saw Alex’s pocket of cash slowly depleting with each essential purchase, y’all. Y’all! I was sobbing. I check my bank accounts and credit card balances multiple times a day, every single day, to make sure I still have money. Before I buy anything at the grocery store or put my card down to pay a bill in a restaurant or make a purchase online, I check the account to make sure there’s money in it. Logically, I’ll know that I have more than enough money to last me for a few months, but I have to check, to make sure the money is there. Every single time! I mean, I don’t have any money now because my savings dried up during the pandemic, but even when I’m comfortable, I still feel very uncomfortable.
Not having enough money to live is embarrassing and soul crushing and you don’t want to talk about it, because you’re ashamed that you failed. But you need to talk about it, because you still have to live, and you need help. The way Maid captured that tightrope act is masterful storytelling.
Paula, Alex’s mother, adds an entirely new level that we don’t often see. I’ve never had to care for anyone other than myself, but in caring for myself I saw a lot of Paula. I’ve made a lot of bad decisions because my brain was too foggy to make the right ones. I once lost a job because I couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks. I knew I had to work and I knew what would happen if I didn’t go to work, but I couldn’t actually make myself get up and leave my room. I’ve put myself in so many abusive situations for some sense of stability. Sometimes I could see that where I was or what I was doing was unhealthy or dangerous, but I put it aside, because you gotta eat. That’s about as much detail as I’m ready to put online, but I’ve told myself “I’m fine!” a lot, when I was absolutely not fine.
And the shelter…
I’m still in a bad place because one of my girls from the shelter overdosed a few months ago. I can’t shake it and I want to find another way to help that’s further up the chain of command. When you work in a DV shelter (and I volunteered in one for a decade), you do see the same faces come back and forth. And then one day you don’t see them again and you wonder, “are they back in a bad situation or did they finally shake it?” But you can’t wonder too long, because there’s a new face. There’s always a new face.
When Alex is back with her ex and down an emotional void toward the end of the series, I had to take a break. I think I cried for like ten minutes. There are so many women I never saw again at some point, and I know that’s where they are — in a void, just going through the motions, trying to survive. They’re stuck there because we don’t have enough systems in place to pull them out. We have court systems that won’t help you leave an abusive situation until you have a black eye or a broken bone. No rewards for being smart enough and brave enough to see the physical abuse coming just beyond the horizon — you have to stay until you get hit, and then maybe there’ll be assistance for you.
It takes a special kind of person to do that work for decades, and it’s not me. I can’t go back to a DV shelter. I don’t have the inner strength necessary to do it and I don’t know how I feel about that. I’ve told myself that it’s okay to admit you’re not strong enough to help the way you want to help, but I grew up with guilt as part of my upbringing. I feel like I’m failing myself.
But it also makes me more determined to find a way to help further up the chain. The more steps removed you are from the day she leaves a bad situation, the more women you are dealing with who are absolutely ready to leave for good.
I want to be the person who can offer a job. Her boss wasn’t the best boss, but Alex was able to make money because there was someone there offering (very basic, mildly exploitative) employment for someone with no skills.
I want to be the person who can offer housing. When my mom married my dad, she didn’t sell her house, because she was proud of it. She was a single Black woman in the South who bought her own house, and when she moved in with my dad, she rented her house out to other single Black women who would’ve had trouble finding housing elsewhere. She accepted low income housing credits and she adjusted the rent based on what the woman could pay.
I want to be the person who can offer free legal services. If Alex had had a lawyer the first time she went to court, she wouldn’t have lost her daughter for a week. If she hadn’t had a lawyer the second time around, she wouldn’t have been able to take her daughter to college with her so she could make a new life for herself.
What I really want to do is go to med school to be an OBGYN so I can give my time to free clinics in underserved communities of color. There are no unwanted children in Maid, but in reality, that’s the number one predictor of poverty for women. Unwanted children keep women shackled to bad situations and oftentimes it’s the result of no access to reproductive services. Birth control, from preventative to reactive, needs to be free and available.
There are so many reasons Maid is a good show, but the realism is intense. There’s no part of it that I didn’t recognize in some way, either personally or through the stories of women I’d met in the DV shelter. Everyone who has ever been poor can relate. Every woman who has ever been in an abusive situation can relate. And everyone who has experienced neither should watch it for a glimpse into what those lives are like.
A Lesson Before Dying
Parents are people, and they don’t have all the answers either.
I was the absolute nosiest child in all of South Carolina.
My parents weren’t the typical Southern Christian Black Conservative parents of the 80s in many ways. On the outside, they didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, and went to church multiple times a week. I didn’t realize it until I was much older, but inside our house they were more progressive in the way they thought about family and the roles we play. There was no Man’s Work or Woman’s Work in our house really. My mom cut grass, because she liked to be outside. My dad did most of the laundry, because he liked to fold and iron clothes on Sundays watching sports.
As for me, I didn’t really get treated like a child who should be seen and not heard. I watched the news with my parents every night, so if they were talking about missiles in Iraq over dinner and I had something to say, they let me say it. Other parents left their kids at home when they went out to dinner with their friends, but mine took me along. I usually brought a book to read, but I was always eavesdropping, and on the car ride back to the house, they treated me like an equal third in the gossip.
I was the nosiest child in all of South Carolina because my parents loved to gossip and let me participate. Being nosey also meant I was a snoop and I was always going through my sister’s stuff. She was already out of the house, in college, and married hundreds of miles away, but you know how it is when you’re first starting out. You leave a lot of stuff at home in your old bedroom, and I felt it was my right, as a nosey child and younger brother, to go through all that stuff. I stole her CDs, tried on her heels and her prom dress, read her diaries from high school, and I also borrowed her books.
Shel Silverstein was my first favorite author. I don’t remember how I came across him, but I had read a lot of his stuff by second grade and A Light In The Attic was the first hardcover book I ever owned.
My sister kept most of her CD collection (she had multiple 300-disc binders because she bought new music every Tuesday) in a big trunk that also had some of her college books. I saw a book that reminded me of Shel Silverstein.
Obviously these books have nothing to do with each other and looking at them as an adult, it’s so strange that I would link them at all. Maybe I thought the house by Shel looked like a drawing of the house by Ernest. Whatever the reason that I’ve forgotten decades later, I still remember thinking of Shel when I took the book and started reading it.
Without giving away the entire plot of A Lesson Before Dying if you haven’t read it, it’s a story about race in Louisiana in the 1940s. A Black man is on trial for capital murder, and his white defense lawyer argues against the death penalty by comparing the accused to a hog: there’s no point in executing such a stupid, simple beast incapable of higher thought. It would be a waste of the state’s time and resources since the accused could no better plan a murder/robbery than a pig could. He was sentenced to death and the rest of the book mostly consists of conversations between the convict and a Black teacher who has been tasked with helping this man understand his humanity so he can walk to the electric chair as a man.
It’s very light reading for a seven-year-old!
I don’t know what I thought the first time I read it, because I’ve read it too many times since. I was about two-thirds through before my mom took it upon herself to read the book jacket. She’d seen me with the book, but she always saw me reading stuff. She used to drop me off at the library while she ran errands and she never much bothered with what I might be reading. But she read the book jacket and took it away from me because of the subject matter. She said it was way too mature (which it was), but I told her I wanted to know how it ended. I tried to negotiate when she said no, and in the end she decided we’d finish it together so we could discuss it and she could explain it to me.
You can’t explain all the nuances of racism to a second grader. You can barely explain the nuances of racism to an adult white person. It’s just something you have to live, but she did her best. The next year, we read it again, and I knew a little more. We read it again the next year, and we had more things to discuss. We read A Lesson Before Dying seven or eight times before I went off to boarding school. Ernest J. Gaines was the third author I could call a favorite (in the interim, I had discovered the trashy pulp fiction of Stuart Woods, which was full of guns and polite descriptions of oral sex, but my mom never read any of those book jackets).
Years pass. Life goes on. Our relationships with our parents change. After I was outed to my mom in middle school, ours was irreparably damaged and I lost my best friend forever. I spent the next ten years or so watching her descend further into Christian Desperation around why I couldn’t shake my homosexual demons, so I just gave up and stopped speaking to her. I didn’t deserve the guilt trip she laid on me every time I called to check on her from my home in NYC, so the last time I called her for her birthday over a decade ago, I made the decision it would be the last time I would speak to her until she came to her senses. When my birthday rolled around, my sister convinced me to at least reach out to her by e-mail and really explain to her how I was feeling, so I did that. I didn’t get a response, but I hadn’t expected one.
My mom died suddenly a few weeks after I sent my birthday e-mail. I was having dinner with a friend when my brother-in-law called to say she had been flown by helicopter to the nearest metropolitan hospital. She was dead before my flight arrived. The next couple of weeks were mostly spent making sure my dad was okay (my mom was the second wife he’d lost), and making sure he had access to all of her financials and password-locked accounts. In the sent folder of her e-mail account, there was one to me. My mom didn’t reply to the birthday e-mail I’d sent her, but after it sat in her inbox for a few days, she typed up a brand new one and sent it to me. I never got it because she sent it to an e-mail address that I don’t check anymore. I opened it and the first line said “I’m sorry…” so I started crying and closed the message. Later I printed it out and took it back with me to New York where it sat in a notebook that I opened once a year to try to finish it. It took me years and years of therapy to actually be able to read it, but I finally did. I can tell it was just as hard for her to write as it was for me to read.
That was much later though. And you might be wondering what this has to do with Ernest J. Gaines. I flew back to New York, “I’m sorry…” e-mail in tow, and one of my best friends randomly decided we should get tattoos. I’d wanted one before and never made the commitment because I wasn’t sure what to get, but I finally knew. I dug out an old birthday card my mom had sent, and I took it with me to a tattoo shop in the East Village with my friend. I asked the guy if he had a script that looked close to her handwriting, and he did. And this was my first tattoo:
Everyone says it looks like “a leckon” which it does, but I didn’t want it touched up, because her handwriting was imperfect too. She was imperfect. She did the best she could with the lessons that had been taught to her in the church, but when I read that she was sorry, I knew she had learned one more lesson before dying. It would be years before I could get past the first line of her e-mail, but I saw all I needed. I didn’t get to talk to her about it, but when I look down, I see her handwriting of my favorite book as a child, back when our relationship was idyllic and progressive and gossipy. I remember the lessons she taught me every year about being a Black man, and I’m happy to have known her.
(*This post was inspired by a tweet that asked “What is a work of fiction (novel, comic, TV show, movie, what have you) that changed the way you thought about the real world?” I hadn’t thought anything about race at all before A Lesson Before Dying so it pretty much served as my first introduction to injustice and inhumanity.)
Everything is broken.
What are y’all doing to preserve joy? I’m very sad.
I was depressed after I moved to NYC. Years and years later I would finally get diagnosed with depression and anxiety, but back then I just looked for coping mechanisms to make me feel better. I didn’t want to do drugs, because they make you look old. I didn’t want to eat my feelings, because I’d already been chunky when I was younger and could vividly remember my babysitter calling me “husky” for the first time when I was in second grade. And I didn’t have any money — retail therapy wasn’t option.
So I volunteered. I learned during COVID lockdowns last year that I’m actually a nurturer, and taking care of people makes me feel better. When I was new to the city, I volunteered because it made me put my struggles into perspective: I hated my apartment on the top floor of an overpriced building in Bushwick where they were making crack in the basement, and I couldn’t find a job that paid me enough to eat more than bologna and cereal, but I did have a roof and I did have food and I did have my health. Volunteering also tapped into my desire to help people feel better, so it was a win-win. I started volunteering at a battered women’s shelter, which turned into babysitting for their kids when they had job interviews. Babysitting eventually became a full-blown youth program in the neighborhood complete with college prep, tutoring, and museum trips.
I met so many kids over the past decade who I think about all the time. One girl made me want to rip my hair out because she used to drag everybody around her unprompted, so I had to discipline her, but I also had to hold in the laughter each time because she was so smart and the reads were good. She works for the MTA now. There was a little gay boy who used to follow me around everywhere. The center was administered through a Catholic Church and he was just so fascinated by an openly queer man traipsing through the building like I owned the place. He’s currently at CUNY to be a teacher. One of my kids got into Penn. One is a manager at the Target where I shop.
One night years ago, maybe 8 years ago thinking back to the apartment I was living in at the time, I got a call around 3am. One of the women said a teenaged girl had walked in. She thought the girl had been sexually assaulted, but the police hadn’t been called yet because the girl was asking for me specifically. I got dressed and went, but I didn’t recognize her when I got there. I pretended to, but I had no idea who this girl was. June looked to be around 13, and she was disheveled, but she obviously wasn’t living on the street. Street kids never come in wearing a satin bonnet on their hair.
I was able to pull the backstory out of her. June and her mom had briefly stayed at the shelter a couple of years ago when they ran away from the home they shared with a man who was physically abusive. I guess June’s mother and boyfriend worked it out soon after, because she went back to him and I never saw the mom or June again, but I did remember her after I talked to her for awhile. She was good at math I think. Or science. It was a long time ago, but I remember being impressed with a class she was taking at her age.
Fast forward a couple of years, and mom’s boyfriend raped June, so she ran back to us. She said she felt safe at the shelter and she didn’t know where else to go. She didn’t want to run to the police because the boyfriend’s brother is a cop, but we talked her into it. What other choice did we have? The system is imperfect, but without reporting it, there was absolutely no way for her to protect herself from this man.
She ended up with CPS and I don’t know what happened after that. I dropped the ball. Her mom was on and off drugs, so I don’t know if she was on June’s side or the boyfriend’s side, but I would guess the boyfriend. We saw a lot of instances where the man would take an interest in the daughter, and the mother would blame the daughter for “enticing” him. But yeah, I totally lost track of her. She never came back to the center and I just let myself forget about it. We had so many kids come through with their mothers that we’d see for a week or two and then they were back to their lives. I don’t think you can keep them all in your spirit, because emotionally and mentally, it will wear you down and tear you apart.
A couple of days ago I was chatting with one of the kids I met back in the day, Alissa. We were giggling about memories we both had from when she used to come by for the afterschool program. Sometimes they find me on social media and it’s nice to see them doing well. Alissa has a kid and does nails not too far from the center. A lot of them live right in the same area, and they know each other because they went to the same schools or they’re related.
Alissa told me June died a few months ago of an overdose, probably fentanyl-laced heroin. She doesn’t know what happened with June’s rapist, but June was in foster care for a few years, aged out, and worked the streets selling sex for rent money, and then for drugs. Alissa and June had mutual friends from the neighborhood because they went to school together and she got those pieces of the story through the grapevine.
I don’t know how I feel. I’ve heard bad outcomes before. One of the kids I used to tutor in English was shot and killed a couple of years ago. A few have been in and out of jail. You try to focus on the wins and realize you can’t help everybody, but so so so many people failed June and I feel heavy inside. If her mother had had support to get off drugs, support that wasn’t immediately tied to imprisonment for possession, it’s possible she could’ve stood on her own two feet without a man, and she wouldn’t have had her daughter around an abusive boyfriend who would eventually rape her. If the foster system was equipped to provide guidance for young adults, June wouldn’t have been on her own when she turned 18 without resources. If we had better social safety nets in this country, she wouldn’t have been forced to do sex work to keep a roof over her head.
I don’t write about politics and current events as much as a I used to. For a few years, I was making a decent income breaking down the news of the day into my own words so other people could take an interest in what was going on in the country. I felt like I was helping people get involved — by giving my POV, they would be inspired to do something. I liked getting messages from readers about how I made them look at something differently or why they donated to a certain cause because of what I said. I was being helpful, and that’s the nurturing part of me. I could make the world a better place by staying informed and keeping others informed too.
And then I stopped believing that. I just did not want to write anymore after the 2016 election. It peeled back too many layers of the country and I didn’t think anything was actually fixable. The United States is rotten to the core. Everything is broken and nothing works. Human nature isn’t as intrinsically good as I’d hoped. You can’t teach empathy and you can’t help someone care about human suffering, so what was the point?
I do appreciate the people who have the moral foundation and mental fortitude to continue fighting the good fight, so I didn’t think it was responsible of me to put more negative energy out there. Better to be silent and let the fighters fight than to get on this soapbox and continually tell people how broken everything is.
I got diagnosed with depression and anxiety a few years ago, and after some false starts, I found the right pharmaceutical cocktail for me, and some of the negativity lifted. Everything isn’t terrible all the time. There is joy all around us. Even in times of darkness, the overall trajectory of humanity is still an upward trend in a positive direction. It’s hard out here though. June has me down a well and I’ve been at the bottom of it for a couple of days now. Why didn’t I check on her? She should be working at Target or doing nails or going to CUNY to be a teacher. She shouldn’t be dead. She asked for me specifically when she ran to the shelter for help, and then I just…released her to the system and into the world.
I don’t know y’all. I’m trying to focus on the wins and keep the positives in mind, but I’m tired. Some of y’all who have been reading this site for a long time wonder why I don’t write as much anymore, and I just don’t always have the energy to pay attention to the world the way I used to. There are just so many Junes and I don’t know what to do about it.
What are y’all doing to preserve joy? I’m very sad today.
Hot Takes: House of Gucci
Christmas Music Playlists!
I had a band director like Adele’s English teacher.
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Teach Critical Race Theory to kindergarteners.
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