Wednesday, July 28, 2004

A Bit of Commentary: Learn When to Pick Your Battles

After living more than 30 years and being told this message a thousand times, it seems odd that my biggest Achilles heel in life is adhering to these words from my mother: You have to learn when to pick your battles, baby.

While this may seem easy and second nature for many, this practice represents my most daunting task. “High-spirited,” “snappy,” “feisty,” and “stone-cold bitch” are all words that have been used to describe me regardless of whether I’m at home, at work or at church. I simply cannot seem to turn down a good fight—even when my opponent is hardly worth the effort.

But I love the art of the diss, and get a rush every time I put some numbskull in their place. I like to hear people’s voices shake when I’m laying them out with my fierce tongue-lashing. I love feeling my neck roll, and relishing in the awful lines I spit. I can be downright brutal, and sometimes, it feels great.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I usually reserve my verbal fury for those who earn it according to my definition. The problem is, that definition changes depending on my mood. So, I may go off on somebody who cheated me out of money as fast as I’d go off on a Starbucks worker for forgetting to stir my whipped cream into my overpriced cup of coffee (no offense, Starbucks…It’s just that I should own significant shares of stock in your company after all the overpriced cups I drank).

I might also go off on the telephone company for not installing my services properly. And, before I go further, let me apologize to all the folks in India that I’ve cussed out about my mobile telephone service because they made me repeat what I was saying way too many times.

Of the examples I’ve given—even though cheating someone out of their money is a serious thing—none really call for the effort I take to develop creatively offensive lines that would make your hair stand on end. It’s just not worth it. Nine times out of ten, the receiving party just dismissed me as some crazy flake…and to be honest, many times they were right.

I have to learn to handle and avoid conflict better. Here’s a perfect case in point…a friend moved downstairs from me in my two family apartment building, and brought her boyfriend along for the ride. Since he didn’t have a job, we all agreed that certain duties around the building—like taking the trash to the curb and shoveling the snow—would be his responsibility. He was cool with it until we got the first heavy snowfall.

That morning, I was outside trying to shovel snow from our massive, uphill driveway, and I wasn’t doing a very good job. Instead of helping me when he came out to bid his girlfriend adieu, he simply said “hello” to me and walked right back upstairs (his girlfriend drives a truck and didn’t park in their garage, so getting out wasn’t an issue for her). I especially thought this was odd, since the two of them had just eaten my food the night before, and because we had all agreed to the terms of the household. So, I asked what the problem was. He said, “Why should I help you shovel snow so that you can get out of the driveway?” I said, “It’s not just my driveway, it’s all of our driveway. Why would you want your own girlfriend to have to park on the street?” And with as much venom as I could muster, I ended with, “It ain’t like you got anything to do since you don’t have a job!”

And with that, he slammed their door in my face. I had to use a sick day because I couldn’t get out of my garage.

Well, the next day, I hired a company to come and remove the snow. As I got them started, I realized that it might be easier for them if I moved my car out of the garage. This would allow them to back the plow into the driveway and push the snow up the hill. They had cleared a path for me so that this wouldn’t be a problem.

But, I needed my keys to move the car. So, I went back upstairs to get them. As I was coming back down, I reached the landing of the basement stairwell. Just then, my friend’s boyfriend was making his way up the stairs. In an instant, he pushed past me, knocking me into the wall.

Now, if I had been smart at this point, I would have called somebody to deal with the situation (like my father or best male friend). Instead, I just start yelling at him—blatantly chastising him for the error and ignorance of his ways. While I’m arguing, I’m also making my way back up the steps to my apartment. I made it as far as the first landing before I said something that made him pause before he shut his door.

“Say it again,” he challenged.

So, naturally, I did. And the next thing I knew, my head was being mashed into the wall and my body slammed against the stairs. I was seeing stars as I was dialing 911. He left, of course, and hasn’t been back since. But I had to go through weeks with a lump on my head and an extremely unsightly bruise on my hip.

He was wrong for what he did. But there were other ways that I could’ve shown him this. For one thing, I should have let my friend show him the error of his ways. He was her problem, not mine. I should have just called somebody when he pushed me the first time. But no. I had to insert my two cents into the mix…and it caused me some pain I wasn’t expecting. And the whole issue was about nothing more than some damn snow!

My Mama always said that when you put people on the defensive, you had better be ready to deal with some shit. And this is one case where she was right. Sometimes, having too much to say, whether you’re right or wrong, can get your head split. The rest of the time, you’re just wasting energy that’s best devoted elsewhere.

So Mom, I’m finally listening. I will heed your advice and learn when and when not to keep my mouth shut. After all, life is too short to spend it arguing with the endless array of fools this society has to offer. And I’m much too cute to get my head split!

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Family Time: Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

One day, my Dad called me with what seemed, at first, to be a disturbing revelation. “Hey Baby Girl, some dude in Atlanta called saying he was your Brother. I need you to check it out.”

My first reaction/response: “How old is he, Dad?” You see, my Sister and I were in our 20s and early 30s at the time, so his answer needed to indicate a time of birth that did not conflict with the timing of our family. Otherwise, I wasn’t about to have too much more to say to my Dad.

“He’s older than you and your Sister. He was born before your Mother and I even met.”

And with that, I had the strength to make the call.

***

I called my Brother on a Thursday while I was still at work. I had no idea what to tell him, so I started the drill about who his people were, who was still alive and stuff like that. We agreed to see each other that weekend. But, I flaked, and conveniently “forgot” to call. His wife called me the next week to see what happened. I can’t even remember at this point what I said, but somehow it proved adequate enough, and we made a date to hook up the following weekend.

We got into some normal chit chat about life in general, goals and such. I was at a point when I was ready to leave my job at the time. We were also at a point in the conversation when I realized that my Sister-in-Law’s name and voice started sounding way too familiar.

We go on and on about work, and finally I say something that makes her respond, “That’s exactly how I felt when I worked in the Mayor’s Office.” And then it hit me…I also worked in the Mayor’s Office…and I had known my Sister-in-Law by her maiden name for more than five years. This world is just too small.

In fact, during the time of our joint employment, I had commented on the wedding photo in her office (she had just gotten married then), saying how handsome her husband was. She had also passed by my area and noticed the picture of Dad on my desk. She said the same thing about him. Little did we know at the time that, one day, we’d be hooking up to meet as a family.

The two of them told me all about the process of finding Dad. My Brother’s stepfather, who had raised him, died about a year before they started looking for Dad. My Brother had always assumed that his real father was some bum living in his hometown that just dumped his mother after finding out that she was pregnant.

It turns out that she never actually told my Dad about my Brother in the first place. She just stopped communicating with him altogether because her great aunts, with whom she was living at the time, didn’t like my Dad. So, she never told him, and simply dropped out of his life.

His mother told him that, as far as she knew, my Dad was living up north with his family. She thought he had two girls. She told my Brother his name, and he and my Sister-in-Law did a national white pages search on the Internet. My Dad was the only person in the country to come up under his name. So, they gave him a call.

***

The weekend rolls around, and I make my way over to my Brother’s house for our initial visit. He wasn’t there at the time…he hadn’t gotten home from the gym yet, and we were going to meet him at The Cheesecake Factory for brunch. As I sat in their living room, I noticed all the pictures of the Brother I had not yet met lining the bookcases along the walls. One look at this man, and I knew immediately what Dad wanted me to confirm. This was, without a doubt, my Brother. He looked more like Dad than me or my sister ever thought about looking. This was wild…exciting…some TV shit as far as I was concerned. It was great!

I called my Dad, and left a voice mail about my discovery. Then I headed off to The Cheesecake Factory to meet my Brother.

We sat and talked for hours, and I watched my Brother and Sister-in-Law interact with one another. He made a couple of playful jabs at her, and always ended by calling her “Woogie.” I heard it the first time, and dismissed it as my imagination. I heard it again, and just had to ask.

“Are you calling her Woogie?”

“Yes,” my brother said. “It’s just a play name that I made up.”

“That’s funny,” I said, “because Dad has called me Woogie for as long as I can remember.”

Now you go figure. How do two people, who have never seen or even known of each other prior to this point, come up with the same goofy nickname for the people they love? Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I think it’s special.

My Brother, Sister-and-Law, and I continued to develop our relationship from that point. A couple of months later, and we have Father’s Day staring us in the face. We decided to surprise my Father by bringing my new Brother home.

Big Brother and I arrived in my hometown sometime around 6pm the day before Father’s Day. I called right when we were getting off the highway to give my Mom time to prepare my Dad. We had other relatives in town, so everybody needed a little prep time before the big, new addition rolled into the household.

We got out of the car to a welcome committee of about 20 relatives and friends. It seems that all motion in the world stopped the minute my Father and new Brother saw each other for the first time…both of them staring into their own faces. It was fantastic. A Hallmark greeting card couldn’t have captured the moment accurately enough. It was such a joyous occasion.

After endless kisses and hugs, we all went inside and watched my Father and Brother disappear into the basement to watch sports and get acquainted. We all took turns taking a peek into the basement, and we would come back up and report our findings.

“Did you see the way they both just stare into the television with the same blank expressions?”

“Did you see the way they both sit with their legs crossed? It’s exactly the same way!”

“You can’t even tell them apart if you close your eyes and just listen to them.”

People can say whatever they want to about environment and the like, but DNA is truly a powerful thing as far as I can tell. My Father and new Brother had never spent a moment together in life. And at that time, my Brother was 34 years old. But, trust me, these two were carbon copies if I’ve ever seen them. One was simply an older version of the other.

The years since then have just drawn us closer. Initially, we were all worried about Mom’s reaction to the whole thing since this was not her son, and we’d had the perfect nuclear family since forever. But, she was cool with it. She said it was a beautiful thing. She had not been violated in any way, so how could she see it as anything other than a miracle. My Father was united with his son, and it was nothing but a blessing.

With all the stories in the world that detail just how touchy such situations can be, I thank God that ours was different. We added love to the family. And now that my Brother has a daughter, I got the Niece I always wanted.

All I wish was that my brother had been around when I was growing up to keep some of the knuckle-headed dudes away from me…

Oh well…I guess it’s better late than never.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Short Story Time: Mister County Commissioner

Since Angela hadn’t read the assigned chapters, she was glad to see the man standing at the front of her political science class that fall morning. It was the tail end of the campaign season, and all the politicians were making their rounds among the Atlanta University Center schools, trying to scrounge up sign holders and leaflet throwers. She would have to listen to a speech, but at least she wouldn’t be put on front street with a whole bunch of questions she didn’t know the answers to.

It didn’t seem like anybody in the classroom was anxious to hear whatever this man had to say. Most of the students were off in their own worlds, thinking about anything other than the political views he was about to share. “County Commissioner…,” she heard the professor say. For the next 50 minutes, it would be all rah-rah and yah-hoo about the homeless who would be housed, the jobs that would be created, the healthcare that would be available, and the family values that would be restored—all because she and her classmates carried his signs.

The speaker was a milk chocolate brown man with really pretty light brown eyes. He had a kind of Lionel Jefferson style to him with his mid-length afro all combed toward the front of his head. Angela thought he looked like a nerd. He certainly didn't look like anybody who could make any kind of difference for the people. He was ultra corporate-looking, and no brother in the 1990s is supposed to comb an afro to the front of his head. Some styles come back, but that one wasn't on anybody's radar screen.

And his voice. It had a Mr. Rogers vibe to it, Angela thought. She wasn't sure if this was going to be about politics of if they were about to have Story Time.

But what he said was a totally different matter altogether, and it seemed Angela wasn’t alone in her sudden tendency to hang on to his every word. This man didn’t seem like all the rest of the politicians she’d heard before. He actually sounded sincere.  His words transformed his voice from Mr. Rodgers to Mike Tyson. Yes, it was still weird, but you just knew you’d be in for a rude awakening if you fucked with this man. Angela was impressed. And like almost all the rest of the students in her class, she signed up to do whatever she could do to help this man be the next County Commissioner.

She made countless phone calls, and put flyers on all the cars in her seven assigned church parking lots each week for three weeks. She stood in the rain to do last minute shouting and sign holding on election day, and was happy as she could be when they announced his victory that night at his campaign headquarters. It was the highlight of her sophomore year.

When Angela came back for her junior year, she got a job at a nonprofit agency that offered good experience but didn’t pay a single dime. After dozens of bounced checks and way too many close calls on eviction notices, she realized the experience thing was great, but she needed a paying job. So she called County Commissioner to see if he could offer any leads. After all, she didn’t get paid to work on his campaign, and helping with a job search was the least he could do. He promised all the students that his door was open and that he owed them one.

County Commissioner's day job was a lawyer, and his law office was jammed inside a residential house in the “hood” of southwest Atlanta. The house was small and cramped with books and too much old furniture. His office, converted from what would have been the dining room if somebody was actually living there, looked like the paper fairy had blessed it the night before with stacks for days on small tables and TV trays lining the walls. The built-in bookcases overflowed with every law book under the sun. But, oddly enough, his desk was quite clean. Just a few papers, some framed pictures, a pen, the phone and a single file folder.

Angela sat in the empty chair in front of his executive desk. He greeted her with a bright smile, looking larger than life in his high-back leather chair.

"It's good to see you again. How are your classes coming?"

"Great. I've started my investigative journalism class..." She proceeded with the usual rhetoric you might give to an uncle you hadn't seen in a while. All the highlights older people want to hear like, “school is great,” “I’m learning a lot,” “I’m meeting great people,” and stuff like that. She didn't exactly want to ask him for something right out of the starting gate, so she tried to drag out her "perfect student" speech until she felt like the timing was right.

"Well, you said you needed to talk to me, so tell me what really brings you here." Okay, Angela thought. This was obviously the time to tell him, but there was something weird about his vibe. It was too cat-daddy. She wasn't really expecting this from him.

"I've been working for the Women & Baby Health Advisory for the past six months.  It's a great internship, and I'm getting a lot of great experience in media relations and public affairs. But, I'm not getting paid any money, and I really need a job. I was wondering if you knew of anybody I should talk to, or if there were any doors you could open for me personally?"

"I'd be more than happy to help you," he said, immediately filling Angela with a sense of comfort that her broke days were coming to an end. "Hold on for a second. Let me just make a phone call."

Angela heard him ask to speak to some man she knew had to be important. His tone went from cat-daddy to corporate too quick. She heard him tell the person about her, saying she was majoring in journalism and had some hands-on experience in public relations. He told the person that she was looking for a job she could do while she finished school. She heard a few okay's and saw him write something down, and then County Commissioner hung up the phone.

"That was the president of ComTech...you're familiar with the company, right?"

"Yes, definitely." Angela was getting really excited now. This could lead to a job after school. This company was a telecommunications giant.

"Well, he says you should report to their Dunwoody office on Monday and ask for Charlotte Brown. She will be familiar with your name. You'll fill out an application and take a test of some kind. They're going to place you in the corporate communications department as a part-time administrative assistant. But, I know you can network your way into a full-time job if you want to. And, I'll be more than happy to help you as long as we can be friends."

"Oh absolutely!" She practically screeched at County Commissioner, she was so happy. "I will certainly make the most of it and I really appreciate you recommending me. I wasn't expecting to literally walk out of here with a job. This is wonderful. Thank you!"

He stood up and walked around to the front of his desk and propped himself against the edge with his legs spread open.

"Why don't you come show me how thankful you are?" Cat-daddy was back in full force and then some, like his brief departure was so that he could recharge to super strength. The look in his eyes literally frightened Angela. He looked so foreign from the hero she'd come here to see. Gone was the champion, and now she was faced with some mid-life crisis pervert who actually thought she was going to give him some as payback for a job. He was acting like it was her obligation for the good deed he had done, rather than his obligation for her job well done during his campaign. Like he had been the one standing in the rain holding up signs for her election! Angela was totally confused.

"What do you mean?" She honestly couldn’t think of a better response to his preposterous request.

"Come on, you're a junior in college. You know exactly what I mean. Come over here and show me how much you appreciate the job I just got you. I promise, I won’t hurt you. Are you scared? You look like a woman to me. And a fine one. Come show me how happy you are about what I did. You can start with a kiss."

Angela was horrified. She was 19 years old and this man was at least her father's age. He was married, had a son her age and, up until five minutes ago, she thought he actually had her best interests at heart. What had she done to deserve this? She was dressed professionally in a dark pantsuit. Her hair was pulled back into a simple bun. Her earrings were studs. She tried purposely to look conservative so that he would know that she wasn't just some dumb college student who might tarnish his reputation by getting a job somewhere and dressing and acting like she didn't have any sense.

Why was he flipping like this? Her hands were literally trembling, she was so shaken. Never before now had she been faced with a situation that she had absolutely no clue as to what the best move was. "I don't think of you that way," she almost whispered, unable to mask her stunned feelings.

"You don't think of me what way?"

"I don't think of you in a way that would make me come over there and kiss you," she said, slowly but surely finding her confidence again.

"And how do you think of me?" He was still standing there with his legs propped open.

"More like a mentor,” Angela said. “If it were personal, I'd say something along the lines of an uncle. But nobody that I would kiss the way you're implying.”

“But I am not your uncle. And I thought you liked me.” He crossed both his legs and his arms now, but still stood against the edge of the desk.

“I do, but just not like a boyfriend.”

He was visibly frustrated, and his ego had obviously taken a blow. His entire attitude went from cat-daddy to outright indignant as he marched from the front of the desk back to his seat, sitting with a high-and-mighty air that even the Queen of England couldn’t master.

“I never said I was your boyfriend, and I damn sure ain’t your uncle! You walk into my office and ask me for something and then act like you don’t have to give something to get something. You obviously aren’t a woman yet, because you don’t know anything about relationships in the grown up world.

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to do anything to mess up the job I just got you, because I don’t want to have to explain why. But let me be real clear in telling you not to ever call me or come see me again until you change your mind. If you want to be friends, I’ll do anything in the world for you, and I can make your life easy. But you need to learn what friendship is all about first. Now get out of my office.”

Angela fought back tears while she gathered her purse and jacket and headed for the door. She halfway wanted to call her father and get him to come down to Atlanta and beat this man’s ass. But all she had the energy to do was go home and cry.

Her Midwestern upbringing had not prepared her for this kind of fuckery. A man who had been her real life political hero had turned out to be just an old-ass pervert. A disgusting asshole like the ones she had only heard about on television. He was the kind of man her parents warned her about—the faceless danger that could strike at any time and during the most unsuspecting of circumstances.

Angela started her job at ComTech just as planned, and never spoke to County Commissioner again until the end of her senior year. On a whim, she decided to see whether or not he had realized the error of his ways or if he was still the asshole she remembered.

She figured County Commissioner might be able to contact that same bureaucrat he called before, and secure a permanent job for her in ComTech’s corporate communications department. She had already worked her own angles to ensure that she was a strong candidate, but she was curious to see whether cat-daddy had retired or if he was still alive and well in the County Commissioner’s Office.

“Hi there. It’s Angela Meyers…Remember me?”

“Sure, I remember you, Angela. How’s everything going? I’ve heard great things about you at ComTech. They say you’re doing a great job.”

“I didn’t know you had been keeping up,” Angela said, surprised by the fact that he was even interested.

“Sure I’ve been keeping up. You don’t think I would send someone for a job on my say so, and not find out how they’re doing. This is my reputation, you know.”

“Well, I’m glad you know that I’ve been doing a good job. They have a job open in corporate communications that is full time. Would you be willing to do one last favor as one last ‘thank you’ for a job well done on your campaign?” Angela tried to sound as light-hearted as possible, considering the perceived demon she was talking to on the other end of the phone.

“That depends on you,” County Commissioner said. “Have you changed your mind about our friendship?”

“No, I haven’t. I still feel the same way about it as before.”

“Well then, I’ll tell you like I told you before. Don’t call me again until you change your mind.”

And with that, Angela hung up the phone—realizing that old demons never learn new tricks.

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