activism, Learning, race, Take Action

Reading Beyond

tinho book mural

This time last year, I decided to change how I read. Or, more accurately, to change what I read. It was one small way to keep breathing expansiveness and hope at a time when despair threatened to suffocate both.

As is true for any bibliophile, reading fills up swaths of the time I’m not working or sleeping. Certainly other activities populate the days — eating, dancing, hanging with the kiddo, chilling with the girlfriends. Church and family. In fact, I trip and tumble over the heaps of stuff comprising our days. It’s a wonder stories make it in here at all.

Nevertheless, as is also true for any bibliophile, I find a way. The rare hushed hours, those still stretches, most deliciously belong to books. Bedtime, summertime, solitary dinners. And not always solitary. Sometimes my boy and I read side-by-side at the table weaving tendrils of languid conversation into the quiet. Even at eleven years old, Bug still wants me reading aloud every night at bedtime. We travel through the fantasy worlds we’ve entered together. Having only just acquired a TV after nearly five years without, the universes of film and television hold little appeal. Our secret indulgences almost always involve the page. Continue reading “Reading Beyond”

Art, Creativity

Sometimes The Owls Are Exactly What They Seem: The Banality of David Lynch

black lodge 2

I loved it. Identified with it. Bought the soundtrack and made copies for all my friends.

Even so, something about it turned me off.

Every few weeks, my fellow freaks and I gathered in a friend’s living room to marathon-watch taped episodes of Twin Peaks on Betamax. We buzzed over Laura Palmer’s diary and even tossed around the idea of dressing up as the show’s characters for Halloween.

When they tapped me to wrap myself in a plastic drop-cloth, I balked.

Because something about it turned me off.

Continue reading “Sometimes The Owls Are Exactly What They Seem: The Banality of David Lynch”

Change, Purpose

The Myth of Colorblindness

We tell ourselves the story that we have triumphed over the (official) racism of the land. We say, “It was awful then.” Then we twist ourselves into logical contortions to explain or ignore mass incarceration of Black men, the economic marginalization of communities of color, and a whole continuum of institutional racism.

In the post-civil rights era, newer forms of racism present formidable obstacles because they recruit and rely on our belief system about racial equality and egalitarianism. They hold that we exist in a meritocracy, and any consideration of race in policy or access is itself indicted as racism.  The new forms are more insidious than the public expressions of white supremacy so easily identified and vilified as racist.  Our shared narrative is a public expression of racial equality.  Continue reading “The Myth of Colorblindness”

People Watching, Things I Can

66. Things I Can Cross: Campus at the Edge of Could

They sit on the grass in a loose circle. Rain has steamed the patches that remain to a fecund spill of harlequin and jade. The one with long hair and glasses is a swaying stem, her pod at the edge of splitting open. “He had a whole philosophy about the virtues,” she says. Her hands flit out to catch the round putty of this idea then stretch it out, out.

On these summer days when dusk falls near bedtime, the lunch hour employs a more forgiving clock. Two men in dusty coveralls striped with orange reflective tape sprawl on a bench next to chain link. A temporary enclosure wraps around campus like silver Christmas ribbon, knotted somewhere hidden, impossible to pull free. You’d have to find the shears. Behind them, a sign strapped to wire: Do Not Move Fence. Someone has not only tried but succeeded. The lousy lot of us — students and faculty and staff, our shared absence of virtue rendering us indistinguishable from one another — has such an excess of time on our hands (or perhaps a paucity of imagination when it comes to selecting a target for our disaffection) that we need reminding how to treat a fence.

The younger one is white, filmed with dust, his red goatee threaded to rust. He holds a phone — or the amalgam that now passes for a phone — aloft. A noise crackles from it. His buddy’s hair fans in every direction. He is black, though in this case the speciousness of the designation is even more palpable than usual. Dry soil has powdered them to an identical tone.

Race, of course, is about everything else that churns under the surface we imagine solid. It is thrumming here. In the way they speak, sit, gaze. The one on the left splays his legs and drapes his arms, one over a knee, the other along the back of the bench. The one on the right leans forward, stiff, holding the phone-like object. Whiteness and blackness is in this posture, this way of taking — or pretending not to take — the measure of passing students.

The crackling is a voice, a distant Barack Obama. The president’s unmistakable cadence, the falling and punctuated pauses, is carrying across a field of cameramen and wind, piped through the pinhole speaker next to the tiny screen now aloft in the younger man’s grip.

Has something happened? While I was in my lunchtime yoga activating the parasympathetic nervous system with happy baby, did another plate shift? Another city block catch fire? Another of my neighbors fall in the dark hush of a redacted narrative?

I look around at the others. The grass-bound circle of literary acolytes is now far behind me. Women perch on metal chairs outside the student center which houses a new Panera. This is the most popular lunch spot on campus despite a growing national suspicion of Bread’s intentions. A beauty in a creamsicle dress and platform heels turns heads like a stadium wave, collapsing construction worker and student into one undifferentiated hunger. The only ones oblivious to her liquid progress are two younger men striding past. They clutch the straps of their backpacks, heads bent at such an angle they almost meet at the temple. The one speaking rushes out words and stumbles over them. They hadn’t run it with the new numbers — that must be why — that’s why it turned out like that. Neither breaks stride as the sundress swirls across their path.

The president’s voice pings off leaf, satchel, water bottle, sunglasses. If something has happened, the light would scour this plaza instead of skidding as it does off bared calf and shoulder. The fountain would pound instead of froth, the faces furrow, the gazes tunnel into the things we call phones, seeking an answer or maybe a map in those digital libraries that far out-Alexandria Alexandria itself.

When it happens, whatever it is, so much we think is solid in this place will tumble like rockfall into the ravine through which we course. Momentum we imagined our earned and maybe even natural pace will back up behind that unthinkable-but-now-here flash of history. In that instant, downstream will transform into the bewildered trickle of a future uncertain how to fill the space it occupied when it was so lush, when it was able to slake the thirst not only of its own banks but of everything in us that came there to drink.


Fitness, Living in the Moment

I Race the Bus

The bus couldn’t care less. Its giant red backside shrinks into the distance. I bend and downshift, pumping in a crescendo of power.
I know what might be waiting at the corner.
Brake lights burn on. At the street’s edge, a cluster of bodies draped in satchels and overcoats jostles forward. This is my chance. The mirror that my Mister gave me catches the hint of a silver shape closing in on my left. I dart right instead, hopping up onto the sidewalk and weaving around behind the embarking passengers. A ramp opens in the curb and I re-enter the fray.
I’m in front now. Only three downhill blocks separate both bus and me from the stoplight where we’ll turn towards the metro. A line of cars crowds into the tiny oval of my mirror. Every commuter is trying to pass the fat, red city bus, and every attempt is frustrated by the cyclist who materializes in the intended lane. Now the driver joins the crowd of vehicles trying to pass me. I squeeze to the right as far as I can but with a line of impatient commuters crowding his other side, he can’t thread the needle. It’s no use anyway. Another knot of passengers waits at the bottom of the hill. The driver gives up and falls back to slow for them. Theirs is the final stop before the metro station.
It’s my last chance.
I stop pedaling and drift back into the middle of the right lane. My left hand is out. The surge of cars refuses to flag. Every driver is highly motivated to ignore me. We share a sense of urgency if not community. Each of us has somewhere to be now. Dentist, office, yoga, court. We weave. We push. The rules are posted but only loosely applied. Every vehicle, stoplight, pedestrian, and orange cone is an obstacle. The road is a chess board on crack. All pieces are in motion simultaneously and at least half of them are lethal.
I inch closer to the white line with my hand still out. Now, I am upright in the saddle and I swivel my head. Rush hour drivers are as tactical as tank commanders. The illusion of ignorance is as critical a defense as steel skin and rolled up windows. My mirror is too small for the precision required by this foray. Eye contact is necessary. People-ness occasionally triggers a breach.
One driver slows. No gesture or head nod accompanies the pause. It is a matter of seconds before she takes up the slack. I lean into the gap. It is exactly what I need and it was not required, so I wave and smile. Seven cars line up ahead in the turn lane. This is maybe an eight-car light and I’m going about the speed of a tenth. Before I have a chance to get my bearings, the green arrow flashes us into motion. I stand up on the pedals, gather breath, and push. The sun blinds me. I plow straight east and then turn hard, blowing through just before the light shows yellow. One car makes it through behind me, nipping at my heels. Then another. I glance in my mirror. I see red.
Just before the high school, a growl rattles my middle. My rival overtakes me. The crimson behemoth passes on my left. I turn off through a neighborhood shortcut and catch a last glimpse of brake lights as the bus hisses up to yet another intersection. A narrow band of bike trail carries me down under the cool concrete bridge where the drivers up above must wait to turn into the station. I-66 echoes against the bike’s metal frame and throbs into my damp skin.
I emerge, squinting into the bustling metro hub just as the bus rounds the corner. The horseshoe by the station entrance teems with taxis and pedestrians. The bus creeps through on its way to a shelter on the far side. At the bike rack, I jump off and wrestle with spiraling steel, rusted combination numbers, spokes and rubber. Across the macadam, commuters push open the doors. I unclick my chin strap and snap on my smarttrip lanyard. Our feet land on the same sidewalk at the same moment.
It’s a draw.
The man with the giant grin who passes out free newspapers beams at me. “How was the ride?” He calls.
I brush sweat from my forehead and holler back. “Victorious!”


Happy 100 Days: 69

Safety. Such a tricky concept. I walk the streets and back greens of these townhouse complexes, asking, Is it a safe neighborhood? That idea is tangled up in so many class and race patterns, I can barely tease out my gut feeling. I never expected to land in the working class as a single parent. Suddenly, I have to face considerations of safety as I weigh affordability, quality of life, resale value and everything else related to buying a home.
The prejudices roil under the surface every time I walk through a neighborhood.
Is “safe” code for “white”?
Yesterday, I zipped out to a townhouse development at the western edge of the county. It sits right up against uber expensive new houses, the cushy county library, a recently built shopping center. It seemed like a lovely location. But when I got out of the car, something didn’t sit right with me. Is it a safe neighborhood? The houses seemed bare faced and a little bedraggled. I noticed men. Lots and lots of men. Most of these guys were white guys. It was early enough in the evening that I was surprised to see so many men home. They were in tank tops, jeans. They smoked. To a man, they walked dogs. One guy had four pit bulls lunging at the end of the leash. Nothing against pit bulls, but four?
The demographic was unsettling enough that I barely had to look at the house to know I didn’t want to live there. While I was a little ashamed of my surging prejudice, I was not ashamed enough to reconsider (it didn’t hurt that the house was a junk heap).
Today, a townhouse up north listed a little before noon. The asking price is $155,000. This is nearly $90,000 less than most comparably sized townhouses in the county, so up goes the red flag. What could be wrong with this place?
Also, what might be right? In a year or three, the new metro line out to Dulles airport will have a station just two miles from this address. Not only will that mean a better commuting option for me, it means the value of this property is going nowhere but skyward.
My agent gently suggests I may not be crazy about the neighborhood. She doesn’t say more because she is in a meeting and won’t be free until about 6:30pm. I do a little sleuthing on my own. I know from the map that this is an area some do not consider “safe.” In a different chapter of my life, I would have walked on the other side of the street.
That was then.
As for now, am I willing to let my biases blind me to a potentially great opportunity? Someone is going to live there, I tell myself. Why not me?
Is “safe” code for “middle class”? For “a majority of the people look like me”?
By 4:00pm, the selling agent already has an offer. The clock is ticking. I hit the road to go see for myself. I follow the same route I would it if I were to live in this new place so that I can see how much time I will be sitting in my car. I turn off the main road and pass the Turkish restaurant I like (this place would be walking distance from home!) I also pass the Taco Bell, the half-empty clothing store parking garage, and the 7-Eleven. All of these would be between me and the Turkish restaurant.
I arrive a little after 4:30. I start to walk. Is it a safe neighborhood? The units are small. All are ground level entries with two stories. The complex is few years older than I am. An elementary school is close enough that I can hear the whistles trilling at soccer practice. Leaves whisk across the green spaces dividing the rows of houses. Kids, kids, kids. Little toddlers wobble on bikes. Small gangs of teenage boys stroll past, chattering with each other. Moms with babies stand in doorways. A group of children on play equipment so close to the unit for sale that I can stand on the doorstep and see the expressions on their faces.
I see graffiti on the plastic slide. I see harvest wreaths. I see screens with holes. I see a woman who has pulled a chair out onto her front porch and is reading a book in the afternoon light. I see cars as old as mine sporting plenty of rust. I see the mail carrier walking from door to door with his satchel. I see a man standing on his threshold painting the trim.
I greet everyone I pass. I say hello. I ask about the neighborhood. Everyone is smiling, eager to talk, gushing about how much they love it here. Most tell me they own their homes and have for a few years and don’t want to go anywhere else. They say it’s quiet, that it’s great for kids, that the schools are pretty good.
I walk more. I see the open back patios cluttered with bicycles, deck furniture, grills. Nothing is fancy. A little of it looks salvaged. Nothing is locked up.
Open back patios as far as the eye can see, and nothing is locked up.
As an exercise to check my assumptions, I take my cell phone, keys, and wallet, leaving my bag behind. It is 5:30 now and traffic is thick on the outer streets. I walk with my bulging billfold in plain view, my cellphone loose in my grip. I am in a sundress in the unseasonably summery October evening. I am a woman walking alone in the dying light, money and gadgets out for the taking. I stroll past the teens loitering in the 7-Eleven parking lot, the folks hanging out at the bus stop near the parking garage. I walk all the way out to the main road, into the shopping center. I pass the ABC store. More young men on bikes rattle past. I go into the supermarket, buy a few things, and make the whole trek back. How does it feel? Safe? Mostly. No one hassles me, no one offers up more than an assessing gaze.
While I wait for my agent, I see other potential buyers come, walk through, leave. A little girl follows me around the neighborhood telling me all about who lives where and what she doesn’t like (she is not allowed to celebrate Halloween, but she may get a pumpkin anyway). People peek out their curtains or even step outside to see what I’m up to, hanging about. They watch the front door of the place with the realty sign. I ask a woman who has come out to look me over if she likes living here. She is holding a baby who grins and lunges for me. We all laugh together. I ask again about how she likes it here, but she does not answer. The little girl who is following me around translates the question into Spanish. The woman lights up. “Aqui? Si! Si!” She offers up a flood of words I can’t translate but still understand. She is happy here. She loves it here.
My agent arrives and we walk through. It is tiny inside, but it is not just a unit. It is a home. I love its bright kitchen, its compact three (!) bedrooms, and the gas range. It is old and lived in, but it is light and clean. It has been cared for. The people leaving have not moved out, so I can see how they have filled its closets and arranged their tchotchkes. A flock of angels nests in the spare room. Even with the clutter, I like the feel.
My agent and I talk strategy. The seller will see the offers on the table tomorrow night. This place will be under contract less than 48 hours after it listed. The list price is a steal, and she explains that there is no way this house will go for that. It will likely sell for $20,000-25,000 more. I need to consider offering much more than the asking price if I even want to be considered. She shows me the comparable home sales in the neighborhood. Another one with only a whisker more square footage sold for $231,000 a few weeks back.
We stand out back in the dimming light. I can still hear the distant hollers from the school ball field. My little six-year-old shadow is still running around without a parent in sight. The South Asian families dressed in gilded layers whose foreheads are anointed red paint stroll between their three different houses. One of the young women waves to me across the green. I ask my agent what her gut feeling is on the neighborhood.
“I haven’t sold here in several years,” she says. “At first, I thought you might be disappointed. But I could tell as soon as I pulled in that it’s changed.”
“For the better. Definitely.” She nods.
We sign a buyer-broker agreement. We make plans to talk in the morning. The fellows whose parking space I have stolen for the afternoon give me a quick honk and then gesture apologetically as I hop in my car to leave. I wave goodbye to the woman with the giggling baby, to the men who have watched from their second floor windows.
During the two and a half hours I spend in the neighborhood, the only other white person I see is my real estate agent. It is odd to notice the swirl of feelings about being on the leading edge of gentrification. If I can swing this, I can give my son a home in a real neighborhood with green space, attentive neighbors, room to grow. With a monthly payment that allows for small savings, increasing property value, and walkable commerce, I might actually provide us a decent quality of life while also building a college fund for Bug.
Is it a safe neighborhood?
Perhaps safe is this: Can we live well here and build a strong foundation?
Then hell yes. It is safe.


Wind Me Up

Kissing is fine. It is pleasant enough. Repeat the act a few dozen-hundred-thousand times, and the pleasantness takes on a kind of general tone. Some smooches are better than others, but overall, kissing is nice. The particulars slip away.
Except for the first. No one ever forgets that kiss. If your first was with someone who has done it a few times before, don’t be too hurt when he does not remember your name. Also, don’t be afraid to be a little in love with him for the rest of your life.
The same goes for concerts.
Mine was Go Go Live at the Capital Centre, 1987.
We claim our own music at one critical moment. We never get that moment a second time, and we never forget it. Our tastes belong to our families and then, perhaps, to our friends. At some point, we find the direction of our own discernment, and we lean in. The choice does not feel so important when it is happening. Aren’t we just seizing an opportunity and just jumping into the pleasure of noise? Such things are usually not planned according to a grand strategy. Like that kiss. The moment appears, someone offers up a ticket. We enter that melee independent, freely choosing. “I love this,” we say, and without reading the terms and conditions, sign on to a lifetime membership among the acolytes.
Any concert is an anonymous experience. Hell, they happen time and again, and thousands if not tens of thousands of people converge. The experience of gathering into theater or stadium washes each spectator free of name and history, crushing everyone together into a single, teeming mass. An organism fills the concert hall. This unified Fan rises and falls under the sway of the music.
Also, though, nothing is more personal than that first time. Ask anyone about that earliest solo adventure, and she will call up the whole of the sensation with her eyes flashing and cheeks warming. This one clanging, bopping, overcrowded moment several lifetimes ago is burned into bone and still lives there. It still stings. The first concert marks us. Even if most of what we feel is embarrassment or lingering terror at becoming lost in it, even if we have no recollection of a single song, we still feel it. It pulses against skin and eardrum and vision as if Right Now. The echo is almost indistinguishable from the shout.
I was fourteen, a freshman in high school, and as dumb as a box of rocks. What did I know about the world outside the safe confines of my Bethesda neighborhood? Most of the time, I could not even identify my own tastes until my more self-possessed peers decided for me. (Guess jeans? My favorite!) From time to time, I was able to zero in on exactly what I liked. In these exceedingly rare cases, I could neither justify the preference nor find the company to commiserate, but I did not budge.
My one self-defined pleasures was Rap music. That was all we knew to call it then, that infant form of Hip Hop. Whatever it was, it worked its way right down into my bloodstream.
In the mid-80’s, Rap was popping up everywhere. Run-D.M.C. was hitting top 40. Salt ‘n’ Pepa were giving the girls a voice, Public Enemy was inciting rebellion, Ice-T was birthing gangster rap into being. Rap made me loosen up parts I did not even know I had. There I was, this dingbat white girl busting a move in her bedroom, I’m like Tyson icin’ I’m a soldier at war, I’m makin’ sure you don’t try to battle me no more. I was far too high on the beat to notice that I did not have the first idea what a “glock” was, let alone how to use one.
None of us is any single entity during adolescence (thank heavens). I was also bopping on the Pom Pom squad to Tiffany and could sing every word to every Madonna song. UB40 had me grooving. I would crank Donna Summer and bounce the pictures off the walls. My only criterion for falling in love with a band was this: Can I dance to it? Because once this girl started moving, there was no way she was going to stop.
This may not be true anymore, but in 1987, every bonehead in the ‘burbs knew how to work a radio dial. When I grew bored of my cassette tapes and 45s, I could roll on down to strange new territory on the FM frequency. Sometime around then, WPGC began playing the kind of music I did not hear at the school dances. I had no idea what it was, but it got my rear end in gear. It met the conditions for dance-ability then carried the bar up into the stratosphere.
Whatever I was hearing was like rap, but more vital. Juicy. It had this funk. Its cool down-tempo percussion and uh-huh beat made it hard to sit still. I had no idea what it was and I did not think to ask. What did it matter? All a girl has to do is listen and feel and let it shake loose the spine.
An older boy in art class razzed me to no end about my musical tastes. I was not so sheltered I couldn’t see him for the foul-mouthed Neanderthal he was. He favored country and kept trying to engage me in a stultifying argument about the superiority of his preferred musical form. To locate myself as far from his world as possible, I immersed myself in hip hop. Also, this drowned him out. I credit his blend of racism, misogyny, and idiocy with expanding my rap vocabulary exponentially during my first year of high school. (It took me another decade to realize I could actually like Garth Brooks without selling my soul).
This dude knew some other dude who had tickets to a Go Go concert. Go Go, it turns out, only sounds like the name of an 80’s pop-girl band. It is actually that funked out music I was discovering down the radio dial. Go Go is a homegrown DC genre of music with R&B roots and a dancehall style, though I did not even know that much at the time. (Check out a sample here).
The guy with the tickets went to another school, but he was old enough to drive and I guess he was having as much trouble finding a date to the concert as I would have in the same circumstances. So, without even meeting first, he showed up at my house on that weekend night and whisked me off to Prince George’s County. It amazes me now to think how this could have occurred. My parents must have been more consumed by their own drama than I can even imagine. Off I went, into the wide-open night with a complete stranger.
God bless their distraction. What a thing it was to walk into that giant arena and join 15,000 complete strangers in stomping and whooping to those rat-a-tat beats! I knew the sounds through the tinny bands of my radio, but here it was in the deafening flesh. Lights and voices and very real people on stage and more people pressing in on every side. My companion had scored tickets on the floor, and I was standing up on the seat, dancing like a fool. I was aware that I was younger and whiter than anyone else there, but I didn’t know enough to care. I just figured if I liked something, I was allowed to like it openly and shamelessly. That’s the privilege of being from a certain background, I suppose. I may have been far dumber at fourteen than I am now. I was also bolder. It did not occur to me that music may not belong to a person who has claimed it. Those rhythms were mine because they spoke to me, and so I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
The lineup included a few I knew, like Rare Essence, Junkyard Band, and Experience Unlimited (who later hit the charts with “Da Butt,” but that song had not been hatched when they hit the stage). I had not previously heard Hot Cold Sweat or Little Benny. I fell in steamy, pure love with each and every one of them that night, and chanted along in the call-and-response, and got up offa my thing, just like I was told.
Chuck Brown exploded through a fanfare of music and lights, jamming into the screaming adoration of the audience. Even then, they called him the Godfather of Go Go, and he lit up that whole arena. I remember feeling like I was a part of something I should have understood but did not. What is a girl to do but step aboard and go for a ride? I got up and got down – way too far down for a skinny-assed kid – but I felt it all. My throat was as sore as my feet, but that was only later. Inside the night, inside the music, it was only the funk. It was only the Right Now.
They razed the Capital Center a decade ago, and Go Go had slipped into retirement a few years before that. Today, just a few miles down the road, a memorial service for Chuck Brown took place. He died last week at 75. It’s a sad, strange thing to think of all that flash and groove going quiet. I am sure I am not alone in claiming his music as the soundtrack for a first or for a whole chapter of firsts. On body, city, time, and even on me, that man left his mark. Just by playing his music, just by sending it out to the crowd, he gave this place sound in motion.
Go Go has been making its return to the District over the past few years. I have not had the courage to make my way in and see what the fuss is about. I know I will have to make the pilgrimage soon. We never forget the first one. The sting it leaves is still hot and deep. Even if the music does not remember me, it will always be my one true love. Chuck Brown, thank you for that kiss.

You can read Natalie Hopkinson’s tribute to Chuck Brown’s role in shaping Go Go here:,0