Defending the Essay as a Form

“What is an essay?”

One of my friends asked me that question when I explained my goal to write an essay every day until my birthday. I knew what I was writing were essays, but I didn’t really know what that word meant. After grappling with a definition for a moment, I finally said, “It’s something between a short story and a poem.”

I’m not sure what else to say about it, because there are almost no other rules about what an essay is or isn’t. James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work is often described as “a book-length essay.” Well what the hell does that mean? I thought essays were short?

When all else fails, fall back on the appeal to authority, and the authority I’ve chosen is Wikipedia:

An essay is, generally, a piece of writing that gives the author’s own argument — but the definition is vague, overlapping with those of a paper, an article, a pamphlet, and a short story. Essays have traditionally been sub-classified as formal and informal. Formal essays are characterized by “serious purpose, dignity, logical organization, length,” whereas the informal essay is characterized by “the personal element (self-revelation, individual tastes and experiences, confidential manner), humor, graceful style, rambling structure, unconventionality or novelty of theme,” etc.

That doesn’t help at all either. If there’s no place to find a definition that works, I suppose that I might as well take a crack at it.

To me, an essay is a complete thought, in writing. Sure, we have our fleeting thoughts (tweets) and our long-term plans (novels). We have really good daydreams too (short stories), and then we have our things that we roll around in our heads for a bit, turn over a few times, and then move on to the next thing. That’s what an essay feels like to me, and that’s what I like about it. It gives me just enough of a topic without boring me.

I try to make my essays fun because reading should be fun, even if you’re learning something or commiserating. Books have always felt like a chore to me, and I don’t mean that as a judgment for anyone else. I just mean that I don’t have the attention span to read a book, and I certainly don’t have the attention span to write one. I like to get in and get out to the next interesting topic. I’ve recently started reading manga, and while I still greatly prefer watching anime to reading it, I like reading manga now more than I like reading books. It’s no wonder- the average manga volume has between 7,000-10,000 words, which is right in the sweet spot of my attention span.

I can’t draw, so I don’t do manga. But I can write, so that leads me to the form that I like reading the most. My brother used to box, and he explained to me the month before a fight, where you cut out all the smoking and drinking and really prepare your body to be in peak condition for the fight. I’ve started thinking about this 36-day challenge as my training for when I go big time. The original idea was to write 36 essays, and maybe one or two of them would be any good and I could edit them later. But no, this is all training and practice, and the real writing doesn’t start until day 37. That’s how I’ll stay motivated to keep going. Right now, I’m teaching myself how to create. Once I turn 33, I’ll be ready to create something good.

I want that something good to be an essay, because I want you actually read it and I want to actually write it.


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I Saw My First Drug Overdose Today

I was walking past the park on the corner of Russ Street and Putnam Street with my coworkers. We go on a walk once a day or so for the exercise and to take a break from work. We were talking, and one of my coworkers looked into the park and pointed.

“Uh, guys?” she said. We followed her fingers and saw a man laying halfway out of the port-a-potty. His feet were still up, and he was sprawled face up, laying in the dirt. “Should we go see if he’s okay?”

“Yeah, I’ll go check,” I said. I walked down the slight hill towards the man. His upper body was covered in tattoos. A needle was clenched in his left hand. His eyes were closed, and it didn’t look like he was breathing. Was he dead?

A couple of other guys carrying groceries came over. “Is he okay?” they asked.

“I can’t tell,” I said. I took out my cell phone.

“Is he breathing?”

“I don’t know.”

Then, as if summoned by the question, the man let in a sharp, jagged inhale of breath and shot it out just as quickly. He went back to being perfectly still.

“Call 911,” one of the men said.

As I was on the phone, two other people approached, a man and a woman from Putnam Street. The man had on a teal polo with grey slacks, and the woman was wearing a slick black suit with kitten heels.

“Did he overdose?” she asked.

“We think so,” I answered.

“Go get your Narcan,” she said to her companion. He ran off back in the direction he came from. “¡Dale!” she yelled after him. She turned back to face the man and shrugged. “If you can hit them with the Narcan, then you can save their life,”

We stood there, looking down at the guy and commenting about what a shame it was. Shame isn’t the write word though. Crime is the more appropriate way to describe it. Pharmaceutical companies have been allowed to addict millions of people to pain medications, and when their money runs out, has sent them running into the arms of heroin, fentanyl and early death. The magnitude of this crisis is hard to imagine. It’s true that no one gave a damn when crack cocaine was having a similar effect on black communities in the 1980’s, but now it’s that everywhere. Morgues are filling up faster than they can be emptied. All of this human misery, in pursuit of more money.

The man returned to the park with a bookbag. In it he had gloves and two different forms of Narcan. “We’re from the Department of Public Health,” she explained. But it was clear that they weren’t EMTs or medical professionals. They were office staff, but the opioid epidemic is so far reaching that even they’ve been trained in how to administer Narcan. He’s prepared and ready to deliver the drug when a paramedic arrives.

“Hey everybody. Has he received Narcan yet?” she asked as soon as she got out her truck.

“No, I tried to give him the nasal spray, but it didn’t work. I was going to give him the shot now,” the man in the teal shirt said, speaking for the first time

“I’m going to need your help. I’ll grab the pointy,” she says, moving the man’s hand with the needle into a safe position.

Apparently it’s common knowledge that Narcan works fast. Well, it works SUPER fast. The man I found looked like he might have been on the edge of life and death; he was certainly beyond consciousness. The paramedic jammed the needle into the man, and almost instantaneously he came back to life. He sat up with no help, placed his own needle on the ground, stood up and put his shirt back on in a matter of seconds. There didn’t seem to be anything else to do, so my friends and I started walking again. And that’s where I find myself now, not sure what there is to do.

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The Haircut

For most of my life, I’ve had some form of long hair. There were the ill-advised early years of cornrows:

And then whatever this was:

But for the most part, I’ve stuck with the tried and true afro:

I’ve had haircuts before, but I typically defaulted back to the afro with any number of excuses- haircuts cost too much, they’re time consuming, the afro is my “look,” it’s my rebellious statement, any number of reasons to justify basically being lazy about my hair. So of course, the decision to change it permanently took a literal intervention.

It was a little over a month ago, at the Connecticut riverfront. I made a post on Facebook about grabbing a smoke there, and invited anyone who wanted to join me to come. Eventually, my friends Miles, Chelsea, Alycia and Karen showed up. We sat in front of the Riverfront Recapture tent, watching people below us exercise and the small boats sailing down the river. We were talking about sports, politics, music, whatever came to mind.

Miles was the first to broach the subject. “You know Jamil, you’re not a bad-looking guy. You just need to do something with your hair.”

Now Miles is not the first person to suggest a change, or even the 50th person. Whenever the topic comes up, I fall into my defensive crouch and start deploying my ready-made excuses. Before I could do it though, the others chimed in. “Yeah, you should!” “It would be good change!” And I don’t know if it was the weed, or the overall good mood I was in, or the insistence of my friends, but I listened to what they had to day. By the time the intervention was over and the subject had changed again, I decided that I was going to get a haircut. Not in the grudging, “Fine, let’s get this over with” way that I normally do, but in an actual, enthusiastic, “Yes, let’s do this!” kind of way.

I went the very next day to get my haircut, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that this haircut changed my life.

I was sad the day before I got this haircut. And the day before that. And the day before that, going back for as many days as I could remember. I’d made a bunch of changes- a new house, a new job- but I still found myself crying late at night, standing outside and staring at nothing while I blew smoke into the night sky. Alone, even with a house full of people around me. I had started to believe that being sad was simply my natural disposition, and my role to play in life. For every optimist, there needs to be a pessimist, right? Someone needs to be there to point out all the ways that things can go wrong. I tried to find purpose in sadness, and when that predictably didn’t work, it only made me feel worse. If there’s no point to being sad, then why couldn’t I seem to find a way out of it?

My haircut led to a complete 180 degree change in my outlook and attitude for a few reasons. The first was perhaps the most obvious, but had escaped me the longest: when you look good, you feel good. I don’t mean by some social standard of beauty, I mean on your own terms. Looking the best that you can. The suggestion to cut my hair was about being more attractive, but I realized (32 years into this thing) that I can also look good for myself. I called Karen after the haircut, and asked her what products I should use to keep my hair up. That’s a major change for me. I didn’t do anything with my hair except wake up, comb it sometimes and wash it once a week. Taking the ten minutes to put conditioner and spray on my hair every morning is now my ritual for myself, my commitment to self-care and self-value.

When you’re sad, little things don’t just become hard, they become meaningless. Showering, cleaning, eating well, reaching out to friends, it all feels pointless because nothing will drag you out of the hole you seem to be in. You feel like you can’t do it by yourself, and you’re right- you can’t do it alone. That was another thing this haircut taught me. My friends came to hang out with me that day. There were other things they could have done, but they chose to spend time with me. They made a suggestion about my appearance, not for their sake, but for mine. My friends care about me, about my success and my appearance, so that I can have a good life. All I had to do was stop being an arrogant know-it-all (my absolute favorite thing to be) and listen to others who had my best interest at heart. They could see what I couldn’t, and recognizing the love that my friends and family have for me, even with something as simple as a haircut, was important to helping me to feel better.

Then there was the haircut itself. I’ve never understood the reverence that barbershops have in the black community, because I frankly never spent time in one. Before this haircut, the last time I was in a barbershop was almost three years ago, getting a bad haircut with people I didn’t really like. But the place I went to on Asylum Avenue was incredible. I talked to my barber as he cut my hair, and he gave me the kind of advice that only a sixty-something black guy can. That’s when I realized that barbershops aren’t just places of camaraderie and bawdy conversations, but also mentorship, especially for young men who haven’t had that before. I’ve always lacked mentors, mostly because I didn’t know they were important, and then I ind’t know how to find one. And here one was, offering advice and helping me to look better? Yeah, that’s worth $40 every two or three weeks.

But for all the internal changes and growth that this process led to, I still needed positive reinforcement that the change was a good one. That came almost instantly. Miles was right- apparently, I am a pretty good looking guy when I put the effort into it. One day after my haircut, I got a blowjob from a guy I met on Plenty of Fish. The very next day! After months of loneliness and doubts about ever getting over my ex and how i would handle a future which was apparently going to be devoid of romance, I was suddenly getting responses on Tinder and going on dates. Self love is of course important, but after months of “self-loving,” it’s been great to talk with and flirt with and touch other people. Their mutual interest has let me know that yes, I am desirable, and yes, I do need to listen to the people around me more, because they often know better.

Even after all of these revelations though, the sad truth is that I’m overdue for another haircut. It’s been almost five weeks, and things are starting to look a little rough in the kitchen. I’m not expecting anything quite as transformative out of a shape-up, but that’s okay. It is cheaper after all.

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The New York Times Shouldn’t Have Published The Anonymous Op-Ed

I wasn’t on the editorial side of opinion writing for very long, but a conversation did come up about publishing anonymous op-eds. At the time, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it- if the person was risking their career or their safety, wasn’t it our job as journalists to share their views while protecting them? Both of my senior editors disagreed. They explained that giving someone an anonymous platform was too risky, that it exposed the news organization to liability, and that anyone with something to say, publicly, should be willing to do so with their name attached publicly too. Otherwise, anyone could hurl unfounded accusations at any time for any reason.

I vehemently oppose President Trump both as a person and as a politician, and while it gratifies me to see yet another person saying mean things about him, it needs to be said that the New York Times made a serious mistake in publishing that anonymous op-ed yesterday. Already, the rampant speculation about who the author might be has begun, ranging from the inane (attributing the word “lodestar” to Mike Pence) to the bizarre (that this is a Trump-sanctioned plant to distract from Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing or some other “false flag” operation). And it’s not just the regular internet crazies who are engaged in the guessing game. The entire political and media establishment is essentially playing Clue right now.

Beyond that, there’s no telling what effect this kind of embarrassment will have on a man like Trump. Combined with the heat from Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book (which honestly deserves its own essay, perhaps another time), the White House is about to descend beyond the ninth circle of Hell as Trump seeks to destroy not only the anonymous author, but also the “resistance” in his administration. The White House is still one of the centers of power for the entire planet, and watching it crumble in real time is potentially bad news for everyone.

Unless the author is outed at some point, we have no idea what this person’s true intentions and motivations are. Everyone is projecting what they already believe onto the op-ed; instead of clarifying the precarious situation in the White House, it has muddied it even further. Was this an attempt at self-vindication? Was the author trying to get out ahead of Woodward’s book? Is it supposed to put pressure on Trump? Other cabinet officials? Congress? Is anything in this op-ed even true (in terms of people actually trying to stymie the agenda, not Trump being Trump)? There’s no way to verify anything about the op-ed, its true intent or the credibility of its author, other than to take the NYT’s Op-Ed page at its word.

And that may perhaps be the most damning aspect of all of this, because when I read the disclaimer about the op-ed being anonymous, I went back to the conversation I had with my editors. They took their work and its meaning very seriously. It means something when you’re willing to put your name on the line to speak the truth, and it means something when you’re not, especially in a format like an opinion piece where everyone else is compelled to sign their name and stand by the consequences. I look at the New York Times as the most damaged institution in this affair, by their own misguided attempt to generate clicks. And yes, I do believe it was all about the clicks as opposed to delivering critical information to the American people. Because just like Woodward’s book, and Omarosa’s book, and Sean Spicer’s book, and Michael Wolff’s book, and every other piece of writing on Donald Trump since he came down that elevator, there is nothing new here. The anecdotes and the voices change, but the core message remains the same: Trump is a malevolent, racist, misogynistic moron. The Times got a million hate-clicks yesterday from leftists who want Trump under the jail and right-wingers who can point to this and claim the Deep State is at work, for selling us the same damn story for the 10,000th time.

What I learned from my editors is that we didn’t publish anonymous op-eds because it’s dangerous. I don’t mean in the histrionic life-or-death sense, but in the serious-harm-may-result-from-this sense. The internet has shown us over and over again what happens when you let anonymous assholes hurl accusations with no chance for meaningful consequences. That phenomenon visited the New York Time’s Opinion page yesterday, and not even to give us something important like the Pentagon Papers. It was clickbait gossip, and I loved every minute of it while I was reading it, and instantly regretted it the moment I was done.

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Some Thoughts About The New Yorker

When Forbes published that op-ed a few weeks ago suggesting that Amazon replace local libraries, the condemnation was swift and fast. It was too late, of course- as soon as any hare-brained idea is placed into the public, it’s only a matter of time before it begins its slide towards the mainstream of social, cultural and political thought. Soon, what seemed like an unthinkable suggestion in that op-ed will start showing up in more conservative writing and media, and then finally “nonpartisan” (and I use that term VERY loosely) and leftist publications. Even simply taking the time to refute an idea gives it power. That’s the perniciousness of ideas. They can’t actually be defeated through reasoned argument or intelligent discourse or even force of arms- the was an entire world war about Nazis being bad, and we still have them rallying. Ideas can only be marginalized and suppressed, never destroyed.

As bad of an idea as privatizing libraries is, it at least has a coherent ideological framework behind it: the worship of money above all things. The article framed privatization as a cost-saving move for taxpayers of course, and even if we take that as the genuine impetus for the idea (as opposed to being a bonanza for Amazon), both the goal itself and the motivation to pursue the goal is money. Forbes is a magazine about making money. It doesn’t make it right, but it at least makes sense that Forbes would be the place to publish such a piece.

The true danger comes from the wolves in sheep’s clothing, the people who claim to be above it all and presenting discourse and ideas for its own sake. No one does anything for its own sake, but people and organizations like to act as if they are, that their motivations rise above the baseness of pursuing profit. The decision by David Remnick and the New Yorker to invite Steve Bannon to their festival, is the perfect example of this behavior. Hiding behind the fig leaf of putting Bannon and his ideology in front of a hostile crowd (which Bannon loves anyway), the organization made a purely money-based decision. Trump’s election has been a windfall for news organizations, both due to the coverage of his racist, sexist campaign and the collective pearl-clutching which resulted after he won. Liberals had no idea what to do besides write “This is not the America I know” on every form of social media they use and suddenly start buying newspapers again.

The New Yorker is no exception- they had their highest month of subscriptions EVER the month that Trump was inaugurated. This isn’t about ideas or hostility to Bannon. This is all about money, from Sean Spicer being invited to the Emmys to Anthony Scaramucci being a featured speaker at a Forbes event. Left or right, up or down, like they said on The Wire over and over again: follow the money.

And the money is the grease which lets ideas slide into the mainstream. You don’t have to go to Breitbart to get your racist white supremacist fix anymore, the New Yorker will bring it to you! Or MSNBC, or CNN, or the New York Times or any other news organization because you’re going to tune in and watch it. They’ll poo-poo it, but they’ll also give it a stage and eat up the advertising and subscription revenue from disgusted and scared people hate-watching as immigrants are targeted, people of color are terrorized and refugees are turned back to the various human meat grinders around the world. But hey, it makes a buck, so the psychopaths who run our media will give a minute of their time to the psychopaths who run our government. Unlike Forbes, the New Yorker will just make us feel morally superior about it while they play us.

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Labor Day

I get Labor Day off every year. I have for the past thirteen Labor Days. I always feel a little uncomfortable having Labor Day off. There has only been a roughly nine month period of my life where I could reasonably describe myself as labor. And it wasn’t exactly hard labor. I was an hourly employee in a bookstore in my early twenties. I’m sure I worked that labor day, though. Soon after I became a manager and I’ve been working white collar, salaried jobs ever since I left the bookstore.

What I’m getting at is that every Labor Day I actually remember what the day is about, and it’s not about me. Every Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day and Fourth of July, we are bombarded with reminders to remember what those days are about. Sports leagues wear special uniforms and have all kinds of special ceremonies. Special programming is shown on TV. There are parades. Politicians give speeches. Those holidays are pretty unavoidable. I feel lonely remembering Labor Day, though.

It’s understandable that things are this way given the way of the world over the past forty-ish years. Labor has been under an unrelenting attack for most of that time. Even though it’s been bad for the economy and society as a whole, the attack just keeps coming. While there are some politicians who support labor, I don’t see things changing any time soon.

It’s sad that things have gotten this way. Labor Day is a worthy holiday. Labor is worth celebrating. Most of us who can be described as middle class are in Labor’s debt for that. Labor, much more than the military, is what made the American Dream a thing. So, in an effort to feel a little less lonely, I just want to ask people to take a minute on Labor Day to remember what the day is really about.

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The Third First Day Of School

My daughter started second grade today. The past two years, I have marked the first day of school with a blog post. I’m doing it again today, which, I think, makes it a tradition. The first first day of school, I wasn’t feeling very good about it, even though my daughter was excited. The second first day of school, I was feeling a little better about it (although still not good) and my daughter was still excited about it. This year, she’s excited again and I’m feeling worse about it than I did last year.

The reason I’m discouraged this year is that I know that for the next nine months, almost every second of my daughter’s days will be preplanned. She won’t have any time to just be a kid. It started last year when she started getting homework. I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that first and second graders get homework. It’s funny, everything I read and everyone I talk to agrees that unstructured time is good for kids, but we seem incapable of giving our kids any unstructured time. We’re really going to feel pressure to make the most of what time we have.

There’s really no one to blame for the lack of free time. It’s not like my daughter’s school or teachers are doing anything unusual. This is just the world we live in now. That probably makes it more frustrating. I don’t feel like there’s anything I can do about it. Like the past two years, I’ll have to grit my teeth and get through it. And I’ll do everything I can to make sure my daughter stays happy and excited to be going to school.

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Lady Soul

Aretha Franklin was amazing. I’m not going to try to describe her voice, I’m not that good a writer. I’ll just say it was magical, miraculous even. Her death, even though it wasn’t surprising, shook me. I found myself distracted and frequently looking on social media to see all the tributes that were posted. I’ve known her music for as long as I can remember. Given her presence in my Dad’s record collection, I’m sure I first heard her as an infant. Upon hearing the news of her death, the song “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” popped into my head. I found this puzzling. Of all of Aretha’s songs, that wasn’t the one I would have expected.

I would have expected the song “Think” because it’s truly musical perfection. Also, it shows off everything that made Aretha great in one song. It’s got her piano intro, her piano playing was so integral to her overall sound. Her voice soars and demands to be listened to. It’s one of those songs that can’t get old. It’s exciting, maybe downright surprising, every time I hear it. It’s brilliant.

I wouldn’t have been surprised if “Respect” had been the song I thought of. It’s her most iconic song. I’m a fan of the Otis Redding original, but, I hate to say, it’s pretty sexist. It’s great that Aretha flipped it on it’s head and turned it into a feminist anthem.

Natural Woman” is another that I might have expected. She was known as the Queen of Soul, and she never sounded more majestic than she did on that song.

Another is “Since You’ve Been Gone.” It’s gloriously funky. It’s got her piano again. And there’s simply no way her ex doesn’t take her back. Her voice is so sexy and seductive, no man is going to say no to her.

The Weight” could have easily been the song to pop into my head. It’s wonderful. It’s everything a cover song should be. It completely reinvents The Band’s original while still being recognizable as the same song. Plus it has the added bonus of featuring Duane Allman on guitar.

But the song that actually did pop into my head was “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man .” I can’t explain it. Don’t get me wrong, it is a great song. It’s a slow song, which really allows Aretha to stretch and show off her Gospel roots. Her piano playing is prominent, and I’m a sucker for that. It’s a sparse arrangement, just bass, drums, piano, organ and vocals. I know Aretha is responsible for the piano and vocals, and I’m pretty sure she played the organ as well. It’s like she was showing off, but it doesn’t feel at all showy.

When I got home from work, the first thing I did was go through my record collection and pull out all of Aretha’s music. I listened to “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” a bunch of times. I’m going to spend the next few days binging on her music and be thankful for the gifts she shared with us.


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Weddings: What the Hell Are You People Buying?

I overheard a friend describing the several weddings that she’s been attending this summer, and the financial strain that they’ve placed on her. “One of my friends is having her bachelorette’s party in the Hamptons,” she said. “I can’t afford to party in the Hamptons! I’ll be there sipping water that probably still costs $10.”

When I got married twelve years ago, I’d be surprised if the entire thing cost most than $1500. The rings cost $300. We got married in my mother-in-law’s living room. We bought our matching outfits from Sears. The cake came from Stop and Shop. There was a justice of the peace. Including all of our family and friends, there were maybe fifteen people present. The reception afterwards was held at City Steam, and everyone we invited was told that we were a young, pregnant, broke married couple and that they’d have to pay for their own meals. A few people who weren’t invited came anyway and didn’t get the memo, ordering food and drinks on an imaginary tab. Those people were the bulk of the cost of that day.

And it was a wonderful day. Yeah, we got divorced a few years later, but my wedding day is still one of my favorite memories because I got to spend it with my family and friends on one of the most important, yet laid-back, days of my life. I plan on getting married again someday, but I don’t plan on changing much from the first wedding. Finances were a major constraint the first time, but even if money weren’t an object I can’t imagine spending $30,000 on a wedding. For what? Does it come with matching Happy Endings for the newlyweds? Are you given a treasure map at the end? I don’t even know enough people that I actually like to invite to a $30,000 wedding.

So don’t take it personally if you don’t get an invite, I’m just trying to keep costs down (also weddings require a partner, and I should probably work on that first). In the meantime, I’ll keep pinning “cheap wedding reception bowling alleys” to my board.

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Vote – Midterm Primary Edition

In Connecticut, where I think most of my readers are, the primaries are this Tuesday. Every time an election is coming up, I like to remind everyone to vote. I know that’s a tall order for a midterm primary, but I want to urge every eligible voter to go out this Tuesday and vote.

The nice thing about primaries is that they are about the only time that average citizens can move the major parties. Left leaning Democrats often complain that the Democrats in office are too conservative and right leaning Republicans complain the Republicans in office are too liberal. Primaries are the time to change that. Look at how far left Bernie Sanders moved the mainstream Democrats, we’ve seen socialists elected in other primaries, and look at how far fascist Trump pulled the mainstream Republicans, we have the government declaring that the press is the enemy. If you’re a Democrat that wants to keep the party moving left, now’s your chance. And if you’re a Republican that wants to pull away from fascism, now is also your chance.

When I write these posts, I don’t usually say who I think people should vote for. I just want people to vote. I’m still not going to say who to vote for, but I do want to make a plea to all of the Democrats in Connecticut. Please, please, please, please do not vote for Ganim. We’re not that far away from having a felon kicked out of the governor’s office with Rowland. The last thing we want is to elect another known felon to the same position. The farther away we keep Ganim, the better.

So, that’s it. Tuesday, primary day, is almost here. Go out and vote. You can make a difference.

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