Failure is terrifying until you stop seeing it as the end. So many small things didn’t go my way, taking inventory is daunting.
In 7th grade I played on the basketball team. But mostly, I sat on the bench. The coach would put me in the game when the team was up by well over 30 points. It stripped me of my confidence so by the time I got in the game, as soon as I got the ball, all I wanted to do was pass it away. I didn’t score a single point the entire season. I remember crying in the car ride home after the last game. I told myself I hated basketball and so I didn’t try out for the 8th grade team. It wasn’t until I was half way through my 40’s when I began playing one-on-one against my brother that I discovered how much I loved basketball. I had an outside shot he couldn’t defend. I had speed to the hole. I loved fighting my temper to remain calm and come back from behind. Why did it take me so long to reclaim what was mine to begin with? I suppose it was the coach. He was a jerk. I let him steal my joy. I thought maybe he was seeing something I couldn’t see, like an outside eye on an inside problem. But it’s not true. In fact, nothing I just said is true, it’s simply emotion coloring a memory. The coach wasn’t a jerk, we had bad chemistry, that’s all it was and if I didn’t like sitting on his bench all I had to do was go looking for another court. To Hell with him.
In 5th grade I played drums. I was good at it. I remember the band director sitting all of us in a circle and clapping at us to see who could clap back. I had no problem repeating the pattern, it sounded like language to me and I knew what my hands wanted to say. The other kids struggled so they didn’t get their snare drums for another week. I got my snare drum right away. Over the course of the year, at rehearsal, I’d watch the band director smash his baton against the music stand, telegraphing disgust at our inability to hold time and make music sound like, well…music. At the end of the year, I quit. The band director tore into me for quitting. But I had no interest in spending one more second of my life having the joy sucked out of music. Looking back at this decision, I was brave. I knew the difference between a music teacher and a miserable bastard. To Hell with him.
In 1st grade I got busted for swearing on the school bus. Older kids on the block taught me a bunch of no-no words and I wanted to see what happened when I put them to use. I launched the no-no words from the back of the bus. I took joy in the power they had to ripple through the air. A girl from the block, who lived across the street, told on me. She reported it to our teacher who reported it to the principal who reported it to my parents. Even though I got in trouble at school, I don’t remember getting in too much trouble at home. My parents understood the uselessness of authority figures. They knew I was a kid trying something on, looking for a reaction and I’d outgrow it. They were right, mostly.
I grew up McCraren Road. Robert Tognorelli grew up on Cavel, across the empty lot. We were pals. We were partners in crime. One day after school, Robert told me he had something he wanted to show me. So we walked over to a construction site. Our neighborhood was new and houses were popping up all around us. On this particular construction site, the windows on the houses had just been installed. Robert picked up a rock and launched it through the window. There was an explosion of sound. It was like the 4th of July. He smashed one window after another and then handed me a rock. “Go ahead,” he said. “Throw it.” I looked at the rock. I looked at the window. I got scared. I chickened out. Later that night there was a knock on our front door. There was a policeman standing there. Before he could ask a single question I blurted out, “I didn’t break the windows.” The policeman said it was all the proof he needed, I was guilty. But my mom stuck up for me. “Greg is honest,” she said. “If Greg says he didn’t do it then he didn’t do it.” My mom stuck up for me and it’s a beautiful thing. But looking back, she was wrong and so was I. Looking back, I should have thrown the rock. Robert didn’t end up getting in all that much trouble and as boys in the neighborhood, you’re supposed to get in trouble so you can see how it feels instead of chickening out and letting your mom get you off the hook. There’s more to life than being a good boy, 24/7.
This is the problem we’re having right now. There are boys in the world whose parents got them off the hook too easily and now they’re punishing the world. Donald Trump is a glory seeking son-of-a-bitch. Vladimir Putin hates his younger-self for wanting to kiss a boy. Kim Jong-un has never faced a single consequence in his life and so he thinks missiles are toys. The men of Saudi Arabia recently granted the women of Saudi Arabia the right to drive cars and they want to be applauded for giving rights to women which were never their rights to revoke in the first fucking place. To Hell with men.
I was at Grown Folks last week. It’s my favorite open mic in Chicago. The 3rd Thursday of every month at Silver Room, on the South Side of Chicago, people from all over the city get together to tell stories and seek community. It’s my favorite open mic in Chicago because it looks like no other room in Chicago. Somehow this particular room has managed to crack the riddle of segregation. It’s the most gorgeous room I’ve ever seen.
At one point in the night, one of the storytellers was telling a story about “losing his black card.” He was a tall, gorgeous black man. He talked about feeling like he was letting down his kids by not exposing them to more black women. He talked about missing black women and how much they shaped his understanding of the world. He asked the black women in the audience to befriend him. It was the gutsiest thing I’ve seen in months, pure, raw. When I got up to the mic later in the night, I thanked him in front of the crowd for putting himself out there. I told him on the inside I was a black woman and would love to be befriend him. I told a story about growing up with black hair. How I blew it dry, straightened it, used chemicals and burned my scalp, tried cornrows and braids, but never got a handle on the weirdness. The room loved it. Or so I thought the room loved it. Once Grown Folks ended, I was milling around, talking to a few people who approached me, taking in a few compliments, doing my post open mic thing, schmoozing. As I walked to the front of the room to thank the hostess, Cara Brigandi, I was approached by two black girls. I say black girls but they might have been women. I couldn’t tell. One had dreadlocks. One had braids. One had braces on her teeth. She was the one who confronted me. “Hey Greg,” she said. “You said you have a choice on how to take something. You can laugh or you can be offended. Well I was offended. You said your hair was weird. You equated your hair with black women. Well my hair isn’t weird. And you don’t get to associate yourself with black women by calling your hair weird. My hair isn’t weird.” I was taken aback. I didn’t mean it like that. My intention was to tell a story about how I’d gotten over the idea of wanting perfect hair and learning to accept my freak flag. But in her eyes, I let her down. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Thank you for that,” she said. I tried to explain myself but I only got myself into more trouble. She didn’t want my explanation. She wanted to confront me. She wanted to be heard. I asked her friend if she was offended too. “Yes,” she said. “Maybe you should try to make your point without being offensive. I thought maybe you were just Greg trying to be funny. But it didn’t matter if you were just trying to be funny, I was offended.” They backed away from me. “I’m sorry,” I said. To Hell with me.
Outside of Silver Room, I met a family who was visiting from Georgia. They happened to be passing by, saw a crowd inside and walked in the room to see what was going on. They loved the show. They wanted to talk to me and tell me how much they liked my act. I kept trying to engage, but I couldn’t shake the feeling I needed to live in the emotion those two girls had given me to consider. It’s not easy taking it in. There’s a temptation to cast off the outrage and defend yourself. Especially now, where outrage seems to be the only button everyone is interested in pushing.
In 7th grade I was sitting on the couch with my mom, totally discouraged. I’d been in the bathroom for over an hour, blow-drying my hair ahead of a Bat Mitzvah. She looked at me and said, “If it wasn’t for your hair you’d be perfect.” This is one of those comments you hear and know you’re going to take the words with you for the rest of your life but you don’t know why but you feel it when it’s happening. I know my mom didn’t mean to hurt my feelings. But she was right. I hated my hair and if only I could learn to let go of whatever impossible beauty standard I was trying to live up to, I would have been perfect. Not perfect in that I was the most beautiful kid in pleated khaki pants and blue blazer pining to win a kiss from a girl, any girl, later that night at the Champaign Snowball Dance, but perfect in the inability of my curls to be tamed.
Failure is being tamed by a blow-dryer, being a 24/7 Good Boy. Failure is letting someone else sit you on the bench when you’d rather be in the game. Failure is listening to the abuse of a metronome over the beating of your own heart when it gets excited and speeds up. Failure is punishing the world instead of listening to women and girls.
I want those girls to know this: I hear you, I thank you, and next time I hit the mic at Grown Folks, or anywhere, I’ll be thinking of you, aiming for higher ground to plant my freak flag.