Friday, November 9, 2012

Socio-Cultural Inward Ramble

Dad: My father attended three Ivy League schools: two in undergrad and an MBA. He also was accepted for, but declined enrollment into, an Ivy-league PhD economics program.  He never emphasized these things, rarely spoke of them, so I had no inkling of all this until I was almost finished with college. And he never seemed to judge people - for better or worse - who defined themselves by those merits. He never seemed to judge those who lacked them either. On the surface, he seemed indifferent.

In the same token, when someone lives and breathes their credentials, I become far more interested in their personal experience at said school, institution, slice of society, etc. than their place in life. At a fundamental, one on one level, I have no personal interest in the credentials of their own right. I'm interested in the experience, the person, behind them.

Inverse Self-Security: In middle school, image began to matter. Girls liked how I looked. Adults told me how I was well-spoken and presentable, and told me about all the things I could represent. It was both flattering and unnerving. I appreciated it as much as any other kid would, but couldn’t wrap my head around how they seemed so convinced of who I was based on image alone. I didn’t go out of my way to look disheveled or anything, but it led me to put a premium on substance above image since then, and I developed a strong, inward-looking sense of self at a young age.  I developed two habits early on: 1) I always considered that I could be wrong or at fault, and 2) I often threw my weaknesses out in the open so I could work on them. The result was often a double-edged sword: there was little left to hide but my strengths.

People misinterpret this all the time because I often can be very quiet, contemplative, like to explore on a whim, have never been into the joneses, enjoy my alone time, and will often share the thoughts I am least certain about or things I am figuring out, but am gun-shy about making definitive statements because I like to spend more time learning and asking questions first. I’d say I’m pretty confident, don’t get embarrassed very easily at all, care about appearance when it matters, and have a ridiculous, near un-human, amount of self-resolve. These things never gloat themselves outwardly, because I never gained my confidence, my sense of self, by comparing myself to the outside world, including other people.  

You’ll see me in my most dapper not when I want to look the part, but when I really care about or value and trust whatever it is I am involved with, the things people don’t necessarily see up front. In fact I’d go as far as saying, personally, that style does not matter to me if there is no substance behind it. But I very much appreciate the person for whom style and show, in themselves, are a priority. Love your like.

Race and Class in The Northeast Corridor: I grew up in an upper-middle class suburb in New Jersey. High school was a cultural hodge-podge of 2,000 – 3,000 kids (they split the school into another junior year because of the class size). By senior year the stats read something on the line of 50% white, 50% other, including almost 10% black. Most of that other was of Eastern-Asian decent (and at least of a third of that, by my estimate, was of Indian decent).  My parents often tended to practical, social, and cultural matters in urban territory, a world that wasn’t mine but never felt distant. Trenton was for haircuts, culture fairs, and an academic program I was briefly part of. Brooklyn was for church, friends of family, plays, fairs, and Caribbean family, food, and culture. New Haven was to visit aunts and cousins. The whole concept of inner city vs. suburbia wasn’t a thought until high school, when classmates started listening to rap, and reciting things I wasn’t familiar with. I was my father’s R&B kid: rap was just something that happened to play on the same radio stations as En Vogue and Tevin Campbell. It probably took me until sophomore year to realize the worlds they spoke of were the same neighborhoods my mother took me to for family time, social life, and church.  

Higher Learning:  Family always reminded me I was spoiled, but college is where I really learned how fortunate I was. From time to time I’d find myself alone at the cafeteria, school lounge, or in a dorm room with someone who got comfortable enough to spill their guts.  Man, the things people go through. Trauma seems all too common, like an American rite of passage.  And people bottle that stuff up all the time. I get so much out of those conversations because they keep me grounded. I’m reminded how fortunate I am to never have had to go through anything so serious. On a lighter note, probably the most educational conversations I’ve had regarding every day life were when I spent a couple years of university in the Midwest. You get to realize how everyday life for another average person can be so different than what you know. But you don’t feel like you’re all that different from them.

Machismo:  I have never been a tough, outwardly prideful guy, going as far as only fighting people larger than me based off some skewed sense of fairness (I'm not big anyway). In the handful of physical altercations I’ve had, I always first calculated whether there was a chance I wouldn’t walk away with my life or without serious injury, and almost never cared about whether I’d be walking away with my pride or whether I’d be checking off the win or loss column (I've won and lost). This meant absolutely no fighting in a nightclub, where men, deep in alcohol and entourages, trade reason for pride. Forget the one that steps to you.  It’s a loud and crowded place with more people than you can count. You never know who else he came with.

I’ve never had a problem anywhere except American clubs in Brooklyn (well, what passes for a nightclub there - they are not clubs in the same way as Philly or Manhattan), and only in my early 20’s. The same thing would always happen.  I’d be standing near one or a few women, a bunch of other people, and one or more guys who have been standing near the dance floor or close to the wall for at least a good 5 or 10 minutes. On purpose or by happenstance, I would end up talking with one of the girls (no surprise in a nightclub).  As soon as you or the girl moves – to the bar together, to the bathroom alone, whatever – one of the wall/floor-flowers wants to challenge your manhood by getting up in your chest and taunting you. Some had the audacity to get up from the wall and follow you to the bar. 

I always wanted to chalk it up to territorialism, the whole “where are you from I don’t know you" thing, because I had seen it before, and I know I never looked the part at these clubs. I think that might have been a small part of it. But it would never happen until I talked to some girl (and it was always some girl they didn’t know; I had the nerve to ask), no matter how long I had been standing near the wallflower before. The best way to diffuse this had always been to let them know you don’t own the girl and they are free to talk to them. They always back off after that, and I always thought maybe it’s because that’s what they wanted but since they didn’t have the courage to do it on their own they showed their worth through their fists in front of women. I might have gone to a non-Caribbean club in Brooklyn maybe three times before I turned 23 and I swear it happened every time (it even happened right outside of a subway station when I got older). So I just stopped going. I don’t know what it is about that borough, but I always wanted to pull those guys aside and maybe give them a few pointers on how to talk to women (though I was no Casanova). I feel that’s all they really wanted.

Subway Temper: The ones you have to watch out for are rarely the loudest (although there are definitely exceptions).  Occasionally, on NYC subways, where a few dozen testy people with trying lives are crammed into steel shell cases like sardines, you’ll end up in some sort of argument with another passenger. I’ve had it happen to me a few times, but there is one instance I’ll always remember. 

My book bag or shoulder bag or whatever hit a kid who looked maybe a year or two younger than me at the time (20’s). He caught an attitude and I gave it right back to him. He contemplated into himself and I continued talking. When I left the train I quickly realized I was lucky. He hadn’t quieted down because I had gotten the best of him. He had gotten quiet because he was contemplating whether he wanted to go through trouble and consequences of stomping my face into the ground. 

Once you get to a certain age, it’s usually the people who know and have experienced or seen strange and dire consequences that really think about those things seriously, that will give you some kind of warning verbally or in some other form of social queue (not the same as puffing their chests), simply because they know firsthand how serious the consequences really can be.  You know it when you see it. Those are the ones that will leave you unconscious or worse. I could never be called anything close to a tough guy, but I’ve pounded my chests and have even used my fists a few times in my life. I don’t think I’ve pounded my chest at another man since that incident.

Media, Arts, & Entertainment: When everything begins to look and feel the same, artists and professionals are no longer working off creativity, purpose, sincere sense of responsibility, feeling, care, inspiration, for their audience, or for themselves. They are dependent on borrowing heavily from the same baseline. And collective creative output becomes about as diverse as a Coca-Cola bottling plant. The problem is, repetition, confirmation, and scale often seems to be what pays the bills. But things do seem to be improving in some areas. Music particularly has been good to me for the past few years.

Kindred Spirits: When I look back, I think my best friends and favorite acquaintances tended to be socio-cultural vagabonds. There is the Italian-Australian-Irani-American who speaks a handful of languages and calls at least as many countries home. There is the kid who lived in Trenton but went to my school and felt right at home anywhere in America. There was the Black and Puerto-Rican college dorm mate from the Virgin Islands. They were extremely, naturally confident in themselves, knew themselves well. But they were all comfortable in any social circles they happened to find themselves in. Diversity was their comfort zone.