The Tao of Tavis

Last night, I was fortunate enough to score an invite via one of my awesome gal pals to attend an evening of conversation and questions between Tavis Smiley and Brian Lehrer, two award-winning public broadcasting hosts who I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t spent enough time watching or listening to.

The event, presented by WNYC and broadcasted on their radio program, was part of Smiley’s six-city “Changing the World One Conversation at a Time” tour; celebrating his 20th year in broadcasting and promoting his new book, “Fail Up”. 

Before being introduced, a clip reel of Smiley’s many interviews with a who’s who of Hollywood and Washington elite played for the audience — showing him chatting up everyone from Bill Cosby to Madeleine Albright.  Both thought-provoking and comically entertaining, the reel fittingly ends with Tavis speaking to Coretta Scott King.  After asking her why after all these years had she not remarried, Mrs. King — without missing a beat — responded by asking him why he wasn’t married.  By the end of the night, I was among several women wondering the same thing… one even asked him again during her question!

But the answer to that question is really simple… this man has been very busy!  When he wasn’t hosting his talk show on BET (now on PBS), or on the radio with Tom Joyner or his own syndicated radio show, Smiley has authored fifteen books, crusaded for African-American causes, and created and presented a “traveling exhibition celebrating the extraordinary impact of African-American contributions to our nation and to the world“.  In addition to all that, he has recently partnered with his good friend, Dr. Cornell West, whom he refers to as “the smartest Negro I know!” for the Smiley & West radio show.

During the evening’s question and answer segment, the media personality opened up about his humble beginnings; candidly discussing how he got his last name (an emotional story he only discovered in his adult life while applying for a passport to join Maya Angelou on a trip to Africa), the homicide of his aunt which led to her five children joining his own family of eight to live in a three-room mobile home, and spending his first eighteen years as a youth in Mississippi attending church daily.  He went on to cover topics such as financial responsibility in the African-American community and, more controversially, his feelings toward President Obama — the latter subject bringing audible gasps from the audience as Smiley revealed he has not received an invitation to the White House during the Obama Administration.  The admission was surprising, since Smiley became acquainted with then-unknown Barack Obama over fifteen years ago, invited him to speak at a youth workshop prior to his political rise (and allegedly before he became a great orator), and featured him as a guest on his show eight times. 

An evening of such supercharged racial pride and emotion could only get more so with the unexpected appearance of Paul Mooney, the iconic comedian responsible for writing most of Richard Pryor’s material and who also enjoyed a resurgence on Dave Chappelle’s much-missed show (I need a minute).  Mooney had the audience laughing out loud, and incited some shock and awe reactions with a few envelope-pushing comments that finally forced Smiley to humorously tell him to sit down.

My night would have been made if West was there.  I’ve seen him on Bill Maher on HBO, and must agree with Tavis’ assessment.  The man is friggin’ brilliant.  But I’m sure it would have been too much for the audience to handle having them all in the same room.  We’d all still be there. 

Now I’m sitting here wondering why the hell this man’s show isn’t on at a time or on a channel where people can see him at a decent hour and with a broader audience!  Where’s his HBO show?  Fresh off the Tyler Perry mass message in drag, I’m now a little disheartened by the thought that most African-Americans — the young ones at least — get their life lessons from dumbed-down entertainment like a Madea or any of the crap currently on view via Bravo, VH1, and even Smiley’s former home station, BET.

Yes, I did — and still do — support Tyler Perry.  He’s an incredible entrepreneur, entertainer and philanthropist.  While the concept of Madea may seem silly from an aesthetic standpoint, when you dig deeper into the commentary of the movie, you find that Perry is finding subliminal ways to get young men to pull up their pants, get parents to understand the repercussions of spoiling children and teach couples and families how to communicate, value and forgive each other.  Ultimately, it would be nice if someone didn’t have to portray a pistol-packing grandma to get Black people’s attention, but sometimes you gotta chase the medicine with something agreeable to the palate. 

With that, kudos to PBS and CNN for giving us voices like Tavis Smiley and Soledad O’Brien, who work tirelessly to inform Black Americans — and all Americans for that mater — in a mature and responsible format.  I haven’t had a desire to watch this much television since being introduced to cable and Nickelodeon as a kid (also known as the end of my book reading era).

Maybe we should campaign to have Tavis take over Oprah’s spot once she leaves… I mean, it’s only fair!

Bridges and Tunnel Vision

About a year and a half ago, I took my very first walk on the Brooklyn Bridge.  At the time, I was feeling reflective and wondering where my next step was going to take me.  As I stood on the bridge that night, camera phone clicking away at the amazing New York skyline as tons of tourists and locals went about their business, I took a deep breath and looked out at the water and the sky and felt a calmness wash over me.  Something about water and the moon just makes everything right in my world. 

After that night, I’d walk the bridge a few times more when the weather permitted.  After a while it became the one bit of major exercise I did for the season — this girl was never motivated to be in a gym.  Walking provides me with solace to clear my head when I’m down, transportation in absence of a car or reliable public transportation, and a justifiable argument when people ask if I work out. 

One sunny day last October, I decided to expand my horizons and step my workout up a notch.  I was staying in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn, with a girlfriend who lived close to the Manhattan Bridge.  I’d always ridden over the bridge on the subway, but had never traveled it by foot.  This particular day, I not only walked that bridge, but I made my way downtown to cross back over on the Brooklyn Bridge.  

By the end of it, I’d walked roughly four or five miles that day, but for some reason that accomplishment didn’t consume my thoughts as much as my perception of the Manhattan Bridge in comparison to the Brooklyn Bridge.  My exact thoughts could be summed up with one word: Ghetto.

To me, the MB was dull, cold, and almost abandoned by human pedestrians.  The graffiti and obstructive trees that blocked the pathway gave me the impression I could potentially die there, and whether I’d be found was questionable.  I’d been spoiled by the beauty and bustle of the more famous bridge with its visitor friendly nooks for photo ops, art and refreshment vendors and bench accommodations for couples and lazy people.  That it led me to better neighborhoods was an added bonus.

Then it struck me… I was a New York snob.  I turned my nose up at something because it didn’t look the way I wanted it to, and lacked the so-called “glamour” of its counterpart.  Never mind that it gets you where you want to go just as effectively — maybe even more so with less traffic.  The revelation was jarring since I’d always bristled at being judged because I didn’t fit a certain style, yet my hypocrisy was on display, and I could only imagine where else it had arisen (I’m pretty clued in on a few instances, though).  

It also occurred to me how much I had taken being a New Yorker for granted.  For years, I worked in Rockefeller Center, so consumed in my work mode and irritated by the presence of tourists that I rarely took a moment to take in the beauty of the most famous tree in the world and all the incredible lights and music and pageantry on display in the streets and in the store windows.  I can’t remember the last time I did the Circle Line cruise, or the Statue of Liberty.  It’s been over thirty years since I’d been to the Empire State Building, and several since my last jaunt to the Bronx Zoo. 

My first Botanical Gardens experience was a week ago, and I only ended up there upon the suggestion of an ex-boyfriend from ten years ago — now a married father of a two-year old — whom I bumped into on my way to Prospect Park.  It was only fitting that we’d run into each other on a day I’d be once again thinking about where my life was and where it was going.  It also happened to be the day of the full moon, and a half hour after he crossed my mind because I remembered that day was his birthday.  Life’s kinda funny that way.  

These days, I try to venture out each new day with a new perspective and hopefully a more open mind and heart, and less tunnel vision.  I’ve been pushing myself more to escape my comfort zone… which I explained in my first entry a little.  Mainly, I’m working on being more patient and focused, because I realize that in an effort to be in a big hurry to get life going, I tend to miss very simple things that turn into glaring gaps down the road. 

I really do love New York, and all that it has to offer.  I’m surrounded by amazing things and people and all the craziness that encompasses us in this city.  Now that it’s warmer, the potential for new adventures arises… and for the first time ever… I’m ready.

Madness, Messages and Madea

This past Easter weekend, I revisited my Southern African-American family roots and joined the masses for a religious experience… I went to see “Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Big Happy Family”.

When it comes to Tyler Perry, my emotions are occasionally conflicted.  His personal story is touching, inspiring, and emboldens me as a survivor of abuse.  His contributions to the Black community are indisputably generous.  

His movies…?  This is where my love/hate emerges. 

While MBHF genuinely had entertaining and some laugh-out-loud moments, one could get the sense that Perry was giving you “everything and the kitchen sink” in the course of an hour and forty-five minutes.  The movie covered health issues in the Black community such as Diabetes, Cancer and the importance of a colonoscopy, angry Black women, rape and incest amongst many other topics.  Of course, most of his movies are like that.  In fact, my head is still spinning from “Why Did I Get Married Too?”.  I’m officially a little afraid of Janet Jackson now after that meltdown scene where she smashes up her house.  Somewhere, Jermaine Dupri is breathing a little easier.  

The movies are often based on the plays that made Perry a household name, and have become almost mandatory annual pilgrimages for church groups.  In both movie and play, the writer/actor/producer/director — who stands six-feet-five — dresses up in drag as Madea, a gun-toting, hell raising old lady who’s also a straight shooter from the mouth.  Madea is the glue that binds families on the verge of falling apart from secrets and lies; she reveals and then counsels in one fell swoop, wrapping her message in spirituality… even while maintaining that her own relationship with God is sketchy.  It’s the kind of entertainment cleverly packaged as a comedy, but figures while they have your attention, they might as well throw in some church and therapy (which, when you think of it, is really quite economical).

What irritated me about the movie were the moments that had comedic potential but came up short: Madea’s encounter with the “Ghetto Girl” character played by Teyanna Taylor — who’s intentionally irritating voice was just a bit extra — was missing something.  There also tends to be a penchant for overacting from the cast, almost as if they are performing on stage and want to make sure the audience is alert and gets the jokes or the big dramatic climax.  And as funny as the Madea character can be, I tend to have difficulty retaining pertinent messages about relationships and the decline of the youth when the message is coming from someone with grapefruits swinging under a bad floral dress that my own grandmother would have lit on fire. 

In addition to being funny, thought-provoking, and uplifting (I’m not telling you anything specific because I want you to get off your butt and go see it and support this man, dammit!), the film provides a little eye candy for the ladies and gentlemen… although we fare better since the females are either gold-diggers or harpies.  Which begs the question: Why are the only sensible, calm, female characters elders?  Are younger women really that high-strung and wayward? 

Oh, right… yes we are.

Whatever.  At least we get to see the Old Spice guy be all sensitive for more than the usual thirty second commercial spot. 

Thank you, TP.  All is forgiven after “For Colored Girls”.  Side note: Can we ease up on the casting of Janet in bitch roles?  She really does scare me now.

Allow Me To Introduce Myself

Indulge me, if you will…

At this very moment, I’m convinced I’m in the midst of a mid-life crisis.  Had I been born male, there’s a good chance I’d be hooking up with younger women and driving two-seated sports cars (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  That is, if I had a license.  Being a native New Yorker, the only thing I’m capable of driving is people crazy.

Admittedly, my motto through life has been “ignorance is bliss”, which has backfired greatly over the years.  These days I’m realizing the importance and benefits of being informed and open to new things.  That’s the motivation behind this blog.  While I could easily fill a page with hijinks and cautionary tales (I have another blog for that — not to say I won’t include any in this one),  the real mission is to share things that make people smile, or think, or take an action.  

Since joining the ranks of the unemployed a little more than a year ago, I’ve struggled to find my direction in the world.  I’ve taken classes.  Gone to therapy.  Took an empowerment course.  Left my boyfriend of five years (the course worked).  Cut my hair.  Interviewed with companies just to see if perhaps there was a career calling I was missing.  Still… nothing has stuck.  

In the midst of all this I discovered the blessings of life — something I’d been missing for years.  Being in a constant state of worry over things like money and making other people happy, I neglected to stop and smell the roses… which one would think I had the knack of after working in fragrances for years.  This year, my 35th, I finally got my learner’s permit, and briefly got behind the wheel of a car and successfully made it from one destination to another without causing bodily harm to any living creature.  I walked the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges in one day (more on that later).  I took a spontaneous trip on a day’s notice and had an amazing time.  I spent more time with my friends and family (for better and worse with the latter), and even organized a reunion — during which I revived dormant cooking skills that also thankfully didn’t kill anyone.  Some things I’ve embraced will remain personal, but overall they’ve given me reasons to smile in otherwise challenging times. 

Most importantly, I learned forgiveness, and how it changes your world and those around you and opens them up to so many wonderful possibilities by allowing you to see the good things that come out of a seemingly bad situation.

When you live in a self-imposed bubble, it never occurs to you what you’re missing until you finally step out into the world and realize how vast and exciting it is and how much you can contribute just by being a part of it.  If you’re willing to take the chance.

Here’s to new discoveries and taking chances… Cheers!