Lately I’m experiencing a lot of great energy from many directions although sometimes peppered with “processing thoughts” about getting older and becoming a “man of a certain age.” My 37-year-old nephew commented recently, “Unk, it just seems like you’re having a great time with your life” and that it inspired him. He also said that it made him want to keep moving toward his dreams and to never think that it was too late to begin that process. This meant a lot to me, and in fact, made me think about how others say they learn from what I write—particularly younger people—although I was raised to not dwell on such matters. (“Don’t get too ‘grand.’”)
On the occasion of my promotion to the ripe age of 54, I’d like to share some things that will offer food for thought to those coming behind me. I was recently moved by the various responses to Mark Anthony Neal’s July 18th blog about “the professor grind” as well as David Leonard’s recent shout out to Facebook on the valuable connections he’s made through social media. They both mused about seeking balance in a life filled with professional aspirations and personal obligations and challenges. Younger scholars that I follow and friend in social media land were thrilled, as I was, to read about the struggles and triumphs from two of the most productive, supportive, and spot on academics in the game. I also think that readers found it unusual for men to reveal “vulnerability” in the public sphere even though, remarkably, each of their work unpacks aspects of masculinity routinely. I suppose we are more accustomed to reading about such matters about women in places like the fierce Crunk Feminist Collective Blog.
Golf bud, artist and professor Michael Harris. This boy can shoot.
Here’s my contribution to the conversation that Neal and Leonard began, one focused on squaring expectations of productivity and hustle with one’s own sense of self. And like the title said, it’s also about getting on and the notion of “having it all” from my personal perspective. I’d like to think about it as they seem to: as a celebration of a milestone in my thinking.
The “B” Word
I’m giving myself a break. Here is a brief list of not the number of people but the categories of people/institutions/activities that request my time on a weekly basis: undergraduates in my large classes, undergraduates interested in the music business, graduate students in my program, graduates students from other universities, my dissertators, post-docs seeking advice, musicians wanting gigs at the university, authors interested in publishing in the series I edit for a university press, university presses who want me to read manuscripts/proposals or blurb their books, journals who need a referee, tenure cases for other universities, junior scholars at my own university who need mentoring, colleagues with departmental business, musician collaborators, former professors who were once students, producers for my projects, non-academic consultations, lecture requests, writing for full professor cases, random inquiries from random people about random things (RP’s), projects that I take on because I’m interested in them, scholars needing help with their ideas, and people considering graduate school as a life choice. And this is all on top of the considerable projects that are born in my own “cabbage.” It’s okay for me to say no to some things. And I do. Putting everyone else’s agenda before my own does not make me “the man,” although the academy (and people wanting me to do things for them send the opposite message). I’m not falling for it anymore. I do my best, and others will do the rest.
The “H” Word
Trust me, I completely understand the pressure to produce a lot of writing in the name of career advancement. When I was raising kids and they were old enough to read, I posted a sign on my study that said if it wasn’t burning or bleeding, I didn’t need to know at that moment. The alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. so that I could work and then walk my baby people to the school bus with little guilt. Unlike many of my younger colleagues, I began graduate school with three kids under five-years-old. My youngest spent many hours in the library in one of those portable cradles as “we” furiously copied bibliographies (oh, the trees!), checked out books (being in the house reading was better than not being around at all), and I always gigged to hustle in more dough for cleats, uniforms, fees, etc., and to build a library (thoroughly old school in the age of kindle, but I wouldn’t trade it). There is joy and reward in the hustle. But it takes a while to reap the rewards.
They grew up.
The “V” Word
Before Facebook and Twitter, I belonged to a great village. My graduate school colleagues at the University of Michigan, for example, saw my family participating in that “country club sport” called music lessons for my kids, and they would share their stipend money to defray the costs. (Thank you, forever). And they would give help to my family by babysitting. I can never repay them for that assistance, but I can pass it forward. This was the academic community I had before social media. As I went about my daily life, they must have seen something (in the flesh) that made them want to help me. No matter how satisfying social media becomes for me—and it is—I still yearn for golf buddies, musician friends, and family, etc., in what I call the world of “oxygen and chicken wings” as my primary source of support.
The “P” Word
Although other admirable models exist, I don’t strive to be the most prolific scholar/writer/musician out there. Productive? Yes. Prolific? No. Why? While we all want to be all positive things, and I guess being prolific is one of them, one can only do so much, particularly if your gifts and interests lie elsewhere. I had to face it. At the time that many scholars consider the time at which they really need to show the world their “bonafides,” I was also just as interested in seeing my kids’ activities, music-making, squash (I was a New Englander once), the gloriously gossipy culture of lunchtime, pick-up basketball (if you want to hear hilarity sit in the steam room with some aging guys discussing what just happened on the court), baseball, cycling, golf (and all of its impracticalities)—and all that stuff made me very happy to be alive. Sure, I put the time into the work, but I couldn’t lower my golf score, raise my batting average, write original music, etc., AND be known as a prolific writer. I chose, and as arthritis stiffness discourages some (but not all!) of the sports, I believe I chose well. Besides, music teaches that some people are just gifted to produce more and fortunate to get more attention for it. Yet none of this means that one can’t have power in what one manages to write.
I was shocked when my mother-in-law the poet Hettie Jones, author of many books and poems, told me recently that she had never written more than one page in a day and is always satisfied if a day’s work produces one good paragraph. This from the woman who edited Blues People and Franz Fanon and a host of other authors and works. That put things in the right light for me. If the shoe fits, write it. If it don’t, get a hobby.
The “Y” Word
Nothing is a worse look, in my view, than trying to chase “being young” in one’s fifties. While I like to keep current (admittedly easier when I lived with younger people), the truth is this: history is more interesting to me on most days. (Not to equate my interest in history with not being young—I just mean here that knowing every pop act on this week’s scene is something that would take more time than I wish to give it). Skinny jeans are uncomfortable. They make me think about how uncomfortable they are. I need sensible shoes that support my lower back so that I won’t make faces and noises getting in and out of cars. Those stylish sneakers with no arch in them make running for the A train a literal pain. I can’t bench press 250lbs anymore without becoming extremely pre-occupied with that goal, and then not without making picking up a fork the next day unnecessarily difficult. I know what I like, like what I do, and like yours, too—for you. I’m really cool with the fact that I was born before you. Don’t hate on me for that—just appreciate it. I love watching younger people being younger people because I dig living my groove, too. I hope y’all make it to this age because it is too tight.
Poet, preacher, and professor Valerie Bridgeman, the first Facebook friend I called up and met in person. Next thing I know, I’m at a great birthday party.
I’ve recently come to terms with “where I am,” in part, because there are so many full-grown professors, musicians, media personalities, and scholars from near and far that routinely address me with honorifics like “sir” and “Doc,” although I still kind of see them as peers in the struggle. This is particularly true because I hold their accomplishments in such high regard, and of course, one wants to be down. But they are not my peers, and they let me know it. And the constant stream of respect and deference they show serves as constant reminders that younger people must require those of us with some longevity to act like it. I get the message loud and clear. It seems that not worrying about being youthful is the best way to stay young. That, and not trying to squeeze all those decades into skinny jeans.
Chopping it up with young, fierce scholars Matthew Morrison and Fredara Hadley
Performing unplugged with the songbird Millie Gonzalez, one of the musicians on the Colored Waiting Room CD
I took email off my blackberry. New rules: it can wait. I write shorter emails. (Do you want the answer or a thesis statement?) Do I want moments of uninterrupted thoughts or to be constantly tethered to the needs of others? Pulled the plug on cable a year ago and don’t miss a thing except sundry references to reality TV shows and commercials with short shelf lives. My last eighteen months or so on various forms of social media has connected me with the most amazing and inspiring people, some of whom I’ve asked for an actual phone number and called! Spending time with grandkids suspends time in the same way that time suspended with my first love in 8th grade. Still got my mama. Have a conference call with all my siblings on the 15th of every month, 8pm EST. Digging the off-spring relationship thing and have mad R.E.S.P.E.C.T. for my partner.
And I put on loud music and dance and dance my moves even when there’s no one around. Y’all should see me. Club 54 is something else. This is your life: go in hard.
Chicago steppin’ with my 80-plus year old Auntie. She still got the best moves on the floor. Know this.