People who know me think that I am an equal combination of my mom and dad. While I get much of my serious contemplative side from my mom, I get my goofy fun side from my dad. This is not to say that my dad does not have a serious side. This is to say that most of the time my dad loves being a ham, engaging people and making them happy (which sounds very familiar). According to one of his childhood friends, my dad “was intelligent, funny, sweet, and someone whose friendship, once given, was forever. We always laughed and being together was easy. There are only so many people in life with whom one can be really silly; your dad was one of those people for me. Still is.” Also, while my mom’s talent lies more with language and writing, my dad’s talent lies with numbers and math. To this day, I am surprised how well my parents compliment one another. What made their match seem even cooler to me was that it was the second marriage for both of them. I used to think that maybe I too would have to have a failed marriage before a good one. I still haven’t made the plunge to even try at failing at the first one though.
Like my mom, my father also had a history of being an underdog that I related to. With both parents having the come-from-behind, fight-the-establishment life experiences, I felt enabled to believe that I could overcome any underdog status within my own life. Though my dad was great with numbers, he was also dyslexic. Growing up in a diverse neighborhood of Inwood Manhattan, and attending George Washington High School (in Washington Heights), my dad’s guidance counselors told him he should learn a trade because they did not think he would amount to anything because of his disability. With plenty of hard work, brilliance, and charm, he proved them all wrong, earning a college degree in engineering and became a rocket scientist. He was one of the engineers that worked on the engine of Apollo 11, putting the first man on the moon. After he met my mother, he went back to school and earned his masters and the doctorate in public health at Columbia Medical School. He started working at Presbyterian hospital in an engineering capacity, but after earning his degree, worked as an administrator there for nearly 30 years, before becoming a professor. His specialty is processing hospital data and statistics. Growing up I often heard him referred to as Dr. “DRG” (His technical title was doctor of case mix studies.) He also was a computer whiz knowing many of the latest programs to process statistics including Length of stay, inpatient outpatient data, and various diseases (Each disease is assigned a number called DRG).
Physically like me, my dad was not an imposing figure. When I would share the hope of being bigger and more masculine so I wouldn’t be picked on as much, my dad shared with me his bullied stories. He talked about how he was made fun of for his small skinny body, that his peers used to call him “monkey”. I had a very high voice before my voice changed. I was a boy soprano after all at the Met. Since my dad was a successful husband, father, rocket scientist, and doctor, it gave me hope that my average physical stature could limit my personal potential. He always encouraged brains over brawn and to avoid physical fighting. This was difficult for me to process since I was so full of hyper-competitive rage that sometimes I really wanted to hurt people. The problem was that while I may have wanted to fight, I was simply bad at it as observed in my karate sparring matches. I was the type of kid that would easily flinch. It was hard to control my fear. Thankfully, one of my dad’s main teachings and philosophy when dealing with conflict was to “kill with kindness”.
Though not as good a guitar player as my mom was a pianist and singer, my dad’s dad and uncles were pretty musically accomplished. My dad’s dad, my grandfather, was a professional jazz pianist who worked on cruise ships and worked parties around the city his whole life. My dad’s uncle was Max Arons, president of the musician’s union Local 802 in NYC. This heritage made me feel like I was continuing a strong lineage of music and performing on both sides. While “soul” is big word that was associated with R&B and hip/hop heritage, the word I grew up with that associated with my genetic musical jazz heritage was “schmaltz”.
My dad had the perfect temperament in dealing with my over-sensitivity and hyper-competitiveness. My dad made me feel okay for crying so much as a kid. He always told me it was a sign of strength. Though I don’t cry nearly as easily as I did when I was little, my dad recently showed me (now close to 36) a poster that said, “Crying doesn’t mean you’re weak. It means you have been strong for too long.” I had to reply, “okay dad, but I don’t need to be validated like that anymore.”
I often took his good nature for granted, treating it coldly when I felt secure in myself like I did not need him. But when I was upset or stressed out about anything, he was always there to chill me out and get me to relax. When I would worry about that maybe we did not have a macho enough father-son relationship, he would jokingly ask if I would rather have a father who only shook hands with his son, and I would laugh and agree that that would be weird, uncomfortable and sad. I am very lucky to have had such affectionate parents. Ever since I can remember, before going to bed my mom and dad always told me “I love you” and I would say “love you too” and vice versa. It was such common thing to say and hear growing up that I did not realize the heavy weight they carried until I got older, realizing that I should be more sparing when using “love” if I did not want to be super-committed with the girls I became involved with. Growing up in my house, saying “I love you” seemed more of an emotional check in that a deep emotional phrase. It was just to show that we supported and cared for each other before briefly going our separate ways whether that meant leaving the house, going to bed, or getting off the phone.
Despite being in touch with his feminine side, my dad knew when to flex his muscle, his masculine (even “gangster”) assertiveness. There was only so far I could be mean, spoiled, and cold towards my Dad before he put his foot down. It was always very clear when I went too far. Sure I could complain about him getting the wrong soda or juice I wanted during fishing trips where I was jealous of how much more fish he often caught than me. It was like they knew he was a good dad and I was a spoiled son and would only let him catch them. He even let me go through a phase when I profanely cursed at him, but only in a way such that it became an over the top joke, that the curse words lost their meaning. That phase started when at ten years old I insisted on running a central park 5k race with him. I started complaining how hard it was which I’m sure was frustrating, and we both just started cursing on how miserable we were during the race. I’m sure my dad would have had a better run if he didn’t have a whiny son holding him back from running as fast as he wanted. The cursing became a game of another round of silly sounds and rhythms to make with my dad, except these sounds and rhythms were curse words. Sure he would also let me bitch about him not driving fast enough to whatever class or event I was afraid of being late to. But there was always a point where his Pisces kind patience would give way to an angry coldness that was somewhat terrifying, quickly putting me in my place.
I was not the only one terrified of this rare side of my dad. He had a very funny way of turning it on. For example, one summer between college semesters, my dad took me to a shoe place in a mall, where a salesman said he could put taps on my new patent leather shoes. The salesmen said he would have them ready in a couple of hours, so my dad and I kept busy in the mall for a couple of hours. When we returned, the shoe salesman copped an attitude saying that he did not get around to it and would have them by the next day. Out of the blue, my dad, not taller than 5’6’ in his office suit looked straight in the eyes of the 6”3’ shoe salesman and simply, seriously, like a mafia guy said, “you said they would be done in two hours. We’re not leaving until taps are on my son’s shoes.” The salesman seeing the cold stare in my dad’s eyes quickly apologized and said to just give him 10 minutes. While we waited there was a furious “tap, tap, tap, tap, tap” that emanated from behind the curtain of the side room behind the register. And indeed the shoe salesman with sweat on his brow rang us up. I was pretty proud. There were a number of occasions when my dad could turn it on like that. Any doubt I had about his masculinity as a result of his kowtowing to mom, his physical affectionateness, and his security with his own sensitivity and other’s homosexuality, quickly vanished when his dark side came out.
Every kid on the block loved my dad. He was always around to fix bikes and do fun projects on the block. It truly was funny being an awkward geeky, at times very sweet but still socially maladjusted kid with the cool dad. And he was not a cool dad that tried to upstage me. He was a cool dad who loved me very much. He was a cool dad with a very jealous and competitive kid. I hated it when he gave any of the neighbor’s kids attention that I wanted only for myself.
What perhaps made my dad atypically cooler was how he showed me how fun it could be a smart nerdy kid. As my study partner in grade school, my dad and I invented the phrase “getting drunk from studying”. After a couple of hours of memorizing facts about photosynthesis, respiration, or the life cycle of a sun, we would get so punchy that during the drills we would ask and answer questions in strange voices imitating various school teachers and television characters. We would laugh so hard. Over the years, I basically found that I could achieve the same amount of giddiness and silliness by working really really hard, and I would always be proud of myself that I did not have to ingest anything potentially unhealthy. Getting giddy and silly after working really hard would always bring me back to those “getting study drunk” with my dad.
Of course as in every father son relationship, there were points in my adolescence when I felt competitive with my dad and wanted to find weaknesses of how I could be better than him. For a while I tried to beat him at sports, which I ended up doing more when he hurt his hip. But instead of being insecure and fighting me for who could play more basketball, he just let me have it. I even found a way to criticize him as the breadwinner of our family. Sometimes I would overhear him talk with my mom about not being treated well on his job with bosses, etc.. I did not understand why he could not just tell of his boss. I did not understand how office politics worked, and the pressure of being the breadwinner of the family. It is so easy as a child to criticize parents without knowing how much pressure they are under to keep their family supported and my dad always did an amazing job. Though he never made six figures, because of his math mind, he always knew how to stretch a dollar. He knew the difference between good and bad debt, knew when to save money, and when to take out loans or a mortgage for tuitions and projects. Between my mom’s survival cooking, and my dad’s financial management skills, there never seemed to be a time in my life when we were out of control with debt.
People impressed with my ability to carry myself in different social and cultural circles often see where I get it from after meeting my dad. Growing up my dad always was gracious towards every walk of life, class, and look from Presidents of hospitals to 7-11 cashiers. My mom was the same way in her equal treatment. However my dad was always less guarded, and in many way like my sister, had a way of disarming people with his friendliness, his openness. And he was funny. As far as relating to people, my dad’s fearlessness for taking chances relating to nearly every person has always been inspiring. He implanted the ideology that everyone I pass deserves a hello and a nod.
He had his own way of talking street that always sounded funny. He had a way of pulling it off so that instead of coming off as offensive, he just had a way of coming off as “old school down”. His occasional fun use of “what’s happening babehhhh?!!” along with his Bill Cosby-like pointing dancing endeared him most of the time to all of my band mates, white black and everyone in between. However there have been a couple of occasions where his attempts at being “too down” has offended a couple of my musician friends, at which times he often apologizes after the fact or I do for him. Sometimes he gets so caught up in performing, that he oversteps his bounds of unearned excessive familiarity of different cultures. For example, one time dropping off a black sax player at his house when he picked me up from a gig, my dad made a bad joke about racial profiling (saying he might get pulled over for being white) and making a comment about bars on the sax player’s house’s windows and lightly said something about Watts (referring to the riots in L.A.). Truth is my dad has also been somewhat manic, a condition he has taken meds for most of his life. That night I remember that he had forgotten to take his meds, which explained his inappropriate behavior. I called to apologize, but for a little while it unfairly got around some horn players that my family was a little racist for that one incident. It was truly a “Larry David moment”. These horn players were shocked how liberal my dad was with his passionate campaigning for Obama in 2008. Still most other times while I often cringe at some of his dated cultural slang, I am often surprised finding how so many other people of colors and cultures become at ease with his gung ho innocent, joyful, and sincere attempts at multicultural communication.
Throughout my life, my dad occasionally said, half jokingly, that he hated white people, rather referring to so many of the uptight white people he came across on a daily basis. Privately, both of my parents often said how we were not really a “white” family, in the sense of how much we knew about suffering and were down to earth and sympathetic to most human conditions. But at times when the topic of how relatively close my parents were to some rich white people they got along with, my dad always ultimately ascribed to the philosophy that at the end of the day people are people. He just tended to gravitate towards what he and most people often perceived as underdogs, and if they were not underdogs then he gravitated towards them for their self-awareness and humor.
My dad’s biggest gift and skill – to make light of heavy moments most people took impossibly seriously. While not all of his jokes have been socially appropriate, he always has had the intention of emphasizing that life is to be enjoyed. What separated that philosophy from my sister’s was that I saw how my dad worked really hard on his job. He often bothered me when he asked me at various points in my life if I was “happy”. I hated the pressure of being happy but knew that in some ways it was my own fault if I wasn’t and I should change it because obviously my parents weren’t standing in my way. Whenever I feel like I reach a breaking point of pushing myself, I hear my dad’s voice in the back of my head saying as he often did in the past, “Relax. Treat yourself good. Take it easy.” In mind I could see him working hard on some public health data or grading papers, and then indulging in one of his nice healthy naps, naps that he says he’s taken all his life. And look how much he’s accomplished possibly even because of those naps. I am a good napper like my dad and his dad before him. Because of this lineage, at least I intellectually know how important napping and downtime are for enriching and reenergizing the awakened life.
The last few sections of this chapter show just glimpses of the wealth of wisdom and ideologies I have inherited from my immediate family. I feel it is fitting to end this chapter recognizing the ideological influences from unexpected sources. By “unexpected”, I mean people or things that we may have not especially got along with, feel much in common with, nor were especially close to. And yet despite these differences or distances we might feel with these people or things, it seems impossible not to respect them. Perhaps this innate respect is born from a habit of seeing these people as authority figures for so long. Or perhaps it is unavoidable to respect the passion and personality with which they expressed those different opinions and their more universal philosophies and life experiences that enabled their respective passion and personality.
For me, there have been many teachers that I have not gotten along with or felt close to for various reasons that at the end of the day can be said to be a result of circumstances out of everyone’s control. The one teacher, who I took for granted the most, in hindsight was a huge influence in writing this book despite our emotional and at times philosophical distance – the late great Dr. Wendell Logan, jazz director at Oberlin Conservatory. So many of his former students often quote his very passionate “down home Georgia country black” “no bullshit” phrases about music and life. Yet everything he said and taught, whether or not academically appropriate, were always applicable to life. Some of the funny yet poignant things he would say included were: “SWINGGODDAMNIT!”, “I’m serious as a heart attack”, “Good to be seen!” (in response to “good to see you”), “That’s right, Mmm hmm” and other variations of “mmm hmm”. When questioned of his authority, “God Damnit! I am the Blues!”. When teaching a drummer during a big band rehearsal: “Get your head out the chart. You can’t drive a car and read a map at the same time.” Or when discussing the history of jazz instrumentation in Jazz history class, specifically the “hi-hat” part of a drum set:
Wendell: “So the two cymbals together is called the sock cymbal…”
Student: “Um, Sir? Why aren’t they called the Hi-Hat?”
Wendell (irate): “Because they go ‘sssock! sssock!’ not ‘hihat! hihat!’”
There are countless more Wendell stories all of his students could tell. Despite my frustration at times with Wendell and the jazz program, the one piece of wisdom that stuck with me the most was something Wendell said during a big band (OJE) rehearsal. Not surprisingly, it was something about status. He said to us (and I’m paraphrasing), “Your reputation cannot solely rely on what you did in the past. You always have to stay current and creative to stay relevant. Hell I can’t depend today on what I did yesterday.” That really struck a chord with me. Back then I often reflected on that when I played well on an improvised solo one day before playing terribly the next day because I got too cocky or felt too much pressure to duplicate what I had previously done (which you’re not supposed to do as a true improviser). Similarly, today, I reflect on how I cannot rely on old television appearances or Internet clips to stay relevant as an artist today. I always think of Wendell when it comes to that. I was extremely thankful I made peace with him and saw him before he passed. And I would not have done that if he did not take the time to read my proposal for this book. He came through with his support for me when I needed it most. God bless you Wendell and rest in peace. Thank you for everything.
It is important to note how we can all get wisdom and insight from many sources, especially ones that seem very different from us. The point of bringing that up is that while it is important to find role models who look like us and come from similar backgrounds, it is just as important to absorb wisdom from those who do not share the same background or audio/visual entitlement symbols, whether they are symbols of the majority or minority within any context. Wisdom and ideology come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and ultimately life experiences. Recognition of this fact is often missed on both sides of the argument about multicultural education.
Table of Contents
Part I – My Material (Physically Having) History
- Chapter 1 – Race, Money, Fashion
- Chapter 2 – Plants, Pets, and Education
- Chapter 3 – Jobs
- Chapter 4 – Connections, Opportunities, Genetics
Part II – My Sensual (Feeling) History
- Chapter 5 – The Satin Edge
- Chapter 6 – Gifted, Hyper Competitive, and Overly Sensitive
- Chapter 7 – Puppy Love and Status
- Chapter 8 – Busy-ness as Salvation
- Chapter 9 – Karate and Self Image
- Chapter 10 – Homophobia and Musical Expression
- Chapter 11 – Digging a Pond, High School, and Music Camp
- Chapter 12 – Heterosexuality, Self Esteem, Avon Fashion
- Chapter 13 – The Opposite Game, College, and Sex
- Chapter 14 – Cruise Ships, Internet, and Control
- Chapter 15 – Saturn’s Return, Delayed Gratification, and Aging Dreams