July

Twitter is a parasite that burrows deep into your brain, training you to respond to the constant social feedback of likes and retweets. That takes only a week or two. Human psychology is pathetically simple to manipulate. Once you’re hooked, the parasite becomes your master, and it changes the way you think. Even now, I’m dopesick, dying to go back.

Twitter did something that I would not have thought possible: It stole reading from me. What is it stealing from you?

Caitlin Flanagan

I just looked at my reading list and realized that I didn’t finish a single book in July. I read tons, but didn’t get to the end of any one volume. I don’t blame Twitter; I attacked big books and had a few time constraints. C’est la vie.

But I did have some ideas.

We went down south this month, to Somerset and then west to Wales. On the way down, I read about Jeff Bezos and his space flight, and for some reason Louis Vuitton, Julia Nolke’s brilliant Travel Influencers Be Like and the Pandemic Sourdough trend popped into my head at the same time, and I thought:

  1. Conspicuous Consumption of things used to be cool (and, apparently, still is among some classes). This should probably now be considered the lowest rung of the flex ladder.
  2. Then, we moved into conspicuous consumption of experiences. Nolke mocks them; Bezos is at this point in flex history.
  3. The next general movement will be conspicuous consumption of skills. Like pandemic sourdough, people will brag about their ability to do things that are relatively useless, and un-rewarded, other than public acclamation. In fact, the more it is nonmonetizable, but rewarded by likes, the more people will do these things.

I spoke about this theory with Alice’s father, Ben, and he refined it to a better term: conspicuous acquisition of skills. Basically, consumption only shows that you have the money to do certain things, whether that is purchase an expensive car or handbag or fly to an exotic place (like space). Being able to do something – now that shows a multi-dimensional personality, particularly if it has no application other than pure enjoyment.

A few days later, I read this:

“…in today’s America, social positioning involves a system of tacit cultural signifiers at least as exclusionary and distinguishing as those of, say, of upper-class Britain. American elites now eschew many of the vulgarly ostentatious trappings of the well-off, or at least justify their high-end purchases with virtue-signaling explanations—the $100,000 Tesla is purchased rather than a Range Rover because it is an environmentally friendly car; the $3,000 Goyard handbag shows no labels, unlike the flashy Louis Vuitton bags of the 1980s; the beach house in Cape Cod is run down; parents choose a family trip to the Galápagos over a vacation to Disneyland; sending one’s kid to private school is valued more than a country club membership. Breastfeeding fulfills an almost Barthesian mythology of motherhood, the cultural gold standard to which all mothers should aspire. More to the point, signals are embedded in cultural capital, and almost all of them are suggestive more about knowing what to buy than about how much it costs. Accompanying these choices is a barely concealed air of moral superiority: that these choices are necessarily more ethical than other choices.”

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett

I would argue that now, “signals are embedded in cultural capital, and almost all of them are suggestive more about knowing what to buy than about how much it costs,” should be changed to, “signals are embedded in cultural capital, and almost all of them are suggestive more about knowing what to buy and do than about how much it costs.”

And then:

“Consumption is an activity is so different from gainful labour that shows itself in the mode of leisure, even indolence. We display the success of what we have done by not having to do anything. The more we use up, therefore, the more we show ourselves to be winners of past contests…

“…wealth is not so much possessed as it is performed.”

James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games

Later in the month I had a fascinating discussion with my friend M.; he mentioned thinking about ballet, and balance points, while walking down Dundas street. The conversation quickly moved on from there, but something about his comment made me think: there must be some sort lesson here that Martin just assumed I had thought through, but that I still needed to learn. So I looked up balance points:

Balance can be defined as a condition in which the body is in stationary equilibrium without the tendency to topple due to the effect of gravity. Your students will see several examples during the ballet of dancers being en pointe, which means standing while balanced on the toes of one foot.

This made me come up with the following theory:

  1. By balance point, I think he was referring to the way the dancers must find the precise point where they are between two or more countervailing forces, and the forces are in equilibrium.
  2. The lesson that we can draw from this for life is that these balance points exist in various ways – work/life balance is the most common one, perhaps, but exercise and rest, silence and noise, social and alone time, etc. are also examples.
  3. The balance point for dancers will be different for each dancer and each situation; the balance points for people will similarly be different for different people at different times. We should be aware of that, and accept that it changes.
  4. The countervailing forces, when balanced, are both opposed to each other and, critically, depend on each other; without the opposite, they have nothing to balance against.
  5. Balance is not the end goal; balance is in service to some other end goal. (Or is balance actually the end goal?)

And my friend Mike asked me to listen to a podcast he did. I think podcasts are largely a waste of time – they are the audio equivalent of Instagram or YouTube. But Mike has a very special place in my heart, particularly now. I remember being in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, sometime in the summer of 2006, and seeing a new guy walk in – maybe .5% body fat, covered in tattoos, looking like he was spoiling for a fight. He was a pit bull the first few classes – just looking to pressure and attack, to muscle his way through, with a tiny amount of technique and a lot of force. Over time, it came out that he had been in prison for a bit, and that added to the aura of menace around him.

I got injured, so had to stop classes, and completely lost contact with Mike and lots of the other people I met at that class. But then I had dinner with my friend Carl, who was a year ahead of me in law school and also went to the BJJ academy, and he mentioned that he had switched to boxing – way less chance of injury, he said, better fitness, he said, more fun, he said. He was doing it with White Mike, and did I want to come along sometime? I didn’t know who White Mike was, or what alternate colors Mikes came in, but said yes.

A week later, Carl came by in his SUV and picked me up. We drove west, across the river, and into neighborhoods with sagging porches and broken windows. We parked in front of what looked to be an abandoned building, with a sign saying that it was a boxing club. The pitbull was waiting in front, rubbing his hands, and he introduced Pito, a Puerto Rican kid a head taller and ten years younger than us.

And we started training.

I can’t remember how long we went there weekly – maybe four or five months? It was tough, and fun, and I learned that both Pito and Mike, despite tough appearances, were thoughtful, interesting, funny, deeply caring people, and I really began to enjoy hanging out with them.

One day I was at work, in the library of my law firm, when Carl called me, which was odd because Carl only ever texted me to set times to box.

No pleasantries,

“Pito’s dead.”

“Huh?”

“Pito. Is. Dead. He got shot in the stomach and died last night.”

It turned out that Pito was in the street and something happened – maybe he met some guys who were drunk and looking to kill, maybe they tried to rob him, maybe he had an argument with one of them and they started fighting, nobody knew. A gun went off; the bullet went in Pito’s stomach; he died. For some reason, the Cleveland Police Department didn’t prioritize investigating the murder of a poor Puerto Rican kid from the West Side; as far as I know, nobody was ever even brought in for questioning.

We went to the funeral.

Six years later, I contacted a break dancing studio about lessons, and a guy named Daisun gave me his address. I drove to the west side, down slightly familiar streets and, when I parked, saw the old, dilapidated boxing gym across the street. I had a few minutes before my class, and I walked over to it, touched the front door, wondered what happened to Mike, to Pito’s dad Sam, to the killers, to the guy who owned the gym and whose name was plastered on the front. Then I walked back to the dance studio and met Daisun, who, it turned out, had been watching me from across the street.

No pleasantries,

Daisun: “Why did you go over there?”

Me: “I used to take boxing lessons over there.”

“From who?”

“A guy named Pito.”

“Who?”

“Pito.”

He suddenly looked confused. “What was his real name?”

“Uh, Sam De Leon Junior.” I only knew that from seeing it at the funeral.

He took a step backwards and sat down, hard, against a table. “Are you fucking with me man?”

“Huh? No.” It struck me that this was not a good way to start dance classes.

“Pito?”

“Yeah, Pito. He got killed a while back.”

He took a deep breath.

“My girl is his ex-girl. I am raising his son.”

Later, I met the ex-girl, and the son. Pito’s son was smiling and exuberant and lovely, and Daisun clearly was doing everything he could to be a good father, and I couldn’t believe I was any sort of link between the two men.

And then, later, Mike came back into my life through Facebook, and then Instagram, and his life became super amazing as he married, started a business, and began travelling the world. A few weeks ago, I commented on one of his posts: he said that he thinks people should keep bad food out of their homes, and someone said, “But I have kids – how do I keep it out when it is what they want to eat?” Mike responded along the lines of, “Are you really going to feed yourself and your kids shit? If anything, it is your greater responsibility as a parent to not only teach them how to eat well, but to eat well yourself, so you can do as well as you can for them.” I wrote in support of that; we recognize that Daniel is not going to always follow our dietary strictures, but for now, he eats spinach and eggs for breakfast, raw veggies and fruit for snacks, and home-cooked adult food – what we eat – for dinner. He has had sugar a handful of times in his life, and it often ends up disastrous, so we don’t give him more.

Anyway: Mike wrote to ask me to listen to a podcast he was on. I hate podcasts, but agreed, and…actually listened. It was amazing to hear his voice, to know some of the people he spoke about, and to agree with so much of what he said – particularly his philosophy of a “conflict-free home.” And it was cooler because, on July 31, I got my blue belt in Jiu-Jitsu. Sunny reminded me of how long the journey had been, starting in the Aikido dojo on Mayfield with Darren teaching a room full of guys who had no idea what they were doing.

Advancing doesn’t matter much, or it shouldn’t – it just shows that you know enough to be at a certain level, which takes time. But it also matters so much. Suddenly I feel like I am not just an interloper, an accidental visitor to a club, but a member – someone who belongs, who sort of knows what they are doing. I haven’t been able to process exactly why this is the case; I should look it up.

At the same time, I am suddenly starting at the bottom again. While I can train with white belts and dependably beat them, anyone with a colored belt just dances on my neck at their leisure. It is absurdly demoralising – I went up a belt, but fell down all of the levels, it seems, back to the very bottom of the pile. Again, something to look up, to reflect on.

And maybe I had more time to think because I wasn’t finishing books and was on vacation?

After a couple of days in Somerset, we took a train to Cardiff, then got a rental car and drove to The Mumbles for a beach holiday. It was stunning – like Northern California, except with fewer people, cleaner beaches, friendly faces everywhere, and colder water. We explored the coast and the town, made dinners in a different kitchen, rested and relaxed. The beaches themselves were long, and the high-tide and low-tide differences could be a few hundred yards or more – so at low tide, it took ten or 15 minutes to walk to the water to cool off. The water was calm enough for people to stand-up paddleboard, and I was able to swim kilometres in the open water, back and forth, without bumping into anyone. Daniel got to dance in the sand, jump in tide pools, look at starfish and crabs, and dig moats around sand castles. He got a farmers tan on his little neck and arms, and smelled like sunscreen and salt the whole week. One night, when he was resisting sleep, Alice asked me to stay with him for a while; when I went in his room, he said, “Daddy sing Indigo Girls.” So I sang him Indigo Girls songs until his beautiful little eyes fluttered closed.

But the highlight of the trip may have been Mohammed, and Marks and Spencer’s Food Hall. It is the biggest grocery store in town, and so for the week we mostly shopped there. On the second day, I was walking through, and let a man push a cart full of shopping baskets in front of me. He stopped, and said, “Would you like one, sir?” and it struck me that a shopping basket was exactly what I needed at that particular moment. I had quick chats with him two or three times while walking around getting food, and then he was working the till when I was done, so I talked to him more. I walked out, then went back in and asked him his name – I wanted to write to the store to praise his good customer relations skills. For the rest of the week, every time I went in, we talked; I introduced him to Alice and Daniel, and Daniel started saying, “Go M and S see Mo!” The last day we were there, I gave him my contact details, and – probably in violation of all safety regulations – we hugged.

Getting a heartfelt embrace from Mo at the end of just a few interactions in the grocery store where he worked was, in my mind, the second greatest metric of the success of a vacation, next to Alice and Daniel having a good time.

Daniel keeps advancing. He is learning to control his emotions, particularly frustration and pain, which comes in handy as he wants more things and is more physically adventurous – he wants to touch everything, eat everything, cuddle random cats and puppies and Lego toys. He is running and jumping and falling; he has a scar on his palm from twice scraping it in falls, and his knees and shins and elbows are dependably bruised. He loves construction sites and babyccinos from Caffe Nero; he is saying more complex sentences, like, “Daddy is cooking and Daniel is eating and Mommy is microwaving eggs!” He is shy around the random strangers who want to come up to him to talk, and smile, but he remembers everything – from the boy on Caswell Beach who waved to him to, a week after I took him, “Atik the tailor daddy’s friend Daniel’s friend mommy’s friend make handkerchiefs,” because Atik the tailor IS our friend who made me a set of handkerchiefs and who Daniel seemed to feel comfortable around. And he knows when he wants a cuddle, and has started to hug us – to really wrap his little arms around our legs or necks and snuggle in while we wrap our arms around him.

Also, he knows the proper context of when to say “Shit.”

The hardest job you’ll ever love.

2 comments

  1. Wonderful to read about your life and perspectives through your personal experiences. Love seeing your little boy Daniel with you in the pictures. I am very happy for you snd your family. God bless you.

    Liked by 1 person

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