What should I be doing instead of this?


By tt stern-enzi · October 24th, 2012 · The Alternative
alternative 10-24
Back in 1983, I was 14 years old when Bill Cosby’s stand-up documentary Himself came out, and then, much like now, I could watch Cosby go on about the daily grind of life as a parent and, much more subtly, as a black man, repeatedly. Not too long ago, the act was on heavy rotation on HBO Comedy and no matter when I came upon it, I settled in for these retold stories that I knew by heart, yet wanted to hear once more. It’s wrong to define Himself as stand-up comedy, really, because it’s part of the oral storytelling tradition moreso than any kind of court jester mode that stand-up has ever satisfied throughout our history.

Cos was, and still remains, your crazy uncle at the family reunion who seemingly was always around whenever something happened and was able to recall the situation in order to put someone — maybe you, but you generally hoped it was somebody who had just gotten on your last nerve — in their place. He wasn’t mean about it, at least not mean-spirited, but his words or his stories might sting a bit, they might cause a rush of blood to your face or start your ears to tingling because he was telling the truth that you might not always want to face, especially in front of those closest to you.

I’m nearing my mid-forties now, roughly the same age Cosby was when Himself came out and I’m starting to recognize myself in that role. I can see where some of that material came from but, more than that, I can see the through-line in some of the thinking that has led Bill Cosby to the point where he is now, the stern conservative All-Father figure who grumbles and grouses over kids in baggy jeans hanging down past their butts with no regard for their own self-respect and self-worth.

I can connect the dots that are plainly marked on the page before me, which means I can see myself 20 or 30 years from now, my words out there in whatever form the media has taken, angry and judgmental, a cudgel over the unfeeling heads of my grandchildren and their generation.

And as much as I want to hate myself, that future tt, I can’t, much as I can’t bring myself to hate on Cos now. Because back in 1983, when he was in his mid-forties, telling stories about his struggles with being a parent, about trying to do the best he could to live up to the example of his parents, even when he looked at them as they were in that moment, grandparents bribing their way into heaven with treats for the grandkids they never would have given to their own kids, Cos was making a comparison that is as inevitable as breathing and a vital part of the evolutionary process.

We, each generation, see the effort we’ve made to achieve whatever social and cultural high watermarks will ultimately define us and then we watch as the next generation seems to slip in one way or another down the slope a bit, while setting their own standards.

I hear myself falling into the trap now. I’ve got a teenager in her first year of high school and a preteen who at 11 already believes she’s crossed over into full-fledged teenage angst. I recant my great trials and tribulations — my geeky teenage days of dealing with bullies on the school bus, being one of the few black students in gifted classes or among an even smaller racial and economic minority during my two years in boarding school, or embracing the joys of spending afternoons in a bookstore or a movie theater (when for $10 I could see two first-run movies, eat and drink my fill from the concession stand, and still waste a couple of quarters on Galaga or Joust) or outside playing whatever sports were in season (because even as a geek, I loved competition and worked hard to be competitive with the more athletic kids in the neighborhood).

We earned everything back then, I tell the girls, whether it was money for the movies or the answers to the questions on tests. Look it up, my mother and grandmother would say, when I asked for help, and so I would; whether it meant fishing through the dictionary for a word I couldn’t spell or turning pages in the encyclopedia for a research paper. These are acts that baffle my kids today, especially when I employ the same old-school tactics on them, and widen the generational divide.

I see and hear and know it all to be true, but … I can’t help myself.

CONTACT TT STERN-ENZI: letters@citybeat.com



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