My Mom, Vivienne Young

This has always been my favorite picture of my mom. It was taken nine years ago at a wedding in Pittsburgh. My dad is between us. My Aunt Jean is on the far left.

This has always been my favorite picture of my mom. It was taken nine years ago at a wedding in Pittsburgh. My dad is between us. My Aunt Jean is on the far left.

1. As many of you already know, I started blogging years before VSB was born. (Very quick backstory: A decade or so ago, my cousin-–already a popular blogger and web designer—offered to build a page for me. I agreed.) During that time, I became familiar with dozens of different bloggers; some good, some bad, some fascinating and interesting, some fascinatingly uninteresting. I also developed favorites—people whose blogs became must-reads for me. One of these favorites even became a close friend and business partner.

Yet, there was one blogger whose writing style and sense of humor made her my favorite of my favorites. Her blog name was Vinabeans, she still tweets pretty regularly, and I’m certain she has no idea I was that big of a fan of hers.  

I started reading her in 2005 (I think). But, that’s not important. (Well, it’s not important in today’s context.)

What is important is why I stopped. 

In one of her blog entries, she revealed that her mom had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. And, because of my own fear of the death of either of my parents, I couldn’t read her blog anymore. I was scared to death. Where before I’d looked forward to each of her posts, just seeing her name on my AOL friends list made me anxious.

(What happened with Vina’s blog wasn’t unique. I did a similar thing when first watching Crooklyn. After the narrator’s mom dies, I stopped watching. This happened 15 years ago. I still haven’t finished watching it. Losing one of my parents has been such a resonate fear that I couldn’t even deal with fictional people losing fictional parents.)  

In the month or so before my mom’s death—when it became apparent she didn’t have much time left—I wasn’t able to sleep at night. I mean, I’d sleep, but I’d wake up every two hours or so, restless and sore from heartburn, and I’d jump online for a couple hours and surf until I couldn’t fight sleep anymore. After a couple weeks of that—and after sleepwalking through work every morning—I started self-medicating, taking an Advil before bed and washing it down with a swig of honey Jack. This “worked.”

It has been 10 days since my mom died. This has also been my best 10 day stretch of sleep all year. Part of me realizes this is due to the fact that I’m not worried about her anymore. I’m no longer obsessing about her health, her treatment, her spirit, and her level of comfort. There’s no more hurt about her hurt; no more wondering if today will be the day I get the 5:47 am phone call from my dad telling me something I know he’s going to have to eventually tell me.

Also, there is a comfort in being forced to face one of your greatest fears. When there is no more running from it, no more avoiding blog entries about it, no more turning the channel whenever something that reminds you of it happens to be on TV, no more anything you can do to stop it from happening, it provides a surreal, almost perverse peace, and you’re shocked into submitting to it.

2. I’ve been staring at my monitor for 15 minutes or so, trying to think of an eloquent and/or irreverent way to say what I’m about to say. It is (obviously) not working, but this may be a good thing. My inability to articulate how awestruck I am about all the love and support my family and I have received likely just proves that I am, in fact, awestruck by…

A) The campaign started by Iyanna Holmes to send flowers from VSB to my mom’s funeral and donate money to the Lung Cancer Foundation of America in her name…and the fact that you all mobilized to raise over $1,200 in less than two days.

B) The overwhelming support from Panama and Liz—who sent their own floral arrangement and have been checking on me to the point of (slight) overbearance.

C) The staff at EBONY.com, who’ve gone above and beyond to do what they can to support and comfort me during this time.

D) The love from two of my oldest and closest friends. One wasn’t able to make it because he’s currently coaching a basketball team in Luxembourg, so he wrote a heartfelt essay for my mom that his mom read at my mom’s wake. The other didn’t find out about my mom’s passing until Wednesday, but immediately drove up from North Carolina to be there Thursday and Friday.

E) The (admittedly unexpected) flowers from Single Black Male. The “unexpectedness” isn’t because of any type of rivalry or animosity anything. Instead, it just was not something I was expecting to see, and I am thankful for and appreciative of that gesture.

F) The expected but still awesome support from my giant family and friends.

G) The hundreds of people who’ve texted, emailed, voicemailed, tweeted, commented, liked, and even blogged their support.

When considering all of this, I can’t help but think of the way I bailed on Vina, and I feel shitty about that. If she reads this, I want to apologize to her. Not for being scared, but for not reading and not at least attempting to give her the type of spiritual support she needed.

3. While checking and responding to email last week, a friend saw that I was online, and sent me a Gchat asking how I was doing.

“hey dude. you okay?”

“i am. how are you?”

“i’m well. glad to hear.”

“thanks for asking”

“you’re like the superman of emotions. lol. steel.”

“why do you say that?”

“you just seem very strong emotionally. i’d be on the floor. for like the last several months. and especially this week. at least i think i would.”

“no you wouldnt be. you’d be busy making sure all of your mom’s final arrangements were in order. fielding calls from family, etc. basically, the stuff that needs to get done. obviously it’s tough. but it has to be done. and we all find it in ourselves to do it”

Last night, another friend sent me a text saying “you never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.” Despite my well-documented distaste for inspirational messages, I have to recognize the truth of that one.

Obviously, people are going to handle grief differently. I won’t say there is no such thing as a “wrong” way to do it. Because there is. But, most of us get it right because, well, we have to. And, if you have other family members who need you to be there for them, you don’t really have much of a choice.

(This doesn’t mean that I haven’t broken down. Repeatedly. This also doesn’t mean that I haven’t needed people to be there for me. Although the support mentioned earlier has been great, I don’t know where I’d be now without my girlfriend—who has been everything for me throughout all of this—and God.) 

Also—and this is going to sound odd, but I need to say it anyway—this is supposed to happen. No, my mom wasn’t supposed to die at 60 from lung cancer, but parents are supposed to pass while their children are still alive. This is the way life is supposed to work, and you only hope that you’re lucky enough to have spent a substantial amount of time on Earth with them.

With that in mind—and knowing that, while it hurts, losing a parent isn’t the same as losing your life partner and soulmate (which is what my dad is going through right now)—being “strong” isn’t even really a choice as much as it’s a consequence.

4. For the last couple of months, I’d been preparing myself for what I wanted to say at my mom’s funeral. Initially, the plan was to write it and read it to her while she was still lucid enough to understand it, but her health plummeted so quickly in the last couple of weeks that I wasn’t able to do it. Also, I don’t know. My mom was positive till the end, and I just didn’t really want to speak to her about something that was so final.

So, I wrote much of it in my head, and waited until the day of the wake to put it on paper.

Here’s what I said.

Although she was diagnosed with cancer a year ago, my mom actually first got sick in the fall of 2008. After numerous hospital stays—and a couple very serious scares—it was discovered that she had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a condition she’d have to deal with for the rest of her life.

In the five years between this discovery and her passing, my mom was treated at and admitted to numerous area hospitals. Shadyside. Montefiore. Presbyterian. Hillman. St. Margaret’s  Canterbury. West Penn. This made us—my dad, my sister, and I—de facto hospital tourists. Basically, if you ever wanted to know which area hospital has the best food options for visitors (Hillman), the best food options for patients (St. Margaret’s , the best rooms (Canterbury), the best parking situation (St. Margaret’s again), the nicest staff (a tie between Hillman and Canterbury), the oldest Black men working at the front desk (Hillman), or the best looking nurses (Shadyside), I’m the person to ask.

Anyway, I’m bringing this all up because of a situation that happened at least once at each of these hospitals. I’d go to my mom’s floor. But, because her room was recently moved—-or because I have a tendency to forget things—I wouldn’t know exactly which room she was in. So, I’d go to the nurse’s station and stand around with my most confused looking face until one of them asked if I needed help.

“Yeah, I’m looking for my mom, Vivienne Young.”

“Oh wow! You’re Mrs. Young’s son? Your mom is such a sweet woman. We love her so much!!! Just yesterday, while I was checking her oxygen levels, she noticed that I seemed a little down. After a bit of prodding, she finally got me to admit that I had a little fight with my boyfriend. Nothing major, but it did have an effect on my spirit that morning. After I told her that, we talked about relationships for 10 minutes, and she gave me the best advice I’ve ever had. Oh, and when you see her, tell her I tried the baked chicken marinade she told me about, and it was great!”

“Umm. You still haven’t told me what room she’s in”

I realize that having fond memories of your mom isn’t an uncommon thing. Everyone loves their mom. (Well, mostly everyone.) Tony Soprano cried when his mom died—and she tried to kill him! And, although I’m no history buff, I’m sure Hitler loved his mom too.

What made my mom unique is that while everyone loves their mom, not everyone has a mom who everyone loves. This was Vivienne Young, Everyone who was lucky enough to know her, loved her.

Now, when trying to encapsulate my mom’s life, there’s so much I can talk about—so much I can say—that it may even be easier to just talk about all the things I won’t talk about.

I will not talk about her spirit, and how she never stopped living. Even in her last weeks, as her health began to worsen, she still dressed like she was set to appear on the cover of Vogue, she still made plans that were months away even though she knew she only had weeks left, and she still worried about other people. Friends and family would visit my mom, intending to cheer her up but noticeably saddened by her health, and they’d leave inspired, emboldened, and even…happy.

(And, speaking of her clothes, well, I’ll just say this. You can have your Kerry Washington’s, your Halle Berry’s, and your Rihanna’s. I’ll take Vivienne Young’s wardrobe and sense of style, and I’ll beat yours eight times out of 10. It is not a game with my mom’s closet and bracelet game. Seriously, I started to type that my mom was the Lebron James of fashion, but Lebron James is actually the Vivienne Young of basketball.)

I will not talk about the not-so-secret “secret” handshake we shared. I’m not sure when exactly it started (or why), but I know we’d been doing it for as long as I can remember, and I know everyone who has seen us interact has seen us do it. So it wasn’t a secret. But it was a secret. I know this doesn’t make any sense, but it did to us.

I will not talk about the fact that I never liked her eggs. Her French toast was so good that, whenever I eat any other French toast, it feels like I’m cheating on it. Her spaghetti—and the Italian accent she and my dad would adopt whenever it was for dinner—made me feel like I was an extra in a deleted scene from the Godfather. Her fried chicken, Thanksgiving dinners, roast beef, pork chops and macaroni and cheese never were not on point. (I know that was a double negative, but bare with me.)

But I never liked her eggs. I didn’t exactly dislike them. I still ate them. But—and I guess the secret is out now—I like to make breakfast sandwiches with my food. She thought it was because I just loved sandwiches. I did it because it was the only way I could eat all of the eggs.

Anyway, I won’t be talking about that.

I also won’t talk about the fact that—although my sister may not have known this—my mom was very, very proud of her, and sincerely considered my sister to be her hero. That same spirit I spoke of earlier lives on inside of her and I want her and everyone else to know that.

I won’t talk about the fact that she’s the reason why I am not married…yet. Well, lemme rephrase that. My parents—who met on a blind date, btw—are the reason why I’m not married yet. After growing up in our household, and seeing how devoted to, in love with, and—most importantly—in like with each other they were, while I’ve dated some great women, I wasn’t ready to fully commit to someone until I was completely sure I’d be able to replicate that.

Fortunately, I have finally found that, and I’m very happy they got the chance to get close to each other before she passed.

Instead, I’m going to talk about silver linings.

My mom was sick for a year. Selfishly, that gave us an opportunity to brace ourselves. Her extended illness also gave people an opportunity who loved and appreciated her to spend time with her in the last year. I’m certain all of the love, support, and prayers she received helped her outlive her initial prognosis. 

But, getting back to the bracing ourselves point. Not everyone will get that opportunity to make sure that they spend a few final moments with their loved ones, and if my mom’s life has taught me anything it’s that life is too tenuous, precious, short, and final to take the people we love for granted.  

So, as you remember my mom and the legacy she left behind, please make sure the people you love and appreciate know that you love and appreciate them. The cousins you’ve been “meaning to call,” the friends you feel like you’re growing away from, the aunt whose emails you take weeks to answer, the sibling you wish you were closer to, don’t wait another day to fix something that may not be able to be fixed tomorrow. 

Like I said before, everyone loved my mom, and the best way to honor a woman everyone loved is to make sure everyone you love knows exactly how you feel. 

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

100 Words On Love: Scared to F*cking Death

***Joanna Schroeder, editor at The Good Men Project, has an ongoing series where she asked a select group of writers to each offer 100 words about love. I originally wrote something that was 130 words, and after about an hour or so of edits, got it down to 99. Anyway, this is what I had to say.***

There’s one part about being in love that people currently there don’t really share. Admittedly, this seems practical. I imagine they want others to eventually be there too, so they volunteer personal examples of the want, weightlessness, and fulfillment associated with it to make others eager to join their club.

I’m currently experiencing this. And it is fucking great.

I’m also scared to death of losing her—to cancer, to car accidents, to E coli, to mutant land sharks—and I’m annoyed no one warned me that an increasingly irrational fear of an inevitable occurrence would come with this gotdamn fucking package.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

On Love, Being In Love, And Waiting For A Train

Between Hans Zimmer’s oft-criticized but legitimately impactful score to Marion Cotillard’s Marion Cotillardness, there are a few reasons why the surprisingly rewatchable “Inception” has slowly and unexpectedly inched its way onto my “25 Favorite Movies Ever” list.

The main reason, though, has nothing to do with the special effects, the screenplay’s ambiguity, or even the experience of seeing Tom Hardy and thinking to yourself “Wait, that guy played Bane???” and everything to do with the fact that it contained one of the best (and perhaps the best) explanation of how it feels to be in love I’ve ever heard.

Mal: How could you understand? Do you know what it is to be a lover? To be half of a whole? 
Ariadne: No… 
Mal: I’ll tell you a riddle. You’re waiting for a train. A train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you; but you don’t know for sure. But it doesn’t matter. How can it not matter to you where that train will take you? 
Cobb: Because you’ll be together.

In the past several years, I’ve gone back in forth with whether it was necessary to feel this way about a person—an extension progressively fused into your whole, to be down for whatever as long as you’re together—to be in a fulfilling relationship. When I last wrote extensively about love, I argued that butterflies—and “butterflies” in this instance describes the collection of feelings possessed when in a certain type of love with someone—were insignificant, too fleeting to be able to influence something as serious as the decision to spend the rest of your life with someone.

My feelings since then have evolved. I’ve come to realize that being in love—the characteristics of it, the feelings and actions cultivated by it, even the importance of it—varies from person to person. We all have our own capacities for and expectations of love, and, while there’s really no right or wrong answers here, it’s paramount to find someone whose definition of the word mirrors your own. Basically, some people need butterflies. Some don’t.

More importantly, that butterflies post was dishonest. It wasn’t intentionally dishonest, but it was written from a place of fear. The idea of being so into someone that I literally felt their everything merging with my own scared me. Shit, it still does.

Even the language usually used to describe what happens when first realizing you’re in love (“falling”) suggests a tenuousness that should be avoided instead of pursued. Who in their right mind would sign up for a perpetual state of weightlessness, a psychosis where you allow one person—not a deity or even an idea but a living, breathing, and bleeding human f*cking being just like you—to be your everything? What sense does it make to grant someone that power?

It scared/scares me so because I knew then what I know and will admit to now: I need it too. 

I am one of those people who needs to leap, catch, and be caught in order to be fulfilled. Who looks forward to embracing both the powerlessness and the fear cultivated by it. Who needs to want and wants to need someone. Who knows exactly how all of this sounds—and exactly what all of this means—and doesn’t give a damn anymore.

What I thought would be restricting—admitting to needing something so fleeting and uncommon—has actually proven to be liberating. Owning to what I truly want has cultivated a single-mindedness that makes things a bit clearer for me now, a bit less ambiguous.

I’m waiting for a train. A train that will take me far away. I know where I hope this train will take me; but I don’t know for sure. But, as long as she’s with me, it doesn’t matter, and I hope it never will.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

A Conversation About Men, Male Behavior, Feminism, Fear, and Bacon (Yes. Bacon)

A couple weekends ago, I went out with a group of a dozen or so people to celebrate my homegirl’s birthday. And, as people in the greater Pittsburgh-area are wont to do after a night of drunken, WorldStarHipHop-worthy ratchetness, we went to Eat & Park afterwards to soak up our alcohol with pancakes and half-assed cheese eggs.

While most others usually opt for the menu food, I always choose to buy the breakfast buffet; a vast decrease in quality, but, when it’s 3:13am, quantity has a way of making you not give a f*ck.

There were so many of us there (I’m guessing 15) that the server put three tables together to accommodate all of us. And, since I was the only one who chose the buffet food, it meant…

A) I would be the only one eating food for the next 15 minutes.

B) I’d have to fight off a clawing pack of drunken and hungry zombies every time I returned to the table from the buffet.

The second part actually became a bit of a running joke. I’d go to the buffet, return with some bacon, and I’d have to smack the hands of my friends away as they tried to grab a slice. Sometimes I was successful in guarding my bacon, and sometimes the bacon zombies would get me. (I know this doesn’t sound like a very fun game to play, but we were all five exits past drunk, and the bacon game happened to be the funniest thing on Earth at the time. Only God can judge me.)

Anyway, although the table was filled with people who all were at the party I was just at, I didn’t know a couple of the people sitting at the other end of the table. I’m bringing this up because all the fun and games stopped when, while returning to the table after one of my bacon runs, one of these unfamiliar hands reached and attempted to grab the food on my plate.

When I made it back to my seat, I called this person out, asking what the f*ck was wrong with them (I think my exact words were “What the f*ck is wrong with you? I don’t know you, n*gga“), and basically put a slight damper on the mood.

(In hindsight, it was funny remembering the reactions of the people sitting around me, their expressions going from “Wait, Champ’s not serious, is he?” to “Um, yeah, he’s serious. This is getting uncomfortable. And entertaining. This is uncomfortably entertaining” and finally landing on “Wait, um, we’re not able to witness a couple dudes in suits fight over some bacon, are we?“)

I eventually forgave this person for their indiscretion. (We actually stood up and shook each other’s hands) The next day, as I was reflecting on the evening and remembering exactly how ridiculous that near fight was, it dawned on me that none of that would have happened if he was a woman.

You see, I was perfectly cool playing the bacon game with the people sitting close to me — all women that I knew. In fact, even if dude had been a woman I didn’t know, I wouldn’t have reacted the same way. I probably would have laughed, flirted, or perhaps even tried to steal some food off her plate when it finally came. But, because he was a guy doing something that guys aren’t supposed to do to other guys, it pissed me off enough to have the following absurd exchange with him

“Where are you from?” 

“Don’t worry about where I’m from. I’m from a place where n*ggas don’t take food off of n*ggas they don’t know plates.” 

(I apparently say n*gga a lot when I’m drunk and/or angry. Perhaps there’s another post in there somewhere)

If you’re still reading, you’re probably wondering what the hell a story about two drunk men having a pissing contest over some soggy bacon has to do with feminism, a concept defined as a collection of movements aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights for women.

Actually, that definition is a bit too bulky to work with. I prefer the one coined by Cheris Kramarae

“Feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings.”

Regardless of how you choose to define it, feminism has some roots in the idea that (most) men, even (most) well-intentioned men, don’t regard women with the same respect we do other men.

Thing is, as shitty as men historically have been and currently still are to women, we are pretty much just as shitty (if not shittier) to men.

As history continues to prove, men will regularly intimidate, embarrass, ridicule, mock, taunt, dominate, and even sexually humiliate other men if given the opportunity.

Think about this: Wherever you’re currently reading this, you’re at a place that was “founded” some time ago as a result of a group of men invading the land of a weaker group of men and subsequently murdering and colonizing them.

Even many “educated” and “domesticated” men still regularly do this in their own way. For instance, as ridiculous as that bacon story sounded, most men reading it probably laughed at first and then thought to themselves “You know what? I probably would have reacted the same way The Champ did.” 

Why? Well, although it may have seemed innocent, that guy reaching on my plate was his way of attempting to assert some dominance over me. His fat ass didn’t want any bacon, but he did want everyone to see him taking a slice of bacon off my plate — alpha male-ing me, in a sense.

I (over) reacted the way I did because, frankly, I wanted him to be scared. Not pissing in his pants scared, but “Hmm. This guy’s tone and body language suggests that there’s a possibility that he might actually get up and punch me in the face. It’s a slight chance, but still. Perhaps I should apologize to him.” scared.

Most people would probably consider bacon boy’s act a violation of some “man code” or some other unspoken kinship between men. While this is true, the creation of “man codes” aren’t really about any male kinship or spiritual brotherhoods or anything like that. We have these rules of decorum when dealing with each other because of fear of possible physical danger, and we treat each other with this tenuous respect because there’s always the possibility that we might get our ass kicked if we don’t.

Now, I’m (obviously) no feminist scholar, but it seems like the root cause behind man’s historically unjust treatment of women has something to do with the control and suppression of female sexuality and sexual freedom. It also seems like the only reason why (many) men are “nicer” to women than they are to other men is because they want sexual access to them, and getting women to agree to want to be with you is the socially acceptable way of gaining this access.

I don’t want to believe that the only things motivating us to be kind to each other are fear and sex, but history and any read of any newspaper continues to prove that this may be true. Am I completely off-base here, or are we (men) too f*cked up to evolve to a point where the majority of things the majority of men do are done, not because we can do them or can get away with doing them, but because they’re just the right and just things to do?

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

5 “Not-All-That-Talked-About” Fears Every Man Has

I'm sorry. I really don't know what happened to me just now. Would it cheer you up if I made you some eggs? I know eggs can't replace sex, but they are some damn good eggs.

“And that is what I am slowly being enlightened about today. I genuinely had no idea guys worried that much about their women cheating.”

This was a comment left by veteran VSB-er WIP in Monday’s A Conversation About Double Standards And How “Reformed Homosexual Man” = “Promiscuous Woman.” It was a response to the assertion that the threat of female infidelity definitely affects how we  (men) act. And, to be clear, it’s not so much that men worry all day long about whether their mate is cheating on them. The angst and anxiety happen beforehand, as we’re much less likely to choose mates who give off a “Yeah, you’re probably not going to be enough for me” signal.

Anyway, WIP’s lack of awareness of this very real fear made me wonder if there were any other prominent fears held by (many) men that (most) women have absolutely no idea about, and I thought of four more.

2. Unknowingly raising a kid that’s not yours

While many men will willingly help raise the child(ren) of a woman who had kids before they met each other, the prospect of loving, supporting, and protecting a kid who was assumed to be our kid but really isn’t scares us worse than prison, urinal rats, and the thought of period sex with Lisa Lampanelli. In fact, this — the fear of raising a kid who isn’t yours — may be the main reason why “promiscuous woman anxiety” exists.

3. Wang failure at the worst possible time

If “wrong f*cking time wang failure” —- and, for clarity, wrong time wang failure is when you get a once in a lifetime opportunity (i.e.: for whatever reason, Stacey Dash wants you right now) and can’t perform — isn’t bad enough, making it worse is the fact that it’s largely psychosomatic and a self-fulfilling prophecy. Basically, sometimes wang failure occurs just because of how badly you want to sleep with and please this person. Your interest and excitement works against you. And, adding insult to injury, the more you think about it and want it, the less likely you’ll be able to reverse it. Perhaps God isn’t a woman, but studies like this definitely make me think he must be a Kappa.

4. Getting “bitched” or made to feel helpless in front of your woman or children

For those unsure of what i’m referring to, just watch this scene again

5. Unauthorized sperm theft

Out of all the fears, this one is the most irrational. I mean, there’s only like 16 men on the planet important enough that a woman would actually dig in the garbage to retrieve a used condom with the hope that the semen is still able to impregnate her, and I’m pretty sure none of these men read VSB. Also, there’s only like 16 women on the planet desperate and dastardly enough to do something like that, and I’m pretty sure none of the cast members of “The Real Basketball Wives of Hip-Hop” read VSB, either.

Still, despite the irrationality, it is a very real fear that some men have. I even have a friend who told me that, if sleeping with a woman at her house, he always takes the used condoms home. I didn’t have the stomach to ask how exactly he’s transporting them.

Anyway, fellas: Did I miss anything? Can you think of any other fears that women probably don’t know anything about? Also, ladies, is there anything you’re deathly afraid of that would surprise most men if we found out?

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)