What’s in the bag?

As you probably know by now, I grew up in a predominantly white, predominantly upper middle-class community outside of Washington D.C. Which fostered a bit of entitlement. And which brought gifts. See, even at 15 years old, the athletes were spoiling each other and getting spoiled.

On Fridays during field hockey and lacrosse season, teammates secretly gave other teammates gift bags of candies, snacks, cards and trinkets – the tradition known as “Secret Santa.” This was a long-standing tradition among the female athletes at my high school.

On the field hockey team, we drew our Secret Santas out of a hat. As a sophomore, I drew a senior. The person who drew me? Well, by the process of elimination, it wasn’t difficult to figure out who mine was. She was a sophomore, too, and in the first few weeks of the season, she was a shitty Secret Santa. I’m still convinced Carrie’s lack of thought into the creation and assembly of my Secret Santa bag was an immediate reflection of the fact that she disliked me.

Thus the lack of ingenuity within the first few iterations of her brown paper bag: I’d get a few Snickers or Milky Way miniatures, a handful of those peppermint candies you get with the bill at any restaurant, maybe a roll of Smarties and a Post-It note that read “Good luck” – all of which, combined, barely covered the bottom of said brown paper bag. I even went so far to announce in the middle of French class – and in front of a handful of teammates – that “I have a shitty Secret Santa.”

Stunned silence from teammates. Including Carrie’s best friend. After that, my Secret Santa bag got a little heavier and its offerings a little more diverse. It wasn’t like other bags – girls were getting garage-door sized chocolate bars, massive rolls of Life Savers or fist-sized stuffed animals – but somehow, the squeakiness of my wheel got the oil.

Yet because of Carrie’s early-season lack of ingenuity, I seriously considered withholding my offerings to my Secret Santa recipient. But that would be projecting, wouldn’t it? And I wasn’t going to project my issues onto a senior who was a very good person. Besides, creating Judi’s bag was an adventure. Not just because Judi was a good person but because she loved fruit. Every Thursday meant picking something new to go inside of her bag. Grapes. Bananas. Kiwi. Peaches. Apples. It required consideration. And I liked it when Judi would tell everybody on the bus, “Oranges! Yes!” It validated my decision-making abilities and my worth as a teammate.

I played softball in the spring, and as a team we voted down the “Secret Santa” tradition. It was too frivolous and too much of a time investment. But the lacrosse team did it, and in the spring of my senior year, the lacrosse team made a list of what each girl wanted in her gift bag, posted at the entrance of the locker room for every athlete to see.

Susannah wanted Snackwells.

Katy wanted Sweet Success desserts – only 74 calories in a serving!

Daria wanted Diet Coke.

Jamie wanted anything sugar-free.

Amy wanted anything that was fat-free.

Don’t hurt anyone’s feelings and get them something with – gasp! – empty calories and a high fructose content!

I guessed that the lacrosse team exchanged rice cakes, cottage cheese and green beans on a weekly basis. In an attempt to foster team camaraderie, little did some realize they were either promoting teenage malnutrition and/or adolescent eating disorders.

Now I’m not saying the softball team was superior to the lacrosse team in the lack of gift-giving, but it was self-serving to see a list of all the goodies these girls wanted … posted in front of the locker room for every girl who participated in sports and enrolled in physical education to see. That list epitomized greed and elitism. If someone tore it down, I wouldn’t have been heartbroken.

I have no clue if the tradition is still even around. If it is, I shudder to think what today’s Secret Santa gift bags include. Pandora charms. iTunes gift cards. Lindt chocolates. Sparkly nail polishes. Maybe a few girls even ask for fat-free, low-cal, n0-sugar non-food-colored cookies. (not that there’s anything wrong with gluten-free.)

And to the person who has a less-than-stellar Secret Santa? I get it. Entirely.

Love, Peace and Soul (Train)

I’d tell you exactly where I was when I learned of Don Cornelius’ death … but in the name of confidentiality, I won’t. However, I’ll tell you exactly what went through my mind as I looked up at the television, tuned to CNN, and saw the text underneath the video of Don Cornelius, in a spiffy black pinstriped suit.


As a fan of R&B, Motown, soul and hip-hop music, I was shocked to learn of Cornelius’ death as a result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. I was saddened. A person who bridged a racial and societal gap in pop culture and who revolutionized music was gone.  His legacy will live on in so many episodes of “Soul Train,” a show that needs no words to explain its premise.

If you have Centric TV on your cable, I highly suggest you tune in to old episodes of “Soul Train.” Furthermore, I highly suggest you watch VH1’s documentary on “Soul Train.”

There were two shows I HAD to watch when I was a little kid: “The Muppet Show” and “Soul Train.” Both enriched my desire for sensory stimulation with bright colors, music, audience engagement and interaction. While the Muppets brought alive my love for comedy and satire, “Soul Train” helped create and refine my taste in music.

My parents faithfully watched it, and sang along and danced to the hits that played over our television. My dad has a love for music, and he forged a lot of connections and friendships while working in Prince Georges County in the late 1970s and early 1980s through not only his outgoing, approachable demeanor but also through his appreciation of music and sports.

I grew up in a predominantly white, upper middle-class neighborhood in suburban Washington D.C., where my classmates’ musical tastes drifted more towards Jane’s Addiction, Metallica and Nirvana.

Not my cup of tea, unless it came with two Tylenol and a cold compress.

While my classmates were buying CDs of Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, I was picking up cassette singles by Karyn White, Mint Condition and Johnny Gill. Instead of WHFS, the Baltimore-Washington alternative station that was in its heyday in the 1990s, the preset dial on the radio of my first car was tuned to WPGC, the Prince Georges County-based R&B station that played everything from Rare Essence to Toni Braxton.

(WPGC newsman David Haines had a saying: “Burnt toast and coffee time.” That was my morning signal to get the hell out of the house and head to school.)

My second preset: Howard University’s WHUR. I still recall my amazement when a high school boyfriend of mine had it pre-set on the dial of his car, too. D.C., by the way, had a killer music scene 20 years ago.

But I’m going off on a tangent. Back to “Soul Train.” Which, yes, I watched and danced around in my living room to, during high school and college.

A Chicago-based show originally broadcast on a small handful of stations, it went into syndication as a result of cooperation with Johnson Products, the creators of Afro-Sheen – a coalition of two African-American entities. “Soul Train” was a conduit brought African-American music into our living rooms and into the mainstream. It showcased not only music but fashion, youth, creativity and a positive environment that encouraged appreciation of all of these things.

When the show exceeded critical mainstream mass, “Soul Train” incorporated traditional white perfomers – Elton John, David Bowie, Teena Marie (who, as ESPN’s Jemele Hill once stated, was the first white girl with soul.) … Bowie’s performance of “Fame” – clearly lip-dubbed – is a thing of strange beauty.

“Soul Train” broke racial barriers and established cultural trends. It promoted the African-American community during a time of racial strife in the United States … and continued to keep its hold on America as our society grew more progressive.

Don Cornelius’ idea not only promoted music – it revolutionized pop culture and created societal connections. Sadly, his death had to remind us of all of this.