The Year of (Occasionally) Well Packaged Chaos.

I left Panama one year ago today to pull it together in New Orleans. Here is my attempt to put that time into words.

One of the last, best things I did in New Orleans. Great day.

Sometimes you have to crash. Sometimes that’s the only way you can assess what’s happening or not happening around you. Sometimes you can’t see the murky sludge of sustained chaos surrounding, suspending, and supporting you until you crash at the bottom and roll over, filthy and undone, to see all the fucked up shit you coasted and crashed into on the way down.

Not you directly. I mean, I don’t know your struggles. Apologies. I mean you, person who saw the paintings on the wall shake and watched your world tremor, crumble, and pulverize in slow motion but didn’t fully understand just what was happening in the moment, and are on the other side of something ugly and trying to make sense of it. Or, maybe I should just speak for myself.

I spent the end of twenty twelve and the great majority of the days between January 1 and April 8 in two thousand thirteen chained to a never-ending to-do list in a self-designed hell of romanticized self employment and unconvincing alrightness. Let me back up.


I moved to Panama to teach English, learn Spanish, teach dance and learn about my family’s Panamanian and Jamaican ancestry. ¡Bumbaclot! “…and to, youknow, try something different!” I would say, beaming. Llegó el día en que I realized that I did not move to Los Angeles from New York, farther from home and mom’s macaroni and cheese in Virginia to be a stellar waiter who enjoys getting hit on by customers, who dances and writes, who, honestly, won’t be on any tours any time soon without the offering of peen, handjobs, and letting ‘em call me peaches in exchange for gigs and acknowledgment. And so: a one-way ticket to Panama.

Long story kind of short, I:

  • Parlayed a love of English, past journalism experience and brilliant yet infrequent blogging into teaching English to Spanish speakers. Independently. 
  • Did very well. 
  • Learned Spanish. 
  • Became comfortable with Spanish by teaching CardioDance and Zumba-adjacent classes in Spanish. 
  • Was the only Black person in that whole bitch. 
  • Got more English clients. 
  • Wore “nice” clothes and was still detained, eyed vigilantly and questioned “at random” by police. 
  • Had an amazing, pero an amaaaazing body. 
  • Popped bottles in the la discoteca with my PanaNiggas and the Fly Mamis in ambitious tops with daring eyebrows worn only by Those with the absolute most fucking nerve. 
  • Hired some white people.

  • Fell for someone who was always “busy.” 
  • Went from being told “I’m tired. Come anyway,” in Spanish mind you, to “I’m tired. Talk tomorrow?” 
  • Consumed a hundred Black stereotypes’ worth of soul-caressing fried chicken from the gas station across the street. 
  • Was unable to not work because “if I don’t work there is no money for chicken,” I would say, proud of being busy
  • Never got ahead because of good months and BAD months. And poor planning. 
  • Tried longer than I should have to make it work with Mr. Busy. 
  • Was always “fine.” 
My old view.

  • Bid farewell to a roommate (one who broke a bunch of shit in that rented apartment). 
  • Rented the room to a traveling White Guy who did programming and made a nice bisonly gal heave and heehaw on my rented furniture in the heat of the humid Panamanian night. With the air conditioning on 24/7 despite my beseeching his ass to not do that shit. 
  • Made some money. Got lazy. 
  • Grew to resent Panama and its brand of deep-fried dysfunction. '
  • Took poor customer service personally. 
  • Got angrier. Forgot to breathe. 
  • Grew to resent Panamanians. 
  • Became a citizen after a valiant yearlong battle against incompetence and newly empowered idiocy. 
  • Lied about being “fine.” 
  • Picked a date, and
  • Gave away all my books and clients and fled from Panama in a huff

Then, I DID New Orleans. Ate well and fucked a good amount in Virginia. Moved back to Panama. Taught more. Had a moment. Wrote some nice things. Had a valley. And another, deeper valley. And am here writing to you today. Hi.

Before this past spring in New Orleans, I had never taken a walk.

The act of simply leaving the house without a predetermined destination, turning corners on a whim, enchanted randomly, easily. Looking into shops. Wandering. Being led by my surroundings was a pleasure unknown to me. This was something reserved for carefree white women whose kids had strategically considered social calendars and weren’t to be bothered with checking the prices of the organic groceries they dropped into their carts in the aisles of Whole Foods Paycheck.

I never made time for such frivolous pastimes. Simply waaaaalking as opposed to walking to…was not part of the plan. There had to be a where. And for what was a mandatory part of the equation.

My New York life as a young dancer was one of sniping for extra work-study hours, timing train rides from Brooklyn to allow ample time to secure a nice spot in classes at Broadway Dance Center where I stretched, struggled, and strived for attention (and affection), gliding gracefully around tables as a waiter, occasionally closing down the restaurant to return hours later to open it, drifting to ballet and modern from hip hop, being a great then horrible boyfriend, hurting and being hurt, afterhours sinning, scheduled heart-to-hearts with friends, and the rare stroll from class in Times Square to meet a friend in Union Square.

In New York, if I was walking, it was most likely to the train.

My Los Angeles life was one of sniping for work-study hours, awkwardly hovering on the outskirts of dancer/choreographer social circles, being a good-but-not-great dancer, heavy partying (not “partying” in the Los Angeles sense), again setting hip hop down to pick up ballet, afterhours sinning, and gliding (with authority and an extra dollar per hour this time) around tables as a waiter, occasionally closing down the restaurant only to return hours later to open it.

There, if I was walking, it was to or from my car.

There was a countdown until "Getting the Fuck Out."
My Panama 1.0 life was different. Having decided against working for anyone else, I figured it was time to run the damn show. I committed myself to the hustle, and thus, an existence ruled by an ever-expanding To-Do list: Hip hop dance classes. CardioDance. English clients, private and small groups. Spanish classes. Calorie consumption. And an ongoing study known as “Cross-Cultural Mutual Sexual Behavior Observation” in which I accepted the challenge of planting my seed all over Panama. It was a lot.

All of that + trying to “establish a system.” One that was at least a half step above tally marks in a notebook with a name beside it and a series of brown envelopes: some in a red rubber band with client names, dates, and prices and another stack in a blue rubber band with more tally marks, payment stubs and teachers’ names scribbled in my lunatic’s penmanship. “I need something scalable,” I would say, struggling. I had a language “company.” English clients. With deep pockets. Two Spanish teachers teaching for me. Four nice, marketable, nonthreatening White teachers giving classes on my behalf. And not one scalable system that doesn’t induce anxiety in sight. This was before my Panamanian citizenship and a bank account and ease of life.

I would make a To-Do list of things I wanted to accomplish at some point in the future, some short-term, some long.

I would then chain myself to this to-do list, be it on a legal pad, note card, or dry erase board. Coordinating payments with clients, following up with prospective clients, translating my site into Spanish, and hiring teachers, and dressing nice when entering offices, training teachers, providing teaching materials, making copies, masturbating. Everything.

I would then agonize, at the end of the day, over the four things out of 15 that I didn't get to that day. I found it hard to celebrate being a Black boy running a business (abroad) and holding the upper hand with these White people because of these things I had not done today. I beat myself up for not doing more things better, faster, more efficiently and then slid those four things over to the next day. They piled up. Every day. I had a handful of moments there in my apartment looking at that list.

No waaaalking at all.
On Learning As You Go

I dropped out of college in my first semester at Virginia Commonwealth University to dance in the fall of 2002. 

Long story. 

I have been a million things in a million places since then. Lacking a degree has fostered tenacity and used to foster the occasional questioning of suitability. Creativity and seasonal fearlessness. And tenacity. And disbelief that people think you need a degree to do banal customer service work. 

Knowing the people you and I both know should prove that a degree means as much for guaranteed intelligence as Black producers and directors mean for a modicum of graciousness, humanity and fairness in the crafting and portrayal of Black characters in the Age of The Perry Plague and “a check is a check”: not fucking much.

I’ve done things that my degreed friends wish they could do. Surviving lupus and escaping Virginia’s fire pits and overabundance of buffet options has granted me the gifts of resilience and resourcefulness. I can make some shit happen, but not without some struggle. Not due to lacking something bestowed upon college niggas, but mere inexperience. But my willingness to plan, leap and build my parachute on the way down has gotten me farther than a handful of degrees will get the next dummy bitch.

Sure, packing your grits, jock straps and books into a body bag and taking a fantastic voyage to The Platano Belt sounds like it would make a great John Singleton-helmed flick. With all due respect, though, it’s dizzying and terrifying to be tasked task yourself with making your Black ass family proud, looking respectable yet humpable, being masculine yet vulnerable and clockable when necessary and learning how to run a business as you go and at once executing decently as the livelihoods of a handful of White people and two adorable Panamanian ladies depend on you keeping it the entire fuck together. And sangria. So these lessons you’re learning are expensive lessons. People will be proud of you, though.

Bonus round: You’re prone to anxiety attacks. 

It’s a lot.


So, here in Panama, I walked, sweatily, to class. To eat. To “sin.” From buses to the intense classes with weights and steppers and the quasi-appropriative Zumba-adjacent ones. And to and from taxis through seedy areas and nice, unColored areas. 

That first time in Panama, if I was walking, it was to or from teaching. Never just waaaaalking


I waaaaalked in New Orleans.

When I left Panama, I had planned to transition from face-to-face English classes to Skype-based classes. I had built an impressive Wordpress site one plugin and shortcode at a time. It was going to be glorious and “I will be completely, yaknow, location independent,” I would say, optimistic. I did a lot of sighing, but kept pushing forward. That lasted about one month in Louisiana.

And so, the seams burst one day. And I cried. A lot. Got very high very often and slept a lot. If I were an artist preparing to release an album perhaps called The Velvet Rope, I would say I wrote my way out of it. And I did. I then learned to be kind to myself.

I danced and ate and fucked and ate and loved and laughed and wrote my way out of it. I allowed myself to set aside any business ambitions and be a regular nigga. I bought some stylish skid-proof sneakers and worked in a restaurant with highly interesting white people who offered coke as if it were gum. My first payday: “Soooo we were thinking of going in on an eight ball. You want in?”

I declined. But I had a great time working there. I walked everywhere and nowhere. I was kind to myself and I went to daiquiri shops in the middle of the day and bought a bike and ate sushi and burritos. I whiled breezy mornings away making fish and yellow grits with creole seasoning and sharp cheddar and avocado with cheddar bay biscuits and mimosas for my sisterfriends. I rode and wrote and danced in the street with soulful whitepersons.

And saw the first five months of this beautiful girl’s life. All but her debut and the first hour or so because I was getting a chicken sandwich combo from the Rally’s around the corner with a boy, but I was there in spirit. You understand.

I LIVED in New Orlean. I learned to enjoy small pleasures and was kind to myself. For that moment in time, I wasn't hard on myself. It was lovely.

I self-medicated. And I sat and looked in journals for the patterns in my life that ended in moments like this. What typically precedes the crack in the foundation? What am I not being honest with myself about? Who am I trying to impress? Why am I doing this for? What would make me happiest? And so on…
...while in New Orleans:

The sky cracked open and a cleansing deluge overtook me. Surrounded me—us, rather—the sky’s peace offering for the engulfing moist heat that covered each of the day’s tasks with a thick film of arduousness since waking that morning.

Crossing the bayou and creeping to a halt at the end of Esplanade, the golden glow shining through the windshield vanished and returned as an enveloping bloodshot blaze. Knowing and judging and final, this intrusive glare, the only immediately discernible element in my now blurred surroundings. A wisp of smoke tumbled from my nostrils, unfurling in the space before me to dance on the dashboard and rebound off the window before spreading throughout the truck’s interior.

I stared out the window, not into the nearing crosswalk of South Carrollton Avenue, but into an unending void of nothingness. Into blackness. Smoke tumbled toward the dashboard. Me: tensely gripping the seatbelt strap, then flattening my palm with pressure against my chest, the coronary drumbeat doom-ba-dooming with a troubling quickness. Then gripping the strap. Then pressing both hands against my chest to prevent an explosion, apparently.

Saphira eased on the brakes as we approached Orleans Avenue. She looked my way with her usual calming half smile, the whites of her sleek half moons as red as I assumed my sleepy ovalines were. The golden glow again retreating as the arresting red light, like the rain, washed over us—me, rather, as we rolled to a stop.

I closed and flipped and opened my hands, studying the joints and haphazardly strewn deep pink life lines that stretch across my pale pink palm in amazement as if noticing them for the first time. Sweaty palms and splayed fingers anxiously shearing my thighs. Gripped hands wringing fitfully amidst more unfurling clouds. The only certain thing in the universe in that moment was that I was, officially, having a panic attack.

Am I dying?

“Breathe,” she exhaled.

Smoke danced.

I inhaled deeply and exhaled. Inhaled and exhaled and inhaled and exhaled and sheared my thighs and took in and blew out more smoke. Ascending in a hot air balloon to elude the wave of hysteria sent to take me under. 

This moment of pressurized bewilderment, like the others, commenced with the sensation of a girthy rump sitting my chest. 

Then, historically, comes worry about whether this was an attack of panic or an attack of the heart sure to result in me being one of those people you read about who has an attack of the heart in their late twenties, moonwalking into the afterlife just as they were transitioning from General Fuckup to Person With Promise. Such a shame. 

Then the indecision about if this is actual pain or invented pain. Before long, I become aware of my quickened heartbeat and begin to panic about the chest pressure and the hasty heartbeat and about the panic itself. 

I’m at once terrified and angry with myself, knowing this self-manifested crisis is avoidable with one easy fix:

Life Rule Number 24
Don’t be a lunatic.

This time was no different.

There in the truck, turning from South Carrollton onto Cleveland Avenue, things didn’t play out as they normally would. Normally: I would know to sit and breath and cry and work through this and avoid balconies. The usual helplessness was there. This time, figuring I could outrun the wave of hysteria by ascending via the unfurling smoke, something else became clear: I was now high.

So two things were certain…

What I’ve gleaned from The Year of (Occasionally) Well Packaged Chaos is this:

one. I’m willing to bet that most of us have someone or a rowboat full of someones who has offered us a couch or a bed or a shoulder or a lovingly prepared—free—meal that we were too proud to accept. Perhaps I was “Okay, but thank you anyway.” Maybe you were going through it and Aunt Shirley kindly demanded that you come stay with her to rest Rest and Recharge your soul. Maybe you were too proud to say, “Yes, of course,” as you wanted to.

Look. Most of us know someone who knows us and has, in other, more diplomatic words, offered to love on us and help soothe the wounds that you don’t know they can see. Not in a jones-in-my-bones-to-get-boned-by-you, Creepy McCreepington kind of way. Rather, a wholehearted, there­ for you like a bowl of perfectly seasoned grits with just the right amount of pepper jack cheese and butter for a real dairy-loving lightly lactose intolerant thug such as myself when the world is straight trippin’ kind of way. LET THEM. Say yes. Allow yourself to be loved on. It doesn’t make you weak. It makes you human. Even Meteor Man let himself be hugged, ya heard?
My grandmother blessing me with that to-go plate.

two. I’ve done a lot. You’ve done a lot. We’re proud of these things that we’ve done, you and I. Sometimes we downplay these things that we’ve done, but we’re glad to have done them just the same. Inside.

When you do new nice things, you tend to move away from your old nice things, and that’s a normal part of progress. Natural. But: When you’re ready to discard (and/or dismantle or downplay) that old thing you worked and once cared deeply for, remember that there’s someone scratching, praying, degrading+kowtowing for that very thing. So appreciate every thing. It doesn’t make you corny. It makes you human. Even Janet appreciates The Jermaine Era after upgrading to Wissam.

three. Have you ever been tired? No. Not drowsy in your cubicle after a phat ass night of Straw-ber-Ritas and unphotographable failures. I mean ***TIRED. Spiritually. When it hurts to think about thinking? That was me, last year as I packed all my shit up and fled from Panama on that afternoon a year ago when my celebration over getting a row to myself on the plane was thwarted by that talkative young chap and his onionlotion and his ignorance of the Universal I Don’t Give A Shit About Anything You Could Even Dare To Think About Thinking Sign: my headphones. And: soooo much talking. Despite my bursting with angst+anxiety+tasting freedom and my headphones. But, yeah. I was tired of being tired of being tired. And so: a one-way ticket to New Orleans. And so: I didn't have a heart attack or something. Lesson: get out if you need to get out.

four. It’s okay to not be okay.

five. It’s okay to not know.

six. It’s the principle of pleasure.

seven. It’s okay to not do anything.

eight. Nobody will be disappointed in you if you step down or pull back or say "No" more often when you get in over your head. Most likely, you're easing off of something they admire you for doing. Those who matter will understand. Nobody will be less proud of you.

nine. Check in on your people. No. Not the people who you keep on your Facebook feed because they have great faces, an insatiable need for public validation due to them being a swamp donkey up until they hit the gym a few years in the not too distant past and, it just so happens, a beautiful body. Not them. Your homies. The ones who’ve seen you at your 2009 Chris Brown and loved and walked beside you in public when you were at your lowest Lauryn Hill Unplugged. You never know how badly that person needs the right person to go beyond cordiality and ask, “No, I mean, how are you really doing?” I uncorked and spilled everything to my two closest friends last week, and I felt freed.

There’s freedom in talking your shit out, rambling, to someone, to anyone. If you were typing your thoughts out and hit a tangent or stray thought, you would likely delete it or cut it short rather than rambling and letting that thought go where it needs to go until you stumble upon your aha moment. So go past, “I’m fine” when it counts. You may save a life.

ten. It's okay to ask for help.


Have you ever wanted to unplug from the matrix any and every thing and person who wasn’t delivering food and retreat to your bat cave or mama’s couch to sulk and simmer, hygiene be damned? Guess what? It’s fine.

The good news is that we’re all a little fucked up and, plot twist: that’s okay.

(A gong sounds in the distance.)

We all have our moments and leave the house unshined from time to time. Well, at least we did before The Age of Instaggrandizing Narcissistic Selfie Promulgation and forgiving photo filters. Through a system of checks and balances of collective shortcomings, in which the world continues to turn and my lackings lean against yours and someone else’s and Mariah Carey inexplicably continues to release music post-The Emancipation of a Misbegotten Charmbracelet-Wearing Geisha Named Mimi, everything somehow works out. Except.

The truth is: underneath the nose-contouring, jawline-softening sorcery and Junot Diaz-level wordplay and bundles upon bundles of some fucking nerve with our job title invention in these social media bios…underneath all that, lies a being for whom cocaine will eventually lose either its effect or its necessary nostril human who needs affection and chicken, loves and wants to be loved, gets spiritually tired on occasion. 

That’s you, me, everyone. Except. And when you’re spiritually tired, you can either sit the fuck down or have life sit you the fuck down. You’re no use to anyone if you’re dead. That “They sleep, we grind” shit ain’t cute once you’re 29 with a hard living, leather-skinned 59-year-old’s face.

Sit down. 

Or that at least that is what I did. It didn't make me weak. It made me a better human. 

 -alexander hardy

Follow me on Twitter: @chrisalexander_
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