The Dreaded Tasks

July 30, 2011

My company’s chief legal officer is fond of saying, “Sometimes you gotta take out the trash.” 

In her lexicon, the “trash” represents all of those unpleasant little tasks that no one wants to do, but which need to get done.  She makes an effort to distribute the trash-taking responsibilities democratically so one person isn’t saddled with it all the time, but there’s still the silent grumbling whenever you’re the one who’s handed the big, steaming pile to take to the curb.

In my house, the dreaded task is cleaning the litter box.  We have only one cat – one normal-sized cat – and she doesn’t produce an extraordinary amount of stinky litter.  But my kids go on about cleaning the litter box as if we have a pet tiger who’s eating goats for dinner. 

The kids’ complaints are so annoying, most of the time, I clean the little box myself.  If done on a regular basis, cleaning the litter box is not that big a deal.  But every now and then, I’ll let it go for a few days, then make one of the kids clean it. 

I don’t turn it into some great philosophical teaching moment.  I don’t have any “Karate Kid” or “Kung-Fu Panda” style pearls of wisdom that flow from my mouth as they’re scooping.  I let them grumble. When the grumbling is over, they still have to do it.

When I was a young law firm associate, the trash work was document review. Poring over pages upon pages of business correspondence and records was then, and is still now, the bane of every junior attorney’s existence.

I was the weirdo who actually liked reviewing the documents. It helped me understand the facts of the case. The need to ask questions about certain documents gave me an excuse to be in regular contact with the client, the type of client contact that eluded most junior associates. Because I had such a positive attitude about taking out the trash, I was entrusted early with more meaningful assignments. 

The legal profession has changed. Computer programs sift through electronic records faster and with more accuracy than expensive associates. But no matter what one’s profession, and inside and outside the home, the trash work remains.

The best way to deal with the trash is to change your attitude towards it. The trash work isn’t sexy, but it’s necessary. It keeps everything flowing. If you don’t take out the trash, your home and/or workplace begins to look, metaphorically if not physically, like an episode of “Hoarders.”

You know you don’t want to do it. Do it anyway. Get it done. Get it out of the way.

But do it well, so you don’t have to go back later and clean up the mess you left behind.

Childhood Independence and Child Murder

July 29, 2011

A few weeks ago, my son asked for permission to walk around the neighborhood by himself.

When pressed for details about where he wanted to go, he couldn’t state his planned route, and couldn’t name the streets and avenues he would be walking.  I encouraged him to lower his sights from taking a stroll around the block to just walking to the corner, crossing the street by himself, going to the next corner, and coming back home

Even this abbreviated route gave me pause. I live in a very busy section of Harlem. My teenage daughter goes out alone with her friends, but my son, at 10, is not nearly as street-savvy as she is.

But I let my son go on his excursion. The joy on his face when he returned, safely, was palpable.

“I did it!” he shouted.

The illusion of independence fell with the news of Leiby Kletzky, the 8-year-old Brooklyn child who was murdered and dismembered by a stranger the first time his parents let him walk home alone from summer camp. My son greeted me with the news when I came home from work:

“Mommy, a boy my age was taken and killed.”

My son knew all the details of the case. He even compared it to the case of Etan Patz. A family friend, Lisa Cohen, wrote the book After Etan, about the abduction and murder of 6-year-old Etan Patz in New York City in the 1970s. My son learned of the Patz case through Cohen’s book. Two cases, a generation apart, sharing eerily similar details.

My son made the connection.

“Guess I can’t go out by myself anymore,” he said.

My son is two years older than Kletzky and four years older than Patz, but he sees the two little boys as “his age.” As a mom, it’s hard not to hear a story about an abducted and murdered child and not think of your own.

Cohen wrote an op-ed for the New York Daily News, in which she encouraged parents not to change their parenting solely because of the Kletzky case. Because I know Cohen not just as a writer and filmmaker, but as a caring mom, I spent a few days thinking about her op-ed. I thought about how scary news stories about child murder help parents explain “stranger danger” and many other evils.

When I was in middle school, an old perv in the apartment across the street from my bus stop would shake his penis out his front window at us schoolgirls waiting for the morning bus. We told our parents, and for a few weeks, our dads waited with us for the bus. But we had to keep taking the bus to school. We had to learn how to deal with it – and to stop looking.

And so I decided Cohen was right. Kletzky’s death, though tragic, was no reason to stop letting my son go out alone in the neighborhood. I talked to my son about not living in fear. But I also decided he needed to know his surroundings better.

Now, I make him listen to and repeat subway announcements. I point out to him the subway express and local stops. I grill him on neighborhood landmarks. I have told him how to know when he is facing north (uptown) and south (downtown).

Recently, I let him go to the neighborhood drugstore by himself. I made sure  he knew what to buy, reminded him to count his change, and gave him responses to some basic “what to do if” scenarios. I was nervous until he came back safely, with correct change and no horrible experiences to report.

It’s too soon to let him go completely. He admits he’s not ready to take public transportation by himself. We have time to prepare.

The best we can do as parents is arm our children with information and the tools to develop good judgment. We have to teach them to be responsible, and ready them for independence. We can’t always protect them from the consequences of their choices.

And we can’t destroy ourselves with guilt if the bad thing we are afraid might happen, actually does happen.

This post was originally published on

It’s Just Hair

July 26, 2011

I was honored to be profiled this week by two extraordinary beauty bloggers, Afrobella and Curly Nikki, as part of their “Naturally Professional” series.

It was quite a day for natural hair. On the same day that my “Naturally Professional” profile went up on Afrobella and Curly Nikki, this video and article appeared on about the experience some black women face from women of other cultures who want to touch their hair.

What do you think? Do black women who wear their hair unstraightened face greater challenges in the corporate environment?

Has anyone – whether of the same race, or of a different race – ever touched, or tried to touch, your hair without your permission? How did you respond? Is this an issue that transcends race, as some CNN commenters have suggested? Is it racist for a black woman to refuse to allow a white person to touch her hair?

The Help – A Review

July 21, 2011

Remember that bad old time called the 1960s when the American South was racist, but it all ended thanks to a white girl writing about black maids in Mississippi? Apparently, this is the premise of the film version of “The Help.” The film version, based on the bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett and adapted for the screen and directed by Tate Taylor, is as slavishly faithful to the aesthetic details of 1960s Southern tastes in fashion, decorating and decor as AMC’s “Mad Men” is to the New York of the 1960s, but lacks Mad Men’s sensitivity to the political, economic and sociological changes occurring during that period.

The Help is a fairly faithful adaptation of Stockett’s novel, which is not necessarily a good thing. The film version, perhaps inevitably, highlights and emphasizes all the flaws of Stockett’s plot and narrative, while omitting many of the details that made the novel a more balanced, palatable and, at times, even enjoyable read. By focusing most of the attention on the book’s white characters, the black maids Aibileen, played nobly by Viola Davis, and Minny, played by Octavia Spencer (who steals every scene she’s in), become mostly backdrops. Aunjanue Ellis is totally underused as Yule May, although seeing her loveliness on screen again made me ache for the lack of good film roles for black actresses. Within the structure of the film itself, Aibileen and Minnie are the “help,” supporting what is really Skeeter’s coming of age story.

Emma Stone plays Skeeter with the appropriate level of cuteness and naivete, but the utter implausibility of the story’s premise becomes blindly apparent on screen. None of Jackson’s white society women, other than the evil Hilly, recognized themselves in the book within the movie? None of Jackson’s white society women, other than Hilly, exacted any retribution on the maids who participated in the project? The worst thing white women in Jackson did to their maids was build them separate toilet facilities? After Minnie’s “terrible awful” pie incident, there was really a family in town that still let her cook for them?

The casting was also somewhat questionable. Allison Janney is too youthful and robust to convincingly play Skeeter’s mother Charlotte Phelan, a faded Southern beauty queen dying of cancer. There is one scene where we are supposed to believe Janney’s character succumbs to white societal expectations in a way her daughter will not. But in the scene, Janney looks more likely to have told those women to get the f**k out of her home, than to have done what she did. Similarly, Sissy Spacek, playing Missus Walters, Hilly’s elderly, addle-brained mother, instead looks ready to run a marathon, or the country, or both. Bryce Dallas Howard is chillingly effective as Hilly Holbrook, but the cold sore that appears on her lip during the final act of the film is distracting beyond measure.

And as much as I hate to say anything negative about someone as iconic and legendary as Cicely Tyson, it was painful to watch her on screen. Tyson has aged in real life to strongly resemble the 100+ year old former slave Miss Jane Pittman that she played in 1974. Sadly, Tyson has been playing variations of Miss Jane Pittman ever since, and this character was no different. Tyson looked lost at times on screen. Her words were difficult to understand at times, and unlike Jane Pittman, her character is afforded no dignity when she is finally and ultimately insulted by the white family she has worked for most of her adult life.

There’s no room to deconstruct the film’s somewhat disturbing treatment of motherhood, or talk about how the men in the movie were either emasculated or ineffectual, or how there was no such thing as a solid black family, or how domestic violence apparently is only a black problem. These elements are in the book, too, but are balanced out by other parts of Stockett’s narrative in a way absent from the film.

More than questionable casting and adaptation choices, the real problem with the film version of “The Help” is that it fits all too neatly into the Hollywood tradition of black stories being framed and told through the lens of a white character. “The Help” had all the worst elements of “The Blind Side,” “Invictus” and “The Last King of Scotland,” without a powerful story to make up for it. At the end, when Aibileen walks off, determined to be a writer herself, you wonder how she’s going to pull it off. “The Help” suggests no one would be interested in publishing her story, unless she can successfully masquerade as a white woman telling it.

Make Someone (Un)Happy

July 20, 2011

Make someone happy,
Make just one someone happy,
And you will be happy, too.

— Jimmy Durante

Is it possible to make someone happy or unhappy? And in a relationship, is it your “job” to make your partner happy?

This was the topic of a brief conversation I had recently on Twitter. The conversation was brief, because my answer to both questions is “no.”

Although kindness is an important part of a relationship, and having someone treat you with kindness certainly makes you feel good, I believe that no one can “make” another person happy. Each person is responsible for his or her own happiness.

You can be thoughtful, kind, caring and considerate – and in a relationship, you should strive daily to be all of those things – but I believe that whether your thoughtfulness, kindness, caring and consideration results in the other person’s happiness depends on their ability to receive the love you have to offer.

Some people have a “happiness problem.” No one can ever satisfy them. They think people only say “I love you” because they want something. They think people only do nice things to get something back in return. As a result, they only do nice things for you when they want something from you. They distrust everyone’s motives – especially those closest to them. I was once involved with such a person, and it’s miserable.

But if one person can’t make another person happy, can one person make another person unhappy? Is it inconsistent to believe another person can’t make you happy, but that another person can make you unhappy?

I couldn’t reconcile it on my own, so I asked a mental health expert. What follows is not the definitive last word on the subject, but simply one person’s opinion, filtered through my own beliefs and experiences. I offer this not as the final answer or the solution, but simply as something to think about.

Dr. P., the mental health expert, believes another person can’t make you happy or unhappy. She agreed a person can do thoughtful things that show they care. But if someone does nice, thoughtful things for you only to get something in return, she said, that’s not making another person happy, it’s exerting power and control.

Dr. P.  also said that, while she doesn’t believe another person can make you sad or unhappy, she believes another person can bring your own doubts and insecurities to rise to the surface.

We are taught that modesty is a virtue and pride and arrogance are sins, so we are more likely to believe negative messages from other people than positive ones. Negative messages from other people, Dr. P. says, reinforce and validate the negative message we tell ourselves.

Over time, those negative messages can erode our self-confidence and self-esteem. But it remains up to us how we receive, and respond to, these negative messages. As Katt Williams said in the comedy routine below (possibly NSFW), it’s called SELF-esteem.

There is an important exception to Katt Williams’ self-esteem statements. If your partner constantly berates you, calls you names, or makes threats or false allegations on a regular basis – that’s verbal and emotional abuse. If it’s happening to you, seek help.

What do you think? In a relationship, is it your job to make the other person happy? Are you responsible for the impact your thoughts, words and actions have on your partner?

Good Provider = Good Husband?

July 19, 2011

I’ve blogged previously about the dangers of the “upgrade,” cautioning women against taking on men as if they are rehabilitation projects.

But what about the converse? Is a man who makes a lot of money automatically a better choice?

I’m not talking about men who are willing to pay for arm candy. That quid pro quo seems to work out just fine for both parties.

The Hollywood-style fantasy is a man who buys you expensive gifts, treats you to the best restaurants and all expense-paid vacations on a whim – heck, who pays your rent and cooks your dinner too, soon as he gets home from work. That’s the kind of man every woman wants, right?


I once knew a man who, by this measure, was a good, even great, husband. His  salary ensured that his wife didn’t have to work. They had a gorgeous home in an upscale suburb.  He worked late and traveled often, but he was faithful to his wife, brought the money home, and bought her anything she wanted.

And yet, his wife was miserable.

He wasn’t cheap, and he wasn’t a cheat. But he wasn’t emotionally available. And that was the sum of their problems.

This man had been taught that being a good husband meant providing – financially – for his wife and family. He did that, in spades. What more did she want?

Apparently, she wanted a partner, not a blank check. They separated, but instead of being bitter, he learned how to be more emotionally expressive and available. They are both happily remarried, to other people.

I dated someone who took me to four-star restaurants and bought me expensive gifts. Having been raised to take care of myself, this made me uncomfortable. I may have gotten used to it eventually, but there were a few problems with the relationship. 

He, too, was the “emotionally unavailable” type. Spending money was his way of showing appreciation. But he couldn’t open up. He was generous with his cash, but remained inscrutable. Being with him was fun, but it didn’t last.

I’m not saying, of course, that every man with money uses it as a substitute for emotional availability. I’ve dated the rich guy and the poor guy. Neither one was the right guy. What made them not “right” for me, might have made them perfect for someone else.

Give yourself the freedom to know what “right” means for you – not what you should want, but what you actually want and need. And trust that “right for you” is out there. You don’t need to settle for “wrong for you” just because you don’t want to be alone.

After my divorce, my mom asked me if I’d looked up a long-ago boyfriend, the guy she thought was “the one” for me. I knew better, and wasn’t hearing it.

“Maybe he’s still available. If you like him so much, you call him.”

Nice guys come in all shapes, sizes, colors and tax brackets. Don’t get caught up in what you’re supposed to like. Focus on the substance and leave the superficial to the Basketball Wives.

High Heels and BJs

July 17, 2011

Every other day, a new article appears somewhere in the blogosphere, promising to tell women the keys to finding and keeping a man. To summarize:

  1. Step up your personal appearance game: lose weight, then put on makeup, a tight dress and a pair of high heels, because men don’t like girls in sweats, baseball caps and sneakers.
  2. Step up your kitchen game: cook for your man and fix his plate. If you won’t, someone else will.
  3. Step up your sex game, especially the blow jobs. And work on your porn star skills. If you don’t, someone else will.

If only it were so easy.

Never mind that there are fashionable women who keep it cooking in the kitchen and the bedroom, but are without a steady partner. Never mind that there are women who stay in sweats and don’t cook, but who are happily married or in a long-term relationship. Reality doesn’t matter. The message to women is always: whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it wrong.

I joked on Twitter that I should start a class, “Cooking in High Heels + BJ Lessons.” Sadly, if such a class existed, it would sell out. Women would sign up hoping to learn to look and cook like Giada De Laurentiis, and men would sign their wives and girlfriends up, like “See! This is what you need to do!”

Problem is, you can own a closet full of Louboutins, be a master chef and suck peen like a pro, and be lonely or unhappy in your current relationship. The key isn’t sexy footwear, plate fixing or bedroom tricks. Those things certainly don’t hurt, but they’re not enough.

The secret to being in a happy relationship is finding a compatible partner. And there is no one way to do that. It starts with a combination of attraction, shared values, and mutual respect. Understand what your own wants and needs are, then don’t settle for less.

When you’re in a relationship with someone you care for, showing your appreciation for each other comes easy. I love to see my married co-workers changing out of their casual Friday slacks into a cute dress at the end of the workday, because it’s “date night” with the hubby.

People who enjoy cooking love to make something special for their beloved. Cooking is one of many small ways that you can show your appreciation for your partner. But if you don’t cook, there are many other ways to show your appreciation for your mate.

Good sex doesn’t require you to puncture your esophagus with his genitals (although there’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s your thing). That said, if you like each other – not just love, but really enjoy being with each other – you’ll want to take care of each other’s needs, wants and desires sexually as well. You can tune out the chatter about what you should be doing and focus on doing what he actually likes – and vice versa. 

Even finding that combination of attraction, values and mutual respect doesn’t guarantee lifelong, till-death-do-us-part, diamond anniversary happiness.

As anyone who has ever been in a relationship for longer than one year knows, it can be hard to keep the magic alive over time. These “how to get a man” pieces might work better as reminders to women and men alike who are in long-term monogamous relationships of ways to maintain your connection. 

If you are seeking relationship advice, try consulting with a relationship coach. When I was finally ready to jump back into the dating pool – five years after my divorce – I worked with “The Modern Day Matchmaker,” Paul C. Brunson. Brunson helped me identify the values that were important to me, which in turn helped me zero in on the qualities that mattered most in a partner.

Although Brunson didn’t match me with my current partner, his advice helped me figure out what worked and didn’t work for me. For example, online dating never worked for me, but going out – often alone – to do things I enjoyed, turned out to be a great way to meet people.

Some people find the proliferation of dating sites, books, blogs, etc. devoted to providing relationship advice annoying. They’re not going anywhere, though.  So if you read them, use those suggestions that speak to you for personal self-improvement. Whether it’s losing weight, learning how to cook, learning bedroom circus tricks, or improving your fashion sense – if it makes you feel better about yourself, it will probably lead to your projecting a greater sense of confidence as you go about in the world.

And confidence, my friends, is sexy.

Fight Club

July 6, 2011

A couple of days ago, I had this great post written out in my head.

It was going to be all about the joys of dating as a (slightly) older woman. I was going to talk about how wonderful it is to be free from worrying about “where is this going?” How great it is not to need all those constant little signs, like talking to or seeing each other every day (or both). 

I wanted to talk about allowing each other the freedom to pursue individual goals and take care of the things that mattered long before you entered into each other’s lives, without feeling like that means you’re putting your partner second.

I planned to discuss how living independently for several decades renders moot those traditional “how to know it’s serious” milestones like meeting the parents, meeting the best friends, going on a trip together, etc.

I was going to conclude by talking about the joy of knowing that you’ll spend time together because you want to see him, and you know – without having to think about it – that he wants to see you just as much.

And then my SO and I had the most idiotic fight ever.

I can’t even really call it a fight. It was more like an anti-fight. It was infuriating because it wasn’t a fight. If it had been a fight, it would have been much better. We would have gotten it all out, and then…you know.*

*For the record, I am not a proponent of make-up sex, but I’m willing to try almost anything once.

I’ll probably still wind up writing that dating while older post. It was a good post, and no reason for it to be wasted in my head among the ruins of all the other unposted posts that lie there, taking up precious brain space. But to post it now, while I’m seething, feels disingenuous.

The particulars aren’t important. They almost never are. And I fully expect that by this evening, this too shall pass.

On my way to work this morning, I was tempted to post on Twitter, “Worst morning ever.” Except I’ve had the worst morning ever, and it had nothing to do with a stupid ass non-argument. It was the morning my oldest sister called me to tell me our mom died. I’m praying I never have to deal with anything worse than that. I don’t think even my own last morning on this planet will be as devastating as that one was.

Thinking of that true worst morning ever, two years ago, put it all into perspective.

This is nothing. And if turns into something bigger than just a minor misunderstanding, in a way, that’s good, too. A big part of the relationship dance is testing the boundaries, locating where the pain points and the breaking points lie, and deciding whether or not you’re willing to operate within those established boundaries.

Enough said for now. If you see that dating post on the site anytime soon, you’ll know we worked it all out.

Carolyn Edgar on NPR’s “Tell Me More”

June 30, 2011

On June 29, I had the pleasure of appearing on National Public Radio’s “Tell Me More” to discuss the forthcoming book by Stanford Law Professor Ralph Richard Banks, “Is Marriage For White People? How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone.” I discussed this book in my post “Single Black Women,” and I am one of several women Banks interviewed for the book. This subject continues to touch some raw nerves, as evidenced by comments on both the NPR site and my own blog (note to anyone reading the transcript: the term is “code switching,” not “coat switching.” I hope the transcription error has been corrected). But I believe continued dialogue and debate – led by the black women and men who represent this paradigm, not media personalities and actors – is healthy and necessary. Enjoy, and feel free to post your comments.

Single Black Women

June 26, 2011

Stanford Law School Professor Ralph Richard Banks’ new book, “Is Marriage For White People? How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone” is once again stirring the debate about the declining marriage rate among black women and what, if anything, should be done about it.

Although some are already looking at Banks’ book at yet another rehashing of the same old tired subject, I’m excited about the book’s upcoming release. Banks is a Harvard Law School classmate, and we’ve had several conversations about his motivations for writing the book, his research and his conclusions. Although I haven’t yet read the book, I’m hoping it provides an opportunity to take this discussion into a different direction.

Far too often, the discussion of single black women devolves into an analysis of what’s wrong with black women and why no one wants us. According to Satoshi Kanazawa’s infamous Psychology Today blog post, we’re not attractive. Jimi Izrael, in his book The Denzel Principle, said we’re too picky.  Even Banks concludes that we ought to consider interracial dating more than we do.

Apart from Kanazawa – whose article has been so thoroughly debunked it’s not even worth discussing anymore – the other suggestions are too simplistic. Perhaps some black women are too picky. Perhaps some black women should expand their dating horizons. But there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

Personally, I believe women who want to get married, ultimately will find someone to marry. If a black woman chooses, for cultural and other reasons, to marry only within her race, that’s her choice, and she’s not wrong for making it. If a black woman only wants to date someone 6’5″, with shoulders like Dwight Howard, a smile like Blair Underwood and an income like Michael Jordan – well, good luck with that.

Black women who date and marry men of other races and ethnic groups do so without someone telling them that’s what they should be doing. Many black women are single by choice. And, of course, there are black women who date and marry women, not men.

In any case, I think we’re having the wrong discussion.

Take black female versus black male graduation rates, for example. Twice as many black women as black men graduate from college. Instead of looking at that figure and saying, “Oh no, who are black women going to marry?,” perhaps the more relevant question is, “What can we do to ensure more black men enter and graduate from college?”

There are so many unexplored social, socioeconomic, geopolitical, class and other issues tied up in the declining marriage rate question. I would love to see the discussion move towards a more fulsome exploration of these other factors, which have been present for decades and continue to negatively impact black and other communities of color.

Some have begged for the “single black women” topic to go away entirely. I’m not sure that’s the right answer. These are issues that deserve exploration and study – although “what’s wrong with black women” is not a question anyone ought to be asking. Setting up the discussion in this way is too polarizing. It winds up pitting black women against black men in a way that is entirely unhelpful and unproductive. Reframing the discussion to focus on what’s really underlying the statistics would help take some of the emotion out of it.

In any case, I’m hopeful this time around. I hope more black women are invited to participate in the conversation this time. I look forward to adding my voice. With more black women involved, we’re more likely to come up with solutions that go beyond “upgrade him” and “date a white guy.”