Archive for June, 2010

What About Your Friends?

June 30, 2010

My daughter can be a very difficult person to befriend.  She has a very dominant, sometimes overpowering, personality.  She has strong opinions and will defend her position to the death.  If she likes you, she is loyal to a fault.  If she dislikes you, forget it.

In many ways, she scares me.

As a young child, she was never in the popular group.  She was the one girl left off the invitation list for the all-girls party.  She was the child in tears at nearly every birthday party she got to attend, mostly because it was someone else’s party and not hers.  I sometimes marvel that she survived toddlerhood and preschool at all.

When my daughter was going through her toughest friendship challenges, I would tell her that quality mattered more than quantity, that she should focus her energies and attention on the people who did like her, who did support her, and ignore the popular girls who shunned her.

It took her a long time to accept the wisdom of that lesson, but she’s exceeded my expectations.  I admire her current choice of friends.  My daughter is much more social than I was at her age, and her circle of friends is far more expansive than mine will ever be.  She collects people who are loyal to her and remains loyal to them.  She’s still good friends with girls she met at sleepaway camp two years ago, and kids from the private school she left nearly three years ago. 

One of her closest friends is a guy who punched her on the first day of school.  She responded by punching him back.  They’ve been inseparable ever since.

The kid who greeted her with a punch in kindergarten, recently graduated from 8th grade.  For my daughter, attending his graduation was a must.  “I’m going,” she said, and that was that.  She made sure she had a way there and a way back.  She made the arrangements herself.  I would have gotten involved, but didn’t need to.

In turn, he supported her at the wake for her school friend who tragically drowned on a school trip, in a way I hadn’t seen since…well, since the way she was there for him when his dad died.  He was by her side when she needed him, and he stepped back when she didn’t.   At one point, she said she was hungry, and he took off down Broadway, coming back with a slice of pizza and garlic knots.

I was dumbfounded and delighted at the same time.  It is beautiful and heartwarming to see 13, 14-year-old-children with such a deep and abiding respect for one another.  It was especially poignant to see this young man, who lost his beloved dad at such a young age, becoming exactly the man his father wanted him to be.

As a parent, the one thing you want most for your children to learn, and the hardest thing to teach, is judgment.  Teaching judgment requires parents to navigate the difficult divide between protectionism and allowing your children to try, and sometimes fail — sometimes with serious consequences.

And judgments about other people are among the most difficult, yet most important, judgments we have to learn how to make.  We parents may not like to admit it, but there are kids we dislike, to whom we react negatively because of our own inherent prejudices and biases.  It’s inevitable that our children will pick up on some unspoken signal that we don’t like a particular child — an eye roll, a sigh, an offhand remark.

My daughter always knew which of her school friends I didn’t like, and she always took me to task because of it.  She told me she had to decide for herself who people really were.  So while I couldn’t always control my body language, I learned to keep my mouth shut.  I figured she’d see for herself who the worst ones really were. 

And she has.  Because in addition to choosing to remain friends with good people, she has also avoided getting too close to bad people — based on her own criteria, not mine.  Some of the kids I found questionable at first have turned out to be great.  Some of the kids I liked turned out to be sketchy.  She gave everyone a chance, even when they weren’t willing to do the same for her.  She insisted on the right to form her own opinion.

I hope my daughter continues to make and exercise sound choices in her associations, platonic and romantic alike. When your children choose to associate with good people, it eliminates a host of other concerns.

“Mommy, a girl at my school died today.”

June 25, 2010

“Mommy, a girl at my school died today.”

Words no parent wants to hear.

The only thing worse would be being the recipient of the phone call telling you that your child, whom you sent on a school trip in faith that the school, in loco parentis, would keep him/her safe, was now dead.

Nicole Suriel was a 6th grade student at my daughter’s school, Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering in Manhattan.  CSS was designed to be an elite public middle/high school serving families of upper Manhattan (north of 96th Street).  The school is in its 3rd year of operation.  Nicole drowned on a school trip to Long Beach, on Long Island.

My daughter is a 7th grader at CSS.  She knew Nicole, though she admits, not well.  I don’t know what they thought of each other.  I can imagine what Nicole must have thought of my headstrong, forceful, alpha female daughter.  I  know I never will.  Whether or not they were close, my daughter is agonizing over the loss of a fellow student, a girl whom she saw every day.

When my daughter called me, in tears, to tell me about Nicole’s death, I already knew.  The principal of CSS, Dr. Jose Maldonado-Rivera, had already emailed parents about an hour before.  My head was still reeling from that email.  The sound of my daughter’s voice–the sound of her tears–gave meaning to the incomprehensible words of Dr. Maldonado’s email.

I feel so badly for Nicole’s parents.  I cannot imagine being the recipient of the phone call they received, telling them that their daughter was dead.  I never want to imagine this.

As a parent, I want answers.  The questions have been all over the press.  The New York City Department of Education is conducting an investigation.  No one knows yet what will happen to the current administration — or, ultimately, the school. 

But now is not the time for blame and finger-pointing.  Death is random and unexplainable.  As I get ready to attend the wake for Nicole Suriel, I know it could have been any of our children.  I have never attended the funeral of a child, and hoped I never would.  I know I will feel queasy and nauseated as I stand there, trying to maintain my composure while looking at the lifeless body of a child a year younger than my own girl.

I am going to the wake to support Nicole Suriel’s family, and the CSS school community at large.  Today, that is what matters most.

Hey, Daddy

June 19, 2010

I have no pictures of my father to illustrate this post because Daddy didn’t roll like that.

If someone pulled out a camera — and this was back in the day when a camera was a device that required film, not something that showed up on the cheapest of cell phones — Daddy was ghost.  He didn’t make a big deal about not wanting to be photographed, in that passive-aggressive “only take good pictures” of me kind of way.  He would just vanish.

But when you told him he had to be there and had to pose, he would pose like Diddy.

The best pictures we have of my father are from my sister Caroletta’s wedding.  Daddy refused to wear a tux, but agreed to get a good suit.  We took him to Hudson’s (now Marshall Field’s) and let the men’s suit department pick out the perfect suit for him. 

My soon-to-be-married sister knew our Dad’s day-to-day look.  She knew what she wanted for her wedding.  And there was a clear disconnect. 

Wearing a suit wasn’t within Daddy’s normal day-to-day.  For over 30 years, Daddy was a spray booth attendant at the Ford Motor Company River Rouge Plant in Dearborn, MI.  This meant he was part of a crew that cleaned the paint spray booths between shifts.  He wore a uniform at work, but paint seeped into everything.  His socks, his undershirts, his underwear, the pants and shirts he wore to and from work, even his shoes, were always covered in paint.  The paint was contagious, and infected everything it touched.  It got onto the seats of his car, onto his skin, and if my mother mistakenly washed his clothes with ours, it ruined our things, too.

Daddy seemed oblivious to the paint.  Mama would yell at him about sitting on the sofa in those paint-covered pants, but he’d do it anyway.  She would cover the paint stains with a cover she’d sewn from old sheets, and he’d sit on the cover.  Eventually, she’d give up.  There was a spot on the sofa that was Daddy’s spot — marked with paint, cigarette burns and the dank smell of unwashed ass — and that was that.  We knew better than to sit there.

Because Daddy worked the midnight shift, he was a shadow member of the household.  He came home from work as we were getting ready for school, and when I got home from school, he would be lying in bed, ostensibly resting, a couple hours before he had to leave for work.  He would really be in there listening to AM sports radio.  If it was summertime, Daddy was listening to a Tigers game, to Ernie Harwell’s play by play.  Sometimes, he’d call me into the room when the Tigers had a rally going, and I’d stand listening with him.  I never sat on the bed because — yep, you guessed it — Daddy’s side of the bed was full of paint streaks and smelled like him.  My mother’s side smelled like Chanel.  In so many ways, this sums up the difference between my parents, and the lifelong differences they had with each other.

Daddy’s presence — the paint, the lack of bathing (he said taking a bath “dried out his skin” and generally did it only once a week, except for special occasions), and other irritating habits too numerous to mention — annoyed my mother to no end.  He kept annoying her long after he was gone. 

As a child, I had few other experiences with my father to balance against Mama’s opinion.  If Mama was an epic, Daddy was a comic strip — digestible in a few panels, yet incomplete.  I can’t say I knew my father as a person.  He was a series of images, lessons and contradictions. 

To the extent we ever connected, it was over sports.  Daddy watched everything, and I would watch with him.  Of course there were his beloved Tigers, his somewhat less beloved Pistons, and the always dreadful Lions.  But he also watched NCAA football and basketball, tennis, hockey, track and field, equestrian competitions, skiing, ice skating, bowling — even curling, on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation feed that came across the Detroit River from Windsor.  If it was on television, Daddy would watch it.  The only thing I refused to watch was hockey.  Daddy was a huge Red Wings fan.

Sometimes we’d debate — for instance, the wisdom of going for it on 4th & 1, or Schembechler’s inability to develop a Wolverines passing strategy.  When I was much younger, he would take me to games at Tiger Stadium, but he decided I was “too old” when I became a teenager, and we stopped going.  I’d ask, and he’d say no.  I never understood why.

He was a man of few words, and strong opinions couched in a dry wit that you only realized were funny after the fact.  He wouldn’t just say Tigers rightfielder Willie Horton was a bad hitter, he’d say that he if went to Tiger Stadium and gave the man $50, Horton still couldn’t buy a hit.  He hated Joe Tex so much, he said he wouldn’t go see Joe Tex if the man were singing on the corner and all he had to do was go stand on his porch. 

My sister and I used to have exaggeration contests, each one trying to come up with a more ridiculous, overblown description of something.  We never spoke of it, but clearly Daddy was our inspiration.

My second image is of him reading the newspaper. Daddy devoured the news.  His formal education in Mississippi stopped at 8th grade.  I never saw him read anything but a newspaper and, towards the end of his life, his Bible.  When he read the newspaper, he read every page, from national political coverage to the classifieds.  He’d plant himself at the table while we were eating a quick breakfast, and in his booming, slow bass, read article after article aloud, whatever he found interesting.  We rolled eyes, groaned and complained, but I was one of the few kids in my school who understood Watergate and the Iran hostage crisis.

As I got older, I began to see a more nuanced picture of Daddy than the one I’d grown up with.  He never said anything bad about our mother, in stark contrast to her never-ending diatribe against him.  And the constancy that had made him awkward and embarrassing to a budding bouge like me, was what I came to appreciate as I matured.  Daddy never changed.  No matter how much my mother complained, he did what he was going to do, in the way he was going to do it.  So everyone adjusted. 

Boyfriends learned to sit on that sofa next to my father and watch whatever game my father was watching while we girls got ready, to keep their mouths shut about anything they may have smelled, and talk sports.  They thought it was the trick to getting in.  My father would crack wise, and they’d feel like they had at least one parental ally — because my mother was grim and uninviting, and trying to win her over was pointless.  It could be done, but you couldn’t be seen trying.  They didn’t realize my father mostly didn’t care who we dated.

After he retired, Daddy took for a while to jitneying.  He would drive to the neighborhood grocery stores and hang around to give women rides home.  He never made more than a couple of dollars per trip.  I found it baffling.  We hated getting into that smelly, paint-stained car with my father who couldn’t drive for shit.  I couldn’t imagine anyone paying for the privilege.  We didn’t understand it, and my mother detested it.  Of course, she said he was doing it to hit on women.  It didn’t matter what any of us thought.  He did what he wanted, until he couldn’t do it anymore.

My father got sick and slowed down, but even battling lung and brain cancer, he never wilted, never shrank.  He underwent extensive, complex vascular reconstruction surgery to save his legs from diabetes-related amputation, and wound up losing his six-month battle with lung cancer two years later.  He died two days before his 72nd birthday.  The last time I saw him alive was that Labor Day weekend.  He was leaning on a cane, but he walked around, cracking jokes, being Daddy.  I was told his demise was swift, that his body just shut down as the cancer took it over.  In retrospect, I’m glad I wasn’t there to see it.

The easiest of the decisions we girls had to make was what to bury him in.  We buried him in the suit he’d worn to my sister’s wedding.  To our surprise, Dad had gotten into the suit shopping.  The Hudson’s salesman picked out some suits, and Dad tried them on.  He looked good in all of them, but the one that was THE ONE just said YES.  And it was, in fact, perfect.  Even the salesman was shocked by the transformation. 

My father wore a suit like nobody’s business.  He was tall and broad shouldered.  He was an undeniably handsome man.  In that suit, Dad stood a bit taller than his 6′ 2″, looked a little more arrogant.  I thought Dad looked like the guy my mom must have seen when she met him — a man from their Mississippi hometown who would marry her, at a time when circumstances demanded she find herself a husband.

There were minor alterations to be made, a shirt and a tie to buy, but that suit was the one.

Daddy looked so good in a suit, it made me wonder what a suit-wearing life might have been for him.  Even in his casket, Daddy wore the hell out of that suit.

But the enduring lesson of his life is that he was comfortable being who he was, with the life he had.

In Praise of Men

June 8, 2010

After the umpteenth “why black women ain’t shit” article hit the Internet today, I decided, once and for all, that I was done.  I’ve read the books and most of the articles.  Today, I realized I was committing spiritual suicide. 

Intellectually, I told myself the men writing these books and articles and blog posts are projecting their own insecurities and fears onto black women.

Emotionally, though, I wondered if should try luring a man by following their rules.  I would assume all men only wanted one thing, and I would keep it special by denying it.  I would stop cracking jokes and being funny.  I would tell them how smart they are and say nothing that could be construed as intimidating.  I would express no opinion that disagreed with theirs.  I wouldn’t ask them to buy me things (not that I ever did).  I would be adoring.  I would never complain.

I would write a blog post about it.

And then I said, oh, hell no.

There is a discussion about the schism between black men and black women that is worth having, but “why black women can’t find a good man” isn’t it.  The real issues are too complex and too deep to cover in 140 characters on Twitter or in an 800-word blog post.

So instead, I want to talk about how much I love men.

Truth be told, bitter brothers represent no one but themselves and their ilk.  Men who spill poison about women to mask their pain from failed relationships, men who start conversations with women only to belittle their every thought and idea, are not representative of the men I know and admire.

I count many men among my friends and casual acquaintances.  I wrote “Men Aren’t Simple” not to denigrate men, but to talk about frustratingly, fascinatingly, wonderfully complex they are.   

Shortly after my divorce judgment was final, a friend’s husband asked me what I had learned from my experience.  Without hesitation, I answered: “Choose better.”  I chose the wrong man for me.  He might be the right man for someone else.  I’m not bitter, either towards my ex or towards men in general. 

There was a time when I was guilty of loving men too much, of loving them more than myself.  I was teased for falling in love too easily.  I measured my value by the level of my attractiveness to men.  I collected them like trophies: the athlete, the musician, the banker, the engineer, the architect.  I preferred tall men with perfect or near-perfect bodies who accepted me with all my magnified flaws and imperfections.  I hurtled from one to the next, barely giving myself a chance to ask, “What is it that you want?  What are you getting out of this, other than some d**k?”

My 8-year relationship with my ex-husband cured me of that way of thinking, hopefully for good.

The five years since my divorce have been a long journey back to me.  For a couple of years, I immersed myself into single motherhood.  I made my kids my focus.  I didn’t want to be visible to the opposite sex.  I shrouded myself in excess weight and cat-hair-covered fleece.

I discovered that men noticed me anyway. 

And I discovered that I still liked being noticed.

I shed the weight and stopped hiding.  I threw away (most of) the fleece, and gave bags of too-big clothing to Goodwill.  And I rediscovered the beauty of men.

I love the way men look.  I love the way they smell.  I love being in a man’s arms.  I love that nervous, girly, silly feeling I get when I’m talking to the object of my latest crush, and he looks me in my eyes, and I feel all melty inside, just like I never stopped being 12.

I love that part of a man’s body where torso becomes hip becomes groin.

My love of men began with my love of a black man — my father — but it is not limited to black men.  I find beauty in men of all races.  I still crave beauty, but I’ve learned to find beauty beyond the physical.  I once only dated men of a certain height and body type.  I’m now much more interested in what lies inside.

Self-confidence and intelligence are sexy as hell.  Bitterness and insecurity are not.

I adore and appreciate the beauty and strength in men, even when we disagree. 

And I know good men feel the same way about us women.