Archive for July, 2010

Sometimes, It’s You

July 27, 2010

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You know how people like to ask, “Is it just me, or…?”

Well, sometimes, yes.  It’s you.

I became aware of this at my first professional job, in sales.  My office mate — let’s call her Sharon — was a tall blonde with porcelain skin, blue eyes, a great figure and a taste for the finer things in life.  We were both young, pretty and liked to party, so we hit it off immediately. 

The men in my office loved Sharon.  They perked up every time she walked through the office in her tight skirts. 

Problem was, Sharon complained incessantly.  She had worked in sales for a different company, and loved to point out all the things that were wrong with our office.  Our manager didn’t know what he was doing.  Our territory made no sense.  She wasn’t about to put all that mileage on her vintage German luxury convertible.  We didn’t have enough support.  We couldn’t be expected to learn and demo all these new products.

Every time Sharon complained, the men moved heaven and earth to accommodate her.  “Whatever Sharon Wants” was the rule.  Sharon didn’t want to drive all day, so she was given an easier territory to handle.  She didn’t want to have to learn all those technical details, so the systems engineers did her product demos. 

None of it stopped Sharon from complaining.

Because Sharon and I were buddies, everyone assumed I felt the same way she did.  I was taken out of the field, even though I drove a Volkswagen and didn’t mind driving.  The systems engineers tried to do my product demos, but I wouldn’t let them.  I preferred talking to them and learning how the products worked.  Out of the blue, senior sales guys would lecture me about office politics.

One of those senior sales guys told me that my close relationship with Sharon was affecting how I was perceived on the job.  If Sharon couldn’t or wouldn’t do something, people assumed I couldn’t or wouldn’t do it either.  In sharing her friendship, I was also sharing her performance failures.

Thanks to that advice, I began distancing myself from her at work.  Sharon’s complaints grew more bitter once things went from “Whatever Sharon Wants” to “You Better Work.”  We remained friends, but I spent as little time as possible, in or outside the office, listening to her bitch about how horrible our jobs were. 

I also didn’t let on that the senior sales guys were giving me outside coaching.  They told me they’d tried to tell Sharon the same things they were telling me, but she didn’t want to hear it.  I tried to drop a hint or two, but let it go at that.  In a sales office, sales matter more than anything else.  Unless your cute blonde game is selling products, no one cares.  Sharon kept complaining about the job, but it was her.

Another friend wonders why she can’t find full-time employment. She is a highly skilled professional.  Her work is top quality.  But she is caustic.  She has almost no filter.  She says whatever is on her mind, often in strident tones.  She blames the economy for her job predicament.  She has no idea that her lack of tact is keeping her from getting a job.

Bad attitude and body language kills dating prospects, too.  I used to complain that the only guys who looked my way were fat bus drivers.  It didn’t occur to me that walking around in cat hair-covered fleece, refusing to make eye contact with members of the opposite sex, might also play a role. 

At one of my daughter’s soccer games, I noticed one of the dads staring at me.  It irked me so much, I hissed at my daughter during a timeout, “Why does that guy keep staring at me?” 

My daughter, who was 11 at the time, shrugged and said, “Maybe he thinks you’re cute, Mom.” 

The lightbulb clicked on.  I tried smiling back at the guy, but it was too late.  He refused to look my way and hustled his daughter off the field as soon as the game was over. 

It wasn’t that men found me unattractive, it was me.  My body language signaled, “Leave me the fuck alone.”  And men did, until my body language became more inviting. 

So if there’s something you feel you deserve that you’re not getting, it may be time for an honest self-assessment.  Sometimes it’s your boss, your spouse or the neighbors…but it just might be you.


Why Women Upgrade

July 27, 2010

In my previous post, “Upgrade Him? Girl, No,” I talked about the “Negro Improvement Plan,” which I will now call the “Man Improvement Plan” — the desire some women have to take a man and make him over, whether he wants to be made over or not.

Some people wanted to understand why women do this.  I wish I could answer.  I have a hard enough time trying to understand why I do the things I do, let alone answering for all women.  Stanford Law School Professor Ralph Richard Banks, who also happens to be a friend of mine from law school, is exploring the phenomenon of high income black women/low income black men, among other topics, in his forthcoming book, “Is Marriage for White People?”   I haven’t seen an advance copy of Banks’ book, and don’t yet know what conclusions he has drawn.  Speaking solely from my own perspective, however, I can offer at least a few reasons why some high income black women are drawn to lower income men.

1. Familiarity. As a child of blue/pink collar workers, blue collar men are most like the men I grew up with: my father, my uncles, my cousins and now my brothers.  In my family, my sisters and I are the professionals, while my brothers are all laborers.  It is hard to imagine saying a man like my father, uncles and brothers isn’t good enough for me to date.

One of the things that appealed to me about my ex was that he was so familiar.  Our mothers grew up together in the South, and his Philly background was very similar to my Detroit upbringing.  We could speak in code about certain things — certain people, even — without any need to explain what we meant. 

I didn’t feel that same level of comfort with the men I dated who were from upper middle class backgrounds.  I imagined bringing them to Detroit to meet my family, and worried that they would be uncomfortable in my parents’ house, with its rusting porch furniture, cracked plaster walls and cigarette-burned, ass-stained sofa.  Even if they weren’t uncomfortable, I would be.  By contrast, the North Philly house my ex grew up in was in no better shape than my Detroit home, and I had no qualms about bringing him home to visit my people.

In your twenties, when your parents are still your primary reference point, the family background can be a big factor affecting your choice of mate.  As I’ve gotten older, my family background has become much less of a concern.  Even before both my parents died, where and how I grew up had ceased to define who I was.  Now, it almost seems irrelevant.  But it took a while to update my own assumptions.

This is where it’s important to be honest with yourself.  The fact is, if you leave the hood and get an undergraduate and graduate degree, you will change.  You won’t be the girl from the hood anymore, no matter how hard you fight it.  It wasn’t a slap in my father’s face that I didn’t date a Ford Motor Company assembly line worker.  I realize now that neither of my parents expected me to.  So when I wound up with a round-the-way guy from North Philly, the very opposite of my previous polite, gentlemanly long-term boyfriend, my family was shocked.

“What was it about him?” my sister would ask years after my divorce, the incredulity in her voice signaling that no answer I gave would ever make that coupling seem logical.

I don’t think I was actively trying to “keep it real” by dating a hood dude, but I was seeking to connect with a part of my background that receded in importance the longer I stayed in New York.  But there were better ways to honor my family than marrying the very type of man my mother had worked so hard to keep me away from.

2. Hot Pursuit. Hood and blue collar guys are direct.  Sometimes, too direct.  But they will pursue you, and hard.  I met my ex at his mother’s funeral.  You can say what you want about a man who is macking when he’s supposed to be grieving, but there was no doubt about his interest. 

Although our courtship was carried out long-distance, he never flaked out while he was pursuing me.  Whomever and whatever else he may have been doing locally, he called, sent little notecards: in sum, he paid attention.  This was rarely my experience with men I dated in New York, many of whom were juggling their options or hedging their bets. And when a woman is still trying to figure out if that guy she has lunch with once every other month likes her likes her, or just likes her, that kind of determined, deliberate pursuit is very appealing. 

I also happened to meet my ex after about a year of no dating, when I very much wanted to be in a relationship and not just hook up with people for sex.  Timing is indeed everything.

(Public Service Announcement: Call me old-fashioned, but I believe men who are interested in you, call you.  Not text, not Twitter or Facebook message: they call.  If he’s not calling, he’s not that interested.  Or he’s calling someone else.  The fact that he’s not man enough to admit it doesn’t make it any less true.)

As appealing as the dogged pursuit may be to one’s ego, in the end you have to ask: “What happens if I let him catch me?”  Are you prepared to be with a partner whose interests and lifestyle may be quite different from yours? 

If the answer is no, you may need to let him catch you long enough to do what you have to do, and then move on.  If you don’t have shared values and a shared vision for the future, it probably will not work, no matter how much you like each other.  Settling for someone who isn’t what you want just to have somebody in your life generally doesn’t work out over the long term.  But when it comes to relationships, emotions often win out over logic, at least for a while.  As unwise as the upgrade phenomenon may be, as long as there are lonely, needy people in the world, I don’t expect it to stop.

Upgrade Him? Girl, No

July 25, 2010

I was chatting recently with one of my law school friends about a classmate of ours whose marriage was ending in divorce.

At first I thought it was regular gossip about another seemingly happy marriage falling apart.  But as my friend filled in more of the details, I understood it was, instead, yet another example of the Negro Improvement Plan gone wrong.

And as my friend and I are veterans of the Negro Improvement Plan Gone Wrong War, we clucked our tongues and sent up prayers for what we both know lies ahead for this woman in her efforts to divorce her low-income spouse.

“Negro Improvement Plan” is a term coined by my friend Stephanie to describe the phenomenon we began witnessing as one woman after another from our Harvard Law School class partnered up with lower income men.  The men were never just the construction workers, secretaries, mailroom guys, etc. they appeared to be.  Inevitably, he was “going back to school.”  In the rare cases where he wasn’t going back to school, he was starting a business.  Or he was a producer — for artists no one had ever heard of. 

The Negro Improvement Plan meant there was a plausible and legitimate reason for these Harvard-trained women lawyers to be marrying their Mr. Blue Collars.  He was going places.  He just needed a boost.  And his loyal, loving woman was going to be just the boost he needed to take him where he should go.

When more of us, including Stephanie and me, embarked on our own versions of the Negro Improvement Plan, we didn’t recognize that we had just joined the same club we had been so scornful of. 

The Negro Improvement Plan wasn’t always about trying to force the man into some sort of career change.  My ex was a construction worker when I met him.  I liked the sound of that, and was disappointed he didn’t stay in construction when I moved him into my Brooklyn apartment.  He decided he’d rather be working in an office, and I was OK with that, too.  I didn’t try to influence his career choices too much.

But from the day he moved to New York until the day he moved out of my Harlem brownstone, I rode him relentlessly for the way he mangled the English language, the fact that his subjects and verbs never agreed and his vocabulary was a bit “too street.”  He was a grown man from North Philly who had been speaking like a North Philly gangsta pretty much all his life, and he was very comfortable with how he spoke.  His friends were comfortable with how he spoke.  I was the only one who had a problem with it.  I told myself it was because I wanted my daughter to learn “correct English.”  I wasn’t honest enough to admit it was my issue and no one else’s.

I tried to upgrade my ex-husband’s grammar and vocabulary.  Other friends tried to upgrade their men similar to Beyonce’s “Upgrade U,” by putting them in Hickey Freeman suits, Pink shirts, Rolex watches and BMWs.  They tried to slot their blue collar men into their Pottery Barn worlds of 600-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets, towels folded just so, a utensil for every kitchen-related purpose, and Jack and Jill for the children.

Stephanie had once snarked, “I guess he got tired of being bougie,” after one of our classmates’ marriages to a lower-income man fell apart.  But, as it turned out, Stephanie’s Negro Improvement Plan was the classic career changing  one.  She tried to turn her man into a small business owner.  The business failed, in part because her partner wasn’t a reliable employee of his own so-called business.

In all cases, including mine, the men enjoyed the perks of the upgrade efforts — the cars, the suits, the trips, the real estate — until they figured out their women expected those changes to be lasting.  My ex knew how to speak properly.  He was also very well-read.  Thanks to my nagging, he would correct his grammar in the presence of our children, but whenever I dragged him to some law firm function, he would reach deep in his storehouse of Ebonics and entertain my law partners, to my horror and frustration.  I was furious with him for deliberately fitting neatly into the stereotypes I assumed “they” held of “us.”

Once, I actually listened, and discovered he was carrying on an intelligent conversation, despite the Ebonics, with one of my partners and his wife about U.S. drug enforcement policy.  Later, the wife told me, “Your husband is a very smart man.”  I never knew if that was a genuine compliment, or if she was surprised to hear rational arguments coming from someone who spoke so poorly, like a dog sitting down to the piano and playing Mozart.

My ex-husband called me controlling, which I resented.  In hindsight, I realize most of our issues stemmed from a battle for control.  He already felt emasculated by my position and salary.  The fact that I would snark on his grammar was probably just a bit too much for him to stomach.  Embarrassing me at my law firm functions was his way of getting back at me.

It’s insulting and demoralizing to treat a man like, as my friend @HarlemWriter put it, stray animals or shelter rescues you can return when they soil the rug or chew on your pricey shoes.  You can’t change your mate.  You are supposed to love your mate as he is.  If you can’t do that, you are with the wrong partner.  Period.

Bottom line: leave the upgrading to Beyonce. 

And for the record, she didn’t have to upgrade her man, either.

Reflections on Another Year

July 23, 2010

As I celebrate my birthday and prepare to enter another year of my life, I find myself joyful, happy to be where I am — even though I’m not exactly sure I know where that is.

The 40s have been liberating, in a way my 30s were not.  I liberated myself from an unhappy marriage towards the end of my 30s, and have spent my 40s on a journey of self/re-discovery.  It’s been an unpredictable ride, but I’m enjoying it.

I’m in a place of no regrets.  I don’t regret the mishaps and mistakes of my prior years — not even the ones I made last week, or last month.  Regret is one of the things I left behind with my 30s.

And boy, are the 30s filled with regret.

By your mid-30s, you start panicking about all the things you haven’t accomplished yet.  Forty — which seems ancient (you remember your parents being 40, and they were OLD) — is looming.  You panic even more if you aren’t even sure what it is you want to do.  You look around at your friends and their great jobs, their happy marriages, their gorgeous children, the financial portfolios you imagine them to have, and you wonder what the hell you’ve been doing with your own life all this time.

My law school classmates and contemporaries — including President Barack Obama, actor/author Hill Harper, former Congressman Artur Davis (D. Ala.) and Terri Sewell (soon to be the 1st black woman Congresswoman from Alabama) — turned out to be some of the world’s biggest overachievers, so I was especially panic-stricken.

Still, by my mid-30s, I had achieved an objective measure of success.  I was a partner at a major law firm.  I was married to the father of my two children.  I owned a Harlem brownstone.  My children were in private school.

I had it made, right?

Except I was miserable.  I hate the hours and the pressures of my job.  My marriage was awful.  My oldest child was in therapy, due in large part to the fights she witnessed every day between my ex and me.  The brownstone needed serious renovations, which I couldn’t afford.

It didn’t take long for it all to fall apart.

Over the course of the rest of my 30s, I quit my job, divorced my husband, sold the house and moved into a rental apartment, and switched the kids to public school.  I started over almost from scratch, with no real idea of what I wanted. 

All I knew was that I didn’t want anything I had.

Now, I don’t have everything I want, but I want everything I have.  I have a solid job with a good employer.  The day job allows me space and time and energy to pursue my other goals, such as my writing.  My blog is well-respected.  I’ve met a community of women (and some men) who have helped me see my potential beyond the law, and with their help I’ve begun taking steps to better understand and realize that potential.

Thanks to my day job, my life is stable enough that I don’t have to worry about my kids.  At times, my life outside of work feels completely chaotic.  Staying open to new possibilities means I never really know, day to day, who or what will enter my life at any given moment. 

Truth is, whether our lives are structured or unstructured, we never know what or who is about to enter or exit our lives.  Last year, I buried my mother.  I thought I would be devastated.  Some days, I’ve been close.  But I’ve spent this first year without her mostly in fond rememberance and celebration of her life.

And as I celebrate the life she led, I celebrate the life her life, her sacrifices and her struggles, have allowed me to lead.

So on this birthday, I am happy.  I am blessed, and I know it.  My ups are not too up, my downs are not too down.  I like myself, inside and out.  I feel sorry for anyone who knows me and doesn’t recognize how wonderful I am.

Happy birthday to me, for this year and what I hope are many more to come.

Breaking Up (With Friends) Is Hard To Do

July 18, 2010

Women relaxing with drinks and conversation
Two years ago, my two closest friendships, both spanning nearly 20 years, ended within months of each other.  And I still haven’t quite gotten over it. 

Lisa was my party friend, the one who was always pushing me to do new things.  When we first met, Lisa told me there was too much gray, beige and black in my wardrobe.  She was always dragging me shopping, making me buy colorful clothes that fit instead of hid my shape.  Lisa introduced me to yoga, thrift shopping, and loving without a safety net. 

Lisa wasn’t the friend to go to when you needed solid advice.  If you were about to call him again when you knew you shouldn’t, Lisa was not the person who would tell you to stop.  If you woke up, looked at him and wondered “what the fuck is he still doing here?,” Lisa wasn’t going to judge you.  She’d ask how it was.  Only if your report was less than enthusiastic would she tell you to get rid of him and keep it moving.  She was the friend who didn’t judge, the friend you went to when you needed to feel better.  Being with Lisa was fun. 

Stephanie was the practical, analytical friend.  She was my confidant.  She could break down a situation and give you all the reasons you knew, and many you didn’t, for how and why to change it.  Stephanie got my sense of humor better than anyone.  We would talk several times a day, every day, and the conversation never got old.  At times, she and her family were more family to me than my own family.

Things change.

Lisa was in a difficult marriage with a philandering spouse.  They’d broken up and gotten back together more times than I could count.  She couldn’t be convinced to quit him for good.  There was always a reason to stay, to take him back just one more time. 

Yet, every time she took him back, a bit of her inner light dimmed.  She grew colder and more bitter, more wary — not just of him, but of everyone — each time she took him back.  

Stephanie was able to break down and analyze everyone’s situation except her own.  She was great at giving counsel to others, not so great at receiving it.  She, too, wound up in a toxic relationship.  The more people tried to warn her about her partner, the more withdrawn she became.

There was a definite breaking point with both Lisa and Stephanie, but the specifics don’t matter.  Lisa chose her man over one of her best friends, at a time when no one but Lisa thought that was a choice she had to make. 

With Stephanie, it was too hard to watch her suffer.  She wanted to save him, but was doing nothing to save herself.  The more she tried to help him, the more he resented her for it.  She was in pain.  But she believed she had to endure, for the sake of the relationship and their children.   

Both Lisa and Stephanie were loyal to a fault — to someone other than themselves.  They both put their partners’ and their children’s needs ahead of their own.

And as I started doing more to rescue myself, first from my marriage, then from other unhealthy situations, we reached a point where we were simply incompatible.

The rift with Lisa remains.  My kids ask all the time when we are going to see her again.  I eventually had to tell my daughter about the breakup.  My son is still too young to understand.  I wish there were a way to repair it, but I don’t see it, not yet.

Stephanie and I have started talking again, but only after she left her toxic boyfriend.  She is slowly and painstakingly working on rebuilding her life.  It’s very hard for her.  I wish I were able to support her even more.  But I know from experience that she will have to do this mostly alone.

Every day, I miss their friendship.  I miss the giggles.  I miss having that girlfriend to whom you dish the blow-by-blow about the new guy, the girlfriend who will look at your toes and drag you off for a pedicure, or who will come to your house and call you out about all that damn cat hair all over the damn place.

My therapist gives better, more solid advice, but it’s not nearly as much fun.

And truth be told, at a certain point in your life, making new friends is way harder than dating.  You meet people you like, but you don’t have the energy to pursue a friendship.  You share some things, but you don’t let it get too deep.  You don’t have the emotional energy to expend.  You don’t really want to invest that much of yourself into another woman anymore.

We women tend to hold our friends to even higher standards than the men in our lives.  As a result, when a friend fails us, it can hurt more than a broken romance.  I was relieved when my ex-husband and I finally separated and our divorce proceedings began.  But I was depressed when I broke up with Lisa and Stephanie.

I’ve learned to let people go when they walk out of my life.  It’s always tempting to try to hold on.  But after a few unreturned phone calls, I let it go.  People seldom give you the “real reason” why they are leaving your life, and you probably wouldn’t want to hear it, anyway. 

I tell myself the person who left realized that he or she can’t be in my life for me the way that I want or need them to be.  That is hard to accept, but when you put it that way, you can acknowledge that the person who left has done you a favor. 

I’ve learned from my daughter not to feel as guilty when I’m the one who initiates the breakup, especially when cutting someone out of my life who is a bad friend.  My daughter loves her friends deeply, but if she feels she is being dishonored, she will call them out and cut them off.  She values her friendships, but she values herself even more.

It can be hard, especially for women, to risk pushing another person away by holding that person accountable for their actions, but it is the right thing to do.  It’s how you enforce your standards for how you expect to be treated.  People who care about you won’t mind being held accountable.  People who would rather leave?  Let them go.  It may hurt, but in the end, it’s the best thing they could do for you.

I miss my friends, but I accept it.  Our relationships changed because I changed.  And for those changes, I have no regrets.