Archive for the ‘Observations’ Category

Do You Know Your Sleep Number?

August 10, 2010

Couple relaxing in bed

My Twitter friend @purplepeace79 Twitter-ranted recently about the notion that men view a woman differently if she’s slept with 50 men versus 5 men, and that this causes women to lie about their number.

At a certain point in your life, keeping track of the number of people you’ve had sex with is stupid.  Which is one of many reasons why I no longer do it.

When I was younger, I used to maintain lists naming the men I’d slept with.  It was cute for a while.  Each time I wrote down a name, I’d pause and indulge in a few sweet thoughts about our fun times together.

But then things got complicated.

In the beginning, I wanted to count every new experience.  However, when I left for college, some of those new experiences were being shared with people who were not my boyfriend back home.  That became a problem.  The goal shifted from recording every new sexual or quasi-sexual encounter to keeping as many people off that list as possible. 

Thinking like a lawyer long before I became one, I began questioning which experiences “counted” for purposes of the list.  Did making out with that guy at that fraternity party count?  Did it count if we went back to his room and, someone was, um, serviced?  What if the service was reciprocal?

My answer to all of the above was No.  Except I was stupid enough to write about the encounters in my journal.  My boyfriend read my journal and confronted me about cheating. 

I denied what I’d written.

“What are you going to believe?  What I’m telling you now or some bullshit I wrote in a diary?  And if anyone’s betrayed anyone’s trust here, it’s you!  How dare you read my personal journals and invade my privacy like that!”

It worked.  He bought my story.  The downside?   I stopped keeping journals.

Eventually there were experiences I didn’t care to record, situations I wished not to remember — worse than just the failures and the embarrassments.

Did the guy who date raped me earn a spot on my list?  Did I have to count the guy who lied and told his frat he did when he didn’t?  What about that almost-rape when I was alone on vacation?  Did my own behavior in these situations make them count? 

The list became, as Jo Nubian calls it, my ho tape, that voice that told me I was wrong for having the sex I’d had with the people I’d had it with, and for daring to enjoy any of it.

It also dawned on me that if a boyfriend could pick up a personal journal and read it, he could also come across a random sheet of paper with fiftyeleven dudes’ names on it and guess what it was.

So I found and burned all of the lists.  In time, the distinctions between what did and did not “count” blurred in my mind.  I forgot what wasn’t memorable.  I lost count, not because there were actually fiftyeleven dudes’ names on the list, but because the experiences and what I learned from them came to matter more than numbers. 

When I first met my ex, he wanted to know how many men I’d had before him.  I told him he was ridiculous. “You knew I wasn’t a virgin when you met me.”

He did some fairly sloppy due diligence, and confronted me with stories he’d heard.  Everything had been so mangled in the retelling, I could say with a straight face that none of it was true.  I honestly (and naively) didn’t see what difference it made.  He boasted about his ho exploits, so I told him to get real about mine.

It didn’t quite work that way, of course.  He threw the things he’d heard up in my face, regardless of truth or accuracy.  But the most damaging story was the one I told him: the story about the one that got away.  The one-who-got-away story confirmed what he had long suspected — that I was with him, but I didn’t love him.  

I was faithful for the close to ten years we were together.  No close calls, no judgment calls.  But my ex never stopped looking around the corner for the boogeyman: the man I wanted, who was not the man I had.

I was faithful to my ex, and I stayed celibate for a number of years after my divorce. 

So as far as I’m concerned,  I re-virginalized.  The clicker has been reset. 

I’m still not keeping count, though.  My sleep number is my business.  Each and every one of those experiences – good, bad, tragic, indifferent, and everything in between — made me who I am.  I don’t know the actual count, but I am no longer ashamed of it.   It’s irrelevant.

Besides, if any man asks me “how many” at this point in my life, I’ll assume he wants to make sure his name never gets added to my count.

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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.

My First Haters

May 31, 2010

 

I’ve always been opinionated, and I’m not shy about expressing my opinions, whether in a real-life discussion or on my blog.  I suppose it was inevitable, therefore, that some of my posts would rub some people the wrong way.

That doesn’t bother me.  I’m all for spirited debate.  Except . . . I haven’t gotten any.

It seems some of the people who disliked my posts, in particular the one about men, or the one about celebrity divorce settlements, chose not to post comments on my blog.  They also chose not to debate me on Twitter or Facebook, where I usually post my newest blog posts.

What they did choose to do was make cowardly ad hominem attacks on Twitter.

I’ve gotten one or two “you’re divorced, right? figures” comments on this blog.  I haven’t thought much of them.  What exactly does it figure?  Figures that I, a divorced woman, would be interested in the subject of divorce? 

Or does it “figure” that I’m divorced because I’m a bitter, unlovable hag, as evidenced by my writing and my opinions?

Apparently I’m supposed to believe the latter.

Sorry, but no.  Anyone else who wants to believe that about me, believe away.  And feel free to believe, based on a few blog posts and tweets, that you know all you need to know about my marriage and my divorce.  As long as I write about divorce and custody issues, I guess it’s understandable that people would try to construct a story about my own divorce.  Until and unless I choose to publish my divorce story, good luck with that.

I’m just disappointed that the people in question chose to resort to personal attacks, instead of making rational counter-arguments to the positions with which they disagreed. 

In the end, though, I’m pleased that people are reading and reacting to what I write.  Thanks to everyone who visits my blog and read my posts.  Whether you agree or disagree, I appreciate your readership. 

I do not, however, tolerate personal attacks, on me or any of my commenters.  As long as you keep it respectful, debate away.

An Incivil Action: Child Custody Litigation

May 14, 2010

Writer Debra Dickerson shocked many when she revealed recently that, as a result of a five-and-a-half year custody battle with her ex-husband, she and her children are now homeless.

Dickerson and I crossed paths briefly at Harvard Law School: I was a 3L when she was a 1L.  I knew of her, though I can’t really say I knew her.  Dickerson chose not to practice law and became a writer instead.  I chose not to be poor and unable to repay $90,000 in law school debt, so I went on to practice, although the desire to write never left (hence, this blog).

I empathize with Dickerson, not because we have HLS in common, but because of my own experiences with never-ending child custody, visitation and support court battles.  I, too, had a lengthy and expensive divorce.  I, too, spent over $100,000 in legal fees — most of them in an unnecessarily protracted custody fight.  I contend my ex never really wanted custody, but included it among his demands to gain settlement leverage.   And unfortunately, because divorce = litigation, we had to fight it out. 

Child custody contests are indeed battles, ones in which the most forceful weapons are the children.  In litigation, someone has to win, and someone has to lose.  And when kids are used as weapons, whether intentionally or unintentionally, they’re the ones who get hurt.

I’m still in the midst of visitation issues with my ex.  And although I admire the professionals who are involved in my case, the process is completely illogical.  I strongly believe that child custody–and divorce, for that matter–should not be determined through litigation.  In New York, it is possible to avoid litigation if the parties negotiate a separation agreement (which they file with the court), remain separated for at least a year, and then file for a judgment of divorce based on the separation agreement.  But this approach will not work for everyone.

Negotiating a separation agreement can be a very expensive process.  A separation agreement is, in essence, a settlement agreement, and settlement negotiations are still quite adversarial.  Unlike a regular contract negotiation, a settlement negotiation involves two parties who would otherwise be suing each other, attempting to resolve their conflict by contract.  Therefore, the parties and their lawyers are often positional rather than conciliatory in approach, and unreasonable demands made out of anger and hurt can derail the process as easily as as in court.  In most cases, however, people who decide to divorce by separation agreement generally are motivated to agree and avoid litigation.

The underlying motivation is a key reason why separation agreements do not work in every divorce.  If one party wants to settle and move on, and the other party wants to fight to the death, trying to negotiate a separation agreement would be a colossal waste of time and money. 

I believe every divorcing party should be required to undergo counseling, and custody matters should be resolved through mediation. Mandatory counseling and mediation would create an atmosphere of resolution and agreement, not war.  A mediated child custody settlement, assisted by counselors skilled in navigating high conflict divorces, could keep both parties focused on the children’s best interests, since neither side would benefit from making false or overblown allegations.  The goal would be to reduce the number of pointless, endless custody and visitation battles that hurt everyone, especially the children involved.

The particulars of Dickerson’s situation do not matter to me.  I don’t want to know, nor do I care, which party is “at fault” or who has done or said what to whom in the last 5.5 years.  I’m sure, in 5.5 years, there’s probably plenty of blame to spread around.  But I feel compassion for the pain and suffering her family has endured and continues to endure.  I hope that, as news of her plight spreads, the court intervenes to force the parties to settle this lawsuit and resolve their differences in a way that allows for co-parenting and healing. 

I don’t know if my mediation and counseling proposal is workable in practice.  I do know that the current system is broken.  We need a better process for deciding custody cases.

Child/Spousal Support Awards of the Rich and Famous, and You

May 12, 2010

Every time there’s a news story about the divorce/custody battles of rich people, the Twitterverse explodes, with people complaining like their own pockets just got hit.  Reports that Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt will have to pay his estranged wife $637,000 in temporary spousal support sparked all kinds of outrage.  On Twitter, one man said, “I just don’t think you should get married if you can lose more than a 3rd world country in the divorce.”   Women, too, wondered if the prospect of going broke in divorce justifies delaying or avoiding marriage

Get a grip, people.

I’ve been married.  I’ve been divorced.  And I lost a whole lot of money in the process.  But the money didn’t go to my ex.  It went to our lawyers (both of whom I had to pay).  It went to the lawyers because instead of accepting a reasonable settlement offer, my ex went looking for one of those huge celebrity paydays and wound up with next to nothing. 

Anyone who is afraid to get married because of a celebrity divorce, or who expects their own divorce settlement will be like winning MegaMillions, is delusional.  The following facts may help you get over your fears or fantasies:

1. You’re probably not rich, and you’re probably not married to a rich person.  Accordingly, it’s unlikely you’d emerge from a divorce either super rich or financially devastated.  My marriage was coyote ugly, and I would have gnawed off an arm and a leg if that’s what it took to free myself.  Still, if we’d been able to settle, we both would have wound up better off.  Hopefully, your marriage won’t end in divorce, but if it does, divorce will cost a lot less, financially and emotionally, if neither party makes unreasonable and unrealistic demands.

2. Child support and spousal support are not the same.  Child support is awarded to help take care of the children’s needs.  Awards are made based on complex formulas that vary state-to-state, but that generally take each spouse’s then-current income and expenses into account.  The fact that Kelis may have sold a bunch of records 5 years ago is irrelevant to her current income and her child’s current needs.

3. Spousal support is where “big payback” fantasies go to die.  Spousal support is awarded to help take care of the needs of the spouse.  It is awarded most often in cases where a spouse has suspended his or her own career to support the career of the primary wage earner.  That’s probably not you.  If both spouses are working and earn enough to sustain themselves, it’s unlikely spousal support would be awarded to the lower wage-earner. 

Jamie McCourt’s job was being the wife of a rich baseball team owner.  She helped her husband maintain a certain community profile and image–including by being a non-working spouse.  As a result, she has every right to expect him to contribute towards her living expenses until the divorce judgment is final.

4. Rich people have expenses you can’t imagine.  Perhaps you think Kelis should be shopping for her child at The Children’s Place.  Maybe you think Jamie McCourt should move into a West Hollywood day rate motel until she can get a job at Hooters.  That’s what you’d do, right?

That’s why you’re not rich.

If a person’s net worth eclipses the GDP of a third world country, he’s expecting to have to shell out some dough to his soon-to-be ex.  News reports mention that Jamie McCourt originally sought $1 million per month in spousal support.  What’s really telling is that Frank McCourt offered her $150,000/month—nearly $100,000 more than the Kelis child support award that had people up in arms.  Truly rich?  Nas and Kelis aren’t even close.  If Frank McCourt could afford to offer $150K/month, another $500K/month probably isn’t going to bankrupt him.

5. For the benefit of the person who tweeted “The chick isn’t even hot” in reference to Jamie McCourt’s support award: hotness is not a factor considered by any court in entering an award of child or spousal support.  If it were, every star male athlete, actor and entertainer would be vying to marry the ugliest woman on the planet.

6. A pre-nup is unnecessary if you don’t have shyt to begin with.

So the next time you find yourself worried about the latest celebrity divorce payout, remember—unless you’re the celebrity in question, it’s just gossip to you.

What is Blackness?

May 3, 2010

Thomas Chatterton Williams’s recent post on The Root, “What Obama and Drake Have To Do With Being Black,” attempts to explore what he refers to as the “vexed zeitgeist in which, for African Americans, racial integrity overwhelmingly equates to embracing the narrow values of the black street culture of the past three decades: hip-hop culture.”  To do so, Williams compares and contrasts President Barack Obama and the rapper Drake. 

Williams theorizes that “the shadowy figure of the mulatto” is the most poignant illumination of blackness.  This theory assumes all biracial people have the same experiences with race and are forced to choose an identity from a finite set of options, a proposition that is easily refuted.  In fact, apart from being biracial and male, President Obama and Drake appear to have very little in common.  As a result, Williams’s attempts to find similarities in the two men’s backgrounds often feels forced.  For instance, Williams says that both men were raised in “staggeringly un-black settings,” even though Drake’s hometown, Toronto, has a sizeable Afro-Caribbean population, unlike Obama’s hometown of Honolulu.

It is clear that Williams views Drake as a poser.  This mostly seems to be because Drake is half-Jewish: “he had a bar mitzvah!,”  Williams amusingly notes.  Apparently one cannot be both Jewish and black.  Somebody better tell Omar Wasow.

Williams scolds Drake for choosing an identity that Williams finds inauthentic:  “Drake, in his professional choices and his public demeanor–and most certainly not in his inherent physical attributes or ethnic background–has packaged himself to fit neatly into the contemporary vision of what blackness must be–or, at the very least, must worship….[H]is presence on the black scene, unlike Obama’s, has done next to nothing to challenge the ingrained prejudices of a culture that consistently prizes street knowledge over book learning, being cool over being disciplined, and elevates hustlers and criminals to the highest positions of cultural importance.” 

But why should Drake be expected to challenge anything?  Just because he’s biracial–and half-Jewish, at that?  Drake is a rapper.  It stands to reason that, regardless of his ethnicity, his public image and stage persona would embrace hip-hop culture.   There’s no more reason to expect Drake to “challenge the ingrained prejudices of a culture that consistently prizes street knowledge over book learning” than, say, Lil Wayne.

Writer Danielle Belton, on her blog The Black Snob, says that Williams is really talking more about American anti-intellectualism than blackness.  Perhaps his arguments would have been more coherent if he had focused on anti-intellectualism.  But Williams, who is himself biracial, mistakenly assumes his own Imitation of Life racial and cultural identity crisis illustrates a universal experience.  He writes that “mixed-race blacks–while occupying a position in the culture that is at once privileged and cursed–are the physical incarnation of a racial dilemma that all blacks inevitably must confront: To sell out or keep it real? That is the question.”

Williams’s narrow definition of blackness undermines whatever point he is trying to make.  “To sell out or keep it real” is not a universal black dilemma.   Williams conflates blackness with hip-hop, and whiteness with education and upward mobility.  The fatal flaw in his reasoning is that he frames his arguments using the same false dichotomies he attempts to deconstruct. 

Blackness and hip-hop are not, of course, one and the same.  Hip-hop is only a part of the black experience, and a relatively small one at that.  Therefore, the notion that all black people are forced to choose whether to identify with hip-hop and remain authentic, or “sell out” and thereby become less black, is ludicrous.  Moreover, associating education and upward mobility with “whiteness” is dangerous and offensive. 

It is true that young, middle-class black males often gravitate to and imitate images from hip-hop culture that bear no resemblance to their day-to-day lives.  I’ve seen it within my own family, and it’s one of many aspects of black American culture that Aaron McGruder spoofs in The Boondocks.  And yet, many of these same young men also go to college, take jobs with Fortune 1000 companies, and live otherwise unremarkable, upwardly mobile lifestyles.  Indeed, it is entirely possible to be black and embrace hip-hop, while also being middle class, educated, suburban, and well-read, all at the same time.

Williams has fallen into the trap of what the novelist Chimamanda Adichie eloquently refers to as the danger of the single story.  In a speech recorded at TEDGlobal, July 2009, Oxford, UK, she said: “That is how you create a single story: show a people as one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” 

There is no single story of blackness, no single concept of the black experience.  Throughout history, persons of African descent have struggled to tell stories that reflect the richness, uniquenes and variety of our experiences.  In doing so, we must also avoid the trap of the single story ourselves, by not insisting that those stories fit solely within the framework of the largely negative mainstream vision of “blackness” and black culture.

Jillian Michaels – The Biggest Loser

April 27, 2010

When  The Biggest Loser’s Jillian Michaels stated that she would prefer to adopt rather than give birth because, as she put it, “I can’t handle doing that to my body,” I understood, in part, where Michaels is coming from.  Her body is her career.  Her very livelihood depends on her looking fit and trim. 

Plus, she’s a star of a popular TV show.  It would be difficult for her to train Biggest Loser contestants pregnant.   American audiences would not want to watch an immensely pregnant woman yelling at people and forcing them to run or lift weights.  The pressure on her to immediately drop the baby weight and return to her pre-pregnancy shape would be intense.  And contrary to popular belief, not every woman wants children, and not every woman who wants children, wants to give birth.

Logical or not, Michaels’ comments could prove to be a costly marketing move.

In addition to The Biggest Loser, Michaels has a burgeoning franchise centered around weight loss products.  Her website, jillianmichaels.com, features her eponymous weight loss program and sells DVDs, books and fitness equipment.  The Jillian Michaels’ 30-Day Shred is an intense weight-loss and exercise regimen. 

In defending herself, Michaels adopted the oh-so-familiar claim that her comments were taken out of context.  But whether or not Michaels was talking about the effect of pregnancy on a woman’s figure, she should have known her statement would be taken as implying she didn’t ever want to be fat again (Michaels has admitted to weighing as much as 175 — oh, the horror!). 

Michaels’ biggest mistake may have been her criticism of “mommybloggers” in particular for their “disappointing” response.  Most of her customers are — you guessed it — women, many of whom are mothers who are looking for help shedding the excess baby weight.  Alienating the customer base = bad marketing.

Michaels reminds me of the character played by Ali Larter in Legally Blonde — the fitness maven who swore Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods to keep her alibi to a murder charge secret, because admitting to getting liposuction would expose her as a fraud.  Regardless of what she meant, in saying she would prefer to adopt because she “can’t do that” to her body, Michaels sounds as if she doesn’t have much confidence in her own weight loss products and philosophy.  And if you don’t even believe in what you’re selling, why should I buy it?