Posts Tagged ‘Family’

I Am Not the Father

June 19, 2011

Lately, it’s become fashionable to wish single mothers Happy Father’s Day.

Miss me with that.

I am a single mother raising two kids alone. I do it by necessity, since my kids’ father has chosen, for the most part, to be absent from their lives since our divorce.

I also do it a little bit by choice. Some women in my shoes would have initiated a search for Mr. Stepdad a long time ago. Marrying a man for the sole purpose of providing my kids with a replacement father does not interest me in the least.

Being a single mother does not also make me a single father. Or some type of mother-father hybrid. I am a woman, and I can only approach parenting from a woman’s perspective. I grew up with my father and mother, but my mother was the more dominant influence in our home. For better or worse, I adopted her style of parenting even when I was married.

The notion that a woman raising children by herself is acting as both mother and father is misguided and harmful. It does a disservice to all of the fathers – including the single fathers – who are also working hard, every day, to raise their children. We single mothers enjoy the appreciation, but on Father’s Day, fathers, not mothers, deserve all the love.

My kids do benefit from positive male influences. Unfortunately, their father isn’t one. I don’t live near my family, so my children don’t have uncles and older male cousins who take the place of their absent father in providing this influence. They do have teachers. coaches, their friends’ fathers, and my significant other.

None of them can take the place of a loving, caring father, but my ex-husband is not a loving, caring father. They wouldn’t have a nuturing dad in their lives even if their dad were still around. A psychotherapist told me recently, if the absent parent does substantial damage to the child when he or she is present, it is better for that parent to remain absent. My children are not better off without a father, but they are better off without a father who is still so hurt from his own childhood that he inflicts pain upon his own children almost without knowing.

I am not a hero. I am not “holding it down.” I’m doing what I have to do. I take care of my children because I’m supposed to.

I take care of my kids because I love them and I need them and they need me. I do it alone because their father is unwilling and unable to participate. That doesn’t mean I fill both roles.

I am a mother. That’s more than enough.

So while I appreciate the acknowledgment of single mothers on Father’s Day, don’t wish me a Happy Father’s Day. I am a lot of things to my kids, but a father is most certainly not one of them.

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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.

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.

A Good Woman – Part I

April 18, 2010

The day after my mother’s funeral, her baby sister,  my Aunt Mary, said to her grieving nieces:

“Well, your Mama sure had her ways, but couldn’t nobody say that Lennie wasn’t a good woman.”

We all nodded.  Mama most definitely had her ways, but the fact that she was a good woman was undeniable. 

I’ve thought about my aunt’s comment from time to time since my mom passed:

What made Mama a good woman?

Was it her unshakeable faith, her complete and utter devotion to the Lord?  Perhaps.  Mama was a Christian, but she was no church Christian.  She didn’t play church politics well at all.  In fact, she told me she was not-so-politely asked to leave her prayer group at her home church; she said it was because she was constantly challenging the group leader’s understanding of the Bible (of course, my mom was right and they were wrong).  Although her funeral was held at her home church, she hadn’t actually been inside it in years.

Mama called herself a student of the Bible.  We counted at least 30 bibles among her possessions, most of them ordered from the TV preachers she took to following when she stopped going to church.  She was not a Biblical scholar, but she had practically memorized the Bible.  She had committed her favorite passages to memory, and her recall didn’t diminish even as other parts of her memory began to fail. 

She gave, or tried to give, each of us a Bible.  She gave me two — a NIV translation, because I told her I preferred the NIV to the King James, and a Bible that had both the NIV and the King James texts side by side.  She must have been amused when, about a week before she died, I started quoting Scripture to her, using it to try to get her to consent to the medical treatment she had refused.

Mama was a good woman because she couldn’t stand to see people suffer.  It never ceased to amaze me — and, admittedly, sometimes disgusted me as well — the way she would feed the men and women who had been children with us, the ones who hadn’t done well enough to leave the block, many of them now mired in drug and alcohol addictions.  My mother hated to see people go hungry, especially children.  She was always sending a plate of food, whatever she had cooked that day, to families on the block.

We had neighbors who would come to her yard with buckets to draw water from the outside tap as if it were a well, because their water had been shut off.  I was outdone. 

Mama said, “They have children in that house.  They can’t be in that house with children and no water.”  And when I said too much in protest, she let me know it was her house, her water bill and her decision.   She never stopped doing what she could for the people in our neighborhood, until the day she died. 

We worried that people were taking advantage of an old lady living on a fixed income.  We feared that one of those people would decide to press that advantage by breaking into her home and robbing her, or worse.  Mama pooh-poohed us all.  She refused to leave her home, even when a stray bullet lodged itself in the wall just above her bed.  The neighborhood people never tried to harm her, and grieved her loss as deeply as the family did.

My mother was a good woman, but she was no saint.  As my aunt said, she had her ways.  She could be petty and small-minded.  She had a tongue that could cut you deep.  She always knew where the soft spot was, how deep to stick the knife and how far to twist it.  She defined stubbornness.  Once she had made up her mind about something, there was nothing — no logic, no reasoning, no nothing — that could change her mind.  She was as petulant as a two-year-old when she didn’t get her way.

All of those things mean she was human. 

But she was a good woman.

Mama raised us girls to be good women.  We were taught to cover our bosoms and our behinds, to close our legs and open our minds.  We were encouraged to be outspoken, independent, self-reliant.  She had seen first-hand how being financially dependent on a man could backfire, and wanted none of that for us.  As kids, we hadn’t been allowed to socialize with the people she wound up taking care of in her old age, after we moved away and they were left behind, struggling.  We were taught to comport ourselves with decorum, to treat others with respect, to associate with other good people, and to never give up on ourselves.

She was disgusted by Monica Lewinsky and would have been horrified by Rielle Hunter and Kiely Williams.  To her, a woman who used sex to get ahead was a prostitute, period.  Her insistence that looks were irrelevant, that only brains mattered, was so extreme that it seems only my oldest sister Cheryl knew she had any looks to trade upon, but it worked.  I may question her methods, but I can’t argue with the results.

I’m not a good woman in the same way that my mother was.  I’m not trying to feed the hungry in my neighborhood.  I consider myself a Christian, but some of my views of Christianity would shock and perhaps disappoint my mother.  I worry whether I have energy to fight the NYC Department of Education for my kids, the way she fought the Detroit Public Schools system to ensure that I received the best free public education I possibly could. 

And yet, I think I qualify.  I’m open-hearted and caring.  I believe everyone, from CEOs of multi-national conglomerates to the homeless, deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.  I often decry the lack of civility in our discourse with each other, especially as people interact more and more with people they do not know personally via social media.   And while I try to get my daughter to feel good about herself inside and out, both beauty and brains, I’m an old-fashioned stickler for necklines up, hemlines down, knees together.

My mother lived long enough to see the type of woman I’ve become.  I’m pretty confident she approved.

Cameran’s Camera: The Pearl Talk Show Script

April 10, 2010

My daughter read John Steinbeck’s “The Pearl” for her 7th Grade ELA class, and was assigned to write a talk show script that identified the book’s central conflict.  She got a perfect score on the assignment.  I thought the work was so good, I decided to share it with you.  So, from my guest poster, Cameran: here’s the Cameran’s Camera script.

Cameran’s Camera

Me: Hello fans, and welcome to my show! My name is Cameran, and this is Cameran’s Camera!

Theme song plays

Me: Today we are doing a special segment on the world’s favorite piece of green paper: money, and how it can make people do the most unbelievable things. The show will be called “When Money Turns Other Types of Issues Green.” Here on the show with me today are various characters from the book The Pearl. Right now, I am going to bring out Kino, and he knows better than anyone how money can ruin your life. So here he is ladies and gentleman, Kino!

Crowd claps

Kino walks on stage

Me: Kino! Hi, how are you today?

Kino: Very well, thank you for having me.

Me: No problem, have a seat.

Kino sits

Me: So let’s cut to the chase, shall we? You know better than most people how badly you can screw up your life when money gets involved in the picture don’t you?

Kino: Umm…Well…I guess I do…

Me: Oh c’mon! Tell us the story!

Kino: Umm…Well it all started when my wife and I were fishing on the Gulf, and found the Pearl of the World.

Me: The Pearl of the World? That sounds intense, explain what you mean by that.

Kino: It is what we called it, because it was the largest pearl I had ever seen in my life. It was about the size of an ostrich egg. The pearl was also the most beautiful one too…I loved that pearl…

Kino sighs

Me: You keep talking about this in the past tense, what happened to you and this pearl?

Kino: That thing destroyed my life! It hurt my family, it hurt me, and it killed my baby! In the end, there was nothing left to do except throw it back into the sea where it belonged.

Me: The pearl could not have killed your baby and ruined your family itself…

Kino: Don’t be stupid, of course it did not do all of this itself. I became its slave. I did all those things to my family because I was trying to save the pearl so that I could give my family a better life.

Me: Wow, kind of ironic huh? You destroy your family by protecting the thing you think is going to save you, and then you end up just throwing it away in the end.

Kino: I know…and now my own wife will not even talk to me! As soon as we got back to our village, she left me! She said that I needed to know what I wanted before she could consider being with me again. She said that I needed to learn what was important in my life.

Me: If you could speak to her again, what would you say?

Kino: I would apologize for what happened to our son, I would tell her I loved her!

Me: Well today is your lucky day because tonight, I have her here, backstage in the studio, waiting to talk to you. Come on out Juana!

The crowd claps

Juana walks out

Me: Hello Juana, have a seat!

Juana sits

Juana: This is a waste of my time.

Juana rolls her eyes/crosses her arms

Me: Okay then…Kino, why don’t you say to Juana what you said to me just now.

Kino: Well…Umm, I—

Juana: Save it, do not waste your breath. There is nothing you can say to me now that will change my decision about leaving you!

Kino: But Juana, I love you!

Juana: How could you?! Why did you do what you did?! How could you!?

Kino: I only did it to save us! I thought that by doing whatever necessary to save the pearl, it would prove to you and to myself that I was worth it, and that we all deserved it!

Juana: But you know that I do not need all the material possessions to make me happy Kino! Why do you not understand that? I loved you Kino, and I still do, but you have always wanted so much more than what is right in front of you…Why couldn’t you just accept what we had?

Kino: We had nothing Juana! We barely had enough for the both of us, let alone…Coyotito…I am a man! And as a man, it is my job to make sure my family has everything!

Juana: Do you still not understand?! We did have everything, we had each other! But since you felt the need to have everything, we lost everything we had before. We lost our son, our house, our friends, our town, our pride…our marriage…

Me: Wow, this is intense…if you do not mind me asking, why can’t you just go back to the way things were before?

Juana: I cannot just go back to the way things were!!!!!! Do you know what it is like to want to lose so much when all you wanted is a little more??

Me: I know what it is like to want, and not get it…and that is what happened to you guys right?

Kino and Juana nod simultaneously

Me: To slightly alter the topic, I hear that there were some other people involved with the pearl. Is that true?

Kino and Juana: Ummm…

Me: So I take that as a yes right?

Kino: Sort of. The doctor “cured” Coyotito right after he found out we had the pearl, and said we could repay him when we got the money from it.

Me: That’s funny, because I have the doctor with me right now! Come on out doctor!

The doctor walks on stage

Crowd claps

Me: Hello doctor, why don’t you take a seat?

Doctor: Okay

Doctor sits

Me: You do remember the Pearl of the World right?

Doctor: Of course I do!  I was supposed to receive some of the money that was made from it, but Kino still cannot pay me back for my duties.

Kino: I could not sell the pearl, and I could not continue living with the evil it brought to my family and me.

Doctor: Not to worry, it is still the most prized possession in the village.

Me: Still? I thought Kino and Juana disposed of it?

Doctor smiles

Doctor: They may have thrown it back into the water, but they did not get rid of it. It only took a few weeks for the word to spread that you two were no longer in the possession of the pearl, and it only took a few more weeks after that for me to find where it was.

Doctor takes out package

Doctor opens package

Crowd gasps

Juana, Kino, and I gasp as well

Me: Is that…

Juana: Is that…??

Kino: THE PEARL

Doctor: Yes, now I have the Pearl of the World, and all the wealth will finally be mine! I will be getting what I deserve…

Juana: How…I do not understand, how could you have found it!?

Doctor rolls his eyes

Doctor: I have already explained this to you, I had my men search for it.

Kino: Why have you brought this to me!? Why have you brought back the evil to us!?

Doctor: What is so evil about a little extra money? I have brought it because I got an offer at the capital, and I believe you will find the price extremely reasonable

Doctor whispers in Kino’s ear

Kino’s eyes widen

Doctor: I am willing to split the money with you and your family, if you agree to come back to the village and be my personal pearl diver. You and your family would be able to stay in my mansion, and live the very luxurious life that I have. What do you think?

Kino: Oh. My. God.  Juana! We can—

Juana: NO! Absolutely NOT! There is no way I am having anything to do with that pearl Kino! Let him have it, let him live in hell until he gets rid of it, and realizes that no amount of money in the world is worth sacrificing sanity.

Kino hesitates

Doctor: I think Kino does not fully agree with you Juana, look at him! He is eyeing the pearl the way starving children admire food.

Juana looks back at Kino

Juana: Kino…

Kino:…

Juana: No, Kino!!!! NO!! This is exactly what I was talking about Kino, you always want more, ALWAYS! You are willing to give up being with me just so you can have a little extra money!

Kino: You could come—

Juana shakes her head

Juana: No Kino, You know that is not possible. It is either the money and the pearl, or me!

Kino buries his hands in his face

Kino: I need my brother! I need him to tell me what to do!

Me: Well you’re in luck, because he is here with us today! Come on out Juan Thomás!

Crowd claps

Juan Thomás walks on stage

Kino: BOTHER!!! Oh how I miss you!

Me: Hello! Why don’t you have a seat right next to Kino.

Juan Thomás sits

Me: If you have been tuning in to our show this past hour, many things have been going on. Now Kino has a decision to make, and he wants you to tell him what to do.

Juan Thomás: Kino, I cannot tell you what to do with your life, for in the end, you are the one making the decision. However, before you leave for wealth and riches, take a look at the people here with you today. Your old friends, old townspeople, fellow pearl divers, they are all here tonight to support you! Is the money worth giving up all of this?

Kino: But I don’t want to give it up! I want to have both! Why can I not have both?

Juan Thomás: Kino, you know that is not possible. The last time you tried to have both, you lost everything. You lost your son, Kino. If there is any reason for you not to go, it should be for him! Don’t do it for Coyotito!

Kino cries

Kino: You are right! I cannot do this, there is too much that could go wrong, and I cannot leave the people I love. I am doing this for Coyotito, and hopefully my again-soon-to-be-wife

Doctor: Fine! I was offering you wealth and happiness, but if you don’t want it, more for me! Go back to being poor and worthless!

Kino: Doctor, you are mistaken. I am not poor, nor was I ever poor, because I have all the wealth and worth I could ever ask for right here, in my family.

Kino hugs Juana and Juan Thomás

Crowd screams (in happiness)

Me: Well that concludes our time for today, so be here next time for our special surprise guest! Bye!

Audience leaves

Juana, Juan Thomás, the doctor, and Kino all exit

I smile as I leave, knowing that I have just changed someone’s life forever.

Fighting Christmas Depression

December 12, 2009

Used under license from FreeFoto.com

I wrote this on December 21, 2008.  A lot has changed in a year.

Everyone always says that Christmas is not — or shouldn’t be — about giving, but receiving. Over the years, people have offered me wonderful, well-meaning suggestions for raising children who want to spend Christmas serving others instead of being served, children who are more excited about giving than they are about receiving.

I have not met the children of these well-meaning folks. I am sure their children are terrific. But in my experience, young children are terrifically selfish and self-centered. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect them not to want stuff. A lot of it.

I tried out a few of those suggestions on Cami. Earlier today, I said, “Hey, how about next year, we stay home for Christmas and serve at a soup kitchen?”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“No, I’m not kidding. Why would I kid about something like that?”

“Ummm . . . then no.”

“Why not?”

“Because – eww – I don’t want to spend my Christmas serving at a soup kitchen! Christmas is MY day! Christmas break is the longest break of the year. I don’t want to spend it serving other people. Let other people serve other people.”

“Well, Cami, if everyone said let someone else do it, then no one would do it.”

She looked at me. “Seriously, Mom, you don’t want to go to a soup kitchen, either. Where is this coming from, anyway?”

I knew better than to ask Randy.

My children are not, at this stage in their lives and development, interested in giving. They don’t even buy me a gift for Christmas. My children want stuff. A lot of it. And they’re not shy about demanding it.

I also wanted stuff at Christmastime when I was a kid, but I knew not to expect it. My father was a Ford auto worker. My mother worked only occasionally outside the home, typically in low-paying service jobs. And I am the youngest of six. Even in years where there were no worries about union strikes or company layoffs, big Christmases simply weren’t an option. I would study the JC Penney and Sears catalogs like I used to study our encyclopedias, and a trip to Hudson’s was like a trip to Heaven, but I wasn’t silly enough to actually think I was getting much of anything.

I make just enough money, I guess, to delude my children into thinking that they should have presents under a tree somewhere. Indeed, that there should be a tree somewhere, with presents for them under it. I suppose I have no one to blame for that but myself.

When I was married, my ex-husband and I shopped separately for the kids. As with everything else, we couldn’t agree on what to buy or how much to spend. While I was buying robots from Sharper Image and globes from Imaginarium and educational software and books from Barnes & Noble and magnetic building toys from Toys R Us and FAO Schwarz, he would be at some down-market toy store in or outside Philadelphia, buying up every marked-down, leftover, on sale toy he could find.

The net result was that the kids always had a lot of gifts under the tree. They treated each group of toys with equal disdain. They would ignore my educational toys until there was nothing, absolutely nothing, else to do. The stuff he bought would be played with, broken, and in the garbage by New Year’s Day. Yet, every year, they expected more, and we obliged.

The first year of my separation, I had no energy for Christmas. I couldn’t imagine trimming a tree and cooking and shopping and wrapping and baking and creating this wonderful special Christmas all by myself. I wasn’t feeling wonderful and I wasn’t feeling special. I was feeling broke. The divorce was nasty, contentious and expensive, and took place during a down economic cycle. I had just taken a job paying about 40% of what I used to earn as a law firm partner, and I watched legal bills, on top of day-to-day living expenses, eat through the rest of my savings like cartoon termites.

In desperation, I turned to my good friend Claire, who loves my children and Christmas seemingly in equal measure. Her own children are now adults, and she missed having little people at home baking cookies for Santa, decorating the tree, singing Christmas carols, and running downstairs at break-neck speed on Christmas morning to tear open wrapper after wrapper and squeal in delight. So I brought her my kids for Christmas. My mother loaned me some money to buy the kids a few presents – and Claire supplied the rest.

Going to Auntie Claire’s for Christmas has now become a tradition of sorts for us, if four years can make a tradition. My financial situation is more stable now, so I try to bring more than just greedy kids to Virginia. Despite my baking phobia, I even bake cookies at Claire’s – chocolate chip ones, following the recipe on the back of the Nestle’s chips. I’m told they’re good, and whether they actually are or not, someone always eats them. Thanks to Claire and her family, my kids get that wonderful, special Christmas experience that I couldn’t and still can’t provide them on my own.

But the kids’ Christmas gift expectations haven’t changed since the divorce, even though their father hasn’t participated in the spending frenzy in over three years. I still feel a certain amount of pressure every year to make sure that, in addition to tree-trimming and cookies for Santa and a fantastic Christmas feast, they also have a decent number of gifts under the tree.

It wears me out.

This year, Cami told me, “Oh, I only want two things for Christmas this year – a laptop and a pair of UGGs.”

“Oh, so only $2000, and I’m done with you?”

“You wouldn’t have to get such an expensive laptop,” she offered as a compromise.

Later, she added a Blackberry to the mix, in place of the iPhone requested previously. I have never, ever, in my entire life, received a $2000 Christmas gift. From anyone. Not even myself. The package is an easy no. Other than the Blackberry, which is patently ridiculous, the components are harder.

Cami makes a convincing argument for needing a laptop. She uses the computer a lot for school. She has a school e-mail account, which is supposed to be used to email assignments and communicate with teachers and peers about assignments. Of course, it is also used for gossip, chat, uploading songs and music videos, and other non-academic purposes. I wouldn’t mind the extra activity, except my daughter cannot multi-task. Excess socializing, at school and online, led to poor grades and placed her on academic probation for the first grading period. Her grades have improved recently, but I have decided she’s not mature enough to handle the responsibility of having a laptop in the privacy of her room. That’s part of the story – the part I tell her whenever she renews the laptop discussion.

The rest of the story is financial, because if I could afford a laptop, I’d buy one and figure out a way to enforce responsible use. The real reason I’m not buying Cami a laptop, even though it almost rises to the level of a “need,” is that I do not want to spend thousands of dollars on Christmas presents right now, with the economy in such bad shape. Watching friends get laid off from high six-figure Wall Street jobs serves as a reminder that my job is not guaranteed. It would be illogical to deplete the emergency fund so the kids can have a fabulous Christmas, and with tax season just around the corner and summer camp payments coming due right after that, Christmas needs to be a low-key affair this year.

I feel badly about always having to say no. I know many, if not most, of her friends at school have laptops. The layout of my apartment requires that the desktop computer remain in my room. She can use the computer in my room for homework, but after a while, I get tired of having her in my room, and I start demanding that she “get on with it.” I tell myself that I’m keeping her from wasting time and teaching her to be efficient, but mostly I’m just being a nag, and I know it.

And as for the UGGs – no, they’re not definitely not a need, any more than the Blackberry. Yet I remember ogling pearl-button angora sweaters at Hudson’s the same way she ogles the UGGs in my Bloomingdale’s catalogs. I would love to get her at least one thing she doesn’t need but just wants. In light of the tough economy and looming bills, I can’t justify buying the UGGs, either. It may be irrational, but that bothers me.

Then there’s my son. I thought he would be easy. When we first started talking about Santa lists, he mentioned only a Bakugan toy costing about $20 at Toys R Us. I guess he must have then spoken to Cami, because the next time we talked, his list had expanded to include a new Nintendo DS, a Wii, and a lot of new games. He still believes in Santa, so I told him that since a lot of mommies and daddies lost their jobs this year, Santa was not giving anyone a lot of Christmas gifts this year, and was instead helping the mommies and daddies with some of the things they need, too.

 He was fine with that explanation, but yesterday, I made the mistake of reminding Cami, in front of him, that “I’m not buying a lot of stuff this year.” He caught on.

“So, Mom, it’s you? Santa isn’t real?”

Cami immediately jumped up from the computer to whisper in my ear that they’d just had a discussion in her Philosophy class about the morality of perpetuating the Santa myth. I wasn’t interested in philosophy in that moment. I told her to shut up and sit down.

“Randy,” I said, “will it make a difference to you one way or the other?”

He didn’t hesitate. “I want Santa to be real.”

“Well, Randy,” Cami piped up, the weight of Kant behind her, “I have some bad news.”

I hissed at her the way our cat used to hiss at the dog we no longer have, the way I now hiss at the cat when she’s on my furniture. He already isn’t getting 75% of the items on his Christmas list. If Santa is still important to him, why take it away?

Cami often misses non-verbal clues, but between that hiss and the look on my face, she stopped cold.

“Well, then,” I told Randy, daring my daughter to contradict me, “if that’s what you want to believe, that’s what it is.”

He was momentarily satisfied, although he’s made a few doubting references to Santa since then.

I know it’s silly for me to be even slightly depressed about not being able to spend a lot of money on Christmas presents this year. I know – it’s meaningless, they won’t remember the presents but they’ll remember the great times with friends and family for a lifetime – yada yada yada.

And bull.

I don’t remember the presents I actually did receive, the few Christmases when we did get presents, but boy do I remember, even today, the stuff I wanted and didn’t get. Not all of it, of course, but a lot of it. I don’t yet know what I’m getting them, but they will have presents under the tree. Not everything they wanted, and some things – like clothing – that they don’t want, but definitely need.

I know we’ll have a great time at Claire’s, and the kids will be happy with whatever they get. I just hope, by Christmas morning, I manage to get over my own disappointment at not being able to do more.

Losing Mom

October 23, 2009

“This is the second big tragedy of the summer,” my eight-year-old son announced glumly, tears welling up in his eyes.

I was momentarily grateful for the thought patterns of an eight-year-old, which put a smile on my face for the first time all day.  I couldn’t fault my son for ranking the death of his grandmother second to the death of Michael Jackson as the summer’s worst tragedy.  Grandma didn’t have a Thriller video in her legacy.  But then, on the other hand, Michael Jackson couldn’t bake pies like Grandma.

For me, it’s no contest.  As my son later said, “This must be even harder for you, Mom, because Grandma was my grandma, but she was your mom.”

Indeed.

I got the call I had been dreading and anticipating and wishing away at about a quarter to 5 a.m. on August 14.  I knew it was bad news.  “No good news comes at this time of morning,” I muttered to myself as I awoke to answer the phone.  The only question in my mind was, was the bad news about Mom or my brother Greg?

“Carolyn, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Mama died this morning,” my sister Cheryl said.

“Oh.  Okay.”

At least, that’s what I think I said.  I don’t remember what I actually said, or what we specifically talked about.  I understood that my brother Greg had found my mother in the dining room floor, unresponsive.  She had fallen out of her favorite chair at the table, the chair where she ate, received visitors, and sat to read her Bible every night.  Greg called my other siblings in the Detroit area and told everyone to “come, just come.”   Someone called 911.  The EMS medics pronounced her dead of a massive heart attack.  My oldest sister called me.

These are the facts as I know them.   I wasn’t there when my dad died, and I wasn’t there when my mom died.   My own selfish ambitions had taken me far away from the city of Detroit long before.  Somewhere deep inside, I feel just the tiniest bit of guilt about that.

I went upstairs and told my 12-year-old daughter, then gently extricated myself from her arms to go downstairs and tell my nephew, my second oldest sister’s son, who was visiting from Howard University. 

I decided not to tell my son until later.  It was his last day of baseball camp, and I saw no need to ruin his day.  I told him after he returned home from camp, after more of the details of the broad strokes of the day had been filled in, after I had accepted in my head but not my heart the truth behind those words:

Mama died.

My mother suffered her first heart attack in about March 2004, during her second and last visit to New York City.  She had come to help me.  My marriage was falling apart and my husband was erratic and unstable.  I was afraid of him and didn’t know who else to call. 

In the back of my head, I must have had a vision of my mother going to help my aunt get rid of her incorrigible husband many years ago.  Mama had packed her brother-in-law’s things in garbage bags, set the bags out on the front porch, locked the doors and put a huge pot of water on the stove to boil.  When he came home and demanded to be let in, my mother gave him two options: take his shit and get to steppin’, or force open the door and get a pot of boiling hot water thrown in his face.  He chose the first option and went to his mama’s house.

I don’t think I expected my mother to put a pot of water on the stove to boil for my ex.  Nor did I ask her to.  I did figure he’d stop acting like a madman with her around.   It never occurred to me to ask Mama how she was feeling, if she was up for the trip.  She offered to come and I accepted.

When I picked her up from LaGuardia Airport, I was startled a bit, as I had been in the last several years, to realize that this little old lady in the wheelchair was my mother.  I wasn’t used to thinking of her as old.  Mama had always been a giant, even though she was only 5′ 2″.  She was formidable and stubborn, with an iron will that could move mountains.  If Mama said it was so, then that’s how it was, or how it was going to be.  She had been more God to me in my childhood than the Holy Trinity combined.

As always, Mama was a little old lady until she started talking, and then she was back to just being Mom.  I drove her home, and she seemed fine.  She said she was hungry.  I hadn’t cooked.  My kitchen cabinets were pretty bare, but I did have a tin of sardines (but the good ones, packed in olive oil, OK?).  I offered her sardines and crackers, and she accepted.

A few minutes after she started eating, she ran to the bathroom.

I raised an eyebrow.  I hadn’t seen my mother run like that in decades.  I heard the sound of retching.

“Mom, are you OK?”

“I’m fine,” she said, and then I heard the sound of vomiting again.

Mom was on the floor, clutching the toilet, vomiting like I’d never seen before.  She told me the sardines must have given her heartburn. 

“I feel this pressure in my chest, and that’s what’s making me feel like I have to throw up,” she managed to explain before vomiting again.

I ran out of the bathroom and picked up the phone.  “Mom, I’m calling EMS,” I said.

“For what?”

“For you.”

“I don’t need no EMS.  This is just heartburn,” she protested.

“Then they’ll send you back home,” I said as the 911 operator began to take my information.

I am not a doctor, and had never heard heart attack symptoms described as pressure and nausea, but something in the questions the dispatcher asked — something in her tone — made a little thought enter my mind: “Mama’s having a heart attack.”

That little thought was confirmed when the EMT techs showed up and gave Mom a nitroglycerin tablet to put under her tongue.  By this time, my ex-husband had come downstairs to see what the commotion was all about.

“She’s having a heart attack,” he announced, even though the EMT techs hadn’t said anything.  “My mother had heart trouble.  I’ve seen this before.”

Shut up, I hissed at him in my head, but I said nothing.  There was no point in arguing with him and causing her additional distress.

But he had been right.  She was rushed to St. Luke’s/Roosevelt Hospital, and within two hours, she was in the cath lab, getting two stents implanted into her arteries to clear near-complete blockages. 

I found out later that Mom had been having symptoms all week before she boarded that plane.  She had been out of breath after walking a very short distance.  She had complained of “heartburn” and mild nausea all week.  She had her first heart attack within two hours after landing at LaGuardia Airport.  I shudder to think what would have happened if her flight had been delayed.

Back then, we were told she had achieved a good result.  She was treated just as her heart attack symptoms began, so there was little damage to the heart muscle.  She was advised to get a pacemaker, but she refused.  So she was advised to start a program of moderate exercise, change her diet, control her high blood pressure by taking her medication regularly, take the anti-cholesterol drug Plavix, and put herself under the regular care of a cardiologist when she returned home to Detroit.

Mom did . . . pretty much none of the above.  She kept frying her foods and cooking with salt.  She continued to refuse a pacemaker.  She stopped taking the Plavix.  She refused to take the new blood pressure medication she had been prescribed.  She saw her cardiologist a couple of times, and then stopped.  She tried walking around the block, but after a few outings, she realized she was too weak to do it alone.  She feared collapsing or being attacked by some thugs in the neighborhood who decided to prey on an old lady.  She sat in her favorite chair and rarely left the house.

And that was how she liked it.

I argued with my mom, begged her to go the doctor more often, implored her to listen to her doctors when she was hospitalized again three years later, and it was pretty clear things were not going in the right direction. 

(There was one final hospitalization prior to her death, but she was released with a bunch of prescriptions she never would have been able to take on her own, and she died at home, as she obviously wished.)

I wasn’t the only one, of course.  My sister Caroletta worked even harder to try to get Mom to do what we thought was the right thing.  Mom said and did just enough to shut us up, and then went right back to doing what she was going to do.

My mother’s will was unlike anything I have ever encountered from anyone else in my life, with the possible exception of my 12-year-old.  When she made her mind up to do something, there was no stopping her.  This was a woman who sat in the back of my elementary school classrooms to see and hear first-hand what and how I was being taught.  When she was dissatisfied, she would call the teacher out into the hallway to speak with her.  When that didn’t get the results she wanted, she went to the principal and threatened to go all the way to the school board.

(Did I mention I was an unpopular kid in elementary school?  You’re not surprised, are you?)

Mom fought for me to get a great education in a mediocre Detroit public elementary school.  She somehow coerced my notoriously cheap father into sending me to Catholic school for 8th grade, because she worried I was succuumbing to the negative influences of the bad neighborhood middle school. 

I tricked her a bit for high school, by failing to tell her I’d gotten accepted to the Catholic high school she wanted to send me to, so that I could go to Cass Technical High School, Detroit’s top citywide public high school, instead.  But by then, she didn’t have to fight for me anymore.  She believed in me so much that I was more than a bit cocky when it came to academic achievement.  I’d learned from the master how to fight for myself.

My mother also was a woman of incredible talent.  Her vegetable garden was the stuff of legend, where everything grew and nothing ever died.  (We used to joke that Mom’s garden was the real Pet Sematary, but we were too afraid to bury a dead thing there to test out that theory for real.)  She made pies — as recently as a month before her death — that were better than any restaurant — “store-bought,” as she said with disdain — pie I’ve ever eaten.  Because of her — and my father, but mostly her — I made it from the “hood” to Harvard Law School, to partner of one of the country’s most prestigious law firms and vice president of one of the world’s premier cosmetics companies.

And it bothers me to no end that she never turned that iron will on herself, and willed herself to live, instead of allowing herself to die.

Since her next-to-last hospitalization, I would periodically dream about getting that phone call, hearing those words — “Mama died.”  And then I would immediately wake myself up, thinking, “That’s silly.  Mama’s not dead.”  I wish I could wake up and find out this was still a dream, that I could just call Mama and hear her voice and assure myself that she was truly, 100% alive.

I know better, but I still wish.

I used to think of Mama as a series of contradictions.  She used to infuriate me because I couldn’t make sense of some of her decisions, including her decision to refuse medical treatment and accept the risk of a massive cardiac arrest.  Since her death, I’ve been consumed by trying to resolve those surface contradictions to find the common thread.  For example: Mama was an excellent cook and would prepare meals for people for free, but never took up the suggestion that she could open a restaurant or catering business of her own.   She made all my clothes until I was in middle school and decided I was too old to still wear “hand-made” clothes.  She would give our neighbor, who ran a tailoring business out of her home, advanced sewing tips, but she wouldn’t try to get business of her own. 

She was a snob extraordinaire, but not in the usual sense.  She was not impressed by money, or people with money, or the things they possessed.  She taught us that class had nothing at all to do with wealth, and that there were plenty of people with money who lacked class, and vice versa.  She wouldn’t let us associate with the classless, regardless of income or family net worth. 

Yet she couldn’t stand to see people go hungry.  The same people we were not allowed to play or associate with as children, grew up to be the adults, the neighborhood drunks and winos and crackheads, who she fed and whose children she fed, because it wasn’t the childrens’ fault that their parents put their substance abuse ahead of their children.  She leveraged all of her talents for the care of her family, and when we were gone, she took care of the people in the neighborhood, the struggling adults who had been children with her children, and who became like her surrogate children.

I’m no longer as angry with my mother as I was when she died.  I was angry with her because I had convinced myself that her death was due to her stubbornness, that it was avoidable, that she could have been with us many, many more years had she only cooperated, acquiesced, done as she was told.  As I type those words, I am reminded of the beginning of the Book of Ecclesiastes:  “Meaningless!  Meaningless!  says the Teacher.  Utterly meaningless!  Everything is meaningless.”  On one hand, I wonder — what difference does another five, ten, fifteen years make, compared to the eternity that you spend in death? 

On the other hand — in five years, her youngest great-grandchild would have been five, and would remember her great-grandma.  In five years, my children would be 13 and 18, respectively.  She would have been able to see both of my kids reach adulthood and young adulthood.  

We would have had five more years to try to crack those apple and sweet potato pie recipes.

Five more years of everything I miss about her, and would miss about her even more five years from now.

So I try to hold onto the things that make me smile, the special moments that were our moments alone, that no one else shared. 

When I was growing up, my mother was a notorious prude when it came to topics like sex.  When I started my period, she handed me a book.  When I had questions about sex, she handed me a different book.  “Let me know if  you have any questions,” she said in a way that made it clear that questions were not welcome and would not be easily entertained. 

I had tons of questions, most of which were answered by the porno books and magazines I found under my brothers’ mattresses, or in Harold Robbins’ novels.

After she came to New York to help me with my ex-husband, my mother and I began having “girl talks.”  

Somehow, a floodgate opened up that I wasn’t expecting.  When I would come to Detroit to visit– after the kids were in bed and her favorite televangelists were off the TV — we would sit at the dining room table, Mom in her favorite chair and me in the chair next to it, and chit chat about woman stuff. 

And by woman stuff, I mean sex.  

And by sex, I mean the stuff you don’t usually discuss with your 70-something year-old mom. 

Mom did most of the chatting.   I was too busy most of the time being appalled.

And oh, boy, did Mom have some stories.

I was real good at listening — and laughing — but less so at sharing.   Once, she asked me very directly about my sex life with my ex-husband — after oversharing some info about my dad that I never needed to know — and I totally punted.  I gave her enough of a response to keep the “girl chat” thing going, but inwardly, I froze.   Talk to my mother, my Mom, about stuff like oral sex and anal sex and oh my God are you fucking kidding me?

And yet, in these months after her death, it’s the girl chats that make me feel the least like crying, that make me feel warm and special and happy, as if she was still here.

There is no “over it.”  Every day without her gets a bit easier, until it doesn’t.  I have dates embedded in my brain that will forever be difficult:  August 14, November 21 (her birthday), Thanksgiving, Christmas. 

Then there are just the times I want to call her, the random triggers that I suspect will never go away.  I recently traveled to Las Vegas and Miami within the same week.  When Mom was alive, I would always call her before I got on a plane and give her all my flight information, just in case.  I would call when I landed, to let her know I landed safely.  I would call when I boarded and de-planed again at my final destination.  And if I traveled someplace I’d never been to before, I would tell her all about the places I’d been, in hopes that one day I could encourage her to travel more, to see more of the world.

This time, I felt lost when I was traveling.  I kept texting my flight information to my sisters, since someone in the world should know where I was.  I wanted so badly after those recent trips to pick up the phone and call her and tell her all about Vegas and Miami.

After a few months, people stop asking you how you’re doing, are you OK.  People sort of expect you to get over it and move on.  And death is a subject most people want to avoid, anway. 

So, in case you were wondering:  I’m OK, except for those times I’m not.  I’ll never be over it.  I’ll never stop missing my Mom.  I’ll never stop wanting her to be at the other end of a phone line when I call, or rising up from her favorite chair when I enter her house.  It will never be OK that she’s gone, until I’m no longer here.

Other than that, I’m fine.

Never Can Say Goodbye

July 10, 2009

I am still mourning the death of Michael Jackson.

I mourn as a fan, because that is the only way I knew him.  I extend my deepest sympathies to his family and friends — especially his children — but I do not pretend I knew Michael Jackson as anything other than an entertainer.  A great entertainer.

Of course, there’s the dancing.  My son plays the Bad video incessantly on YouTube, and tries to imitate the moves.  For me, it’s the Smooth Criminal video.  I can’t watch it enough.

Right after his death, I went into MTV overload, watching every MJ video on every MTV channel available, enjoying MTV’s brief return to its musical roots.

But really, for me, it’s all about the way Michael Jackson could interpret a song.

There’s no denying that Michael Jackson was a preternaturally gifted singer.  He had no life experience to tap into at age 8 to pull off that famous rendition of “Who’s Loving You.”  That performance came from a place few singers, even the ones who have actually experienced the heartache and loss of a broken relationship, find easy to access.

And there’s no reason a 12-year-old should have been able to sing THE definitive version of “Never Can Say Goodbye.”

Maybe, even at 12, the lyrics had special meaning for him:

Even though the pain and heartache
Seems to follow me wherever I go
Though I try and try to hide my feelings
They always seem to show

But I look at my own 12-year-old daughter, and I can’t imagine any 12-year-old understanding the emotions behind this lyric, which sustained me through many a breakup:

I keep thinkin that our problems
Soon are all gonna work out
But there’s that same unhappy feeling and there’s that anguish, there’s that
doubt
It’s the same old did ya hang up
Can’t do with you or without

I watched Michael Jackson the consummate professional, the confident performer, and enjoyed every ounce of what he gave to his fans.  And I know that, despite what we thought we knew about Michael Jackson, we didn’t know him at all. 

Many said his televised memorial put a human face on the man who had become known more for his weirdness than his music.  It certainly conveyed a different aspect of him — Michael as doting father and playful friend.  

The coverage of his death seems determined to uncover the “truth.”  I have long since stopped paying attention to the coverage.  I don’t care anymore whether his death was deliberate or accidental, whether or not MJ’s kids are biologically his, or any of the other issues that amount to “breaking news” on TMZ.

The only “truth” about Michael Jackson that I know is this:  despite the fact that so much of his life was lived in public; despite the fact that I grew up with him, reached middle age with him and looked forward to growing old with him — he managed to carve out a very private existence for himself and his children, behind those veils and underneath the umbrellas. 

Thanks to the veils and scarves and blankets, the Jackson children appear to have lived a fairly normal, regular life.  They were able to come and go in public in a way that Michael Jackson could not.  Michael kept their faces covered in public, so the public never really knew what his children looked like until that memorial service.  We aren’t entitled to his children.  He understood that.  I hope we can remember it.

Michael Jackson was a man — not a boy-child, not Peter Pan — but a man who was loved by his children, his family and his friends.  Only those who were privileged to know him personally have any inkling of who and what he really was, to the extent any person can ever know anyone other than himself. 

We may never know exactly who Michael Jackson was, or wasn’t.  I’m not even sure we have the right to continue to probe and try to find out.   What counts most is that his music, and those amazing performances, will last forever, even longer than our own individual memories of him.

Waiting

July 9, 2009

A day at Family Court is a day of waiting.

Although the cases are calendared, there is no set time for your case to be called.  You wait until you are called, which could, and sometimes does, take all day.  This type of waiting requires Zen-like patience.

Most of the people in Family Court — poor, uneducated (or under-educated), lower-class — are not patient.  So Family Court is noisy and uncivilized. 

It is also not a place where people dress like they are in court.  Unlike the U.S. federal or New York State Supreme Courts, only the lawyers and court workers wear suits, skirts and dresses.  Women wear tight tees stretched over sagging bellies and explosive muffin tops, their thighs and hips sausaged into low-rise jeans.  Men wear baggy jeans.  Everyone is tattooed. 

Most overheard conversations include liberal doses of the “f” word.

I have to go to work after I leave court, so I am one of the few petitioners or respondents who is dressed properly for a court appearance.  My dress and heels feel wrong on the benches with the masses.  I feel a greater kinship with the lawyers and caseworkers than the people sitting on the benches with me, waiting like I am for my case to be called. 

I feel out of place.

For the last sixteen months, I have been coming to Family Court every other month for a hearings in connection with a visitation petition filed by my ex-husband.  As the case is still pending, I will not comment on the merits or any of the specifics, except to note that  in those sixteen months, there have been approximately three or four face-to-face visits between my  husband and our kids.

I comply with my legal, moral and ethical obligations to appear on time for each court appearance, and to come back, and back, and back, with no end in sight.

Family Court is the only time I see my ex-husband.  I strongly prefer it that way.

Seeing him incites no feelings of nostalgia for our moribund relationship, no stirrings of attraction towards the man with whom I shared a bed for eight long years of my life.  My memories of our relationship are generally unpleasant.  The few fond ones have nothing to do with romance. 

He looks at me with disgust, and I look at him with confusion, trying to figure out, once again, how I ever wound up with him.  It is plainly obvious to me now that we simply never should have been together.  The mismatch is so clear to me now.  I can’t help but wonder how I overlooked it for so long.

There was a time when I wouldn’t look at him at all, fearing that he wanted to intimidate me with his glare.  Now, I stare openly at him as I try, in vain, to figure out what I ever saw in him.  I do this not to understand the past, but to avoid making that same mistake in the future.  He’s the one who drops his eyes to avoid my gaze. 

I notice he is reading The Daily News and carrying a book as well.  For a minute, I think, “well, that’s it — he always did read a lot, and I always admired that.”  But I don’t think I was desperate or shallow enough to marry a man just because he was literate.

We wait.

One of the men on the benches walks up to him and speaks.  He rises and greets the man with the universal not-a-hug, not-a-handshake gesture that seems peculiar to black men.  Or at least, black men of a certain ilk; those who have been steeped in black culture.  My 8-year-old son has not yet learned that gesture from his father, and won’t learn it from me.  I am not OK with all the ways that I can’t teach my son how to be a black man, but since I wasn’t planning to be a single parent when he was conceived, I accept it.

The gentleman speaking to my ex is not anyone I ever met while we were together.  I guess that the man is the same age as my ex, although he looks much older and, in his baggy low-rise shorts, dresses much younger.   He is of a type that became familiar to me during the time I was with my ex.  My ex is a substance abuse counselor, and many of his friends are recovering addicts.  On the man’s weathered, limping legs are legions of scars.  Healed injection sites.

I am not sitting close enough to overhear their conversation, but my ex has made a few covert gestures in my direction.  I imagine he is categorizing all the different types of bitches I am, especially since I have dared to not just roll over in these proceedings.  He doesn’t introduce me to his friend, nor do I expect him to.  We are not friends; I’m not sure we ever were.

We wait.

We are both pro se in these proceedings, meaning we are each representing ourselves, without benefit of counsel.  Although I am a lawyer, I do not practice family law, and my legal training gives me no advantages here.  I have done nothing to prepare for this routine court appearance.  There is nothing to prepare.  At this point, I can anticipate — accurately — what will happen.  Hiring a lawyer for this would have been a complete waste of time.

Today there will be no surprises.

We wait.

I am writing in my journal when he approaches me, wordlessly, and hands me a cold bottle of Poland Springs from an unseen vending machine.  I accept it and say, “Thank you.”  He does not respond.  Perhaps he grunts a response I don’t expect, and so do not hear.

I make sure the seal is intact before I open it and take a sip.

It dawns on me that I haven’t yet seen the law guardian assigned to represent the children in our case, and I realize her absence is the reason we are still waiting.  I know she has been ill, and I hope she’s well enough to attend today’s session.   If she is not there, the case will be adjourned and re-calendared, and I would have missed a morning of work for nothing. 

Just as I complete that thought, I see her.  She looks well.  We chat briefly, and I look around for my ex, who is convinced that she and I are conspiring against him.  I know the sight of the two of us chatting fuels his conspiracy theories.  I don’t see him.

Finally, our case is called, and it goes exactly as I expect it to.  In sum — nothing happens.  We are scheduled to return in September.

The court officer hands me a slip of paper with the date and time of our next scheduled appearance.  I try to take my time leaving the courtroom, but when I reach the elevator lobby, he is still there, waiting for the next elevator down. 

I walk past him and duck into the ladies’ room.  I stand in the full-length mirror, adjust my dress and admire my calves until I figure enough time has passed for Elvis to have left the building.

He is gone when I return to the elevator lobby, but still I take my time to get downstairs.  He is not smoking a cigarette outside, not waiting to ambush me as he has done in the past, but still I wait. 

I take out my journal again, writing as I watch and listen to a man and woman arguing about how he treated their kid during his last visit.  It isn’t long before the argument settles into a tired, worn groove of arguments past:

“You spend all day at the beach instead of working,” she says. 

“You can’t hurt me anymore,” he says.

I put my head down and keep writing.  I no longer feel out of place.  I used to have these arguments with my ex in the hallways outside of the courtroom during my divorce proceedings.  My advanced degree didn’t shield me from this drama.  My ex and I don’t have these arguments anymore, because we simply don’t talk at all.  

However, I would never tell him he can’t hurt me anymore, because he can — by hurting my kids.  They are hurt most by the lack of a meaningful relationship with their father. That’s why I continue to participate in these proceedings, hearing after hearing — because I hope that this will somehow lead to some type of renewed relationship among my ex and the children.

But I am tired of waiting.