Posts Tagged ‘Relationships’

Carolyn Edgar on NPR’s “Tell Me More”

June 30, 2011

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

http://www.npr.org/2011/06/29/137499303/author-tells-black-women-marry-out-not-down

Dating Pet Peeves

April 18, 2011

Following up on my “Guy Pet Peeves” post, my beautiful online pal Saida Latigue (@MochaMama42 on Twitter), had a few pet peeves of her own to share. I thought it best for Saida to express herself in a separate post. Without further ado, here are some of Saida’s dating pet peeves.

 1. A self-proclaimed gentleman has respect for my time.

You’re a man and you want to be treated and respected as such. If I am supposed to meet you at 10:00 am, calling at 10:40 am “to see if I’m on the way” is silly. If I’m meeting you somewhere crowded and popular, and I haven’t called to say I won’t arrive at the agreed-upon time to meet, shouldn’t you make yourself visible in the crowd and call at 10:15 at the latest to inquire about my ETA if you don’t see me or haven’t heard from me?

My time is valuable and I actually arrived at 9:55 am. You have no respect for me or my time, so …. NEXT!

2. Being a man means you pursue me.

You say you’d really like to get to know me better. However, to communicate with me, you text my phone intermittently. You email vague one line questions, and when I ask for an in-depth explanation, you don’t respond. You think of “conversation” as attempting to engage me in “relationship style” banter on mutual friend’s threads on Facebook.

I am no longer in grade school. I can infer you’re interested in me, but if it comes across as such a half-hearted attempt to get to know me, it’s a turn off, big time.         

3. A man is decisive and knows what he wants.

I decide to meet for drinks with someone I’ve dated in the past. As a single divorcee, sometimes I just want to spend time with a member of the opposite sex. The conversation is easy and out of curiosity, we ask each other why we’re not in a serious relationship at this time. I completely understand the “people are in your life for a reason or a season” rationale; however, when you share with me that you felt DUPED in your last relationship because the woman you were dating said she didn’t want marriage or a serious relationship and that was why you were in a relationship with  her — only to find out a YEAR later, she shares she would like to “take the relationship to another level” of  commitment and monogamy…and you join a dating website ( in retaliation) and only choose potential dates by photo — those are RED FLAGS that you haven’t yet figured out what you are doing. STILL. Sad, particularly when I have known you going on six years.          

4. GROW A SET.

Get some CAJONES about yourself. Be a man about it, do your thing as a man and be one, because I’m definitely very much a woman and don’t want to be the man. Period.

Phew! Saida laid it out there, didn’t she?  Do you agree or disagree? The floor is yours.

Facebook Friending Ghosts of the Past

January 18, 2011

A few weeks ago, I received a Facebook friend request from a man I’d known in college.

Someone I’d avoided for most of my college years.

It wasn’t always that way. [Name Redacted, or NR for short] was smart, funny and charming. And attractive. He was built like a linebacker, big and tall. We girls wondered if NR was big and tall all over.

I decided to find out.

After weeks of flirtation, one night NR invited me to his room. There was alcohol. There was an attempt – a fumbled, bungled and ultimately unsuccessful attempt. Equipment failure played a major factor.

There was the late night walk of shame back to my side of the dorm.

And the next day and the weeks that followed, there were the rumors of how wild I was, what a freak I was, how NR had been all up in that.

The big, baggy shirts I liked to wear at night provided unexpected grist for the rumor mill. I had taken a few of my father’s old shirts to college. At night, I would don one of Daddy’s shirts over a pair of shorts or sweatpants.

I was wearing shorts under one of Daddy’s shirts the night I went to NR’s room. Of course, the rumor mill said I went to NR’s room wearing just the shirt, with no pants or panties underneath.

I never knew if NR initiated the rumors or just went along with everyone else’s assumptions. I could have ruined his reputation by disclosing the equipment failure issue. But I just wanted to forget the whole thing. 

The rumor mill wasn’t about to let that happen. Thanks to the rumors, I started getting all sorts of unwanted attention from NR’s boys.

One of NR’s boys, however, appeared sympathetic. He claimed not to believe what everyone was saying about me. He invited me to his room to talk, and I tearfully confessed what really happened, and didn’t happen, with NR — all the embarrassing details.

Sympathy Guy claimed to be upset and angry about NR’s lies. He pretended to be a friend, a big brother.

And then Sympathy Guy raped me. He forced me to perform oral sex on him that night. I will never forget the gagging, choking, spitting; the feeling like I’d never breathe again. I felt lucky he didn’t force intercourse as well. I begged him to let me leave, and he did.

Although I didn’t press charges, I didn’t keep quiet about what Sympathy Guy had done. The rumor mill got the word out. I guess not even a ho deserved that.

I steered clear of NR, Sympathy Guy — the whole lot of them — from then on. Thanks to them, I also learned to stay out of men’s dorm rooms at night.

Although I can’t hold NR responsible for what Sympathy Guy did, they are forever linked in my thoughts. Sympathy Guy’s flawed logic went like this:

a) According to his boy NR, I was a ho.

b) A ho could be had, without the need to question whether she wants it or not. Either she always wants it, because she’s a ho, or it doesn’t matter whether or not she wants it, because she’s a ho. Therefore, he was entitled to shove his penis down my throat.

When I got NR’s friend request, I thought about accepting it, as a symbol of forgiveness. NR had made a stupid, young adult mistake. His lies led to Sympathy Guy raping me, but I couldn’t say he was the cause of the rape. And anyway, it all happened such a long time ago.

Furthermore, what does being Facebook friends really mean, anyway? I have over 600 Facebook friends, and communicate with less than 100 of them. Accepting NR’s friend request wouldn’t mean we have to actually become friends.

On the other hand, forgiving NR doesn’t require me to feel differently about what he did. NR let people think we’d had some kind of wild, crazy sex rather than admitting we didn’t have sex at all. I have a right to still feel some kind of way about that.

Forgiving NR also doesn’t mean I have to allow him access to me and my contacts — or expose myself to his. For all I know, NR and Sympathy Guy might still be connected, and Sympathy Guy is someone I have no desire to hear from ever again.

No matter how insignificant Facebook can be, it’s still a level of access to my personal life that I have the right to control.

While I mulled it all over, the friend request disappeared.

If NR tries to friend me again, perhaps I’ll link him to this post. I’m not seeking an apology. I’m not even sure an apology would change how I feel. His friend request reminded me of an unpleasant and painful learning experience.

My own daughter is only 4 years younger than I was when I had my encounters with NR and Sympathy Guy. I will share this story with her, in hopes that she can learn from her mom’s mistakes.

And if NR and Sympathy Guy have daughters, I hope they teach them to avoid young men who are like the young men they each used to be.

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.

John Mayer and the Magic Vagina

February 11, 2010

By now, John Mayer has been hashed and re-hashed to death, his “David Duke cock” and “nigger pass” comments analyzed from nearly every angle.  Except one.  While most people have focused on the racial aspect of Mayer’s statements, few have focused on Mayer’s remarks about women, sex and relationships. 

Take, for example, his comments about Jessica Simpson, his off-and-on companion for 10 months.  Mayer spoke at length about having sex with Simpson.  He referred to sex with Simpson as “a drug,” specifically “crack cocaine,” and said that their sex was “sexual napalm.”  

Strikingly, although he said a lot about having sex with Simpson, he said nothing about her.  Although it was a bit déclassé for Mayer to expose details of his sex life with Simpson, it wasn’t shocking — it’s a Playboy interview, after all.  And almost everyone I know has some sexual napalm in their past.  The problem is, in reference to Jessica Simpson, Mayer spoke about nothing else.  It’s as if she didn’t exist for him as a person beyond the amazing sex.

This is nothing new for the juvenile and emotionally stunted Mayer, who once listed “a vagina you can just camp out on…the Joshua Tree of vaginas” as one of the key qualities in a potential mate.  His remarks about Simpson reminded me of a comment (from a man) that showed up in my Twitter feed well before Mayer’s Playboy interview became public:

“Once a weak brother gets a taste of some powerful punanny, his ass will kill 4 his next hit.. Its Heroin 4 his ass.” 

Like Mayer, this man used the language of addiction to describe the power of a woman’s sexual attractiveness.  And as Mayer said, “drugs aren’t good for you if you do lots of them.”  Addictions are unhealthy — scary, dangerous and life-threatening.  Addictions make people weak, because they will do anything to secure their next fix. 

But according to the tweet, only a weak man is unable to resist becoming addicted to the powerful punnany.    By likening the vagina to a drug, a man can enjoy getting high off the good stuff, as long as he doesn’t form any lasting emotional attachment.  In fact, objectifying the vagina makes it easier for the man to insulate himself from emotional attachment.

Women tend not to understand that (some) men think this way.  Ashanti had a song, “Good Good,” where she boasted that her man would never leave her for another woman because she “put it on him right, every night.” 

I wouldn’t suggest any woman take relationship advice from an Ashanti song.  Having that good good, or as I like to call it, the magic vagina, may keep a man coming back for sex, but not much more.  If  the sex is habit-forming, a man who’s addicted eventually may decide he needs to break the habit.

Several years ago, I was involved in a brief but intense relationship.  The man was my sexual napalm and I was his crack cocaine.  He also had all the qualities — looks, intellect, sense of humor, shared goals and outlook on life — I wanted in a partner.  We got along great, in and out of bed.  I didn’t start ring shopping, but I did start thinking this man and I could have had a future together.  Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.  For years, I wondered why.

I ran into him again a few years ago.  The attraction was still there, dangerously so.  But he was married, and rekindling the old flames was not an option.  Nevertheless, we met for drinks, and finally talked about our past history. 

He was kind, but spoke of our sexual chemistry with a mix of awe and fear.  I suddenly understood why he hadn’t viewed me as a potential partner.  For him, I had been the magic vagina.  And he had been addicted.  The lies and half-truths he told — including the “I love you’s” — were his way of paying the dealer (me) to maintain his supply.  He had enjoyed using, but was now happy to be clean.

He made no mention of any of the things that I had always thought made us so compatible.  For me, the great sex was a sign of compatibility, reinforced by the time we spent together.  For him, the wining and dining and first class treatment were means to an end.  I was the Five Star Jump Off — the one you take to restaurants with Michelin stars instead of McDonald’s, but a jump off still the same.  I was grateful to know why it hadn’t worked, but saddened at the same time.

Mayer touches on how good sex can lead to misguided feelings in his Playboy interview:

MAYER: Here’s what I really want to do at 32: fuck a girl and then, as she’s sleeping in bed, make breakfast for her. So she’s like, “What? You gave me five vaginal orgasms last night, and you’re making me a spinach omelet? You are the shit!” So she says, “I love this guy.” I say, “I love this girl loving me.” And then we have a problem. Because that entails instant relationship. I’m already playing house. And when I lose interest she’s going to say, “Why would you do that if you didn’t want to stick with me?” 

There are lessons for both men and women in all of this.  No one, especially women, should mistake great sex for love.  A guy who can make you come five times in one night is . . . a guy who can make you come five times in one night.  If he makes you the best spinach omelet the next morning, that just means he can cook.  Even if he says the “L” word, be careful — if there are other warning signs, he may just be loving you loving him.  If it’s just great sex without any real commitment, it’s probably best to leave the great sex alone.

Easier said than done, I know.

Life, Love and Up in the Air

January 4, 2010

It’s been a long time since a movie made me think about life, love, loneliness and mortality.  Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” did.

George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, who works as a career termination consultant.  His company is retained by other companies to fire the employees they don’t have the balls to fire.

(Although the job is presented in the movie as being rather distasteful, it actually sounds like a great idea to me. Firing people is difficult, tricky business, and most managers completely botch it.  Many terminated employees would be better off in the hands of a professional firm.)

Clooney’s character is so good at his job because he has almost no emotional attachments. He is a committed bachelor. He spends most of the year traveling. He buys ties at the airport Brooks Brothers outpost. He fits everything into one rolling carry-on suitcase.  His apartment even looks more like a Residence Inn-type hotel room.

The theme song of this movie should have been Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady.”

Eventually, of course, he meets a woman, Alex (the stunning Vera Farmiga), with whom he shares an instant kinship. She is a fellow traveler, living in and out of airports. The relationship starts as an on-the-road convenience, but Ryan comes to want more. Clooney and Farmiga have a easy, believable chemistry that makes you root for their budding romance, as improbable and doomed as it seems.

A subplot about Ryan’s sister’s wedding injects a good deal of humor into the story and allows Clooney to deliver the movie’s knockout line and ultimate theme: “Life is better with company.”

That line resonates as the movie progresses to its uncertain conclusion, and long after the credits have rolled.

It’s a simple and unavoidable truth. Life is better with company.

“Life is better with company” explains why people stay in bad friendships, relationships and marriages. It explains why people have a hard time letting go of their kids. Why they spend a fortune caring for their sick and dying pets. Why end of life care is such a tough subject.  Why divorce statistics fail to tell the true picture of what is wrong and what is right with the institution of marriage.

It is hard to let go of people. It is hard choosing to be alone.

I should know.

I stayed in a bad relationship for more than eight years. I married my ex-husband four-and-a-half years into that bad relationship, even though it wasn’t working before we got married, and I knew deep in my heart it was never going to work out.

I didn’t love my ex-husband. He wasn’t good company. He belittled every thing I cared about. He criticized everything I did, or tried to do. We fought constantly, physically on occasion.

And yet I stayed with him, had another child by him, married him seven days before that second child was born, because I could not stand to be one of the few black female partners at a major law firm and yet, just a “baby momma.”  I hated not being married to the father of my two kids, even though I didn’t think he was good husband material.  I believed that it would be harder to raise those children alone than with company, even bad company.

If he had been able to be just a little bit nicer — just a little bit kinder — I would still be with him today.

Of course, I was wrong. And of course, it didn’t work. Before my son’s 3rd birthday, we had an Amazing Race to the courthouse to file divorce papers. He beat me by two weeks — including the extra week it took to convert my complaint into an answer and counterclaim.

I have been single ever since our separation.  I did not date during our separation, in part because he had accused me of infidelity, and I didn’t want to give that lie any substantiation.

I did not date for many years after our divorce, because somewhere deep inside, I believed everything he had said about me for most of our relationship: that I was fat, unattractive, stupid, unworthy of my Harvard Law School degree, a bad mother, bad in bed, just undesirable on every level.

I don’t blame him for the fact that I internalized the things he said. I didn’t have to. I chose to. I consumed his steady diet of negative comments and failed to counter them with positive, self-affirming beliefs. In litigation, expert testimony generally is deemed pretty credible. When my ex-husband made comments about my appearance and desirability, I gave them the weight of expert testimony. 

Somewhere inside,  I said to myself, “Well, he’s a man, he would know whether or not I’m desirable. So it must be true.”

But it’s been five years since my divorce.  In that time, I lost a lot of weight (even though I could have viewed myself as desirable with or without the extra pounds). I got a new job and regained confidence in my abilities as a lawyer. I began writing again on a more regular basis, and felt empowered by the positive feedback I received from others.

And yet, in the five years since my divorce, I have remained single.  I do not date on a regular basis. I am not seeing anyone currently. I haven’t been in a relationship since I separated from my husband.

“Up in the Air” made me question why.

There have been times, many times, where I’ve found myself saying to myself, “I don’t need a relationship. I’m not lonely. I’ve got these kids in the house with me. That’s more than enough company.

“I do all I can to escape them to find some alone time. The last thing I need is some man making demands on my time.”

Some days, I really believe this.  I am not at the Ryan Bingham level of detachment, but I do feel even the best love/sex relationships can be burdensome. And I agree that less-than-ideal relationships are excess baggage better off discarded. You really can move a lot more easily and freely through life if you heed Erykah Badu’s advice and “pack light.”

As a mom, I miss my alone time. The kids don’t respect my privacy. They barge into my room day and night. They get into my bed and try to stay there all night. My daughter goes into my closet at will and tries on my clothes, my shoes, my boots, my coats.

When I do manage to carve out some private space, I hold it dearly and protect it fiercely.

I am not sure I want to share that rare private space with another person.

Except — life is better with company.

I saw “Up in the Air” alone. Before the movie started, I smugly compared myself to the couples searching for two seats together in the crowded movie theater.  It was easy for me to buy a single ticket and find a single seat in the crowded theater. Watching a movie is such a singular, solitary experience, so why do people bother going to movies together, I wondered. Why go through all the hassle just to sit next to each other, silently watching a movie in the dark?  

After the movie ended, as we all filed out of the theater, people were discussing and even arguing over what the ending did or did not mean. I had my own thoughts on the subject and wanted to join one of those discussions, but couldn’t, because I’d gone alone. I was then reminded that the after-movie discussion is why people go to the movies on dates, or with friends or family. 

Being alone in that moment,  having just watched a movie about a man who wants to be with someone but who will probably wind up alone, made me feel sadder than I’ve felt in a long time.

Watching “Up in the Air” made me realize that being without a partner is a choice I’ve made.  It’s not because it’s so hard to find people to date and eventually be in a relationship with, despite the current “why can’t successful black women marry?” topic that has become so disturbingly popular in the media.

I’ve chosen to be alone, much as George Clooney’s character did in the movie, because for a while, it was easier to deal with life without carrying around the baggage of another person. After the divorce, as I worked at establishing myself in a new job and making a new home and a new life for myself and my children as a single parent, it simply was easier to do it alone.

But it’s not an irreversible choice.

At one point in “Up in the Air,” a character asks Ryan, about marriage, “What’s the point?” He answers, truthfully, that there is no “point.” Because it’s not like getting married and having the kids and the grandkids will change the ultimate outcome of your life.

We’re all going to die.

Life is short, and getting shorter by the day.

But everything that happens between birth and death is a choice. 

For years, I chose to be alone.

Perhaps now, it’s time for me to have some company on this journey.

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.

I’ll Get It!!!

May 13, 2009

I wrote this piece when my daughter, who is now 12, was 8, and just starting to talk to her friends on the phone.  Now that she’s 12, I find that things have turned out pretty much as I predicted back then…

“I’ll get it!” my daughter shouted over the din of the TV, some wannabe singer screeching out something on American Idol.  She practically jumped off the top bunk down to the floor.  “It might be Nick!”

Before I could say anything, she had answered the phone and was talking into it.  “It’s me!  Hey, Nick!”  Then to me: “Mom, I’m going to go get the other phone.  Can you hang up when I pick up?”

I nodded, still shell-shocked.  This child, who just a few minutes earlier had been arguing with me about the Idol wannabes (“Mo-om, Carrie soooo can sing!”), was no teenager.  She wasn’t even a pre-teen or tweener.  She had just celebrated her eighth birthday two months earlier. 

Granted, there was the whole early puberty thing — she had just undergone a whole series of tests to determine why she was already budding breasts and sprouting hairs, and earlier that week I finally had to stop denying her the right to wear the little training bras she had received as a Christmas present from her former babysitter.  (I still don’t know what a training bra is “training” the breasts to do.)  But I wasn’t ready for her to fly off the bed and grab the phone because she was expecting some boy to call.  And as I half-listened to my daughter’s side of her conversation with Nick, I was both satisfied that the conversation was entirely innocent, and disturbed by the harbinger of things to come.

My daughter has always found boys easier to befriend than girls.  Boys tend not to judge you based on what you’re wearing, or what clique you do or don’t belong to, or how cool anyone thinks you are.  At the same time, she has always longed for that one true girlfriend.  This eighth year of her life has been especially difficult, because with all the changes going on already in her body, she seems to need that elusive best girlfriend now more than ever.  Eight-year-old boys, who are silly and irritating most of the time, are a poor substitute.  

In my daughter’s case, with the simmering hormones of precocious puberty stirring up all kinds of emotions she can’t yet identify, let alone name, it’s inevitable that she’s going to start becoming truly aware that the boys she chats on the phone with, hangs out with after school, and has playdates and even sleepovers with, is a bona fide member of the opposite sex.  And, come to think of it, they’re kind of cute.  In my experience, that recognition usually blows the friendship to pieces.  I’m grateful she’s too young for that recognition to occur, but I know it’s going to happen — and when it does, I suspect (and fear) some of her male friendships won’t survive.

I listened to my daughter in the other room, talking to Nick about school, other kids and parents.  She spoke in cool, calm tones, without any of that exaggerated language, copied from Nickeledeon and Disney Channel tween-focused shows, that 8 year olds use when they want to talk the way they imagine teenagers do.  There was no “what-EVER!,” no “Oh.My.GOD!!!!”  It all sounded frighteningly grown up. 

After a few minutes, I had to see what was going on, because suddenly I couldn’t hear her side of the conversation.  Her voice seemed to have dropped an octave or two, and that’s when I knew it was time to get her off the phone.

“Okay, Cami, five minutes,” I said anxiously, trying to be fair, but wishing I’d just told her it was time to hang up.

“Okay!” came the again-audible response.  Phone privileges were still pretty new to her, so she was unusually malleable.

A few minutes later, I again couldn’t hear my daughter’s voice.  “Cami, time to get off!”

“I’m already off!  Nick’s mom told him it was time to hang up already!”

I smiled.  I knew there was a reason I liked Nick’s mom.  I was glad at least one of us hadn’t wimped out of our responsibility.

The next day, as I was leaving my daughter’s school after dropping her off, I ran into Nick and his mom. 

“So, our guys have become quite the little phone pals, I see,” I said.

“Yeah,” she grunted.  We shared a knowing smile, an unspoken expression of relief that they were still only 8.  Nick was oblivious to the parental disdain going on above his head.  But he didn’t call that night.  Fortunately, being only 8, my daughter didn’t even notice.

Make Me Laugh

March 28, 2009

A post on the blog White Hot Truth  made me start thinking about my own positively soul-sustaining must-haves — especially in my relationships with others, whether they’re friends, possible partners, or anything in between.  Number one for me is humor.  I love to laugh and to make other people laugh.  I sometimes think I have the soul of a 12-year-old boy, because I am a big fan of double entendres, and I can find sexual innuendo in almost anything.  Or maybe that means I was British in a past life. 

Throughout my life, my best friends have all been people who “got” my sense of humor.  My best relationships have also been with men who laughed at my jokes.  I have always been attracted to men I found funny, but I never used to demand that they find me funny in return.  I used to think it was enough for them to have a sense of humor, whether or not they thought I had one.  During my marriage, I discovered how wrong I was. 

My ex-husband remains one of the funniest men I’ve ever met.  (His late brother Charles was even funnier.)  His dry wit drew me in from the first moment we met.  I used to work overtime to try to make him laugh in return, with varying degrees of success.   At times, I’m sure I tried way too hard.  One of the most hurtful things he ever said to me was, “You have no sense of humor at all.”  It was hardly the cruelest thing he ever said to me, but it cut me deep.  I stopped trying to make him laugh.  And when I lost interest in that, I lost interest, period.  I recognize now that not only do I need for my partner to be funny, I need him to think I’m funny, too.

I think the value of humor in business is severely underrated.  In some of the most productive business meetings I’ve ever run, or participated in, humor was used to get the participants to relax.  Once relaxed, they were more willing to contribute their ideas and agree on action plans.  The same is true for negotiations.  Although most contract negotiations are tense and stressful, I’ve been most successful when one or both parties used humor to relieve some of that tension, which enabled us to discuss our differences in a principled manner and work hard to find a common basis for agreement.

Humor isn’t the only thing I need, but I can’t be happy or satisfied without it.