Sunday, May 25, 2014

Reality Sucks sort of...

So I’ve picked up a habit in the last 2 months since I’ve been home. I’m not ashamed of the habit, but it is definitely a habit.

I find myself watching a lot of reality television.

I’ve always watched some form of it I guess, but Milt is the reality TV watcher in our house. For years I just lived vicariously through his summaries and the trailers I’d see on television.  Never really getting into it, but knowing the characters and their trail of stinkiness and having funny conversations with Milt about them before we went to bed.

I never understood why anyone, especially a black woman, would want to be on a reality show. To me, it seemed, the lure of fame got old very quickly. Plus the idea that the nation wants to place you into the worse stereotype and you consent to that stereotype was very odd to me. What’s sexy about getting your wig snatched, having a drink thrown in your face, kicking and screaming while burly guys in black t-shirts (they always wear black t-shirts) have to pick you up physically and take you away from the situation? 

…but after I was fired I started really watching.

I actually felt good for a few weeks because these dolts were actually in a worse place than I could every be emotionally. I kept waiting for Dr. Phil to come out and help them.  When my friends questioned why I was watching I’d say:

 “I’m just trying to see what all this is. I’m not really into it.”
“Girl…you know I’m just trying to study why someone would do this to themselves. These girls are cray cray!”
“I don’t watch all the time, just a few snippets here and there”
“I’m just watching so I can understand what Wendy Williams will be talking about tomorrow”

But the reality is, I am hooked.

I’m especially hooked on seeing the black women.  So yes,  I watched and cringed through three episodes of the Real Housewives of Atlanta (RHOA) reunion show when Porsha snatched off Kenya’s wig and beat her like she stole something. I watched as Ne-Ne acted like a pompous
ass to everyone, and Phaedra dropped that killer lecture to Kenya about Apollo (wicked.) I even watched the painful (though the producers thought it was comedy relief) machinations of Momma Joyce with Kandi. (Having my own sometime complicated relationship with my own mother, I saw pain, not humor in that display.) Of course on a purely professional level I feel that it’s beyond horrible that Andy Cohen and his ilk think that American women are a sites of humiliation, buffoonery and painful comedic relief. But Andy and his crew save a special sort of agony for the RHOA women and they play right into it, only to wear evening gowns and 7-inch heels they can hardly walk in and sit on his couch and tear each other up.

I was happier than a pig in slop as I watched.
Not only did I watch it, I am immersed in what else is going on with them. I’ve become a voyeur, clamoring to know more about their lives (I read twitter whenever the shows are on.) I research the characters (who knew the internet held that many secrets about folks?) And I watch them even when the eventually end up on Iyanla, Fix My Life (Evelyn Lozada, Basketball Wives or Saigon and Erica, Love and Hip Hop New York ).
But yesterday I needed a distraction. Needed might be too strong a word here, I was just distracted.  And Milt and I started watching Love in the City on OWN. 
I liked it.
Here’s my list of why:
1.     No one was attempting to create a fashion line without knowing anything about fashion.
2.     Each of the women actually had a career of some kind.  Yes, there was definitely posturing, but they worked for their money, it didn’t sort of show up. 
3.     While their lifestyles looked perfect, the lingering specter of cancer, and infertility, and bad relationships were real indicators of what lots of women go through.
4.     The relationships they had with their extended families were very real. They didn’t make it all good. Because dealing with extended family is always messy.  Always.
5.     They were not young folks. I loved that they were in their late 30s and early 40s. Some folks I could finally relate to.
6.     They lived in New York and I knew every avenue they walked on and filmed on. (An added benefit!)
7.     I didn’t feel these women were fake I felt I knew these women. In fact I do know these women, I have lots of friends who are like them.
8.     I love shows where folks are reinventing themselves. I don’t kid myself that I’m like Bershan, or Chenoa. But I loved that they were showing women in their 40s that you can make a different narrative then the one that everyone thinks you should have.
9.     They make MISTAKES. Lots of them. I found myself yelling a few times at Chenoa (my favorite) and being pissed at her about her relationship with her estranged husband Carlyle. I was so sad for Kaiya because who gets broken up with at a table in a restaurant in front of your girls? She was humiliated, and I felt for her.  Tiffany’s double mastectomy and her relationship with her boyfriend was familiar and scary. And Bershan (my second favorite) who is going through this surrogacy thing alone (at least the show is showing her being alone) and a husband who is constantly on the road (or doesn’t want to be on the show.)
There were no physical fights. Let me say that again, there were four black women in the room and there were no wands, hair pulling, nasty name calling, or anyone trying to take anyone else’s man. There were arguments, but for me the arguments made sense.  Most of the arguments involved Tiffany, but she was the needy girl of the bunch. But she was also the one who had some of the most poignant moments in the show. She deserves much better than Bryan who had the nerve to take her hair when he moved his stuff out! As my husband said so eloquently, “you can take a black woman’s phone, Chanel purse, and even her iphone, but when you take her hair, now someone has to get cut!” And I appreciated that the other three women were outraged when she told them, but refrained from cutting, but you could tell they were thinking of ways to kill him. (Hell, I was trying to think of a way to kill him.)
But what I liked the most was the idea of the mommy narrative and how three out of the four women were dealing with it. Maybe I’m still reeling from the New York Post’s insane headline calling Chirlaine McCray a bad mother. But the mommy stuff is definitely on my mind, and apparently on all the minds these women. Kiya goes to a fertility clinic in anticipation of a partner and sperm that she doesn’t yet have. She has already determined that 40 is a death sentence for her reproduction system. Bershan is in surrogate craziness, while her husband travels the world.  Yet it’s Chenoa who is really, really interesting to me. She rejects mommydom.  Not because she has some hatred of children or pregnancy, but because it just wasn’t right for her. She tried the hormones and the surrogacy and egg harvesting and it just wasn’t for her. I loved that there was just a moment that she and her estranged husband are in the room together, she looks at him and says, “That’s (pregnancy and a baby) not what I want.”  I yelled at the television!  YES!!!! Please put more women like this and Chirlaine McCray on television.  Please.
Yes, I know. C’mon on critics…bring it.

“But Erica, you have three beautiful children and a wonderful husband, you are living the mommy narrative!” And you are absolutely correct…sort of. But to reject the societal narrative that binds women to being married barefoot and pregnant, is to me the ultimate narrative of feminism. I wish more women consciously chose it instead of listening to the Princeton Mom and her bullshit about finding a man at college to fertilize you. Say what you will about Chenoa, but she knows what she’s wants and her vision is revisionist, or at the very least, honest. Which is refreshing and very much needed in this time where Hillary Clinton is about to run for president and the narrative is already being spun that she is mentally unstable because she used to bleed every month and went through menopause. (Apparently if Mrs. Clinton has a hot flash she’ll blow us all up to kingdom come.)  

Chirlane McCray is also hella honest. To admit to a magazine that she was ambivalent about being a mother when she was 40.Then decide to stay home and take care of her kids in a way that she thought worked for her family. And THEN take care of her mother and mother-in-law so her husband could realize HIS dream. Yes! Yes! This is a woman I know.  This woman is my mother, and my aunts, and my neighbors.  In a town where the nannies are plentiful and the guilt suffocating it took some real chutzpah for her to admit that. But instead of recognizing her strength instead folks want to criticize her mommy skills.  Puhlease.
But here’s the reason I really like Chenoa and Chirlane.  
I too was caught up in the mommy narrative. I had had a terrible time during my undergraduate years in Rochester and Buffalo. I was in school to please my father and was trying to be a mathematician if I couldn’t be the mechanical engineer my father desperately wanted me to be. I floated around, did millions of things, but could never settle on what it was that was in me, because I was afraid all the folks I loved would stop loving me if I really was the person I wanted to be. But I did know that I had the ability to get married and have a family. And in my mind if I did this I could get my family to love me and forget the failed attempts at college. So I did.  I married, I had children and we were happy.  But it’s been hard. I often wonder what my life would have been like if I had taken that leap, and been an English major and started my writing life then before the diapers, pacifiers, school supply lists, and Spring dances.  I believed that being a mother would make me happy, and it did, and it does. But I was also miserable.  I was alone for huge swatches of time with my first two children. Friends believed I was consumed with being mommy, so I wouldn’t want to do anything I loved to do before. Family just let me suffer, because that’s what the women in my family do, we suffer, and then we act as though everything is okay. I was consumed with doing it all perfectly because folks were watching, and the competition for the best mom of the year mug was always fierce. And damn it I wanted that mug!
I love that Chirlane and Chenoa acknowledge the craziness. They refuse to adopt it as their own narrative and strike out to be the authors of their own life. After reading bout Chirlaine and watching Love in the City, I started thinking about Alice Walker’s, In Search for our Mother’s Gardens.  There is one essay where she talks about what Black women could have been had they not had to be sharecroppers, or maids, or servants while racism and Jim Crow tried to destroy their spirits and their minds. To me Chirlaine and Chenoa are artists who were able to defy the story that others had in mind for them to blossom and plant themselves in their own gardens. It took me 44 years to find my garden, I don’t want my girls to wait that long.
But as my kids are still growing and blossoming…I’ll probably still be watching these folks on Love and Hip Hop, Real Housewives of Atlanta,  and Basketball Wives LA act the fool from their wheelchairs, hoping that maybe they’ll reject the narrative too.

But I won’t hold my breath.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Thinking is work...why can't someone pay me for it?

I'm not a slacker.  I'm not lazy. I'm a good person.  I do work. It may not be physical but I work. My brain never turns off. That's work too.

Try thinking about everyone's needs in your house 24/7 plus the two stubborn older folks 500 miles away who don't think they need your help and see if that doesn't constitute work. Then try executing those inside thoughts 24/7.  I do that every day. EVERY DAY.

And some of those thoughts have multiple parts. I can't get to the final step until I write it all down, or make a flow chart like this:
Or my thoughts might require me to go to another department (Milton) and ask for some assistance. But I usually have to have all my powerpoint, excel, and word documents together before I venture to the other department. So I have to think about that too. Usually, I fall asleep while I think about that though.

I use all the tools at my disposal: email, texting, instagram, facebook, twitter, tumblr (even though I don't get it), Pinterest, Google+ and I even have a book of stamps for the occasional letter and if I'm desperate I'll pick up the phone and call folks. All so I can get the job done, or at least think about how to do it well. Sometimes I have to go to Michael's or Staples or Children's Place, or the Pediatrician or hop on a plane to see a neurologist to execute all my thinking. All within a moment's notice, or 10 minutes before a kid has to go to school, or 10 minutes after they get out of school.

Instead of telling folks about where I worked, maybe my resume should just be a listing of scenarios that fit those interview questions.

Blue Cross/Blue Shield: Even though we've taken your money for the month and have messed up your health care and have provided you with no services. We won't prorate your health care payment. Even though you now have a tumor and doctor's office shamed you about not having insurance to take care of said tumor. We feel sad for you, but we're definitely not going to help you.
Mom thinks: I should go ninja on this chick. No, I'll wait patiently to see what happens.
Mom executes: Speaks to customer service person in a professional and measured tone. Thanks her for her help (while husband is on the other side of the room shouting talking points) even though she refers me to another person to call after being on the phone with her for an hour. Instead of crying I instead decide to begin the quest for better health in a holistic and organic way that excludes my doctor and her asshole nurse. Then I go to Ihop with other department head (Milton) for some French Toast.

Job description: Presenting optimistic behavior and language in order to teach others while engaging in leadership skills to create positive outcomes.

Kid declares: I don't have enough shorts, I'll wear these really heavy jeans in 90 degree weather.
Mom thinks: that's not a good idea. Sweaty pre-teen plus heavy pants equals stinky person. Mom instead puts her own needs off, moves money from one account to another.
Mom executes: Bing, Bang, Boom, mom is in Target  pushing a cart. Buys shorts, tops, and sports bras. Problem solved.

Job description: Excellent problem solving in a potentially sticky situation

Kid does homework: homework is messy and no one can't read it.
Kid cries, stomps away, doesn't want to do homework over.
Mom thinks: First thought not printable. Second thought: go talk to him.
Mom executes: She says in her not harried or stressed voice that doesn't want to watch Law & Order instead of doing third grade homework. Let's talk about why neat homework is important. They do. He does it.  Mission accomplished. We have smoothies, mom's smoothie has special stuff in it.

Job description: Negotiating with a reluctant client and receiving a desired result.

Kid comes home tells other department head (dad): I have to do a discipline form for my teacher today. I was interrupting during testing.
Mom thinks: I'm pissed. Says a few curse words, calms down. (Mom and teacher are not buddies)
Mom executes: Takes walk with kid finds out what happened. Figures it's an ignorable offense and doesn't dispense more discipline. Moves on.

Job description: Getting along with co-workers to achieve a positive outcome in our common space.

Mom in the Bronx: (Texts) Just letting you know, everything is okay here.
Mom in Raleigh thinking: No it's not.  She's texting me so I don't ask too many questions.
Mom in Raleigh executes: Calls mom in the Bronx. "Hey mom.  What's going on with you and dad?" Two hours later, not sure if I wanted to know everything that was going on, but glad that all my questions were answered, and Dad had his Big Mac.

Job description: Finding an alternative solution to a difficult and uncomfortable situation without costing either parties any money.

If jobs accepted this sort of resume, I'd already be working.

(Back to self-imposed break)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Miss Betty-A Love List

The picture to the right is of me and mom circa 1972. I was almost 2.

I found the picture in a pile of other pictures I had asked mom to send me for an assignment I had in my memoir class. I asked her to send me pictures of our family on vacation. She sent me about 40 pictures of lions, tigers, and monkeys (we did a lot of Great Adventure Safari in New Jersey on our Summer vacations), the rest were pictures of relatives and cars, but this was the only picture of the both of us together.

It was hidden between a picture of my dad's burgundy Cadillac and some monkeys on the New Jersey Serengeti.

Of course I don't remember the picture, but the pose is familiar and comforting. My mom holding my hand, and both of us looking in the same far off direction. We've always looked in the same direction my entire life. The problem is that we don't always see the same thing. Which is why...

I don’t write stories about my mother.

One, because she and I are too much alike, writing about the things I don’t like about her would mean I’d be writing about the things I don't like about myself.  And it might also mean I'm more like her than I'd care to admit. I’m not ready for that type of self-reflection…no daughter ever really is.

Secondly, she doesn’t like me telling her business to folks. Her direct quote is. “Everyone doesn’t need to know my business.  That’s how folks get killed by Axe Murderers.”  Um...okay.

But this Mother’s Day I’m going to go against all my inner shouting and the possible shouting I’ll receive from her once she reads this, and go on and talk about Miss Betty or as I call her...Ma.

Here are some list-worthy thoughts about her:

1.     She writes lots of lists.  I inherited this affliction from her. She writes lots and lots of lists. There are lists on napkins, toilet tissues, backs of envelopes, fronts of envelopes. If it’s a piece of paper and Miss Betty has a pen she’s going to write a list. Grocery, to-do, children’s names in the family, Christmas lists, QVC stuff, Macys’s stuff, budget line items, more family names , subway lines in New York City, states in the Union; doesn’t matter. If there are more than two things that relate, my mother will write a list about them. (She writes so many lists that my kids sent her a mug with a bunch of list pads for Mother’s day this year.)

2.     She will forget lots of things, but won’t forget that her leg has never been the same since she was pregnant with me.   44 years later whenever it rains, snows, sleets, or the wind blows too hard her leg hurts. She has no problem texting me (NYC to Raleigh, NC) and saying, “You know, my leg has never been the same since I had you.”  My retort, “Really, Mom?  Really?”

3.     She’s great in an Emergency.  No matter what the emergency, my mother is calm. She just wants the facts and then she puts a plan together. Whether it’s “Hey mom, our landlord is throwing us out of our beautiful home, can all five of us stay with you? Or, “Everyone is coming to your house for dinner in a hour and no one eats pork”  She’s able to put out cots, go to Pathmark for supplies, sometime passes a few bills to the afflicted, and defrosts a chicken in no time flat.  Of course that always leaves me wondering why I can’t get spaghetti out of the box, or money out of the ATM without transferring .67 to make a full twenty.

4.     She adores her grandchildren. I know, every grandma does. Or at least they know how to fake it real well. But my mom didn’t let me sit on the furniture when it had plastic on it. Her reason,“You never know who may stop by.”  Now my children walk on the sofa with abandon, leave a trail of crumbs from the kitchen to the bedroom, and sit in the crook of her arm while I give them the dirty eye for running to Ne-Ne before I got to their butts.  My mother’s favorite line, “Aww, they’re just babies.”  “Really Mom?  One of them is 12!”

5.     She’s brilliant. There’s no subject my mother isn’t engaged in: sports, current events, fashion, entertainment, gossip, Oprah, power steering, baby rearing and American History.  Mostly because she’s passionate about everything she does, she takes in knowledge and makes it personal. My mother doesn’t know the adage, “It’s not personal.” For my mother, the political was personal way before anyone told her it was cool to think that way.  It’s gotten us into some tough waters when it comes to our relationship. I’ve often confused her passion as a rejection of my own beliefs. But now I see that our relationship is one of the few safe havens where she can be herself and say what she likes. I enjoy (sometimes) hearing her opinion on economic disparity in the U.S. as well as “the trainwreck that is Kim and Kanye.”  Mom believes “Beyonce is never going to accept Kim Kardashian as her bestie. She needs to let that one go.”  “Yes Ma, of course you're right”

6.     She’s my Hero. When I was 16 my mom came home from work pissed. She had been an LPN at her hospital my entire life, but she couldn’t move up in her career. Her friends told her to let the anger go and just accept being an LPN.  She couldn’t. So she went back to school.  The first year was agonizing. She struggled through the math, and chemistry that she had to pass in order to move into the stuff she loved. She cried, threatened to leave school, and then went back to the books, even after having had only a few hours of sleep. My dad would drive her around after class and buy her an ice cream cone. (It was his way of saying he loved her and it’d be alright).  When I was 21 she graduated Magna Cum Laude from college with her RN degree. No one else in her crew even attempted to go back to school.  She's the reason I'm doing what I'm doing now. I love lots of historical folks, but no one comes close to my mom when it comes to heroics.

7.     She’s my model for compassion.  She took care of her aunt who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. She made sure she was in a good facility. She visited her once a week, brought her cigarettes, candy, new pajamas, and housecoats. Mom took care of all her finances, and when the time came she buried her next to her family members. Before she started to take care of her, she hadn’t seen her aunt in over 20 years.  After she died, my mother told me that she was the only relative that had taken them in unconditionally when they came up from the South. She never made fun of their accents, she made them feel at home, and doted on my mom, uncle, and aunt.  She said to me, “How could I not take care of her, when she had loved me so unconditionally?” My mom wrote the book on kindness.

8.     She loves my dad.  For years I was never really sure if they loved one another. I had the television, Harlequin romance version of love in my head and I didn’t know what love looked like. I knew they liked each other, but love? Nah, they didn't have it. They didn’t kiss goodbye, or hold hands, or snuggle on the couch. If they weren't in love, what were they in? I had no idea.  If I didn’t learn when I married Milt was love was, I sure know what love looks like through the transition of my parents’ relationship now.  Alzheimer’s disease is a nasty, nasty thing. The man we knew as my dad is all but gone now. But I’ve seen her fight against losing him with grace, humor and a lot of grit.  We fight about the direction we want Dad to go in, but ultimately we do it out of love. She loves him, he loves her, and I love them both.

9.     She’s the one who hooked me on books.  She wasn’t sure if I’d go to Europe or Africa or reach Mt. Everest or be an activist First Lady or President. But she knew that the more books I crammed into my brain the more places I’d go in my imagination. And that my imagination would unlock the potential for me to actually go and do those things. She was right.  Our home has always been a place where books lived.  African American biographies lined the shelves, with nods to important fiction and serious non-fiction.  The Souls of Black Folks, sat next to For Colored Girls who Considered Suicide when the Rainbow isn’t Enuf.  Tar Baby sat next to Soul on Ice and Why we Can’t Wait.  When I asked her why she didn’t have the Feminine Mystique on her shelf she replied, “Betty Friedan didn’t know a damn thing about me then, and she doesn’t now. I have way more in common with the woman who cleans house for her.” Needless to say, I have yet to read the Feminine Mystique.

The list is far from complete. There’s nothing about her sacrifice for me to go to school, or the lecture she gave when I flunked out. Or the tears in her eyes when I told her she was going to be a grandmother for the first, second, and third time. Or how she defines the word friend for folks she's known her entire life. Or how important all her family is to her.

She’s a remarkable woman. And like many remarkable women she is misunderstood, criticized, maligned and laughed at behind her back. She knows folks do it. But, she always has the last word.

Of course I hate that about her...but only because I want the last word too.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

First there was Ernest (Some fiction) a first draft

First there was Ernest.

He told her to keep her talking and writing to herself.

“Stop all that cussing, preaching, and truth shit.  You’re a match in a snatch of timbers. Keep quiet. Keep low. Or you might end up dead.”

“Or free,” she countered

“No money in freedom.”

“Well, I’ve always been poor.”

“Yeah, but at least you been breathing.”

Damn that Ernest.

Next time she’d walk home instead of getting in his pickup. But it was so hot, it was North Carolina, and it was Ernest. Ernest, who she had lusted over for a summer before New Haven and who she wanted to be at least her third. Her memory of longing was so strong she had floated into that pickup, and hoped for something, a brush of his hand on her thigh, a touch of a cheek…any cheek. A long kiss. Until she found out he was a messenger for the rest of them, not the quick piece she thought he’d be.  Damn that Ernest.

Ernest yelled something to her back as she climbed out that truck and walked to the door. Whatever he said made her run to the bathroom. As the bathroom door slammed she threw up all that lemon cake from the Frog cafĂ©.  It had tasted so good going down. Now...well.

With the cake came  all the curse words, revolutionary words and “smart” words she wanted to say to him, and the rest of them in that town. She had stuff to say. Good stuff. She had a right to say it. Her words travelled freely from her cerebellum to her tongue and fingers and made themselves comfortable wherever they wanted to.  She had to let the words come. She had to. She’d die if she couldn’t.

But they didn’t want her to. This town. Her town. They all wanted her to stop. Ernest had fired that first bullet at her thoughts, at her convictions, at all that damn education she had plastered on the wall of the room she grew up in. Goddamn them.

The dry familiar taste started to take hold in her mouth. She pulled herself up by the edge of the toilet and steadied herself on the sink. She grabbed the toothbrush, and then looked up in the mirror and didn’t recognize the person looking back at her.  The mirror had never made her look flattering, but at least she knew every morning who the hell was in it.  Now she wasn’t sure.

Her nose seemed to have narrowed. Her cheeks had become hollowed, her arms had become stringy. All in the matter of a few minutes of vomiting, her shirt now billowed around her stomach and her pants suddenly fell to her ankles. Some Stephen King shit was happening, except there wasn’t any pie.

An apparition looked back at her from the mirror. An apparition. Her 340 pounds had whittled down to 100 pounds in a matter of minutes, all because she had not slammed the pickup door fast enough. Ernest’s words had done what they had intended.

She was no longer full of herself.