Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Ladies First

"I believe that when women succeed, America succeeds!"  
~ President Barack Obama during his 2014 State of the Union Address

Recently, I had the privilege of enjoying lunch at a local diner on a snowy Saturday afternoon with my daughter and granddaughter. It was a blustery day, and the diner was nearly empty due to the snowstorm outside. We slid into a booth near a window and took full advantage of having our waitress' undivided attention. While we enjoyed a nice meal and some good conversation, little Madison sat coloring a picture. Times like that are so precious to me. I adore all of my children. But, there is something so wonderful about the bond between a mother and daughter (and now a granddaughter). The bond that I share with my two sons is unmistakable. But there's no question that my only daughter holds a special place in my heart that is all her own. As we chatted, I marveled at the fact that she has grown up so much over the past couple of years. She is a mother, a wife, an employee, a sorority sister, and so much more. I'm proud of the woman that she's becoming, and equally proud of the excellent example she is setting for her own little girl. 

We discussed an idea that she had a few years ago, before motherhood and wedded bliss entered the equation. The idea was to impact young girls through a mentoring program. I told her that I strongly believe that if the women in society change, the whole society will fall in line. If you can change the minds of women, the men will follow suit. For example, if every woman decided that we require men to treat us with respect, the men would open more doors, pull out more chairs, and be more chivalrous. But as long as we tolerate, "Yo, yo, ma! Let me talk to you.", the disrespect will continue. She agreed. After all, even "relationship expert" Steve Harvey asserts that men only do what women let them get away with doing. And most of what men do to achieve success - getting jobs, driving fancy cars, grooming themselves, buying nice clothes - is done for the purpose of attracting women. Even the devil himself approached the woman in the Garden of Eden, aware that if he could get her to do his bidding, the man would follow suit. 

Somewhere along the line, women have gotten it twisted. Ladylike, poised, elegant women became nearly extinct, while a generation of twerking, half-naked, loud and vulgar females desperate for attention multiplied. I turn my television to VH1 Classics and watch Whitney Houston sit on a chair wearing a turtleneck, and singing her heart out. I watch Sade, dressed modestly, belt out her tunes. I see Queen Latifah dressed like royalty as she raps about U.N.I.T.Y.  Then, I turn my television to BET or MTV, and I see Nikki Minaj wearing a platinum blonde wig, a cut-out bathing suit, and little else as she raps poolside. I see Miley doing all kinds of f*ckery involving a foam finger. I see Rihanna doing a strip routine that makes even ME blush (and I write some pretty racy scenes in my novels, so making me blush is no easy task!). I see even our beloved Beyonce rolling around in the sand while singing about riding her man like a surfboard. When I step outside of my house, I see young girls imitating all three women in varying degrees. 

While I can't knock these artists for doing what they do to make a living, I can't help but notice that there are plenty of positive examples to choose from. For whatever reason, there aren't many young girls modelng themselves after Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton, or Michelle Obama. There aren't many girls striving to be the next Gabby Douglas, Jennifer Hudson, or Emma Watson. Those stars, all of whom possess phenomenal talent, just don't get as much shine as the rump shakers. Wonder why that is. 

So, as I sat with my daughter and granddaughter discussing the state of emergency that's taking place among young girls, we decided that it's time to do something about it. Talk is cheap. We agreed that we could sit there all afternoon citing example after example of young ladies with potential who were being swept away up in a climate where video vixens and porn stars are rewarded with TV shows in primetime. So we set a plan into action right then and there. 

For the next hour, as the waitress refilled our glasses and checked on us from time to time, we sat there in that diner and mapped out a course of action. We agreed that the young men need help, too. But the odds of young guys listening to two pint-sized ladies lecturing them about life are slim to none. Our focus is on the girls. Girls like me who were teen moms. Girls like my daughter Ashley, who rebelled against...everything until she got it out of her system. Girls like the ones whose Facebook posts scream, "LOOK AT ME!", when all they really want is for someone to validate them. Over the next few weeks and months, we'll put our plan into action, in the hopes that we can reach even one young lady and help her change the course of her life before its too late. Because what Hollywood doesn't tell them is that it may be "cool" to be Kim Kardashian in the celebrity world. But if you're just an average Jane, and you've got the same number of notches on your belt as Kim does, you're going to be labeled as a garden tool. And the men won't be fighting to defend your honor as much as they'll be putting you down. 

Having a daughter in her twenties is a constant reminder of the generation gap. Every generation has one. My mother and her peers would sit around and shake their heads at us as we rapped along with Lil Kim. Now my girlfriends and I shake our heads as we watch young ladies nowadays making spectacles of themselves in an age of social networking. But head shaking isn't enough. It's time to do something. So, we are leading the charge to reclaim dignity among young women. In the next few weeks and months, we will be putting our plan into action. We believe that is the first step in changing the course of an entire generation. 

I'm challenging all of you who are reading this blog post to start right where you are. Maybe you don't have the time to start a whole new organization. But, you can make a difference in one young lady's life in your family or community. The next time you see a ratchet Facebook post, instead of gossiping about it, DO SOMETHING about it. Send a private message to that young lady and gently correct her. Offer her another way to get the attention she desires. It takes a village, after all. 

As our president pointed out in his State of the Union address, when women succeed, America succeeds. Let's make a conscious effort to remind the girls in our midst that they are powerful. They are queens. They deserve respect and chivalry. They are worthy of love. But they must love themselves first. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Middle

When we get to the middle of anything, it's a big deal! By the middle of a meal, we're familiar with what everything tastes like, and we know what we like and what we don't like. By the middle of a book or a film, we are familiar with the characters and the plot, and we're usually completely engrossed in the story. By the middle of a social gathering, the guests have familiarized themselves with one another, gotten comfortable, and they begin to let their hair down and have a good time. The same holds true for reaching the middle of life. By the time we reach our forties and fifties, we have learned the ropes for the most part. We know what we like and what we don't like; we've familiarized ourselves with all types of characters and we should be comfortable by now in our own skin. This is the point where we should be in a position to let our hair down, and hit our stride. In The Middle, we have gained a substantial amount of wisdom, and we should still have enough pep left in us to make the most of the remainder of our years.

Childhood is the time for learning the basics - walking, talking, eating without making a mess, coloring inside the lines.  Once we have mastered these things, we move into our adolescent and teen years. That's where the lessons get a little harder. We learn how to get along with others, how to resolve disputes and handle peer pressure, and we have our first experiences with love and relationships. Our twenties are spent learning how to wield our power without causing mass destruction. We learn how to be independent, and how to work and provide for ourselves. We learn how to handle ourselves on job interviews, and how to navigate adult relationships. Our thirties are when we're at our best. We're still young enough to have FUN, but we're old enough to know when we're going too far. Our focus begins to shift from keeping up with the Joneses to establishing and maintaining good credit. We're more enticed by a wonderful tropical vacation than by the newest Louis bag. Marriage, children, and career success are at the forefront of our minds. And we begin to see the wisdom in the things our mothers used to tell us. It's as if we've shed the rose-colored glasses through which we once viewed the world. And for the first time in our lives, we begin to see things clearly. 

By the time we reach the milestone age of 40, I believe there are some things we should know. There are lessons we should have learned by now, experiences we should have had by this point. In order for us to make the most of the second half of our lives, we have to assess what occurred to us during the first half, and make peace with it. Now that we've reached The Middle, we should have a more intimate knowledge of ourselves, and have a healthy dose of self esteem to carry us the rest of the way. As I approach my 40th birthday, I've been self-evaluating more than ever, and these are the things I believe we should have mastered by the time we reach The Middle. 

Trusting our instincts  We spend a lot of time second guessing ourselves in our youth. Do we want to wear this or that? Do we want to go here or there? Should I go out with him or not? Should I break up with her or not?  In my younger years, I would often dismiss that sixth sense that nagged at me when I encountered certain people. I pushed my reservations aside and moved forward with people even when the alarm in my head was loudly blaring, "RUN!". I convinced myself that I was just being overly suspicious or skeptical. But now I know the value of discernment. I don't just go around disliking people for no reason. But, now if the voice in my head warns me to keep my guard up around particular individuals, I'm wise enough to listen. I may not be able to avoid them altogether, but you can bet that my antennas are up, and I'm on alert. The older I get, the more I trust myself. 

How to spend time alone  One of the things that still utterly baffles me is encountering people in my age group who don't ever like to be by themselves. It is incredible to me that many people over the age of 40 have not learned to enjoy their own company. During their commute, they look around for someone - anyone! - to talk to. They pick up their cell phone to have the most mundane conversations just to avoid sitting alone with their own thoughts. They won't go to an event or even to the corner store unless someone goes with them. When they are forced to be alone, they grow anxious and even afraid! They just have not found the courage to spend time by themselves. I have encountered women who won't take an exercise class they've been eager to try unless someone else goes along with them. If I had waited around for some company whenever I wanted to do something exciting, my life would not be nearly as rich as it has been so far. By The Middle, we should be more comfortable in our own skin and we should look forward to those moments of "me-time". No one wants to be alone 100% of the time. But, some solitude is necessary for all of us every now and then. The need to be surrounded by people 24/7 is, in my opinion, an indication that you don't like yourself. And if you don't like spending time with you, why should I?

How to end a friendship  When I was younger, I used to expect that my friends and I would be old ladies together, sitting in our rocking chairs telling dirty jokes. The reality is that sometimes we outgrow our friends, or they may outgrow us. Things fall apart. And when a friendship has run its course, there's a mature way to handle it. Contrary to what reality TV would have us think, there is a healthy and adult way to sever ties without causing irreparable damage. Name calling, physical violence, or sullying one another's reputation should not occur when two individuals in their 40s and beyond are going their separate ways. Instead, by now we should have learned how to effectively communicate with one another. And we should also know how to be honest with ourselves and accept when a friendship has run its course. This goes hand in hand with trusting our instincts. 

How to resolve differences like an adult  While talking with my (adult) "kids" recently, they asked me if I thought I could hypothetically win a fight against a lady in our neighborhood. We all laughed at the thought of it. I found it particularly comical because I would never dream of getting into a physical altercation with anyone at this point in my life. If I did, the situation would have to be EXTREME! I answered them by saying, "She could probably kick my a$$ in a physical fight. But in an argument, I would verbally annihilate her!"  By The Middle, we should know how to use our words to effectively communicate with one another. The younger me may have been ready to fight if I was disrespected. The wiser me has learned that that's not necessary. In fact, if the other party is particularly belligerent, I won't even waste my time arguing with them. A wise man once said, "Never argue with a fool, because from a distance people can't tell who is who." So if the opposing party is an idiot, I walk away and leave them to their idiocy. Otherwise, I'm verbally adept enough to get my point across without resorting to "hoodrat" behavior.

Knowing what we won't tolerate  By The Middle, we should be clear on what we will and will not tolerate from people. Whether it's a friend, coworker, one of our children, a spouse, or a potential mate, we have to have clear boundaries. One of the marks of a mature woman is her ability to say no without apology. Younger women tend to be pleasers, always eager for approval and validation. But older and wiser women don't care who may be offended. They make their preferences known and are unapologetic about wanting what they want when they want it. Life is too short to put up with less than we deserve. Sadly, some people are so determined not to be alone (see 'How to spend time alone') that they tolerate much, much more than they ought to. 

How to be a good listener  Women LOVE to talk! With all of the emotions we wrestle with on a daily basis, it's no wonder that we chatter on and on whenever we get together. Once we feel comfortable with one another, it's very easy to speak freely about what's on our hearts and minds. But by the time we reach The Middle, we should learn how to take the word "I" and put it on the shelf long enough to lend an ear to a friend when they need it. Sometimes people don't want to hear about what happened to you, or that you had a similar experience. Instead of feedback, all they want is a sounding board - someone to hear them without interrupting and adding our own drama to the mix. There is something so valuable and treasured about a good listener. Being one makes it more likely that people will return the favor when you need it.

How to embody "Grown & Sexy"  You know what I hate? When I'm going out with a group of women (WOMEN, not girls), and one of them calls and asks, "What are you wearing?"

Maybe as young ladies, we were unsure what attire is appropriate for certain events. But as grown women, we should know what the occasion calls for.  If you and the ladies are heading out for a night on the town, it shouldn't matter if your friend is planning to wear a dress, hot pants or a catsuit. That's her business. Her outfit choice will reflect her style. You should have your own style, and what you put on should reflect your own unique aesthetic. We're too mature for the "let's dress alike" thing. So do you! A mature woman in The Middle should know what to wear to a cocktail party, a wine tasting, a brunch, a wedding, or any other event that comes across her social calendar. When an invitation calls for us to dress "grown and sexy", we shouldn't have to call the promoter for clarification. In fact, we should instinctively know that flip-flops, sneakers or Timberlands are NOT what anyone would describe as grown or sexy. Once we've reached The Middle, we ought to know what's appropriate and what's not.

How to laugh at ourselves  Pride. It's a gift and a curse. On the positive side, pride in one's accomplishments, surroundings, and appearance are great qualities to have. On the negative side, pride can build a wall between us and the people we love if we're not careful. One of attributes of which I'm most proud is my ability to laugh at myself. It wasn't something I knew instinctively. When I was a little girl, the other kids made fun of me for being short. It used to upset me until my father pointed out that I am short, and there's really nothing that I could do to change it. Once I accepted it, I was able to stop taking it personally. It made it easier to laugh along when the joke was truly funny. I learned to embrace the nicknames (Small Change, Shorty Doo Wop, Half Pint, etc) and I learned not to take myself so seriously. Thankfully, it was a lesson I learned early in life. But there are many adults who still suffer from such low self esteem that they can't take a joke. By The Middle, we shouldn't be so uptight anymore. Being lighthearted is an attribute that people gravitate toward, and the ability to laugh at ourselves is a sign of a healthy self image.

The good news is that The Middle is a great place to change direction. If we're not happy with the way we're going, we can change course. If we haven't achieved the level of self awareness and self love that we ought to, it's not too late to fix that. The first half of anything is a learning experience. Life is no different. By The Middle, we are becoming pros at it, gaining more expertise with each passing day. Growing, learning, evolving, and loving every minute of it. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Fear of "I Told You So"

First of all, HAPPY NEW YEAR!!! Thank you  for your patience while I took a bit of a hiatus to regroup, finish my latest novel, and enjoy the holidays with my family. I'm back, and 2014 is going to be my best blogging year yet! :) So buckle up and get ready for my thoughts on a wide range of topics. Today's topic is one that I've been mulling over all week. Grab your cup of coffee, tea, or your adult beverage of choice, pull up a chair, and enjoy my first blog post of the new year.

Everyone who knows me is aware of my love/hate relationship with reality TV. Part of me loves the salacious and passionate exchanges between those who star on these shows. But part of me has grown weary of the high "rachet" factor.

(Sidebar: Rachet (adj.) - (wretched in the Afro-American derivation of the English language)  The word means ghetto, trashy)

It gets annoying to watch the same storyline play out on different shows. (The formula is Man + main girlfriend + side chick ÷ fighting between main girlfriend + side chick = ratings gold) Either there's a ghetto love triangle, or there's a bullying situation resulting in physical violence, or there's a ridiculous amount of money being spent by people who are eager to flaunt their gluttonous ways. It's the reason I don't watch Love & Hip Hop, Bad Girls Club, Basketball Wives, or the Kardashians. But, there are a few shows that have survived the cut. They are my guilty pleasures. The Real Housewives of Atlanta (and the Beverly Hills installment as well) are two of the ones that I still watch. Over the years, I have gotten to know the ladies so well that they are "friends in my head", to borrow a line from Wendy Williams.

We have Nene Leakes, the boisterous, pot-stirring, in-your-face sister with the larger than life personality. Kandi Burruss is the super successful musician and songwriter, who is very unlucky in love. Cynthia Bailey is the former model with a gorgeous face, fierce body, and no backbone. Phaedra Parks is a big time "southern belle" attorney (who can't ever seem to win a case). Add to that a supporting cast of crazies, and the show gets even zanier. Admittedly, I get all my housework done by 8pm on Sunday nights and I shut my bedroom door and grab a glass of wine. Then I sit down and kick it with the ladies from Atlanta. And this season, they have given me so MUCH to think about. There's so much material to work with this season that I could write a dozen blogs about all of the drama going on in ATL! Before this season ends, I'm sure that I will tackle Kandi's unhealthy codependency and her mother's manipulative and self-serving antics. I'm sure that I will address the rise in popularity of Nene Leakes, her lofty demeanor, and her controversial comments. ("Ugh! This is sooooo ghetto!) And, Lord knows that coo-coo Kenya Moore and childish Porsha Stewart are worthy of their own blog posts. But, this time my focus is on a situation playing out in the life of Cynthia Bailey. And there are four words that come to mind every time I see her face.

Let me give you a brief synopsis of her back-story.

Cynthia joined the cast of the show in its third season. She was a top model back in the day, and is the single mother of a little girl (the child's father is sexy actor Leon Robinson). Cynthia had been living in NY, but was moving to Atlanta so that she could marry Peter Thomas. Cynthia was described as a "runaway bride" who was scared of commitment. She had been in relationships with Russell Simmons, and with basketball player Jayson Williams.  Her storyline was "Will she go through with it?"; "Will Peter have what it takes to tame the runaway bride?". But that soon proved to be the least of Cynthia's worries. Peter was not doing well financially. Suddenly, Cynthia's money was the main source of revenue for them, and she was sick of footing the bill all of the time. As the wedding date neared, the couple was scrambling to find money to pay for everything. And Cynthia's mother and sister were contemplating whether or not they should hide the couple's marriage license to prevent the union from being legal. They were worried that Peter was not the right man for Cynthia; that his problems with money - mainly Cynthia's money - was a cause for concern.

Viewers watched as Cynthia stuck by her man and married Peter in an elaborate ceremony, despite her family's warnings. But by the following season, Peter's business - a restaurant called Uptown Lounge -  had failed. A considerable chunk of Cynthia's money had gone into the failed business. Cynthia's mother and sister were giving serious side-eye, and making their displeasure very well known. But, Peter was unfazed. He took another large portion of Cynthia's money and opened Bar One, a smaller bar and lounge. However, this season here we are again. Peter's bar is facing foreclosure, and despite that grim set of circumstances, he has still purchased a building (in which Cynthia now operates The Bailey Agency School of Fashion) and an $80,000 car without even discussing either purchase with his wife first.

Now this is where it gets interesting. This season, Peter is complaining that his wife isn't giving it up in the bedroom like he wants. In his opinion, she's working too hard. She's also dealing with a health-related issue, causing her libido to suffer even more. Peter has been loud, mean (telling his wife, "you do look pregnant" as she battles fibroid tumors in her uterus), insensitive, and brash this season. Whenever she brings up his financial improprieties, he flips out, cursing, yelling and pacing around menacingly. He has expressed his desire for a "man cave". No, not the basement room that many men have in their homes to use as an escape from the women in the house. Peter wants a whole separate apartment that he can use as his "man cave". Despite the financial problems that keep Cynthia up at night, Peter remarked to his fellow "Real Husband" Apollo that, "I started to get the Aston Martin instead [of the Mercedes Benz], but I got this." Ignoring his vows to stay true to Cynthia in sickness and in health, Peter admits that if she hadn't had surgery to correct the fibroids and restore her sex drive, he and his boys were heading out of town so that he could cheat on his wife discreetly. Adding fuel to the fire, Cynthia's sister meddling Mallory is back and she has announced that she is going to move in with the couple for the next two months.

Recipe for disaster.

As I munch on my snacks and sip my wine, I'm riveted by the drama. Whenever I find myself this engrossed in a storyline, I try to psychoanalyze the people involved. What's Peter's problem?, I wonder. Why is her family so meddlesome? Is her family saying all of the things that she isn't brave enough to say herself?  Why is Cynthia still with this jerk?  And I now have a theory about it: Cynthia is determined to make her marriage work so that she doesn't have to hear those dreaded words from her family. "I told you so."

No one likes to be on the receiving end of this sentence. We all want to prove the naysayers wrong. We want to defy the odds. I went through a similar situation with a so called "relationship" I was in several years ago. In retrospect, I was the only one in the relationship. But I couldn't see that at the time. Then, my father voiced his unsolicited opinion that the whole thing was doomed from the start. I was defiant. I would prove him wrong. My situation was different, I insisted. I would show him! Of course, he was right. I wasn't sure if I was more upset about the failed "relationship" or about the fact that I would have to go back to my Dad with my tail between my legs and admit that he had been right all along. It took me so long to get up the guts to admit the truth to him. But when I did, his only response was a knowing smile, a slight shake of the head, and a pat on the back. "It's alright," he said. "His loss."  That was it. Not the long, drawn out "I told you so" speech that I was expecting. Still, the sting of having to acknowledge that I had been warned and I still fell flat on my face was painful.

I see that same thing playing out in Cynthia's life. Let's be honest. Not just in Cynthia's life. In many lives going on around us every day. People hold on - to that job that's heading nowhere, or that (wo)man who's no good, or that house we can't afford, or that car, that business, etc. - just to avoid having to hear someone say, "I told you so." We present an image to the world that we've got it going on. Our homes, cars, kids, jobs, relationships, credit, cash flow...everything is going GREAT! And we fight tooth and nail to maintain that image. God forbid anyone should know that we're secretly worried about XYZ, or that the thing that seems so "picture perfect" to the world is really just a mirage. I believe that we've all been guilty of it at one time or another. That desire to defy the odds, to prove the world wrong, or to just save face has kept many of us spinning our wheels in dead end relationships and even friendships for years!

"The People". That's the phrase an old friend of mine would often use. Her mother was always worried about "The People". What will "The People" say if they find out that my child is less than perfect? We can't let "The People" find out that our marriage isn't really happily ever after. Don't go out there telling "The People" our personal family business.  In fact, churches are filled each and every Sunday with those who put on a show for "The People", worrying about which hat to wear, which shoes, running to the nail salon, the hair salon, and buying new suits just to praise the Lord! If church folk are worried about what "The People" think, you know the average Joe and Jane are even more pressed to keep up appearances.

It makes me sad for Cynthia, and for others like her. And it makes me grateful that I let go of my worries over what people may think about the goings on in my life. None of us lives a perfect life. And, while no relationship is 100% wonderful 100% of the time, I think it's vital that we learn to cut our losses before we allow doomed involvements to do irreparable damage to our emotional health. Why stay in a situation just to avoid having to hear "I told you so"? Take that experience and chalk it up as a lesson learned.

As I tune in for the remainder of the season, I'm hopeful that Cynthia will face the truth about the state of her marriage. It's a hard truth. Peter doesn't respect her. He wants to appear to be the "man" in their family, but he spends money like a little boy who can't wait to blow his allowance. He's arrogant and condescending toward her - and that's when the cameras are rolling! I can't imagine how he must talk to her when her sister and the Bravo TV cameras are not around. Peter has big dreams, but no solid plans for how to make them come true. He sees something he wants - a building, a car, a new business - and he gets it, even when he's using his wife's money to pay for it. And to add insult to injury, he doesn't even bother to discuss it with her first. But, here's the best part: she allows it. She barely says a word. All because she's worried about saving face in front of "The People", and in her case "The People" are her mother and sister. The very people who will no doubt be there to help her wipe the tears and pick up the pieces when this farce inevitably falls apart.

Let 2014 be the year we stop worrying about "I told you so" and start chalking our experiences up to "Lessons learned". After all, life goes on, and the goal is to grow in the process. Growth often involves growing pains. But that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger.

And "I told you so" ain't never killed nobody.