Forgive my impertinence bringing up a long-ago pop culture moment as the fate of our nature is hanging in the balance – and if you don’t believe that you aren’t paying attention.
But I am reminded, in this bleak time, of an episode of “Project Runway” from way back in 2006, which seems like a fairyland in the sky compared to now. A contestant named Kara was having a freak-out during a partner challenge, which was taking up valuable time from the work she and partner Zulema had to design. I don’t think there’s one person who hasn’t been faced with enormous pressure and felt like curling up on the floor surrounded by all the ice cream and wine and sobbing. All of the sobs.
Kara was having one of those moments, and Zulema, who hadn’t signed onto this show to be a therapist, figured out a way to acknowledge Kara’s frustrations while keeping it moving. “You’re gonna cry,” she said, “AND CUT.”
In other words, cry all the tears you have to cry, get in them feelings and let it out, but only if you can do that while cutting fabric and making a pretty outfit and not making me have to deal with Michael Kors’ efforts to be clever while crushing my dreams.
And this is where we find ourselves. We’re in a pandemic. We have elections coming up. The West Coast is burning. Our heroes our dying. Shenanigans are afoot. Racists abound. It’s not good here. We are scared. We should be scared. And it would seem appropriate to panic, give up, sob and flee to Canada. However, Canada doesn’t currently want us, so that’s not an option.
I want to cry – I have cried. But I know that sinking into despair doesn’t lead to much more than more despair and a very wet shirt. What we can do is to let that fear, sadness and anger turn into action. We must vote. We must raise awareness and use our voices and pain to inform each other. We must check in on each other and raise ourselves up. We have a choice to make about what kind of country we want to be, what kind of people we want to be.
Grief is tiring, strength-sucking and awful. But if we are going to survive, we have to gather the shards and make them into something. We have to rest when we must, feel our feelings and name them.
I meant to write something on Tuesday, but waiting gave me something really good to write about – not that it’s not usually good. But this is gooood. It’s about Derek Jeter getting into Cooperstown almost unanimously.
This means that everybody but one voter was enthusiastic about the former Yankee being voted into the Hall of Fame on his first-ever ballot. And because the world is the way that it is and people love stupid controversy, a lot of writers are focusing on the .3 percent of the vote he didn’t get, not the 99.7 that he did.
And boy is that relatable! I am happy to say that I am mostly well liked, that as far as I know, the public opinion of me, such as it is, is positive. More than positive. But like most humans, my brain and heart can’t let go of the small portion of attention I get that is negative. Most of the time, it’s racist trolls on the Internet and that’s cool to ignore, because they’re like the guy who booed everybody at the 1990 Zeta Phi Beta “Showtime at the Apollo” show I did at the University of Maryland where I only sang one verse of “When I Fall In Love” so I could get out quick – they exist to boo people and you can’t take that personally.
It is possible that the one voter who didn’t go for Mr. Jeter is a troll, that they’ve gotta be different, that they doesn’t believe in unanimous ballots, because everyone’s gotta work for it. Maybe they’re just a jerk. Or maybe they really don’t think he’s earned it. Which is weird, because…Derek Jeter.
But sometimes we feel how we feel. And I try to remember that in my life – whether it’s readers or critics or co-workers. You are not everybody’s jam. And that’s OK. Even when you’re 99.7 of the people’s jam, you want to close in that number, but you can’t. It’s not realistic.
So what do you do with that? Decide that your worth is based on who you know you are, that your efforts are solid, and that if it’s important to achieve things based on other people’s opinions – like a new job or Miss America or the Hall of Fame, you have to trust that you’ve done enough. That you know who you are and that you are good. When I started pitching my book “Black Widow” I knew that everyone was not going to like it or get it. I got turned down about 15 times before an agent said yes. And we got turned down probably the same amount of times to sell it before two publishing companies made an offer.
What I’m saying is that you can’t sweat everyone not loving you. Even Derek Jeter has said that he doesn’t care who that “no” voter is, and that he’s focusing on being appreciated and voted in and loved. I had a review last week from the notoriously picky Kirkus Review that mostly liked the book but had to mention that “Black Widow” wasn’t “a top-shelf” grief memoir. And you know what? That’s fine. The reviewer’s praise was not complete. But it was solid. I don’t have to be top-shelf. Not everyone needs the Ritz-Carlton. I am happy to be the Courtyard By Marriott of grief memoirs. Comfy, clean and gets it done.
And when we focus more on getting it done than being universally beloved, I believe we get more right.
It’s almost Biblical- whenever two or more Black women, particularly professional ones, are gathered, there is a story about how some idiot assumed them to be the help. Or the intern. Or led with a comment about their hair, body, ethnicity or gender in a conversation that was supposed to be about their career or their achievements.
And because none of us want to go to jail, the story usually never ends with “And then I punched him in the face and told him to stop calling me out of my name,” because society demands that we suck it up with the very grace we are denied and keep moving.
The death of radio personality Don Imus reminded me of that unspoken edict. A decade ago, he and his crew found great humor in calling a group of high-achieving college athletes “nappy-headed hos” and “jigaboos” on the air. I remember watching the coverage, hearing the middle-school giddiness in the hosts’ voices as these repeated these insults created to denigrate women like me. How much fun to say! How clever we are! I remember thinking “These women made their way to the championships, with their grandmothers and teachers and friends watching, and THIS is how they’re being described on national television? This is what they think of us?”
And then I watched Imus’ defenders fall over themselves, as they are doing at his death, to say it was just a joke. Can’t you take a joke? He talks about everyone that way! Rappers did it first! Be mad at them and clean up your own house first! Black comedians said the exact same thing! Why aren’t you mad at them?
First, let me answer those questions: If it was a joke, it was soul-destroying joke punching down at high-achieving women whose only offense was being excellent in a skin y’all found hilarious; Yes, when it’s funny; Doesn’t make it right, doesn’t make it right; I am mad at them and that doesn’t mean y’all need to pile on; we are mad at them too and worry about your own self.
Next, let me say this: The reality of being a black woman is to constantly duck racialized and gendered nonsense and then have to take it lest anyone call you aggressive and full of attitude. It is to achieve great things while being called Affirmative Action hires and then be gaslit and told it never happened. Or not to take it that way. Yes this happens to other people. No we are not talking about them right now.
Imus, who also referred to accomplished journalist Gwen Ifill, who covered the White House and is now on a postal stamp as “the cleaning lady,” apparently loved his family and raised money for cancer children. That’s nice to know. That changes nothing about what he said, how he blithely and thoughtlessly tossed off words that removed the humanity of an apparent countless stream of people because he knew he could couch it as a joke and his listeners were going to approve. That his apology, after which he admitted he knew better and did it anyway, was enough.
It is not enough. Apologizing for something you knew was wrong because you got called on it is not enough. You’re not sorry. You’re caught.
I can’t speak to the number of people who were apparently helped by him, who were mentored by him and who are tributing him for helping their careers. That’s great. That’s your personal Don Imus story. Here’s mine. When I heard those comments, as a black entertainment journalist winning awards in a field where I was constantly told I didn’t belong, I felt seen, as the kids say, but not in a good way. I remember feeling flushed, feeling personally embarrassed, even though he and his crew weren’t talking about me. The point is that they could have been, because if I’d come across their line of sight at a time they were feeling particularly jaunty, there’s no reason to believe they wouldn’t have said the same thing about me.
I am a widow who has buried more people I love than I care to remember, so I will never, ever celebrate someone’s death. Ever. I am not glad that Don Imus is dead, because that’s cruel, and negates his humanity he sought to take from others. But I will say that you can’t ask those who remember to swallow their bitterness and not speak out, to not remind you all that he had no qualms about reducing the Rutgers team and Gwen Ifill to stereotypes, to remind them that no matter how hard you work, no matter how excellent you are, you are still somebody’s nappy-headed ho.
Yesterday morning, a lot of my friends got up and ran a festive Thanksgiving morning turkey trot race, whether it were 5 kilometers or a half-marathon like my fast and fabulous friend Kristi. In the past, I too have donned the running shoes of the determined and carb-adjacent and taken a spin around a road or two in triumph, as well to stave off whatever I was going to eat.
This Thanksgiving, the shoes stayed on the floor and my butt stayed on my couch watching “The Magnificent Seven” remake for the third time in 24 hours. There were years in the past that I would have felt like I was missing out, or slacking, or not keeping up with some standards set I set at a time of healthier knees. But this year, Leslie was perfectly fine chilling. And this morning, before anyone else was up, I got up, retrieved those shoes, and hit the road for my very own 5K, my own personal 3.1 mile race.
It was free. It was in my own neighborhood. And the only person I was racing against was me.
I won against the voices in my head that judged me against other people or against that me with the better knees. I won against the idea that run/walk intervals aren’t good enough (Better Knees Leslie used to judge run/walkers, and she was a jerk for that. Wasn’t her business.) I won against the narcissistic urges that assumed the other walkers and runners were judging me because they were minding their own business and not thinking about me. I won against Better Knees Leslie’s assertions that she used to be faster and would have been embarrassed 10 years ago at this time, forgetting that four years ago when she was grieving and heavy she couldn’t have run even this fast, so shut up.)
I won because I ran because I wanted to, not because I had to, or because I hated myself for what I ate and drank yesterday (Y’all, I do not. Not even for a little bit. Had more for breakfast. Ain’t scared.) I won because I live in a place where you can run in shorts the day after November, where there is sunshine and other people excited for our good fortune.
I won because I ran. And my medal was a bowl of white rice and homemade gravy. What have you done for yourself today that was for you? That brought you joy, that you celebrated yourself for? That was your win?
Imagine that you had a friend – or someone claiming to be your friend – who took every opportunity to remind you and anyone who might think you’re awesome that, well, you’re actually not. For your own good, of course.
Say someone congratulates you on finishing the 10K you’ve been training for, and your “friend” jumps in and says “Well, she finished third from last and she got dusted by like eight old ladies and a guy pushing a stroller with giant triplets, but she thanks you!” Or when a co-worker tells you that it looks like you’ve lost weight, and your “friend” buffalos her way between you to confess that you’re actually fat and, in fact, have just pulled your entire face out of a container of Halo Top. Hey it’s an email list
You know how they say some people can’t take a compliment? Your “friend” intercepts them, wraps them in a big ol’ bow of negativity frosted with a thin layer of plain-spokedness and sweetness, and then lobs them back at your head, all the while explaining that she’s just trying to keep you humble. That you’d be more relatable if you were more self-deprecating, more chill about your accomplishments. You know, so people like you more!
This person, of course, is a bad friend. She sucks. She won’t allow you to luxuriate in the joy of any moment, of any triumph, of any anything, under the guise of keeping you humble. Of not scaring people away. Of not being conceited. Of course, big-headed conceited people exist, but this friend won’t let you own your victories, keeping you small and even managing to make anyone who compliments you feel like an idiot for saying anything. You probably wouldn’t let some chick do this to you.
So why do you do it to yourself?
Vocabulary.com defines a self-deprecating person as someone who “knows her own weaknesses and shortcomings and isn’t afraid to point them out, often in a humorous way.” Seems harmless enough, right? We like people who can laugh at themselves and try to make others more comfortable. It’s even been said that a self-deprecating sense of humor can be a sign of a good leader. But the slope between laughing at oneself and beating oneself up is slippery business, and for women, who are traditionally socialized to believe that our femininity requires humility and a slavish commitment to everyone else’s comfort at the expense of our own, it’s all the more covered in axel grease and banana peels.
As the release of my first book, “Black Widow,” gets closer, more and more people are telling me how cool the prospect of publication is. And I find that even as a 48-year-old woman who knows how hard I’ve worked in the wake of my widowhood and single motherhood, and as a proud survivor in the turbulent world of print journalism, it’s hard not to smile shyly and say “Oh, thank you, but lots of people write books.” WHY WOULD I DO THAT? Do you know how hard and how long I’ve worked on this thing? Do you know how difficult is was to basically stab myself in the gut and bleed that out onto a page? I mean, no one expects me to say that in cocktail conversation, but there’s no reason to act like I jotted it down on a Publix receipt and handed it to my editor along with my shopping list. It was a feat to write it, find an agent, get a deal and now seeing it through to publication. Why do I feel the knee-jerk need to downplay that for some supposed sense of relatability?
Elle.com UK writer Katie O’Malley wrote that her tendency towards self-deprecation was, on the surface, about “vulnerability and authenticity,” as well as a way to point out her own flaws before anyone else can. “But… and it’s a big ‘but’…,” she wrote, “in highlighting our insecurities, putting down our talents, and striving for the laugh instead of congratulation, could we not just be cementing a negative narrative about ourselves? At a certain point, if you call yourself ‘stupid’ enough times, you’ll start to believe it and so will other people.”
In the words of Milli Vanilli, girl, you know it’s true. And it’s hard to stop, once you get going, like a reflex as sharp and as involuntary as if we’d been hit in the knee with one of those little rubber hammers by our doctor. For me, I think that impulse comes from a lot of places. It’s that previously-mentioned societal pressure on women to downplay our awesomeness, an insecurity that dates back to being an awkward, goofy kid with bifocals who didn’t know when to shut up, and even an affinity for self-deprecating comedians, from Joan Rivers to Jeanane Garafolo to Wanda Sykes, who draw laughs from pointing out their own flaws, their aging faces, their dating disasters and other weirdness. Being able to accept and laugh at those things is great, but at what point does it put a stopper in our greatness?
Years ago I asked Barbara Corcoran of real estate empire and “Shark Tank” fame what she might have done differently at the start of her career, and she told me that she “would have learned earlier to take credit for it. You see men — it starts when they’re boys on the playground — who yell ‘I’m king of the mountain’ when they’re just halfway up. Women can have gotten up the mountain, built a house and had to paint the kitchen, and still say ‘I think I’m queen of the mountain?’ I would have owned it sooner.”
Boom. We as humans, particularly as human women, have got to stop believing that it’s somehow unseemly – unladylike, even – to own our own success, whether that’s building a company or building a Hot Wheels track at 5 a.m. on Christmas morning without cursing too loud and waking your kid up. We have to learn to accept praise with a simple “Thank you,” without following it with “…but it wasn’t a big deal.” Better yet, when someone says “That must have been so hard,” we have to learn to say “Yes! Yes it was!” We have to learn to be comfortable with our own awesome.
Otherwise, we’re being bad friends to ourselves. And as we’ve already discussed, no one needs friends like that.
Part of my superpower as a life-long Features writer is relating seemingly random things to each other and writing pithy, moving and meaningful pieces about them. Thus, I’m going to make a connection between hanging out with a group of widows – my people – for the weekend, relationship goals, a fictional minivan murder and Peter Cetera’s gorgeously schmaltzy 1986 masterpiece “The Glory of Love” from “The Karate Kid II.”
Yes, Daniel-San figures prominently into my current love philosophy , just not in the way I thought in 1986 when I was hanging ripped-out glossy “Bop” magazine posters of Ralph Macchio in my locker. Wonders never cease.
So, I watch an NBC show called “Good Girls” about three moms who become a criminal enterprise, and it’s dark and funny in ways that make me feel bad about laughing. That happened in last week’s episode (SPOILER!) when a truly despicable guy was accidentally run down with a minivan by the (sketchy) woman he’d blackmailed into a relationship. The whole thing was set to chorus of “The Glory of Love,” where Mr. Cetera earnestly pledges to be “a man who would fight for your honor” and “the hero that you’re dreaming of.” But everybody here is awful, nobody has any honor, and in the end, the lady becomes her own hero, in a way, by getting rid of the man she was kind of trying to love. It’s super-cynical and mean, and it made me start thinking about my own approach to love.
And no, that doesn’t include running people over with my minivan. I don’t even have a minivan. Or run people over. Y’all can put the phone down.
What I mean is that like a lot of little girls, I grew up loved the idea of a man being willing to fight for me, to selflessly face dragons and wars and evil karate guys to save me, and to keep me safe. I used to and still do wear that Peter Cetera song OUT in the car. Back in the day, I was imagining the handsome man who was going to lay it all on the line for me. Decades later I married my late husband Scott, who was that man, but with a twist. Scott was not a cute young karate guy – he was a chunky middle-aged guy who fought most of his battles with sharply worded emails and calls to people’s managers. But I have no doubt he would have taken off his rings and thrown down for me if necessary. He had my back, in all things, and the thing that seemed most heroic about him is that he knew that I would fight for him, too.
Which is to say he was the hero that I’d been dreaming of, and I was his hero, too. He saw me not as a helpless damsel who needed someone to save him, but as his partner in a mutual, lifelong love story in which we always saved each other.
Then Scott died, and I couldn’t save his life – a thing I’ve had to forgive myself for, because I don’t have time to wallow when the kingdom still needs saving, the rent needs to be paid and this child still needs raising. I thought about that during my annual visit to Camp Widow, a weekend conference of bereaved partners where we try to make sense of the love and life we’ve lost and find the tools to start cobbling together a future that isn’t remotely what we wanted. We’ve all been broken, and are at varying stages of bleeding and scabbing over and slowly healing. These people are my heroes, particularly the ones just months into this awful journey, who somehow cut through the shock, put on shoes and came to a widow convention. That’s miraculous. What I’ve done, I think, is to honor the hero Scott was by making good on his belief in me and getting it done. I am my own hero.
This has extended to what I’m looking for in my next partner. I still want someone who is willing to fight for me. Not for my honor – I can do that. I’ve done that. What I need is a man who’ll fight for my budget by not freeloading, who’ll fight for my mental health by not gaslighting me or dismissing me when it makes him feel better about himself. I need a man who will fight for my career by standing by me and supporting me rather than belittling it because it’s not about him. I need a man who’s impressive enough as an adult, as a father to his own kids and a potential father to mine, to make me look up to him, and to trust him to have my back. I want a man who fights for me and my self-esteem by making me a priority in his life, not a placeholder to make him feel better until something better comes along.
In short, I need a man whose ego doesn’t require someone who needs saving, who sees me as a symbol of his own strength. I can’t do that for you, and you can’t do that for me. I want a partner, not a knight who sees me as a conquest. I fought with Scott, I’ve fought without him and now I need another partner who’ll toss me a sword (or give me space to kick, if we’re going back to our “Karate Kid” theme) and be willing to fight alongside me.
We’re saving each other. That’s the kind of glory I’d love.
So a few days ago, in the middle of a day I’ll spare you the grosser details of and just boil down to “gross kid stuff,” I realized I’d misplaced my cell phone. And yes I’m that person that walks around the house with it. I realize I have a problem. That is not what we’re talking about right now.
What we are talking about is my reaction to that problem, which persisted for more than 24 hours until I found said phone, dustier but still with a 24 percent battery charge, behind my bed after my 4-year-old son hinted that he may have been playing with it on my bed while watching “Muffin Babies,” which is actually “Muppet Babies” but he can’t read and doesn’t know what a Muppet is. (He is a fan of muffins, however.)
I knew that not having my phone on me would be a thing. It just turned out to be a different thing. Here’s my journey.
2. What’s happening? Who can live without knowing what I think about everything right this second?
3. Confusion that I am the world have survived without knowing what I think about everything right this minute.
4. Acceptance that I am a better driver, listener, co-worker, mother and friend when I pay more attention and don’t have distractions. Sorry phone.
5. PHONE!! I FOUND YOU!!! WHO’S BEEN TEXTING ME??? WORLD I’M ALIIIIIIVE!!!
I’ve been blogging for a while, either for my day job at the Palm Beach Post, or the Sweet Midlife With Lynne and Leslie, a blog I write with my sister that neither one of us really update enough. Sometimes, blogging seems easy- here’s what in my brain and hey everybody look at me.
And sometimes it seems dumb, like why should anyone who’s not me or the therapist I don’t currently have care about what’s in my brain? What makes me so special?
That’s something I’m still trying to figure out.
So here’s what I’m thinking about right now: I’m a 47-year-old woman, who 8 years ago married this cute guy she’d met in high school, resolved to make the next 50 years we would have together so good that we wouldn’t mind having missed the previous 20 together.
We got 5.
Rather than shake my tiny fist at God and dissolve into a puddle of regret and baked goods, I focused on things I can control, like writing, being a good mother and hopefully being healthy enough that I stay alive for the next 50 or so years. I’m gonna be hella old. But with the space-aged polymers and such, I’ll hopefully look good. Good-ish. With some filters and stuff.
Hi, I'm Leslie
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