Kevin Hart’s “Fatherhood” and widowed parenting: What if it had been me?

Warning: Spoiler alert for a recent movie and some frankly depressing speculation about death. Sorry.

Widowed parents have to deal with a lot of “What if” moments that don’t solve a daggone thing. But they cycle through our brains anyway because our lives didn’t work out the way we’d planned, so it makes sense to ruminate on this stuff. Like…What if our partner was still alive? What if our kids could have had the opportunity to have two parents? What if our partner had died when our kids were a different age – I mean, if they had to go and die on us anyway – so that there’d be more memories?

Having just watched Kevin Hart’s delightful, if comfortingly predictable widowed father movie “Fatherhood,” I’m reminded of my biggest “What if” – What if I had died and my husband had lived?

Yeah. I told you it was depressing. You were warned.

In the movie, which is based on a true story, Hart’s character is widowed shortly after the birth of his daughter, and decides that rather than move them both to Minneapolis, where he and his wife were raised, or just letting his in-laws take the baby, that he’s going to do it himself.

This sets up the usual flailing single father montage – he can’t get the baby, whose name is Maddy, to sleep. Her poop confounds him. Strangers not expecting a single dad ask where Mom is (RUDE). The all-mom parenting group he seeks help from initially assumes him to be looking for the nearby AA meeting because they’ve never heard of a single dad, which makes me want to punch them. Snooty moms.

As I watched Hart’s character, Matt, gamely navigate the wonders of doing a little Black girl’s hair, or try to look good with a baby sling, I think about my husband Scott, and what it would have been like if he’d been left to raise our son, Brooks, who was not quite two, when the stupid widow event occurred. What would he have made of having to deal with a baby Afro? I was the primary diaper changer – would he have mastered it? Would he have taken the baby to the Ravens bar by himself to watch the game each week without me there to take him home at half-time?

Here’s the thing: Scott was an amazing dad. Awesome at it. Lived for it. Still pisses me off that it was stolen from him. So when I think about how he would have fared without me, I chuckle and know he’d have knocked it out of the park. It would have been a smelly mess up in that house for a minute, but he’d have been an ace.

Dude was the most loyal person I’ve ever met, and he loved me like a champ, so I know that he would have done everything in his power to honor me by stepping the hell up. He’d have sought help – I’m sure my mother would have moved in, just like she did when Scott died. He would have bought every single baby book and contraption. The child and he would have matching Ravens jerseys for every single day, and Brooks’ current knowledge of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and the Hallmark Channel would have been replaced with wrestling and NFL scouting guides.

I also know that, like with Matt in “Fatherhood,” Scott would have found a cute new girlfriend, because widowers seem to be more attractive in the dating world than widows. And that would have made me happy, because Scott was all love, and that love deserved to be given and received. 

So why are we even talking about this? The movie reminded me, as most things do as a widow, that nothing in this world is guaranteed to work out the way you planned. But humans have a wonderful way of stepping up to challenges, a beautiful resilience that crops up from corners of our soul we barely knew existed. Our villages stay close. Our ability to pivot gets a workout. Our priorities change. We learn to go with the flow, even in a direction we don’t anticipate. We just do.

“Fatherhood” is a tribute to how we do what we have to do, whether or not anyone else approves, or whether we do it the way anyone else we love would have. We will get things wrong. We will say or do the wrong thing. We will try really hard and sometimes it’ll all blow up anyway.

Here’s the thing: I get a lot of credit for surviving something terrible that I don’ think I had a choice about. I did what I had to. I pulled it together. Scott would have, too.

You know what you did last summer? Probably not a lot. And it’s OK to do the same this time.

“So! Any big plans this summer?”

In a normal year, this is a pretty straight-forward question. Are you taking a vacation, or selling a limb to pay for summer camp for your kids, or just hanging out in the backyard of the home you’re already paying for and inviting friends over for semi-expertly grilled foodstuffs? But since March 2020, nothing at all has seemed normal, and after a summer of mostly hiding in the house and trying not to contract a deadly virus, the very idea of plans that involve breathing around people you don’t live with seems…weird.

And yet – Quarantine Summer 2020 has, for many people, begotten Wilding Out Summer 2021, as isolated and now hopefully vaccinated souls try to make up for lost time by doing all the things. Taking all the trips. Going to all the crowded clubs. Eating at all of the buffets. DOING ALL OF THE THINGS. (Admission: I spent last summer hanging out safely and hermit-like on my porch in West Palm Beach, then moving my entire life to Baltimore, where I spent the rest of the summer hanging out safely and hermit-like in my friends’ guest house until we bought our own house and I hermitted there until my kid started school. So I was like a travel hermit.)

Suddenly, plans are a thing that you’re expected to have again, and not something you didn’t have to have…nay, were obligated not to have, because safety and stuff. I am a person who loves having plans – I may be naturally obnoxiously social. But the very real state of the world, virus and violence-wise, as well as turning 50 and being delighted about not having to do anything if I didn’t want to, made me reconsider. There’s a pressure that comes from suddenly being invited to do things – inside, even – and not being able to use “Y’all know I don’t breathe on people” as an excuse.

I mean, you still can use whatever reason you want to not go anywhere you don’t want to go, because nobody gets to tell you what to do. You’re a grown adult and “No” is still a complete sentence. But it’s not even about not wanting to go to specific things, but getting used to the fact that you’re allowed to go anywhere. I had kind of gotten used to assuming that all the parties and Happy Hours I was invited to would be on Zoom, so the first time I got an invitation that didn’t include a link, I was confused. You mean I’m supposed to leave my house for this?

So when I was asked about plans, I really had to think about it. We do have a few plans – I managed to pile together enough pennies to pay for a week of baseball camp and then theater camp for The Kid, and we are taking a week’s staycation during the week of theater camp in a nearby city we stay in all the time, but this time in a hotel I actually paid for in advance and didn’t try to Hotwire the day before. I mean, I actually PLANNED it.

But I’m not afraid to say that a large part of the summer is going to involve sitting on my front stoop writing pop culture stories for various publications while my kid plays with neighborhood friends down the street. I’m going to train for a half-marathon while my knee yells at me and I try not to notice the “You go girl” responses from well-meaning fellow runners surprised by a larger woman running. I am going to create new potato salads. I am going to watch Patrick Swayze movies. I am going to change up my wine of the month selection.

And then I’m going to plan not to plan, unless I decide I want to.

I’m Leslie! How can I help?

I just spent a few days being energized by my business coach and dear friend Kim Walsh Phillips, the mega-energized leader behind Power Professionals and many, many people who needed help scaling, starting and publicizing their businesses through social media and more. (She literally encouraged me to finish my book, Black Widow, by including me in the forward of one of her books and saying “Where is your book?”) One of the things she preaches that’s stuck with me is using every platform you have at your disposal to get your word out there. This blog has been languishing like a romance novel heroine trapped in a tower – pretty but lonely.

No more of that!

Not only am I going to be updating this at least every other day with everything from essays to appearance notes, but I wanted to use this one to tell you about things I (since I am my business) can offer you:

  • Freelance writing for publications (specialties include entertainment reviews, essays on grief, culture, parenthood and more, and general features)
  • Corporate features (Professional bios and articles suitable for Websites and professional organizations, for artists, musicians, attorneys, educators and anyone who wants a fun, vibrant presentation of who they are)
  • Podcast and print interviews (specialties include grief, pop culture, parenting, pivoting and reinvention and more)
  • Speaking, both online and in person with Covid precautions
  • Contact leslie@lesliegraystreeter.com for rates. Can’t wait to help tell your story!

At the close of a school year: Ruminations of an imperfect remote learning parent

A model’s recreation of my excitement for school to be over.

“How many days left?”

My first-grader is perched on the edge of our couch. He’s been logged into his remote classroom for approximately 2 minutes and already he’s focused on the giant red X’s he’s obviously drawing on a mental calendar in his head, counting down his time left attempting to learn times tables and reading within shouting distance of his LEGO set.

And the LEGO are winning.

We have spent a whole school year like this – When we moved to Baltimore last summer we bought this house just in time to register him for the school down the street, although he’s never set foot inside it, because of COVID. So he’s been not only learning trapped in a house with me, near the tempting toys and refrigerator and whatever is happening on the street outside the window, but his class friends are mostly just faces on a screen that he’s never met because he’s never been to school with them. It sucks. But it was what it had to be.

Sometimes when we go to the school on days when they exchange books or give out holiday pumpkins or stockings on the blacktop playground, we run into his friends, and he’s either really excited, or shy, or sad. The week in March after some kids went back in person – this was like a few weeks before my first vaccination shots (I am fully vaccinated now) and we live with my 73-year-old mom, so we made the decision to keep him at home – we walked past a kid bounding out of the school doors with his backpack, and he was sullen and angry for the rest of the week.

“Why does he get to go back and I don’t?” he asked me, sobbing, the next day.

“Because his mom made a different decision that yours did, and I only had the information I had, and I did the best that I could. And I’m so sorry that hurt you honey, but we’re alive,” I said, knowing that I literally just said “You can be alive, or you can be happy” and it sucks. But it was what it had to be.

It wasn’t all awful – When I’m making lunch in the kitchen I can hear him reading out loud, and he’s a proud, confident reader. He’s a science wiz, and has been inspired to watch documentaries about dinosaurs and planets. There’s also a lot of laughing, and even as the kids go back in person this fall – PLEASE LET THESE CHILDREN GO BACK TO SCHOOL IN PERSON – I know there are lots of Zooms in his future as a student and a professional, and he’s an easy conversationalist.

We are privileged to have good WiFi, technology, food, and a situation where I can work from home. His teachers are a joy – when we turned in his books on the blacktop last week, one of them gave him a class award that he was the most “Relaxed,” meaning he was calm and didn’t let things ruffle him. Lord knows that’s a skill! He has access to health care and family he can talk to. It may be easier for us to navigate this awfulness than others. But it’s been awful watching him try to meet people through a computer screen, watching him have to show a patience that even college students haven’t mastered, just to pass math. I want normal, but I don’t know what that is anymore.

So my kid is not the only one in my house who is counting down the days until virtual school is over, and whatever the summer’s supposed to be begins. We’re still in a pandemic, and since Powerball eludes me, I can’t afford a whole summer of camp. But there’s a week of baseball camp, and then a week of outdoor theater camp, and a few days a week with a fun arts teacher/sitter/nanny savior of my life. He will run and play and laugh with real actual children. He will be away from screens and from my couch.

And we will plan whatever normal school is now. And hopefully not be counting the days.

“Don’t you have enough?” Knowing your worth and being ready to bounce if your price isn’t met

There’s many, many miles between being a visionary showrunner who’s made billions for one of the world’s largest corporations, and a high school junior washing trays down at the Burger King. But something about mega-producer Shonda Rhimes‘ interview in The Hollywood Reporter reminded me of the first time in my life – but not the last – when I was faced with the cold-water reality slap that my employer didn’t understand my value and was never going to.

It’s so true I have it in my bathroom, courtesy my friend Stephanie. Ya heard?

So I bounced. Was my bounce, as Rhimes’ was, from ABC to Netflix? No. Most of the time, it was from fry rack to cash register. But always a better cash register. That’s solid advice, no matter how much money you’re making.

In her interview, Rhimes talks about how her relationship with ABC, for whom she created “Grey’s Anatomy,” “How To Get Away With Murder,” “Scandal,” “Private Practice,” and more, had been souring for a while. She felt she was getting pushback and oversight on creative points that her ratings and income would seem to prove was unwarranted. She was at the end of her rope already, and then she had her camel back-breaking straw moment when a Disneyland comp ticket she’d secured – after a hassle – for her sister, a mere $150 perk over the two tickets she was allotted as an ABC employee, didn’t work. And when she called a top network exec for help, she was told “Don’t you have enough?”

Whew.

Not only would it have been absolutely no problem for this man to just call Disneyland and let THE FAMILY OF THEIR CASH COW in, with some mouse ears and funnel cake for their trouble, but there was insult piled onto the injury. The exec didn’t just say no – he implied that Rhimes was asking too much, that she was an ungrateful peon who was stepping beyond her station, when at that time she had basically paid for the whole station. And all the monorails.

Obtuse social media commenters have tried to make this about Rhimes’ entitlement, as she could have bought that extra ticket with her lunch money, but they’re missing the point. She already had the ticket – she just wanted it to work. And she was slapped down for expecting even that. Sure, she had asked for one extra ticket than normal. Let’s be real real, son. Do you think no one else ever asked for one more ticket? And she wasn’t just someone else – she was ABC for a very long time. Y’all know that if, like, Brad Pitt, who was not an ABC employee, had showed up with all eleventy-three of his beautiful children, they’d have let them all in, given them the GOOD mouse ears, FastPasses and a gold cart personally driven by Goofy.

It was in that moment that Rhimes realized that she wasn’t valued, no matter how much value she added, so she called her agents and told them that if they didn’t get her a deal with someone else, she would be getting agents who would. Good on her. What’s appallingly familiar to many of us – and I’m going to say many of us are women – is the suggestion that we are asking too much to ask what we’re worth. That we are divas. That we are lucky to have gotten where we are and we shouldn’t ask anymore.

I have been called a diva many, many times in my career, and I don’t back off from that. Throw me those roses and hand me a glass of something bubbly, if that means that I ask for what I’m worth. I have made a lot of money for a lot of people, and it has been implied and sometimes plainly stated that I had all I was gonna get so I should be grateful and take it. Which is when I started re-doing my resume. I haven’t always done it fast enough, but this is something I learned back at that Burger King, where I had worked for almost two years. I dare say that I was among the most dedicated employees at the time – I never stole food, never snuck my friends extra fries, never developed a sudden “cold” when I didn’t feel like working. I actually remember calling, legit coughing, before a Sunday evening shift, and being told that not only could I not have off, but that they didn’t believe me. Teen Leslie was a Girl Scout, basically, and having my integrity doubted was almost as painful as my sinus headache.

And when I got there, coughing, the manager said “Oh wow, you are sick!” He also admitted that I had never given anyone reason to believe I was a liar – quite the opposite – but that it wasn’t worth trying to find someone else to fill my shift.

As awful as that was, I stayed there for a while, even though I never got the one thing I asked for, which was to be trained on the register. I was there for two years, and every time I asked, there was an excuse. They had too many cashiers. They would train me the next shift, but could I please for the moment go get the trays from the dining room, and maybe check the bathroom? (Note to Humpty Hump – Getting busy in a Burger King bathroom is nasty. Don’t do that.) The closest I ever got was handing out shakes and Dr. Peppers out the drive-thru window behind the real cashier.

It wasn’t just that I was being told no, but that it was implied that I wasn’t good enough to work the register, that there was something wrong with me that made me relegated to the bathroom and the dining room. So one day I just handed in my apron and quit, then found a job selling fudge and singing behind a register (finally!) at the late, great The Fudgery at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. (For the record I wasn’t the best cashier what with the math and stuff, but I was honest, punctual and did good harmony.)

That moment laid the groundwork for me, to slowly claim my worth – I admit I was always better at this at work than in relationships. There was my first paper, a Black community weekly, who refused to pay me enough to move out of my parents’ home in Miami and questioned my loyalty to the community when I asked for a raise. “If that’s not enough, you can leave,” I was told. It wasn’t enough. So I left and moved to Pennsylvania. They implied that I was betraying Black people for wanting to be financially solvent. At least I think that’s what they said. I was walking out the door.

The lesson would come full circle years later, as I waited with other Central Pennsylvania reporters to do a satellite interview with Howard Stern, who was bringing his show to the area. There was a familiar-looking woman sitting near me who kept looking at me like I was familiar to her too. Finally she leaned over.

‘This is a weird question,” she asked, “but did you ever work at a Burger King in Baltimore?” YES THAT’S WEIRD. But I nodded that yes I had, recognizing her as a not-terrible manager.

“You’re that nice girl that quit and no one knew why!” she exclaimed. And the whole story came out, a decade later. Apparently I was not imagining the conspiracy to keep me off the register, but it wasn’t because I was a bad employee, but because I was a good one. I was reliable and spoke kindly to the customers in the dining room. I didn’t complain about the bathroom, or digging flaming burgers out of the broilers. They were afraid that if I was trained on the register, I would be valuable to another fast-food joint and leave. So they kept me down, taking me for granted and letting me think it was my fault. And when I left, they were truly flummoxed because it was so easy to take me for granted that they forgot why they were doing it and assumed that I thought I was worthless, too.

SCREW THAT. Shonda Rhimes knew what we all should – that we are worthy. That people are making money off us. And that it’s not even about the money, but about wanting not to be a chump. There aren’t enough FastPasses to buy that knowledge.

Big-Screen Bereavement: The Best In Your Widow-Type Movies – “Sleepless In Seattle”

Long before I was known as a someone who writes about grief, a subject no one wants to be an expert in, I wrote about movies, something everyone wants to be in expert in. For about ten years, I had a column called “The Flick Chick,” offering snarky, funny (I hope) takes on film, inciting the wrath of “Love, Actually” fans everywhere. (Because I’m not one of them.)

For the first time in almost 30 years I find myself not being paid to write about entertainment, which means that when live events start again I’ll have to pay for them. Also, I miss that outlet, starting those cultural conversations and having virtual high-fives across the Internet. So since I’m paying the fees for this website anyway, I’m starting an occasional series blending the two things I know the best – the joy of the movies and the soul-crushing devastation of widowhood.

Who’s with me?

Up first: 1993’s “Sleepless In Seattle,” which I first saw in 1993 and fell in love with because of the dreamy soundtrack, its bittersweet take on the difference between being in love and being in love in the movies, and its gorgeous views of my native Baltimore, which I’d left the year before and wouldn’t move back to for another 27 years. (It also features my favorite celluloid description of being a Features reporter faced with yet another hoary holiday story: “New Years Eve. Please don’t make me write it.”)

Now, as a widowed parent, the story of soulfully sad Sam (Tom Hanks) and Annie (Meg Ryan), the winsome Baltimore Sun reporter who falls for his honest and heartbreaking radio account of how much he misses his late wife, hits closer to home. It’s also a reminder that in 1993, being played by America’s Sweetheart Meg Ryan meant that it wasn’t immediately obvious that a character was an obsessed stalker who uses company funds to fly cross-country to follow a widowed man and his vulnerable child. But more about that later.

One of things that didn’t really compute for me when I saw this in my 20s is that “Sleepless In Seattle” isn’t really a rom-com in the traditional sense, where a character’s past is what’s holding them back from finding love with the perfect person who’s right there if they’d just look up. It’s really about loving while grieving, opening yourself up to happiness when your first happiness got ripped from you. One of my least-favorite things about how widows are usually written in Hallmark movies is that the protagonist is usually the cute lady who falls in love with the sad widowed carpenter or farmer thus proving her own character growth. The late partner is a plot device, a ploy to make the character extra-super sad so you know what the stakes are. So sorry, Dead Wife! He’s moved on!

But here, Sam’s wife, played in flashback by Carey Lowell and her flawless pixie cut, is more than the catalyst for his next happy ever after. She’s the reason for the whole thing, and how he and his son Jonah grapple with her loss colors their relationship with each other and with everyone else they know, including Annie. Sam moves them to Seattle from Chicago because he wants to be in a city where, he says, he isn’t haunted by memories of his wife walking across the street. I heard that and I was like “Damn! What widow wrote this? Because THIS IS THE TRUTH.”

Sam is trying to hold it all together and make a life for his grieving son, who wakes up in the middle of the night crying for his dead mother and is afraid of forgetting her face, which seems like a betrayal. And he can’t stop it. Sam wants to make it OK and start over but he can’t give him or his son the thing they really want, which is Carey Lowell and her pixie cut back on this side of eternity. And, again, they can’t.

Before, I would have said that my favorite scene was Rita Wilson trying to describe “An Affair To Remember” through a series of sobs and hand motions, a thing that should have gotten her an Oscar nomination. But now, it’s when Sam, fresh from comforting Jonah (who is an insufferable brat that I now give some credit because of his grief), imagining talking to his wife. And he, too, is haunted by the specter of forgetting – He imagines her not being able to remember the toast she used to make. And it’s gutting. I had to stop the recording for a minute and take a breath, remembering talking out loud to my husband who could no longer hear me. And it was all there – the love, the regret, the melancholy realization that in your head is the only way you’ll hear their voice unless it’s on video.

I remember a lot of critics and fans were annoyed that Annie and Sam (spoiler alert!) don’t meet in person until the last scene, standing on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, like in “An Affair To Remember.” Before that, he’s a voice she hears on the radio, and she’s one of the women who writes to him, moved by his pain. She never actually intends to send the letter (her best friend does), but Jonah reads it and becomes convinced that she’s the one for him and his dad, writing his own letter back to her pretending to be Sam. In him, I see my own kid, who has now started asking for a new dad, and who sees himself as my protector (Oww, painful heart feels.)

Jonah’s still a brat – the way he speaks to his dad is written as cute when it’s worth at least a hell of a grounding, but his actions are that of a grieving kid. The person who really deserves a stern talking-to, if not a restraining order, is Annie, who projects her boredom with her perfectly nice fiancee Walter (Bill Pullman, who, as he tells her later, deserves better) into a fantasy obsession with Sam. In the movie’s most “Did y’all actually write that?” moment, Annie hires a private investigator to look into Sam and Jonah, under the guise of writing a story on Sam, and flies to Seattle to hide behind buildings and watch them. It’s not charming. It’s creepy. As much as I always loved the ending, where the three meet in New York and there seems to be a spark, I always wonder if Annie ever says “So…I kinda stalked you and your kid.” Because that’s not cute. (I also wonder if she ever reimbursed The Sun for all that travel.)

I still love “Sleepless In Seattle,” just differently. I no longer see myself as Annie, the wistful dreamer looking for love, but as Sam, trying to make sure his heart hasn’t died along with his wife. While so many widow movies seem to think that being ready to date means you’re healed and moving on, “Sleepless In Seattle” reminds us that your late love never leaves you. They aren’t something to get over, a glitch. Any new life you have is built on the one you had, and even if you find happiness again, you’ll always be that person’s widow.

There was always a sadness to this movie that I got – I mean, it was about a man who lost his wife, right? But now I understand that the point isn’t whether Sam finds love with Annie, or whether they’re meant to be. It’s that he’s opening himself up to that possibility. Maybe not with a stalker. But to love.

“Love Fraud”: Dating in middle age and the ol’ okey doke

I may be an ethereal middle-aged single lady, but that doesn’t mean I won’t cut you if you try to scam me out of my cash. Nobody has time for that. (Photo: Rico Feldfoss)

I love docuseries, particularly those that have just enough similarity to my reality to be interesting, but removed enough that I’m not constantly sobbing at the continued reinforcement of how society hates me. For instance, I’m fascinated with HBO’s “The Vow” and its tale of self-help group turned body-maiming sex cult NXIVM. While I relate to wanting to belong and improve oneself, and to the pull of celebrity as a longtime entertainment journalist, it’s super different than my life. Also there’s maybe one Black person in the entire group, which seems to be mostly made up of thin white women that the skeevy head guru wanted to sleep with, so I don’t imagine I would have been heavily recruited.

But I did spend the better part of this weekend catching up on another show that follows how loneliness and a need for connection can compel seemingly sensible people to make disastrous decisions. That’s Showtime’s “Love Fraud,” about how an ordinary-looking guy named Richard Scott Smith used the Internet, along with charms that are apparently hard to discern across the screen, to worm his way into the hearts and bank accounts of several women across the country. The remarkable thing seems to be that unlike the titular crapweasel of “Dirty John,” , a show that nearly ruined Eric Bana for me forever, none of Smith’s victims are rich. He seemed to take pleasure in finding middle-class ladies and taking their savings and 401ks, leaving them penniless and humiliated because he’s evil.

Some of them he married. Others, he just swindled. But what they seem to have in common is that they’re middle-aged ladies looking for love, mostly after unsatisfying relationships and break-ups. They put their hopes in the Internet to find a new start, and that new start blew up on them and stole all their stuff. As a middle-aged lady who would, too, like to find love, albeit one who’s given up the Internet because of crap like this, I relate. Highly. And I’m insulted on their behalf. How effing dare you.

I don’t believe that at this time in my life, I’d be adding some dude I just met to my bank accounts, or buying him cars and real estate in my name just until he gets paid the settlement of some accident I’ve never seen documentation of. At this point, what I’ve built financially and reputation-wise means too much to be flinging it around at some marginally-attractive guy I met at karaoke like Rick’s victims (again, they all say he has some magnetism that makes you trust him, but DOES NOT TRANSLATE. Dude looks shifty as Hell.)

This is not to blame these women for their own victimization, because ultimately the fault lies with their weasel-face victimizer. Rick’s not my Cup O’Noodles, but who’s to say there isn’t someone I’d be a little more sweet on? What I recognize in his pitch is what he was to them – another chance. Someone who claims to want love and has decided that you are that chance. That the meant-to-be you’ve lived for, that doesn’t always come for people your age, is here.

We are in a weird time, as you know. All of this happened pre-COVID, and with the added loneliness of lockdown there’s nouveau Ricks and Dirty Johns and whatnot popping up all over the place. And I’m sure they’re getting takers. My advice to would-be marks is not to fall in love, but to listen to red flags, like being told “I love you” too fast, and to not to put people you don’t know on your bank account because COME ON Y’ALL.

But my biggest piece of advice is to the scammers, because I’m so tired of people being harder on the hurt than those who hurt them. Stop telling people how not to get hurt, and focus on the evil of the people who hurt them. And yeah, Rick (SPOILER!) has his own sob story about being abused and taken advantage of, but that doesn’t absolve him of a frigging thing. To me, it was the victims’ lack of status and wealth that made him even more heinous, because he found wounded souls like himself, who didn’t have a lot, and made a point of destroying them.

Don’t destroy people. I suppose I could be more eloquent than that. But I don’t have to be.

“Cry and Cut”: Grieving into action in a sucky time

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.

But we can’t stop moving. We can’t stop cutting.

The Derek Jeter conundrum: Is it OK that almost everyone – but not everyone – likes you?

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.

Don Imus’ death is a reminder that Black Girl Magic includes levitating above foolishness

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.

And that’s not funny.