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)
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org for rates. Can’t wait to help tell your story!
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hi, I'm Leslie
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