Archive | March, 2013

Broke Down

28 Mar


I got up yesterday and felt a minor pain in my chest. As we do, I kept going on with my life–made breakfast for Ford, packed his lunch, took Charlie for a walk, came home, got ready to go to work and that minor chest pain was still there–consistent. After walking around in circles in my house, googling chest pains, texting my friend Eleanore–trying to decide if I should go to the ER. I called Cliff and he said, “I’m coming home now to get you.” That was yesterday. Now I’ve been in the hospital for 24 hours and am waiting for the final test–a nuclear stress test. Hopefully, nothing shows up and I can go home.

How Important is Your Family’s Story?

26 Mar

In my last post I quoted something the writer Walter Mosley had said about why some Black people are angry. “They stole our story.”

A week ago, I came upon an article in the New York Times by Bruce Feiler about the importance of families developing a “strong family narrative.” A story.


Now a family narrative isn’t exactly the solution to a having our collective history, culture “our story” stolen. But it kinda is. When the mini-series Roots aired in the 1970s it was the most watched television show–ever. Why? The narrative. Was the stuff in Africa fiction, of course it was, but that wasn’t the point. (Again, the actual stories were not preserved).  To be able to follow this one family through slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, was mesmerizing. The country watched, mesmerized.

What we can do is be conscious of what we’re doing now. How are we sharing time with our kids? What do we tell them about ourselves, grandparents, uncles, aunts?

A psychologist at Emory, Marshall Duke, was asked to explore myth and ritual in American families.

Because of all the research on the dissipation of the family, he became interested in what could be done to counteract it. His psychologist wife had shared with him that she’d noticed something about the students with whom she worked who have learning disabilities. The ones who knew a lot about their families tended to do better when they faced challenges.

Dr. Duke decided to test her hypothesis and created a 20 question test for kids called, “Do you know?” It asked questions like: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Where your parents went to high school? Where they met? Do you know about an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family?

After comparing the results the conclusion was overwhelming. The children who knew more about their family history had a stronger sense of control over their lives and higher self-esteem. “Do You Know?” turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.

Why does knowing where your grandmother went to school help a child overcome set-backs (big and small?)

It’s simple: the child’s sense of being part of something larger.

A community of  psychologists say that family narratives consist of one of three forms:

“When we came here we had nothing, but your grandfather worked hard and sent your mother to college…”

“We used to have it all, then we lost everything.”

They say that the third one is the most helpful:

 We’ve had our ups and downs. We built a  successful business; your mother was the first woman on the city council, but we also had setbacks. Your uncle was arrested, your dad lost his job…but we stuck together.”

One suggestion is for families to create a mission statement like the kind companies have to identify their core values.

A lot of you already do this, but Dr. Duke recommends occasions like holidays, vacations, big family get-togethers, even car rides to the mall, to convey a sense of history and ritual.

In my birth family, Friday nights were for Tree Tavern frozen pizza and playing Pokeno at the kitchen table and my Aunt Thelma, my mom’s sister, would come over. Now, with my family, Friday night is for ordering pizza and either watching a movie or playing a board game.

“The traditions become part of your family,” Dr. Duke said.

For many years, research has said that happy families communicate effectively, but it’s not just the talking; it means telling something positive about yourself that illustrates how you overcame a hardship.

In Feiler’s book, The Secrets of Happy Families…he writes:

“The bottom line: If you want a happier family, create, refine and re-tell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.”

Years ago, probably  25, I was in an apartment of a woman I knew and saw that her hallway wall was filled, top to bottom, with black and white pictures. I’d never seen a Black person with that many pictures, generations of family members. I remember feeling a stab of envy. I’d never seen pictures like that of my family. I didn’t think we had any.

Five year later, when I married Cliff, I saw that his family had old family pictures on display (although most were stuffed in boxes). His father happily made copies for me. I also started pressing my mother, aunts, older cousins and they searched and gladly shared what pictures they had.

I’m sure my kids’ take our stories and the pictures for granted. They’ve never not lived with them. They might be able to name two of the relatives and they know that their paternal great-great-great grandmother Caledonia had bought her freedom.

One day Ford asked about the relatives in the pictures. He was in the fourth grade and was learning about slavery. Each photo that looked especially old, he ran his small finger across the glass and asked: “Was she a slave? Was he?”

When I hung those pictures, twenty years ago, I wasn’t consciously providing a family narrative, but I understood that people need to know where they come from and who their people are.

The pictures in this post are of our family–the top two are Cliff’s grandparents and parents; the lower four are my grandmother and her boyfriend, a great-aunt, Dad and Aunt Thelma.

What do you think? Do you have a family narrative? Is it important to have one?

My Afternoon with Walter

21 Mar


Last Sunday I spent a lovely afternoon on the stage of the Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick interviewing, chatting, kibitzing with Walter Mosley.  I had a great time. Walter said he did too.  The audience of college professors, many from Rutgers, long-time Crossroads subscribers, teachers, lawyers, actors, retirees, friends, my husband and children, all (except probably my 12-year-old) seemed quite engaged.

Walter and I were each seated in an arm chair turned slighty toward each other, each with a hand-held microphone, a table with water and bright theater lights beaming down on us. Our conversation was free ranging, even though I had prepared 10 questions just in case our conversation lagged. It didn’t and I didn’t think it would, but you can’t ever be too prepared. Walter is a raconteur, he is hilarious, he is honest and he is smart.

I asked him about his process–if he outlined his novels before getting started.

He does not. 

He has written in many genres, which form does he prefer?

He loves it all.

“I can’t imagine doing anything other than being a writer.”

He has a play, White Lillies, opening at Crossroads in May.  The play features Mouse and Etta Mae from his Easy Rawlings series. 

Walter and I know each other but hadn’t seen each other in maybe 6, 8 years. (Neither of us could remember). I do, however, remember one of the last things he said to me. We were standing in the lobby of a building in Manhattan, Chelsea maybe, waiting for the elevator to take us to a party to celebrate Tavis Smily’s new imprint with Hay House publishing.

While we were waiting, Walter said to me what all writers say to each other as a form of greeting: What are you working on?

“Nothing,” I announced.

“What do you mean nothing. You need to get outta the suburbs. I know what goes on there, kids hang out at the 7-11. You need to be writing.”

“I know, I know, I just have…”

Before I could finish pleading my distracted by motherhood case the elevator came and about 300 people got in. After a sweaty ride, the doors opened into a large loft space and we tumbled out. Walter and I were immediately ushered into a photo being taken by 10, 20 photographers all yelling, “over here, here, Iyanla, Tavis…”

From what I can remember, which isn’t much, (I am menopausal. I should make a t-shirt), The line-up of writers lineup was: 

Tavis, Iyanla Vanzant, Cornell West, Susan Taylor, Jill Nelson, Terry McMillian, my Essence BFF Linda Villarosa and Harriette Cole.

It was one of those amazing nights, the kind that used to happen regularly in the 90s when book publishers spent big money for nice parties with good champagne for all kinds of writers, not just the ones who write blockbusters; when magazines used to have cover parties. Soon as the paparazzi moment was over, Linda and I inhaled the passed cocktails and caught up on publishing gossip.

Last Sunday, was the first time Walter and I had seen each other since that night. Back then he was still writing the Easy series, of which he’s written 11. Now, he’s up to 41 books, two movies and two plays. 

“You’re like the Black male Joyce Carol Oats,” I told him on Sunday.

“Yeah, but she’s written more books than I have.”

“Only because she started earlier.”

 I’m completely envious of his output.

In my opening comments, I told the audience what Walter had said to me that night long ago. I told them that when I was asked by my husband to host (via Marshall Jones, Producing Artistic Director of Crossroards) I only agreed to do it because I had a recently finished a book. I knew my self-esteem wouldn’t have been able to handle seeing him, if I hadn’t had a new book. Now I know Walter probably doesn’t care if I’m writing or not, but it’s a matter of the fraternity. If you’re a writer, you need to be writing.

So before our interview began, I told the audience that in my new book, Welcome to My Breakdown, I’ve written some about my hiatus. 

Walter and I did our interview, I asked him about pressure to bring Easy back and if his upcoming book Little Green, is a response to it.  

“There’s always pressure, but really publishers just want you to keep writing….I had stopped writing Easy because I wanted to write about other things.”

Easy, played by Denzel Washington in the movie by the same title, Devil in a Blue Dress, was believed to be killed off in the last book. But he comes back in Little Green.

“I didn’t mean to have him go off that cliff,” Walter said of writing Easy’s car accident scene.

The audience laughed, but I knew what he was saying wasn’t meant to be amusing. To writers things happen to our characters that we often don’t plan. They are as real to us as a next door neighbor. When we talk about them as such, civilians (what I call non-writers), often just think we’re weird or funny. 

He has written non-fiction, science fiction, novels with titles like, Debbie Doesn’t Do it Anymore and All I Did was Shoot My Man. He obviously has an appreciation for the outrageous. He’s just the kind of person I like.


The audience’s questions were all over—creative, personal, political.

 One question, I don’t remember what it was, but it spawned this answer:

Many Black people are angry and don’t know why. 

The difference between Black folks and other folks is we don’t have a story.

“We are angry because we don’t have a story.”

We weren’t just stolen from our land.

“They stole our story.”

His words struck me as profound, as true.

Maybe that’s why he writes so many stories. Maybe that’s why I do and maybe if we all just keep writing we’ll get to something that looks like home.

I wrote it down. 


I’m Thinking I Need a Uniform

15 Mar

I’ve always loved clothes. I like having desperate pieces and the time to put together my look, a mix of sexy, classic and funk. I’ve never liked suits, but I will rock a Chanel (look-alike) jacket with leather skinny jeans. I’d never wear matching anything– earrings with a necklace, never. Ever.
Today I have an important meeting with a publisher who’s interested in buying my book. I’m excited and anxious but not about discussing my book. I’m anxious because of my previous experiences with such meetings. They, the publishers, have wanted to see how I look, how I present, how compellingly I can talk. It’s like looking at a horse’s teeth.

I spend most of my days in yoga pants or jeans. Today I’m wearing my favorite Comptoir des Cotonniers waxed skinny pants, a black Gap t-shirt, a pin-stripped Narciso Rodriguez blazer and my Italian biker boots. It’s 35 degrees and, at my daughter’s suggestion, I wear my vintage wheat-colored mink pea coat. I feel good about what my outfit says, cool, but not trying too hard, youthful but not like something out of my 18-year-old’s closet.

The idea of looking like a middle-aged suburbanite is worse to me  than matching jewelry. I think I’d rather never leave the suburbs, however, pulling the look all together has become increasingly exhausting. I realize as I ride the bus into the city, that getting dressed this way is taking up too much bandwidth. As my brain crashes way too often, overloaded with too many demands, thinking up outfits is going to have to be relegated to the pile of things that I no longer have the energy or interest in doing: going to galas, getting regular pedicures and watching the news, although I do still read the Times everyday often yelling curses at much of what I read. (Isn’t that what old people do?)

By the time the bus pulled onto the highway, I’d decided it was time for me to start wearing a uniform. Now, I don’t mean khakis and a workshirt. I mean one or two things go-to things like a sheath dress, pants and a blouse, that look good and pulled together. I’d always resisted looking put-together, again thinking this was the provenance of women of a certain age: Jane Fonda comes to mind. But here’s the thing, if I’m not that certain age now I’m in that neighborhood. And really, this is not an age thing (well, it sort of is, but indirectly so). It’s really about making my full, sometimes too complicated life, easier.

There’s a store, Max Mara, that I used to pass back in the days when I used to go to the mall. The clothes displayed in the windows were lovely and simple with clean lines and rich fabrics. I’ve only entered the store once or twice, but I thought back then, when I was in my early 40s, that here was where I was going to shop when I got older. The store is expensive, but I figured I’d only need a few pieces, which is probably true.

As I inhaled bus fumes, walking out of Port Authority and  into the city that I love, where I became a woman, I exhaled, put own my city swagger and came to grips with the fact that I’m just not a black slacks and blouse kind of  woman.

As much as I acknowledged that a uniform would make these presentations easier, after I scanned the Max Mara website, I know that I’m not that woman, not now and probably won’t ever be, even at a certain age.

What’s the lesson? You’ve got to show up as you are, as my friend Carmen says all the time. Your style, your personality, your preferences, you.

“Most of us are more comfortable being impostors than we are being ourselves,” Carmen said, a few days ago during one of our bi-monthly 90 minutes phone sessions.

She doesn’t remember where she’d read the quote, but both of us have decided to memorize this sentiment, to constantly remind ourselves to be ourselves.


Remains or Randoms of the Day

14 Mar

Each day that I can I walk my dog Charlie. We walk in the same park and I usually walk with the same people informally known as the dog group: Will, Claire, David, Chris, Jennifer, D, Tom. Every now and then I run into someone I know who is not a park regular. Yesterday was such a day.
I ran in to two women I know at separate points in the walk and had rambling conversations with each of them. When I reflected on the confabs later in the day, I realized that this activity takes up a large part of my life. IMG_0271

It was earlier than my usual time, around 8 when I ran in to the mother of one of Ford’s friends, let’s call her Red. She and I had gotten very friendly during baseball season last year, which runs from early April until the end of July. You can become best friends if you go to every game, twice a week (sometimes three) and sit there gabbing for two-hour stretches. I was happy to run in to her–we’d had great chats during those games. This time, in the course of 15 minutes we covered:

Her move to a new New York apartment (she’s bi-tri-state), Alzheimer’s, Botox, the work required to remain somewhat attractive as you inch through your 50s and ADD, both in adolescents and menopausal women. The big question: What to do when ADD shows up in a kid who is mid-way through high school.

An explanation for those outside this crowded corridor of parents: If your child is diagnosed with ADD accommodations are made. A big one is more time on standardized tests. The caveat is that the kid needs to have been diagnosed before high school.
It’s generally understood that the administrators of the SAT, ACT are on the lookout for parents who try to game the system by having post-pubescent Brad or Bonifa diagnosed, presumably to get a higher score with the extra hours.

Now Red, who says she’s extremely ADD, has a son who is but probably won’t get helped because he’s almost done with high school. What to do? I wish I had an answer for her, and oftentimes, on our dog walks, all kinds of problems are solved.

The other woman, has daughters. One is a star athlete on her way to an Ivy on the school’s dime, the other one struggles with reading. I gave the mom the number of an optometrist, who can tell her if her child has dyslexia, something I know a fair amount about.

As we were parting ways, with a look of profound relief, she thanked me and said over her shoulder: “how’d we even get to that?”

An hour later I was in my car driving to the college where I teach writing. I was listening to A Tribe Called Quest, Check the Rhime. My music was thumping as I pulled into a parking lot on the campus tucked in bucolic farmland in northwestern New Jersey. I thought about the image of me, referred to as professor, turning off my car as Q-Tip’s voice faded away.

I think about a bit from a Chris Rock standup. He said, “I like the Wu Tang Gang and Seinfeld.”

I like NPR and Biggie Smalls and Downton Abby and A Tribe Called Quest. I also like having conversations that have all kinds of range.


Mothering, two days

8 Mar

My children are rarely in a bad space at the same time. When one is mad, sad or crazy, the other is happy, up and sane. Yesterday was an exception. It’s been cloudy and raining for three days and now it’s snowing–madly. When the house was empty for a few hours,  I wrapped myself up in a blanket, sacked out on the couch and watch Sex and the City reruns. (It’s amazing how dated it seems; fodder for another post)

My daughter, who is 18, in her senior year of high school is anxious while waiting to hear if she’s getting in her first choice college.  She is a teenager– which means life at home is unpredictable: she flies between being irrational, snarky, mean and loving. Lately it’s been all snarky and hateful all directed at me.

“You’re mean” and “I don’t like you right now,” are on her current loop. This reaction is mostly because I am no longer driving her two and a half blocks to the train station and no longer waking her up to go to school.

She takes a train downtown to a community college. She finished all her high school requirements early and is now taking college courses and earning college credits, which is a good thing; she likes to sleep until 15 minutes before she has to leave the house to make the train. A bad thing. When I was driving her, we’d fight everyday about her nonchalance about  making the train. I had given her notice that I would no longer be driving her a week before, explaining that she needed to start getting herself up and out of the house on her own. I told her, have been telling both of them, that I’m not helping them by doing things for them that they are capable of doing themselves.

This is not going over well.

I don’t expect my daughter to understand that what I’m doing now is good for her in the long run.

My son.

He ran home yesterday from school at the final bell. He  is supposed to stay for another hour with a tutor. He didn’t go. He ran home, ran to his room and  fully dressed, got in bed.  Eventually he told me what had happen. He’d gotten his interim report card and had an F in a required elective course. He misses half the class because of another class; bad scheduling but shit happens and the situation is being remedied. Ford has all As in his other courses. Six hours later, he was still bereft. As I was writing the beginning of this post, I could hear him giving his Dad a hard time and I heard a door slam. I couldn’t finish this last night, because my son came upstairs to my office to announce that he wasn’t going to school tomorrow (today). Worn out from  having dealt with the body blows from my daughter, I was calm with him.

He sat on my lap.

“It’s time to go to bed.”

“I’m not going to school tomorrow.”

“Yeah, you are.”‘

“No, I’m not.”

“You wanna go and read?”

We read and listen to a novel on tape in his bed most nights.


“Did I ever tell you that I was bullied in middle school?”

He nods.

I told him that every night, before school, I would have a stomach ache. I was so stressed at the thought of going to school the next day that I often begged my mom to let me stay home. Clara wasn’t having it. I couldn’t stay home from school unless I was bleeding–from my eyes. She knew what was going on at school. I told this to Ford. I also told him that when things are painful and difficult, we have to stand up and face them. It’s hard and you can be scared, but you have to face it.

He was quiet for a beat or two.

“Can we go and read now?”

This morning I made him hot chocolate and a grilled cheese sandwich before he went to school.


Letting Go

2 Mar


Literally today is the first time I’ve had most of a day to do my work (other than teach my class). I haven’t posted in a little more than two weeks. I’ve been so overwhelmed with familial responsibilities I’ve felt like a triage nurse.

I don’t want this post to be just me complaining, which I could too easily do, but who wants to hear someone else bitch. You all have your own myriad obligations and complaints, too.

I want you to read my posts because what I write resonates, enlightens, makes you laugh or just makes you feel some kind of way.

A week ago, I moved my Dad from my home into an assisted living facility. The whole thing was tough: making the decision to do it, finding the right place, doing all the medical, administrative and financial stuff, physically moving his stuff (thanks Cliff and Jason).

Thankfully, he’s adjusting nicely and the director of the memory ward is “in love with him.” The nurses and aides are fussing over him. My handsome, charming dad is soaking up all of it.

The rough adjustment period I thought he’d have didn’t happen. So far, so good. I should be able to relax, right? Well, I haven’t quite yet. I’ve found myself this week worrying about him in my sleep. The way I did when my daughter was first away at overnight camp, the way I used to obsess about the kids in my camp troupe when I was a day-camp counselor. Eventually I will relax about my Dad.

Two weeks ago, my daughter and I went to Savannah, Georgia for the weekend to look at one of her two top choice schools: SCAD—Savannah College of Art and Design. She’d been accepted and once we’d met some of the folk—professors, alumni, recruiters at a session in Katonah, New York, Baldwin was sold. She loved everything she heard. But, I told her; we had to visit the place before she signed up. So off we went.

Everyone I’d told I was going said: “Oh, you’re going to love Savannah.” One woman even said, “You’re going to want to move there.”

I hate when people do that. I hate it if it’s said about a movie, a restaurant, a city, a school, anything; my expectations are raised and 99 percent of the time, I’m disappointed. I’ve gotten to where if someone is about to offer me an opinion I hold my hand up and ask him or her to not, please.

We get to Savannah, pull up to our hotel go to check in and our room isn’t ready. We want to get the road dust off before heading to the school for the first day of SCAD weekend. The hotel clerk (the concierge is at lunch, really?) suggests a place for lunch which a short walk away. It’s a strip full of tourists and though I’m starving I’m willing to look for grub where, at least, some of the locals eat. Baldwin wants the first place we look at and I reluctantly agree. The food and the service were awful. I had a seafood pizza that was soft and infused with cheese. Baldwin’s crab cake was just nasty. We get back to the hotel, where they’d told us our room would be ready in a half hour, an hour later and still no room. It’d be a little while longer. I’m trying not to be a pushy New Yorker so I smile and sit down in the lobby. My daughter has stretched out on the sofa.

“Get up,” I hiss, even though I want to do the same thing. I’m aware that we’re in the south and decorum is prized.

After 20 more minutes, I shift into firm, almost pushy New Yorker. It’s 30 more minutes before our room is ready. The room is tiny and the view is of an auto body shop. The manager had already told me that they were completely sold out when I’d asked to be upgraded for having had to wait so long. All this set the tone for our trip. While Savannah’s park squares and Spanish moss trees are absolutely gorgeous, I didn’t fall in love. SCAD, however, is amazing,

This college tour trip was the last in an almost two-year journey with Baldwin. We’d looked at 12 colleges together. She’s looked at 14.

After that first SCAD day was over and we were heading to have a light bite (and a drink for me) we were crossing the street and it hit me that this school, this town, was the last one on this college admissions journey. I got choked up. I stopped walking.

“I just want you to know that I’ve enjoyed every single minute of this,” I said to Baldwin.

She looked at me. “Aw Mommy.” We hug standing on the street corner as I’m crying.

The next morning we’re having breakfast in the hotel. I’m waiting for my omelet; Baldwin is getting food at the buffet. A song from the Something’s Gotta Give soundtrack comes on. The movie is one of our favorite chick flicks. I feel myself welling up again.

Who am I gonna watch these movies with when she’s gone?

Suddenly the reality of my beloved girl leaving home has come home. I spend more time with her than anyone—including my husband. We like the same movies, we watch TV together on the weekends sprawled out in the basement TV room, we go shopping, we go to lunch, sometimes she even hangs out with my friends and me.

“Ford is probably going to start liking clothes and you can take him to H&M and Zara,” she tells me, trying to make me feel better.

When she leaves, I’m going to be left with Ford, his Xbox, his baseball practice, baseball games, practice, more games; and Cliff and his coaching Ford’s baseball.

I will soon let go of worrying about my Dad. I’ll soon stop the ruminations about my daughter picking the right college.

Letting go of worrying about her is not going to happen; I gotta wrap my head around that. After that, maybe I can get Ford interested in shopping.