The Conversation Negotiation (6/25/2014)

One of the challenges of raising a child is having to explain the behavior and actions of celebrities. Sure, we can try to shield them from things on TV, but things are a lot different than when I was growing up.

This is where I go waxing all nostalgic on how “back in the good ol’ days” we only had four channels, no Internet and no cell phones or iPads.

If Mama told me not to watch something, I didn’t. That woman had eyes in the back of her head and would find me out anyway.

But now, even when I make conscientious choices to change the channel or just turn the TV off, my child comes in full of questions that I am not necessarily prepared to answer.

“Mama,” he began one day, “what happened to Miley Cyrus?”

“I don’t know. Has something happened to her?”

This question came a considerable amount of time after last year’s music award brouhaha – which was immediately turned the second it came on, even when people were discussing the aftermath of it. I hadn’t even seen the whole hot mess on a biscuit.

“Well, yeah. Why has she started going around sticking her tongue out like that? I don’t get it. And why did she do that to that teddy bear – that was just wrong.”

I couldn’t tell him why she was sticking her tongue out – maybe she had dry mouth or an abscess. Or maybe she was trying to catch flies. I wasn’t sure about the teddy bear. What did she do to a teddy bear?

“Where did you see this, Cole?”

“A friend had it on their iPod and they showed us. It was quite disturbing. I am not sure if that is what I am supposed to consider entertainment when I grow up or not.”

I was worried about what else this friend had on their iPod.

“It’s not entertainment to me either, baby,” I replied.

Although sadly, I did like a few of Miley’s songs. Lame, I know, but I also have a Britney Spears CD in my car somewhere.

“Was she really Hannah Montana before she had this – what’s that word you use – exi-something?”

“Existential,” I offered.

“That word. Before she had her existential breakdown?”

“Yes, she was Hannah Montana.” Cole had never watched Hannah Montana, he was more of an “iCarly” kind of guy, appreciating Sam Puckett’s mean spirit and love of meat. And, I think my son is partial to sassy blondes.

“Then what in the world happened? She went from Disney to … there’s no word to describe what she is doing. Mama, she was naked. On a wrecking ball.” The disgust in his voice was heavy.

How do you explain a young woman being naked on, well, a wrecking ball? It was bad enough when I had to explain those dance moves to my Mama after I got a text asking me what twerking was, did I do it and should she start. I think it ended with: “Would it keep me from losing bone density?”

I still shudder when I recall that conversation. Maybe the age guidelines on some of these shows should be no one younger than 18 and no one older than 60.

“Cole, do you remember that episode of ‘Victorious’ where Victoria was being made to do all those silly, outrageous things for that record label? So it would keep her in the media spotlight?” He nodded, recalling the episode. “That is what is happening here. Miley Cyrus wanted to shake up her image, cast off her ties to Disney and get more attention. People are still talking about that video award show and it was a year ago, so she’s getting what she wanted. She’s laughing all the way to the bank.”

Cole shook his head. “I think it’s wrong. I still saw things that I can’t unsee!”

Me and him both.

“I understand, monkey. But, don’t let what a celebrity does get to you. It’s all just part of their image machine.”

He still was disgusted.

“I wouldn’t want to have that job then if I had to do that kind of stuff. It’s not right and it’s gross. I don’t care how much money they are making. Even if it’s gazillion billion dollars, it’s gross.”

I hope he never loses this moral compass. People have done worse, for less. But that was probably another conversation I wasn’t quite ready for either.

Before I couldn’t explain any further, my phone buzzed with a text from Mama. She just saw something about a highly anticipated movie coming out.

“50 Shades of Gray – what is that about exactly?” she wanted to know.

I sighed. Speaking of conversations I wasn’t ready to have.

You have such a pretty face (6/18/2014)

I heard someone make a comment the other day, a comment that made me cringe inwardly and outwardly as an involuntarily response.

“You have such a pretty face.”

Six words. Just six words meant to be a compliment. But the undercurrent of those words belies something very unflattering.

Those words meant who ever received them was fat, chubby, needed to lose some weight.

I had heard those painful words far too many times to count in my life.

When I had grown beyond the ‘cute’ level of chubby as a child, I would hear people comment behind my back that I used to be cute.

I actually went out with a guy in high school once who said this very comment to me. His actual words were: “You know you’d be really pretty if you dropped about 10 pounds.”

I felt like I had been slapped. “What if I lost more than that?”

“You’d be almost perfect then.”

I fought back angry tears. This guy was sorely lacking in both the personality and the looks departments, so I wasn’t quite sure where he got off saying anything about me being a little bit chubby.

“You are absolutely right; I would be perfect. So what I am going to lose is you.”

Even though the guy was an uncouth imbecile, his words stung bitterly. As someone who battled eating disorders, hearing something like that could ignite a relapse.

I have heard people use this phrase in an almost contentious way. It is always said with the unspoken “but” hovering in space afterwards that means, “So why don’t you lose weight so people will look at you differently?”

It means: “Why do you keep eating when you know how heavy you are?”

It means: “Do you not have a mirror to see yourself?”

It means: “Why did you let yourself go like this?”

It means: “How can you expect anyone to love you at this weight?”

It means: “I find you disgusting and gross.”

All the implications are full of judgment and negative evaluation.

I don’t know one female who has heard that phrase and not understood the secret meaning.

“Don’t you dare – I will stab you – tell me I still have a pretty face,” a friend said in greeting.

She had gained a few pounds and understood, the first thing women friends do is look to see if their other girlfriends have gained any weight.

We gauge our standing, our desirability, pretty much everything in our lives based on what we weigh and what our jeans size is. We even may take a secret delight in realizing we are not the chubbiest one any more. It was like a Darwinesque process where the thinnest not only survive, but move up the evolutionary chain.

I was, as usual, commenting on my weight as we sat at lunch one day. Lamar has learned to play deaf mute when I start saying anything in the proximity of weight. He excused himself to go to the restroom and I continued my monologue about my weight with Cole, who nibbled his fries.

“Mama, can I tell you what I think the problem is?” he asked quietly.

“Sure,” I replied, thinking he was going to tell me the current tightness in my jeans had to do with the cheesecake I had ordered for dessert.

“You are talking negatively about yourself. That is wrong. You should not do that. You are saying you are fat – that’s all I hear. How fat you think you are and it hurts my feelings because you are my mama,” he said, sincerity woven in his words.

“You always tell me to speak kindly and positively about myself; you don’t do that with yourself.”

No, I didn’t.

My child was only 9, but he had probably heard me fat-shaming myself since he was born.

That’s what women are supposed to do, isn’t it? We can’t get together without the conversation turning to how we hate our bodies within minutes. We are supposed to never be happy with what we weigh, how we look and are supposed to feel some sort of guilt as if we should have a ginormous disclaimer on our foreheads, reading: “I am greatly sorry, I am not perfect, I am not a sample size 2, I have curvy hips, a big rear and my stomach wasn’t flat before childbirth, so don’t know why you expect it to be now.”

Of course, that would never fit on our foreheads unless they were of billboard proportions, but surely we could put it on our ample posteriors. Or maybe just a T-shirt, in small words underneath, the words: “But I have such a pretty face.”

My child was right. I told him so. This did not assuage his discontent at my personal attack on myself.

“I don’t know why you worry about these things, Mama. You are married, have a family – why do you care what you weigh?”

“It has nothing to do with being married, Cole. It has to do with me. Can you understand that? It’s all internal. It’s all my issues. And just because I am married, that doesn’t mean I should just let myself go.” (Oh, all those undercurrents of judgment were so deeply ingrained in me.)

“What if your wife gained a bunch of weight after y’all got married? How would you feel?”

He sipped his lemonade, considering his response.

“You mean my wife, right? When I am grown and married?” I nodded. “If she gains weight that is perfectly fine with me. I don’t care what she would weigh or any of that stuff. As long as she loves me, loves our family, that’s all that matters to me. It’s all that should really matter any way.”

“As long as she has a pretty face, right?” I said, partly in jest.

“No, sweet girl,” he began, “that’s all that should matter at all – is what’s inside.”

Maybe one day, the fat shaming, the guilt, all the negative body imaging we do, will end.

Maybe it will be in my son’s generation, a revolution started by a child tired of hearing his mother’s weight complaints. And maybe just one day, the phrase “you have such a pretty face” will be replaced with “you are gorgeous” -free of judgment, condemnation and nothing negative implied.

Giving the guys some credit


I didn’t know my father very well, which really means, I didn’t know him.

He and my mother divorced when I was an infant and I only saw him once, when I was 5.

It was not easy, growing up the child of a single mom back then. Divorce was not common and if it was, the divorced parties were treated somewhat like lepers.

It never bothered me that I didn’t have my father around. It’s hard to miss what you never had.

“Sudie doesn’t have a daddy,” I heard a classmate say at my birthday party one year.

I froze. What did that mean exactly? To not have a daddy? I had to have had a daddy, Mama wasn’t an amoeba.

“No, she doesn’t,” a friend replied. “She has something better; she has her Pop and her Uncle Bobby.”

What I had was in many ways better. I had two male family members in my life who thought the sun rose and set with me.

My grandfather thought I could do no wrong and was my biggest fan, even bigger than my own mother. If anyone adored me and would have moved Heaven and Earth for this old girl, it was that man.

My uncle was in Vietnam when my parents divorced.

Mama wrote her younger brother and told him she was getting a divorce and may need some help. Somehow, Bobby was able to come home, and I had the luxury of having an Army sergeant as my frequent babysitter.

He is the champion pig-raiser, rescuer of just about every stray in a tri-county area and the wisest person I know, as he urged me to eat my hot fudge sundae before the burger in my kids’ meal from Dairy Queen.

I never felt like anything was missing. But that was just me.

My husband didn’t know his father growing up either. Or rather, he knew him, but there wasn’t a relationship.

What he would have given to have him to throw a ball with, to have had taught him how to do things, but he didn’t.

We women often give men a pretty hard time. Some of it is justified – hello, mansickness anyone? But there are still those rare, few men who not only make it a point to be present, but that care for their families, their friends.

That man may not be the biological father; may not be a blood relative even, but may be the one who takes on the role of the father. The one who is there when that child, or whoever it is, needs them to be.

I think Mama must have known it was going to be tough to raise a child on her own, and this was before she had any inkling of how stubborn I can be. That’s why she wrote Bobby and asked him to come home.

Did she know that it would be his quiet, gentle mannerisms that could stifle my most dramatic outbursts? Or that he would be the one who would keep me well stocked in school supplies throughout my undergraduate degree because he knew his only niece has a thing for pretty pencils, nice pens and college ruled multi-sectioned notebooks.

Did she know that my grandfather would be the one to teach me how to defend myself?

“What do you do if someone grabs you, Lil ‘Un?” he asked me. “Scream,” I answered. “Really, really loud.”

“Lawd have mercy (really, he said bad words, he was Irish, but I can’t put them here). No. You kick them – here,” he gave a swift kick to demonstrate where to aim. “And then you punch them hard when they go down.”

Not sure that would really work, but he wanted to make sure his only granddaughter knew a few rudimentary and primal techniques of protection. He also taught me how to size people up based on the way they treated animals, made eye contact and shook my hand.

Most importantly, he taught me how I should expect to be treated, which I remind Lamar of on a daily, possibly hourly, basis.

I am sure Mama knew they both would adore me, but that’s not always a given just because there’s a kinship.

Being bound by blood doesn’t necessarily mean those people will truly care about the child.

When Father’s Day comes, there will be a lot of mothers who are filling both roles and doing a dang fine job of it. And there will also be some stepdads, some uncles, some grandfathers, and some single mom’s best guy friend who are quietly, lovingly and without celebration filling those gaps as well.

Becoming a phenomenal woman (6/4/2014)


I didn’t know Maya Angelou personally, but through her writing, her quotes that I loved and saved like cherished heirlooms, I felt like I knew her.

I don’t think she was ever heralded as being a leader of girl power, but in my mind, she was. I like to think though, that like me, she stood not just for girl power, but for the power of humanity, through that undeniable belief that we all are connected.

So many of her quotes resonated with my soul.

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them” helped me get through many a challenging circumstance.

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time” has helped me more in hindsight than in foresight, but revealed to me evident truths.

“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor and some style” – oh, to thrive. What a wonderful status to achieve. When a baby is thriving, it means it is doing well.

To thrive with humor, compassion and style, well, I can’t think of anything better.

But my favorite Maya Angelou quote and one of my all-time favorite quotes, period, has to be: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

How simple yet true those words were. The words or actions may not accurately represent the person’s true meaning, but our soul knows when we are loved and safe.

It was a given her life had not been easy, but she had, as her words said, thrived.

She stood strong and pressed on, determined to not give up. She called herself a phenomenal woman and no one disputed that fact. She was. Her words guided me to think of the phenomenal woman I wanted to become and the women in my life who were by definition, phenomenal.

To become a phenomenal woman, I undoubtedly will have to channel my grandmother and mother. Both phenomenal, incredible women in different ways.

I know I am much like my grandmother, full of vinegar and salt, which is tempered by the gentle honey from Mama, who urges me to try nice first and think always of others. She reminds me that even if I have little, I still have something I can share.

Granny never failed to stand up for herself and that is something I used to be so much better at doing. That fearlessness in being able to speak her mind was warrior fierce and phenomenal.

Mama has always taught me to stand up for those who can’t defend themselves. Being silent while others are victimized carries its own shame, she has said.

“Sometimes, you may be the only voice they have.” Mama’s other phenomenal strength undoubtedly has to do with loving everyone while judging no one.

I think of my Aunt Mary who always made whoever she was talking to feel like the most special person in the world. She sought everyone out, grabbing them in a warm embrace and urging them to tell her everything – and she meant everything – that was going on in their life.

If you told her you had an interest in something, you can bet the next time she saw you, she had something related to it for you – an article, a picture, a trinket she had found. She was the storyteller and author of our family and when I told her I loved to write as a little girl, she would sit with me and listen to my stories as long as it took to tell them. Her ability to love and make people feel so extra special made her an incredible, phenomenal woman.

So many fellow women that have been in my life, offering their wisdom, being mentors, being that mother/sister/friend as Oprah called her mentor, that have made sure I remembered who I am and more importantly, who I was going to be. I have remembered above all, the way these women made me feel. Empowered, embraced, loved and supported. Maybe even a little bit like a warrior who could do anything, even when my spirit was weary and tired, they pushed me forward. Leaving pieces of themselves, woven into the tapestry of my spirit that make me who I am and the person, that phenomenal woman, I am hoping to be.

May we all remember that phenomenal feeling, and pass it on.