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Sunday, December 14, 2014

Just Keep It To Yourself: Enough with the Public Marriage Proposals!

Well, it's the holiday season - a time when red and green can be worn at the same time on the same person, a time when fat-shaming is traded in for adoration of a chubby man bearing gifts on his long-haul flight around the world, and a time when jewelry is purchased and someone gets down on bended knee and says the two scariest words ever, "Marry me." The engagement ring - the ultimate stocking stuffer - is often the unexpected guest during the holiday season.  The period between Thanksgiving and the New Year is the busiest time of year for marriage proposals, and why not? After all, this is the usual time of year when couples travel to the hometowns of their significant others. And there, in the glow of the family hearth and home, surrounded by loving strangers in questionable yet kitschy Christmas togs, reeking of holiday cheer and nostalgia, things happen and soon you're watching the guy you've fallen in love with making his ugly cry-face while fumbling with an expensive ring while your nana and pop-pop watch in silent horror as their turkey breast gets cold.

As you may have guessed, I'm not a fan of the public marriage proposal, but, in this social media age, I've been outvoted. Instead of a quiet moment between two people, marriage proposals must go big, bigger, biggest, with stories abounding of elaborate proposals involving flash mobs and choreography that's more involved and twistier than a "Scandal" plot line. But, as anyone knows, the bigger the production, the more likely that things will go wrong, which is why a whole sub-category called marriage proposal fails now exists. This past week, a marriage proposal ended in a man dangling from a crane and a hole in the roof of his girlfriend's house. And the pitfalls of the over-the-top marriage proposal are not limited to property damage. Asking someone to commit to spending the rest of their life with you requires that they consider the question carefully, and that consideration might take longer than the few seconds of space after you say the words and spring the ring. Imagine the unbelievable pressure it puts on a person when this proposal of marriage is delivered in front of a roomful of family members and close friends, or on a jumbo screen in a stadium or other large, public event. Is this public proposal a hint of things to come? Will you tell my family at the Thanksgiving table that we're going to try to have children, in fact, we'll be "trying" in the guest bedroom after you serve the pumpkin pie! ?? Will you be live-Tweeting from the delivery room with pithy hash tags like  #cervix or #AhPushIt? 

So just keep it to yourself, please! It will be great practice for the rest of your married life:)

Monday, November 24, 2014

These Little Boys: On Life and Death and Race

This past Saturday a 13 year boy became a Bar Mitzvah, an occasion marked by the gathering of his family members and cherished friends, from camp, preschool, Sunday school, and junior high. Dressed in their finest, guests ate well and danced to everything from that old classic "Shout" to "YMCA" and the latest hits by Nicki Minaj. There were ice cream dessert bars for adults and kids alike, and amped up versions of childhood games like musical chairs and Coke and Pepsi. There were glow sticks, blinking plastic novelty rings, and plenty of smiles and laughter, all celebrating the greatest accomplishment, so far, in a boy's life. Maybe this doesn't mean anything to you, this religious ceremony that welcomes teenage Jewish boys into assuming responsibility for their actions and for their Jewish faith. But for these boys, and the girls who become Bat Mitzvahs, these occasions will help to prepare the ground for their future accomplishments as adults. 

I am not Jewish, but as a photographer, present for these important life events, I have often wondered about the lives of these little boys compared to the lives of my three African-American nephews and their friends of color.  Two of my nephews, ages 14 and 12 and attending struggling public schools, are already experiencing the frustrations of being left behind academically. And we're trying, my family and I, we're trying and praying with all of our might to right this ship, to protect these boys in their boyhood and, yet, prepare them for an adult world that is forced on them all too soon. Try as we do to give them ice cream filled Saturdays, and happy family times, on a night like this, I feel powerless, but not hopeless. My nephews, these 3 little boys, are my little boys, and your little boys. So for tonight, before I feel discouraged, I'm going to look at a photo of my little boys, and I'll keep on, we'll keep on, loving you and protecting you, and all of these little boys.

My beautiful three nephews

Friday, November 7, 2014

Lena Dunham Needs a Hug

Since I'm much too lazy to join the Netflix cult, my down times usually involve a marathon viewing session of whatever's on cable, which often means reruns of Sex & The City. And while I loved this show so much in my twenties when the episodes first aired, now, in my 40s and married for almost 13 years, I can honestly call out Carrie & Company for being drama-seeking jerks. You make yourself available sexually for a man who refuses to commit to you? Guess what? You've lost the right to be angry at him. You want to agonize over every little detail of your boyfriend, then guess what? You're definitely going to find something wrong with him. At a certain point you have to wonder if the original working title for Sex & The City was I Love Drama

So why bash a show that's been dead and buried for a decade? Because in the wake of Carrie Bradshaw, another over-sharing young woman hitting the sheets and the streets of NYC has emerged and is in the process of enraging, or engaging depending on your point of view, a new generation of viewers. Her name is Lena Dunham - and if simply seeing her name in print here is making you see red, then you've heard of her, and you might also hate her. People have been trash-talking Miss Lena for the past few years as her HBO series, Girls has become the media's poster child for the privileged, majority white, millennials who currently hold the title for Most Vilified. Poor Lena! Sure, she undresses, a lot, on her show, and in a way that can make viewers squeamish, but it's her body and it's her thing. I don't think she does it to titillate, in fact the act is more like that of a toddler innocently shedding their clothes and streaking through the house, you know, because toddlers are craycray that way. 

Lena's latest controversy is unfolding now while she's on tour promoting her book, "Not That Kind of Girl." One passage, in particular, has set off red flags as it seems to describe an act of pedophilia possibly performed by Miss Lena on her baby sister. Reading the passage, I wondered several things, including: did this really happen, where were their parents, why write about this, and WHAT'S WRONG WITH THIS GIRL?  Seriously, what's wrong with this child? As it happens, I wasn't the only one curious about her motivation - both to do this miserable thing and to write about it. A Twitter war was declared, leading Miss Lena to take a break from her book tour and her nearly 2 million Twitter followers. 

It's the oddest thing, until you realize that this child grew up in the afterglow of Sex & The City and in the emergence of reality TV and celebrity culture. Somehow, Miss Lena, became confused. Look, I never, ever thought that Sarah Jessica Parker the actress was the character Carrie Bradshaw, but clearly, the fashion designers and stylists working with the actress encouraged her to embody the Carrie mystique every time she graced a red carpet. Soon, Sarah Jessica Parker BECAME Carrie, I mean she even has her own trendy shoe line, something that's so Carrie! So is Lena Dunham really her Girls character, Hannah Horvath? Or is Hannah actually Lena hiding in plain sight? Who knows, who will ever know? At some point, though, who will care? Let's not disparage Miss Lena, instead, hug her because, like those who've gone before her on those NYC streets, her genius and promise will air on a basic cable channel on a weekday afternoon.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

On Race: Coming to Terms with My Kelsey Problem

Hi, my name is Kelsey! We haven't met, yet, or maybe we have. Maybe you've seen me at Starbucks ahead of you and ordering three skinny pumpkin spice lattes and two iced mocha decafs while pulling my wet hair into a messy low-pony on that day you were running late for your 8:00am conference call. Sorry about that, but I had to grab some caffeine courage for my office biotches, you know! Hey, and super sorry about the maj coffee spillage that happened when my friend texted me about her bangs emergency and I attempted to hold my iPhone to read the text and then tried to reply to the text while balancing those two coffee trays. I felt to Lena Dunham that day, you know? Oh, you don't know! Really?? She's on "Girls" on HBO! I can't believe you haven't seen it!! Well, gotta run - BYYYYYYYEEEEE!

OK, that never happened. This was a fictional conversation between a fictional character named "Kelsey" and, an unwitting player in her life's drama, a fictional character that I'll call "Shandra." It's kind've funny, but, like a "Law & Order" episode, this scene was ripped from the headlines of my life, and, perhaps the lives of others. My fictional "Kelsey" is based on the flesh and blood Kelseys I meet everyday. She is buoyant, forever smiling, chirpy, and full of pluck. She is well-coiffed, though she spends countless hours with her hands in her hair - whether pulling it back with the elastic band that she always wears on her wrist, tucking it behind her ear, or maniacally running her fingers through it and furiously scooping it all to one side or the other or straight back if she really wants to get nuts. Her nails are always buffed and polished, and when they're not, she calls attention to the fact and tells a ripping yarn about why they're not done that usually involves a weird weekend DIY project with her roommates or baking brownies. Yes, brownies - Kelseys love to bake brownies and eat brownies, though not too many. And when they are seen eating their homemade confections, the Kelsey will, undoubtedly, call attention to how massive her gut/butt is, though she's usually south of a US size 8. 

Are you rolling your eyes yet? Or, are you nodding in agreement? Maybe you're doing both, like me!

Kelseys in the workplace are especially difficult to navigate. They are hardcore people-pleasers. Need someone to manage the office birthday party celebrations? Kelsey's there, with her well worn Rachel Ray cookbook and its perfect birthday brownie recipe! Need someone to work late every night for a year without asking for overtime, a raise, or a promotion? Kesley will do it, and she'll do it with a smile. She'll even come in on weekends, wearing her favorite Ann Taylor jewel tone cardi, skinny jeans, ballet flat, and plain white JCrew t-shirt, along with her faux, oversized pearl stud earrings. And don't worry, she'll stop by Starbucks on her way in for coffees for the whole team. I mean, they have to have something decent to drink with the 4 dozen brownies she managed to bake in the hours between working until 10pm on Friday night and arriving at 9am on Saturday morning. 

Kelseys function best in groups where they can stand out, although they hate to call attention to themselves. After work, packs of Kelseys (or is it gaggles, or a murder, no, that's crows) go to the nearest watering hole where they drink shots and call their fellow Kelseys "biotches" at the top of their lungs while precariously balancing an overflowing pilsner glass as they navigate through the throngs of other Kelseys looking to get their drink on! Oh, and here's another note, Kelseys always like to get something "on" - get my laundry on, get my drink on, get my tan on, get my party on - maybe it's because a Kelsey is always "on", which is why after stopping at the bar, the Kelsey then heads to the gym for SoulCycle or some sort of fitness bootcamp. Kelseys like the camaraderie of group classes or team sports, although she'll run a half-marathon for a cause, so for all you trying desperately to recruit for the company kickball team look no further than the Kelsey in your own backyard.

So, what's my beef with the Kelseys? I guess I have to go back to my childhood and my first Kelsey. At the start of second grade, the parents made my sister and I switch to a school closer to home, which meant goodbye to the 35-minute morning commute and hello to a school down the street from us. The change of venue, though, also meant goodbye to the black teachers and classmates I'd grown to love and hello to a predominately white elementary school. All at once, I was a little, fat black girl with unreasonable hair (read: nappy), a shiny face (Grandma liked to Spackle Vaseline on my face EVERY morning), a strange smile (a gap between my front teeth which I proudly display now), and no fashion sense (c'mon, I was a fat kid in the 1970s!). And there were the Kelseys - with their cool Barbie dolls, strawberry lip gloss, perfect penmanship (complete with hearts over their "i"s), and Hello Kitty pencil cases. In the presence of the Kelseys, I felt lacking.

By undergrad, I knew how to deal in the Kelsey-rich environment of my small, southern, nearly 100% white college and I seemed to thrive. But, I could see some cracks beginning to form and the Kelsey-tolerance I thought I'd built up was starting to wane. The Kelseys were the ones going on dates, getting boyfriends and fraternity pins and engagement rings from the white boys on my campus. And me - well, when I wasn't being overlooked or mistaken for one of the dining hall or cleaning staff, I was the friend or the one those white boys wanted to take to bed, but not wed. I felt shame and anger,

After school, though, I learned that I was not alone. That there were others of us who've suffered the Kelsey Curse of feeling less than. In my first job after grad school, I tried to out-Kelsey the Kelseys, striving for perky and upbeat and positive. My white supervisors applauded me, but the black women in my office were divided with some giving me a lot of side-eye and others loving my can-do attitude, and hoping that we finally had a contender to fight the Kelsey scourge!! I was doing alright, and soon, I left for my dream job in radio, but, in a stunning twist, I found that what my new boss wanted me to BE a Kelsey. You see, somewhere I'd become confused, and had taken so much Kelsey into my bloodstream that people thought that I was a Kelsey. But, I'm not, and that's when I began to understand that my Kelsey problem was defining my life. I remember, at that time, going to a vocal coach who said that everyone who hosts their own radio or TV show has to find their voice - who they are, their point of view - and communicate that over the airwaves. It sounded so simple, unless you don't know who you are, and I didn't have a clue. 

I had only defined myself in relation to the Kelseys of the world, and now I am able to see that I am more than I thought. All of the shame and the anger and the longing to belong had become tiresome. I hate thinking about all of the time I lost in the clutches of the Kelsey haze, and even though I have some minor twinges, like when I'm watching "Top Chef" or "Food Network Star" and see another black woman contestant knocked off of her game by some fresh-faced Kelsey, I'm aware of how good life is. Not perfect, but so very good. Too good to be consumed with the cult of Kelsey. So play with your hair, drink your pumpkin-spice beverage, bake your brownies, Zumba your little heart out - I'm over it, Kelsey! 

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Reality TV Vocabulary Primer

Well, the Fall 2014 television season has begun, which means lots of new shows vying for our attention. Among these shows are new reality TV shows, and while the premises for these shows may have upped the OMG-quotient ("Dating Naked" comes to mind), they all include a very basic vocabulary that lets you, the viewer, know that yes, you have stumbled onto a reality show. So, for those of you who took a break over the summer from reality TV, or those of you who are (shocking!) reality TV virgins, here is the quick and dirty, definitive reality TV vocab primer - also known as Reality TV as a Second Language.

This is reality TV's name for a friend or a frenemy who appears in your same reality TV universe.

Used as an adjective or as a noun to describe a castmate or a castmate's activities which are particularly irksome, illegal, or that could potentially cause a danger to other castmates. Used in a sentence: Kim went all crazypants shotgunning quarts of milk at Phaedra's Black Cleopatra Costume Party.

Often used as a verb (NeNe disrespected Phaedra by not inviting her to her Superhero Drag Party) to describe actions by castmates that hurt the feelings of other castmates.

The consequences from the thoughtless actions of a crazypants castmate. Drama can be caused by anyone at anytime and should be avoided AT ALL COSTS. One's ability to avoid drama is viewed as a virtue by other castmates.

Not to be confused with the epic "Beowulf" that you read in high school, this use of the term "epic" can describe a plethora of activities or items. An example: Reza's Cold Mountain theme party was epic. Or this: Reza drank an epic amount of espressos.

Used most frequently by female castmates to describe other female castmates who may no longer technically qualify for the "girl" designation. An example: This group of girls have so much drama.

Got your back:
Used as a term of endearment for one, or more, of one's castmates who consistently demonstrate loyalty. An example: I thought Tamra had my back, by I was wrong.

Loving someone to death:
A turn of phrase used by castmates to describe their love of a fellow castmate, usually declared when the castmates are inebriated on a party bus or on one of the many forced group vacations castmates must go on with cameras rolling. Usually ending with a sloppy, weird hug.

Team [Insert Name]:
Groups of girls typically subdivide into teams when drama has arisen in the group. The team name denotes the principle parties involved in the altercation. An example: In the matter of Jill vs. Bethanny, I'm Team Jill

That just happened:
Often, reality TV castmates must take on the role of narrator for their filmed realities in soliloquies spoken to their camera confessionals. In order, then, to express surprise/outrage/horror, they have developed a verbal shorthand, the phrase, "that just happened", though, spoken with a dramatic pause BETWEEN. EACH. WORD. 

Throwing anyone under the bus:
The term, used to describe an act of betrayal, is in the Top Ten Reality TV Vocabulary Pantheon! And there seems to be no shortage of buses in the reality TV universe as castmates throw each other under buses weekly, and, sometimes, multiple times within one episode. It defies the laws of physics as some of these castmates do not appear to possess the requisite physical strength it would take to toss someone underneath a bus. 

Throwing up a little in your mouth:
This turn of phrase, used to describe a person or situation so vile that it elicits nausea and vomiting, is a staple of reality TV. It seems to have its roots in the Valley Girl speak of the 1980s and that era's popular phrase, "gag me with a spoon." 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Fashion, Feminism and Ferguson - Is Everything Old New Again?

On a recent visit to Urban Outfitters, I felt like I was on a walk down memory lane, the 90's Grunge Edition. There, in red plaid flannel shirts, Doc Martens boots, Nirvana t-shirts, and oversized, tattered sweaters were my college-aged self, only repackaged for children born in the 90's. I literally had clothing in my closet older than these children! It's a bit jarring, but I guess that everything old IS new again.

Nostalgia isn't always bad, but it's not always good. For instance, this past week, sexism was back on display and in our living rooms with the Ode d'booty on display at MTV's Video Music Awards (VMAs) where Nicki Minaj and a troop of strip club trained back up dancers dry-humped the stage whilst showing off their...assets? Not to be outdone, even Beyonce, with her young daughter in the front row, sang surrounded by a dozen female dancers lying on their backs, with their legs thrust into the air and spread eagle followed by synchronized pelvic thrusting, like some sort of XXX version of a Busby Berkeley musical. And while Beyonce is often referred to as an empowering female, to be admired for her body of work as well as her physical body, no matter how many times her stage set spells out "Feminist" in 20 foot neon letters, her placement as a feminist icon is difficult to digest when she never seems to be wearing pants! In fact, there were lots of pants-less strong women honored at the VMAs, with Taylor Swift, all seven feet of her, walked the red carpet in something that looked like a romper you'd put on your one-year-old. Jessie J. also got the "no pants" memo, leaving Ariana Grande with her high ponytail and knee-high sequined gogo boots looking like Margaret Thatcher compared to the other ladies. What happened, MTV? You wanted another Miley/Robin Thicke moment so desperately that you decided to turn the stage into a strip club? But, let's be real, music videos are about the shock value. The number of YouTube views and they hype, which means skin (female, primarily). Video directors, in league with music labels, want buzz so that means giving the people what they want, or telling them what they want. And it's obvious that they don't want feminism.

Not to be outdone, the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards also did their part to take feminism back to the Dark Ages, or at least back to the time of Mad Men, when the president of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences had Emmy Award-winning actress, Sofia Vergara, basically shut her mouth and stand up on a rotating platform, looking pretty whilst he tended to the manly task of explaining stuff using big words that pretty, dumb ladies can't possibly understand!

Still feeling nostalgic for days gone by, well then let's take a trip to Ferguson, Missouri where an over-policed, majority-black, community is still reeling from the violent shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a while police officer. Those protesting the killing of Michael Brown took their cause to the streets of Ferguson where they were met by police in military gear complete with assault rifles, hurling teargas at American taxpayers who were exercising their First Amendment right to assemble. It all felt so 1960s that I could hear Martha and the Vandellas singing "Dancing in the Streets"! When the local police are more occupying force with an inability to distinguish between the good people who love their community and the looters who seek to destroy that community, then something's got to change before another black family loses another black son.  

But can things ever truly change? Can the community of Ferguson and the police learn to trust each other? Can women learn to rely on our talents and not our tookus to get noticed? I wish I knew the answers to these questions, but for now, I only know that I have a pair of steel-toed Doc Marten boots to dust off and I'm wondering if they'll go with my Calvin Klein jacket - I'm all for nostalgia but there's no need to go overboard!

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Freshman's Guide to College Life: The Daddy Issues Edition

By now, your Facebook newsfeed is brimming with photos from proud parents of their smiling, happy children packing up and moving into their college freshmen dorms. And while my freshman year is many years behind me, I still remember that odd mixture of fear and excitement, of wariness in leaving my childhood home and my mother's arms and the joy of having a space of my own in a world about which my parents knew nothing. 

But, the only person who knew less than my parents was me, and so I want to talk directly to you, college freshman. While you may have impressive technological sophistication, and while you may think that you know everything (or, a bit more than your parents), everyone has a blind spot, especially the average college freshman, and, more specifically, a freshman woman with daddy issues. Maybe your parents had a bad marriage, maybe your father was emotionally withholding, mentally abusive, or simply not around. Maybe your daddy loves his second family better, or maybe he loves his job better. It doesn't matter, because young lady, you're arriving on campus on a mission, and that mission is to be loved AT ANY COST!! If you are this woman, or if you know this woman, here are simple tips to get you safely started at college and safely out the other side.

There's nothing wrong with dating, but if you've got daddy issues you should avoid the urge to merge at least during the first half of your freshman year. Why? You'll want to focus all of your attention on your new love, even if it interferes with your studies and with your ability to make and develop friendships. Soon you'll be scheduling your meals, laundry, and classes around your 'boo as your insecurities lead you to believe that any time apart means an imminent break-up. You'll sport his fraternity sweatshirt in the dining hall and be his own personal cheerleader during intramural basketball games. Slow down, girl! Get to know yourself and enjoy your independence. And when you do start dating on campus, don't date someone who lives in your dorm as you might be too tempted to casually "bump into" them in a manner that law enforcement calls "stalking." Remember, smothering your boyfriend doesn't make your daddy love you.

Yep, he's an authority figure, and, sure, he looks devastating in front of the chalk board in your freshmen English seminar class, but he's too old for you and, oh, and he's your professor. It's tempting, though, to seek out the affections of an older man, a man who might be old enough to the father who didn't love you enough/at all, but he's not interested, so stop before you make a fool of yourself. So don't wear that low-cut, semi-sheer tank top to his class. Don't lean seductively over his desk in said top to ask him a burning question you have about "Beowulf" before that class starts. And don't go to his office during office hours in that tank top to get his profound thoughts on Olde English vs. modern English. At best, he'll laugh at you and send you on your way, at worst, he'll hook up with you and now both of your academic careers are in jeopardy. So, keep things professional, and maybe check and see if a female professor teaches that same class. And if that female professor has a male teaching assistant, then re-read this paragraph from the top. Remember, seducing a male authority figure doesn't make your daddy love you.

This is a particularly dicey subject. Unless you're at a dry campus, most socializing on a typical college campus involves a red Solo cup and a keg. I'm not naive enough to tell you to "just say no" and harp on the countless stories on binge-drinking and excessive partying on college campuses, it's just that I never really figured out why the drinking culture was so pervasive on campus. Most college kids don't get drunk because they like the taste of beer and liquor (although, Moscato wine is like liquid candy), do they? From what I've seen, it seems as if they get drunk so they can tell tall tales of their tipsy shenanigans. It's like their intoxication becomes the cover for bad behavior, and for a girl with daddy issues, booze becomes a part of her male-attention seeking arsenal. Look at me, I just pounded 8 beers in a row! Look at me, I just downed 4 vodka shots!! Look at me, I just hooked up with 3 random dudes but I'm too drunk to remember their names!!! Don't be that girl. Listen, the boys who cheered you on while you downed a fifth of rum are not your friends. If they were, they wouldn't let you do something that could cause you injury or death. And their attention doesn't make your daddy love you.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Summer Hummer 3: How the Washington, DC Theatre Scene Takes Care of Its Own

Life often brings unexpected circumstances, and for theatre professionals, who often work without the benefit of health insurance, those circumstances can jeopardize their physical and financial health. Enter: theatreWashington and their Taking Care of Our Own (TCOOO) initiative, a fund financed by the generous donations of theatre patrons and the theatre community at large. Donations to TCOOO are made throughout the year, but the signature event that raises the most donations to the fund in a single evening is The Summer Hummer, a DC version of Broadway Bares, with local DC theatre scenesters bumping and grinding for a great cause. This year's Summer Hummer, held at Signature Theatre, was the bawdiest ever with crazy costumes, great singing, and cheesecake and beefcake to spare. Here is the PG-13 highlights reel!

Patrick J. Hurston and Signature Theatre Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer at Summer Hummer

theatreWashington President and CEO Linda Levy with Helen Hayes Award winning actor, Matthew DeLorenzo at Summer Hummer

Members of the cast of Studio Theatre's "Rocky Horror" pose with orange-boaed conductor/songwriter Christopher Youstra

Victor Shargai is all smiles at Summer Hummer 3

Joshua Morgan of No Rules Theatre Company and Luigi Filiputti

Those gams belong to none other than actor Ryan Patrick Welsh

Actors Bobby Smith and Erin Gardiner join conductor/composer Christopher Youstra in a squeeze and a giggle at Summer Hummer

Actor Michael Litchfield crowdsurfs for donations at the Summer Hummer

It's a boy dance party at the Summer Hummer

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Public Mourning and Social Media: The Celebrity Death Edition

By now, you've seen countless news stories about the sudden and shocking death of actor and comic, Robin Williams. And your Facebook and Instagram feeds are teeming with RIPs, nanu-nanus, and images of Robin Williams, including screen shots from "Dead Poets Society," "Mrs. Doubtfire," and, most gut-wrenching of all, Robin Williams as the loveable, flamboyant Genie in Disney's "Aladdin", tenderly embracing the title character. We've now entered the celebrity tribute round of this morbid exercise, with comics and actors sharing their particular and personal special moments with the deceased, and even the President managed to get included in the conversation by offering up words of comfort as Mourner in Chief. And then former child star Todd Bridges had to go and open his mouth, calling Williams' suicide "cowardly," and he was soon joined by other anonymous minions spewing their digital venom at Williams and his family. The actor's daughter, Zelda Williams, was forced to quit Twitter and Instagram due to the rather outrageous behavior of these Internet trolls.

Welcome to Public Mourning and Social Media. 

The death of a celebrity has always ushered in a time of public reflection. Celebrities enter our lives and a certain intimate bond is created. Maybe we watched them on a sitcom with our families when we were children, or on the big screen as a favorite action hero when we were teenagers. I grew up watching Robin Williams - in "Happy Days" and "Mork & Mindy." I remember laughing hysterically and singing every line of "You Ain't Never Had a Friend Like Me" from "Aladdin," and trying to copy Williams' Scottish brogue in "Mrs. Doubtfire." There are friends of mine for whom "Dead Poets Society" became a touchstone as it exposed their own teenage fears and hopes and dreams. It is only natural to want to reach out and grieve in community with others who feel this loss. Social media, then, can become an outlet for grief, for some - a virtual version of an Irish wake. 

But, public mourning in social media can also expose our own vanity. Look at all of the "Likes" my quote from "Good Will Hunting" got! OhmyGod, Willie Geist on "Today" just said that my tribute in GIFs to Robin Williams got 2 million views on YouTube! Wow, did you see Jimmy Fallon/Norm MacDonald/Arsenio Hall/Carrot Top's tribute to Robin Williams - OMG I cried when I saw it! Look at me, I'm mourning! We clamour for the attention of our connection, no matter how tentative, to celebrity.

I fear that we've reached a point where even our mourning for the not-famous is becoming tangled in the social media web. I've attended funerals where mourners have snapped photos of the open casket or of the burial plot with their smartphones for their Facebook newsfeed. What's next? A selfie with the coffin?? 

However, there's something even less outrageous, but more pervasive and unsettling, that's happening. It's a pressure to post about the deaths of our loved ones. There used to be the right to privacy about life and death and everything in between. Now, as we share our vacations, engagements, weddings, promotions, and births in real time, we also share sickness and death. When my father died, I felt compelled to post photos of Dad and our family in happier times, to share stories from our life together. With each "like", I felt there was one more person who must understand the pain I felt, a pain that would define me in a totally new way and that I wanted the world, or at least my corner of the world, to know. But, social media is a fickle thing - not everything you post is read by everyone you've "friended," not every "friend" really cares about what happens in your life. To demand and offer intimacy in the same action can be a danger and a disappointment as these moments become a part of continuous digital feed thrown out to be consumed or ignored by the masses. 

So, right this minute, take a breath and stop all of the liking/posting/tweeting/retweeting/regramming and any other sharing you're tempted to do after the latest celebrity death. Got some poetry you're itching to use on this monumental occasion - then keep it to yourself and save it for the eulogy of a loved one you actually know. If you're into prayer, then pray for Robin Williams' family and friends as they grieve for their loved one who has departed this earth too soon. Watch his movies and thank him for the moments of joy he brought to your life. Even better, imagine if Robin Williams was your father or your brother or your husband or your son or your friend and needed help. Stop posting and, instead, volunteer at a suicide prevention hotline or become aware of those around you in distress and try your best to help them.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Don't Look Down: A Graduation Guide for Parents

Over the past few weeks, my Facebook feed has made me abundantly aware that it's graduation season. Everyone, from kindergarten tots to the middle school-bound, high school seniors, and college grads are donning caps and gowns and big smiles. And their parents, in the precious few minutes of quiet, between hosting graduation brunches/lunches/dinners and posting photos of the celebrations, are reflecting on all that they have achieved, and by "they", I mean the parents. 

These moments, when you dare to look down from the tightrope that we call ordinary time, can be deeply satisfying, but mostly, they just make you dizzy. On the day of my own college graduation over 20 years ago, I remember this weird, frozen look on my mom's face. She also had that same look on the day of my graduation from my master's program, and on my wedding day. Was it a look of gratitude? A little. But, mostly, it was a look of astonishment, a look of bewilderment that this grand experiment called parenthood, and its 6,570 days of dirty laundry, school lunches, colds, coughs, fevers, picky eaters, praying, door-slamming, sleepovers, Cub Scouts, more praying, swim meets, dance recitals, permission slips, first dates, more praying, and curfews was all coming to an end and that she'd made it!  

So now, what do you do? Who do you become? Do you write that book you wanted to write? Do you take that trip that you always wanted? Do you finally quit that job that you've hated? You might not be wearing a cap and gown, but your child's graduation day marks the beginning of a new phase of your life, too:) 

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Big Chop: When a Haircut is More Than a Haircut

This past week, the world was rocked by news out of the British Royal Palace that the deliciously lovely brown locks of the Duchess of Cambridge were under assault by, of all people, her mother-in-law! And this coming shortly on the heels of another royal pig-pile, this one involving her grandmother-in-law, the Queen, and her decree regarding Kate's hemlines (below the knee, ducky). Judging by the outflow of social media angst and anger over the suggestion that the Duchess adopt a shorter, more mommy-friendly hair cut, you had to wonder about the larger issues at stake. Was this yet another instance of royal meddling, the likes of which had been endured by another beauty who dared marry into the Buckingham Palace set? Was this a punch to the throat to feminism or was it just another case of female competition? 

Hair, it appears, is a very touchy subject these days. There was the "Afro-magnifico" of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's son, as well as the natural hair looks of the daughter de Blasio and the mayor's wife. And the case of an African-American local TV news personality who was fired for wearing her hair in a natural, nonchemically-straightened style. Even the occupants of the White House get unnecessary attention over all things follicled - with the First Lady and her blow-out and the First Daughters and their natural hair styles.

I've gone through my own hair battles all of my life - from press and curls, to Jerri Curls, back to press and curls, to cornrows, to individuals, to relaxers, and now, most recently, a close-cropped natural 'fro. Women in the know call this "the big chop" - the super-short haircut to get all of the chemicals out of the hair and to return it to its virgin (and in my case tightly curled) state. This wasn't the first time I'd ever had my hair cut short, so this wasn't the deep trauma that you see on a daytime talk show ambush makeover where the victim with hair down to her waist has her hair cut to chin length. But, this was the first time that I'd had a short haircut minus the chemical hair straightener. 

The day of the big chop, I walked out the salon and straight into the cold winter air. For the first time, I truly felt the cold wind whipping through my now substantially shorter hair! Over the next few weeks after the big chop, I did a slow roll-out of the new haircut to family, friends, clients, and I did my own internal focus group testing. Reaction among other black women has been consistently and sometimes overwhelmingly positive, depending on age. Young professionals in the under-30 age group thought my haircut was saucy and they loved how healthy my hair looked. My middle-aged group were a mixed bag, with some admiring my courage and others giving no reaction at all. Finally were the 55-plus group of black women, most of whom had already done their own big chop many years ago and who greeted me with words to the effect of, "isn't it nice to be free?" 

And then there were the other reactions. These weren't negative reactions in the sense of what the hell did you do/this is awful/will it grow back? Instead, it was as if Harry Potter had thrown his invisibility cloak over me. I passed undetected through the offices of several clients - I mean they saw me, but they failed to recognize me.  A couple of weeks ago, I was at the airport, on my way home from a five-day conference, and in the waiting area I saw a participant from that same conference. She and I have attended this conference for several years and we even shared a flight home after this same conference the year before. So when I said, "hello", I thought there would be some hint of recognition. There wasn't. When our flight landed, and we were all waiting to pick up our luggage, we were only a couple of feet apart, but still nothing. By the time I rolled my bags out to wait for my ride, this same woman came over to get into her idling black town car, mere inches from me, but still nothing.  Even Facebook and it's facial recognition software were vexed, asking me if I wanted to tag a photo of me with the name of another friend who also happens to be a black woman with short hair and glasses (sorry Cynthia!). 

I feel like I've disappeared, or have been reborn - I can't decide which. When my non-black friends first saw my hair, they all, to a person, noticed that I'd cut my hair. But, what they didn't know, and, perhaps, couldn't know, about this haircut was that its changes run deeper than the shortness of my hair. They couldn't know that these tightly-packed curls were a signal to all whom I meet that I am different and I love how I am different.  They couldn't know that my life prior to the big chop meant avoiding any activities which could do harm to my chemically relaxed hair; half-day marathon appointments at the hairdresser; a constant search for and acquisition of umbrellas; and, in my case, not learning how to swim until I was an adult and sporting cornrows! I am learning to be beautiful in a world where people tell me that I'm not beautiful because my hair is too nappy, my skin too dark, and my body too large. And before you roll your eyes and wonder whether I'm going to dare to "go there" with that old chestnut, "beauty's on the inside", that's not where this is heading. Sure, your inside should be beautiful, but we need to expand our notions of outward, visible beauty, as well, just as I am doing.

When I think about it, the hardest adjustment I've had to make has been recognizing that my chemically straightened hair wasn't helping me to fit in, but was helping me to hide out, to disappear myself into the easily acceptable. I am trying, now, only to be myself and to love all of who I am, even if that makes some people uncomfortable. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

What Kind of Cat Are You: Trying to Curb My BuzzFeed Quiz Addiction

Hi, my name is Shannon and I can't stop taking BuzzFeed quizzes. There, I've admitted it, and I know I'm not alone. By now, you probably know what career you should actually have, how many children you should have, when you should have gotten married, what state you actually belong in, what kind of dog you are, which Jane Austen heroine you are, and what kind of parent you are - all thanks to Jonah Peretti, the founder of BuzzFeed, and his army of editors who've made the website into the stickiest little time-waster ever! And while I appreciate all of the psychological insights that a gal can garner over a 10-question quiz, I'm curious about why these quizzes are so seductive.

It's not like they're breaking new ground. When I was in college, my friends and I would take those Cosmo quizzes more seriously than our GREs, LSATs, and MCATs. However, those Cosmo quizzes were a bit more, shall we say, frisky, in terms of their content - from what kind of girlfriend are you to what your favorite sexual position says about you. You had a feeling that a team of Cosmo psychologists were working around the clock fashioning these quizzes, which, incidentally, seemed to go on forever, and which required deep introspection. Maybe my submissive tendencies in romantic relationships were sabotaging my workplace ambitions! 

By the time I entered graduate school, it was the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test that was all the rage. This was the ultimate Cosmo quiz, only this time, instead of taking the test on a Friday night with a few glasses of wine with your girlfriends in front of the TV, this one was given to you in a classroom or at work. And the results of this test had implications far beyond your antics in the bedroom. Myers-Briggs produced the ultimate "aha" moment, putting the events of the test-takers lives inside of a framework that helped them to make sense of all of their successes and failures up to that point. So maybe my fear of public speaking had nothing to do with my intelligence, after all, and could be explained by my being a hardcore Introvert! In just four letters, a diagnosis for my life could be made, and also a prescription to fix what was wrong. No more ENTJ boyfriends for this INFP girl - no way!!

Myers-Briggs, Cosmo, and now BuzzFeed, are all a variant on our need to diagnose where we are. They are a third-party observer who can assess how we're doing and if we're happy. Did we take the right job? Are we married to the right person? These quizzes are our opportunity to check in - like cheap forms of therapy. And then we share the results with each other, providing another opportunity for people to know us better. BuzzFeed may be a new technology, but within it is the oldest human need, that of intimacy through revelation. And now I'm off to find out if I'm a hipster and what font I am. Spoiler alert: I think I'm a hardcore Verdana, although I've played the harlot with Courier once or twice:)

Monday, January 27, 2014

Awards Shows and the Art of Giving Thanks

It's awards show season - that magical time of the year when miles of red carpet are burned through by the hordes of celebrities and their supporting cast of publicists, stylists, makeup artists, photographers, and correspondents yelling "what are you wearing" against the sonic boom of screaming fans penned behind metal barriers. It would seem the most self-serving of spectacles for all involved - from the fan looking to get social media gold with a selfie alongside a celebrity, to the reporter trying to get the "get" with an off-the-cuff celebrity moment that could go viral, to the stylist who can boast that they had intimate knowledge of the vast amounts of sticky tape they needed to use in order to help a certain starlet avoid a XXX moment on the red carpet, the designer whose dress graces the body of said starlet, the jeweler whose bobbles adorn the starlet, and on and on! 

And then the show begins, and that starlet, waiting anxiously in a vast auditorium, hears her name being called, and she takes her terrifying and exhilarating walk down the aisle, pushing past the cameras, and making her way up to the stage where two presenters await her with a gleaming statuette in their hands. In this moment, as the tears start, she begins the task of giving thanks. The pros will have memorized their list of those to thank or they will have prepared, in advance, a list of those to thank, and they will deliver that list flawlessly. But there are also those who have not prepared. For reasons having to do with superstition or an attempt to look humble, these folks don't prepare anything. So when their name is called, their minds draw a blank,  and they stammer and stumble their way through their acceptance speech, invariably forgetting those whose hard work, love and support brought them to this moment. 

This is an experience that all of us can relate to - sometimes, we forget to thank those who contributed in ways big and small to what we have and what we have achieved. So, this awards season, don't forget to thank your own supporting cast.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

I'm Just Saying: An Attitude of Ingratitude: What to do with Justin...

I'm Just Saying: An Attitude of Ingratitude: What to do with Justin...: Well, it looks like Justin Bieber has, once again, proven that if you have a goal and work hard enough, you just might get your wish - congr...

An Attitude of Ingratitude: What to do with Justin Bieber

Well, it looks like Justin Bieber has, once again, proven that if you have a goal and work hard enough, you just might get your wish - congratulations on your arrest in Miami! You've come close, oh so close, before, Biebs, and we all collectively grieved your failure to get popped by the cops after your allegedly wild parties and flooring it in residential areas. But, now, you've made it and your smiling mug shot is a sort of class picture, for you have graduated to the ranks of the arrested. If only they had played "Pomp and Circumstance" for you as you pimp-rolled into the courtroom sporting your prison orange! 

But that's not all! It seems in the hours leading up to your arrest you were one busy boy - hanging out (shirtless) in nightclubs and getting your (underage) "drink on"! And, oh look, you even resisted arrest??!! That's like hitting the trifecta! 

Am I picking on you, Biebs? Am I just another one of those "haters" you've referenced who always seem to be "hating"? Or am I someone who cannot stomach the obvious ingratitude you have for the good fortune you have? 

And while I guess I could give you a pass, you know, because you're 19 and had a tough childhood and that your fame and money-making ability has resulted in a largely unsupervised adolescence which is sputtering into a chaotic young adulthood, I do wonder about the man you will become. Unfortunately, ingratitude isn't something you age out of, like a hankering for Pop Rocks or a love of Teletubbies. Sometimes, life kicks the ingratitude out of you, like a vicious thug, and  takes away those things that you were fortunate enough to have but treated with contempt. And I'm not just talking about money - no! Talent, adulation, respect - these can all wither away. 

So here's my advice - put your shirt on and get grateful! Instead of glamorizing your privileged white boy version of thug life, work to keep at-risk children out of the juvenile justice system. You see, you're slumming it and I'm calling your bluff - cease and desist! Stop glamorizing ghetto fabulous, stop twerking your heads off, stop buying lap dances at grungy strip clubs from women living at the fringes, and stop drinking all of the non-medicinal cough syrup you want because you get to retreat to your mansion and your millions. Stop treating your odyssey to the wrong side of the tracks as if it were a trip to Disneyland. And now that you're finally in jail, pull your pants up! I know this has nothing to do with gratitude on a large scale, but I'd certainly be grateful:)

Thursday, January 16, 2014

14 Signs that You Attended an All-Girls Catholic High School in the DMV in the 1980s and 1990s

Recently, there's been a hilarious post making the rounds on social media that addresses all of the funny/curious/weird things that bond us products of a Catholic school education, but there is a specific demographic with a lot more to say about the subject - those of us who attended all-girls Catholic high schools in the Washington, DC area back in the 1980s and the 1900s. So here we go:

14 Signs that you attended an all-girls Catholic high school in the DMV in the 1980s and 1990s:

  • Nearly everyone had a curling (or crimping) iron in their locker
  • The uniform school shoe policy of black or navy blue loafers was stretched to include Etienne Aigner short boots and Timberland lace-ups
  • The school dances you attended had a go-go band
  • When the last bell of the day sounded, it was a matter of minutes before your shirts were untucked, your skirts rolled up to a point well above the knee, and your uniform shoes were ditched for pristine white sneakers or Timberland boots
  • If your after-school plans included a fight at the Metro station, you wore shorts underneath your uniform skirt in order to do a quick-change and avoid being identified as a student at a specific school
  • The hot ticket in town was the trip to hear the annual Christmas concert at Archbishop Carroll
  • Instead of Jansport backpacks, your classmates had Louis Vuitton, Coach, or Gucci backpacks
  • You piled 6 people deep into a classmate's late-model Toyota for lunch at the off-campus Popeye's 
  • You borrowed $1-2 dollars from one of those classmates for that lunch at the off-campus Popeye's 
  • You knew someone with a nickname that began with "Li'l"
  • Gym class didn't automatically equal physical exertion
  • Gold hoop earrings were part of the uniform
  • Without a football team, you really didn't have anything resembling homecoming like your public school or co-ed high school friends
  • You went to school in full make-up even though there weren't any boys around

Sunday, January 5, 2014

For the Newly Engaged: A Marriage Manual in 15 Steps

Well, it's January, which means that there are quite a few ladies and gents sporting some new bling and diving into the wedding planning pool. But, before you get those wedding binders bedazzled and sign up for The Knot, I'm here to share some rules for the road for the transition from wedding day bliss to the everyday of marriage. These are tips gleaned from the marital trenches of the brave men and women who have gone before you and will be there to support you on your journey, so here goes!

  1. Hire a maid or Shut Your Mouth: Nagging isn't pretty, and neither is suffering in passive-aggressive silence while you clean up after your messy partner. So, hire a maid and make the messy partner pay for it! 
  2. Rent an apartment for the first year or so (preferably with a gym and a pool): This seems counter to the prevailing culture, but owning a house means taking care of a house. That means shoveling snow in the winter, cleaning gutters, repairing/replacing windows, sealing driveways, power washing decks, removing carpet, replacing carpet, polishing hardwood floors, and so on, and so on! Think of the time you could be using to do something more interesting like traveling, or taking salsa lessons, or reading so that you'll have something much more fun to talk about than tile grout!
  3. NO HOME RENOVATION PROJECTS!!!!: Listen to me because, obviously, if we're discussing this then you've completely ignored my advice in #2 (above), or, you moved into a home that your beloved already owns. And, as often happens in these situations, the partner with the home has graciously offered to change whatever you'd like changed in the home in order for you to put your stamp on the property. Sounds sweet, right?? Don't do it! It will eat up your time and your patience. You two are figuring out your rhythms as a couple, which includes how you make decisions. If you hate the kitchen, hold your nose for at least another 2-3 years and then you have my permission to demo the dang thing!
  4. Avoid Home Depot: Need a screw for the light fixture in your hallway, then let the DIY half of your marriage go inside and don't feel guilty for simply not caring about home improvement projects. 
  5. Write the thank you notes as soon as the gift arrives, or during your honeymoon or immediately after you return: You'd be surprised at how quickly the time gets away from you after the wedding marathon finally ends. Create a wedding gift spreadsheet so that as the gifts arrive you can log in the name and address of the sender, the date it was received, and a description of the gift. 
  6. Buy a subscription to a local theatre/symphony orchestra/museum: This will encourage you to carve out space on each other's calendars and allows you to both experience something new together:)
  7. Accept the fact that one of you will always remember to buy postage stamps and that one of you will always ask to borrow those postage stamps!
  8. Roughly 50% of your time will involve hauling grocery bags into your home:(
  9. The other 50% of your time will be spent returning to the grocery store because you forgot something:( :(
  10. Don't buy or ask for a coffee maker in your wedding registry: Sometimes it's nice to have an excuse for one or both of you to leave the house.
  11. Avoid getting a pet: A pet is like having a child and you may discover dramatic differences in your child-rearing philosophies. Pets can also block opportunities for spontaneity. It's hard to whisk your spouse away for a surprise evening of dancing and fine food when you have to worry about your four-legged friend sitting cross-legged in his dog crate awaiting your return! Take a couple of years for yourself if you can before the pets.
  12. Accept the guilt: Feeling guilty when you get married is the norm, and not because you've done something bad. You feel guilty for spending an afternoon with your girlfriends when it's your husband's first Saturday off from work in months. You feel guilty wanting to read alone in the guest bedroom when your honey wants some "us" time. You feel guilty preferring a weekend at home to a weekend camping with your in-laws, or for eating the last danish, or for not liking the Dr. Who bra and panty set he buys you for Valentine's Day. Over time, you'll figure out how to live your life with the guilt. Oh, and don't think you can trump guilt by simply giving in to your significant other's needs all of the time, because that can lead to resentment!
  13. Exercise and Get Enough Sleep: Sometimes married couples say the most hateful things when a 40-minute walk and 8 hours of sleep would have solved the problem. 
  14. Face each other and say "I love you" at least once a day: It's always nice to hear, always:)
  15. Turn off the gadgets: Do you know the secret to a good marriage? Eye contact, so stop staring at the screen and, instead, look up and focus on that person you vowed to love, honor and cherish. 
Happy wedding and happy marriage to you:)