Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Men or Women: Who Decides to Define the Relationship?

Several months ago I was talking to my dad about a guy I’d gone on a few dates with. A few days later, our follow-up conversation went a little something like this:

Dad: So how’s your boyfriend?
Me: What boyfriend?
Dad: The guy you were talking about the other night.
Me: Oh, um. He’s not my boyfriend. We’re just hanging out, getting to know each other. I’ve only known him for like a month.
Dad: A month?? And you two haven’t at least discussed dating each other exclusively? Are you dating other people? Is he dating other people? What’s wrong with your generation?

I teased him about his old age and told him my generation has options; we weigh them and we get married later in life. He replied that after his second date, he initiated the infamous “Defining the Relationship” conversation with the woman who is now his wife and that was that.  I said two dates was way too early. “Dad he could be a serial killer!!” He said that a few months was way too late. “Being in limbo is never good! Make a commitment and work through it!”

I’m inclined to believe that we’re both right in some ways. There isn't a hard and fast rule because everyone’s situations are different; some people need time to develop trust and others feel in their gut within days or weeks when they’ve met The One. (This could also be indigestion, but I digress…) The timing has to fit the (prospective) couple's goals and pace, and that's too subjective to define.

I’m still left with one very important question on defining the relationship though:

Speaking to heterosexual relationships, whose responsibility is it to initiate this conversation? The man or the woman? Or is it up to the person who thinks of it first?

Proverbs 18:22 says “whoever finds a wife finds a good thing”, which to me implies that it’s a man job to do the proposing, but that doesn’t necessarily provide clarity on what to do about a commitment prior to marriage.

So I did what I always do when my curiosity gets to me; I asked my favorite focus group, Twitter and the results weren't at all what I expected. The overwhelming majority responded by saying some form of the following:

@symfonikz: whoever thinks to… learn to be proactive
@ESSENCEinme: the person who wants a relationship title should be the initiator to avoid hurt feelings and wasted time
@Kenya_Inc: the person who has any confusion about their status in the first place. If you have to ask questions, ASK!!
@msrasberryinc: I’d say whoever thinks to talk about it. Shouldn’t depend on gender.
@GNAHHANG: I say whoever feels the need to discuss the status of the relationship should initiate the discussion.

Well, that caught me off guard! In my own relationships, I just waited for the conversation to happen or dropped hints to head it off if I wasn’t interested. My mom taught me the following:

1. When a man is interested in dating you, he’ll let you know.
2. When he wants you to be his girl, he’ll tell you.
3. When he wants you to be his wife, he’ll ask.

On the one hand, it sounds archaic, but on the other it seems practical. I mean what woman really wants to be in a relationship with a man that you strong-armed into one? Women are pretty good at saying, “No thanks, let’s just be friends. You can still change my oil/give me back rubs/escort me to events so I don’t have to go alone but I don’t want you to actually be my boyfriend. Cool?” Guys… not so much. Sometimes, they’ll go along just to get along and say "alright let's do this" just to keep things smooth and then later admit “I wasn’t really sure about this anyway but you pressured me so I just went with it.”

So where do I stand now?

I believe every individual brings into each (potential) relationship 3 things:

a. their personality, (gregarious or quiet, brave or hesitant)
b. their assumed “role”, which is often influenced by traditional gender roles, and
c. their own timeline for long-term plans.

As you get to know someone, you organically share these things over Chinese takeout and episodes of The Office. But there are some things you should make a point to be clear on. If you know that you don’t want to have kids at all, it’s pretty important to get that out there. And at two months in, if you’ve learned that she is the outspoken one who is comfortable having those potentially awkward conversations, it probably makes sense for her to start that conversation. “So babe, where is this going? Are you and I a ‘we’? Wait… can I even call you babe?” But if she’s like me, a little more traditional and unsure in these types of situations, he should put on his big boy pants and kick it off.

My thinking represents the ideal; the Twitter focus group responded with a more realistic point of view. I do believe there is a legitimate concern about wasted time and misconceptions. In some cases, you may have to step out of our comfort zone and bite the bullet to avoid a big confusing mess where the guy thinks the couple is headed down the aisle and the woman is just trying to have fun.

So here’s my question for you: In your current and past relationships, who popped the exclusivity question? How exactly does that conversation go? Should it be casual or serious? Over dinner? Over the phone? Via text or email? I wanna know!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Wisdom from Whitney

A friend of mine and I secretly joke about people’s dramatic, gushing proclamations after a celebrity death. We often wondered how can someone honestly be “devastated” by the passing of an individual whose music/voice/personality we’ve only digested through a middle man such as the radio, a Letterman interview, or a blockbuster film.

I wondered this until Saturday, February 12, 2012. I was in Baltimore doing community service when MSNBC released a breaking news text that Whitney Houston had passed in her hotel room. My immediate reaction was disbelief. And then the calls came in from my family and friends, checking to see if I knew yet and asking if I was ok. Every call seemed like a damning confirmation and I thought, “Maybe if people stop saying it, it won’t have really happened.” So I got into my car for the long drive home, too numb to really display any emotion. I started the engine and before I could stop it, I heard the pure, clear voice often called “America’s Voice” lean into the gospel classic, I Love the Lord.

Then it hit me.

This was the voice of a woman who was no longer with us.

I could tell you how the tollbooth guy seemed genuinely concerned by my tear-streaked face during our transaction, but I’d rather share something more valuable. Whitney's life and music taught me a few things:

1. Sexy doesn’t have to mean blond and blue eyed or skimpy and short. Whitney burst on the scene in the 80’s with big hair, leg warmers and off the shoulder tanks. With her mother Cissy Houston’s guidance and her cousin Dionne Warwick’s backing, Whitney Houston became the face of the All-American Girl, and she didn’t even have to writhe around the stage or downplay her “Blackness.” The world hasn’t been the same since and it isn’t a good karaoke night until someone sings “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.”

2. Love is a contact sport. As the child of a minister, there were few secular artists whose music made it into our house, but there was no avoiding the big, powerful and family friendly sound of Whitney Houston. Furthermore, my military elementary school in Texas followed the National Anthem with “One Moment In Time” as a form of inspiration, every single morning. Before I got to find out for myself, I learned that sometimes love hurts so bad, love is timeless (I Will Always Love You), and that anxious, nervous, feeling I got whenever I saw that boy from my class was normal (How Will I Know). She even taught us a little self help with The Greatest Love of All.

3. Women can do it all. These days, filmmakers anxious to sell tickets give acting gigs to anyone with a recognizable face, making the “singer slash actress” role almost assumed. Whitney though... she did it right. Whitney not only headlined the soundtracks for The Bodyguard, Waiting to Exhale, and The Preacher’s Wife... but she acted in them. Let me say that again, she ACTED in them. Whitney was more than a pretty face who could sing; she was a mother, a wife, a philanthropist, an actress, and a producer. She truly epitomized “I’m Every Woman” and taught me from an early age that I could be too.
4. Everyone makes mistakes. For four years straight, I was Whitney Houston for Halloween and not just because it was a relatively cheap costume, but because she was gorgeous, well-spoken, had an amazing talent and seemed like such fun to be around. She wasn’t human to me; she was larger than life. But while Whitney’s voice inspired and brought joy to millions, her life was often spotted with rough times. Unlike you and me, Whitney didn’t have the luxury of enduring these trials with a finite spotlight cast by her family and friends; Whitney went through it all publicly. While her pain may have been exponentially increased by this glaring spotlight, it served to remind me and much of America that everyone has problems and everyone stumbles. The woman that I most wanted to be like growing up has died at 48 leaving her 19 year old daughter motherless. I won’t speculate about the cause of her death, because big picture wise, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we recognize the very human quality of the entertainers that enrich our lives.

Whitney’s voice made her unique. But Whitney’s troubles made her one of us. And for that, I am grateful.

I haven’t stopped missing Whitney since I got the news. But while I’m sorry she’s left us, I’m thankful that her music itself provides the salve to the wound in our hearts.

Rest in Peace, Whitney.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

War on Success or Common Sense?

Editor’s Note: Tax rates have become a partisan issue, but I believe it’s just a difference of opinion on what steps should be taken to be a fiscally responsible country. I’m asking liberal and conservative readers to be patient and open-minded enough to consider this topic in a depoliticized way. Thank ya kindly.

Last week, I hosted a State of the Union Watch Party, per’s request via several emails. (Unless Will Smith runs for office, the Prez has got my vote, but seriously… the emails have got to chillllll.) Most of President Obama’s statements were pretty safe and garnered him moderate applause in the chambers and my living room. Pretty vanilla stuff.

And then he made the following statement:

Right now, we're poised to spend nearly $1 trillion more on what was supposed to be a temporary tax break for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans… Right now, Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary. Do we want to keep these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans? Or do we want to keep our investments in everything else - like education and medical research; a strong military and care for our veterans? Because if we're serious about paying down our debt, we can't do both. The American people know what the right choice is. So do I… we need to change our tax code so that people like me, and an awful lot of Members of Congress, pay our fair share of taxes. Tax reform should follow the Buffett rule: If you make more than $1 million a year, you should not pay less than 30 percent in taxes. And my Republican friend Tom Coburn is right: Washington should stop subsidizing millionaires... Now, you can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.

The way the crowd at my house hollered and shouted, you’d think we were in church with Pastor Wesley at Alfred Street Baptist (#shoutout!).  Well, except for one person. A good friend of mine commented via Twitter, “#waronsuccess.”

Thinking about it at a basic level, I can understand that. Why should you pay a higher percentage of taxes just because you made more (legally at that!)? Sounds unfair. Everyone should pull their own load. But when you think beyond the surface, it’s a little more complex than that. Many of us have heard the adage, “It takes money to make money.” This is generally true. Let me provide you with an example:

Let’s consider Janet. Janet was born and raised in a suburb of Spartanburg, South Carolina, Boiling Springs. Janet’s parents are middle class folks; her mom is an engineer and her father is a tax accountant. I'll tell Janet’s story on the left and track the government’s role on the right:

Janet can’t seem to fathom why it is her patriotic duty to pay a higher tax rate than poor and middle class Americans.  After all, her American-owned business is fueling the economy, providing jobs for thousands (who are now tax payers), and she worked hard to get there!

I agree. Janet did work. But so did America. America worked hard to ensure that Janet had the opportunities she had. I touched on just a few of the tangible hard costs, but one can’t even begin to quantify some things (like providing a relatively safe, clean country for Janet to work in.) Janet has consumers and can conduct her business here because people like living in an America where you can practice your religion, where you can earn a free education, where 18 year old citizens can vote (even the women!!), where folks can tweet whatever they want, and where teenagers can color their hair 4 different shades. Janet can do all this because Americans invested in America. That investment was often made with rifles and protests, but more often and frequently, it was made with tax dollars. If you think about it this way, one could argue that Janet has benefited more from than the government than a family living on government assistance. They’re getting enough to get by. However, Janet’s business is doing more than getting by; she's receiving support from a complex array of systems to run a multi million dollar business.

I understand the argument. On the face of it, a higher tax on wealthy Americans could be perceived by some as a “war on success”; I simply call it America asking for a fair return on its’ investment so that others can have that same opportunity in a fiscally healthy country.

It's not a war on success; it's a campaign for future success.

(By the way, higher taxation for the wealthy who disproportionately benefit from governmental support isn’t a novel idea; America is currently at a historically low level of taxation. Our current levels aren’t normal!)
The President closed the discussion of taxes for the top 2% this way,

We don't begrudge financial success in this country. We admire it. When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it's not because they envy the rich. It's because they understand that when I get tax breaks I don't need and the country can't afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference - like a senior on a fixed income; or a student trying to get through school; or a family trying to make ends meet. That's not right. Americans know it's not right. They know that this generation's success is only possible because past generations felt a responsibility to each other, and to their country's future, and they know our way of life will only endure if we feel that same sense of shared responsibility. That's how we'll reduce our deficit. That's an America built to last.

I'll just drop the mic there.

If you’d like to read more (well-informed) thoughts on this topic, I highly recommend:

2. A Conservative Opinion: Wealthy Americans Deserve TaxRelief, (Written in Oct 1999)
3. The Buffett Rule in History’s Grand Sweep
4. Only Little People Pay Taxes
5. Elizabeth Warren on Debt Crisis, Fair Taxation  (LOVE THIS VIDEO!!!)

Your thoughts?