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Quit Talking about the Lack of Diversity and Do Something

Last week, a Black software engineer, Leslie Miley, made news when he shared why he quit his job at Twitter – where he was the ONLY Black engineer in a leadership role – in a thoughtful piece on the lack of diversity in tech.

In recent years, Twitter and other tech giants have come under fire for their noticeable lack of Black and Latinx employees, as well as women across ethnic groups. The numbers are even worse when you look at the leadership.

In his Medium post, Miley notes that during a leadership meeting, when he questioned what steps Twitter planned to take to increase diversity, a Senior VP stated:

diversity is important, but we can’t lower the bar.

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Actor Matt Damon made a similar statement on a recent episode of the filmmaking contest Project Greenlight when producer Effie Brown – the only Black person in the room – raised questions about a film the panel was evaluating. Particularly, she was concerned about the portrayal of the film’s lone Black character – a prostitute – and how it may result in [yet another] a one-dimensional character and reinforcement of negative stereotypes.

In a talking head interview, of Effie’s comment, Matt said he appreciated her “flagging diversity” (is that like “flagging a typo”?) but that ultimately, the show and this process is about “giving somebody this job based entirely on merit, leaving all other factors out of it.”

What a lovely world he must live in where people get ahead solely based on merit.

Do people who say things like this actually LISTEN to themselves? Why do they think increasing diversity requires lowering standards? All this type of thinking accomplishes is maintaining the current unbalanced power structure where white men are over overrepresented.

Are we really expected to believe that there are so few talented engineers, actors, producers, and fill-in-the-blanks, who are female and/or non-white, that white men can’t help but hire themselves in these roles?

The film industry is a great example of how not to embrace inclusion. It pretty much fails at diversity in all areas – age, sexual orientation, gender, and ethnicity – the picture is more bleak for people working behind the camera.

Take directors, for example. According to a USC study on inequality in the film industry, of over 700 top films released between 2007 and 2014:

Of the 779 people who directed those movies, 28 were women, 45 were black or African American and 18 were Asian or Asian American (four from the latter groups were black or Asian women).

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On Sunday’s episode of The Good Wife, a Black woman named Monica interviewed for a job at the very white Lockhart-Agos-whatever-they-call it-now law firm. She was one candidate of four, the other three were white men.

The show made it a point to have the hiring managers – three white men and one white woman, all whom nearly lost their ability to function normally in the presence of a Black person –  discuss that while they liked Monica, she didn’t attend a top-tier law school (Loyola wasn’t good enough for them) and that her LSAT scores were lower than the white candidates’.

I’m not really sure what point the writers were attempting to make. They lost me at “not as qualified.” In the end, Monica didn’t get hired, and the firm’s sole female partner brought her in to tell her personally, while expressing her sympathies. As Monica rightly told her, “I’m not here for your white liberal guilt, I need a job.” [I may have inferred the bit about white liberal guilt.]

They couldn’t have made their point about diversity in hiring without making the candidate “less qualified?” You mean to tell me in very Black Chicago (where the show takes place) you can’t find Black lawyers to fit your elitist standards?

Back in June, while at the day job at Big Tech Startup, I recall sitting in a room with two young white men, talking through hiring requirements for several open positions to fill. One of the guys, the recruiter from HR, said:

Well, at this point, it’s summer, we’re going to get second and third tier candidates. All the best candidates have jobs by now.

He looked at me after he said it – I’d just met him – and added, sounding somewhat apologetic, “It’s just how it is.”

I found his thinking unsettling, but unsurprising. At the job before this, of a big hiring push for engineers, a C-level exec affirmed, “we want people who went to schools like your Stanfords, Yales, Browns, Harvards. Who’ve worked at the Amazons, Googles and Facebooks.”

It’s kinda hard to diversify when everyone’s pulling from the same pool of candidates.

Not everyone can attend an Ivy League university even if they wish to. Cornell was my top university choice, which while not an Ivy, is still a quite competitive institution. However, after I went to an information session it became very clear Cornell wasn’t an option because there’s no way I could afford the absurdly expensive tuition.

Instead I attended a state school with a top ranked information technology program.  A state school with tuition 1/10 the cost of Cornell and still I had to get a scholarship, government loans, and work 30-40 hours a week, all while trying to graduate in 4 years – which I didn’t, despite my best efforts.

Unlike some of my more privileged classmates, I didn’t have my parents depositing cash in my bank account on a regular basis. I also didn’t have any adults in my life who could relate to my experience as an undergrad. I had no one close to talk to about the unique struggles I experienced as a Black woman at a predominately white institution with a major dominated by young white men.

As Leslie Miley’s article mentioned, some of these top companies also give favorable weight to new grads with impressive internships on their resumes. I didn’t have internships during the summer breaks. Too many internships were unpaid and how many folks can afford to work for free? I sure couldn’t.

I didn’t attend a fancy university, nor did I have a fancy internship and I didn’t graduate in a pat 4 years. However, I still managed to get hired at these companies with their lofty hiring requirements because I could do the job. Hiring decisions shouldn’t be so heavily weighted on factors that are impacted by socioeconomic status, race, gender and other elements largely outside of personal control.

I’ve read that Black women are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs. I’ve written about my own entrepreneurial goals and how negative work experiences have played their part in my choices. I have to wonder how many of us have opted out of the traditional workforce because we can no longer deal with the extra weight of being a double minority in workplaces where increasing diversity is seemingly more of a trendy talking point than an actionable endeavor and continuous goal.

Despite the “browning of America” the Sunday morning political show landscape remains a panorama of middle-aged white man-ness. One notable exceptions is the Melissa Harris-Perry show which manages to fill a panel with a diverse group of knowledgeable folks every Saturday and Sunday. While not weekend morning shows, both The Nightly Show and All in with Chris Hayes cover politics and also manage to secure diverse panels of noteworthy, tv-ready people as guests. The guests are there if you actually look for them.

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Melissa Harris-Perry | source

When it comes to diversity, can we just cut the crap? If you genuinely think there aren’t enough accomplished, competent, qualified candidates for a job other than white men – you have a problem which you need to address. However, if you truly want to increase diversity – it is going to take action.

We don’t need anymore research. We don’t need more task forces. What we need is for people to step outside of their insular circles. To quit using the same tired standards to find talent. To stop perpetuating isolating cultures of exclusivity. The time for excuses is long past.

It’s been my experience that if someone claims they want something, but continually makes excuses for why they can’t do it, it’s not a priority for them.

 

Do you have any ideas for how organizations can improve diversity? Why do you think more progress hasn’t been made?

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3 Important Life Lessons I Learned From An Unlikely Friendship

One of my closest friends is a white woman 30 years my senior – a Baby Boomer. We shared a cubicle wall back in the ’00s when we worked in IT at a large insurance company. I hated that job so much that some mornings I’d sit in my car and cry before leaving for the office.

It was the type of job where I had a micro-managing relic of a supervisor whom on a daily basis would periodically stroll by unsubtly peeking at our screens to make sure we weren’t surfing the internet. God forbid we take a break from the mind-numbing, inconsequential grunt work we were doing.

This is the same supervisor who for some reason couldn’t get my name right and would often refer to me by the name of one of the few other black female employees, who looked nothing like me and were at least 15 years older. I would pretend I didn’t hear him; after all, my name didn’t come out of his mouth.

Five days a week, I’d toil for hours at my desk in the large, window-deprived, cubicle farm boxed in by drab, ’70s-brown walls. An inappropriately loud middle-aged man who bang-typed on his keyboard and always seemed to be on the phone with his doctor discussing his various prescription meds, including one for ADHD, which explained a lot – sat in front of me. The back of his head, where unkempt gray hairs fought black for dominance, greeted me each time I looked up from my boxy monitor.

I worked in a Dilbert cartoon.

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I’d often wonder, as I looked upward, “Why am I here? Why do I have to go through this? I am miserable almost every day!”

I wondered what lessons I’d learn from this job, what I would take away from it. I figured there had to exist a reason beyond the below-market paycheck.

One afternoon, feeling trapped in the office and trying to make it through the day without screaming, I eavesdropped on my surrounding co-workers. To my left, on the other side of my cube wall, my neighbor ranted about yet another blunder of then-President George H. Bush. I heard her say:

“Of course, he’s from Texas. I’ve never met a person from Texas who I like.”

I stood up, peered over the wall and interjected shyly, “I’m from Texas. Well…kinda…I lived there junior high through college.”

My neighbor, JC, a blonde woman with a kind face, bright expressive eyes, and a voice that brings to mind your favorite elementary school teacher replied, “Well, I like you, so maybe Texas isn’t all bad.”

A friendship was born.

As we got better acquainted in the following months, we discovered that despite our age difference we shared more than a few commonalities. Our friendship cemented, when on a Friday night she came out to West Hollywood – risking traffic misery – to celebrate my 27th birthday with me and a bunch of my twenty-something friends. My friends liked her and I loved that she was game for anything – even hanging out with people who whine about being old at the age of 27.

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Me with JC in 2005. One of my younger sisters was in town visiting and JC took us on a nature drive through the Santa Monica Mountains

In the many years that we’ve been friends, JC’s seen me through heartbreak, job changes and career struggles, supported me through growing pains and has taken me in on holidays since I don’t have family in California. She is like family to me.

It’s an unlikely friendship. I notice the curious looks we get sometimes when we’re out in public together – often joined by JC’s husband, to whom she’s been married almost as long as I’ve been alive. It’s difficult to quantify how much our friendship has enriched my life. However, there are valuable lessons I’ve picked up which I’d like to share.

Sometimes you find friendship in the most unlikely people. | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black in "3 Important Life Lessons I Learned From an Unlikely Friendship"

1. Don’t Take Your Body or Health for Granted

A few years before I met JC, a man having an epileptic seizure while driving lost control of his car and plowed into her parked vehicle where she sat paying bills in the driver’s seat. The accident nearly killed her and almost destroyed her body. She spent nearly a year in the hospital undergoing multiple surgeries as well as physical and mental therapy.

A self-proclaimed nature lover and outdoors girl who grew up in the California desert, JC had to re-learn how to walk and use her body – now rebuilt with skin grafts and enough metal to alarm an airport detector.

Her life as a maven of the outdoors was never the same after the accident. She can’t hike the way she used to. There’s always a mobility walker in the trunk of her Prius which she uses to help with her balance. She suffers through pain almost daily due to lingering nerve damage.

In discussing her accident, JC always reminds me of the importance of appreciating my body, health and youth. Not taking for granted how hard my muscles work just so I can walk, run and jump. To respect the vitality and mobility youth enables. As we all know, that mobility and vitality isn’t everlasting.

Staying physically fit and healthy is a priority for me. I use my youth to my advantage. I want to be that 70-year old no one believes is 70 because she’s bursting with energy and in fantastic shape.

Sometimes you find friendship in the most unlikely people. | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black in "3 Important Life Lessons I Learned From an Unlikely Friendship"

2. You Can Be Friends with People with Different Belief Systems

JC is friends with nearly everyone. She’s warm, talkative, vibrant and very likable. Souls are drawn to her open heart, even those who don’t share her firmly liberal beliefs, about which she is quite vocal.

Conservative friends of hers will send her inflammatory memes and Snopes-worthy articles which they’ll vehemently debate knowing neither party will budge. Yet, they remain friends, despite their warring political beliefs of the type some friendships fall out over. It’s a testament to the fact that she accepts people for who they are and genuinely wants the best for everyone.

Some of JC’s friends she’s known since her childhood and early adulthood – though that doesn’t keep her from making new friends. With those she’s close to, she keeps in touch regularly – even talking on that device we use to text and check our social media. I aspire to be able to say the same when I hit her age. Maintaining friendships is important.

Sometimes you find friendship in the most unlikely people. | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black in "3 Important Life Lessons I Learned From an Unlikely Friendship"
In 2012 at Farm Sanctuary’s Animal Acres in Acton, California. JC and I both love animals.

3. Always be Learning and Seeking New Experiences

From time to time JC will remind me of a conversation we had years ago that changed the way she views people in public spaces. She’d invited me to an art festival in Orange County, about an hour south of Los Angeles. If you’re unfamiliar with the OC, many cities there aren’t exactly diverse. Driving to Orange County is sometimes derisively referred to by Angelenos as “crossing the orange curtain” because in several ways it’s the polar opposite of L.A.

Though art is totally my thing, I declined the invite and explained why. I’d had some uncomfortable racial experiences in the OC. Particularly in the region where the festival took place, which was and still is overwhelmingly white. Some people would stare at me like they’ d never seen a black person before or they’d just not even acknowledge my existence. It’s quite alienating.

JC said that she’d never thought about it that way before. She’d never really had to. She’d see a sprinkling of people of color in a crowd and think “ah, diversity.” She hadn’t given much thought to how it’d feel to always be the minority in public spaces and endure the weirdness that sometimes occurs. I laughed when one day she emailed me about an event she’d attended and how all she saw were “old white people.”

We’ve spoken fairly candidly about race over the years. She’s been open and receptive to learning about my experiences and how the world looks through my eyes. Likewise, I’ve learned a lot about her lens on the world.

As an avid traveler, JC’s always encouraged me to see the world. I recall one afternoon visiting her wonderfully quirky, ranch-style home up in the beautiful Santa Monica Mountains and flipping through old photo albums as she narrated.

One album was full of photos taken on an African safari she’d gone on with her husband. As I turned the pages, I imagined how amazing it would be to visit Africa one day. For so long it had seemed like an unrealistic dream. Talking to JC about her experiences made it seem a more real and attainable goal to me.

In 2012, I visited Africa for the first time – Tanzania, specifically – and went on a safari. The entire trip was more incredible than I could have imagined. In the years since I met JC, I’ve visited countries on four different continents. I hope to make it to all seven by my 40th birthday.

Sometimes you find friendship in the most unlikely people. | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black in "3 Important Life Lessons I Learned From an Unlikely Friendship"
2012: On a safari in Tarangire National Park in Tanzania with zebras grazing in the background.

Sometimes, the reason we’re placed in difficult situations isn’t immediately obvious. I never imagined in all those mornings I wept over how much I disliked my job, that I would one day be grateful for the experience. Without it, I never would have made one of the best friends I could ever ask for.

Do you have any unlikely friendships? What lessons have you learned through your friendships?

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5 Ways I Stayed Productive (and Kept Sane) During Unemployment

Gordon Creek Road by Luke Detwiler , Winding Road | The Girl Next Door is Black
Photo cr: Luke Detwiler
Text and design by The Girl Next Door is Black

The last time I experienced unemployment was over 10 years ago. I was in my mid-20s, living in the heart of Hollywood, California. I don’t just mean living in Los Angeles, I actually lived in the Hollywood neighborhood. My roommate and I could see the Hollywood sign from her condo balcony. I came home one Friday evening to a message from my temp agency informing me that I’d been let go from my several months long temp assignment. Again? I thought. While this hadn’t been a permanent job, it still marked the third time I unexpectedly and abruptly found myself without employment in a 3 years.

Is this what it means to be in the working world? Absolutely no job stability? I had a feeling I knew what motivated the sudden booting: I think my temporary employers were concerned I’d caught wind of their shady financial reporting practices and might report them to the SEC. I did know. One of their long-term permanent employees gleefully spilled the tea. She despised them, but did a great job of pretending otherwise. I think she wanted me to do the snitching for her. Shady.

One of my new L.A. BF’s was also among the ranks of the unemployed. We shared a lot in common including our age and an aversion to the concept of working in an office and signing our lives away to the rat race. At that time, I hadn’t identified a new career path after parting ways with my attempt at an acting career, so I floundered a bit until I basically fell into my most recent career in tech. I took on a few temporary jobs here and there, but during that economic climate, even short-term temp jobs were drying up. So, my BF and I had a lot of free time on our hands, along with the excitement and Energizer-energy that accompanies early twenty-something youth. Unfortunately, we did not have a lot of cash.

Hollywood Sign View of Los Angeles Basin Photo cr: Mary-Austin and Scott, flickr.com | The Girl Next Door is Black
Photo cr: Mary-Austin and Scott, flickr.com

We’d wake up late mornings and IM each other while we looked for jobs online and concurrently planned out our next bit of shenanigans. We went out most nights as there is always something to do in L.A.: always a party, an event or an opening. I also learned the Long Island Iced Tea, with its melange of liquors, is the best drink for your buck if you want to get drunk for the least amount of money. We found $1 bargain shopping bins at trendy thrift stores, figured out the best ways to score free food, drinks, and swag – free movie tickets are easy to come by in the “Entertainment Capital.”

We were aces at finding clubs giving away free drinks if you were willing to arrive unfashionably early; art gallery openings were a great way to appear cultured and score free wine and cheese. I’d also inherited the role of organizer & events planner for a woman’s social group that I’d joined when I first moved to L.A. two years earlier. I had plenty to keep me busy. I look back on the time fondly even though I was broke and being broke in Hollywood where money = power, influence and prestige, is not easy. It may not have been the most productive way to spend 10 months of unemployment, but I enjoyed it and don’t regret a bit of it.

Now that I am older and, I hope, wiser, my priorities are different. My situation is different. am different. I also realize, having been laid off now four times, that with the ending of each job, something bigger and better always arose. Each layoff propelled me to something greater and more beneficial for me.

This time around, I recognized the opportunity in front of me. The layoff signaled to me, an opportunity to move on to something greater. Maya Angelou said, of an employer firing her and learning to be grateful: “So you fired me. Good on you and very good on me, ’cause what I’m going to get, darling, you would LONG for.” Yes!

I felt a duty to myself to make the best of the situation. After taking care of the basics one does after losing their job, like filing for unemployment, taking care of health insurance (thanks Obama!) and dealing with finances, I set to planning. Here are five things I did that helped me stay productive and kept me sane during unemployment.

1. TOLD MY FRIENDS, FAMILY AND NETWORK

I know some shy away from announcing their layoff to people they know. Maybe they feel embarrassed, ashamed or down. Whatever the reason, layoffs are a part of life. We no longer live in a society where employers keep people on for decades and happily wave you off at age 60 with a cushy pension. There is no loyalty in most workplaces – on either end of the relationship – and at any given time any of us can lose or leave our jobs.

Wood Social Media Icons | The Girl Next Door is BlackI didn’t do anything wrong to warrant being released. I worked hard and have the performance evaluation to show it, so I let people know. As a result, I felt freer; I don’t like hiding things. Friends and family have been emotionally supportive in the aftermath. Additionally, friends and former co-workers from jobs past have referred me when jobs in my role crossed their paths. In many industries, getting the next job is about who you know. Tech is definitely no exception. I am grateful not just for their referrals, but their respect. Most people don’t refer someone for a job if they don’t respect their skills and work ethic.

Being open about the layoff has led to a few uncomfortable moments; but nothing I can’t handle. When you talk to someone who asks, “How’s the job search going?” before they even eek out a hello, that’s a little awkward. You wonder if you’re not looking hard enough and then you realize it’s only been three weeks and did this person forget what it’s like to look for a job? When a person you rarely hear from messages you from out of the blue, “How are you?” and you know what they really mean is, “Have you found a job yet?” because they’re just being nosy, you wish you’d excluded them from your Facebook post.

A recruiter who contacted me, shortly after I updated my LinkedIn profile to reflect the parting of ways between me and the old job, told me his company had their eye on the ex-employees of my former employer, “Fancy Startup”. Who knew? Tech companies compete for good talent here, he said. That knowledge made me feel that much more optimistic about the potential return on my job search investment.

 2. MADE A “FREE TIME” WISHLIST

It’s not often that a 9 to 5-er gets the opportunity to have the entire daytime free. Not just a holiday Monday or Friday off when most everyone else is off too and banks are closed and so is the post office, so it may as well be a weekend. An actual free weekday when TV shows air that you’re never home to see live. When stay-at-home moms and dad entertain their kids who are on summer break. Free time during business hours when you can make the phone calls you need to make!

Free Time Clock Photo cr: Wes Peck | The Girl Next Door is Black
Photo cr: Wes Peck, Flickr.com

I recall during one particularly trying work day, walking down Market Street (a main thoroughfare in San Francisco) and wistfully envying a group of teenagers seated in a circle on a patch of grass laughing and talking. The sun shone brightly and I thought how nice it would be to lay in the grass in the sun in the middle of the day. I think the kids may have been doing drugs together, but still, the sentiment remains.

I set about making a list of everything I could conceive of doing that I could either only do during the day or that’s better done (e.g., less crowded) during the day. Whether I could get to it all, and how much of it was actually feasible mattered little. The list gave me a jumping off point, ideas for keeping busy, small achievements to aspire to, and activities I could look forward to doing.

The first thing I checked off my”free time” wishlist? Laying out in the grass in the middle of the day.

Eventually, I expanded the list to include lower priority items on my to-do list that I now I had plenty of time for. BLO (Before Layoff) so much of my life was either spent at work or recovering from the exhaustion of work. I never had enough time. PLO, I spent one luxurious afternoon cleaning up my junk email box. I unsubscribed from several newsletters (including “Fancy Startup’s”; it took them 3-months to remove me from the list, #fail),  organized items into folders, and cleaned up my social media accounts. I know that doesn’t sound thrilling, but it was glorious  to have the time.

Feet in the Park San Francisco | The Girl Next Door is Black
Here are my happy feet in the park
3. CREATED GOALS AND ESTABLISHED A ROUTINE

As much as I detest the idea of having routines and schedules, I recognize that it’s helpful to give a sense of stability in my life, thus increasing my comfort level. I recall from my earlier unemployment experience how lost I felt some days without the schedule I’d grown accustomed as an office worker bee. I also quickly concluded that pressuring myself to look for jobs constantly would eventually drive me batty. I had to establish some boundaries. Modifying the typical US work week, I decided Mondays through Thursdays are for “work” and Fridays through Sunday are for play (with exceptions considered if I ask myself nicely and negotiate well). I created a loose routine that includes not sleeping in past a certain time (I hate feeling like I’ve wasted half the day), time for job searching & networking, therapy, fitness and a few other items.

My Super Important Goals | The Girl Next Door is BlackIt’s important to me to feel a sense of accomplishment or achievement. I imagine that even when I’m retired, I’ll want to feel like I’m having the best retirement I can. So, I do what do and I made goals for myself to keep motivated and active. Or as I titled it, “How to Not Become a Lazy Bum:”

  • Do something productive at least each weekday – e.g., exercise, read, apply for jobs, etc.
  • Look for things to consider as accomplishments – Sometimes we don’t give ourselves credit for the important things we do each day.
  • Leave the house at least four out of five weekdays – Perhaps this seems odd, but I’ve seen how easy it is to become a recluse over time
  • Keep a clean apartment – My nightmares include dying alone in a filthy apartment that the fire department has to bulldoze through to extract my felineravaged body. I also find it harder to think if there is chaos around me.
  • Keep a journal of the things I’m doing –  I cannot tell you how much tracking my daily accomplishments has helped me from feeling like a useless layabout. I accomplishment quite a bit on an average day.
Glass of Water on ice, Photo cr: StockPhotosforFree.com
Photo cr: StockPhotosforFree.com
4. MAINTAINED HEALTHY HABITS

I’ve worked out in the mornings for at least the last 6 years. At first, it was to ward against the end of day workout killers of “I’m too  tired,” or the “I’d rather go to happy hour,” and other distractions. Now, while I certainly enjoy that benefit, I also like that starting my day with something that’s good for me, mentally and physically.

I didn’t want unemployment to lead to my blowing up Sumo-size. So, I make it a point to continue to work out several times a week and not turn practice trash compactor-like eating. It’s so easy to graze on food when you’re at home. I work out at home and I also find ways to get active outside, to which San Francisco’s weather is usually conducive.

I try to walk as much as I can. When I worked, even though I took the bus, I still got in an extra mile a day just walking to and from bus stops. I didn’t want to lose that advantage, so I use the Moves app to make sure I’m walking enough.

I got into the habit of drinking water regularly in my twenties because of it’s health benefits. At work it was easy enough to keep up the practice with a large water bottle I’d keep on my desk. Now that I’m home, I make it a point to get in my regular intake of water each day. This is one of the ways I know I’ve grown up. I care about my daily water intake.

5. TOOK TIME TO REFLECT

Initially, I was antsy to return to work. After working continuously for over 10 years, it barely occurred to me to think of anything else. A few weeks of disinterestedly applying for jobs, bored senseless by the role descriptions, I realized that by jumping into yet another job, i might be wasting this opportunity to make a change. How many times have I complained that I don’t feel like the office life is for me? That I don’t like slaving away to make some faceless person wealthier. That I find it ridiculous how executives catastrophize situations and trickle down their stress to employees as though the cure for cancer is slipping through their fingers on a daily basis. My 25-year old self knew she didn’t much like working in an office, whether it’s in the confines of the corporate or a fast-paced fancy start-up.  While I’ve managed to fake it well, it’s not who I am. The more time that goes by, the harder it is to survive in a world where I don’t fit in. I felt off-center after the mindwreck of my last job.

Girl Meditating on Water Photo by Abigail Corpus, flickr.com | The Girl Next Door is Black
Photo cr: Abigail Corpus, flickr.com

A friend told me I needed to take time for myself. “I live by myself and the only other creatures I take care of are two cats. Who else am I spending time on?” Upon reflection, I understood what she meant. The very nature of my career involved giving to and taking care of others’ needs. I spent the majority of my days solving other people’s problems. By the end of many workdays and work weeks, I was too spent for much else.

I needed to take this time to get back to WHO I AM. I’d lost myself.

I have savings (having learned from the first time around!) and I figured now is as good a time as any to invest in giving myself a break to step back, reassess and really consider my next steps.

I explored my natural interests and delved in to the activities I found interesting in hopes of leading myself toward my new path.

I made the rounds with my family and friends whom before I didn’t have as much time for. I reunited with several friends, including a few whom I hadn’t seen in over a decade. I knew these friends surfaced in my life at this time for a reason. I figured I had something to learn from them or maybe even something to share. I welcomed these opportunities not just as a chance to catch up with old friends and nurture those friendships, but to see what unfolds as a result. What doors will open for me? What new angles will I notice?

I also enlisted the help of my friends in my search for direction. My career counselor suggested asking friends and former co-workers for their thoughts on what career fit they envision for me, for their thoughts on my strengths. Not only do I think it touched them that I asked for their input, their feedback helped to gel a few ideas that had sloshed around in my head for a while.

Being laid off can rock your world, but it doesn’t have to be a negative experience. I’ve learned a lot about myself as a result of my layoff. I’ve been ready for a change. I’ve undergone a transformation and it hasn’t been the easiest. I got really depressed at one point, but I made it through. I feel like I’ve returned to center. I recognize myself again. For the first time in over a decade, if not longer, I have a true sense of direction, one about which I feel confident. I know what I want to do next. Now it’s just a matter of making it work and having faith that things will work out. I am excited to see how my life continues to unfold.

Have you gone through a layoff or experienced prolonged unemployment? How did you keep busy? How did you maintain your sanity and sense of self?

What Happened to OFFline Dating?

What Happened to Offline Dating | The Girl Next Door is BlackDoes anyone meet anyone in real life these days? Offline? For dating purposes, that is. You know like:

Guy sees cute girl at bus stop.

Guy makes joke about the horrid stench wafting from a black trash bag near the bus shelter.

“Ah, the sweet smell of street funk and human waste,” he cracks.

Girl giggles. She relaxes her street defenses.

They discover they share a preference for puffy Cheetos over crunchy.  “This is awesome,” they both think. 

They chat animatedly as they wait for the bus, trading witticisms back and forth. He uses a word infrequently woven in conversation these days and it further endears him to her. She finds it sexy when a man has a big vocabulary and knows how to use it well. 

He likes her laugh and the way she thinks.

He asks if he can take her out.

She says “Yes,” with a bashfulness he finds charming.

The bus arrives.

Only in my (safe for sharing on the internet) dreams!

In real life: men on the street say things to me so inappropriate that, if said on TV, would make the Parent’s Television Council triple their angry email writing output; or at the bus stop I’ll smile at a cute guy and he’ll look the other way, jeez; or worse I inadvertently pique the unwanted interest of a creepy co-worker who I’d often catch staring at me when I was at my desk.

When people ask me, “How’s your love life?” I’m taken aback as though they’ve asked me why I haven’t eaten vegetables in a while. Like, “Oh. Right. That’s something people do, date and stuff.  That’s part of life too.” I mean, I know it happens. I kinda remember there being a time when I did things like that. I hear other people talk having love lives, but I don’t think I know what that is anymore.

This love life thing keeps coming up lately.

I went on a weekend trip with a group of a friends for one of their birthday’s this summer. I roomed with V__ (a dude) and K ___ (a dudette), fellow single thirty-somethings. We returned to our room at 3am one night and both V__ and K__ pulled out their phones to Tinder. [If you’re unfamiliar with Tinder, it’s a dating app for meeting people in your area. It uses your Facebook profile (’cause Facebook isn’t over-involved in your life enough) and I’ve gleaned from friends’ experiences that a lot of people on there aren’t exactly looking for “a relationship.” It seems like more of a shallow way to meet people given you decide “yes” or “no” on a person based on a few photos and whatever information they’ve bothered to share with Facebook.]

"What Happened to Offline Dating" - Photo cr: Wayan Vota, flickr.com Tinder Screen | The Girl Next Door is Black
Photo cr: Wayan Vota, flickr.com

My friends happily Tinder’d while I interrupted them with questions about why they found it so fascinating, who and what were they texting, and who else was up at 3am?

I tried Tinder once when I was at a Starbucks and freaked out when a guy sent me a chat. “Can he see me? Is he nearby?!” Like a grandma who doesn’t understand how this newfangled technology works.

Another time, two of my friends, both of whom were in relationships at the time, stole my phone to Tinder for me, despite my weak protestations. I don’t know why I hadn’t deleted the damned app by then. Anyway, I know that really, they just wanted to see what it was like; to get a taste of the single life again for one sweet moment. I see you.

I am not one for idle texting back and forth and it seems like Tinder involves a lot of this. I can’t even figure out how to work normal text messaging, how the hell am I going to seduce someone on Tinder? Oh who am I kidding? All I’d have to do is show a little cleavage in my photos and use lots of emoticons and coy responses when I chat.

I feel the same way about online dating. I don’t want to go through this back and forth, tell me your life story, what’s your favorite color, do you like to cuddle, let’s have a pre-date phone call business. If I like what you’ve got to say in your profile and if in your communication with me you use adult-level grammar and don’t make gross sexual comments to / about me, let’s meet and see if we click. There’s no need to drag this process out. This is why I don’t understand the show Catfish. How are you “in a relationship” for seven months or a year, or five, with someone you’ve NEVER MET, and then shocked when they turn out to be a Shrek masquerading as an Efron?

I’ve given online dating plenty of shots. You might even call me an online dating early adopter. In 2003, I went out with a guy I met through Yahoo Personals. (Yahoo Personals people! Old school internet!)  It was disastrous. The date went downhill the minute I told him I moved to L.A. to try to make it as an actress. He treated me like I was an airhead. Nobody likes actors in L.A. except other actors, the people they pay to like them and their fans.

"What Happened to Offline Dating?" -- Peggy Awkward Online Dating | The Girl Next Door is Black Photo cr: hadesigns, flickr.com
Photo cr: hadesigns, flickr.com

I know people who’ve met and married or at least dated successfully through online dating. Personally, I’ve found it to be like a tedious a second job, as well as disappointing experience. I’m nowhere near the most popular female demographic in the e-dating pool. It gets old seeing guy after guy indicate interest in every ethnicity except “Black/African-American.”

Every boyfriend I’ve had I met through a friend, doing things I normally do, being myself and not feeling like I’m being auditioned for a starring role in someone’s life. Not only does meeting someone through your social network make it easier to blend your social lives, if there’s any of the “bad” kind of crazy in your prospective boo, your friend can give you the lowdown.

One time, ONE TIME, I agreed to a date with a guy who I met at a bar. I was young and dumb (and drunk, holy beer goggles!). The night of our date, he drove us around Hollywood for nearly half an hour looking for street parking, missing the beginning of the show at The Knitting Factory. At each light, he’d stop, look into my eyes and say something utterly fromage-y like, “Your eyes shine like stars. I could get lost in them.”

WHO SAYS STUFF LIKE THAT FOR REAL?!

He turned out to be one of those short guys with a Napoleon Complex and the associated serious anger management issues. By mid-date,  it was so bad, I contemplated excusing myself to go to the bathroom and crawling out the window to freedom. I decided not to, mostly because he was my ride home and in those financially-leaner days, I really couldn’t afford the $50 cab ride from Hollywood to my place in the Valley. When I didn’t go out with him again, he became increasingly irate and left vile messages on my voice mail. I had to change my number.

I have never dated a guy I met in a bar again.

"What Happened to Offline Dating?" -- Pink Phone Box Long Live Love Life | The Girl Next Door is Black Photo cr: Bruce Stokes, flickr.com
Photo cr: Bruce Stokes, flickr.com

I suppose online dating hasn’t been all bad for me. Last year, I dated a guy for a few months who I met on Match. He’s a great person and I learned a lot when I was with him, but ultimately I felt we’d be better off as friends.

During a recent lunch with one of my college roommates who met her husband of three years on eHarmony, she talked about why she’d decided to give eHarmony a try. She said:

“I knew I was ready to meet my husband and I made it a priority. You have to make it a priority.” I realized then that it wasn’t and hadn’t been a priority to me for quite some time. Somehow, I’d forgotten about having a love life. I guess I’d been busy with other life things, like figuring out what to do after I got laid off and realized that once and for all that I need to make a career change.

The subject of my love life arose once again in the form of an email. A friend of mine is currently off in Europe on a sabbatical of sorts and recently started up a hot romance with a strapping Nordic man. She’s happily enamored with him and inquired, “Have you met anyone interesting?” I stared at my screen, puzzled, “Met anyone? Interesting? Men? How would I even do that? How do people meet people offline to date?” Some of the ideas I shared for making new friends are applicable to meeting people to dateAnd I have tried them. But, you can’t force these things.

It’s been almost a week and I haven’t responded to her email. I don’t know what to say. I would love to meet someone interesting, but I’d like for that to happen offline. Is that too much to ask?

Is Everyone Saying “N***a” Now?

[spacer]

Who should be "allowed" to say the "n-word"? It seems people of all races are throwing it around these days. Read more in "Is Everyone Saying N***a Now? on The Girl Next Door is Black | Lil Wayne Unplugged
Lil Wayne at MTV Unplugged
source

“If you having a good time, I want you to say, ‘Hell yeah, niggaaaaaaaaaa!”

“Hell yeah, niggaaaaaaaaaa!” the crowd screamed back at Lil Wayne.

I scanned the stadium of concert goers: a sea of young, white and light faces surrounded me, bopping their heads to the beat, hip-hop hands swaying in the air, phone cameras recording and repeating at Lil Wayne’s command,

Helllllll yeah, niggaaaaaaaaa!!

I looked over at my friend, who, like me, hadn’t joined the crowd.

“What the hell?” I mouthed at her, as my face contorted itself into surprise and disapproval.

This was the situation at a concert I attended in Orange County, California (“OC”) a few years ago. Orange County’s black population is similar to Utah’s in number. That is to say: nearly non-existent. Still, I didn’t expect to be such an obvious minority at a hip-hop concert headlined by black artists. I know white suburban teenagers are now the largest consumers of hip-hop, and Orange County is like one giant suburb, so really I shouldn’t have surprised me. But, there’s what you know and what you actually see for yourself.

____

Last year while in San Francisco’s Mission district with a friend, we overheard three teenagers shouting in conversation:

“Did you hear what I said?”
“Daaaamn, fool!’
“Yeah, that nigga’s cray.”

They all laughed.

My friend and I turned to each other, the same “Did you just hear that?!” looks on our faces. None of the teens were black.

“Huh,” I exhaled. “So, that’s what’s going on now?”

It’s time like these when I feel my age. I resisted the urge to use my budding “kids these days” voice or wag my disapproving finger while giving them an impromptu history lesson on the “n-word.” They weren’t using the word in a hurtful manner. The way the kid said it, the word carried the same weight as someone saying “snow is white.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard a teenager cavalierly use the word “nigga.” I’ve heard it from the mouths of black, white, Asian and Latino people. People who no doubt count themselves among a large and diverse group of hip-hop fans.

I’m not sure how to feel about this.

____

No matter how many times I hear people attempt to explain that using the derivative “nigga” is a way of reclaiming the word, stripping it of its power, I can’t buy into that argument. It is a word based in hateAs long as there are people hatefully hurling the word at black people with intent to wound and stake their superiority, that word is still mighty powerful. Even seeing it written stirs up emotion. If other black people choose to use it, that’s their prerogative. It’s not for me. Honestly, I don’t know that I will ever feel comfortable hearing any form of the word escape the lips of someone not black, outside of an academic discussion, and even then I may involuntarily wince.

It was less than 10 years ago when my youngest sister’s white classmate mean-girled her and nastily declared,

“No one wants to sit next to her because she’s a nigger.”

It hurt me to hear of the incident because I’d hoped, naïvely, that by the time my youngest sister reached the cruelest years of school, that kind of prejudiced language would lose favor with her generation. Just thinking of the experience still angers my sister. The girl made her life “a living hell.” I had hoped she could avoid some of the race-related pain her older sisters and parents endured growing up. Unfortunately, the power of the word persists.

Who should be "allowed" to say the "n-word"? It seems people of all races are throwing it around these days. Read more in "Is Everyone Saying N***a Now? on The Girl Next Door is Black | Green Stop Sign Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive Dissonance | source

The incident at the Lil Wayne concert forced me, once again, to face the cognitive dissonance of my hip-hop fandom.

I recognize that by listening to certain hip-hop artists, attending their concerts or streaming their music, I’m part of the problem. Just as I wish that magazines would quit covering Kim Kardashian’s every move and cleavage-baring ensemble, yet I’ll still click on a link to see her latest fashion atrocity, thereby reinforcing her (perceived) popularity.

I listen to hip-hop despite the liberal use of “nigga” in many songs and the fact that I have issues with the themes (violence, misogyny, celebration of drug slinging) and language (bitch, ho, THOT) in some songs and videos. Last year, popular rapper Rick Ross came under fire for the lyrics in his song “U.O.E.N.O”:

Put molly all in her champagne / She ain’t even know it / I took her home and I enjoyed that / She ain’t even know it.

– Rick Ross, U.O.E.N.O

His lyrics seem to describe drugging a woman by secretly slipping molly in her drink and then having sex with her. Many felt his lyrics diminished the seriousness of date rape and even glorified it. He claimed his lyrics were “misinterpreted.” The lyrics disgusted, but did not surprise me. This isn’t the first time he’s penned sickening verses. I’m not the biggest Rick Ross fan, or a fan at all really, but I can’t pretend his “Blowin’ Money Fast” doesn’t get me pushing out my lips and nodding my head.

Who should be "allowed" to say the "n-word"? It seems people of all races are throwing it around these days. Read more in "Is Everyone Saying N***a Now? on The Girl Next Door is Black | 50 Cent with two Guns
50 Cent from his video “Shooting Guns”
source

How do you reconcile liking music that at times is regressive, offensive and sexist with your personal values and morals?

It’s easy to take the simplistic view: “Why not just stop listening to it?’

The problem is, I grew up on this stuff. It’s part of my history, it’s part of my culture. Rap and hip-hop evolved from the forms of music my parents exposed me to. Those same soul, funk and R&B songs from the ’60s, 70s’ and 80s’ that P Diddy – and later other hip-hop producers, following his lead – made a career out of samplinlaying rap verses atop and producing hit after danceable hit. Songs released during my formative high school and college years.

Of course, Diddy’s lyrics are practically granny-safe compared to some of today’s artists like Eminem, Juicy J or Schoolboy Q. Jay-Z and Kanye West had to go and release a song titled, “Niggas in Paris,” causing panic and confusion among many when singing it aloud in mixed company.

I can’t help but grin thinking of the self-aggrandizing lyrics rampant in many a verse of today’s rap, that give me a brief feeling of extra bravado. You know what I mean. It’s that extra swag some dudes seem to think they have as they blare T.I. from their cars.

I also appreciate the talent of true lyricists who can write and spit an impressive collection of words strung together in clever ways. If you’ve ever tried rapping, even just karaoke, you know it’s not easy, especially freestyle. It requires talent, confidence and showmanship.

At the core, I listen to hip-hop for its high energy. I just plain enjoy listening to music I can dance to. I’ve had many a solo dance party in my apartment, turning my living room into a club floor, free of groping hands and spilled beer.

There’s also a bit of, “If I have to take a stance against everything in the world that’s morally tainted, what will be left to enjoy?”

Not all hip-hop artists use misogynistic language or praise illegal activity. There’s a long list of “conscious” rappers making music, some of whom struggle to sustain careers if they don’t break into the mainstream – where the real money is. I listen to a handful of these rappers and it’s always a pleasant surprise to discover a hip-hop artist who really has something to say. Even Lil Wayne – for all his rapping about smoking weed, sipping sizzurp and his affinity for lady parts – is actually quite witty.

Who should be "allowed" to say the "n-word"? It seems people of all races are throwing it around these days. Read more in "Is Everyone Saying N***a Now? on The Girl Next Door is Black
As film has it’s “popcorn flicks”, so does music | source

Every so often we come across art laden with poignancy that moves us. I think that’s a beautiful, but uncommon experience. Just as there are “popcorn flicks”, Oscar-winning films and myriad film categories in between, the same goes for hip-hop. I don’t need profundity from everything I listen to.

Last month I went to a Wiz Khalifa concert with my middle sister. When Wiz shouted to his fans, “Say ‘Dat’s my niggaaaaa.'” My sister glanced at me with a questioning look and a smile. She knows how I feel about this. I rolled my eyes and shook my head.

I asked my sister after the concert, “Is this one of those things where this is just how it’s gonna be? And I can either choose to adapt and accept it or be that annoying grumpy old person?” She shrugged.

It’s complicated being a hip-hop fan.

I Admit It: I Love L.A.

Giant Blue Bear on 405 Freeway Los Angeles | The Girl Next Door is Black
Seen on the 405S while on my way to work one day. The traffic was so insane it took me 2 hours to go 4 miles, with 13 miles more to go. I was so tired of being in my car. But, I got a good laugh when I saw these bears on the truck bed in front of me.

I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of Los Angeles by the time I left in 2012 after over 10 years of calling it home.

My biggest complaint about L.A. is the heinous, constant traffic. It’s terrible and it’s a regular topic of conversation in L.A. Few cities in the US compare.

I moved to San Francisco full of hope and relieved to live in a true walking city.  No more daily near-death incidents on the freeway! No more road rage! No more wondering why everyone in a BMW seems to drive like a tool.

My how things have changed.

Watts Tower Los Angeles, California | The Girl Next Door is Black
I was homesick for L.A. | Watts Towers in South Los Angeles

By the end of the my second month in San Francisco, I was pretty depressed. I had no friends, the job wasn’t what I thought it would be, my apartment building is old and seems to have no noise insulation whatsoever. I pay what’s essentially a mortgage to hear my upstairs neighbors’ every elephant-ine moves and sometimes entire conversations (sadly, nothing interesting).

In a very dense city of close to one million people, I felt lonelier than I have in a long while.

Around the same time, I had to head back to L.A. for my dear friend’s bridal shower.

It was exactly what I needed.

Three months in San Francisco allowed me to see Los Angeles with new eyes again.

When I picked up my rental car at LAX, the agent asked , “What kind of car would you like? Do you want a car that gets good mileage?”

I scoffed.

“No, I don’t care about that! Which is the fastest in this class?”

He pointed me toward a cute, gray VW Jetta with a V6 engine Sorry, Earth.

Roosevelt Hotel's Tropicana Bar pool Hollywood Los Angeles, California | The Girl Next Door is Black
The Roosevelt Hotel‘s Tropicana Bar pool. Look at those trees! | Hollywood

As I sped toward my old neighborhood, in the warm sunshine, with the windows open, letting the breeze circulate, singing at the top of my lungs to a song on Power 106, shaking my booty in the seat, I felt so at peace. On the freeway. On the awful 405 freeway that I’ve written scathing yelp reviews about and I felt at peace.

It was comforting. I missed the benefits of solo time spent in my car. I can’t sing at the top of my lungs in my current apartment – everyone would hear. I still have my car, but I drive so rarely these days. I didn’t realize how important that personal time was.

The palm trees were as gorgeous and magnificent as I remember thinking they were when I’d moved there over a decade ago.

I thought: the sun really does love this place! How can it be so impossibly beautiful, warm and bright?

A friend who’d lived up in Berkeley for undergrad warned me when I told him I was considering San Francisco, “You’re going to miss the weather.

“Yeah, yeah, I know, everyone says, ‘the weather is so amazing.'”

I liked it, some days even deeply appreciated it, but, I realize now just how much I took it for granted. I really think the sun sets up camp there and just visits other cities from time to time.

The trip went by in a blur. I met up with former co-workers and other close friends, including my older friend J___ who is almost like a surrogate mom to me. We, the bridesmaids, pulled off an excellent bridal shower and made the bride happy.

I’m so glad I went back.

I released the pent-up emotion that had built since I moved to San Francisco. Being back in L.A. made me feel normal. My friends’  warm welcomes reminded me that I I’m not alone. I am loved. That I am someone people want to befriend.

I understand Los Angeles. I once functioned as part of the city. A sense of inclusion in your city is more important than I ever realized.

"Home Is Little Tokyo" mural at 1st and Central in Los Angeles. http://www.publicartinla.com/Downtown/Little_Tokyo/home_little_tokyo.html cr. The City Project, flickr.com
“Home Is Little Tokyo” mural at 1st and Central in Los Angeles. This mural reflects the rich history of Little Tokyo. When Japanese-Americans were forced into internment camps, a number of African-Americans repopulated the area, including Charlie Parker. cr: The City Project, flickr.com
Golden State Burger Los Angeles Fairfax | The Girl Next Door is Black
A group of my friends and I had a “burger club.” We tried to taste as many of the gourmet burgers in L.A.’s ever-growing burger scene. | Golden State Burger, Los Angeles

When I left L.A. that weekend, I said and felt something that I so rarely did in the time that I lived there: “I love Los Angeles!”

I love that in a city largely ruled by the entertainment industry, we clap as the credits roll at a movie’s end.

I love that there is so much amazing food of all types of cuisines.

I missed the unique/break-the-rules/bold/relaxed/trend-setting fashionI forgot how seeing the way others dressed inspired me to push beyond my fashion boundaries.

Was it my imagination or did some of the guys get cuter since I left?

I miss the train-wreck-style “entertainment” of high-speed car chases.

I miss the morning show on KROQ and waking up to the cheery crew at KTLA Morning News.

I liked that I didn’t see hipsters every.where.I.looked. Hipsters have their own neighborhoods in L.A.

Hearing people argue about which eatery in the city has the best Mexican food never stops being amusing.

One thing that hasn’t changed: I still hate LAX.

I knew I didn’t want to move back though. At least not until I give San Francisco at least a year. Even then, I left Los Angeles for a reason and I didn’t make the decision lightly. Moving back might feel comforting at first, but eventually the same elements that made me want to leave will probably arise again. It hasn’t been the easiest move, but I know that the experience is good for me.

I really needed that trip. I needed a reset. I needed closure with Los Angeles.

When I returned to San Francisco, I felt reinvigorated.

I owe Los Angeles an apology. I didn’t appreciate it enough when I lived there. I spent most of my 20s in L.A. and I will forever be linked to the city via my memories.

I now find myself protective of Los Angeles. I will defend it.

It’s not the kind of city you can live in for a year, or even three years, and think you get it. You cannot possibly get it. The city is huge!

If you’ve only been to Hollywood, Santa Monica and Venice, you probably don’t know Los Angeles. What about Echo Park, Monterrey Park, Baldwin Hills, Burbank, Studio City, Leimert Park, Pasadena or Highland Park?

There’s an ad that plays here in SF, sponsored by Discover Los Angeles. I used to think it was beckoning me to return. A female voiceover says – and I’m paraphrasing:

Just when you think you’ve seen all I have to offer, there’s more.

Thank you, Los Angeles. I owe you a lot. Now, it’s San Francisco’s turn.

Los Angeles Snowglobe | The Girl Next Door is Black
Kisses & Hugs L.A.

Making Friends: Paying Dues

Much like dating, the search for friends is filled with highs and lows, wins and losses. If you’re lucky, you meet your soulmate(s) right out of the gate. Unfortunately – and probably more likely – you end up wading through a lot of muck in search of your new mate(s).

I joined a “private social club” a few weeks ago. I read about it in a blog post on ways to meet people in San Francisco. I didn’t know such things existed outside of Ivy League enclaves, the East Coast and thrillers where club members are evil and plot to kill each other. The idea intrigued me. It sounded like a co-ed frat for grown folks.  Could be awesome, could be horrible.

I applied on their website and the next day received a call from a member coordinator for a brief phone screening. She asked me basics like why I was joining (I’m new to SF and largely friendless), what I was looking for (friends, obvs) and what adventures I like to do for fun (most things that don’t involve heights, but even then…). I passed and made it through to the hour-long phone interview with a member rep.

Making friends as an adult in a new city has it's ups and downs and is similar to dating in that way. You have to meet a lot of people before you find your "tribe." Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
I’m ready for adventure!

I should have known from the awkward conversation I had with the member rep that no good could come from this endeavor. You know how you can talk to someone and you just don’t vibe? They don’t laugh when things are clearly funny, because it’s a given that you are hilarious; they aren’t really listening to you because they ask you questions that you’ve previously answered and there are uncomfortably long pauses that leave you going, “Uh, hello, are you still there?” Work with me dude; it takes two to have a conversation!

Despite the laughably unfun interview, I did well enough to garner an invitation to join the club. I accepted, as they sold me with their 30-40 scheduled events a month, promise of adventure (kayaking! hiking! skydiving! trips to Belize!) and, of course, potential new friends (median age of members is 35). They boast a member roster numbering in the hundreds. Visions of my future awesome life flashed before my eyes.

There is a three-week membership trial period. During that period if you attend three events in your first three weeks and don’t like it, you can opt-out and get a refund.

Oh yeah. That. None of this “awesomeness” is free. There’s a one-time initiation fee and a monthly fee, like with a gym membership. I figured, worst comes to worst, I’m out the first month’s fee.

It’s been a month. I’ve attended all three events and, well, you can guess whether I jumped ship.

Event One

Wine tasting in Santa Rosa. Eight hours spent with strangers.

I like people. When I’m not hating the awful things we do to each other (Steubenville, ugh), I find us fascinating. From that perspective, more often than not, I can find a common thread to connect with people I meet. I met a mathematician a few weeks ago. I hate math. It’s an awful subject put on this earth to make my life more difficult and drag down my SAT scores in high school. Yet, he and I had a fun conversation. But, during this event, I was at a loss.

When I showed up at the designated meeting spot, three of the group of 10 who’d signed up were seated at a table in a nearby restaurant. “We ordered mimosas!” the enthusiastic hostess told me (each event has a host). I joined the group at the table. They were engrossed in a dull conversation (I don’t even remember what about, dust or some shit). The lone male made a joke about Chinese food that I thought was vaguely racist. However, I couldn’t be sure. Let the fun begin! I wanted to like him, but his social skills were questionable, which made it tough. No one acknowledged my presence.

The mimosas arrived: three glasses for three people. The waiter was off before I could ask for one myself. No one, but me, cared about my mimosa conundrum. Fifteen minutes after my arrival, one of the especially chatty women, who spoke with a Kathleen Turner-esque rasp, stopped talking and laughing at her own “jokes” (I think they were meant to be jokes, but they weren’t funny, so who knows?) for a nanosecond. I introduced myself. They gave me their names and continued their conversation about mothballs or the fur that grows on kiwi. Kathleen Turner-rasp and her female buddy became the dominators of the group that day with their incessant chatter and over-the-top enthusiasm for all things uninteresting; this was not a good thing.

Filling out the group was a trio of two men and a woman, hippie-ish types, who mostly kept to themselves; a woman who was either 45 or 54 and seemed incredibly and uncomfortably (for others) insecure, which is very unappealing in a person over the age of 30.

[An aside: I have a natural inclination to take in social outcasts. Perhaps it’s from having moved around so much and repeatedly having the experience of being the new girl trying to fit in. I hate for anyone to feel left out or bullied. But, it’s dangerous. More than once I’ve ended up with an overly attached, energy-sucking, take-everything-too-personally friend that I have to remove from my life with a surgical knife.]

I had to keep my distance from madame insécurité.

Lastly was a very perplexing youngish woman. She could have been an extra in The Craft, but, when she spoke, she could have passed for ditzy-ish sorority girl. She wore black thigh-high garter belt-ready tights, thick black clogs and a dark black suede dress. Throughout the day I wondered if she was hot. I was hot in lighter colors. She seemed nice enough, but we weren’t a match. I’m also pretty sure I was the youngest person of the group and I am no calf.

Making friends as an adult in a new city has it's ups and downs and is similar to dating in that way. You have to meet a lot of people before you find your "tribe." Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Hook & Ladder Winery

A few years ago, I realized I’d developed an allergy to wine. It’s generally not worth it to me to put myself through the pain and suffering wine-ingesting causes. I’ve always been more of a beer or vodka girl anyhow, so don’t feel pity for me. But, this was the only event of the week I could attend.

Despite the allergies, at each winery I tried to drink copious amounts of sample-wine, knowing I’d pay dearly for it later, especially that spiteful red wine. I wished I could have just suckled straight from the barrels. Unfortunately, we were wine tasting, not wine guzzling, so I had to maintain some decorum. I needed to get as drunk as possible as fast as possible to deal with this… day.

At the last winery I’d finally drank enough to increase my patience by a tenth. I made chit-chat with the host, who hails from a state I’ve not yet visited and find curious. As such, I peppered her with questions. I actually liked her, but as she’s employed by the club, her job isn’t to find friends.

Kathleen Turner-rasp’s pal joined our conversation. Inevitably, my “favorite” question was posed, “How do you like San Francisco?” with the familiar tone that indicates the expected response is, “OMGitssoawesomeIloveit bestcityever, go hipsters!” I gave her my standard spiel about how it’s an adjustment and it’s weird that there are only four other upwardly mobile black people in the city and people get all “OMG, a black person who speaks “well” and has a white-collar job, I don’t know how to handle it!” (Or perhaps I just said it could get uncomfortable at times, people treat me differently, etc.)

She replied with this gem:“But, doesn’t it make you feel special?” In my head, I bitch-slapped some sense into her; in real life I laughed, trying hard to contain my derision and answered, “Nope, I would rather feel normal just like everyone else.” I don’t have a lot of patience for people who I think don’t take the time to see the world from outside of their personal prism.

You try feeling “special” for years on end and see how fast that gets old. (“Does your skin get darker in the sun?” “Did you get your job by affirmative action?” “Oh your dad has his PhD? I don’t know why I assumed he’s got a blue collar job.” “Can I touch your hair? It’s so cool!”)

Although, she could be on to something. If I’m special, I need to act like it. “Bow down, bitches,” indeed. I’ll demand reverence wherever I roam. At work, I can refuse to do the things I think are beneath me because “I’m special.” I should be getting a discount on my rent because, dammit, I’m special. They’re lucky I deign to live in their building!

I felt hostage in the van on the ride up and back. I was forced to listen to adult contemporary music, which, in my view, induces premature aging and thus terrifies me. They didn’t seem like the Top 40 crowd (I wouldn’t have dared gone as far as hip-hop) so I didn’t object; it wasn’t worth expelling the energy. I suffered in silence.

I later found out one of the hippie-ish guys found Kathleen Turner-rasp and pal, as well as most of the rest of the group, equally annoying. This explains why he and his trio opted out of dinner after wine tasting. I also opted out of dinner. Fuck no, I wasn’t sitting through more of this torture. As we parted ways, the host said she hoped to see me again with a knowing look. She had to have known it wasn’t the best.event.ever! for me.

When I got home, I hugged my cat and my couch. Ah, comfort.

Event Two

Moroccan Dinner

Well, it was supposed to be a Moroccan dinner – one of their more calm events. The day of the event, the hostess (a different one) called and informed they cancelled the dinner. “We’re all going to Bar X to celebrate a member’s birthday.” I didn’t know the member from a random on the bus. But, I had three events to attend and this was the only one I could make that week.

When I arrived at the bar, the hostess texted me that they were on the patio. The patio was packed. She told me they were seated next to a guy in a giant tophat, so I approached a group with a man wearing a large Uncle Sam hat. They were not part of the club. You mean to tell me there is more than one dude here wearing an oversized attention-seeking costume hat? The answer is yes.

As I made my way through the crowded patio looking for them, a giant elbowed me in the head. Okay, perhaps he wasn’t a giant, but at 5’1”, anyone above 5’10” is gigantic. He had to have been at least 6’4”. He didn’t apologize, so I gave him a look that said, “Mofo, you WILL be apologizing.” Instead, he patted me on the head(!), the way you would pat a curious, precocious child on the head as you tell them to be on their merry way. I’m a grown ass woman and this asshole just patted me on the head. I glowered and kept it moving.

I finally found the hostess. Part of the hostess’s job is to introduce you to the group and help you to not feel alone. She quickly introduced me to five people and then stated, “Ok, I am heading out with my friend. Have fun!”

Great. You’ve introduced me to five people, one of whom is the middle-aged low self-esteem (LSE) woman from the wine trip. Another is the guy who head-bowed me and then child-patted me. He also happens to be the birthday guy and guest of honor. Awkward!

Given my options, the fact that LSE was talking to a black woman (the only other black person I saw) and my new hobby since moving to San Francisco is collecting black people, I joined her group. LSE was enthusiastically retelling the saga of her broken hip and its healing.

Here’s the difference between a simple injury and aging: when you’re young and have a simple injury it’s usually because you’ve for instance, blown out your knee from overzealous, improper running. When you’re aging, if you break a hip, it’s because your body is like, “Look, hon, we’ve been around a while. Shit’s about to start breaking down. All that abuse you piled on me in your youth is coming back for you. Body karma. Get ready!” She was describing the latter.

I had nothing to contribute as my hips are fine. The black woman walked away shortly after we exchanged greetings, having seen an old friend. I desperately looked around for people to talk to who appeared to be my age. No one from the club. It would probably have looked bad if I joined a whole group of strangers not-related to the group instead. I stayed put and pretended to be interested.

There appeared to be only one waitress working the patio. She was nowhere to be seen for 20 minutes. When I finally flagged her down, she hurriedly told me she’d return. I waited for another 20 minutes. In that time, I continued pretending to be fascinated by unstimulating conversations while I daydreamed of the more interesting places I wished I was. Finally, I told the group, “I’m going to see if I can track down a waitress.” I headed toward the bar, walked out of the restaurant and straight to my bus stop.

Bye people, just bye. I’m not exactly proud of that behavior, but I hate feeling trapped.

Making friends as an adult in a new city has it's ups and downs and is similar to dating in that way. You have to meet a lot of people before you find your "tribe." Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Oh sweet, sweet, alcohol – how you help make awkward social situations a little bit better.

Event Three

Barbecue

I was weary and full of low expectations for this third (and last?) event. On their website, they hail it as a great way for members, especially new ones, to mingle and enjoy some grilled grub. I arrived 45-minutes after start time to find a pitiful scene of just five people, including the blonde guy who made the vaguely racist joke from the wine tasting; a really loud older man who was practically shouting at the middle-aged woman sitting right in front of him and a little yappy dog.

Each day, I grow to dislike yappy, tiny dogs less and less. I blame the brainless, socialite-wannabes who carry them around like accessories, as well as the dogs’ generally annoying predilection for acting like they are bigger than they are and yapping with their laughably tiny little barks. I know how it is to be little and want to make sure people take you seriously. I get it. But, you don’t see me yelling at people bigger than I in a wee voice as I puff up my chest and preen. (There is one adorable chihuahua in Austin who is like my dog-niece. I adore her. She is exempt.)

There was no food ready and the cash bar hadn’t been set up yet. Oh, yes, the cash bar. Despite the not-insignificant initiation fee and the monthly dues, they charged a nominal amount for beverages, though food was included.

I tried to make conversation with the blonde, but it was painful. It was like he was wearing Keisha-repellent; I just could not like him. Finally, about an hour and fifteen minutes after start time, the cash bar was set up. The beer options were Heineken and Pacifico which is like Mexican Bud Light – water. Having thrown a party or ten in my life, I know that if you’re going to provide few beer options, at least choose one light and one dark for variety. I’ve nothing against Heineken, but I resent paying for one of two beer options.

The older man with a penchant for yelling announced to the women at the bar with delight, “Hey ladies, I’ve got a chick drink for you. It’s called a winemarita! Harharhar!” He laughed loudly and proudly at his comedy. Lame and offensive: two traits I love in potential new friends. I ignored him and my desire to “show him” by asking for a big-ass glass of scotch and asked for a Heineken, which I finished in about 10 minutes and had to ask for another. Oh, what I would have done for a Belgian ale right about then.

Making friends as an adult in a new city has it's ups and downs and is similar to dating in that way. You have to meet a lot of people before you find your "tribe." Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Now *this* is a beer selection! (I took this photo when I visited Bruges, Belgium a few years ago.)

I ended up in conversation with a woman whom I found out is 55. I am not ageist, (here comes my, “I am not _____, my best friend is _____” qualifier) one of my dearest friends is nearing 70. But, I am not looking for sexagenarian clique (or in this case, a quinquagenarian clique) any more than she wants to actively seek a crew of thirty-somethings whining about how old they are when they don’t even know how good they have it.

I was just beyond frustrated that while they claimed their median member age is 35, I seemed to only meet members well above the line. I asked her why she joined the club. She was recently divorced and looking to meet people as a newly single woman. As she told me about the first disastrous event she attended (only three people showed up for what was supposed to be a medium-sized event) and mentioned the founder called her to see if he could assuage her concerns about the club, I detected more than a hint of bitterness. She didn’t seem anymore excited about this motley crew than I.

She suggested a couple of non-meetup organizations I can join centered around travel and philanthropy, my twin loves. We talked for about half an hour. While she was interesting enough, I wanted to mingle to make sure I gave this club a fair shot. We broke and I make a beeline for a group of people who looked to be around my age. I heard them talking about skydiving. A guy protested, “But, it’s $300 to do it!” A woman rebutted, “No it’s not, it’s like $50!” Upon noticing my arrival, he put his fingers to his mouth, looked at the group, looked at me and then motioned, “Shhhhh.”

I think two things about this. First, homie is freaking rude. Second, what kind of sketchville stuff is going on here? I remember noticing the large discrepancy between what I paid for the wine tasting three weeks ago and what I read the event actually costs for the general public. Were they discussing the club’s markup on skydiving? And newbie me may just have overheard discussion of their sketchy practices to generate more income? I didn’t give a flip. I don’t have patience for ridiculous rudeness. I said with annoyance, “Ohhhhkaaaaaay then,” and walked off.

I chatted with another woman briefly, who was nice enough, but clearly painfully shy and I didn’t have the energy to be the one making most of the conversation. Someone announced that some food was ready. Great, I was hungry after drinking all that Heineken! I walked down into the backyard to find fresh off the rack, grilled chicken. No burgers, no hot dogs and a few sausages. Who the hell leads a barbecue with chicken?! The most boring meat on the planet?! Nobody comes to a barbecue for chicken! Very few Americans invite you over to their house for a barbecue and try to tantalize potential guests with the lure of boring-ass chicken. Where are the damned dead cows?! We have a ton of cows all over the state. I’ve seen them, go to the Central Valley!

I grabbed a sausage and walked over to a young Japanese guy. He told me he just arrived in the US a couple of days ago and he and his friends/classmates are here for a few months to study. Again, agreeable enough, but I am not trying to befriend people who have a definite departure date. I have enough friends in other cities and countries. That is not the problem.

Making friends as an adult in a new city has it's ups and downs and is similar to dating in that way. You have to meet a lot of people before you find your "tribe." Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Boring-ass meat

I headed back upstairs to make one more round. I saw another woman my age. She looked oddly SoCal-ish, wearing a light cover-up top over a bikini, long shorts and flip-flops. I asked her, “Did you just come from the beach?” She replied, “No. It’s just comfortable.”

What.in.THE.hell?!

Far be it from me to judge someone’s comfort fashion, but is it not a little odd to wear a bikini around when you aren’t doing anything remotely related to water? And San Francisco is almost always chilly after 4pm?

She then asked me, “Are you wearing one too?” I looked down at my outfit: an obvious tank-top underneath a sweater, jeans and boots. What exactly led her to believe I share her interesting choice of comfort wear?

I decided I was through. I gave it a shot. I stayed for almost two hours, mingled with various groups of people and played nice. As it happens, the member coordinator who initially screened me into this club, was doubling as bartender. I told her I was leaving and to avoid lying I casually mentioned I had other plans (my other plans were not being in that clubhouse, but at home, sitting on my ass, catching up on the week’s DVR’d shows).

She loudly asked, “Keisha, what’s your next event?!” She knew it was my third event and could be my final. I mumbled something about having to look at the calendar. She yelled out a few of the upcoming events. I repeated that I’d check out the calendar. I knew damn well by that point that I was never coming back. I had no intention of putting myself through more painfully dull and/or aggravating situations with that group. I can meet weird, awkward people lacking in social skills for free.

As I walked out, a true giant walked in. He had to be at least 7’ tall. Sorry dude, I won’t be around to hear the sure-to-be-told tired jokes about how the “air is up there.”

The next day, I prepared my cancellation letter.

There you have it. I’m out of the club. These encounters qualify as the lows of friend-finding. But with lows come highs, of which there have been a promising few, and which balance out all the fuckery of the lows. To be continued…

Snorkeling, Spice Farms and Stone Town in Zanzibar, Tanzania

This is part II of my trip to Zanzibar. Check out part I here.

Zanzibar Beach Indian Ocean Beautiful | The Girl Next Door is BlackBright and early I met up with the group of 20 other snorkelers and divers at the pick up point for our guided trip on a dhow. The hyper crew had us all introduce ourselves by name and origin. The group of six from my hotel were aboard, along with two white South African girls. The rest of the group hailed from places in Europe like Germany, the Netherlands, England, Scotland and Poland. I was the lone person who lived in America. I was also one of only two solo-ers and the only black person aside from the crew. Thankfully, no one directed a shocked exclamation of, “YOU ARE BY YOURSELF?!” my way.

We stopped in the middle of the Ocean twice to snorkel and let the divers do their thing. I had to use a life jacket because though I can swim (as in do proper strokes, even backstroke) I still cannot tread water. Having almost drowned twice, I just cannot relax enough to let the water help me float. One day…

Clown fish in Zanzibar Indian Ocean CR:  BBM Explorer, flickr.com | The Girl Next Door is Black
Clown fish in the Indian Ocean Photo cr: BBM Explorer, flickr.com

The coral were “reach out and touch someone” large. I could swear one tried to grab my leg. Our guide made sure we all stayed together so no one got lost or taken by coral or lost in the frigid, choppy water.

The problem with guided snorkeling is everyone must enter and exit the water together. If you decide you want to stop – say if you’re chilled to the bone and wish you’d accepted a wetsuit when offered – you have to tell the guide and then everyone must return. Even though I felt like my legs were going to fall off and it’d be 127 Hours: Indian Ocean edition, I opted to grin and bear it. I wasn’t going to ruin the trip for everyone else.

Once back on the dhow and still freezing, I climbed up to the top-level to catnap. Shortly after I laid my head down I heard a male voice say to me:

“Dada (miss), do you like the trip?”

My eyes were closed, so I pretended I didn’t hear him.

“Dada, you are from America?”

Alright, I’ll play, but I’m not sitting up. “Yes, I am from America.”

“Ah, America. I like to visit there one day. Where is your simba?” Hmm, simba means lion, so is he talking about a man?

I don’t have one.

“I don’t believe it. You are too beautiful to be alone.”

Yep, I am here by myself.”

“How old are you?” I told him.

“Nooo. I think you are 23, 24. You are very beautiful. I am 42. I am looking for a special lady. Dada, I am going to play you a song.”

He pulled out an empty Tupperware container leftover from lunch, turned it over, began drumming on it with his hands and sang,

Jambo, jambo bwana

After three weeks in TZ, I’d heard the beloved 80’s Kenyan pop hit so many times I could play it myself. He asked me to join him in playing. I could see the South African girls peeping over curiously.

“Dada, I want to take you dancing. I think you probably dance like Shakira.”

Shakira, I am not. CR: oouinouin, flickr.com
Shakira, I am not. Photo cr: oouinouin, flickr.com

I guffawed. “Uh, maybe if I have some pombe (beer).

“I’ll take you dancing at the club where the local people go. We can have some drinks and dance. Cost no money.”

My gut told me that as nice as he seemed, going off with a man I just met in a foreign country, thousands of miles from home, where I can barely speak the language, is an unwise idea

I’m sorry, I am going to stay home tonight.”

“Dada, we will have fun.”

Noooo, I’m sorry.

“Dada, why do you break my heart? I think you are lying and have a simba at your hotel.”

His tenacity and earnestness was admirable (and amusing).  Tempting. He wasn’t bad to look at: Wesley Snipes choco with short dreads and very fit from his day job.

Ha! I really don’t. I leave tomorrow and I want to go to bed early tonight.

“Ok, we will go dancing early. 10 o’clock.”

10! That is not early!

“The people do not start dancing until 11.” I shook my head no.

“Dada, why do you reject me? What is wrong with me? I am going to sing another song. It is about a man with a broken heart.” He launched into a sad melody and looked at me forlornly as he sang. Is this really happening? I fought the urge to laugh. Everyone on the top deck eavesdropped without subtlety.

Dejected and rejected, he left to attend to his captainly duties.

We neared the shore where high tide had rolled in, bathing the beach in ocean water. The captain and his assistants navigated the dhow 100-feet from shore and anchored it.

“Ok, ladies and gentleman, you will have to swim. We will pack your things.” Is he for real? I can’t swim that! I can swim in a calm, contained swimming pool next to toddlers diving and synchronized swimming. Not a angry-waved, freezing ocean. Embarrassingly I had to ask for help. Of course, who else but the broken-hearted captain also doubled as lifeguard? Now I felt like I owed him. But, not enough to reconsider going dancing. Once we hit dry land, I thanked him profusely and said goodbye. He threw a last sad-puppy face my way.

Beach East Coast Nungwi Zanzibar| The Girl Next Door is Black
East Coast Nungwi Zanzibar

Later that afternoon, I headed to the bar at the hotel to have a pre-dinner drink and enjoy the ocean view.  I introduced myself to the bartender, Bakar, who’d met my friend J earlier in the week.

“So, you are friends with J_, yeah? He is my best friend!” This tickled me. People seemed to get attached quickly in TZ.

Yes, he told me about you. You like hip-hop, right?

He smiled widely. “Yes, I like Tupac!”

We made idle chitchat for a bit and he shared, “I would like an American girlfriend.”

I asked why.

“American women have independence. African women want you to have a job and then buy everything for them. They depend on you.”

I laughed, “So do some American women. They like men with money and nice cars who will buy them things.”

“Really?” he asked, surprised. “But, in America, you have a job. You can pay for yourself. Here? The woman wants you to buy her things that are simple, like bras. And they ask you to help their family too.” I could see his point.

I dined solo at dinner that night and continued reading my book. I ordered fish for dinner mostly so I could share it with Mwezi, the hotel kitty. I went to bed early in preparation for the next day’s activities. The hotel manager had helpfully arranged a spice tour and Stone Town excursion for me.

In the morning, a driver picked me up and me to a local farm where a guide awaited me. I thought I’d be joining a group to tour the farm, but I had my very own guide! I loved my guide; he was very knowledgeable and sweet.

Ginger, an aphrodiasic for men, in addition to being used to flavor foods and aid in wellness.
Ginger is used as a male aphrodisiac  in addition to its use in flavoring foods and aiding in wellness.

The spice farm is community owned and they all share in the profits (including the dog I saw eating the fallen fruits). As we visited each plant or tree, an assistant would tear off a leaf or slice into bark for me to smell and guess what spice is derived from it. I sucked at the game. The only thing I was able to guess was the scent of vanilla.

I enjoyed seeing the origins of the spices we use for cooking, medicines and to scent things like candles and perfumes. Also of interest was hearing how the locals use spices recreationally. As my guide told me,

Ginger is an aphrodisiac for men. It gives them power.”

Later, “Nutmeg has many uses. You can make it into a tea to help with your nerves if you are like, a singer. But, it’s also good for women as an aphrodisiac. If a man takes ginger and a woman takes nutmeg, it’s like a boom! You don’t know who will win.” He pantomimed an explosion with his hands. I giggled.

Nutmeg, which my guide informed me has many uses including use an aphrodisiac for women.
Nutmeg, which my guide informed me has many uses including use as an aphrodisiac for women.
Tree climber - his job is to climb trees to get fruit down. Tree climbers' skin becomes rough due to the nature of their work.
Tree climber – his job is to climb trees to retrieve fruit. Tree climbers’ skin becomes rough due to the nature of their work.

Near the end of the tour I tried some of the tropical fruits grown on the island: mangoes, green oranges, orange oranges, jackfruit, papaya and a couple of different types of bananas. The guys serving up the fruit in a open-air hut, were listening to Drake. They spoke barely any English but were jamming to “Forever.” The one who cut my fruit flirted with me via my guide. I didn’t need him to translate though. I’d learned the words for “beautiful,” “(not) married,” and “American” quickly. I loved that the men I met in Tanzania were so upfront (but respectful) about their interest. It was refreshing and flattering.

Spices for Sale Spice Farm Zanzibar Tanzania | The Girl Next Door is Black
Spices for sale
Jackfruit in Tree Zanzibar | The Girl Next Door is Black
Jackfruit – it’s an adventure removing these from the tree. They are heavy and if one falls on your head…
Spice Tour Guide Zanzibar Farm | The Girl Next Door is Black
With my spice tour guide. I’m wearing handmade souvenir gifts made for me from plants on the farm.
Drinking coconut water in Zanzibar Spice Farm | The Girl Next Door is Black
Drinking fresh coconut water

My driver waited for me (with my luggage) during the hour and a half I toured the farm. He then drove me into Stone Town where another guide was waiting to take me on a tour of the city. My driver let me know he’d return for me to take me to the airport in a few hours. This kind of personalized service would have cost me so much more in the States. In TZ it was affordable and I felt like I was helping employ people who needed it.

Muslim Men on Promenade in Stone Town Zanzibar | The Girl Next Door is Black
Promenade in Stone Town
Little Girl in Stone Town Zanzibar | The Girl Next Door is Black
This little girl is too cute and she happened to be grasping an impressively designed door.

The people of Zanzibar have an interesting ethnic makeup due to colonialism and trade with influences from all over Africa, as well as Britain, India, Oman and Portugal. This diversity was especially noticeable in Stone Town, the hub of Zanzibar. Ninety percent of the population is Muslim, 7% Christian and the remaining 3% of other religions include Hindu. Many of the women dressed in traditional Muslim coverings and the looks I got for showing the bit of leg I did in my capris did not escape me. I found myself scandalized when I saw two female tourists wearing booty shorts and tank tops. Put on some clothing, you harlots!

You can also see the varied cultural influences in the architecture. There are the Arab-inspired narrow streets and open air markets; the ornate, heavy wooden doors with rounded tops reminiscent of India; and its own native influence with buildings constructed from crushed limestone and coral, hence the name Stone Town.

The only Hindu temple in Zanzibar Stone Town | The Girl Next Door is Black
The only Hindu temple in Zanzibar

Zanzibar is more of a tourist destination than Moshi and I observed a distinct difference in the treatment of visitors in each place. In Zanzibar, the locals greeted visitors with “jambo,” which I’d learned soon after arriving in Tanzania, is a greeting used for tourists. Having been in Tanzania for three weeks, I was taken aback by the number of “jambos” directed my way.

Ampitheatre Stone Town Zanzibar Tanzania | The Girl Next Door is Black
Amphitheatre

My guide clearly took his job seriously as he rattled off historical facts in rapid succession. I love history, but I found myself becoming mentally fatigued. I can’t keep all of these Kings straight!

We visited the site of a former slave market where a Christian church now stands. Left intact is the cellar where slaves were held until auction. The cellar was dark, windowless, tiny and at 5’1” even I probably wouldn’t be able to stand upright without hunching over. The captors chained people up in this dungeon with no access to food, water or even a way to relieve themselves.

Outside is a tree that stands as a marker for the old trading post. Near it is a monument to peace with messages in four different languages. There is also an art installation depicting five African slaves chained together by their necks awaiting sale at auction. The chains are from the originals used on the captives. Taking all of it in, I felt the same sobering, heavy feeling I got when I visited the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. Sometimes I hate people.

Peace Monument Slavery Stone Town Zanzibar | The Girl Next Door is Black
Peace monument – “May peace prevail on Earth”
Slave memorial Stone Town Zanzibar | The Girl Next Door is Black
Slave memorial

Freddie Mercury, of Queen fame, is Zanzibar-born. My tour guide told me, “He is the king of rock ‘n’ roll.”

The museum was disappointing. Aside from a plaque outside and a handful of newspaper clippings, I’m not sure what made it a museum.I didn’t actually see anything about Freddie Mercury inside. It seemed like any other souvenir shop.

Freddie Mercury Museum Zanzibar | The Girl Next Door is Black
Freddie Mercury Museum

After we visited the open-air markets, we headed back to our starting point where I overheard three youts speaking in English about their prowess with girls with some of the foulest language I’ve heard since Eddie Murphy’s Raw. I gave them a look that said, “I can hear you motherbleepers and I know and you know, the ladies don’t love you like that.”

 Motorbikes in Stone Town Zanzibar | The Girl Next Door is Black
Motorbikes are a popular form of transport

I liked Stone Town, but a few hours touring the city was enough. Perhaps at another time I might like to try some of the restaurants and maybe spoil myself and spend the night at one of the expensive rich-folk hotels, but I enjoyed the quiet and ease of Nungwi more.

Right on time, my driver picked me up to take me to the airport. A male passenger was with him. The passenger introduced himself to me, asked me a few questions and then said,

“I just met you, but I will already miss you when you leave.”

I knew I would also miss the men of Tanzania when I left.

How I Learned to Love My “Thick Thighs”

I’ve been thinking about my weight since I was 13.

One day I ate everything I wanted with abandon and the next, the size of my thighs were cause for angst.

Jane Fonda Workout Record Video Body Image Acceptance
She wore the tights / leg warmer combo like no other
Photo cr: Jacob Whittaker, flickr.com

Thirteen is about when I started working out. My mom had a catalog of Jane Fonda videos from the 80s and I was Jane Fonda’s devoted follower. Those videos work!Jane still looks hot today. It’s unreal. I also became a fan of Joyce Vedral and her fat-burning workout. I thank her to this day for my interest in being fit and toned.

Once, upon being presented with “soaked in the deep fryer” chicken for dinner, I whined to my parents with dramatic horror:

Fried chicken?! Oh.my.God. Do you know how much fat and salt is in that, mother?!

(I learned from watching white teens on TV that if you are angry with your parents you refer to them – with the disgust only a teen can muster – as “mother” and “father”. See: Brenda Walsh). My mom would reply with something like: “You don’t like it, you can get a job! Sit your butt down at this table. I don’t have time for this. And do not take the Lord’s name in vain.”

“Mo-ther! I am not eating this!”

In college I gained the “Freshman 15.”

I’m short, so even an extra five lbs becomes noticeable. That first year, I steadily free-fed on dorm food – bovine-style. My frequent meal-buddy and I would even stow away bread rolls and whatever else we could easily hide for later consumption. It felt deliciously decadent to have dessert with every meal. Then, the summer after my freshman year, I looked at myself in the mirror one day and my rounder image horrified me. My face was fat(ish), like a burnt chipmunk. I was wearing a crop top with a fat roll muffining its way out. Who was this schlub?! Well it had to stop.

I went on a superdiet.

Cows grazing, Rosengarten, The Dolomites, Italy by ** Maurice ** Freshman 15 College Weight Gain
This was me, my Freshman year of college.

I greatly reduced my caloric intake and worked out like I was training for The Olympics. My weight quickly came down, and down, and down, until I looked like a chocolate Tootsie Roll pop. I’d gone too far. I lost my butt. As the ever-wise Lil Wayne says about women with no ass: “You ain’t got shit.” Or as his labelmate, Tyga raps: If you ain’t got no ass, bitch, wear a poncho.” When the ass goes, you’ve overdone it and misogynistic men won’t give you  a second glance. What will you do with your life then?

The problem is that even though I was too thin, I received a lot of compliments about my size: from men (“hey baby!”) and women (“please share your secret!”) alike. I learned: skinny = validation.

When I graduated college I was ill-prepared for the shock of the real world. I went from constant partying studying and working, to what seemed like days and days of endless, routine boredom. I came to understand that this is called “working for a living.” The novelty of ordering office supplies for my desk quickly wore off and the reality of working in corporate America set in: this shit is boring.

So, I ate and my weight crept up.

One evening I went out with my roommates for a much needed bout of drinking and dancing. While walking into one of San Jose’s “clubs” (the city was boring as all hell) I bumped into a cute, slender Asian girl about my height. Having already thrown back a few, I gushed to her: “You’re so cute. You must be a size three. I used to be a size three.” She looked me over – I was probably no bigger than a size six – and with her voice dripping in bubbly judgement replied:

What happened to you?!

Her reaction stunned and hurt me. It also saddened me that a size six is considered worthy of disgust. I should have been fine with my size. I was healthy and within the right range for my height. But, by this point, my body image was so distorted, I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror. I also wasn’t getting the skinny validation I’d gotten in the past.

Then followed an intense battle between my body, my mind and my other mind.

My body insisted on stowing away fat for the winter that never comes in my part of California. My mind wanted to eat everything in sight to soothe my boredom and loneliness. My other mind wanted to be thin.

I started bingeing and purging. I’d go crazy eating cookies, chips and soda in one sitting, feel ill and disgusted with myself, and then run to the bathroom to throw it up. I only did this for a short time. It’s not effective and it’s too much damn work. Do you know how much work it takes to stick your fingers down your throat and force yourself to vomit? Who has the time? People are starving all over the world and I’m eyeing food with a mix of lust and hatred. It’s also bad for your teeth and I like my teeth. Not to mention, if anyone catches you in public, you have to explain why your feet are facing the wrong way in the bathroom stall. Either you are barfing or you have a secret penis. My dance with bulimia ended within a couple of weeks, never to be revisited again.

Popcorn and Sour Patch Kids, photo by naydeeyah on flickr.com Favorite food combos sweet and salty together
I love you all!

A few years later, I was in Los Angeles. I’d started dating an actor (warning: don’t do it). He said to me one day while we were phone-flirting:

You got some thick thighs, I like that.

Well, I sure as hell didn’t like that! Thick?! Why the hell had I been going to the gym?! He meant it as a compliment, but I took it as a reason to go annihilate myself at Bally’s.  I replied with a hesitant “Uh, thanks.” That relationship crashed and burned miserably (I said not to date an actor).

Another couple of years later, I’d worked my weight down to my “normal” (for me) size. I went to visit my feisty grandma. She took one look at me and said matter-of-factly “Keisha, you’re too thin. Men like women with a little extra padding.” I’ve heard more than enough times from others that men like more “cushion for the pushin’”. Grandma knows. My grandma is no “oh my, golly gee, let me bake you some cookies” granny. She tells it like it is, she keeps it real and you can bake your own damn cookies. I laughed and told her how awesome she is.

Then I got into a serious long-term relationship.

For at least a year, I maintained my weight. Boyfriend liked my body and the “thick” thighs were just the right size. Then came year two. Happily in love, I spent less time at the gym and more time, well…none of your business. By year three, I’d grown faaat. I mean, actually fat. I was clinically overweight. I had never weighed so much in my life. I  comforted myself with the thought: boyfriend will still love me anyway, right? But, I didn’t love me.

I had to buy a whole new wardrobe. Not only did I feel bad about how I looked, I felt bad physically. My body wasn’t used to carrying so much extra weight. I didn’t know how to dress for my new size. What looked good on me? So, I tried to lose weight. Then boyfriend and I broke up. That was the kick in the pants I needed to get my fat ass back in the gym. It’s the depression weight loss plan.

I couldn’t shake the weight, no matter what I did. I figured it was because I was nearing that age where people say your metabolism slows. Since, I was also having problems sleeping and breathing properly, I visited a specialist to check things out. He said to me,

“You’re too heavy! That’s why you can’t sleep.”

That was his expensive doctorly wisdom: you are a fat bitch. Well, fuck you very much doctor dickhead. The issue did turn out to be medical and once pinpointed, the weight started to come off. I’ve been able to maintain a reasonable weight (for me) since then.

I straddle two worlds: one black and one mainstream.

In the “black world” depending on who you ask, I am either “just right” or “too thin”. One of my younger sisters is very slender. She once had a black boyfriend tell her she was too skinny and that she needed to start eating some cornbread. I marveled at this. A free pass to pig out on cornbread? I’m sold! Does he have an older brother?

In the “white” or “mainstream” world, the view of what constitutes thin has shrunken over time. In Los Angeles, some women probably think I’m “big.” To those types, if you’re larger than a size two, you’re a tub o’ Crisco.

I would love to say that I no longer care. That I don’t think about my weight and that I don’t have days when I just want to say “Fuck it all, I’m going to eat some motherbleepin’ ice cream and then a big ol’ tub of movie popcorn and be fat and happy!” But, that’s not the case. However, after several low-carb diets, starvation diets, weird heart patient lemonades, and flirting with bulimia, I’ve learned to allow myself to enjoy food. I can eat well and be healthy. I’ve also learned to appreciate my womanly figure, including the “thick thighs”, and pay less attention to my clothing size.

What happened to the days when women with a little bit of belly fat were thought of as gorgeous? Can we go back to that? To the figurative days when having extra pounds meant you were fortunate enough to have plenty of food to eat? We aren’t meant to starve ourselves into stick figures. Life is meant to be lived and food is part of living (and too damn good to be chucking in the toilet). So, live, eat, and love your body!