Today’s Solutions: June 13, 2024

A wedding gift guides a young couple towards the discovery of true love.

Michael Datcher | April 2006 issue

I once received a pet rock as a gift. It wasn’t the kind of pet rock that came in a designer box with a name tag. It was low end. Literally, a chip off an old block with alley origins.

I’ve also received the gift of life. When I was an unwanted infant, my adoptive mother handed me a chance at health and love. That was a lifeline that saved me from a child services system waiting to dismantle my potential.

I’m an authority on presents. As my May 17, 1997, wedding approached, I tried to think of the perfect gift for my soon-to-be-wife, Jenoyne Adams. I wanted it to be both supremely original and utilitarian. A hot gift for a supernova sister.

Jenoyne had been working on her novel-in-progress Resurrecting Mingus for years. Novels are famously easy to start and infamously difficult to finish—especially when working a full-time job. Jenoyne had been working in high stress corporate America since she was a high school intern. The time commitment coupled with volatile office politics was not conducive to finishing demanding outside projects. A week before our wedding, I told Jenoyne I had picked out her gift.

“I’m going to financially support you for a year, so you can stay at home and finish your novel.” She was ecstatic.

In 1997, I was three years out of graduate school and living in L.A. After leaving my job as a reporter at the Los Angeles Sentinel, I had been working for myself as an unpaid poet and a poorly paid freelance journalist writing about politics and culture for various newspapers and magazines. Due to the instable nature of freelancing, I had always kept my overhead low. Good used cars. Stylish used clothes. Sweaters in lieu of a high-ass gas bill. Top Ramen. Even with my starving-artist penny-pinching, I was still struggling to make ends meet. Taking on a wife necessitated confronting one of my biggest fears: that I wouldn’t be able to take care of a wife.

When I was considering proposing to Jenoyne, I called my mother, Gladys, to get her opinion.

“Well, I’d love to have her as a daughter-in-law, but I’ll tell you, if I was her, I wouldn’t have you. You quit a good job at the newspaper. I don’t know why you don’t use your master’s degree. I wouldn’t have you because you aren’t in a position to take care of a wife. And I don’t care how progressive or modern or whatever you call it y’all supposed to be, a man’s supposed to be able to take care of his wife. It just doesn’t seem like you’re able to do that.”

Not the conversation I was expecting to hear, and not the one I wanted to hear. I was sweating the economics of marriage enough already. Moms had tapped into the truth that I already knew. The financial health of a family was ultimately a reflection on the man. If the family couldn’t meet its financial obligations, it looked like the man wasn’t handling his business.

A lack of money had kept me single up to that point. I had always heard that most divorce proceedings could be traced back to financial woes—and I had the portfolio of a poet. Moms had it wrong. I didn’t want to struggle all my life. I was just aware that I was going into business for myself in an extremely competitive profession. I knew I was going to have to pay my dues if I was going to be my own boss. My mother, like most black parents, raised me to get a job at a good business and keep that good job by being a good employee. My white colleagues’ parents raised them to start a business and be good bosses.

When I met Jenoyne I was in the early stages of my boss-training program. I explained my Master Plan for literary and economic success to her. We spoke of dues and career-building sacrifices. Although Jenoyne was down with the program, I couldn’t shake Moms’ fear-inducing opinion because she had indoctrinated me just enough so that I believed it too. I was barely able to support myself as a single man. As a soon-to-be-married man, I was promising my wife a gift I wasn’t confident I could deliver.

After telling Jenoyne about her gift, I immediately and very aggressively began to solicit more free-lance assignments. As things stood, I was already working seven days a week to complete the flow of assignments sliding across my desk. I was making a dollar a word, typically the max for experienced freelancers, writing for magazines like VIBE and Emerge. However, some publications paid as little as 30 cents a word. I figured I would somehow double my assignment load by working harder and being fiercely disciplined. By making the absolute most of each of the seven days of the week.

Two months into our marriage my plan was in full swing. I had picked up several more clients and embraced my military-like work schedule, which began every weekday morning at 4:45 a.m. I was pumping out two or three articles a week. However, the problem with deadline-oriented jobs is that you’re always working under tremendous pressure. Day in. Day out. The increasing workload also ratcheted up my stress levels. I was on edge—and my cool was slipping. Within three months, it became clear that this gift was going to be extremely difficult to sustain.

What I lost in cool, I gained in iconic manhood points. I loved watching Jeroyne write in bed in the afternoon. I loved watching her get an opportunity to pursue her own literary dreams in an unobstructed way. I felt like a Real Man even though I couldn’t fully buy into the Real Man mythology. I loved the feeling that came with “taking care of my woman.”

Much has been written about the sorry state of black male/female relationships. The pointing finger usually lingers longest on the black man. The word is we want to hit all the ass. We can’t stay out of jail. Can’t keep a job. Won’t commit to a sister but want a wife with lips, hips and personality like a sister—as long as she ain’t a sister. Basically, poor marriage material for black women.

Certainly, there are black men who fall under this rubric. I know a few. At the same time, I know many black men who long for the picket fence dream. A wife, nice crib, smart kids, a cool ride. Some Cosby Show-type shit. They yearn for the Cosby lifestyle because it’s so far from their own childhood experience. Like me, they want to fill the holes in the Picket Fence Dream handed down from their single mothers.

Historically, schools that serve children of African-American single mothers have paltry resources, and generally do a poor job of preparing students for a competitive marketplace. Forty percent of young black men who survive into their twenties are in jail, in prison, or on probation. The remaining struggle is a national workplace where usually white male bosses are searching for a high comfort level with prospective employees—and black men typically make white men uncomfortable.

As a result of the aforementioned realities, desiring picket fences is insufficient for obtaining them. Socioeconomic factors loom larger than even the biggest black dick. Most niggas are broke. Shorter than a rainbow with only one colour. Even when they want to push for that dream and get married, they’re afraid they won’t be able to make enough money to take care of a family, a situation that can be devastating to any male’s sense of manhood, and especially devastating to males as disenfranchised as black men. So in place of commitment, they play the fied, measure their manhood by booty-call batting averages. The home-run fence replaces the picket one.

After the initial months of Jenoyne writing at home, I felt myself growing increasingly critical. The deadline pressure that had always inspired my best work was starting to break me down. Over the years, I had built a reputation with my clients as a quick-turnaround artist. If a magazine had a crisis and needed a high-quality article produced in a few days, they would call me. The short deadline meant an additional boost in my fee. This was money I didn’t feel like I could turn down, so on numerous occasions, I found myself accepting assignments with completely ridiculous parameters. A 4,000-word article assigned on Friday afternoon and due Monday morning. A 2,000-word piece assigned Wednesday, due Friday, I never once said no to an assignment.

To further complicate matters, Jenoyne had been raised by her nuts-and-bolts construction foreman father Virgil Adams. He was a great provider who made extraordinary sacrifices to raise his daughter as a single dad. Just before I was about to propose to Jenoyne, I spoke with Mr. Adams, seeking his blessing on my wedding plans. In that conversation, I gave him my word that I would take care of his daughter with the same type of diligence that he had shown.

My own diligence raised my brow whenever I saw Jenoyne approaching her writing with anything less than intensity. Jenoyne had never been her own boss, working out of her own home. It’s quite a transition to leave a lifestyle where someone else tells you when to come to work, what to do at work, how long to stay at work, when to leave work.

Jenoyne was having a hard time disciplining herself. When I would see her sleeping in until 10:30 a.m. or watching TV in the middle of the day or having multiple telephone conversations, I would get hella aggravated. I didn’t want to lord my gift over her, so I kept quiet and stayed at my own work. At the time, in the middle of my hectic free-lance schedule, I was also trying to finish my book Raising Fences.

I was hoping Jenoyne would get a handle on her discipline and start cracking down. At the six-month point, the only crack was in my mental health. I was so stressed that I would work all day, then toss and turn in my sleep thinking about the work I didn’t get done.

My critical commentary began to make its way from my subconscious to Jenoyne’s nearest earlobe. At first, the criticism was shrouded in questions like, “How’s the writing going?” and “What time do you plan to get out of bed today?” However, the questions quickly became a Cochranesque cross-examination. “You said you were going to get up at 10 a.m., and now it’s 11 a.m.—again. How do you explain that?”

I was starting to feel disrespected. Feeling like my gift of sacrifice was not being appreciated. Instead, it was being shat upon. I was working like a runaway slave trying to buy his freedom and Jenoyne was living like the plantation mistress. As a result, I became the overseer. I began to monitor her writing hours, and let her know when she was falling short. I was reincarnated as the supervisor from hell. I had begun to resent Jenoyne’s Club Antebellum lifestyle and Jenoyne could feel it. She began to resent my resentment.

“Michael, I place enough pressure on myself. I don’t need you adding any more pressure.”

“Well, if you’d just get your ass out of bed and get to work, there wouldn’t be a problem.”

My gift had flipped. I began with such noble intentions but that no longer seemed to matter. Jenoyne and I were getting on each other’s nerves. The smallest thing would set each of us off. The cap left off the toothpaste would lead immediately to shouting. The toilet seat left in the “up” position would surely engender tears before nightfall.

Our household life was insane when it all should have been so romantic. Two writers, married, working out of their home. On paper, an ideal scenario. In reality, a cold war that was moving toward all-out war with each passing day. I began to question the wisdom of my decision. Maybe I had bit off more responsibility than I could chew. If so, I didn’t feel I had any recourse. Since I was a child, my mother had drilled into me that ultimately all a person had was their word. Vows were not entered into lightly. I had to complete the requirements of my gift because I said I would.

I needed help. I felt completely unqualified to rectify the situation. One day, I went to see my friend Kamau Daood, the founder and artistic director of World Stage, a jazz and literary centre. He had been married to Baadia for over 20 years. I’d never seen them arguing over a toilet seat.

I picked up Kamau and we drove to a hill overlooking Dockweiler Beach. We parked just as the sun was making its descent into the Pacific. I didn’t even have to tell Kamau what was going on. He could see it in my face. The first thing he said was, “Marriage is about making the two into one. And making two into one is more than a notion.”

Kamau encouraged me to keep working hard and be patient. He revealed some of the struggles that he and Baadia had encountered in their relationship. I was touched by his openness and humility.

Once a week, I would pick up Kamau, or he would pick me up, and we’d sit in the car and talk. Sometimes he would give me very practical advice like, “Just keep the damn toilet seat down, brother.” At other times, he would listen as I rambled on about how Jenoyne didn’t know a good thing when she had it. Ultimately, he urged me to hold on until my year-long gift was completed.

“See how things look then, Michael.”

I’m sure these car-seat conversations saved my marriage.

There should be a college major called “Marriage”. A single class wouldn’t do the trick. People seek training for such a wide array of less-important ventures. Business. Bungee jumping. Computer programming. But people are loath to seek input in their marriages. Especially men—who struggle to ask for driving directions when they’re lost. It’s as if asking for marital help is tantamount to not being able to handle our marriages. Well, six months of marriage will let you know quite clearly that most of us can’t handle our marriages. We’d rather front the role, stay lost and get divorced.

I took Kamau’s advice and started counting the remaining days of the 365. Jenoyne and I still argued, but I was able to control myself a little more effectively. I knew once she finished her book, she could help out more financially and I wouldn’t have to work so hard. I soldiered on.

Day 365 finally came—and Jenoyne wasn’t finished. She had taken such a long time to figure out how to get work accomplished early in the year that she wasn’t able to finish the project within the year. I was so disappointed and angry I could barely stand it. I immediately went to see Kamau.

“You kept your word so you could pull your hole card and make her get a job. But is that what you really wanna do? How many times have you been late with an assignment? Michael, marriage is not about doing the minimum; marriage is about doing whatever is going to make the marriage work. And let me tell you, often that means doing the maximum.”

I hated Kamau’s good advice, but I couldn’t reject it. It took Jenoyne 18 months to finish Resurrecting Mingus. Those last six months, she really hit a groove and worked hard. That’s all I really desired. I wanted her to show respect for my gift by aggressively putting her ample literary gifts into action. Furthermore, a magical thing happened during months 13 though 18. I gave the maximum and my gift became noble once again.

In February 2001, Simon %amp% Schuster published Resurrecting Mingus. In March 2001, Riverhead published my book Raising Fences. Both books were hailed by critics, which helped them land on best-seller lists around the country. I still leave the toilet seat up sometimes and Jenoyne couldn’t keep the cap on the toothpaste if it was attached with a solid-gold chain. Yet our relationship is much different today.

Many men embrace the idea of the man as household leader. Kamau helped me to understand that if I wanted to lead, I should lead in the area of giving. Lead in listening. Lead in prayer. Lead in saying “I’m sorry.” Lead in forgiveness. Leading in seeking marital advice. Lead in giving the maximum.

I don’t always reach my leadership goals in our marriage, but I work extremely hard at trying. So does Jenoyne. Our mutual diligence has us unearthing elements of each other with the careful caution of world-class archaeologists. We have discovered the ancient formula for love. The two have become one.

Michael Datcher is the author of Raising Fences: A Black Man’s Love Story. He writes for The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times and teaches English literature in Los Angeles.

Taken from What Makes a Man (Riverhead Books, ISBN 1573222690), a book edited by Rebecca Walker with stories from writers about what it means to be a man at a time when nobody seems to know.

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